From the Environmental Defense Fund (Kevin Moran):
Lake Mead water users this week learned we once again narrowly avoided water cutbacks by the skin of our teeth.
A 24-month projection released Wednesday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation shows we skirted federal mandatory water cuts this year, but prospects for 2019 and 2020 do not look good. The forecast found Lake Mead water levels will end this month at 1,079 feet – a mere four feet away from the 1,075-feet threshold that would trigger a federal shortage declaration and mandatory cuts.
The report predicted Lake Mead will dip just below the threshold to 1,075 feet as early as May 2019 – in nine months. At the beginning of 2020, Lake Mead levels are predicted to be at approximately 1,070 feet and then predicted to fall to as low as 1,053 feet in the summer of 2020.
An official shortage declaration has been staved off until at least August 2019. That’s when the next key projection comes out, for January 1, 2020.
How did it come to this, and where do we go from here?
Located nearly 25 miles from the Las Vegas Strip, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the U.S. and supplies 40 percent of Arizona’s water. Factors like population growth, declining snowpack and rising temperatures have made drought the norm and are stretching this vital source of Colorado River water to the limit.
The latest Lake Mead forecast comes a week after a 40-member steering committee in Arizona held its second meeting to craft agreements between Arizona water agencies and water users that would enable the state to sign on to the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) – a plan developed by Arizona, California, Nevada and the federal government to reduce risks in the Colorado River system. The precariously low Lake Mead water levels projected this week make this steering committee’s work more important than ever.
Developing intra-Arizona conservation and water sharing agreements and gaining approval by the Arizona legislature next year will hopefully be among the last steps in a multi-state effort to address the decline in the water elevation of Lake Mead, which also supplies water to California, Nevada and two states in Mexico. It’s time for Arizona to fully acknowledge the region’s grim hydrology and implement plans to create a more sustainable future.
Reaching an agreement on the Lower Basin DCP is critical to Arizona’s long-term water security and to the state’s economic future. Failing to adopt a plan could result in federal agencies stepping in to impose mandatory cuts overnight.
We need collaboration to avoid potential catastrophe
Environmental Defense Fund is participating in the Arizona steering committee to ensure that Arizona reduces its withdrawals from Lake Mead to create a more sustainable Colorado River water system. My colleagues and I believe the near-term solution – to operate under a Lower Basin DCP agreement with our neighbors – should emphasize conservation and water sharing agreements among Arizona water uses.
Leaders in Arizona need to collaborate to take bold actions and expand the use of proven conservation strategies like the “system conservation” agreement reached last year. This multi-agency agreement compensated the Gila River Indian Community to leave 40,000 acre feet of water in Lake Mead – the amount used by approximately 100,000 people in a year.
Some innovative ideas already on the table
The good news is that the Arizona steering committee is off to a promising start.
At its first meeting on August 9, the committee created a smaller working group to focus on one of the biggest challenges – a mitigation plan for Central Arizona agriculture, which could be heavily affected by cuts. Options on the table include using some of the water stored by Central Arizona Project in Lake Pleasant or creating a fund to purchase mitigation water from higher priority water users.
Several members of this Central Arizona agriculture mitigation working group have already been meeting over the past several months and, with this head start, I am hoping they will bring some promising ideas to the full steering committee at its next meeting on August 23.
I am cautiously optimistic that the steering committee can succeed in hammering out intra-Arizona plans for increased conservation and water sharing agreements by the end of this year.
With those plans in hand, we would have the support we need to convince the state legislature to pass a concurrent resolution (as required by Arizona law) to authorize the Department of Water Resources to sign the Lower Basin DCP.
It’s time to face the reality of the situation
Arizona is running out of time to figure out new ways of conserving and creatively sharing an increasingly scarce water supply. We need to collaborate now in order to avoid catastrophic and economically destabilizing impacts in the very near future.
Adapting successfully to the new water realities in our region – reduced Colorado River supplies and increased uncertainty and risk – will require increased agility, collaboration and innovation. The success of the Arizona economy and health of our ecosystems depend on it.
In that book, working with John Fleck of Albuquerque, he’s trying to make the case that science should not be ignored in figuring out how to manage the Colorado River during the 21st century—as it was when Congress approved the 1922 compact governing allocations among the seven states, Indian tribes, and, somewhat more fuzzily, Mexico.
Kuhn was honored recently in Glenwood Springs by his staff and others from around Colorado for his 37 years of work.
Trained as an electrical engineer, Kuhn had been a naval office on a nuclear-powered submarine before pursuing a career in nuclear power plants. But even in 1981, he could see that nuclear power wasn’t going in the right direction. When he noticed an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal for a position at the Glenwood Springs-based water district, he applied.
Obviously, he got the job, moving from energy to water, from California to Colorado.
It was sharp pivot in Kuhn’s life. And Colorado since 1981 has also pivoted hard in very fundamental ways in its conversations about water.
Tom Alvey, who grows fruit and operates a packing shed in Hotchkiss, credited Kuhn with providing transparency and “getting the facts right” during his time as general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, beginning in 1996.
Bill Trampe, who owns a ranch that sprawls between Crested Butte and Gunnison, lauded Kuhn for having “the foresight to see where we were headed and what we needed to do to be effective in protecting water for the Western Slope.”
