#Colorado Lawmakers seek answers from top #ColoradoRiver officials as critical talks begin — Fresh Water News #COriver #aridification #cwc2023

Colorado River near the headwaters. Photo credit: Dave Showalter

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Larry Morandi):

Colorado won’t be buying up agricultural water rights to reduce water use and help stabilize the Colorado River, according to a briefing top river officials provided state lawmakers last week.

Rebecca Mitchell, Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, reassured lawmakers that the state would not buy agricultural water rights from growers as part of any program to reduce Colorado River water use within the state.

Asked by Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, whether the state wants to permanently acquire water from agriculture, Mitchell responded with an emphatic “No … We don’t have our eyes set on agricultural [water] rights.”

She also emphasized that whatever policies Colorado considers “should focus on making our own state stronger… We need to do this to protect Colorado.”

Mitchell’s comments came at a meeting of the legislature’s Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee Aug. 23 in Steamboat Springs, held during the Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference.

The Colorado River, despite a bountiful water year thus far, has been mired in a 23-plus year drought, believed to be the worst in at least 1,200 years, and it is witnessing alarming reductions in flows due to climate change and overuse.

Last year lakes Powell and Mead, the river’s largest reservoirs, dropped to historic lows and federal officials ordered all seven Colorado River Basin states to permanently reduce water use by 2 million acre-feet to 4 million acre-feet annually.

This summer critical negotiations on how to continue to operate the river beyond 2026, when current operating guidelines expire, have begun. Mitchell said it was critical the new federal operating guidelines change the way water is released from lakes Powell and Mead.  “Operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead must respond to actual hydrology [how much the river produces] and available water supply.” She noted that currently, in eight out of 10 years, more water leaves Lake Powell than comes in.

As the crisis on the river continues, Colorado water users, growers and lawmakers have been asking for more clarity and more assurances on how the state intends to protect their water interests and help stabilize the giant river system.

Because agriculture uses roughly 80% of the Colorado River’s supplies, a major focus across the seven-state basin is on how to reduce agricultural water use while maintaining farm economies and food production.

Earlier this year a new federal program, known as the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP), launched, but it received little interest from Colorado growers.

It used federal funds to provide incentives to Upper Basin irrigators to temporarily reduce their use of Colorado River water.

Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, the agency that represents Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming on Colorado River issues, said the idea was “to demonstrate that the Upper Basin has the tools to manage water uses and to take actions necessary to live within the means of the river.”

But the results so far have been disappointing, with low farmer participation and only 2,700 acre-feet of water conserved. Cullom said there is no commitment yet to run the SCPP again in 2024.

Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose,  asked how it might be improved. Cullom said the program would need to operate differently, including starting earlier, developing different pricing policies, and providing more clarity on the program’s purpose and scope, among other things.

Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, asked what additional tools could help agriculture engage in more conservation? Based on feedback he has received from water users, Cullom suggested expanding investments in irrigation efficiency infrastructure—such as canal lining, sprinkler drip systems, center pivot irrigation—and growing alternative crops.

Key to maintaining ownership of water, under Colorado law, is to demonstrate it is being used. Some growers fear that if they reduce use through conservation techniques, their water rights could be taken from them.

 Roberts asked Mitchell if Colorado should consider a recently enacted Arizona law that protects agricultural water users who invest in greater efficiencies from losing their water rights. She thought the state already offered those protections “at some level” and would get back to the committee to see if they could be expanded.

Roberts said it would be a good idea “if we could give them assurances in law that they won’t lose their water rights just because they tried to be more efficient.”

Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at larrymorandi@comcast.net.

Map of the Colorado River drainage basin, created using USGS data. By Shannon1 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Annual Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference wraps up — Ark Valley Voice

Sunset on the Colorado River at Silt September 2022. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Ark Valley Voice website (Jan Wondra). Here’s an excerpt:

At the conference, [U.S. Senator] Bennet addressed his priorities for the return of Congress after the August break. At the top of the agenda will be writing the 2023 Farm Bill; which is normally approved and funded for a five-year period of time. This is expected to include protecting the $20 billion for agricultural conservation in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and $10 billion for forestry in the IRA and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law…Both [U.S. Senator] Hickenlooper and Bennet have advanced the role that must be played by the 30 tribes of the Colorado River Basin; recommending a permanent seat at the table on water renegotiations. The tribes did get attention from the infrastructure bill with about $5 billion set aside for their projects, said Bennet. But in Colorado River Basin negotiations, they have had no voice…

