Romancing the River: The #ColoradoRiver Compact at 100 — Sibley’s Rivers #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article the Sibley’s Rivers website [http://sibleysrivers.com] (George Sibley):

We’ve been exploring the Colorado River Compact here – which, like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ‘wonderful one-hoss shay’ has now lived almost ‘one hundred years to the day’ – the commissioners signed off on it November 24, 1922.  The century mark is a good place to pause and pull back for a larger perspective on something like a multi-state agreement and see what it has and hasn’t actually accomplished – but without losing sight of the romantic vision of conquest that drove the Compact’s formation, back in the early decades of the Anthropocene Epoch when reorganizing the prehuman world was still fun.

In the last post here, we looked at the ‘major purposes’ cited in the first article of the Compact: the first listed purpose, ‘to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System’ in order ‘to remove causes of present and future controversies’ (fourth purpose); and the final listed purpose, ‘to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin.’

That fifth purpose, to facilitate the expeditious development of the Basin, was the main reason the seven state representatives had convened with a federal representative: they all wanted to get about the development of the river’s waters, the desire to take on Frederick Dellenbaugh’s ‘veritable dragon’ supported by rational reasons such as flood control and storage. In order to achieve that expeditious development, however, it was necessary to achieve the Compact’s first stated purpose: an equitable division and apportionment of the development and the water required – or cutting to the chase for most of the seven states: making sure that fast-growing Southern California did not get most of the water for its racehorse development. 

After failed efforts to make specific seven-state divisions of the use of the River’s water, the expedient solution they settled on was to divide the river in two, around the mostly uninhabited canyon region: an Upper Basin including the four states above the canyons (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming), and a Lower Basin of the states below the canyons (Arizona, California and Nevada). It was their clear intent that each basin would get half of the river’s water for consumptive use, with the states in each basin working out an equitable division among themselves of their half, in their own good time. 

It may have worked out better, had they stopped there – a 50-50 division of whatever water the river produced, with each basin responsible for half of whatever water might eventually by allotted to Mexico where the river ended. But California insisted on a specific quantification of the two shares because they were already using a substantial amount and didn’t want to over-appropriate. After much discussion and good and bad advice, the commissioners settled on 15 million acre-feet (maf) as a reasonable average flow, between the Bureau of Reclamation’s optimistic 16.5 maf and the less optimistic 13 maf of USGS scientists studying the river.

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)

The commissioners have been chided – castigated – for settling on the 15 maf quantity, which was shown to be overly optimistic within a couple of decades. But they could have countered the criticism by asking why, if their numbers were so bad, had the states not reassembled to correct them? 

Frequently in their meetings, there was either frustration or resignation at how little they knew about the river and its flow history. Chairman Hoover summarized that oft-expressed concern in their 21st meeting: ‘[W]e make now, for lack of a better word, a temporary equitable division, reserving a certain portion of the flow of the river to the hands of those men who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information; that they can make a further division of the river at such a time, and in the meantime, we shall take such means at this moment to protect the rights of either basin as will assure the continued development of the river.’ (Italics added) In other words – we can work out the details down the road when we know more; meanwhile, let’s build dams and canals. They built into the Compact, in Articles III, VI, and IX, procedures for those ‘possessed of a far greater fund of information’ to reconsider the Compact to better fit the emerging reality of the River and its flows. 

I should note that the commissioners, Anthropocene romantics, actually believed that future generations would reassemble to address the distribution of surplus flows. They anticipated a larger river in the future – if not provided by nature, then by the engineers who would bring in more water from larger rivers that had a surplus. This is the ‘romance of the Colorado River’ – the romance of the Anthropocene. 

California’s commissioner McClure accepted the lower 7.5 maf/year figure because it moved along the process leading to stymying the veritable dragon with a big dam for storage of the river’s annual flood. But Arizona’s commissioner, W.S. Norviel, was not happy with any aspect of the two-basin division since it left Arizona competing with California for a diminished quantity of water, a mere half of the river, for which the bigger state already had plans in the process. He was essentially – on orders from economic forces in the state he represented – in a defensive posture, protecting Arizona’s right and capacity to become another California with no interference from the Upper Basin states. Most of the commissioners were patient with Norviel, but frustration was occasionally vented, as when the New Mexico commissioner observed that ‘we are absolutely and utterly up in the air because none of us knows what it is Mr. Norviel really wants.’

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

What it came down to – what satisfied Mr. Norviel enough to reluctantly sign the Compact – was the concession by the Upper States that Arizona’s tributaries to the Colorado River mainstem would not be counted as part of the Lower Basin’s 7.5 maf/year. This is obscurely codified in the Compact as the mysterious statement in Article 3(b): ‘In addition to the [7.5 maf] apportionment, the Lower Basin is hereby given the right to increase its beneficial consumptive use of such waters by one million acre-feet per annum’ (with no additional responsibility for that accruing to the Upper Basin).

No rationale for this ‘gift’ is to be found in the minutes of the meetings, but it would be naive to think that everything of importance happened in the formal transcribed meetings. Bishop’s Lodge had a comped bar and restaurant, and there were undoubtedly informal meetings, over breakfast and lunch and well into the evenings, and in hotel-room Basin caucuses, as well as phone exchanges with interested parties back home.

The Compact that the seven commissioners signed in late November 1922 might have raised as many questions as it answered for the states and the nation. That unexplained million acre-feet is one such instance. But the big one was, and continues to be – what did the commissioners mean when they said, in Article III(d): ‘The States of the Upper Division will not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted below an aggregate of 75,000,000 acre-feet for any period of ten consecutive years.”

Does this mean – well, what it seems to say: that the users in the Upper Basin states should do nothing themselves, in the way of consumptive uses, to deplete the flow at Lees Ferry below the 7.5 maf/year average? Or does it mean that the Upper Basin has a ‘delivery obligation’ to the Lower Basin regardless of what happened naturally (drought) as well as culturally (over-use) in the Upper Basin? 

This map shows the Colorado River Basin and surrounding areas that use Colorado River Water, with four regions delineated, based on the degree to which flow is regulated and the channel physically manipulated. The dividing line for the upper and lower basin is Lee Ferry near Glen Canyon Dam. CREDIT: CENTER FOR COLORADO RIVER STUDIES

That particular question has remained unanswered because there has been no need to raise the question – yet. The Upper Basin is now consuming only around 4 maf/per year, with nearly all of its good agricultural land watered. Colorado commissioner Carpenter had opined early in the meetings that even at full development the Upper Basin states would still be passing more than half the river to the Lower Basin; that seems prescient in retrospect.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Upper Basin depletions today also include two-thirds of a million ace-feet in out-of-basin diversions to the South Platte, Arkansas, and Rio Grande rivers and the Salt Lake region. Such diversions could conceivably be a black hole into which another million or two acre-feet could be poured, but users in the natural Upper Basin are organized enough now to put very expensive conditions on future out-of-basin diversions – as Denver Water and Northern Water have learned, on ‘firming projects’ for two relatively small diversions into the South Platte for which they already had conditional rights.  The Upper Basin states assumed the worst – an unconditional delivery obligation – and have been almost obsessively diligent about keeping the ten-year running average well above 75 maf. Even today, through two decades of aridification, the ten-year average remains in the 85-90 maf range, although the long-term trend in the running average is downward, bringing closer the day when that big question must be answered…

The mysterious or obfuscatory passages of the Compact to one side, however – a larger question, for me at least, is whether the division of the Colorado River into two basins was a good idea for the long term. 

As Utah’s commissioner Caldwell observed in the next to last meeting, ‘I think for a practical matter we are almost making two rivers out of one in the Colorado River, to meet a practical situation.’ The ‘practical situation’ was the need for an interstate agreement on the consumptive use of the River’s water ‘to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin,’ and the two-basin concept achieved that. 

But the effect over the century has been ‘almost making two rivers out of one,’ rather than developing one river with two basins. The Upper Colorado River is a ‘natural’ river, accumulating its flows from many mountain tributaries that almost all start with snowmelt above 8,000 feet in elevation and gradually conjoin to funnel into the canyon region. The Lower Colorado River is practically a reverse of that, with a single source emerging from the canyon reservoirs and gradually being diverted into canals and smaller ditches and pipes until it has been literally all spread out in southwestern desert destinations.

The clear intent of the Compact commissioners was that these two rivers would be created equal (‘to remove causes of present and future controversies’), but they failed to deliver that in the language of the Compact. Despite some wiggle room provided by the ten-year running average, the Upper Basin was clearly going to bear most of the burden of nature’s extremes like drought, while the Lower Basin was assured under the Compact of a relatively consistent flow of water from storage regardless of what happened in the Upper Basin.

The separation into ‘two rivers’ was enhanced with the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and Powell Reservoir just above Lees Ferry the basin division point; there was no further need for the Lower River to be concerned at all with the occasional dry spell in the Upper River; their portion plus the Upper River’s share of Mexico’s portion (8.23 maf/year) was always there – plus the unused Upper River ‘surplus’ which the Bureau kept sending them, enabling all manner of bad habits in the Lower River.

The problem with ‘making two rivers from’ the Colorado River is a failure to take into account the basic nature of a ‘desert river.’ Around 85 percent of the water for the entire Colorado River Basin originates in the Upper River above 8,000 feet elevation. And around 65 percent of that water is consumed by the Lower River (whose water ‘originates’ in the bubbling ‘spring’ of spent water from Glen Canyon Dam’s power turbines). Yet the Lower River is charged with no responsibility for maintaining and improving the source of its water. The back-and-forth fussing and complaining today between the two basins is evidence of a two-river split, in which the problems of flow lie mostly in the Upper River, and means for addressing those problems ($$$) are mostly untapped in the Lower River’s users.

The Compact commissioners undoubtedly did the best they could with the knowledge they had – and the romantic vision they tried to carry forward in more rational terms: they were primarily out to get about the task of unleashing the Industrial Revolution on Frederick Dellenbaugh’s ‘veritable dragon.’ But their own words in the transcriptions, as well as the ‘reform’ clauses in the Compact itself, indicate that they intended for the Compact to be a ‘living document,’ changing as we learned more about the river. 

Why have the Compact’s critics not delved into the document’s weak points and unforeseeable challenges? Some elements of the so-called ‘Law of the River’ – which we’ll explore soon – have attempted to either chip away at the challenges, or to circumvent them. But the tasks of correcting the arithmetic and addressing the two-river questions can no longer be kicked down the road – like Holmes’ one-hoss shay, the Compact could fall apart at a hundred years to a day.

Republished with permission.

#California #water agencies strike an agreement to conserve some #ColoradoRiver supply — KUNC #COriver #aridification

Southern California water agencies have agreed on a deal to cut back on the amount of water they use for the Colorado River, some of which is used to grow crops in the Imperial Valley. Ted Wood/The Water Desk

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

Water agencies in southern California announced a new agreement to voluntarily cut back on their total water from the Colorado River use by 9%. The deal is a rare instance of collaboration between water departments representing cities and farms, and comes amid federal pressure to conserve water in the face of historic drought…California’s contribution represents the first public commitment to conserve a specific volume of water among the Colorado River’s basin states since the mid-August deadline passed…The new plan from California proposes a 400,000 acre-foot reduction in water use each year, beginning in 2023 and lasting through 2026. The agencies involved – Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Imperial Irrigation District, Coachella Valley Water District and Palo Verde Irrigation District – said it’s an effort to help boost low levels in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir…

Map of the Salton Sea drainage area. By Shannon – Background and river course data from http://www2.demis.nl/mapserver/mapper.asp and some topography from http://seamless.usgs.gov/website/seamless/viewer.htm, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9707481

The California agencies said they will only take voluntary cutbacks if the federal government provides “funding and commitments on the Salton Sea.” The lake is kept full by irrigation runoff from neighboring agricultural areas. As farmers conserve more water in the Imperial and Coachella valleys, the lake declines causing public health and ecological crises for that valley. Its future has been at the heart of fractious debates in California about its use of Colorado River water.

The All American Canal diverts water from the Lower Colorado River to irrigate crops in California’s Imperial Valley and supply 9 cities. Graphic credit: USGS

Click the link to read “California agencies float Colorado River water cuts proposal” on the Associated Press website (Kathleen Ronayne). Here’s an excerpt:

The agencies, which supply water to farmers and millions of people in Southern California, laid out their proposal in a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior. It comes as drought exacerbated by climate change continues to diminish the river, and months after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation first called on users to voluntarily limit their reliance on it. California shares the river’s water with six other states, tribes and Mexico. It has rights to the single largest share and is the last to lose water in times of shortage…California has been under pressure from other states to figure out how to use less as river reservoirs drop so low they risk losing the ability to generate hydropower and deliver water…

Four California agencies use the river’s water: The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Imperial Irrigation District, the Palo Verde Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District. The proposed cuts are contingent on the water agencies getting money from the $4 billion in drought relief included in the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as a commitment by the federal government to help clean up the Salton Sea, a drying lake fed by diminishing runoff from Imperial Valley farms. The letter was scant on details. The agencies said they have “a collection of proposed water conservation and water use reduction opportunities” that would help keep more water in Lake Mead, one of the river’s key reservoirs…It did not list any specific projects, or specify the rate of payment the agencies are expecting. But the federal government has previously said the $4 billion could be used for short-term conservation measures, like paying farmers to leave their fields unplanted, and long-term efficiency projects such as lining canals to prevent water loss.

The Imperial Irrigation District receives a larger share of the river than any other entity. It’s the only source of water for crops in California’s southeastern desert, where many of the nation’s winter vegetables, like broccoli, as well as feed crops like alfalfa are grown.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

Flaming Gorge drawdown threatens local fishing, recreation economy — WyoFile #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez stands next to a stake that indicates the extent of lowering water levels at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

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

The shoreline of this large reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border has steadily receded this summer as the Bureau of Reclamation pumped more water out to help maintain critical water levels 500 miles away at Lake Powell.

The water shrunk from boat ramps and forced marinas to scoot docks ever inward. By September, 6 feet of vertical drop in the water level translated into vast areas of exposed lakebed, leaving many boat ramps on the northern reaches of the reservoir high and dry. All told, the reservoir’s elevation is about 12 feet lower today than two years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Thousands of acres that had been underwater for 58 years now comprise a rainbow of boggy sediment, grasses and invasive plants.

Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez and his staff scrambled all summer to keep boat docks in the water, but they couldn’t always keep up. Two large floating docks near a drop-off sank so low that their access ramps became too steep to safely walk. Toxic cyanobacterial blooms have also migrated further down the lake.

Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez observes toxic cyanobacteria blooms at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“I can’t take my grandkids or my dogs to the water,” Valdez said, motioning to big green globs and sheets of muck as he stood on a boat dock. “We’re losing our marina. It will be gone after next year.”

When Valdez bought the marina in 2019, he immediately began making renovations. It was a solid investment, he believed, for a popular service at the largest recreational draw in southwest Wyoming. 

The BOR had maintained seasonably stable water levels at Flaming Gorge since 1964 when the dam was completed. Businesses in Wyoming and Utah built an economy around the fishermen, boaters, bird-watchers and others drawn to the massive impoundment.

Things began to change, however. Valdez first noticed that vehicles and boat trailers with plates from California, Arizona and other southwestern states became increasingly prevalent at the marina, he said, as reservoirs along the Colorado River began drying up.

Campers, seen here Sept. 26, 2022, are set up in areas previously under water across the bay from the Buckboard Marina at Flaming Gorge Reservoir. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

More than 20 years of drought — intensified by human-caused climate change — have pushed the Colorado River Basin and the 40 million people who depend on it into a water crisis. The system’s two largest reservoirs, Powell and Lake Mead, sank below 30% capacity this summer — the lowest levels since they were constructed. If the situation worsens, Powell and Mead could reach “deadpool” status at which the reservoirs would no longer release water downstream into the Colorado River.

