The #ColoradoRiver is drying up — but basin states have ‘no plan’ on how to cut water use — #Colorado Public Radio #COriver #aridification #overdrawn22

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

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Public Radio website (Rachel Estabrook and Michael Elizabeth Sakas). Here’s an excerpt:

Water leaders, agricultural producers, environmentalists and others from across the drought-stricken river basin met Friday for the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar to discuss the historic-low levels in the river’s biggest reservoirs — and the need to cut back usage from Wyoming to California. While the problems the basin faces were apparent in the day-long discussions about the state of the river, solutions were not. The event’s host, Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller, told attendees that scientists now recommend that water managers plan for the river to provide just 9 million acre-feet of water annually. That’s a reduction of about a quarter from the amount used in 2021 by U.S. states, Native American tribes and Mexico. In an interview, Mueller said the Friday seminar was held to educate attendees on the seriousness of the Colorado River situation. Still unanswered is what the states and tribes represented in the room will do to drastically curtail use. 

While the representatives for the governments agreed that solutions need to be collaborative, no one offered to be the first to make big cuts. However, representatives from nearly every state stressed that they have already cut back on the amount of water they’re legally allowed to use.

The All American Canal carries water from the Colorado River to farms in California’s Imperial Valley. The Imperial Irrigation District holds more rights to Colorado River water than any other user in the basin. Photo credit: Adam Dubrowa, FEMA/Wikipedia.

“I think the honest answer is right now there is no plan,” J.B. Hamby of the Imperial Irrigation District in California said in response to a question from the audience about how significant cutbacks would be achieved. 

The Imperial district’s farms use millions of acre-feet of water a year to produce massive portions of the national food system. Hamby said water managers along the Colorado River have been distracted by incremental “dumpster fires,” and are not adequately focusing on the need for a new long-term plan that accounts for reduced water in the river.

The theme [of the seminar “Overdrawn”] refers to the emergency status of the Colorado River and its biggest reservoirs: Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Mead, on the border of Nevada and Arizona, has dropped so low that there’s fear that turbines at Hoover Dam won’t have enough water to keep spinning and generating hydroelectric power for millions of people…

Throughout the seminar sessions Friday, upper-basin managers said lower-basin states need to take the lead in the water savings. Asked why the upper basin wouldn’t put out a plan first to get the entire river system closer to a solution, Mueller with the Colorado River Water Conservation District said in the interview with CPR News that the state of Colorado is working on specific conservation plans but doesn’t intend to release them until the lower-basin states act…Meanwhile, lower-basin water managers attending the Friday conference stressed the water savings they have made in the past and asked that states like Colorado stop waiting for the lower-basin to act.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

Click the link to read “Cutting river usage: Is first move up to Lower Basin?” on the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website (Dennis Webb). Here’s an excerpt:

Andy Mueller, general manager of western Colorado’s Colorado River District, said at the annual water seminar that his entity puts on that everyone in the basin needs to come to the table with solutions for reducing usage. But before that can occur, he said the federal Bureau of Reclamation needs to address the fact that the way river water is currently divvied up between Upper and Lower Basin states doesn’t account for evaporation and transit loss in the Lower Basin that amounts to 1.2 million acre-feet a year.

“The key here is getting the accounting fixed and then recognizing that we all have an obligation to participate (in conservation measures) as well,” Mueller said.

He warned that alternatively the river district may consider pursuing litigation to make that fix happen.

Friday’s event at Colorado Mesa University comes as the Colorado River Compact that divvies up river water between the Upper and Lower basins turns 100 years old this year. Drought and a warming climate have reduced precipitation and streamflows in the basin during the last 20 or so years that the compact has been in effect. While it allocated 7.5 million acre-feet a year to each of the basins, the watershed doesn’t produce that volume of water. Water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at less than a quarter of what they can hold, which is threatening their ability to produce hydroelectric power and raising the prospect of them reaching “deadpool” and being no longer functional.

While overall demand on the Colorado River trended upward from 1970 to the late 1990s, it plateaued when the region entered the current megadrought. Although this data only goes to 2010, the plateau has pretty much held. But at over 14 MAF per year, demand is significantly higher than what the river has supplied most years. Note that more water is lost to reservoir evaporation than is sent to Mexico. Source: USBR Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study.

The Lower Basin has been using more water than allocated to it under the 1922 compact, and the Upper Basin, far less than its share. In addition, Mueller said, evaporation of water in federal Upper Basin reservoirs such as Powell, Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa gets attributed to the usage by the Upper Basin, which he said makes sense. But evaporation and transit losses aren’t calculated into Lower Basin usage, which Mueller, an attorney, said is “probably illegal in the context of the river.” He said the Bureau of Reclamation needs to fix that, but doesn’t want to because of the pain it would cause in the Lower Basin and the potential for resulting litigation…

Mueller then added, “I just want to be clear, from my perspective and the river district’s, there very well may be litigation if they don’t fix this problem, from us, because if their threat is to come after our federal projects in the Upper Basin we will defend those projects.”

Already, the Bureau of Reclamation has been making some water releases from Upper Basin federal reservoirs such as Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa to try to shore up levels in Lake Powell.

Arizona Department of #Water Resources Director and Central #Arizona Project General Manager give grim assessment of #ColoradoRiver conditions #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon Dam. Photo credit: USBR

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

Buschatzke and Cooke named Environmental Leaders of the Year

Wednesday’s [September 14, 2022] online presentation of the Arizona Capitol Times’ “Morning Scoop on Water Issues in Arizona” served up an hour-long assessment of how the State’s water supply is faring during the current, epic drought conditions.

Some of the news, like that from Leslie Meyers, the newly appointed Associate General Manager & Chief Water Resources Executive for Salt River Project, included refreshing good news. The in-state SRP water supply is in good shape, she reported.

But, as anticipated, most of the Morning Scoop discussion focused on the strained Colorado River system. The Morning Scoop panelists – including ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke – could report very little that could be considered upbeat.

ADWR Director Buschatzke reported that declines in the system will continue because “we are still using more water than is going into Lake Mead.”

The Director noted, however, that “we have done many good things” in recent years, including the Drought Contingency Plan of 2019the 500+ Plan of 2021 and other conservation measures. “And while they have not stabilized the system, we would have been in much worse shape if we had not done those things.” [ed. emphasis mine]

The situation on the Colorado River system, nevertheless, is dire.

Credit: USBR

“We’re heading into, essentially, a crisis period.”

Without the 2-4 million acre-feet of needed conservation identified by Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June, “we could see as early as 2024 Lake Mead and Lake Powell falling to elevations in which the ability to move water past (Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam) could be compromised.”

Buschatzke made his online comments with an image of the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon behind him.

“If you think about the background of my picture, the Grand Canyon, if you can’t move water past Glen Canyon Dam, you would have no water in the Grand Canyon. Think about what that would mean.”

Credi: USBR

CAP General Manager Cooke gave an assessment of the current capacity of the two big reservoirs – both at a quarter of their capacity with just 13 million acre-feet of storage – a small fraction of the 50 million acre-feet of total capacity.

“We’re about a year away from not being able to move water past those two dams,” said Cooke.

Terry Goddard, chairman of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, welcomed the nearly 300 viewers in front of a virtual background photo of Lake Mead’s notorious “bathtub ring” – a reminder of the crisis enveloping the Colorado River system.

The ring, he noted, “is a grim reminder of how far that lake has fallen in a very short time.”

Credit: USBR

Goddard registered disappointment that the Department of the Interior in mid-August failed to announce actions to protect the river system from potentially catastrophic storage declines in its primary reservoirs. He recalled that, in June, the Bureau of Reclamation had vowed that if the Colorado River States failed to agree to voluntarily conserve between 2-4 million acre-feet, in addition to the already planned cuts, the federal government would act to protect the system.

Goddard observed that when the states failed to find agreement, “something much bigger was supposed to happen” in addition to the announcement of the planned cutbacks. “But it didn’t,” he said. “They blinked.”

Also on the panel, was Joe Gysel, President of the private water-provider, EPCOR USA.

Arizona Capitol Times “Morning Scoop on Water Issues in Arizona” can be found below: 

This is a follow-up to our May Morning Scoop about Water issues in Arizona. In this session we will explore what has changed in the past few months, the current outlook and then dive into some solutions that are being examined. Credit: Arizona Capitol Times

Earlier in September, the Capitol Times announced the recipients of its annual “Leaders of the Year in Public Policy.”

Among those leaders were ADWR Director Buschatzke and CAP General Manager Ted Cooke, who both were cited for their work in environmental matters.

Each year, the Capitol Times recognizes leaders who have contributed to the growth of our state.

According to the Cap Times, “These are the people and groups that hunker down each day to find ways to improve the quality of life of Arizona’s citizens.”

The awardees will be recognized at an awards luncheon at noon. on Sept. 27 at the Phoenix Art Museum. They will also be profiled in a special edition of the Arizona Capitol Times.

Renewable Natural Resources Foundation Round Table: The Challenges of Allocating #ColoradoRiver Water – Hot 20-year #drought and soaring populations #COriver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the article on the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation website (Stephen Yaeger):

Senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University and one of the authors of the National Climate Assessment. Photo credit: Colorado State University Water Institute

Brad Udall, a Senior Water and Climate Research Scientist at Colorado State University, spoke at a virtual meeting of the RNRF Washington Round Table on Public Policy on March 9, 2021. He discussed the imbalance between water supply and demand in the Colorado River basin, how climate change is exacerbating the issue, and the ongoing renegotiation of the river’s management guidelines.

Introduction and Background

The Colorado River basin extends into seven states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California) as well as Mexico, along with the land of 29 Native American tribes. The American portion of the basin represents 8% of the area of the lower 48 states. Altogether, about 40 million people, including the populations of all major cities in the Southwestern U.S., rely on the Colorado for some portion of their water supply. The river is used heavily for municipalities as well as agriculture, with about 4.5 million acres of irrigated land in the basin.

The water supply in the river is often measured by the water levels in its two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. These are the two biggest reservoirs in the U.S. In order to maintain sustainable levels in these two reservoirs over a long time period, withdrawals from the river must equal the supply being provided by the river’s flow. This was the case in 2000, when the combined contents of the reservoirs were over 90% full. Since then, their water level has dwindled to less than 50% due to a “structural deficit” – demand for the river’s water consistently outpacing supply. This is due in large part to the fact that over the past 20 years, the basin has been experiencing its worst drought on record. The flow of the river has decreased from ~14.75 million acre-feet (maf) to ~12.4 maf. Even before the drought began, water demand was high in the basin; since about 1990, it has not reliably reached the ocean.

While the current situation in the watershed is usually described as a drought, a lack of precipitation is really only half the story. Regional temperature increases, exacerbated by climate change, have also had a significant impact on the reduction of water availability. Udall noted that evaporative losses will only become more severe as climate change worsens. The Southwest is already one of the quickest-warming areas of the country, a trend that is expected to continue. The risk of multidecadal droughts will also continue to drastically increase in coming decades. The 2000-2018 period was the second-driest 19-year period in the basin since 800 AD. While this is partially attributed to natural variation, researchers have said that 50% of the decrease in soil moisture can be attributed to anthropogenic climate change. Climate change has turned what would likely be a moderate drought into an extreme, historic drying event. Aridification and heating, along with reduction in precipitation, are causing drastically drying conditions in a river basin that tens of millions of people rely on for their water.

Historical Management of the River

In 1922, to fully allocate use of the river’s water, the basin states agreed to the Colorado River Compact. This agreement still serves as the basis for the Law of the River, which is the set of rules for the river’s allocation and management. In response to the “hot drought” happening since 2000, new modifications to the Law of the River have been necessary to prevent the reservoirs from becoming depleted. The first of these, called the Colorado River Interim Guidelines, went into effect in 2007. These guidelines set out a series of complicated rules for how Lakes Powell and Mead are operated, allowing different quantities of water to be released from them when they are at certain elevations. They constrain use of water when the reservoirs are low. One innovative structure used to accomplish this is “intentionally created surplus,” which allows parties in the lower basin to store their water in a sort of “bank account” in Lake Mead.

Around 2013, it was becoming clear that persistently dry and hot conditions were rendering the 2007 Interim Guidelines insufficient. A new agreement was necessary. As a result, two new “Drought Contingency Plans” (DCPs) for the Upper and Lower Basins were adopted in 2019. Early in 2021, for the first time, drought conditions in the river reached the point where the DCPs’ provisions were activated. Udall noted that these agreements made some progress toward making the river’s use more sustainable but were not a permanent solution.

Future Management of the River

Udall finished his presentation by discussing future prospects for sustainably managing the river in these drying conditions. In 2026, the 2007 Interim Guidelines and DCPs expire. The seven basin states, 29 tribes, Mexico, and the federal government have already begun the multi-year process of renegotiating a new set of guidelines which will be adopted in 2027. The following are some central considerations for a successful new agreement described by Udall.

The Upper Basin’s “Delivery” Obligation

Among the problems that stakeholders are aiming to resolve is the nature of the Upper Basin’s delivery obligations. There is a clause in the original Colorado River Compact that says that the Upper Basin shall not allow the flow of the river to decline below 75 maf every ten running years. However, it is not clear if this obligation is really a “delivery” obligation or if it is a “non-depletion” obligation. If it is a delivery obligation, that means that the entire reduction of flow coming from the Upper Basin due to climate change falls on the Upper Basin to solve. Clearly, this was not the intent of this clause in the original 1922 compact, and the Upper Basin states are making this argument.

Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin/Water Education Colorado

Tribal Issues

Native American tribes are expected to have a much more significant role in the renegotiation of the Interim Guidelines than they have had in previous decision-making processes for management of the river. There are 29 tribes in the basin. Altogether, they have a right to control about 20% of the basin’s water. This right derives from a 1908 Supreme Court decision which issued the “Winters Doctrine.” This doctrine said that when the federal government creates a reservation of land for a tribe, implicit in that reservation is a water right.

However, tribal interests were still left out of the 1922 compact, and many of their rights remain unquantified. Even in the 21st century, the tribes in the basin were not invited to participate in the 2007 Interim Guidelines negotiations or the 2012 Basin Study. The 2019 DCPs were an important development in the inclusion of tribes in river management discussions after their needs and rights had been historically ignored. For the first time, these 29 distinct tribes were acting collectively and were included in the planning process. The DCPs were also the first time that a tribe agreed to accept a monetary payment in exchange for using less than their full water right. Inclusion of tribal interests in the renegotiation of the Interim Guidelines is expected, and will be essential to the new agreement’s success.

