Congressional approval is the next step for the #ColoradoRiver Basin #Drought Contingency Plan #DCP #COriver #aridification

A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam — Photo USBR

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

Water leaders from the seven states that make up the Colorado River basin are one step closer to finalizing a drought contingency plan. Representatives from Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona met in Phoenix Tuesday to sign a letter to Congress asking for federal approval of the plan.

Recent heavy snows in the southern Rockies have relieved some short-term pressure on the region’s water supplies. If dry conditions in the southwest return in the next six years, the plan would force Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico to cut back the amount each takes from the overallocated river system.

If snowpack remains high the next few years the plans might never be used.

“Today is a very important day in the history of the Colorado River,” said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman, who for more than a year has pressured state water managers to agree on voluntary cutbacks. “Today the seven basin states have come to an agreement and signed together a letter to Congress memorializing that agreement. The intrastate drought contingency plans are done. They are complete.”

In the letter, water leaders from throughout the basin say they want to execute the drought contingency plan no later than April 22, 2019.

In declaring the plans done, Burman also decided to rescind her call to Colorado River basin state governors for input to craft a federal plan should the states fail to coalesce.

The plan has been cobbled together through a series of agreements over the last five months among the states that make up the Colorado River watershed. Nevada first approved its portion of the plan in November 2018. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico followed suit in December. Starting Jan. 31, 2019 California and Arizona failed to meet a series of federal deadlines while the two states attempted to calm warring intrastate factions.

In Phoenix, water officials attempted to provide closure to the drought contingency plan process, while acknowledging big hurdles remain, including projected climate impacts to snowpack and the river’s structural deficit where more water exists on paper in the form of water rights than in the system itself…

“This is definitely a euphoric high point that we’re in right now, but there are miles and miles to go before we sleep,” said Upper Colorado River Commission member James Eklund. He signed the letter on behalf of the state of Colorado.

The euphoria isn’t shared by all users in the southwestern watershed. The plan now moves forward without the support of the single largest user of the river’s water. The Imperial Irrigation District (IID) in southern California said it would only sign on to the drought plan when it received $200 million in federal funds to mitigate public health and environmental problems brought on by the shrinking Salton Sea.

“By forging ahead, what they are saying is that the only acceptable way to check the boxes marked ‘IID’ and ‘Salton Sea’ is to erase them,” said IID board president Erik Ortega in a written statement. “What they’re also saying is that getting the [drought contingency plan] done is more important than getting it right.”


The drought contingency plan overlays onto a set of 2007 guidelines that govern how the river’s reservoirs are managed. Those guidelines weren’t able to keep up as dry conditions and chronic overuse in the basin caused reservoirs to drop to critical levels. The plan is meant to provide temporary stability while water managers negotiate a new set of operating guidelines which go into effect in 2026…

“If we were aliens visiting Earth from another system years from now would we run it this way? Probably not,” said Eklund, of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “But there are history and legacy, pieces of law and policy, politics in this basin that have guided us to where we are and what we have to do. And I think given the hand we’ve been dealt this is a pretty outstanding moment.”

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Fort Morgan Times:

This “drought contingency” plan completed by the seven Western states to meet an extended federal deadline is “meant to avoid a crisis on the river,” said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman.

After 2026, the feds will look at flows in what scientists project will be a more diminished Colorado River and, working with states, “we will negotiate our next step,” Burman said.

This complex water plan hashed out since 2017 depends on all residents of the West using less water to deal with a 19-year shift toward aridity. Negotiators tinkered with fundamentals of the 1922 law that divvies up shares of Colorado River water for each state — an improvisation to try to address one of the planet’s toughest water problems caused by chronic overuse and climate change.

For two years, federal water authorities at the brink of declaring a shortage — which would trigger a federal takeover of managing deliveries from the Colorado River — have been pushing states to hash out drought plans as a temporary bridge toward sustainable use of the river. Congressional officials have scheduled hearings next week aimed at implementing the plan…

Federal scientists have projected that, if dry times continue, reservoir operators within five years will not be able to deliver water as usual to downriver cities including Phoenix, Los Angeles, Tucson and San Diego. The other main reservoir on the Colorado River, Lake Mead, remained only 41 percent full, with feds projecting that by the end of 2019, the water level will barely exceed (by about 6 feet) the threshold for federal declaration of that official shortage.

“This plan means we have seven states concerned about how to move forward and, instead of balkanizing the basin into fractured state interest groups, we’re all working together to control our own destiny,” said James Eklund, the Denver-based attorney who represented Colorado through extended multistate negotiations.

The outlook for the Colorado River “has not been rosy for the last 20 years. This snowpack does look decent. It may be an outlier. We have got to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Eklund said in an interview with The Denver Post on Tuesday.

For Colorado, the plan “does not obligate us to use less water,” Eklund said, but instead creates incentives for conservation. It allows Colorado and other upper basin states (Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico) to use Lake Powell as a bank account for extra water. Under river drought protocols negotiated in 2007, extra water in Powell above the amount those states are required to deliver to the lower basin states (Arizona, Nevada, California) could be moved out toward Lake Mead to help address the chronic depletion there.

That now has changed so that ranchers, growers, cities and industries that use less water can store it in Lake Powell. Federal officials said they hope this plan, once Congress directs implementation, will immediately create incentives for using less water.

“If the Colorado River reservoirs keep going down and down and down, then two sectors will feel the brunt of the pain: the environment and people in poverty. Those are the two that always, globally, when there is water stress, feel the pain disproportionately,” Eklund said. “We’re trying, with this contingency plan, to go a different route that allows us to manage our water and the river system so that it stays healthy longer. It allows us to keep away from that acute crisis that, if history is any guide, would hit hardest on the environment and people in poverty.”

A key concern for upper basin states has been the electricity generated at the federally run dam atop the Grand Canyon. If Lake Powell water, formed by that dam, drops 81 feet lower than it was this week, cities including Denver, Pueblo, Colorado Springs and scores of rural electrification districts that rely on distribution of electricity by the Western Area Power Administration could see sharp increases in their power bills…

Beyond the West’s booming cities, expanding fossil fuels and other industries, and agricultural operations, semi-arid landscapes and wildlife, including endangered fish and bird species, depend on healthier ecosystems along the Colorado River…

“If we don’t do something to address the drought situation for agriculture, cities and industry, and stabilize the river system, then the environment is going to suffer. This is a critically important step,” said Matt Rice, Colorado River Basin program director for the advocacy group American Rivers.

