Aspinall Unit update report — #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Navajo Dam operations update (January 13, 2022): Bumping up releases to 400 cfs #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #aridification

The Navajo Dam on the San Juan River.Photo credit Mike Robinson via the University of Washington.

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 350 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs for Thursday, January 13th, at 4:00 AM.

Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell). This release change is calculated as the minimum required to maintain the target baseflow.

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Navajo Unit Coordination Meeting – January 18, 2022 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

Link to Teams Meeting

Aspinall Unit Operations Meeting – January 20, 2022 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Aspinall Unit

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The next Aspinall Unit Operation Coordination Meeting will be conducted using Microsoft Teams (see link below). We are again using this format as an alternative to allow interactive participation, as we are not yet able to meet in person. No special software is required. Please contact me at rchristianson@usbr.gov or (970) 248-0652 if you have any questions. The proposed agenda is below:

Microsoft Teams meeting
Join on your computer or mobile app
Click here to join the meeting

Or call in (audio only)
+1 202-640-1187,,459511369# United States, Washington DC
Phone Conference ID: 459 511 369#

Where’s the river?’ #RepublicanRiver basin’s disappearing water threatens Eastern Plains agriculture, ecology — KUNC

The Republican River’s South Fork near Hale, Colorado, with the region’s seemingly endless fields. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Jeffrey Beall

From KUNC (Adam Rayes):

If you look at a map of southeastern Yuma County, Colorado, you’ll find a bumpy blue line labeled “South Fork Republican River.” But, for the majority of the year, this channel contains little to no visible water flow.

“So, the thing is, if we were to go upstream four or five miles, there’s flow,” Deb Daniel said while driving along a dusty road, adjacent to the riverbed in what used to be known as Bonny Lake State Park. She points to a stretch of riverbed covered with invasive Russian Olive trees. “There’s so much trees grown up in that area, and it’s so filled in with silt, that (the South Fork) completely disappears.”

The Republican River basin sustained Daniel’s family’s farm when she was growing up. In 2017, the six Colorado counties relying most on this river’s basin brought almost $2 billion in agriculture sales — just under a third of the state’s total $7.5 billion production value.

“There is such joy when I see water flowing,” Daniel said. For the last 20 years, she’s watched over the river as its conservation district manager. “And on the North Fork, it flows year-round.”

The Republican River basin. The North Fork, South Fork and Arikaree all flow through Yuma County before crossing state lines. Credit: USBR/DOI

That’s up in Northern Yuma county. These two forks (and the also-barely-flowing Arikaree River in central Yuma County) are tributaries that start in different parts of northeast Colorado and combine in Nebraska to feed the main body of the river…

Water still flows for most of the Republican’s 453-mile stretch. But the North Fork is going down…

‘A losing battle’

With North Fork flows decreasing and the South Fork and Arikaree barely running, the ecosystem suffers, Colorado risks major legal trouble with Kansas and Nebraska and people who farm these plains stand to lose their livelihoods.

Center pivot sprinklers in the Arikaree River basin to irrigate corn. Each sprinkler is supplied by deep wells drilled into the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer.

The Republican River’s water levels drop partially because water in the ground surrounding it and beneath it is being used up, mostly to irrigate farms. And, in turn, part of the reason that groundwater isn’t as replenished is because of the river’s limited water.

It’s a dynamic [Joyce] Kettelson has long been aware of, weighing the water longevity for the community against her family’s economic security…

Severe drought conditions plagued portions of Yuma County for the majority of the last two years. Parts of the county have experienced moderate drought during almost half of the last two decades.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, severe drought conditions often reduce river flows and harm farming operations. Yuma is the only county that all three main tributaries of the Republican River run through…

Running out of options

Most of the irrigation shuttering has to happen near the South Fork in Yuma and Kit Carson counties. Despite the river conservation district and federal government offering to pay farmers who participate, just a third of the 10,000-acre goal has been met as of Jan. 6, 2022.

A booming market for irrigated crops, like corn and wheat, over the last two years made it hard to convince farmers to exchange those profits for the irrigation-shutoff payments.

Last month, the river conservation district board voted to more than double yearly water use fees so that they could also significantly increase the amount they offer to farmers who stop irrigating around the South Fork. Several board members of the groundwater districts Midcap manages also sit on the river district board and helped make that decision.

So now, someone farming 100 acres would have to pay $45,000 to irrigate for 15 years instead of the $21,750 they paid before the fee increase. If that farmer’s land is within a mile of the South Fork and they enter the program to totally retire the land for 15 years, they would now get paid more than $67,000 instead of $52,875.

“They’ve known that they’ve needed to retire them for eight to 10 years,” Midcap said. “But the actual process of getting the fee increased has taken at least nine months.”

Part of the reason for the hold-up, several local officials told KUNC, is that the conservation board members are often farmers and ranchers themselves. So they struggle to make decisions that could hurt them and their neighbors financially…

[Note] Midcap later made a point to say that he has hope because the county can sustain itself on the remaining groundwater for at least another century…

Midcap is confident that enough irrigated acres will be shut down to keep the state in compliance with the 2024 deadline. But there’s a second deadline: another 15,000 acres must shut down by 2029. He’s less confident about that…

“But we’re between a rock and a sword. There is no other option,” said Deb Daniel, Republican River Water Conservation District manager. “If we don’t get this done, the state of Kansas could virtually force our state engineer to shut off irrigated ag in northeast Colorado, and we can’t let that happen.”

Interest in irrigation-shutoff programs has already sharply increased since the district increased the payments it offers, she added…

The actions needed to fulfill the compact, protect the river and keep the agricultural economic backbone of these communities strong can intersect, she said, but often end up at odds. There are a lot of hard decisions to be made…

She’s inspired by the producers changing their crops to ones that use less water, and by those finding ways to farm without irrigation at all. She’s helping the conservation district, county government and Colorado Parks And Wildlife working on a $40 million plan to get water flowing through the South Fork around Bonny Reservoir again.

But, Daniel admits, the river will likely never return to its former glory. At this point, it’s all just mitigating losses.

Colorado Rivers. Credit: Geology.com

Scientists see silver lining in USBR’s latest efforts to avoid ‘dead pool’ at #LakePowell — The St. George Spectrum #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell boat ramp at Page, Arizona, December 17, 2021. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

From The St. George Spectrum (Joan Meiners):

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Friday that it plans to adjust management protocols for the Colorado River in early 2022 to reduce monthly releases from Lake Powell in an effort to keep the reservoir from dropping further below 2021’s historic lows.

As of Thursday, the nation’s second-largest reservoir — part of a Colorado River system that provides drinking water to approximately 40 million people throughout the West — sat at an elevation of 3,536 feet. That’s 27% of the reservoir’s capacity, 164 feet below full and just 11 feet above the bureau’s target elevation of 3,525 feet, designed to give a 35-foot buffer before “dead pool.” Below 3,490 feet of elevation, Lake Powell dips into a zone where the generation of hydropower by water flowing through the Glen Canyon Dam becomes unreliable.

According to a bureau news release, the modified delivery schedule will not alter the total amount of water let through Glen Canyon Dam over the course of the year but will hold back a cumulative 350,000 acre-feet between January and April to help Lake Powell recover from lows that left many boat ramps unusable at the popular recreation site last summer.

Despite a wet October giving water managers hope that the region might make some progress towards recovery amidst a 22-year drought, this past November was the second-driest on record and inflows came up 1.5 million acre-feet short of the Bureau’s projections from the previous month. When adjusted December projections anticipated Lake Powell dropping below 3,525 feet as soon as this February, the agency convened partners from the basin states, Tribes, federal agencies, non-governmental organizations and water managers to devise a new management scheme…

Scientists, however, are not sure spring runoff will materialize. In the 22nd year of regional drought, the term “aridification” is gaining traction as the better way to describe what might be a long-term drying of the American West, influenced by climate change.

“We need to be extra vigilant and careful, because we do not know what lies ahead,” said Jack Schmidt, director of Utah State University’s Center for Colorado River Studies in response to Friday’s announcement. “Looking into the future, none of us can know precisely what’s going to happen this year. We have had times when we’ve looked great at the end of February, and then had an exceptionally dry March and the snowpack evaporated.”

Schmidt was the senior author of a white paper published by a group of hydrologists last February that analyzed the future of Colorado River flows under various climate change and use scenarios. Their findings predicted that, given drying trends and a growing western population, projected basin-wide rates of water consumption could result in Lake Mead or Lake Powell running dry as soon as 2050, halting hydropower operations and negatively impacting the Grand Canyon ecosystem.

[…]

Figure ES-3. End-of-year combined
Lake Powell + Lake Mead storage using hydrologic conditions sampled from
the Millennium Drought (2000-2018) demonstrates the effects of a range
of Upper Basin demand ‘caps’ along with a range of Lower Basin maximum shortages triggered when the combined storage falls below 15 maf. The status quo uses the 2007 UCRC Upper Basin schedule and elevation-based shortage triggers. Credit: The Center for Colorado River Studies

Wayne Pullan, regional director of the bureau’s Upper Colorado Basin, agreed [January 7, 2022] that there is uncertainty in the system…

In response to this, the agency plans to continue to monitor the basin’s hydrology and may make further adjustments to protect Lake Powell’s elevation. These could include sending additional water downstream to the reservoir from Colorado River Storage Project units at Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs. Bureau officials will also continue to work with Upper Basin states on a Drought Response Operations Plan, due out in April 2022.

Schmidt, meanwhile, sees three shades of a silver lining to Friday’s doomsday-seeming announcement from the Bureau.

First, his team in February concluded that estimates of future consumptive use calculated by the Upper Colorado River Commission may be overinflated, giving the seven states that rely on this supply some additional wiggle room. If the western states learn to better live within their water means, their populations can grow without tanking the Colorado River system, they argue.

The second point, towards this end and also outlined in the February white paper, is that opportunities to stretch the supply further by improving water conservation efforts still abound. This is an argument often made by environmental groups critical of per capita water use rates in Utah’s Washington County which, by many measures, far exceed those in other similar desert communities…

Schmidt’s third note of positivity in reaction to Friday’s announcement from the Bureau is that the modified release schedule for Lake Powell actually better mirrors the natural flows of the Colorado River. Ecologists are often critical of the impact dams have on riparian environments. If we’re dealing with a situation of diminished overall flows, Schmidt says, it makes sense for artificial releases to be especially reduced in winter months when the river is lowest in its natural state.

USBR Releases Draft Environmental Assessment for Arkansas Valley Conduit #ArkansasRiver

Arkansas Valley Conduit Logo. Credit: USBR

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Elizabeth Smith):

The Bureau of Reclamation released a draft environmental assessment to supplement a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) completed in 2013 for proposed changes associated with construction and operation of the Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC).

“Reclamation released an AVC Supplemental Information Report, in June 2021, that identified proposed changes in the AVC footprint, AVC participants, and a three-party contract with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Southeastern) and Pueblo Water,” said Reclamation Eastern Colorado Area Manager, Jeffrey Rieker. “This draft environmental assessment provides the supplemental analysis of the information in that report.”

Arkansas Valley Conduit map via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka) June 2021.

Reclamation would construct the AVC trunkline and Southeastern while AVC participants and others would construct AVC spur and delivery pipelines under the Proposed Action. The AVC project would utilize Pueblo Water’s existing system to treat and deliver AVC water from Pueblo Reservoir to a connection point east of the City of Pueblo along U.S. Highway 50, and eliminate 24.7 miles of pipeline construction around the city of Pueblo that was originally included the FEIS’s selected alternative.

The three-party contract will address AVC’s use of Pueblo Water’s water treatment plant and water delivery system, as well as Pueblo Water’s continued use of excess capacity storage in Pueblo Reservoir. The contract also incorporates the storage of additional water rights associated with the Bessemer Ditch and will replace an existing 25-year excess capacity contract that expires in 2025.

The environmental assessment has been prepared in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act and is available for public review and comment at: https://www.usbr.gov/gp/ecao/avc/. The 2013 AVC FEIS, 2014 AVC Record of Decision, and 2021 AVC Supplemental Information Report can also be accessed from this webpage. Reclamation is requesting that any comments on the draft environmental assessment be submitted by January 30, 2022. Comments can be sent to tstroh@usbr.gov. For additional information, please contact Terence Stroh, Environmental Specialist, at 970-461-5469 or the above email address.

AVC is and authorized feature for the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project in Southeastern Colorado in Pueblo, Crowley, Otero, Bent, Prowers and Kiowa Counties. You can find more information on the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project at: https://www.usbr.gov/projects.

As #ColoradoRiver reservoirs shrink, feds ask for work-arounds for 2022 — @WaterEdCO #CRWUA2021

Glen Canyon Dam, December 2021. Credit: Allen Best

From Water Education Colorado (Allen Best):

Barring epic snowstorms during the next four months, reservoirs on the drought-strapped Colorado River will enter new territory in 2022, likely unable to fill such basic missions as generating hydropower.

In response, the reservoirs’ owner, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is moving quickly to create work-arounds.

The Colorado River Basin serves seven states and Mexico. It is divided between the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Lower Basin consists of Arizona, California and Nevada.

“We simply must focus on short- and near-term operational challenges in both the Lower Basin and Upper Basins,” said Camille C. Touton, the recently sworn in commissioner of Reclamation.

Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin

But it is the Upper Basin’s Lake Powell that is causing the most concern right now. “We face unprecedented operational challenges at Glen Canyon Dam in a matter of mere months, even weeks,” she said. “Depending on the hydrology, Powell could decline to fall below minimum power pool for long durations.”

The U.S. Department of Interior has made clear its intention to protect lake levels, to ensure protection of the “structural integrity of the infrastructure,” said Tanya Trujillo, the undersecretary for water and science at the agency.

Tanya Trujillo panel with U.S. Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner & Commissioner Adriana Resendez discussing Mexico and U.S. management of the Colorado River at the 2021 Colorado River Water Users Association Annual Conference. Photo credit: IBWC

“We at Interior have a federal responsibility to protect the populations we serve,” she said in the final session of the Colorado River Water Users Association Conference in Las Vegas on Dec. 16. “That includes protecting the infrastructure. I have asked (the Bureau of) Reclamation to develop options for consideration in case we see these dry trends continuing.”

What those options might be isn’t clear yet.

Bart Miller, water program manager at Western Resource Advocates, said the water crisis is an opportunity to accelerate water conservations. “We have a real need to act in the next couple of years,” he said.

John Entsminger at the Colorado River Water Users Association Annual Conference December 15, 2021.

Comments in Las Vegas alluded to the sobering realities. “All hands on deck,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Colorado and other basin states have tightened water use since 2002. As documented at Powell, however, the belt-tightening lags what is needed. The pace must be hastened. Exactly how is the question facing Colorado and other states.

Projections show a high risk of continued drying. The two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell, in January 2000 were at 95% of capacity with a combined storage of 47 million acre-feet. By April 2022, they are projected to be less than 30% full with a combined storage of 15 million acre-feet.

Both reservoirs reached historically low levels last summer, holding the least amount of water since they began filling in the 1930s and 1960s respectively. The inflow into Powell last spring and summer was the second lowest on record.

