“It’s time to protect Lake Mead and Arizona,” the state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, said in his state of the state address in January 2019. He spoke to lawmakers in the midst of uncomfortable, emotional discussions at the statehouse in Phoenix about who gets access to water in the arid West, and who doesn’t.
“It’s time to ratify the Drought Contingency Plan,” Ducey said to a round of applause.
The multi-state deal was the first issue Ducey brought up in the speech, and indicated it should be the legislature’s first priority. The deal was designed to keep the Colorado River’s largest reservoir — Lake Mead outside Las Vegas — from dropping rapidly and putting the region’s 40 million residents in a precarious position.
Within weeks Arizona finished its portion of the plan. Tribal leaders in the state didn’t receive any accolades in Ducey’s speech. But a recent Arizona State University report suggests they should have. The report’s authors said without the actions of two tribes — the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes — the deal would’ve likely collapsed.
“We know that you have to live in harmony with your surrounding community, with the water resources, you have to respect that,” Gila River Indian Community governor Stephen Roe Lewis said after Ducey’s speech.
To get the deal across the finish line, Lewis’s tribe agreed to lease a portion of its water to the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, which supplies water for new homebuilding in the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas. The Colorado River Indian Tribes agreed to fallow cropland on its reservation, which spans the Arizona-California border, and leave the unused water in Lake Mead.
“This is a legacy, history making moment for all of Arizona,” Lewis said.
Arizona’s portion of the Drought Contingency Plan became a unique example in the basin of tribal leaders asserting themselves in broader discussions about the river’s management. Historically, tribes in the Colorado River basin have been marginalized and ignored, left out or outright banned from discussions of Western water development.
With the drought plan done, some tribal leaders say their water rights can’t be ignored any longer, and that it’s irresponsible of Western water leaders to leave them out of large multi-state agreements. And a recently finished federal study is amplifying tribes’ call for a seat at the table to negotiate the river’s future.
“Early on, five years ago, the tribes didn’t think, well, how do we participate in this process?” said Daryl Vigil, member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation in northern New Mexico, and acting director of the Ten Tribes Partnership, an organization that represents the interests of 10 Colorado River basin tribes.
“But, I think given the nature of the senior nature of tribal water rights, they absolutely needed to be involved in that process,” Vigil said.
In December 2018, the federal government released the Tribal Water Study, which looked at water use within tribes, and projected future demands. One big takeaway from the report gained attention across the Southwest: On paper, tribes have rights to about 20% of all the water in the Colorado River watershed. Tribes aren’t using all the water they have rights to, but they plan to, which will have ripple effects throughout the entire southwestern watershed, Vigil said…
Celene Hawkins, who heads up The Nature Conservancy’s work on tribal water issues in the Colorado basin, said while tribes were largely left out of the negotiating process that led to the 2007 guidelines, the tone is different now. (The Nature Conservancy receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River coverage)
“I am hearing more conversation throughout the basin about tribal inclusion in the process,” Hawkins said. “I don’t know how it’s going to look yet, but there seems to be a commitment to doing better by having the tribal voices at the table this time.”
When the tribes show up to negotiate, they’ll be entering the room with some of the most senior water rights in the basin, which comes with their own level of value and power. Selwyn Whiteskunk, who manages water issues for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in southern Colorado, said he plans to push for more flexibility in the tribe’s water rights portfolio.
FromThe Boulder City Review (Celia Shortt Goodyear):
The water at Lake Mead is projected to be at its highest level in years, but the drought is still not over, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
Lake Mead’s elevation is around 1,092 feet, which is the highest it has been since May 2014, but it is still only 42% full, said Patti Aaron, public affairs officer for the bureau’s Lower Colorado Basin Region.
“Drought isn’t determined by the amount of water in Lake Mead,” Aaron said. “We would need to see at least two to three back-to-back years of above-average hydrology, hopefully more, to say we are out of the drought. There isn’t a set definition of when drought ends.”
There have not been two back-to-back good years since the late 1990s.
Aaron said the higher water levels are due to a wet November and December, causing an above-average inflow into the lake.
“Regarding the rising lake levels, this is part of the normal seasonal trend in which cooler weather reduces water orders from Lake Mead,” she said.
She added that the water level will decline by nearly 20 feet in the spring and summer because water orders will increase before the elevation rebounds later in the year.
The higher water levels are also due to conservation by the lower basin states and Mexico. The Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which took effect on Jan. 1, requires water savings contributions by the United States and Mexico.
Aaron said voluntary conservation activities added about 9 feet to Lake Mead’s elevation last year.
The Colorado River had a great 2019, with Lake Mead rising the most in a decade due to heavy flows into the river stemming from last year’s primo snowpack.
But 2020 isn’t shaping up as well, with a dry monsoon season and fall in 2019 paving the way for expected below-average spring summer runoff this year.