The crisis is traveling upstream to places like Flaming Gorge, where it has implications for everything from riparian ecosystems to economic livelihoods. Currently, Flaming Gorge is at about 74% storage capacity, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Whether the reservoir shrinks further depends on whether the BOR will continue to tap Flaming Gorge and how quickly it might be naturally replenished.

Lower Green River Lake

Emergency water supply

In a legal sense, Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which is fed by headwaters in western Wyoming, was created for a moment like this. Its primary purpose, according to federal officials and Colorado River Compact scholars, is to serve as a backup water bank to help maintain the Colorado River system. Specifically, Flaming Gorge and a handful of other reservoirs in the upper Colorado River Basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico are key to ensuring a minimum flow of 7.5 million acre-feet of water at Lees Ferry just downstream of Powell on a running 10-year average.

So far, the upper basin states have met the threshold. Nonetheless, when Powell and Mead saw drastic lows in 2021, the BOR drew an extra 125,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge. This past spring when the situation in the lower basin states became even more dire, the BOR initiated a draw of an additional 500,000 acre-feet, estimating a 15-foot vertical drop in the reservoir over the water season ending in April 2023.

The Drought Response Operations Agreement, signed by Colorado River Compact stakeholders in 2019, authorizes the BOR to make those, and possibly additional emergency draws from Flaming Gorge, to help maintain critical water levels and hydropower generation at Powell and Mead. If this summer is any indication, continual draws from the reservoir might drastically alter an aquatic ecosystem and fishery that local businesses have relied on for decades.

Map credit: AGU

“This has been held at a premium, high-water mark, recreational lake for [58] years,” Valedz said. “Why wasn’t this addressed 15 years ago if we knew this was coming?”

The BOR is expected to decide whether to implement another “extra” draw from Flaming Gorge in April 2023.

Flaming Gorge fishery

Kokanee salmon and trophy-sized lake trout draw tens of thousands of visitors to Flaming Gorge each year, supporting a recreational economy in southwest Wyoming and northeast Utah. But as the lake is drawn down, water recedes from shallow shorelines and fish are forced into a smaller space, essentially shrinking the fishery toward the dam side of the reservoir.

Fishing guides and Wyoming Game and Fish have cooperated to maintain an appropriate balance to the predator-prey relationship between lake trout and kokanee, according to Recon Angling owner Shane DuBois. Now, the decreasing water levels threaten to drastically alter that balance and may require shifting management strategies. 

Recon Angling owner Shane Dubois (left) and Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez observe water levels at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Kokanee spawning beds have been exposed, which will force the fish to spawn in areas covered in silt, reducing the reproduction success rate, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Regional Fisheries Supervisor Robert Keith. If Flaming Gorge’s normal water levels are restored, the episode will likely improve traditional spawning beds, Keith said. However, if BOR withdrawals from Flaming Gorge substantially outpace natural inflows for several more years, the fishery will suffer.

“That’s going to be an economic impact to communities around the reservoir that depend on the anglers showing up,” Keith said. “And If we don’t have any ramps in Wyoming that anglers can launch from, then they’re all going to launch further down the reservoir and those dollars are going to be spent down in Utah.”

Toxic cyanobacteria blooms at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The BOR is in consultation with the Wyoming State Engineer’s office and local recreation and fishery managers regarding drawdowns at Flaming Gorge. The Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area — managed by the U.S. Forest Service — as well as Wyoming Game and Fish, can apply for federal funds set aside to aid in the Colorado River Basin water crisis. But maintaining critical water levels at Powell and Mead remains a priority, while projects involving reconstructing boat ramps and shifting fishery management would take years.

For DuBois, who depends on both a healthy fishery at Flaming Gorge and functional boat ramps, the situation threatens his livelihood. He recently invested tens of thousands of dollars in a new fishing boat and hopes it pays off.

“How does the Bureau of Reclamation not know [the recent drawdown] would leave most boat ramps unusable?” DuBois asked.

As he continues to relocate and reconstruct boat docks to adjust to lower water levels, Valdez is considering how to expand his scope of clientele to make up for losses. 

“I didn’t buy this place to come up here and watch this go to shit,” Valdez said.

Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com

Why is the Colorado River in crisis, and what is being done about it?: Pressing questions to an urgent problem asked and explained — Audubon

American White Pelican and Double-crested Cormorants at Bill Williams Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. Photo: Gary Moore/Audubon Photography Awards

Click the link to read the article on the Audubon website (Haley Paul):

**Este artículo se puede encontrar en español**

Q: Why are we in this situation, with the Colorado River and its reservoirs shrinking so quickly?

A: Truth is, we saw this coming. We use more water than the river provides. The only reason we got away with it for so long was because the reservoirs were full when the climate’s shift to hotter temperatures and reduced river flows began 22 years ago. We did not reduce the amount of water we used until recently, and it has not been enough in the face of drought exacerbated by climate change. 

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. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

Q: What happens if we stick with the status quo?

A: If we keep doing what we’re doing, and take water out of the reservoirs—not because it’s wise but because the law allows it—our system as we know it would crash. Water could not be released from Lakes Powell or Mead. A “Day Zero.” This is bad for ALL water users in the Colorado River basin.

There is also the dreadful possibility of no water flowing through the Grand Canyon, or through the Lower Colorado River along the Arizona-California border. That would mean no Colorado River water for tens of millions of people, including numerous sovereign Tribes. No Colorado River water for drinking, bathing, or growing crops, and no water for essential habitats, birds, and other wildlife.

Q: Why does this matter for birds?

A: A future without a running Colorado River would impact 400 bird species including California Condors, Bald Eagles, Southwestern Willow Flycatchers, and countless fish species and other wildlife that reside in and migrate through the Colorado River basin. The Colorado River Delta alone provides habitat for 17 million birds during spring migration and 14 million in the fall, from American White Pelicans and Double-breasted Cormorants to Tree Swallows and Orange-crowned Warblers. 

And because the Delta acts as a “bottleneck” for migrating birds—meaning concentrations of bird populations are significantly higher inside its geographical boundaries than outside of them—changes to water availability or habitat in the Delta could have outsized impacts on tens of millions birds. These impacts could be seen on a global scale.

Environmental water delivery in the Colorado River Delta is timed during the late spring and summer to help native trees germinate. The cottonwood seeds were evident. Photo: Jennifer Pitt/Audubon

Q: Water users need to reduce use by 2-4 million acre feet for 2023, and possibly for 2024 and 2025, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). How will the seven Colorado River Basin states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming), Tribes, other water users, and the federal government agree to the water reductions necessary to stabilize the river and reservoir system? 

A: The short answer: we don’t know. 

A deadline set by USBR came and went this past August. It’s unclear whether the seven states and water users will reach their own agreement on how to use less water, if federal officials will decide, or, likely the worst-case scenario, if the courts will be the ultimate decision-makers. In the past, the states, Tribes, and other water useres have managed to come up with agreements on how they will use less. Presently, the Upper Basin states (CO, NM, UT, and WY) have agreed to reopen a program that pays water users to use less water. They have also agreed to examine how releases of water stored behind dams in the Upper Basin can help stem the decline of downstream reservoirs such as Lake Powell. The trouble now is water levels are dropping so quickly in our two largest reservoirs—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—and water managers as a whole have not been able to come to agreements fast enough.

All water users could agree to use less. That means cities, farms, and businesses could all agree to reduce the amount of water they use so that the difficult task of stabilizing the system is distributed more evenly. 

Q: Why aren’t we all doing that right now—using less? 

A: Presently, the Upper Basin states use far less water than the Lower Basin States. Upper Basin states have agreed to reopen a program that pays water users to use less water, and have agreed to release water stored behind dams in the Upper Basin, all to help stem the decline of Lake Powell. However, the Upper Basin States should not—and cannot—shoulder the crisis alone.

Part of the reason more water users are not cutting back is because of the current way water is managed. Water management in the Colorado River Basin is based on a seniority system of water rights. First come, first served. This means those with junior rights would have their water reduced completely before a senior water rights holder would see their water reduced at all. While this has been the way the system has operated for more than 100 years, it is wearing thin in the face of 20+ years of drought and a shrinking river. 

In the 1960s, Arizona accepted junior priority rights on a portion of its Colorado River water in exchange for federal funding for the Central Arizona Project (or CAP, the 336-mile long canal that delivers Colorado River water to the central, populous parts of the state). As such, Arizona has stepped up and taken water cuts, sooner than originally anticipated. That’s a good thing. But if Arizona is forced to bear the entire shortage burden in the Lower Colorado River Basin, the impacts to millions of people, including vulnerable communities, will be considerable.

The Central Arizona Project canal moves water from the Colorado River to interior Arizona. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

In the face of a shifting climate—reduced snowpack in the mountains due to hotter temperatures and thirstier, drier soils, resulting in less water in rivers—previous efforts to reduce use and save water in Lake Mead, such as the Drought Contingency Plan and the 500+ plan, have not been enough to prevent the Colorado River system from crashing. 

Q: What are specific ideas for using less water and improving the outlook of this dire situation?

A: We could pay people to use less water as well improve the health of the ecosystems and watersheds on which we all rely. Recent federal legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act allocates $4 billion across the West to do just that. We want to see wise use of this funding—through multi-year agreements and durable projects that reduce water use and improve the health of our rivers and watersheds. 

How will we get there? 

– Upgrade on-farm irrigation methods and equipment to grow crops on less water. 

– Provide incentives for farmers to shift from water-thirsty crops like cotton and alfalfa to drought-tolerant crops like guayule and sorghum.

– Restore degraded meadows and streams to allow for more water retention in the mountains.

– Forest management to prevent catastrophic wildfires. Burned watersheds degrade water quality and erode soils, impairing the ability for the watershed to function properly.

– Increase the reuse of water. Wastewater can be captured, purified, and reused for outdoor irrigation, groundwater recharge, river restoration, or even drinking water.

– Boost water conservation efforts from cities and businesses, through eliminating unnecessary grass; upgrading plumbing; saving water on outdoor landscaping; and industrial cooling water efficiency upgrades. 

– Deploy funding to mitigate the impacts of less water flowing into affected communities and to improve habitat. Funding should prioritize multiple benefit projects and move beyond one-year water deals.

There is also plenty of work to do just within the state of Arizona to improve our water outlook. We must do everything we can to use the water we do have as wisely as possible. Audubon and our partners in the Water for Arizona Coalition developed the Arizona Water Security Plan, which outlines six critical steps the state of Arizona could take to get our own water house in order. 

Q: What should we be watching out for in Arizona?

A: Given the circumstances, with less Colorado River water coming into Arizona, some may want to rely more heavily on groundwater and weaken existing laws that protect it in the populous parts of the state. Weakening existing groundwater protections just so Arizona can continue to grow without changing how we use and manage water would be irresponsible and short-sighted. We should be closely watching the next legislative session to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Furthermore, Arizona has failed to pass meaningful groundwater protections in the rural parts of the state where none currently exist. We cannot allow Arizona’s rural groundwater to meet the same fate as the Colorado River–especially as rural leaders plead for change. For the benefit of all people in the state, lawmakers must allow rural communities to protect their groundwater supplies. And the better we manage all of our water resources, the more credible a partner Arizona is with other states in ongoing Colorado River negotiations.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

 

Extended rainfall benefits fishing in #YampaRiver — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Tom Skulski). Here’s an excerpt:

While the Yampa River has not closed quite as much this year as it did last year, local fishermen lost out on most of July and August and a chunk of September in 2022…

“There’s three criteria that would determine a closure or trigger a closure,” [Johnny] Spillane said. “One is water temperature, another is water flow meaning (cubic feet per second) and the third criteria is dissolved oxygen in the river. If any of those three criteria are not being met, that will trigger a closure and that seems to be fairly common in the last five, six or seven years.”

As far as the rain’s effect on fish behavior, Spillane says it is complicated but mostly acts as a good thing for the fish and therefore a good thing for those fishing.

Yampa River. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

Despite a fairly strong start to the #water year, most of the #Colorado Basin River Forecast Center area saw below-average precipitation — @nwscbrfc #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Graphic credit: Colorado Basin River Forecast Center via Twitter: https://twitter.com/nwscbrfc/status/1577012457867837440 (click to enlarge)

Aspinall unit operations update: Bumping releases down to 1050 cfs October 3, 2022

East Portal Gunnison Tunnel gate and equipment houses provide for the workings of the tunnel. Lisa Lynch/NPS

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1250 cfs to 1050 cfs on Monday, October 3rd. Releases are being decreased due to the heavy rainfall that occurred over the weekend which has reduced demand at the Gunnison Tunnel.  

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

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

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 350 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 750 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will still be near 350 cfs.  Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review. 

Community groups react to San Juan Generating Station closure and transition issues — Western Resource Advocates #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

San Juan Generating Station. Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

Click the link to read the release on the Western Resource Advocates website (James Quirk):

In 2017, majority owner and operator Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) announced that the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station was too expensive to operate and that the last two of the plant’s four units would be retired in 2022, rather than operating until 2053. On-the-ground communities and advocates had long since called attention to the plant’s expense as well as its damage to health, air and our climate.

In 2019, New Mexico passed the Energy Transition Act (ETA) to build on PNM and Tucson Electric’s closure decisions by enabling use of low-interest bonds to save customers money and provide economic transition benefits to plant and mine workers and the community. About $40 million in funding through the Energy Transition Act has been or will be disbursed to plant and mine workers and the impacted community. Four Corners residents encouraged state agencies to act urgently to use the $20 million earmarked for community funding to invest in local, sustainable projects that move the region forward.

As PNM and the other owners retire the plant (which was shuttered sometime early this morning, when the coal stockpile ran out), community organizations issued the following statements:

“The plant closure has significant positive and negative implications. One positive impact is the anticipated release of ETA funds to help secure the self-sustenance of communities that were impacted by the plant,” said Duane “Chili” Yazzie of ToohBAA, a Shiprock Farmers Cooperative. “Our farmers group in Shiprock applied for the funds in the hope that it will help address one of the great needs that our farmers have, with the provision of skilled labor. With the funds, we expect to acquire equipment operators, diesel mechanics, planners and administrators who will help organize our farming activity to optimize our agricultural potential. We look forward to an expedited release of those funds.”

Community organizations also focused on the need to properly reclaim, decommission and clean up the plant, rather than allowing it to continue to pollute under Enchant, which has failed to obtain the permits, buyers or funding to operate with carbon capture, a technology that has failed in every commercial coal plant where it has been tried. At its peak, San Juan Generating Station used more water than the entire city of Santa Fe. Some of the water rights from the plant have now been allocated to run in the San Juan River.

“We now have an opportunity to protect and manage water sources in the Four Corners region,” said Jessica Keetso of Tó Nizhóni Aní, Navajo Nation. “A transition to solar, wind, renewable, clean-energy investments helps eliminate the waste and misuse of water. Precious water sources have been used to feed giant power plants all over the Four Corners region for over half a century. These water sources are limited and have been compromised in many regions. It’s time to make sure that transition and cleanup happen in an organized and speedy manner, and that ETA investments bring an opportunity for coal-impacted communities to drive economic diversification.”

“As Four Corners residents, we want to see the negotiated replacement power, solar and energy storage, and we want the ETA implementation money to go to the impacted coal workers and communities,” said Mike Eisenfeld of San Juan Citizens Alliance. “Enchant Energy has been disingenuous and unaccountable on the progress of their project, which joins a long list of failed carbon-capture and sequestration projects funded through the Department of Energy. City of Farmington has expended nearly $2 million in legal fees supporting Enchant’s failed project with timelines now extending to 2027.  We’re looking at the immediate need for past and current owners to carry out their decommissioning and reclamation responsibilities within 90 days of SJGS and San Juan Mine closure.”