Peter Fleming, the river district’s general counsel, testified to Kuhn’s “highly intellectual approach to negotiations.” As arguments and counterarguments were waged at one session, said Fleming, he observed Kuhn scribbling into a notepad. Peering over his boss’s shoulder, he said, he saw numbers. What did they represent? “He was calculating complex integers,” Fleming discovered. In that scribbling could be seen a larger lesson.
“He wasn’t disinterested in what was going on,” said Fleming. “He just knew that the timing wasn’t right for him to offer what would inevitably be a good solution.”
Denver Water’s Jim Lochhead was also at the gathering in Glenwood, just a few blocks from where he had for many years staffed the “Aspen office” of one of the state’s leading law firms. Lochhead drew attention to Kuhn’s influence beyond Colorado’s traditional Eastern Slope versus Western Slope schisms to the broader seven-state Colorado River Basin. There, Kuhn’s voice about preparing for a warming climate has become influential.
“He is collaborative. He is innovative. He thinks about different solutions. He listens. He tries to find the common ground,” said Lochhead, now chief executive of Denver Water, an agency that provides water to 25 percent of all Colorado residents.
A time of pivots
Nobody, however, spoke directly to the giant pivots in water politics, policies and problems in the 37 years since Kuhn arrived in Colorado.
One of the largest pivots had already begun in 1981. The federal government had spent most of the 20th century building the giant dams, canals and other hydraulic infrastructure in the West. In Colorado, the greatest ambition was evident in the gigantic transfer of water from the Colorado River headwaters near Grand Lake to the benefit of farmers in northeastern Colorado. It’s called the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
The transfer—some would call it a heist — was opposed on the Western Slope, of course. One result of the compromise was a 1937 state law that created the river district and charged it with “conservation, use and development of water in the Colorado River and its principal tributaries in Colorado.” It covers 15 counties, including Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle. Southwestern Colorado has a similar district.
Another outcome was federal construction of Green Mountain Reservoir, on the Blue River north of Silverthorne. The dam had immediate benefits to the Western Slope, helping regulate flows to the benefit of farmers around Grand Junction. Much later, the regulated flows were crucial to providing water for endangered fish species in the Colorado River.
A later enterprise, the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, hewed to the same template: It diverts water from the Roaring Fork drainage to farmers in southeast Colorado. For this, the Western Slope got Ruedi Reservoir. It was completed 50 years ago.
More projects were proposed, but in 1977 President Jimmy Carter announced they wouldn’t get funded. Westerners bristled and ridiculed Carter as a peanut-farmer in rain-drenched Georgia who didn’t understand the West. Ronald Reagan, arriving at the White House in 1981, was heralded as a Westerner who would right things. He only went half-way: Locals would have to come up with half the money for their dams and diversions. For most projects, it wasn’t nearly enough.
Kuhn noted that during his time, two of the five projects on Carter’s hit list in Colorado were eventually built, if not to the sizes originally envisioned. One of them, Ridgway Reservoir (originally called Dallas Divide), provides hydroelectricity that is part of Aspen Electric’s 100 percent renewable portfolio.
Altogether, however, the river district during Kuhn’s time had a hand in building five smaller-size reservoirs. Wolford Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling, by far the largest, is two-thirds the size of Ruedi. It was built in co-operation with Denver Water.
The River District under Kuhn also worked with Denver Water on other projects. But when Kuhn started work in Glenwood Springs, the relations were rocky. Denver wanted to build a giant dam in the foothills southwest of the city. Two-thirds of the water behind the Two Forks Dam was to have come from the Western Slope, primarily Summit County. Water was to go to Denver’s fast-growing suburbs.
Kuhn had been assigned to represent the river district on a task force appointed by then-Gov. Dick Lamm, to help sort through the controversy. The Western Slope task force aligned with the environmental community and together they conceded need for a small Two Forks as well as expanded diversions from Winter Park area for an enlarged Gross Reservoir west of Boulder. In exchange, the task force said, Denver needed to commit to greater water conservation. Denver Water’s leaders, confident of their rightness to the point of cockiness, refused.
The drama was cut short in 1991 when the administration of President George H.W. Bush vetoed the project, which was to be on federal land, based on environmental impacts.
Kuhn points out that the levels of conservation the Western Slope and environmentalists asked of Denver were much less than what has actually occurred. Denver Water now uses the same water for roughly double the number of people it did in 1990. The default expectation of ever-more water supplies has been shattered.
“You have this decoupling of municipal growth and water use, and we really didn’t see that coming in the early 1980s,” Kuhn said in an interview last week.
Denver, Aspen and other communities have been part of a national trend of declining per-capita use of water that may be far from over. It’s a simple matter of economics. Wringing the sponge of water conservation is cheaper. More expensive is buying water from farms on the Great Plains, but it’s still cheaper than developing new supplies.
Still being debated is how much water Colorado has to develop out of its entitlement, under compacts governing the Colorado River. As with Two Forks, a notion that the solution to water shortages is to build more dams and divert more still lingers. It assumes water remains available. A state report issued several years ago concluded that Colorado had as much as 1.5 million acre-feet of water in the Colorado River to develop.
Kuhn scoffed at that estimate. He said then that no more than 150,000 acre-feet remained—and, quite possibly, not even that. Even allocations for existing water uses are questionable because of the dangling uncertainty of the warming climate.