Elevation 3,525 feet is the line in the sandstone established by water managers at Glen Canyon. That will provide a 35-foot buffer above the level below which hydropower cannot be produced. Modeling by the Bureau of Reclamation in December showed a 47% chance that Powell could drop below the target level for ensuring continued safe hydropower generation as soon as 2023.

“Everything associated with Lake Powell is critical to operation of the whole basin,” said Patrick Tyrrell, Wyoming’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

“We’re not quite sure how the lake will operate if that water elevation approaches the top of the penstocks,” he said. It’s also not clear how water can be released from the reservoir at that lower level, sometimes called dead pool, he added.

Water levels at Powell had declined to within inches of 3,525 this year before the Bureau of Reclamation released water from upstream reservoirs in Colorado and Utah beginning last July.

Looking ahead, officials said aggressive conservation will be key and Las Vegas’ efforts are among those being watched closely. Still rapidly growing, now with 2.3 million residents, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves the city and its suburbs, relies upon the Colorado River to provide 90% of its supplies in a valley that gets less than 4 inches of rainfall a year. Yet even as the population has grown 52% in this century, river consumption has declined 23%.

Las Vegas has achieved this feat by using both carrots and sticks. It may not be noticeable on the Strip because the Bellagio fountains still put on a show and the toilets still flush. In the new suburbs, though, you see almost no grass in front yards, and it’s limited in backyards.

Tightening in Vegas continues. Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager for resources at Southern Nevada, reported at the conference proposals to trim water use at existing golf courses and ban water for new courses. Swimming pools will shrink in size. And a new Nevada law prohibits Colorado River water use on non-functional turf by 2027.

Water deliveries to Arizona, California and Nevada have declined 22% from 2002 and 2020. More cuts are coming. During the conference in Las Vegas, representatives of the three states signed an agreement known as the 500+ Plan, that requires them to cut 500,000 acre-feet in 2022 and 2023. The plan also requires the three states to pool a collective $100 million, to be matched by a grant from the federal government, for implementation of water efficiency and conservation.

Lake Powell Pipeline map via the Washington County Water Conservancy District, October 25, 2020.

What about the upper-basin states? They have never used their full legal entitlement to river water, and Utah, in particular, wants to build a pipeline from Powell to the rapidly growing St. George-Hurricane area.

In Colorado, agreement about the need for tempering demand has been coalescing. Miller, of Western Resource Advocates, points out that operational adjustments, such as the Upper Basin reservoir releases this year, rely upon existing water, and cloud-seeding to generate more snow cannot solve the problem.

That leaves conservation as the area for more fruitful work to match the rapidly changing climate in the Colorado River Basin.

Past agreements in the Colorado River Basin show a long gestation time that can then emerge into policy given certain political climates. The current situation on the Colorado River provides that opportunity, say John Fleck, of the University of New Mexico’s Department of Economics and Water Resources Program, and Anne Castle, of the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

“State and federal water officials should seize this opening, cognizant of its likely limited duration, and cement new agreements that steer river operations in a more sustainable direction,” Fleck and Castle say in a recent article. “Well-timed and explicit federal direction may be necessary to catalyze the already ongoing discussions.”

Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at allen@bigpivots.com and allen.best@comcast.net.

The Western #megadrought is revealing America’s ‘lost national park’ — National Public Radio #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

Boat ramp at Page, Arizona, December 17, 2021. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click here to read the article from National Public Radio (Nathan Rott) and for the photos and video. Here’s an excerpt:

Despite recent rain and record snowfall in California’s Sierra Nevada, the Western U.S. is experiencing one of its driest periods in a thousand years — a two-decade megadrought that scientists say is being amplified by human-caused climate change. The drought — or longer-term aridification, some researchers fear — is forcing water cutbacks in at least three states and is reviving old debates about how water should be distributed and used in the arid West.

At Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest reservoir, record-low water levels are transforming the landscape, renewing a long-standing dispute over the land the reservoir drowned — a canyon labyrinth that novelist Edward Abbey once described as “a portion of earth’s original paradise.” For half a century, environmental groups and Colorado River enthusiasts have implored water managers to restore Glen Canyon by draining the reservoir….

The goal has always been viewed as a bit far-fetched. Lake Powell is one of the busiest tourist destinations in the country. A half-billion-dollar tourism industry has blossomed on its stored waters along the Utah-Arizona border.

But with water levels at record lows and dropping, hindering tourism and revealing long-hidden rock formations like the one behind Dombrowski’s boat, advocates for Glen Canyon see a unique opportunity to catalog what was lost and to correct, perhaps, what environmentalist David Brower called “America’s most regrettable environmental mistake.”

Human actions built the reservoir. Now human actions are causing it to shrink…

A critical “bank account” that’s overdrawn

Seldom Seen’s prayer at about Glen Canyon Dam from The Monkey Wrench Gang — Edward Abbey

It would be hard to overstate the anger sparked by the creation of Lake Powell and the flooding of Glen Canyon. The plot of Abbey’s most famous fiction, The Monkey Wrench Gang, centered on a band of environmental extremists hellbent on destroying the concrete behemoth that pinched off the Colorado River near the Utah-Arizona border in 1963.

The Glen Canyon Dam, named for the canyon it drowned, was celebrated as one of the “engineering wonders of the world” by the Bureau of Reclamation. To Abbey, it was “an insult to God’s creation.”

Rock spires, arches, amphitheaters and ecosystems were gradually submerged. Stalled water crawled up slot canyons. Petroglyphs and pull-tab beer cans were covered over.

Ken Sleight the original Monkey Wrencher photo via Salon

“They ruined it all when they put the water in there,” says Ken Sleight, a river-runner friend of Abbey’s and an environmental preservationist.

The purpose of the dam was to generate electricity for a growing Southwest and to manage flows on the famously up-again, down-again Colorado River [in line with the “Law of the River“. Ranchers, farmers and a fast-growing Western U.S. needed a stable water supply. Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, together with their downstream neighbors, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, would provide that stability…

“In addition to its significant recreation value, Lake Powell functions as a vast ‘bank account’ of water that can be drawn on during dry years,” states the Bureau of Reclamation

Hotter temperatures and milder winters have reduced flows on the Colorado River, shrinking nature’s annual deposit. Water demands, meanwhile, have remained steady or increased. “To sustain our water use, we have drained the bank account,” says Jack Schmidt, a watershed scientist at Utah State University.

Lake Powell near Page, AZ on December 13, 2021. Inflow into the Colorado River’s second largest reservoir was the second-lowest ever last year and current projections from the Bureau of Reclamation suggest this year could be similar. Water scarcity was a main topic of discussion at a gathering of water managers and experts in Las Vegas this week. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Today, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at about one-third of their total capacity. A chalky bathtub ring stains the canyon walls of both, more than 100 feet overhead…

Recent snowstorms have improved the short-term picture, boosting snowpack levels across much of the West, but they haven’t solved the larger imbalance in the region’s water portfolio, which is forcing stakeholders up and down the Colorado River to adapt and think in innovative ways. California, Nevada and Arizona recently reached an agreement to take less water from the river in an effort to prop up Lake Mead…

A push to revive a storied canyon

In parts of Glen Canyon, the new normal is starting to look a lot like the old.

Slot canyons, grottoes, cliffs and spires — the kinds of natural features that draw millions to Grand Canyon and Arches National Park — are reemerging from the waters. Willows and cottonwoods are sprouting on muddy banks. Pottery shards dot shorelines.

“The last time this span was out, Neil Armstrong hadn’t walked on the moon yet,” the Glen Canyon Institute’s Balken says, steering a boat under one of the largest natural bridges in the world. Water reflects on its red belly like a kaleidoscope as Balken putters up the narrowing canyon ahead.

For the last 25 years, Balken’s nonprofit, the Glen Canyon Institute, has been one of the loudest advocates for America’s “lost national park.” It calls for restoring the canyon by lowering Lake Powell and for a broader rethinking of the values assigned to this stretch of desert.

“This place is so much more than a storage tank,” Balken says, walking up a sediment-laden slot canyon. “That’s what this [drought] is showing us. These places can recover.”

An hour’s walk up the canyon, the bathtub ring still stains the wall high overhead, and the floor is covered in shoulder-high vegetation. A narrow stream trickles down, beaver tracks pressed in the mud along its edge.

Biologists and other researchers have joined Balken on similar hikes to document the recovery and see how the canyon is recuperating. Invasive species like Egyptian saltcedar are flourishing alongside native plants. Sediment, deposited by the reservoir’s slack water, clogs canyon floors. But life is flourishing the farther away you get from the lake’s edge.

The Glen Canyon Institute wants that to continue. It’s pushing a policy called Fill Mead First, arguing that when the Western U.S. gets another big snow year, water managers should fill the bank account at Lake Mead before adding water to its upstream backup, Lake Powell…

“I just want to bring, like, every water manager and everybody that’s negotiating the future management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and I want them to come in and experience this,” Balken says. “And just know that when you’re talking about refilling Lake Powell reservoir, potentially, you’re talking about redrowning this place.”

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck.

Schmidt, the watershed scientist at Utah State University, did a technical assessment of the Fill Mead First proposal in 2016. He found that its effects on water savings along the Colorado River would be negligible and that it would restore more natural fluidity in the Grand Canyon. But, he says, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem of the region’s water shortages.

“It doesn’t matter whether water is stored in Powell, in Mead, 50-50. It doesn’t matter for solving the problem of the imbalance of the checking account,” he says. “That problem can only be solved by reducing consumptive use.”

[…]

“It’s happening”

While water managers debate that change at increasingly urgent conferences, the conversation about Lake Powell’s future is already happening on its shrinking shores.

Lake Powell Marinas, a boat rental company on the reservoir, is advertising for people to come see the natural features revealed by the lower water levels. The mayor of Page, Ariz., a town built for and by Lake Powell, is talking publicly about a reenvisioned future. Houseboaters like Dombrowski are debating whether to sell or hold.

Lake Powell, upstream from Glen Canyon Dam. At the time of this photo in May, 2021, Lake Powell was 34% full. (Ted Wood/Water Desk)

USBR modifies monthly #water releases from #LakePowell to protect reservoir’s critical elevations #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:

The Bureau of Reclamation began monthly operational adjustments at Glen Canyon Dam on Jan. 1, taking initial steps to protect the reservoir’s target elevation of 3,525 feet. As of Jan. 5, Lake Powell’s water surface elevation measured 3,536 feet, just 11 feet above the target elevation. Without the changes to monthly water releases, the reservoir’s elevation was projected to steadily decline below the target elevation through the winter months. The adjusted releases are designed to help protect critical elevations at Lake Powell until spring runoff materializes.

The monthly volume of water released from Glen Canyon Dam is being adjusted to hold back 350 thousand acre-feet (kaf) of water in Lake Powell from January to April when inflow to the reservoir is low. The same amount of water (350 kaf) will then be released to Lake Mead between June and September after the spring runoff occurs. The annual volume of water released from Glen Canyon Dam is unchanged by these operational adjustments.

“Under the Drought Response Operations Agreement, making these monthly operational adjustments at Glen Canyon Dam is essential to protect Lake Powell from dropping to critically low elevation levels in the weeks and months ahead,” said Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Regional Director Wayne Pullan. “Although the basin had substantial snowstorms in December, we don’t know what lies ahead and must do all we can now to protect Lake Powell’s elevation.”

The modified release pattern was put into action after Reclamation met with basin partners including the basin states, Tribes, federal agencies, non-governmental organizations and water managers to discuss the purpose and need to shift the delivery schedule of water.

Water year 2022 got off to a promising start in the Colorado River Basin with a wetter-than-normal October, but it was followed by the second-driest November on record and resulted in a loss of 1.5 million acre-feet of inflow for Lake Powell compared to the previous month’s projections. December projections showed the reservoir dropping below the target elevation of 3,525 feet as early as February 2022. As defined in the Drought Response Operations Agreement, the target elevation provides a sufficient buffer to allow for response actions to prevent Lake Powell from dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, the lowest elevation that Glen Canyon Dam can generate hydropower.

While the basin recently experienced substantial snowpack, critically low reservoir levels coupled with uncertainty about future snowpack and observed spring inflow necessitate action. The modified release pattern for Glen Canyon Dam is as follows:

Reclamation is closely monitoring the basin’s hydrology and will release updated projections later this month. The modified release pattern may be further adjusted, if needed, in response to changing hydrologic conditions. The operational adjustments are consistent with the dam’s Long-term Experimental and Management Plan Record of Decision (LTEMP ROD) and will not impact operating tiers or annual release volumes at Lake Powell or Lake Mead. Only the monthly volumes are being adjusted; the annual release volume of 7.48 million acre-feet for water year 2022 (October 1, 2021 – September 30, 2022) will remain the same.

If future projections indicate the monthly adjustments are insufficient to protect Lake Powell’s elevation, Reclamation will again consider additional water releases from the Colorado River Storage Project initial units of Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs. Meanwhile, Reclamation and the Upper Basin states continue to work on a Drought Response Operations Plan and expect to have it completed in April 2022.

“The plans adopted in previous years, including the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the Drought Contingency and Binational Water Scarcity Contingency plans, along with voluntary actions, have helped sustain the Colorado River System through the current 22-year-long drought,” said Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin Regional Director Jaci Gould. “We’ll continue to work with our basin partners in the future in the same collaborative spirit we have demonstrated in the past.”

The recently enacted Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides the resources to back up Reclamation’s commitment to collaboration, with historic investments in water and drought resilience. Reclamation is working with its partners in the West in the transparent implementation of this law to meet the need for long-term adaptation for drought and a changing climate. For more information on the Infrastructure Law and Reclamation’s implementation, please visit our website at http://usbr.gov/BIL.

December 24-Month Study Projections

Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Investments

Navajo Dam operations update (January 4, 2022): Releases to increase to 350 cfs #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Fly fishers on the San Juan River below the Navajo Dam.U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 350 cfs for Tuesday, January 4th, at 4:00 AM.

Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell). This release change is calculated as the minimum required to maintain the target baseflow.

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. Note that due to low storage and forecast inflows in WY 2022, the minimum release of 250 cfs, as documented in the Navajo Record of Decision (2006), may be implemented this winter or spring as long as that release can satisfy the target baseflow.

USBR awards $76 million construction contract for continued progress on the Navajo-Gallup #Water Supply Project #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Survey work begins in 2018 for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project on the Navajo Nation. Photo credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation via The High Country News

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:

The Bureau of Reclamation continues to make significant progress towards completion of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project (NGWSP) with today’s award of a $76,113,868 contract to SJ Louis Construction of Rockville, Minnesota, for construction of the next portion of the project, the Navajo Code Talkers Sublateral.

The sublateral will further the NGWSP, which is bringing clean and reliable water to Tribal and rural communities in northwestern New Mexico. The work will be located along New Mexico State Highway 264 between Yah-Ta-Hey, New Mexico, and Window Rock, Arizona, and will consist of the installation of approximately 17 miles of 24- to 30-inch diameter pipe and one water storage tank. Work under this contract will begin in January 2022 and is expected to last for approximately two years.

“This is a significant milestone for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project and illustrates the Department of the Interior’s commitment to Tribal communities,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo. “The department is excited to leverage the new resources in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to make similar investments to ensure that clean, safe drinking water is a right in Tribal communities.”