“Realistically we have to understand that with the huge economy driven by this river, we have to figure out ways to stabilize it,” Rice said, “or else rivers, the natural environment and recreation are going to suffer most.”

The #ColoradoRiver Basin states barely make the @USBR deadline to ink the request to Congress for the #Drought Contingency Plan #COriver #aridification #DCP

View of Lake Mead and Hoover dam. Photo credit BBC.

From the Associated Press (Felicia Fonseca):

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman commended Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming for reaching a consensus on the Colorado River drought contingency plan. Now the states are seeking approval from Congress to implement it.

“It is time for us to work with our congressional delegations to move forward to make sure we can implement DCP this year,” Burman said on a call with reporters.

Under the drought plan, states voluntarily would give up water to keep Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border and Lake Powell upstream on the Arizona-Utah border from crashing. Mexico also has agreed to cuts.

The push for federal legislation comes after the Colorado River Board of California voted Monday to move ahead without a water agency that has the largest entitlement to the river’s water.

The Imperial Irrigation District was written out of California’s plan when another powerful water agency, the Metropolitan Water District, pledged to contribute most of the state’s voluntary water cuts.

Imperial had said it would not commit to the drought plan unless it secured $200 million in federal funding to help restore a massive, briny lake southeast of Los Angeles known as the Salton Sea. The district also accused others in the Colorado River basin of reneging on a promise to cross the finish line together.

“IID has one agenda, to be part of a DCP that treats the Salton Sea with the dignity and due consideration it deserves, not as its first casualty,” Imperial board President Erik Ortega said.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority called Imperial’s refusal to approve the plan “shortsighted” and “manipulative.” Burman has said the drought plan would have no effect on the Salton Sea, and Imperial could choose to join the deal later.

The Bureau of Reclamation had given states until Tuesday to submit comments on what to do next after California and Arizona failed to meet federal deadlines to wrap up their drought plans. The agency received no comments, and Burman canceled the request.

Arizona says it doesn’t expect its remaining work to delay implementation of the drought plan. But the state cannot officially sign on until Congress approves it.

At least two congressional subcommittee hearings on the drought plan are scheduled for later this month…

The latest study shows a shortage might be averted because of above-average snowpack, though the call for 2020 won’t be made until August. In New Mexico, the basin that feeds the Rio Grande is about 135 percent above median levels.

But officials say one good year of snowpack won’t reduce long-term risks for the Rio Grande or the Colorado River.

The drought contingency plan takes the states through 2026, when existing guidelines expire. The states already are preparing for negotiations that will begin next year for new guidelines.

“We all recognize we’re looking at a drier future,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

From The Arizona Daily Star (Tony Davis):

Arizona and the six other Colorado River Basin states took a big step toward completion of a drought plan by asking Congress to approve it.

The request is an acknowledgment by the states and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that they’ve now finished work on the plan to conserve Colorado River water to keep Lakes Mead and Powell from dropping to critically low levels.

The seven basin states’ representatives signed the letter to Congress at a ceremony Tuesday in Phoenix.

At a media teleconference held afterward, officials expressed hope for relatively speedy approval, and noted that both the U.S. House and the Senate are scheduled to hold hearings on the drought plan next week.

But the plan leaves behind a key player — Southern California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which controls by far the largest share of river water in the basin…

Congressional approval of the drought plan will kick in a series of gradually escalating reductions in river water use by the Lower Colorado Basin, first mostly by Arizona but eventually by California with lesser reductions incurred by Nevada.

The most serious reductions may well be forestalled for a year if not longer because of unusually heavy snows falling upon the colder Upper Basin states in February and early March.

Because of the snowpack those storms left behind, the Bureau of Reclamation dramatically raised its forecast for expected Lake Mead levels in 2020 to the point where a major shortage is no longer likely then.

Through Tuesday, snowpack in the Upper Basin was 136 percent of normal.

The predicted April-July runoff into Lake Powell, a key benchmark of the river’s health, is now at 133 percent of normal, which would be the 14th highest total on record.

By contrast, last year’s April-July runoff was 36 percent of normal, the fifth lowest on record…

But since this year would get only the river’s sixth year of above-average runoff since the drought started in 2000, state officials at Tuesday’s teleconference stressed the need for continued vigilance and conservation of river water.

“What we do know is that as temperatures increase, that should reduce the river flows” from evaporation, said Terry Fulp, director of the bureau’s Lower Colorado Region. “If we look at this particular drought, we believe that is due in part to increased temperatures.

“The real question is what about the future? The drought plan is a really good step toward insuring, ourselves, that the two reservoirs don’t reach critical elevations.”

Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said she’s pleased to see that the seven basin states’ work is finished for now.

She said she’s halting work on her previous plan to take written suggestions from the seven states on how to manage the river because of their then-unfinished business on the drought contingency plan, or DCP.

“This is the best path forward,” Burman said. “The DCP will reduce the risks that the Colorado River Basin is facing.”

Even if Lake Mead doesn’t fall into the shortage trigger level of below 1,075 feet at the end of 2019, the new drought plan once approved will require Arizona to reduce its take of Central Arizona Project water from the Colorado by 192,000 acre-feet. That’s well below one-third of the entire CAP’s annual delivery.

Once Mead drops below 1,075, the cuts will gradually escalate, starting at about 20 percent of the total CAP supply and topping off at nearly half the total supply, at about 700,000 acre-feet.

The Imperial district’s participation in the drought plan wasn’t needed for its approval by the seven states. That’s because Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District recently agreed to conserve the water that Imperial decided not to leave in Lake Mead, thus boosting California’s total share of conserved water to the minimum required.

Imperial District officials said the $200 million in federal funds requested for the Salton Sea would match more than $200 million of state funds already approved. They said it would not only help boost the sea’s shrinking habitat for birds and fish, but prevent toxic dust from the drying sea from hurting surrounding air quality and causing human health problems.

“That money is not for us. It’s that Salton Sea in our backyard,” said Robert Schettler, an irrigation district spokesman, in a telephone interview. “We have citizens, lands and crops around the Salton Sea that are all suffering from the sea’s declines.”

Burman acknowledged the district’s concerns and said the federal government supports the Salton Sea restoration effort.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which controls the funding for such drought-related agricultural projects, is only now ramping the program up after Congress last year authorized such projects, and it’s impossible to say when the money will be forthcoming, officials said.