Right now, the April-July runoff is supposed to be 82% of average. That compares to 145 % of average in 2019, the second-best runoff season in the past 20 years, says the federal Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
Despite last year’s excellent river flows, most experts also say the Colorado still faces long-term supply issues because of a prolonged pattern of below normal runoff that has existed since 2000 due to drought and climate change…
Last year’s high river flows, fueled by heavy late winter and spring snows, caused Lake Mead to rise 9 feet to a little more than 1,090 feet in elevation. That’s its highest year-end elevation since 2013, although it’s well below the lake’s 1,213 foot elevation at the end of 1999…
Part of the reason was that the federal government released an above-average amount of water last year from Lake Powell to Mead, of 9 million acre feet. The river’s tributaries between the two lakes also got a lot more water than usual.
Arizona and the other Lower Basin states also took a lot less water from the river than they normally do — the lowest amount in 33 years.
But that doesn’t mean the area’s long-term structural deficit is fixed, said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Research Center, who posted last year’s favorable results on his “Inkstain” blog this week.
“Without bonus water released from Powell and extra-big inflows through the Grand Canyon, Mead would still be dropping,” he said.
The runoff forecast for 2020 is below average right now in part because total precipitation has been near to below average in the majority of the Upper Colorado River Basin, said the forecast center.
Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack, which feeds the river that supplies Lake Powell, was at 90% of normal [January 10, 2020], U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show.
Water managers from throughout the Colorado River Basin took the stage at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference earlier this month to talk about conserving water in the face of the twin threats to the river: increasing demand and climate change.
The state of Colorado is currently exploring a water-use-reduction program that is largely designed to pay farmers and ranchers on the Western Slope to voluntarily conserve water. While there’s still debate whether such a program should be implemented, the first question many ask is how to pay for such a program. In recent months, some water managers have come up with innovative ways to fund the controversial water-use-reduction plan — known as demand management — that wouldn’t rely entirely on taxpayers.
The drought contingency plan, which water leaders inked at last year’s annual CRWUA meeting, set up a reserve account of 500,000 acre-feet of water that the Upper Basin — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — could use to store water in Lake Powell as an insurance policy against dwindling reservoir levels.
In November, Colorado voters passed Proposition DD, which is projected to funnel roughly $16 million a year to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, or CWCB, by taxing sports betting. Demand management is one of the two things money from Proposition DD could fund (the other is Water Plan grants).
However, it’s widely accepted that $16 million is not enough to fund either of those things in their entirety. Demand management needs other sources of money.
Although the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District still isn’t convinced that a demand-management program is the right approach for the Western Slope, general manager Andy Mueller told the Las Vegas crowd that the Upper Basin has to reduce its water consumption — and explore creative solutions to accomplish that.
“I often talk about the Lower Basin overuse and how that’s driving the problem, and I will say they in the Lower Basin need to fix that problem,” Mueller said. “I will also say we in the Upper Basin … need to reduce our use. The science is pretty clear. Water we all thought was there even 15 years ago is not going be there. You can’t have water for the environment and the people if we are not reducing consumptive use throughout the basin.”
Who should pay?
So, if nearly all water users on the Colorado River, including those in the Lower Basin — California, Nevada and Arizona — would stand to benefit from a demand-management program, who should pay for it?
Not Colorado taxpayers, Mueller said, at least not entirely.
“Eighty million (dollars) a year would need to be out there in payments to get the appropriate amount of water in Lake Powell,” he said. “That cost to taxpayers is too high. So you turn to: Who else benefits from us creating a storage account in Lake Powell?”
One answer: power providers in both the Upper and Lower Basin states, who all need Lake Powell to remain above 3,525 feet, the minimum level required to continue generating hydropower. Some Upper Basin power cooperatives such as Western Area Power Administration, which sell power to local communities, including Aspen and Glenwood Springs, purchase hydropower generated at Lake Powell. Adding a small demand-management surcharge to customers’ bills is something that should be explored, Mueller said.
“Power customers should share in the costs of us storing for demand management,” Mueller said.
Another potential source of funds could be nonprofit environmental groups, since sending more water downstream to Lake Powell would also benefit stream health. The federal government, whose Bureau of Reclamation operates Lake Powell and Lake Mead, also has a role to play, Mueller said.
But no matter where the money comes from, Mueller said it must be channeled through the CWCB in a heavily regulated market to prevent speculation by private buyers.
“We have been very clear it needs to be a guided market if it’s going to happen, with lots of thoughtful, proactive rules to prevent lots of serious consequences,” he said.
The CWCB currently has a workgroup devoted to exploring how to fund demand management. The group has met twice so far, but CWCB facilitator Anna Mauss said the two biggest questions the group is grappling with are these: how much water is needed and what would the cost be. The workgroup, she said, will dive deeper into funding strategies at the next meeting, scheduled for the end of January.
“We are baby-stepping into this, trying to be diligent,” Mauss said. “It’s really just looking at scenarios at this point.”
The state is also encouraging innovative ideas from the private sector. The CWCB recently awarded $72,000 to 10.10.10, a Colorado Nonprofit Development Center project that aims to tackle “wicked problems” in water and climate. Under the program, 10 entrepreneurs will, over 10 days, attempt to tackle 10 systemic issues that are not adequately addressed by government, organizations or institutions.
“Yes, we are looking at demand management, and it could be one of the wicked problems we address,” said Jeffrey Nathanson, president of 10.10.10.
Platform for payment?