How much money? Bennet has estimated about $4 billion from the inflation bill for permanent and long-term reductions in the lower basin states, as well as $8 billion from the infrastructure legislation. The next step is to try to forge a consensus among the seven basin states of the Colorado River about how to reapportion the water, that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation can ratify. That could be easier said than done, given the friction between the Upper Basin states and the Lower Basin states. The Biden Administration has directed the Bureau of Reclamation to get the seven states to agree on a plan to handle the water crisis on the Colorado River. It’s not that they don’t agree on the science and the diminished flow of the Colorado. Regardless of being red or blue states they do — they are just not yet at the point of agreeing on what to do about it…

By the end of 2023, the Bureau is expected to have some rulemaking in place that will cobble the agreement among the states to the year 2026. But that is the limit of the extension because the current operating guidelines for the Colorado River expire then and there is no choice: they have got to be renegotiated.

Bennet is on record saying, “I do not want the Bureau telling the American West what this will look like.”

Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

Prepared remarks from Upper #ColoradoRiver Commissioner Becky Mitchell at the 2023 #Colorado #Water Congress Summer Convention #COriver #aridification #CWC2023

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

From the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Katie Weeman):


Good morning. My name is Becky Mitchell and I am proud to be joining you as Colorado’s first, full-time Colorado River Commissioner. This change took effect on July 1st. With thanks to the General Assembly and Governor Polis, I stepped out of the CWCB Director role – which is now in Lauren’s very capable hands – and have dedicated myself full-time to protecting our state’s significant interests in the Colorado River. The Commissioner role is a unique one. I am charged by the Governor to represent the state in interstate Colorado River matters, which includes all of our diverse water users, sectors, and geographies. It is not a role that I take lightly. And I truly appreciate the support that so many of you have lent as we shape the future of the Colorado River. I’d like to take “the last word,” as the agenda says, to update you on interstate Colorado River matters; plus, what I’m doing to push everyone in the basin to live within its means –- something we in Colorado have always done.

The past year has been tumultuous for the Colorado River. Last summer, when we gathered here in Steamboat, the Upper Division States had just completed the Five Point Plan in response to Commissioner Touton’s call for the basin states to conserve 2 to 3 million acre-feet. To put that in perspective: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming – combined – used three and a half million acre-feet in 2022.

The current water level of Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam July 2023. Photo credit: Reclamation

You’ll remember how bad the situation was. The reservoirs were declining quickly, with daily headlines in the papers. The federal government took emergency action to reduce releases from Lake Powell. The Upper Division States provided DROA water from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up elevations at Lake Powell. You might also remember how the Lower Basin was unable and unwilling to reach agreement to do their part to conserve water.

Water users are urgently trying to keep Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border from dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

The Five Point Plan showed the federal government that the Upper Division States are united, committed to being part of the solution, and limited in the scale of what we can do.

One of the five points was a commitment to pursue water conservation on a voluntary, temporary, and compensated basis through the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP). After an incredibly fast reauthorization by Congress, the UCRC launched SCPP earlier this year. Contracts were temporary – for just one year; completely voluntary; and fairly compensated – on average, $422 an acre-foot. All conserved water became system water, used to mitigate the impacts of drought in the Upper Basin. In total, the Upper Basin conserved less than 38,000 acre-feet of water in 64 projects; 2,700 acre-feet of which was conserved by 22 projects in Colorado.

A second point in the Five Point Plan was to continue the Demand Management Feasibility Investigation. Like SCPP, Demand Management would be a temporary, voluntary, and compensated program. The difference is that water conserved in a Demand Management program would be stored in a pool to ensure ongoing Compact compliance for the Upper Division States. Each Upper Division State must find that a Demand Management program is feasible for their state, before any such program could be established. We’ve been discussing Demand Management for a few years now. I want to take a quick second to thank you all for your continued engagement on the topic. Regardless of whether Colorado moves forward with any such program, your input – and debates – have shaped our state’s understanding of conservation programs overall.

Then – and now – the Upper Division States recognized that we did not cause and cannot solve the problem. Overuse in the Lower Basin has driven the Colorado River System into crisis. But inaction is not the answer.