From The Arizona Republic (Ian James and Janey Wilson):

The set of agreements would prop up water-starved reservoirs that supply cities and farms across the Southwest and would lay the groundwork for larger negotiations to address the river’s chronic overallocation, which has been compounded by years of drought and the worsening effects of climate change.

The states’ delegates met in Phoenix and signed their joint letter to Congress alongside federal Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, who had set a Tuesday deadline for the states to complete the agreements.

“Today is a very important day in the history of the Colorado River,” Burman said after the signing. “Congratulations to all for a job well done.”

The first cuts in water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada could begin as soon as next year under the terms of the deal…

Tuesday’s meeting was held behind closed doors at the office of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Doug MacEachern, a department spokesman, said that due to limited space, “we simply cannot reasonably accommodate public access to these meetings.”


While the signing was underway in Phoenix, a veteran board member of the IID spoke angrily at a meeting on the shore of the Salton Sea, condemning his counterparts for writing his district out of the deal and suggesting they were sipping champagne while ignoring an urgent “environmental and public-health disaster” at the shrinking lake.

Burman and other officials said the drought plan was designed in a way that will avoid causing further declines in the Salton Sea, which has been receding as water has increasingly been transferred from the farmlands of the Imperial Valley to urban areas in Southern California.

Burman said IID decided not to join the plan but can sign on later if the district chooses.

In their letter, the states’ representatives asked Congress to promptly pass legislation authorizing the Interior secretary to implement the agreements. Hearings have been scheduled in the Senate and the House next week. Once the legislation is passed, the agreements still need to be signed by representatives of the states…

During a meeting on the shore of the Salton Sea on Tuesday, IID officials lashed out at those gathering to sign on to the drought deal without them in Arizona.

“I have six grandchildren who live on the Salton Sea and five of them have asthma. On behalf of them, I say, ‘Damn them. Damn them,’” said IID board member Jim Hanks.

“As we gather here today on the shore of the Salton Sea strewn with bleached bones, bird carcasses and a growing shoreline,” Hanks said, “and 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 long.”

Hanks spoke at a meeting of California’s State Water Resources Control Board, where regulators received an annual update on the lack of progress on Salton Sea projects. Water board Chair E. Joaquin Esquivel said both the drought contingency plan and the Salton Sea are important, but that efforts can proceed on separate tracks…

Some conservation groups voiced concerns that fast-tracking the drought plans could mean that environmental laws are ignored.

Kim Delfino of the group Defenders of Wildlife noted that while the proposed legislative language sent to Congress had explicitly protected water rights, it did not mention environmental protections. Instead, the proposed legislation includes the exact language from an earlier court decision regarding the All-American Canal, part of the river delivery system, that allowed environmental reviews to be bypassed.

State officials said the intent from the beginning was for the new plans to abide by existing decisions on environmental compliance. They noted the drought plans rely on the seven states voluntarily leaving more water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell and not breaking ground on any new water projects.

Delfino said she understands that but still worries about the inclusion of the language in the legislation and what it might mean.

“They’ve actually made it worse than the original version by protecting water rights but not anything else,” Delfino said.

Audubon California raised similar concerns. Other environmental groups, including Environmental Defense Fund and Trout Unlimited, applauded the completion of the drought plans.

Here’s the release from Governor Polis’ office:

The seven Colorado River Basin States of Colorado, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming signed a letter to Congress today requesting legislation to implement a negotiated contingency plan that responds to the historic dry conditions and the effects of climate change on the Colorado River.

“Water is the lifeblood of the West. We all have a vested interest in the management of the Colorado River,” Governor Jared Polis said. “Thanks to the excellent work from each of the Basin States, we are in position to ensure lasting success for the Colorado River, its environment, economy, and future.”

The announcement comes on the deadline set by the Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman for the Basin States to address the situation or provide her agency with input as to Colorado River operations and management.

Gov. Polis’s principal representative on Colorado River negotiations, James Eklund, echoed the call for action, “As we finish this race, we begin another… and our pace needs to quicken. Our exceptional snowpack this year merely signals that the more extreme swings in precipitation and the warmer temperatures of climate change require effective and efficient implementation of the tools we are creating in the contingency plan.”

While the state of California chose to join Colorado and the other Basin States in signing the letter to Congress, an important water user, the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California unfortunately could not move forward at this time due to an outstanding request for federal assistance. “We support regional, state and local stakeholders in their efforts to obtain federal funding through existing and future programs to help address impacts to the Salton Sea. However, as negotiated, the DCP is not linked to and does not result in adverse impacts to the Salton Sea. The flexible tools found in the DCPs are needed now,” said Eklund.

The Colorado River provides water to approximately 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of irrigated agriculture in the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and Lower Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada). The river originates in Colorado and Colorado contributes approximately 70 percent of its flow. Since 2000, the Basin has experienced historically dry conditions and combined storage in Lakes Powell and Mead has reached its lowest level since Lake Powell initially filled in the 1960s. Last year’s runoff into the Colorado River was the second lowest since 2000, and there is no sign that the trend of extended dry conditions will end any time soon even if 2019 provides above average runoff. Lakes Powell and Mead could reach critically low levels as early as 2021. Declining reservoirs threaten water supplies that are essential to the environment, economy, and overall health of the Southwestern United States.

From The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):

Las Vegas could face up to a 10 percent cut in its water right if Lake Mead falls below a shortage elevation, a reduction water managers said they are prepared for…

In a statement, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, called Imperial’s decision “shortsighted, manipulative and simply not supported by any reasonable view of the facts.”

As always, the congressional process could spark debate on other issues. Last week, the trade publication E&E News reported that there was some concern that some proposed legislation could override laws that require federal agencies to conduct environmental reviews.

Congress is expected to begin discussing the plan in a Senate hearing on March 27. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is the ranking member of the subcommittee that will review the plan.

“I look forward to discussing the drought contingency plan at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee hearing next week and will continue to collaborate with my western state colleagues to solidify a plan that protects Lake Mead, the Colorado River and the water resources of those who live in Nevada and across the west,” Cortez Masto said in a statement.

John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is scheduled to testify at the hearing. On Tuesday, he called agreement on the drought plan a “historic” day. He said negotiators have briefed their delegations and see a nonpartisan path through Congress…

John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, said he had mixed feelings about the approval of the drought plan. He said the plan is necessary. At the same time, he said it was concerning the river’s largest water user was left out.

“There is the moral problem of poor people whose health is being impacted by these decisions being left out of the decision-making process,” he said. “And there is the practical problem of the largest water users with senior water rights being left out of the process.”

