Navajo Dam operations update (August 13, 2022): Bumping up releases to 650 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 (Erik Knight):

The forecast for low flows on the San Juan River continues and actual looks a little worse today. Therefore, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 450 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 650 cfs for August 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). 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.

#ColoradoRiver crisis: Dispute, #drought have local implications — The #Pueblo Star Journal #COriver #aridification

A view across Lake Pueblo in Lake Pueblo State Park. The view is towards the south from Juniper Road. By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61042557

Click the link to read the article on the Pueblo Star Journal website (Joe Stone):

Two decades of drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have prompted dire warnings and alarming headlines about climate change and the Colorado River water crisis. Critically low water levels in lakes Mead and Powell now threaten the ability to generate electricity at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams and spurred Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton to issue an ultimatum: On June 14, Touton announced that Colorado Basin states would have 60 days to come up with a plan to reduce water use by 2-4 million acre-feet per year. (An acre-foot of water is the amount needed to cover an acre of land with one foot of water.)

If Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California can’t agree on a plan, the bureau will use its emergency authority to make the cuts, Touton said.

Fryingpan-Arkansas Project via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Click to enlarge)

The Arkansas Basin receives about 130,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado Basin – up to 23 percent of Arkansas River flows, according to Colorado Division of Water Resources data. The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which imports an average of 57,000 acre-feet of water per year. Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West combine to import the other 73,000 acre-feet. Fry-Ark Project water supports local agriculture, cities, towns and industry. Fry-Ark water and infrastructure also underpin the Voluntary Flow Management Program, which supports the multimillion-dollar recreation economies of Upper Ark communities as well as the Arkansas River’s Gold Medal fishery.

Water imports to the Arkansas Basin already face risks. Worsening drought conditions could impede Fry-Ark water imports as the project is required to meet minimum streamflows on the West Slope. A call for water on the Colorado River could also curtail water imports.

‘Living within our means’

The 1922 Colorado River Compact divided Colorado River water between Upper Basin states – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico – and Lower Basin states – Arizona, Nevada and California. The compact requires the Upper Basin states, where most of the precipitation falls, to deliver a 10-year rolling average of 7.5 million acre-feet, or maf, of water to Lees Ferry, Arizona, just south of the Utah state line. Of that water, California is entitled to 4.4 maf, Arizona 2.8, and Nevada 0.3. The compact also established a benchmark of 16.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water per year for Colorado River flows. However, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that average flows from 2000 to 2021 have dropped to 12.3 maf per year.

To date, the Upper Basin states have consistently met the 7.5-maf compact requirement. At a recent meeting of the Interbasin Compact Committee, Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell shared statistics showing that Upper Basin states have significantly reduced water usage while Lower Basin states have not.

As the numbers reveal, Lower Basin states’ water usage – more than 2 maf per year beyond the 7.5 maf delivered by the Upper Basin – has trended higher, even as the 10-year rolling average dropped to 11.78 maf for 2012-21. Specifically, 2019 saw Colorado River flows of 17.75 maf, a rare yearly surplus of 3.8 maf. In 2020, flows dropped to 9.6 maf, 4.5 maf less than the water used that year. In 2021, flows dropped further, to 7.1 maf.

Even with Upper Basin states reducing their water use by more than a million acre-feet, total water use in the basin exceeded flows by 6.4 maf in 2021.

Colorado officials have indicated they have no plans to make additional cuts to meet the federal mandate. Amy Ostdiek, a section chief with the CWCB, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that sending water downstream from Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs represents a significant sacrifice in water security for the Upper Basin states. At a recent Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District meeting, Ostdiek observed that, while the Upper Basin states have always lived with the need to limit water use to whatever is available, the Lower Basin states have “drawn down reservoirs instead of limiting usage. … We are living within our means in the Upper Basin, but that’s not happening in the Lower Basin.”


Ostdiek acknowledged that Arizona and Nevada are taking cuts to their Colorado River water allocations “for the first time ever,” but what about California, the most prodigious user of Colorado River water? All seven basin states signed on to the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, agreeing to reduce their use of Colorado River water, but the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California’s Imperial Valley refused to compromise, according to an Aug. 27, 2021, story by ProPublica. With 3.1 million acre-feet of Colorado River water rights, the Imperial District accounts for 70% of California’s compact allotment and is by far the largest single water rights holder in the Colorado Basin.

Imperial District Board President James Hanks expressed the district’s refusal to compromise when state officials gathered in Phoenix to sign the 2019 plan.

“As champagne is being prepared for debauched self-congratulation in Phoenix, remember this: The IID is the elephant in the room on the Colorado River as we move forward. And like the elephant, our memory and rage is (sic) long,” Hanks said.

As the Bureau of Reclamation’s mandate now makes clear, the 2019 plan proved insufficient to avert the current crisis and the Imperial District is indeed the elephant in the room, refusing to recognize the current reality on the Colorado River.

Growing cotton in a desert

The Imperial Valley lies within the Sonoran Desert and receives less than 3 inches of rain per year. It was uninhabited until 1901, when the Imperial Canal brought Colorado River water into the valley from Mexico. Because of the desert climate and poor groundwater quality, virtually all water demand in the Imperial Valley is satisfied with Colorado River water. The Imperial Irrigation District delivers that water, and 97% goes to agriculture.

Food production is a critical use of water, but not all agricultural water uses produce food. Growing cotton is one example, and the Imperial District supplies Colorado River water to 463,721 acres of cotton fields, according to the District’s most recent crop report. Arizona also uses Colorado River water to grow cotton in the desert. U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that Arizona farmers grew 258,000 acres of cotton in 2021.

Water consumption data from the University of Arizona shows that growing cotton in the desert requires 41.2 inches of water per year. In other words, cotton grown in the Imperial District and Arizona requires about 2.8 million acre-feet of water per year. But while one area of the federal government (Bureau of Reclamation) calls for reduced water use in the basin, another (Department of Agriculture) subsidizes those cotton fields, providing more than $4 billion between 1995 and 2015.

Not a sudden crisis
Mitchell and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser recently penned an editorial pointing out that Colorado is one of the few U.S. states that administers water rights based on “the availability of water supply in a particular location at a particular time.” Colorado’s water management system was key to the Upper Basin reducing water usage by 25% in 2020, “a huge reduction in water use of almost one million acre-feet.” When added to the “661,000 acre-feet of water provided from Upper Basin reservoirs in 2022, the Upper Basin is providing roughly 43% of its annual water use to help protect Lake Powell.”

In spite of the disparities between Upper and Lower Basin water use, officials in Lower Basin states – like Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona Department of Water Resources, and Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – responded to the bureau’s mandate by urging collaboration. As the numbers show, the Upper Basin states, especially Colorado, have done much more to conserve water than the Lower Basin states, which have consistently taken more than their share of water under the 1922 compact.

Another example of Colorado’s leadership in responsible water use is groundwater management. Since 1969, Colorado has recognized the physical connection between surface waters and most groundwater aquifers. The Lower Basin states have not. For example, rivers deposit rocks and sand along their channels and floodplains. River water fills the spaces between the rocks and sand, forming alluvial aquifers. These aquifers are an integral part of streams and rivers; pumping water from them reduces surface-water flows.

In general, Arizona law does not recognize the physical connection between groundwater and surface water. From a legal standpoint, Arizona allows groundwater pumping that reduces streamflows to the detriment of senior water rights. California is just beginning to legally recognize the connection between surface water and groundwater, but groundwater extraction continues to deplete aquifers and cause subsidence, a gradual sinking of land. Ground currently is sinking more than a foot per year in some parts of California, according to ongoing research and multiple news reports.

Finally, anyone reading the alarming headlines would be tempted to believe that the Colorado River crisis is a sudden, unprecedented result of accelerating climate change, but a report published in the May 2007 issue of Geophysical Research Letters indicates otherwise. The authors used paleo-climate data to reconstruct Colorado River flows at Lees Ferry dating back to the year 762. They document multiple “multi-decadal (Upper Colorado River Basin) droughts” during the past 1,260 years, including one “in the mid-1100s” that persisted for “about six decades.”

This means that 15 years ago scientists demonstrated that, even without the effects of climate change, the current 20-year drought was not uncommon and the situation can get much worse, a reality that the Lower Basin states ignored.

“It should be obvious to anyone: Trying to fill a bathtub with the drain wide open is foolish,” wrote Terry Scanga, general manager of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District. “This is precisely what the operators of the Colorado River system (lakes Powell and Mead) have been attempting to do for the past 20 years. They have disregarded the increased withdrawals by the Lower Basin states and the ubiquitous arid nature of the Southwest.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Aspinall Unit operations update (August 11, 2022): 550 cfs in Black Canyon #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Click to enlarge.

Navajo Dam operations update: Bumping up to 450 cfs August 12, 2022 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

SAN JUAN RIVER The San Juan River at the hwy 64 bridge in Shiprock, NM. June 18, 2021. © Jason Houston

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

In response to the forecast for low flows on the San Juan River, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 350 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 450 cfs for August 12th 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.

Tourist haven #GrandLake asks state to intervene in federal #water quality stalemate — @WaterEdCO

Shadow Mountain Dam, astride the main stem of the upper Colorado River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Fourteen years after Colorado adopted standards to restore Grand Lake, the state’s largest natural water body once known for its astonishing clarity and high water quality continues to deteriorate.

Frustrated and worried about the future, Grand Lake locals are asking the state to intervene to break through a log jam of federal and environmental red tape that has prevented finding a way to restore the lake’s clarity and water quality, despite a 90-year-old federal rule known as Senate Bill 80 requiring that the work be done.

At issue: Grand Lake serves as a key element of Northern Water’s delivery system, which provides water to more than 1 million people on the northern Front Range and thousands of acres of irrigated farmlands.

Owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and operated by Northern Water, what’s known as the Colorado-Big Thompson Project gathers water from streams and rivers in Rocky Mountain National Park and Grand County, and stores it in man-made Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Reservoir. From there it is eventually moved into Grand Lake and delivered via the Adams Tunnel under the Continental Divide to Carter Lake and Horsetooth Reservoir, just west of Berthoud and Fort Collins respectively.

During that process, algae, certain toxins and sediment are carried into Grand Lake, clouding its formerly clear waters and causing algae blooms and weed growth, and harming recreation.

Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water

In a hearing before the Colorado Legislature’s Interim Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee on Aug. 4, Mike Cassio, who represents the Three Lakes Watershed Association in Grand County, pleaded with state lawmakers to intervene and launch a study process that would help trigger federal action.

by Jerd Smith | Aug 10, 2022 | Climate and Drought, Colorado River, Environment, Infrastructure, Recreation, Restoration, Water Legislation, Water Quality |

Tourist haven Grand Lake asks state to intervene in federal water quality stalemate
A woman paddles on Shadow Mountain Reservoir, which is caught in federal stalemate over how to improve water quality to help improve its neighboring Grand Lake. Credit: Daily Camera

Fourteen years after Colorado adopted standards to restore Grand Lake, the state’s largest natural water body once known for its astonishing clarity and high water quality continues to deteriorate.

Frustrated and worried about the future, Grand Lake locals are asking the state to intervene to break through a log jam of federal and environmental red tape that has prevented finding a way to restore the lake’s clarity and water quality, despite a 90-year-old federal rule known as Senate Bill 80 requiring that the work be done.

At issue: Grand Lake serves as a key element of Northern Water’s delivery system, which provides water to more than 1 million people on the northern Front Range and thousands of acres of irrigated farmlands.

Owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and operated by Northern Water, what’s known as the Colorado-Big Thompson Project gathers water from streams and rivers in Rocky Mountain National Park and Grand County, and stores it in man-made Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Reservoir. From there it is eventually moved into Grand Lake and delivered via the Adams Tunnel under the Continental Divide to Carter Lake and Horsetooth Reservoir, just west of Berthoud and Fort Collins respectively.

During that process, algae, certain toxins and sediment are carried into Grand Lake, clouding its formerly clear waters and causing algae blooms and weed growth, and harming recreation.

In a hearing before the Colorado Legislature’s Interim Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee on Aug. 4, Mike Cassio, who represents the Three Lakes Watershed Association in Grand County, pleaded with state lawmakers to intervene and launch a study process that would help trigger federal action.

“We have the highest respect for all of our partners,” Cassio said, referring to ongoing remediation efforts involving Northern Water and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“But due to the design of the system, you have this beautiful natural lake and then you fill it up with reservoir water. Usually, in July when spring runoff is going on, Grand Lake is flowing from east to west. It is extremely clear. But as soon as Shadow Mountain’s water sits and starts to cook and grow weeds and algae, and the pumps come on, this massive plume of nitrates, inorganics, just basic muddy water flows into Grand Lake,” Cassio said.

In 2008, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission moved to set a clarity standard, but it has since been replaced with a clarity goal and the aim of achieving “the highest level of clarity attainable.” Instead of working under a regulated water quality standard, Northern Water and others have implemented different management techniques, including changing pumping patterns, to find ways to improve water quality in all three water bodies.

In 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation took the first steps required under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) to do the scientific and engineering studies and public hearings that would be required to fix the system. But Reclamation stopped the process in 2020, saying that it could not definitively establish any structural alternatives that would work, nor could it find a way forward on funding what could be a project that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Jeff Rieker, general manager of Reclamation’s Colorado Eastern Plains office.

During last week’s hearing, lawmakers said they want more information and that Northern Water’s system is too critical to the northern Front Range to do anything without careful consideration.

“We are in a moment of time like none other,” said State Rep. Hugh McKean, a Republican who represents Loveland and other northern Front Range communities. He cited the warming climate and the effects of the massive East Troublesome fire in 2020, which engulfed lands around the three lakes and created additional water quality problems, which still impact the watershed today.

“Is this the moment to create a long-term plan, when right now our water situation is in flux? I’m resistant to say let’s stop everything and study this,” McKean said.

But Grand Lake Mayor Steve Kudron disagreed.

“This is exactly the right time,” Kudron said. “Tourism impacts my community more than almost any other community in the state. One million people visited [Fort Collins’] Horsetooth Reservoir last year. Are we getting to the time when recreation on the East Side of the [Continental Divide] is more important than the West Side?”

Grand Lake via Cornell University

Northern Water’s Esther Vincent told lawmakers at the hearing that management efforts have improved clarity somewhat. In 1941, before the Colorado Big Thompson Project began operating, clarity was measured at 9.2 meters, Vincent said.

“The [state’s] clarity goal is 3.8 meters,” she said. “We don’t hit it every year, but we’re doing a lot better. Over the past 17 years we’ve met the 3.8-meter goal 35% of the time and in the past five years we’ve hit the goal 60% of the time,” she said. “But East Troublesome complicates everything. We are still trying to wrap our heads around what this means for the system.”

Still, she said Northern was committed to finding a path forward and indeed is legally obligated to do so under the terms of its operating contract with Reclamation.

What that path may look like isn’t clear yet. Lawmakers did not recommend any action in the form of bills to authorize a study after Thursday’s hearing, according to interim committee staff.

But Grand Lake advocates say the state rightly should step in because it was the Colorado water users in Northern’s system that repaid the federal construction loans on the project.

“We have a lake unlike any lake in the country,” Kudron said. “The moment we start talking about closing the lake, it has a long rippling effect. There isn’t a Target [store] that will make up the tax dollars that would be lost. There are just 16,000 people in Grand County. If the natural resources that attract people to our county are interrupted, the county becomes interrupted. If we can’t rely on the water resource, we are in big trouble.”

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.

Tribes in the #ColoradoRiver basin say they’re ‘in the dark’ as states discuss #water #conservation — KUNC #COriver #aridification

Agriculture is the main economic venture on CRIT’s reservation, where a range of crops like alfalfa, cotton and sorghum thrive in the rich soil along the banks of the Colorado River. (Source: CRIT)

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:

A group of 14 tribes in the Colorado River basin is asking for a greater voice in ongoing negotiations about water conservation. In a letter to the Department of the Interior, those tribes write that they are not being adequately consulted as states ponder a plan to save an unprecedented amount of water amid this historic drought.

“We should not have to remind you — but we will again — that as our trustee, you must protect our rights, our assets, and people in addition to any action you take on behalf of the system,” the letter reads…

The tribes said a June pre-scoping notice about river negotiations was a good start — it mentioned a commitment to engage with tribes and consider their views— but the Interior Department has not kept its promise to keep tribes “appropriately informed.”

Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin/Water Education Colorado

The Colorado River basin includes 30 federally-recognized tribes that depend on its water. Despite holding rights to about a quarter of the river’s flow, many tribes lack the funding and infrastructure to use their full allocations. They have historically been excluded from decision-making about how the river’s water is used, going back to foundational documents allocating the region’s water. They argue they are still being excluded during the unprecedented call for conservation…This is not the first time within the past year that tribes have come to the federal government with a call for greater inclusion. In November, twenty tribes within the basin sent a letter to the Interior Department broadly asking for greater inclusion in the long-term management of the Colorado River.

North American Indian regional losses 1850 thru 1890.

West Slope #water managers ask: What authority do the feds have? — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Houseboats on Lake Powell on Dec. 13, 2021, near Wahweap Marina, where the quarter-mile-long boat ramp is unusable due to low water levels. The Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner has said 2 to 4 million more acre-feet of conservation is needed to protect the system, leaving water managers wondering what authority the feds have over upper basin water projects. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

Projects with Reclamation ties could be at risk

As the deadline approaches for the seven Colorado River basin states to come up with a plan to conserve water, some Colorado water managers are asking what authority the federal government has in the upper basin and which water projects could be at risk of federal action.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton sent water managers scrambling when she announced in June that they had a 60-day window to find another 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water to conserve or the federal government would step in to protect the system. With many reservoirs, transbasin diversion systems and irrigation projects in Colorado tied in one way or another to the Bureau of Reclamation, some are asking if the water in these buckets could be commandeered by the feds to make up the shortfall.

“I think that there’s probably a good argument that the Secretary (of the Interior) has some authority under those projects,” said Eric Kuhn, Colorado River author and former Colorado River Water Conservation District general manager. “The projects on the Western Slope and in the upper basin states that are owned by the federal government and are ultimately under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior, those are the projects at risk.”

There are many dams and reservoirs across Colorado that are tied to the Bureau of Reclamation’s 20th century building frenzy to impound water and “reclaim” arid regions through irrigation. On the Western Slope, some of the well-known projects include the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project (Ruedi Reservoir), Dallas Creek Project (Ridgway Reservoir), the Dolores Project (McPhee Reservoir), Paonia Reservoir, the Grand Valley Project, the Silt Project (Rifle Gap Reservoir), the Uncompahgre Project (Taylor Park Reservoir) and more.

In general, the local entities like conservancy districts, irrigators and municipalities who use the water are responsible for repaying the Bureau for the cost of the project. But the infrastructure is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. Some projects are operated by Reclamation and some are operated by a local entity. Many also have a hydropower component.

“I think each project operator is having to look at their contractual obligations with the Bureau and their attorneys are going back over those with a fine tooth comb to see if the arm of the Bureau can reach up through Lake Powell and into the upper basin states,” said Kathleen Curry, a rancher and Gunnison County representative on the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “All of the upper basin projects are going to need to look real hard at what authority the Bureau has.”

Last year Reclamation made emergency releases out of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to prop up Lake Powell. In this instance their authority was not questioned since these reservoirs are, along with Lake Powell, the four initial reservoirs of the Colorado River Storage Project. They store what’s called “system water,” which is used specifically to help the upper basin meet its delivery obligations to the lower basin.

But water managers still don’t know exactly what, if anything, Reclamation is allowed to do with the water contained in other reservoirs with Reclamation ties.

The crest of the dam across the Fryingpan River that forms Ruedi Reservoir, which can hold 102,373 acre-feet of water. Some Western Slope water managers are asking what authority the Bureau of Reclamation has over water projects with Reclamation ties in the upper basin.
CREDIT: PHOTO: COURTESY OF BUREAU OF RECLAMATION

No answers from officials

At the River District’s third quarterly board meeting in July, board members repeatedly tried to pin down answers from federal and state officials without much luck.

Montrose County representative and state Rep. Marc Catlin asked state engineer Kevin Rein where he stood on whether the Bureau of Reclamation could make reservoirs with Reclamation ties release water downstream to Lake Powell to meet the 2 to 4 million acre-feet conservation goal.

“If the Bureau of Reclamation comes into the state of Colorado and says it wants to move water… down to Lake Powell, what’s the state engineer going to do?” Catlin asked. “Are those water rights under state law or federal law?”

Rein did not know the answer.

“I’m not sure what authority — this is not one of those rhetorical ‘I’m not sure,’ I really am not sure — what authority the Bureau of Reclamation would have to induce a federal project with state water rights to release them to get to Powell,” Rein said.

Later in the meeting, Katrina Grantz, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Assistant Regional Director, gave a presentation and took questions from board members. Curry asked if changes could be proposed to the operation of projects within the 15 counties represented by the River District with federal ties to get closer to the 2 to 4 million acre-feet. Grantz side-stepped the question.

“At this point we are not looking at specific locations,” she said. “I would turn it around and say: Are there areas where you locally think there might be areas to conserve?”

River District General Counsel Peter Fleming said the authority of the feds in the upper basin is untested. This is partly because the upper basin has dozens of small Reclamation projects as well as thousands of individual water users on private ditch systems that are not affiliated with the federal government. Colorado has generally been left alone to administer this complex system of water rights under the state doctrine of prior appropriation, which means older water rights get first use of the river.

The lower basin, in contrast, has only about 20 diversions — and only six or so big ones — from the Colorado River. And each entity that uses water from Lake Mead has to have a contract with Reclamation, meaning the federal government is directly involved with water deliveries.

“The reason I think these issues are untested is historically the secretary’s role in the upper basin has been different than the secretary’s role in the lower basin,” Fleming said. “It’s much more hands-off. The difference in river administration is huge.”

Fleming said that the River District does not have advice for its water users on the situation, other than to reiterate the upper basin stance that the responsibility to come up with the 2 to 4 million acre-feet lies overwhelmingly with the lower basin.

“At the end of the day I think there will be a big effort to try to resolve things through agreement and I believe the secretary will exercise her authority to the greatest extent she can without triggering litigation,” Fleming said.

Water managers may not have to wait long to get some clarity. The deadline for the states to come up with a conservation plan before the feds take action to protect the system is fast approaching. The upper basin states, through the Upper Colorado River Commission, have put forward a 5 Point Plan, which lays out actions they say are designed to protect the reservoirs.

Amee Andreason, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Reclamation, said officials may answer the question of federal authority in the upper basin at a media event on Aug. 16 that coincides with the release of the August 24-month study, which lays out reservoir operations for the following water year.

If the feds end up curtailing uses in the lower basin, it could set a precedent that would strengthen the argument that they can do the same in the upper basin, Kuhn said.

“That’s one I think is the elephant in the room,” he said. “The fact that the River District board was asking about authorities tells you people are thinking about it.”

This story ran in the Aug. 4 edition of the Sky-Hi News.

Hard choices for the #ColoradoRiver — Writers on the Range #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (Quinn Harper and Mark Squillace):

The seven Colorado River states – Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming – face a daunting mid-August deadline. The federal government has asked them to come up with a plan to reduce their combined water usage from the Colorado River by up to 4 million acre-feet in 2023.

That is a massive reduction for a river system that currently produces about 12.4 million acre-feet. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Colorado River, warned that it will “act unilaterally to protect the system” if the states cannot come up with an adequate plan on their own.

The seven states have worked cooperatively over the past two decades to identify solutions to a shrinking river. But their response now, much like the global response to climate change, seems far from adequate to the enormous challenge.

In a recent letter to BuRec, the Upper Colorado River Commission, speaking for the four Upper Basin states, proposed a plan that adopts a business-as-usual, “drought-reduction” approach. They argue that their options are limited because “previous drought response actions are depleting upstream storage by 661,000 feet.”

The Commission complains that water users “already suffer chronic shortages under current conditions resulting in uncompensated priority administration, which includes cuts to numerous present perfected rights in each of our states.”

This leads the Commission to conclude that any future reductions must come largely from Mexico and the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada, because they use most of the water.

But the Lower Basin states have already taken a significant hit to their “present perfected rights,” and if BuRec makes good on its promise to act unilaterally, they will face another big reduction. The cooperative relationship among the Basin states will not endure if the Upper Basin refuses to share the burden by reducing its consumption.

The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project involves raising the height of the existing dam by 131 feet. The dam will be built out and will have “steps” made of roller-compacted concrete to reach the new height. Image credit: Denver Water

A good place to start might lie with two Colorado projects to divert water from the Colorado River basin to the Front Range. Both began construction this summer. The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project will triple the size of one of Denver Water’s major storage units. Denver Water’s original justification for this project – to serve Denver’s growing urban population – seems odd given that water demand in their service area over the past two decades has shrunk, even as its population rose by nearly 300,000.

Outflow from the dam across the Colorado River that forms Windy Gap Reservoir. Taken during a field trip the reservoir in September, 2017.

Similar questions have been raised with the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Windy Gap Firming Project, which plans to store Colorado River water to support population growth in Front Range cities.

These two projects suggest that Colorado is prepared to exacerbate the current crisis when the opposite response is so desperately needed.

Abandoning these two projects would signal that Colorado is serious about giving the Colorado River a fighting chance at survival. It might also jump-start good-faith negotiations over how Mexico, the states, and tribes might work to achieve a long-term solution to this crisis.

The homestead laws of the 19th century attracted a resilient group of farmers to the West who cleverly designed water laws to secure their water rights against all future water users. “First in time, first in right” became the governing mantra of water allocation, because, except for Tribal Nations, the farmers were first.

That system worked well for many years. As communities grew, cities and water districts built reservoirs to store the spring runoff, ensuring that water was available throughout the irrigation season.

Climate change and mega-droughts have upended that system. Nowhere have the consequences been as dire as in the Colorado River Basin. America’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead – key components of the Colorado River’s water storage system – have not filled for more than two decades. They now sit well below 30% of their capacity.

Hotter temperatures, less mountain snowpack, and dry soils that soak up runoff like a sponge have brought us to this seven-state crisis. All seven states must now share the pain of addressing this crisis.

The Upper Basin Commission’s anemic response to BuRec’s plea is not a serious plan. We can do better and we must.

Mark Squillace and Quinn Harper are contributors to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. Mark Squillace is the Raphael J. Moses professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School. Quinn Harper is a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in natural resource policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Responding to #Drought in the #ColoradoRiver Basin: Federal and State Efforts — The Congressional Research Institute #COriver #aridification

Click the link to access the report on the Congressional Research Service website (Charles V. Stern):

The Colorado River Basin (Figure 1) covers more than 246,000 square miles in seven U.S. states and Mexico. Basin waters are managed and governed by multiple laws, court decisions, and other documents known collectively as the Law of the River. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 established a framework to apportion water supplies between the river’s Upper and Lower Basins (divided at Lee Ferry,AZ). Each basin was allocated 7.5 million acre-feet (MAF) annually under the compact; an additional 1.5 MAF in annual flows was made available to Mexico under a 1944 treaty. Since the Upper Basin’s waters were developed after much of the Lower Basin, its apportionments are significantly less than the full amount allowed under the compact and are framed mostly in terms of percentages of available supplies. The Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) plays a prominent role in basin water management due to the many federally authorized projects in the basin.

Credit: The Congressional Research Service

The Colorado River Basin is in the midst of a long-term drought, during which consumptive use has regularly exceeded natural flows. When federal and state governments originally approved the 1922
compact, it was assumed based on the historical record that river flows would average 16.4 MAF per year.

Actual flows from 1906 to 2020 were approximately 13.9 MAF, with flows averaging approximately 12.5 MAF since the onset of the basin’s drought in 2000. These conditions are projected to continue.

Observers track the status of two large federal reservoirs—Lake Powell in the Upper Basin, impounded by Glen Canyon Dam, and Lake Mead in the Lower Basin, impounded by Hoover Dam—as an indicator of basin storage conditions. Reclamation makes operational decisions for basin reservoirs in monthly 24-month studies. Recent 24-month studies projected additional reductions in water storage at both reservoirs (Figure 2, Figure 3).

Credit: USBR
Credit: USBR

Mitigating Drought in the Colorado River Basin Previously, there have been multiple efforts to improve the basin’s water supply outlook, including the
2003 Quantitative Settlement Agreement, the 2007 Interim Shortage Guidelines, and the 2019 drought contingency plans (DCPs) for the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins. (The latter were authorized by Congress in P.L. 116-14.) The DCPs required reduced Lower Basin deliveries based on Lake Mead storage levels, authorized additional water conservation efforts, and put in place the framework for a Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) to coordinate Upper Basin operations to prevent the loss of hydropower generation at Glen Canyon Dam.

Despite these efforts, storage levels at both reservoirs have continued to fall. In August 2021, Reclamation declared the first-ever Level One Shortage Condition for the Lower Basin, which formally triggered delivery curtailments for Arizona (512,000 AF) and Nevada (21,000 AF). Reclamation’s August 2021 24-month study also indicated for the first time the possibility of Lake Mead falling below 1,020 feet within two years, which resulted in agreement on a new set of actions in 2021, known as the 500+ Plan. This effort is expected to result in the conservation of an additional 500,000 AF in Lake Mead in 2022 and
2023 (i.e., 1 MAF total).

In March 2022, Lake Powell fell below 3,525 feet for the first time since the late 1960s. To alleviate the potential for lost hydropower generation at Glen Canyon Dam, the Department of the Interior initiated DROA operations, resulting in operational changes in July 2021 and January 2022. In May 2022, Reclamation invoked emergency authority to move approximately 500,000 AF of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Lake Powell and held back 480,000 AF of Lower Basin releases pursuant to the 2007 guidelines.

At a June 14, 2022, congressional hearing, Reclamation announced that states needed to conserve an additional 2 MAF to 4 MAF in 2023 to protect storage volumes over the near term (2023-2026). This estimate was the result of a 2022 Reclamation analysis. Reclamation noted that if the target is not met with voluntary commitments by August 2022, the agency would act unilaterally. In a July 18, 2022, letter to Reclamation, Upper Basin representatives declined to contribute a specific volume of cutbacks to these
efforts, instead laying out a five-point plan as the basis for its water conservation efforts.

Congress is involved in basin management primarily through directives and authorizations for Reclamation projects and activities. In addition to the 2019 authorization of the DCPs, Congress has authorized “system conservation” efforts in the basin that expire in 2022. Congress also has appropriated regular and supplemental appropriations for Colorado River water conservation efforts in addition to regular operational funds. Legislation under consideration in the 117th Congress would enact other new authorities aimed at improving basin water management.

The 2007 Interim Shortage Guidelines and the 2019 DCPs are set to expire at the end of 2026. Extending or amending previous agreements is central to future basin water management. On June 20, 2022, Reclamation published a “pre-scoping” notice seeking input on how to foster participation in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to develop post-2026 basin operations. A formal notice for NEPA scoping is expected in 2023.

Author Information
Charles V. Stern
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Tribal sovereigns complain of being left out of #ColoradoRiver negotiations — @JFleck at Inkstain #COriver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

In a July 22 letter, the leaders of 14 Colorado River Basin Tribal governments complained to the U.S. Department of Interior about being left out – again – of the current negotiations around short terms Colorado River cutbacks:

Colorado River Basin Tribes express concern about lack of access to summer 2022 negotiations (p. 1)

View the entire document with DocumentCloud

At this point, a voluntary “2 to 4 MAF of additional #conservation” #ColoradoRiver deal by August 16, 2022 seems out of reach — @JFleck at Inkstain #COriver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the article on the Inkstain website (John Fleck):

Janet Wilson had a helpful story yesterday in the Desert Sun about California’s negotiations over its piece of the looming Colorado River cutbacks. Its bottom line is that California – the state with the largest Colorado River allocation – is talking about kicking in 500,000 acre feet of water. Or maybe it’s really just 400,000 acre feet of water – as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Bill Hasencamp told her, paraphrased, the negotiations are fluid and numbers could change.

A reminder of what Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told senators just seven weeks ago:

4 million acre feet is obviously out of reach. It always was.

But if Wilson’s numbers about California’s contributions are right – and she’s a good reporter, we have every reason to believe they’re in the ballpark – 2 million acre feet of additional conservation is beyond the grasp of a voluntary deal as well.

The arithmetic is straightforward.

The Upper Basin has said “not our problem“.

Nevada’s share of the river is so tiny that its contribution is couch cushion change, a rounding error.