“Reclamation is pleased to begin construction on the Navajo Code Talkers Sublateral,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “This will mark another step towards meeting the United States’ obligation to the Navajo Nation under the Nation’s water rights settlement agreement on the San Juan River Basin in New Mexico, where over a third of households still haul drinking water to their homes.”

These areas currently rely on a rapidly depleting groundwater supply of poor quality to meet the current and future demands of more than 43 Navajo chapters, the southwest area of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation and the City of Gallup, New Mexico. The NGWSP consists of two main pipeline systems – the San Juan Lateral and the Cutter Lateral.

When the full project is completed, it will include approximately 300 miles of pipeline, two water treatment plants, 19 pumping plants and multiple water storage tanks. Construction on the Cutter Lateral is nearly complete and water deliveries are currently being made to eight Navajo communities and soon to the southwestern portion of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, serving 6,000 people or 1,500 households.

This contract continues many years of hard work by Reclamation, the Navajo Nation and other project partners constructing the NGWSP to improve the lives of residents and provide opportunities for economic development and job creation.

Scarcity the theme of #ColoradoRiver conference — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification #crwua2021

Lake Powell near Page, AZ on December 13, 2021. Inflow into the Colorado River’s second largest reservoir was the second-lowest ever last year and current projections from the Bureau of Reclamation suggest this year could be similar. Water scarcity was a main topic of discussion at a gathering of water managers and experts in Las Vegas this week. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Sobering. Troubling. The new abnormal. Crazy bad. These were the words used to describe conditions on the Colorado River at the largest annual gathering of water managers and experts in Las Vegas this week.

“I just want to manage everyone’s expectations,” said Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission and former Colorado River Programs Manager for the Central Arizona Project. “It is super grim.”

Water scarcity — and a sense of urgency to address it — has underscored this year’s Colorado River Water Users Association conference. In 2000, the storage system was nearly full, but over the past two decades, the river’s two largest buckets, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have fallen to just one-third of their capacity. In July, the Bureau of Reclamation began releases from three upper-basin reservoirs, including Blue Mesa in Gunnison County, to prop up levels at Lake Powell and preserve the ability to generate hydropower. In August, the federal government declared the first-ever tier-one shortage in the lower basin, which triggered mandatory cuts for Arizona farmers.

But scarcity, Cullom said, also drives innovation and collaboration. On Wednesday, lower-basin water managers signed a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, to spend up to $200 million to keep levels in Lake Mead from dropping to dangerously low levels. The agreement, known as the 500+ Plan, aims to add 500,000 acre-feet of water to the reservoir in both 2022 and 2023, which would raise the reservoir by about 16 feet.

The program will be funded by $40 million from the Arizona Department of Water Resources; $20 million each from the Central Arizona Project, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Southern Nevada Water Authority; and $100 million in matching funds from the federal government.

The lower basin is taking action as a requirement of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, which set a threshold of 1,030-feet elevation in Lake Mead. It’s currently at 1,065 feet.

“We have all seen just how quickly the conditions have continued to deteriorate,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of Metropolitan. “The lower-basin water users have recognized we don’t have a lot of time to wait. This unites Arizona, Nevada and California.”

The signing of the MOU came on the same day that the Bureau of Reclamation released its December 24-month study report, which predicts how much water will flow into Lake Powell, a critical data point for water planners. Last month, the bureau predicted the spring runoff would be about 82% of normal. But after a dry November in the upper basin, on Wednesday, the updated monthly estimate had fallen to just 64% of average. Water from Lake Powell feeds Lake Mead downstream. Modeling suggests Lake Powell could fall to below the minimum level needed to generate power by next fall.

Conditions are setting up to mirror a historically bad 2021, when a near-normal snowpack translated to only 31% of normal runoff. It was the second-worst inflow to Lake Powell ever. One of the culprits was a hot, dry previous summer and fall, underscoring the outsized impacts that continuing drought and rising temperatures from climate change are having on the flows of the Colorado River.

“The last 22 years has no 20th-century analogue,” said Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University. “If you call it anything, call it the new abnormal.”

Upper Basin Colorado River Commissioner Pat Tyrrell, who represents Wyoming, said the 500+ Plan was a quick action to respond to the quickly deteriorating conditions.

“It is not painless, that part is self-evident,” he said. “There is no effective approach to the imbalance that doesn’t impact some water user somewhere.”

It’s still unclear where exactly the 500,000 acre-feet of water would come from. One possibility is paying irrigators to voluntarily leave water in the river.

The director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Rebecca Mitchell, who also serves as Colorado River commissioner for the state, told state water managers at a breakfast Wednesday that she had not yet seen the details of the water-savings plan from the lower basin.

“We have not seen anything in writing,” she said. “But anything to address and protect the reservoirs I’m obviously going to support.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.

Camille Touton Sworn In as Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner

Camille Calimlim Touton being sworn in as Reclamation’s Commissioner by Secretary Deb Haaland.

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:

Maria Camille Calimlim Touton has been sworn in as Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner by Secretary Deb Haaland. Camille has served as the Bureau of Reclamation’s Deputy Commissioner since January.

“As the Interior Department continues to lead the Biden-Harris administration’s all-of-government approach to addressing the worsening drought crisis, Camille’s steady leadership, collaborative spirit, and deep knowledge of America’s natural resources will help ensure that we can meet the challenges of the moment,” said Secretary Haaland. “Camille’s water management experience will be crucial to helping the Department implement the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which contains historic investments to help mitigate drought conditions and protect water resources.”

“I am honored to serve as Commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation and help lead the Department’s efforts to address the worsening drought crisis. As a Nevadan, I understand what this crisis means for people and the environment, and I look forward to working collaboratively with farmers, Tribes, local communities, and with Congress to face these challenges,” Commissioner Touton said.

In her capacity overseeing the Bureau of Reclamation, Camille will help manage the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s $8.3 billion investments in drought and water resiliency, including funding for water efficiency and recycling programs, rural water projects, WaterSMART grants, and dam safety to ensure that irrigators, Tribes, and adjoining communities receive adequate assistance and support.

Prior to joining the Biden-Harris administration, Camille served as Professional Staff for the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Camille’s congressional experience also includes serving as Professional Staff for Interior’s authorization committees: the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee. Camille also served as Interior’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science under the Obama administration. Camille holds a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering, a Bachelor of Arts in communication studies, and a Master of Public Policy.

USBR launches new prize competition to improve #snowpack water forecasts

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):

The Bureau of Reclamation is launching a new prize competition for improved snowpack water forecast techniques throughout the West. Developing better techniques to determine the amount of water stored as snowpack provides water managers more accurate information to make better water management decisions.

This competition is divided into two tracks. In track one, participants develop a model and calibrate it using historical information. The effectiveness and accuracy of the test model will be evaluated during the winter and spring using real-time snowpack measurements. For track two, models in the first track are eligible to submit a report that discusses their solution and approaches to solving the problem in track one.

Reclamation is partnering with Bonneville Power Administration, NASA – Goddard Space Flight Center, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, USDA – Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Geological Survey, National Center for Atmospheric Research, DrivenData, HeroX, Ensemble and NASA Tournament Lab.

To learn more, please visit https://www.usbr.gov/research/challenges/swe.html.

Reclamation conducts prize competitions to spur innovation by engaging a non-traditional, problem-solver community. In the past six years, it has awarded more than $4 million in prizes through 29 competitions. Please visit Reclamation’s Water Prize Competition Center to learn more.

Snowcast Showdown

USBR awards $3.1 million in grants to develop #water data, modeling and forecasting tools and information for water managers

Grand Mesa Colorado sunset.

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):

The Bureau of Reclamation selected 20 projects to share $3.1 million in applied science grants to develop tools and information to support water management decisions. These projects in 11 western states include improved water data, modeling and forecasting capabilities.

“Water managers today need more accurate and reliable information to make the best water management decisions in a changing climate,” said Chief Engineer David Raff. “Applied Science Grants are an important tool to assist water managers getting the information they need so they can make those informed decisions.”

Projects selected range from $48,000 for the Big Bend Conservation Alliance in Texas to develop a common data management platform for shared aquifers to several receiving the maximum of $200,000. Texas A&M University-Kingsville is receiving $107,497 to develop a web-based tool to simulate post-wildfire hydrologic changes in Northwest Montana.

To view a complete description of all the selected projects, please visit https://www.usbr.gov/watersmart/appliedscience.

Applied Science Grants are for non-federal entities to develop tools and information to support water management for multiple uses. Selected projects must provide at least a 50% non-federal cost-share. Project types include:

Enhancing modeling capabilities to improve water supply reliability and increase flexibility in water operations.
Improving or adapting forecasting tools and technologies to enhance management of water supplies and reservoir operations.

Improving access to and use of water resources data or developing new data types to inform water management decisions.

For more than 100 years, Reclamation and its partners have developed sustainable water and power future for the West. This program is part of the Department of the Interior’s WaterSMART Program, which focuses on improving water conservation and reliability while helping water resource managers make sound decisions about water use. To find out more information about Reclamation’s WaterSMART program, visit https://www.usbr.gov/watersmart.

One Colorado award was listed:

Colorado

Reclamation Funding: $200,000 Total Project Cost: $440,000

The Grand Mesa Water Users Association, located on the Grand Mesa in Delta County, Colorado, will produce digitized capacity surveys for 50 reservoirs. The reservoirs on the Grand Mesa were built to capture and conserve available water from snowpack for irrigation and municipal use. This project includes conducting reservoir capacity surveys using drone technology, installing water measuring sensors at each reservoir to monitor water level heights, and developing a water distribution control system with multiple functions such as an interactive map of the reservoirs, a database with data on the reservoirs, a dashboard showing water administration activity, and a forecasting tool. These tools will enhance the management of water supplies and reservoir operations.

Navajo Unit Operations update #SanJuanRiver #COriver #ColoradoRiver #aridification

Colorado River Storage Project map. Credit: USBR

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

Reclamation’s November 24-Month Study includes a minimum probable (90% chance of being exceeded), a most probable (50% chance of being exceeded) and a maximum probable (10% chance of being exceeded) forecast. While Reclamation operates to the most probable forecast, the range of outcomes in the forecast is tracked on a monthly basis. The latest forecast and projected operations no longer show a shortage to contract deliveries at the Navajo Unit for water year 2022 under the minimum probable forecast. This projection will continue to be updated monthly as the forecast evolves.

Any projected shortage volume is modeled as a proportional distribution to project users (as per PL-87-483 and PL-111-11) and downstream target base flows (pursuant to the Navajo Reservoir’s Record of Decision, 2006).

In anticipation of increasingly severe drought, the Upper Basin states and Reclamation entered into a Drought Response Operations Agreement in 2019. Under this agreement, Reclamation initiated delivery of supplemental water to Lake Powell from the upper CRSP units beginning in July 2021. The delivery from Navajo Reservoir, originally planned for late November through early December, has been postponed and is currently scheduled as a daily release of 1,300 cfs from December 20th to December 30th for a total of 20,000 acre-ft over our regular release. Reclamation will review this release plan after publication of the December 24-Month Study, currently anticipated mid-December.

We will continue to closely monitor conditions and projections as we work with the seven Colorado Basin states on a Drought Response Operations Plan in the coming months.

#ColoradoRiver Basin states developing $100M plan to bolster #LakeMead — The #LasVegas Review-Journal #DCP #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead low elevation. Photo credit: Department of Interior via ensia

From The Las Vegas Review-Journal (Blake Apgar):

States in the lower Colorado River basin are developing a $100 million plan that will leave more water in Lake Mead over the next couple of years.
The goal is to keep the lake from hitting a critical level that would leave the reservoir more vulnerable to rapid decline.

“You don’t have much of a buffer left to deal with that (rapidly declining water level) if you have a bad year of runoff in the system,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

The negotiations between Nevada, Arizona, California and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for additional reductions in water use come just months after the federal government declared Lake Mead’s first water shortage. That declaration forces Nevada and Arizona to take cuts to their allocation of water next year.
The water level projections that led to those cuts also triggered a provision in a 2019 drought response agreement that forces the lower basin states to discuss ways to prevent the lake from falling below an elevation of 1,020 feet, Buschatzke said.

As of Thursday, the water level was just below 1,066 feet…

The states have not finalized how they will reach the 500,000 acre-foot goal for the next two years, but Buschatzke said the preference is voluntary conservation over forced cuts.

He said the effort is going to cost about $100 million, with his department committing $40 million. Next week, the Southern Nevada Water Authority board is scheduled to consider approving the use of $20 million over the next two years to continue fighting lake level decline.

One way to meet the conservation goal is to pad reserves and keep them in the lake through 2026. The states are also looking at leaving reserves in the lake that were scheduled to be released next year.

Buschatzke said the federal government could also look at making delivery of water to the lower basin more efficient.

Another path is new system conservation, a process of making water use more efficient and using the saved water to bolster Lake Mead’s elevation. A portion of Southern Nevada’s spending may go toward this, a spokesman said…

Buschatzke said the goal is to finalize the two-year agreement next month, then get to work on filling out the remaining three years of the plan.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck.

Tribes seek water-management role as #ColoradoRiver shrivels — E&E News #COriver #aridification

Cumulative precipitation (brown line) and average temperature (red line) for all 20-month, January–August periods since 1895. The current drought coincided with record-low precipitation and near-record high temperatures. NOAA Climate.gov, adapted from original by the NOAA Drought Task Force. Photo of low water levels in Lake Powell on August 13, 2017, by Flickr user Edwin van Buuringen, used under a Creative Commons license.

From E&E News (Jeremy P. Jacobs):

In the mid-2000s, seven states, the federal government and Mexico negotiated critical rules for the Colorado River that established how to divvy up its water in a severe drought like it is now facing.

Thirty Native American tribes — with rights to roughly a quarter of all the water in the river — were shut out of those talks.

Tribes want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. The effort offers new challenges for the seven Colorado River basin states and the Biden administration, which has repeatedly pledged to be more inclusive in regulatory efforts that affect Native Americans.

“It is fair to say that tribes were not involved in the negotiation of the 2007 guidelines,” said Anne Castle, a former Interior assistant secretary for water and science during the Obama administration. “Tribes will have a seat at the table this time in the negotiation of the next set of rules. The question is what does that look like? And that hasn’t been worked out yet.”

The 2007 guidelines expire in 2026 and determine how shortages are allocated across the basin. The Colorado River, which serves 40 million Americans, is currently in the grips of a more than 20-year “megadrought,” and federal officials declared a shortage for the first time in August, which means Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will see cuts to their deliveries next year…

The river’s declining flows due to climate change and drought have put a premium on tribal water.

Negotiations over new operating guidelines are just now getting underway. There is widespread agreement that they will be tougher than the last round because the basin will be grappling with a river that is drying up. Simply put, there is less water to go around.

From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

Tribes have rights to at least 3.2 million acre-feet of river water and, by some estimates, 1 million to 1.5 million acre-feet of it is currently unused. An acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons, about as much as a Los Angeles family of four uses in a year.

That’s led to a rush to build out capacity for tribes to meaningfully contribute to the negotiations.

Unused tribal water could provide an important buffer for cities like Phoenix, for example, if agreements are penned to fairly compensate the tribes.

There is also a push for more widespread recognition that tribes may have better ideas for how to use the river.