“That could really bite us in the long-run,” he added.

The district had planned to cut its use under the drought plan, with the condition that it received a commitment for $200 million in Farm Bill funding to restore the Salton Sea. The Metropolitan Water District, a powerful wholesale water provider for Southern California cities, said that it would cover the district’s cuts to allow the drought plan to move forward by March 19.

It is possible that funding could still come in the future through U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that are still being developed. However, those programs will likely be competitive.

During the call, Entsminger noted that the states had written a letter one week ago, emphasizing the importance of finding a solution to the Salton Sea crisis. But he also said that the plan would not worsen the problem and needed to move forward. Once implemented, the states can begin leaving more water in critical reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, to prevent shortages on a binational river system that supports agriculture and about 40 million people in the Southwest.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority released a statement after the call, saying that the the drought plan was of “critical importance” and that the district’s claims were unfounded.

“The Imperial Irrigation District’s refusal to approve the plans supported by every one of its counterparts in the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basin is shortsighted, manipulative and simply not supported by any reasonable view of the facts,” the water authority said, adding that the plan complies with environmental laws. “The DCPs have no effect on the Salton Sea, a fact acknowledged by [the district’s] own Board of Directors during a September 2018 meeting.”


The disagreement in California comes after months of infighting between water users in Arizona, the state would require to take the sharpest cuts under the drought plan. Many of Arizona’s issues have been resolved, although the state is still finalizing some agreements.

Peter Nelson, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said Tuesday at the press conference that he was disappointed California could not move forward in complete consensus. But he said that the drought plan would not make the impacts to the Salton Sea worse.

“It is my feeling we would have been better served with the Imperial Irrigation District participating with the state of California, but that was unable to happen,” Nelson said.

From The New York Times (John Schwartz):

The water in Lake Mead, the vast reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam that supplies the lower basin, has dropped to levels not seen since it began to fill in the 1960s. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, another reservoir on the river, are essential sources of water for Southern California and Arizona, and sit at less than 40 percent full…

By the beginning of March, the water level in Lake Mead had dropped to 1,088 feet above sea level. At 1,075 feet, under guidelines agreed to in 2007, the federal government would declare a shortage on the lower Colorado River, and mandatory water restrictions would go into effect.

Without sacrifices by the states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the upper basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada in the lower basin — the reservoir could reach the trigger point next year, though recent heavy snowfall in the mountains that feed the river may help for a time…

The federal government regulates the water, but the states own the rights to it, said Jennifer Pitt, an expert on river issues with the Audubon Society. “So there’s a tension there,” she said. “The federal government’s consistent approach is to use that authority as a stick, but not ever go so far as to have to claim it.”

The river is important to the people who use its water, but also to “all of nature that depends on the river in the arid landscape of the Southwest,” Ms. Pitt said.

Another big risk is that Lake Mead could eventually drop below 950 feet, when water could no longer turn the dam’s turbines, or even 895 feet, when the lake would reach “deadpool” status and no water could flow out. That, said Patricia Aaron, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, need never happen. “That’s what the drought contingency planning on the river is about,” she said.

Brad Udall, a senior scientist at Colorado State University and an expert on water supplies in the West, told a congressional panel last month that the lower basin uses about 10.2 million acre-feet of water from the river each year, while upstream flows provide just nine million. (An acre-foot is the volume of one foot of water over one acre, about 325,000 gallons.)

Beyond that drain, climate change is bringing on a long-term crisis. “The Colorado River, and the entire Southwest, has shifted to a new hotter and drier climate, and, equally important, will continue to shift to a hotter and drier climate for several decades after we stop emitting greenhouse gases,” he said in his testimony.

In an interview, Mr. Udall said the influence of climate change was already apparent in the West. “Climate change is not some distant process,” he said. “It’s here, it’s now, it’s in our faces. It’s creating messes we have to deal with.”

Jonathan T. Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, said that politicians and policymakers needed to factor climate change into their plans. Lack of river water will lead people to pump more groundwater, which was deposited in the ice ages. “We’re using this fossil groundwater in unsustainable ways,” he said.

In a warming world, Dr. Overpeck said, less water in rivers and lakes is inevitable, whatever relief a wet season might bring. But for the most part, Western political leaders “don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “It is the disaster that’s over the horizon, if we don’t talk about it.”

From The Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

In a teleconference from Phoenix announcing the plans’ completion, Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell said the general intent of the plans and the subsequent legislation will be to protect water levels at both Lake Mead and Lake Powell by incentivizing additional conservation of water…

A generous snowpack in the West is sitting at nearly 140 percent of average and may actually stave off an anticipated water shortage declaration in 2020 for the lower basin states.

But Burman warned Tuesday that one wet year doesn’t erase 18 years of the driest period on the river in 1,200 years.

“It takes years to recover from the type of intense drought this region has experienced,” he said.

Eric Millis, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said the plans are the culmination of years of hard work.

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“The significance is that it provides protection to the upper basin uses and the state of Utah, and the entire basin and helps us deal with drought and climate change. It offers us that security and protection.”

The components of the plans for the upper and lower basin states have to work in tandem, he added. For the upper basin, the magic number is keeping Lake Powell at 3,525 elevation, or 25 feet above the power pool elevation, Millis said.

The War for the Roads — Jonathan Thompson (@jonnypeace)

From (Jonathan Thompson):

This story by Jonathan P. Thompson ran in the Silverton Mountain Journal in winter of 2002. Given the historic avalanche cycle, and the lengthy closure of Red Mountain Pass, it seemed like an opportune time to re-up it. Spoiler: Silverton has been shut off from the world by avalanches many times in the past. In 1932, the roads and railroad were shut down from February until the end of April. Yikes!

Eddie Imel died 10 years ago this March (editor’s note: in March 1992). Imel was a plow driver for the Colorado Department of Transportation on the Ouray side of Red Mountain Pass. Like all the plow drivers between Ouray and Cascade, Imel was part of the infantry; he was a foot soldier in the war to keep Highway 550 into Silverton open and keep the town it feeds alive. Imel was the third soldier to die in that war in 22 years and, like the other two, he was slain by the deadliest enemy of this unending conflict: the East Riverside Slide.

The winter of 1991-1992 was not an especially heavy one in these parts. In fact, after a good start–43″ of snow fell in Silverton in November–the snowfall petered out. December (15″), January (10″), and February (15″) were all unusually dry months for snow in the San Juans. Long periods of sunny days and cold, clear nights between storms served to rot out the early, scant snowpack. In other words, conditions were ripe for a serious avalanche season upon the arrival of the big, spring storms.