That leaves, in round numbers, 1.5 million acre feet of water to come out of Arizona just to get to Touton’s bottom line number for additional conservation. That would require completely drying up the Central Arizona Project canal. (CAP is taking 1.031maf this year, and averaged ~1.4maf over the previous fives years). I’m frequently surprised by Arizona, but it seems unlikely that they’ll agree to a voluntary deal that dries up the CAP canal. If that’s where we end up, Arizona’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement will be to just make the feds do it, make them take the heat. (Worth noting that FiveThirtyEight has Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly slightly favored to hold his seat. Water politics is high stakes politics.)

Combine that with the reality that Arizona’s Native American communities, major water rights holders, have complained that they’ve been cut out of this entire process, according to a July 22 letter just surfaced.

I can imagine creative accounting that might allow everyone to grin through their teeth and count water moved down to Lake Powell from Flaming Gorge and other Upper Basin reservoirs as part of the 2 million. That’s pretty clearly not what Touton called for in June. It’s not “additional conservation”. But it might create some space for a face-saving deal.

Whether that would be enough to protect us from dead pool is another question.

A REMINDER OF THE STAKES

The Bureau of Reclamation’s most recent “minimum probable” model runs show Lake Powell dropping below power pool – unable to generate electricity, and forced to move water through bypass tubes that Reclamation has made clear it does not trust – by October 2023.

Under that same scenario, Lake Mead drops to elevation 992 feet above sea level over the next 24 months.

(Trust me, having to type a Lake Mead elevation level without having to use a comma made me clench.)

At that point, a lack of water will make massive cuts a self-executing reality. We’ve drained our buffer. You can’t use water that doesn’t exist.

Upper #ColoradoRiver leaders push back against federal ask for #conservation — KUNC #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Luke Runyon). Here’s an excerpt:

State engineer Kevin Rein oversees the state’s water rights system. In a meeting with the Colorado River District board on Jul. 19, Rein assured members he would not be mandating conservation among their municipal, industrial and agricultural users. The district covers 15 counties in Western Colorado.

“There is nothing telling me to curtail water rights. There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve,” Rein said…

Colorado officials have argued the blame for the river’s supply-demand imbalance rests with California, Arizona and Nevada. Some doubt the federal government’s authority to demand the states use less water. The 1922 Colorado River Compact, a document that inflated available water within the entire basin, apportioned 7.5 million acre-feet of water to the river’s Upper and Lower Basins, respectively. In recent decades Lower Basin uses have exceeded that amount, while Upper Basin uses have remained below the apportionment.

“We’re way under our allocation of 7.5 million acre-feet a year,” Rein said. “So what does that mean? ‘We need to conserve.’ To me, that means that we don’t change our administration at the state engineer’s office.”

Rein said he has mandated water use reductions in other Colorado watersheds under the compact administration legal process. But the Colorado River has avoided that fate so far, he said. Without a solid legal basis, Rein said his hands are tied.

“If you have a beneficial use for water and you have a right to water and the right is physically and legally available, then I would encourage people to use your water right. It’s a public resource. It’s a property right. It’s part of our economy. It’s part of your livelihood,” Rein said.

“Somebody might tell me I’m wrong someday, but right now, I don’t see a legal basis for asking people to curtail,” Rein said…

Colorado River District general manager Andy Mueller said he wanted to know how the federal government was planning to tighten how it accounts for water use in the Lower Basin, including evaporation from reservoirs, a longtime complaint of Upper Basin leaders.

“It is extremely frustrating to see system water utilized for the benefit of the three Lower Basin states and us taking a hit for it. And now we are for the first time, frankly, about to be injured by it,” Mueller said.

Upper Basin leaders have resisted calls for specific amounts of conservation on the Colorado River. In a plan released last week, the four Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — instead call for the reinstatement of a conservation program that paid farmers to forgo water supplies, first tested in 2014.

#ColoradoRiver Basin farms stunted by #megadrought, as more sacrifice lies ahead — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette #COriver #aridification

Palisade peach orchard

Click the link to read the in-depth article on the Colorado Springs Gazette website (Mary Shinn). Click through for the whole article and to view the photo gallery. Here’s an excerpt:

The same uncertainty facing [Nancy] Caywood’s family farm in Pinal County is widespread across the Colorado River basin following a Bureau of Reclamation announcement the seven states reliant on the river, including Colorado, need to conserve an additional 2-million to 4 million acre-feet of water next year to preserve the integrity of the stricken system, including power production in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Colorado Springs Utilities relies on the river for 70% of its water and so it’s possible the community could be asked to conserve more as the whole basin tries to balance the needs of farms, cities and industry. Utilities has not received any clear direction from the state or other agencies yet and is not expecting much change next year, Kalsoum Abbasi, Utilities’ planning supervisor for water conveyance, told the board in July…

On Colorado’s Western Slope, growers with more junior rights have faced drought-driven uncompensated cutbacks and shutoffs in recent years and officials with the Colorado Water Conservation Board say that’s why major cuts to meet the Bureau’s goals should come from the Lower Basin states, such as California. Upper Basin states Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming cut 1 million acre-feet of water use between 2020 and 2021 because of the drought conditions. The board did not have an estimate of how much had been cut in Colorado alone.

“Our water users are already really, really cut back,” said Amy Ostdiek, chief of the interstate, federal and water information section for the conservation board. For example, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Southwest Colorado fallowed more than 4,000 acres because of drought conditions…

However, Colorado and the other Upper Basin states could achieve greater water savings by paying growers to leave land unplanted, a step known as demand management. Colorado policy makers want to avoid policies that permanently remove water rights from farmland, a practice known as buy and dry. The Upper Basin states said in a recent letter to the Bureau of Reclamation they would “consider” implementing demand management to meet the bureau’s goals. The bureau’s call for millions of acre-feet in conservation followed the first-ever Tier 1 cutbacks on the river that hit the Central Arizona Project hard this summer, showing how water shortages can play out…

Aerial photo – Central Arizona Project. The Central Arizona Project is a massive infrastructural project that conveys water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona, and is central to many of the innovative partnerships and exchanges that the Gila River Indian Community has set up. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=326265

As part of the Central Arizona Project deal, Arizona “would suffer losses before California would have to give up one drop of water,” said University of Arizona Professor Jeff Silvertooth, who has researched the profitability and sustainability of Southwest agriculture. “They never envisioned the possibility of what we are experiencing today.”

Climate change has heightened the problem. While the basin has seen droughts with similar levels of low precipitation in the past, higher average temperatures further stress the environment, said Russ Schumacher, state climatologist…

…the Central Arizona Project’s regular supply was cut by 30%, or about 500,000 acre-feet this year. The project cut agricultural deliveries by 65%, while urban areas received their full water deliveries. The cuts left farmers who are reliant on the canal to fallow large portions of land in Pinal County, near Caywood’s farm…While Central Arizona Project users are among the most junior on the river, Yuma, Ariz., a powerhouse of leafy green vegetable production, and Mesa County in Colorado, famous for Palisade peaches, are among the most senior. Still, some of those users have made water conservation changes…

Colorado utilities support new approaches to conservation, because water saved by the Lower Basin can help preserve the levels in Lake Powell, said Todd Hartman, a spokesman for Denver Water. More study is needed to see how useful the N-Drip system would be in Colorado…Max Schmidt, with the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, said he expects water will have to leave the Western Slope to meet cities’ needs. He noted that in the Grand Valley, development typically happens on less productive farmland that already has water rights. But on the Front Range development has relied heavily on water from other basins.

Orchard Mesa Irrigation District power plant near Palisade. Water from Colorado’s snowpack is distributed across the region through a complex network of dams, pipelines and irrigation canals. Photo credit: Orchard Mesa Irrigation District

#Colorado, #NewMexico struggle to save the blistered #RioGrande, with lessons for other #drought-strapped rivers — @WaterEdCO

The Rio Grande (Rio del Norte) as mapped in 1718 by Guillaume de L’Isle. By Guillaume Delisle – Library of Congress Public Domain Site: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3700.ct000666, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7864745

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Albuquerque, New Mexico — In late June, the mornings start out at 80 degrees but temperatures quickly soar past 100. Everywhere fields are brown and the high desert bakes in glaring sunlight. But there is one long, narrow corridor of green here: the Rio Grande.

Jason Casuga, CEO of the Middle Rio Grande Water Conservancy District, and Anne Marken, water operations manager, have been watching the river’s water gauges around the clock for days, knowing that entire stream segments below Albuquerque may go dry at any time. If rains come over the weekend, everyone will relax, at least for a while.

Side channels were excavated by the Bureau of Reclamation along the Rio Grande where it passes through the Rhodes’ property to provide habitat for the endangered silvery minnow. (Dustin Armstrong/U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation)

If that moisture doesn’t come, Casuga and Marken must move quickly to release to these dry stream segments whatever meager water they can squeeze from their drought-strapped system, giving the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation time to save as many endangered silvery minnow as they can from almost certain death.

“We only have so much time to start the drying operation,” Casuga said, referring to a practice where his district shifts water in its system so that Reclamation can rescue the fish before the stream goes completely dry and leaves them stranded to suffocate.

The Rio Grande Basin spans Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

“If we don’t do it, you might see 30 miles of the entire river go dry. It’s stressful. We’ve been doing this controlled hopscotching for weeks now.”

The Middle Rio Grande district, created in 1925, is responsible for delivering waters to farmers as well as helping the state meet its obligations to deliver water to Texas under the 1938 Rio Grande Compact. It coordinates management activity with Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of engineers on a river system that includes five major reservoirs and hundreds of miles of canals.

A crippled river

The district’s liquid juggling act is becoming increasingly common, and it is painful for everyone to watch, from the 19 tribes and six pueblos whose homes have lined its banks for thousands of years, to the 6 million people and 200,000 acres of irrigated lands that rely on the river across the three-state river basin.

“The worry is heavy,” said Glenn Tenorio, a tribal member of the Santa Ana Pueblo north of Albuquerque, who also serves as the pueblo’s water resources manager.

The Pueblo of Santa Ana lies just north of Albuquerque on the Rio Grande. Credit: Creative Commons


Under the terms of the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas share the river’s flows before it reaches Mexico. They have watched drought cripple the river, with flows dropping by 35% over the last 20 years.

But unlike other Western states, in New Mexico water users share both supplies and shortages, and that’s a lesson other states might benefit from, experts say. In most Western states where the prior appropriation system, known as first-in-time, first-in-right exists, water users with younger, more junior water rights are routinely cut off in times of shortage, creating expensive, conflict-ridden water management scenarios.

Water scarcity grows

Still, in response to growing water scarcity, Texas sued New Mexico in 2013, alleging that groundwater pumping in the southern part of New Mexico was harming its own share of water in the river. After being heard briefly before a special master for the U.S. Supreme Court last year, the three states—Colorado is also named in the case—agreed to pause the lawsuit while they conduct mediation talks.

Want more background on the Rio Grande Compact?
Check out this fact sheet

Whether the talks will succeed isn’t clear yet. In addition to the groundwater dispute, New Mexico owes Texas roughly 125,000 acre-feet of surface water from the river and, under the terms of the compact, cannot store any water in its reservoirs until Texas is repaid.

But there is some hope emerging, as Colorado embarks on a $30 million land fallowing program to reduce its Rio Grande water use and as New Mexico seeks new federal rules that will allow it to store more water and re-operate its federal reservoirs.

Abiquiu Reservoir, in northern New Mexico, is one of several that are being drained by the mega drought. Credit: Mitch Tobin, Water Desk, March 2022

Page Pegram helps oversee Rio Grande river issues for New Mexico’s Office of the State Engineer. Unlike Colorado, New Mexico has never had the resources to quantify its various water users’ share of the river. Until now, the state has survived on healthy snowpacks and summer rains.

Though the drought has lasted more than 20 years, in the last five years, Pegram has seen the system deteriorate significantly.

“We’re seeing a fundamental change in water availability,” she said. “Suddenly, everything is different. Temperatures are higher, evaporation is higher, and soil moisture is lower. It’s new enough that we can’t pinpoint exactly what’s happening and we don’t have time to study the issue. It’s already happened.”

The headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Colorado. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

In the beginning

The Rio Grande has its genesis in the lush high mountain tundra above Creede, Colo., flowing down through Monte Vista and Alamosa, making its way along Highway 287, crossing the Colorado state line as it flows toward Santa Fe and Albuquerque, then dropping down to the tiny town of Truth and Consequences before it hits the Texas state line. At that point it travels through El Paso and forms the border between Texas and Mexico until it hits the Gulf of Mexico.

It is in the headwaters region in Creede where the majority of its flows originate. And while the hay meadows outside Creede are lush, and the streams cold and full, water has become so scarce even here that if homeowners want to drill a water well, they have to buy water rights from elsewhere to ensure those farther downstream on the river have adequate supplies.

Creede circa 1920

Zeke Ward has lived in Creede for some 40 years, and has served on citizen advisory boards that oversee the river, water quality, and mine residue cleanup efforts.

He said the headwaters area has largely been protected from the most severe aspects of the mega-drought gripping the Rio Grande Basin and much of the American West because there are few people here and 80% of the land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service.

Still, he says, the river is vital to the region’s small tourist economy. “We don’t have a ski area,” he said. “So we have to make a living in 100 days, and that’s not easy.”

Follow the river below Creede and soon you enter the San Luis Valley, where irrigated agriculture dates back at least to the 1500s and where the combination of drought and overpumping have sapped an expansive, delicate series of aquifers. So much water has been lost that the state has issued warnings that it will begin shutting wells down if the aquifer, which is fed from the Rio Grande and its tributaries, is not restored within 10 years.

Craig Cotten is the top Colorado regulator on the Rio Grande and has overseen state and community efforts to make sure Colorado can deliver enough water to fulfill its legal obligations to New Mexico and Texas.

Craig Cotten, Colorado’s top regulator on the Rio Grande, stands on a ditch that delivers water to New Mexico to help meet Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact of 1938. Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

To do so, Cotten routinely cuts water supplies to growers, based on where they fall in the valley’s system of water rights. Right now, Colorado is meeting its compact obligations, but the cost to the valley is high and the cost of failure higher still.

“The farmers are struggling with reaching sustainability,” Cotten said. “If they don’t get there, wells will be shut down.”

But Cotten said he is cautiously optimistic that the Rio Grande can be brought back to health as the climate continues to dry out, in part because there are new tools to manage its lower flows more precisely, including sophisticated airborne measuring systems that show with greater accuracy how much snow has fallen in remote areas and how much water that snow contains.

Knowing more precisely how much water is in the system means the state can capture more when flows are higher, and see more accurately when streamflows will drop. Previously, snow-water estimates have varied widely, miscalculating by as much as 70% or more how much water is in a given mountain region.

In addition, this year Colorado lawmakers approved $30 million to begin a program that will pay San Luis Valley farmers to permanently fallow their lands, something that will relieve stress on the aquifer and the Rio Grande and which could stave off a mass well shutdown.

Plenty to learn

Cleave Simpson manages the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa and is also a Colorado state senator.

He believes that the work on the upper Rio Grande holds important lessons for the three states sharing its water and others in the American West.

The people of the Rio Grande Basin have been living with whatever the river can produce for years now, and effectively sharing in any shortages. In addition, though the San Luis Valley aquifers are deteriorating, the farmers in the region have taxed themselves and used some $70 million from those tax revenues to fallow land, something that more and more experts agree will need to be done everywhere, including in the crisis-ridden Colorado River Basin.

“You don’t have very far to look to see your future on the Colorado River,” Simpson said. “Just look at the Rio Grande.”

Sunrise March 16, 2022 San Luis Valley with Mount Blanca in the distance. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

Farmers in the San Luis Valley, including Simpson, are also testing new crops, such as quinoa and industrial hemp, which use less water than potatoes, a longstanding local mainstay.

“I don’t think I can keep doing what our family has been doing for four generations,” Simpson said. “I raise alfalfa because my dad and my grandpa did. But now I am raising 50 acres of industrial hemp for fiber … it certainly uses less water than my alfalfa crop.”

Daily prayers

The work in the San Luis Valley, including the new $30 million paid fallowing program, is a major step toward bringing the Rio Grande Basin back into balance.

And while “fallowing” is a term somewhat new to the water world, it is a management practice some of the oldest users of the river, its tribes, have practiced for millennia.

Tenorio’s family has lived in Santa Ana Pueblo for thousands of years. He said tribal members have learned to balance their needs with whatever the river provides. These days that’s not easy, but he said they focus on the future, to ensure their communities can grow and that their irrigated lands continue to produce the corn, melons, grains, beans and alfalfa that they’ve raised as long as anyone can remember.

