Gila River [Indian Community] pulls out of #Drought Contingency Plan — #Arizona Capitol Times #DCP #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

From The Arizona Capitol Times (Howard Fischer):

A major player in the drought contingency plan on Thursday yanked its scheduled ratification of its part of the deal, potentially upending any chance of the state meeting the March 4 deadline set by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, said he had called for a special meeting of the tribal council to consider and approve the necessary agreements to provide up to 500,000 acre feet of water between now and 2026. That was designed to help make up for the water that the state will no longer be able to draw from Lake Mead, much of that earmarked for Pinal County farmers.

But Lewis said he learned that House Speaker Rusty Bowers has his own hearing set for Tuesday on legislation that would affect the tribe’s rights to water from the Gila River. As a result, Lewis said he and the council have decided they won’t consider ratification.

“This step may very well prevent us from being in a position to approve the Arizona DCP implementation plan in time to meet the very real deadline established by the Bureau of Reclamation, or in fact ever,” Lewis said.

And the tribal governor made it clear who he thinks will be to blame if the whole deal falls apart.

Stephen Roe Lewis via the Gila River Indian Community.

“While Speaker Bowers’ action may have placed the future of DCP in serious jeopardy, it will not shake our determination to protect our water settlement,” Lewis wrote.

Bowers declined to comment on the latest development.

But an aide to the speaker said that, at this point, Bowers intends to pursue his legislation, even with the threat.
That echoes the comments Bowers made last month to Capitol Media Services when the tribe first said he has to drop his legislation.

“I’m not going to back down,” he said at the time.

And he lashed out at the tribe for trying to link the issues.

“This is just showing their mentality to everybody who gets in their way,” Bowers said. “It’s all ‘Our way or no way.’ ”

Gov. Doug Ducey, who has made approval of the DCP a key goal, sidestepped questions about the new hurdle, with press aide Patrick Ptak saying only that his boss is focused on working with other states to get Congress to approve necessary changes in federal law.

The legislation that threatens to blow up the deal, HB 2476, concerns at what point people who had one time had the right to divert water from the river lose those rights. As the law now reads, those rights were forfeited if the water was not used for at least five years.

Bowers wants to repeal all that. That, in turn, would affect ongoing lawsuits about who gets to claim water from the upper Gila River, water that the tribe says belongs to it because the prior users forfeited their rights.

Photo credit: Maricopa County, Arizona

From Arizona Central (Ian James):

MARICOPA — In satellite images, the farm fields in central Arizona stand out like an emerald green quilt draped across the desert landscape.

Seeing it from the ground level, the fields of alfalfa, corn and wheat are interspersed with the furrows of freshly plowed fields. After the cotton harvest, stray fluffy bolls lie scattered on the ground like patches of snow.

A large share of the water that flows to these fields comes from the Colorado River, and the supply of water is about to decrease dramatically.

Under Arizona’s plan for coping with drought, farmers who’ve received Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project Canal for more than three decades now expect to see their allotment slashed more than 60 percent, from 275,000 acre-feet to 105,000 acre-feet per year for the first three years of a shortage. After that, their supply of Colorado River water will be cut off and they plan to rely solely on pumping groundwater from wells.

The plan to shut off deliveries of surface water to farms in Pinal County shows how the demands of agriculture are starting to collide like never before with water scarcity and climate change in the Southwest. The strategy of turning to groundwater pumping will test the limits of Arizona’s regulatory system for its desert aquifers, which targets some areas for pumping restrictions and leaves others with looser rules or no regulation at all.

In Pinal County, which falls under these groundwater rules, the return to a total reliance on wells reflects a major turning point and raises the possibility that this part of Arizona could again sink into a pattern of falling groundwater levels — just as it did decades ago, before the arrival of Colorado River water…

With the imported supply of water now about to go away, the farmers in the area are bracing for changes that they see approaching much more rapidly than they had anticipated. A first-ever shortage on the Colorado River could be declared starting next year. When the flow of water through the CAP canal decreases, no other group of people will feel the direct effects as acutely as the growers and laborers who run the farms in Pinal County…

“As I lose water, I will fallow land,” Thelander said as he drove his pickup past fields of cotton and alfalfa. “We’re going to have to lay off employees.”

[…]

Drought plan maps out new future

The Colorado River irrigates more than 5 million acres of farmlands and supplies about 40 million people in cities from Denver to Los Angeles.

Nineteen years of drought and chronic overuse, combined with the worsening effects of climate change, have pushed the levels of the river’s reservoirs lower and lower. Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, now sits just 40 percent full and approaching a shortage.

Under the proposed Drought Contingency Plan for the river’s lower basin, Arizona would join with California and Nevada to take less water out of Lake Mead in an effort to prevent it from falling to disastrously low levels.

During the Legislature’s discussions of Arizona’s piece of the drought deal, the plan to provide state funding to Pinal irrigation districts prompted debate. There also was debate about how the agriculture economy will be affected.

The Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, which represents cities that supply water to more than half the state’s population, said in a Jan. 7 economic analysis that Pinal County agriculture represented about 0.2 percent of Arizona’s economy in 2016, and that about 11 percent of the county’s agriculture industry is at risk due to the water cutbacks under the Drought Contingency Plan.

While growers will have to shrink their crop irrigation by one-third on average, the association said, much of the county’s farming economy is based on dairies and beef production. It said feed for the cattle can be brought from outside Pinal County.

The county produces much of Arizona’s milk, and a large portion of the milk comes from Shamrock Farms. The dairy has about 12,000 cows…

Crop choices, groundwater use scrutinized

Given all the stresses on water supplies in the desert Southwest, the farmers in Pinal have faced questions about their choices of crops, their irrigation methods and their plan to rely on more groundwater pumping. Critics have asked whether it makes sense to continue growing thirsty crops like alfalfa and cotton in the desert. They’ve also called for more investment in using water more efficiently on the farms.

Sandy Bahr, who leads the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, criticized the plan to use taxpayers’ money for new wells and other water infrastructure. She said this goes against decades of water policy in Arizona aimed at reducing the pressures on groundwater supplies, from the construction of the Central Arizona Project canal starting in the 1970s to the passage of the state’s landmark Groundwater Management Act in 1980.

“After decades of trying to limit groundwater pumping, we see kind of this test of the Groundwater Management Act,” Bahr said. She said the plan approved by the Legislature will now promote more groundwater pumping and over-exploitation of aquifers.

If that’s going to be allowed, she asked, then shouldn’t the landowners in Pinal “have to pay for it themselves?”

Bahr said she’s concerned that the plan doesn’t involve looking at how different types of crops could help in using less water.

“Instead, almost every facet of what the Legislature passed is tied to getting water to these Pinal County interests,” she said.

Some conservationists and lawmakers have also raised questions about how efficiently water is being used on Pinal’s farms, and what steps could be taken to promote the installation of more water-saving irrigation systems.

Researchers who’ve looked at ways of improving irrigation methods have found big potential for saving water on farms, which use more than 70 percent of the water supply across the Colorado River basin. When researchers with the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based water think tank, examined water use along the Colorado River in a 2013 study, they found that irrigating alfalfa more efficiently (through a practice known as “regulated deficit irrigation”) could save nearly 1 million acre-feet of water per year.

They also estimated that replacing about 10 percent of the alfalfa with cotton or wheat across the river basin could save about 250,000 acre-feet per year. That’s nearly half of the total water cutbacks that Arizona will have to face under the first year of a shortage.

Thelander said people often ask him about his choices of crops.

“I always get the question: Why don’t you farm crops that are more water-efficient?” he said. “We spend a tremendous amount of money on water. And if I could make money farming low-water use crops, I would do that. There’s already a big carrot there for us to do that.”

One example is barley, which he said is one of the lowest water-use crops that can be grown in the area.

“But if we farm barley, we lose a tremendous amount of money,” Thelander said. “We’re always looking for lower water-use crops that we can make a profit on.”

How Pinal got Colorado River water

In the 1930s, growers in Pinal County dug wells and began irrigating farms with groundwater. The farms expanded through the 1950s and kept relying on wells.

The agriculture investors in the ’50s and ’60s included the actor John Wayne, who bought land to grow cotton and raise cattle, and also invested in building a feedlot.

When construction began on the CAP Canal in 1973, the project promised to help sustain the farms in central Arizona while allowing them to draw less from the aquifers.

After decades of heavy pumping in Pinal County, the water tables had fallen dramatically. The ground sank in places as the aquifers were depleted. The overpumping and the sinking ground left lasting symptoms: In several areas around the region, gaping fissures opened up in the earth.

In 1985, construction began on a canal system that would run from the main CAP canal to the fields in Pinal’s Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District. The district paid for the nearly $100 million canal system, issuing bonds and financing 80 percent of the cost with zero-interest loans from the federal government.

The first water deliveries flowed to farms in 1987, and the system was finished in 1989. It included the 56-mile Santa Rosa Canal, as well as the 17-mile East Main Canal and 130 miles of lateral canals. Through these arteries, the farms gained access to Colorado River water.

Brian Betcher helped design the project while working for a consulting firm in the early 1980s, and in 1988 he joined the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District as its engineer.

Under Arizona’s groundwater law, the farmlands were within the Pinal “active management area” and the regulatory system required that the irrigated areas not expand with the arrival of imported water.

“For every acre-foot of Colorado River water that was received, we had to reduce groundwater pumping by the same amount,” said Betcher, who is now the district’s general manager.

In 1989, the district assumed control of all the farms’ wells, acquiring them from the landowners with 40-year leases. The district has since delivered growers a mix of groundwater and Colorado River water.