The Structural Deficit

Fundamental to the dilemma faced by basin stakeholders in this renegotiation process is the “structural deficit.” This is, quite simply, an imbalance between the supply of and demand for water in the basin. Since 2000, demand has outpaced supply. Demand reductions are challenging because once a water user has access to a supply of water, it is difficult to get them to relinquish it. The supply-side is more challenging to address. In the absence of cooler temperatures and more precipitation ­– conditions increasingly unlikely as climate changes — it is difficult to create more supply. It is easier to change consumption patterns than it is to change the hydrology of the river. Without demand reductions in the Upper and Lower Basins, there is a high probability that the amount of water in the reservoirs will continue to fall.

Udall referenced a recent study that found that the Upper Basin’s water demand is unsustainably high. Despite this finding, parts of the Upper Basin actually want to increase their demand, which in the face of declining flows is an issue that will need to be addressed in the negotiation process. Demand Management measures, by which water users can voluntarily accept money in exchange for reducing their water consumption, will likely be part of the solution in the Upper Basin but caps on demand may also be necessary to ensure that the delivery obligation is fulfilled.

In the Lower Basin, the Central Arizona Project diverts water from the Colorado River into Arizona, providing water for an area including the cities of Phoenix and Tucson. As a part of the original agreement that permitted this project, it was agreed that if there ever was a shortage of water in the basin, Arizona would bear the brunt of demand reductions. Demand reductions will likely be necessary in the Lower Basin but Udall noted that it would be difficult in practice to mandate that they all come from Arizona. Solving this dilemma will be a part of the new Interim Guidelines negotiations. One method that may be used is to begin charging evaporative losses to state water budgets in proportion to their use. Currently, evaporation is being charged to nobody, which is a part of the overuse problem.

Guidelines for Successful Renegotiation

Udall also identified other steps that can be taken by stakeholders to work toward a successful new set of interim guidelines. First, he emphasized the importance of good science. Realistic climate and hydrological modelling are necessary to inform the negotiations. Udall noted that many of the models being used by watershed states are overly optimistic with regard to future hydrology. Beginning the negotiations with inaccurate presumptions about the future of the watershed are setting the new agreement up for failure. While the renegotiation is a political process, it needs to be informed by most accurate scientific information possible.

Because the structural deficit is a basin-wide issue, Udall advocated for the use of a combined metric that adds the quantity of water in Lakes Mead and Powell. This would be a more accurate way to gauge water shortages because the water in the reservoirs individually is less important than the total quantity between them when informing the management of the entire river basin. He also said that using clear language in negotiations is critical. For instance, one should never inaccurately say that the Colorado River Compact itself is being renegotiated. It is only the Interim Guidelines that are being replaced; the Compact remains the foundation for the river’s allocation.

The renegotiation process is more than just a group of stakeholders sitting around a table, working out a plan for the river. It is a series of large and small meetings, some more formal than others. Since not everything is negotiated in official sessions, there is room for behind-the-scenes discussion while also maintaining transparency. During the round table’s Q&A session, Udall mentioned that river management issues under discussion will be reported by many talented journalists, who will bring transparency to the process for interested parties.

Ultimately, the process of renegotiating the Interim Guidelines requires a balancing of political, economic, environmental, and societal values. Climate change is the defining issue of our time, and it is at the center of these water issues in the American West. While one can easily become disillusioned by political processes, especially in the realm of climate and environmental issues, Udall ended on a note of optimism. While the solutions are not all clear, there are good relationships among stakeholders, which will form a solid foundation for successful negotiations.

– Stephen Yaeger, RNRF Program Manager

The PowerPoint Udall used during his presentation can be found here.

In his presentation, Udall referenced a series of studies about the climate and hydrological conditions of the Colorado River. They can be found at the following links:

Increasing influence of air temperature on upper Colorado River streamflow

The twenty‐first century Colorado River hot drought and implications for the future

On the Causes of Declining Colorado River Streamflows

Unprecedented 21st century drought risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains

Large contribution from anthropogenic warming to an emerging North American megadrought

Colorado River flow dwindles as warming-driven loss of reflective snow energizes evaporation

When is Drought not a Drought? Drought, Aridification, and the “New Normal”

Alternative Management Paradigms for the Future of the Colorado and Green Rivers

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

#Water #conservation efforts to thwart #drought delusional — The Boulder City Review #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Alfalfa harvest via the Western Farm Press.

Click the link to read the guest column on the Boulder City Review website (Rod Woodbury). Here’s an excerpt:

Over the last two decades, however, the river has generated average flows of only 12.3 million acre-feet annually, a huge shortfall despite serious municipal conservation and reuse efforts. Southern Nevada has led the way in those laudable efforts. Despite adding 750,000 to our population since 2000, we’ve somehow managed to cut consumptive use by 26 percent due to aggressive conservation and recycling programs. Still, it’s not nearly enough. Global warming and the megadrought are projected to continue, which means river flows and lake levels will keep plummeting without drastic policy changes. We’re now only 90 feet above the “dead pool” level at which Hoover Dam will cease generating electricity.

And it’s no longer alarmist to prophesy that it could happen within our lifetime or even the next decade. That’s why the federal government recently issued its first-ever shortage declarations, reducing Nevada, Arizona and Mexico’s collective allocations by over 700,000 acre-feet annually, then tasking the seven river states to create a collaborative plan cutting an additional 2-4 million acre-feet annually next year.

So, here’s where I get brutally honest, which always seems to get me in big trouble. But I’ll say it anyway. Nevada isn’t the problem. If we were feeling generous, Nevadans could permanently donate back our entire annual allocation and it wouldn’t even make a dent. River flows would still be woefully insufficient to supply current uses and Lake Mead would still be rapidly draining. Of course, just because Nevada isn’t the problem doesn’t mean we can’t be part of the solution. Southern Nevadans should continue our conservation and recycling efforts, even if only to set an example and because it’s the right thing to do. But we need to stop pretending that eliminating more Clark County lawns, reducing the size of more (Las) Vegas golf courses and swimming pools, or even recycling all 1 million gallons of Boulder City’s daily wastewater will somehow solve the systemic river and lake problems. It won’t. Nevada amounts to nothing more than a statistical rounding error in the riverwide problem, and absolutely nothing Nevadans do to better conserve or recycle is going to change that…

Domestic water use also isn’t the problem. Nor are golf courses and resorts. If we completely wiped out the residential populations of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, for instance, drying up millions or acres of turf and water features in the process, the lake would still be dropping.

Let’s be honest. Desert agriculture is the real problem source. It uses approximately 80 percent of the Colorado River’s water to irrigate 15 percent of the nation’s farmland, producing a high percentage of winter fruits and vegetables. In fact, 20 percent of the entire Colorado River system’s output is channeled across the desert to a few wealthy landowners in California’s once-arid but now-productive Imperial Valley. And growers of cattle feed like alfalfa are by far the biggest river water consumers. So, if we really want to solve our Colorado River problem, then desert agriculture either needs to evaporate out of existence like the water it uses or become vastly more efficient. The best way to ensure that happens is to let the market dictate price. Make agriculture, commercial and industrial users pay for every drop they use, sending it to the highest bidders. With the market in control, we’ll be shocked how quickly irrigation ditches get lined with concrete, recycling projects ramp up and the lake start rising again.

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

Concerns about water rise as #ColoradoRiver negotiations continue — The Rocky Mountain Collegian #COriver #aridification

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

Click the link to read the article on the Rocky Mountain Collegian website (Ivy Secrest):

Dry, hot air settles over a small suburb in Fort Collins. The heat pushes residents indoors to crank the air conditioning, and the constant spurt of sprinklers is the only sound breaking the midday silence. This is a common occurrence of exceptional waste that may need to become a scene that only exists in memory, especially for states like Colorado.

Colorado has been experiencing drought conditions on and off for decades. And combating the issue of water scarcity in the region has been a priority for the states that rely on Colorado’s water resources.

“As a headwater state, we’re a really critical location in terms of the different rivers that originate in Colorado,” said Melinda Laituri, professor emeritus in ecosystem science and sustainability at Colorado State University.

One of these rivers is the Colorado River, the sixth-longest river in the country, which serves nearly 40 million people. It’s a critical resource for the Southwest United States and Mexico.

“The lower basin and the southern half of the upper basin had been in drought for 22 years,” said Steven Fassnacht, a snow hydrologist and professor at CSU. 

Governor Clarence J. Morley signing Colorado River compact and South Platte River compact bills, Delph Carpenter standing center. Unidentified photographer. Date 1925. Print from Denver Post. From the CSU Water Archives

 The Colorado River Compact of 1922 has been a focus, as the rights established in the compact are being renegotiated to protect the river. [ed. this statement is not correct, no renegotiation of the Compact is in the works.]

A lot of this water access is dependent on snowpack. From the flow of the Colorado River to ground water resources, snow is integral to water access, and Colorado is simply not getting the amount it used to. 

“From the mid ’30s to the mid ’70s, the snowpack was actually increasing,” Fassnacht said. “And since then, the trend has been a decrease in the snowpack.” 

This is particularly concerning when resources are used to manufacture snow for skiing or water lawns that aren’t beneficial to local ecosystems. The larger ecological impacts Colorado has been facing, like fires and excess use of resources, have to be considered. 

The aftermath of July 2021 floods in Poudre Canyon, west of Fort Collins. (Credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

“If you burn the hillside, then you really increase the likelihood that you’re going to have rainfall causing erosion,” Fassnacht said. “You’ve got a lot of sediment that ends up in the river. Ash is terrible for the water treatment plants.”

Think of what it would mean to have ash in your drinking water or even just damaging water treatment facilities. This reality means the way we interact with water may have to drastically change in order to protect it. 

“We have the expectation that we can go to the tap and turn it on and water will be there,” Laituri said. 

Even using your sprinklers in the middle of the day or overusing natural resources by running your AC all of the time can have serious impacts on water resources and the ecosystems they serve. 

“It comes down to education too because not everyone is a watershed scientist,” said Eric Williams, president of the Watershed Science Club at Colorado State University.

Williams said lawns and developers should concern the public in regard to water use.

“I think if we want to point the finger at something, it should be all of these lawns that we have,” Fassnacht said. “I’m not saying let’s get rid of every last piece of lawn, but let’s be a lot more strategic.” 

This is not a new idea. Nevada has begun to remove lawns, and the City of Fort Collins has an initiative to encourage xeriscaping, the replacement of lawn with local plants that fare better in drought conditions. Participating in these programs and educating yourself, Williams said, are some of the best ways to get involved. However, the average citizen can’t simply stop watering their lawn and expect the drought to no longer exist. 

“I don’t know if this can be really driven at the individual level,” Laituri said. “Yes, it makes us feel good to do things that we feel are contributing. … Will that be enough? It’s the larger water users that are going to have to really come to the table.”

We cannot continue to live in a world wherein wealthy citizens and major celebrities can abuse their water allocations while others go without access to clean water at all. The issue of water scarcity is an elaborate entanglement of social justice and environmental concern, meaning the resource must first be treated like a necessity before it can be allocated for luxury. 

Native American lands where tribes have water rights or potential water rights to Colorado River water. Graphic via Ten Tribes Partnership via Colorado River Water Users Association website.

“There’s 30 federally recognized (Indigenous) tribes across the lower basin that should have access to water, and many other reservations actually don’t have running water,” Laituri said. “Assuring that they have access to that resource is part of this conversation.”

Indigenous groups were not included in the Colorado River Compact, and as some of the most prominent advocates of water rights, they have a lot to contribute to the conversation.

Indigenous groups are not the only population to be considered as water rights are negotiated. Laituri emphasized new populations coming to Fort Collins should be considered. 

Laituri said if we want to conserve water, we need to consider the state’s capacity when developing. We need to consider if we can house more people and if it’s responsible to continue this growth in population. 

While the concerns around the river are complex and still not fully understood, that doesn’t mean action isn’t being taken. And it doesn’t mean there aren’t any solutions. 

“Please be curious,” Williams said. “No question is (a) dumb question.” 

Reach Ivy Secrest at or on Twitter @IvySecrest

#ColoradoRiver ‘stalemate’ continues — The #Gunnison Country Times #COriver #aridifcation

Click the link to read the article on the Gunnison Country Times website (Alan Wartes). Here’s an excerpt:

On Aug. 16, the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) issued a press release restating the urgency of the situation and laying out actions it will take in coming months to protect water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency. 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,” Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said. “The Interior Department is employing prompt and responsive actions and investments to ensure the entire Colorado River Basin can function and support all who rely on it. We are grateful for the hardworking public servants who have dedicated their lives to this work, and who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of Basin states, Tribes, and communities.”

“They said, ‘Well, we appreciate all of the efforts, and here’s what the August 24-month study shows, and here’s what we’re going to do for the next year, which is basically consistent with the 2007 guidelines with a modification,’” Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District General Counsel John McClow said.

That modification from the already existing agreement, McClow said, was to hold 480,000 acre feet of water back in Lake Powell to protect the critical elevation of 3,525 feet, but to treat it as if it went to Lake Mead for the purpose of water accounting.

“So, nothing new,” McClow said. “But they said they were still looking to the states to come up with an answer. Basically, I think it was unrealistic to expect the states to deliver a plan to cut the river use by 2 to 4 million acre feet in 60 days. It just wasn’t feasible.”

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.

The problem remains that aridification in the West has meant significantly less available water in the system over the past 20 years. That is compounded by what some have called a “structural imbalance” in how the water is used between the upper and lower basins. In 2021, for instance, the Lower Basin states consumed over 10 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River, while the Upper Basin states combined consumed 3.5 million acre-feet.

Hedging our #water bets — @BigPivots

Las Vegas Lake Mead intake schematic, courtesy SNWA.

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

Las Vegas in 2007 bet on declining reservoir levels in the Colorado River. The bet is now paying off. Municipal water providers in Colorado have started tightening the spigot for landscaping. That move is also wise — but overdue?