And arrive they did: Over 30 inches of snow fell in the San Juan Mountains and the slides were running all over the place. Highway 550 was finally closed, but by the time the gates were shut, it was too late. The CDOT truck that swept the road to make sure all motorists were out of danger dodged big slides before being blocked by a portion of the East Riverside Slide that had hit the road just north of the snowshed. Edie Imel and Danny Jaramillo were piloting a CDOT plow, attempting to clear the road so that the sweep truck and other motorists inside the snowshed could get to safety. The plow came to a stop, the two soldiers got out to adjust the chains, and, as the East Riverside is apt to do, it ran again, burying the plow and the drivers.

Everyone in the snowshed, CDOT officials, and local law enforcement reasonably assumed both victims of the slide were dead. A body recovery effort would have been too risky, so it was delayed. The motorists in the shed were escorted back to safety, the mourning began, and, 18 hours after the slide ran, a call came in from the emergency telephone in the snowshed. Danny Jaramillo had tunneled his way out of the cement-like snow. Imel’s body was recovered not long after.

The system, or rather the lack of a real system, for determining avalanche hazard and deciding when to close the road had failed one too many times. Things had to change.

Silverton’s connection with the outside world has always been vulnerable to snowslides. Before there were plow drivers risking their lives to keep the arteries and veins of San Juan civilization from being blocked, there were mail carriers. Before the railroad arrived in 1882, Silverton’s winter link to the lowlands usually consisted of no more than one man on a set of “snowshoes,” or long, wide, heavy wooden skis. Men with names like Greenhalgh, Aspaas, Bales, Mears, and Nelson skied regularly over Cunningham Pass (south of Stony Pass) with huge, 50- to 60-pound sacks on their backs or dragging sleds full of mail and supplies. It was not a job for the faint at heart — avalanche danger was ignored, at least one froze to death, and others, somehow, survived both snow and cold — but it was a necessary one. Without their efforts, Silverton would have had to shut down come winter.

Newspaper clipping from March 1906, after a huge storm resulted in a deadly St. Patrick’s Day avalanche cycle.

In 1882, the railroad finally reached the heart of the San Juans, but by no means did this signal an end to avalanche troubles. The snowshoe-riding mail carriers of old, as long as they avoided being hit by slides, could simply ski over the top of the slide debris, but the train could not. From Needleton to Silverton, the tracks pass through the depository for dozens of slides, some of significant size. Dramatic photos of the Saguache slide (probably also known as the Snowshed slide north of Elk Park) show a trench dug for the train through a 60 foot pile of snow and debris. Nearly every winter saw at least one avalanche-caused blockade during which the train could not reach Silverton. Sometimes they only lasted a few hours while tens or even hundreds of men cleared the tracks. But there were times when Silverton was cut off from the world for days, weeks, and, in one case, three months. In 1884, Silverton was without a train for 73 days. Food ran short and milk cows were killed for beef.

The winter of 1906 will long be remembered as the most tragic, avalanche-wise, in the San Juans. Big January storms pounded the region following a relatively dry November and December, and the slides came down. Five men were killed at the mouth of the tunnel of the Sunnyside Mine near Eureka when they were engulfed by a slide. Eleven avalanches were reported between Silverton and Elk Park that ranged from seven to 30 feet deep and 50 to 450 feet long; the train was kept at bay for 18 days.

All of that was minor compared to what followed in March when an enormous storm sat over the region for about a week, relentlessly pounding the San Juans. Slides swept away the Shenandoah boarding house, killing twelve men, and ravaged a number of other structures in the area, often killing their inhabitants and making that the most deadly avalanche season ever in the San Juans. Twenty-four people lost their lives to snowslides in San Juan County that winter.

Transportation in and out of Silverton came to a standstill. Two-hundred men of Japanese descent worked to clear 50-foot deep piles of debris that at least 15 slides had deposited on the tracks between Needleton and Elk Park. It took 33 days for them to break through. Local newspaper editors blamed the Railroad, not the snowslides, for the delay in opening the tracks, a sentiment that would echo throughout the years, even after the highway became the main link between Silverton and everywhere else.

Perhaps the worst winter, in terms of Silverton being cut off from the outside, was 1931-1932. By then the highways to Ouray and Durango were gaining importance as supply routes through the San Juans. That gave the newspapers someone else, the highway department, to blame for closures. After a December storm, the editor of the Silverton Standard wrote: “Now during the recent storm it was not deemed expedient for men to attempt to keep the highway open, but after the storm settled it was clearly the duty of the maintenance department of Colorado to open the roads, or at least determine that they should not be opened. What was done? Nothing. How long in our case did the situation continue? For at least one week.”

Silverton continued that year to be pummeled by storm after storm. In February, following a devastating “San Juaner,” all highways were closed, including those to Howardsville and Gladstone; a slide wrecked the Iowa-Tiger boarding house at Silver Lake; all telephone lines in and out of Silverton were down; and the train crashed near Rockwood while attempting to reach Silverton. One couple hiked out to Ouray in order to escape the confines of Baker’s Park, some snowshoed to Rockwood in order to catch the train, and a 350-pound load of butter, eggs, and meat was brought by toboggan from Ouray. In April, it was reported that the Riverside Slide had deposited a pile of snow 300 feet long and 60 feet deep. The road to Durango (which at that time traveled down avalanche-riddled Lime Creek, not over Coal Bank Pass) was opened on April 30, and the Ouray side was cleared shortly thereafter.

Only four years later Silverton was shut off again by slides for weeks, prompting a team made up of Louis Dalla, E.F. Sutherland, James Baudino, John Turner, and Carl Larson to snowshoe down the canyon to Needleton to fetch the mail.

By the time one of the biggest winters in San Juan history hit in 1951, the railroad’s importance had been diminished somewhat by the improved highways, especially to the south. But in the San Juans even good highways, which traveled through slightly less avalanche-prone areas, are liable to be shut down, and that’s exactly what happened that year. There was so much snow that people had trouble getting around town, not to mention over the passes. The Highland Mary Mill in Cunningham Gulch was wrecked by a slide, killing one. The highway to the north opened after six days, and it took several more days of around-the-clock effort, to break through the dozens of slides that covered the road to the south.