“Today marks a pivotal moment in our Four Corners region with the decline of fossil-fuel production.  We regard this moment as a transformation for the environment in less CO2, methane, NOx, VOCs, coal ash, and other toxic pollutants. We welcome a return of cleaner air and water for the health of tribal communities and climate,” said Ahtza Chavez, Executive Director of Naeva.

“Abandonment and remediation will be difficult. Over 50 years of damage was done to the environment,” said Norman Norvelle, former San Juan Generating Station plant chemist and Farmington resident. “From releasing plant wastewater effluent into the Shumway arroyo, to air pollutants and mercury into the San Juan River watershed and the fish of quality waters. Also, plant solid and liquid waste disposal into unlined surface mine pits. Even after the plant is shut down there will be need for extensive cleanup and monitoring to verify cleanup of the contaminants. Sampling and monitoring should be done by 3 or 4 different organizations to assure completeness and honesty.”

“If not done adequately, the San Juan Generating Station chemical contaminants will go into the San Juan River near the Hogback. All of the contaminants from the plant plus the biological contaminants from San Juan County, such as fecal bacteria, will flow into the San Juan River Basin onto the Navajo Reservation to Lake Powell,” Norvelle said.

“The San Juan Generating Station has been a source of jobs and revenues in Four Corners for more than half a century, but it can no longer be operated in a manner that is fiscally and environmentally responsible,” said Cydney Beadles, Managing Senior Staff Attorney of Western Resource Advocates’ Clean Energy Program. “The Energy Transition Act helps mitigate the impacts on local workers and communities and ensures that ratepayers get the cost savings that come from shutting down an inefficient coal plant, and the Public Regulation Commission issued an order requiring bill credits upon abandonment. Unfortunately, those credits have been temporarily suspended by the state Supreme Court at PNM’s request, but we remain hopeful that the court will soon lift that stay.”

“The solar and storage replacement power approved in 2020 will provide $1 billion in investment in the communities most impacted by San Juan,” added Camilla Feibelman, Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter Director. “With pandemic supply-chain and other delays, it is incumbent upon PNM to work with developers of the solar and storage replacement power to overcome these obstacles and get those projects online as soon as possible. Analyses showed that the San Juan Solar project, to be sited in the same school district, will replace 100% of the property-tax base of San Juan.”

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

As #ColoradoRiver Dries, the U.S. Teeters on the Brink of Larger Water Crisis — @ProPublica #COriver #aridification

California Drought Monitor map September 27, 2022.

by Abrahm Lustgarten

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Series: Killing the Colorado

The Water Crisis in the West

The western United States is, famously, in the grips of its worst megadrought in a millennium. The Colorado River, which supplies water to more than 40 million Americans and supports food production for the rest of the country, is in imminent peril. The levels in the nation’s largest freshwater reservoir, Lake Mead, behind the Hoover Dam and a fulcrum of the Colorado River basin, have dropped to around 25% of capacity. The Bureau of Reclamation, which governs lakes Mead and Powell and water distribution for the southern end of the river, has issued an ultimatum: The seven states that draw from the Colorado must find ways to cut their consumption — by as much as 40% — or the federal government will do it for them. Last week those states failed to agree on new conservation measures by deadline. Meanwhile, next door, California, which draws from the Colorado, faces its own additional crises, with snowpack and water levels in both its reservoirs and aquifers all experiencing a steady, historic and climate-driven decline. It’s a national emergency, but not a surprise, as scientists and leaders have been warning for a generation that warming plus overuse of water in a fast-growing West would lead those states to run out.

I recently sat down with Jay Famiglietti, the executive director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan, to talk about what comes next and what the public still doesn’t understand about water scarcity in the United States. Before moving to Canada, Famiglietti was a lead researcher at NASA’s water science program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and a member of the faculty at the University of California, Irvine. He pioneered the use of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites to peer into the earth’s mass and measure changes in its underground water supplies. The Colorado River crisis is urgent, Famiglietti said, but the hidden, underground water crisis is even worse. We talked about what U.S. leaders either won’t acknowledge or don’t understand and about how bad things are about to get.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the Colorado River because it’s in the news. The federal government has put some extraordinary numbers out there, suggesting water users cut between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of water usage starting this year — roughly 40% of the entire river’s recent flow. How could that possibly happen?

It’s going to be really hard. We’re looking at drastically reduced food production and the migration of agriculture to other parts of the country and real limits on growth, especially in desert cities like Phoenix. My fear is that groundwater will, as usual, be left out of the discussion — groundwater is mostly unprotected, and it’s going to be a real shit show.

Remind us how that happens. States and farmers cut back on the Colorado River, and California and Arizona just start pumping all the water out of their aquifers?

Yeah. This started with the drought contingency plan [the 2018 legal agreement among the states on the Colorado River]. Arizona had to cut nearly 20% of its Colorado River water. To placate the farmers, the deal was that they would have free access to the groundwater. In fact, something like $20 million was allocated to help them dig more wells. So, it was just a direct transfer from surface water to groundwater. Right away, you could see that the groundwater depletion was accelerating. With this latest round, I’m afraid we’re just going to see more of that.

Some of that groundwater actually gets used to grow feed for cattle in the Middle East or China, right? There’s Saudi-owned agriculture firms planting alfalfa, which uses more water than just about anything, and it’s not for American food supply. Do I have that right?

There’s been other buyers from other countries coming in, buying up that land, land grabbing and grabbing the water rights. That’s happening in Arizona.

San Joaquin Valley Subsidence. Photo credit: USGS

What about in California? Groundwater depletion has caused the earth to sink in on itself. Parts of the Central Valley are 28 feet lower today than they were a century ago.

California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014, which mandated an extraordinarily long time horizon: two years to form the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies and then five years for each GSA to come up with its sustainability plan. So that’s now: 2022. And then 20 years to come into sustainability. My fear is that the slow implementation will allow for too much groundwater depletion to happen. It’s sort of the same old, same old.

But could it work?

I don’t think we’re talking about sustainability. I think we’re talking about managed depletion. Because it’s impossible to keep growing the food that we grow in California. It’s agriculture that uses most of the groundwater. The math just isn’t there to have sustainable groundwater management. If you think of sustainability as input equals output — don’t withdraw more than is being replenished on an annual basis — that’s impossible in most of California.

Will we run out of water? Are we talking about 10 years or 100 years?

Yes. We are on target to. Parts of the Central Valley have already run out of water. Before SGMA, there were places in the southern part of the valley where I would say within 40 to 50 years we would run out or the water is so saline or so deep that it’s just too expensive to extract. SGMA may slow that down — or it may not. I don’t think the outlook is really good. Our own research is showing that groundwater depletion there has accelerated in the last three years.

Then what happens? What does California or Arizona look like after that?

It looks pretty dry. Even among water users, there’s an element that doesn’t understand that this is going to be the end for a lot of farming. Farmers are trying to be really efficient but also magically want the supply of water to be sustained.

We focus on the big cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas, but it’s farms that use 80% of water. They grow crops that provide huge amounts of the winter fruits and vegetables and nuts for the entire country. Is there any way that farming in California and Arizona can continue even remotely close to how it is today?

I don’t think so. It has to drastically change. We’ll need wholesale conversion to efficient irrigation and different pricing structures so that water is better valued. We’ll need different crops that are bred to be more drought tolerant and more saline-water tolerant. And we’ll probably have a lot less production.

What does that mean for the country’s food supply?

This is the big question. I don’t want to be flippant, but people don’t understand the food-water nexus. Do we try to bring more water to the southern high plains, to Arizona, to California, because if the food system’s optimized, maybe that’s the cheapest thing to do? Or does agriculture move to where the water is? Does it migrate north and east? It’s not just food production. What about the workers? Transportation? If we were to move all of our agriculture to northern California, into Idaho, into North Dakota over the next decade, that’s a major upheaval for millions and millions of people who work in the ag industry.

It’s really interconnected, isn’t it? The nation essentially expanded West beginning in the 19th century in order to build a food system that could support East Coast growth. The Homestead Act, the expansion of the railroads, was partially to put a system in place to bring stock back to the meat houses in Chicago and to expand farming to supply the urban growth in the East.

I don’t think a lot of people really realize that, right? When I go to the grocery store in Saskatoon, my berries are coming from Watsonville, California. The lettuce is coming from Salinas, California.

Farmers in the West are fiercely independent. So, in California, Arizona, do they lose the ability to choose what to plant?

Right now, there’s freedom to plant whatever you want. But when we look out a few decades, if the water cannot be managed sustainably, I don’t actually know. At some point we will need discussions and interventions about what are the needs of the country? What kind of food? What do we need for our food security?

Let’s discuss California. Its governor, Gavin Newsom, has advanced a lot of progressive climate policies, but he replaced the water board leader, who pushed for groundwater management across the state, and last month the agency’s long-serving climate change manager resigned in protest of the state’s lax water conservation efforts. What does it mean if a liberal, climate-active governor can’t make the hard decisions? What does that say about the bigger picture?

There has been a drop off from the Jerry Brown administration to the Newsom administration. Water has taken a step lower in priority.

Is that a sign that these problems are intractable?

No. It’s a sign that it’s just not as high a priority. There are tough decisions to be made in California, and some of them won’t be popular. You can see the difference between someone like Brown, who was sort of end-of-career and just like, “Screw it, man, I’m just going to do this because it needs to be done,” and someone like Newsom, who clearly has aspirations for higher office and is making more of a political play. We’re not going to solve California’s water problem, but we could make it a lot more manageable for decades and decades and decades. (Newsom’s office has rejected the criticism and has said the governor is doing more than any other state to adapt to climate change. On Aug. 11 his administration announced new water recycling, storage and conservation measures.)

Water wars. It’s an idea that gets batted around a whole bunch. Once, negotiating water use more than a century ago, California and Arizona amassed armed state guard troops on opposite banks of the Colorado River. Is this hyperbole or reality for the future?

Well, it’s already happening. Florida and Georgia were in court as was Tennessee. There’s the dispute between Texas and New Mexico. Even within California they’re still arguing environment versus agriculture, farmers versus fish, north versus south. Sadly, we’re at a point in our history where people are not afraid to express their extreme points of view in ways that are violent. That’s the trajectory that we’re on. When you put those things together, especially in the southern half or the southwestern United States, I think it’s more of a tinderbox than it ever has been.

That’s hopeful.

You’re not going to get any hope out of me. The best you’re going to get out of me is we can manage our way through. I don’t think we’re going to really slow global change. We have to do what we’re doing because we’re talking about the future. But a certain number of degrees warming and a certain amount of sea level rise is already locked in, and all that’s happening in our lifetimes. The best you’re going to hear from me is that we need to do the best we can now to slow down the rates of warming that directly impacts the availability of water. We’re talking about the future of humanity. I think people don’t realize that we’re making those decisions now by our water policies and by our climate change policy.

When people think about water, they think of it as a Western problem, but there’s water shortages across the High Plains and into the South, too.

I don’t think most people understand that scarcity in many places is getting more pronounced. Nationally, let’s look at the positives: It’s a big country, and within its boundaries, we have enough water to be water secure and to be food secure and to do it in an environmentally sustainable way. A lot of countries don’t have that. That’s a positive, though we still have the same problems that everyone else has with increasing flooding and drought. What I really think we need is more attention to a national water policy and more attention to the food, water and energy nexus. Because those are things that are going to define how well we do as a country.

What would a national water policy look like?

It recognizes where people live, and it recognizes where we have water, and then it decides how we want to deal with that. Maybe it’s more like a national water/food policy. Moving water over long distances is not really feasible right now — it’s incredibly expensive. Does the government want to subsidize that? These are the kind of things that need to be discussed, because we’re on a collision course with reality — and the reality is those places where we grow food, where a lot of people live, are running out of water, and there are other parts of the country that have a lot of water. So that’s a national-level discussion that has to happen, because when you think about it, the food problem is a national problem. It’s not a California problem. It’s not a Southern, High Plains, Ogallala, Texas Panhandle problem. It’s a national problem. It needs a national solution.

Is this a climate czar? A new agency?

Something like that. We’re failing right now. We’re failing to have any vision for how that would happen. In Canada, we’re talking about a Canadian water agency and a national water policy. That could be something that we need in the United States — a national water agency to deal with these problems.

In the Inflation Reduction Act we finally have some legislation that will help cut emissions. There’s plenty of other talk about infrastructure and adaptation — seawalls and strengthening housing and building codes and all of those sorts of things. Where would you rank the priority of a national water policy?

It’s an absolute top priority. I like to say that water’s next, right after carbon. Water is the messenger that’s delivering the bad news about climate change to your city, to your front door.

We don’t usually mix concern over drought with concern over contamination, but there was a recent study about the presence of “forever” chemicals in rainfall and salt washing off the roads in Washington, D.C., and contaminating drinking water. Can these remain separate challenges in a hotter future?

It doesn’t get discussed much, but we’re seeing more and more the links between water quality and climate change. We’ve got water treatment facilities and sewers close to coasts. During drought, discharge of contaminants is less diluted. The water quality community and the water climate communities don’t really overlap. We’ve done a terrible job as stewards where water is concerned.

Globally, what do you want Americans to think about when they read this?

The United States is kind of a snapshot of what’s happening in the rest of the world. There’s no place we can run to. Things are happening really, really fast and in a very large scale. We as a society, as a country or as a global society are not responding with the urgency, with the pace and the scale that’s required. I am specifically talking about rapid changes that are happening with freshwater availability that most people don’t know about. The problems are often larger than one country. A lot of it is transboundary. And we’re just not moving fast enough.

News flash.

Around the world the water levels have just continued to drop. In the Middle East or India. In fact, they’re getting faster. It’s actually a steeper slope.

So, the Colorado River is the least of our worries.

Globally? It’s not even as bad as the others. Arizona doesn’t really show up as much compared to some of these places.

Soil moisture monitoring shows infiltration of rainfall occurred late summer — Middle Colorado #WaterQuality Digest #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the report on the Middle Colorado Watershed Council website (SGM):

The precipitation gages within the canyon have been up and running all summer, reporting rainfall every five minutes.  In mid-June, soil moisture sensors were collocated with 4 of the rain gages.

The chart below shows the precipitation and soil moisture from the Deadman’s Creek location. Prior to the rainfall the week of August 14, the soil moisture content was not reactive to the smaller rain events. Several storms during the week of August 14 dropped significant rain at the Deadman’s Creek rain gage. The final storm on August 16 dropped enough water to finally infiltrate down to the depth of the soil moisture sensor and cause a measurable change in the soil moisture content.

The storm events on August 20 through August 21 again increased the soil moisture at Deadman’s Creek. So far, no debris flow events have been triggered due to over saturated soil conditions.

Turbidity remained high through summer in Colorado River and returns to normal levels second half of September 

Since the end of August, the turbidity in the Colorado River has slowly been trending downwards. With no major debris flow events the last week of August or in September, the turbidity has remained under 200 FNU.

The turbidity has finally returned below 20 FNU in the last two weeks of September. While we do not know exactly why the base level of turbidity in the water has remained elevated all season, it may be due to continuous re-mobilization of sediment from previous debris flow piles and from sediment that has settled previously within the riverbed.

$43M to bring clean water: Arkansas Valley Conduit to serve east #Pueblo County — The Pueblo Chieftain #ArkansasRiver

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

Click the link to read the article on The Pueblo Chieftain website (Tracy Harmon). Here’s an excerpt:

A nearly $43 million contract was awarded to a Colorado construction company marking the “first giant step” in the Arkansas Valley Conduit project designed to bring clean drinking water to eastern Pueblo County and southeastern Colorado. The federal Bureau of Reclamation awarded the inaugural contract for the conduit to WCA Construction LLC, for $42.9 million to cover construction of the first 6-mile section of the 30-inch trunk line that extends from the eastern end of Pueblo Water’s system toward Boone. Located in Towaoc, the construction company is owned by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and as a tribal enterprise the company employs a workforce that is 70% indigenous…

Since 2020 the federal government has appropriated $51 million toward the project, with those funds paying for the trunk line construction. Pueblo County has awarded $1.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to connect the communities of Avondale and Boone to the trunk line, Woodka said. Work under the initial contract will begin in the spring of 2023 and is expected to be completed in 2024. “We are now in the process of designing those connection lines, then we will be putting those lines in. We hope everything is connected to Boone and Avondale by the end of 2024,” [Chris] Woodka said. That will bring water to about 1,600 Avondale residents and 230 Boone residents. Currently, many people in the areas that will be served by the conduit rely on groundwater supplies that may be contaminated by naturally occurring radionuclides, such as radium and uranium, or use shallow wells that contain harmful microorganisms and pollutants.