“You have a group of at least 30 tribal sovereigns in the Colorado River basin who have lived sustainability there for thousands of years,” Daryl Vigil, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, said at recent conference hosted by the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado.

“We are having these conversations about sustainability and resiliency, why aren’t we talking to those people who are still here who have been resilient and have lived sustainably?” Vigil said.

Camille Touton confirmed as commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation — The #LasVegas Review-Journal

M Camille Calimlim Touton MIT via Twitter (@mitwater)

From The Las Vegas Review-Journal (Gary Martin):

Camille Touton of Nevada was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday to be commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees water management of the Colorado River in Western states.
Democratic and Republican senators approved President Joe Biden’s nominee on a voice vote.

Touton, of Filipino ancestry, moved as a child to Nevada. Las Vegas became her adopted home and she became interested in water, she told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee during a September hearing.

She told the panel water management in the West is a major concern and priority.

West Drought Monitor map November 2, 2021.

“The unprecedented drought has made the task even more challenging, as major reservoirs are at their lowest levels since filling, and the projections for relief in the face of climate change are not encouraging,” she told the hearing.

She was introduced to the panel by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., a member of the committee. Touton sailed through the confirmation process with bipartisan support, particularly from Western state Republican senators.

Touton recently served as Bureau of Reclamation deputy commissioner. She received degrees from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and George Mason University…

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck.

Touton will be directly involved in Colorado River management, Lake Mead and water issues that impact Nevada and other Western states, Tobias said…

She also becomes the first Filipino-American to hold such a position in the Interior Department.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Touton would bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to manage water for current and future generations.

The sand is there, but low water levels halt a controlled flood to restore #GrandCanyon’s beaches — AZCentral.com #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon Dam high flow release photo.

From AZCentral.com (Brandon Loomis):

The Southwest’s active monsoon season this year washed tons of sand into the Colorado River, where it could have helped shore up the Grand Canyon’s withering beaches, if not for one big problem: The water stored behind Glen Canyon Dam is at an all-time low after more than two decades of drought.

As a result, the federal government’s dam managers have hit pause on an environmental program that calls for controlled floods out of Lake Powell when there’s enough sand for the water to push up and rebuild sandbars and beaches, preserving the national park’s ecology, river trip campsites and archaeological sites.

Prodigious rains from the summer and fall monsoon dumped the sand that created the right conditions for a November flood but left nowhere near enough water to prop up the shrinking reservoir.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cited projected losses in the dam’s hydropower production as a reason to hold back the envisioned floodwaters. That could save up to $4 million for electric ratepayers across the West, but it also sets an ominous precedent for a river that’s becoming too drained by aridification and overuse to sustain its own health…

The dam that created Lake Powell in the early 1960s choked off more than nine-tenths of the Colorado’s contribution to Grand Canyon’s sand flow, dropping it on the new lakebed and sending clear water downstream from the hydropower plant’s turbines.

That left the sand that the Paria River washes out of southern Utah toward the Colorado at Lees Ferry to build beaches in the upper Grand Canyon, and the sand from Arizona’s Little Colorado River deeper in the canyon…

Starting in the 1980s, a group of scientists puzzling over how to restore a semblance of nature in the canyon imagined a program opening the dam’s bypass tubes to create artificial floods whenever enough sand accumulated for the pulse of water to push it downstream and deposit it on bars and beaches.

Benefits would include everything from the creation of shallow, warm backwaters more familiar to the river’s native fishes to coverage of threatened artifacts, and restoration of beaches for float trips that account for more than 100,000 user days on the river each year.

The occasional planned floods began in 1996, four years after Congress passed the Grand Canyon Protection Act mandating dam operations that balance water and power needs with the canyon’s environment. The floods continued haltingly, every several years until the Obama administration adopted a plan that supporters believed took costs and politics out of the equation and would trigger a flood whenever sand measurements at Lees Ferry warranted one.

That would include this fall when Utah State University river researcher Jack Schmidt said the sand is more plentiful than it is in three out of every four years.

Schmidt was among the scientists who first envisioned the controlled floods, and he later directed the U.S. Geological Survey’s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center. He said he fears the government’s decision against flooding when there’s this much sand indicates that low water levels are leading to backsliding on the commitment to manage according to the science.

“This decision takes us dangerously close to the old world where politics dictates not having a flood,” Schmidt said…

Reclamation officials at the bureau’s Upper Colorado Basin office in Salt Lake City decided against conducting a flood this fall. They did not respond to a request for comment, but a bureau presentation at the technical work group’s fall meeting cited the Western Area Power Administration’s hydropower cost estimates as a reason that regional state and federal officials advised against pushing more water downstream.

They determined that a 60-hour flood of the sort that has occurred before would cost $1.3 million in lost hydropower revenues, while an unprecedented 192-hour flood — allowed by rule when sand accumulates like it did this year — would cost $3.7 million.

A 192-hour flood could have been especially problematic, the officials reported, because it would have dropped the lake’s elevation by 5 feet, to within about 10 feet of the dam’s buffer zone for producing hydropower without damaging the turbines. A 60-hour flood would limit the reduction to about 2 feet…

Before and after photos of results of the high flow experiment in 2008 via USGS

Controlled floods, officially known as high-flow experiments, are no cure for what ails the Grand Canyon. They temporarily restore beaches, which are then eroded over time by flows that fluctuate to meet water and power demands. Only the next flood can keep them from eroding to critically low levels.

Today, with no flood since 2018, the sandbars and beaches are as low as they’ve been in a decade, and are projected to decline another 10% before next year’s rafting season. Had the government scheduled a 192-hour flood, the beaches were projected to grow by 75%, and to remain 50% larger after winter erosion…

“It seems as though the Grand Canyon Protection Act was not given much weight,” said Peter Bungart, a cultural resources officer for the Hualapai Tribe.

That law’s mandate for managing the dam in harmony with canyon resources is “clear as mud,” according to University of Utah law professor Robert Adler. It first directs the government to release water in a way that protects and restores the natural and recreational resources for which Grand Canyon National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area were established.

Then it says to do that in a way that’s consistent with the suite of other laws governing the river’s water storage and distribution agreements, laws often in conflict with the canyon’s environmental interests…

Still, environmental groups and tribes objecting to the flood’s rejection and the exclusive decision-making process sent a joint letter to the Bureau of Reclamation on Wednesday seeking a greater role in future flood debates, and greater consideration to the Grand Canyon Protection Act…

If losing a few million dollars in revenues is to become a flood disqualifier, [Larry] Stevens said, there may never be more floods.

November 2012 High Flow Experiment via Protect the Flows

Navajo Dam operations update (November 2, 2021): Releases bumping down to 300 cfs #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The outflow at the bottom of Navajo Dam in New Mexico. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing irrigation and increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 350 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 300 cfs for Tuesday, November 2nd, at 4:00 AM.

Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell). This release change is calculated as the minimum required to maintain the target baseflow.

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. Due to low storage and forecast levels in WY 2022, the minimum release of 250 cfs, as documented in the Navajo Record of Decision (2006), may be implemented this winter as long as that release can satisfy the target baseflow.

Navajo Unit operations update October 26, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The San Juan River’s Navajo Dam and reservoir. Photo credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

Navajo Dam operations update (October 26, 2021): Bumping down to 350 cfs #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell is shown here, in its reach between where the Escalante and San Juan rivers enter the reservoir, in an October 2018 aerial photo from the nonprofit environmental group EcoFlight. Colorado water managers are considering the implications of a program known as demand management that would pay irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to take less water from streams in order to boost water levels in Lake Powell, as an insurance policy against compact curtailment.
CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing irrigation and increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 350 cfs for Tuesday, October 26th, at 4:00 AM.

Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell). This release change is calculated as the minimum required to maintain the target baseflow.

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. Be advised, due to low storage and forecast levels in WY 2022, the minimum release of 250 cfs, as documented in the Navajo Record of Decision (2006), may be implemented this winter as long as that release can satisfy the target baseflow.

New projections for low #ColoradoRiver flows speed need for dramatic conservation

From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

A new federal system for projecting Colorado River water flows in the next two years confirms dire news about drought draining the West’s key reservoirs, and increases pressure on Colorado to conserve water immediately to avoid future demands from down-river states, conservation groups say.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation’s new system for projecting vital Colorado River flows in the next two years drops earlier, wetter years out of the historical reference, and gives more weight to two recent decades of drought. The regular October update this week shows water runoff into Lake Powell, the storage basin for four Upper Colorado Basin states, was only 32% of average for the 2021 water year, which runs from October to September.

The new projections for the next two years show that even with federal officials draining portions of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to get more water to Lake Powell’s hydroelectric generating station, a moderate winter would leave the Colorado River in the same crisis a year from now. And a low-water scenario this coming winter season would drop Lake Powell well below the minimum level required to generate electricity by November 2022.

In addition to federal officials trying to protect hydroelectric generation at Lake Powell, and at Lake Mead as the downstream water bank for the Lower Basin states, water compacts govern how much Colorado River water needs to go downstream for use by agriculture and cities…

“We don’t have any more time to talk about it,” Matt Rice, co-chair of the Water for Colorado Coalition and Director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Programs, said after reviewing the latest Bureau of Reclamation update.

Starting with the October update, the bureau begins the historical average calculations in 1991, instead of the 1981 cutoff used until now. The 1980s were much wetter in the Colorado River Basin, Rice said.

“These projections are worse than they have been in the past, but they’re also more realistic,” Rice said. Many conservation groups find that a positive step despite the bad news, Rice added, because it increases pressure on state water officials, local water conservancy districts, agriculture interests, cities and environmentalists to work faster on solutions.

At the same time, Rice said, the updated numbers should drive home the reality that there is 20% less water available now in the Colorado River than as recently as 2000. “There’s no more flexibility in the system, right? We’re looking over the edge of the cliff.”

Water conservation experts in Colorado have worked for years to avoid their worst-case scenario, which is a “call” or a sudden demand from federal managers to deliver more water for hydropower or to satisfy the compacts with the Lower Basin. Without advance planning, a call would force the state water engineer and local conservancy districts to cut irrigators’ water rights based only on the seniority of their water-use rights.

While state and local officials have been working with nonprofits on conservation plans, there are legal tangles that could require new legislation, and seemingly endless ethical questions about which parts of the state would suffer the most water loss, said Sonja Chavez, director of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District…

The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina closed for the season on Sept. 2 due to declining reservoir levels. The Bureau of Reclamation is making emergency releases out of Blue Mesa Reservoir to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Blue Mesa Reservoir in her region has been nearly drained by drought and by federal officials taking extra from Western reservoirs to solidify Lake Powell’s power pool. Blue Mesa is projected to soon be down to 27% full, Chavez said. Blue Mesa was 33% full in mid-September, according to Bureau of Reclamation records.

State and private officials have cooperated to experiment with “demand-management” programs, where instead of buying agriculture land and its accompanying water rights outright, they buy the right to rent the water for a few years out of a decade. That rented water can be sent downstream in dry years, and in theory the restoration of water in other years should preserve the farm or ranch land while providing income for the farmer.

But renting or buying of water rights on the scale to meet compact demands would require hundreds of millions of dollars, with no current pot of money to pull from, water experts say. Colorado officials have mentioned the possibility of using money from the infrastructure stimulus plan currently under debate by Congress, but it’s uncertain whether the bill will pass, and how much water-related money will be in it if it does…

The largest amounts of water to be conserved are in agriculture, by far, but Front Range residents must be part of the statewide discussion about finding more water for the downstream Colorado River, Rice and Chavez said.

“You’re not going to get as much out of a city compared to what is the amount of irrigation water diverted for agriculture,” Chavez said. “But there’s also agriculture on the Front Range that benefits from our transmountain diversions,” some of which are created and controlled by urban water departments. “That has to be part of the picture.”

Front Range cities take water from the Roaring Fork River basin in a transmountain diversion through the Twin Lakes Tunnel. The city of Aspen is studying the potential for an Alternative Transfer Method, or ATM, to increase its water supplies, which could include approaching transmountain diverters about participating in a water-sharing agreement. Photo credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

USBR releases updated projections of #ColoradoRiver system conditions: Projections incorporate updated 30-year #climate normals utilized in inflow forecasts

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Becki Bryant and Patti Aaron):

The Bureau of Reclamation has released its October 24-Month Study and 2-year projections of major reservoir levels within the Colorado River system. These projections detail hydrologic conditions and projected operations for Colorado River system reservoirs and are used by Reclamation and water users in the basin for future water management planning.

The October projections are the first to include inflow forecasts developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC) that incorporate updated climate conditions and data sets known as the “U.S. Climate Normals.” Compared to the previous period used by the CBRFC to develop the inflow forecasts (1981-2010), the more recent 30-year period (1991-2020) eliminates the wetter hydrology experienced in the 1980s and includes most of the 22-year drought that started in 2000 (and continues to the present). NOAA updates the “Climate Normals” to a new 30-year period every 10 years, consistent with weather and forecasting offices in the U.S.

As a result of this update, the median water year 2022 inflow forecast into Lake Powell decreased by 800,000 acre-feet and Reclamation’s October projections show lower Lake Powell elevations compared to the September projections.

Projected Lake Powell end-of-month elevations from the latest 24-Month Study inflow scenarios.

Lake Powell Projections

With the decrease in the inflow forecast in water year 2022, Reclamation’s October projections indicate Lake Powell’s elevation at the end of water year 2022 (Sept. 30, 2022) will be about eight feet lower than the September projections. The projections also indicate the increased potential of falling below minimum power pool, elevation 3,490 feet, in 2022. Should extremely dry hydrology continue into next year, Lake Powell could reach elevation 3,490 feet as early as July 2022.

“Incorporating the updated climate normals into the CBRFC forecasts, and, in turn, into our modeling projections, provides us with a better understanding of what is happening now and will give us a more informed assessment of potential future conditions,” said Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Regional Director Wayne Pullan.

Projected Lake Mead end-of-month elevations from the latest 24-Month Study inflow scenarios.

Lake Mead Projections

At Lake Mead, the October projections indicate Lake Mead will be at elevation 1,050.63 feet at the end of calendar year 2022, less than one foot above the Tier 2 shortage elevation threshold of 1,050 feet. Recent analysis indicates approximately a 16% chance of a Tier 2 shortage condition in 2023.

“We have had to make difficult choices this year, and we will all have to make more difficult decisions if it continues to remain dry next year to protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell,” said Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin Regional Director Jacklynn Gould.

Most of the flow of the Colorado River originates in the Rocky Mountains. The Upper Basin experienced an exceptionally dry spring in 2021, with April to July runoff into Lake Powell totaling just 26% of average, despite snowpack reaching 89% of median, due to dry soil conditions and above-average temperatures.

Reclamation remains committed to reducing the collective risk of both Lake Powell and Lake Mead falling to critical elevations and will continue to work with all partners across the Colorado River Basin to ensure that both facilities continue to function as authorized to meet the natural, municipal and agricultural needs of the basin.

To view the most recent Colorado River system projections, visit Colorado River System Projections Overview (usbr.gov).

What might planning for an 11 million acre foot or 10 million acre foot #ColoradoRiver look like? — @jfleck #COriver #aridification

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck.