“We only can do with what we’re given from Mother Nature,” Tenorio said.

Like other tribes in New Mexico, the Santa Ana Pueblo’s water rights have never been quantified, but because they are so old, they get their water first based on how much is available.

Looking ahead, Tenorio is hopeful that better coordinated use of New Mexico’s few reservoirs, as well as more efficient irrigation systems, will allow everyone to adapt to the drier environment.

“We pray every day for our farmers and everyone who lives on the river,” he said.

Wagon Wheel Gap on the Rio Grande, by Wheeler, D. N. (Dansford Noble), 1841-1909.jpg. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Unlocking manmade infrastructure
Casuga, of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, describes himself as the CEO of bad news. But he said he has some hope that the river can be better managed.

If new rules to operate the federal reservoirs are eventually approved, he says New Mexico could easily meet its water obligations to Texas. An effort is now underway in Washington, D.C., to make that happen.

“This river is highly developed from a human standpoint,” Casuga said. “We as men impact the river so we have to unlock this manmade infrastructure to help it.”

Until then though, the day-to-day reality of operating the river remains complex. In June, when the temperatures were soaring, the rain did come, but it offered only a brief respite for the Rio Grande.

This week, as the searing heat returned, the river began drying out, forcing Casuga and Marken to launch their elaborate hopscotch game again.

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.

A #ColoradoRiver Glossary: Jargon Explained — Circle of Blue

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

Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website (Brett Walton):

These are perilous times in the troubled Colorado River basin, a make-or-break moment in which some of the nation’s fastest growing and most arid states begin to reckon with a drier future.

The next month will be especially intense.

Several weeks ago, in the face of another paltry runoff forecast, the Bureau of Reclamation issued an ultimatum to the basin’s seven states: to keep key reservoirs Mead and Powell from crashing, develop a plan by mid-August to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water in the next year — or the Bureau would make the cuts as it sees fit.

Those are astounding figures. On the higher end, that amount of conservation is one-third of the Colorado’s recent annual flow. It’s also about as much water as California is allocated from the river.

The plan’s due date coincides with the publication of a highly anticipated and consequential Bureau of Reclamation report. The so-called 24-month study — tentatively scheduled for August 15 — determines how much water Mead and Powell will release in 2023. It also determines how much water Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico, which shares the basin, will be required to forgo next year.

Discussions about the Colorado River can resemble a doctor’s visit: filled with technical jargon, unfamiliar acronyms, and the anxiety that comes from incomplete understanding.

This glossary is an attempt to demystify the language. It outlines key terms and phrases and their context — so as the basin chatter heats up you can keep your DCP and DROA actions straight and know who’s taking ICS.

Map credit: AGU

Upper/Lower Basin

In terms of law and management, the Colorado River basin is split in two.

The upper basin states are Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming (plus a tiny sliver of Arizona that is essentially Navajo Nation land). The lower basin is Arizona, California, and Nevada. Separate agreements bring Mexico into the mix.

Las Vegas Lake Mead intake schematic, courtesy SNWA.

Dead Pool

All reservoirs have limits. Dead pool, an evocative term, is the ultimate limit. It’s the point at which water can no longer be released downstream because a reservoir falls below its lowest outlet pipe.

For Lake Mead, dead pool is elevation 895 feet. For Powell, 3,370 feet.

Today, the reservoirs are at 1,040 feet and 3,536 feet, both at about 27 percent of full capacity.

Even at dead pool some water might remain in the reservoir, but it can’t flow without extraordinary assistance. Las Vegas, in a proactive step, invested $1.3 billion in an intake pipe and low-elevation pumping station that allow the city to draw water from Mead when the reservoir is at dead pool.

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.

Minimum Power Pool

A second limit for a reservoir, minimum power pool refers to the water level required to generate hydropower.

This is the level near the location of the penstocks. Penstocks are the pipes that move water from the reservoir to the power-generating turbines.

For Powell, minimum power pool is 3,490 feet. The Bureau of Reclamation is attempting to prevent Powell from dropping below this level.

For Mead, minimum power pool is 950 feet.

Natural Flow is an estimate of how much water would have naturally run past Lee’s Ferry if there were no dams or diversions upstream. It is calculated using the actual flow, historic flows, and upstream consumptive uses. Bureau of Reclamation modeling is complete to 2019; I extrapolated 2020 and 2021 based on Lake Powell inflows. The 1922 Colorado River Compact gave 7.5 million acre feet to the Upper Basin, 7.5 MAF to the Lower Basin, and (in the ‘40s) 1.5 MAF to Mexico, based on early 1900s observations. As the graph above shows, the average flows dropped below that level a decade later and stayed there aside from a brief respite in the 1980s. Source: USBR

Operational Neutrality

The Bureau of Reclamation took an unprecedented step in May, announcing that it would reduce releases from Powell to Mead this year by 480,000 acre-feet.

The move helped keep Powell above minimum power pool. But it came with a worrisome side effect for the lower basin states: less water sent downstream to Mead.

They have good reason to worry. Depriving Mead of that water meant a greater likelihood of a more severe shortage tier for the lower basin next year. Mead, in fact, has plummeted this year, falling 21 feet since April.

The states and the feds agreed to a work-around. To maintain “operational neutrality” the shortage tiers for next year would be calculated as if the 480,000 acre-feet had been released to Mead. In other words, on paper the water is in Mead…but in reality it sits upstream in Powell.

Every bit of water matters these days. Currently one foot of elevation change in Mead is equal to about 70,000 acre-feet. So the 480,000 acre-feet held back in Powell corresponds to roughly 6.8 feet in Mead.

How long will this shadow accounting be in place? Becki Bryant, a Reclamation spokesperson, told Circle of Blue that the agency is discussing that matter with the states. They hope to reach an agreement by the publication of the August 24-month study.

24-Month Study

The name explains its purpose. Published every month, this Bureau of Reclamation study projects reservoir elevations in the Colorado River basin for following 24 months.

The pivotal edition is the August study, which sets the operating conditions for the reservoirs for the next year. Here’s how it works:

Reclamation looks at the projected elevations of Mead and Powell at the beginning of the upcoming year. Their elevations determine how much water flows from Powell to Mead. There are complex charts that describe the scenarios and dictate the decision.

In turn, Mead’s elevation determines if the lower basin states are in a shortage tier, which requires water supply cuts from the river.

Images from the NASA Earth Observatory released in early July focused on the northern arm of Lake Mead and its decline from 2000 until now. As western states are being asked for solutions to keep Lake Mead and Lake Powell from hitting critical low points, there is more talk about what it would take to pump water from the Mississippi River to western states as well. (Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory)

Shortage Tiers

When Mead drops below certain elevations, the lower basin states and Mexico must reduce their withdrawals from the river.

The shortage tiers have evolved as the basin’s water supply imbalance has become more pronounced.

The initial tiers were set in 2007, in what are known as the interim guidelines. The tiers were updated in 2019 in the DCP. What’s that, you ask?

Colorado River drought contingency plans signing ceremony in May 2019. Photo: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

DCP

Short for drought contingency plan, the DCP was approved by the basin states and the federal government in 2019.

The DCP updated the shortage tiers by increasing the amount of water cuts that lower basin states would take as Mead drops. For the first time, California agreed to take cuts, but not until Mead drops below 1,045.

In 2022, the lower basin is in a Tier 1 shortage. Arizona is taking most of the cuts.

What about the upper basin? Those states signed DROA…

Lees Ferry, located 15 miles downstream of Glen Canyon Dam is the dividing line between the upper and lower Colorado River basins. Photo/Allen Best

DROA

Short for drought response operations agreement, this is the upper basin’s portion of the DCP. It outlines actions that the upper basin will take to preserve water levels in Powell.

Arizona Rivers Map via Geology.com.

Shortage Tier 2A

One of two possible shortage tiers for 2023. This tier occurs when the August 24-month study projects that Mead will be between 1,050 feet and 1,045 feet on January 1 of the following year.

Mead is on the cusp right now. Alan Butler, a Reclamation hydraulic engineer, said on July 13 that Mead is projected to be at elevation 1,045.9 feet in January, after accounting for operational neutrality.

If a 2A tier is declared, Arizona continues to take the largest cut. It would forgo 592,000 acre-feet, about four-fifths of the total cuts shared by the lower basin and Mexico.

California Rivers via Geology.com

Shortage Tier 2B

This is the other possible outcome, which would take place if Mead is projected to be between 1,045 feet and 1,040 feet.

In this tier, California takes its first shortage cuts. Though Arizona, having to cut 640,000 acre-feet, would still feel the most pain, California would be required to cut 200,000 acre-feet.

These shortage tier numbers do not include Reclamation’s mandate for 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of additional savings, nor do they include the 500-plus plan.

Aerial photo – Central Arizona Project. The Central Arizona Project is a massive infrastructural project that conveys water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona, and is central to many of the innovative partnerships and exchanges that the Gila River Indian Community has set up. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=326265

500-Plus Plan

An agreement from lower basin states to conserve an additional 500,000 acre-feet in 2022 and 2023 beyond what was required in the Tier 1 shortage declaration for 2022. The states and federal government contributed $200 million combined, money that will pay water users to leave their allocations in Mead.

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.

Protection Volumes

When Reclamation ordered the basin states to plan for 2 million to 4 million acre-feet in additional conservation, Camille Touton, the agency’s leader, said it was to protect “critical levels” in Mead and Powell.

What are those critical levels? Reclamation analyzed two scenarios. But the conservation mandate was derived from the scenario that keeps more water in the reservoirs.

That scenario is Mead above 1,020 feet and Powell above 3,525 feet. The “protection volumes” are the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet needed to preserve the reservoirs above those thresholds.

Filtration pipes at Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s wastewater recycling demonstration plant. (Source: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California)

ICS

An acronym that stands for intentionally created surplus, which acts like a savings account in Mead.

Lower basin water users can accrue ICS when they undertake conservation projects that permanently reduce consumption. Combined, the lower basin states have just accumulated shy of 3 million acre-feet of ICS credits stored in Mead.

Some of that water will be drawn this year. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a large wholesale agency, anticipates taking 175,000 acre-feet of ICS, according to spokesperson Bob Muir. This is to offset reduced allocations from the State Water Project, a canal system that moves water from north to south in California.

Navajo Dam operations update (July 28, 2022): Bumping releases down to 400 cfs #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to continued forecast precipitation, 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 today, July 28th, at 4:00 PM.

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.

New in Science: What Will it Take to Stabilize the #ColoradoRiver? — Colorado River Research Group #COriver #aridification

Average end-of-year combined Lake Powell and Lake Mead storage is shown, assuming hydrologic conditions of the Millennium Drought continue. Results show combined reservoir contents using a range of Upper Basin consumptive use limits (colored ribbons) along with a range of Lower Basin maximum consumptive use reductions (line styles) triggered when the combined storage falls below 15 million acre-feet (MAF). The status quo lines use the 2016 Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) projections and existing elevation-based shortage triggers. All water use and shortage values are annual volumes (MAF/year).

Click the link to read the release on the Utah State University website (Kevin Wheeler):

The Colorado River is in trouble—Lakes Powell and Mead, the two major reservoirs fed by the river, reached record lows this year nearing 25% capacity. An ongoing megadrought, impacts from climate change and systematic overuse have created a deep management crisis. Although there is growing public acknowledgement that cuts in consumptive use are inevitable and policy changes are needed, renegotiation of the rules governing this critical shared river are fraught with complexity and impeded by competing priorities between states.

In a new policy forum commentary in the journal Science (Free Access Link) researchers from the Center for Colorado River Studies describe the political history leading up to the current management crisis and present results from innovative research to offer perspective on what is needed to stabilize or reverse the decline of reservoir storage. Using adaptations to the Colorado River Simulation System, the researchers quantify the magnitude of consumptive use cuts necessary to balance the system, maintain power generation and secure water supplies if the current drought persists.

The new commentary identifies combinations of Upper Basin consumptive use limitations and Lower Basin reductions necessary to stabilize reservoir storage levels. If Upper Basin water use remains at current levels or increases (i.e., 4.0 to 4.5 million acre-feet per year), then water use in the Lower Basin must be reduced immediately by 2.0 to 3.0 million acre-feet per year to even maintain the combined Powell and Mead storage at their current depleted levels. Not achieving these critical objectives will lead to further decline of system storage, and these commitments must be sustained, the authors said.

There are many possible ways to reduce use, said the authors. A continuation of the current 23-year-long drought will require difficult management decisions in any event. Implementing, or even accelerating, the policy changes necessary to stabilize the Colorado River system requires well-grounded insight to project the impacts of those policies on the system. The reservoirs can be stabilized under specific runoff conditions, but a critical change needed is triggering reductions in use based on the combined storage of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, said Kevin Wheeler, lead author on the commentary.

The research shows that current policies can’t stabilize the Colorado River if the drought continues, however there are various consumptive use strategies that could—if these strategies are applied swiftly. Although the proposed limits and reductions in consumptive use being considered may seem like a political impossibility at present, they will become inevitable if hydrologic conditions persist, said Wheeler [ed. emphasis mine].

Link to the Colorado River Compact on the Reclamation website.

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.

Navajo Dam operations update: Bumping down to 500 cfs July 27, 2022 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Humpback chub

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to continued forecast precipitation, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs for today, July 27th, at 4:00 PM.

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.

Reclamation celebrates 120th Anniversary with ribbon cutting event for the Lower #YellowstoneRiver Fish Bypass Channel

Photo of the Lower Yellowstone Fish Passage Project via USBR.

Click the link to read the release on the Reclamation website (Brittany Jones):

The Bureau of Reclamation will continue its celebration of its 120th Anniversary with a ribbon cutting ceremony for the completion of the Lower Yellowstone Intake Diversion Dam Fish Passage Project on July 26, 2022. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will co-host the ribbon cutting ceremony located on Joe’s Island near Glendive, Montana.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton, U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Northwestern Division Commander Colonel Geoff Van Epps and the Omaha District Commander Colonel Mark Himes will attend the ceremony to commemorate Reclamation’s 120th year of providing water to the West and to celebrate the success of this, three-year, $44 million fish bypass construction project. The success of the project is due, in part, to the joint efforts and contributions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation to improve the fish passage structure for the endangered pallid sturgeon and other native species around the Lower Yellowstone Intake Diversion Dam.

Construction on the fish bypass channel began in April 2019 and was completed with the removal of the cofferdam on April 9, 2022. The 2.1-mile-long channel was constructed as part of the Lower Yellowstone Intake Diversion Dam Fish Passage Project that was designed to address fish passage concerns associated with the diversion dam.

President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law makes a $200 million investment in the National Fish Passage Program over the next five years to conserve fish habitat and advance projects like this one.

“We are excited to celebrate the success of this interagency project and recognize Reclamation’s major contributions to reclaiming America’s 17 Western states over the last 120 years,” said Brent Esplin, Missouri Basin and Arkansas-Rio Grande-Texas Regional Director. “In addition to bolstering conservation efforts of the prehistoric pallid sturgeon, Reclamation is committed to continuing the effective operation of the Lower Yellowstone Project for local irrigators who help feed the nation.”

Pallid sturgeon

In 1990, the pallid sturgeon was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation worked in partnership to determine the effects of the Lower Yellowstone Project on the endangered species. Two primary issues were identified; fish entrainment into the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation District’s main irrigation canal and fish not being able to successfully pass over the Intake Diversion Dam to upstream spawning reaches. A new screened canal headworks structure was completed in 2012 that addressed the fish entrainment issue. The new weir in conjunction with the completed fish bypass channel will provide passage for the endangered fish and open approximately 165 river miles of potential spawning and larval drift habitat in the Yellowstone River.

While this portion of the project is complete, construction in the area is ongoing. The contractor, Ames Construction Inc., is still actively working on Joe’s Island to restore construction roads back to natural vegetation. The contractor will rehabilitate sections of Road 551, located off State Highway 16, and Canal Road, both on the north side of the Yellowstone River at Intake, Montana. Joe’s Island is expected to remain closed through the Fall of 2022 when all construction related activities will be complete.

“This is a momentous occasion more than ten years in the making,” said Col. Geoff Van Epps, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Northwestern Division. “The collaboration on this project presented unique challenges and opportunities to meet conservation and recovery responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act while continuing to serve the needs of stakeholders that use the river. The professionalism and mutual respect of all involved provided a healthy, dynamic work climate in which to operate to achieve common goals and objectives.”