While some people work on finding sources of funding, others are already creating a platform to pay irrigators once the money is in place. Southwest Colorado water managers Steven Ruddell and David Stiller think a reverse auction to compensate water users for using less is the best way to go.
A reverse auction, which features many sellers (farmers and ranchers) and one buyer (the state of Colorado through the CWCB), would allow water-rights holders to set the lowest price they are willing to accept to voluntarily send their water downstream. According to Ruddell and Stiller’s paper on the subject, a reverse auction would remove paying for demand management from a political process and move it into a market-based process that lets water-rights holders bid the fair-market value of their water. It would also keep costs down for the CWCB.
Ruddell and Stiller presented their reverse-auction idea at the Upper Colorado River Basin Forum at Colorado Mesa University last month.
“We’ve tried to bite off a small piece of demand management by suggesting we use an auction that people are familiar with,” Ruddell said. “It’s used to determine the value of something, especially in the ag world.”
There are still many questions surrounding how a demand-management program might be paid for.
“There are all sorts of options,” Mueller said. “We shouldn’t just focus on raising taxes in our state.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Dec. 30 edition of The Aspen Times.
Click here to view the Twitter hashtag #CRWUA2019 from the conference.
Standing atop Hoover Dam, peering over the chain-link fence down its 726-foot concave face of concrete, you simply feel impressed. The dam tamed the Colorado River’s floods and created a reservoir, Lake Mead, able to hold 26.1 million acre-feet of water, not quite two years of annual flows, when full at an elevation of almost 1,220 feet.
But Lake Mead has been nowhere close to full for most of the 21st century. The widening “bathtub ring” of white in the once-black, volcanic rocks of Boulder Canyon documents the reservoir’s 190-foot fall. Despite a rambunctious runoff from the previous winter’s snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, the reservoir was 61 percent empty by mid-August 2019. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that same month projected the reservoir would be below 1,090 feet on January 1, 2020. That finding triggered the first-ever delivery cuts to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico under the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP, signed by the basin states in 2019.
It’s a new era in the lower Colorado River Basin. The 20th century was one of engineering triumphs, ever more straws inserted into the river in defiance of geography and the innate aridity of the lower basin, the region below Lee Ferry, Arizona. This includes portions of Arizona, Nevada and California along with the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California but also tribal lands, sovereign yet part of the United States. Water stored in Mead and other vessels gives Las Vegas Boulevard its fountains and faux falls, grocery stores across the country a reliable delivery of broccoli, lettuce and spinach in mid-winter, and Phoenix, San Diego and other metropolitan areas their prosperity.
Now comes a period of cutting back, pinching water deliveries for a time or perhaps forever. The first rude shock of this new challenge arrived during the first four years of the 21st century, the river delivering only 63 percent of what was then defined as normal at Lee Ferry. During the same period, in 2003, then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton ordered annual Colorado River deliveries to California cut to 4.4 million acre-feet, the state’s legal apportionment under the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928. The state had been taking 5.3 million acre-feet. It did so because it could. Nobody was being shorted, save for the river’s delta at the Gulf of California, which has not reliably seen water since the 1960s.
The Bureau of Reclamation then began working with the seven U.S. basin states to develop a plan if water-short years continued. The result in 2007 was the Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lakes Powell and Mead. By identifying cuts in water deliveries to the lower basin keyed to reservoir elevations, the guidelines aimed to keep Mead from falling to worrisome levels. At 1,075 feet, the crisis would become real and deliveries to Arizona and Nevada would be cut. Those cuts deepen at 1,050 feet, when Mead is at 29 percent of capacity and hydroelectric production at Hoover Dam ends. More cuts come at 1,025. At elevation 895, Mead can no longer release water downstream. It’s called dead pool.
Water levels in Mead have flirted with but never crossed 1,075, the trigger for a shortage declaration under the interim guidelines. In 2013, after two years of exceptionally low flows, the Bureau of Reclamation and the seven states agreed an additional cushion was needed. That’s what the Lower Basin DCP provides, with cuts to lower basin states beginning sooner, at 1,090 feet, and greater cuts at lower elevations.
The Lower Basin DCP can be seen as part of the broader Colorado River DCP and a 2017 agreement called Minute 323 that was tacked onto the 1944 U.S.-Mexico water treaty, committing Mexico to deeper shortage sharing.
Two giant issues still loom, unresolved by the DCP. First, it does not address what experts call the “structural deficit.” Lower basin states have been using 1.2 million acre-feet annually more than the river delivers on average. Evaporation and system losses are not assessed against the lower basin.
Second, the river will likely deliver even less water in the future. Rising temperatures have been robbing the river of water, part of a climatic shift with no end in sight.
Belt-tightening identified in the DCP, though temporary, should suffice until a broader reassessment of Colorado River operations is completed. The DCP and interim guidelines expire in 2026, by which time a new river management plan will likely be in effect.
Of the lower basin states, Arizona has the most at stake in keeping Mead above crisis level. The Colorado River Compact apportions the state 2.8 million acre-feet annually, dwarfing Nevada’s allocation of 300,000 acre-feet. The Colorado River provides nearly 40 percent of Arizona’s water.