After rummaging around climate change science beginning in about 2000, Kuhn became increasingly vocal through published papers and other work about the need to recognize the profound implications of a warming climate on water supplies in the Colorado River and the demands.
“I was just reading some of the work that was coming out in the early 2000s, and it’s largely proven to be generally correct,” he said last week. “I am surprised how quickly it has come on, because there is so much noise in the system,” he added, referring to the inherent variability of weather, both temperature and precipitation. “Even from one year to the next there can be a lot of noise.”
A cloudy crystal ball
What this means exactly for Colorado is still hard to say. There’s still too much uncertainty about impacts to justify significant infrastructure investments at this time, according to even Denver Water. Kuhn agrees.
“It will take a long time to see how that pattern (of change) sets up,” he said.
Climate modeling suggests—but with low confidence—less snow and precipitation for southern Colorado and more for northern Colorado. The Elk Range between Aspen and Crested butte can be seen as a divide between that wetter and drier future.
“If I were in the southwest, in Durango, I would be a heck of a lot more concerned than if I were in Steamboat Springs, based on what we know now—but it’s still a guess,” he said.
For the broader Colorado River Basin, though, Kuhn expects less water in the Colorado River as it flows into the Grand Canyon past Lees Ferry. In this, last winter was a harbinger of the future. There are profound implications for how the seven states of the Colorado River Basin – plus Mexico—move forward.
And that is the big idea for the book now being written. In it, he and Fleck point to a report issued before the Colorado River Compact was formally adopted by Congress in 1928. The framers of the compact had assumed 16.4 million acre-feet average flows in allocating the waters among the seven basin states — with more yet due Mexico. In fact, flows during 20th century proved to be somewhat less, about 15 million acre-feet. The report provided accurate evidence of lesser flows beginning in 1875 and, more circumstantially, to 1850.
In other words, it was wishful thinking to assume so much water — and based on what is known about global warming, it’s fair to assume even less water in the 21st century. Through the first 14 years of the century, according to the research of Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck, flows have declined 19 percent.
“It’s a story about ignoring inconvenient science,” Kuhn said of the book. “If you had accepted the science, it would have made the political job [of apportioning the waters] much more difficult.”
It’s a story from a century ago, he said — but one fully relevant going forward.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register. From the website:
The risk of draining a half-full Lake Powell is real. The risk one-third full Lake Mead going lower and triggering big water cutbacks is real. Uncle Sam has told the states to develop drought plans or else the U.S. will do it for them. Speakers and panels from the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Upper Colorado River Commission, the Colorado River District and others will detail current conditions on the river and what the states plan to do about them. Whether you are a toothbrusher, ag producer, angler or rafter, there’s a lot to care about.
Cost is $30 and that includes lunch; $35 at the door. Students are free unless staying for lunch, which is $10
For information, call Meredith at 970-945-8522 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Entsminger, General Manager, Southern Nevada Water Authority
Amy Haas, the new Executive Director of the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) (invited)
Eric Kuhn, retired Colorado River District General Manager, adviser to the UCRC
Andy Mueller, General Manager of the Colorado River District
Brenda Burman, Commissioner, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (invited)
and more . . .
Click here to view the Twitter fest from last year (#crdseminar).
Demonstrating their commitment to address growing risks to Arizona’s Colorado River supply, Arizona and federal water leaders answered questions from the public for nearly three hours last week in central Phoenix.
The July 10 briefing gave the public an opportunity to get answers to their questions about the terms of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), a plan designed to bolster water levels in Lake Mead to avoid potentially draconian reductions to Arizona’s Colorado River supply, and to discuss the potential impacts of the DCP in Arizona.
The panel also discussed the uncertainty Arizona faces if the reservoir should fall to critically low water levels such as 1,025 or, even 1,000 feet.
The three presenting agencies – the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR), the Central Arizona Project, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – all had technical staff prepared to respond.
The event at the Heard Museum auditorium in central Phoenix was a follow-up to a June 28 public briefing held at the Arizona Historical Society auditorium in Tempe. In all, ADWR and CAP received more than 50 questions at and in the week following the June 28 briefing.
At the meeting, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke emphasized the importance of creating flexibility for the participating states, which he said incentivizes the creation of stored or conserved water, known as intentionally created surplus (ICS), in Lake Mead. That water, he explained, helps raise the elevation in Lake Mead. California currently has about 550,000 acre-feet of stored water in Lake Mead.
As the Director noted at the Heard Museum briefing, California water officials have indicated that if there is not a DCP in place, the state may take all or some of its existing ICS from Lake Mead “to avoid stranding the water in the lake.”
“Having the water potentially stranded during a shortage is a disincentive for the creation of the intentionally created surplus in the first place.”
In all, ADWR and CAP received more than 50 questions at the Tempe event and in the week following the June 28 briefing. CAP General Manager Ted Cooke was asked why California should be allowed to take more than its allocation in a year when Arizona may receive less than its normal 2.8 million acre-foot allocation.
Cooke observed that California is “pre-loading” its DCP contribution obligations in Lake Mead. That, he said, is what that 550,000 acre-feet the state already has stored there represents.
Cooke added that if California still has ICS in Lake Mead by 2026, “that to me is a good thing.”
“That means that they put more water into Lake Mead than they needed to meet their ICS obligations.”
The next public meeting on the DCP is scheduled for July 26 at 1-4 p.m. at Central Arizona Project’s board room, 23636 N. 7th St. in north Phoenix.