In spite of the huge winters, the series of avalanches that hit the roads with regularity, and the lack of any avalanche policy governing Highway 550 at the time, not one motorist had been killed by an avalanche on the highway by the middle of the 20th century. Nevertheless, following the huge winter of 1952, the Colorado Highway Department implemented an official policy dealing with road closures and avalanche hazard. The policy said that if avalanche danger was determined to be high, the road would be closed, control work would be done, the debris would be cleared, and the road re-opened.

At first glance, the system seems identical to the current one. In practice, however, the road was usually kept open until the slides were coming down so big, and with such frequency, that the plows were simply unable to punch through them anymore. It was a policy that, at best, was unscientific. Louie Dalla, road supervisor for the Silverton district, who was known as a man who almost always kept the roads open, described the non-policy policy in a 1963 interview with Allen Nossaman: “About the only good rule is not to go in a storm. They ask us how an accident could have been prevented in many slides. The best answer to that is — They should have stayed in bed. The study of slides is a science, and the study comes pretty close to getting the answers but not close enough.”

In other words, it was up to the motorist, not the highway department, to ultimately assess the danger and make the decision about whether to travel the road or not. It is a noble sentiment, and one from another time before liability and lawsuits were the norm. Up until 1991, the only avalanche forecasters were the plow drivers themselves, their command centers the cabs of their plows. The policy was imperfect, at best and, in 1963, its fatal flaws were first revealed.

On March 3, 1963, Reverend Marvin Hudson made his usual trip over Red Mountain Pass to preside over services at the Silverton Congregational Church. He had his daughters Amelia and Pauline in the car with him. A large storm had hit and the East Riverside Slide had already run once. His car was slip-sliding across the road as he passed under the ominous East Riverside slide, so the Reverend stopped to install his chains. That is when the Riverside ran again. It took rescuers a week to find the Reverend’s body and another to find Amelia’s. Pauline was not recovered until May 30.

The tragedy inspired a Colorado Highway Department Engineer to recommend the construction of a snowshed under the Riverside, a suggestion made by a Swiss avalanche expert two years earlier. The shed was not built, the road closure policy remained the same, and, in 1970, plow driver Robert Miller was killed by the Riverside’s infamous second release.

Angered citizens demanded the construction of a snowshed but Highway 550, which is still one of the last places to get funding from the state transportation coffers, would get no protection. Nothing was done.

It took yet another fatality, under similar circumstances, to motivate the state to finally build the snowshed. This time it was plow driver Terry Kishbaugh who was taken by the East Riverside on February 10, 1978. Seven years later, the snowshed was built. At least one expert recommended the snowshed be 1,200 feet long; others said that the absolute minimum length for it to be effective was 400 feet. When all was said and done, the snowshed only covered 180 feet of highway (as it does today), leaving cars, and plow drivers, and Eddie Imel and Danny Jaramillo exposed to the deadly torrent known as the East Riverside slide.

Those were the fatalities. Then there were the close calls. According to CDOT statistics, 68 cars were hit by slides between 1951 and 1991 between Coal Bank and Ouray. These included a Trailways bus that was knocked off Molas Pass by the Champion slide and a bus bashed by the Brooklyns filled with miners coming home to Silverton from their shift at the Idarado Mine. Injuries were relatively minor. Finally, when the San Juans had to say goodbye to a third plow driver in 22 years, things changed.

In July 1992, CDOT announced its new Highway 550 Avalanche Hazard Reduction Plan. Weather and snowpack evaluation stations would be installed under the plan; avalanche control equipment such as Howitzers would be implemented; CDOT workers would all be trained in avalanche awareness; and fixed control-gun towers would be installed. Most significantly, however, the avalanche forecasting job would go to two Colorado Avalanche Information Center professionals based in Silverton (plow drivers, however, continue to serve an important role, communicating their on the road observations to forecasters).

Silverton’s forecasters are devoted, full-time, to assessing the avalanche hazard on the passes. Even during long periods between storms, they patrol the passes and analyze the snowpack, its structure, and its stability, allowing them to know approximately how much snow, and at what density, the current snowpack can hold in the event of a storm. When a storm does hit, the forecasters are out on the highway alongside the plow drivers, constantly monitoring conditions and passing recommendations on to the local road supervisor in Durango or Ridgway. Ultimately, it is the road supervisor, not the forecaster, that makes the decision to close the road.

The days of waiting for several big slides to come down before deeming the hazard high are over, according to Silverton Avalanche Forecaster Andy Gleason. This has sometimes caused impatience in Silverton, where people still remember the old days and where mail, supplies, and commuter routes are shut down along with the roads. And, of course, when the road is closed it means the precious few winter tourists and their money are kept out, an issue that may even get more urgent when the new ski area opens. Many citizens, especially those that have been around for a while, feel that it is premature to close the roads before any slides have come down.

Gleason disagrees. “When I recommend closure I’m always asked: ‘What slides hit the road,” said Gleason. “If we were doing our job really well we would answer that nothing hit the road, but this is what is about to hit the road.” Gleason concedes that, partly because of the importance of the roads to Silverton, the road is usually not closed until smaller “indicator” slides such as the Blue Point have run. Or, he says, if two inches of snow fall in one hour or less in the Uncompahgre Gorge, then it is time to lock the gates with or without indicator slides. “It will avalanche,” said Gleason.

The ultimate goal of the avalanche reduction program, according to Gleason, is to create more avalanches of smaller size. “Our perfect avalanche control day would be if every slide ran small to the edge of the road so that there is no clean-up necessary,” said Gleason.

Although this policy may mean more frequent and earlier closures, ultimately it could result in cumulative closures of fewer hours during a winter than under the old policy. Most importantly, of course, it means that everyone — the plow drivers, the motorists, the law enforcement people patrolling the roads — are safer.

Its first decade of existence has been a successful one for the Avalanche Hazard Reduction Plan. Imel’s was the last avalanche-related fatality on Highway 550, close calls are rare, and during the past five years, long, sustained closures have been kept to a minimum. In 1998-1999 Red Mountain Pass was closed for a total of 110 hours and Molas/Coal Bank for 17 hours; in 1999-2000, the road to the north was only out of service for a total of 33 hours and Molas was closed for a paltry 6.5 hours; and last year, an average snow year, Red Mountain was down for 83 hours and Molas/Coal Bank for 30 hours. These numbers are not small, but in earlier years it was not unheard of for the road to be closed in both directions for 83 hours at one time.