Lake Mead’s receding waters have exposed sunken boats, dead bodies and more. But the wisdom of a bet placed in 2005 by Las Vegas has also been revealed.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority draws 90% of its water for a population of 2.3 million from Lake Mead. It had two intake pipes, one higher and one lower in the reservoir.  Reservoir levels have dropped precipitously since 2002 when the Colorado River delivered just 3.8 million acre-feet of flows. The 1922 compact among Colorado and the seven other basin states assumes more than 20 million in annual flows.

Las Vegas bored a third tunnel, this one coming up from the bottom of the reservoir. The far-sightedness of that and other investments totaling $1.3 billion was revealed in April when reservoir levels dipped below what was needed for the highest intake pipe. Depending upon the Colorado River, Las Vegas had wisely hedged its bet.

The front of the Steamboat Springs municipal building has been xeriscaped to consume less water. Top photo, Lake Mead floats boats below the now-infamous bathtub ring in December 2021. Photos/+Allen Best

Drought combined with the aridification produced by warming temperatures have upset the cart in the Colorado River Basin. Apples are rolling everywhere. The easy, visual way of telling that story is of the widening bathtub rings in the giant reservoirs of the Colorado River. Mead and Powell are respectively 73% and 74% empty.

But the most important story will be in how demand gets cut in Colorado and the six other basin states. The onus is on California, Arizona, and Nevada —particularly California, which for years into the drought to slurp too generously given the emerging climate realities.

Colorado and other upper basin states have lived within their compact-apportioned means. But here, too, changes are underway, because the water just is not there. Farms and ranches, which still consume upward 85% of water in Colorado, will have to be part of the story. So will the still- growing towns and cities.

Changes can be seen most prominently in those places on the edge, including Denver’s fast-growing suburbs of Aurora and Castle Rock. They’re redefining acceptable landscapes in the semi-arid West. Sprawling lawns resembling those of the rain-soaked eastern states are on their way out.

In Aurora, Colorado’s third largest city at nearly 400,000 residents, the city council last week approved regulations sharply limiting turf grasses on golf courses and new homes. Residential lots will be limited to 45% or 500 square feet of the yard, whichever is less, for grass. Within that limit are other limits. No more Kentucky blue-grass. Other varieties use less water

Elected officials in Castle Rock, a city of 80,000 people that expects to fully fill out its britches at 142,000 people, in early September review similar regulations. “Coloradoscape” is what Castle Rock calls its recommended landscapes. For homes, 500 square feet is tiny, smaller than some bedrooms. For new yards, it will be the max. Mark Marlow, director of Castle Rock Water, says city leaders began meeting with stakeholders, including homebuilders, in November.

Marina at Lake Mead. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Facing ‘dead pool’ risk, #California braces for painful #water cuts from #ColoradoRiver — The Los Angeles Times #COriver #aridification #LakeMead #LakePowell

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.

Click the link to read the article on The Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Click through for the photo gallery, here’s an excerpt:

Managers of districts that rely on the Colorado River have been talking about how much water they may forgo. So far, they haven’t publicly revealed how much they may commit to shore up the declining levels of Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir.But state and local water officials say there is widespread agreement on the need to reduce water use next year to address the shortfall. Without major reductions, the latest federal projections show growing risks of Lake Mead and Lake Powell approaching “dead pool” levels, where water would no longer pass downstream through the dams. Though the states haven’t agreed on how to meet federal officials’ goal of drastically reducing the annual water take by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, the looming risks of near-empty reservoirs are prompting more talks among those who lead water agencies…

Though [Tanya] Trujillo and [Camille] Touton have stressed their interest in collaborating on solutions, they have also laid out plans that could bring additional federal leverage to bear. Their plan to reexamine and possibly redefine what constitutes “beneficial use” of water in the three Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — could open an avenue to a critical look at how water is used in farming areas and cities. How the government might wield that authority, or tighten requirements on water use, hasn’t been spelled out. The prospect of some type of federal intervention, though, has become one more factor pushing the states to deliver plans to take less from the river…

Because most water rights fall under state law, developing a new definition of “beneficial” would be complicated and could lead to lawsuits, Larson said. What might qualify as “waste” would also be hard to pin down, he said, because “one person’s waste is another person’s job.”


Arizona and Nevada are calling for a look at “wasteful” water use as a way of prodding large California agencies like the Imperial Irrigation District to agree to substantial cutbacks, [Rhett] Larson said. It’s an indirect way, he said, for the two states to send a message that “California, your agriculture needs to be more efficient.”

The #ColoradoRiver’s alfalfa problem: Growing less hay is the only way to keep the river’s #water system from collapsing — @HighCountryNews #COriver #aridification

A hayfield near Grand Junction, irrigated with water from the Colorado River. Under demand management pilot programs, the state could pay irrigators to fallow fields in an effort to leave more water in the river. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the High Country News website (Jonathan Thompson):

The West has an alfalfa problem.

It’s time for hay farmers to come to the Colorado River water-conservation table  

In June, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told the Colorado River Basin states that they needed to reduce water consumption by 2-to-4 million acre-feet — or as much as 30% of the seven states’ total use — to save the system from collapsing. It was an enormous ask, unprecedented in scope, and probably the first time a Reclamation official’s words ever went viral.

A few weeks later, I stood on a dusty trail in Page, Arizona, looking out at Glen Canyon Dam and wondering whether such huge cuts were even possible, without, say, shutting off every irrigation canal into California. And how could the states possibly manage such a huge reduction while also fulfilling their legal obligation to deliver an equally large amount of additional water to the 30 tribes in the Colorado River Basin?

Part of the answer lay right in front of me: The trail I was hiking followed the edge of the local golf course, an emerald green carpet on the parched red earth. I wondered how much water you could save by cutting off every golf course in the West. Then I started ticking off other water-saving measures

– Tear up the turf lawns;

– Shut down water-guzzling coal power plants;

– Drain private swimming pools, and ban new ones;

– Shut off those Las Vegas fountains*;

– Halt new housing growth;

– Make water recycling the norm;

– Plug the leaks in water-distribution systems;

– Ban water-guzzling data centers in arid areas;

– Structure water rates in a way that discourages waste;

And put water-flow restrictors on LA-area celebrities’ homes to keep them from wasting water.

Surely that would do it. Especially the last item, given that Kim Kardashian was just busted for using 232,000 gallons more than she was supposed to — and doing so in just one month. (Sylvester Stallone was equally guilty.) But when I sat down to tally up the savings all this added up to, I still came up short. Way short.

459 acre-feet
Average annual water used to irrigate a golf course in the Southwest, according to the U.S. Golf Association. (1 acre-foot = 325,851 gallons)

Number of golf courses in Arizona, according to Golf Arizona

145 million gallons
Daily consumptive water use of power plants in Colorado River Basin states, which amounts to about 162,000 acre-feet per year. 

Now, 2 million acre-feet is a huge amount of water: enough to fill more than 1 million Olympic-size swimming pools. To get to Touton’s upper goal, you’d need to drain 2.2 million monster-sized pools. Hell, you could shut off every water tap in Las Vegas, and you’d still come up 2-million-swimming-pools’-worth short — or about 1 trillion gallons. In fact, you could halt all municipal water consumption in the Colorado River Basin — dry out Phoenix and Tucson lawns, deprive Los Angeles and Denver of showers and toilet flushing — and it still wouldn’t be quite enough.

“There’s not 2 million acre-feet of municipal use within the Lower Basin (Nevada, California and Arizona) and probably just above that if you look basin-wide,” said Colby Pellegrino, a deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in an executive roundtable in August. “To think this problem can just be solved by cities just is wrong,” she continued. “Agriculture has to step up to the table.” 

But I come from a long line of western Colorado farmers, and my instinctive reaction to this kind of talk is: Them’s fighting words! We Upper Basin folks learn early on about “first in time, first in right,” and that if you don’t put all of your allotted water on your fields, it’ll run downstream to overflow Las Vegas’ lavish fountains, the swimming pools of Phoenix and Hollywood celebrities’ private forests. The notion of “buying and drying” farms so the cities can keep growing is anathema. 

2.6 million acre-feet
Amount of Colorado River water California’s Imperial Irrigation District is expected to consume this year, most of which goes to agriculture. 

244,635 acre-feet
Amount of Colorado River water Nevada is expected to consume this year. That’s less than half the amount of water that evaporates off of Lake Mead each year. 

Portion of Utah’s Colorado River use consumed by agriculture in 2018.

But once I calmed down, I realized that Pelligrino has a point. See, if you want to cut water consumption, you have to tackle the biggest water users. And the biggest user of Colorado River water, by far, is not lawns, not Vegas golf courses (mostly irrigated by recycled wastewater), not the Bellagio fountain, not even Kardashian or Stallone. It’s agriculture, which historically has accounted for up to 80% of all consumptive water use in the Colorado River Basin. Not only do crops need more water than houses, but in most cases, farmers have senior rights to the bulk of the water. And of all the crops grown in the region, alfalfa and hay fields collectively are the thirstiest. 

That’s not just because alfalfa uses a lot of water, though it does — about 1.5 million gallons per acre per year, rivaled only for thirstiness by almonds and pistachios. It’s also because so much of the West’s agricultural land is devoted to growing alfalfa. Colorado, Utah and Arizona farmers irrigated about 4.1 million acres of crops in 2017, and nearly half of those acres were in alfalfa. The Colorado River Basin’s largest single water consumer is the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California, which draws some 2.6 million acre-feet from the river each year, nearly all of which goes to crops. About one-third of the district’s irrigated acreage is devoted to alfalfa, which annually consumes at least 400,000-acre feet of Colorado River water — more than Nevada’s entire allotment. 

3 to 6 acre-feet
Amount of water needed annually to irrigate an acre of alfalfa. The amount is greater in hotter, drier climates. 

3 million
Acres of irrigated agricultural land in Western states (including the Colorado River Basin) planted with alfalfa grown for forage (hay), grazing or seed in 2022. 

$880 million
Value of hay shipped overseas last year from Colorado River Basin states, most of which went to China, Japan and Saudi Arabia.

If the Rocky Mountains’ winter snowpack is like a huge reservoir that feeds the Colorado River system, then the alfalfa fields stretching from western Colorado to Southern California comprise a sort of anti-reservoir, sucking up a good portion of the water in order to feed beef and dairy cattle in the U.S., China, even Saudi Arabia. If you were to stop filling up the alfalfa anti-reservoir, or fallow all of the alfalfa fields in the Colorado River Basin, you’d come up with Touton’s desired cuts and then some fairly quickly. It’s simple math. 

Which is not to say doing so would be pretty, painless, politically palatable or even possible. Buying and drying up small farms en masse would threaten rural economies and cultures. Many farmers grow alfalfa or other hay as a side crop — it’s reliable, relatively easy to care for, provides multiple harvests during the long growing season and gains value during drought. If farmers were forced to get rid of their hay, their operations might no longer be viable, and the cost of beef and dairy products would certainly go up. Gone would be the experience of rolling down the windows on a summer’s eve and inhaling the poignant aroma of a freshly cut field. Gone the bucolic sight of the long sunset shadows cast by the bales — all replaced by patches of dusty, noxious-weed-breeding ground or yet more residential sprawl.

Most of us can probably agree that farms should not be dried to allow cities to grow heedlessly, or to allow urban folks to water big lawns or enable Kim Kardashian to do whatever the heck she does with all that water. In the past, Phoenix’s sprawl has gobbled up citrus groves and cotton fields, and Colorado’s Front Range cities have bought and fallowed distant farms to accommodate houses and lawns. That, too, must stop. The goal here is not to transfer the water from farms to cities, but from farms and cities back to the river itself — or, rather, to the rivers, plural. The Klamath River in southern Oregon and Northern California is in crisis as well, and the Great Salt Lake is rapidly shrinking. Alfalfa fields are a primary culprit in both cases.

So, banning alfalfa is not the answer. But piping Mississippi River water over the Rockies or building billion-dollar, energy-intensive desalination plants to enable farmers to continue dumping water on hundreds of thousands of acres of cattle fodder is simply insane. It’s time for agriculture, and especially Big Alfalfa, to step up and give up a portion of its water either by becoming more efficient, switching to less water-intensive crops or fallowing more fields. The growers will be compensated: Congress just authorized $4 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act for that very purpose.

Industrial-scale farmers are currently growing and irrigating some 85,000 acres of alfalfa in California’s Imperial Valley. Cover all of that land with solar panels instead, and you’d save desert land from industrialization, generate enough power to replace Glen Canyon Dam’s hydroelectricity output several times over — and maybe even stave off the Colorado River’s collapse. 

Additional #water cuts could be coming to Yuma, #AZ farmers, threatening supply of leafy greens — Fresh Plaza #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A field of produce destined for grocery stores is irrigated near Yuma, Ariz., a few days before Christmas 2015. Photo/Allen Best – See more at:

Click the link to read the article on the Arizona’s Family website (Briana Whitney). Here’s an excerpt:

The water cuts made by the Bureau of Reclamation to the Colorado River that will affect Pinal County farmers will not affect Yuma farmers. Still, the bureau said there needs to be millions more cuts to the water, and Yuma farmers may take the brunt of it. The big picture problem: Yuma provides 90% of the nation’s leafy greens like lettuce and spinach during the winter months, and now that could be at risk. Anybody who’s driven from the desert of the Valley to the San Diego beaches passes through the stretch of agricultural land along Interstate 8: Yuma, Arizona. “It is a climate that isn’t really replicated anywhere else in the world in terms of how we can grow and how long we can grow and what we can grow,” said Chelsea McGuire, Director of Government Relations with the Arizona Farm Bureau…

This month the Bureau of Reclamation announced Colorado River water cuts to farms in Arizona amid the drought. That didn’t affect Yuma farms, but something else could. “That’s not kind of where the bureau stopped. They said earlier before they announced the Tier 2A that we’re going to need an additional 2-4 million acre feet to stay in the river to avoid a crash, a catastrophic situation,” McGuire said. McGuire said the Yuma farmers came up with a plan for the Bureau of Reclamation — their farmers are willing to take a one-acre foot of water less per acre. That would total about 925,000-acre-feet in water cuts, a significant chunk but well below that 2-4 million number set by the bureau.

“They’ve basically come to the determination that that’s as much as they can take and still stay in business and keep producing,” McGuire said.

So, all these numbers, what does that mean for you at the grocery store? “The most basic consequence is that we’re going to see significant decreases in availability and significant increases in price,” McGuire said. “We can buy romaine lettuce any time of year in the stores, it’s grown in different places, but we can access it. That may not be the case anymore.”