State of #Wyoming: #Water cuts might be forced on #WY by 2025 — WyoFile #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A fisherman tries his luck near the dam at Fontenelle Reservoir Sept. 27, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

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

The state has neither the legal right, nor inclination, to preemptively curtail water use in the ongoing Colorado River crisis, according to Chris Brown, senior assistant attorney general for the state engineer’s water division. Only a determination by the Upper Colorado River Commission can result in a water curtailment order for Wyoming users subject to the Colorado River Compact, he said.

The earliest a curtailment order might happen, in Brown’s estimation, is 2025, if drought conditions persist and Colorado River flows at Lees Ferry downstream of Lake Powell in Arizona fall below a certain threshold. If that happens, the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office will implement water restrictions.

“The way things are going, it’s coming,” Brown told a crowd of more than 100 at the Sublette County Public Library in Pinedale Tuesday afternoon.

Exactly when and how much water Wyoming might be asked to conserve due to the Colorado River crisis depends on myriad factors — none more important, from a legal standpoint, than Wyoming’s obligation to the Colorado River Compact, according to Brown. And that “ends at Lees Ferry,” he said.

Chris Brown of the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office discusses the implications of the Colorado River Compact with water users in Pinedale Sept. 27, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Wyoming and the other upper Colorado River Basin states — Utah, Colorado and New Mexico — are obligated to send 7.5 million acre-feet of water to Lees Ferry annually, on a running 10-year average. Modeling by the federal Bureau of Reclamation suggests flows could fall below the threshold by 2025 or 2028. Much also depends on how the BOR regulates flows out of Lake Powell, Brown said. 

Ultimately, all seven Colorado River Basin states — along with the federal government, tribes and Mexico — have much to negotiate. Meantime, the state engineer’s office is initiating conversations with irrigators, municipalities and industrial water users about how they can use less water and still meet their needs. Voluntary and compensated conservation measures — backed by $4 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act — will be key to minimizing disruptions when there is a curtailment order, Brown said.

“How can you do more with less water?” Brown asked the Pinedale audience. “And what can we do to help you do your work with less water?”

Who’s vulnerable

In the event of a curtailment, Wyoming is only held responsible for its actual use, which averages about 600,000 acre-feet of water annually. Irrigated agriculture accounts for nearly 84% of the state’s consumptive use, according to the engineer’s office.

Other water users are also considered vulnerable, however, including trona processing plants, coal-burning power plants and municipalities. The City of Cheyenne, for example, relies on a water collection system that diverts otherwise Colorado River Basin-bound water for 70% of its municipal water supply. These water users are among some of the most “junior” in the pecking order of water rights, and therefore could be among the first ordered to reduce consumption.

A pump pulls water from the Green River at a Sweetwater County-managed recreation area Sept. 27, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Water rights in Wyoming are appropriated within the first-in-time, first-in-right doctrine. The earlier a water right was obtained, the more senior, the later are most junior. A curtailment order would be applied to those with the most junior water rights and work back in time until the curtailment volume is met. However, the Colorado River Compact, struck in 1922, does not apply to those with water rights appropriated before 1922. No matter how much water Wyoming might be asked to curtail under the compact, it would only apply to those with water rights adjudicated after 1922, according to Brown.  

One audience member asked Brown, “What if you’re one of the [junior] water rights holders and everything you have is going to get cut — are we just SOL?”

“You could be SOL,” Brown answered.

However, the Interior Department is expanding existing programs, and initiating new ones, to support trading, buying and leasing water allocations to encourage balance among users. Another irrigator at the meeting, George Kahrl, said he’s interested in forgoing some of his normal water use to help those with more junior rights — for compensation.

Ideally, those who benefit monetarily from voluntarily reducing their water use will invest that money into more efficient operations so they can maintain their agriculture operations with less water, Brown said.

Wyoming ag operators need assurance that that’s how such programs will actually work out, Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) said. “I don’t know what those programs are or what they’re going to pay for, but we have to [maintain agricultural production] or we’re going to get hurt.”

Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com

The Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District hires independent consultant to look at water plant cost — The #PagosaSprings Sun

Click the link to read the article on the Pagosa Springs Sun website (Josh Pike)

At its [September 8, 2022] meeting, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) discussed a proposal from Canterbury Construction Management Services for an independent cost assessment for the planned Snowball water treatment plant expansion. PAWSD District Manager Justin Ramsey opened the discussion by mentioning that, at the last PAWSD meeting on Aug. 18, the district had received a cost estimate from PCL Construction, the construction manager at risk for the plant, placing the cost at approximately $38 million, while the initial engineering estimate by SGM Engineering had placed the cost at approximately $25 million. Ramsey explained that the Canterbury proposal would include an analysis of whether the costs suggested by PCL are accurate and would cost $36,200…

Ramsey commented that building a smaller, expandable plant would be viable and could be included in the Canterbury assessment…The board then unanimously approved contracting with Canterbury to perform the cost assessment and examine the possibility of an expandable plant.

The water treatment process

The Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District discusses extension of Dry Gulch lease — The #PagosaSprings Sun #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Pagosa Springs Sun website (Josh Pike). Here’s an excerpt:

At its [September 8, 2022] meeting, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors dis- cussed a potential lease extension for Weber Sand and Gravel Inc. on Running Iron Ranch, the site of the Dry Gulch reservoir.

In the Aug. 25 letter proposing the renegotiate or extend the lease at the extension, addressed to both PAWSD board chair Jim Smith and San Juan Water Conservancy District president Al Pfister. Andy and Kathy Weber propose that the lease be extended for one year at a cost of $48,137.78 with the potential to renegotiate or extend the lease at the end of the year.

Pagosa Springs Panorama. Photo credit: Gmhatfield via Wikimedia Commons


Federal officials set their sights on Lower #ColoradoRiver evaporation to speed up #conservation — KUNC #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead. Photo credit: U.S. Department of Interior

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

During a September Colorado River symposium held in Santa Fe, both Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told attendees that the issue of evaporation and transit loss in the Lower Colorado River Basin were short-term priorities for their respective agencies. More than 10% of the river’s water is lost to evaporation from reservoirs, seepage and other losses, according to Haaland’s prepared remarks…

Accounting for evaporation has become a tension point among the river’s users in recent months. States in the river’s Upper Basin — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming — are already charged for evaporation from federally-managed reservoirs. An historical quirk left Lower Basin users without that same responsibility. Lower Basin users rely on court decrees that followed the Supreme Court decision in Arizona v. California as some of their governing documents. Those decrees never required accounting of evaporation from Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir. If federal officials push to change the accounting practices, the result would force a significant amount of water conservation on Lower Colorado River users. Total evaporation and transit losses in the Lower Basin fluctuate annually, but often surpass 1 million acre-feet, roughly equivalent to the amount of water the entire state of Utah uses from the river each year. Forcing users to account for the losses would tighten current water budgets in states that have come to depend on it, said John Fleck, a University of New Mexico water policy professor.

“It would be a huge change in how water is administered in the lower Colorado River,” Fleck said. “The states, especially California and Arizona, had come to depend on really big allotments that were only possible because we ignored the laws of physics and didn’t account for evaporation and system losses.”

Graphic credit: The Land Desk/Jonathan Thompson

Army Corps of Engineers: #Marble airstrip work is noncompliant: Streambank stabilization went beyond scope of permit — @AspenJournalism

A photo from August 2022 shows the streambank stabilization project area near the Marble airstrip. The Army Corps of Engineers sent a letter of non-compliance to the property manager because they determined the work falls outside of what’s allowed under the project’s permit. CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO via Aspen Journalism

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

A streambank stabilization project on the Crystal River just west of Marble is on hold after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that the work undertaken this past summer fell outside what is allowed by the project’s permit. 

The corps sent a letter of noncompliance, dated Sept. 27,  to Susan Blue, longtime manager of the Marble airstrip, regarding work on the Crystal River as it runs through the property. Corps staff determined that the activities did not fall within the parameters of the project’s Nationwide Permit 3, which covers maintenance, according to Tucker Feyder, a regulatory project manager for the corps who signed the letter.

“If they were just doing maintenance on that section that was previously authorized, it could have fit a Nationwide Permit 3,” Feyder said. “The current project went a little above and beyond that.”

A Nationwide Permit 3 authorizes streambank restoration work covering up to 450 linear feet, but the current project “appears to extend significantly beyond what was previously authorized,” the letter reads.

Feyder said the noncompliance did not rise to the level of a violation of the Clean Water Act. A Clean Water Act violation would typically occur when a project has no permit at all from the corps, he said.

“They made a good-faith effort to work under a nationwide permit, and unfortunately, it got away from the intent of Permit 3,” Feyder said. “So we are viewing it as a noncompliance at the moment.”

ERO, a natural resources consultant with an office in Hotchkiss, is leading the project for the property owner, Marble Airfield LLC. 

Marble Airfield LLC was, until Sept. 8, registered to the same post office box in Bentonville, Ark., as Walton Enterprises LLC. According to its LinkedIn page, “Walton Enterprises is a family-led, private family office supporting the personal, philanthropic and business activity for multiple generations of Sam & Helen Walton’s family.” Sam Walton was the founder of Walmart. (Aspen Journalism’s water desk is supported by a grant from Catena Foundation, a Carbondale-based philanthropic organization tied to Sam R. Walton, a grandson of Sam and Helen Walton’s.) On Sept. 8, the address to which Marble Airfield LLC was registered was changed to a location in Medford, Ore., according to the Colorado secretary of state website. 

The letter says Marble Airfield has 30 days to provide a plan on how to bring the project into compliance. There are three options: They can argue that the work does fall under the Nationwide Permit 3 classification; they can apply for a different permit; or they could voluntarily restore the site. In addition, the property owners must provide information on the work that has been completed; information on the work that still needs to be completed; an updated map of the work site; and a description of any proposed mitigation. 

This past summer, ERO contractors began work to restore the streambank along the Crystal River near the airstrip, which is about 1 mile long and was installed in the 1950s and ’60s. Annual maintenance of the riverbank has been required to prevent damage to the airstrip, according to ERO.

“Extreme weather events during the 2021 monsoon season and ongoing spring runoff have resulted in extensive erosion of the adjacent (eastern) riverbank and opposite (western) riverbank, causing many large conifer trees to topple into the river, ponding water and pushing river flows toward the airstrip,” ERO president Aleta Powers wrote in a memo to Gunnison County officials on Aug. 26.

This past summer, contractors began the work, which the corps had said in December was covered under the Nationwide Permit 3. But heavy machinery along the river attracted the attention of neighbors who contacted local environmental group Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association. CVEPA alerted Gunnison County, which issued a stop-work order on Aug. 12.

“We really believed at first report and as the information came in that this far exceeded the Nationwide Permit 3 for bank stabilization,” said CVEPA president John Armstrong. “We are happy the corps is taking action, but we are not necessarily pleased with the consequences.”

A photo from August shows the streambank stabilization project area near the Marble airstrip. The Army Corps of Engineers sent a letter of non-compliance to the property manager because they determined the work falls outside of what’s allowed under the project’s permit. CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO via Aspen Journalsim

County violation

ERO is also working to resolve violations of the Gunnison County Land Use Resolution that led the county to issue the stop-work order. The county said the project violated its restrictive buffer for protection of water quality and standards for development in sensitive wildlife-habitat areas. The county also said the project needed a floodplain development permit. 

In response to the stop-work order, ERO on Aug. 26 submitted a memo and reclamation plan to the county. In the memo, ERO said the project was exempt from county regulations because it had a federal permit from the corps and because there are exemptions from county regulations for projects designed primarily for enhancement, protections, and/or restoration of water body banks or channels. 

ERO said the project includes removal of fallen timber caused by bank erosion, reestablishment of the deepest part of the river, revegetation of the bank, and reshaping native river cobble into jetties, all of which they say is exempt from the county’s standards for protecting water quality. ERO also asserted the project is in compliance with the county’s standards for development in sensitive wildlife-habitat areas. 

This map shows the streambank stabilization work along the Crystal River near the Marble airstrip. The project managers are working to resolve violations of the Gunnison County land use code. CREDIT: MAP BY ERO via Aspen Journalism

“ERO is committed to assist Marble Airfield LLC in demonstrating full compliance with the Gunnison County LUR, and to assist Marble Airfield LLC with ensuring the protection and preservation of the natural environment and wildlife,” the memo reads

Gunnison County has requested additional information from the property owners, including a wetlands delineation and the floodplain-development application. 

“We need additional information from the property owners in order to figure out next steps and determine a path towards compliance,” Gunnison County Building and Environmental Health official Crystal Lambert said in an email. “I imagine that this will take a lot more time, at least weeks, if not months.” 

To comply with Gunnison County, Powers from ERO said they will submit a floodplain-development permit application and have already submitted a reclamation permit application. She said they will also submit a preconstruction notification for a new permit from the corps per their requirement.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

Pick your #ColoradoRiver metaphor — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification

On a day in late May [2022] when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

The river is in deep doo-doo, and worse may very well come. So why such a sluggish reaction?

On a day in late May when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. It was my first visit.

Turning off the paved highway, I drove about 10 miles around the toe of Sleeping Ute Mountain, past a few irrigation ditches, one carrying water, and a lot of fields and center-pivot sprinklers. I knew the runoff the San Juan Mountains, the source of water for the 7,700-acre farming operations by the Utes, was bad. I didn’t realize just how bad it was.

Unlike many tribal rights in the Colorado River Basin, the water rights of the two Ute tribes in Colorado were negotiated in 1986. The agreement resulted in delivery of water to Towaoc, where I ate at the casino restaurant twice on that trip. Before, potable water had to be trucked in.

Mike Preston, filling in for a Ute leader at the Colorado Water Center conference this week, remembers a time before that delivery of water. “There were stock tanks sitting in people’s yards, and a water truck would back up and fill those tanks, and people would go out with buckets to get their potable water.”

The Utes got other infrastructure, too, including water from the Dolores River stored in the new McPhee Reservoir that allows the Utes to create a profitable farm enterprise. But to get the use of McPhee water, the Utes conceded the seniority of their water rights. It worked well for a lot of years, but now in a warmer, drier climate, it leaves the Utes in a hard, dry place: They got 10% of their full allocation in 2021 and 40% this year.

They have been forced to adapt. Instead of planting alfalfa, they planted corn and other crops that use less water and can be fed to cattle. They culled cattle from their herd of 650. The tribe – as are others in Colorado – is exploring the viability of kernza, a new perennial grain created at The Land Institute in Kansas.

Still, some adaptation is impossible. The agricultural enterprise has laid off about half of its employees. And last year, despite securing all available government grants created to allow farmers to make it through hard times, the operation lost $2 million.

On a day in late May when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Listening to that story related by Preston in a video feed to the conference on the campus of Colorado State University, I wondered whether this was a metaphor for what faces the 40 million people who, in one way or another, depend upon water from the Colorado River.

During this same conference, “Living with the Colorado River Compact: Past, Present and Future,” I heard allusions to hospital emergency wards and over-drafted bank accounts. The latter came from Jim Lochhead, who had several decades of Colorado River experience before arriving at Denver Water as chief executive in 2010.