The Lower Yellowstone Project is a 58,000-acre irrigation project located in eastern Montana and western North Dakota. The project is operated and maintained by the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation District Board of Control under contract with Reclamation. The project includes the intake diversion dam, a screened headworks structure, 71 miles of main canal, 225 miles of laterals and 118 miles of drains, three pumping plants on the main canal, four supplemental pumps on the Yellowstone River and one supplemental pump on the Missouri River.

Media representatives interested in attending the ceremony should RSVP to Brittany Jones at (406) 247-7611 or bjones@usbr.gov, no later than Friday, July 22. For media unable to attend, photos, videos and a news release will be available following the ceremony.

Map of the Yellowstone River watershed in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota in the north-central USA, that drains to the Missouri River. By Background layer attributed to DEMIS Mapserver, map created by Shannon1 – Background and river course data from http://www2.demis.nl/mapserver/mapper.asp, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9355543

Navajo Dam operations update: Bumping down to 600 cfs #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Since the late 1980’s, this waterfall formed from interactions among Lake Powell reservoir levels and sedimentation that redirected the San Juan River over a 20-foot high sandstone ledge. Until recently, little was known about its effect on two endangered fishes. Between 2015-2017, more than 1,000 razorback sucker and dozens of Colorado pikeminnow were detected downstream of the waterfall. Credit: Bureau of Reclamation

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to continued forecast precipitation, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs for today, July 26th, at 4:00 PM.

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.

Does the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin Routinely Take Shortages in Dry Years? — InkStain.net #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the post on the InkStain.net website (John Fleck, Eric Kuhn, and Jack Schmidt):

As stakeholders negotiate the current crisis on the Colorado River, we believe the representatives of the states of the Upper Basin – our states – are making a dangerous argument.

Their premise is simple. With deep cutbacks needed, the Upper Basin states argue that their part of the watershed already routinely suffers water supply shortages in dry years. Without the luxury of large reservoir storage along the rim of the watershed that might store excess runoff in wet years and supplement supplies in dry years, the argument goes, the Upper Basin is limited by the actual mountain snowpack in any given year.

This is certainly true in many places. One of us (Fleck) lives in a community (Albuquerque, New Mexico) that has routinely seen supplies of trans-basin San Juan-Chama Project water shorted because of bad hydrology in a given year.

Montezuma Tunnel steel arches.

That is also the case for the oft-cited Dolores Water Conservancy District, which has junior water rights to the supply provided by McPhee Reservoir that is part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Dolores Project. In contrast, the adjacent Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company has pre-Colorado River Compact water rights and its access to the same water source is relatively unlimited. The argument of the Upper Basin states about using less water in dry times applies in many local settings, especially in the local context of prior appropriation water rights. The argument is certainly logical.

But when one considers the regional scale of the entire Upper Basin, the argument is not supported by the data in the Bureau of Reclamation’s Consumptive Uses and Losses reports.

Upper Colorado River Basin agricultural water use in wetter and drier years. Graph by Jack Schmidt, Utah State University

Importantly, a scatter plot of Upper Basin agricultural water use since 1981 shows, in general, the opposite of what is being claimed. While agricultural use varies greatly from to year, in general, use has been greater in dry years and less in wet years.

In this plot, the estimated natural flow at Lees Ferry (a good representation of whether any individual year was wet or dry) is plotted against the summed agricultural use of water by all of the Upper Basin states. This simple analysis provides results counter to the assertion of the Upper Colorado River Commission in the sense that agricultural use of water was greater in years of low natural flow at Lees Ferry and was less in years of high natural flow at Lees Ferry. Thus, this simple relationship indicates that agriculture uses less water in wet years and more water in dry years, which is exactly the opposite of the assertion by the Upper Basin community.

Upper Colorado River Basin water use over time. Graph by Jack Schmidt, Utah State University, based on USBR Consumptive Uses and Losses Reports

Another way of looking at this question is to consider the long term temporal trend. If the Upper Basin’s argument was correct, we would see a decline in agricultural water use in the 21st century, because the river’s flow shrank during the aridification of the 21st century. However, use has not decreased.

There are important nuances in the data. In the second year of some consecutive dry years like 2012-2013, the Upper Basin’s total consumptive use drops significantly, perhaps because local storage is depleted in the first year and doesn’t fully refill in the second year. This may be the situation in 2020-2021 as well.

Why do we view the argument as dangerous? Because Lower Basin interests can do the same math we have. They almost certainly already have. That leaves the Upper Basin with a fragile foundation for entering the negotiations over the compromises that are certain to be needed to modify the Colorado River’s allocation rules in the face of climate change.

Authors:

  • John Fleck is Writer in Residence at the Utton Transboundary Resources Center, University of New Mexico School of Law
  • Eric Kuhn is retired general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District based in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and spent 37 years on the Engineering Committee of the Upper Colorado River Commission
  • Jack Schmidt is Professor of Watershed Sciences and director of the Future of the Colorado River Project at Utah State University
  • Map credit: AGU

    As critical deadline nears, only half of a plan to save #ColoradoRiver water has been proposed: The most substantial #water cuts must come from #Arizona and #California, which use the most water, experts say — The #Denver Post #COriver #aridification

    A field of produce destined for grocery stores is irrigated near Yuma, Ariz., a few days before Christmas 2015. Photo/Allen Best – See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2016/02/09/drying-out-of-the-american-southwest/#sthash.7xXVYcLv.dpuf

    Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Conrad Swanson). Here’s an excerpt:

    Water officials from Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming published a plan this week to appease federal officials wanting to save water from the drying Colorado River but didn’t include any specific, mandatory cuts to save the precious resource. One critic called the Upper Colorado River Commission’s five-point plan “meaningless gibberish” but Jennifer Gimbel, senior water policy scholar at Colorado State University’s Water Center, said it’s the strongest action she’s seen from the states in recent years. The most substantial cuts and savings must come from Arizona and California, Gimbel noted, since those two states are taking more water than the Colorado River has to give…

    The upper-basin states are also limited in the amount of cuts they can make in water use because they’re dependent on the amount of snow and rain that falls each year, Sara Leonard, spokeswoman for the Upper Colorado River Commission, said. Now eyes turn to those lower-basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

    “We look forward to hearing what they may bring to the table,” Leonard said.

    U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials gave all seven states until August 15 to create a plan to save between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet of water. If they fail, the federal government will take control and impose its own cuts as water use exceeds supply and an ongoing megadrought continues to sap water from the Colorado River…

    Charles Collum, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, wrote to Reclamation officials on Monday noting that water users in the four states “already suffer chronic shortages” under current conditions but also outlining his organization’s five-point plan to help save more water. The plan includes considering a new demand management program, better measuring and monitoring water use, continuing existing “strict water management and administration” and developing a new “Drought Response Operations Plan.”

    …the upper-basin states already live within their water allotment, Leonard added, and they cut water use by 25% last year.

    “Meanwhile, Lower Basin uses have not been reduced despite the unprecedented drought impacting the Basin,” Leonard said in an email.

    Those states, particularly Arizona and California, are using nearly 10 million acre-feet each year, more than they’re legally allotted. As of Friday, lower-basin states had yet to put forth any plan of their own.

    #Wyoming options limited in #ColoradoRiver #drought effort: Under a federal deadline to commit additional #water to downstream states, Wyoming officials say they can’t get specific about volumes — @WyoFile #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification

    A paddler plies the placid waters of the upper Green River, with the Bridger Wilderness of the Wind River Mountains as a backdrop. The Green River is the main tributary to the troubled Colorado River. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

    Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile.com website (Dustin Bleizeffer):

    Wyoming joined the three other Upper Colorado River Basin states this week in telling federal officials they will take on additional water conservation efforts, but cannot commit to sending specific volumes of water to downstream states in 2023.

    “We stand ready to participate in and support efforts, across the Basin, to address the continuing dry hydrology and depleted storage conditions,” Upper Colorado River Commission Executive Director Charles Cullom stated in a July 18 letter to the Bureau of Reclamation. “The options the Upper Division States have available to protect critical reservoir elevations are limited.”

    The federal government in June asked for firm, voluntary water conservation commitments among all seven Colorado River Basin states that would keep an additional 2 million to 4 million acre feet of water flowing into Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2023. That’s the estimated volume of additional water necessary to keep the levels at Powell and Mead high enough to continue generating hydroelectricity next year. Wyoming is one of four upper-basin states governed by the Colorado River Compact.

    Map credit: AGU

    For comparison, the Flaming Gorge Reservoir straddling the Wyoming-Utah border has a storage capacity of 3.8 million acre feet of water.

    If unsatisfied with the voluntary commitments, the Bureau of Reclamation and Interior Department are prepared to use their federal authority to implement mandatory water conservation actions, according to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton. Touton issued the challenge to Colorado River Basin states in June, giving them 60 days to submit their voluntary water savings commitments. States have until Aug. 15 to respond.

    But for Wyoming, one of the four Upper Basin states along with Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, it’s impossible to either quantify or guarantee a specific volume of water savings under the ongoing Colorado River Drought Response Operations Plan, according to Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart.

    Mother Nature is the biggest reason behind that, he said. As a headwaters state, Wyoming’s role in the Colorado River system is that of a supplier, and that supply varies wildly depending on seasonal snowfall, evaporation and soil moisture — even more so than volumes of water used by ag producers, industry and municipalities.

    “We really are unable to commit to any specific volumes by the deadline [Aug. 15],” Gebhart said. “The [water supply estimating] process requires forecasting data that isn’t available until late winter and early spring of 2023.”

    Further, Gebhart added, the federal government lacks the authority to force those with water rights in Wyoming to curtail their water use, and the state is reluctant to do so because it would require coordination among thousands of water rights users. “We would much rather have the water rights users decide how they want to be involved than for us to go in and regulate.”

    Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah side near the dam in September 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

    Wyoming and other Upper Colorado River Basin states should feel an obligation to do a better job of accounting for their water use compared to seasonal water availability, Great Basin Water Network Executive Director Kyle Roerink said. That would help those states set more specific targets in contributing to the system-wide drought response plan.

    “For right now, the response from the Upper Basin states has been ‘hell no, we’re not giving up a drop,’” Roerink said.

    Colorado River crisis

    The continuing climate change-driven aridification across much of the West has depleted Colorado River reservoirs to historic lows, threatening hydroelectric power generation and water supplies to some 40 million people who rely on the river system. The surface elevation at Lake Powell fell to 3,522 feet in June, the lowest since construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s. Water intake ducts at the dam’s hydroelectric power station would no longer function if the lake’s surface level reaches 3,490 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

    Increasing demand for water throughout the southwest combined with climate forecasts suggest the situation will only become worse for those dependent on the river system.

    “The conditions we see today, and the potential risks we see on the horizon, demands that we take prompt action.” Interior Department Assistant Secretary Tanya Trujillo told reporters in May.

    Boat ramps stretch to the water at Flaming Gorge Reservoir in September 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

    The Bureau of Reclamation owns and operates a large complex of reservoirs along the Colorado River and its tributaries that serve as a water banking system. That includes the Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River in Wyoming and Utah. The Green River, the chief tributary to the Colorado River, originates in the Wind River Range, flows to Flaming Gorge Reservoir, then connects with the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

    In June, the Bureau of Reclamation announced it would release an extra 500,000 acre feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir this year, dropping the surface level by an estimated 15 feet sometime in the fall. The agency also plans to withhold 480,000 acre feet of water in Lake Powell, while Colorado River Lower Basin users agreed to increased water conservation measures.

    Federal and state officials worry that more drastic measures may be required to maintain critical water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead next year and for the foreseeable future.

    “Despite the actions taken by the [Bureau of Reclamation], significant and additional conservation actions are required to protect the Colorado River system infrastructure and the long-term stability of the system,” Commissioner Touton testified to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in June.

    More conservation tools
    Rather than committing to sending specific volumes of water downstream, the four Upper Basin states say they need the Interior’s help in pushing Congress to reauthorize the 2014 System Conservation Pilot Project. The program offered payments to water rights users who voluntarily cut back on their normal water diversions.

    “[Reauthorization] is a Congressional action,” Gebhart said. “And because [the SCPP program] is voluntary, we don’t know what amount of participation will occur.”

    U.S. Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) said they would bring a reauthorization bill to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this month.

    Other elements of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s counter-offer, or “5 Point Plan,” include asking the federal government to fund better water measurement, monitoring and reporting tools. Combined with reauthorizing the SCPP, Wyoming and other Upper Colorado River Basin states can build a more “permanent” program to manage water demand, according to Gebhart and the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office.

    Setting up a comprehensive conservation plan is the best Wyoming can offer for now, said Chris Brown, Wyoming Senior Assistant Attorney General for the office’s water division.

    “It’s something we can do to try to help the system within the time period that the [Bureau of Reclamation] commissioner asked for,” Brown said. “We’ll set that up and do what we can to try to incentivize reductions in use.”

    Committing specific volumes of water savings is “logistically impossible” to do by the Aug. 15 deadline, he added.

    Meantime, Gebhart said he and other Wyoming officials will continue to work within Gov. Mark Gordon’s Colorado River Working Group and with all the Colorado River Basin stakeholders in figuring out how Wyoming can help stabilize the river system under worsening conditions.

    DUSTIN BLEIZEFFER

    Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily… More by Dustin Bleizeffer

    West Drought Monitor map July 19, 2022.

    #Arizona #Water Leaders Lay Out Plans For Facing The Emerging Crisis In The #ColoradoRiver System — Arizona Department of Water Resources #COriver #aridification

    Graphic credit: USBR

    Click the link to read the article on the Arizona Department of Water Resources website:

    Arizona’s water leaders on July 13 laid out the path forward for contending with the extraordinarily difficult choices facing all of the Colorado River system’s water users over the next several months.

    In a sobering presentation to the Arizona Reconsultation Committee (the panel assembled to help develop an Arizona perspective on new operational guidelines for the river system by 2026), Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke described the unprecedented challenges facing the system currently.

    In addition, they gave the ARC members a first glimpse into the negotiations among Colorado River states on how they will contend with enormous water-delivery cutbacks.

    Alan Butler of the Bureau of Reclamation provided an analysis of the river system’s current hydrology and an analysis of the enormous volumes of water that must be left in Lake Powell and Lake Mead to protect the system from descending to below critical levels.

    Butler told the ARC members that the system currently is at 35 percent of capacity, down from 41 percent of capacity at this time last year. He observed that Lake Mead will almost certainly be in a Tier 2 shortage condition in 2023.

    “That continued declining condition is predicted to continue,” said Butler.

    On June 14, Bureau Commissioner Camille Touton said at a U.S. Senate committee hearing that the Colorado River system would need between 2-4 million acre-feet of additional conservation in the two reservoirs to achieve stability. Butler emphasized that his analysis of the critical surface levels that needed to be maintained did not suggest specific amounts that each Basin States would need to conserve.

    “We wanted to quantify the magnitude of what it would take to keep the reservoirs at those levels, but we’re not attributing that to anyone or any one basin.”

    CAP GM Cooke recalled Commissioner Touton’s comments to the Senate in which she observed that the necessary volumes could not be achieved by any one entity, such as agriculture or municipal water providers, or by any one state.

    Map of the Colorado River drainage basin, created using USGS data. By Shannon1 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

    She said that “everyone had to participate across the Basin, and that includes Upper Basin and Lower Basin.”

    “It doesn’t take much diving into the math to realize that this is the case,” said Cooke.

    By itself, he added, Arizona has committed to conserving more than 800,000 acre-feet in the system in 2022 alone, when all the various commitments like the Drought Contingency Plan and the 500+ Plan and volunteer efforts are totaled.

    Butler’s presentation illustrated one of the most serious developments affecting the system – the fact that very low volumes of water are making it into the river system despite near-normal volumes of snowpack in the river’s main source of moisture, the Colorado Rockies.

    Director Buschatzke laid out for the audience the actions that he anticipates will be needed to stabilize the system.

    He particularly recalled Commissioner Touton’s June 14 testimony in which she asserted the federal government’s commitment to protecting the system, even if the Basin States could not come to an agreement among themselves.

    “Her answer was, ‘yes, we will protect the system.”

    “We’re hearing a consistent story from the United States that they are going to protect the system, that everyone needs to contribute, and that while priorities will be respected to some degree, they are not going to be the outcome at the end of the day.”