Feds: #ColoradoRiver’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir able only to deliver two more emergency #water releases — @WaterEdCO #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification

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

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

Utah’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which Colorado River officials have used twice during the past two years to add water to the rapidly deteriorating river system, likely only has enough water left for two more emergency releases, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Last summer, Reclamation ordered the release of 125,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge to help keep Lake Powell from falling too low to produce power. Then, earlier this summer, Reclamation announced that it would release another 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge and hold back 480,000 acre-feet in Powell instead of releasing it to Lake Mead, as it would normally do.

Another 30,000 acre-feet was released from Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir last summer, which along with Flaming Gorge, New Mexico’s Navajo, and Powell itself, was supposed to act as a critical savings account for the river system.

The Colorado River Basin, which is divided into two regions, includes seven states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming make up the Upper Basin, while Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the Lower Basin. Lake Powell serves as the largest water bank for the Upper Basin, while Lake Mead holds water for the Lower Basin states.

Colorado River Basin. Credit: Chas Chamberlin/Water Education Colorado

But as drought and climate change continue to sap the Colorado River, even the water in the Upper Basin’s high elevation storage ponds, namely Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo, isn’t enough to protect the larger system, and those kinds of releases can’t go on indefinitely, said Jim Prairie, a hydrologic engineer with Reclamation.

“We could release from Flaming Gorge maybe two more times,” Prairie said at a conference convened by the Colorado Water Congress last week.

And Blue Mesa and Navajo, now at less than 50% of capacity themselves, are considered too low to provide much, if any, additional relief.

It is analyses like these that prompted Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June to order the seven basin states to find ways to come up with 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water next year, to inject into the reservoirs to keep them full enough to generate hydropower and supply water.

That means determining which water users and states are going to cut back use.

Tensions are rising as the federal government and the states continue to fail in their efforts to develop a concrete plan that will cut water use enough to come up with that 2 million to 4 million acre-feet.

“If we failed at anything in the [drought contingency planning done in 2019] it is that our vision was insufficiently dark,” said Wayne Pullan, director of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Region.

As the freefall on the river continues, veteran federal hydrologists and engineers at Reclamation are scrambling to come up with new ways to forecast what is going to happen, using, among other tools, a stress test that is based on recent observed inflows, rather than models.

Hydrologists are also using data that excludes measurements from extremely wet years back in the 1980s, and focuses instead on the most recent dry periods.

Reclamation estimates that Powell will receive just 6.2 million acre-feet of water from the mountain snows in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico in 2022, using its new forecasting models. That is far below the 9.6 million acre-foot average, a figure based on a 30-year average that includes extremely wet periods.

Right now, Powell stands at 3,533 feet, just 8 feet above the top of a buffer pool that must be maintained to keep the reservoir’s power turbines operating. Lake Mead is similarly low, with an elevation of 1,043.42.

Reclamation expects the reservoirs’ levels to continue dropping next year as well. “This could be where our hydrologies are going to stay,” Prairie said.

But it isn’t only the one-year outlook that is so troubling, Prairie said. It is the wildly varying temperature scenarios, low soil moisture levels, and shrinking snowpacks that are making it difficult to determine the best methods for keeping the giant river system, and Powell and Mead, from crashing.

Ironically, 2022 is shaping up to be slightly wetter than 2021, when inflow was just 3.5 million acre-feet, well below the 6.2 million acre-feet expected for this year.

Urging water users to move quickly to find ways to deliver and keep more water in the system, Prairie said, “Even if we have a good year next year, it is not going to save us.”

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

What must happen to save the #ColoradoRiver, now that the feds aren’t stepping in — #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the column on the website (Joanna Allhands). Here’s an excerpt:

Opinion: If the feds won’t force action, how can the rest of us save a rapidly deteriorating Lake Mead and Lake Powell? These 5 things might help.

How are we supposed to save Lake Mead and Lake Powell now? Eight weeks of negotiations didn’t get us anywhere near the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of additional water conservation that must happen in 2023 to keep the nation’s two largest reservoirs on life support. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees operation of the lakes, declined to offer any additional deadlines for new plans, after the seven states that receive Colorado River water were unable to agree on anything. It also backed away from the threat it made in June of dictating cuts if states couldn’t save enough water. For now, all actions are voluntary. That’s a mistake.

But if these are the cards we’re dealt, what needs to happen now?

1.   No more kicking the can

2.   This requires sacrifice. Say it

3.   Everyone must do their part

4.   Agree to a basic framework

5.   Pressure Reclamation to do its job

I won’t pretend that any of the above will magically lead to a deal. In fact, many folks in the water world think progress is dead until Reclamation makes another credible threat of unilateral action.

But the bureau is doing the opposite.

Every action it outlined last week was either something Reclamation is already doing – such as potentially re-engineering the dams to flow water at lower lake levels – or something that could take months to work out with states voluntarily – like asking the Lower Basin to account for evaporation and system losses, nearly 1.2 million acre-feet of water that we currently pretend doesn’t exist.

Arizona Water Leaders Vow To Work On A System-Wide Agreement To Protect The #ColoradoRiver — The #Arizona Department of #Water Resources #COriver #aridification

Dolores River September 2020. Photo credit: The Water Desk

Click the link to read the post on the Arizona Department of Natural Resources website:

Shortly after the Bureau of Reclamation announced that conditions at Lake Mead had deteriorated to a “Tier 2a” shortage condition, ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke released a statement outlining Arizona’s efforts to help stabilize the troubled Colorado River system.

ADWR and CAP “came to the table prepared to take significant additional reductions beyond those required under the 2007 Guidelines and the Drought Contingency Plan with the expectation that others would need to do likewise, as no one state can do it alone,” the two water leaders wrote on August 16.

Their declaration came in the wake of a stunning statement in June by Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, who said the Colorado River States would need to come up with a plan to leave at least an additional two million acre-feet of water in the system, on top of all other conservation measures already undertaken, by mid-August.

In testimony before a Senate panel on June 14, the Commissioner said that if the Basin States failed to come to agreement within the two-month timeframe, the federal government would “protect the system.”

In their August 16 statement, Buschatzke and Cooke said that over the subsequent two months they had put together an “aggressive proposal” to reach that 2-4 million acre-foot threshold:

“Arizona and Nevada put forward an aggressive proposal that would achieve two million acre-feet of reductions among the Lower Basin and Mexico in 2023 and beyond. That proposal was rejected.”

Director Buschatzke and General Manager Cooke released their statement in the wake of the failure of the seven Colorado River Basin states to provide the Department of the Interior with a united plan to help stabilize Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Noting that Arizona already has left 800,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead in the current year alone, Buschatzke and Cooke concluded that “it is unacceptable for Arizona to continue to carry a disproportionate burden of reductions for the benefit of others who have not contributed.”

At the same time, they reaffirmed Arizona’s commitment “to work toward a comprehensive plan that assures protection of the system through equitable contributions from all water users.”

Director Buschatzke expressed his appreciation for the Commissioner’s commitment to taking action to defend the vital river system:

“By her comments today, the Commissioner has rendered it clear that the powerful impact of a decades-long drought and a changing climate requires us now to do much, much more, and to do it quickly,” he said.

Arizona and others in the Colorado River Basin have conserved substantial volumes of water since 2014. Taken together, those efforts have resulted in an additional 70 feet of elevation at Lake Mead.

On August 16, the Bureau of Reclamation released its August 24-Month Study of anticipated conditions on the river system, which resulted in the first-ever declaration of a “Level 2a Shortage Condition.”

The Bureau projected an elevation of 1,047.61 feet at Lake Mead at the start of the 2023 Water Year. That falls within the Drought Contingency Plan elevation band of 1,045 and 1,050 feet, which stipulates required shortage reductions and water savings contributions for the Lower Basin States and the Republic of Mexico.

For Arizona, a Tier 2a shortage condition means that the State will have to leave a total of 592,000 acre-feet of its 2.8 million acre-foot annual allocation in Lake Mead. That represents an increase of 80,000 acre-feet over the amount that Arizona has left in Lake Mead in 2022 under a Tier 1 condition. 

The 2-4 million acre-foot cuts sought by Commissioner Touton come in addition to the Tier 2a cutbacks, which are the result of long-standing shortage agreements among the Colorado River States – agreements that in the current emergency have proved insufficient to the task of stabilizing the river system.

Business as usual for the #ColoradoRiver — Writers on the Range #COriver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (David Marston):

It seemed inevitable that the dwindling Colorado River would be divvied up by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. On June 14, BuRec gave the seven states in the Colorado River compact just 60 days to find a way to cut their total water usage by up to 4 million acre-feet. No plans emerged.

But surprisingly, BuRec’s August 16 press release imposed no new cuts on states, instead affirming cuts mandated under 2007 and 2019 agreements. Nevada and Mexico took minor losses and Arizona emerged as the first big loser.

BuRec said Arizona must cut 592,000 acre-feet “because of the concession it made back in 1968 to California to get the Central Arizona Project online,” says University of Wyoming law professor Jason Robison. That concession meant the 1.4 million acre-feet capacity of the Central Arizona Project has junior water rights. In a shortage — like now — the Central Arizona Project, except for tribal water rights, could be cut to zero, a blow to cities and agriculture.

Here’s a question the Upper Basin states seem inclined to ask: If the 1922 Colorado River Compact parceling out the river’s water is the law, shouldn’t California face major cuts? After all, California’s huge allotment of 4.4 million acre-feet lately equals the entire consumption of the four Upper Basin states, and its allotment is also junior to almost 1 million acre-feet of tribal water.

Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin/Water Education Colorado

Thanks to a 1931 seven-party agreement, California established a pecking order of priority for each of its water users. Massive districts such as Palo Verde and the Imperial Valley have priority over the Metropolitan Water District, which brings drinking water to 19 million people in Los Angeles and Southern California. The state has a structure, but no plan for serious savings.

For the Upper Basin states, says University of Wyoming Law professor Jason Robison, “It’s more nuanced. But there’s significant federal authority to run those (BuRec) Upper Basin reservoirs,” though none are very large.

Where might other water cuts be found? Colorado’s 1876 constitution ranked municipal water over agriculture, making it tough to dry up cities like Colorado Springs or Aurora, even though their water rights are junior. But residents might see incentives for tearing out lawns, along with programs for water reuse and much higher water rates.

In rural Colorado, there isn’t much water available to conserve. The largest irrigation district in the Upper Basin, the 500,000 acre-feet Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, already took a150,000 acre-feet cut this year because of a light snowpack.

“The runoff just isn’t there,” says General Manager Steve Pope.

Pope, as well as many others in agriculture, views a desert city like Phoenix — which grew on the false promises of reliable water — as an existential threat to farming communities.

“Are we going to water a field that produces some sort of a crop, or do we water a golf course or a median?” asks Pope. “What’s the benefit of a lawn?”

What the federal government can’t touch for now is any Upper Basin irrigation project created before the signing of the Colorado River Compact in 1922. In Colorado, a spreadsheet compiled by the state’s Division of Water Resources tells what projects, by date, risk losing water. Some Western slope irrigators are vulnerable because the water rights they’re using were bought by municipalities only recently, intending them for future growth.

Many Colorado irrigators on private ditches are lucky to have so-called “perfected” rights dating from the late 1800s. To snag water from these irrigators, it’s likely to be all carrot and no stick. But rather than taking payments for not irrigating, says Pope, “we would be more concerned with system efficiency and improvements.”

The Inflation Reduction Act provides $4 billion to Colorado River water users for just this kind of conservation. Meanwhile, Colorado is the only Upper Basin state that seriously tested paying irrigators to fallow their land or reduce irrigation by half. But ceasing to irrigate farms involves risks. After a couple of dry years hay fields can bounce back, landowners report, but anything more than that leaves bare dirt and dust in the air.

For now, BuRec seems to be following its plans and hoping for the best, which means emergency cuts might be drastic. As John Weisheit of Utah-based Living Rivers sees it, BuRec made a mistake when it told the seven Basin states of the Colorado River to find 2 to 4 million acre-feet to do without.

“The cuts,” he says, “should go even deeper, up to 6 million acre-feet. The need is to that point.”

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.

7 states and federal government lack direction on cutbacks from the #ColoradoRiver — National Public Radio #COriver #aridification

Lake Granby and the Front Range Mountains. The snowpack is Colorado’s largest reservoir and total water can only be estimated. Photo credit: The Water Desk

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

…a recent deadline for a plan to conserve an unprecedented amount of water came and went without many specifics from either the states or the federal government on how to achieve the cutbacks…With the deadline now passed, and lingering uncertainty about where those cutbacks will come, some of the region’s leaders are calling for the federal government to take charge. Even though the federal government has yet to deliver on its threat to intervene, it could still happen, [Andy] Mueller said. The call for cuts was clear and came with specifics – 2 to 4 million acre-feet in cuts across the watershed. But the threat of what happens if the states can’t get there remains unclear.

“If you don’t know what that threat is, it’s really hard to be motivated to take action,” Mueller said.

Aversion to federal intervention runs deep along the Colorado River. Some state leaders say the federal government should simply run the dams, and not wade into policy-making. Others doubt the forcefulness of federal authorities to mandate cutbacks, most of which are entirely untested. As the river’s scarcity crisis has deepened in recent years, others in the basin are beginning to crave federal leadership.

“There was a deadline that came. It passed. Nothing happened,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves the Las Vegas metro area. “I think it would be much more effective if the federal government actually, in writing, articulates a plan.”

When it became clear the states were not going to reach an agreement ahead of the deadline, he pleaded with federal officials to take the reins and make hard decisions about where some of the cuts need to come from. This tension between the states and the federal government only works as a motivator when state leaders believe a federal crackdown might really happen, he said.

“The states have never accomplished anything meaningful without a credible federal threat,” Entsminger said.

Vague and voluntary proposals may do little to help #ColoradoRiver — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

John McClow, left, moderates a panel on the Colorado River at the Colorado Water Congress summer conference in Steamboat Springs Thursday. From left: Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and commissioner of the Upper Colorado River Commission; Gene Shawcroft, Colorado River Commission of Utah; Tom Buschatzke, director, Arizona Department of Water Resources. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

No strong action from feds and no agreement among states

Water managers in recent weeks have put forth plans for conservation aimed at addressing the water-scarcity crisis on the Colorado River. But the proposals, which are vague and voluntary and lack goals with numbers, will probably do little to get additional water into the nation’s two largest reservoirs with the urgency officials say is needed.