There, a newly appointed steering committee will begin the effort to identify ways to help mitigate the impacts of DCP within Arizona, hopefully paving the way for legislative approval in early 2019 for the ADWR Director to approve the DCP on behalf of Arizona. Buschatzke noted that there is recent precedent of Arizona stakeholders coming together to develop creative solutions around Colorado River issues, in the public process that led up to ADWR’s 2006 Shortage-Sharing Recommendation.
“We did it then, we can do it again.”
ARIZONA DISCUSSION ON LOWER BASIN DROUGHT CONTINGENCY PLAN (JULY 10 BRIEFING)
At a presentation before hundreds of local and state officials, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman and a top aide warned that the risks to the lake are unacceptable. They said it’s urgent that Arizona officials resolve their differences over the drought plan and get on board with six other Colorado River Basin states that are moving toward adopting one.
Since the seven states approved a set of guidelines for managing the river’s reservoirs in 2007, the risks of Lake Mead dropping to very low levels has increased by three to six times, the bureau officials said.
They spoke at a briefing that also found once-warring Arizona Department of Water Resources and Central Arizona Project officials moving closer together on issues that had split them apart for well over a year. Both ADWR chief Tom Buschatzke and CAP general manager Ted Cooke enthusiastically endorsed the idea of a drought plan, although Cooke warned that the resulting reduction in river water use would boost water rates the CAP charges to Tucson, Phoenix and other municipal customers over time.
“We are not here to scare you. We are just presenting the best information we have,” Burman told a gathering that virtually filled a 275-person auditorium at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe.
“Keeping our fingers crossed, hoping for good hydrology” and waiting for the current and future interior secretaries to ignore the laws of the Colorado River that require protecting its reservoirs from depletion is not how to deal with this problem, she said.
“It’s not how we’ve dealt with it in the past, and it’s not how Arizona wants to deal with it in the future,” said Burman, a longtime Arizonan who has worked for the Salt River Project utility and for former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona in the past.
The bureau’s forecasts for how far and fast Lake Mead’s elevations could fall were most severe when the forecasters used what they called a “stress test.” It relies on computer models assuming a continuation of the last 30 years of unusually dry weather.
Less severe risks of such declines were predicted when the bureau relied on the river’s entire historical record, covering 1906 to 2015, which included several much wetter spells, including the wettest period on record for the river, in the early 20th century.
And if we repeat the hydrology from 1988-2015 – where dry years were punctuated by a few wet ones, not a great scenario but certainly not the worst case – Lake Mead has a one in five chance of dropping to 1,000 feet of elevation before 2026.
That should give you goosebumps, because it doesn’t just mean significant cuts to the water supply on which Pinal County agriculture and the state water bank relies. (That scenario, which will play out when the lake hits 1,075 feet, is already likely to happen in the next year or two).
If Lake Mead drops to 1,000 feet, that means massive cuts have already hit the water supplies fueling Arizona cities, and we’ll need to cut even more to keep the lake from spiraling into dead pool, where water levels have fallen so low that none can leave the lake.
That is a horrifying prospect.
And let me repeat this: There’s a one in five chance of it happening sometime in the next few years if something doesn’t change…
Here’s the bad news:
Reclamation says that if the plan was in place, it wouldn’t lower the risk of a shortage being declared. In fact, even with the DCP, Lake Mead likely will hit 1,075 feet before 2026, cutting water from the state’s lowest-priority water users (mostly Pinal County farmers, though it wouldn’t be limited to them).
That will hurt.
But here’s the good news: It would significantly lower the likelihood of the lake reaching critically low levels, requiring heftier cuts from cities and other higher-priority water users.
Here’s the video of the meeting. (Water folks on the hotseat.)
And the good people of Phoenix are cutting water use. Here’s a report from (Joshua Bowling) writing for The Arizona Republic. Here’s an excerpt:
Salt River Project officials say water use is down one-third, even though Arizona’s population has doubled.
But even as a historically dry winter and low snowpack numbers set reservoir levels back, officials say it isn’t all bad news.
Salt River Project announced in June that water use among its users has decreased by one-third since 1980, even though the state’s population has doubled since then.
That’s due to conservation efforts, recycling wastewater and recharging water underground for future use, SRP officials say. The agency managers and delivers water from the Salt and Verde rivers to users in Maricopa County.
Top officials in the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project shelved disagreements from the last legislative cycle and presented a united front along with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the need for reductions of Colorado River water.
Proposed reductions have the entire agriculture pool of Central Arizona Project surface water being slashed if Lake Mead goes into a Tier 1 shortage — below 1,075 feet elevation. This year analysts set Lake Mead at just 1,083 feet.
In a best-case scenario presented in the brief, basing predictions on hydrology going back to 1906, there is a 65 percent chance Lake Mead will drop below this level in 2026.
Making predictions using hydrology records going back to only 1988, which means assuming the hotter, drier climate is here to stay, there is a 90 percent chance Lake Mead will drop below 1,075 feet in 2020 without a drought contingency plan, and a 40 percent chance it will drop that year even with the plan.
It is unlikely the agriculture pool of CAP water will survive even in the best of scenarios under the drought contingency plan.
