Demand management discussions continue amid worsening #ColoradoRiver crisis — @AspenJournlism #COriver #aridification

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

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

CWCB not yet ready to adopt next-steps timeline

The crisis on the Colorado River is not waiting for the state of Colorado to develop a program to avoid water shortages.

That was the message that Colorado Water Conservation Board members received from some commenters at their regular meeting Wednesday. The state water board is investigating the feasibility of a program known as demand management, which would pay irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to not irrigate and instead use that saved water to meet downstream obligations on the Colorado River.

James Eklund, former head of the CWCB and one of the architects of the Drought Contingency Plan, which allows for the possibility of a demand-management program, urged the board in the public-comments portion of the discussion to take swift action on what he called arguably the largest water crisis Colorado has ever faced.

“Time is not your or our collective out. If you wait, that’s a decision that you make to determine whether or not we have a hand on the steering wheel as we move forward with this river,” he said. “The waiting is, I think, folly.”

In written comments, some environmental nonprofit organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited, said they were in favor of a demand-management program and urged the state to move forward more quickly.

The state received the comments in response to a draft framework released in March of what a demand-management program could look like, with three tiers of implementation options, guiding principles, threshold issues, trade-offs and equity considerations. The framework matrix is based on the findings of nine workgroups assigned to tackle different aspects and challenges of a potential program.

In addition to written comments, Trout Unlimited Colorado Water Project’s director, Drew Peternell, also told board members at the meeting that the group has concluded that demand management should be one tool Colorado uses to avoid compact curtailment.

“We realize you are taking on some very tough issues, but I also want to urge you to pick up the pace,” he said. “Hydrology on the West Slope is not good. Additional shortages on the system are likely. They would be painful. Now is the time to get something done.”

Gail Schwartz, who represents the main stem of the Colorado River basin on the nine-member board, noted the gravity of the situation and invoked the warnings of 19th-century explorer and river runner John Wesley Powell, after whom the second-largest reservoir in the country and ground zero for many of the basin’s most pressing problems is named. In 1893, the prescient Powell said the American West was “piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.”

“I think that we are at this extraordinary moment in time,” Schwartz said. “This is a desert and we are going to empty every bucket, we are going to empty every river, and this is the inevitable unless we can develop the courage and the ability to step forward.”

The controversial water-banking program, which some fear could harm agriculture on the Western Slope, has sparked a lot of discussion but little agreement over the past two years. Some have expressed frustration with what they say is the state’s slow pace of a program rollout and want to begin pilot projects to test the program’s feasibility. Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, urged the board in his comment letter to take aggressive action.

“The only way to really raise the important questions and to identify the positive and negative consequences of our actions is to try something,” Harris said. “There is no other way to advance the agenda without taking some well-considered risk.”

Water from the Government Highline Canal pours into Highline Lake in Mack. Water from the Government Highline Canal pours into Highline Lake in Mack. The Grand Valley Water Users Association – the group that regulates water flow in the canal – is calling for the state to take more aggressive steps to test out the concept of demand management.
CREDIT: BETHANY BLITZ/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Drought Contingency Plan

Under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, signed by the seven Colorado River basin states, the Upper Basin (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) can develop a program to send up to 500,000 acre-feet of saved water downstream to Lake Powell as a kind of insurance policy to bolster levels in the reservoir and help meet Colorado River Compact obligations. If the Upper Basin states were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the Lower Basin (Nevada, Arizona and California), as required by the 1922 agreement, it could trigger what’s known as a compact call, which would force involuntary cutbacks in water use.

Over the past two decades, climate change has been robbing the Colorado River system of flows, and levels in the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have plummeted to record lows. Federal officials have begun making emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydroelectric power. But some water managers say unless this Upper Basin reservoir water is replenished with big snow next winter, the releases may be a one-time, stopgap solution.

In addition to the urgency imposed by the worsening hydrology, the clock is ticking on the storage agreement laid out in the Drought Contingency Plan, which allows for the development of a demand-management program. It expires in 2026, when a new round of negotiations begins. All four Upper Basin states must agree to move forward with a demand-management program; Colorado cannot go it alone.

The “bathtub ring” at Lake Powell evidences lower flows coming into the reservoir. Federal officials are making emergency releases from upper basin reservoirs to prop up levels and Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydroelectric power.
CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Decision making roadmap

Despite the sense of urgency expressed by some members, the CWCB did not approve the next step forward that was recommended by staff: adopting a decision making roadmap, which sets out a timeline for determining if demand management is achievable and worthwhile for Colorado. Tackling whether demand management is achievable was set to tentatively begin in September, and looking into whether the program is worthwhile for Colorado was supposed to begin in November.

Schwartz made a motion to adopt the roadmap but later withdrew it after some board members said it was too broad, left too many questions unanswered and did not incorporate feedback from the board.

“I feel this roadmap is incomplete, and until I see the roadmap with the comments from the board, I don’t feel comfortable moving forward,” said Jackie Brown, who represents the Yampa and White river basins.

This field in lower Woody Creek is irrigated with water that eventually flows into the Colorado River. The state of Colorado is exploring how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell.
CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

River District’s interests

Demand management was also a topic at the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s quarterly board meeting in Glenwood Springs on Tuesday. Amy Ostdiek, the CWCB’s deputy section chief for interstate, federal and water information gave a presentation on the state’s progress.

The River District, which represents 15 counties and advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, is conducting its own investigation into the feasibility of demand management through meetings with water users and plans to release a report of its findings. The River District has not yet taken a position on the potential program.

“My personal view is that we are going to keep pushing to protect the River District’s interests in a demand-management program, but we realize this is something necessary to move forward sooner rather than later,” said Peter Fleming, River District general counsel.

Board president Marti Whitmore, who represents Ouray County, asked staff to come up with a proposal with specifics on a demand-management program.

“The time is right to come up with something to put on the table for discussion purposes,” she said. “I’m just looking to break the logjam here, so we are talking some substance instead of just frameworks and process. It could be an opportunity for the River District to provide some leadership.”

CWCB board members plan to continue discussing demand management at an Aug. 18 workshop.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

The Entire #ColoradoRiver Basin is in Crisis — Audubon #COriver #aridification

Western Grebe with chick. Photo: Krisztina Scheeff/Audubon Photography Awards

From Audubon (Karyn Stockdale):

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) recently shared alarming news about the unprecedented conditions on the Colorado River and I’ll attempt to explain their complicated projections. Reclamation, the agency that oversees federal water management across 17 western states, publishes some pretty wonky information, even to those of us who regularly interface with this agency and rely on its analyses.

Just last month, in June, Reclamation shared their new 5-year projections for the Colorado River Basin to further assist drought management within the Basin. They share these projections a few times every year. The big news is that the water situation on the Colorado River is worse than folks anticipated when adopting the shared shortage agreements called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) adopted in 2019.

To jump to the conclusion: Reclamation’s projections signal that we urgently need to do more than the DCPs envisioned because of the increasingly hot and dry conditions in the basin. Reclamation has continued to revise their projections throughout this shockingly dry spring, resulting in really dire projections for water storage and distribution. In other words, less water for people, and less water in streams that benefit birds, fish, and a robust recreational economy.

We’ve arrived at the time when the limits of the Colorado River are being reached.

What does this mean for birds? Birds rely on the riparian habitats of the Colorado River and its tributaries and aquatic birds have come to rely on the big reservoirs on the river too. Surveys of aquatic birds at Lake Powell have documented dabbling ducks, diving species, shorebirds, and more. American Coot and Western Grebe are common. Gadwall, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, and Green-winged Teal have also been observed. The habitats created by Lake Powell have existed for less than 60 years and can change with the lake level, which can affect birds.

You may recall that the main reservoirs on the highly-plumbed Colorado River—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—sometimes “equalize” in water accounting flows. Lake Powell is the receiving reservoir from the Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) meaning that it stores water that runs downstream from these states. Lake Mead is the distributing reservoir for the Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and California) and Mexico meaning that water deliveries to each of these places comes from available water in this lake (and legal water rights, of course). The amount of water in Lake Mead—the largest reservoir in the country—determines how much water a state has available for their Colorado River water users.

Reclamation projects that Lake Mead water levels are, for the first time ever, so low that they will require cuts in water Lower Basin water deliveries, operating in Tier 1 shortage. And they say there is a greater than 99% chance of this shortage in 2022 and a high risk (greater than 80% probability) that Lake Mead will remain under shortage operations for at least the next five years, perhaps with even more aggressive cuts.

Severe drought conditions are also triggering emergency response (outlined in the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement as part of the DCP here on page 7) whereby Reclamation will release water from reservoirs further upstream to address declining water levels at Lake Powell and protect the ability of the Glen Canyon Dam to generate hydropower. Representatives from Reclamation and the Upper Basin states just announced they will release water from Flaming Gorge and other reservoirs.

If we have another bad water year, elevations at Lake Mead could even be lower than before Lake Powell was created. It’s getting to the bottom for both of these reservoirs.

Why does this matter? These unprecedented and exceptional drought conditions are a signal to all of us to take steps to ensure the river flows long into the future and address water security for people and wildlife. The entire Colorado River Basin is in crisis.

Climate change is here. We have a very limited window to begin implementing innovative tools that are at our disposal in order to adapt to and mitigate climate change. In addition to reductions in carbon emissions and other large-scale solutions for our planet, Audubon continues to focus on federal and state investments in climate resilient strategies that will help stabilize water supplies and better assist economic sectors and ecosystems adapt to changing conditions. Future water projections by Reclamation – and future agreements on the Colorado River – need to account for climate extremes.

The effects of prolonged drought and climate change affect everyone in the basin. Our way of life is at stake—millions of acres of farmland and ranches, urban and rural communities, recreation on rivers and lakes, our economies, as well as incredible bird life. Our work is more urgent and more difficult. Please join us in advocating for climate solutions that benefit the Colorado River and other important rivers in the West. Sign up for updates here.

A Massive Plumbing System Moves #Water Across #Colorado’s Mountains. But This Year, There’s Less To Go Around — KUNC

The Lost Man diversion canal, about to duck under SH 82 above Aspen, in the Roaring Fork River watershed. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Public Radio (Alex Hager) via KUNC:

High up on Colorado’s Independence Pass, a narrow, winding road weaves through the evergreens and across mountain streams, up and over the Continental Divide at more than 10,000 feet. At one point that road crosses a canal.

It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, but that canal is part of water infrastructure that makes life on Colorado’s Front Range possible.

The state has a geographical mismatch between where water shows up and where much of the population has settled.

“Wherever you are in this state, you’re either at the source of the drinking water supply, you’re in the middle of the drinking water supply, or you’re at the end of the tap,” said Christina Medved, outreach director at Roaring Fork Conservancy. “So on the Western slope, we are at the source of the water.”

About 80% of Colorado’s water falls on the western side of the state. Much of it is high-mountain snow and rain that eventually trickles down into streams and rivers like the ones on Independence Pass.

But about 80% of Colorado’s people live on the east side of the mountains. Because of gravity, that water doesn’t flow to them naturally. Instead, Colorado’s heavily-populated Front Range relies on a massive plumbing system to keep drinking water flowing to its taps.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

For a century and a half, engineers have carved up the mountains with tunnels and canals that pipe water across the state through trans-mountain diversions. Some of that infrastructure is nestled near the high-alpine headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, which eventually flows through Aspen and Glenwood Springs on its way to the Colorado River. Near Lost Man reservoir, a dam and tunnel create a juncture between water that will follow that natural path westward to the Colorado, and water that will be diverted eastward through the mountains and onto cities such as Colorado Springs.

A tunnel through the mountains draws in water that will pass through two reservoirs and the Arkansas River on its way to the southern portion of the Front Range. Water diverted from the Colorado River basin, through trans-mountain diversions, makes up 60 to 70% of the water used by Colorado Springs. Denver, Greeley, Fort Collins and smaller municipalities on the Front Range also rely heavily on Western Slope water.

Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

And these kinds of set ups aren’t confined to Colorado. Similar systems bring water to big cities all across the region. Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and Los Angeles rely on canals and tunnels to ship faraway water into their pipes. New ones are in the works on the Front Range and in southern Utah.

But these systems aren’t without critics.

Water from the Roaring Fork River basin heading east out of the end of the Twin Lakes Tunnel (June 2016), which is operated by the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., a member of the Front Range Water Council. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

“When you first learn about it, the concept of a trans-mountain diversion is crazy,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It seems wrong. It seems antithetical to the health of the river. And I have to say all of that’s true.”

His organization was set up in the 1930s to oppose these diversions and ensure that there is enough water for people on the Western side of the state…

The issue is, contemporary environmental values aren’t written into the West’s water law. Instead, water use is defined by regulations written when Colorado first became a state in the 1800s. The rules say that if you have rights to use water, it doesn’t matter if you want to use it hundreds of miles away from its source – even if that requires miles of cross-mountain plumbing to do so.

Colorado Drought Monitor map July 13, 2021.

At this moment, there is less water to pull from in every part of the state. The Front Range escaped from drought after steady spring rains, but those high-mountain areas that usually provide a dependable source of water for all of Colorado are experiencing a different fate. The western slope is deep in the second year of drought conditions, leaving snowpack and river flows lower than they should be.

Mueller thinks that only sharpens the need for the Front Range to curtail its water use. Although they retain the legal right to use a certain amount of water, he’s asking them to use less – which he says will promote the health of rivers and their ecosystems west of the divide.

The ditch that moves water from Lost Man Reservoir to Grizzly Reservoir and then under the Divide to the South Fork of Lake Creek and the Arkansas River.

On the Front Range, those on the receiving end of diversions say they are listening to their western counterparts when they put up distress signals during particularly critical times. They also say deliberate conservation work is paying off in the longer term. Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water, said over the past two decades, per capita water use in his district is down by 22%.

“Everyone in Colorado needs to decrease their use,” he said…

Amid tension between demands for water on both sides, exacerbated by extreme drought conditions, is the fact that there is not much of an alternative. Colorado’s water system is built to accommodate the fact that the majority of its people and the majority of its water are far from each other. Without fundamental changes to the bedrock of water law, those asking for water will have to work within a system built on trans-mountain diversions…

Some contingency planning – within the reality of a diversion-centric system – is already in place. In Colorado Springs, which receives some of the flow diverted from the top of Independence Pass, re-use practices are helping the city get more mileage out of the water it’s apportioned.

Graphic credit: Water Education Colorado

Abby Ortega, water resources manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, said reused water accounts for 26% of the city’s total portfolio and the city relies heavily on storage to get through dry years like this one.

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

But climate change threatens to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts, which has water managers on edge and looking more intently at ways to maximize what’s available.

“Every water planner in the state has some worry with the rapidly declining hydrology on the Colorado river,” Ortega said.

The #ColoradoRiver is drying up faster than federal officials can keep track. Mandatory water cuts are looming — The #Colorado Sun #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround #YampaRiver #GreenRiver

Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam. Lake Mead last month fell to its lowest level since the Hoover Dam was built in 1936. The shoreline has dropped 45 meters since the reservoir was last full in 2000. Photo by Ken Neubecker via American Rivers

From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

Plummeting reservoir levels at Mead and Powell solidify Arizona cutbacks next year and near-future threats to all the Compact states, from Colorado to California

blunt new report based on June runoff conditions from the Colorado River into Lake Powell and Lake Mead shows the reservoirs fast deteriorating toward “dead pool” status, where stored water is so low it can’t spin the massive hydroelectric power generators buried in the dams, and large swaths of Arizona farmland going fallow.

The enormous, life-sustaining buckets of water in the drought-stricken West are emptying so fast that the Bureau of Reclamation added a new monthly report – on top of three already scheduled this year – to keep up with the dam

The bureau said the loss of water is accelerating, confirming projections that massive water restrictions will begin in 2022 for the three Lower Basin states in the seven-state Colorado River Compact. Conservation groups believe Arizona will lose more than 500,000 acre-feet of water usually delivered by the Colorado in 2022 through voluntary and mandatory cuts, forcing significant reductions to irrigated farming in the desert state. Some, but not all, of Arizona’s share will be replaced in trades using water already “banked” in the reservoirs.

The bureau’s report for June, added on to previously scheduled reservoir updates for January, April and August, paints a dire picture. As snowpack runoff disappeared into dry ground instead of hitting the reservoirs, engineers calculated a 79% chance Lake Powell will fall below its minimum target water height of 3,525 feet above sea level next year.

That minimum provides only a 35-foot cushion for the minimum water level of 3,490 feet needed to spill water into the electric turbines. The bureau said there is now a 5% chance Lake Powell falls below the minimum needed to generate any power in 2023, and a 17% chance in 2024 — the odds are going up with each new report.

Lake Mead, which feeds the three Lower Basin compact states of Nevada, California and Arizona, is in even worse shape. The compact requires declaration of restriction-triggering “shortage condition” if Mead hits 1,075 feet or lower. Mead is falling now, and the bureau affirmed the shortage declaration will happen in August. Las Vegas, a short drive from Mead and Hoover Dam, hit 117 degrees on July 10, and longtime local users are alarmed at how fast the pool is evaporating into desert skies.

Mead is also in great danger of hitting “critical” elevations of 1,025 feet, a sort of emergency-stop minimum, and the minimum pool for generating power at 1,000 feet, the bureau’s new report said. The chances of draining past the minimum by 2025 are now 58%, and the chances of falling below a power pool that year are 21%.

Weather plus climate change

Long-term climate change is being exacerbated by a short-term drought lasting more than 20 years in the West, scientist and water engineers say. Even with a future snowpack bonanza – not currently in the forecast – the compact reservoirs will remain in deep trouble, said John Berggren, water policy analyst for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates.

The Colorado River basin’s latest snowpack was just about 100% of normal, Berggren noted, but delivered only 50% of normal runoff into the river and the giant reservoirs. Water is soaking into parched ground or evaporating entirely before it can contribute to stream flows.

“It’s startling how with each new projection, you had thought it can’t possibly get worse,” Berggren said. “Even just a year or two ago, most people would have thought these projections are pretty far away from ever happening.”

Major water cutbacks for the Lower Basin states are now an unavoidable reality, Berggren said. “This just shows that we no longer have the luxury of thinking it’s a decade down the road.”

“The June five-year projections for the Colorado River System reaffirm this is a serious situation,” Wayne Pullan, Upper Colorado Basin regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation, said in a statement about the latest river modeling. “We are actively engaged with the Colorado River Basin states and other partners to respond to changing conditions to avoid critical elevations at Lake Powell.”

The original compact between Upper Basin states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – and the Lower Basin was negotiated in 1922. It was given real teeth in 2019 with a Drought Contingency Plan that first penalizes Lower Basin states if levels and inflows into Powell and Mead fall below trigger points.

hobbs
Lake Mead December 2017. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

Upper Basin states face future cutbacks in water use as well if they can’t deliver agreed-upon amounts of water to the basin separation point at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, just above the Grand Canyon. Colorado water engineers, agricultural interests and utilities are in ongoing discussions and experiments on how best to leave more in the Colorado should those downstream treaty calls eventually come.

Mexico is also part of the historic compact. Some states are negotiating with Mexico to build ocean water desalinization plants near the Pacific Ocean, so that Mexico could use that water and the states could keep more river water.

Stagecoach Reservoir. Photo credit Upper Yampa River Water Conservancy District.

Colorado tries to refill the Yampa

Colorado water managers, meanwhile, are working quickly to mitigate some of the intense near-term impacts of recent drought, including along the severely depleted Yampa River in northwest Colorado, which is a tributary of the Colorado River.

On July 8, the Colorado Water Trust bought 1,000 acre-feet of water in Stagecoach Reservoir, with an option to buy 1,000 more, for releases over the rest of the summer into the Yampa to keep fish alive and keep the river basin healthier in hot temperatures. The Water Trust has made similar purchases in other years, but will likely have to release the water far earlier than usual this season in order to prevent high water temperatures and stagnant flow that stress fish and hurt their spawning chances.

After spending about $46,000 on the July purchase, the trust has spent just under $500,000 to buy water from Stagecoach’s reserve since 2012. In announcing the deal, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District noted the late-May stream flow into Stagecoach was at less than 10 cubic feet per second, when it should have been more than 100 cfs. The district said it has separately released more than 1,500 acre-feet of its own water from Stagecoach so far this year in order to support river health.