Improvements during the last five years have helped the forecasters and controllers immensely. Snow measurement stakes have been placed in the starting zones of the West Lime Creek and Mother Cline slides; Howitzers have returned to their traditional place in avalanche control work, making helicopters less necessary and allowing for more efficiency and quicker control work; and the forecasters learn more about the snowpack each year.

Still, the new plan is not perfect. Gleason would like to see more forecasters here (two, Silverton-based forecasters cover Coal Bank, Molas, and Red Mountain Passes in addition to Lizard Head Pass, which is two hours away by CDOT truck); more passive control measures such as snowsheds, snow fences, and snow defense structures; better automated weather stations; and a remote avalanche detection system (one is being researched here but Gleason signed a waiver promising not to talk about it).

John Greenell (a.k.a. Greenhalgh) and his trusty pair of snowshoes was one of the mail carriers that provided Silverton a link with the outside world in its earliest winters of existence. He was known as a man that could make the trip up Cunningham Gulch, over Cunningham Pass, into the Rio Grande Country and to Del Norte and back in any type of weather.

On Monday, November 27, 1876, Greenell set out from Carr’s Cabin on the other side of the divide on the return trip (over Stony Pass this time) to Silverton. He never arrived. A group of searchers found his body a few days later, frozen to death near the top of Stony Pass, his hand rigidly clutching his mailbag.

We have changed a great deal since Greenell’s days, but the mountains are just about the same. Winters are still hard, avalanches still rush down mountainsides, and Silverton is still, occasionally, isolated from the outside world.

A heavy duty snow blower punches a hole through the snow that came down the West Riverside slide triggered yesterday, Monday, March 4, on north Red Mountain Pass, US 550. The snow shed which protects the traveling public from natural slide activity is seen in the background.

#California is #drought-free for the first time in nearly a decade — Los Angeles Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

California Drought Monitor March 12, 2019.

From The Los Angeles Times (Alejandra Reyes-Velarde):

For the first time since 2011, the state shows no areas suffering from prolonged drought and illustrates almost entirely normal conditions, according to a map released Thursday by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“The reservoirs are full, lakes are full, the streams are flowing, there’s tons of snow,” said Jessica Blunden, a climate scientist with the National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “All the drought is officially gone.”


In January, storms filled up many of the state’s water reserves almost to capacity and added about 580 billion gallons of water to reservoirs across the state. That month, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, a major source of California’s water supply, doubled — and then doubled again in February…

A year ago, just 11% of the state was experiencing normal conditions while 88.9% of the state was “abnormally dry,” according to the drought report. Some parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties were still colored dark red, meaning they were experiencing “extreme drought.”


Small portions in the far northern and southern parts of the state were still marked as “abnormally dry,” but elsewhere, the map registered no drought conditions at all. In San Diego County, reservoirs were only 65% full, which contributed to the dry conditions in that area, Blunden said.

Cutting IID Out of the Lower Basin #DCP Would Just Continue a Long Tradition in the #ColoradoRiver Basin — @R_EricKuhn #COriver #aridification

In 1922, Federal and State representatives met for the Colorado River Compact Commission in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Among the attendees were Arthur P. Davis, Director of Reclamation Service, and Herbert Hoover, who at the time, was the Secretary of Commerce. Photo taken November 24, 1922. USBR photo.

From InkStain (Eric Kuhn):

If, as being widely reported, the Colorado River basin states (and the major water agencies that largely dictate what the states do) ultimately decide to proceed with a Lower Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan that cuts out the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), no one should be surprised. It’s simply continuing a long, and perhaps successful, tradition of basin governance by running over the “miscreant(s)”…

In our new book Science be Dammed, John Fleck and I argue that the beauty of the 1922 Compact was that it was a social contract between the faster growing states on the lower river (primarily California) and the slower growing states on the upper river to leave some water in the river for their future development. This allowed the states to cautiously form the coalitions necessary to pass the federal legislation needed to develop the river. As we have seen, for the major decisions there was rarely unanimous agreement. Today, in an era of reallocation of existing supplies, what is needed is a similar social contract between the haves, the rural areas of the basin that rely on agriculture (with senior rights), recreation and a healthy river and the have-nots, the urban centers with mostly junior rights, but with a need for certainty of supply and the political and economic power to overwhelm the rest of the basin. The goal of such a social contract would be to allow the inevitable reallocations, but only if there is a clear and real benefit to the areas-of-origin.

Leaving IID out of the Lower Basin DCP might make sense for a number of good reasons (especially with the great snowpack which reduces the risk faced by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in shouldering the DCP burden without IID’s help), the question policy makers should consider is in the long run (post 2026 for the Colorado River Basin) is such an action going to make it easier or harder to manage conflicts on a shrinking river?

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map March 17, 2019 via the NRCS.

#Snowpack/#Runoff news: @USBR’s #ColoradoRiver Basin inflow projections reflect improved hydrological conditions in 2019 #COriver #aridification

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map March 16, 2019 via the NRCS.

From email from Reclamation (Marlon Duke/Patti Aaron):

The Bureau of Reclamation today updated its monthly 24-month study projections, indicating improved hydrological conditions throughout the Colorado River Basin. Current snowpack in the Upper Basin is nearly 140 percent of average, with a forecasted inflow to Lake Powell of 92 percent of average for water year 2019.

“We are pleased to see the above average snowpack conditions in the Upper Basin and the improvement in the inflow forecast for Lake Powell,” said Reclamation Upper Colorado Regional Director Brent Rhees. “Significant risks and uncertainty persist and storage at Lake Powell remains essential to the overall well-being of the basin.”

“These developments may lessen the chance of shortage in 2020,” said Reclamation Lower Colorado Regional Director Terry Fulp. “However, one near- or even above-average year will not end the ongoing extended drought experienced in the Colorado River Basin and does not substantially reduce the risks facing the basin.”

In Reclamation’s March 2019 24-Month Study Lake Powell’s releases are projected to increase to 9.0 maf in water year 2019. Lake Mead’s elevation is projected to be 1,080.85 feet by year’s end.

The operating tiers for Lake Powell in water year 2020 and the operating condition for Lake Mead in calendar year 2020 will be determined based on the projected conditions on January 1, 2020, as reported in the August 2019 24-Month Study.