“No wonder Lakes Powell and Mead are in the condition that they are in today,” he said after accounting the over-drafting of the two big reservoirs, now down to 24% and 26% of storage respectively. “The bank account has been drawn down,” he said, “and we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit.”

By now, the 21st century story of the Colorado River has become familiar in its broadest outlines, part of the national narrative of despair. The pivoting reality came on hard in 2002, when the Colorado River carried just 4.5 million acre-feet of water.

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. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

To put that into perspective, as Eric Kuhn, co-author of “Science Be Dammed,” did at this conference, those who framed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 assumed 20.5 million acre-feet as they went about apportioning the river’s flows. In the 21st century, the river has averaged 13 million acre-feet.

Alarm has been sounded but…

Now, scientists are warning that river managers should plan for no more than 11 million acre-feet, a reflection of the new hotter, and in some places, drier climate. Some think that figure is overly optimistic.

The seven basin states – particularly the thirsty states of California and Arizona – have cinched their belts with various agreements. But they have not responded in ways proportionate to the risk they now face. There is a very real danger of the reservoirs dropping to just puddles of dead pool, too little to be released downstream. Imagine the Grand Canyon without water. Imagine no water below Hoover Dam. Do these images leave you dumbstruck?

A public official on the Western Slope recently confided to me that he and others had grown weary of what they called “drought, dust and dystopia” stories. That troubled me, leaving me to wonder how my own stories are being received.

At the conference this week on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, I heard something of the same self-doubt.

“With all due respect to my fellow panelists, I live in an area where some of the topics that are mentioned, we’re not uniformly and broadly received,” said Perry Cabot, the lead researcher at Colorado’s State University’s Western Colorado Research Center near Grand Junction. “I think as researchers, we tend to believe that just more educating is going to change the dynamics of the narrative.”

Other panelists agreed with Cabot’s observation that new narratives, not just information, would better convey the gravity of the situation.

“I think the scientific community has gotten its head handed to itself,” said Brad Udall, who has dome some of the pioneering research that shows that “aridification” – as much or more than drought itself – is driving the reduced flows. Drought ends, but aridification resulting from atmospheric greenhouse gases? Not any time soon.

That has gone against the grain of water managers. A decade ago, there was still skepticism about climate change, and water always has been variable. Surely, good winters would return in the mountains of Colorado and other upper basin states that produce 90% of the river’s flows. Colorado alone is responsible for 60%.

After all, every batter goes through slumps, every best-selling author can tell of rejection slips.

By now, however, a clear trend has become evident. Even in good snow years, the runoff lags.

Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, described various outcomes of a river with continued declines in flows. Photo/Allen Best

At the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for refilling the glass that is now far less than half-full in the coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.

Even so-so precipitation has been coming up as something worse. For example, the snowpack in the Gunnison River watershed last year was 87% of average, but the runoff was only 64%.

Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last year has been among the six warmest in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuizen, a water resources engineer for the River District. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to apportion demand to match supply. After all, there’s money in the bank, and for probably a year more, enough water in the reservoirs to generate electricity.

At water meetings, an element of collegiality has remained, at least until recently. Testiness has crept in, an element of what Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based River District, calls finger-pointing.

Colorado water officials, Mueller included, are doing some of that themselves.

They point out that Colorado and the other upper-basin states get nicked for 1.2 million acre-feet in evaporative losses in their delivery of water to Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas. California, Arizona, and Nevada do not. “It’s like running two sets of books,” said Mueller.

Mueller was negotiating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the day of the conference in Fort Collins. His stand-in, Dave Kanzer, explained that the Law of the River —the Colorado River Compact and other agreements – don’t necessarily apply anymore. It is “based on long-term stable water supply, and we no longer have that,” he said.

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)

Renegotiate the compact?

The Colorado River Compact assumed too much water and also used precise numbers when ratios would have been better, Mueller has observed. Instead, those who gathered in Santa Fe in November 1922 apportioned

7.5 million acre-feet to each of the two basins, upper and lower. In practice, the lower-basin states have been using twice as much water as Colorado and other upper-basin states.

Colorado’s average annual consumption from the Colorado River and its tributaries is 2.5 million acre-feet. In terms of the compact, what mattes entirely is when the diversion began, before or after the compact.

About 1.6 million-acre feet- mostly older agriculture rights – are pre-compact, but 900,000 acre-feet came later. This includes water for Western Slopes cities and the nearly all of the 500,000 acre-feet diverted across the Continental Divide to cities along the Front Range and farms in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys. This water is most imperiled.

Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District, said he does not believe it’s practical to attempt to amend or renegotiate the Colorado River Compact.

“But within a few years, maybe after we have figured out how to get out of the current crisis, we’re going to essentially ignore all of the provisions of the compact except perhaps article one, which defines the purpose and the signatures page.”

Lochhead has much the same opinion about the much-disputed element of the compact about the obligations of Colorado and other upper basin states to deliver water. It really won’t matter, he said. The real problem is that the basin states need to align demand with supply that, during the last few years, has been close to 11 million acre-feet. (Keep in mind, the compact assumed more than 20 million acre-feet).

“We’re literally in a situation of triage,” said Lochhead. “Something needs to be done in the very near term to lay a foundation for actions that can be taken in the medium and longer term to manage the river to a sustainable condition.”

The feds need to step up

Lochhead outlined three possibly overlapping alternatives.

First: involuntary regulations and restrictions. The federal government – although it has been using it with restraint – does indeed have authority to regulate use of water that enters into Mead. The U.S. Supreme Court has characterized its power as such. The Bureau of Reclamation must be seen as delivering a coherent threat.

“That gives the U.S. government enormous authority over what happens in the lower basin,” Lochhead said. This is unlikely to happen until after the November election, he said, but it absolutely must happen.

Voluntary agreements must also occur. The Bureau of Reclamation imposed an August 2022 deadline for agreements. If the deadline had been a hard one, the states would have failed. Lochhead said it came down to finger pointing. Arizona and California “stared across the river at each other, seeing who’s going to blink first.”

The federal government has now put $4 billion on the table – through the Inflation Reduction Act —to “grease” the skids in terms of voluntary agreements. (Think, perhaps voluntary retirement of water rights). “They’re going to have to buy down demands in the lower basin,” said Lochhead, conjecturing on deals involving the Imperial Irrigation District, the giant ag producer just north of the border with Mexico.

We will need to sort through what grasses we want and can afford, both in residential settings and in pubic areas, such as Colorado Mesa University, above. That will extend to grasses grown to feed livestock. Top, the Colorado River at Silt, Colo. on Sept. 17. Photo/Allen Best

Lochhead also described the need for reductions in water use in the municipal sectors. Denver Water and several other water agencies in Colorado – but also in Nevada and California and Arizona—announced an agreement in August in which they will try to pare their consumption. For example, Denver wants to end irrigation of medians along roads and highways and crimp the amount of water used for turf. But Denver and other cities need to continue to have trees, said Lochhead.

More cities will join this pact to reduce water use for residential consumption in coming weeks and months, Lochhead said.

But he said Colorado may need state legislation to ensure that real-estate developers can’t create landscaping in the future that requires lots of water, offsetting these gains.

That brings me back to the Ute Mountain Ute lands that I visited in May. By virtue of their 1986 agreement, reality has smacked them hard. There is pain, but there is also adjustment. They have had to adjust.

Something of the same thing must occur in the broader Colorado River Basin. So far, it’s easier to postpone action. But another so-so year – or worse? While the states are trying to make the cuts necessary for  a river that is delivering 12 million acre-feet per year, Mueller warns that the plans must contemplate a 9 million acre-foot river, as some scientists have said may come to pass.

But in Grand Junction, one of the scientists pointed out to me that it’s just possible the river may deliver 7 million acre-feet – and that could be next year and the year after.

Then, we may need a new metaphor, something worse than an empty bank account.

Coalition offers help to parched #ColoradoRiver — @COWaterTrust #COriver #aridification

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust (Dana Dallavalle Hatlelid):

Responding to drought and summer long low-flow conditions on the Colorado River, a coalition of groups and funders led by Colorado Water Trust is restoring water to the river. Colorado Water Trust deliveries began 9/25/22 and continue at a 150 cfs (cubic feet per second) rate. That rate will drop to 100 cfs over the weekend and continue through 10/20/22, most likely tapering to 50 cfs on 10/11. Division of Water Resources confirmed they will administer Colorado Water Trust’s water to the 15-Mile Reach based on average monthly flows being below the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s 810 cfs target. Total water restored will be 4500 acre-feet (1.46 billion gallons). The hard work and generosity of our partners enabled us to provide the needed water supply just in time to keep the river flowing at healthier levels in designated critical habitat, including the 15-Mile Reach just east of Grand Junction.

Philanthropic and funding partners include Western Colorado Community Foundation, Lyda Hill Philanthropies, Intel Corporation, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Nite Ize, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Fryingpan River downstream of Ruedi Reservoir. Photo credit Greg Hobbs

Colorado Water Trust and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program have arranged for a release of water from Ruedi Reservoir to the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork, and Colorado rivers. The water will be designated for improving flow conditions for endangered fish in the 15-Mile Reach. The flows will support four species of endangered and threatened fish, including the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, bonytail, and razorback sucker, as well as indirectly supporting agricultural water deliveries and the regional recreational economy.

“The corporations and individuals that stepped up to allow us to make these large additions to the Colorado’s flow are the community-minded heroes of this drought year. In the future, ever more creative ways will have to be found to share the water that Nature gives us, with each other and with Nature itself,” says Andy Schultheiss, Executive Director of Colorado Water Trust. “As we continue to experience the impacts of a changing climate, we will have to find ways to adapt to the new paradigm.”

Colorado River in Grand Junction. Photo credit: Allen Best

Between 2019 and 2021, Colorado Water Trust delivered over 6028 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River (nearly 2 billion gallons). In a typical year, Colorado Water Trust works closely with Grand Valley Water Users Association and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District to identify when there is available capacity in the Grand Valley Power Plant for hydropower generation. This year, thanks to partial support from Colorado Water Trust, the Grand Valley Power Plant is undergoing much needed reconstruction. Until the new plant is complete, Colorado Water Trust will designate the water released for endangered fish protection and not hydropower generation at the Power Plant. Colorado Water Trust also works closely with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program to determine when the 15-Mile Reach needs supplemental water most to support the fish.

Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Water Users Association have been collaborating with the Colorado Water Trust and their contributing partners for the last several years. Our partnership helps those of us in the Grand Valley and 2200 other water diverters maintain the Endangered Species Act compliance. We look forward to our continued collaboration with the Colorado Water Trust,” says Mark Harris of Grand Valley Water Users Association.

“Intel commends the Colorado Water Trust for their important work to support the health of the Colorado River,” says Fawn Bergen, Intel’s Corporate Sustainability Manager. ”Intel’s support for this project brings us closer to our goal of reaching net positive water by 2030, and we are proud to help sustain this vital habitat; a healthy river supports healthy communities.”

We are extremely grateful to the Colorado Water Trust for providing releases to support endangered fish during another challenging water year. These releases will improve habitat in the 15-Mile Reach during an especially stressful time of year,” says David Graf, Instream Flow Coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. “The Recovery Program has shown that collaborative conservation can enhance populations of endangered fish while also meeting water user needs. These efforts by the Colorado Water Trust, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, and Grand Valley Water Users demonstrate that with creative thinking and hard work, partnerships can find solutions that support humans and the environment.”

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

The Roaring Fork Conservancy also helps to inform Colorado Water Trust of conditions on the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork Rivers so that releases will complement flows on the stream sections between Ruedi Reservoir and the Colorado River. This year, the water released from Ruedi Reservoir will serve a few purposes before it supports the health of endangered, native fish in the Colorado River in the 15-Mile Reach. The water will bring flows in the Fryingpan River closer to their average, and will cool water temperatures on the Roaring Fork River.

ABOUT COLORADO WATER TRUST: Colorado Water Trust is a statewide nonprofit organization that works collaboratively with partners all across Colorado on restoring flow to Colorado’s rivers in need using solutions that benefit both the people we work with and our rivers. Since 2001, we’ve restored 16.8 billion gallons of water to 588 miles of Colorado’s rivers and streams.

Reclamation awards construction contract for initial segment of Arkansas Valley Conduit: #Boone Reach Contract 1 connects six miles of pipeline to the eastern end of #Pueblo Water’s system #ArkansasRiver

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

From email from Reclamation (Elizabeth Smith):

The Bureau of Reclamation awarded the inaugural contract of the Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC) to WCA Construction LLC, for $42,988,099.79. This contract funds construction of the first Boone Reach trunk line section, a 6-mile stretch of pipeline that extends from the eastern end of Pueblo Water’s system toward Boone, Colorado.

The AVC project will use Pueblo Water’s existing infrastructure to treat and deliver AVC water from Pueblo Reservoir to a connection point east of the City of Pueblo along U.S. Highway 50. The water will be either Fryingpan-Arkansas Project water or from participants’ water portfolios, not from Pueblo Water’s resources. Work under this contract will begin in spring of 2023. This section is expected to be completed in 2024.

“Now more than ever, people in the Arkansas River Valley understand the immense value of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project and the Arkansas Valley Conduit,” said Jeff Rieker, Eastern Colorado Area Manager. “We look forward to the day when these residents can open the faucet and know that their drinking water is safe and healthy.” As the AVC project moves forward, under existing agreements, Reclamation will construct the trunkline, a treatment plant and water tanks while the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District will coordinate with communities to fund and build AVC delivery pipelines. Eventually, the AVC will connect 39 water systems along the 130-mile route to Lamar, Colorado.

The AVC is a major infrastructure project that, upon completion, will provide reliable municipal and industrial water to 39 communities in Southeastern Colorado. The pipelines will bring water from Pueblo Reservoir to Bent, Crowley, Kiowa, Otero, Prowers, and Pueblo counties. It is projected to serve up to 50,000 people in the future (equivalent to 7,500 acre-feet per year).

John F. Kennedy at Commemoration of Fryingpan Arkansas Project in Pueblo, circa 1962.

The AVC was authorized in the original Fryingpan-Arkansas Project legislation in 1962 (Public Law 87-590). The AVC would not increase Fry-Ark Project water diversions from the Western Slope of Colorado; rather, it was intended to improve drinking water quality.

Currently, many people in the areas that will be served by the AVC rely on groundwater supplies that may be contaminated by naturally occurring radionuclides, such as radium and uranium, or use shallow wells that contain harmful microorganisms and pollutants. Alternatives for these communities consist of expensive options such as reverse-osmosis, ion exchange, filtration, and bottled water. 

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

If you have any questions or need more information, please contact Anna Perea, Public Affairs Specialist at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Eastern Colorado Area Office, at (970) 290-1185 or aperea@usbr.gov. If you are deaf, hard of hearing or have a speech disability, please dial 7-1-1 to access telecommunications relay services.

Map of the Arkansas River drainage basin. Created using USGS National Map and NASA SRTM data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79039596

Register Now for Fall Symposium Set for November 15, 2022 –@Northern_Water

Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water

From email from Northern Water:

Registration has opened for Northern Water’s Fall Symposium, set for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15, at the Embassy Suites in Loveland.

Northeastern Colorado water users will hear from multiple speakers about challenges facing the Colorado River and the intricacies of land use and water planning in times of water scarcity. A theme throughout the Symposium will highlight change and how best to adapt.

Additional presentations at the event will include a look ahead at reinvesting in our forests and protecting our source watersheds, as well as offer brief updates on the Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project and the Northern Integrated Supply Project. 

Registration is now open on our website. Spaces fill quickly for this event, so we encourage you to register no later than Nov. 1. This symposium is a great opportunity to invite your co-workers and industry professionals to learn more about the latest water challenges in our region. Doors will open at 8 a.m. for check-in and to allow attendees to network.  

If you have any questions, please email events@northernwater.org.