In June, federal officials said the seven Colorado River basin states had to conserve an additional 2 million to 4 million acre-feet and threatened to take unilateral action if the states didn’t come up with a plan within 60 days.

But the deadline came and went without a basinwide deal or drastic action by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, except to implement the next round of cuts already agreed to by the states in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. As of Friday, there was still no plan from the lower basin states — California, Nevada and Arizona — on which upper basin water managers say the bulk of the responsibility to conserve rests.

Golfers take shots on the green lawns of the City Park Golf Course in central Denver on Sept. 28 2020. Denver Water has signed an MOU to the Bureau of Reclamation committing to reducing water use.CREDIT: LINDSAY FENDT / ASPEN JOURNALISM

Cities say they will reduce

On Wednesday, a group of seven municipal water providers — Aurora Water, Denver Water, Pueblo Water, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Colorado Springs Utilities, Southern Nevada Water Authority and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — sent a letter and memorandum of understanding to the Bureau of Reclamation pledging to be part of the solution by reducing their water consumption. They committed to expand water-efficiency programs and reduce nonfunctional turf grass by 30%.

The move was praised by environmental conservation group Western Resource Advocates as a good first step.

But the MOU does not include a specific amount of water savings from the municipalities. And although some urban water providers in the basin have been using less water in recent years even as their populations grow, it’s unclear if the new commitments will result in them diverting less from the Colorado River.

“They weren’t able to put numbers, they weren’t able to put dates, we don’t know how much they can actually save, but I’m glad they are saying we want to be part of the solution,” said John Berggren, a water policy analyst with WRA.

Berggren said any success of the measures will depend on the scale.

“If all these providers really scaled up their programs … with millions of dollars and dozens of staff, in a year or two, we could see fairly decent savings,” he said.

Even if the municipalities do conserve water, the amount of water they command is relatively small. Agriculture uses about 80% of the Colorado River’s allocation; in the state of Colorado, it’s roughly 86%.

‘We built a house of cards:’ Deal or not, #ColoradoRiver states stare down major cuts — The #Nevada Independent #COriver #aridification

John McClow, Rebecca Mitchell, Gene Shawcroft, Tom Buschatzke at the Colorado Water Congress 2022 Summer Conference.

Click the link to read the article on the Nevada Independent website (Daniel Rothberg). Here’s an excerpt:

The Colorado River remains in an unfolding and worsening crisis. Demand far exceeds supply. Long-term drought, worsened by climate change, has meant less water refilling the river’s large reservoirs as water users have continued to overtap them. Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas, is the grim evidence, where, at 27 percent full, old boats have washed ashore in what can feel like an apocalyptic scene. The math is unavoidable: Without cuts, the reservoir will keep dropping…

Yes, some cuts went into effect for Nevada, Arizona and Mexico. Yet it’s important to note that these cuts were already planned for, accounted for and agreed to in several deals struck over the past 15 years. The cuts are not negligible; Arizona will have its apportionment reduced by 21 percent, and Nevada’s apportionment will be trimmed by 8 percent. Still, the cuts are not nearly enough to stop the rapid decline of reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell...

The reality is that, even with the original deadline passing, there is reason for the states to cut more — and act this year. Without action, Lake Mead will continue to drop, risking a major (and in some places, the only) water supply for users downstream in Arizona, California and Mexico. Only Nevada, with its “third straw,” can take water from Lake Mead if the reservoir drops below what is known as “dead pool,” a threshold at which water cannot pass through Hoover Dam. If the large-scale cuts are deferred any longer, it means more uncertainty for all water users.

No firm new deadline for #ColoradoRiver basin states’ #conservation plans — KUNC #COriver #aridification

This page features images and footage shot with a GoPro camera during a pilot-only Lighthawk flight above Lake Mead and Hoover Dam, along the Colorado River near Las Vegas, Nevada July 29, 2020. Photo credit: The Water Desk

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

The seven states that rely on the river blew past an August 16 deadline without a plan to conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water. They were given that task by officials with the Bureau of Reclamation and from within the Interior Department. The agency’s models show that amount is what is necessary to keep the river’s biggest reservoirs — lakes Mead and Powell — from reaching critical levels.

“Our common deadline is as soon as possible,” said Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, on Thursday. “While we’re working on those shorter term efforts, we’re also at the same time trying to continue working on those longer term strategies.”

Federal officials announced they would be implementing a series of water cutbacks for Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico in 2023. Those cuts were previously agreed to under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan and the 2007 Interim Guidelines.

In a statement, the Bureau of Reclamation said it would be considering “other operational actions to establish flexibility” in the river’s Upper Basin and Lower Basin operations at facilities the agency owns and operates, but didn’t elaborate further on what those actions might be.

The feds declined to seriously cut #ColoradoRiver #water use. Here’s what that means — @HighCountryNews

Graphic credit: Colorado Basin River Forecast Center

Click the link to read the article on the High Country News website (Nick Bowlin):

After Southwestern states failed to cut a deal, the Interior Department took it easy on them.

With drought pummeling the Southwest and the country’s most important reservoirs scraping bottom, the Department of the Interior announced that the seven states that rely on it must reduce the water they pull from the Colorado River next year.

The announced cuts are unprecedented. They are also a small fraction of what the federal government says is needed to keep the Colorado River system from collapsing.

Here’s what you need to know.

It was a messy process to get here. The Colorado River, which stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California in Mexico, provides water for 40 million residents of the Southwest; major cities, including Phoenix and Las Vegas; more than two dozen tribal nations; and some of the most productive, important agricultural fields in the world. The demand far exceeds the supply of a river that has been dwindling for years due to climate change-induced drought.

Farm fields in Arizona, where irrigation pumps are partly powered by Glen Canyon Dam. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

In June, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Interior Department agency that manages water infrastructure in the Western U.S., told the seven states involved — the “Upper Basin” states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the “Lower Basin” states of Arizona, California and Nevada — to cut back substantially on the water they collectively use. Otherwise, the agency warned, it would impose drastic cuts anyway.

However, the states failed to cut a deal. And on Tuesday, Interior Department officials declined to follow through on their threat, leaving a big question mark about how the federal government intends to address an increasingly dire situation.

Yes, there will be some cuts, but those cuts are meager. In a press release, the Interior Department described its response on Tuesday as an “urgent action” to protect the system. But the restrictions it announced were far less severe than what it had threatened in June.

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

Also, these cutbacks were already on the books. All seven states had already agreed to them in a 2019 drought plan, which laid out cuts for the Lower Basin if Lake Mead sank low enough to trigger a “Tier 2” shortage. That happened for the first time ever on Tuesday.

The reductions fall hardest on Arizona, which will lose 592,000 acre-feet in 2023 — 21% of its annual allotment (this figure includes an existing cutback from last year). Nevada will lose about 25,000 acre-feet, and Mexico will lose 104,000 acre-feet, or 7% of its annual portion. But California, another Lower Basin state, will not lose any of its water — for now. It will begin losing water at the next shortage level.

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

By contrast, in June the federal government requested a total of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of cutbacks to ensure safe water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. But with the federal government unwilling to act on its threat, it’s not clear how — or whether — the basin will be able to cut that water use.

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.

Things are bad and will get worse. There’s less water in the basin than ever. The past 20 years have been the Southwest’s driest in 1,200 years, according to an academic paper published earlier this year in Nature Climate Change. This “megadrought,” as scientists call it, has reduced rainfall, diminished snowpack and dried out riverbeds across the region.

Tuesday’s announcement coincided with a regularly released 24-month study on water-level projections for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Both reservoirs are languishing at just over a quarter full — an all-time low.

In a statement, the Interior Department described the conditions as “critically low.” The agency’s own study suggests things will get worse — and do so quickly. By January, Lake Powell is projected to sit just 32 feet above the “minimum power pool,” the level at which Glen Canyon Dam can no longer operate its giant turbines to produce electricity. This spring, the Bureau of Reclamation held back water in Lake Powell that was meant for Lake Mead, in order to prevent this calamity. This will likely happen again, as well as releases from reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell. But such short-term solutions cannot make up for the plain fact of not enough water to go around.

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

Long-standing acrimony between states derailed the negotiations — and could prevent future fixes. There’s a long-standing tension between the Upper and Lower Basin states. The Lower Basin tends to use far more water than its northern partners, notably in the massively productive agricultural sectors of Arizona and Southern California. As a whole, more than 70% of the Colorado River’s water goes to agriculture. The Upper Basin historically has used less than its legal allotment, though several states have suggested they intend to change that.

Well before the federal government’s deadline, there were grim reports of conflict and negotiating stalemates among the states and other stakeholders. A Los Angeles Times dispatch described the process as “tense and acrimonious.”

Finger-pointing has ensued. In a terse letter released on Monday, John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, criticized the negotiating process. “Despite the obvious urgency of the situation, the last sixty-two days produced exactly nothing in terms of meaningful collective action to help forestall the looming crisis. … Through our collective inaction, the federal government, the basin states and every water user on the Colorado River is complicit in allowing the situation to reach this point.”

On Tuesday, federal officials encouraged more talks. But will their outcome be any different?

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

The laws and policies that govern the Colorado River have systematically excluded the basin’s 30 sovereign tribal nations. This exclusion has been a persistent fact dating back to the original Colorado River Compact of 1922.

Tribal governments in the Southwest hold the rights to between 22% and 26% of Colorado River water each year, according to a 2021 policy paper from the University of Colorado Boulder law school. Several tribes have ongoing water-right disputes, which, if resolved in their favor, would increase that figure.

Many tribes do not take their full annual allotment owing to insufficient infrastructure and funding, the paper noted.

The recent cuts come as the basin is renegotiating the laws that govern the river. The current set expires in 2026. The outcome of these negotiations — made more difficult by river’s dwindling flow — will determine who gets water and how much of it for years to come.

Colorado River Basin tribal governments have long sought to be recognized as equal partners in this process, but the negotiations over Tuesday’s cutbacks suggest that problems persist. In a letter to the Interior Department in late July, a coalition of 14 tribes said that they were “largely in the dark about what is being discussed” regarding the cutbacks.

“There has been no meaningful discussion with Basin Tribes,” the letter declared. “We should not have to remind you — but we will again — that as our trustee, you must protect our rights, our assets, and people.”

Nick Bowlin is a correspondent at High Country News. Email him at

Colorado River crisis continues — @Land_Desk #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #conservation

Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, January 2022. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

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

THE NEWS: “Today [August 16, 2022] is a very important day for the Colorado River Basin. We are facing unprecedented challenges.” So said Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the Interior Department, at an Aug. 16 press conference, setting the stage for the federal government to dive in and mandate drastic water use cuts to stem a crisis on the Colorado River. Instead, Interior Department officials merely dipped their toes into the diminishing waters, which is my weak, metaphorical way of saying that they stopped well short of making the draconian cuts, even though the states blew by a deadline to do it themselves.

Graphic credit: The Land Desk

THE CONTEXT: On Nov. 9, 1922, the seven Colorado River Basin states (without any input from the dozens of tribal nations in the Basin) signed onto the Colorado River Compact, which divvied up the river’s waters between the Lower Basin (Arizona, California, Nevada) and the Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico). At the time the signers believed an average of 16.4 million acre feet (maf) of water flowed through the river naturally each year, giving 15 maf for the states to divide up (the extra would go to Mexico).

The Upper Basin states would allow an average of 7.5 maf per year (75 maf every ten years) to flow to the Lower Basin, theoretically allowing the Upper Basin states collectively to withdraw the same amount. The Upper Basin divided their share up by percentages, with Colorado getting the most (51.75% or 3.9 maf), New Mexico getting the least (11%, or 840,000 acre feet), and the others falling in between. Down south California got 4.4 maf; Arizona 2.8 maf; and Nevada 300,000 acre feet.

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

Although the 30 tribal nations in the Basin were not included in negotiations, the Compact does specify that the agreement does not affect the substantial tribal water rights recognized by the 1908 Winters v. United States Supreme Court decision. That means the tribes’ share of the water would come from the states’ portions.

Over time it became more and more clear that there wasn’t nearly as much water in the river as folks previously believed. Sure, during good years (the 1980s), there could be as much as 25 million acre feet flowing into Lake Powell. But the next year flows might plummet to 10 maf. At first this wasn’t a problem. The reservoirs, acting like big, murky savings accounts, were doing their job. During good years the river deposited water into the accounts and built up enough savings to get the states through several bad years, when the states could draw down their savings, allowing the Upper Basin States to pull out their allotted amount while still sending 7.5 maf downstream.

But there was a problem—two of them, really. First, the river started shrinking. In 1999 the Colorado River Basin entered the driest 23 year period on record, with the dry years getting dryer and outnumbering the wet years, which weren’t as wet as they once were. Yet the collective users of the water didn’t curb consumption during lean years. Instead, they actually used more water—far more than the skies and the river delivered, thereby depleting the savings accounts known as Lakes Powell and Mead.

Lake Powell now is only 27% full (and dropping), the Basin’s storage system is at 34% of capacity, and both Lake Powell and Lake Mead are in danger of losing hydropower production capacity—which leads to all sorts of other problems—in the next couple of years if conditions don’t improve or the users don’t make substantial cutbacks. Last year a Tier 1 shortage was declared, requiring Arizona to cut its Colorado River withdrawals by just over 500,000 acre feet, and water managers took additional measures to prop up Lake Powell. That wasn’t enough.

That’s why, on June 14, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called on the Colorado River Basin states to come up with 2 to 4 million acre feet in additional cuts within 60 days—or else. The deadline came and went days ago, and the states reportedly are nowhere near the necessary targets. Utah hasn’t even withdrawn its proposal to suck additional water out of the system via the proposed Lake Powell pipeline.

“… the last sixty-two days produced exactly nothing in terms of meaningful collective action to forestall the looming crisis,” wrote the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s John Entsminger in a strongly worded letter to the Interior Department. “The magnitude of the problem is so large that every single water user in every single sector must contribute solutions to this problem regardless of the priority system.” Entsminger essentially begged the feds to step in and turn off some taps. (Read the whole letter by clicking the tweet below).