The March 2019 24-Month Study can be accessed at

‘Mission-Oriented’ #ColoradoRiver veteran takes the helm as the US Commissioner of International Boundary Waters Commission — @WaterEdFdn #COriver #aridification #WomenInWater

From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):

Western Water Q&A: Jayne Harkins’ duties include collaboration with Mexico on Colorado River supply, water quality issues

Jayne Harkins, the U.S. Commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission. (Image: IBWC)

For the bulk of her career, Jayne Harkins has devoted her energy to issues associated with the management of the Colorado River, both with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and with the Colorado River Commission of Nevada.

Now her career is taking a different direction. Harkins, 58, was appointed by President Trump last August to take the helm of the United States section of the U.S.-Mexico agency that oversees myriad water matters between the two countries as they seek to sustainably manage the supply and water quality of the Colorado River, including its once-thriving Delta in Mexico, and other rivers the two countries share. She is the first woman to be named the U.S. Commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission for either the United States or Mexico in the commission’s 129-year history.

The IBWC, whose jurisdiction covers the 1,954 miles of border from San Diego to the Gulf of Mexico, is responsible for applying the boundary and
he United States and Mexico, and settling differences that may arise in their application.

The IBWC is recognizable to many people as the implementing body for the additions to the 1944 U.S.-Mexican Water Treaty on the Colorado, Rio Grande and Tijuana rivers known as Minutes. In 2017, the latest addendum, Minute 323, built on previous agreements that specified reductions in water deliveries to Mexico off the Colorado River during a shortage and allowed Mexico to store water in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir which sits near Las Vegas.

The New River, a contaminated waterway that flows north from Mexico, spills into the Salton Sea in southwestern California’s Imperial Valley. Transborder pollution is among Jayne Harkins’ priorities as U.S. IBWC Commissioner. (Image: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

There are other issues, as well. Transborder pollution – from the New River spilling into the Salton Sea and from the Tijuana River fouling San Diego County beaches – is on her radar. Last year, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board sued the U.S. section of the IBWC, claiming it is violating the Clean Water Act by not monitoring or stopping the untreated waste flowing to the Pacific Ocean from the Tijuana River that has caused beach closures in San Diego County.

Harkins, who lives in El Paso, Texas, spoke recently to Western Water about her new mission, transborder pollution and addressing Colorado River shortages with Mexico. The transcript has been lightly edited for space.

You are the first woman to be selected as IBWC commissioner. Do you see that as a significant accomplishment?

Yeah, I do. It is [significant] but I wish it weren’t. It should have happened a long time ago from my perspective. For me, you just plow on and get work done.

What is the significance of the IBWC and how its mission affects the various stakeholders?

We started as the International Boundary Commission and, of course, that is more straightforward. They work to demarcate the boundary, [and] maintain our boundary monuments.

Jayne Harkins (seated, far left), as executive director of the Colorado River Commission of Nevada, was one of the signers in 2017 of domestic agreements that were part of Minute 323, the addendum to the 1944 U.S.-Mexican Water Treaty. (Image: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

In 1944, of course, we got the treaty with Mexico that went beyond boundary stuff. That is what distributed waters between the United States and Mexico on the Colorado River. A part of that treaty authorized the joint construction and operation of international storage dams on the Rio Grande, and there is some discussion on a preferential solution to the issue of border sanitation problems.

I think a lot of what IBWC can do in both the U.S. and Mexico is bring all the stakeholders together into binational meetings to talk about the data we have, what are we lacking and then try to resolve issues.

What are your priorities as commissioner?

My priority is border sanitation. We have a number of areas with border sanitation issues and that’s one to try and figure out and see what we can do. Also, we have our treaty water deliveries and water quantity and quality responsibilities, depending on what the minutes require. We have those pieces that we need to make sure get done. We have got infrastructure issues on some of our dams and we just need to be operating and maintaining older infrastructure and make sure we are repairing and replacing as needed.

What is the IBWC’s role in water quality issues?

We are coordinating with others because there are some things that we can’t do that others can, and so we are trying to bring a coordinated effort among the federal U.S. entities. With Mexico, it’s what are the appropriate entities, federal and state, that they have to have. Each one of these is a local issue and we’ve got to bring in the local stakeholders because they have an interest as well. Some solutions may include infrastructure on both sides of the border. A number of studies regarding infrastructure improvements have been completed or are underway. We are working with local, state and federal agencies, as well as Mexico, to address the Tijuana River sanitation issue in a cooperative manner.

This has been ongoing for a long time. As I looked at it, I’m like, “Are things better than they were?” If you look at the data, even New River stuff [the New River flows from Mexico into California’s Imperial Valley and toward the Salton Sea], it’s much better than it was 20 years ago. If you look at the numbers overall, it’s not good enough. It’s not like the discharges meet U.S. standards and that’s what people in the U.S. are looking for. We are trying to help be a convener of folks to make sure we know what the data looks like, to make sure we know fact from fiction and bring people together who can perhaps bring some money to this and work with Mexico to see who can do what parts.

The water quality issues on the Colorado River are outlined in Minute 242 as related to salinity requirements. Minute 323 established a Salinity Work Group to minimize the impact of Minute 323 activities on salinity and to undertake cooperative actions like modernizing salinity monitoring equipment.

How is the IBWC involved with drought planning efforts?

Colorado River water released from Morelos Dam, along the border with Mexico, flows downstream into the Colorado River channel in March 2014 to benefit the environment as part of the cooperative measures agreed to by the United States and Mexico under Minute 319. (Image: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

We are not specifically engaged in the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, but we are very interested in it and monitoring it and checking in with folks about what’s going on. Mexico is very interested because they have agreed to sharing shortages when the Lower Basin is in shortage. If there is a Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, Mexico has their Binational Water Scarcity Plan and they would take some additional reductions. So from the standpoint as to how we implement Minute 323 and what we need to do with sharing information with Mexico, that’s our part of the involvement.

The Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan is essentially how the DCP would be applied to Mexico.

What’s the status of Minute 323 implementation?

There are a number of conservation projects in Mexico that are wrapping up. We are involved in the verification that they got constructed. We will work with Mexico on the quantity of water that’s being conserved. As construction gets done, those projects are funded by some of the U.S. stakeholders, and we move that money over to Mexico so they can pay the contractors.

A recent report provided findings of the 2014 pulse flow of more than 100,000 acre-feet of water into the riparian corridor of the Colorado River Delta implemented under Minute 319. How will that inform future efforts?

We learned many things about water delivery methods, infiltration, irrigation techniques and groundwater – information that will guide our Minute 323 environmental work. This report provides solid scientific information about our restoration efforts. The findings will help us apply environmental water more effectively in the future.