Western Slope #water advocates reflect on 2022 water year — The Summit Daily #ColoradoRiver #COriver #monsoon2022 #aridification

Upper Colorado River Basin Drought Monitor map September 27, 2022.

Click the link to read the article on the Summit Daily website (Eliza Noe). Here’s an excerpt:

Summit County and northwest Colorado saw an encouraging summer, but drought conditions persist throughout much of the Colorado River Basin

Brendon Langenhuizen, director of technical advocacy for the Colorado River District, said that this water year has been “fairly close to normal.” 

Last night’s storm (July 30, 2021) was epic — Ranger Tiffany (@RangerTMcCauley) via her Twitter feed.

“We’re still in a drought. There’s still dry conditions,”  he said. “I want to stress that it has improved, and I think a lot of that has been in part due to those monsoons.”

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled snowpack map April 29, 2022 via the NRCS.

He said that snowpack for the Colorado River headwaters was decent for 2022, but temperatures were higher than usual as well. A good monsoon season finished off the water year, he added, and the three main water basins on the Western Slope — the Yampa-White, the Colorado headwaters and the Gunnison — had similar conditions, which is unique. In general, Langenhuizen added, the Western Slope started off really dry, trending toward the driest kind of snowpack that the region has had. Then, a snow-filled December came around Dec. 9 to Jan. 9, where snowstorm systems kept coming and pushed all of the region well above average for snowpack. Shortly after there was another drought of snow. That lasted all the way through most of February. After that, the region started to get some snow again and it turned out to be an average to below average year, he said…

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. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

“We have lots of interesting challenges ahead of us on the Colorado River as water users,” Marti Whitmore, president of the board of the Colorado River District, said. “There are no easy solutions. If there were, we’d already have found them. It’s really important that as we move forward to address our challenges that we make sure we have off effects that we spend time carefully considering the potential implications and ramifications and try to avoid unintended consequences.”

Who’s really using up the water in the American West? — Vox

Hint: water scarcity in the Western US has more to do with our diets than our lawns. Subscribe and turn on notifications 🔔 so you don’t miss any videos: http://goo.gl/0bsAjO The Western United States is currently battling the most severe drought in thousands of years. A mix of bad water management policies and manmade climate change has created a situation where water supplies in Western reservoirs are so low, states are being forced to cut their water use. It’s not hard to find media coverage that focuses on the excesses of residential water use: long showers, swimming pools, lawn watering, at-home car washes. Or in the business sector, like irrigating golf courses or pumping water into hotel fountains in Las Vegas. But when a team of researchers looked at water use in the West, they uncovered a very different story about where most Western water goes. Their findings may hold the solution to dwindling water supplies in the West.

Check out the video above to learn more, and take a look at the study that this story is centered on: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/32306…

Lead study author Brian Richter wrote this post on common misconceptions about water scarcity: https://www.sustainablewaters.org/hey…

For Vox coverage on water management policies on the Colorado River, which we weren’t able to cover in this story: https://www.vox.com/2022/9/23/2335709…

For coverage on just how bad the current drought is: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/14/cl…

For more coverage of the rotational fallowing program in the Palo Verde district in California: https://www.latimes.com/environment/s…

Check out Our World in Data for data on meat and dairy production and consumption across the world: https://ourworldindata.org/meat-produ…

Cheerful delusions about the #ColoradoRiver — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification #overdrawn22

Sunset on the Colorado River at Silt September 2022. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

We really would rather be getting news about another Super Bowl triumph or the end of the 55-year drought in Denver Nuggets championships. But the Colorado River is rapidly nearing total disfunction. It is the story du jour.

Rivers and streams on Colorado’s Western Slope chattered excitedly with runoff during mid-September after several days of rain, softening landscapes that had turned sullen after another hot summer.

The water was a blink of good news for a Colorado River that needs something more. It needs a long, sloppy kiss of wetness.

Hard, difficult decisions have almost entirely lagged what has been needed during the last 20 years of declining reservoir levels and rapidly rising temperatures. Hope has lingered stubbornly. After all, every batter has slumps. And maybe next winter and spring it will snow hard and long in Colorado, source of 60% of the river’s water, instead of getting unseemly warm come April and May, as has mostly been the case.

This glass half-full hopefulness has left the two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell, at roughly 25% of capacity. To prevent worse, the smaller savings accounts near the headwaters – Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, Blue Mesa in Colorado, and Flaming Gorge on the Utah-Wyoming border – have been pilfered. Little remains to be tapped.

Even threats from the Bureau of Reclamation this year failed to spur definitive action. “We can’t keep doing this,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, a major water policy agency for the Western Slope.

Difference from average temperature in the top 300 meters (~984 feet) of the tropical Pacific between June 7 and August 1, 2022. A deep pool of cooler-than-average water (blue) spread eastward and will continue rising to the surface in coming months, feeding the current La Niña. Animation by NOAA Climate.gov, based on data from NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

Recently at the River District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for recovery this coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.

Even so-so precipitation comes up as something less. Yampa River Valley snowpack last winter was 84% of average; runoff lagged at 76%. The Gunnison River watershed figures were even worse; snowpack of 87% yielding runoff of 64%.

Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last 12 months have been among the six warmest years in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuisen, a water rights engineer. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to agree on cuts that would match demand with supply.

It’s tempting to accuse the states of being caught up in century-old thinking. After all, they nominally operate under provisions of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. They have taken steps but they insufficiently acknowledge the shifting hydrologic reality. Instead of delivering an average 20.5 million acre-feet, as the compact assumed, the river has delivered 13 million acre-feet in the 21st century. In the last few years, it’s been worse yet, about 12 million acre-feet.

How low can it go? Mueller talked about learning to live within 9 million acre-feet, as some climate scientists have warned may be necessary. Climate scientists have built up some credibility as their forecasts have been, if anything, a tad conservative.

A scientist I talked with in Grand Junction suggested potential for an even starker future. What if the river delivers just 7 million acre-feet a year for the next two or three years?

One of my acquaintances, a county official on the Western Slope, recently confided weariness with the now familiar narrative of “drought, dust, and dystopia” on the Colorado River. Understood. We all want to see the Broncos and Avs win. More instructive may be the Denver Nuggets, who are now in a 55-year championship drought.

We will need to sort through what grasses we want and can afford, both in residential settings and in pubic areas, such as Colorado Mesa University, above. That will extend to grasses grown to feed livestock. Top, the Colorado River at Silt, Colo. on Sept. 17. Photo/Allen Best

Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water, likens the situation on the Colorado River to a bank account that has been drawn down. “And we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit,” he said this week at the Colorado Water Center conference in Fort Collins.

What is needed? From a perspective in Colorado, Lochhead argues for a stronger, more assertive federal role. Lochhead was for many years a lawyer based in Glenwood Springs who represented Colorado in river issues.

Map credit: AGU

Everybody that depends upon Colorado River water from northeastern Colorado to Los Angeles and San Diego will have a role, he says. Denver for example, wants to crowd out grass from medians and incentivize turf removal.

Lower-basin states use about twice as much as the upper basin states, and there the cuts must be more radical. Lochhead wants to see the federal government, through the Bureau of Reclamation, more assertively force the lower-basin states to make those hard decisions. Federal authority over water entering Lake Mead has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, he points out, and he suggests the agency may use that power after the November election.

The broad theme will be reducing water used for low-value grasses. That takes in suburban lawns but also the water-greedy grasses grown for livestock, including corn and alfalfa. Hard choices, but they must be made. What more warning do we need?

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. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

Agencies looking into #water quality on Lincoln Creek: Mine drainage could be a cause of recent issues — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver

Lincoln Creek is one of several drainages that flow into Grizzly Reservoir, a collection pool for Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company. Drainage from defunct upstream mines may be partly responsible for the water’s yellow color. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

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

State, local and federal agencies are working to figure out what is causing changes to the waters and streambed of Lincoln Creek.

In recent days, the water in Lincoln Creek below Grizzly Reservoir has turned a milky green color and a sediment — yellow in some places, white in others — has settled on the streambed. The water flowing into the reservoir from upper Lincoln Creek ran yellow on Saturday.

According to Andrew Wille, a concerned citizen and educator who has done a field study in the area, the discolored stream is not totally unusual.

“I would say (Lincoln Creek above the reservoir) is always like that, but it might be a little worse this year,” said Wille, who is also a member of Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers board but clarified he was not speaking on the group’s behalf.

What is unusual, Wille said, is that the issue extends below the reservoir to the water flowing down Lincoln Creek to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River.

“I was just kind of concerned and upset it made its way into the Roaring Fork,” he said.

Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

A culprit could be defunct mines in the area, where prospectors mined gold, silver, lead and copper in the early 1900s. It includes the well-known Ruby Mine near the ghost town of the same name.

Bryan Daugherty, an environmental health specialist with Pitkin County, took samples of the water in the creek last week.

“It could be that we have had significant weather up there and it has opened up some of the channels or something that expose more of the mining waste,” Daugherty said. “We just don’t have a great answer as to why it looks different than it has in the past years.”

Officials may have more answers after Tuesday, when a team of water quality experts from different agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Roaring Fork Conservancy and others, are scheduled to test the waters of Lincoln Creek. It is part of an ongoing water quality monitoring program.

Water from the Ruby Mine adit — which is the mine’s opening — mixes with water from Lincoln Creek in late August. Defunct mines in the area could be affecting water quality downstream. CREDIT: ANDRE WILLE

Mines could be a cause

Jeff Graves, program director for the Colorado Inactive Mine Reclamation Program, said the Ruby Mine was brought to his attention last year when there was a fish die-off in Grizzly Reservoir. His agency, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, joined other agencies in water quality sampling in early summer. Those results are not back yet.

But Graves said the problem may not be caused solely by the Ruby Mine.

“There’s obviously some legacy mining up there; that includes the Ruby Mine,” he said. “But there’s also a significant geologic component unrelated to mining. So there are a couple different things going on that we need that sampling data back to clarify what the actual cause of any potential problems are downstream.”

Graves estimated there are about 400 mines across Colorado that are discharging into waterways and potentially creating a water quality issue downstream. He said there has not been any reclamation done on the Ruby Mine and that it would not have fallen under any regulatory authority at the time it was mined around the turn of the 20th century.

Grizzly Reservoir will be drained next summer for a rehabilitation project on the dam, tunnel gates and outlet works. The reservoir serves as the collection bucket for water from the surrounding drainages before it’s diverted through the Twin Lakes Tunnel to the Front Range. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Much of the water collected in Grizzly Reservoir from the high mountain drainage of Lincoln Creek is sent through the Twin Lakes Tunnel under the Continental Divide to be used in Front Range cities. Colorado Springs Utilities owns the majority of the water from the Twin Lakes system, which represents the city’s largest source of West Slope water and about 21% of its total supply.

Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company Manager Bruce Hughes said on Monday that the Twin Lakes system was operating normally, which at this time of year means not diverting to the Front Range and instead letting the water from Grizzly Reservoir flow down Lincoln Creek.

Graves said in general, the environmental concerns associated with mines involve aquatic life like fish and the bugs they eat. The orange color of the water and stained streambed is from iron; the white is from aluminum, he said.

“Generally speaking, there is very little human health concerns associated with the sites,” he said. “Most of the time, it is aquatic life concerns and the specific concern is zinc. Fish are very intolerant to high levels of dissolved zinc in the water.”

As of Saturday [September 24, 2022], there were still plenty of fish swimming in Grizzly Reservoir.

Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the Sept. 27 edition of The Aspen Times.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

Federal Water Tap — Circle of Blue

Mapa de los Estados Unidos de Méjico, by John Distrunell, the 1847 map used during the negotiations of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Public domain.

Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website:

At a conference in Santa Fe, federal officials outlined steps they are taking to respond to critically low reservoirs in the Colorado River basin.

The Interior Department is preparing now in case next year is another hydrological dud.

Officials are setting up the paperwork for releasing even less water from Lake Powell than anticipated. According to operating guidelines, 7 million acre-feet will flow out of the reservoir in 2023. If water levels recede to the point that hydropower generation is endangered, Interior could throttle back those releases, as it did this year.

Interior is also studying structural modifications that would allow for the release water from Powell when the reservoir is low, a move that environmental groups in the basin have called for.

The Native Three — #Colorado Parks & Wildlife #ColoradoRiver

Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s aquatic research scientists have embarked on multiple projects to protect the three fish species native to the Upper Colorado River Basin (Flannelmouth Sucker, Bluehead Sucker and Roundtail Chub). This video, ‘The Native Three’ helps tell that story.

The #ColoradoRiver at the end of #water year 2022: a status report — InkStain #COriver #aridification

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

I don’t see how this ends well.

Most of the major players – the ones that matter, anyway, by which I mean Arizona, California, and the federal government – appear boxed in by constraints they can’t seem to overcome, while the water in the Colorado River’s big reservoirs is circling the drains.

Arizona’s giving up a lot of water right now, and it’s hard to see how they solve their in-state politics and give up more without California coming up with substantial cuts of its own. Meanwhile California’s internal politics have so far constrained it from coming up with meaningful contributions. This may change soon, but the numbers being discussed may not be enough to move the needle as far as it needs to move. And the federal government seems torn between tough immediate actions and placing responsibility on the states to come up with a plan to save themselves.

Last week’s Water Education Foundation Colorado River symposium in Santa Fe was striking.

It’s an invitation-only event, and I’m not sure what the ground rules are, so I’ll treat it as a sort of “Chatham House Rules” thing.

I will say this. I moderated a panel. Harsh words were exchanged. I was kind of an asshole as I tried to get people to say the quiet parts out loud. But right now, we need to be saying the quiet parts out loud, because the water is circling the drains.

obligatory cracked mud photo (Mead is, like, 40 feet lower right now than when I took this). Credi: John Fleck

THE STATUS OF THE RESERVOIRS

Lake Mead will end water year 2022 next Friday [September 30, 2022] with a surface elevation ~1,044 feet above sea level, down 1.8 million acre feet from a year ago.

Lake Powell will end the year at somewhere around elevation ~3,529, down 1.5 million acre feet from a year ago.

Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which must now be in the end-of-water-year mix because of the way Reclamation and the states have begun moving water around like pawns on the Upper Basin chess board, will end the year at elevation 6,013, down 300,000 acre feet from last year.

Credit: USBR

Absent action by water users to use less, next year’s not-all-that-farfetched possibilities (by which I mean the Bureau of Reclamation’s latest “minimum probable” forecast) has Powell dropping below minimum power by the end of 2023 – and staying there. Absent downstream action by water users to use less water, Mead drops to 1,016 by the of water year 2023.

Credit: USBR

If the federal government holds water back in Powell to prevent the need to use the dam’s bypass tubes, that drops Mead even farther.

For those not steeped in the numbers, this is cracked-mud, five-alarm fire bad.

2022 Water Use

Source: USBR, Lower Colorado River Basin water use forecast, retrieved 9/25/2022

Californians are touchy about these numbers, specifically the observation that they’re taking more than their full allocation this year, even as the reservoirs are tanking. They point out that in recent years they have used significantly less than their allocated 4.4 million acre feet, banking unused water in Lake Mead as a hedge against drought. Which they’re suffering now, massively. Which is true, and fair to point out.

So, for completeness sake, here are the three Lower Basin states’ annual take on Lake Mead going back a decade.

I point this out as a native Californian, and with love for my California friends. The laws and policies we have developed allow – even encourage! – this. The doctrine of prior appropriation was designed to remove water from our rivers for “beneficial use”, emptying them in the process. California played a masterful game over the 20th century to ensure the priority of its water rights and the federal largesse needed to put the water to use.

But understand, please, why everyone else in the basin is glaring at you: you have a larger allocation than everyone else, and you’ve been reducing your use less than everyone else. The law gives your water use priority over others in the basin, but that doesn’t make it feel any fairer to the rest of us as everyone is being asked to cut back to save the shrinking river on which we all depend.