While one of the reasons for building the CAP Canal was to help wean agriculture from groundwater, it was also to supply cities. And the Pinal farmers knew they were at the bottom of the list in the priority system.

As they began to irrigate with Colorado River water, Betcher said, the farmers were aware that the suburbs would continue to expand into farming areas and would have the highest priority for water.

“It was well-known that there would be a decreasing supply over time,” Betcher said. “It was pretty well understood that over time, the higher priority users, which were cities and industry, would grow into their allocations. And that would leave less water for agriculture.”

The irrigation districts’ initial contracts stipulated deliveries of Colorado River water through 2042. The way the system worked throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Orme said, the districts were able to use the available water that remained after cities and Native American tribes had taken their allotments.

The contracts didn’t list specific quantities of water but rather percentages dividing what was left among the irrigation districts. So, exactly how much water would be available for agriculture in any year was never certain.

In the early 2000s, efforts to settle several water disputes were underway in Arizona. Among those issues: Leaders of the Gila River Indian Community were seeking to settle their longstanding water-rights claims; Arizona officials were in a dispute with the federal government over the repayment costs for the construction of the CAP canal; and the Pinal irrigation districts were in a disagreement with CAP officials over how much they were being charged for water.

When the parties reached the landmark 2004 settlement, the farmers agreed to take a step down in the water priority system. Some of the water that they had been using went to tribes and cities. In exchange, the farmers would get water for about a third of the price that CAP had proposed to charge.

At the time, Lake Mead was nearly full and the farmers felt confident they’d have an assured supply of water until 2030. Their group of water users, who took water from what was called the Agricultural Pool, faced a schedule of decreasing water deliveries between 2017 and 2030.

But the growers and their irrigation districts saw the deal as beneficial because, as Orme put it, “an affordable 25-year water supply is better than a 40-year unaffordable water supply.”

As Colorado River water has continued to flow to farms, it has allowed groundwater levels to stabilize and recover somewhat. In some areas, Betcher said, the water table has risen significantly.

Over the years, the city of Maricopa has grown and replaced some of the farmland in Pinal. Around Casa Grande, new subdivisions have also sprung up.

Even after losing some farmlands to development, the Maricopa-Stanfield district still has about 60,000 irrigated acres.

This year, the district plans to deliver 43 percent of its water from the CAP canal and get the remaining 57 percent from groundwater pumping. Even before the drought deal, the area has been gradually relying more on wells. Betcher said the district has a program to rehabilitate old wells and has added to its groundwater pumping capacity during the past decade.

Of the $50 million sought by irrigation districts in central Arizona, about $15 million would go to Betcher’s district. The money will go toward drilling new wells and building pipelines to carry the groundwater to the canal system.

Betcher said wells in the district are pumping water from 500-600 feet underground.

When the new wells go online, they will likely pump down the water table again. Just how quickly the aquifer may decline isn’t clear. Together with another irrigation district, Maricopa-Stanfield is paying a consultant to prepare a study evaluating the groundwater supply…

The farmers still could return to their current schedule of water deliveries, Orme said, under a scenario in which heavy snow and rain ends the 19-year drought and sends Lake Mead rebounding.

But even with the snowpack in the river’s upper basin about average so far this winter, a shortage still looks likely. And federal water managers have been pressing for the states to finish the Drought Contingency Plan. It’s unclear whether that will happen before a March 4 deadline set by the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

How much water can Colorado save? State is spending $20M to find out — @WaterEdCO

Gross Reservoir , in Boulder County, holds water diverted from the headwaters of the Colorado River on the West Slope. The reservoir is part of Denver Water’s storage system. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Colorado will launch a far-reaching $20 million conservation planning effort this spring designed to ensure the state can reduce water use enough to stave off a crisis in the drought-choked Colorado River Basin.

The money, likely to be spent over a period of two to three years, will pay for a major public, consensus-based initiative to determine how to equitably set aside enough water to protect Colorado’s share of the river and how to pay farmers and potentially cities to reduce their use.

The river is critical to Colorado’s water supply, with roughly half of the supplies for the Denver metro area coming from its annual flows and even larger amounts fueling the state’s farms.

The initiative will include at least seven technical and public work groups examining the legal, economic, and environmental issues inherent in such a demand management program, according to Brent Newman, head of the Interstate and Federal water section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). Demand management is the term water officials use to describe water conservation. It will also include a feasibility study and several pilot programs.

State staffers expect the work to take more than a year to complete as they iron out whether and where to cut back use, how to measure those reductions, and how to protect the environment, local economies, and the legal rights of water users while the program is in effect.

“We’re going to do this one bite at a time,” Newman said. “It’s not something that can be slammed together.”

Water users on both the West Slope and Front Range are gearing up for the project, hopeful that a proactive conservation program will provide a sort of insurance policy should a full-blown crisis erupt on the river.