Paul Orme, who serves as general counsel to five special districts in Pinal County, including Central Arizona Irrigation and Drainage District and Maricopa–Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, said that DCP is not really designed to preserve the agriculture priority pool.
But there is support for measures to mitigate the burden on agriculture. Stakeholders are working on fleshing out ideas that are “not ready for the press,” Orme said. He recently received a letter appointing him to represent Pinal County agriculture on the steering committee for the drought contingency plan.
“I think people generally agree it’s not fair for agriculture to bear the entire burden of DCP when it’s not really intended to benefit us,” Orme said. “The real purpose of DCP is to keep Lake Mead above 1,020 (feet). That’s really what the primary focus is, and that only protects the long-term allocations of the tribes and the cities — agriculture is long gone.”
Orme said that about 80 percent of the CAP surface water allotted to agriculture goes to Pinal County farmers, making up about half of their total water supply. Taking away CAP water would be economically devastating for agriculture and could ultimately result in about a third of farmland being taken out of production in Pinal County.
This almost 20-year drought is affecting water supplies across the Southwest. We already know the Colorado River System is over-extended — more water is taken out by water users than is put back in by snowpack and rainfall. Millions of people, businesses, birds, fish, and wildlife all rely on a healthy Colorado River and the water it provides.
Given today’s hydrologic trends, in order to stabilize our water supply and reduce the chance that Lake Mead declines more rapidly, we’ll need to incentivize those who would take their water to leave it behind Hoover Dam instead. Enter the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP).
The DCP, according to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, is a seven-year agreement to “buy down risk” on the Colorado River system. She said it in the first word: BUY. In other words, DCP is going to cost money.
A couple of reasons why DCP will cost money:
Certain water users will need a financial incentive, aka payment, to leave their water in Lake Mead, instead of using it.
Since some water users will be leaving more water in Lake Mead, less water will be coming down the 336-mile long Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal. When there is less water ordered, there is less water sold, yet the fixed costs to maintain this large piece of infrastructure remain. There are fewer units over which to spread costs. Therefore, cost per unit of water rises.
However, not implementing the DCP, not implementing a formal mechanism to encourage water users to leave more water in Lake Mead is far too risky, and potentially more costly, or catastrophic, to our economic and environmental livelihood. The cost of no DCP may be much greater than the cost of having a DCP.
DCP acts as an insurance policy to buy down risk. We buy down the risk of climate change and an over-allocated Colorado River system by using less water now. Our economies and our environment depend on it.
FromThe Phoenix Business Journal (Patrick O’Grady):
Such a scenario is extremely likely, according to new federal studies, and deciding who gets water first could impact businesses from agriculture to home building throughout the state.
The Wall Street Journal reported the Central Arizona Project and the Arizona Department of Water Resources are attempting to overcome differences on how to spread out less Colorado River water among its users. Arizona is the last of seven states using the river’s water to come up with a drought contingency plan.
Currently, Lake Mead’s water elevation sits at 1,077 feet, two feet away from a level that would signify cutbacks to California, Arizona and Nevada, all of which rely on the the lake to store their allotment of Colorado River water.
The challenge for Arizona is further cutbacks that could be triggered if the lake elevation falls to 1,025, which has a 40 percent chance of happening by 2026, according to a new U.S. Bureau of Reclamation report.
CAP and ADWR have not been able to find agreement on where cuts to water deliveries should happen, according to the WSJ. Agriculture could get the biggest impact, but many businesses would be affected.
Arizona gets about 40 percent of its water from the Colorado River.
The 336 mile-long canal, its pumping stations, and turnouts are operated entirely remotely from a control room in north Phoenix. A rotating team of three or four operates the secure facility 24/7/365, running the entire system from a bank of computers while monitoring a display that takes up two walls of a room the size of your basic city council chamber. It’s efficient, cost-effective, and pretty damn cool.
The original Waddell Dam sits at the bottom of Lake Pleasant, intact. Completed in 1927, the dam was submerged when the lake was expanded to hold CAP water by the construction of the New Waddell Dam, completed in 1994.
An acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons, the volume required to cover a square acre to a depth of one foot. If you are a ‘typical family of four,’ you use about one-third of an acre-foot per year, around 108,000 gallons.
The CAP pumps water at a rate of roughly 3,000 cubic feet per second from Lake Havasu. That’s one acre-foot every 14 seconds. A typical family of four would be knocked into New Mexico standing in front of a stream that powerful.
Only 4% of CAP water is lost to seepage and evaporation. Covering the canal was discussed early on. It would have quadrupled the construction cost and required untold billions in ongoing maintenance, basically forever. Those costs would have been passed to y-o-u.
CAP water begins its journey by being pumped almost straight uphill more than 800 feet. This marvel of sheer power takes place at the massive Mark Wilmer Pumping Station (pictured below in 1981) at Lake Havasu and looks like the world’s most dramatic roller coaster climb. (Illustrating the importance of the legal water wars in Arizona, this very first facility on the CAP is named for Wilmer, a water attorney.)
The canal is bigger and deeper than it looks. It’s hard to appreciate when you are concentrating on your driving, but the CAP is 80 feet across, narrowing to 24 feet at the bottom. Average depth is between 16 and 17 feet. There is a section serving as internal storage that is 160 feet wide and 80 feet deep.