From InkStain (John Fleck):

One of the central questions dimly visible in the early discussions around the upcoming renegotiation of the Colorado River’s water operations and allocations rules is the question of how bad a “worst case” scenario should be considered.

This is crucial, because it constrains what sort of questions must then be confronted. The lower the future flows considered, the more likely it is that the negotiators will have to stare down the third rail question of how much water the Upper Basin can delivery hydrologically, and must deliver legally, at Lee Ferry, the dividing point between the Upper and Lower Basins.

For the century since the Colorado River Compact was signed, we’ve avoided dealing with that central question – what happens if the river’s flows are so low that the Upper Basin cannot deliver the 7.5 million acre feet per year (or 8.25 million acre feet, we can’t even agree about which number to argue about) contemplated by the compact’s Article III.

This question is so untouchable that in work done for the 2012 Basin Study, the Bureau of Reclamation’s modelers famously added what came to be called “miracle water” at Lee Ferry every time one of their model runs dropped below the threshold that might have otherwise triggered this legal argument.

Under the low flows possible under climate change, we face a stark choice – either we reduce the Upper Basin’s Lee Ferry deliveries below 7.5/8.25 maf, or we will have to curtail existing Upper Basin uses. Advocates of modeling such low flows in the planning scenarios are essentially saying – Let’s have that conversation now.

At the tale end of yesterday’s (Friday 10/15/2021) House Natural Resources Sucommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, it was California Rep. Jim Costa, a congressman from outside the Colorado River Basin, who asked the question pointed at the heart of the matter – how do we redo water allocations that make no sense in a river much smaller than contemplated in our hallowed Law of the River?

He was addressing a panel of representatives from each of the Colorado River Basin states (his comments start around 2:30 here):

“The Law of the River and the quantification of the Upper and Lower Basin states amounted to some 17 million acre feet of water that was determined at that time was the annual flow of the Colorado River, and we know that in the last two decades its been more like 12.4 million acre feet, and that doesn’t account for other Native American tribes that have reserved water right claims that have yet to be resolved. So there’s just a tremendous amount of demand. And with climate change, we know the yield is only going to decline.

“This is the question I’d like to submit to all of you, and if you want to provide written statement to your answer I think we would appreciate that.

“Let’s say the annual yield over the next 30 years is 10 million acre feet. I don’t know, with climate change, maybe it’s plus or minus. How do we take into account how we got to the original allocation, with the Upper and Lower Basin States and the Native tribes, the sovereign nations, and then reallocate that on a lot less water.”

At this point all we can see through the public windows into discussions about next-step Colorado River management guidelines is shadow boxing on this question.

But testimony yesterday from Southern Nevada’s John Entsminger suggests the public shadowboxing we’re seeing on this question is representative of disagreements in the private discussions. (I quote here from John’s written testimony.)

Climate change is causing the Southwest to aridify. (Left) Since the 1930s, increasing temperatures have caused the percentage of precipitation going to evapotranspiration (ET) to increase at the expense of precipitation going to Colorado River flow, resulting in an unprecedented and still ongoing megadrought (shading) starting in 1999 (8). (Right) Higher temperatures have already reduced Colorado River flow by 13%, and projected additional warming, assuming continued high emissions of greenhouse gases, will increase ET while reducing river flow even more through the 21st century. Data on Left are 20-y running means from ref. 5, and data on Right are calculated from Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP) 8.5 multimodel Coupled Model Intercomparison Project–Phase 5 (CMIP5) ensemble temperature increases projected for the Upper Colorado River Basin combined with temperature sensitivity of −9.3%/°C estimated by ref. 5, assuming no change in precipitation.

“Despite the fervent warnings from internationally renowned scientists like Jonathan Overpeck and Brad Udall that urge us to plan for a future with even less than 12.3 million acre-feet, the river community is far from consensus about how dry of a future to plan for. And, while this panel was asked to talk about drought, on-the-ground evidence suggests the Colorado River basin is not experiencing drought but aridification – a permanent transition to a drier future. If we are to build upon the river’s many successes over the last 25 years, we must confront the magnitude of the challenge in front of us and quickly reach agreement on what future scenario we’re willing to plan for. (emphasis added)”

Speaking two weeks ago at this year’s Getches-Wilkinson Center conference in Boulder, Entsminger put a number to Southern Nevada’s thinking. In the next iteration of its long range water resources plan, Entsminger’s Southern Nevada Water Authority will include a “what if” planning scenario for how the agency would deal with an 11 million acre foot per year Colorado River. This is not to say that Southern Nevada expects an 11 million acre foot river, but rather than it believes it needs to have a plan in place should that happen.

I could be wrong, but so far I’ve seen no public evidence that any of the states of the Upper Basin are willing to entertain flows that low in the planning scenarios to be considered in the modeling done to support the upcoming negotiations. I look forward to seeing the written answers the basin states’ representatives submit to Costa’s question.

Navajo Dam operations update (October 16, 2021): Releases to decrease to 400 cfs for Monday, October 18th, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Navajo Reservoir, New Mexico, back in the day.. View looking north toward marina. The Navajo Dam can be seen on the left of the image. By Timthefinn at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4040102

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing irrigation and increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs for Monday, October 18th, at 4:00 AM.

Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell). This release change is calculated as the minimum required to maintain the target baseflow.

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. Be advised, due to low storage and forecast levels in WY 2022, the minimum release of 250 cfs, as documented in the Navajo Record of Decision (2006), may be implemented this winter as long as that release can satisfy the target baseflow.

#Congress hears from #water experts as #drought continues to imperil #West — KUNC #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Many Indian reservations are located in or near contentious river basins where demand for water outstrips supply. Map courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.

From KUNC (Alex Hager):

The West’s dire drought issues took a national stage on Friday, as a roster of prominent Western water experts from the region testified in front of the U.S. Congress.

Water decision-makers representing seven states and two tribes within the Colorado River basin spoke about drought in a virtual hearing held by the Committee on Natural Resources’ subcommittee on water, oceans and wildlife.

This week’s hearing, and a similar set of testimonies in front of the U.S. Senate last week, comes at a time of crisis for water in the West. More than two decades of drought are straining the region’s supplies, and forecasts predict a hotter, drier future due to climate change. Declining levels in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, have forced mandatory cutbacks for some users and projections indicate that more will be necessary in the next few years…

As leaders are faced with the challenge of allocating the steadily shrinking resource, many called for collaboration and additional funding for new and improved infrastructure. Some flatly said the only viable path forward includes major reductions in usage…

Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, touched on the sprawling effects of a drought currently touching 90% of the state, including shortages threatening the livelihoods of farmers, and increasingly frequent and devastating wildfires. She also highlighted the heavy impacts the drought had on the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, where an agriculture-dependent economy has been challenged by shortages.

Tribal leaders advocated for greater acknowledgement and respect for tribal sovereignty. Darryl Vigil, water administrator of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, urged the federal government to formalize a process for tribal participation in water negotiations.

“We have experience and knowledge developed over many hundreds of years of sustainable and adaptive living,” Vigil said. “We understand the importance of honoring the very things that keep us alive, that feed us and quench our thirst.”

He explained that tribes have senior water rights to at least 25% of the current natural flow of the Colorado River, and said they have historically been “excluded from decision-making or consulted” only after decisions have been made.

“It is my sincere hope that the attention and action of this committee represents the beginning of a new chapter in the management of the Colorado River,” Vigil said. “A chapter in which tribes are treated with the same dignity, respect and responsibility as the other sovereigns in the basin.”

Amelia Flores, chairwoman of the Colorado Indian River Tribes, emphasized the need for new water infrastructure that would allow tribes to use it more efficiently. That group is Arizona’s largest single user of water from the Colorado river – but is unable to use its full allocation. Flores highlighted proposed legislation that would allow the tribes to lease water to other users.

Projection of Lake Mead end-of-December reservoir elevations. The colored region, or cloud, for the hydrology scenario represents the minimum, 10th percentile, 90th percentile, and maximum of the projected reservoir elevations. Solid lines represent historical elevations (black), and median projected elevations for the scenario (yellow). Dashed gray lines represent important elevations for operations, and the vertical line marks the adoption of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. Graphic credit: Bureau of Reclamation

#ColoradoRiver #drought conditions spur calls for better #water infrastructure — #Colorado Newsline #COriver #aridification

A view of Reflection Canyon in Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, in 2013. Sedimentary rock forms the landscape surrounding Lake Powell, on the Colorado River at the Utah-Arizona border. (Gary Ladd/National Park Service/Public domain)

WASHINGTON — Experts in government, agriculture, water management and the environment stressed during a U.S. Senate hearing on Wednesday the danger that droughts fueled by climate change pose in the West, including the Colorado River Basin.

During a hearing before an Energy and Natural Resources Committee panel, witnesses said long-term solutions and an investment in water infrastructure are needed to combat the effects of climate change.

“Water has always been a limited resource in the West,” Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat who chaired the hearing of the Water and Power Subcommittee, said. “We have this old saying in Arizona that ‘whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.’”

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He said that the issue is a priority for him because Arizona is on the front lines of a major drought, which can increase the risk of wildfires in the West. 

Tanya Trujillo, the assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior, said that “water supply is below average.” 

She said the federal government should continue to make investments in water infrastructure, and new technology such as water recycling and desalination systems that remove salt from salt water.

Kelly asked her how the Interior Department will use the $8.4 billion provided for the West in an infrastructure bill passed by the Senate. 

Trujillo said that by replacing aging water infrastructure, water will be prevented from escaping, and that the bill also invests in technology that can capture water. 

“We will experience unavoidable reductions in farm water supplies and hydropower generation, ecosystem degradation, and urban areas will need to conserve water,” she said, adding that Interior and its state and local partners “have planned for this by being proactive and fully using the tools we have.”

We will experience unavoidable reductions in farm water supplies and hydropower generation, ecosystem degradation, and urban areas will need to conserve water.

– Tanya Tujillo, assistantr secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior

Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said that Arizona has been under a state of drought emergency since 1999.

“The past two decades of ongoing drought in the western United States, and in particular the Colorado River Basin, is challenging the seven Colorado River Basin states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, as well as the Republic of Mexico, to meet the needs of the 40 million people and millions of acres of farmland that rely on the river,” he said in his opening statement.

More than 40% of country in drought

Several senators raised their concerns about water availability for farmers, such as Kelly and John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican. 

Kelly asked what can be done immediately to help those farmers and ranchers. 

Buschatzke said the state of Arizona has currently made $40 million available for farmers to maintain their infrastructure to help move and use their water supply.

Kelly had requested a Senate hearing on the drought conditions along the Colorado River after water level projections for Lake Mead and Lake Powell were released by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. 

Lake Mead, a reservoir of the Hoover Dam, hit its lowest levels since 1930.

In a letter to Water and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and the top Republican, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, Kelly expressed his concern that the “U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued its first-ever drought shortage declaration for the Colorado River.” 

“More than 40 million Americans rely on Colorado River water to support our cities, tribes, and farms,” he wrote. “As of today, total Colorado River system storage is 40% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year.”

Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River Program Director at the National Audubon Society, said that 30 tribes also rely on the river.

“Climate change has come barging through the front doors of the Colorado basin,” Pitt said.

An August report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that for every 0.9 degree Fahrenheit the atmosphere warms, some regions will experience an increase in droughts, which can harm agriculture production and the ecosystem.

Droughts, exacerbated by climate change, will likely be more common by 2050, according to Yale Climate Connections, which is an initiative of the Yale Center for Environmental Communication. 

As of late September, the National Integrated Drought Information System — part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — has determined that more than 40% of the U.S., and nearly 48% of the lower states, are in drought. 

NIDIS flagged the Illinois-Wisconsin border as a new area of concern and the area where the border meets Lake Michigan as being in extreme drought.

However, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is predicting that “more than half the country, including parts of the West, are favored to have a warmer-than-average October, but for the first time in months, there’s no brown on the map out West, and even a little green. That means the odds of (a) much wetter than average month are as good as or better than the odds of a much drier than average month.”

 

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

The #PagosaSprings Town Council approves $150,000 for #SanJuanRiver projects — The Pagosa Springs Sun

View to the south into the snaking West Fork of the San Juan River as seen from US 160, halfway up to the summit of Wolf Creek Pass. By User:Erikvoss, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61976794

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Clayton Chaney):

At its regular meeting held on Thursday, Sept. 23, the Pagosa Springs Town Council unani- mously approved two resolutions which approved $150,000 in matching funds needed for grants for river improvement projects in the San Juan River along Yamaguchi South Park and a portion of the river northeast of town.

Planning Director James Dickhoff presented the resolutions to the council, beginning with Resolution 2021-13, supporting submitting grant applications to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for recreational and ecological enhancement of the San Juan River adjacent to Yamaguchi South Park.

With this resolution, the council approved $96,000 of matching funds needed for the grant.

Town Manager Andrea Phillips explained in an email to The SUN that the council approved those funds to be taken out of the reserves for the 2021 budget.

“However, due to the timing of the grant application and notification, it may need to be included in next year’s budget instead. This would require additional council action in the future,” Philips wrote.

Dickhoff noted during the meeting that the total budget for the project along Yamaguchi South Park is $664,720 and the grant application is for $498,540.

Dickhoff explained that the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership ( WEP) has been working on identifying projects that are eligible for grant funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

He noted that the town will administer the grant, if awarded, with help from the WEP…

The initial proposal presented by Dickhoff was structured in a fashion that contemplates the project over three years.

However, the council determined that it would have a stronger application for the funds if the entire amount of matching funds from the town is committed up-front…

Dickhoff explained that a total of $166,180 in matching funds is need- ed for the grant to be awarded.

Along with the $96,000 committed from the council, the WEP will also be requesting funds from other local entities.

He explained that WEP is planning on requesting $22,500 from the tourism board, $30,000 from Archuleta County, $10,000 from the Southwest Water Conservation District, $3,000 from Trout Unlimited, $750 from Friends of the Upper San Juan, $750 from Weminuche Audubon, $1,500 from the Nature Conservancy and $2,500 from Great Outdoors Fund…

The second resolution presented by Dickhoff during the meeting was Resolution 2021-14, supporting grant applications to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for recreational and ecological enhance- ments of the San Juan River upstream of town.

Dickhoff explained that the WEP is also assisting the town with this grant application as well, and that Trout Unlimited would be the entity to administer the grant “on behalf of the community.”

With the resolution, the council unanimously approved $56,000 in matching funds to be taken from the town’s 2022 budget and is contingent upon Trout Unlimited being approved for the grant.

Dickhoff explained that this grant is for river cleanup projects along the section of the San Juan River stretching from Bob’s LP to the Running Iron Ranch…

Dickhoff indicated that the WEP will also be presenting this opportunity to the other entities for requests for matching funds.

He explained that the WEP is planning on requesting $86,859 from the RESTORE Colorado Grant; $300,000 from the Bureau of Reclamation Watersmart Program; $22,500 from the tourism board; $30,000 from Archuleta County; $10,000 from the Southwest Water Conservation District; $3,000 from Trout Unlimited; $750 from Friends of the Upper San Juan; $750 from the Weminuche Audubon; $1,500 from the Nature Conservancy at $1,500 and $2,500 from the Great Outdoors Fund.

Agenda documentation on the topic also indicates funding being requested from the San Juan Water Conservancy District.