BOXED IN

So where do we go now?

Despite the failure of the basin states to come up with a plan to reduce water use in 2023, and the unwillingness or inability of the federal government to impose one, the mass balance problem has not changed. The “protection volumes” – the amount of cutbacks needed next year and every year thereafter for the foreseeable future – are still huge. If the 2023 water year is similar to the last three, water users need to cut 2 million acre feet just to hold the reservoirs where they are and protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell from dropping to critically low elevations, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s modeling.

Never mind about refilling.

According to a piece by Jake Bittle at Grist, California is working on a deal among the water users that would cut something – it’s not entirely clear what, Bittle references a range of 350,000 to 500,000 acre feet. This is super interesting in part because of the context – this is California going it alone. Yay for voluntary cuts! But it’s hard to see how the largest user on the system agreeing to cuts of that size gets us anywhere close to 2 million acre feet. But given the water politics within California, it’s also hard to see how California cuts more, at least voluntarily. Imperial Irrigation District is rightly demanding action on the Salton Sea, which has been shrinking as a result of past Imperial cutbacks. (Less irrigation means less percolation and runoff into the Sea. Bad air quality, bad mojo, as the Sea shrinks.) Getting Imperial farmers (and others, but Imperial’s the big player) to accept cutbacks voluntarily will have a big price tag. Forcing the cuts will almost certainly lead to litigation.

That leaves Arizona in a box. They’ve already cut nearly 800,000 acre feet this year, which is huge. There’s more water to be had in Yuma – again, for a price – but it’s hard to see Arizona coughing up more water absent California cutting more deeply. Where’s the fairness in that?

All the rest of us – Nevada, and the states of the Upper Basin – can do is look on in horror. I’ve been critical of the Upper Basin states for not agreeing to kick in some water, and I still think we’re going to have to do that sooner or later. But we’re only using ~4 million acre feet a year, on average, of our 7.5 million acre foot allocation. At this point, any savings we can muster are small relative to the use by California and Arizona. And given the Lower Basin states’ inability to come up with a plan, anything we do add to the system right now will just drain out the bottom in continued overuse.

Which leaves the federal hammer.

According to a press release last week, which (oddly?) came from the Department of Interior rather than the Bureau of Reclamation, Interior is preparing for the possibility that it may need to reduce releases from Glen Canyon Damn in 2023. (See Kuhn, Fleck, and Schmidt on this question.) This echoes something Reclamation said in August.

That would have the effect of further dropping Mead as Reclamation’s engineers scramble to protect Glen Canyon Dam.

Interior is also:

“Preparing to take action to make additional reductions in 2023, as needed, through an administrative process to evaluate and adjust triggering elevations and/or increase reduction volumes identified in the 2007 Interim Guidelines Record of Decision.”

I do not know what that means. I do not know if it is different from what Reclamation said in August, that the agency will:

“Take administrative actions needed to further define reservoir operations at Lake Mead, including shortage operations at elevations below 1,025 feet to reduce the risk of Lake Mead declining to critically low elevations.”

Folks in the federal government are frankly boxed in as well – between Lower Basin users unwilling or unable to cut use enough on their own to save themselves, with constraints imposed by a sincere attempt to be more inclusive of Tribal interests than the federal government has ever been, with the crazy problems of the Salton Sea hovering over any attept to rein in the basin’s largest water user, with the international challenge of including Mexico in the coming decisions, and with a crucial mid-term election looming.

So far, those constraints have prevented the federal government from getting specific about the threats – at least in public.

It’s hard to look at all these constraints, the boxed-in-ness – on Arizona, on California, on the federal government – and not see dead pool looming.

Absent a big snowpack, I don’t see how this ends well.

Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water, in April 2019, standing in a snowpit dug to gauge the snow’s temperature, depth,

The #Wyoming State Engineer to present options for #ColoradoRiver Basin #water crisis September 27, 2022 #COriver #aridification

Pine Street, Pinedale, Wyoming – Looking East. By Tarabholmes – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=110540227

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Distin Bleizeffer):

The state’s top water authority will outline Wyoming’s role in the ongoing Colorado River Basin water crisis, including voluntary conservation and efficiency programs, at a public meeting [September 27, 2022] in Pinedale.

Though Wyoming declined to commit specific volumes to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s call for 2023 water savings, the state’s water users in the Green River drainage — a tributary of the Colorado River — will likely be called upon to voluntarily curb water consumption in coming years, according to the State Engineer’s Office.

Wyoming Drought Monitor map September 20, 2022.

SEO officials will provide information about ongoing drought conditions, Wyoming’s rights and obligations under the Colorado River Compact and options to “prepare ourselves to not only mitigate impacts to our water users, but to potentially help offset negative impacts to the rest of the system,” Wyoming senior assistant attorney general for the SEO’s water division Chris Brown said.

The meeting will be from 2-5 p.m. Tuesday at the Sublette County Public Library.

Why it matters:

Two decades of drought exacerbated by human-caused climate change has sapped the Colorado River Basin water system that serves some 40 million people across the West and in Mexico. The two largest reservoirs in the system, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, shrank to historic lows this summer, threatening hydroelectric power production.

This “teacup” diagram displays reservoir storage levels as of Sept. 21, 2022. (Bureau of Reclamation)

There’s simply not enough water in the system to fulfill the water allotments divvied among stakeholders by the 1922 Colorado River Compact, and the situation is expected to get worse, according to federal officials.

“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency,” Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said in a prepared statement. “In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced.”

Among other strategies, Wyoming plans to resume participation in the federal System Conservation Program, which pays water users to curb consumption, according to the Wyoming State Engineer’s office. Congress recently re-appropriated funding for the program, while the Inflation Reduction Act includes some $4 billion for efforts to modernize Colorado River Basin infrastructure and water management practices. Another $8.3 billion from the bipartisan Infrastructure law is available to address water and drought challenges throughout the U.S.

View below Flaming Gorge Dam from the Green River, eastern Utah. Photo credit: USGS

History

To help make up for shrinking water levels in Lake Powell, the Bureau of Reclamation tapped Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border for an extra 125,000 acre-feet of water in 2021 and an extra 500,000 acre feet this year. Water levels at the reservoir are expected to drop by 15 feet total this fall.

As one of three “upper basin” states, Wyoming’s plays an integral role in supplying water to the Colorado River system. Agriculture accounts for most of Wyoming’s water use in the system. However, Wyoming’s total water contribution mostly depends on seasonal climate and precipitation, Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart contends.

Those conditions have become more erratic, especially as average temperatures at Wyoming’s highest elevations — where seasonal snowpack serves as a “water bank” — warm at an alarming rate.

Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com

It is time for the federal government to further reduce Glen Canyon Dam releases — InkStain #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A 2022-23 forecast fraught with risk for the Colorado River Basin

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

With most forecasts pointing toward another below-average winter of precipitation in the Rocky Mountains in 2022/2023 and with total basin-wide reservoir storage now less than 20 maf (less than 17 months of supply at the rate water has been consumed in the basin since 2000), it is time for the federal government to announce immediate, major reductions in Lake Powell releases for the coming water year (October 1, 2022, to September 30, 2023).

The importance of this leadership by Interior is pressing, because discussions among the basin states to cut their 2023 consumptive uses are at a stalemate and the Bureau of Reclamation is struggling to move the negotiation process along. An announcement by Interior, made no later than the 2022 Colorado River Water Users meeting in December, should set the annual release from Lake Powell for Water Year (WY) 2023 at approximately 5.5 million acre-feet (maf), 20% less than the 7.0 maf releases in water year 2022 and more than 30% less than the long-term release of 8.23 maf. Reductions in monthly releases to accomplish this objective ought to begin in January 2023.

In a news release Thursday, and in conversations at the Water Education Foundation’s Colorado River symposium this week in Santa Fe, officials with the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation suggested this option is already on the table. And Lower Basin water managers, doing the math for themselves, are already bracing for the possibility. A formal announcement, soon, would thus come as no surprise.

With last year’s decision to only release 7.0 million acre-feet in WY2022 (the water year that ends on September 30), the Secretary of the Interior has already determined that she can and will take actions to protect power generation and the structural integrity of Glen Canyon Dam. We believe it is now time to take bold action and further reduce Lake Powell releases for the following reasons:

First – The winter forecast justifies an immediate reduction in releases. It is now clear that we’re headed for a La Nina three-peat at least through most of the winter. While there is still a lot of uncertainty, too many forecasts are pointing to a warm, dry winter for most of the Colorado River’s watershed, especially the Rocky Mountains. This warm and dry winter outlook means it’s time to focus on the likelihood that inflows to Powell will probably be similar to Reclamation’s present minimum probable forecast made in its 24-month study.

Second – The projections of the current 24-month study’s minimum probable forecast justify a drastic reduction in releases. Given the dry and warm winter forecasts, basing 2023 reservoir operations on the minimum probable forecast should be considered responsible water-supply management. Based on the latest projections made by Reclamation, storage in Lake Powell would drop to elevation 3469’, only ~2.7 maf of storage above the dead pool, and well below the 3490’ elevation below which hydroelectricity cannot be generated. Keeping the storage level above 3525 ft may not be possible, but an infusion of 2 maf of storage into Lake Powell through a combination of Drought Operations (DROA) deliveries from Flaming Gorge reservoir and reduced releases to Lake Mead would increase the probability of maintaining Lake Powell slightly above 3510 ft, a 20-ft (1 maf) cushion above minimum power pool elevation.  Recognizing recent cautions from Jim Prairie (the UC Region’s lead modeler) that there may only be two years of DROA releases left in Flaming Gorge, a 500,000 af delivery combined with a 1.5-maf reduction in releases from Glen Canyon Dam would be a wise strategy that would leave Reclamation with the flexibility to make one more Flaming Gorge DROA delivery in 2024, if necessary.

Third – A 5.5-maf release would create clear markers to evaluate the impacts of the additional Lower Basin cuts on storage in Lake Mead and show what is necessary to preserve power generation at both Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams. Such an action would show the urgent need for additional system cuts to preserve both Lake Mead and total system storage. A reduction in the annual release by 1.5 maf would drive Lake Mead below elevation 1000 ft, but releases of only 5.5 maf would also be likely to keep Lake Powell above minimum power pool. At the end of WY2023, Lake Mead active storage would fall to 3.7 maf (~elevation 988 ft). Assuming a resumption of 7 maf-Glen Canyon Dam releases in WY2024, Lake Mead storage would drop to elevation ~965-970 ft in July 2024, close to its minimum power elevation of 950’.  Under this scenario, both reservoirs would have only about a 20 ft cushion over minimum power pool elevation, but power generation at both dams would be preserved, albeit at a minimal level.

There are obvious tradeoffs between the reduction of Lake Powell releases to our suggested 5.5 maf and the imposition of additional reductions in Lower Basin consumptive uses. Reduction of Lake Powell releases to 6.0 million acre-feet in WY2023 would be the largest release that ought to be considered for the coming year, because such a release would only increase storage about 20 ft. Reducing releases to 5.5 maf or even 5 maf would be much wiser, but even these radical policies may only be enough to “tread water.” Recovering system storage is likely to take several more years of reduced releases from Lake Powell that might include additional years when annual releases are as low as 5 maf.

Fourth – If the forecast of a dry winter proves to be in error and more precipitation comes in late winter 2023, Reclamation can increase the annual release during the spring.  Reclamation has the flexibility to increase annual releases back to 7.0 maf/year (or more under the possible, but unlikely, event of a big year).  Ideally, if the Lower Basin has a plan in place to cut an additional 1.5-2.0 maf of its uses, the benefits of such an increase in Powell releases later in the water year could also be redirected to recovering storage in Lake Mead.

Fifth – A 5.5-maf release in WY2023 could leave the Upper Basin with a future compact deficit that would force resolution of the long-standing dispute over the Upper Basin’s 1944 Treaty obligation to Mexico. The ten-year flow at Lee Ferry for 2013-2022 will be about 85.5 maf, but under our proposed scenario of a 5.5 maf release in WY2023 and a continuation of the Millennium Drought, the ten-year total release would be less than 82.5 maf by 2025 or 2026. Further, as the 9-maf years from 2015-19 fade into the past, the running ten-year tally could stay well below 82.5 maf through the end of the decade.

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead has labeled this 82.5 maf metric as the basin’s first hydrologic “compact tripwire.” This observation is based on the Lower Division States’ view that under the 1922 Compact, the Upper Division States have an annual obligation to contribute 50% of the 1944 Treaty delivery to Mexico every year (normally 750,000 af, but a little less when Mexico takes a shortage) plus the 75 maf non-depletion obligation. The Upper Division States, of course, disagree, taking the position that the 750,000 af release for Mexico is a “luxury”, not a requirement under the 1922 Compact. Their view is that their Lee Ferry obligation is no more than 75 maf every ten years.

The Upper Division States’ position, however, puts their post-Compact uses at considerable risk!  If the basins are unable to reach a compromise and turn to litigation instead and the Supreme Court rules in favor of Arizona, Nevada, and California or even finds a middle ground, it’s quite likely that the Upper Division States could end up owing a lot of water or money or both. The Upper Division states would be wise to consider resolving their Mexican Treaty obligation as a part of the post-2026 guidelines negotiations.  Having an effective Upper Basin demand management program (or functional alternative) in place will almost certainly be a part of any negotiated settlement.

Summary If the WY 2023 runoff turns out to be below average, as many forecasts now suggest, maintaining Lake Powell storage elevation above minimum power pool with a reasonable cushion will require a combination of (1) another DROA release from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and (2) a significant reduction of the WY 2023 Lake Powell release to well below 7 maf. At this point, using the most probable 24-month forecast which uses an optimistically wet (1991-2020) hydrologic baseline and totally ignores the available winter forecasts, simply obfuscates reality, and creates obstacles to finding the needed cuts. Using the minimum probable forecast to set the 2023 annual release sooner than later would add both clarity and urgency to the stalled task at hand – finding the necessary additional cuts needed to stabilize and recover the system. Using the minimum probable forecast is a “no regrets approach.”  If the forecast improves, an upward adjustment of annual releases is an easy and welcome fix. The opposite, a downward adjustment made in spring 2023, would create more havoc.

There are associated issues that Reclamation ought to begin to consider immediately.  What would be the impact to the Grand Canyon ecosystem of a 5.5-maf annual release?  How should monthly flows be distributed under such a low annual release? How should the present invasion of smallmouth bass in Grand Canyon be managed under very low annual releases? What might be the impact on commercial river running in Grand Canyon in 2023? How should the ever-increasing temperatures of Powell releases be managed?  These are all questions that need to be addressed in fall 2022 so that our recommendations can be implemented in January 2023.

We’ve suggested the 5.5 maf figure based on the September 24-month study. By November or December, the minimum probable forecast may dictate a different release number.

Whatever that number is, Reclamation should consider letting the basin know as soon as reasonably possible.

– Jack Schmidt is Janet Quinney Lawson Chair in Colorado River Studies, Center for Colorado River Studies, Watershed Sciences Department, Utah State University

– John Fleck is Writer in Residence at the Utton Transboundary Resources Center, University of New Mexico School of Law; Professor of Practice in Water Policy and Governance in UNM’s Department of Economics; and former director of UNM’s Water Resources Program.

– 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. Kuhn is the co-author, with Fleck, of the book Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.

Alfalfaphobia? In which I play the role of Colorado River Tsar–and defend the vilified crop — @Land_Desk

Golf course at Page, Arizona, with Glen Canyon Dam and the diminished Lake Powell in the background. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan Thompson):

In recent weeks I’ve written a piece or two about alfalfa. My thesis: As the biggest single water user in the Colorado River Basin, the crop must play an equally large role in contributing to the cuts necessary to keep the river from drying out. I know, it doesn’t seem like a hot-button topic. I mean, it’s just hay, after all.