“We’re pretty anxious,” said Brad Wind, general manager of the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which manages the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. The project diverts Colorado River water from the West Slope for farmers and cities on the Northern Front Range. “We realize it’s going to take some time, but we would feel better having a little insurance than having nothing and having everything implode.”

Seven states comprise the Colorado River Basin, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming forming the Upper Basin and Arizona, Nevada and California making up the Lower Basin.

Last October, after nearly four years of work, the seven states agreed to a broad, preliminary set of drought guidelines, known as the DCP, or drought contingency plan, that begin to spell out how cutbacks will occur on the river.

Under those agreements, Colorado and its Upper Basin neighbors could set aside up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in a special drought pool in Lake Powell. That’s enough water to serve roughly 1 million homes for a year.

In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will be allowed to release up to 1 million acre-feet of water from three Upper Basin state reservoirs that, together with Powell, are part of the Colorado River Storage Project, to boost storage in Lake Powell if it reaches critical lows. Two of those are located at least partially in Colorado.

How much time Colorado and the other states have to refine these drought plans and put them into action isn’t clear yet.

On Feb. 1, after California and Arizona failed to hit a federal deadline for finishing their drought plans, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said it was moving forward to impose its own water-saving plan on the region.

Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said she would halt that federal initiative only if Arizona and California complete their work by March 4. If that deadline isn’t met, the states may have to incorporate the federal government’s directives into their own work.

Equally concerning is the weather.

The drought has pushed Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two primary storage buckets, to critical lows. If the region endures another year as desperately dry as 2018, Lake Powell’s ability to produce hydropower, the major source of revenue for complying with the Endangered Species Act, could be in jeopardy. If utilities don’t have the money to comply with the ESA, the federal government can shut down their water diversions, as it has done in the past in places such as the Klamath Basin in Oregon in 2001.

Even though early snows have helped boost mountain snowpacks across the region, they aren’t likely to be deep enough to pull the region back from the brink of a major water crisis. Inflows into Lake Powell this year, for instance, are projected to be just 64 percent of average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, well below the super-sized numbers needed for it to begin to refill.

At that rate, by August of this year, Powell will be shockingly close — within about 81 feet — of hitting its minimum power pool, a level it flirted with in 2012 and 2013, according to Heather Patno, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Salt Lake City.

In the Lower Basin, Lake Mead is already so low that Arizona is facing mandatory water cutbacks this year.

“We need as much time and space to craft and sharpen these tools as we can get,” said James Eklund, Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Knock on wood we’ll get a reprieve from the hydrology for a while.”

If not, Newman said that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation may release water from the Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado to boost levels in Powell, giving Colorado and other states more time to figure out how to execute these unprecedented conservation measures.

Water users across the state are closely watching this new water-saving initiative, with farm interests on the West Slope and out on the Eastern Plains intent on ensuring that any water cutbacks that may occur are done only on a paid, voluntary basis and that all water users shoulder the reductions equally.

At the same time large urban water users, most of whom have less favorable water rights than the state’s farmers do, want to ensure their municipal supplies aren’t radically reduced.

“We are at a point where the Upper Basin does have some time to get this demand management right,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District. Looking for ways to reduce water use, he said at a meeting of the Colorado Water Congress earlier this month, “is an incredibly threatening concept to West Slope water users. But the River District is committed to proactively engaging and working with the CWCB to figure out how we can stand a program up that truly protects all of us.”

A clearer outline of the state’s approach to developing the demand management initiative will be presented at a meeting of the CWCB March 20-21. Depending on the outcome of that meeting, the various task forces could begin work in April or May, Newman said.

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

#Drought, what drought? The #ColoradoRiver Basin dance — @WillSarni #cwcac2019 #COriver #aridification

A raft coming out of Cataract Canyon into upper Lake Powell encounters the bathtub ring left by the receding reservoir. As Lake Powell, and Lake Mead, continue to see less and less water, it’s prompting water managers, including those at the Colorado River District, to coordinate on ways to send more water downstream. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

From GreenBiz (Will Sarni):

At the invitation of Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress, I presented the keynote address at its annual meeting Jan. 31. My presentation was on water as a business risk and opportunity, and the role of innovation — technology and partnerships, among other things — in solving water challenges.

One of the water challenges discussed at the gathering is close to the organization’s Denver home: the Colorado River Basin. The timing of the Colorado Water Congress (CWC) meeting and my participation in the annual meeting was timely, as the Colorado River Basin states had until the end of the day to agree to finalize the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP).

The CWC is an important organization that brings together stakeholders that are engaged in managing water in Colorado. This includes state government, water utilities, NGOs and other interested parties such as the private sector. Two of the more prominent discussions at the CWC meeting were the DCP negotiations and how to fund the implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan. Central to solving both challenges is engaging the private sector. However, there was little discussion, if any, about the private sector’s critical interest in finalizing the DCP and ensuring the implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan is funded.