Cash donors to buy the Stagecoach water include the Yampa River Fund, the Yampa Valley Community Foundation and the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, among others. Tri-State operates coal-fired electricity generating units down the Yampa to the west of Stagecoach.

How will the West solve a water crisis if #ClimateChange continues to get worse? — ABC News #ActOnClimate

From ABC News (Julia Jacobo):

The West has more hydrologic variability — more flood years and drought years per average year — than any other part of the country, Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis, and the head of the school’s Center for Watershed Sciences told ABC News.

But a study published in Science Magazine in 2020 warned that the West is exiting an unusually wet time in its history and heading toward an unusually dry time that could last years — even centuries.

Some 42% of California’s population is now under a drought emergency — every part of the state except Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday. And if some of the most prominent reservoirs in the West are any indication, residents may be in trouble. Last month, water levels in Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, hit historic lows — an alarming notion considering the West is largely dependent on surface water.

Neighboring Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir in the U.S., is seeing similar patterns. Lake Mead and Lake Powell will likely never refill to previously normal levels, John Berggren, a water policy analyst with conservation organization Western Resource Advocates, told ABC News.

“Climate change is definitely challenging the system,” Berggren said. Population growth is straining the system as well, as increasing amounts of water get diverted to more households.

If the predictions come to fruition, and the recent warm, dry trends persist in coming years, how will the West solve its water crisis?

For years, states and municipalities are already urging residents, and in some cases enacting laws, to protect the water supply. Some regions on the coast, such as Santa Barbara, California, are installing desalination plants, and other inland areas, such as the state of Arizona, are monitoring ground water supplies as major reservoirs and the Colorado River continue to see the water levels dip.

The turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River. Photo credit: Lyle Balequah/From the Earth Studio

Agriculture will be hit the hardest

Farming uses the largest chunk of water supply, accounting for 80% of consumptive water use in the U.S. and more than 90% in many Western states, according to the U.S. Department of AgricultureYour text to link…, and would likely be the first casualty if supply in the West were strained.

In Utah, up to 90% of the water used in the state goes to agriculture, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. In Arizona, a large amount of the water extracted from the Colorado River goes toward agriculture, Erinanne Saffell, acting Arizona state climatologist, told ABC News.

Overall, between 80% and 90% of the water from the Colorado River system is used for agriculture, Berggren said.

In California, about 80% of the water use goes toward irrigated farming, Lund said, but agriculture only accounts for about 5% of the economy…

Alternative solutions like desalination and groundwater aren’t always feasible

As water levels in reservoirs continue to drop, officials are also exploring other options to retrieve water.

In Arizona, groundwater is the state’s largest water supply, Saffell said. Lawmakers passed legislation in 1980 in which municipalities agreed to not overdraw the groundwater.

In the past, when there was not enough surface water and water in reservoirs, states would pump as much groundwater as needed, Cora Kammeyer, a senior researcher at the environmental research nonprofit Pacific Institute, told ABC News. But now, after turning to that solution “over and over again,” they are now seeing both surface water and groundwater shortages, she added.

Depletion of groundwater in the Southwest has been of concern for many years, especially in Arizona. Increased pumping to support population growth near Tucson and Phoenix resulted in water level declines of 300 to 500 feet in the region by the 1980s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The installation of desalination plants, which remove mineral components from saltwater to create sources for drinking and agriculture, along the coast are for “some extreme cases,” Lund said, and with it comes “a whole host of challenges,” Berggren said.

The cost of treating seawater is about $2,000 to $3,000 an acre foot, which is about two or three times the cost of the next cheapest source, which is water conservation, such as buying water from farmers and reusing wastewater, Lund said. Relying on desalination plants would likely double a household water bill, he added.

And while the technology has been around for a while, desalination also presents environmental challenges, such as where to put the salt and sediments left over from the process, which are bad to return to the sea, because all the extra sediment and minerals essentially pollutes the natural seawater. It would also be inefficient to pump the water from the coast to more inland states such as Colorado, Berggren said…

Water management and conservation may be the strongest solutions

Water management and conservation have already proven to be the most effective tactics in maintaining water supplies in the West, experts said.

Arizona water management is well-equipped to ensure supplies to the desert community, Saffell said. The state has been at a Tier Zero level of shortage, the highest classification for a lake shortage, for the past couple of years. It decreases water allotment slightly, but Saffell expects the state to move to an unprecedented Tier One conservation level in 2022, when they will then decrease their draw rom the Colorado River by 8%.

It will be the first Tier One shortage ordered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation in lower Colorado River basin states such as Arizona, California, Nevada and some states in northern Mexico. Once Lake Mead, which supplies water to about 25 million people in the region, reaches a certain level, each state will have to extract less water, Berggren said…

With every drought in the West, officials have made improvements in water management, Lund said.

And the efforts to conserve have already made great strides in recent decades. in California, cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are using the same amount of water, or less, as they did 30 years ago, despite substantial increases in population, Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, wrote in 2019.

Currently, per capita water use is 16% lower than 2013 levels, suggesting there has been some permanent behavior change by Californians since the mid-2010’s drought, California Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters on Thursday…

Conservation mandates are imminent

Officials have already begun to lay down the law on curbing water usage, and additional restrictions are imminent, experts say.

Newsom requested that residents voluntarily use 15% less water after signing an executive order adding nine counties to the state’s drought emergency on Thursday…

On Wednesday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order mandating that state agencies stop watering lawns and washing windows at state offices and facilities and to stop running fountains that don’t recirculate water. The order also bans the planting of new landscape that requires irrigation.

Low water levels in #LakePowell could affect #NavajoLake — The #PagosaSprings Sun #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Joe Napolitan):

During a meeting on June 21, members of the San Juan Water Conservation District (SJWCD) board discussed local implications of historically low water levels in Lake Powell.

“The article that came out today just said that there’s a threshold that Lake Powell has to reach for the CWCB (Colorado Water Conservation Board) to enact some legal movements,” said board member Joe Tedder. “Apparently we’re going to hit that, probably by the end of June.”

The threshold Tedder referred to is outlined in the Colorado River Drought Contingency Management and Operations Plan (DCP).

The plan states that if Lake Powell reaches a surface elevation of 3,525 the upper-basin states and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) shall take action to send more water to Lake Powell from reservoirs upstream.

According to the USBR, the surface elevation of Lake Powell was 3,559 feet on July 4. Aside from the drought in 2005, such low water levels have not been seen since the 1960s, when Lake Powell was still filling after the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963.

Low water levels in Lake Powell have implications for the Colorado River Basin, which includes the San Juan River and Pagosa Springs.

According to a report by the Pacific Institute in 2013, roughly 70 percent of the Colorado River Basin’s water is used to irrigate nearly 5.7 million acres of land for agriculture. The USBR estimates that more than 40 million people depend on the river to support their lives.

Another report prepared by Southwick Associates in 2012 esti- mated that 5.6 million people over the age of 18 use the Colorado River for recreational purposes each year.

The same report totals the value of all spending resulting from such recreational expenditures to be $25.6 billion, generating $1.6 billion in federal tax dollars…

SJWCD board member Doug Secrist outlined provisions in the DCP, stating that in an effort to stabilize Lake Powell, water would be reallocated from reservoirs up- stream, otherwise referred to as initial units…

“I can tell you that PAWSD is senior to all those reservoirs, so PAWSD water is pretty well protected,” SJWCD Board of Directors President Al Pfister said of the Pagosa Area Wa- ter and Sanitation District. “But it is a very intricate and interwoven issue.”

[…]

The National Integrated Drought Information System reports that Archuleta County is experiencing its driest year in over a century, and that the initial units from which water is planned to be supplied to Lake Powell are already low in volume and inflow…

The USBR predicts that the preliminary unregulated flow which supplies the Navajo Reservoir, which presently has a pool elevation 27 feet below the 1981-2010 average, will be 36 percent of the average for the month of July.
For Blue Mesa, which presently rests 43 feet below the 1981-2010 av- erage, is projected to have an inflow volume 40 percent of average.
Flaming Gorge, which rests only 3 feet below its average pool eleva- tion, is projected to have an unregu- lated inflow volume of 42 percent of average.

Bureau of Reclamation Updates #LakePowell’s Status — Lake Powell Life #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From Lake Powell Life (Mike Reilley):

RECLAMATION RELEASES ADDITIONAL 5-YEAR PROJECTIONS TO SUPPORT DROUGHT RESPONSE PLANNING EFFORTS IN THE COLORADO RIVER BASIN

As one element of the ongoing implementation of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans for the Colorado River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation today released additional 5-year projections on the Colorado River System based on June 2021 conditions.

Five-year projections are typically modeled in January, April and August of each year. The additional June projections will inform the ongoing drought operations planning efforts at key Reclamation reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin. These efforts are ongoing among Reclamation and the Colorado River Basin states under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement.

“The June 5-year projections for the Colorado River System reaffirm this is a serious situation,” said Wayne Pullan, Upper Colorado Basin Regional Director. “We are actively engaged with the Colorado River Basin states and other partners to respond to changing conditions to avoid critical elevations at Lake Powell.”

Projections for anticipated runoff in the Upper Colorado Basin have declined over the course of the spring. Using information based on recent hydrology (since 1988 and known as the Stress Test Hydrology), Reclamation notes several key findings for Lake Powell in the June 5-year projections:

A 79% chance that Lake Powell will fall below its target water-surface elevation of 3,525 feet sometime next year.

Lake Powell’s target water-surface elevation of 3,525 feet provides a 35 vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam and to meet current operational obligations to the Lower Colorado River Division states of Arizona, California, and Nevada.

Beyond 2022, Lake Powell’s chances of falling to critical levels also increased.
There is a 5% chance that Lake Powell will fall below minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet in 2023 and 17% in 2024.

In the Lower Basin, the updated projections for Lake Mead continue to affirm the high likelihood of a first-ever shortage condition in the Lower Basin in calendar year 2022. Consistent with the 2007 Interim Guidelines, if Lake Mead’s end-of-calendar-year elevation is projected to be at or below 1,075 feet, Lake Mead would operate in a shortage condition in the upcoming year. The prescribed shortage reductions for Arizona and Nevada would also be coupled with water savings contributions under the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan. Mexico would reduce their allotment and make water savings contributions under Minute 323 to the 1944 U.S. Mexico Water Treaty. Consistent with the 2007 Interim Guidelines, the 2019 DCP and Minute 323, operational decisions for 2022 will be made by Reclamation in August 2021.

Reclamation is also concerned with the longer-term projections, which show a higher likelihood of Lake Mead declining to the critical elevations of 1,025 and 1,000 feet by 2025. Based on the June update, the chance of this occurring by 2025 is 58% and 21%, respectively.

Reclamation provides projections using two future hydrology scenarios: The Stress Test Hydrology based on the last 32 years, and the Full Hydrology based on the last 114 years. The Stress Test Hydrology provides more plausible near-term outlooks because it embeds the recent warming trend and current drought period. It is about 11% lower on average compared to the Full Hydrology…

For more information, the 5-year projections from June 2021 and prior can be viewed by visiting https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g4000/riverops/crss-5year-projections.html

Brad Udall: Second-worst Powell inflows in more than half a century — InkStain

From InkStain (Brad Udall):

Brad Udall on twitter yesterday ran through a striking series of graphs of the current state of the Colorado River. With his permission, I’m posting them here along with a slightly polished version of his accompanying commentary. Some key points that grabbed my attention:

  • Second-lowest Powell inflow in a period of record we use dating to 1964.
  • Risk of Powell dropping next year to levels that could jeopardize power production.
  • Risk of Mead dropping low enough in the next 18 months to trigger much deeper “Tier 2” reductions to Lower Basin water users in 2023.
  • Reclamation’s ‘unregulated inflows’ into Lake Powell show that 2021 will be the 2nd worst year after only 2002 going back to 1964. 2021 will be the RED bar most likely. This is a really grim year for runoff.

    Graphic credit: Bureau of Reclamation via Brad Udall

    2021 inflow will be only ~3 maf, compared to the 1981-2010 average of 10.3 maf or the 2000-2021 average of 8.3 maf (20% less than 1981-2010 average).(maf = million acrefeet)

    Considering that Powell will release or lose to evaporation ~ 8.5 maf, the lake will lose ~ 5 maf this year or ~55 feet of elevation.

    April 2021 snowpack above Powell peaked at ~85% of normal but will generate about 25% of normal river flow. This comes on top of April 2020 snowpack of 100% of normal that generated about 50% of normal flow.

    Declining runoff efficiency has been noted in multiple peer-reviewed studies. For a recent overview of recent climate change studies on the Colorado River see this written with Jonathan Overpeck:

    Jeff Lukas points out that the twitter thread implied that the low runoff efficiency this year as measured by runoff as a percent of snowpack is all due directly to warming. I did not mean to imply that. The low runoff percent numbers are much more a function of (1) very low spring precipitation in both 2020 and 2021 and to a lesser extent (2) low soil moisture from the previous year. It may be that there is a human-caused connection to the low spring precipitation although there’s no real evidence of this yet. Low soil moisture in the springs of 2020 and 2021 is definitely connected to dry and very warm late summer and early fall from the previous years. Teasing this apart to obtain the actual driver(s) is not simple. That said, no one should doubt that climate change is reducing the flows of the Colorado. Multiple peer-reviewed papers have now supported this finding.

    More from Jeff on this here.

    Here’s what’s going to happen to the nation’s 2 largest reservoirs because of this measly inflow:

    Losses to Mead and Powell. Graphic credit: Brand Udall via InkStain

    Note that combined contents will drop below 30% by late next year.

    Here’s that decline for all years back to 1935 when Mead first filled. These two reservoirs will hold less water than Mead did alone in many years before 1964 when Powell was built.

    Combined storage, Mead and Powell. Graphic credit: Brad Udall via Inkstain

    By next April Powell will hit 5.4 maf, ~185 feet below full. See Red dots. This will be the lowest since its initial fill in 1964. Since 1999, Powell will have lost ~18 maf, 75% of its contents.

    Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain

    At 5.4 maf Powell could be low enough to lose the ability to generate power. (We’re uncertain about how penstocks operate when lake gets low — water in penstocks can not be aerated or turbine damage will occur.)

    Loss of power, while not calamitous, is concerning. Power revenues fund environmental compliance and other important items in the basin.

    As part of the 2019 agreement, the UB can release flows from reservoirs upstream of Powell to prop it up. But there is only about 5 maf for that all together. It is a one-shot deal.

    We’ll have to wait on next winter to understand what happens after April of 2022. But 5.4 maf is very little water in a 25 maf reservoir.

    So what about Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir?

    Reclamation’s current forecasts show January 1, 2022 elevation at 1065’ feet (8.8 maf) , well below the 1075’ needed to avoid a ‘Tier 1 Shortage’.

    Decline of Lake Mead. Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain

    If it ends up below 1050’ on Jan 1 (as projected in August 2022), that will lead to a Tier 2 Shortage (total cutbacks of 721 kaf). Otherwise, Mead will face a 2nd year of Tier 1 shortages. Either way, this is not good.

    Reclamation releases additional 5-year projections to support #drought response planning efforts in the #ColoradoRiver Basin #COriver #aridification

    Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:

    As one element of the ongoing implementation of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans for the Colorado River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation today released additional 5-year projections on the Colorado River System based on June 2021 conditions.

    Five-year projections are typically modeled in January, April and August of each year. The additional June projections will inform the ongoing drought operations planning efforts at key Reclamation reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin. These efforts are ongoing among Reclamation and the Colorado River Basin states under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement.

    “The June 5-year projections for the Colorado River System reaffirm this is a serious situation,” said Wayne Pullan, Upper Colorado Basin Regional Director. “We are actively engaged with the Colorado River Basin states and other partners to respond to changing conditions to avoid critical elevations at Lake Powell.”

    Projections for anticipated runoff in the Upper Colorado Basin have declined over the course of the spring. Using information based on recent hydrology (since 1988 and known as the Stress Test Hydrology), Reclamation notes several key findings for Lake Powell in the June 5-year projections:

    • A 79% chance that Lake Powell will fall below its target water-surface elevation of 3,525 feet sometime next year.
    • Lake Powell’s target water-surface elevation of 3,525 feet provides a 35 vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam and to meet current operational obligations to the Lower Colorado River Division states of Arizona, California, and Nevada.
    • Beyond 2022, Lake Powell’s chances of falling to critical levels also increased.
    • There is a 5% chance that Lake Powell will fall below minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet in 2023 and 17% in 2024.

    In the Lower Basin, the updated projections for Lake Mead continue to affirm the high likelihood of a first-ever shortage condition in the Lower Basin in calendar year 2022. Consistent with the 2007 Interim Guidelines, if Lake Mead’s end-of-calendar-year elevation is projected to be at or below 1,075 feet, Lake Mead would operate in a shortage condition in the upcoming year. The prescribed shortage reductions for Arizona and Nevada would also be coupled with water savings contributions under the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan. Mexico would reduce their allotment and make water savings contributions under Minute 323 to the 1944 U.S. Mexico Water Treaty. Consistent with the 2007 Interim Guidelines, the 2019 DCP and Minute 323, operational decisions for 2022 will be made by Reclamation in August 2021.

    Reclamation is also concerned with the longer-term projections, which show a higher likelihood of Lake Mead declining to the critical elevations of 1,025 and 1,000 feet by 2025. Based on the June update, the chance of this occurring by 2025 is 58% and 21%, respectively.

    Reclamation provides projections using two future hydrology scenarios: The Stress Test Hydrology based on the last 32 years, and the Full Hydrology based on the last 114 years. The Stress Test Hydrology provides more plausible near-term outlooks because it embeds the recent warming trend and current drought period. It is about 11% lower on average compared to the Full Hydrology.

    Assumptions about drought operations are included in these projections; drought response operation plans to protect Lake Powell are being developed by Reclamation and the Upper Division states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Pursuant to the provisions of the Drought Response Operations Agreement and the Companion Agreement, Reclamation will consult with the Lower Division states before finalizing drought response operation plans. If actual hydrology demonstrates an imminent need to protect the elevation at Lake Powell, the Secretary retains all applicable authority to adjust releases from the upstream initial units of the Colorado River Storage Project Act (Flaming Gorge, Navajo, and Blue Mesa reservoirs) before those operating plans can be finalized.

    Reclamation and the Colorado Basin states continue to closely monitor conditions to be prepared to meet the goals of the DROA in the months and years ahead.

    A key component of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin activities is the integration of sophisticated modeling tools and scientific research to inform water management decisions. Through a decades-long partnership with the Center for Advanced Decision Support for Water and Environmental Systems at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Reclamation hydrologic engineers and hydrologists are actively collaborating with climate, hydrology and decision support scientists to provide advanced modeling tools. Their work is helping Reclamation link advances in science to water resource management decisions in the face of greater uncertainty and increased hydrologic and operational risks.

    Reclamation’s modeling and operations teams further refine these tools, such as the 24-Month studies, to make annual operational determinations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead through close coordination with water and power customers throughout the basin.

    For more information, the 5-year projections from June 2021 and prior can be viewed by visiting https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g4000/riverops/crss-5year-projections.html.

    Why the Southwest’s shrinking water reservoirs matter to #Colorado — The #Denver Post #COriver #ColoradoRiver #aridfication #COleg #COWaterPlan

    Lake Powell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question.
    CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT via Aspen Journalism

    From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

    Polis signs latest $20 million infusion for Colorado Water Plan as hotter, drier climate grips Southwest

    Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has signed off on increased funding for water development projects that state officials regard as critical to meet growing demands. But the state’s plans to secure more water from rivers here are colliding with the hotter, drier climate that’s hammering the Southwest, where Colorado River reservoirs are at record-low levels.

    Federal authorities warn hydropower electricity for millions of people (and their air conditioners) could be jeopardized if water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead — now both about 34% full — fall much lower. That’s partly why water officials from seven states met in Denver this week to size up perils before their next round of negotiations over how states deal with diminishing water.

    Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming (the Upper Basin states along the Colorado River) are facing pressure from Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, California) to use less water — even though the 1922 Colorado River Compact legally entitles them to use more — to try to save the downriver reservoirs.