Aspinall Unit Operations update: Releases to decrease to 1050 cfs October 6, 2021 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #LakePowell

Crystal Dam, part of the Colorado River Storage Project, Aspinall Unit. Credit Reclamation.

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1315 cfs to 1050 cfs late on Wednesday, October 6th. Releases are being decreased to bring an end to the Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) emergency releases to Lake Powell.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 790 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 790 cfs for October and November.

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 700 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are 590 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 700 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 325 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

There are a lot of solutions to #drought. Some may work better than others — #Wyoming Public Media

Lake Mead low elevation. Photo credit: Department of Interior via ensia

From Wyoming Public Media (Ivy Engel):

Drought isn’t a new thing in the West, but right now, much of the region is gripped in a historic drought. An unusually dry year coupled with record-breaking heat waves has strained water resources in the West this year. In fact, water levels are so low that the Bureau of Reclamation declared a water shortage on the Colorado River basin for the first time ever in mid-August. There are a lot of ideas for how to relieve the drought and ease its impacts—some more feasible than others. But when you think about water in the West, you have to think about scarcity too.

“You’re really thinking about, well, why is it scarce? Is it too little supply? Or is it too much demand? And in the case of water, it’s both, right?” said Jason Shogren, an economist at the University of Wyoming (UW). “You have a drought, and that is going to restrict the supply of water. And you have an increase in demand because people are moving more and more to the Rocky Mountain region, moving more and more to the west coast.”

And as Shogren pointed out, a lot of people move to the West and expect to keep parts of their lifestyles from where they came from, like lawns of lush green grass. But those require a lot of water. And Shogren said we have to think about all the different demands.

“And since we have a lot of demand for water in Southern California, Phoenix, Las Vegas. We have a lot of demand for water in agriculture production, whether it’s crops, or whether it’s nuts, or whether it’s wine,” he said. “And on the supply side, the question is, ‘Who gets what water? And why?'”

He added property rights over water are different by state and deciding how water rights are allocated and how they can be used gets tricky fast…

And with climate change intensifying extreme weather like droughts and flooding, there’s one potential solution that would help solve both problems. Dr. Tom Minckley said it involves moving water.

Missouri River Reuse Project via The New York Times

“We could say, ‘Oh, well, the western states are in drought. So we could take water from, say, the Mississippi or the Missouri River, and when it floods, we could capture that floodwater, and then basically return it to the head of the watershed,'” he said.

Dr. Minckley is a Professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wyoming. He studies water in the West and how it’s managed. He said piping water from a flooded place to a place in drought is an idea that’s becoming much more popular. State governments already transfer water between some states in the west…

But because of Wyoming’s high elevation, moving water here from almost anywhere else would mean fighting gravity. It would require a lot of energy because water is actually quite heavy. Not to mention the logistics of where a pipeline would even go and how much it would cost – water is valued by the acre-foot.

“On average, it’s about $2,000 per acre-foot. And some of the Colorado River water in the state of Colorado is running for $85,000 an acre-foot. So, like, there’s these crazy, really big numbers out there,” said Minckley. “And the question is if we start moving water from where it is to where we want it to be, how do we pay for it?”

Graphic credit: USBR Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study

The idea has been researched and despite its growing popularity, the Bureau of Reclamation found its implementation highly unlikely because of the cost and logistics.

Cloud-seeding graphic via Science Matters

Another idea that’s been floated is cloud seeding…

[Bart] Geerts said farming communities in the High Plains have financially supported seeding operations in thunderstorms for decades, but it can be really hard to prove that kind of seeding actually worked. But, he said it is a lot easier to demonstrate that it worked when they seed winter clouds. Which can be more useful in the High Plains anyway.

Because there’s natural variability between the years, you can’t pinpoint exactly how much more snowfall there was due to seeding and they work with averages. Geerts said a common belief is that cloud seeding keeps moisture from falling in other places where it’s needed.

“It’s really not understood. There is that possibility but in general, these wintertime clouds are not very efficient,” he said. “Essentially water vapor condenses, you extract it, make it into snow, and thereby you reduce the downstream amount of water vapor to some extent. But that amount is so, so small, so insignificant compared to the total water vapor content.”

But Geerts added on the flip side of that, some of the seeding materials may float downwind and increase snowfall on the next mountain range.

“So it can work either way. We don’t really have an answer,” he said.

It seems like a lot of ideas and conversations about this topic end with that – “we don’t really have an answer.” But as droughts intensify, driven by climate change, those conversations continue to happen. And some may lead to more viable solutions.

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to bump down to 500 cfs October 4, 2021 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

View to the south into the snaking West Fork of the San Juan River as seen from US 160, halfway up to the summit of Wolf Creek Pass. By User:Erikvoss, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61976794

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs today, October 4th, at 12:00 PM. During this change, the Auxilary 4×4 release will be closed and all flow will be through the power plant.

Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

Interior official concerned by threat of falling water levels to #LakePowell operations — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #DCP

Lees Ferry streamgage and cableway downstream on the Colorado River, Arizona. (Public domain.)

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

An Interior Department official speaking Friday at a local forum voiced concern about continuing falling Lake Powell water levels that now pose the possibility of threatening hydroelectric power production at Glen Canyon Dam as early as next year.

Tanya Trujillo, Interior assistant secretary for water and science, addressed the topic during the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar, which was held at Colorado Mesa University and also in a virtual format. Some of the events involved simulcast presentations with the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School, which also was holding its own water conference this week.

Trujillo noted that last week, the Bureau of Reclamation indicated the potential of water levels at Lake Powell falling below the minimum power pool level of 3,490 feet above sea level as early as next July if the current streak of extremely dry hydrology continues into next year.

Beyond next year, Reclamation says there’s a 25-35% chance of Powell falling below that level over the next few years. Trujillo also noted that there is about a 90% chance that Powell’s water level over the next year will fall below the 3,525-foot elevation established to provide a protective buffer above the minimum power pool amount needed to produce electricity.

Trujillo called that prediction “very concerning” and said she’s particularly nervous about concerns related to the operational integrity at the dam due to low water levels.

“The engineers use words like cavitation and that gets my attention,” she said.

Cavitation can occur when oxygen mixes with water as levels drop, posing a threat of damage to power turbines. Lost power production also would result in lost revenue that pays for programs like salinity control and endangered-fish recovery in the Colorado River Basin. Also, if water could be released only through the dam’s bypass tubes and not through the power plant, that could threaten the ability of water to be delivered to downstream states at volumes required by a 1922 [Colorado River Compact].

Signing ceremony for the Colorado River upper and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans. Back Row Left to Right: James Eklund (CO), John D’Antonio (NM), Pat Tyrell (WY), Eric Melis (UT), Tom Buschatzke (AZ), Peter Nelson (CA), John Entsminger (NV), Front Row: Brenda Burman (US), and from DOI – Assistant Secretary of Water and Science Tim Petty. Photo credit: Colorado River Water Users Association

Under provisions of a 2019 agreement, the Bureau of Reclamation began releasing water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs with the goal of providing up to 181,000 acre-feet of water to Powell by the end of this year. Trujillo said she’s happy that talks continue among Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin regarding additional drought-response measures…

Below-average precipitation last winter was aggravated this year by factors such as warmer temperatures and dry soil conditions that resulted in even worse runoff levels. Gigi Richard, director of the Four Corners Water Center and an instructor at Fort Lewis College, said at Friday’s forum that the region is starting to experience novel forms of drought, such as ones where, due to higher temperatures, drought conditions prevail after a normal amount of seasonal snowpack accumulation.

Colorado Basin River Forecast Center Drought Monitor 24 week change map ending September 27, 2021.

Thankfully, she said, monsoonal moisture this summer relieved drought conditions in the region somewhat.

A La Niña climatological pattern that is setting up for this winter could result in storms tracking further north, which Richard said might mean less precipitation in Colorado, but she said individual storms still can result in a significant amount of moisture in a given year.

Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain

Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist/scholar at Colorado State University, said reductions in annual precipitation in the months of March and April are aggravating the increased aridification occurring in the region, setting up a process of further drying out land in the summer when there are higher temperatures and reduced precipitation.

He’s also concerned by what he sees as a general trend of more aggravated declines in average streamflows in more southern river basins in the region during this century when compared to the period of 1906-1999. Flows in the San Juan River at Bluff, Utah, have fallen 30%, and flows of the Dolores River near Cisco, Utah, have fallen 21%.

Flows for the mainstem of the Colorado River are down around 5%, he said…

Trujillo said the federal government will be advocating for water conservation in all sectors, with opportunities ranging from more water reuse/recycling to irrigation efficiency…

Mrs. Gulch’s Blue gramma “Eyelash” patch August 28, 2021.

Andy Mueller, general manager of the river district, mentioned conservation opportunities ranging from replacing Kentucky bluegrass lawns with native vegetation, to farmers and ranchers potentially being willing to remove irrigation from marginal lands.

He called on various interests not to turn against each other as sometimes happens in societies when a resource gets scarce.

The future of water in the U.S. West is uncertain, so planning and preparedness are critical — ensia

Lake Mead low elevation. Photo credit: Department of Interior via ensia

Water authorities in the Western U.S. don’t know what the future will bring, but they are working collaboratively and with scientific rigor to make sure they’re prepared for anything.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a four-part series — “Hotter, Drier, Smarter: Managing Western Water in a Changing Climate” — about innovative approaches to water management in the U.S. West and Western tribal nations. The series is supported by The Water Desk , an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism. You can read the other stories in the series, along with more drinking water reporting, here.

In a thirsty Western United States that has become increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events, rampant wildfires and years of unprecedented drought, those at the helm of the region’s water agencies are accelerating their plans to grapple with climate change.

“The Western United States — especially the 40 million people who use the Colorado River — we’re in the bullseye of climate change,” says Cynthia Campbell, water resource management advisor for the City of Phoenix. “This is not a conceptual conversation anymore. We’re in full-on adaptation.”

With that reality comes the need to plan around the future of water for the people and wildlife who call the Colorado River Basin home.

You can’t just plan for one future.” –Carly Jerla

But, says Carly Jerla, an operations research analyst for the United States Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region, “you can’t just plan for one future.”

As climate change casts its shadow over water resources in the Western U.S., water authorities must navigate uncertainty in the form of the many possible futures in front of them. Those futures almost certainly hold more of what climate change has already brought — rising temperatures, changes in precipitation, shifts in snowpack, longer and more severe droughts, more frequent flooding — plus people’s responses to those changes. Taken together, these fateful forecasts go into climate projections: models that explore an array of possible future climate conditions or scenarios.

Today, planning agencies are working together to diversify the technology they’re using and integrate scientific research into local and regional adaptation strategies in an effort to be rigorous in their analysis of the uncertainty.

Adapting to climate change “shouldn’t be scatter-shot,” Campbell says. “It can actually be more scientific.”

Mix of Solutions

Although local regulations vary among Western water agencies, the inclusion of climate projections into authorities’ planning processes has become all but universal. Grappling with uncertainty requires water managers to account for supply and demand challenges that are (and will be) driven by climate change, says Jerla, who is currently stationed at the University of Colorado Boulder. On the supply side, she explains, are factors such as higher temperatures, precipitation and snowpack changes, and droughts and flooding. Shifts in demand, meanwhile, are from things like rising evapotranspiration rates in agriculture and impacts to residential irrigation.

A longtime expert on modeling applications and planning operations for the Lower Colorado Region, Jerla was the study manager for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study. The assessment was completed in 2012, and its technical foundations helped guide climate adaptation policies. The research, which occurred under the umbrella of the agency’s larger Basin Study Program, quantified water imbalances through 2060 and suggested potential strategies for mitigation and adaptation.

The Colorado River Compact divided the basin into an upper and lower half, with each having the right to develop and use 7.5 million acre-feet of river water annually. (Source: U.S. Geological Survey via The Water Education Foundation)

The study identified shortfalls between projected supplies and projected demand in the Colorado River Basin by looking at a range of possible future climatic scenarios and analyzing many possible outcomes, according to Jerla. One particular scenario, called a downscaled general circulation model (GCM), forecasted that as the climate continues to warm, the mean natural flow of the Colorado River at Lees Ferry, Arizona — significant because it’s the point that separates the river’s Upper and Lower Basin, and from which water allocations for the Basin states are determined depending on river measurements — would decrease by about 9% over the next 50 years, alongside longer, more frequent droughts. 

“One of the things that this opened our eyes to is the importance of communicating the uncertainty with respect to future outcomes, especially when you’re looking 50 years in the future,” Jerla says.

In addition to examining these scenarios, she and her colleagues evaluated adaptation and mitigation strategies that might reduce supply and demand imbalance. One important conclusion, according to Jerla, was the notion that water agencies would need to diversify their portfolios to include a variety of mechanisms like water reuse, desalination and increased water transfers to urban areas.

“There was no one solution that was going to be a fix-it,” Jerla says. “It has to be a mix of stakeholders involved.”

A Critical Period

The next few years will be a critical policy planning period for Western water agencies, culminating in the particularly pivotal year of 2026. The drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basins of the Colorado River, which have helped further the understanding that the status quo is no longer sustainable, will expire that year and likely undergo significant changes. In the plans, first approved by Congress in 2019, the seven Colorado River Basin states committed to protect the water levels of Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the human-made reservoirs that store Colorado River water and serve the basin states — through various conservation mechanisms.

Not only will the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan expire in 2026, so too will the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, as well as the terms of the International Boundary and Water Commission’s Minute 323 — an updated “implementing agreement” of the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944 that established U.S.-Mexico protocols for collaborative management of the Colorado River. Experts agree that new negotiations on the interim guidelines, as well as between the U.S. and Mexico on a new Minute, will be instrumental in shaping collaborative water management for the future, which will no doubt involve serious consideration of climate change projections.

This animation shows a comparison of Lake Mead water levels from 2000 to 2015. Images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey, courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory (public domain)

“In the Colorado River Basin, we’ve been at work really since the Interim Guidelines for Powell and Mead Operations, since 2007, slowly building and adding to our operational decisions, planning efforts, policies — all with a mind toward more flexibility, enhanced resiliency, preparing for the challenges ahead, building science into the activities,” Jerla says.

For the Colorado River, Jerla and her colleagues have been making projections about relevant reservoir elevations through 2025, as they know what the operational guidelines will be until 2026. Generating such projections and sharing them with their local and regional partners remains crucial in order to help stakeholders understand what water reductions they might need to make.

Jerla says she is confident in the “robust set of policies” in place through 2026, which specify the water reductions that both U.S. states and Mexico will need to implement when the basins reach specified levels. Although she acknowledges the “dismal hydrology” that the region will likely encounter for the next five years, Jerla expresses hope that through “the spirit of cooperation the basin will come together.”

A Collaborative Approach

Beyond 2026, once new guidelines are in place, Jerla says she envisions more collaborative decision-making, more incorporation of science and more involvement from area tribes and Mexico as the region embraces new action plans for coping with a drier future.

While the Bureau of Reclamation has taken responsibility for many of the climate modeling efforts and continues to work collaboratively with local programs, it is the states that “have the most primary responsibility for allocating and receiving the water in their own state,” with their own sets of water laws and systems, Jerla explains. Down another level, she adds, local government authorities, urban municipalities, water councils and water associations employ the state regulations to manage water supplies on a local level. As a federal body, the Bureau’s role is to facilitate agreements across state boundaries — a process that has largely gone smoothly through mutual consensus.