This essay centers on thoughts about how progress has unfolded to date and the role of the business sector in the Colorado River Basin DCP. (I will focus on funding the implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan in another article.)

The economic value of the Colorado River Basin is significant. It represents about $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity, the equivalent of about 1/12th of the total U.S. GDP, or roughly 16 million jobs. It is estimated that if 10 percent of the river’s water were unavailable, there would be a loss of $143 billion in economic activity and 1.6 million jobs in just one year.

The Colorado River Basin has two main reservoirs, Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border and Lake Powell upstream. The combined storage of these reservoirs is at the lowest level since the early 1960s. As a result, if the water level in Lake Mead falls to an elevation of 1,075 feet, water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada would be curtailed. This is a real possibility next year.
The goal of the DCP is to spread the curtailments more widely and eventually include California. Essentially, the plan advocates for keeping more water in Lake Mead to keep it from falling drastically and avoiding severe curtailments of water delivery to the Lower Basin states.

The state of play as of Jan. 31 among the seven Colorado Basin States was less than ideal, in my opinion. (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico have been designated as Upper Basin states, while Arizona, California and Nevada are Lower Basin states.)

Accordingly, on Feb. 1, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation (the bureau has broad authority to manage water supplies in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin) stated that since two states — California and Arizona — missed the deadline to reach consensus, the federal government could intervene and decide the rules.

The agency’s commissioner, Brenda Burman, said she prefers that the seven states that rely on the river reach a consensus for how to protect the basin. But she said, “We are close, and I applaud those who have worked to get us close but only done will protect this basin,” she told reporters. “Time to get the job done.” So, as of this writing, the future is still uncertain.

Arizona lawmakers did pass legislation supporting the drought plan, and Gov. Doug Ducey signed it. Arizona was the only state that required lawmakers to review the plan. Now, water users must sign 15 agreements that address water storage, conservation and other details.

James Eklund, Colorado’s representative on interstate river negotiations, said he wasn’t surprised or discouraged by Burman’s position. “You’ve got to stick with deadlines or sometimes people won’t take you seriously. She wasn’t draconian about it,” Eklund said.

While there has been much discussion of the positions of the various state and federal agencies on the DCP, the substantial interest and influence of the private sector only seems to be marshaled in times of crisis.

The Arizona business community, for example, seemed to weigh in on the DCP discussion only at the proverbial 11th hour. But the legislation it supported passed overwhelmingly.

Regardless, it is long overdue for the private sector’s strong voice on how to implement long-term solutions to manage the Colorado River Basin to be heard. A positive development: State Colorado River principals, such as Colorado’s Eklund, are asking the business community to weigh in, by engaging business groups such as the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

We are not experiencing a “drought” — in my view, this situation is a result of overallocation of the Colorado River Basin water coupled with the impacts of climate change.

It’s time for businesses to speak up and for them to ally with organizations such as the CWC, The Nature Conservancy, Business for Water Stewardship and other organizations to ensure there is sustainable water for economic development, business growth, ecosystem health and social well-being.

@USBR extends #DCP deadline one month #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead bathtub ring Mark Henle Arizona Republic

From The Summit Daily (Deepan Dutta) via The Sky-Hi News:

Amid the worst drought in the recorded history of the Colorado River Basin, the federal government is giving Colorado and six other states just one more month to finalize drought contingency plans to rein in water use. If all seven basin states do not comply by March 4, the feds will intervene and create its own scheme to adjust water usage across the West.

Jan. 31 was the original deadline for the Upper and Lower Basin states to submit their completed drought contingency plans before the Department of the Interior uses its authority to draw up plans at the federal level.

The Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico have already submitted their plans, as well as the country of Mexico. The Lower Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — have yet to finalize their plans.

There is good reason for the urgency. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which collectively distribute the Colorado River’s water to 40 million people across the West, are at the lowest levels they’ve been since Lake Powell was first filled in the ’60s. The drought has been continuous since 2000, with warming temperatures and shorter winters leaving less and less snow melting at the river’s source. The feds wanted the drought contingency plans to be in place by this summer to slow down water loss and avoid reaching critically low reservoir levels next summer…

Coming up with drought contingency plans is time consuming and requires a lot of negotiating among thousands of water rights holders. A particular hangup exists with Arizona, which is the only state that needs state legislature approval before the plans can be officially submitted.

Arizona has been struggling to get the many ranchers, farmers, American Indian tribes and other stakeholders who rely on water in one of the driest parts of the country to agree to cutbacks in the case of a water emergency. After a lot of log rolling, and just six hours before the Jan. 31 deadline, Arizona’s Gov. Doug Ducey signed a drought contingency plan that the state believed to be sufficient.

However, the Bureau of Reclamation was not satisfied. The next day, the bureau proclaimed that Arizona, California and Nevada had not submitted complete plans, as agreements had not been reached with all the key water rights holders. In other words, the feds were not convinced that the drought contingency plans were sufficient to ensure water levels staying above critical.