Water leaving Lake Havasu takes 3-4 days to make it to the end of the line. This means the canal is pushing relentlessly along at 3-5 miles per hour. It does not stop, and as mentioned above, it’s deep. Do NOT let the kids get near it and don’t ever enter the water yourself. It’s not meant for recreation. It’s dangerous. It’s against the law. You will be very sorry.
The end of the line is 12 miles southwest of Tucson. Water arriving there is used to replenish Tucson-area groundwater.
A woman named Nellie T. Bush commanded the “Arizona Navy” in the 1934 California water dispute. Bush owned the boats Arizona Governor Moeur commandeered in the mobilization, so he made her an admiral on the spot. A prominent Arizonan, Bush was a lawyer admitted to practice in California and Arizona. She became Justice of the Peace in Parker; was elected to the Arizona legislature, and was a delegate to the 1932 Democratic National Convention that nominated FDR for the first time. In 1982, Nellie T. Bush was inducted into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame.
The CAP uses 2.8 billion KwH of electricity per year: That’s enough energy to, well, push 1.5 million acre-feet of water 2,400 feet uphill for 336 miles. Water in Arizona also generates power, so part of almost everyone’s household electrical bill is water generated.
The CAP canal in the Phoenix area is marked by “Hayden- Rhodes Aqueduct” signs. CAP and ADOT put up the signs to call attention to the canal and memorialize the contributions of Senator Hayden and former Rep. John Rhodes, who was a driving force in the House when the 1968 authorization bill was signed.
Bonus to the bonus:
Rhodes went on to become known as one of three political leaders (Barry Goldwater and Pennsylvania’s Hugh Scott were the others) who delivered the news to Richard Nixon that he did not have enough support in Congress to stave off impeachment and probably faced conviction, triggering Nixon’s resignation from the Presidency in 1974.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) was one of many Arizona entities and stakeholders who met to discuss contingency plans to deal with the worsening drought conditions in the southwestern United States.
The water officials committed last Thursday to reach a multi-state plan by the end of the year to stave off potential shortages. The move comes after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has been pushing western states to come up with solid plans about water usage, with steady declines in the Colorado River year on year…
Tribal water is increasingly being seen as part of the solution to the problem, by both the representatives of metropolitan areas, which require the highest water usage, and by tribes like CRIT who have rights to many hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water that they do not use.
A proposed CAP program would potentially allow tribes, who have senior rights, to store water behind Lake Mead, which could be a way to mitigate the shortage-created loss of water rights by central Arizona farmers, who need it to keep producing crops.
In such an environment, there are few such solutions, which has forced CRIT to the table. But the potential benefits to CRIT are also clear, according to the tribe’s water attorney Margaret Vick, with many of the state’s entities talking about creating positive solutions now rather than leaving it too late and having less desirable solutions imposed by the federal government later.
“We can buy insurance now to provide more certainty for the coming years,” said Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. “It’s Arizona’s history that we face problems head on.”
Burman said other states would pressure her agency to limit Arizona’s water deliveries if it doesn’t agree on an effective drought plan, and predicted that there would be lawsuits. The agency has said it would rather the states negotiate a solution that includes all entities with rights to the river.
For the first time in well over a year, a clear path exists for completion of Arizona’s share of a three-state drought plan for the Colorado River.
The plan would step up already-approved requirements for cuts in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and eventually California as Lake Mead drops below certain key levels.
While many hurdles and potential disputes remain, water officials said last week they’re ready to work together and hold public meetings to solicit comments on the plan from various water users and other interest groups. The first such meeting will be held July 26 in the Phoenix area.
Officials hope to have a plan ready for the Legislature to approve next year, with “zero no votes,” said Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke at Thursday’s briefing in Tempe on the drought plan.
Officials laid out four key elements of a drought plan Thursday but said the details will be worked out by a steering committee of water officials and interest group representatives that will meet publicly.
The key elements are:
A plan for what to do with what officials call “excess water,” Central Arizona Project water that isn’t used in a given year by the city, irrigation district or Indian tribe that has the rights to it.
A plan to mitigate the drought plan’s impacts on farmers, who will take the biggest hit by far from future cuts in CAP water deliveries.
A plan to allow tribes to leave some of their water in Lake Mead and take it out later, when necessary.
An overall “Arizona Conservation Plan,” whose purpose and details were not made clear.
At the briefing, officials from the federal government, the state water department and the CAP said the tribes’ role in this plan will be crucial. But the details of setting up a program for how it would happen remain unknown.
When Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet at the end of any year — the threshold for the first shortage on the river — Pinal County farmers would lose all their CAP water. That would likely force them to resume what everyone agrees is unsustainable groundwater pumping to stay in business. But at a news conference following the briefing, CAP General Manager Ted Cooke demurred in response to a question about whether and how some water belonging to other parties could be reallocated to agriculture. “I don’t really want to get ahead of the conversation,” Cooke said.
Whether to let the dwindling supply of “excess” CAP water stay in Lake Mead to prop it up, or whether CAP officials should continue to sell it to other parties such as its own sister agency that recharges it into the ground to serve future growth. With Lake Mead falling, Cooke said, “There will not be very much … excess water very much longer.”
Fights and litigation would only delay a coordinated response to continued high temperatures and slipping water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
“The situation in Arizona is a topic of a lot of discussion in the Upper Basin,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water.
He said Arizona’s internal conflict has led to political problems in Colorado.