But if that was the sort of decisive action that some observers expected and hoped for in [August 16, 2022’s] press conference, they went away disappointed. The Interior Department promised “urgent action” yesterday. But when reporters asked the officials whether or not they were actually mandating cuts, Touton said they were “starting the process” and emphasized the need for a “consensus solution,” but remained vague as to what any of that means.

That’s not to say the feds are doing nothing. They will implement Tier 2a restrictions on the Lower Basin states, meaning Arizona will have to cut withdrawals by an additional 80,000 acre feet (they are already down 512,000 af under Tier 1 cutbacks1) and Nevada by 25,000 acre feet. Of course, that’s not anywhere near the 2 million to 4 million that’s needed. Also, the Bureau of Reclamation will continue to limit releases from Glen Canyon Dam to 7 maf (rather than the previous 7.5 maf) and will probably release more water from upstream reservoirs to shore up Lake Powell’s water levels.

Meanwhile, they will continue to work with the states and tribes to come up with a solution. Time’s running out. “Without prompt, responsive actions,” Trujillo said, “the Colorado River will face a future of uncertainty and conflict.”

Note that this graph is only for the Upper Basin consumptive use and losses.

For more data on consumption see this post from The Land Desk

Among those who will be disappointed in the lack of drastic cuts on the Colorado will be … Powellheadz? Yeah, the Lake Powell fan club (the best description of Powellheadz I could come up with) teamed up with the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a motorized off-road advocacy group, to call on all seven Colorado Basin states to significantly reduce withdrawals beginning next year. The goal? Refill Lake Powell (and Mead) to improve recreation. Seriously.

I guess you could say this is the antithesis to the Drain Lake Powell/Fill Mead First movement. Last week the groups released their policy proposal entitled, “Fill Lake Powell: The path to 3,588.” That number refers to the minimum surface level of the reservoir at which most boat ramps are usable and recreation is prime. That would mean raising the surface of the reservoir about 55 feet from the current level. To get there, the report finds, would require cutting water consumption by about 4 million acre feet per year, beginning ASAP.

Hmmm… Well. Okay. So, the states can’t even seem to come up with 1 million acre feet to cut in order to keep the entire Colorado River system from collapse, but they’re going to come up with 4 million acre feet so that folks can put their motorboats in the lake? Good luck with that!

NOTE: Arizona’s the biggest loser during shortages thanks to the Colorado River Basin Project Act of 1968. Congress agreed to pay for the Central Arizona Project, which carries water from the Colorado River across the desert to Phoenix and Tucson. In exchange, Arizona agreed to subordinate its water rights to California’s in times of shortage.

New water cuts announced by feds after #ColoradoRiver Basin states miss deadline for agreement — #Colorado Newsline #COriver #aridification

Credit: The Congressional Research Service

by Chase Woodruff, Colorado Newsline
August 17, 2022

Federal officials on Tuesday moved to implement a series of emergency cuts to water use in the Colorado River Basin, after seven Western states missed a deadline to come up with a plan to do it on their own.

The cuts announced by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation include reductions in annual releases from Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, where water levels have been dropping precipitously amid a severe, 23-year-long “megadrought” driven by climate change. To prevent levels from dropping further, water allotments from Lake Mead to Arizona, Nevada and the country of Mexico will be reduced between 7% and 21% for 2023.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which is overseen by the Department of the Interior, said it “will continue to seek consensus support” among water users in the seven Colorado River Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona and California — for substantial further cuts to offset projected shortages.



“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency,” Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, said in a 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.”

Lake Mead is on the border of Nevada and Arizona. The Colorado River headwaters are located in Colorado.

In June, Bureau of Reclamation officials gave states a 60-day deadline to commit to cuts for 2023 before the federal government stepped in. The four “Upper Basin” states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — responded last month with a five-point plan that did not include any mandatory cuts, maintaining instead that the bulk of reductions should come from the Lower Basin, which uses nearly twice the amount of water as the Upper Basin.

Certain Upper Basin interests are holding the Bureau of Reclamation hostage at this point.

– Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network

Last-minute negotiations reportedly held in Denver last week failed to produce a broader agreement between Upper and Lower Basin states.

While facing the urgent need for short-term cuts, the seven states are also engaged in high-stakes negotiations over the future of the 100-year-old Colorado River Compact ahead of the 2026 expiration of its current Drought Contingency Plan. Forty million people in the Western U.S. rely on water supplies from the Colorado River, where flows have been diminished significantly by a climate-driven megadrought that scientists say is more severe than any dry spell the region has experienced in at least 1,200 years.

Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said in a statement Tuesday that the Upper Basin states had “met the moment” with their plan, which centers on voluntary pilot projects aimed at improving water conservation.

“Our focus now turns to implementation, including additional conservation efforts to maximize efficiency in all sectors,” Mitchell said. “However, this plan is ineffective without action in the Lower Basin. This will require leadership from the Department of the Interior through the Bureau of Reclamation, and bold action across the Basin.”

In a press release, however, the conservation group Utah Rivers Council faulted the Upper Basin states for failing to commit to reductions, calling their plan “a nothingburger letter designed to evoke the appearance of cutting water, while actually cutting no water whatsoever.”

“Certain Upper Basin interests are holding the Bureau of Reclamation hostage at this point,” Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said in a statement. “They have called the Bureau’s bluff time and again. Nothing has changed with today’s news — except for the fact that the Colorado River system keeps crashing.”



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

Upper Colorado River Commissioner (Rebecca Mitchell) Statement on Sustaining Colorado River Basin System — CWCB #COriver #aridifcation

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

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Sara Leonard):

The Bureau of Reclamation released its Colorado River Basin August 2022 24-Month Study, which sets annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both of which have reached critically low levels. Below is a statement from Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell:

“The Colorado River Basin is facing unprecedented challenges, and the 40 million people who rely on this critical resource are depending on the Basin states and federal government to develop inclusive, sustainable solutions that protect the system and its infrastructure now and into the future. I am proud to say that the Upper Division States are meeting the moment with our 5 Point Plan, and our focus now turns to implementation, including additional conservation efforts to maximize efficiency in all sectors. However, this plan is ineffective without action in the Lower Basin. This will require leadership from the U.S. Department of the Interior through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and bold action across the Basin. Downstream of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, depletions must come into balance with available supply. Colorado stands ready to work with our partners in the Lower Basin, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior as they make the difficult decisions that are necessary to sustain the system.”

FEDS: #Drought-stricken #Arizona, #Nevada to get less from #ColoradoRiver — The #Aurora Sentinel #COriver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the article from the Associated Press via tje Aurora Sentinel website (Suman Naishadham and Sam Metz). Here’s an excerpt:

For the second year in a row, Arizona and Nevada will face cuts in the amount of water they can draw from the Colorado River as the West endures an extreme drought, federal officials announced Tuesday…That’s not all. In addition to those already-agreed-to cuts, the Bureau of Reclamation said Tuesday that states had missed a deadline to propose at least 15% more cuts needed to keep water levels at the river’s storage reservoirs from dropping even more. For example, officials have predicted that water levels at Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, will plummet further. The lake is currently less than a quarter full.

“The states collectively have not identified and adopted specific actions of sufficient magnitude that would stabilize the system,” Touton said.

After putting last year’s burden on the agricultural industry, Arizona officials will have to decide whether to spread additional pain to growing cities that rely on the river. The cuts are not expected to have a tangible effect on Nevada, which has already implemented the region’s most aggressive conservation policies, including grass bans and rebate programs…

Under Tuesday’s reductions, Arizona will lose slightly more water than it did this year, when 18% of its supply was cut. In 2023, it will lose an additional 3%, an aggregate 21% reduction from its initial allocation. Mexico will lose 7% of the 1.5 million acre-feet it receives each year from the river. Last year, it lost about 5%. The water is a lifeline for northern desert cities including Tijuana and a large farm industry in the Mexicali Valley, just south of the border from California’s Imperial Valley. Nevada also will lose water — about 8% of its supply — but most residents will not feel the effects because the state recycles the majority of its water used indoors and doesn’t use its full allocation. Last year, the state lost 7%.

#ColoradoRiver #water Twitter posts August 16, 2022

Interior Department Announces Actions to Protect #ColoradoRiver System, Sets 2023 Operating Conditions for #LakePowell and #LakeMead #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon Dam. Phto credit: USBR

Click the link to read the release on the USBR website:

As the worsening drought crisis continues to impact communities across the West, the Department of the Interior today announced urgent action to improve and protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System, including commitments for continued engagement with impacted states and Tribes. The Bureau of Reclamation also released the Colorado River Basin August 2022 24-Month Study, which sets the annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2023 in light of critically low reservoir conditions.

Prolonged drought and low runoff conditions accelerated by climate change have led to historically low water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead. Over the last two decades, Department leaders have engaged with Colorado River Basin partners on various drought response operations. However, given that water levels continue to decline, additional action is needed to protect the System.

In addition to the actions being announced today, the Biden-Harris administration is making unprecedented investments in drought resilience and water management. President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law makes a historic $8.3 billion investment to address water and drought challenges and invest in our nation’s western water and power infrastructure, while rebuilding our existing projects to withstand a changing hydrology. Additionally, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act includes $4 billion in funding specifically for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas experiencing similar levels of drought.

“The worsening drought crisis impacting the Colorado River Basin is driven by the effects of climate change, including extreme heat and low precipitation. In turn, severe drought conditions exacerbate wildfire risk and ecosystems disruption, increasing the stress on communities and our landscapes,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. “The Biden-Harris administration is taking an all-of-government approach to mitigating the drought, and the Interior Department is committed to using every resource available to conserve water and ensure that irrigators, Tribes and adjoining communities receive adequate assistance and support to build resilient communities and protect our water supplies.”

“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency. 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,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo. “The Interior Department is employing prompt and responsive actions and investments to ensure the entire Colorado River Basin can function and support all who rely on it. We are grateful for the hardworking public servants who have dedicated their lives to this work, and who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of Basin states, Tribes, and communities.”

“The solution to our challenges relies on the bedrock of a century of collaboration and partnership in the Colorado River Basin. But as water stewards, it is our responsibility to protect the system and the millions of Americans who depend on it. Today, Reclamation starts the process on actions we can take to deliver on those responsibilities,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “Reclamation remains fully committed to working in a consensus manner across the Upper and Lower Basins, with Tribes, and with the country of Mexico. I am confident that, by working together, we can achieve meaningful change toward a sustainable future for the river that serves as the lifeblood of the American West.”

2023 Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead

Given the 23-year ongoing historic drought and low runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin, downstream releases from Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams – which created Lakes Powell and Mead – will be reduced again in 2023 due to declining reservoir levels. In the Lower Basin, the reductions represent the second year of additional shortage declarations, demonstrating the severity of the drought and critically low reservoir conditions.

The key determinations from the August 2022 24-Month Study include:

  • Lake Powell will operate in the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier in water year 2023 (Oct. 1, 2022, through Sept. 30, 2023). The 24-Month Study projects Lake Powell’s Jan. 1, 2023, water surface elevation to be 3,521.84 feet – 178 feet below full pool (3,700 feet) and 32 feet above minimum power pool (3,490 feet). The August 24-Month Study projects that Lake Powell will likely release 7 million acre-feet in water year 2023 with the potential for Powell releases to range between 7 to 9.5 maf during water year 2023, depending on hydrologic conditions, as Lake Powell and Lake Mead balance storage contents under the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier.
    • The Department will evaluate hydrologic conditions in April 2023 and will implement the Interim Guidelines Section 7.D by limiting water year 2023 releases (with a minimum of 7.0 maf) to protect Lake Powell from declining below 3,525 feet at the end of December 2023.


  • Lake Mead will operate in its first-ever Level 2a Shortage Condition in calendar year 2023 (Jan. 1, 2023, through Dec. 31, 2023). The August 24-Month Study projects Lake Mead’s Jan. 1, 2023, operating determination elevation to be 1,047.61 feet, which is calculated by taking Lake Mead’s projected end of calendar year 2022 physical elevation (1,040.78 feet) and adding the 480,000 acre-feet of water held back in Lake Powell to Lake Mead’s capacity to maintain operational neutrality. The projected elevation of 1,047.61 feet reflects a Level 2a Shortage Condition, within the DCP elevation band of 1,045 and 1,050 feet, with required shortage reductions and water savings contribution for the Lower Basin States and Mexico, pursuant to Minute 323, as follows:
    • Arizona: 592,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 21% of the state’s annual apportionment
    • Nevada: 25,000 acre-feet, which is 8% of the state’s annual apportionment
    • Mexico: 104,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 7% of the country’s annual allotment
    • There is no required water savings contribution for California in 2023 under this operating condition.


In May 2022, drought operations to protect Lake Powell were implemented under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement, and Glen Canyon Dam releases were reduced under the 2007 Interim Guidelines, which together provided approximately 1 million acre-feet of additional water to help protect water levels at Lake Powell. Building on these important responsive actions, Reclamation will begin efforts to modify low reservoir operations at both Lake Powell and Lake Mead to be prepared to reduce releases from these reservoirs in 2024 to address continued drought and low runoff conditions in the Basin.

Reclamation will continue to implement the applicable provisions of the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and coordinated operations for both reservoirs: Minute 323 to the 1944 U.S. Mexico Water Treaty; and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans.

Call for Basin-Wide Conservation

In recent months, Reclamation has shared updated information documenting the increasing risks that will continue to impact Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Reclamation’s “Protection Volume Analysis” details that, depending on future snowpack and runoff, a range of actions will be needed to stabilize elevations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead over the next four years (2023-2026). The analysis shows, depending on Lake Powell’s inflow, that the additional water or conservation needed ranges from 600,000 acre-feet to 4.2 maf annually.

In June 2022, Commissioner Touton testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and called on water users across the Basin to take actions to prevent the reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. Reclamation is using the best available science and actively collaborating with water users across the Basin to determine the best ways to meet this increased conservation need.

Accordingly, in addition to undertaking preliminary work to develop the post-2026 strategies and operations, as several reservoir and water management decision documents expire at the end of 2026, Reclamation will immediately initiate a number of administrative actions in the Basin.