The bureau gave the states until March 4 to finalize their plans. If they’re not finalized by then, the feds would request comment from the governor of each state on how they wish to manage their water, with a public comment period.

The feds saw Arizona’s late effort to pass a plan as promising, and is still optimistic that the plans can be finalized by the deadline, avoiding federal intervention. However, the situation is grave enough that March 4 may very well be the last day the basin states can control their own destiny when it comes to water management.

“This departmental action was not our preferred approach,” the Bureau of Reclamation said in a statement. “However, any further delay elevates existing risks in the basin to unacceptable levels. It is our hope that the basin states will promptly complete the (plans), and if they are successful, we anticipate terminating (plans for federal intervention.)”

From The Los Angeles Times (Michael Hiltzik):

On the surface, things have seemed to be looking up in recent weeks for the future of Lake Mead.

The Western storms of the last month have fostered the impression of a respite, at least temporarily, from the region’s long drought. Earlier this month, Arizona legislators passed a sheaf of crucial measures signaling their willingness to cooperate in an interstate drought contingency plan, staving off federal intervention.

Yet these are stopgaps. The giant reservoir on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, which provides water chiefly to residents in California and farmers there and in Arizona, is suffering from a long-term and possibly irreversible decline in capacity.

Lake Mead’s enemies are both natural and man-made. Climate change has placed the Colorado River basin in a long-term drought. Meanwhile, human demands for water from the Colorado have far outstripped what it can provide.

“We’re in the 19th year of a drought,” observes Robert Glennon, an expert on water policy at the University of Arizona, “and it’s pretty obvious that climate change is having a devastating impact.” That places a premium on interstate cooperation to address the drought’s consequences — chiefly how to apportion what is certain to be a diminishing supply of Colorado water.

Work continues on the #ColoradoRiver Basin #Drought Contingency Plans #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

Heron Lake, part of the San Juan-Chama Project, in northern New Mexico, looking east from the Rio Chama. In the far distance is Brazos Peak (left) and the Brazos Cliffs (right), while at the bottom is the north wall of the Rio Chama Gorge. By G. Thomas at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1598784

From The Santa Fe New Mexican (Rebecca Moss):

It was snowing in Salt Lake City last week when water managers from seven Western states convened to address the pressing drought on the Colorado River.

The waterway winds 1,450 miles from Wyoming to Mexico, providing crucial water to more than 40 million people. New Mexico farmers rely on it to sustain alfalfa, corn, beans and numerous other crops.

Through the San Juan-Chama Project, a river diversion, the Colorado River Basin supplies drinking water to Albuquerque residents. Santa Fe, Taos, Española and other towns and villages in New Mexico also rely on the project’s water, which sends flows into the Rio Grande watershed.

But the massive waterway is experiencing its worst drought on record.

If conditions persist without fundamental changes to how states use flows from the Colorado River, the Southwest could see devastating consequences in the next five years, experts say. Reserves in Lake Powell and Lake Mead could continue to plummet, threatening hydropower, electricity and water supplies.

“If your choice is using less water or abandoning your city, it’s a no-brainer,” said John Fleck, director of the water resources program at the University of New Mexico. “You don’t see people abandoning their cities when they haven’t used all their conservation options.”

While none of these doom-and-gloom scenarios are in the near term for New Mexicans, water experts say, proper water use plans need to go into effect now to mitigate extreme drought conditions and ease the future strain on the Colorado River…

“This megadrought that we are in has continued to get worse,” said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, bureau chief of the Colorado River Basin for the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.

While there have been interim guidelines for how to manage dropping water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell since 2007, states spent the last 2½ years developing drought contingency plans, with each working to establish concrete actions it can take to preserve water supplied by the Colorado River…

Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation agreed to give states a few more weeks to reach an agreement. If they are unable to agree on a drought plan to send to Congress within the next month, governors from the seven states will be asked to submit input on potential federal interventions into water planning for the lower-basin states.

Longworth and other water managers said states were not able to reach an agreement last week, with some new stopping blocks arising from California and Arizona; talks could continue into March.

Longworth’s office also will be working on a recommendation for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on how New Mexico would approach any federal intervention.

“Nobody questions the growing risk and urgent need for action along the Colorado River,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said in a news release. “… Action is needed now. In the absence of consensus plans from the Basin states, the federal government must take action to protect the river and all who depend on it — farmers and cities across seven states.”

If plans are approved and legislation signed, states will then embark on a process to determine just how they will be implemented.

New Mexico released a draft of its plan in October.

It calls for reoperating three large reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell. They are Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah and Wyoming, Navajo Lake in New Mexico, and Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado.

Drawing water from these reservoir would not violate legal agreements, Schmidt-Petersen said.