“It puts pressure on Denver Water as a municipal utility, taking water out of the Colorado River, and it exacerbates historic animosities and relationships between Western Colorado and Denver Water.”
Lochhead sent a letter to the Central Arizona Project in April threatening to pull out of a program to conserve water unless the lower basin made real progress on its plan.
Shortage is so imminent, California has even agreed to take reductions — something the current rules don’t require it to do.
“And you have to ask yourself, given the position that you are in, why would you let that opportunity go by?” said Pat Mulroy, a longtime water leader in Nevada who is now at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
But before it can sign a Lower Basin plan, Arizona needs its own internal deal.
One sticky subject is what to do about farmers in central Arizona, who would take a big hit under the current rules.
“How do we find a way to make things less painful for them?” Cooke asked. “Not completely painless, but less painful.”
Another big issue is determining who gets to decide when certain conserved water stays on Lake Mead.
It’s a major question that Buschatzke said was still “under discussion.”
“We will work that out,” Cooke said.
To get to “yes,” Buschatzke and Cooke agreed they’ll have to avoid letting side issues divert the talks.
Buschatzke said his task is “to find a collective way to create a package where everyone is better off with the package, even though there might be individual pieces of that package that they might not particularly like 100 percent.”
Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke says partnerships will be crucial to finally getting a drought contingency plan (DCP) approved.
“Or the result will be that somebody perceives that they’re being ‘stuck’ with the outcome of doing DCP and that will make it much more difficult to have the folks coming together when we do go to the Legislature: ‘We all think this is a good thing. Let’s do it. Please approve it.”
The next step is assembling a large committee of stakeholders such as agriculture operations and tribal leaders who hold water rights.
Water officials hope to craft a plan that gets Arizona lawmakers’ approval, and then have the Department of Water Resources director put it into action next year.
By Thomas Buschatzke, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director and Ted Cooke, Central Arizona Project General Manager
In a joint statement in May, our agencies, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) and Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) announced that we are committed to bringing the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (LBDCP) to closure in Arizona by addressing a broad range of issues that respect the concerns of all stakeholders across the state.
The discussions between ADWR and CAWCD were only the first step and today, we hosted a public briefing describing the proposed LBDCP, which was developed to address those risks. Colorado River managers were invited to learn about the LBDCP and its importance within Arizona.
We were joined by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. The Bureau of Reclamation discussed how the risks to the Colorado River have increased from what was expected when the…
FromThe Associated Press (Felicia Fonseca) via The Arizona Daily Star:
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has been prodding Western states to wrap up drought contingency plans, one each in the lower and upper basins. Little snowpack, rising temperatures and ongoing drought have led to steady declines in the river that serves 40 million people in seven U.S. states.
The amount of water that gets sent to the lower basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California — and Mexico depends on Lake Mead, the reservoir formed by Hoover Dam. No shortage has ever been declared, but the federal agency puts the possibility at more than 50 percent in 2020 and even higher in subsequent years.
Those states so far have avoided shortages through conservation, leaving water in Lake Mead and other efforts.
“The question is: How much of this do we need to do in the future and how can we stay out of shortage?” said Terry Fulp, director of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado River Region. “The likelihood is that we probably can’t.”
The Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project said they would form a committee to work out the details of a drought plan among Arizona water users and present it to the Legislature in January.
Ted Cooke, the general manager of the Central Arizona Project, said the key elements in Arizona are reaching agreement on how to handle any excess water, a program to allow tribes to store water behind Lake Mead, a mitigation plan for central Arizona farmers who would lose water under shortages and a water conservation plan.
The drought contingency plan is meant as an overlay to 2007 guidelines on what levels would trigger shortages and where they would be felt. If approved, it would spread shortages more widely and loop in California. Mexico also has agreed to cutbacks.
The plan also gives states flexibility on how to help prop up Lake Mead and an opportunity to recover the water if the lake rises above certain levels. It’s meant to last until 2026 when water users are scheduled to renegotiate the 2007 guidelines, but some provisions extend beyond that time.
The mention of one plausible future scenario along the Colorado River is enough to make some water managers in the West break into a sweat. It’s called the Compact Call, and even though it’s never happened — and is years away from ever happening — its invocation conjures up dystopian imagery of a southwest battling over scarce water supplies…
Imagine this: It’s 2030. The Colorado River, sapped by record high temperatures, is seeing its biggest reservoirs — Lakes Powell and Mead — plummet to near dead pool elevations.
Negotiations to mandate increased water conservation in Arizona and California have stalled. Throughout the southwest, frequent water shortages continue to scare off new businesses.
Bad blood among states simmering for years boils over with an exchange of nasty letters. Water managers in California, receiving less and less water from the Colorado River each year, feel slighted and start making demands for their share, kicking off a decade long legal battle. Ripples are felt all the way from Los Angeles to Denver.
To some water managers this nightmare is far from fiction. And without immediate action it could very well come true.
“It’s like a train wreck happening in glacial speed,” says Andy Mueller, Colorado River District general manager in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. “We’ll see it coming. I believe we see it coming now.”
To talk about the Colorado River’s present and future, you need to start in the past. One of the most important dates in the river’s history is Nov. 24, 1922, when leaders from the seven Western states that rely on the river met at a Santa Fe, New Mexico resort to sign the Colorado River Compact.