In the Upper Basin, Reclamation will:

  • Take administrative actions needed to authorize a reduction of Glen Canyon Dam releases below 7 million acre-feet per year, if needed, to protect critical infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam.
  • Accelerate ongoing maintenance actions and studies to determine and enhance projected reliability of the use of the river outlet works, commonly referred to as the bypass tubes, at Glen Canyon Dam for extended periods.
  • Support technical studies to ascertain if physical modifications can be made to Glen Canyon Dam to allow water to be pumped or released from below currently identified critical and dead pool elevations.
  • Continue to work with the Basin states, Basin Tribes, stakeholders and partners to be prepared to implement additional substantial releases from Upper Basin Reservoirs to help enhance reservoir elevations at Lake Powell under the Drought Contingency Plan’s Drought Response Operations Agreement.
  • Invest in system conservation and voluntary agreements.
  • Consider other operational actions to establish flexibility in Upper Basin operations at Reclamation facilities.


In the Lower Basin, Reclamation 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.
  • Prioritize and prepare for additional administrative initiatives that would ensure maximum efficient and beneficial use of urban and agricultural water, and address evaporation, seepage and other system losses in the Lower Basin.
  • Support technical studies to ascertain if physical modifications can be made to Hoover Dam to allow water to be pumped/released from elevations below currently identified dead pool elevations.
  • Invest in system conservation and voluntary agreements.
  • Consider other operational actions to establish flexibility in Lower Basin operations at Reclamation facilities.


The Department’s approach will continue to seek consensus support and will be based on a continued commitment to engage with partners across the Basin states, Tribes and the country of Mexico to ensure all communities that rely on the Colorado River will provide contributions toward the solutions.

The August 2022 #ColoradoRiver 24-month Operating Plan is hot off the presses from USBR #COriver #aridification

Click the link to access the operating plan on the USBR website.

The operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead in this August 2022 24-Month Study is pursuant to the December 2007 Record of Decision on Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead (Interim Guidelines), and reflects the 2022 Annual Operating Plan (AOP). Pursuant to the Interim Guidelines, the August 2021 24-Month Study projections of the January 1, 2022, system storage and reservoir water surface elevations set the operational tier for the coordinated operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead during 2022.

The August 2021 24-Month study projected the January 1, 2022, Lake Powell elevation to be less than 3,575 feet and at or above 3,525 feet and the Lake Mead elevation to be at or above 1,025 feet. Consistent with Section 6.C.1 of the Interim Guidelines the operational tier for Lake Powell in water year 2022 is the MidElevation Release Tier.

The August 2021 24-Month Study projected the January 1, 2022 Lake Mead elevation to be at or below 1,075 feet and at or above 1,050 feet. Consistent with Section 2.D.1 of the Interim Guidelines, a Shortage Condition consistent with Section 2.D.1.a will govern the operation of Lake Mead for calendar year (CY) 2022. In addition, Section III.B of Exhibit 1 to the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) Agreement will also govern the operation of Lake Mead for CY 2022.Efforts to conserve additional water in Lake Mead under a 2021 Lower Basin Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to facilitate near-term actions to maintain the water surface elevation of Lake Mead will also take place in CY 2022.

In light of the prolonged drought, low runoff conditions, and depleted storage at Lake Powell, the Department of the Interior implemented an action under Sections 6 and 7.D of the 2007 Interim Guidelines specifically reducing the Glen Canyon Dam annual releases to 7.00 maf in water year 20221. This action was undertaken in conjunction with the 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan actions which together are anticipated to add approximately one million additional acre-feet of storage to Lake Powell by April 2023. The Department of Interior and Reclamation will work to determine the manner in which to operate Glen Canyon Dam to ensure the benefits of these actions are preserved.

The reduction of releases from Lake Powell from 7.48 maf to 7.00 maf in water year 2022 will result in a reduced release volume of 0.480 maf that normally would have been released from Glen Canyon Dam to Lake Mead as part of the 7.48 maf annual release volume, consistent with routine operations under the 2007 Interim Guidelines. The reduction of releases from Glen Canyon Dam in water year 2022 (resulting in increased storage in Lake Powell) will not affect future operating determinations and will be accounted for “as if” this volume of water had been delivered to Lake Mead. The August 2022 24-Month Study modeled 2023 and 2024 operations at Lakes Powell and Mead as if the 0.480 maf had been delivered to Lake Mead for operating condition purposes both for the U.S. Lower Basin and for Mexico. The elevations listed in this report reflect the projected physical elevations at each reservoir after implementing operations as described.

Using the approach described in the immediately preceding paragraph, the August 2022 24-Month Study projects the January 1, 2023, Lake Powell elevation to be less than 3,525 feet. Consistent with Section 6.D.1 of the Interim Guidelines, Lake Powell’s operations in water year 2023 will be governed by the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier with an initial projected water year release volume of 7.00 maf. Because the 2022 operations were designed to protect critical elevations at Lake Powell, Reclamation will implement Lower Elevation Balancing Tier operations in a way that continues to protect these critical elevations, or preserves the benefits of the 2022 operations to protect Lake Powell, in water year 2023. Specifically, Reclamation modeled operations in WY 2023 as follows in the August 24-Month Study:

• The Glen Canyon Dam annual release has initially been set to 7.00 maf, and in April 2023 Reclamation will evaluate hydrologic conditions to determine if balancing releases may be appropriate under the conditions established in the 2007 Interim Guidelines;

• Balancing releases will be limited (with a minimum of 7.00 maf) to protect Lake Powell from declining below elevation 3,525 feet at the end of December 2023;

• Balancing releases will take into account operational neutrality of the 0.480 maf that was retained in Lake Powell under the May 2022 action. Any Lake Powell balancing release volume will be calculated as if the 0.480 maf had been delivered to Lake Mead in WY 2022; and

• The modeling approach for WY 2023 will apply to 2024.

Consistent with the provisions of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, and to preserve the benefits to Glen Canyon Dam facilities from 2022 Operations into 2023 and 2024, Reclamation will consult with the Basin States on monthly and annual operations. Reclamation will also ensure all appropriate consultation with Basin Tribes, the Republic of Mexico, other federal agencies, water users and non-governmental organizations with respect to implementation of these monthly and annual operations.

Reclamation will continue to carefully monitor hydrologic and operational conditions and assess the need for additional responsive actions and/or changes to operations. Reclamation will continue to consult with the Basin States, Basin Tribes, the Republic of Mexico, and other partners on Colorado River operations to consider and determine whether additional measures should be taken to further enhance the preservation of these benefits, as well as recovery protocols, including those of future protective measures for both Lakes Powell and Mead.

The August 2022 24-Month Study projects the January 1, 2023 Lake Mead elevation, determined as if the 0.480 maf had been delivered to Lake Mead in water year 2022, to be below 1,050 feet and above 1,045 feet. Consistent with Section 2.D.1 of the Interim Guidelines, a Shortage Condition consistent with Section 2.D.1.b will govern the operation of Lake Mead for calendar year 2023. In addition, Section III.B of Exhibit 1 to the Lower Basin DCP Agreement will govern the operation of Lake Mead for calendar year 2023. Efforts to conserve additional water in Lake Mead under the 2021 MOU will also continue in CY 2023.

Current runoff projections into Lake Powell are provided by the National Weather Service’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center and are as follows.

The observed unregulated inflow into Lake Powell for the month of July was 0.491 maf or 51 percent of the 30-year average from 1991 to 2020. The August unregulated inflow forecast for Lake Powell is 0.250 maf or 66 percent of the 30-year average. The preliminary observed 2022 April through July unregulated inflow is 3.75 maf or 59 percent of average.

In this study, the calendar year 2022 diversion for Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) is projected to be 1.08 maf. The calendar year 2022 diversion for the Central Arizona Project (CAP) is projected to be 0.997 maf. Consumptive use for Nevada above Hoover (SNWP Use) is projected to be 0.238 maf for calendar year 2022.

Due to changing Lake Mead elevations, Hoover’s generator capacity is adjusted based on estimated effective capacity and plant availability. The estimated effective capacity is based on projected Lake Mead elevations. Unit capacity tests will be performed as the lake elevation changes. This study reflects these changes in the projections. Hoover, Davis, and Parker Dam historical gross energy figures come from PO&M reports provided by the Lower Colorado Region’s Power Office, Bureau of Reclamation, Boulder City, Nevada. Questions regarding these historical energy numbers can be directed to Colleen Dwyer at (702) 293-8420.

Slides from yesterday’s virtual meeting.

Southern Nevada #Water Authority chief criticizes inaction on #LakeMead water — The Las Vegas Review-Journal #COriver #ColoradoRiver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the article on the Las Vegas Review Journal website (Colton Lochhead):

John Entsminger, general manager of the water authority and Nevada’s top Colorado River negotiator, sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and other officials within the Department of Interior criticizing the lack of progress made during negotiations over recent weeks.

“Despite the obvious urgency of the situation, the last sixty-two days produced exactly nothing in terms of meaningful collective action to help forestall the looming crisis,” Entsminger wrote. “The unreasonable expectations of water users, including the prices and drought profiteering proposals, only further divide common goals and interests. Through our collective inaction, the federal government, the basin states and every water user on the Colorado River is complicit in allowing the situation to reach this point.

“We are at the stage where basin-wide every drop counts, and every single drop we are short of achieving two to four million acre-feet in permanent reductions draws us a step closer to the catastrophic collapse of the system, as well as draconian water management practices to protect health and human safety that we have successfully staved off in the past through cooperation,” the letter says.

The letter comes two months after Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told the seven Colorado River basin states — Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming — to come up with a plan to use between 15 percent and 30 percent less water from the river next year, or risk the federal government deciding those cuts on its own. Those talks have fueled growing tensions between the states, further exposing the political divides between the lower basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California, where most of the Colorado’s waters are consumed, and the upper basin states that have historically stayed below their legal entitlements…

Entsminger said the proposal with the largest impact that he saw on the table came out to less than 1 million acre-feet in cuts — a proposal he said wasn’t actually firm and yet was still far short of the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet that Reclamation is calling for.

“I feel like we never really got started in a meaningful way,” Entsminger said of the negotiations. “The entire two months between the commissioner’s Senate testimony and today, I didn’t see what I would consider any realistic proposals put on the table to help stabilize the system.”

The upper basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — submitted a plan to the federal government in mid-July, but that proposal contained no mandatory reductions in water use for those states.

Opinion: The Coming Crisis Along the #ColoradoRiver — The New York Times #COriver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the guest article on the New York Times website (Daniel Rothberg). Here’s an excerpt:

…overuse and climate change have contributed to its reservoirs drying up at such a rapid rate that the probability of disastrous disruptions to the deliveries of water and hydroelectric power across the Southwest have become increasingly likely. Now the seven states that depend on the river must negotiate major cuts in water use by mid-August or have them imposed by the federal government.

Those cuts are merely the beginning as the region struggles to adapt to an increasingly arid West. The rules for operating the river’s shrinking reservoirs expire in 2026, and those seven states must forge a new agreement on water use for farmers, businesses and cities.

What’s worse, all of this is happening in a region that is one of the fastest growing in the United States, even as the signs of an impending crisis become more pronounced. Outside of Las Vegas, Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir by volume, fed by the Colorado and three smaller tributaries, is nearly three-quarters empty and at its lowest level since April 1937, when it was first being filled. The 22-year downward trend is “a stark illustration of climate change and a long-term drought that may be the worst in the U.S. West in 12 centuries,” according to NASA’s Earth Observatory program.

A century of agreements, contracts and contingencies known as the Law of the River are meant to settle who gets water in times of scarcity. But this framework overestimates the availability of water; the legal rights to water held by the river’s users exceed the amount that typically flows into it. The law is also untested in key areas — for instance, the exact terms by which states along the upper reaches of the river must send water downriver for the states there to get their full allocation. All of this has created a great deal of uncertainty, and it’s hard to say how the federal government will go about reducing water allotments, if it comes to that.

As a result, the Colorado River is hurtling toward a social, political and environmental crisis at a pace that surpasses the Law of the River’s ability to prevent it. In a world of less water, everyone who uses the river must adjust.

Inevitably, every water user, from large irrigation districts to sprawling cities, has an argument for why it should not be cut. Arizona and California, which draw most of the water from Lake Mead, along with Nevada, make up the Lower Colorado River Basin. Their interpretation of the rules differs from how the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming see it. Together, those Upper Basin states use less water than their allotments allow but are eyeing more. The onus of any cuts, they argue, should fall on the downstream states. But federal officials have made clear they expect all states and users to compensate for the shortage.

How We Got Into This Mess on the #ColoradoRiver — InkStain #COriver #aridification

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

On the eve of the release of the US Bureau of Reclamation’s August Colorado River reservoir forecasts – freighted with meaning this month because of Reclamation’s ultimatum to the states about the need to cut water use – we look back at the last four decades of water-supply management to pose the central question:

How did we get into this mess? Our answer in brief:

When the Colorado’s flow was up, we used it all.

When it was down, we drained the reservoirs.

The river’s natural flows have been down for a long time.

And during the few stretches of somewhat higher flows, we did not significantly refill the reservoirs.


Colorado River water use outpacing supply. Graph by Jack Schmidt, Utah State University

Operating year to year, it is easy to get lost in the river’s annual ups and downs, and the immediate desire to get water to farm fields and cities – THIS YEAR! NOW!

But the longer view, based on the best available data, makes clear our mistakes during the past 20 years. Since the year 2000, the blue line in the graph above has spent little or no time above the red line. That is water use outpacing supply.

The result – the most recent three consecutive dry years have left us with headline-clear problems:

  • Reservoir storage is 66 percent less than it was in 2000.
  • Reclamation is concerned about the structural integrity of the river outlets at Glen Canyon Dam that will be continuously needed if Lake Powell falls below the minimum power pool elevation.
  • Las Vegas’s old water supply intakes – and dead bodies! – are emerging from the Lake Mead mud.

    The graph’s nuances are worth noting.

    Blue dots represent each year’s total natural water supply – the sum of the natural water yield of the entire Upper Basin and of the many springs and tributaries that flow into the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. This natural supply, not considering the Gila, Bill Williams, or Virgin Rivers, averaged 12.8 maf/yr (million acre feet per year) in the 21st century, 23% less than the average between 1981 and 1999.

    To help visualize longer-term trends and cycles, we statistically smoothed the data to create the blue line, which more clearly shows the longer-term ups and downs of the Colorado River’s flow. The smooth line makes clear the wet periods of the 1980s and 1990s, and the deep droughts of the early 2000s and of today. Importantly for our current mess – the “wets” of the 21st century were not as wet, and the “drys” were drier, than those of the late 20th century.