    “There’s a reality that we do have a shrinking water supply and we’re all going to have to figure out new ways to reduce our use. We try to stay out of any state’s business, but we also realize there’s not enough water for the Upper Basin to use its full allotted water under the compact,” said Bill Hasencamp, the Colorado River resources manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million people in the Los Angeles area and San Diego…

    Colorado leaders over the past six years have awarded more than $500 million in grants and loans for 323 projects in carrying out the state’s water plan — which calls for $100 million a year through 2050. Polis last week signed the latest monetary infusion into law: HB21-1260 for $20 million more to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to go toward increased water storage capacity and supply. The bill provides $15 million for loans and grants and $5 million for the regional “roundtable” panels that have planned 500 local water development projects.

    Polis also signed off on SB21-189 to spend $1.2 million more in construction funds for the implementation of the overall $20 billion water plan, which was launched in 2015 to ensure enough for a productive economy — from cities to farms to the recreation industry — while preserving healthy rivers through efficient water use and carefully designed water projects. Two in progress would siphon significantly more water out of the Colorado River basin — an expanded reservoir for Denver and enlarged Moffat system that diverts west-flowing water to the northern Front Range…

    “We are already actively talking about and experiencing cuts, which have been particularly painful in this very dry year,” [Rebecca Mitchell] said, referring to the state’s allocation system that forces junior water-rights holders to use less in dry times. “These are historically low conditions and we need basin-wide solutions that we work on together.”

    State officials in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming contend they’re entitled under the 1922 compact to use as much as 2 million acre-feet more water. But those shares are based on century-old calculations for how much water the river can provide — 15 million acre-feet a year — rather than the 12.3 million acre-feet average total flow since 2000.

    Contingency plans for enduring severe droughts are expected to force mandatory cutbacks next year in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

    The #YampaRiver is overdrawn and running out of #water. And it’s hardly the only one — The #Colorado Sun #ActOnClimate #aridification

    Yampa River below Oakton Ditch June 14, 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

    From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

    Cross Mountain Ranch, a sprawling cattle, guest and hunting operation near Maybell and the Yampa’s confluence with the Little Snake River, needed water to flood meadows for sheep and other livestock.

    But there was nothing left to divert into the ranch’s ditch at Lily Park. A state official’s snapshot from the time shows no Yampa there at all — just a gravel bar with a stagnant puddle at the base.

    The ranch may be far down river, but it’s high in priority. Under Colorado water law, that means the ranch long ago secured water rights that are vastly senior to many other users on the river. So if the ranch needs it, the state water engineer has to put a “call” on the Yampa and tell junior holders upriver to stop using, letting their water flow on toward Cross Mountain and the Utah border.

    Yampa division engineer Erin Light did just that for the first time ever in 2018. She has an 80-page list of descending water rights holders on the Yampa. The ranch is on page one.

    The easiest way to find enough water to meet the ranch’s rights was to call Craig Generating Station, a massive coal-fired electricity plant holding a variety of river rights and reservoir shares in the Yampa basin. The power station, managed by Tri-State Generation and owned by a variety of Western utilities, has been cooperative on water issues, Light said, and quickly sent more water downstream.

    Then it happened again in 2020. Drought. A nearly dry river by the time the Yampa neared Dinosaur National Monument. And an official state call.

    Yampa River at Stagecoach Res Inlet 10 CFS 5-24-21 May 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

    This year, the Yampa is looking severely troubled again. It’s no longer a fluke, but a trend. And so Light has asked her boss, state engineer Kevin Rein, to approve her 15-page memorandum and request declaring the Yampa officially “over appropriated.”

    Too many users have divided up the river’s dwindling water too many ways, and future ditch diggers and well drillers need to be warned. Dozens of new water rights applications hit the water court for Yampa claims every year, she added…

    Yampa not alone under drought pressure

    The Yampa isn’t the first Colorado river to suffer the indignity of an official declaration of over appropriation. In fact, most of the major rivers were divided too many ways decades ago and therefore need to be managed down to the drop, from the South Platte on the Front Range, to the Arkansas and the Poudre.

    But the fact it’s happening to the Yampa, long running relatively wild and free through the thinly-populated open range of northwest Colorado, is a clear danger sign, according to state officials and conservation groups. Drought in the short term and climate change in the long term are overlaid by relentless economic growth throughout Colorado, turning debates over water use from a distant worry into a current event…

    West Drought Monitor map June 29, 2021.

    Light’s detailed memo justifying the over appropriation declaration for the Yampa noted that water volume delivered by the river has fallen in recent decades from a norm of 1.5 million acre-feet a year to 1.1 million acre-feet. At the U.S. Geological Survey’s Maybell gauge on the Yampa on Friday, the river flowed at about 340 cubic feet per second, less than 16% of the median figure for that day in 105 years of recordkeeping…

    So what would state approval of the over appropriation designation mean in practical terms for northwestern Colorado counties? Developers seeking to drill a new well in the Yampa Basin will see new state scrutiny of their plans to make sure they are not drawing down river water already owned by a senior rights holder. If Light thinks there would be damage, she can require the developer to augment the loss with a different supply, such as stored reservoir water or a pond capturing water during higher runoff periods…

    Anyone with an improperly permitted well will also face new reviews, and demands for augmentation. Because of the way Colorado’s rivers and water tables behave, state engineers consider wells to be drawing down river water just as if they were taking it from the river’s surface.

    People could still apply for new surface rights from the Yampa, but they will be warned, Light said, that their supply is likely to run out by August or September when senior rights holders put in their call to protect what they need.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    The #ColoradoRiver Indian Tribes become key #water player with #drought aid to #Arizona — The Associated Press #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #LakeMead

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

    From The Associated Press (Felicia Fonseca):

    The Colorado River Indian Tribes and another tribe in Arizona played an outsized role in the drought contingency plans that had the state voluntarily give up water. As Arizona faces mandatory cuts next year in its Colorado River supply, the tribes see themselves as major players in the future of water.

    “We were always told more or less what to do, and so now it’s taking shape where tribes have been involved and invited to the table to do negotiations, to have input into the issues about the river,” first-term Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores said.

    Lake Mead on the Nevada-Arizona border has fallen to its lowest point since it was filled in the 1930s. Water experts say the situation would be worse had the tribe not agreed to store 150,000 acre-feet in the lake over three years. A single acre-foot is enough to serve one to two households per year. The Gila River Indian Community also contributed water.

    The Colorado River Indian Tribes received $38 million in return, including $30 million from the state. Environmentalists, foundations and corporations fulfilled a pledge last month to chip in the rest.

    Kevin Moran of the Environmental Defense Fund said the agreement signaled a new approach to combating drought, climate change and the demand from the river.

    “The way we look at it, the Colorado River basin is ground zero for water-related impacts of climate change,” he said. “And we have to plan for the river and the watersheds that climate scientists tell us we’re probably going to have, not the one we might wish for.”

    Tribal officials say the $38 million is more than what they would have made leasing the land. The Colorado River Indian Tribes stopped farming more than 15 square miles (39 square kilometers) to make water available, tribal attorney Margaret Vick said…

    While some fields are dry on the reservation, the tribe plans to use the money to invest in its water infrastructure. It has the oldest irrigation system built by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, dating to 1867, serving nearly 125 square miles (323 square kilometers) of tribal land.

    The age of the irrigation system means it’s in constant need of improvements. Flores, the tribal chairwoman, said some parts of the 232-mile (373-kilometer) concrete and earthen canal are lined and others aren’t, so water is lost through seepage or cracks.

    A 2016 study conducted by the tribe put the price tag to fix deficiencies at more than $75 million. It’s leveraging grants, funding from previous conservation efforts and other money to put a dent in the repairs, Flores said.

    “If we had all the dollars in the world to line all the canals that run through our reservation, that would be a great project to complete,” Flores said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen in our lifetime.”

    The tribe is made up of four distinct groups of Native Americans — Chemehuevi, Mohave, Hopi and Navajo. The reservation includes more than 110 miles (177 kilometers) of Colorado River shoreline with some of the oldest and most secure rights to the river in both Arizona and California.

    While much of the water goes to farming, it also sustains wildlife preserves and the tribe’s culture…

    The tribe can’t take full advantage of its right to divert 662,000 acre-feet per year from the Colorado River on the Arizona side because it lacks the infrastructure. It also has water rights in California.

    An additional 46 square miles (121 square kilometers) of land could be developed for agriculture if the tribe had the infrastructure, according to a 2018 study on water use and development among tribes in the Colorado River basin.

    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

    With #LakePowell levels ‘frighteningly’ low, new director of the newly created #ColoradoRiver Authority of #Utah aims to protect Utah’s interests in Colorado River — KSL.com #COriver #aridification

    Colorado River. Photo credit: University of Montana

    From KSL.com (Ashley Imlay):

    “One of the things I like about the river is that my learning curve is perpetually steep because there are always challenges, there are always one-offs, and there are situations that we are facing on this river that we need to adapt to. Currently, we are facing hydrology and low reservoir conditions the likes of which we have never seen,” Haas said.

    As Utah continues growing and drought intensifies the desert’s water scarcity, lawmakers fear losing some of the the state’s share of the river. Utah’s allocation is 1.725 million acre-feet of water or 23% of the water appropriated to the Upper Basin states that also include Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. Utah now uses about 1 million acre-feet and plans to develop about 1.4 million acre-feet of water, according to the Division of Natural Resources.

    That’s where Haas comes in. She will lead the newly created Colorado River Authority of Utah, which begins its work in late July, officials announced last Tuesday.

    A watchdog for Utah’s interests
    Utah legislative leadership in the 2021 session sponsored the Colorado River Amendments bill, HB297, which, with $9 million in one-time money and $600,000 of ongoing money, set up the authority meant to serve as a “watchdog” for Utah’s share of water in the drought-challenged Colorado River.

    Amy Haas, executive director, Upper Colorado River Commission, is critical of the 2007 operating guidelines (Source: Bureau of Reclamation via the Water Education Foundation)

    Haas has lived in Utah part-time for the past four years for her work in the Upper Colorado River Commission, where she currently serves as executive director. She first began working on water issues about 20 years ago as an attorney in private practice in New Mexico representing institutional and private water interests. She then worked for New Mexico on policy representing that state in its interstate stream compacts.

    Haas said she’s excited to be a part of Utah’s new authority as it forms “from the ground up.”

    “The river is stressed, currently. I think many people know that, and I would like to be a part of sound water management, prudent water management, and I would like to be a part of a team. Utah has been and will continue to be a responsible steward of its Colorado River allocation. And I think that the authority, and the creation of the authority, really represents that Utah is proceeding in a very responsible manner regarding the development of its allocation,” Haas said.

    In her new role, Haas will work with Gov. Spencer Cox, Brian Steed, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, and Colorado River Commissioner of Utah and Colorado River Authority of Utah Chairman Gene Shawcroft “to take full advantage of Utah’s entitlement to the Colorado River while engaging in prudent water management,” she said…

    Lake Powell at historic low

    Haas is stepping into her role even as Lake Powell’s water is at a record-low level. It’s 34% full now, she said, calling it “frighteningly” low.

    “It’s about 35 feet above an elevation where the federal government together with the states (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah) will develop a plan to operate the reservoir such that the states can meet their obligations under a 100-year-old agreement and also that hydropower generation, which is a very important feature of Lake Powell, can be maintained and will not be jeopardized,” she said.

    If the lake reaches that critical level, the Bureau of Reclamation will go in and shore up its elevations, according to Haas.

    Haas was involved in developing the federally authorized drought contingency plan for the Upper Basin of the Colorado River, which is now being deployed. The plan includes releasing water from federal reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell to store and use in Lake Powell, enhancing cloud seeding, removal of non-native vegetation and additional conservation measures…

    She’s optimistic that the states in the U.S. and Mexico with interests in the river will continue working closely together on its management, as they have done in the past — and that that collaboration will increase due to current conditions. For example, Mexico recently partnered with the Basin states and federal government to take shortages in its allocation of the river, which Haas said helped water managers address constraints.

    Reverence or Pragmatism? The Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin’s Compact Dilemma — InkStain #COriver #aridification

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

    From InkStain (Eric Kuhn and John Fleck). Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

    Unlike the Lower Colorado River Basin States, which have traditionally taken pragmatic and self-serving views of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin States have largely shown the century-old document unwavering reverence.

    The reverence comes from the way the agreement protected Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico against the avaricious impulses of fast-growing Lower Basin states, especially Arizona and California. The Compact promised water that has driven a century of development and dreaming in the Upper Basin.

    Now, however, climate change-driven aridification has the Upper Basin in a vise-like squeeze. Increasing regional temperatures are reducing the river’s natural flow while the compact imposes fixed delivery (or non-depletion) obligations on the four Upper Basin States.

    The net difference between the amount of water flowing from the Upper Basin’s watersheds and the amount that must be passed to the Lower Basin at Lee Ferry is the amount that can be consumed. As recent discussions about implications of “Alternative Management Paradigms for the Future of the Colorado and Green Rivers” by Kevin Wheeler, et al from the Colorado River Futures Project out of Utah State University have shown, state water officials from the upper river are beginning to understand that today’s law of the river places most of the future climate change risk on their states. But their fealty to the compact remains a major factor. (One of us, Eric Kuhn, is a co-author of the report. The other, John Fleck, serves on the project’s advisory committee.)

    This dilemma raises the fundamental question facing the basin as it begins to negotiate the post-2026 river:

    In recent months the paper’s authors have held briefings for state and federal water management agencies, water districts, and environmental NGOs. Most recently, they met (via Zoom) with representatives of the Upper Basin States under the umbrella of the Upper Colorado River Commission. Although the briefings varied in length and how deeply they got “into the weeds” concerning the modelling and science behind the study, the general messages and discussions were similar:

    Balancing the river system’s water budget will require deeper cuts in total system water use than now contemplated by the basin Drought Contingency Plans. Further, future conservation targets and reservoir operations rules cannot be static. They will have to accommodate declining long-term average flows and increased variability. There is a general agreement that the post-2026 guidelines should work effectively down to a mean natural flow of 11-12 million acre-feet per year. Nevada’s John Entsminger suggested 11 maf at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center Conference in 2019 – one of the last and most meaningful public conversations among the basin leadership before the pandemic shut us all down. For comparison, the estimated natural flow at Lee Ferry for the current 2000-2021 period is about 12.4 maf/year…

    Our hope is that collectively, they will be open to a wide range of different future options and that they will pursue different options in parallel. We would also hope that one of those options is to recognize that we now have a fundamentally different river to manage than the one that their predecessors thought they had when the 1922 Compact, 1944 Treaty with Mexico, and 1948 Compacts were negotiated, therefore, managing today’s river may require breaking the chains that unnecessarily tie us to the past.

    The #ColoradoRiver is shrinking. Hard choices lie ahead, this scientist warns — Science #COriver #aridification

    Jack Schmidt, with Utah State University, analyzed the concept of “Fill Mead First.” (Source: Jack Schmidt via the Water Education Foundation)

    From Science (Erik Stokstad):

    On a spring morning in 1996, then–Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt stood at Glen Canyon Dam, a concrete bulwark in Arizona that holds back the Colorado River to form Lake Powell. During a live broadcast on the Today show, a popular national TV program, Babbitt opened valves to unleash an unprecedented experimental flood into the Grand Canyon just downstream. As onlookers applauded, water gushed from gaping outlet pipes. Babbitt called the experiment, which was testing one way of restoring Grand Canyon ecosystems damaged by the dam, the start of “a new era” in environmental management.

    Jack Schmidt was underwhelmed by the scene. He had spent years helping design the controversial experiment—which cost electric utilities nearly $3 million in lost revenue—and fighting to launch it. But compared with the natural deluges that raged down the canyon before the dam was completed in 1963, he remarked to a Los Angeles Times reporter, “This is a pretty wimpy flood.”

    That verdict was typical of Schmidt, a river scientist at Utah State University who thinks big and speaks candidly. During his long research career, he has played a major role in revealing how the Colorado River functions, and how forces—natural and human—are reshaping and often damaging it. Despite his bluntness, Schmidt is a go-to expert for stakeholders and policymakers. He has taken them on river trips to explain key research findings, drawing graphs in the sand. And with other researchers, Schmidt has catalyzed far-reaching changes in how government agencies manage the Colorado River system, a critical source of water shared by seven states and Mexico.

    “Jack looms very large in both the science and the policy of the Colorado River,” says Gordon Grant, a hydrologist and geomorphologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon. “He’s not afraid to push back on the water managers and he’s not afraid to push back on the environmental groups,” says Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “He’s willing to use science to try to find practical solutions.”

    As a warming climate reduces the river’s flow, Schmidt, 70, is making what could be his most important push to shape the fate of his beloved waterway. He and his colleagues are working to inject a dose of scientific reality into public debate over water resources that, the team says, is too often clouded by wishful or outdated thinking. The biggest delusion: that there will be enough water in a drier future to satisfy all the demands from cities, farmers, power producers, and others, while still protecting sensitive ecosystems and endangered species. The hard truth, according to long-term scenarios produced by Schmidt and his colleagues, is that some users will have to consume less water, and that policymakers will face agonizing choices sure to produce winners and losers.

    Those are messages that many players aren’t eager to hear, especially states planning to drain more water from the river to fuel growth. But Schmidt says he and his colleagues simply want everyone to understand the potentially divisive trade-offs. “We ask provocative and uncomfortable questions,” he says.

    Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam. Lake Mead last month fell to its lowest level since the Hoover Dam was built in 1936. The shoreline has dropped 45 meters since the reservoir was last full in 2000. Photo by Ken Neubecker via American Rivers

    The moment is ripe, as a record-breaking drought provides a taste of what more climate change could bring. Last month, Lake Mead, a second massive reservoir downstream from Lake Powell, dropped to its lowest level ever. At the same time, government officials are beginning a 5-year process of renegotiating several key agreements over use and management of the river’s water. They have sought Schmidt’s views. “We had Jack and his team present to our leadership because of the high regard we hold for their research,” says Katrina Grantz, assistant regional director of the Upper Colorado Basin for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates many major dams.

    Some see Schmidt’s tell-it-as-it-is approach as critical to developing realistic policies. “Jack is never afraid to speak the truth, according to what the research is saying,” says Mike Fiebig of American Rivers, an environmental group that Schmidt advises. And, he adds, Schmidt will speak “to whoever is listening.”

    FOR A CONTINENTAL-SCALE river, the Colorado is not very big, but it has an outsize importance. Rising in the Rocky Mountains, its muddy water has always been crucial to the development of the arid West. In 1936, the Hoover Dam created what is still North America’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead. The dam’s 17 turbines generate electricity that lights Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and other cities, and also powers pumps that lift river water over mountains and into southern California. Engineers built hundreds of kilometers of canals to carry the water to cities and farmers. In Colorado, they constructed numerous tunnels, including one below the continental divide, to deliver water to Denver. Today, more than 40 million people in seven states and many Native American tribes rely on the Colorado River.

    Screenshot from the Colorado River Open GIS Data Portal (Lincoln Institute) https://coloradoriverbasin-lincolninstitute.hub.arcgis.com

    The water has long been worth fighting over. In 1922, in a bid to prevent conflicts, states in the watershed divided the rights to nearly 20 cubic kilometers of water, which they assumed was only part of the river’s annual flow. The compact gave half of the water to the lower basin, where cities and farms, especially in California and Arizona, have long used about twice as much water as consumers in the upper basin. The other half was promised to the upper basin, so that states including Colorado and Utah could develop in the future. A follow-on agreement in 1944 gave water to Mexico, where the river’s last drops barely trickle into the sea.

    Lawyers and politicians spent decades disputing the terms of the original compact, parts of which remain contested. Meanwhile, it became ever clearer that the compact rested on flawed assumptions, because it was struck when the region was abnormally wet. After the 1930s, the Colorado River carried considerably less water on average for the next 4 decades (see chart, below). The past 2 decades have seen another decline, as the region endures its worst dry spell in 1250 years; flows have been about 19% less than the entire 20th century average. Climate models suggest an additional 30% decline by 2050, as precipitation continues to decrease and the atmosphere warms. The heat dries the soil and causes plants to transpire more, reducing the runoff efficiency—the fraction of precipitation that reaches the river.