    With considerable emphasis, Buschatzke also declared he would vigorously oppose any effort to make the “junior” status of most Central Arizona Project water the solution to the Colorado River system’s current crisis:

    “We in Arizona are not going to walk out of any room in which an agreed-upon outcome is CAP going to zero. That is not something that Ted and I will ever agree to.

    “If they want to force that outcome on us we will deal with those impacts, but we are not going to voluntarily send CAP into the mud.”

    (Sen. Mark Kelly Questions Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton During Hearing On Extreme Drought In The Western United States)

    Upper Division States and Upper #ColoradoRiver Commission Provide 5-Point Plan for Additional Protection Actions

    Map credit: AGU

    Click the link to read the UCRC letter on the Upper Colorado River Commsission website (Alyx Richards):

    Upper Division States 5 Point Plan for Additional Actions to Protect Colorado Storage Project Initial Units:

    Dear Commissioner Touton,

    The Upper Division States of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, through the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC), are writing in response to your request that the Colorado River Basin States take
    additional actions in response to the continuing drought and depleted system storage. During your testimony to the Senate Natural Resources Committee on June 14, 2022, you asked the Basin States to develop plans to provide an additional 2-4 million acre-feet (MAF) of water in 2023 to protect critical elevations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead. You also indicated that, absent such plans being developed by mid-August, the Bureau of Reclamation is prepared to take unilateral action under its existing authority to protect the system.

    The Upper Division States recognize that bringing the system into balance will require collaboration and efforts from all Basin States and water use sectors. Accordingly, we stand ready to participate in and support efforts, across the Basin, to address the continuing dry hydrology and depleted storage conditions. However, the options the Upper Division States have available to protect critical reservoir elevations are limited. The Upper Basin is naturally limited to the shrinking supply of the river, and previous drought response actions are
    depleting upstream storage by 661,000 acre-feet. Our water users already suffer chronic shortages under current conditions resulting in uncompensated priority administration, which includes cuts to numerous present perfected rights in each of our states.

    In order to proactively support critical infrastructure and resources related to the Colorado River Storage Project Act Initial Units, we have developed a 5 Point Plan. We intend to implement the 5 Point Plan to the
    extent it is effective, in conjunction with plans developed for the Lower Basin. The components of the 5 Point Plan are as follows:

    (1) Seek amendment and reauthorization of the System Conservation Pilot Project legislation originally enacted in 2014. The amendment will provide for extension of the authorization and reporting periods
    to September 30, 2026, and September 30, 2027, respectively, and seek funding to support the program in the Upper Basin. Upon obtaining reauthorization, the necessary funding, and finalizing any
    required agreements, we intend to reactivate the program in the Upper Basin in 2023.

    (2) Commence development of a 2023 Drought Response Operations Plan (2023 Plan) in August 2022 with finalization in April 2023 consistent with the Drought Response Operations Plan Framework (Framework). A 2023 Plan must meet all the requirements of the Drought Response Operations Agreement and the Framework. These requirements include, but are not limited to, determining the effectiveness of any potential releases from upstream Initial Units to protect critical elevations at Glen
    Canyon Dam, and ensuring that the benefits provided to Glen Canyon Dam facilities and operations are preserved.

    (3) Consider an Upper Basin Demand Management program as interstate and intrastate investigations are completed.

    (4) Implement, in cooperation with Reclamation, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan funding to accelerate enhanced measurement, monitoring, and reporting
    infrastructure to improve water management tools across the Upper Division States.

    (5) Continue strict water management and administration within the available annual water supply in the Upper Division States, including implementation and expansion of intrastate water conservation programs and regulation and enforcement under the doctrine of prior appropriation.

    The challenges in the Colorado River Basin affect us all and require collaboration across the entire Basin. We request your support as we advance our 5 Point Plan, including for federal legislation to reauthorize the System Conservation Pilot Program and for funding to support the Plan through September 2026.

    Reclamation data shows that Lower Basin and Mexico depletions are more than double the depletions in the Upper Basin. Therefore, additional efforts to protect critical reservoir elevations must include significant actions focused downstream of Lake Powell. Otherwise, the effectiveness of our 5 Point Plan will be limited.

    We look forward to working with you on this critical effort while also developing sustainable long-term solutions to address the challenges we face in the Colorado River Basin.

    Becky Mitchell, the state of Colorado’s top water official. (Source: Colorado Water Conservation Board)

    From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (UCRC Commissioner Rebecca Mitchell):

    In coordination with the other Upper Division States of New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, Colorado is taking action in response to the call from the Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton to the Colorado River Basin states to conserve a total of 2-4 million acre-feet to protect critical infrastructure at Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Upper Division States’ 5 Point Plan is outlined in a letter sent to Commissioner Touton by the Upper Colorado River Commission on July 18.

    “The challenges facing the Colorado River are significant and require action across the entire Basin. While the options available in the Upper Division states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming are limited by hydrologic conditions, we are doing our part to protect the system. The Upper Basin states take water cuts responsive to hydrologic conditions and have also provided a significant amount of water from our upstream reservoirs. On top of these actions, we have developed a comprehensive new 5 Point Plan. But these efforts will be successful only if additional actions are taken downstream of Lake Powell,” said Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: 490 cfs in Black Canyon #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #aridification

    Black Canyon July 2020. Photo credit: Cari Bischoff

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 1450 cfs to 1500 cfs on Wednesday, July 20th. Releases are being increased to maintain flows above the baseflow target on the lower Gunnison River. The forecasted April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir is 67% of average.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently very near to the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to drop below the baseflow target without this additional increase in release from the Aspinall Unit.

    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 900 cfs for June, July and August.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1030 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 440 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1030 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 490 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Guest column #Water Talks: The crisis of the #ColoradoRiver system — The Ark Valley Voice

    Glen Canyon Dam creates water storage on the Colorado River in Lake Powell, which is just 27% full in June 2022. Bureau data on the reservoir’s water-storage volume showed a loss of 443,000 acre-feet. Credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

    Click the link to read the column on the Ark Valley Voice website (Terry Scanga):

    It should be obvious to anyone; trying to fill a bathtub with the drain wide open is foolish. This is precisely what the operators of the Colorado River System (Lake Powell and Lake Mead) have been attempting to do for the past 20 years. They have disregarded the increased withdrawals to the Lower Basin states (California, Arizona, and Nevada) and the ubiquitous arid nature of the Southwest.

    The Colorado River system and the Colorado Compact Administration were set up with a series of reservoirs recognizing the aridity of the region and the unpredictable amount of annual precipitation. With reservoirs, when water is more abundant the excess can be stored for later use when the inevitably drier periods arrive. In recent years, instead of reserving excess flows in the reservoirs, this excess was released to the lower basin states with the resultant excess draw-down of the vital storage system.

    Most of the water supply for the Colorado River System is supplied by the Upper Basin States, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico. As planned, these states have continuously supplied the required 75-million-acre feet in 10 years, or an average of 7.5 million per year.

    The amount of water that each of these states uses each year is completely dependent upon precipitation and in Colorado is allocated strictly by the prior appropriation system without the benefit of a storage system to draw upon for leaner years except for water saved under the prior appropriation system. As such Colorado’s prior appropriation system automatically operates as a forced reduction in water use—a built-in “conservation brake”.

    In contrast, the Lower Basin States, California, Arizona, and Nevada receive their Colorado River supply from reservoirs and have the luxury of taking any excess deliveries in wetter years or drawing previously saved water from storage in drier years.

    The prudent regime would be to reserve the excess amounts in storage for use during drier periods. Instead of this exercise of prudence, the Lower Basin states have continuously gambled those wetter periods would arrive and replenish the reservoirs.

    In the chart below, we clearly see how Colorado and the Upper Basin states have reduced their use during drought while the Lower Basin states have increased their use during the same period.

    The primary purpose of Lake Powell and Lake Mead is for hydro-power production and secondarily for drinking and irrigation. The falling levels of these reservoirs spell disaster for power production and now the Bureau of Reclamation is sounding the alarm.

    Unfortunately, unless drastic measures are taken that significantly reduce the annual draw by the Lower Basin States for the foreseeable future, all Colorado River reservoirs will be jeopardized. Blue Mesa and Flaming Gorge have already been lowered to rescue the Lower Basin reservoirs. The present crisis is more about having allowed the Lower Basin to over appropriate water from the system than the impact of the drier period of the past 20 years.

    In Colorado, the Arkansas Basin and the entire Eastern portion of Colorado depend on a significant portion of its water from Colorado River system imports. In the Arkansas, about 15 percent of all river flows are derived from this system.

    In drier periods these flows have always been reduced since they are regulated by the prior appropriation system. However, further reductions could come if the Lower Basin is not forced to comply with the Compact. It is possible that political forces could reduce the amount of water exported to the Eastern portion of Colorado — and that includes the Arkansas Basin.

    By: Ralph “Terry” Scanga, General Manager. Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District

    Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

    Public can inform future management of the #ColoradoRiver — #Arizona Public Radio #COriver #aridification

    Water levels in Lake Mead have dropped to historic lows over the past year, triggering a shortage declaration on the Colorado River. Some of the frameworks that govern how the river is managed are set to expire in 2026. As states and stakeholders negotiate the next management framework, tribal nations want to make sure they have a seat at the table. Photo by Jeffrey Hayes / Flickr

    Click the link to read the article on the Arizona Public Radio website (Melissa Sevigny). Here’s an excerpt:

    Several key pieces of the rules that govern the Colorado River Basin are set to expire in 2026, including guidelines for dealing with drought and water shortage. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has asked for the public’s input on what should come next. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke about the opportunity to shape the Southwest’s future with University of New Mexico water policy expert John Fleck.

    Who is at the table for these negotiations?

    That’s actually such a great question, because it’s not entirely clear. The states—the appointed representatives that each governor appoints on behalf of each of the seven Colorado River Basin states—and then representations of the federal government …. But, there is a strong desire, on the part of a lot of people, and I count myself among those groups, to recognize the fact that tribal communities are sovereign nations [within] the basin that have been traditionally excluded from these processes…and then as a practical matter, major water users within the states also participate either formally at the negotiating table, or if you can imagine a metaphorical meeting room, standing round the back whispering in the ears of the people sitting at the table.

    What questions should we be asking about what comes next?

    Someone, somewhere is going to be using less water than they are now, a lot less water…But the question is, how do we apportion those cutbacks? Do the states in the Lowe Basin which have been using by far the most water, and arguably overusing, like folks in Arizona, do they have to cutback more deeply?…Do the states in the Upper Basin agree, we need to share the pain and cut back as well?…So there’s really a lot of tension. And then the most interesting tension is broad and spans the entire basin, which is, to what extent are the cutbacks going to be felt in agricultural irrigation communities?…There’s no way around there’s going to be less irrigated agriculture going forward as a result of climate change and drought and the reality that we’ve pretty much drained the reservoirs as far as we can, but the question of how you apportion those cuts and who takes bigger cuts, and who gets compensated for giving up water, perhaps, those are the kinds of questions that are going to be on the table…

    Comments can be submitted until September 1 by emailing CRB-info@usbr.gov. More information can be found in the Federal Register.

    Tribes Call for Inclusion on the #ColoradoRiver — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification #Water22

    Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Kalen Goodluck):

    They’re seeking opportunity, fairness, and a voice in decision making after a century of exclusion

    Mid-morning in early September 2020, leaders from eight tribal nations met with Arizona state legislators, water engineers and policy experts via Zoom. One by one, each recounted their tribe’s history and efforts to secure water for their citizens. Half of the tribes in Arizona have unresolved claims to water. Of the 30 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations in the U.S. segment of Colorado River Basin, the vast majority, 22, are in Arizona.

    Meeting that day was the Arizona Governor’s Water Augmentation, Innovation and Conservation Council, a committee of state legislators and water policy experts convened to plan for Arizona’s share of diminishing resources in the Colorado River Basin.

    Not quite a year later, in August 2021, federal officials issued the first-ever shortage declaration on the river, resulting in substantial cuts to Arizona’s share of Colorado River water. The state has been working with some of the tribes with resolved, adjudicated water rights to help make up for low water levels.

    On that September morning in 2020, two things had become clear: First, tribes like the Navajo Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and Yavapai-Apache Nation have found a couple of conditions in Arizona’s policy toward negotiating Indian water settlements unacceptable, thus their water rights remain unsettled. And second, tribal nations had been collaborative partners to surrounding communities and were, and continue to be, positioned to play an increasingly pivotal role throughout the basin as more tribal water rights are settled and basin-wide water supplies continue to decline.

    Tribes have played a pivotal role in leasing water to support other water users and states as they cope with water shortage, for example. But with so many tribes who still have unsettled water rights and Colorado River flows declining, big questions remain for the 40 million people spread throughout the basin in seven U.S. States and Mexico—many of those questions center around the tribes.

    Ticking Clock

    Everyone in the basin can hear the clock, ominously dripping time like a leaky faucet. Drip: There is less water than ever before with the basin ensnared in a 22-year megadrought, the worst in the past 1,200 years, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Drop: Without swift action to conserve water under the growing pressure of demand, the basin may be hurtling toward a water crisis. Drip: The basin’s existing water shortage management framework is set to expire in 2026 so negotiations to craft the next framework are underway; will tribal nations be included in those negotiations? Drop: How will water shortages affect the tribal nations in the Colorado River Basin and what role will those tribes play as all water users cope with shortage?

    Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin/Water Education Colorado

    Generally, the Colorado River Basin’s tribes have some of the senior-most water rights on the river, based on federally “reserved” water rights with priority dates aligned with the dates reservations were established, some as early as 1865.

    But even today, 12 of the basin’s tribes (most in Arizona) have unresolved water rights claims, and eight of those 12 have unquantified rights—meaning the amount of water they have a right to is not yet determined. Simply securing those water rights remains a time-consuming and arduous endeavor, in costly settlement negotiations amidst a scrum of other water users staking claims.

    The water held by the basin tribes who have legally quantified water rights amounts to no small sum: 22 tribal nations retain 3.2 million acre-feet of water, or an estimated 22% to 26% of all annual water supplies in the basin, according to a 2021 brief from the Water and Tribes Initiative. This amount will likely increase over the years once more tribal water claims are resolved.

    Even for tribes with settled or adjudicated water rights, some can’t access the full extent of that water because of lack of infrastructure or funding, or both. In total, just under half, or 1.5 million-acre-feet, of settled or adjudicated tribal rights have not yet been put to use by the tribes.

    When adding together that unused water and unquantified water, and considering that tribes plan to fully develop and use their water, other water users in the basin wonder how it will look to integrate expanded tribal water use with existing water uses as water supplies continue to dwindle.

    Lack of Representation

    In one blinding instant, a flashbulb floods the adobe-walled room, illuminating a row of stoic men: seven state water commissioners standing behind then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover who sat at a desk. In front of them lies the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the formative agreement to carve up flows of the Colorado River. Within the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, N.M., these men divided the river into an upper and lower basin, apportioning the rights to consume 15 million acre-feet of water—their estimation of average annual river flow at the time—between the seven U.S. basin states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming of the upper basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada of the lower basin, with the opportunity for lower basin states to develop an additional 1 million acre-feet from tributaries below Lee Ferry, Ariz.

    The compact ushered in a new era of water management for the Colorado River Basin. But now, 100 years later, when facilitator of the Water and Tribes Initiative, Daryl Vigil, peers at this photograph of Hoover and the state water commissioners, he sees an “all monochromatic photo of older white gentlemen” who made no plan for apportioning any share of water to Native American tribes.

    Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. Members of the Colorado River Commission stood together at the signing of the Colorado River Compact on November 24, 1922. The signing took place at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover presiding (seated). (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

    Since the beginning of U.S. tribal water law, sovereign tribal nations in the basin have been excluded from cornerstone water management decisions despite having senior title to water. Native American water rights were first officially recognized in 1908, over a decade before the Colorado River Compact was signed, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Winters v. United States decision. The court found that when the federal government “reserved” territories known as reservations, it too had “reserved” sufficient water to fulfill the purposes of the reservations—these water rights are considered established at the date when the reservation was created, making them senior to all uses that came later. But having the right to reserved water didn’t mean that the tribes had access to actual “wet” water or the legal representation to quantify their water rights.

    When the 1922 compact was signed, tribes were surviving a multitude of disastrous living conditions and forced assimilation produced by federal Indian policy, established after U.S. violent colonial expansion. Indigenous peoples weren’t recognized as U.S. citizens until 1924, tribal governance wasn’t federally recognized until 1934, and Native Americans couldn’t vote in every state until the 1960s. “We were surviving here on government rations in 1922 when the Law of the River was created,” says Vigil.