    The red line – total basin water use and reservoir evaporation loss (not including uses and losses in the Gila, Bill Williams, Virgin, or Little Colorado watersheds) – crept up through 2000 as the Central Arizona Project finally grew into the paper water allocations of the 20th century Law of the River.

    Total consumptive uses and losses, including treaty deliveries to Mexico, peaked in 2000 at ~15.8 maf and were reduced during the next 2 years. Thereafter, average basin-wide consumptive uses and losses remained ~14.2 maf/yr between 2003 and 2020, and individual years were consistently within 4% of the average of that period. Throughout the 21st century, total Upper Basin uses and losses were ~30% of the basin-wide total.

    Sustained consumptive uses and losses that exceed the natural supply can only be sustained by draining the reservoirs – but only so long as there is available water in the reservoirs. Thus, it is no surprise that the 21-year average (2000-2020) rate of water consumption and losses that exceeded the natural supply by ~1.2 maf/yr led to today’s crisis.

    There were a few opportunities to rebuild reservoir storage, especially in 2005, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2017, and 2019, but a decades’ long water consumption rate that exceeds natural supply is unsustainable. The reservoirs are now mostly drained.


    The reservoirs’ decline. Graph by Jack Schmidt, Utah State University

    The history of water storage, described in the two graphs, has gone like this:

  • The reservoirs were brim full in the mid-1980s and lots of water passed through the delta to the Gulf of California
  • Reservoirs were somewhat depleted in the late 1980s and early 1990s when basin-wide consumption exceeded natural supply, but the reservoirs refilled in the late 1990s due to three years when supply greatly exceeded consumption (1993, 1995, and 1997). Thus, the reservoirs were relatively full in 2000 when the Millennium Drought began.
  • Reservoir storage greatly decreased thereafter when the natural supply was never greater than 11.7 maf/yr (2001) and was as low as 6.39 maf/yr (2002).
  • Reservoir storage stabilized at a new lower level thereafter when there were a few wetter years between 2006 and 2011. The last relatively wet year was 2019, but our continued use of large quantities of water was such that this sequence of somewhat wetter years was not used to rebuild reservoir storage.
  • Natural supply has been especially low between 2020 to 2022, averaging 9.4 maf/yr, which is far less than the basin-wide consumptive uses and losses that are approximately 14 maf/yr (we note that basin-wide consumptive use data are not available for 2021.)
  • Thus, today’s crisis – two decades of low natural supply, including some short, very dry periods, cannot sustain consumption and losses that exceed the natural supply and that have not significantly changed since 2003.


    What are the policy implications of this analysis?

  • There has been a natural cyclicity of somewhat wetter and somewhat drier years, but the recent wet periods, when the reservoirs might have been refilled, have not been as wet as in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • The recent dry period that we are experiencing today since 2020 is comparable to the dry period of 2000-2005.
  • Reductions in consumptive water use and losses mandated by Commissioner Touton will need to remain in place through the end of the present very dry cycle and well into any future wetter cycle in order to rebuild reservoir storage.
  • The call for an immediate reduction of 2-4 maf/yr in consumptive uses and losses is an unprecedented reduction in relation to the pattern of use in the watershed since 2003.
  • Anything less than sustained reductions of the scale demanded by Touton’s ultimatum risks crashing the system – certainly if we get another year or two of very low runoff from the Rocky Mountains.

    The present water-supply crisis is a simple mass balance problem and we sought to describe this mass balance in the simplest way – averaging for the entire watershed

    How did we consider inflows?

  • We used Reclamation’s estimates of natural flow at Lees Ferry, including the provisional data that are available for 2022. We used ~40 years of data.
  • We estimated inflows downstream from Lees Ferry that flow into Lake Mead based on the difference between USGS measurements made at Lees Ferry at the upstream end of the Grand Canyon and near Peach Springs, just upstream from Diamond Creek at the downstream end of the Grand Canyon. These data are available for 1990-2021, and we used the average for the 1990s as the estimated inflows of the 1980s. We used the average for the 2010s as the inflow in 2022. These data include inflows from the Paria and Little Colorado Rivers.
  • We added these two data sets as the available natural supply available for water users. We did not consider the natural inflow of the Virgin, Bill Williams, or Gila River because these rivers, with only rare exceptions like year 2005, are fully depleted and considered the sole domain for use by the Lower Basin states. Note that 2001-2005, Lower Basin use of these three tributaries was 2.2 maf/yr (the last years for which these data are available).
  • How did we estimate consumptive uses and losses?

  • We used Reclamation’s Consumptive Uses and Losses reports and Water Accounting reports
  • For the Upper Basin, we used revised and peer reviewed data prior to 1995 and provisional data 1996 to 2020. Data for 2021 are not available.
  • For the Lower Basin, we used Colorado River system summaries prior to 2005.
  • For the Lower Basin, we used Water Accounting reports 2006-2021.
  • We assumed that Lower Basin mainstem reservoir evaporation 2006-present was same as the average for 2001-2005 (1.1 maf/yr).
  • We only considered Treaty deliveries to Mexico as a use, and large surplus flows of the 1980s and 1990s were assumed to have passed to the sea.
  • We assumed that the uncertainty of all values was 2 or 3 significant digits and rounded off our calculations accordingly.


  • 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.
  • Credit: The Congressional Research Service

    #Colorado not ready for #ColoradoRiver #conservation specifics ahead of federal deadline — KUNC #COriver #aridification

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

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

    “Success is dependent on what happens in the Lower Basin,” [Rebecca] Mitchell said. “Anything we can do is meaningless unless there are actual cuts to what’s being used in the Lower Basin.”

    Mitchell’s comments come ahead of a federal deadline on Tuesday.

    In July officials from Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah submitted a five-point plan that did not provide specific targets for conservation. In their letter to the Bureau of Reclamation, the states called for the revival of a conservation program from 2015 that paid farmers to temporarily restrict their uses. The letter also endorsed the possibility of releases from reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell to bolster its flagging levels. Providing a specific volume to conserve would be unfair to water users in her state, Mitchell said, and any commitment would be premature given that the river’s Lower Basin states have yet to come to an agreement on their conservation plans. Negotiations have stalled among the river’s Lower Basin states, according to sources familiar with the talks, making a seven-state agreement on where to find the 2 to 4 million acre-feet in savings unlikely ahead of the deadline. It’s unclear how the federal government will respond if the states fail to meet their demands.

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

    A view across Lake Pueblo in Lake Pueblo State Park. The view is towards the south from Juniper Road. By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY 4.0,

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ‘Living within our means’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Growing cotton in a desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    #Arizona and #California Farmers, Targets for #ColoradoRiver Cuts, Draft Their #Conservation Strategy — Circle of Blue #COriver #aridification

    The All American Canal carries water from the Colorado River to farms in California’s Imperial Valley. The Imperial Irrigation District holds more rights to Colorado River water than any other user in the basin. Photo credit: Adam Dubrowa, FEMA/Wikipedia.

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

  • A plan is circulating among irrigation districts in southern Arizona and California to reduce Colorado River use by as much as 925,000 acre-feet.
  • Such a plan would require billions in funding.
  • These discussions foreshadow difficult negotiations in the coming years to balance water demand with a declining supply.
  • Knowing they are targets, farmers in southern Arizona and California who receive irrigation water from the Colorado River are discussing a plan that could go a long way toward meeting a federal conservation mandate in the drying basin.

    With key reservoirs Mead and Powell at record lows and despite the continued decline of the Salton Sea, federal officials are demanding historic cuts in water use next year, on the order of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, or roughly one-third of the river’s recent annual flow.

    Irrigation districts in Arizona’s Yuma County and California’s Imperial and Riverside counties control more of the river’s water than any other entity in the basin. The Colorado River Indian Tribes, whose reservation abuts the river, also hold significant secure water rights.

    A plan is now circulating among those districts to forgo 1 acre-foot of water per irrigated acre next year. In the Yuma area that amounts to a 20 percent cut, according to Tom Davis, manager of the Yuma County Water Users’ Association.

    The emergency actions foreshadow difficult negotiations that will take place in the coming years as a river that irrigates 5 million acres and supplies 40 million people with a portion of their drinking water is decimated by a drying climate. Agriculture consumes about 80 percent of the basin’s water, making it a cornerstone for bringing demand in line with supply.

    The discussions today could set the tone. As many as 925,000 acre-feet could be part of the current deal, about half or a quarter of the total cuts the federal government is seeking.

    The forgone water would remain in Lake Mead, which is at its lowest level since 1937, when the big reservoir was being filled. Federal officials want to prevent a catastrophic outcome: the reservoir dropping so low that it can no longer generate hydropower or deliver water downstream.

    Irrigation districts are willing to contribute — as long as they are paid.

    “If agriculture steps up and makes it possible for the river to survive, they are taking a huge risk for their industry,” said Wade Noble, coordinator of the Yuma County Agriculture Water Coalition, which represents farmers in southwest Arizona. “And that risk and the cost analysis that goes into it is going to require some sort of compensation because they have a water right.”

    The dollars at play could be significant. A range of values are being discussed, but a center point is $1,500 per acre-foot. If all 925,000 acres participated in the program, the total cost would be $1.4 billion a year.

    It is unclear at this point how many irrigation districts are on board. Camille Touton, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, told the states to present a plan by mid-August. But observers in the basin do not consider that a firm deadline. Davis cited the accelerated timeline and delicate nature of the negotiations.

    Noble outlined the agriculture conservation plan at the July 13 meeting of the Arizona Reconsultation Committee, a group that is advising the state government on Colorado River negotiations. He suggested a four-year program with a total cost between $4 billion and $8 billion.

    “As we look at the risk to economies,” Noble added. “As we look at the risk to other industries. As we look at the risk to our urban areas, we don’t believe that you can say that is too much money.”

    Noble did not return multiple phone messages seeking comment.

    Robert Glennon, a water law and policy expert and professor emeritus at the University of Arizona said that though the dollar figures may seem high at first glance, they are miniscule compared with the risks involved.

    “Why should that be a deal breaker?” Glennon asked about a nearly $2 billion annual price tag. “I mean, it’s only a one-year deal. But it’s wet water that saves everyone’s bacon while you’re trying to develop some long-term criteria.”

    Aerial view of Imperial Valley and Salton Sea. By Samboy – I took a picture from the window of an airplane I was on, CC BY-SA 4.0,

    These irrigated areas are among the harshest climates in the United States, arid lowland regions of the Sonoran Desert that receive no more than 4 inches of rain in an average year.

    The Colorado River is the ingredient that turned these drylands green. Applying more than 5 feet of water per acre of land each year allows farmers in Imperial Irrigation District, Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation District, Palo Verde Irrigation District, and a half dozen others to produce a staggering bounty of vegetables, grains, forage, and seed crops. Growing more than 100 crops, these counties are among the richest farming regions in the country, each generating more than $1 billion in sales in 2021.

    The steady flow of the Colorado is the fuel that powers the ag machine. The threat that the spigot will be turned off has brought the irrigation districts to the table.

    If dividing the river during a period of shortage were based purely on the law, then the irrigation districts would not have to worry. They hold some of the most legally ironclad rights to the river, those that are last in line for cuts.

    Imperial Irrigation District, the largest of the bunch, has claim to 2.6 million acre-feet for irrigation, nearly as much water from the Colorado River as the entire state of Arizona. That water nurtures about 470,000 acres of alfalfa, Bermuda grass, Sudan grass, sugar beets, onions, lettuce, and other crops. Secured by a U.S. Supreme Court decree, Imperial’s water rights would be the last to be touched.

    The political reality, however, is altogether different, according to Michael Pearce, an attorney with Gammage and Burnham who has more than three decades of experience in Arizona water law and policy.

    “In a practical sense, you can’t see the cities of Phoenix and Los Angeles, and even Las Vegas and some of the cities on the Colorado River — Bullhead City, Lake Havasu City — have their water supply cut off so that you can grow alfalfa in Yuma and in the Imperial Valley,” Pearce told Circle of Blue. “This cannot be a practical solution.”

    Aerial photo – Central Arizona Project. The Central Arizona Project is a massive infrastructural project that conveys water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona, and is central to many of the innovative partnerships and exchanges that the Gila River Indian Community has set up. Public Domain,

    The Central Arizona Project, the 336-mile canal that supplies Phoenix and Tucson, has junior water rights to the Colorado River. But Arizona’s water leaders have publicly stated that they will not sign any agreement that allows the canal to run dry.

    Leaders in the four upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming are also looking downstream for solutions. In a July 18 letter they argued that the burden of the conservation mandate should be placed on Arizona, California, and Mexico, which together use more than double the water than the upper basin. Besides the irrigation districts, urban suppliers in the basin are also putting forward conservation plans.

    Another factor in the irrigation districts’ willingness to come to the table is that the mechanics of water delivery will eventually triumph over the law. Even the most secure legal rights are worthless if Mead sits at dead pool and no water can pass downstream.

    How might the farmers be paid off? Glennon and Pearce noted a number of options. Congress could appropriate money. A wildfire and drought response bill that the House passed at the end of July authorizes $500 million to prevent Mead and Powell from declining to unacceptable levels. Or the White House could declare a federal disaster. Any outcome, they said, would likely require states to contribute funds.

    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.

    Those are potential short-term actions. In the long run, the current water rights arrangement is untenable, Glennon said. The drying basin has a structural deficit — more promises of water than physical water to distribute. The states, tribes, and federal government will have to not only rebalance water supply and demand, but also address the shrinking Salton Sea.

    “That conversation has to take place,” Glennon said.

    Located north of Imperial Irrigation District, the Salton Sea is an agricultural sump, a desert depression that receives most of its water from farm runoff. Less irrigation means less water flowing into the sea. A receding shoreline exposes more seabed salts and chemicals to winds. The area has some of the nation’s worst air quality.

    Whether a system established more than a century ago that privileges desert agriculture is compatible with a hotter, drier, ecologically imperiled, urbanized 21st century is a question that will take years to resolve — but with little time to waste.

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

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

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

    Credit: The Congressional Research Service

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

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

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

    Credit: USBR

    Credit: USBR

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Author Information
    Charles V. Stern
    Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

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

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

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

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

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

    View the entire document with DocumentCloud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The arithmetic is straightforward.

    The Upper Basin has said “not our problem“.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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