I want to pause here to emphasize something that is so, so important to say: even in the driest of years, the Upper Division States have never been out of compliance with the Compact. We are not even close. If flows at Lees Ferry fall below 75 million acre feet over a 10-year period, it would prompt an inquiry into the cause. If the cause is something other than our depletions, we have not violated the Compact. Remember, we are currently using less than half the flows of the River and less than half of what the Compact apportioned to us.

My team takes the importance of protecting Colorado’s legal interests very seriously. The Compact assures us the ability to develop our half of the river into perpetuity – at our own pace, without risk of a Lower Basin giant guzzling up our share.

I can’t say this clearly enough: Colorado is not at risk of Compact curtailment. We do ourselves a disservice by suggesting otherwise and play right into the Lower Basin’s strategies.


Now, back to our recap of the last year. Even to those who actively read about the Colorado River, the issues have been complicated by two distinct federal processes

The first process – the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to revise the ‘07 Guidelines – started in late 2022 to provide the Bureau of Reclamation with additional tools to protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams between now and 2026. Specifically, the SEIS could change operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead in the near-term to allow for lower releases out of those reservoirs. Last January, I was driving back-and-forth between Water Congress and a Basin States meeting, trying to reach an agreement with our neighbors about what input to provide to the federal government on this process. Ultimately, six states signed a letter urging the Bureau of Reclamation to consider several options for reductions in uses in the Lower Basin, including assessment of evaporation and transit losses. Fast forward to spring, and Reclamation released a draft SEIS with two action alternatives and one no-action alternative. No alternative reached upstream to the Upper Basin – each was focused on reducing uses downstream of the reservoirs. In response, the Lower Basin States negotiated a different proposal, which they say will conserve 3 million acre-feet. The Upper Division States agreed to transmit that plan to Reclamation for analysis. We are expecting their findings in the coming weeks, and a revised Draft EIS should provide this analysis. To be clear: while we applaud our downstream neighbors’ efforts to conserve water, the Upper Division States did not, and cannot, endorse the Lower Basin’s proposal. We have not yet seen enough detail about the conservation efforts.

But please keep in mind: this SEIS would develop a short-term fix for the ‘07 Guidelines, which have proved inefficient to protect the System.

This year’s hydrology has given us a much-needed reprieve, but it has not changed the fundamental challenges we still face. We must re-focus our efforts on developing longer-term solutions for management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. This is the only way to stop living crisis to crisis on the Colorado River.

That brings me to the second federal process – in June, the federal government announced the Post-2026 Environmental Impact Statement Process, which will develop new operating guidelines for Powell and Mead. To be blunt: this is the process that matters the most for Colorado. The current guidelines, the ‘07 Guidelines, have been gamed by the Lower Basin. They have knowingly maximized releases from Powell for decades, simultaneously draining Mead and ignoring basic physics like evaporation and transit losses. The silver lining is that the ‘07 Guidelines were interim, by design, so that we could learn from their implementation – and we did learn a lot.


The ‘07 Guidelines have illustrated why Colorado and the Upper Division States must care about sustainable operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead. We cannot have our fate tied to continued Lower Basin overuse.

Colorado statewide annual temperature anomaly (F) with respect to the 1901-2000 average. Graphic credit: Becky Bolinger/Colorado Climate Center

I met with many of you, with the Tribal Nations, with entities like the Basin Roundtables, IBCC, and conservancy districts, to develop my guiding principles for the post-2026 negotiation.

First, we must acknowledge that climate change is real. We can’t count on decades like the 80s and 90s; we need to be prepared for years like the early 2000s. Our future is going to be drier and more variable.

Second, water users in the Lower Basin are not more important than water users in the Upper Basin. The Upper and Lower Basins have equal apportionments to the river in perpetuity, established by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. We are not re-negotiating the Compact, and any guidelines for post-2026 operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead must be rooted in the Compacts and the Treaty with Mexico.


Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Third, the Colorado River is not providing enough to sustain overuse in the Lower Basin. We’ve seen the reservoirs crash to critically low levels. Water use in the Lower Basin cannot continue to exceed available supplies and operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead must better respond to actual hydrology. The Lower Basin must account for all depletions, including evaporation and transit losses.