The Central Arizona Project, or CAP, delivers 1.6 million acre-feet, more than half of the state’s Colorado River supply. In 1968, when authorizing CAP funding, Congress conceded California’s demand that CAP water be junior in priority to California. That means CAP users take shortages first if Mead levels decline.
Before signing the DCP, Arizona had to develop an intra-state plan. It was a pained but ultimately self-affirming experience. Arizona began its discussion in 2015 but got little done amid internal squabbling. Then a good snow year in the Rockies caused Mead to rise. One CAP director even wondered publicly whether planning for future shortages was necessary. That myopia was dispelled by the winter of 2017-2018. It was the fifth-driest year on record, with flows from the upper basin, source of 92 percent of the river’s water, just 41 percent of average. As Arizona dithered, Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman warned that if Arizona and other states didn’t take action by January 31, 2019, her agency would.
With a hard deadline and a sharp decline in river flows, Arizona’s major water agencies, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and CAP, coalesced by June 2018 to lead a transparent and inclusive 42-member task force. The result was 14 distinct agreements that together constitute compromises, payments, and water transfers to reduce use, some temporarily and others permanently. Then Arizona legislators had to approve their state’s drought contingency plan.
“It was emotionally charged, because not everybody was going to be pleased,” says Rosanna Gabaldón, a state representative whose district straddles Tucson and rural areas. For a time, Gabaldón doubted Arizona could agree on a drought package. But the legislation was signed with six hours to spare. Upon her review, Burman said both Arizona and California hadn’t completed their work, but they met her extended deadline of March 4.
Arizona’s cuts come almost entirely from the 1.6 million acre-feet pumped from the Colorado River through the CAP. CAP’s 336-mile canal crosses Phoenix and Tucson and reaches farmers in Pinal County, between the metropolitan areas. In 2020, because the Bureau of Reclamation’s August 2019 24-month study projected Lake Mead to fall below 1,090 feet by January 1, 2020, Arizona this year will take 6.9 percent less, or a 192,000 acre-foot cut. If Mead drops to 1,075 feet, as remains distinctly possible, Arizona could lose up to an additional 512,000 acre-feet, though some of that water could be recovered at a later date if storage recovers. At 1,025 feet, it cuts back up to 720,000 acre-feet, or nearly 26 percent of its Colorado River water.
Cities fare well enough in this squeezing exercise. Phoenix and six of its suburbs will see successive cuts beginning at Mead elevations of 1,075 feet. For Tucson, the spigot tightening begins at 1,045 feet and tightens even more at 1,025. However, only if Lake Mead falls to 1,000 feet would Tucson possibly have to cut water sent to homes or businesses.
Agriculture takes Arizona’s biggest hit. That was expected. If agriculture was the primary argument for the CAP in the 1960s, it had the lowest priority among the contracts. This use is almost entirely in Pinal County. Flat and mostly rural, most drivers on Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson hurry through it. The county’s 200 farms produce 45 percent of Arizona’s cattle, 42 percent of its cotton and cottonseed, and 39 percent of its milk, according to a study commissioned by Pinal County irrigation districts. Cities were unimpressed. The total economic output of these Pinal County farms, they pointed out, was half that of the state’s golf courses.
Groundwater was the sole source of water in Pinal County from 1940 to about 1990, when CAP water arrived. Farmers, though, couldn’t repay even the subsidized costs of CAP’s capital-intensive infrastructure. In 2004, they agreed to a shorter-term contract for Colorado River water while being relieved of infrastructure costs. This lower-priced water is also subject to availability, however. Irrigators were already scheduled to stop receiving CAP water entirely by 2030. The plan was for farmers to then return to exclusive groundwater use. Arizona’s DCP will cause the farmers to lose a third of their water in years 2020-2022 and lose deliveries altogether in 2023, seven years earlier than previously scheduled.
Arizona’s compromise yielded the Groundwater Infrastructure Fund, which identifies $50 million—$20 million of it state money—for Pinal County farmers to finance new groundwater-pumping infrastructure. Not all legislators supported the aid.
“But many of us drew the line at funding groundwater-pumping infrastructure, which to us was going backwards. The last thing we should be doing is returning to depleting our groundwater aquifers”, says Airzon State Rep. Kirsten Engel, a Democrat from the Tucson area.
Will this cause farmers to pump groundwater below Pinal County to extinction? Probably—assuming that Lake Mead continues to sag. Application of Colorado River water across the cotton and alfalfa fields allowed the aquifer to rise to nearly 1940 levels. With no river water percolating into the aquifer, it will inexorably decline. Other, less thirsty crops have been getting attention: industrial hemp and a shrub called guayle, which produces an alternative to rubber. But these conversations occur in the margins.
New conservation efforts, including those in agriculture, will benefit from $2 million appropriated by state legislators. Arizona Gov. Douglas Ducey also replaced a council focused on water augmentation with one responsible for studying innovation and conservation.