The plan also would create a voluntary exchange program for farmers throughout the upper-basin states. In exchange for a payment, farmers would agree not to use their land to grow crops, thereby conserving water use. In New Mexico, the exchange would target farmers in the San Juan Basin.

As part of a pilot program in 2018, farmers were paid between $150 and $219 per acre-foot conserved, Schmidt-Petersen said.

“We have to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Fleck said. “On the one hand, climate change is reducing supply in the Colorado Basin, so there is cause for concern about that. On the other hand, communities have gotten really good at using less water when we have to.”

#Runoff in #ColoradoRiver basin likely below-average, @usbr official warns — @AspenJournalism #snowpack #COriver #aridification #cwcac2019

A big beach on the banks of the Green River in September 2018, one of the lowest months on record for inflow into Lake Powell. Runoff is 2019 is expected to be better than 2018, but still below average due to dry soil conditions in the area drained by the Green and Colorado river systems. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The regional director of the Upper Colorado River Basin for the Bureau of Reclamation told water managers and users last week to expect below-average runoff this year, despite encouraging snowfall this winter.

Brent Rhees — who oversees the federal reservoirs in the upper basin for the Bureau of Reclamation, including Lake Powell, Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa — said that although this winter’s snowfall, or “snow water equivalent,” in the upper basin above Lake Powell was now above average (109 percent on Feb. 7) the parched ground left in the wake of a hot, dry 2018 likely would soak up a lot of the resultant moisture in the spring.

As such, this year’s runoff is not expected to reach the average level, although storms in February and March could push it up to the 80 percent range.

“What we’re suffering from is last year’s dry year,” Rhees told the members of the Colorado Water Congress on Feb. 1. “And so, the runoff that is forecast is not that great. Last year, you all remember, it was the third-lowest on record inflow into Lake Powell. So, it’s not looking really good.”

Since Rhees’ remarks, it has been snowing a lot in Colorado, and the snowpack in the Roaring Fork River basin was at 115 percent of average on Feb. 6. But, again, Rhees was looking at future runoff over a thirsty landscape.

The inflow into Lake Powell during water year 2018 (Oct. 1 to Sept. 30) totaled about 4.5 million acre-feet, or MAF, while about 9 MAF was released from Glen Canyon Dam to run down the Colorado River and into Lake Mead, Rhees said.

“So, the math is pretty simple, isn’t it?” Rhees said. “More went out than came in. And so, we saw a significant drop in reservoir elevation.”

As of Jan. 1, the Bureau of Reclamation forecast that 6.98 MAF, or 64 percent of average, would most likely flow into Lake Powell, but releases from Lake Powell are expected to be about 8.6 MAF.

“We’re going to release a little bit more than comes in, likely this year,” Rhees said.

That means Lake Powell is expected to continue to shrink in 2019.

On Feb. 3, the elevation of the reservoir, as measured against the upstream face of Glen Canyon Dam, was 3,575 feet above sea level, or 39 percent full, and held 9.6 MAF.

A diagram showing the intake structures on the upstream face of the Glen Canyon Dam, which forms Lake Powell.

Three efforts

The first ongoing effort to bolster water levels in Lake Powell is weather modification in the form of cloud seeding.

Rhees said the federal government’s position on funding cloud seeding has moved from funding only research to funding active operations, too.

“That’s good news from my perspective,” he said.

The second effort is “drought-response operations,” which will begin if Lake Powell drops to the triggering elevation of 3,525 feet, or 35 feet above minimum power pool (which it is not yet forecasted to do in either 2019 or 2020).

But should the reservoir hit 3,525 feet, the drought-response operations will entail releasing up to 2 MAF of water from federal reservoirs in the upper basin, primarily from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River, which can hold 3.7 MAF; Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison River, which can hold 829,500 acre-feet; and Navajo Reservoir on the San Juan River, which can hold 1.69 MAF.

Rhees said Flaming Gorge is “the one that can have the biggest impact, (but) all (federal) reservoirs can participate in propping up that minimum power pool of 3,490 (feet).”

He also said the releases from the reservoirs would be “indiscernible” to river users and the water would not come down the river in a big wave of water, as some might imagine.

“You won’t know, if you are on the river, that it’s even happening,” he said.

The third effort to add more water to the river system is “demand management,” or a purposeful reduction in the amount of water diverted from rivers and put to a consumptive use, such as growing a crop or a lawn.

Voluntary demand-management programs are now being investigated in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, and the water saved by irrigators fallowing fields — for money — is to be stored in a new regulatory pool of up to 500,000 acre-feet in Lake Powell.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published this story on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2018.

State of #Colorado, water managers, set to work on water-use reduction plan — @AspenJournalism #cwcac2019 #DCP #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Hay fields in the upper Yampa River valley, northwest Colorado. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Colorado officials and regional water managers are poised to start working together on a plan to reduce water use in Colorado, mainly by paying willing irrigators to fallow hayfields, in order to bolster falling water levels in Lake Powell and guard against a compact call on the Colorado River system.