Fourth, Compact curtailment is not an option. The Upper Basin is apportioned half of the river’s flows in perpetuity, and we are using a lot less that.

Fifth, operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead must respond to actual hydrology and available water supplies. This will be hard for water users in the Lower Basin because it will demand change. Lake Powell releases must be determined by actual hydrology and protecting storage rather than by Lake Mead conditions.

Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

Sixth, the Tribal Nations have federal reserved water rights that must be preserved. The Tribal Nations have water rights that they are entitled to use. Solutions for overuse in the Lower Basin cannot continue to depend on Tribes’ undeveloped federal reserved water righ.

And finally, we need solutions that comply with federal environmental law and advance coordination between the United States and Mexico.

I am honored to be Colorado’s interstate negotiator, and will stand firm by these principles. Future operations must live within the means of the river.


We are in difficult negotiations with the Basin States, and I suspect things will get harder before they get easier. From experience, I know we are better when we stand together as seven basin states. But I also know we must be ready to stand alone when necessary to defend our significant interests in the river. The only way that I can stand alone in the basin is if Colorado can stand together as a state.

I have worked hard to facilitate unity across our state – and a huge thank you to you who’ve organized meetings, rearranged agendas, and teed up discussions with me. Unity is a two-way street. While I work to understand the needs and concerns of Colorado’s diverse water users, diverse water users work to understand the needs and concerns of other people in the state. Unity does not necessarily mean agreement. It’s not an echo chamber – Coloradans have never seen eye-to-eye on all of our water issues, and the post-2026 negotiations will be no different. But unity does mean that we’re good-faith actors with one another; that we agree to protect Coloradans’ rights on our namesake river; and that we commit to finding shared values where we can.

As Commissioner, I represent the entire state – all of our diverse interests and needs. It is so important that we put our best foot forward on the matters where we are unified, while leaving room for difficult discussions to continue within our state.


The post-2026 negotiations matter to Colorado: we must seek operations that are responsive to climate change and actual hydrology. I hope you’ll stay interested, involved, and committed to a future where all in the basin live within the means of the river. You have heard me say it before, but I am going to say it again: we are at a critical juncture on the Colorado River. We have an opportunity to negotiate a better deal on how Lake Powell and Lake Mead are operated – a better deal for our State and also for the 40 million people who depend on this critical resource. I am bringing all of myself and the State’s resources to this effort, and I will need each of you, too.

Thank you all for your continued support.

Map credit: AGU

Deadpool Diaries: rekindling optimism? — John Fleck (InkStain) #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead used to be here (October 2022). Photo by John Fleck

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

Something remarkable is happening this year in the Lower Colorado River Basin that provides both a glimmer of hope about what durable basin solutions might look like, and also a clear demonstration of the obstacles still standing in their way.


Southern Nevada’s projected 2023 use right now (the following is based on Reclamation’s Aug. 14 water forecast run) has dropped below 200,000 acre feet, sitting today at 199,943 af. That would be Nevada’s lowest take on the Colorado river since 1992. Southern Nevada’s population (Clark County, basically “greater Las Vegas”) has nearly tripled in that time.

Nevada has demonstrated its ability to take deep cuts without jeopardizing the structure and function of the communities that depend on Colorado River water.


Arizona’s projected 2023 use, 1,974,819 acre feet, has dropped below 2 million acre feet, also the lowest since 1992. The Central Arizona Project, which supplies the Phoenix-Tucson area, is projected to take just 605,171 acre feet this year. That is 40 percent of CAP’s 21st-century average.

Arizona has demonstrated its ability to take deep cuts without jeopardizing the structure and function of the communities that depend on Colorado River water.


California’s use has dropped below 4 million acre feet, which would be the first time that’s happened since 2019, currently 10 percent below the state’s 21st century average.

Ok, the comparison is striking, right? Some states are doing a lot, other states are doing less. But I’m trying to be optimistic here, California’s water use reductions aren’t nothing! Everyone’s using less water!

But the relative depth of California’s cuts has not yet demonstrated its ability to take deep cuts without jeopardizing the structure and function of the communities that depend on Colorado River water.



The premise of a piece I wrote earlier this year in the New York Times is that there’s no way we can fix the Colorado River supply/use imbalance if California insists that the burden of overallocation and climate change fall on everyone else.