New political strength of tribes, particularly those in Arizona, was evident in the drought contingency planning. Arizona tribes get 12.5 percent of the state’s water directly from the Colorado River and another 17.5 percent of CAP water. The Gila River Indian Community alone has 311,000 acre-feet, the largest single contract for CAP water. Their reservation just south of Phoenix was created in 1859, giving it the highest priority. The intra-Arizona DCP gives the Gila River Indian Community $92 million for 200,000 acre-feet lost in the DCP’s seven-year life. They also lose additional water that tribal officials value at $30 to $50 million. For the Gila River Indian Community, the DCP negotiations were something of a coming-out party. With European settlement, the tribe was dispossessed of their water until the Arizona Water Settlement Act of 2004 allowed the tribe to use water rights that had previously existed only on paper. Even so, the Gila were not invited to be at the table at the outset of DCP planning. “Tribes have to be at the policy table,” said Governor Stephen Roe Lewis. Now, they definitely are.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes—consisting of four distinct tribes, the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo, with a reservation that stretches along the Colorado River in Arizona and California—also played a significant role. They divert nearly 600,000 acre-feet directly from the Colorado River at the border between Arizona and California, with priority dates from 1865-1874. “This is not CAP water. It is not subject to being cut. It is the highest priority water in the lower basin,” explained Margaret Vick, special counsel to the Colorado River Indian Tribes, at the June 2019 Getches-Wilkinson Center Summer Water Conference at the University of Colorado-Boulder. After a history of being taken advantage of, the tribes are now “partners with the state legislative leaders,” she said.
The four tribes agreed to take 10,000 acres of farmland out of production for three years, allowing the water to instead remain in Lake Mead. In return, the tribes receive $38 million, including $30 million from the state and $8 million from the Environmental Defense Fund and the Walton Family Foundation.
“I don’t think Arizona could have met their requirements without the water that the tribes put on the table,” says Larry MacDonnell, an adjunct law professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder and a member of the Colorado River Research Group.
California has different tensions. The state has more Colorado River water, 4.4 million acre-feet, the majority of it claimed for agriculture prior to the Colorado River Compact.
About a quarter of southern California’s water comes from the Colorado River. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California delivers this Colorado River water, along with water imported from northern California, to smaller agencies that collectively serve 19 million people. Metropolitan’s basic annual apportionment of Colorado River water is 550,000 acre-feet, and it gets about 400,000 of additional Colorado River water through transfers and exchanges, largely from irrigation districts. Under the DCP, if Lake Mead drops below 1,045 feet, California will contribute between 200,000 and 350,000 acre-feet of water a year, depending on the lake’s elevation. Because of the wet year in 2018-2019, Reclamation estimates a less than 10 percent chance that the reservoir will fall to that level by 2026.
California’s contribution under the DCP is shared by two of the state’s three big irrigation districts and Metropolitan. Initially, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) was also planning to participate. It conditionally approved the plan in December 2018 but in March 2019, just before a federal deadline, IID decided it would not support the DCP as negotiated because one of its conditions—federal funding for the Salton Sea—had not been satisfied. Metropolitan’s board of directors voted to contribute an additional 250,000 acre-feet to Lake Mead if necessary to cover the Imperial Irrigation District’s portion. But these contributions are not permanent. Metropolitan, along with others in California, Arizona and Nevada, can in the future withdraw water left in Lake Mead under a provision in the 2007 guidelines called “intentionally created surplus,” or ICS.
ICS water is made through projects that create water system efficiency, conservation, or even importation of water into the Colorado River Basin. ICS water temporarily augments reservoir levels but is then available for later drafting by whomever contributed it. The Bureau of Reclamation reported provisionally that in 2018 Nevada had 700,448 acre-feet, California 698,432 acre-feet, and Arizona 343,052 acre-feet of ICS water stored in Mead.
This water might better be understood as a savings deposit. Metropolitan has stored and withdrawn water three times. But what if an entity wants to withdraw when those savings are most desperately needed? Imagine the scene from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when the panicked townspeople of Bedford Falls show up at the savings and loan, demanding their C-notes.
Brad Udall, senior scientist and scholar at Colorado State University, told a U.S. House subcommittee in February 2019 that this illustrated an implicit flaw in the concept. “These water storage efforts allowed us to push the problem forward in time, hoping Mother Nature will rescue us,” Udall said.
Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources for Metropolitan, says his agency’s savings balance is responsible for about a 12-foot increase in Mead—contributing significantly to keeping the reservoir out of shortage. But he agrees that the savings device is not the long-term answer to the oversubscribed Colorado River Basin. “Eventually we have to make some permanent cuts in the lower basin, and that’s what we’re gearing up for in 2026 negotiations,” Hasencamp says.
More tension revolves around the shrinking Salton Sea, located 125 miles northeast of San Diego. It’s an ancient sea bed, below sea level, and filled sporadically through the ages by the Colorado River as it wandered on various paths toward the ocean. Its current iteration dates to 1905, when the river wrestled free of an attempt to channel it into orderly submission. It’s a shallow, salty marvel with twice the surface area of Lake Tahoe that also serves as a major stop for migrating birds, some listed on state and federal endangered and threatened lists, along the Pacific Flyway.
Water levels were sustained by 1.3 million acre-feet of annual runoff from Imperial Valley farms until 2003, when the Imperial Irrigation District began transferring water saved through conservation measures to San Diego County, Metropolitan, and the Coachella Valley Water District. The sea has fallen 9 feet since those transfers began, the saline water lapping onto shore at 237 feet below sea level in July 2019. As it does, the Salton becomes saltier, some 4 million tons of salt arriving through farm runoff each year, increasing the salinity 1 percent annually.