Just hay? Yeah, well, you’ve obviously never heard the famous Mark Twain quote that he never said: Whiskey is for drinking and hay is for rolling in! Oh no, that was Benjamin Franklin who said that, or maybe Abe Lincoln. Anyway. Water may be for drinking, but hay is clearly for fighting over, or so it seems from the reactions to my journalistic foraging.

I’ve been lambasted—and praised—for being an alfalfa basher and for vilifying the crop. Alfalfa farmers have sent me semi-defensive e-mails listing the attributes of alfalfa. The Family Farm Alliance put out an op-ed decrying alfalfa-focused “crop-shaming” (which probably wasn’t directed toward me, but still). One guy pilloried me for saying an outright ban on alfalfa wasn’t the answer. Another sent me cautionary examples of what happens when you “buy and dry” a place. I have not been accused of alfalfaphobia, yet, but if I get canceled, that most likely will be the reason.

But I’ve got no beef with alfalfa. And, as I’ve said before, my calls for alfalfa to step up to the water-consumption-cutting plate have nothing to do with the economic, societal, or nutritional value of alfalfa. In fact, I value alfalfa much more highly than golf courses, swimming pools, fountains, lawns, urban growth, or crops grown for, say, ethanol production.

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. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

Just to remind you all of what we’re up against: The Colorado River’s collective users have consumed more water—between 13 million and 14 million acre-feet per year—than is actually in the river—averaging around 12.4 million acre-feet and falling—for the last two decades or so. They’ve been able to do this by draining the savings accounts known as Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Now the time of reckoning has come: Drain the reservoirs any further and they’ll no longer be able to produce hydropower and the dams’ structural integrity could be compromised. At least 2 million acre-feet must be cut to stop the deficit spending, and more than that to start building back some savings—if the river doesn’t continue dropping. But Colorado River water officials warn that the river’s flow could end up averaging just 9 million acre-feet in coming decades, a scary thought, indeed.

In other words, we—the folks who rely on the Colorado River Basin—finally must acknowledge that we live in a desert, and we finally are being forced to live within our means. And with this in mind, I wrote that alfalfa is a “good place to start” when looking for places to cut water use. I didn’t really mean that, though. Farming less alfalfa (or just irrigating it less) must be a big piece of a solution to Colorado River woes, but it’s probably not the place to start cutting.

If I were the Supreme Water Tsar here’s what I’d do before fallowing alfalfa:

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

– Scrap plans for the Lake Powell PipelineAaron Million’s pipeline and other additional diversions. These folks want to suck more water out of a diminishing system while everyone else is frantically looking for ways to use less water. It’s insane. Utah thinks it has the right to do this because it isn’t using its full allocation from the Colorado River Compact. That doesn’t work. Not only was the Compact based on flawed—and fabricated—numbers, but it has been rendered obsolete by climate change. The only new uses of Colorado River water should be to honor tribal water rights, including those that have not yet been quantified or settled.

Sunrise Denver skyline from Sloan’s Lake September 2, 2022.

– Mandate 10% or greater cuts in overall water use for all urban areas. Las Vegas (of all places) shows that this is not only possible, but can be done without much pain. It had its water use limited by its relatively puny allocation from the Colorado River and managed, through water recycling, conservation, banning ornamental lawns, plugging leaks in the city plumbing system, and so forth, to lessen overall water consumption even while it added population.

Photo credit: VisitTucson.com

– Cities can cut waste with what I call progressive water rates and Tucson calls “increasing block rates.” The idea is the same: As consumption increases, so does the per-unit rate. Under my system, every household would get its first 8,000 gallons per month free (this is a little more than the average two-person household in Tucson uses, which is still a bit excessive, in my opinion). The second 8,000 gallons would cost $50; the third $100; the fourth $200; and so on. This would incentivize conservation—a thrifty family might never pay a water bill—and penalize gluttony. Kim Kardashian’s monthly water bill would add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, as it should.

– Seems to go without saying, but: No more new cities in the desert.

– Avoid “buy & dry” water transfers that take water from agriculture to enable cities to grow.

– Allow only dryland golf (and parks and fields and lawns). Sure, you can have your golf course or lawn in the desert, but you can’t irrigate it. Maybe you play on the dirt, maybe on gravel, maybe on artificial turf, but we can’t afford to continue wasting water (and dumping pesticides and fertilizers) to turn the desert green. It takes about 3 million gallons of water per acre to keep grass alive in the desert—about twice what alfalfa uses. And yes, I know that many golf courses use groundwater or recycled water and so aren’t taking it directly from the Colorado River system. But that’s irrelevant. If that water wasn’t used on a golf course it could go to something far more valuable (and yes, I am crop shaming).

Surfing in the desert? Hell no! This thing was proposed for the Coachella Valley—home to over 100 golf courses, oodles of swimming pools, and lakeside housing developments—where water use is as high as 475 gallons per capita per day, one of the highest anywhere. It’s time to cut Coachella off. Oh, and Lake Las Vegas? Yeah, no.

The Las Vegas Wash(Opens another site in new window) is the primary channel through which the Las Vegas Valley’s excess water returns to Lake Mead. Contributing approximately 2 percent of the water in Lake Mead, the water flowing through the Wash consists of urban runoff, shallow groundwater, storm water and releases from the valley’s four water reclamation facilities. Photo credit: Southern Nevada Water Authority

– More water recycling. I know, it sounds gross, especially when you label it “toilet to tap.” Thing is, we do it already, all of the time. Las Vegas treats its wastewater, dumps it back into Lake Mead, then sucks it back out to use as drinking water. Durango treats all of its sewage and wastewater, dumps it into the Animas River, and downstream users such as Aztec and Farmington then pull it out of the river, treat it and drink it.

The San Juan Generating Station in mid-June of this year. The two middle units (#2 and #3) were shut down in 2017 to help the plant comply with air pollution limits. Unit #1 shut down today and #4 will shut down on Sept. 30 of this year. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

– Ditch fossil fuels. Most thermal power plants, i.e. those fired by coal or natural gas, guzzle massive amounts of water for steam generation and cooling. The San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico consumes about 5.8 billion gallons per year. Altogether, the daily consumptive water use of power plants in Colorado River Basin states is about 145 million gallons, which amounts to about 162,000 acre-feet per year. Extracting natural gas also uses huge amounts of water: A single hydraulic fracturing job consumes and sullies millions of gallons of fresh water. In fact, a new study found that installing rooftop solar on a single California household could avoid enough fossil fuel generation to save some 53,000 gallons of water. (I’ll be doing an energy-water nexus Data Dump soon!).

– Monitor, regulate, and limit groundwater pumping in Arizona (and anywhere else it’s not regulated). Irrigation water in some of the driest parts of Arizona come from groundwater wells that are not monitored or regulated or counted against Colorado River allocations. The Fondomonte Farms alfalfa fields in La Paz County, for example, are irrigated with groundwater. The alfalfa is then shipped to Saudi Arabia where it feeds dairy cows. Groundwater and surface water are connected. It’s time to stop ignoring that fact.

In March 2021, Electrek reported that scientists published a feasibility study about the benefits of erecting solar panels over canals. That study is about to become a reality when a pilot project breaks ground in California. Photo credit: Electrek

– Cover the canals with solar panels, which will not only generate electricity without using more water, but will also reduce evaporation from the canals. The Central Arizona Project, alone, loses about 16,000 acre-feet—or 5.2 billion gallons—per year to evaporation.

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)

– Grow less cotton in the desert. Cotton uses about 75% as much water as alfalfa, which makes it among the thirstiest crops out there. Arizona farmers harvested over 127,000 acres of cotton last year, and regularly exports between $100 million and $200 million worth each year, mostly to China, India, and Vietnam, where it’s made into clothing and shipped right back to the U.S.

Add all of those cuts up and, well, you probably still don’t get the 2 million or 4 million or even 6 million acre-feet of cuts that are necessary. That’s the catch: All the cities, golf courses, power plants, and desert surfing lagoons combined don’t add up to more than a few million acre-feet of water use. So even drying them all up wouldn’t get us to where we need to be.

That leaves us with agriculture in general—which accounts for 70% to 80% of the consumptive use of Colorado River water—and alfalfa and other hay crops, specifically, which together drink up the largest portion of the agricultural sector’s share. There are a number of reasons so much alfalfa is growing in the West. For one thing, there’s demand for it: dairy cattle eat it, beef cattle eat it, rabbits eat it, horses eat it, sometimes even people eat it.

One of my cousins grows alfalfa in southwestern Colorado, and he sent me a list of other virtues of the leafy legume:

– Alfalfa root nodules fix nitrogen from the air and deep roots bring up minerals, adding fertility to the root zone of grasses and other crops.

– It is a perennial crop, especially in the west. With decent care and good luck, a stand will be very productive for 5 good years. Most people in Southwestern Colorado keep theirs for 10 years. I am now re-planting 20 acres after 25 years of haying and grazing. I rotated through triticale and sorghum-sudan grass cover crops. 

– I have the largest acreage of alfalfa under certified organic management in the county. My customers can use their manure in their garden without fear of persistent herbicides.

– Alfalfa is an excellent crop to rotate with potatoes and barley in sustainable fashion. The Rockey brothers of Center, Colorado, are masters at that.

– Alfalfa is drought tolerant. If irrigation is not available, it will come back luxuriantly if and when the water returns. Experienced growers of alfalfa-orchard grass mixtures that have had limited irrigation the last few years have noticed the grass dying out.

– The issue with drought and Alfalfa longevity is in an open winter. Root crowns dry out, split, and become infected when the ground is bare and desiccated.

– I am considering planting sainfoin, it may have a better reputation among your readers. (Editor’s note: sainfoin is an alfalfa-like crop with a fancier name).

I suspect that cutting off water to every alfalfa field in the Colorado River Basin would achieve the necessary cuts on its own—if it were even possible on a logistical or political level. But it would also wreak economic havoc, rip up the cultural fabric of rural areas, cause beef and dairy prices to skyrocket, and possibly lead to another dust bowl. Just as the cuts to overall water consumption must target the biggest consumers, so too should the effort to save water by fallowing alfalfa focus on the biggest alfalfa fields, such as those in southern California and Arizona.

Crop map of the Imperial and Palo Verde Irrigation Districts in southern California. The districts are the first and fifth largest single water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin. Pink = alfalfa. Source: Aaron Smith, Cropland Data Layer

And even then, “buying and drying” can have unintended consequences, as my friend pointed out. He suggested I check out Crowley County, in eastern Colorado, to see how the practice can play out. Back in the 1970s, Crowley County had 50,000 acres of irrigated crops. But in the ensuing decades the burgeoning metro areas on the Front Range, in need of water to irrigate vast monoculture crops of McMansions, went to the farmers and bought out their water rights. Now only a couple thousand acres in the county are irrigated, and it shows: Thousands of acres of former fields are invasive-weed-choked dust patches. With the ag economy in shambles, the county courted prisons to employ folks who didn’t up and leave.

So, yes, alfalfa needs to play a big role in averting the desiccation of the Colorado River system. And no, saying that is not vilifying alfalfa or crop-shaming or anything of the sort. It’s simple math. But perhaps before we fallow thousands of acres of alfalfa fields we should have a viable replacement in place—an agricultural just transition of sorts that goes beyond merely paying folks not to grow things. Maybe the hay can be replaced by less-thirsty crops, such as corn or beans or grapes or even solar panels. Maybe new industries can be established to fill the economic void. Maybe less-thirsty varieties of alfalfa can be developed.

I’m just glad I’m not the water tsar and I sure as heck don’t envy the folks that have to make the decisions about where and how to make these cuts. It’s not easy. I’m okay to just try to illuminate the topics in the best way I can. And maybe it’s working. I received a note from a Washington, D.C., PR person the other day saying how interesting she found one of my recent articles on alfalfa. Then she added: “I didn’t even know we still farmed alfalfa.”

Yampa River. Photo credit: Yampa River Integrated Water Management Plan website

Reclamation will spend billions to boost #drought-stricken #ColoradoRiver system — KUNC #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River flows through fields of crops in Southern California. New water conservation plans from the Bureau of Reclamation could use money from the Inflation Reduction act to pay farmers and ranchers to temporarily pause some water use, an effort to boost levels in the nation’s largest reservoirs. Photo credit: Ted Wood/The Water Desk

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

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced new measures in response to the ongoing dry conditions, unveiling plans to use a chunk of the $4 billion it received as part of the recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act. That money will be used for what the agency refers to as “short-term conservation,” to remove water-intensive grass in cities and suburbs, and to upgrade aging canals. A detailed breakdown of that spending has not yet been released. Multiple sources close to the situation told KUNC that the bulk of Reclamation’s $4 billion will go to projects in the Colorado River basin, with the majority going to “system conservation.” That could include buying water from the agriculture sector to boost water levels in the nation’s largest reservoirs. That funding will likely be doled out as part of a voluntary program in which farmers and ranchers can make a pitch to the federal government, offering to pause growing in exchange for payments of $300 to $400 per acre-foot of water, sources told KUNC. Those payments are expected to be temporary, mainly focused in the river’s Lower Basin states, and may someday give way to more permanent, higher-value federal payments in exchange for water…

Reclamation previously tested system conservation efforts in a pilot program that ran from 2014 to 2019, but has not implemented similar water buybacks at large scale since. Earlier this year, states in the river’s Upper Basin urged the federal government to revive system conservation work.

“I personally have a hard time believing that we’re going to see a massive change in reservoir levels as a result of system conservation by itself,” Koebele said. “This might be sort of a program that helps states establish their own programs for longer term system conservation. That said, we’re in such a dire situation that almost anything in the short term can help.”

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

Kimery Wiltshire, president of Confluence West, a group of water leaders around the region, said she was struck by the words “seek” and “encourage” that Reclamation used in regards to water conservation, adding that voluntary measures would not do much, especially if payouts to growers are relatively low. By comparison, a group of farmers near Yuma, Arizona recently proposed a water conservation plan in which they would be paid about $1500 per acre-foot of water saved, according to Axios.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think that what they’re proposing is going to get us to where we so desperately need to go, very quickly,” Wiltshire said. “Frankly, what Interior really can’t do a whole heck of a lot about is getting to the underlying causes. We don’t have the demand management that we need. We’re consuming too much water. We need to go to significantly less thirsty crops than what we’re growing right now.”

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

#YampaRiver Rendezvous recap — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Coyote Gulch on the Yampa River Core Trail August 24, 2022.

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Suzie Romig). Here’s an excerpt:

…after years of drought conditions in Colorado, any lingering optimism for a return to previous patterns of rain showers most afternoons in the High Country is not a realistic outlook. Water managers now need to use the most conservative, lower water flow predictions to manage shrinking water resources effectively, said Andy Rossi, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District…

The annual volume of water in the Yampa River Basin was 1.5 million-acre-feet in the early 1900s but now is 1.12 million-acre-feet, Rossi noted. Rossi compared the two consecutive years from 2011 and 2012 as one example of water projection difficulties. During the wetter 2011 at the Fifth Street river gauging station in downtown Steamboat, the flow on June 7 was 4,780 cubic feet per second compared to 305 CFS on the same date in 2012. Last week, at the same gauging station, the natural river flow contributed only half of the flow because approximately 50% of the flow was from storage releases from Stagecoach Reservoir, he said…

Although precipitation levels in the Yampa River Basin historically include highly variable ups and downs, data shows an “incredibly sharp recent decrease in precipitation” that led to five of the lowest water inflows into Stagecoach Reservoir during the past 10 years, Rossi said. From 2010 to 2021, the annual precipitation in Routt County dropped by 5.26 inches, he said…

Community members were urged to learn more about local water issues and to review the final version of the Yampa Integrated Water Management Plan that was released earlier this month available online at the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable website at YampaWhiteGreen.com

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.