After a series of meetings held last week by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and by Western Slope and Front Range water interests, state officials are now set to begin investigating the feasibility of a “demand management” program that’s “voluntary, temporary and compensated,” and water users and managers throughout Colorado will be asked to help shape the new program.

“Demand management, reduction in consumptive use, is an incredibly threatening concept to Western water users, and certainly to West Slope water users,” Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, told a ballroom full of water professionals Friday during the last day of a three-day Colorado Water Congress meeting here. “Our agricultural community is concerned that what this is really about is taking water from ag and bringing it into urban areas.”

Nonetheless, Mueller said, “this is a time where we have to work collaboratively, with both our urban friends and our rural friends, to figure how we do this together, and how we recognize the values that are important to each of us.”

Mueller also told the Water Congress audience that “the River District is committed to proactively engaging and working with the CWCB and the Front Range to figure out how we can stand up a program that truly protects all of us in this situation. To not do so, to not engage proactively in that conversation, would be irresponsible of every one of us in this room.”

He also laid out the Western Slope’s vision for the program, which centered on sustaining rural communities.

“We want, from a West Slope perspective, our agriculture and our industries and our cities that are going to participate in these programs to have the opportunity to use the water when they need it, and to monetize their assets into a program when they can figure out ways not to use it,” Mueller said.

Demand management is based on the idea that if water that otherwise would be used to grow hay, or turf in suburban settings, can instead be left in the river system to flow into Lake Powell, and into a new regulatory pool of water within the big reservoir, it will help boost water levels in the reservoir, allow for continued hydropower production at Glen Canyon Dam and help the upper-basin states meet their obligations to deliver a minimum amount of water to the lower-basin states under the terms of the Colorado River compact.

A recently concluded four-year test program called the System Conservation Pilot Program paid irrigators in the Upper Colorado River Basin an average of about $200 per acre-foot of conserved consumptive use of water.

Fresh turf, in Thornton, near Denver.

Denver engaged

Jim Lochhead, CEO and manager of Denver Water, was sharing the stage with Mueller on Friday during a panel discussion, after they together had met Thursday with other Front Range water providers in a behind-the-scenes meeting.

Lochhead said the Front Range and the Western Slope are united in their desire to avoid violating the terms of the compact.

“No one wants the result of a situation where we haven’t come together collectively to arrive at a solution,” Lochhead said.

And, he stressed, “Colorado needs to do our part to make sure that the demand-management piece is done in a way that protects all water users in Colorado, East Slope and West Slope.”

“From Denver Water’s perspective, we’re prepared to engage productively, as I’ve indicated many times in the past,” Lochhead said. “We’re prepared to contribute our share of water into a solution that would be collectively agreed to within Colorado and the other upper-basin states, if it is necessary, for our own mutual benefit and survival.”

The state’s emerging demand-management program is tied to the ongoing effort to approve “drought-contingency planning,” or DCP, agreements in the seven states in the Colorado River Basin: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, California, Arizona and Nevada.

Arizona’s governor on Thursday signed a required piece of state legislation in order to meet a federally imposed deadline, but there are still other DCP agreements that need to be finalized by a new working deadline, March 4. Federal legislation also is required to implement the regional agreements designed to keep both Lake Powell and Lake Mead operating as designed.

Sand and silt are piling up on the Colorado River above Lake Powell, as water levels continue to fall due to persistent drought and encroaching aridification. Water managers from San Diego to Wyoming are working to find ways to keep the river’s reservoirs, and water delivery systems, functioning.

State investigating

On Tuesday during a regular public meeting held in Westminster, the directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board indicated they were in support of a staff proposal to form seven different work groups in 2019 to study demand management.

Brent Newman, the CWCB’s interstate, federal and water information section chief, and point person on Colorado River issues, told the agency’s board of directors that the state is not yet starting up a demand-management program; it is only studying the feasibility of doing so.

He also said the state is not studying how a curtailment, or mandatory cutback in water use, would be administered by the state if the Colorado River Compact were to be violated.

Karen Kwon, a first assistant attorney general of Colorado, echoed that stance in her remarks to the CWCB directors Tuesday.

“We are not talking about how we would administer a curtailment,” Kwon said.

Newman and Kwon are proposing that the CWCB set up work groups, staffed by hand-picked experts, to explore a “plethora of issues” raised by demand management, including policy; monitoring and verification; water administration; the environment; economics; funding; and education and outreach.

The staff also proposed to set up a quarterly series of workshops for water users, managers and stakeholders, as well as engaging the state’s basin roundtables, which meet regularly in each of the state’s major river basins, on the issues raised by demand management.

A detailed work plan for the proposed process is to be presented by CWCB staff to the agency’s directors in March.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other newspapers owned by Swift Communications. The Times published this story Feb. 4.