    The impacts are impossible to miss. From the air, bathtub rings of white stone encircle Lake Mead, which has been less than 40% full since 2015, as well as Lake Powell, which has been below 50% capacity since 2013. Boat ramps have been extended to help keep a large recreational industry afloat. Farmers in multiple states are expecting cutbacks in water deliveries next year. Nevada is launching new conservation measures, including a ban on using Colorado River water to irrigate lawns after 2026.

    In some states, the shrinking river has only intensified claims on its flow. “It’s our water,” Utah State Senator Don Ipson (R) proclaimed in March. He was urging his colleagues to support a bill, now awaiting the governor’s signature, that creates a new commission to advocate for the state’s right to develop future water supplies.

    Such assertive political jockeying highlights the challenge facing negotiators. They must grapple with key agreements that expire in just 5 years, as well as an inexorably changing climate. “All of that,” says water policy expert Brad Udall of Colorado State University, Fort Collins, “has combined into this slow-moving trainwreck.”

    SCHMIDT GREW UP far from the Colorado in suburban New Jersey. He first glimpsed southwestern landscapes in undergraduate geology classes at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. An encounter with famed river scientist Luna Leopold during his master’s work at the University of California, Berkeley, inspired his passion for natural resource issues. He went on to a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, studying water policy and how rivers reshape landscapes with one of the field’s top experts, Gordon “Reds” Wolman.

    Soon he was immersed in a conflict over the Colorado River that had begun in the 1970s, not long after Glen Canyon Dam was completed. The barrier nearly doubled the storage capacity for water, but it dramatically changed river conditions in the Grand Canyon. It cut off supplies of sediment that had created vast sandbars, for example, and released clear, cold water that allowed introduced species, such as trout, to displace native fish adapted to warm, muddy flows. Sudden releases of water to meet electrical demand, an operation called hydropeaking, disturbed wildlife, plants, and thousands of rafters who were floating the canyon each year.

    Annual U.S. precipitation changes by percentage from the 1981–2010 U.S. Climate Normals to the newest data in the 1991–2020 Normals, released by NOAA, May 2021. Decreases indicate a drier Southwest, and increases indicate wetter sections of the Northern Plains, Great Lakes region, and Southeast. Courtesy of CISESS.

    Environmental groups sued, demanding that the Bureau of Reclamation do more to protect the ecosystem. In response, in 1982 the federal government launched what became a $12 million research program to probe dam impacts. Schmidt was funded to study the Grand Canyon’s sandbars, which river guides complained were shrinking, depriving them of camping spots.

    Schmidt’s research helped explain the losses, revealing how swirling water digs up sediment in certain places and drops it elsewhere. The work “really has been foundational for all the thinking about sandbar dynamics since,” says Grant, who was a student alongside Schmidt at Johns Hopkins.

    During a chilly rafting trip studying erosion, Schmidt and others discussed what could be done to prevent the losses. By the light of a campfire, they drafted a “beach bill” in his field book, sketching out the kind of federal legislation that could safeguard the canyon’s beaches.

    A few years later, Bill Bradley, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, visited Middlebury College, where Schmidt was a faculty member. He and three students handed the senator a report they had written on sandbar erosion. Bradley took it with him when, the next month, he visited the canyon to see the problems for himself.

    Bradley and other lawmakers were crafting their own bill, which became the Grand Canyon Protection Act of 1992. It helped set the stage for the experimental floods that began in 1996. The idea, developed by a small group of researchers including Schmidt, was that artificial floods could carry sand downstream. Although Glen Canyon Dam blocks most of the sand that used to wash down the main river channel, tributaries below the dam still supply some. The floods would drop the sediment onto sandbars. Dam operators weren’t eager to cede control to the scientists, though. “Jack had to duke it out,” Grant says.

    The experimental floods have proved only modestly successful, in large part because the tributaries don’t deliver enough sediment to make a huge difference. Rich Ingebretsen, co-founder of the Glen Canyon Institute, an environmental group, says the real significance of the first experiment was that dam operators now consider environmental impacts—and not just the needs of electric utilities, farmers, or recreational boaters—in deciding when and how much water to release. “It ushered in a new world,” Ingebretsen says. “Environmentalists were now working with water managers for the first time in the history of the country.”

    POLICYMAKERS HAVE BEEN slower to grapple, at least publicly, with a question that extends far beyond the river’s ecosystems and recreational opportunities: the limits of its ability to supply all the water the West wants, now and in the future.

    Schmidt remained focused on river dynamics and developing strategies to lessen the impact of dams on ecosystems, first at Utah State and then, starting in 2011, as chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center (GCMRC), which helps guide restoration and management efforts. Martin Doyle, who studies river science and policy at Duke University, says he was skeptical that Schmidt would thrive as a government official, in part based on his frank approach to peer-reviewing papers. “He always signed his reviews and it was always just brutal, because he wasn’t tolerant of sloppy thinking.” But Schmidt had remarkable success boosting his staff ’s morale and conditions for research, Doyle says. “He started to turn the GCMRC from a monitoring center to a science center.”

    The new abnormal

    For the first third of the 20th century, the Colorado River supplied plentiful water on average, despite large annual fluctuations (top). Then water supply fell to a relatively constant level while use by cities and farms ramped up. Over the past 3 decades, climate change affected supply as rising air temperatures (bottom) increased water loss from soil and plants. Lower runoff efficiency means less rain and melted snow end up reaching the streams that feed the Colorado River.

    Graphic credit: USBR

    Graphic credit: USBR

    One research goal was to figure out exactly when an experimental flood would most benefit ecosystems. “Jack had a huge influence,” says Anne Castle, a fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who oversaw water and science policy at the Department of the Interior from 2009 to 2014. “He cares about getting it right, that the river is managed in a way that reflects the best science available.”

    The experience at GCMRC also got Schmidt thinking about how regional water supply decisions, often made decades ago, could thwart efforts to improve river management. For example, when his team participated in writing a new plan for operating the Glen Canyon Dam to make sandbars more stable and protect endangered fish such as the humpback chub, it could not consider any changes that were inconsistent with existing water supply agreements. That was frustrating, Schmidt recalls: “Nobody really asked the question: What’s the way to manage the [whole] system that’s the best for Grand Canyon?”

    AFTER SCHMIDT LEFT GCMRC to return to Utah State in 2014, he wanted to explore those possibilities—unhindered by political and institutional constraints. He set up an interdisciplinary research center, and 2 years ago pulled together an all-star team of water experts for the effort, called the Future of the Colorado River Project. Among the collaborators: Udall, a veteran of western water policy; Eric Kuhn, retired general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, a planning agency, who provides a practical perspective; and Kevin Wheeler of the University of Oxford, a master of complex hydrological models.

    The group has so far released six white papers. Some address technical matters, such as how to improve the models used to develop management policy for reservoirs. Others have scrutinized hot-button proposals, such as prioritizing water storage in Lake Mead and keeping less in Lake Powell. This proposal, called Fill Mead First, could be a first step toward dismantling Glen Canyon Dam and restoring the canyon behind it. (Schmidt’s team concluded the approach wouldn’t save much water and would likely greatly perturb the downstream ecosystem.)

    The latest installment, released in February, evaluated for the first time how rising temperatures and declining runoff might jeopardize the regional water supply. The white paper also looked at how demand might change in coming decades. Using the same computer model that the Bureau of Reclamation and state water agencies use, known as the Colorado River Simulation System, the team examined numerous scenarios, including how meager runoff could reduce water storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead to critical levels. At one threshold dam turbines couldn’t generate electricity. If levels fall even lower, the reservoirs can no longer release water to alleviate downstream shortages, leaving users at nature’s mercy.

    Glen Canyon Dam high flow release photo.

    The modeling, done by Wheeler, showed reservoirs might dip into the danger zone, perhaps within 2 to 3 decades, assuming the present drought persists. To maintain a degree of water security, the study found that upper basin users would have to cap consumption at a long-term average, and lower basin states might have to cut their use by as much as 40% by the 2050s. “Colorado River outlook darkens dramatically in new study,” ran a headline in the Arizona Daily Star.

    That is a “really bold and difficult upshot,” Fiebig of American Rivers says. And although it’s not news to veteran water experts, says Elizabeth Koebele, an environmental social scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno, “bringing that [message] into the broader policy conversation is pretty provocative now.” The results mean the upper basin can’t develop all of its water rights, Schmidt says. Making that scenario “completely transparent forces everybody to deal with it.”

    Not surprisingly, some groups argue the study is overly pessimistic. Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, notes the white paper uses “obsolete” water demand forecasts from 2007. The more recent forecast predicts less of an increase, she says. (Schmidt says those numbers don’t change the overall picture.) Average demand for water has not risen in recent decades in the upper basin, Schmidt notes, and it will likely stay flat and shift. More water may become available to citiesas coal-fired power plants close and agricultural practices shift. Other change may be in store if Native American tribes decide to assert their water rights and develop or market them outside of their reservations.

    Buschatzke of the Arizona Department of Water Resources says the group’s sobering scenarios are helpful for informing decision-making. “We understand what they’re doing is pushing the envelope, rightly so for academia.” But he says the department must create a water supply plan that is acceptable to diverse parties. Some lower basin groups are likely to oppose any plan that calls for cuts, he says, whereas conservation-minded advocates might push for even larger cuts.

    Upper basin states, meanwhile, remain staunchly opposed to any notion of giving up future development. In Utah, which had the nation’s fastest growing population over the past decade, despite having the second driest climate, officials want to build a 225-kilometer pipeline to tap more water from Lake Powell. They shrug off concerns about how that could affect downstream supplies. Critics of Utah’s new water advocacy agency worry it will simply deny the reality of climate change as it attempts to protect the state’s water rights. “The Utah State Legislature is still mired in an era of unreality,” says Daniel McCool, a political scientist at the University of Utah. The state’s recent moves amount to “a declaration of water war, frankly.”

    THE NEW ROUND OF NEGOTIATIONS over the Colorado compact will reveal just how far the parties are willing to go in acknowledging the worst case scenarios. “It’s all coming to a head,” Koebele says. “The extreme drought … is really highlighting that we do need to think more creatively.” Some of the big ideas floated by Schmidt’s group include new water accounting methods that span the entire basin, which would allow more flexible dam operations, and expand voluntary water banking and market exchanges of water rights.

    Even as Schmidt works to highlight the risks of business as usual, he knows he may have to accept another difficult truth: that, in the end, people might once again decide to sacrifice the Colorado River ecosystems in order to get the water they want for cities, farms, and power.

    Currently, environmental management programs—including some he helped design—mitigate some of the most severe impacts of existing dams and other infrastructure. But that won’t suffice as climate change and new water demands take hold. “We can’t solely rely on tweaking small aspects of reservoir operations to protect river ecosystems,” he says. “We also have to consider how much water rivers need to remain healthy.”

    Schmidt would like that need to be a larger part of the upcoming negotiations. His own priority is to preserve the flows of rivers in the upper basin, which are wilder than the lower basin’s highly engineered reaches. When pressed, he confesses to an “aesthetic and philosophical wish” for a return to vanishing and long-gone landscapes of the Colorado. He recognizes that it may be impossible.

    Still, Schmidt wants officials debating the future of the Colorado to know the region’s vast and growing human presence is not the only thing at stake. Next month, he will lead scientists, water managers, tribal leaders, and other river stakeholders on a raft trip down the Green River, the longest headwaters tributary of the Colorado. During the 5-day trip, organized by his center at Utah State and American Rivers, Schmidt will use sandbars as classrooms, sharing what he and other researchers have learned about the fish, plants, sand, and dams. The goal, he says, is that “when people are sitting in those conference rooms making decisions about water supply, they have in the back of their mind what these rivers are all about.”

    President Biden Announces Five Key Nominations #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Here’s the release from the President’s office:

    [June 18, 2021], President Joe Biden announced his intent to nominate the following seven individuals to serve in key roles:

  • Xochitl Torres Small, Nominee for Under Secretary of Rural Development, Department of Agriculture
  • Laura Daniel-Davis, Nominee for Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management, Department of Interior
  • Hampton Dellinger, Nominee for Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy, Department of Justice
  • M. Camille Calimlim Touton, Commissioner, Bureau of Reclamation, Department of Interior
  • Christi Grimm, Nominee for Inspector General, Department of Health and Human Services
  • Xochitl Torres Small, Nominee for Under Secretary of Rural Development, Department of Agriculture

    The granddaughter of migrant farmworkers, Xochitl Torres Small grew up in the borderlands of New Mexico. In 2008, she came home from college to work as a field organizer, working in colonias in southern New Mexico. She continued serving rural New Mexico as a field representative for Senator Tom Udall, where she collaborated with local grassroots leaders, business owners, elected officials, and regional and state economic development officials to help communities access American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. Inspired by Senator Udall’s work on water in the West, Torres Small studied water law and worked closely with rural water utilities. In 2018, Torres Small became the first woman and first person of color to represent New Mexico’s second congressional district, the largest district that isn’t its own state.

    In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Representative Torres Small kept a rural hospital from closing its doors, improved constituent access to healthcare over the phone, and helped secure tens of millions of dollars for broadband in New Mexico through USDA’s ReConnect Program. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Torres Small raised the alarm on broadband disparities, serving on Majority Whip James Clyburn’s Rural Broadband Taskforce and as an original cosponsor of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act. As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, Torres Small helped build the case for dairy farmers harmed by Canada’s violation of the United States Mexico Canada Agreement, and drafted legislation to help local farmers and rural communities invest in infrastructure to navigate new markets. Torres Small also partnered with Senator Udall to introduce the Western Water Security Act, and helped secure key provisions of the legislation in the FY 2021 Appropriations Omnibus. In addition, Torres Small worked closely with the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure to secure New Mexico water priorities in the Water Resources Development Act, including Rio Grande ecosystem restoration from Sandia Pueblo to Isleta Pueblo and increased authorization for the Tribal Partnership Program within the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Throughout her career, Torres Small has employed her experience organizing in vulnerable, rural communities to achieve lasting investments that combat persistent poverty.

    Laura Daniel-Davis, Nominee for Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management, Department of Interior

    Laura Daniel-Davis currently serves as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Management, overseeing the important activities of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

    Daniel-Davis has worked to conserve public lands, protect wildlife and address climate change for three decades, prioritizing a collaborative and partnership-based approach. She previously served in the Interior Department during the Clinton and Obama Administrations, serving as Chief of Staff to Interior Secretaries Sally Jewell and Ken Salazar in the Obama administration and Chief of Staff to the Deputy Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton Administration.

    She was most recently the Chief of Policy and Advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation and led NWF’s bipartisan efforts on implementing natural infrastructure solutions, including habitat restoration work, along with supporting enactment of the historic Great American Outdoors Act. Daniel-Davis also has experience working in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving as Deputy Chief of Staff to Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO).

    Daniel-Davis lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband, daughter, two dogs and a cat, and enjoys hiking on public lands and identifying bird calls. She holds a BA in Political Science from Wake Forest University.

    Hampton Dellinger, Nominee for Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy, Department of Justice

    Hampton Dellinger is a former Deputy Attorney General in the North Carolina Department of Justice and served as Chief Legal Counsel in the Office of the North Carolina Governor from 2001-2003 where his responsibilities included overseeing the judicial appointment process. In the private sector, he has devoted a significant amount of time to pro bono matters including representing an international coalition of women’s soccer players challenging gender discrimination at the 2015 World Cup.

    Dellinger has written on a wide range of legal topics including publications in the Harvard Law Review, the North Carolina Law Review, and for SCOTUSBlog. Other essays he has authored have appeared in Atlantic.com, Politico, Slate, and the National Law Journal.

    Dellinger received his B.A. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1989. He graduated from Yale Law School in 1993 and served as a senior editor on the Yale Law Journal. He was a law clerk for United States Court of Appeals Judge J. Dickson Phillips, Jr. He and his spouse, Professor Jolynn Childers Dellinger, live in Durham, N.C. and have two grown children.

    M Camille Calimlim Touton MIT via Twitter (@mitwater)

    M. Camille Calimlim Touton, Commissioner, Bureau of Reclamation, Department of Interior

    M. Camille Calimlim Touton is a Nevadan who has spent her career focusing on water policy. Prior to joining Interior, Camille served as Senior Professional Staff for the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Camille’s congressional experience also includes serving as Professional Staff for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, the authorizing committees for the Department of the Interior. Camille also served as the Department of the Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science under the Obama Administration.

    Camille holds a BS in Engineering (Civil) and a BA in Communication Studies from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a Master of Public Policy from George Mason University. While her heart is in the west, Camille, her husband Matthew, and their daughters call Arlington, VA home.

    Christi Grimm, Nominee for Inspector General, Department of Health and Human Services

    Christi A. Grimm is the Department of Health and Human Services’ Principal Deputy Inspector General (PDIG) and has been performing the duties of the Inspector General since January 2020. As the senior-most executive for the largest federal Office of Inspector General, Ms. Grimm leads an independent and objective organization of more than 1,600 auditors, evaluators, investigators, lawyers, and management professionals who carry out OIG’s mission of protecting the integrity of HHS programs as well as the health and welfare of program beneficiaries. Ms. Grimm has more than 20 years of experience leading organizations, individuals, and teams to deploy creative solutions, overcome challenges, and achieve positive outcomes.

    Ms. Grimm began her career with the Department of Health and Human Services at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services before joining HHS-OIG in 1999. She has held a number of leadership roles during her service at HHS-OIG including, Senior Policy Advisor to the Principal Deputy and Inspector General, Director of Policy and Programs, and Chief of Staff. In her current role, Ms. Grimm has led HHS-OIG through great challenges, while sustaining the agency’s mission and impact. She has been a crucial voice in guiding and informing key stakeholders, including those in the Executive and Legislative Branches, on important topics such as oversight of the Unaccompanied Children Program, federal health and human services’ response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the intersection of healthcare and technology. Further, she is a leading expert in HHS program integrity issues and has authored more than a dozen articles and delivered multiple speeches that have established her at the forefront of developments in the healthcare arena. In addition, Ms. Grimm spearheaded several programs within HHS-OIG to strengthen the organization and better serve the American people through important efforts such as creating the first-ever OIG Executive Engagement Committee and building OIG’s capacity to address diversity, equity, and inclusion. Ms. Grimm provides valuable healthcare oversight and program integrity expertise to the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) as HHS-OIG’s representative to the PRAC and the leader of the Health Care Subgroup.

    Ms. Grimm has received numerous awards for her leadership and achievements, including the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency Award for Excellence in Management in 2019 and the Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Management in 2015. Ms. Grimm holds a Master of Public Administration from New York University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Colorado, Denver. She is a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Senior Managers in Government. Ms. Grimm is a native of Denver, Colorado and currently resides in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband and daughter.

    From The Associated Press via KTNV:

    President Joe Biden has nominated longtime water policy adviser Camille Touton to lead the agency that oversees water and power in the U.S. West.

    The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner will be a central figure in negotiations among several states over the future of the Colorado River…

    Touton is a native of Nevada and previously served as the deputy assistant secretary for water and science in the Interior Department under the Obama administration.

    If #LakePowell’s Water Levels Keep Falling, A Multi-State Reservoir Release May Be Needed — #Colorado Public Radio #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):

    Lake Powell’s water level is the lowest it’s been in decades, and the latest 24-month projections from the Arizona and Utah reservoir show that it’s likely to drop even further — below a critical threshold of 3,525 feet by next year.

    Graphic credit: USBR

    A 20-year megadrought and a hotter climate has contributed to shrinking water supplies in the Colorado River. If Lake Powell’s levels continue to dwindle, it could set off litigation between the seven states and the 40 million people that all rely on the Colorado River.

    “This is really new territory for us,” said Amy Ostdiek, deputy section chief of the federal, interstate and water information section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board…

    States agree Lake Powell must stay above certain level

    Ostdiek said it’s a “universally-accepted goal” among the seven states to avoid that situation. That’s why they agreed to the 2019 Colorado River Drought-Contingency Plan, which includes the provision that if Lake Powell drops below 3,525 feet, the upper-basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation have a plan in place to send more water to Lake Powell.