The new Schmidt/Yackulic/Kuhn paper puts the needed cuts at 20 percent just to stabilize the system – more if we’re going to rebuild a buffer against a repeat of last year’s shit show. Arizona and Nevada have figured out how to cut a lot more than that.

California, not so much.


The above picture, which I took in October, no longer represents reality. Based on the latest Sentinel satellite imagery, a bit of water has returned to Boulder Harbor on Lake Mead’s western shore.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Feds ease up on #ColoradoRiver restrictions — for now: This year’s wet winter helped save the river from collapse. But a reckoning is on the horizon — Grist #COriver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the article on the Grist website (Jake Bittle):

The water shortage crisis on the Colorado River is improving, but it’s far from over.

That was the message from the Biden administration on Tuesday, as officials announced they would loosen water restrictions on the river in 2024. Thanks to robust winter snowpack that provided about 33 percent more moisture than the average year, the water levels in the riverʻs two main reservoirs have begun to stabilize after plummeting over three years. This has lessened the need for states in the Southwest to cut their water usage.

The total cuts will be about 20 percent lighter than they were last year, requiring three Southwest states and Mexico to save around 600,000 acre-feet of water — enough to supply roughly 1.2 million homes.

Even so, the administration left some mandatory restrictions in place to account for the fact that the reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are still emptier than they have been at almost any point in history. That’s due in large part to a millennium-scale drought that researchers believe was made much more likely by climate change. And even as federal officials eased up on mandatory restrictions, they were also preparing to dole out billions of dollars to the region’s farmers and cities in an effort to further reduce water usage on the river.

“The above-average precipitation this year was a welcome relief,” said Camille Camimlim Touton, the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees the river, in a press release. “We have the time to focus on the long-term sustainability solutions needed in the Colorado River Basin.”

During the past three years, as the Colorado River has dried up, the federal government has used the elevation of Lake Mead as a benchmark to determine what restrictions it needs to impose on Arizona, Nevada, and California, the three states in what’s known as the riverʻs “Lower Basin,” as well as Mexico. In practice, the state that has suffered the most under this system is Arizona, which has junior rights to the river as a result of a compromise it made in the 1960s to secure funding for canal infrastructure; it has borne almost all the early cuts.

The Biden administrationʻs announcement this week, which will move the river from a “Tier 2a” shortage back down to a “Tier 1” shortage, should give Arizona cotton farmers and Phoenix-area cities a little more breathing room next year. But the river’s long-term prognosis means that it may not be wise for farmers to start planting more fields, or for cities to keep adding new golf courses and lawns.

“I’d say it’s probably not going to help that situation much,” said Paco Ollerton, a farmer who grows cotton and other crops outside the city of Casa Grande, south of Phoenix. “The acreage has dropped quite a bit. We’re probably about 25 percent fallow in the district this year.” The easing of drought restrictions might help some farmers increase their acreage, Ollerton added, but many will hold off on replanting because they’re wary of future cuts.

Even as the Biden administration sets a more relaxed standard for 2024, officials are preparing to roll out a larger series of water cuts that will last for the next three years. These bigger cuts, which the administration hopes will lift the river out of the drought-induced crisis of the past few years, were the result of a hard-fought compromise between the seven states that use the river — and in particular between the two largest users, Arizona and California.

The announcement of the compromise plan in May brought an end to a year of tense negotiations between the states and the Biden administration, triggered by unprecedented fears that Lake Powell and Lake Mead would bottom out altogether. In that doomsday scenario, hydroelectric plants that provide power to millions of people would have shut down, and water might not have been able to move past the reservoirs at all. The compromise plan uses about $1.5 billion in drought funding from the Inflation Reduction Act to compensate farmers and cities for using less water over the next three years. 

This was a welcome outcome for farmers in places like Imperial County, California, who had expected to take uncompensated water cuts for the first time in history, as well as for city leaders in Arizona, who had stood to lose a huge share of their Colorado River water during the negotiations. The compromise was only possible because of this year’s wet winter, which deposited enough snow to prop up water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. With reservoirs recovering, the states could get away with more modest cuts — and pay for them with money that Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona secured within the Inflation Reduction Act last year.