“It’s the cornerstone of how we allocate water on the Colorado River,” Mueller says. “On that cornerstone is built an incredible scaffolding of complex agreements, but it’s all based on that 1922 compact.”
Pilloried for decades for its structural problems, the compact did accomplish a few basic things. To make it easier to govern, the agreement divided the river into halves: the Upper and Lower Basins. The Upper Basin includes the snowy Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. The Lower is home to the desert landscapes of Arizona, Nevada and California.
Engineers used stream gauge data to estimate the river’s annual flow and the politicians took those measurements to divide the water amongst themselves. Each basin got 7.5 million acre-feet…and each state within the basin got a portion of the water. California then and today is the largest user of Colorado River water.
California’s use of the river’s water is what brought these political figures together in the first place, Mueller says. Concerns about the state’s rapid development were growing louder. If the whole watershed functioned under the frontier water law doctrine of prior appropriation (where the person who claims the water first is given priority in receiving it) California could end up owning every drop.
“The reality is that the Lower Basin had the upper hand in those negotiations,” Mueller says. “They were developing faster.”
To get a deal, the Upper Basin agreed that Lower Basin states would be guaranteed a certain amount of water right at the line that divides their two regions. Some years would be wetter, some would be drier, but the decade-long rolling average couldn’t dip below 75 million acre feet of water, measured at a spot just below Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona. If it did drop below that point, then the Lower Basin could come calling for its water.
This system works fine when there’s enough water to go around. But that’s the signature bug of the Colorado River: More water exists on paper than in reality..
Prepare for the worst, hope for the best
As of 2016 the Upper Basin is going above and beyond its ten-year obligation to the Lower Basin. According to the Upper Colorado River Commission, the 10-year total flow, starting in 2007, was just over 91 million acre-feet, well above the obligated 75 million acre-feet. But continuing dry conditions like those recorded during the winter of 2018 could quickly erode that.
“Things can get bad very quickly,” Castle says. “We have to be ready. We don’t want to make decisions about how we’re going to handle a compact call should one occur when it’s right there in front of us.”
In Colorado, the largest user of the Colorado River’s water in the Upper Basin, the threat of a compact call has prompted ongoing discussions within the state engineer’s office.
“Broadly speaking, yes, Colorado participates in ongoing efforts, alongside interstate partners, to manage this concern,” says Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The bulk of our collective energy, however, is to take steps through risk assessment, policies and technical planning to avoid a scenario like this in the first place.”
Those plans are closely held to avoid intrastate fights over future water plans, the Colorado River District’s Andy Mueller says. The state also wouldn’t want to give other Colorado River water users insight into future legal strategy should the call move from thought experiment to reality.
While the thought of a Compact Call strikes fear into Upper Basin water managers, it’s less on the minds of their Lower Basin counterparts.
“I was surprised to hear the Upper Basin express their concerns and fears when it’s not something we’ve even thought much about in the Lower Basin,” says Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the water wholesaler for the greater Los Angeles area.
“But every time we have a conversation with the Upper Basin you can tell it’s very front and foremost in their minds as something that they really want to work on and avoid,” he says.
For a call to materialize, water managers like Kightlinger and farmers throughout the southwest would need to apply pressure to their state leaders. And right now, he says they have way bigger fish to fry, like keeping Lake Mead from entering into shortage and negotiating a drought contingency plan that would require Lower Basin states to cut their water use sooner than is currently required.
But Kightlinger says he understands the Upper Basin’s fears.
“We are going to have shortages. We are going to have challenges,” he says. “But I also believe that the complex process and lengthy battle that a Supreme Court battle would take will drive the agencies to work and resolve these issues in some other fashion other than a compact call.”
This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.
Arizona Water Banking Authority commissioners met in Phoenix recently for their quarterly meeting where they heard updates on the status of the Colorado River system, deliveries, recovery planning, Central Arizona Project system and to approve the agency’s annual report and budget…
Commissioners heard the total Colorado River system content is at 50 percent or 30.68 million acre-feet of water. Lake Powell is at 53 percent or 12.9 million acre-feet with a lake elevation of 3,611.99 feet and Lake Mead is at 38 percent or 9.88 million acre-feet with a lake elevation of 1,078.38 feet…
Snowpack for 2018 has ended and the projected unregulated inflow for 2018 is 5.25 million acre-feet or 48.4 percent of the 30-year average, said Bret Esslin, Arizona Department of Water Resources’ Colorado River Management division, in his report. The most probable release from Lake Powell is 9 million acre-feet.
Esslin said the probability for shortage increased to 52 percent in 2020 and escalated to 68 percent by 2022.
Whether or not a shortage is declared will be determined when Bureau of Reclamation releases its 24-month study in August that estimates the elevation of Lake Mead and Lake Powell in January, Clark said.
“The August study is the critical one for us,” Clark said. “If the Lake Mead elevation is at or above 1,075 feet, there is no shortage, but if it is below that they’re going to have to declare a shortage.”
Clark said addressing potential shortages through development of a Drought Contingency Plan is vital for the state.
“The probabilities (of shortage) are getting so high now, we’ll have one unless we can get things like the DCP going, where we can put even more water behind the dam,” Clark said. “The DCP briefing (co-hosted by ADWR and Central Arizona Project) is today and BOR Commissioner Brenda Burman is going to be there — she’s really pushing for us to get this finalized. We really need to get this DCP done or the whole state is in trouble.”