    Those meetings are happening. Ostdiek said the upper-basin states have recently switched to planning mode due to the low water levels forecasted for Lake Powell. The plan to protect Powell could involve releasing water from upstream reservoirs of Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa, and Navajo in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

    But the hope is to avoid the need for that plan by keeping Powell above the 3,525-foot threshold.

    At capacity, Lake Powell holds more than 26 million acre-feet of water that originates as snowpack from the Upper Basin. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation via the Water Education Foundation)

    The #Drought in the West Is Bad and It’s Gonna Get Worse — Outside Magazine #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    West Drought Monitor map June 15, 2021.

    From Outside Magazine (Heather Hansman):

    I spent runoff season this year chasing whitewater along the spine of the Rockies, where the impacts of a long-range megadrought feel increasingly painful and obvious. More than half of the western United States is currently experiencing extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and it’s rapidly getting worse.

    Although the Mountain West’s high-country snowpack—the source of water for a wide swath of land on both sides of the Continental Divide—was around 80 percent of its average this winter, the past 12 months have been among the hottest and driest on record there. As the snow melted, runoff was soaked up by parched soils, which are still dry from last year’s monsoon-free summer and fire-filled fall. When it’s as hot as it has been, every living thing needs more water, so plants sucked in moisture, too. In the same area of the mountains where the snow was 80 percent, river flows dripped out at 30 percent of their average. Ted was right: there’s not much water when there’s this level of aridity.

    Paddling, for me, is a benchmark, a tangible way to understand what all those drought maps and numbers mean. And these days, the bottom-scraping springtime runs feel like a creepy indicator of how bad things will be downriver, where those waterways are used to grow food, maintain ecosystems, fight wildfires, and provide drinking water. I paddled Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River in Utah while it was running at one-tenth of its average flow, and I checked in on the dam-released drip formerly known as the Dolores River—a sight that made my stomach drop. On the other side of the Divide, I took a turgid run down Browns Canyon on Colorado’s Arkansas River—the most heavily commercially rafted section of river in the nation—and winced watching the guides trying to keep their clients paddling through the slack water, which was flowing well below the midsummer dam-released minimum of 700 cubic feet per second. It’s the scariest year I’ve ever been a river runner, and I’m not alone in thinking that…

    “I’m nervous looking forward. It’s wishful thinking to assume it will get better,” says Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River District and coauthor of Science be Dammed. Kuhn has worked in water management for decades and believes the way we’re currently managing rivers isn’t sustainable and hasn’t been for a while. It’s coming to an inflection point where things will really have to change.
    The signs (like dry rivers) and symptoms (the wave of early-season fires) are cascading on top of each other. In 2019, I wrote a book called Downriver about water policy with a subtitle that now feels painfully flippant: “Into the future of water in the West.” That was two years ago. Now the future is here—hotter, drier, sooner than predicted, and scarier than imagined.

    By June 1, snowpack in the Sierra Nevada was at zero percent of its average, and California’s governor had declared a drought emergency in two-thirds of the state’s counties. After a record-breaking fire year in 2020, wildfire risks were already high, and the state’s agriculture industry, which supplies a huge amount of the country’s veggies, fruits, and nuts, was facing shortages and cutting crops to compensate. In Oregon, fragile, threatened salmon are dying because streams and lakes are drying up. Wide swaths of northern New England and the upper Midwest are abnormally dry. Even Hawaii is at elevated risk for wildfires.

    In the Colorado River Basin—a bellwether for dryland watersheds because it’s crucial to millions of people and drying fast—the two big reservoirs in the system, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are crashing toward their lowest levels ever and approaching elevations that will trigger the first-ever federally mandated usage cutbacks. In other words, states, starting with Arizona, will have to start taking less from reservoirs than they’ve historically been legally promised.

    A few glaring reasons indicate why we’re at this tipping point. The first is that we’re not operating within our limits. The Colorado River, for example, has been overallocated since the Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922. The agreement, often referred to as the law of the river, gave the seven states in the basin more water than exists in the river. Brad Udall, senior water and climate-research scientist at Colorado State University, found that we’ve been using 1.2 million acre-feet of water more than the river’s natural flow each year, which is one of the reasons why the reservoirs are plummeting. We’re also continuing to build rampantly in dry places and depleting groundwater as we do.

    And we’re ignoring scientific limits and increasing demand while climate change is shrinking our supply even further. “This is the new baseline, and there’s no more water left in the system,” Kuhn says. According to a 2017 report coauthored by Udall, we can attribute at least half of the decline in water supply to greenhouse-gas-related warming. For every one degree Celsius of warming, he expects another 9 percent decline in the Colorado’s flow, and similar patterns are showing up in rivers globally.

    We know that the supply is shrinking, and now the huge, complicated challenge is changing the way we operate within those limits. Kuhn believes that Mead and Powell are test cases for whether we can adapt to climate change, and what the realities are of doing that. He points out that we can’t call these climatic conditions a drought anymore, because that implies it will end. Years are variable, and snowpack, rainfall, and temperatures oscillate, but we have to look at the science and assume that the hot, dry trends we’re seeing will continue—and continue to get worse.

    And then we have to get realistic about cutbacks. Demands have to shrink along with supply.

    Part of that is reliant on state, tribal, and federal water managers, who are responsible for allocation. Right now on the Colorado River, those entities are renegotiating what are called interim guidelines, which outline the water levels that trigger those planned cutbacks and delineate which places have to sacrifice water first. Last year a voluntary set of shortages, called the Drought Contingency Plan, was put in place as a stopgap to keep the river from spiraling into crisis.
    As the water managers come up with the next set of guidelines, which are slated to go into place in 2026, they’ll have to be much stricter, while also trying to be equitable. It’s going to be extremely difficult, because these decisions are tangled up in states’ rights, environmental equity, and philosophies about growth. Kuhn says he hopes desperation might drive more concession and collaboration than there’s been before. As those negotiations and cutbacks happen on the Colorado—which brings water to 40 million people in the western U.S.—they can be a template for other rivers and other dry places that are facing similar conditions.

    ‘Red alert’: #LakeMead falls to record-low level, a milestone in #ColoradoRiver’s crisis — #AZ Central #COriver #aridification

    Members of the Colorado River Commission, in Santa Fe in 1922, after signing the Colorado River Compact. From left, W. S. Norviel (Arizona), Delph E. Carpenter (Colorado), Herbert Hoover (Secretary of Commerce and Chairman of Commission), R. E. Caldwell (Utah), Clarence C. Stetson (Executive Secretary of Commission), Stephen B. Davis, Jr. (New Mexico), Frank C. Emerson (Wyoming), W. F. McClure (California), and James G. Scrugham (Nevada)
    CREDIT: COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY WATER RESOURCES ARCHIVE via Aspen Journalism

    From AZ Central (Ian James):

    Lake Mead has declined to its lowest level since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s following the construction of Hoover Dam, marking a new milestone for the water-starved Colorado River in a downward spiral that shows no sign of letting up…

    The lake’s rapid decline has been outpacing projections from just a few months ago. Its surface reached a new low Wednesday night when it dipped past the elevation of 1,071.6 feet, a record set in 2016. But unlike that year, when inflows helped push the lake levels back up, the watershed is now so parched and depleted that Mead is projected to continue dropping next year and into 2023.

    Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, now stands at just 36% of full capacity.

    In the past month, Mead has already fallen below the official threshold of a shortage, which the federal government is expected to declare in August. That will trigger major cuts in water allotments for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico next year. And even bigger water reductions could be forced upon the Southwest if the reservoir continues to drop, which government estimates show is likely…

    The reservoir’s continuing decline, [Felicia] Marcus said, should ring “alarm bells” across the West that the days of business-as-usual approaches are over and that “we need to accelerate everything we can to use less water.”

    That includes speeding up efforts that cities and water agencies are already undertaking in parts of the Southwest, such as investing in recycling wastewater, capturing stormwater or cleaning up polluted groundwater, Marcus said. And it also includes promoting conservation and more efficient water use in a variety of ways, she said, from investing in water-saving technologies on farms to offering homeowners cash rebates to removing grass and replacing it with drought-tolerant landscaping.

    With shortage measures set to take effect next year, Arizona is in line for the biggest water cutbacks.

    That will shrink the amount flowing through the Central Arizona Project Canal to farmlands in Pinal County that produce alfalfa, cotton, wheat and other crops. Farmers in Pinal plan to pump more groundwater from newly drilled wells, but they’ll still be short with the loss of Colorado River water and are planning to leave some farmlands dry and unplanted over the next couple of years.

    In a first-level shortage, the water supplies of Arizona’s cities will be spared from cutbacks. But that could change over the next two years if Lake Mead continues to decline.

    In the Las Vegas area, people are already conserving enough each year that their water supplier will be able to contribute its portion of the reductions from its unused allocation. But that hasn’t stopped Nevada’s leaders from pushing for more water-savings by getting rid of grass on medians and outside businesses and subdivisions, as required under a newly enacted law that bans “non-functional turf” in the Las Vegas area…

    The watershed has been ravaged by one of the driest 22-year periods in centuries. Scientists describe the past two decades as a megadrought worsened by climate change, and say the Colorado River Basin is undergoing “aridification” that will complicate water management for generations to come.

    In 2000, Lake Mead was nearly full and its surface was lapping at the spillway gates of the Hoover Dam. Since then, the reservoir has fallen nearly 143 feet. And it’s now at the lowest levels since 1937.

    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

    Two years ago, representatives of the seven states that depend on the Colorado River met at Hoover Dam to sign a set of agreements called the Drought Contingency Plan, which laid out measures to take less water and share in reductions during a shortage to reduce the risks of Lake Mead falling to critically low levels.

    But the declines have continued and the drought has intensified over the past year, with much of the watershed baking through the driest 12 months in 126 years of records. The river and its tributaries have dwindled, shrinking the flow into Lake Powell at the Utah-Arizona border, and in turn driving the receding water levels at Lake Mead…

    Arizona’s plan for managing the shortages involves deliveries of “mitigation” water to help temporarily lessen the blow for some farmers and other entities, as well as payments for those that contribute water. The state and CAP approved more than $100 million for these payments, with much of the funds going to the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community for water they contributed…

    At full pool, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States by volume, but two decades of drought have dramatically dropped the water level behind Hoover Dam as can be seen in this photo. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

    Over the past year, the declines in water levels have accelerated, outpacing previous estimates due to extremely parched conditions across the watershed in the Rocky Mountains, where much of the river’s flow originates as melting snow. Hotter temperatures have made the whole watershed “thirstier,” as climate researchers put it, eroding the flow of the river as vegetation draws more water and as more moisture evaporates off the landscape…

    In just 12 months, the [Lake Mead’s] level has dropped nearly 20 vertical feet…

    Officials from Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico have been talking about other ways they might work together on long-term projects to shore up water supplies. One idea they’re studying would be for Arizona to work with Mexico to build a desalination plant on the shore of the Sea of Cortez and trade some of the drinking water that’s produced for a portion of Mexico’s Colorado River water.

    Officials from Las Vegas’ Southern Nevada Water Authority have offered to invest in a water recycling project in Southern California, which would enable the agency to use some of the Metropolitan Water District’s Colorado River water in exchange. Arizona water officials are also considering joining the other agencies and taking part in the project.

    When representatives of the seven states signed the Drought Contingency Plan on a terrace overlooking Hoover Dam in 2019, some of them described the deal as a “bridge” solution to temporarily lessen the risks of a damaging crash and buy time through 2026, by which time new rules for sharing shortages would be negotiated and adopted.

    The agreement establishes a series of progressively larger water cutbacks if Lake Mead continues to drop below lower trigger points in the coming years.

    If the reservoir drops about 26 more feet to below elevation 1,045 feet, California would start to take cuts.

    And if the water level falls below 1,025 feet, which is a scenario the deal aims to avoid, the largest reductions would take effect for all three states and Mexico.

    Increasingly, some researchers are voicing concerns that even the major cuts contemplated in the deal might not be enough. Some have suggested that with extremely dry conditions persisting in the watershed, the region’s water managers might need to take bigger steps before 2026 to prevent Mead’s levels from continuing to plummet.

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

    “We really have seen this coming all along on some level,” said Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University. “And we in some ways aren’t ready for it, despite all the things we’ve done to make us feel good that we were ready for it.”

    Udall said the network of people who work on Colorado River issues have made great strides in collaborating on adaptation strategies, including through the 2019 deal. But he said he’s not convinced that adequate measures are in place to quickly scale up the more aggressive steps if the contemplated cuts turn out to be insufficient — other than the possibility that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland could convene the states’ representatives and determine what steps to take, which is also included as a sort of backstop measure in the deal.

    “This thing could spiral out of control pretty quickly,” Udall said, if more years of severe drought desiccate the region as they did in the early 2000s.

    He said he also worries about the fact that some of the water in Lake Mead is reserved for specific water users based on prior conservation, which has been encouraged under the deal and previous agreements.

    Concerns about that banked water also have been voiced by others, including Margaret Garcia, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who focuses on water infrastructure and management. She said this system of banking water, technically called “intentionally created surplus,” poses concerns because it means some water in Mead is already spoken for beyond established allocations, and this stored water can still be withdrawn unless the reservoir hits critical lows.

    As Garcia put it, “a savings account full with IOUs is not the same as a full savings account.” And Lake Mead’s account is far from full.

    The heart of the issue, Udall said, may be developing new ways of quickly adapting to a river that’s yielding less water as the West grows hotter and drier.

    “We may need to take this next big step, which is how do you permanently reduce demands?” Udall said.

    #LakeMead projected to match lowest water level in history this week — The #LasVegas Review-Journal #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    US Drought Monitor map June 1, 2021.

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

    Lake Mead’s water level this week is projected to match its lowest point since the reservoir was formed in the 1930s, federal officials said Tuesday.

    U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Patti Aaron said projections show Lake Mead’s water level reaching an elevation of 1,071.61 feet on Thursday, matching the record low set on July 1, 2016.

    And the lake level decline isn’t projected to stop there.

    “We expect it to keep declining until November,” Aaron said.
    Lake Mead is barreling toward its first federally declared water shortage, a product of a decades-long drought that has left the Colorado River parched. About 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water comes from Lake Mead…

    Under a shortage, Nevada would have its annual 300,000 acre-foot allocation of water from the river slashed by 13,000 feet. That reduction would come in addition to an 8,000 acre-foot contribution Nevada agreed to in 2019 in the event Lake Mead’s water level dropped below 1,090 feet, as it has…

    This year, the Colorado River Basin is projected to experience its second-driest year in more than a century of record keeping. The driest year on record was 2002…

    The declining lake level has also reduced the Hoover Dam’s power generation capacity.
    According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the dam’s power plant is capable of producing about 2,080 megawatts. Aaron said the current capacity is 1,567 megawatts, enough to power about 350,000 homes…

    Each foot in elevation that the lake level decreases, Aaron said, the dam loses about 6 megawatts of capacity. The lowest water level that allows the dam to continue generating power is 950 feet.

    “But we are not in danger of hitting that point,” Aaron said…

    Even if the state’s allocation is cut, Southern Nevada wouldn’t immediately feel the squeeze. Last year, the region used 256,000 acre feet, and the Southern Nevada Water Authority has about eight years worth of water at that rate of usage stored in Arizona, California, Lake Mead and Las Vegas’ local aquifer.

    ‘Nonfunctional’ grass to be banned in #LasVegas Valley — The Las Vegas Review-Journal #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    An elaborate fountain in Las Vegas. One of the biggest water meetings of the year takes place every December in Las Vegas, which has driven down water use down by paying people to remove thirsty turf and grass. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From The Las Vegas Review-Journal (Colton Lochhead):

    Nearly one-third of all of the grass in Southern Nevada will need to be removed by the end of 2026 under a new bill signed into law by Gov. Steve Sisolak Friday, a significant conservation effort that comes as the state is facing its first federal water shortage amid declining Lake Mead levels and a two-decades-long drought that has shown no signs of ending.

    “I think that it’s incumbent upon us for the next generation to be more conscious of our conservation of our natural resources, water being particularly important,” Sisolak told reporters last week when asked about the bill before he had signed it.

    Specifically, Assembly Bill 356 will prohibit Colorado River water distributed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority from being used to irrigate “nonfunctional turf” starting Jan. 1, 2027. The water authority has said that this will include the grass between roads and sidewalks, in medians and traffic circles and decorative grass outside businesses, housing developments and similar areas. Single-family homes, golf courses are parks are excluded from the ban.

    According to the water authority’s estimate, the new law will lead to the eventual removal of 3,900 to 4,000 acres of nonfunctional grass, or about 6 square miles worth of thirsty turf.

    That’s about 30 percent of the 13,000 acres of grass currently in the Las Vegas Valley.

    West Drought Monitor map June 1, 2021.

    For the nation’s driest state, water conservation efforts will take on even greater importance going forward as the Southwest U.S. drought has intensified and is only expected to worsen.

    The latest study from the Bureau of Reclamation in May predicts that the water level of Lake Mead, which supplies about 90 percent of the water for Southern Nevada, will drop low enough this year to trigger its first federally declared water shortage. A formal declaration on the shortage could come in August if those predictions hold true.

    That shortage would reduce Southern Nevada’s allocation of 300,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River by 13,000 acre-feet.

    Amid Dire #ColoradoRiver Outlook, States Plan to Tap Their #LakeMead Savings Accounts — Circle of Blue #COriver #aridification

    Lake Mead on the Colorado River, a major source of water for MWD. Photo/Allen Best

    Here’s an in-depth look at the Lower Colorado River Basin’s intentionally created surplus accounts in Lake Mead from Brett Walton, that’s running in Circle of Blue. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

    This year and next, Arizona and California intend to draw on water they banked in the big reservoir, even as water levels drop.

    A complex and arcane water banking program in the lower Colorado River basin, adopted in 2007 and later amended, was designed to incentivize water conservation, prevent waste, and boost storage in a waning Lake Mead.

    The program has already proved its worth, lifting Lake Mead dozens of feet higher than it otherwise would have been and nurturing collaboration among states that will need to work together to surmount daunting challenges of water availability. In the next two years, the program will be tested in another way, becoming a small but important source of water for Arizona and California even as the lake continues to fall to levels that haven’t been witnessed in several generations.

    Water managers in the basin view the program, called intentionally created surplus or ICS, as a flexible tool for adapting to a drying climate. It is a tool that they will soon call upon. Bill Hasencamp from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a large regional wholesaler, told Circle of Blue that the district intends to draw between 100,000 and 150,000 acre-feet from its savings this year.

    Arizona officials, meanwhile, plan to use 69,100 acre-feet of ICS credits to reduce mandatory cutbacks that will be required in 2022 if Mead declines as projected. The state already used this maneuver to deal with a cutback last year, albeit in a smaller amount. Instead of taking a big cut in one year, ICS allows Arizona to “smooth the reduction,” as Chuck Cullom of the Central Arizona Project put it. CAP delivers the bulk of Arizona’s Colorado River allocation and is first in line in the state when cutbacks are required.

    These amounts are small but significant, especially in these times. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, or the amount of water that will flood an acre of land to a depth of one foot. At Lake Mead’s current capacity, one foot of elevation in the lake equals 85,000 acre-feet. These ICS uses, at the high end, amount to two and a half feet of elevation in Lake Mead.

    At the same time that water users plan to tap their savings, scholars in the basin are calling for more analysis of the ICS program, especially as Lake Mead’s decline accelerates. They would like to check how the system responds to ICS use under a range of water supply scenarios.

    Ever since the mid-2000s, the last time that water supplies in Colorado River reservoirs reached critically low levels, the biggest water users in Arizona, California, and Nevada have been stashing water in Lake Mead, in preparation for another emergency to come — and in an attempt to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the region’s water storage system.

    With the federal government now projecting that Lake Mead will drop precipitously in the next two years — perhaps to levels not seen since the Great Depression, when the country’s largest reservoir was first filled — that emergency has arrived.

    “While Colorado River water users have invested billions of dollars to reduce consumption and increase resiliency, the situation we face today is real and urgent,” John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on May 25…

    Because of record-high temperatures and a drying climate, the basin is also dangerously parched. Thirsty soils gulp melting snow before it reaches streams. Lake Mead, which is just 36 percent full, is in poor health. So is Lake Powell, located upstream and only 34 percent full.