The Pacific Institute’s Michael Cohen, whose work for the past 20 years has focused on revitalizing the Salton Sea, identifies two problems. First is the decline of the sea in size and in its capacity for sustaining fish. It has dramatically fewer fish than 20 years ago, which in turn sustain resident and migratory birds. Birds have also lost roosting and breeding habitat.
A second issue is the human health impact of the wind blowing chemical-laden dust from the receding shores. The 650,000 residents of the Coachella and Imperial valleys already had a high incidence of asthma. The American Lung Association gives Imperial County an “F” score in high ozone and particulate pollution. The county seat, El Centro, is ranked eighth worst among 203 metro areas across the country for annual particle pollution. As transfers from irrigation districts to cities ramp up in the next decade, Salton Sea levels are expected to drop another 15 feet or so, exposing more toxic dust and more chronic respiratory issues. The shoreline by then will have receded 5 miles since 2003.
A 10-year Salton Sea mitigation plan, approved in 2017, has had stubby financial legs. To implement the phase-one plan requires $400 million, of which $300 million has somewhat belatedly been secured. That’s just the start of a longer-term plan for wetlands restoration and other mitigation.
For the Imperial Irrigation District, mitigating Salton Sea problems became the defining issue in the DCP. The district has legal rights to 18 to 20 percent of all Colorado River Basin water, 3.1 million acre-feet altogether, including use of 2.68 million acre-feet pre-compact, as of 2019. District directors in December voted to support the overall DCP framework. However, that support was contingent upon the federal government delivering $200 million for Salton Sea remediation.
Led by Metropolitan, California supported the DCP without the provision of contingency upon the federal funding. In March, Imperial sued Metropolitan and three other water districts, citing absence of a thorough environmental review of the drought plan. “Just as it is hydrologically connected to the Colorado River, the Salton Sea is inseparable from the DCP, and any attempt to sweep it aside or pretend it doesn’t exist is as unsustainable as it is cynical,” said Erik Ortega, president of the district, in a March 1 statement. “We all need to cross the finish line together, in California and across the two basins, but that won’t happen by taking shortcuts, environmental, economic or otherwise.”
In April 2019, on the day President Trump signed the DCP into law, Imperial asked a California court to suspend approvals of the lower basin DCP until after an environmental analysis was completed. With that, California, the lower basin, and all seven basin states moved forward on the DCP without the Imperial Irrigation District and without solving the problem of the Salton Sea.
Mexico is also part of the Colorado River Basin, apportioned 1.5 million acre-feet annually by the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty. It, too, is a partner in the effort to keep Mead from declining. A 2012 binational agreement specified that a shortage declaration under the 2007 interim guidelines would reduce deliveries to Mexico of up to 125,000 acre-feet. That agreement, Minute 319, also produced the historic 2014 pulse flow that used Mexico’s water stored in Lake Mead to wet the delta for the first time in 16 years. Minute 319 has since been supplanted by Minute 323. Signed in 2017, Minute 323 authorizes Mexico to continue storing water in Lake Mead and also commits the United States to financially support water efficiency projects in Mexico with the goal of leaving 200,000 acre-feet of water in Mead to benefit both countries. It also requires both countries to provide water and funding for delta habitat restoration.
Looking forward, Jennifer Pitt, director of Audubon’s Colorado River Program, sees need to build on existing binational relationships. “I think Mexico has already demonstrated that they are willing to be a partner in the equitable distribution of shortages, and I don’t think we should expect any different,” she says. Equitable, she believes, means proportionate to the shortages absorbed by the lower basin states.
Both the DCP and Minute 323 will expire in 2026. Negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico to determine what comes next after Minute 323, the DCP, and the interim guidelines, “will be tied to their implementation and operating experience [of Minute 323] between now and then,” Pitt says.
Minute 323 identifies specific projects but has no provision for another pulse flow. Pitt sees the river delta being like the Salton Sea: undeniably a part of the Colorado River Basin. The drying of the delta was the first visible signal of water imbalance.
Doing something about it means finding water to create a more resilient ecosystem that can address the habitat needs of birds that used that area as part of their migration path, she says. That this ecosystem is in Mexico also matters. “If the restoration effort were to be abandoned, we don’t know if Mexico would be as willing to share in the shortages with other water users,” Pitt says.
Even before the DCP was signed in May 2019, eyes were already on replacement of the interim guidelines and the DCP. It poses a greater challenge yet. The word “drought” probably should be discarded in the 2026 document’s title because the big overlapping issues of climate change and structural deficit that it must address are broader. “Hard issues left unresolved by the DCP will make the coming negotiations even more challenging,” said Udall in his February testimony to the U.S. House subcommittee.
But the DCP also marks several major achievements. The work was more inclusive, more deliberate in bringing tribes and environmental groups to the table, both of them often overlooked or strictly adversarial in the past. Even where it failed, there was success, as the Colorado River Research Group, in a May 2019 paper, pointed out: “Two of the most problematic features of the current management framework—the inability of Pinal County, Arizona, farmers to easily absorb CAP curtailments, and the environmental and public health challenges associated with limiting Salton Sea inflows—have influenced, and are influenced by, matters that were heretofore considered outside of basin water management planning.”