Even so, the compromise leaves several questions unanswered. The biggest question is how the states can reduce usage over the long term to account for the gradual aridification of the river. Farmers and cities can save water through techniques like drip irrigation or wastewater recycling, but these technologies are expensive to implement. In all likelihood, some places will have to farm less or build fewer houses. Furthermore, many tribal nations along the river still can’t access the water to which they have legal rights, and satisfying those rights could mean taking water away from other non-tribal users.

The federal government needs to hash out answers to these questions with states and tribes by the end of 2026, when the current operating guidelines for the river will expire. The Biden administration already kicked off that process last month when it asked stakeholders to weigh in on the river’s future. The negotiations won’t kick off in earnest for months or even years, but the administration’s goal is clear: avoid a repeat of the past yearʻs crisis at all costs.

Map credit: AGU

#ColoradoRiver restrictions eased thanks to “lucky” rain and snow but negotiators race toward long-term fix: Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs at 36% capacity despite wet year — The #Denver Post #COriver #LakePowell #LakeMead #aridification

The current water level of Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam July 2023. Photo credit: Reclamation

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Elise Schmelzer). Here’s an excerpt:

Federal officials on Tuesday temporarily eased Colorado River water use restrictions due to a “lucky” year of increased precipitation, but drought and overuse remain a crisis as officials begin negotiations for the future of the river on which 40 million people in the West rely for drinking, agriculture and water. Colorado’s top water officials on Tuesday submitted the state’s first formal comments on negotiations that will govern the use of the river after current guidelines expire in 2026. They urged change in how Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two major water storage reservoirs on the river — are operated as the West becomes hotter and drier…

Negotiations for a new plan to replace a 2007 agreement began in June between federal officials, tribal leaders and the seven basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and California. The groups must come to an agreement by 2027, when the current guidelines established in 2007 end. New operating guidelines must account for climate change as well as “recognize that Lower Basin overuse is unsustainable and puts the entire system at risk,” according to the letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from Mitchell and Lauren Ris, acting director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board…

Water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell rose this spring due to increased snow and rain in the region. The wet winter and spring mean for the next year Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Storage Condition, a “significant improvement” from the Level 2 Shortage Condition implemented in 2022, the Bureau of Reclamation announced Tuesday…That means two Lower Basin states that rely on releases from the reservoirs for water — Nevada and Arizona  — will have a little more water to work with this year. Cuts don’t affect allocations to the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico or Wyoming — because they are upstream of the reservoirs…

Heavy snowfall and increased rains helped boost flows in the Colorado River Basin this winter and spring, raising the water levels of reservoirs across the system.  Lake Mead rose more than 10 feet and Lake Powell rose more than 50 feet.

“We were on the verge of a crash,” said Matt Rice, director of the Colorado Basin Program at American Rivers. “There’s no doubt we got lucky.”

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Reclamation announces 2024 operating conditions for #LakePowell and #LakeMead #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The current water level of Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam July 2023. Photo credit: Reclamation

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

Significant improvement for Lake Mead due to improved hydrology, ongoing conservation efforts. Operating guidelines in effect until Reclamation finalizes SEIS, including analysis of consensus-based state conservation agreement.

August 15, 2023

BOULDER CITY, Nev. – The Bureau of Reclamation today released the Colorado River Basin August 2023 24-Month Study, which determines the tiers for the coordinated operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead for 2024. These operating conditions, which are based on existing agreements under the 2007 guidelines and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans, will be in effect until the near-term guidelines from the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) are finalized. Reclamation is currently analyzing the consensus-based Lower Division States proposed alternative for the SEIS.

Based on projections in the 24-Month Study, Lake Powell will operate in a Mid-Elevation Release Tier with a 7.48 million acre-feet release in water year 2024. Consistent with existing agreements, Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Shortage Condition – an improvement from the Level 2 Shortage Condition announced last year – with required shortages by Arizona and Nevada, coupled with Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan water savings contributions. Mexico’s water delivery will be reduced consistent with Minute 323.

Lake Mead’s release in 2023 is projected to be the lowest in 30 years, approximately one and half million acre-feet lower than an average normal year, reflecting extensive, ongoing conservation efforts in the Lower Basin states funded in part by President Biden’s historic Investing in America agenda, above-normal inflows in the lower basin below Hoover Dam, and conservation in Mexico.