“All the states have interests and priorities. The Colorado River ties us together.” –Amy Ostdiek

“All the states have interests and priorities,” says Amy Ostdiek, deputy section chief at the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a cohort appointed by the governor to represent each major Colorado basin and relevant state agencies. “The Colorado River ties us together.”

As demands have continued to shift, the Colorado River Basin states have been “negotiating and renegotiating,” with a keen interest in furthering collaborative solutions, Ostdiek says. The Bureau of Reclamation, she explains, has always played a key role in this process, but planning occurs at the state level.

Individual states are now implementing the commitments made in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. Upper Basin states, which sit upriver from the Lower Basin states and are therefore responsible for not depleting the flow of the Colorado River, are focused on planning for a future with less water. Colorado itself sits at the headwaters of the river and is exploring options such as temporary compensated reduction of use, in which water users could get paid for using less water, Ostdiek explains.

West Drought Monitor map September 21, 2021.

Internally, state water agencies also have individual programs that focus on a sustainable future, such as the 2015 Colorado Water Plan. The Water Plan was Colorado’s first such program and in its first five years funded more than 241 water projects, such as infrastructure improvements, irrigation efficiency measures and engagement projects like taking science teachers on a five-day trip of the Rio Grande to show them various water issues facing Colorado. Set to be updated in 2022, the Water Plan builds upon previous supply planning and projects how much water the state will need in the future, according to Megan Holcomb, climate change risk management specialist at the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

A recent pilot initiative of the Water Conservation Board, the Future Avoided Cost Explorer (FACE:Hazards), aims to anticipate Colorado’s economic impacts from flood, drought and wildfires in 2050. The study, funded predominantly by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to Holcomb, paired four population scenarios (ranging from current population to high growth) with three climate scenarios (current, moderate and more severe change). The authors then discussed actions that Coloradans could take to reduce economic impacts from these hazards, as well as the relative cost associated with each action.

“If we can quantify what impacts from climate change will be without any action, then we have a baseline to say why resilience investments are worthwhile now,” Holcomb says.

Another internal Coloradan water program that takes climate change into account is the Drought Task Force, which is able to recommend mitigation measures as necessary statewide. While the governor makes the ultimate decision regarding these measures, the Task Force involves representatives from departments of natural resources, public safety and agriculture, among others.

Moving forward, both Ostdiek and Holcomb say that operational flexibility and a willingness to adopt creative solutions will be key to coping with climate change in water planning. Due to Colorado’s unique headwater position — which already limits how much Colorado River water the state is entitled to each year — Holcomb argues that Colorado needs to be particularly creative about water rights by furthering innovative tools like water leasing, which allows water rights holders to lease their water to other users.  

Collaboration and scientific rigor are key, all these experts agree, to making sure the region is as prepared as possible for any future that may present itself.

“We can all acknowledge that we need to be able to share within the state as well,” she says.

At the other end of the Colorado River Basin, water officials in Phoenix, Arizona, are recognizing that some 40% of the city’s water supply may be in jeopardy due to climate change, according to Campbell from Phoenix Water.

That’s one reason, Campbell explains, planners in Arizona are observing shifts in the flow pattern of the Colorado River that are the direct result of climate change. She and her colleagues are strategizing how they might replace the supplies that are in jeopardy — looking at exact times and places where reductions can be made through “targeted demand management.”

For example, Campbell suggests, a project could work to reduce the amount of water used by cooling towers at a power plant by studying the precise impact of changing the water used by certain towers. Such adaptation tactics, according to Campbell, would have a much more significant impact than, for example, shutting off the water while brushing teeth — a practice that, while good for conservation, is “not going to yield the type of water we’re talking about.”

And because the amounts of water experts are talking about are not set in stone, dealing with that uncertainty will continue to be a critical responsibility of water agencies going forward. Collaboration and scientific rigor are key, all these experts agree, to making sure the region is as prepared as possible for any future that may present itself.

Editor’s note: The main image is courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The original can be found here


It’s getting worse and worser yet on the #ColoradoRiver — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification

Colorado River near Kremmling. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

From Big Pivots (Allen Best):

The risk of lower and lower water levels in Lake Powell and other reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin keep getting higher and higher.

An analysis by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released Sept. 22 finds an elevated risk of 25% to 35% of the water level in Powell falling below the minimum power pool by July 2022.

Minimum power pool is the level below which there is insufficient power to produce electricity.

The drought began in 2000, but as several studies have concluded that drought fails to fully describe what is happening in the river basin. Those studies point to rising temperatures that have produced aridification. Even with the same volume of water falling from the sky, less of it will become river water.

As an Aug. 24 article in Science magazine pointed out, about 17% of baseline precipitation ended up in the Colorado River in the 1930s and ‘40s, with a majority of that water coming from Colorado in the form of snowmelt. Today, it’s about 14%.

Since July, the Bureau of Reclamation began releasing water from its smaller reservoirs upstream of Powell—Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo—with the hope of augmenting Powell sufficiently. The headwaters states for the Colorado River had an exceptionally dry spring, exactly opposite of what was happening east of the Continental Divide in Colorado. The runoff into Lake Powell was 26% of average, despite near-average snowfall last winter.

otal storage in the Colorado River reservoirs today is 39% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year.

John Fleck, writing on his website, Inkstain, called the latest announcement “something remarkable.” The government predictions used something pioneered a decade by Eric Kuhn and Dave Kanzer of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District along with John Carron of Boulder-based Hydros Consulting. They thought it not useful to base predicts on the full hydrologic record of the Colorado River going back to 1906. Instead, they said, better would be to use a short-term frame, the last 30 years. They call it the stress test.

“The idea is that the traditional approach—using the entire period of record to model the probabilities of future river flows—is no longer valid because climate change is changing the river,” he explained.

From Allen’s latest newsletter:

The letter finally arrived. The Internal Revenue Service has recognized Big Pivots as a 501(c)3 non-profit.

Precious little journalistic income has rolled in the door during the last two years. This will help immediately. Two grants previously rewarded can be realized. Together, they’re a strong start. In coming weeks, I will return to you with suggestions about how you might want to assist the forward movement of Big Pivots.

I also want to recognize two “advertisers” in this issue of Pivots. Mike Foote, a former state senator from Erie, has a law office specializing in land and water. His is a sponsorship ad, meaning he has his name and website but mostly he’s saying he wants Big Pivots to go forward.

Might others want to do so also?

There’s also an advertisement from Colorado Solar and Storage Association about their November conference (and discount on registration if you say Big Pivots).

Then there was a reader from North Park who, after the last issue, sent this message.

“I just have to tell you how much I learn from every issue. I’m printing this one out as as write,” wrote Debby Burnett, whose home lies near the Wyoming border. She was hoping to mount a campaign against U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert. “I’ve been faithfully reading every issue of yours to make sure I can communicate effectively about the issues facing Colorado, specifically rural Western Colorado. … I will continue to scour each issue for the incredible nuggets of information you’ve packed onto every page.”

In this endeavor, many days have felt uncertain. That day was bright.

Here is the e-magazine

Opinion: #LakeMead and #LakePowell are in serious trouble. Can we bail them out for good? — AZCentral.com #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Colorado River Basin Plumbing. Credit: Lester Doré/Mary Moran via Dustin Mulvaney and Twitter

From AZCentral.com (Joanna Allhands):

Opinion: The chances are increasing for lakes Mead and Powell to reach dangerously low levels. There are basically two solutions, and neither will be easy.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell are in trouble.

It’s hard to view the latest five-year projections released from the federal Bureau of Reclamation any other way.

Projection of Lake Mead end-of-December reservoir elevations. The colored region, or cloud, for the hydrology scenario represents the minimum, 10th percentile, 90th percentile, and maximum of the projected reservoir elevations. Solid lines represent historical elevations (black), and median projected elevations for the scenario (yellow). Dashed gray lines represent important elevations for operations, and the vertical line marks the adoption of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. Graphic credit: Bureau of Reclamation

At Lake Mead – the reservoir Arizona depends on for about 40% of its water supply – there is now a 66% chance of falling below 1,025 feet of elevation in 2025. And a 41% chance of enacting a Tier 3 shortage that year, the worst for which we have planned and one that would begin cutting into the supplies that feed metro Phoenix’s major cities.

That’s up from a 25% chance in April.

There also is a 1 in 5 chance of dipping below 1,000 feet of elevation in 2025, a dangerously low level that would likely force Hoover Dam, which supplies hydropower to 1.3 million people, to cease production.

Projection of Lake Powell end-of-December reservoir elevations. The colored region, or cloud, for the hydrology scenario represents the minimum, 10th percentile, 90th percentile, and maximum of the projected reservoir elevations. Solid lines represent historical elevations (black), and median projected elevations for the scenario (yellow). Dashed gray lines represent important elevations for operations, and the vertical line marks the adoption of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. Graphic credit: Bureau of Reclamation

The scenarios are just as bad on Lake Powell – or maybe worse, considering it is facing the possibility of turning off its generators much sooner. There is an 88% chance of dipping below 3,525 feet of elevation next year (a buffer meant to help protect power production) and a 1 in 3 chance of falling below 3,490 feet in 2023 – the point at which power can no longer be generated.

That would cause immediate problems for the 5 million people that rely on this power, not to mention nix revenues from generation that are used to fund a slew of programs along the Colorado River.

This forecast is our ‘new normal’

It’s important to understand how Reclamation arrived at these projections. The agency has in recent years begun using what’s called the “stress test hydrology” in its modeling, which is based on runoff for the last three decades or so.

But until this forecast, that hydrology was used as a supplement. The model also included projections based on the “full hydrology,” which also includes decades of unusually wet years.

The September update includes only the stress test – which as water blogger John Fleck noted, makes it the “new normal.”

The stress test is hardly the worst-case scenario for the Colorado River. Some consider it more of the middle-of-the-road view – not the hotter, drier future we are expected to experience (and may already now be experiencing), thanks to climate change.

Still, it’s a more realistic forecast that should help us get a better handle on how extensive the problem is and what we must do to fix it.

Mead is tanking because Powell is tanking

Mead is in trouble because Powell is in trouble.

Low inflows plus steady demand for the water have drained Powell far quicker than most folks imagined. Mead relies on annual releases from this upstream reservoir to stay somewhat stable, and because Powell is so low, the most likely scenario for the next few years involves a much smaller release (7.48 million acre-feet, as compared to the 8.23 million acre-feet we typically receive).

Those forecast lower releases have already triggered a provision requiring the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada to decide what additional steps they’ll take to prop up lake levels.

Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s water department director, has said there are basically two options, given the urgency: Either we agree to deeper, more painful cuts, or we find others willing to voluntarily store more water in the lake to cushion the blow.

Neither is a long-term solution, but that’s not the goal. It’s simply to buy time while we figure out how to sustain ourselves given this new, drier reality.

We need more than a Band-Aid to stabilize the lakes

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is.

Mead was facing roughly a 1 in 5 chance of dipping below 1,000 feet before we passed the Drought Contingency Plan in 2019. And make no mistake: Were it not for that plan, we would be in much worse shape today.

But its million acre-feet in cuts has always been a Band-Aid – one that, unfortunately, has not protected the wound long enough to even begin to heal.

If anything, Reclamation’s latest forecast is proof that we must do more to ensure that what we consume from the Colorado River better matches what the river can realistically produce now.

Other modeling has suggested that we could find that equilibrium if the upper basin states agree not to grow their water usage, as they have long planned, and the lower basin remains in roughly a Tier 3 shortage from here on out.

Chimney Hollow, two other projects in Larimer County get state stimulus #water grants — The #Loveland Reporter-Herald

Preparing the site of the future construction office complex at Chimney Hollow Reservoir. Photo credit: Northern Water

From The Loveland Reporter-Herald (Michael Hughes):

Three water projects in the region will get $4.7 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The board’s giving doubled this year due to COVID-related stimulus funds.

Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud is getting $3.8 million toward connecting the Windy Gap reservoir in Grand County to one at Chimney Hollow in Larimer County…

Restoring a river channel in the Upper Colorado Basin. Graphic credit: Northern Water

The grant goes for the [bypass] channel, which is still being designed.

“Colorado River Connectivity Channel is a major modification to Windy Gap Reservoir,” Stahla said. He said the channel’s funding is nearly complete. The grant “isn’t the final piece. We anticipate all the pieces coming together” by mid-2022…

Two other area projects got grants.

Bypass structure Grand River Ditch July 2016. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

A “Poudre Headwaters Restoration — Grand Ditch Barrier” effort by Colorado Trout Unlimited in Denver got about $300,000 toward restoring 38 miles of stream and 110 acres of lake habitat.

The specific project involves the greenback cutthroat trout.

Efficient irrigation systems help save water and decrease leaching of salts. Photo credit: U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit

A $1.2 million irrigation infrastructure effort got half its costs from this round of water board funds. The grantee is Colorado State University, through its Fort Collins campus, to use on work to boost water and energy efficiency and agricultural production.

The specific project is to build storage ponds, upgrade the existing equipment and add irrigation systems and other infrastructure for research on soil and crops and to launch a farm management competition to improve agricultural profitability.

Both projects are in Larimer County.

Dire Federal #Water Projections Demand Urgent Action from State Leaders — Water for #Colorado

The Colorado River meanders through ranch land near Kremmling on Aug. 17, 2021. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Here’s the release from Water for Colorado:

The Water for Colorado Coalition today released the following statement in response to the release of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s 2-Year and 5-Year Probabilistic Projections. The projections, which come shortly after the first-ever Tier 1 shortage declaration in the Colorado River Basin, indicate a high likelihood that water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead could reach critically low levels as early as next year, and demonstrate the immediate need for action.

“These latest projections from the Bureau of Reclamation further demonstrate the risk that Colorado faces as water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead are likely to continue to decline. Our state is rapidly warming, and flows in several of our major rivers have dropped drastically in the face of ongoing drought and climate change. Coloradans are already experiencing the effects of a changing climate and today’s projections confirm that incremental solutions to protect the Colorado River and our state’s water future are no longer enough.

“These new projections signal a paradigm shift in Colorado River Basin conditions, and they must be met with bold climate and water management action by leaders that prepare our state for a hotter and drier future. We must improve protection for, and restoration of, our rivers and watersheds through policy change and targeted funding for high-impact water and river pilots and projects. Additionally, Colorado can – and should – implement common-sense strategies that prioritize conservation and efficiency in the near term to help increase our resilience to drought and provide long-term water security for all Coloradans. As Colorado works to update its state Water Plan, leaders must continue to engage with all communities across the state to understand local needs while also planning for how to best deploy any infusion of federal or state funding to support the protection and restoration of working lands and healthy, flowing rivers.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

“As climate change continues to reduce flows in our rivers and threaten Colorado’s water supply, it is time to acknowledge that we are living in an era of less and thus must take meaningful action to improve the resilience of our rivers for all people, wildlife, and economies that rely on them.”