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

    Creating Surplus

    ICS was conceived during negotiations between the seven states that led to a milestone agreement in 2007 that transformed how the basin operates. At the time, Lake Powell had experienced the driest five-year period in the region in a century and there were unresolved questions about delivering water under such conditions. The 2007 Interim Guidelines, which expire at the end of 2025, were a landmark document that secured three substantial changes.

    First, the guidelines developed a formula for determining how much water is released from Lake Powell into Lake Mead. The releases are designed to keep the reservoirs roughly in balance.

    The guidelines also set Lake Mead elevations at which lower basin states would be required to reduce their withdrawals. The first of these shortage tiers — at 1,075 feet above sea level — is expected to be breached next year. (Mead is currently at 1,073 feet, but for shortage determinations, it is the projected level in the following January that matters. Right now that projection is 1,066 feet.)

    The third change was establishing intentionally created surplus, or ICS. The program allows big water users in the lower basin to open a savings account in the lake. To bank water in their account, they must take an action that reduces water consumption. That banked water is credited to the user that created it. ICS is not conservation in the household sense of simply using less. It is not taking a shorter shower or only watering the lawn once a week. ICS is instead more comparable to a personal savings account. Water banked now becomes an asset that can be withdrawn later, subject to certain conditions…

    With a bit of linguistic maneuvering, the rules were written so that agencies like Met could create “surplus” by investing in conservation. Say, for example, that Met paid to line a canal with concrete so water would not seep into the soil, or paid farmers to fallow their fields. The Bureau of Reclamation, playing the oversight role in the lower basin, checks that the lining kept water in the canal and the alfalfa fields were not irrigated. That amount of water — the difference between what would have been delivered without the intervention and what was actually delivered — would then be credited to Met in the form of ICS, minus a small percentage that is the lake’s share.

    A few years later these rules were altered to bring Mexico into the program. U.S. entities can pay a counterpart in Mexico for conservation and reap the ICS asset. The rules were changed again in 2019, in an agreement called the Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP, that welcomed certain tribal nations into the fold. Banked water is now subjected to a one-time tax of 10 percent, a cut that is credited to the storage system as a whole.

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

    Only six entities have created ICS, according to Jeremy Dodds, who is responsible for ICS accounting and verification at the Bureau of Reclamation. Those six are some of the largest water users in the basin: Met, Gila River Indian Community, Colorado River Indian Tribes, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Imperial Irrigation District, and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which manages CAP. Within the four categories of ICS, there are limits on the ICS each water user can create, the amount they can take out in a year, and the total amount stored.

    #LakePowell near historic lows — The Navajo Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

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

    From The Navajo Times (Krista Allen):

    Water levels at Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir in the country, fell to 3,559.95 feet above sea level on Monday, down from an average of 3,604.09 at this time (May 26) last year, according to the Lake Powell Water Database.

    Lake Powell is at 34.2% of full pool (24,322,000 acre-feet) and 140.8 feet below full pool (3,700) as of Wednesday morning.

    The primary factors influencing Lake Powell – as well as Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country – are inflows into Lake Powell, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

    Upper Basin hydrology accounts for about 92% of the total streamflow in the basin. Inflow into Lake Powell is also affected by Upper Basin water use and the operation of reservoirs above Lake Powell…

    The Colorado River, Tooh Bikooh Dinék’ehjígo, originates on the Colorado western slope. Over 25 significant tributaries join it. The Green River in Utah is the largest by both length and discharge.

    Tooh Bikooh flows to the Gulf of California. It provides water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of land, and is the lifeblood for at least 22 federally recognized tribes, seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas, and 11 national parks, according to Reclamation.

    In August 2020, a 24-month study projected the Jan. 1, 2021, Lake Powell elevation below the 2021 Equalization Elevation of 3,659 feet and above 3,575 feet. The lake level was 3,582.06 feet that day, according to the Lake Powell Water Database.

    With an 8.23-million-acre-foot release from Lake Powell in the water year 2021, an April 2021 24-month study projects the end-of-water-year elevation here below 3,575 feet. Lake Powell will continue to release 8.23 million acre-feet through the remainder of the water year.

    The Bureau of Reclamation will release its subsequent major study in August…

    The current water level at Mead is 1,074.84, which is 154.16 feet below the full pool of 1,229 feet, as of Wednesday morning.

    Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico are making contributions to Mead in a collaborative effort to maintain water levels and avoid severe shortage conditions at least through 2022.

    But a first-ever official shortage declaration from the Department of the Interior is almost certain later this year…

    Because Tooh Bikooh is over-allocated – and because drought and climate change are likely to worsen as the region gets hotter and drier — the seven Colorado River Basin states in 2019 agreed on a plan to manage the river by voluntarily cutting their water use to prevent the federal government from imposing mandatory water restrictions on the supply.

    As part of the Lower Basin’s drought contingency plan, the CAP would see its water supply cut by about one-third in 2022 because of its junior water rights in the river’s water. And farms in central Arizona would experience those water cuts.

    Reclamation’s projections continue to show a very high likelihood of Tier 1 reductions in 2022 and in 2023, as well as an increased risk of Tier 2 conditions in the future, according to the CAP.

    First-ever #ColoradoRiver water shortage is now almost certain, new projections show — CNN #COriver #aridification

    At full pool, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States by volume, but two decades of drought have dramatically dropped the water level behind Hoover Dam as can be seen in this photo. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

    From CNN (Pedram Javaheri and Drew Kann):

    On Tuesday, the water level in Lake Mead — the largest US reservoir, and fed by the Colorado River — fell below the elevation of 1,075 feet. It has hit that mark only a handful of times since the Hoover Dam was finished in the 1930s, but it always recovered shortly after. It may not this time, at least not any time soon.

    The US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) forecasts the lake’s levels to continue to decline, without any sign of recovery through at least the end of 2022. If the next major study in August from the USBR projects water levels in the lake will be below 1,075 feet on January 1, it would trigger the first-ever shortage declaration on the Colorado River, meaning some communities would begin to see their water deliveries cut significantly next year.

    Lake Mead and nearby Lake Powell — the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado River — have drained at an alarming rate. Lake Mead has fallen more than 139 feet since January of 2000.

    Lake Mead is currently 16 feet below where it was this time last year and the reservoir is only 37% full, while Lake Powell is down 35 feet from last year and sits at just 34% of the lake’s total capacity.

    Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in April 2017. The dam is 15 miles upstream from Lees Ferry, Arizona. The Colorado River, which supplies water to more than 40 million people and irrigates millions of acres of farmland, has seen its supply sapped by drought and climate change. Photo by Alexander Stephens/courtesy Bureau of Reclamation.

    In addition to dwindling snowpack, which provides most of the river’s water supply, experts say dry, thirsty soils across the basin are soaking up meltwater, meaning that less makes it into the river system…

    Climate change is also taking a toll on the river’s water supply. A study by US Geological Survey scientists published in 2020 found that the Colorado River’s flow has declined by about 20% over the last century, and over half of that decline can be attributed to warming temperatures across the basin.

    Who would the shortage affect?

    With the level of Lake Mead dipping below 1,075 feet on Tuesday and forecast to drop further, it is nearly certain that the Bureau of Reclamation will declare a Tier 1 shortage later this summer.

    If a Tier 1 shortage is declared, Colorado River water deliveries would be reduced for Arizona and Nevada as soon as next year, based on the terms of the 2019 drought contingency plan signed by the lower Colorado River basin states.

    The looming water cuts will have the greatest impact in Arizona.

    As part of the lower basin’s drought contingency plan, the Central Arizona Project would see its water supply slashed by about one third in 2022 due to its junior rights to the river’s water.

    While Arizona’s main population centers will be spared, the effects of those water cuts will be felt most acutely on farms in central Arizona, due to their lower priority status in a complex tier system used to determine who loses water first in the event of a shortage.

    California’s water deliveries would not be impacted in a Tier 1 shortage, according to the drought contingency plan.

    What happens if Lake Mead sinks further?

    In the event of a Tier 2 shortage — which the USBR projects could happen as soon as late 2022 — the cuts would impact some cities and tribes in Arizona that receive water from the Central Arizona Project canal.

    “I’m definitely concerned that the raw projections continue to go downward and that we are heading towards potentially a Tier 2 [shortage] in 2023,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

    Declining #LakePowell Levels Prompt #ColoradoRiver States To Form New Plan — KUNC #COriver #aridification

    Glen Canyon Dam December 8, 2015
    Credit: Sinjin Eberle

    From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

    Declining levels at the second-largest reservoir in the U.S. have spurred officials in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico to search for ways to prop it up.

    Lake Powell on the Colorado River is dropping rapidly amid one of the southwestern watershed’s driest years on record. It’s currently forecast to be at 29% of capacity by the end of September — the lowest level since the reservoir first started filling in 1963. Its sister reservoir downstream on the Colorado River, Lake Mead, is also approaching a record low this year.

    The amount of water flowing to Lake Powell since October has been less than what the river delivered during the same period in 2002, the driest year on record. Total reservoir storage in the Colorado River basin is projected to be at 39% of capacity by the end of September.

    Current Upper Colorado River Basin Reservoir Status May 12, 2021 via the USBR.

    Federal projections for the reservoir are prompting water officials to begin strategizing ways to keep Lake Powell from declining to a level where hydroelectric power generation is not possible. In a statement, the Upper Colorado River Commission announced it will begin developing a drought response operations plan, a measure outlined in a 2019 agreement. Earlier this year the reservoir’s declining level triggered monthly calls among the Upper Basin states and mandated a wider range of modeling.

    #LakeMead could be in a Tier 2 shortage by 2023. What’s that mean for #Arizona? — #AZ Central #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    In a photo from 2020, a distinct line around the rocky shore shows how much the water level has decreased in Nevada’s Lake Mead. Mead is expected to drop 15 feet in 2021 Photo credit: Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

    From Arizona Central (Joanna Allhands):

    Opinion: The latest forecast suggests for the first time that Lake Mead could fall into a Tier 2 shortage by 2023, thrusting even deeper water cuts on Arizona.

    Lake Mead’s water levels are heading the wrong way and going there alarmingly fast.

    If the forecast holds, it’s now likely that we will fall into a more severe Tier 2 shortage by 2023, spreading painful cuts to even more water users in Arizona.

    That nugget of bad news comes from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s 24-month study, which is updated each month to predict reservoir conditions for the next two years. In April, the projection was that Lake Mead – the reservoir that provides nearly 40% of Arizona’s water – would most certainly be in a Tier 1 shortage in 2022 but would miss the Tier 2 cutoff for 2023 by three-tenths of a foot.

    Now, in May, the most likely projection is that Lake Mead will end 2022 at 1,048.83 feet of elevation – more than a foot past the trigger to put us in Tier 2.

    We’re hot, dry and low – a volatile mix

    The good news (if you can call it that) is that the predictions didn’t change nearly as rapidly from April to May as they did from March to April. Projected lake levels for December 2022 dropped last month by about 5 feet, thanks to horribly anemic and earlier-than-expected runoff.

    It’s also worth noting that if we didn’t have the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) in place to conserve water, we would already be in this shape. That agreement didn’t solve our problems, but it has bought us time and certainty as deeper cuts play out – which is exactly what it was intended to do.

    West Drought Monitor map May 18, 2021.

    That said, we’re still hot and dry, with more than half of the Colorado River basin now in extreme drought, the most severe category. Unless that trajectory changes, the forecast is probably not going to get much better.

    And, even worse, we’re getting down into the V-shaped part of Lake Mead, meaning it takes a loss of less water to drop lake levels than it once did. Losing smaller volumes of water can have bigger impacts.

    Which is why there’s also a 1 in 4 chance that we could fall into a Tier 3 shortage by 2025 – the worst-case scenario spelled out under DCP and one that would much more heavily impact metro Phoenix cities.

    How a Tier 2 shortage could play out

    But a Tier 2 shortage in 2023 wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Technically, there are two levels of Tier 2 shortage for Arizona – a Tier 2a that’s triggered at 1,050 feet of elevation on Lake Mead and a Tier 2b that would occur at 1,045 feet.

    It’s a small variance in elevation, but it would increase required cuts statewide, from 592,000 to 640,000 acre-feet, and decimate Central Arizona Project’s Non-Indian Agriculture (NIA) pool, which despite its name mostly supplies tribes and cities.

    Luckily, Arizona’s DCP implementation plan includes water to temporarily mitigate the impact of those cuts. But the amount replenished in 2023 would fall from 75% to 50% in a Tier 2b shortage. That will still be painful, particularly for metro Phoenix cities that use NIA water to serve a few existing customers.

    The May projection is already within about 3 feet of reaching a Tier 2b shortage. And let me underline that – we’re talking about the most probable projection. Not the best or worst case, but the most likely.

    We’ve planned for this, but it’ll still hurt

    We’re also less than 20 feet from triggering what might be called the doomsday provision within DCP.

    If the lake is projected to fall below 1,030 feet any time within two years, Arizona, California and Nevada must reconvene to decide what additional steps they will take to keep Mead from falling below 1,020 feet – an elevation that many consider the crash point. The next milestone below that is “dead pool,” where no water leaves the lake.

    And that provision is triggered by any part of the forecast – not just the maximum or most probable scenario, but the minimum probable scenario, too.

    It’s anyone’s guess what will happen then.

    But, hey, at least we’ve got plans in place to handle Tier 2 and 3 shortages. And, in even better timing, Arizona has just completed a multiyear effort to flesh out how cities and other users can begin withdrawing the millions of acre-feet of water they have stored underground.

    Explaining the benefits and pitfalls of that effort is for another blog on another day, but for now, let’s just say it’s a good thing we have water stored for a (non)rainy day.

    Because the outlook for Arizona’s major renewable water source is parched and bleak – and growing more so every day.

    Cuts to Central #Arizona Project #water called “planned pain” — #Arizona Daily Star #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Aerial photo – Central Arizona Project. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=326265

    From The Arizona Daily Star (Tony Davis):

    The vast majority of those cuts will fall upon Pinal County farmers who have taken CAP instead of pumped groundwater for 35 years. CAP is the principal drinking water source for Tucson, but the first round of cuts will have no impacts on the city’s CAP supplies.

    At a virtual briefing Thursday, the heads of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project said they’ve known for many years that shortages will be coming and that they’ve stepped up with detailed plans for it.

    They stressed the large amount of negotiation and other work that went into the drought plan. They discussed in detail how a large number of water providers, tribes and other entities offered both water supplies and money to provide relief to farmers and others whose water supplies will be cut.

    Central Arizona farmers, due to lose 320,000 feet of CAP water in 2022, will get about 105,000 of that back in water supplies from other sources. They’ll also get money from a wide variety of sources to drill wells for another 70,000 acre- feet.

    A group of Phoenix-area cities and several tribes, including the Tohono O’Odham west of Tucson, stand to lose 60 percent of a separate CAP pool called Non-Indian Agricultural water, because it used to belong to farmers. They’ll get 75 percent of that back through mitigation approved under the drought plan.

    In response to questions Thursday, Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke and Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said they see no reason to plan for additional cuts beyond what the drought plan envisions before that plan expires in 2026.

    There’s no need to limit population growth to hold down demands for the state’s limited and shrinking water supplies, despite calls for that from some environmentalists, Cooke and Buschatzke also said Thursday…

    The cuts are necessary because Lake Mead is forecast to fall to 1,067 feet by the end of 2021. Under the 2019 drought plan, CAP will takes that first major cut in deliveries if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation predicts in August that Mead will fall below 1,075 feet in December.

    At Thursday’s briefing, Dan Bunk, a Bureau of Reclamation official, laid out a series of grim statistics showing the decline in river flows and reservoir levels.

    Today, Lake Mead is at 38 percent of its total capacity and Lake Powell is at 35 percent of capacity, said Bunk, of the bureau’s Lower Colorado River office in Boulder City, Nevada.

    Lake Mead has dropped 15 to 16 feet since a year ago and Powell has dropped 35 feet in the same period, he said…

    Snowpack levels peaked this year at 89 percent of median levels. Soil moisture is at near record low levels in the river’s Upper Basin, he said…

    This year is on pace to be the river’s third or fourth driest runoff season in modern-day records, he said. The 22 years of drought the basin has had since 2000 represents the driest period on record even when looking at longer-term, tree ring and other paleo records dating back 1,000 years, he said.

    Because of these forecasts, and because of continued bleak forecasts for the river in 2023, water researchers Kathryn Sorensen at Arizona State University and John Fleck at the University of New Mexico have said Arizona should start looking now at how to use less water or find alternative sources. Arizona and the other river basin states are gearing up for what’s looming as extremely complex, contentious negotiations for new guidelines for the river system starting in 2026.

    Fear and the depleted #ColoradoRiver — Writers on the Range #COriver #aridification

    Members of the Colorado River Commission, in Santa Fe in 1922, after signing the Colorado River Compact. From left, W. S. Norviel (Arizona), Delph E. Carpenter (Colorado), Herbert Hoover (Secretary of Commerce and Chairman of Commission), R. E. Caldwell (Utah), Clarence C. Stetson (Executive Secretary of Commission), Stephen B. Davis, Jr. (New Mexico), Frank C. Emerson (Wyoming), W. F. McClure (California), and James G. Scrugham (Nevada)
    CREDIT: COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY WATER RESOURCES ARCHIVE via Aspen Journalism

    From Writers on the Range (George Sibley):

    Some Colorado River tribulations today remind me of a folk story: A young man went to visit his fiancée and found the family trembling and weeping. They pointed to the ceiling where an axe was embedded in a rafter.

    “That could fall,” the father quavered. “It could kill someone!”

    Puzzled, the young man climbed onto a chair, and pulled the axe out of the rafter. Everyone fell all over themselves thanking him. But he quickly broke off the engagement, concerned that such inanity might be inheritable.

    This resembles ongoing ditherings over the 1922 Colorado River Compact, a 99-year-old agreement among the seven states through which the Colorado River meanders, on how the consumptive use of the river’s water should be divided to give each state a fair share. The agreement was necessary to get federal participation (money) to build dams to control the erratic river.

    The best they were able to do, given the sketchy information they had about each state’s future development and also about the flow of the river, was to divide the river into two “basins” around the natural divide of the Colorado River canyons: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico in the Upper Basin; and California, Arizona and Nevada in the Lower Basin. Each basin would get to consume 7.5 million acre-feet of the river’s water.

    This placed a responsibility on the Upper Basin states to “not cause the flow of the river at Lees Ferry (the measuring point in the canyons) to be depleted” below the Lower Basin’s share.

    A generous reading of that lawyerly clause in the Compact would say the upper states should just be careful that their water development doesn’t dip into the lower states’ allocation.

    A less generous reading would say that if for any reason the flow at Lees Ferry fell below the average of 7.5 million acre feet – whether it were due to over-appropriation by the upper states, or to a natural cause like a 20-year headwaters drought – the lower states would place a call on the upper states, which would have to cut back their own uses and send their water downriver, whether they “caused” the shortage or not.

    To maintain that flow in a drought, the upper states would bear the full pain of the drought for the whole river.

    Guess which interpretation the upper states chose for their own 1948 compact? Never mind that a Compact call from California (for its share of water) is nowhere mentioned in the 1922 Compact. The axe was planted in the rafter.

    They might better have asked how the 1922 Compact creators themselves envisioned the unknown future. The transcripts of the 27 Compact meetings show that the seven state commissioners and their federal chairman Herbert Hoover were concerned, as late as their twenty-first meeting, that they did not really know enough then about the river’s flows to make a permanent equitable division of the waters.

    Hoover summarized their concern, and their intent: “We make now, for lack of a better word, a temporary equitable division,” leaving the further apportionment of the river’s use “to the hands of those men who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information.” They even included in the Compact (Article VI) instructions for reconvening to consider “claims or controversy… over the meaning or performance of any of the terms of this compact.”

    By the drought years of the 1930s, it was already obvious that the 7.5 million acre-feet Compact allocations were unrealistic. That would have been a logical time for the upper states to pull the axe out of the rafter, before the river was so fully developed.

    But they didn’t, and as the Compact began to take on the aura of something carved in stone on a holy mountain, the fear of the “Compact call” gradually descended into expensive paranoia.