Too, the DCP carved a path, concrete in its details and immediate in its consequences, to reconcile reality with diversions. Based on the plan’s provisions, the Bureau of Reclamation in August 2019 ordered reduced deliveries to Arizona of 192,000 acre-feet and to Nevada of 8,000 acre-feet in 2020. In addition, under its supplemental treaty agreement, Mexico gets 41,000 acre-feet less. Those cuts were based on projections that Mead’s water would be below 1,090 feet, the new cushion level, on January 1, 2020. That water must remain in the reservoir until Mead rises above an elevation of 1,100 feet. These are the first, marked acknowledgements of the 21st century hydrologic realities.
In Arizona, David White, deputy director of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University, sees the template that emerged dwarfing the details in importance. “That was a very big win for the state,” says White. Creating an open, transparent process for figuring out how to apportion cuts was vital.
The Arizona Republic was of a like mind. “Let’s be clear. This deal isn’t perfect. It’s costly and painful, and it solves exactly zero of our water problems,” it wrote in a January 31, 2019, editorial. “All DCP does is buy us time. But it showed us how to solve our problems and move forward in a drier future.”
Colorado River users – and the 40 million people served by the river – received clarity moving into 2020 at the 2019 Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA) conference in Las Vegas.
There, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced that “the Department will immediately begin work on a new report that will analyze the effectiveness of current Colorado River operational rules to ensure continued reliable water and power resources across the Southwest – a year ahead of when the current rules require the report.” The report will be a review of the effectiveness of Colorado River operations since enactment of the 2007 Guidelines, including the implementation of the Drought Contingency Plans (DCP) in 2019.
The evaluation of the effectiveness of the 2007 Guidelines is a mandatory first step in what has come to be called the “Reconsultation” – the process that will lead to next set of rules for managing the Colorado River and the River’s major reservoirs when the current Guidelines expire at the end of 2026.
The Secretary’s comments echoed the remarks made earlier at CRWUA by U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, that it was too early to begin work on developing the next set of operating rules – that would get in the way of implementing DCP and the evaluation of the 2007 Guidelines.
Arizona’s next steps in this process are already underway. Central Arizona Project (CAP) General Manager Ted Cooke and Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke began meeting with Arizona’s DCP Steering Committee delegates two months ago to initiate post-DCP discussions. The announcements from the Department of the Interior are consistent with the expectations and approach underway by CAP and ADWR.
At the federal level, the immediate work is to prepare a report that will analyze the effectiveness of the Guidelines. This will take some time to accomplish, but the early start sets the stage for the second step of the Reconsultation, which will be the development of the next program, which will need to be in place in 2026. The Secretary estimated it would take about a year to complete the new report. The Basin States and other experts would be consulted as part of the report preparation process.
Said Barnhardt, “This conference brings together the best ideas for managing the Colorado River. This year’s historic agreements once again demonstrated that the best way to protect the Colorado River is collaboration and cooperation, not litigation. Looking ahead, we are eager to complete a review of our current operations by leveraging that collaborative approach to identify lessons learned from rules that have guided our operations since 2007. Thank you to CRWUA for providing the forum for launching this initiative.”
CRWUA is the only association focused solely on Colorado River issues. It provides an opportunity for those with interest in the river to convene and discuss issues. The CRWUA conference also provides the opportunity for the U.S. Department of the Interior to speak to Colorado River users in one venue.
This year’s conference featured a resolution recognizing the 130th anniversary of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and the 75th anniversary of the 1944 Treaty Concerning the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande. The 1944 Treaty established a framework that provides significant and enduring benefits to Colorado River water users in the United States and Mexico and stands as an example of international cooperation and collaboration.
At this year’s conference, Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) Board President Lisa Atkins moderated the Augmentation Colloquium, which featured a panel including CAP Colorado Programs Manager Chuck Cullom. Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke also served on a panel regarding the Interim Guidelines.
To learn more about CRWUA, visit its website, which was newly designed by CAP.
The annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference started up Thursday at Bally’s Hotel and Casino…
When it comes to the fight to conserve water, officials at this year’s conference say Nevadans have a lot to be proud of.
“Southern Nevada is on the cutting edge, you are at the forefront of conservation. What this town, what the water users of this town, have been able to do in the last ten years is really remarkable,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman.
The Silver State is regarded as a national leader in the fight to save the resource, citing investments in conservation infrastructure over the last two decades.
Drought markers along the Colorado River remain; dating back nearly twenty years.
Officials in Nevada are pushing back though. Working alongside reps from other states, water usage on the Colorado River has declined. Emergency drought plans have also been drawn and agreed on.
Water wonks, state and tribal officials, attorneys and irrigation district representatives hit the floor at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel last week. Not to shake loose the slots. But to gamble on the future of the Colorado River.
During the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA), stakeholders from the seven US states that share the river’s water met to talk about everything from interagency cooperation to cloud seeding, forecasting to tribal water rights.