About the Water for Colorado Coalition

The Water for Colorado Coalition is a group of nine organizations dedicated to ensuring our rivers support everyone who depends on them, working toward resilience to climate change, planning for sustained and more severe droughts, and enabling every individual in Colorado to have a voice and the opportunity to take action to advocate for sustainable conservation-based solutions for our state’s water future. The community of organizations that make up the Water for Colorado Coalition represent diverse perspectives and share a commitment to protecting Colorado’s water future to secure a reliable water supply for the state and for future generations.

USBR releases updated projections of #ColoradoRiver system conditions: Modeling results assist drought response planning in the Colorado River Basin #COriver #aridification

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Becki Bryant and Patti Aaron):

The Bureau of Reclamation today [September 22, 2021] released updated modeling projections of major reservoir levels within the Colorado River system over the next five years. These projections are used by Reclamation and water users in the basin for future water management planning. The new projections show continued elevated risk of Lake Powell and Lake Mead reaching critically-low elevations as a result of the historic drought and low-runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin.

Today’s announcement comes as the Administration pursues a whole-of-government approach to drought mitigation via the Interagency Drought Relief Working Group, co-chaired by the Department of the Interior. The Working Group is coordinating with partners across the federal government, providing assistance to impacted communities, and developing long-term solutions to climate change.

Projection of Lake Powell end-of-December reservoir elevations. The colored region, or cloud, for the hydrology scenario represents the minimum, 10th percentile, 90th percentile, and maximum of the projected reservoir elevations. Solid lines represent historical elevations (black), and median projected elevations for the scenario (yellow). Dashed gray lines represent important elevations for operations, and the vertical line marks the adoption of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. Graphic credit: Bureau of Reclamation

Lake Powell Projections

At Lake Powell, the projections indicate the potential of falling below minimum power pool as early as July 2022 should extremely dry hydrology continue into next year. Beyond 2022, the chance Lake Powell could fall below minimum power pool ranges from about 25% to 35%. Elevation 3,525 feet, the target elevation in Lake Powell, has an almost 90% chance of being reached next year. That target elevation provides a 35 vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam and meet current operational obligations to the Lower Basin States of Arizona, California and Nevada.

“The latest outlook for Lake Powell is troubling,” said Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Regional Director Wayne Pullan. “This highlights the importance of continuing to work collaboratively with the Basin States, Tribes and other partners toward solutions.”

After consultation with – and acknowledgement from – all seven Basin States and other partners, under the emergency provisions of the 2019 Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA), Reclamation started supplemental water deliveries in July 2021 to Lake Powell from the upper reservoirs of Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo. Those supplemental deliveries will provide up to an additional 181 thousand acre-feet of water to Lake Powell by the end of the 2021.

As the Upper Basin States continue to work towards the development of a Drought Operations plan that will govern potential future supplemental deliveries, previous modeling assumptions regarding any additional or continued DROA releases have been removed to provide a clearer representation of future risk. The removal of these assumptions was the main contributor in the increase in risk between the last set of projections released in June of this year.

Projection of Lake Mead end-of-December reservoir elevations. The colored region, or cloud, for the hydrology scenario represents the minimum, 10th percentile, 90th percentile, and maximum of the projected reservoir elevations. Solid lines represent historical elevations (black), and median projected elevations for the scenario (yellow). Dashed gray lines represent important elevations for operations, and the vertical line marks the adoption of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. Graphic credit: Bureau of Reclamation

Lake Mead Projections

At Lake Mead, today’s projections indicate the chance of Lake Mead declining to elevation 1,025 feet (the third shortage trigger) is as high as 66% in 2025, and that there is a 22% chance of the reservoir elevation dropping to 1,000 feet the same year.

Reclamation continues to work with all seven Colorado River Basin States to address current conditions in the Colorado River Basin.

“This five-year probability table underscores the need for additional actions beyond the 2007 Guidelines and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan to be taken to enhance our efforts to protect Lake Mead, Lake Powell and the Colorado River system overall,” said Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

Most of the flow of the Colorado River originates in the Rocky Mountains. The Upper Basin experienced an exceptionally dry spring in 2021, with April to July runoff into Lake Powell totaling just 26% of average, despite near-average snowfall last winter. Total Colorado River system storage today is 39% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year.

Today’s release also includes updated presentations that utilize additional forecast information to improve public understanding of Reclamation’s future hydrologic projections. In keeping with its commitment to better inform all water users and the public regarding the hydrologic tools available, Reclamation has added in-depth information on its website about modeling and projections in the Colorado River system. A new interactive tool also allows users to explore projected reservoir conditions under a range of inflow forecasts.

“We’re providing detailed information on our modeling and projections to further generate productive discussions about the future of Lake Powell and Lake Mead based on the best data available,” said Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin Regional Director Jacklynn Gould. “Being prepared to adopt further actions to protect the elevations at these reservoirs remains a Reclamation priority and focus.”

To view the most recent Colorado River system projections, visit https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g4000/riverops/crss-5year-projections.html.

USBR announces five winners that will share $200,000 in Imperfection Detection Challenge

Finding new, non-destructive methods to inspect carbon fiber-reinforced pipe is the goal of the Imperfection Detection Challenge. Photo credit: USBR

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamtion (Peter Soeth):

The Bureau of Reclamation selected five winning submissions to share $200,000 for phase 1 of the Imperfection Detection Challenge. This prize competition sought new tools to evaluate the condition of fiber-reinforced polymer composite structures non-destructively. These composites are used in pipelines, tanks and other specialized infrastructure components.

The five winning submissions are:

  • Utilizing Space Tech to Detect FRP Damage on Earth, Brownsville, Texas
  • Low-Terahertz Imaging Radar, Netherlands
  • Ultrasonic SH waves imaging FRP structures, Columbia, Maryland
  • Applied Impact Robotics, Inc, Sterling, Virginia
  • Augmented reality system for low-THz inspection, Romania
  • “Composite structures are increasingly used in constructing pipelines, tanks and other infrastructure,” said Chief Engineer David Raff. “We are encouraged by the projects submitted and look forward to further development in the next phase of the prize competition.”

    The five winners now move to phase 2 and have 10 months to develop and demonstrate their prototype’s performance. Up to three of the top-performing teams will receive $10,000 each and move to phase 3.

    In phase 3, finalists deliver their prototypes to be evaluated by Reclamation, the Corps of Engineers and affiliated partners. The winner of this phase receives $50,000.

    Submissions receiving a phase 1 honorable mention for this prize competition are:

  • UAX GO, Cambridge, Ontario, Canada
  • Multi-modal Ultrasonic Device (MUD), England
  • Reclamation is partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Clemson Composites Center, Jesse Garant Metrology, Thompson Pipe Group, NASA Tournament Labs and HeroX on this prize competition. To learn more about this competition, please visit Imperfection Detection Prize Competition Page.

    Prize competitions spur innovation by engaging a non-traditional, problem-solver community. Reclamation supports innovation to target the most persistent science and technology challenges through prize competitions. It has awarded more than $4 million in prizes through 28 competitions in the past six years. Please visit Reclamation’s Water Prize Competition Center to learn more.

    Aspinall Unit operations update (September 17, 2021) #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

    Navajo Dam operations update (September 17, 2021): Releases to bump to 900 cfs #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    The San Juan River’s Navajo Dam and reservoir. Photo credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

    From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

    In response to decreasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 850 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 900 cfs on Friday, September 17th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

    The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. This release change is calculated to be the minimum release required to maintain the minimum target base flow.

    “The Roundup” newsletter is hot off the presses from @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    The boat ramp at Elk Creek Marina had to be temporarily closed so the docks could be moved out into deeper water. Colorado water managers are not happy that emergency releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir are impacting late summer lake recreation.
    CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

    Colorado water managers unhappy with timing of emergency releases

    In an effort to prop up water levels at the declining Lake Powell, federal water managers are negatively impacting recreation on Colorado’s biggest man-made lake.

    That’s the message from Colorado water managers and marina operators at Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County. On Aug. 1, the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir, began emergency releases. By the time the releases are finished the first week of October, Blue Mesa is projected to fall to its second-lowest level ever, just 215,000 acre-feet, or 22.8% of its 941,000-acre-foot capacity.

    As of Sept. 1, the reservoir was 37% full, which is about 68 feet down from a full reservoir, and a ring of muddy shoreline was growing. Parking lots and boat slips sat empty, and Pappy’s Restaurant was closed for the season. The dwindling water levels are first impacting Iola, the easternmost of Blue Mesa’s three basins. Iola is where the Gunnison River now cuts through a field of mud.

    Eric Loken, who operates the reservoir’s two marinas (Elk Creek and Lake Fork), said he was given only nine days’ notice to empty Elk Creek Marina’s 180 slips. The dock system’s anchors, which are not built for low water, had to be moved deeper. He said about 25 people lost their jobs six weeks earlier than normal and the marinas lost about 25% of its revenue for the year.

    Electric costs in #Colorado set to surge as #LakePowell struggles to produce hydropower — @WaterEdCO #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam is used to produce hydropower that is delivered over a 17,000-mile transmission grid, reaching six states and 5 million people. Photo courtesy Western Area Power Administration.

    From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

    The federal agency that distributes electricity from hydropower plants in the Upper Colorado River Basin will ask its customers, including more than 50 here in Colorado, to help offset rising costs linked to Lake Powell’s inability to produce as much power due to drought.

    The Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), which distributes Lake Powell’s electricity, is gathering public comments and asking its customers how best to cope with long-term drought conditions that have pushed Powell and other reservoirs to historically low levels.

    As flows in the Colorado River have declined due to climate change and a 20-year megadrought, there is less water in its storage reservoirs and, therefore, less pressure to power the turbines, causing them to generate less electricity.

    WAPA has had to nearly double the amount of extra power it has had to buy this year to ensure it can meet its contract obligations to its customers.

    “It’s all bad news, but it isn’t necessarily unexpected,” said WAPA spokesperson Lisa Meiman.

    WAPA power is among the most sought-after in Western states because it is sold at cost and because it is a renewable power resource, something highly valued in places such as Colorado, where utilities are working to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

    WAPA often buys extra power if for some reason its customers’ electricity needs don’t match up with its hydropower production on a given day. It delivers power over a 17,000-mile transmission grid to six states and 5 million people.

    But as flows in the Colorado River have shrunk, those purchases have become larger and more frequent.

    Last year it bought an extra 413,000 megawatts of power. This year it has already purchased 833,000 megawatts of additional power, according to Meiman, and the agency expects that number to grow this year and likely again next year as the drought continues with no relief in sight.

    These turbines at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam are at risk of becoming inoperable should levels at Powell fall below what’s known as minimum power pool due to declining flows in the Colorado River. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

    This year, because of the power demands of the West’s growing population and the need for air conditioning to combat ultra-high temperatures, power costs are already soaring.

    Last year WAPA paid $25 per megawatt for its replacement power, Meiman said. This year it is paying $33 per megawatt, a 30% jump.

    In Colorado, WAPA sells power to some of the state’s largest electric utilities, such as Tri-State Generation and Transmission, as well as cities, small towns and rural electric co-ops.

    “We’re watching the situation closely,” said Natalie Eckhart, a spokesperson for Colorado Springs Utilities, which is a WAPA electric customer and which also draws a significant portion of its water from the Colorado River system.

    “The bottom line is we care about this on all fronts,” Eckhart said.

    Few expected power generation at Lake Powell to decline so quickly. The Colorado River Basin serves seven U.S. states and 30 Native American Tribes. For months, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have been nervously watching what’s known as the minimum power pool level at Powell, the lowest elevation at which power can be produced, which is 3,490 feet. If the reservoir drops lower than that, all hydropower production will stop.

    In July, as water levels at Powell continued to plummet, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, as part of the Upper Basin’s Drought Contingency Plan, began emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs to boost levels and protect Powell’s hydropower production.

    And while those releases are expected to help keep the turbines functioning, the releases won’t be enough to restore them to full production, leaving WAPA little choice but to look at restructuring the way it sells power and to raise its prices.

    WAPA is forecasting a 35% increase in its costs, but is working to minimize the impact on utilities that purchase its power and anticipates a 12% to 14% rate increase as early as December. Some utilities are preparing to buy power elsewhere, when possible, to reduce their costs.

    Holy Cross Energy, a rural electric co-op based in Glenwood Springs that is also a WAPA customer, has spent years converting its power portfolio from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources including wind, solar and biomass, as well as hydropower.

    While WAPA electricity comprises just 3% of its power portfolio, Holy Cross CEO Bryan Hannegan is worried that this renewable, low-cost power source is in jeopardy if flows from the Colorado River into Lake Powell continue to decline, as they are projected to do.

    “It’s one of the cleanest and lowest-cost sources of power for a whole range of utilities,” Hannegan said. “It’s been a bedrock on which we built the West. For it not to be available … it’s a big deal.”

    Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

    #ColoradoRiver Forecasts Not a ‘Crystal Ball’: Computer models inform key decisions in the Colorado River basin. But they cannot predict the future — Circle of Blue #COriver #aridification

    This map shows the snowpack depth of the Maroon Bells in spring 2019. The map was created with information from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions. Jeffrey Deems/ASO, National Snow and Ice Data Center

    From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

    Every month the Bureau of Reclamation attempts to peer two years into the future of the Colorado River and its reservoirs.

    Reclamation’s 24-month study is a staple forecasting product for the federal agency that manages a chain of dams in the watershed, including those that control lakes Mead and Powell, the country’s largest reservoirs — and currently two of its most consequential. The reservoirs are a key source of drinking water for about 40 million people, plus they store water that irrigates millions of acres of farmland and generates electricity for the Southwest. The reservoirs are also alarmingly dehydrated right now — about one-third full, the lowest since they were first filled. The entire basin is on alert.

    The 24-month study, in the simplest terms, projects water levels for the next two years at 12 federal reservoirs in the Colorado River basin. Produced monthly, it’s one of several forecasting products that give water managers a sense of possible futures. It is also the foundation of essential water management decisions in the basin. Reclamation’s other forecasts, updated less frequently, look at mid-term (five years out) and long-term (multiple decades) scenarios.

    Typically nested in wonkish obscurity, the 24-month study acquired newfound public prominence in recent weeks. The August results are the most important of all the months because they determine how much water will be released in the following year from Mead and Powell. Because Mead is so low, the August results triggered the first-ever Tier 1 shortage on the lower Colorado River, a declaration that means mandatory cuts in water deliveries in 2022 to Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico. Because Powell is so low, dam managers will release a comparative trickle of water next year, so little that Mead is likely to plunge even lower.

    More eyes than usual on a technical product that was designed to guide reservoir operations means more potential for misinterpretation, especially by people unfamiliar with the study and its assumptions. Carly Jerla, Reclamation’s senior water resources program manager, said that the study has its defined uses but also its limits.

    “It’s important to understand that we’re not saying that this is what we think is going to happen this year,” Jerla told Circle of Blue about the reservoir levels outlined in the 24-month study. “We’re not saying, ‘Plan for this and only this because we have crystal ball knowledge of what is going to happen.’”

    Reclamation’s models, in fact, are not a crystal ball. Critics say that they are not pessimistic enough about the potential for extremely dry years. But as the Colorado River basin dries due to a warming planet, Jerla and others are actively considering how best to convey to the public and water managers alike the looming risks to water supplies and to prepare people, at least mentally, for the possibility that reality could turn out much worse tha