    The vastly expensive 24 million acre-feet of storage in Powell Reservoir just upstream from Lees Ferry was created to fulfill the upper Basin’s self-assumed “delivery obligation,” come hell or low water.

    But now, hellish low water has come to Powell, and Upper states are developing expensive “demand management” programs whereby someone yet unspecified would pay ranchers to fallow fields so their water can be “banked” in Powell against the dreaded “Compact call.”

    The seven states are now – finally – initiating negotiations on a more reality-based governance of the Colorado River. Let’s hope they have the good sense to pull that axe out of the rafters before negotiating fair water use under it.

    George Sibley

    George Sibley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively discussion about Western issues. He has written extensively about the Colorado River.

    As a hotter, drier #climate grips the #ColoradoRiver, #water risks grow across the Southwest — #AZ Central #COriver #aridification

    Hoover Dam, straddling the border between Nevada and Arizona, holds back the waters of the Colorado River in Lake Mead. In 2016, Lake Mead declined to its lowest level since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s. Source: Bureau of Reclamation

    From Arizona Central (Ian James):

    The water level of Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, has dropped more than 130 feet since the beginning of 2000, when the lake’s surface lapped at the spillway gates on Hoover Dam.

    Twenty-one years later, with the Colorado River consistently yielding less water as the climate has grown warmer and drier, the reservoir near Las Vegas sits at just 39% of capacity. And it’s approaching the threshold of a shortage for the first time since it was filled in the 1930s.

    The latest projections from the federal government show the reservoir will soon fall 7 more feet to cross the trigger point for a shortage in 2022, forcing the largest mandatory water cutbacks yet in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

    The river’s reservoirs are shrinking as the Southwest endures an especially severe bout of dryness within a two-decade drought intensified by climate change, one of the driest periods in centuries that shows no sign of letting up.

    With a meager snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and the watershed extremely parched, this month’s estimates from the federal Bureau of Reclamation show Lake Mead could continue to decline through next year and into 2023, putting the Southwest on the brink of more severe shortages and larger water cuts.

    “What really is starting to emerge is this really long pattern, that we’re in a megadrought in a lot of the western U.S.,” said Laura Condon, an assistant professor of hydrology and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona. “It’s kind of like a cumulative impact, that we’ve just been getting hotter and drier and hotter and drier.”

    One of Lake Mead’s spillways the last time water lapped at the top of the spillway was 1999.

    Many scientists describe the past two decades in the Colorado River Basin as a megadrought that’s being worsened by higher temperatures with climate change. While the Southwest has always cycled through wet and dry periods, some scientists suggest the word “drought” is no longer entirely adequate and that the Colorado River watershed is undergoing “aridification” driven by human-caused warming — a long-term trend of more intense dry spells that’s here for good and will complicate water management for generations to come.

    Both Lake Mead and the upstream reservoir Lake Powell are dropping. Taken together, the country’s two largest reservoirs now hold the smallest quantity of water since 1965, when Powell was still filling behind the newly built Glen Canyon Dam.

    The Colorado River has long been overallocated to supply farmlands and growing cities from Denver to Phoenix to Los Angeles. And the growing strains on the river suggest that Lake Mead, its sides coated with a whitish “bathtub ring” of minerals along its retreating shorelines, will continue to present challenges as the Southwest adapts to a shrinking source of water.

    “There will still be ups and downs and we will have wetter and drier years going forward but overall warmer temperatures mean we should expect a drier basin with less water,” Condon said. “Warmer temperatures increase the amount of water plants use and decrease snowpack. Even if we get exactly the same quantity of precipitation, a warmer basin will produce less streamflow from that precipitation.”

    Lake Mead was about 40% full in December 2019, but will almost certainly fall further this year, as will its companion reservoir of the desert southwest, Lake Powell. Photo/Allen Best

    […]

    Representatives of the seven states that depend on the river met at Hoover Dam in 2019 and signed a set of agreements, called the Drought Contingency Plan, laying out steps to reduce the risks of a damaging crash. Arizona and Nevada agreed to take the first cuts to help prop up Lake Mead, while California agreed to participate at lower shortage levels if the reservoir continues to drop.

    The states’ water officials described the deal as a “bridge” agreement to temporarily lessen the risks and buy some time through 2026, by which time new rules for sharing shortages must be negotiated and adopted.

    Under the deal, Arizona and Nevada have left some water in Lake Mead in 2020 and 2021. Those reductions are set to increase next year under the “Tier 1” shortage, which the federal government is expected to declare in August.

    Looking downstream from the base of Hoover Dam. Concrete structure in the center of the photo is the outlet for the Nevada side emergency spillway.

    Arizona is in line for the largest cuts, which will reduce the Central Arizona Project’s water supply by nearly a third and shrink the amount flowing through the CAP Canal to farmlands in Pinal County. Nevada is also taking less water, and Mexico is contributing under a separate deal by leaving some of its supplies in Lake Mead.

    “We have a plan to deal with these shortages,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “We’ve known this was possible for a long time and have planned for it.”

    He and other officials say the Drought Contingency Plan never guaranteed the region would escape a shortage, but that it has reduced the odds of Mead falling to critical lows and has pushed back the possibility of more severe shortages and larger cuts. Buschatzke said voluntary conservation measures by the states and Mexico since 2014, plus the initial mandatory cuts over the past two years, have left about 40 feet of conserved water in Lake Mead.

    “We would already be in a Tier 2 shortage had that water not stayed in the lake,” Buschatzke said during a panel discussion hosted by the Arizona Capitol Times. “It’s what we can do to slow the reduction in Lake Mead and minimize the depth and length of the shortages.”

    […]

    A warmer watershed, a shrinking river

    Scientists have found that the Colorado River is sensitive to rising temperatures as the planet heats up with the burning of fossil fuels. In one study, scientists determined that about half the trend of decreasing runoff in the river’s Upper Basin since 2000 was the result of unprecedented warming.

    In other research, scientists estimated the river could lose roughly one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise. They projected that for each additional 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F) of warming, the river’s average flow is likely to drop by about 9%.

    The past year has been especially harsh. Ultradry conditions intensified across much of the West, with extreme heat adding to the dryness throughout the Colorado River watershed. According to the National Weather Service, the past 12 months were the driest on record in Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, and the fourth-driest in Colorado, where much of the river’s flow originates.

    Lake Powell now stands just 36% full.

    Lake Powell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question.
    CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT via Aspen Journalism

    The reservoir typically gets a boost in the spring and summer as the river swells with runoff from melting snow. But this winter, the snowpack peaked at 88% of the long-term median and has since dropped to 71% of the median. The dry soils in the watershed are soaking up some of the melting snow like a sponge, leaving less water running into the Colorado and its tributaries.

    The amount of water that will flow into Powell from April through July is now estimated at just 38% of average.

    Water researchers Eric Kuhn and John Fleck said their analysis of the latest federal numbers points to some alarming possibilities. The two — who coauthored the book “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River” — wrote in separate blog posts that a careful reading of the data in the 24-month study, which only goes out to March 2023, shows the projections point to bigger troubles at Mead and Powell later that year.

    Fleck wrote that the “most likely” scenario would put the level of Mead at an elevation around 1,035 feet at the end of September 2023, which would trigger larger cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, as well as California’s participation in reductions.

    “I’m talking about the midpoint in a range of possible outcomes,” Fleck wrote. “A run of wet weather could make things substantially better. But a run of dry weather could make them worse.”

    Kuhn wrote that the assumptions in the government study “do not fully capture the climate-change driven aridification of the Colorado River Basin.” He said the projections suggest Lake Powell could drop in 2023 to “a level that is troublingly close to the elevation at which Glen Canyon Dam could no longer generate hydropower.”

    […]

    Across the West, snow has traditionally stored a vital portion of the water, gradually melting and releasing runoff in the spring and summer. But that’s changing with higher temperatures. Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, found in a study last year that the western U.S. has experienced longer and more intense “snow droughts” in the second half of the period from 1980 to 2018.

    “The main issue is the snow drought everywhere in the entire West, including Arizona, Utah, California, Colorado,” said Amir AghaKouchak, a professor in UC Irvine’s Department of Earth System Science. “When the snow is below average, it means low-flow situations in summer, drier soil moisture. And drier soil moisture increases the chance of heat waves.”

    The upshot, he said, is that “we have to prepare for a different hydrologic cycle, basically.”

    Warm and dry in the headwaters

    With higher temperatures, more snow has been melting earlier in the year. Scientists recently examined 40 years of data from snow monitoring sites across the western U.S. and Canada and found increasing winter snowmelt at a third of the sites…

    With higher temperatures, more snow has been melting earlier in the year. Scientists recently examined 40 years of data from snow monitoring sites across the western U.S. and Canada and found increasing winter snowmelt at a third of the sites.

    Other researchers have discovered that the dry periods between rainstorms have grown longer on average across the western United States during the past 45 years. Scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Arizona found this trend throughout the West in their study, but they saw the most extreme changes in the desert Southwest, where rainstorms have been happening much less frequently.

    The average dry period between storms in the desert Southwest has gone from 31 days to 48 days, an increase of about 50 percent since the 1970s, the scientists found. Annual precipitation declined by about 3.2 inches in the region over that period, a much larger decline that the West as a whole.

    “In the desert Southwest, we were averaging around 10 inches and now we’re averaging around 7 inches,” said Joel Biederman, a hydrologist at USDA’s Southwest Watershed Research Center in Tucson. “That’s much more impactful when you consider that the amount in our region is smaller to begin with.”

    Biederman and his colleagues focused on changes that have been measured and didn’t attempt to parse the influences of natural variations and climate change.

    A separate analysis of climate data over the past 30 years by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the nation’s “normals,” or averages, have shifted dramatically in a decade, growing wetter in the central and eastern U.S. and drier in the Southwest while climate change has pushed temperatures higher.

    Another group of scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory recently looked at how interconnected extremes influenced by climate change — from floods to droughts and heatwaves — are expected to intensify in the future in the Colorado River Basin. They found these sorts of concurrent extreme climatic events “are projected to increase in the future and intensify” in key regions of the watershed.

    #LakeMead likely to drop below elevation 1,040 by late 2023 — John Fleck #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Graphic credit: USBR

    Last week John Fleck took a look at the April 15, 2021 Colorado Basin River Forecast Center’s 24-Month Study. Click here to read the post. Here’s an excerpt:

    I’m choosing my words carefully here. The “likely” in this blog’s post’s title means “based on my analysis of the Bureau of Reclamation’s current ‘most probable forecast’ Colorado River water supply model runs.”

    The Bureau’s current “most probable” modeling suggests that in both 2022 and 2023, the annual release from Lake Powell will only be 7.48 million acre feet. This is based on a provision in the river’s operating rules that, under certain low storage level conditions, the Upper Basin gets to hang onto water in Powell.

    The last time and only time we had a 7.48 release, in 2014, Mead dropped 25 feet in a single year. We’ve never had two consecutive 7.48 releases.

    The headline in yesterday’s release of the Bureau of Reclamation’s “24-month study” (pdf here) is that Lake Mead will drop below elevation 1,075 at the start of 2022 (triggering a “Tier 1” shortage) and could drop below 1,050 by the start of 2023 (that’s the trigger for “Tier 2”).

    Tier 1 next year, which primarily hits Arizona with some deep forced reductions, was no surprise. That’s been obvious for a while, and Arizona’s water leadership has been softening folks up for months. The increasing risk of Tier 2 in 2023, which would mean deeper cuts in Arizona, is sorta new, but it’s been foreseeable.

    The real “holy shit” for me in yesterday’s release was the trail of breadcrumbs in the Bureau’s data, pointed out by my co-author Eric Kuhn, leading to a “most probable” Lake Mead drop to elevation 1,035 by the end of September 2023.

    To be clear, the Bureau isn’t saying this yet. The latest 24-month study stops at the end of March 2023. But internally, the Bureau runs the model out farther in order to determine, among other things, how much water is likely to be released from Powell in 2023. And the published numbers clearly show – the Bureau’s “most likely” scenario would call for another 7.48 release.

    From there, it’s just arithmetic. Based on my analysis of the publicly available numbers, the “most likely” scenario puts Mead at elevation ~1035 at the end of September 2023. This is my math, but my understanding is that it’s consistent with what the Bureau’s internal calculations show.

    Lake Powell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question.
    CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT via Aspen Journalism

    Eric Kuhn followed up John’s post with one of his own. Here’s an excerpt:

    The release of last week’s Bureau of Reclamation 24-month study felt like very bad news for the Colorado River (See Tony Davis for details.). But a careful reading of the numbers, and an understanding of the process through which they are developed, suggests things are likely even worse than the top-line numbers in the study.

    The problem: the assumptions underlying the study do not fully capture the climate-change driven aridification of the Colorado River Basin. Taking climate change into account, it is easy to find evidence lurking in the report to suggest that, in addition to problems for Lake Mead, Lake Powell could drop below elevation 3,525 in 2023, a level that is troublingly close to the elevation at which Glen Canyon Dam could no longer generate hydropower.

    The 24-month studies are used to project out two years of monthly inflows, releases, storage levels, and power generation from the system’s large reservoirs in both basins as well as diversions by the large water users on the river below Lake Mead, especially the Central Arizona Project and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Reclamation releases a “most probable” study on a monthly basis as well as “minimum probable” and “maximum probable” studies approximately quarterly. These studies are important because they are used to make critical decisions under the 2007 Interim Guidelines and both the Upper and Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs).

    For the first year, Reclamation uses “unregulated” runoff forecasts generated by the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC) model. Unregulated inflow is not the same as natural inflow. The CBRFC does its best to adjust the forecasts for upstream diversions and for the many reservoirs that are not included in the 24-month study model. Inflow forecasts for the second year of the 24-month studies are not based on the CBRFC model. Instead, Reclamation, in consultation with CBRFC, uses statistics from the past and its judgment. Running the 24-month study model then simulates the operation of the upstream reservoirs such as Navajo, Blue Mesa, and Flaming Gorge, turning unregulated inflow to Powell into “regulated” inflow. For example, from the April ‘21 most probable study, the WY 2021 unregulated inflow to Powell is 4.897 MAF, regulated inflow is 4.908 MAF. These numbers are close, but in WY 2020 regulated inflow exceeded unregulated inflow by about 700,000 acre-feet.

    The media buzz over the April 24-month study primarily focused on the projected Tier 1 shortage for the Lower Basin in 2022 – an event that is newsworthy, but one that also was totally expected. Perhaps more interesting and alarming is what the 24-month studies suggested for 2023. As pointed out by John in his recent blog, the most probable study shows two years of 7.48 MAF releases from Lake Powell, Lake Mead elevations on the cusp of a Tier 2 shortage in 2023, and by inference, Lake Mead dropping to a level of about 1035’ by the end September 2023, which by implication would trigger a third straight shortage year and California’s possible participation sharing shortages under the Lower Basin DCP.

    For Lake Powell, the most alarming results come from the minimum probable study, not the most probable study. Under the minimum probable inflow forecast to Powell, which, in theory, represents an unregulated flow that would be exceeded in 90% of years, by March of 2023 Lake Powell drops well below the 3525’ target that would trigger supplemental releases from the upstream CRSP reservoirs under the Upper Basin DCP. There is also a real possibility that Lake Powell could end up in the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier. If this happens, the April minimum probable study shows that Lake Mead gets more water in the first six months of WY 2023 than under the most probable study.

    The term “minimum probable” implies an outcome that is very unlikely to occur, therefore, why should we be that concerned? My answer is that given the abundance of recent science concluding that the Colorado River Basin is not in a classic drought, but rather, it is undergoing aridification where the flows seen in the last two to three decades may be the new abnormal and may continue to decline (see for example Overpeck and Udall, and the latest Utah State Future of the Colorado River white paper White Paper). The April studies show a most probable Powell unregulated inflow for WY 2022 of 9.998 MAF and a minimum probable inflow of 7.208 MAF. For comparison, the mean unregulated annual inflow to Lake Powell over the last ten years, including WY 2021, was only 8.04 MAF and five of the individual years; 2012, 2013, 2018, 2020, and 2021, were well below the 7.208 MAF. The average of those five dry years was 5.08 MAF, over two MAF less than the assumed minimum probable inflow for 2022. If you take the record back to 2000, the results are similar. In 11 of 22 years, unregulated inflow to Lake Powell was less than 7.2 MAF/year.

    Based on the last 20-plus years and the recent science, I conclude that both the minimum probable and most probable 24-month study year two unregulated inflows to Lake Powell are overly optimistic. The likelihood that in the next few years Lake Powell storage will fall below the 3525’ target or even the minimum power elevation (3490’) and that Lake Mead storage will approach 1025’, the level that triggers the maximum annual cutbacks under the Interim Guidelines and DCP, about 1.4 MAF, is much greater than what is conveyed by these studies.

    In a photo from 2020, a distinct line around the rocky shore shows how much the water level has decreased in Nevada’s Lake Mead. Mead is expected to drop 15 feet in 2021 Photo credit: Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

    Finally, Click here to read Tony Davis’ article at Tucson.com. Here’s an excerpt:

    The Central Arizona Project seems almost certain to suffer its first significant shortage in water deliveries next year.

    Reservoirs are expected to fall so low by the end of 2021 to warrant cutting nearly two-thirds of the CAP water that Pinal County farmers now get. At that point, CAP deliveries used by the state to store water in the ground for future use by cities and tribes would also be cut. So would CAP water supplies sold to the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, an agency that recharges water into aquifers across the state’s urban centers to compensate for groundwater pumped elsewhere for new development.

    The loss for farms has been expected for years. But possible cuts for other water customers now loom sooner than anticipated, as the Colorado River’s situation worsens.

    For the first time, a federal agency’s river forecast predicts that at the end of 2022, the Lake Mead reservoir will be at or very near a point where CAP must cut deliveries to other categories of water users.

    Those cuts would fall upon Phoenix-area cities and on Arizona tribes, including possibly the Tohono O’Odham whose reservation is south and west of Tucson.

    If they happen, the cuts would also start slicing deliveries of relatively small amounts of CAP water to Rosemont Copper and Freeport McMoran Copper in the Tucson area and to Resolution Copper in the Superior area.

    Tucson depends on CAP for drinking water, but its supplies wouldn’t yet be affected.

    The cuts to farmers will be required if Lake Mead falls below 1,075 feet at the end of this year. The Bureau of Reclamation’s new forecast — announced Thursday for the river — puts the expected level at 1,067 feet by then. The bureau will likely decide in August whether to declare a shortage for 2022.

    The additional cuts to tribes and to Phoenix-area cities would be required in 2023, if Lake Mead falls below 1,050 feet. The new forecast is for the lake to be at 1,050.31 feet by December 2022.

    Tucson’s CAP supply wouldn’t be cut unless the lake fell below 1,025 feet.

    US West prepares for possible 1st #water shortage declaration — The Associated Press #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    At full pool, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States by volume, but two decades of drought have dramatically dropped the water level behind Hoover Dam as can be seen in this photo. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

    From The Associated Press (Sam Metz):

    The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released 24-month projections this week forecasting that less Colorado River water will cascade down from the Rocky Mountains through Lake Powell and Lake Mead and into the arid deserts of the U.S. Southwest and the Gulf of California. Water levels in the two lakes are expected to plummet low enough for the agency to declare an official shortage for the first time, threatening the supply of Colorado River water that growing cities and farms rely on.

    It comes as climate change means less snowpack flows into the river and its tributaries, and hotter temperatures parch soil and cause more river water to evaporate as it streams through the drought-plagued American West.

    The agency’s models project Lake Mead will fall below 1,075 feet (328 meters) for the first time in June 2021. That’s the level that prompts a shortage declaration under agreements negotiated by seven states that rely on Colorado River water: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

    The April projections, however, will not have binding impact. Federal officials regularly issue long-term projections but use those released each August to make decisions about how to allocate river water. If projections don’t improve by then, the Bureau of Reclamation will declare a Level 1 shortage condition. The cuts would be implemented in January.

    Arizona, Nevada and Mexico have voluntarily given up water under a drought contingency plan for the river signed in 2019. A shortage declaration would subject the two U.S. states to their first mandatory reductions. Both rely on the Colorado River more than any other water source, and Arizona stands to lose roughly one-third of its supply.