But even as the impacts of the Earth’s warming are increasingly clear, there’s still a political and practical disconnect between the cause of climate change—the burning of fossil fuels—and the challenges warming poses to water supplies in the western United States.
That decoupling was hammered home by US Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who spoke at the CRWUA meeting. During his keynote speech, Bernhardt avoided mentioning climate change.
When pressed by reporters afterwards, he said he “certainly believe[s] the climate is changing.” But he cautioned that forecasting is speculative.
And he praised the role energy development plays in states like New Mexico.
“The president was very clear when he ran for office on his position on energy; he’s for an all-of-the-above approach,” Bernhardt said. “In New Mexico last year, we sent $1.7 billion from federal lands to the state of New Mexico that went to schools and other things. So, when people tell me they want to stop oil and gas development on federal lands, I say ‘Call the governor of New Mexico.'”
Gov Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office could not answer SFR’s questions by deadline about Bernhardt’s claims related to revenues from drilling on federal land in New Mexico and balancing the disconnect between the state’s energy policies—which have spiked revenues—and emissions from that industry, which exacerbate the state’s water challenges.
The governor’s spokeswoman also could not provide a response to Bernhardt’s statements before deadline…
In 2017, a peer-reviewed study showed that warming was already causing flows on the Colorado River to decline. Between 2000 and 2014, flows averaged 19% below the 1906-1999 average, and scientists found that one-third of those losses were due to higher temperatures, rather than changes in precipitation. They also wrote that if warming continues, the Colorado River’s flows will drop even more—20 to 35% by 2050, and 30 to 55% by 2100.
A follow-up study in 2018 showed that even though annual precipitation in the Colorado River Basin increased slightly between 1916 and 2014, flows declined by 16.5 % during that same time period—due in large part to “unprecedented basin-wide warming.”
“Climate change is water change,” says Bradley Udall, one of the co-authors of both those studies. Udall is a senior water and climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University.
In arid landscapes like the US Southwest, warming affects river flows, snowpack, soil moisture and even the amount of water crops and forests need to survive.
“In our case, [climate change] means these longer, hotter droughts that threaten the Rio Grande and the Colorado River system in ways that are unprecedented,” Udall tells SFR.
“If you’re going to reduce the risk of water shortages for humans and nature, you’ve got to solve the climate change problem.”
And, he says, solving the climate change problem means stopping fossil fuel production: “You can’t solve climate change if you’re going to continue to pursue fossil fuel production willy-nilly.”
And yet, drilling is booming across the world, including in New Mexico. And that development has consequences.
Earlier this year, the World Meteorological Organization showed that carbon emissions have continued to increase. According to a story in the BBC, “Using data from monitoring stations in the Arctic and all over the world, researchers say that in 2018 concentrations of CO2 reached 407.8 parts per million (ppm), up from 405.5ppm a year previously. This increase was above the average for the last 10 years and is 147% of the “pre-industrial” level in 1750.” Not only that, but methane emissions continue to rise, as well—and is now at 259 % what it was before the Industrial Revolution.
Meanwhile, global temperatures continue to ruse. The latest numbers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that the three-month season of September through November 2019 ranked second-warmest on record for the globe—with a global temperature of 1.69°F above average. Already, New Mexico’s average annual temperature has increased by 2°F—just since the 1970s.
Continued warming will have continued impacts across the US Southwest. And even after last winter’s robust snowpack, the basin’s reservoirs, system-wide, sit at just over half-full. The two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are 52 % and 40 % full, respectively. A second year of good snowpack, Udall estimates, would put the system at perhaps 60 % full…
Asked to rectify that with the president’s statements about climate change as a “hoax” and his attacks on climate science, Bernhardt reiterated that Trump has been an “exceptional leader on western water issues.”
“I think it’s very hard to go back and find presidents who have given clear direction in memos to the secretaries, [that] say ‘Get on with it. Solve these situations,'” he said, referring to Trump’s 2018 presidential memorandum on reliable water supplies in the western US. In that memo, the White House directed federal agencies, including Interior, to “work together to minimize unnecessary regulatory burdens and foster more efficient decision-making so that water projects are better able to meet the demands of their authorized purposes.”
Bernhardt also directed the US Bureau of Reclamation to launch its review of the 2007 interim guidelines at the beginning of 2020.
FromThe Las Vegas Review Journal (Shea Johnson) via The Boulder City Review:
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said Dec. 11 that Nevada has been a national leader in water conservation by reducing demand on the Colorado River and investing in infrastructure over the past two decades.
In Las Vegas for the Colorado River Water Users Association’s annual conference, Burman declined to say, however, whether she sees Nevada’s share of the river’s water increasing, even though it draws the least amount of water than any other state.
Instead she said Mexico and seven Southwestern states served by the river were focused on working within the existing rules and regulations, known as the “Law of the River.”
In an interview with the Review-Journal, Burman said that “desalination is going to be part of the answer” to reducing draws on the river, noting that California has already made major investments on that front, and talks between Mexico and lower basin states have questioned whether desalination is possible in that country.
“We all really need to be looking at an all-of-the-above approach,” she said about viable long-term solutions to river sustainability…
The three-day annual conference culminated with a tour of Hoover Dam with federal officials. It followed a keynote speech by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.