    A 1928 survey entitled “The Problem of Indian Administration” found that 26 Western Native American reservations and their economic bases were crumbling under management of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), asserting that colonialism largely destroyed their ability to hunt, gather and fish.

    The report recommended educating tribes to effectively use their land and water rights, saying that administrators “should be given the duty of seeing that the Indians secure their rightful share of water.” This recommendation was not enough. Assigning concrete legal title to tribal water succumbed to federal delay—a defining feature of water rights disputes for all tribal nations.

    Tribes gained some ground when, in 1963, tribal water policy and Colorado River policy intersected in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Arizona v. California decision. Lengthy litigation led up to the decision, with Arizona filing suit in the U.S. Supreme Court to determine how much Colorado River water it could use. To answer that question, the U.S. found it had to assess what reserved water rights were needed for some of the tribes in the lower basin. A special master for the case determined the future needs of each reservation by assessing the amount of practicably irrigable acres and reserving water to irrigate that land rather than considering the reservations’ populations. In his proposed decree, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, the special master entered a quantified water right for five reservations on the mainstem of the Colorado River, granting 905,496 acre-feet of water for 135,636 irrigable acres.

    After the case established the standard of quantifying the tribal reserved water right as looking at the amount of water required to irrigate the irrigable acreage on the tribal land, the push to quantify more tribal water rights ensued. But Supreme Court rulings “grew more negative,” according to a presentation from DOI. In 1989, DOI adopted the policy to resolve Indian water disputes through settlement rather than litigation, creating the Secretary’s Indian Water Rights Office. To reach agreement, Indigenous nations must negotiate their rights within a massive tangle of other users staking claims to water within the state where their reservation is located, which can take decades. Once all parties concur, Congress must approve the agreement by passing legislation to fund any tribal water infrastructure projects.

    As federal tribal water policy evolved, so too did Colorado River policy. After the 1922 compact, a series of layered agreements—including Arizona v. California and other court decisions, congressional acts, legal settlements, treaties and compacts—known collectively as the “Law of the River” have come to govern the way water is managed and divided throughout the basin.

    The latest layers of the Law of the River have been implemented since 2000, in response to years of drought. In 2007, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior adopted the Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Interim Guidelines outline a method to balance the amount of water available between the upper and lower basins. In 2019, upper and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) were developed as additional frameworks to address water shortages and water-saving rules.

    The upper basin continues to “equalize” the contents of Lake Powell and Lake Mead per the 2007 guidelines, and continues to pursue water augmentation activities such as cloud seeding. It is also exploring the possibility of developing a demand management program in which water saved or not used in the upper basin could be stored in Powell as a 500,000 acre-foot drought pool, though the Colorado Water Conservation Board put a “hard pause” on Colorado’s demand management investigation in March 2022. For the lower basin, the DCP, a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan with Mexico, and the 2007 guidelines lay out cuts in water deliveries from the Colorado River, triggered by projections of Lake Mead storage elevations. The interim guidelines already outlined cuts but the DCP added additional delivery reductions for the lower basin states and Mexico to absorb. The greatest cuts to lower basin water use will come from Arizona and California but the entire lower basin, including Mexico, will share in scarcity.

    When these guidelines and plans were crafted, all but the Lower Basin DCP received little to no tribal input. These plans will expire in 2026, and negotiations for the next phase of shortage-sharing agreements are just beginning.

    Native American Timeline. Credit: Water Education Colorado

    Vigil, who is also water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation from New Mexico, joined the Water and Tribes Initiative in 2017 to facilitate tribal discussions, protect water rights, and unify tribal interests within the Colorado River Basin. Their tribal leader forums helped spur a coalition of the tribes in the basin to call for inclusion in water framework negotiations.

    When new guidelines are developed to govern river management beyond 2026, how will they affect existing tribal water rights or unresolved water claims? “Those are questions that are not yet clear to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and probably other tribes,” says Leland Begay, water attorney for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has adjudicated water rights in Colorado but has not yet resolved its water rights in New Mexico and Utah.

    Settled Water Rights for the Colorado Ute Tribes

    During the hot summers of his childhood, Lyndreth Wall of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe would take refuge on Ute Mountain in southwestern Colorado, herding livestock at his grandparents’ sheep camp. They spoke only Ute to him, which he picked up fast, at least conversationally. In those days, the 1970s, the water on Ute Mountain was delicious. “The tribe took care of the water there,” Wall says. But his home tap water in Towaoc tasted like metal. It was “disgusting,” he says, and could make you sick. In White Mesa, their western tribal community in Utah, the water was worse—contaminated by radioactive waste.

    For young Wall, his neighbors, family and livestock, the journey to procure drinkable water would be a 30- to 120-mile round trip excursion from Towaoc to Cortez or Mancos, even Durango, Colo. Wall remembers his parents packing buckets in their family pickup—the Wall’s buckets mixed with those of neighbors. This supply would last a few days before they would need more.

    Today, more Ute Mountain Ute tribal members have water for drinking and irrigation thanks to the 1986 Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Final Settlement Agreement, followed two years later by a federal settlement act, and by amendments in 2000, all of which they share with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. The settlement places the Colorado Ute tribes among the four tribes in the upper Colorado River Basin that have completed water rights settlements, which also means that the State of Colorado is no longer negotiating any tribal settlement agreements.

    For the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the settlement meant access to Dolores Project water, an entitlement to Animas-La Plata Project water, and rights to over 27,000 acre-feet of water from rivers that flow near or through their reservation. Most years, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe can access their 25,100 acre-foot water storage allocation from the Dolores Project’s McPhee Reservoir in southwestern Colorado. Water from McPhee began to flow to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in 1994 delivering clean drinking water to the tribe for the first time in their history and supporting the development of a hotel, travel center and casino, which provide vital tribal employment and income. The tribe’s new irrigation water from the Dolores Project, up to 23,300 acre-feet per year, supported the development of the highly productive 7,700-acre Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise and Bow and Arrow corn mill.

    For the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the settlement wasn’t quite as momentous. “We have seven sources of water, seven rivers, that run to the tribe, so the tribe had been accessing those waters pre-settlement,” says Kathy Rall, head of the water resources division for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Before the settlement, the tribe didn’t have quantified rights to that water, Rall says. “Those rights were hammered out and solidified through the settlement,” she says. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe also received an allocation of Animas-La Plata Project water—but the infrastructure was never built for either tribe to access that water.

    “Ever since [the Animas-La Plata Project] was constructed, we’ve never used a drop of it, yet we have a certain percentage, not only to us, but also our sister tribe, the Southern Ute,” says Wall, who is now a tribal councilman for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The project allocated more than 60,000 acre-feet per year of municipal and industrial water to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, but a series of obstacles has made this water inaccessible.

    Lake Nighthorse and Durango March 2016 photo via Greg Hobbs.

    The settlement authorized the construction of Lake Nighthorse, just south of Durango, to store Animas-La Plata water for tribal water uses. The project was envisioned to bring water for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses to the tribes and non-tribal water users. But environmental and fiscal concerns resulted in the project being downsized.

    A lawsuit halted the construction of Lake Nighthorse’s Ridges Basin Dam in 1992. Groups including the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and the Taxpayers for the Animas River argued the dam’s cost was an undue burden for taxpayers and that its construction would threaten the Colorado pikeminnow fish population, which was federally listed as endangered at the time. Christine Arbogast, lobbyist for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and neighboring water districts and municipalities, remembers a meeting where an environmental advocate said that with the amount of funding required to build the reservoir project, they could supply the tribe with bottled water for life. “That was the kind of mentality on the side of the environmental community,” says Arbogast.

    As project proponents tried to advance Lake Nighthorse, part of the permitting requirement was to propose alternatives to the project. To address the endangered fish issues, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved an alternative that would allow for reservoir construction but with certain requirements, including a new San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program. The recovery program would go on to manage the river to recover the endangered Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker while allowing water development to continue.

    To carry out the Animas-La Plata Project, a 2000 settlement amendment restricted the water in Lake Nighthorse to municipal and industrial use, excluding irrigation. Now referred to as “Animas-La Plata Lite” there was no longer any plan to construct the irrigation canals that would have connected Lake Nighthorse to the tribes and even neighboring water districts and municipalities that were counting on these water supplies throughout the negotiations. The tribes scrapped their plans to expand farmlands as a result. “It was heartbreaking to every single one of them, including the tribes, when we had to make the decision to shelve the irrigation component in order to get this settlement,” Arbogast says.

    Some positive outcomes resulted from the settlement, including quantified and adjudicated water rights for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, access to Dolores Project water for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and funding for both tribes, Rall says. But ongoing lack of access to water stored in Lake Nighthorse and the inability to use that water, if accessed, for irrigation, was “disastrous” she says.

    When the project was downsized to the “lite” version “we just kind of said, ‘OK, we’re going to get what we get,’” Rall says. “The tribe went, ‘If we don’t settle now, who knows what we’ll end up with.’”

    The settlement means that the tribes’ water allocations are protected, which “does offer the tribes a measure of security in their water rights,” says Amy Ostdiek, head of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Interstate and Federal Section. “But there are still critical needs in terms of infrastructure and access to clean drinking water.”

    As the settlement stipulates, the moment the tribes begin to use water from Lake Nighthorse, they will each inherit an annual bill of around $800,000 in operations and maintenance costs for the dam and pumping facilities that the federal government is currently footing. At the moment, there is still no infrastructure to deliver the water to the tribes, and the tribes are not prepared to take on those costs, so they haven’t used any of their water. This may change due to the $2.5 billion earmarked in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for completion of authorized Indian water rights settlements. Both Colorado Ute tribes are pursuing that funding, with full support from the State of Colorado, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), but whether they will receive it remains to be seen. Information sessions on the bill between tribal nations and DOI are ongoing.

    “We’re trying to find alternatives and ways that we can utilize our water in [Lake] Nighthorse. We want it and it seems like we’re having a water war,” says Wall. “What’s rightfully ours is ours by God. We need to continue to save it for the future of our tribe.”

    Water or Land, Not Both

    Settling and quantifying tribal water rights claims isn’t just beneficial to tribal nations. The state in which a reservation is located and other water users there benefit from the certainty of knowing how much water is allocated to the tribes so they can make plans to live within and stretch their own share or to work together to send water where it’s most needed.

    But Arizona is home, at least partially, to 11 of the 12 tribal nations in the basin who still have unresolved claims to Colorado River water—resulting in uncertainty for the state and the tribes. Many tribal leaders are frustrated by the state’s unprecedented condition for tribes to secure their water rights: In exchange, tribal nations must surrender their right to freely enter fee lands into trust, an essential administrative program of the Bureau of Indian Affairs that lets tribes recover their ancestral homelands. Instead, tribes would need congressional approval to have the Interior Secretary take lands into trust.

    “We just believe that the congressional process is a more equitable forum for the discussion of those lands into trust,” says Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. He cites the importance of hearing from local communities that could be impacted when the tribes bring additional ancestral homelands into trust and ensuring “politically elected leaders get to make the decision.”

    That stipulation is a nonstarter for many tribes, and puts them in a precarious position, weighing their right to re-acquire their ancestral homelands against securing water for their people.

    “That’s something we will never agree to,” Yavapai-Apache Nation Chairman Jon Huey told the Governor’s Water Augmentation Innovation and Conservation Council during that September 2020 meeting. The Yavapai-Apache Nation plans to bring land into trust, re-acquiring its homeland to build housing for the growing tribal population.

    Already, leaders from the Navajo Nation, Tonto Apache Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nation, and Pascua Yaqui Tribe in southern Arizona have worked for decades with the state and other water districts to reach a settlement. For example, the Navajo Nation has been in recurring negotiations since 1993.

    Tribes also object to a condition proposed by Arizona officials that they waive their right to object to future off-reservation groundwater pumping.

    Despite hearing from leaders like Huey, the state has not changed its position. Buschatzke says these conditions are just part of the “give and take” nature of settlements. “Some things you give more of, some things you give less of,” he says. “And the whole package has to fit together for both sides at the end of the day in a way that they can live with it and in a way that they believe, hopefully, that they’re better off with the package than they are without the package.”

    DOI remains dedicated to facilitating settlement discussions and is aware of the tribal concerns toward Arizona’s anti-fee-to-trust policy. “We are working from the federal perspective closely with tribal partners and with non-federal entities like the State of Arizona to bring these issues to conclusion and resolution,” says Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at DOI, who has been part of these tribal settlement discussions.

    Working Together in Shortage

    Water levels in Lake Mead have dropped to historic lows over the past year, triggering a shortage declaration on the Colorado River. Some of the frameworks that govern how the river is managed are set to expire in 2026. As states and stakeholders negotiate the next management framework, tribal nations want to make sure they have a seat at the table. Photo by Jeffrey Hayes / Flickr

    Despite some of the barriers to settlement, Buschatzke concedes that settlements provide certainty for tribes and other water users, as well as a way to work collaboratively. And now more than ever, the need to collaborate with tribes has hit harder than in the past.

    September 21, 1923, 9:00 a.m. — Colorado River at Lees Ferry. From right bank on line with Klohr’s house and gage house. Old “Dugway” or inclined gage shows to left of gage house. Gage height 11.05′, discharge 27,000 cfs. Lens 16, time =1/25, camera supported. Photo by G.C. Stevens of the USGS.
    Source: 1921-1937 Surface Water Records File, Colorado R. @ Lees Ferry, Laguna Niguel Federal Records Center, Accession No. 57-78-0006, Box 2 of 2 , Location No. MB053635.

    The upper basin states are subject to fluctuations in hydrology, which determine the amount of Colorado River water available for their use. While the 1922 compact allocated the consumptive use of 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to each the upper and lower basins, the upper basin regularly uses less Colorado River water than agreed to—about 4 million acre-feet per year since 1990. That’s, in part, because the upper basin hasn’t fully developed reservoirs to store extra water in times of plenty and to use its full allocation. Per the compact, upper basin states cannot deplete the river at Lee Ferry, the dividing point between the upper and lower basins, below a certain amount. That non-depletion requirement means the upper basin will likely shoulder the burden of declining flows into the future, and may have to continue to use less water.

    Lower basin states rely on supplies stored in Lake Mead, the basin’s largest reservoir, which reached a historic low of just 35% of capacity in August 2021. As Mead’s water level has receded, the lower basin has begun to take cuts to the amount of water it’s drawing from the reservoir, as outlined in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. The first big cuts are coming from Arizona—this year it will take 18% less Colorado River water, coming almost entirely from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), slashing its CAP water use by about 30%. The CAP pipes Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, and to irrigators and tribal nations in central and southern Arizona. Agricultural water users will be the first to feel these water reductions, with CAP agricultural water deliveries, mostly in Pinal County, reduced by 65%.

    If Lake Mead levels continue to fall, deliveries to lower basin states will continue to be reduced, eventually affecting all lower basin states and Mexico. In February 2022 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projected that the reservoir level could likely drop by another 30 feet or so over the next two years, reaching new shortage tiers and triggering more cuts to lower basin states.

    Tribes play a critical role in all of this: As Colorado River water supply diminishes, and as more tribes settle their water rights, those tribal water rights could comprise a larger percentage of available senior Colorado River water resources. Take the Colorado River Indian Tribes, consisting of four tribes, the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo, with a reservation along the Colorado River at the border between Arizona and California. These tribes hold rights to more than 700,000 acre-feet of mainstem Colorado River water, with more than 660,000 acre-feet of that water in Arizona. These are the most senior water rights in the lower basin, making them the most secure in times of shortage.

    Starting in 2016, the Colorado River Indian Tribes entered a short-term pilot project with Reclamation, in which they were compensated for fallowing more than 1,500 acres of farmland so that water could be left in Lake Mead. Those pilot project numbers were upped in 2018. The following year, in 2019, the tribes worked with the State of Arizona on a much larger agreement, as part of the Drought Contingency Plan, committing to fallow farmland and forego water deliveries to the tune of 150,000 acre-feet over three years to help maintain levels in Lake Mead. In exchange for this contribution of water, the tribes are paid $38 million. Now, the tribes are looking to be able to lease their water—something that wasn’t authorized in the Arizona v. California opinion that established their water rights. A bill introduced to the U.S. Senate in December 2021 could allow the tribes to lease part of their water allocation to individuals, businesses, municipalities, governments and others for off-reservation uses to provide additional drought relief and protect natural habitats in Arizona.

    Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores greets Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, at the Colorado River Water Users Association December 2021 conference. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation / Flickr

    A January 2022 agreement on the Colorado River in New Mexico does just that. The Jicarilla Apache Nation, New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and The Nature Conservancy announced a new deal to lease up to 20,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Jicarilla Apache Nation to the stream commission to support threatened, endangered and vulnerable fish and to increase water security for New Mexico. The tribal nation subcontracts some of its other water to users outside the reservation, providing a valuable source of income.

    The Colorado Ute tribes and the State of Colorado are wondering whether a similar agreement or lease deal could put their unused Animas-La Plata Project water to work, says Peter Ortego, general counsel for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. (Ortego also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.) “The tribes have been eager to see solutions to these problems and the state has been helpful in working with us to find a consumptive use for that water,” says Ortego.

    Talks are preliminary and confidential, and the tribes’ settlement legislation is somewhat narrow, Ortego says, specifying that the tribes water can be leased but must be used for municipal or industrial needs within Colorado. Because Lake Nighthorse is in the southwest corner of the state, so close to the border with New Mexico, that doesn’t leave room for a lot of Colorado users to step in and lease water. However, some nearby communities are running short on water and could benefit from the supplies stored in Lake Nighthorse, if an agreement is reached. “I think we’re starting to understand now that if we can all work together to utilize that water, it will be best for the entire region,” Ortego says. “The ultimate goal is to basically keep water in Colorado to help Colorado meet its other obligations.”

    More of this water sharing and leasing work could be coming. “We are very open to more discussions with tribes about what additional opportunities may exist,” says Trujillo, who has met with tribes on their ability to contribute water and receive compensation. “I think there is a lot of interest from several different angles to try to do more of that.”

    Tribes Unifying in Negotiations

    When he became water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, Vigil began to see how excluded tribal nations were from river management decisions.

    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

    No tribes were invited to provide input to the 2007 Interim Guidelines, which dictate reservoir operations in the event of water shortages. The guidelines were negotiated by representatives from each basin state, federal agencies, and with Mexico through the International Boundary and Water Commission—tribal water use was the responsibility of the state that the tribe resided in, so the tribes were treated as stakeholders within the states, not as sovereigns themselves. In 2012, when Reclamation completed the basin-wide Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, tribes called attention to the fact that there was no meaningful inquiry into tribal water. It was only after pressure on Reclamation that the agency funded the Colorado River Basin Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study, which, in 2018 assessed water supplies for a coalition of 10 tribal nations in the upper and lower basins that had previously come together in 1992 to push for more tribal voices in basin water management. The study was not comprehensive of all basin tribes but gave a stronger sense of tribal water supplies. In developing the 2019 DCP, which outlined water-saving plans between the seven U.S. basin states and Mexico, Reclamation consulted with only a few lower basin tribes.

    At this Ten Tribes Partnership Meeting in 2018, Southern Ute Indian Tribe councilwoman Lorelei Cloud approved publication of the Tribal Water Study. Photo courtesy of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe

    This neglect from state and federal agencies prompted the creation of the Water and Tribes Initiative in 2017. Aiming to support tribes and give them a stronger voice in water management discussions in the region, various leaders formed the initiative, including tribal representatives, policy experts, researchers, conservation groups, state and federal officials and others, co-convened by Vigil and Matt McKinney, co-chair of the University of Montana’s Natural Resources Conflict Resolution Program. “Why wouldn’t you include 30 [tribal] sovereigns who own 25% of the volume of the Colorado River?” says Vigil. “Why wouldn’t you include 30 tribal sovereigns who have been here for millennia?”

    As water managers begin to plan, negotiate and draft the next river management framework that will be implemented as the Interim Guidelines and DCP expire in 2026, many tribes are actively trying to gain a seat at the negotiating table. Twenty of the basin tribes have formed an ad hoc group for all 30 of the tribes in the basin called the Colorado River Basin Tribal Coalition. As the most substantive negotiations in developing the next river management framework are likely to unfold over the next two years, the coalition is calling to work together with federal agencies and states as soon as possible. While the next set of guidelines will not affect the status of settled tribal water entitlements, many tribes are concerned that they could affect unresolved water claims, which could still take decades to settle, and their ability to plan for their future.

    Rebecca Mitchell, director of the CWCB, has been meeting with the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian Tribes to develop a sovereign-to-sovereign framework, a process for tribes and the State of Colorado to engage on equal ground throughout water management negotiations.

    “The scope of the interim guidelines will be limited to operations of the major reservoirs, so it is important to recognize that we cannot resolve all of the issues in the basin throughout that negotiation process,” Mitchell wrote in a statement via email. “Still, it will be imperative to include tribal nations in the process.”

    That relationship between the Colorado Ute tribes and state has been great, says Rall with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. “[Mitchell] is trying to lead the way for other states to do the same, hoping that other states will enter into sovereign-to-sovereign agreements with their tribes to have a seat at the table.”

    For Leland Begay with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, early involvement in Reclamation’s next framework for managing water shortage is going to be critical for tribes to determine their future—to participate in decisions they were excluded from in years past. “In the past, there’s been a lot of shortcomings on behalf of the Bureau of Reclamation in engaging with tribes at an early stage,” says Begay. “This is an opportunity for Reclamation to meaningfully engage with tribes on how the interim guidelines impact tribes and their water rights and their land.”

    It’s difficult not to view the Colorado River Compact in a global colonial context. When the compact was signed in 1922, European colonial powers were still carving up African territories, exploiting resources like copper or rubber. The U.S. empire carved up the Colorado River, splitting it among seven states, dispossessing tribes from their natural relationship with the river, with no plan to deliver them water. While the historical Law of the River can’t be removed from this context, its next era could be one where federal, state and local agencies work collaboratively with tribal nations.

    Vigil has a gentle, impassioned cadence when he speaks. The river, he says, has given him a calling, a voice. Tribal nations in the basin are in a much better position today to advocate for their water interests, but it took years—a whole century really—to reach this point. It’s left him wondering: Where are we headed if we don’t start to build a collaborative framework that includes tribes?

    While he talked, Vigil would occasionally chuckle or laugh in disbelief, especially about the history of tribal water rights. “I think [the laughter] is a, you know, it’s a Native thing. It’s like a way to deal with the absurdity and like the massive amount of grief that comes with having to acknowledge this and where we’re at. Like every single time.”

    Kalen Goodluck is a Diné, Mandan, Hidatsa and Tsimshian journalist and photographer based in Albuquerque, N.M. His work has appeared in High Country News, The New York Times, Popular Science, National Geographic – Travel, NBC News and more.

    North American Indian regional losses 1850 thru 1890.

    Navajo Dam operations update (July 13, 2022): Bumping up to 700 cfs #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 low flows in the critical habitat reach and increased irrigation, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 700 cfs for today, Wednesday, July 13th at 12:00 PM, and additional increase from 700 cfs to 800 cfs at 2:00 PM.

    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.

    ‘It’s not doomsday yet’ for #LakePowell, but continuing #drought poses litany of challenges — The St. George News #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Remains from a batch plant used in construction of Glen Canyon Dam emerged from the receding waters of Lake Powell in February. Photos/Allen Best

    Click the link to read the article on the St. George News website (David Dudley). Here’s an excerpt:

    Just below the dam, railroad tracks run along the canyon wall — the ghostly remains of a concrete batch plant that was created to construct the dam in the early 1960s.

    “This is the first time they’ve been above water in 60 years,” said Gus Levy, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s deputy field division manager at Glen Canyon Dam.

    They may not be visible for much longer. Beginning in May, the Bureau of Reclamation began the process of releasing 500,000 acre-feet of water from the Flaming Gorge. That water will flow from northern Utah down into Lake Powell, where it will collect and, officials hope, enable the Glen Canyon Dam to continue providing water and electricity for millions of people…

    Gene Shawcroft is the general manager for Central Utah Water Conservancy District, the state’s largest water district. Shawcroft, who is also the Colorado River commissioner of Utah, earned degrees in engineering from Brigham Young University. He originally grew up on a farm in southern Colorado, where he enjoyed working and playing in the water.

    “There are two elevations that we’re concerned about right now,” Shawcroft told St. George News, referring to Lake Powell’s water level. “The first is 3,525 feet; the second is 3,490 feet.” The latter is the point at which the turbines at Glen Canyon Dam, which supplies millions with power, would be turned off, an unprecedented situation…To prevent that, Shawcroft said that various Upper Colorado River Basin states, which include Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, are working together. While some water from smaller basins has been released, Shawcroft said that the 500,000 acre-feet of water flowing from Flaming Gorge is meant to replenish Lake Powell…

    Jack Schmidt is a professor as well as the Janet Quinney Lawson chair in Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. He’s researched the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon for over 30 years. Schmidt’s appraisal of the situation may feel grim to some, but it may also offer hope.

    “We are the problem,” he told St. George News. “But we can also be the solution.”

    One way people contribute to the problem is overuse of water in the face of the Colorado River’s dwindling water flows. The weather plays a crucial role, too.

    #Water worries mount in #ColoradoRiver Basin as new #conservation plan due date draws near — The #Montrose Press #COriver #aridification

    Blue Mesa Reservoir is the largest storage facility in Colorado in the Upper Colorado River system. Prolonged drought and downriver demand is shrinking the reservoir. Credit: Tom Wood, Water Desk

    Click the link to read the article on The Montrose Press website (Katharhynn Heidelberg). Here’s an excerpt:

    Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June 14 remarks to the U.S. Senate said the ongoing drought has put the Colorado River Basin at “the tipping point.” According to published reports, she also called on the basin states to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre feet over the next 18 months and told the states to come up with a plan to do so in the next 60 days…

    State Rep. Marc Catlin, a Colorado River District board member, is alarmed by the timeline — 60 days from Touton’s request is in mid-August.

    “Historically, we haven’t been able to decide the shape of the table in 60 days,” Catlin said of talks between the basin states. “I really think what we’re looking at is more of what the water plan will be in water year 2023.”

    […]

    BuRec is attempting, under drought response actions announced May 3, to boost storage in Powell by about 1 million af by next April. Flaming Gorge Reservoir will release 500,000 af, as called for by the drought contingency plan. Additionally, BuRec is reducing Glen Canyon Dam’s annual release volume from 7.48 million af to 7 million af.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: #BlueMesa at 47% of capacity #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Click the image for a larger view.

    A #ColoradoRiver tribal leader seeks a voice in the river’s future–and freedom to profit from its #water — @WaterEdFdn #COriver #aridification

    Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Foundation website (Nick Cahill):

    Western Water Q&A: CRIT chair Amelia Flores says allowing tribe to lease or store water off reservation could aid broader Colorado River drought response and fund irrigation repairs

    Amelia Flores, chairwoman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. (Source: CRIT)

    As water interests in the Colorado River Basin prepare to negotiate a new set of operating guidelines for the drought-stressed river, Amelia Flores wants her Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) to be involved in the discussion. And she wants CRIT seated at the negotiating table with something invaluable to offer on a river facing steep cuts in use: its surplus water.

    Wheat fields along the Colorado River at the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation. Wheat, alfalfa and melons are among the most important crops here. By Maunus at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47854613

    CRIT, whose reservation lands in California and Arizona are bisected by the Colorado River, has some of the most senior water rights on the river. But a federal law enacted in the late 1700s, decades before any southwestern state was established, prevents most tribes from sending any of its water off its reservation. The restrictions mean CRIT, which holds the rights to nearly a quarter of the entire state of Arizona’s yearly allotment of river water, is missing out on financial gain and the chance to help its river partners.

    Flores, as CRIT’s tribal chair and the first woman to hold that post, is leading her tribe’s effort to persuade Congress to allow the tribe to lease or store its water off reservation lands like tribes in Arizona and other Colorado River Basin states with congressionally approved deals already can. If Congress grants the request by CRIT, Flores said, the tribe would offer water to aid struggling Arizona farmers and cities as well as wildlife restoration sites throughout the Lower Basin. The bill is pending in a U.S. Senate committee.

    CRIT is comprised of members from four distinct ethnic groups, the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo tribes, and has set its sights on having a voice in renegotiation of operating guidelines for the Colorado River, which must be renewed by 2026. Flores contends the tribe has proven itself as a valuable partner by recently leaving water in Lake Mead to alleviate shortages. She hopes CRIT will finally have a voice in determining the river’s future, unlike previous negotiations that were crafted without tribal input.

    In an interview with Western Water, Flores explains CRIT’s cultural ties to the Colorado River, the proposed legislation and the need for tribes to play larger roles in the upcoming renegotiations.

    WESTERN WATER: You refer to the tribes as Aha Makhav, or people of the river. Can you talk briefly about the tribe’s historical relationship with and its cultural ties to the Colorado River?

    AMELIA FLORES: Our creator Mataviily created first the stars and the planets and then after he created the animals, he created the people. To go along with that, he created the river and laid aside the lands for us to live off of. This is in our clan songs. The clan songs followed the river from Avii Kwa’ame north of Laughlin, and the Newberry Mountain Range. That is our sacred mountain to the Mohave people. And not only to the Mohave, but to the other tribes along the river. I can’t leave out the mountains. The mountains are very sacred to the Mohave people and they all have names. As stewards of the land and of the river, our identity is in the land and the water. We are the river.

    WW: In December of 2020, you were elected by a wide margin to become the first female chair of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. What inspired you to run for the position and, as you said after the election, break the glass ceiling?

    FLORES: It goes back to me serving the tribal membership for 29 years as the library archivist. And during that time I was mentored by the Mohave elders, and these were male elders, about the history and the culture of our tribe. The knowledge they passed on was inspiring and I think that is part of me wanting to serve on the tribal council level. And so, it was just moving on to the next level (to become CRIT chair). Also, the passion that I have to serve and help my people is another part that inspired me to continue working for my people.

    With the trust and the support of the people, I was elected. It was their support and their vote that broke the glass ceiling, not me. I can provide a woman’s voice to the decisions and to the government.

    WW: Under your leadership CRIT is pursuing federal legislation that would allow it to lease or store some of its Colorado River water off the reservation. How would the bill benefit the tribe and how does it fit into broader efforts to share water across the entire Lower Colorado River Basin?

    FLORES: The CRIT Resiliency Act didn’t happen overnight. Our past tribal councils had been looking at how we could get more benefit out of, and authority over, our water. Over at least the last 20 years other tribes in Arizona started getting their settlements. With their settlements, they’re able to lease their water that they use from the Colorado River.

    Agriculture is the main economic venture on CRIT’s reservation, where a range of crops like alfalfa, cotton and sorghum thrive in the rich soil along the banks of the Colorado River. (Source: CRIT)

    WW: Looking ahead, what sort of role might CRIT and other tribal groups play in the discussions about the next set of river operating guidelines, which must be finalized by the year 2026? What are some of CRIT’s main priorities heading into these renegotiations?

    FLORES: I can only speak for CRIT, not for the other tribes. But we all should play equal roles to the states in these discussions. Each tribe is vital and for so long we’ve been left out of the discussions, we’ve been left out of when plans are developed. With the drought and given the conditions [on the river], we are now being invited to the table, which has been a wake-up call for the Bureau of Reclamation and the United States. We’re all sovereign, we all have our own water rights. But ultimately the United States has its obligations to protect our resources and that’s not only water but other resources, like land for the individual tribes.

    I think we need to remain vigilant. We need to hold the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the federal government to their policies. And I believe through negotiation and being at the table, we have a better chance of holding them accountable. We don’t ever want to go back to 10 years, even five years ago when we weren’t consulted.

    WW: What is your greatest concern with the Colorado River, especially given the drought?

    FLORES: My concern is that there’s a risk the Colorado River could stop flowing if the megadrought continues. Although we would be the last to be cut, it would greatly impact our tribal government and our services to the people. It would impact our environment and the habitat preservation we have going on at the Ahakhav Preserve. I’m hanging on to hope that we have a change in our climate, but there’s a possibility that no water could be flowing along the banks of the river.

    WW: CRIT in recent years has participated in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan and done things like fallow farmland in order to help avoid shortages elsewhere in the Lower Colorado River Basin. Do you think the federal government and the other river users will recognize and credit CRIT’s cooperation and actions during the renegotiation process?

    FLORES: Oh yes. With the 200,000 acre-feet of water that we’ve already left in Lake Mead, I don’t think they could overlook us anymore and what we have contributed. And we are now in a relationship with the Arizona Department of Water Resources and also CAP. So in developing those relationships over the years they see us as a vital part of saving the river.