    Water agency officials say they’re confident their preparation measures, including conservation and seeking out alternative sources, would allow them to withstand cuts if the drought lingers as expected.

    “The study, while significant, is not a surprise. It reflects the impacts of the dry and warm conditions across the Colorado River Basin this year, as well as the effects of a prolonged drought that has impacted the Colorado River water supply,” officials from the Arizona Department of Water Resources and Central Arizona Project said in a joint statement…

    Colby Pellegrino, director of water resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, reassured customers that those preparation measures would insulate them from the effects of cuts. But she warned that more action was needed.

    With First-Ever #ColoradoRiver Shortage Almost Certain, States Stare Down Mandatory Cutbacks — KUNC #COriver #aridification

    In a photo from 2020, a distinct line around the rocky shore shows how much the water level has decreased in Nevada’s Lake Mead. Mead is expected to drop 15 feet in 2021 Photo credit: Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

    From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

    The latest Bureau of Reclamation reservoir projections, which take into account river flows in a given year, show a likelihood that Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada stateline will dip below the critical threshold of 1,075 feet in elevation in May and remain below that level for the foreseeable future.

    A first-ever official shortage declaration from the Department of the Interior is almost certain later this year. According to the terms of a 2007 agreement, a shortage is declared by the Interior Secretary after consulting with water users in the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. An August report is used to forecast when Lake Mead will be below 1,075 feet at the start of a calendar year.

    Extreme to exceptional drought conditions have blanketed more than 75% of the river’s upper watershed for more than eight months. The majority of the river’s water comes from high mountain snowpack in Colorado and Wyoming. Both states are dealing with drought of varying degrees of severity.

    “Current conditions resemble 2002, 2012, 2013 and the beginning of 2018, four out of the five driest years on record,” the Bureau of Reclamation report notes.

    The Colorado River’s two biggest reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell, have been unable to recover from sustained hot and dry conditions for the last 21 years, a phenomenon scientists link to human-induced climate change. Warmer temperatures have increased the amount of evaporation from streams and reservoirs, raised demand for water in forests and on crop fields, and changed precipitation from snow to rain. Snow acts as a large, frozen reservoir that melts slowly over months, while rain is harder to capture and dole out to farmers, cities and other users.

    Top water officials in Arizona and southern California say they are prepared for the coming cutbacks to their water supplies. If the dry conditions hold, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico could take increasingly steep cuts to what they’re allowed to divert from the river. California could also see its river allocation restricted if the declines continue.

    The basin has flirted with a shortage declaration for the last decade but has been aided by short-term boosts in snowpack, coordinated releases of water between Lakes Powell and Mead, and voluntary conservation by Lower Basin water users. Arizona, Nevada and Mexico have already been curtailed due to restrictions laid out in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. A shortage declaration will make those cutbacks even steeper.

    In response to the latest projections, the Central Arizona Project and the Arizona Department of Water Resources issued a joint statement. In it, the agencies assure users the state’s top water officials had been anticipating the news.

    “The study, while significant, is not a surprise,” the statement reads. “It reflects the impacts of the dry and warm conditions across the Colorado River Basin this year, as well as the effects of a prolonged drought that has impacted the Colorado River water supply.”

    Jeff Kightlinger, general manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said in a statement the watershed so far has been able to avoid a shortage declaration because of voluntary conservation efforts. But climate change is deepening the Colorado River’s supply and demand imbalance to the point where mandatory cutbacks are coming.

    Water Supply Outlook April 1, 2021 via the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center

    Why do #water managers pay such close attention to the 24-Month #ColoradoRiver Study? — Central #Arizona Project #COriver

    Here’s the release from the Central Arizona Project (DeEtte Person):

    A linked lifeline

    Colorado River water managers, like CAP, rely upon operating guidelines related to the amount of water stored in the two major Colorado River Basin Reservoirs – Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The operating guidelines determine how much water will be released from those reservoirs to meet water-user needs. The two reservoirs are operated under a system called conjunctive management, meaning the storage conditions in one reservoir affect the releases in the other. Since 2007, the 24-Month Study has been used to implement the operational decisions directed by the guidelines.

    How Lake Powell and Lake Mead are designed to rise and fall together

    The two largest water supply reservoirs in the United States are part of the Colorado River system—Lake Mead at the Arizona/Nevada border and Lake Powell at the Arizona/Utah border. These two reservoirs are linked by the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and provide about 90 percent of the system’s storage capacity, supplying seven states and Mexico with water.

    The enormous storage capacity in these two reservoirs has provided the resiliency to continue Colorado River water supply deliveries during more than two decades of drought. The two lakes also provide vital, clean, renewable hydroelectricity used across the western United States, as well as environmental and recreational benefits.

    Conjunctive Management

    In order to operate the Colorado River system efficiently and make optimal use of the available storage in these vital reservoirs, the operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead are coordinated, known as conjunctive management. In fact, conjunctive management is required by the Colorado River Basin Project Act, which was signed more than 50 years ago to provide a program for the comprehensive development and augmentation of the Colorado River supplies throughout the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins.

    One important goal of coordinated long-term management of these reservoirs is to maintain “as nearly as practicable” equal contents of active storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Lake Mead has about 28 million acre feet (MAF) of storage and Lake Powell can store about 26 MAF. One acre foot can serve three families for a year – so you can see that’s a lot of water!

    Shortage Sharing

    In 2005, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior directed the Bureau of Reclamation to develop additional strategies for improving the coordinated management of these two reservoirs. The goal was to honor the intent of the Colorado River Basin Project Act, while sharing the water between the Upper (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and Lower (Arizona, California and Nevada) Basins during times of lower reservoir levels. The result was the Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, known as the 2007 Guidelines. These guidelines remain in effect through Dec. 31, 2025.

    How It Works – 4 Scenarios

    The essence of this coordinated approach is that releases and reductions will be coordinated to share risks to water users in each basin. Detailed descriptions and definitions can be found in the 2007 Guidelines, but here is the cheat sheet explaining four basic scenarios:

    Normal Supply – If storage and risks are relatively equal in both reservoirs, then Lake Powell will release a “normal” supply to Lake Mead. “Normal Supply” is a release of 8.23 MAF.

    Equalization – When runoff is high and inflows into Lake Powell raise the lake’s elevation, increasing the storage level, more water is released to flow down the river to Lake Mead in an attempt to “equalize” Lake Powell’s storage with Lake Mead’s, through what is termed “Equalization.”

    Balancing Release – If Lake Powell gains storage while Lake Mead is at risk of shortage triggers, additional water will be released from Lake Powell to “balance” risks between the two reservoirs in what is termed a “Balancing Release.”

    Mid-elevation release – If Lake Powell is at risk of approaching critically low elevations while Lake Mead is at a more moderate risk, less water is released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead in what is termed a “Mid-elevation release.”
    These operating criteria serve to meet the goals of coordinated operations between Lake Powell and Lake Mead, so the storage in both reservoirs generally rise and fall together. Through the coordinated operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, we become one basin – sharing risks and opportunities – linked by two great reservoirs.

    Southwest braces for water cutbacks as #drought deepens along the #ColoradoRiver — #Arizona Republic #COriver #aridification #DCP

    One of Lake Mead’s spillways the last time water lapped at the top of the spillway was 1999.

    From The Arizona Republic (Ian James):

    Unrelenting drought and years of rising temperatures due to climate change are pushing the long-overallocated Colorado River into new territory, setting the stage for the largest mandatory water cutbacks to date.

    Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir on the river, has declined dramatically over the past two decades and now stands at just 40% of its full capacity. This summer, it’s projected to fall to the lowest levels since it was filled in the 1930s following the construction of Hoover Dam.

    The reservoir near Las Vegas is approaching a threshold that is expected to trigger a first-ever shortage declaration by the federal government for next year, leading to substantial cuts in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

    Arizona is in line for the biggest reductions under a 2019 agreement that aims to reduce the risks of Lake Mead falling to critical lows.

    The river has been slipping closer to a shortage for years, and the drought has deepened over the past year, shrinking the flow of streams that feed the river in its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains. The soils across the watershed remain parched and will soak up some of the melting snow this spring and summer. The amount of water that flows into Lake Powell at the Utah-Arizona state line over the next four months is projected to be only about 45% of the long-term average and among the lowest totals in years.

    With the reservoirs continuing to drop, the expected cuts next year will reduce the Central Arizona Project’s water supply by nearly a third…

    Managers of Arizona’s water agencies say they have detailed plans in place to deal with the reductions in water supplies over the next five years, even if the drought continues to worsen. These initial steps to cope with shortages are playing out while the seven states that depend on the river prepare for difficult talks on post-2026 rules, negotiating a plan for adapting to a river that’s yielding less as the watershed grows progressively warmer with climate change…

    Officials who manage Arizona’s 336-mile Central Arizona Project Canal, which runs from Lake Havasu to Tucson, have known since plans were first drawn up for the system that they hold the lowest priority and could face cuts in a shortage…

    Representatives of the seven states in the Colorado River Basin signed the set of agreements known as the Drought Contingency Plan nearly three years ago in a ceremony at Hoover Dam. Under one of the agreements, Arizona and Nevada agreed to take the first cuts to help prop up the level of Lake Mead, while California would participate at lower shortage levels if the reservoir continues to fall.

    Under a separate deal, Mexico agreed to help by leaving some of its water in Lake Mead.

    The deals lay out shortage tiers based on Mead’s levels. The federal government’s latest projections show the lake level will sit below the threshold elevation of 1,075 feet at the beginning ofnext year, triggering what’s called a Tier One shortage.

    For Arizona, that means a cut of 512,000 acre-feet or about a third of the CAP’s supply…

    The Colorado River’s flow has shrunk during one of the driest 22-year periods in centuries. Scientists say the West is experiencing a megadrought and one that’s worsened by humanity’s heating of the planet.

    The drought over the past year has hit especially hard in the Colorado River watershed. Last spring and summer, months of extreme heat combined with the lack of monsoon rains baked the soils dry and shrank the amount of runoff, sapping the river and its tributaries.

    Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map April 6, 2021 via the NRCS.

    This winter, the storms that rolled across the Rockies brought some snow, but not nearly enough to brighten the picture. The snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin now stands at 75% of the median for this time of year…

    The upshot, as climate researcher Jeff Lukas puts it, is that “the exceptionally low soil moisture will turn a blah snowpack into a terrible runoff year.”

    The effects will ripple downstream to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which hold supplies for cities, farming districts and tribes across the Southwest.

    The country’s two largest reservoirs are both headed for record lows. The last time Lake Mead reached a record low level was in 2016. The latest projections from the federal Bureau of Reclamation show Mead could fall below that mark as soon as July. Lake Powell is now just 36% full, and estimates show it could decline to a record low around March 2022.

    A Joint ADWR/CAP Statement On #ColoradoRiver Shortage Preparedness — #Arizona #Water News #COriver #aridification

    Arizona Rivers Map via Geology.com.

    Here’s the release from Arizona Water News:

    It’s important to note that a shortage means a reduction in the Colorado River supply available to Arizona. While we may have less water coming to Arizona from the Colorado River in 2022, the river will continue to be a vital source of water for generations to come.

    In 2021, the river is currently operating in a “Tier Zero” status, requiring the state to contribute 192,000 acre-feet of Arizona’s 2.8 million acre-foot annual entitlement to Lake Mead. This contribution is coming entirely from the Central Arizona Project (CAP) system.

    Based on the current hydrology, it is likely that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will elevate the shortage level to a “Tier 1” in 2022. This would require Arizona to reduce uses by a total of 512,000 acre-feet, again, borne almost entirely by the CAP system. While significant, the high priority CAP water supply for cities and tribes is not affected due to the implementation of agreements among Arizona water users.

    We are prepared for Tier 1 reductions because Arizona water users have been working collaboratively for many years to protect our Colorado River water supply.

    Specifically, the seven states in the Colorado River Basin and the U.S., and the Republic of Mexico, developed plans for managing the Colorado River, known in the U.S. as the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), which lasts until 2026. Arizona prepared a unique and innovative way to implement the plan in Arizona through its DCP Steering Committee.

    The DCP Steering Committee, which included more than 40 representatives of tribes, cities, agriculture, developers, environmental organizations, and elected officials, worked collectively to share the risks and benefits of the DCP. Arizona’s DCP implementation plan represents the best of Arizona water management: collaboration, cooperation, and innovation.

    The plan shares resources and mitigates the impacts of shortage reductions. In the plan, some are committing to leaving extra water in Lake Mead to reduce future risks, while others are sharing water with the most severely impacted of the state’s water users, central Arizona agriculture Together these efforts reduce the pain of the near-term reductions while addressing risks of future shortages. The result is the Arizona water community is prepared, even in the midst of a decades-long drought.

    The actions taken by Arizona’s water-community stakeholders, legislature and by Governor Ducey manage the immediate risk to supplies on the Colorado River, providing time while we develop new rules and programs to sustain the river after 2026.

    As we face the prospect of a hotter and drier future, we are confident that with our long history of successful collaboration among our diverse stakeholders – agriculture, tribes, cities, environment, and industry, we will continue to find innovative and effective solutions to sustain Arizona’s Colorado River supply.

    A #ColoradoRiver Showdown Is Looming. Let The Posturing Begin — KUNC #COriver #aridification #DCP #LakePowellPipeline

    Horseshoe Bend.

    From KUNC (Luke Runyon and Lexi Perry):

    A showdown is looming on the Colorado River. The river’s existing management guidelines are set to expire in 2026. The states that draw water from it are about to undertake a new round of negotiations over the river’s future, while it’s facing worsening dry conditions due in part to rising temperatures.

    That means everyone with an interest in the river’s future — tribes, environmentalists, developers, business groups, recreation advocates — is hoping a new round of talks will bring certainty to existing water supplies and demands.

    The table at which those deals will be hammered out is beginning to take shape. The federal government, mostly in the form of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the seven basin states hold the greatest power in determining what will be up for debate, what will be left out, and whose voices are listened to.

    To prepare for the talks, and to coalesce around a set of priorities, leaders in the individual states are attempting to settle their internal issues before coming to that broader negotiating table. We reached out to leaders in three of those states to learn how they’re preparing:

    Sand Hollow Reservoir proposed terminal storage for the Lake Powell Pipeline. Photo credit: Utah Department of Natural Resources

    Utah

    In Utah, all eyes are pointing toward the state’s southwest corner. That’s where the proposed Lake Powell pipeline would transport water from the Colorado River’s second largest reservoir and deposit it near the fast-growing communities of Washington County.

    The proposed pipeline is shaping up to be an important bargaining chip in the state’s overall Colorado River negotiation strategy.

    Utah’s pursuit of the project has also led the six other states in the watershed — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona — to raise serious concerns…

    Central Arizona Project Mark Wilmer Pumping Plant. By No machine-readable author provided. Kjkolb assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=830400

    Arizona

    In Arizona, water from the Colorado River enters the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal, and becomes a ribbon of blue that winds through miles of arid desert to reach the cities of Phoenix and Tucson, where it supplies homes, gardens, businesses, agriculture and golf courses.

    Under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, Arizona is already taking cuts to its CAP supply. If current projections hold, those cuts will increase nearly three-fold next year, said Ted Cooke, the project’s general manager.

    “So 512,000 acre-feet coming out of the CAP supply is about a third — 30% to a third. That’s a lot,” Cooke said.

    Arizona could lose a lot more water if the levels in Lake Mead keep dropping. The state’s junior rights mean its Colorado River supply is more vulnerable than others. With drought plans in place now, Arizona is getting good practice at reining in its uses and finding flexibility as supplies shrink, he said…

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

    Colorado

    The Colorado River starts as a modest-sized stream high up in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. As the river flows through the Southwest, it picks up enough water from its tributaries to supply 40 million people across the seven basin states and Mexico.

    About 70% of the river’s flow comes from Colorado’s Western Slope. That fact alone leads water officials in the state to feel protective of the river, said Colorado Water Conservation Board director Becky Mitchell. She also sits on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

    “First and foremost, I think it’s important, as Colorado’s commissioner, that we’re looking at protecting our legal entitlement on the Colorado River and protecting our state’s waters for those who depend on it,” Mitchell said.

    Leading up to this new round of negotiations, Upper Basin leaders, like Mitchell, have been under pressure to consider implementing what’s referred to as a “demand cap.” In theory, it could be one half of a “Grand Bargain,” a concept that’s been in the Colorado River management ether for years.

    Water demands on the river in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico have been flat since the late 1980s. Putting a hard limit on future uses would give water planners throughout the entire basin more certainty, and could appease downstream users from ever issuing a dreaded Compact Call on the river. But Mitchell said that much buzzed-about concept is a non-starter.

    #Aurora and #ColoradoSprings Want More #Water. The Proposed Solution — A New Reservoir — Would Have Far-Reaching Impacts — #Colorado Public Radio

    This map shows the location of test holes Homestake Partners plans to drill as part of its geotechnical investigation into the feasibility of a dam site in the Homestake Creek valley. The Forest Service has received more than 500 comments, most of them in opposition to, the drilling and the overall reservoir project. Credit: USFS via Aspen Journalism

    From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):

    Aurora and Colorado Springs want to bring more of that water to their growing cities, which are the state’s largest after Denver. To do that, they want to dam up Whitney Creek in Eagle County south of Minturn and create a reservoir that could supply water for thousands of new homes…

    There are a few different spots along the creek that could be the home to the proposed Whitney Reservoir. The largest of the potential sites would hold about 20,000 acre-feet of water…

    Tension between protecting wetlands and securing more water for growing cities

    [Jerry] Mallett’s group works to restore and protect areas like this one — a wetland with fox and moose tracks in the snow.

    Mallett has fought Aurora and Colorado Springs before. After these cities teamed up and built Homestake Reservoir in the 1960s, they tried to build the reservoir Homestake II. That project was shut down in the 1990s.

    “We’re not saying you shouldn’t grow or that you’ve got to control the population, that’s your issue,” Mallett said. “Ours is protecting the natural resources for other values.”

    Aurora and Colorado Springs are working together because they have the same problem: Planners don’t think they have enough water where they are to support the cities’ expected growth. If the cities get their way and dam up Homestake Creek, it would reduce the amount of water that ends up in the Colorado River — which the Front Range and some 40 million people have come to rely on over the decades…

    That’s changed, Mallett said. West Slope communities now see water as a crucial part of keeping their economies alive and now fight for it to stay. Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan represents seven counties that include communities like Aspen and Crested Butte. In a letter opposing the project, Donovan wrote that, “she can’t express how sternly the people in her district dislike water diversion projects to the front range.

    “West Slope is not in a position I think today where they’re going to roll over and say, ‘Fine, we’ll lose that water,’” Mallett said. “I think they’ve got the political clout now, it’s a new game.”

    If Colorado Springs and Aurora secure permits to build the Whitney Reservoir, it would be the first major trans-mountain water diversion project in decades…

    These wetlands, located on a 150-acre parcel in the Homestake Creek valley that Homestake Partners bought in 2018, would be inundated if Whitney Reservoir is constructed. The Forest Service received more than 500 comments, the majority in opposition to, test drilling associated with the project and the reservoir project itself. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    Environmentalists are concerned about losing these wetlands, which are threatened by climate change. Delia Malone, an ecologist and wildlife chair of the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club, said most animals rely on wetlands…

    Malone said the proposed reservoir locations could include areas that are home to fens, a type of wetland that is rare in the arid West and supports plant biodiversity. Fens have layers of peat, require thousands of years to develop and are replenished by groundwater. Fens also trap environmental carbon, improve water quality and store water…

    Colorado and other states are obligated to send a certain amount of water downstream to states like California because of a century-old agreement. As the Colorado River dries with climate change, and more demand is put on the river, Udall said there’s higher risk for what’s called a “compact call,” a provision that gives downstream states like California authority to demand water from upstream states like Colorado for not sending enough water down the Colorado River.

    If that happens, Udall said newer Colorado water projects — including the proposed Whitney Reservoir — could have to cut their usage to make sure enough water is sent downstream.

    [Brad] Udall said the best available science is needed to answer the question: Is this water better left in the river or sent to Aurora and Colorado Springs?