Investments in system conservation and improved hydrology this year have provided an opportunity to recover some reservoir storage. At the same time, the Colorado River system continues to face low elevations, with Lake Powell and Lake Mead at a combined storage of 36%.

“The above-average precipitation this year was a welcome relief, and coupled with our hard work for system conservation, we have the time to focus on the long-term sustainability solutions needed in the Colorado River Basin. However, Lake Powell and Lake Mead – the two largest reservoirs in the United States and the two largest storage units in the Colorado River system – remain at historically low levels,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “As we experience a warmer, drier west due to a prolonged drought, accelerated by climate change, Reclamation is committed to leading inclusive and transparent efforts to develop the next-generation framework for managing the river system.”

The Development of Near- and Long-Term Guidelines

Reclamation is simultaneously developing both near- and long-term guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead operations. The supplemental SEIS in progress focuses on near-term actions, which would be applicable from 2024 through 2026 based on potential changes to limited sections of the 2007 Interim Guidelines. Reclamation temporarily withdrew the SEIS so it could fully analyze the consensus-based Lower Division States proposed alternative and will publish an updated draft SEIS for public review and comment with the consensus-based proposal as an action alternative later this year.

In addition to several agreements that have already been finalized, a consensus-based proposal – agreed upon by the three Lower Basin states earlier this year – commits to measures to conserve at least 3 million-acre-feet (maf) of system water through the end of 2026, when the current operating guidelines are set to expire.

The long-term guidelines, informally referred to as Post 2026 Operations, will revisit the 2007 Interim Guidelines in full, as well as other operating agreements that expire in 2026, including Drought Contingency Plans and Minute 323. In June, Reclamation initiated the formal process to develop the long-term operating guidelines.

Reclamation is committed to an inclusive and transparent process that enhances meaningful Tribal engagement as well as collaboration with all stakeholders in the basin. In response to Tribal feedback, the Department of the Interior established the first-ever Federal-Tribal-State partnership to promote equitable information-sharing and discussion among the sovereign governments in the Colorado River Basin. All 30 Colorado River Basin Tribal Nations and the seven U.S. basin states were invited to participate in this new group. The group met for the first time last week with Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, Commissioner Touton, and other Department leaders. The formation of this new group does not replace any independent consultation with either Tribes or states.

2024 Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead

Until the updated near-term guidelines are finalized once the supplemental SEIS is complete, Reclamation will continue to implement the plans developed over the past two decades that lay out detailed operational rules for these critical Colorado River reservoirs through 2026:

  • Lake Powell Mid-Elevation Release Tier: The 24-Month Study, with an 8.23 maf release pattern in October – December 2023, projects Lake Powell’s January 1, 2024, elevation to be 3,568.57 feet – about 130 feet below full and about 80 feet above minimum power pool. Based on this projection, Lake Powell will operate in the Mid-Elevation Release Tier in water year 2024 (October 1, 2023, through September 30, 2024). Under this tier, Lake Powell will release 7.48 million acre-feet in water year 2024 without the potential for a mid-year adjustment in April 2024. Under the most probable scenario, and with a 7.48 maf release pattern in October – December 2023, Lake Powell’s projected elevation on January 1, 2024, is 3,573.68 feet.
  • Lake Mead Level 1 Shortage Condition: The 24-Month Study projects Lake Mead’s January 1, 2024, elevation to be 1,065.27 feet – about 10 feet below the Lower Basin shortage determination trigger of 1,075 feet and about 25 feet below the drought contingency plan trigger of 1,090 feet. This elevation is based on a 7.48 maf release from Lake Powell in water year 2024. Based on this projection, Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Shortage Condition for calendar year 2024 (January 1, 2024, through December 31, 2024). This is a significant improvement from the Level 2 Shortage Condition announced last year. The required shortage reductions and water savings contributions under the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, 2019 Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan and Minute 323 to the 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico are:
    • Arizona:  512,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 18% of the state’s annual apportionment.
    • Nevada:  21,000 acre-feet, which is 7% of the state’s annual apportionment.
    • Mexico:  80,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 5% of the country’s annual allotment.

Lower Basin projections for Lake Mead include updated water orders to reflect additional conservation efforts and new completed system conservation agreements under the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program.

President Biden’s Investing in America Agenda

System conservation and efficiency programs in the Colorado River Basin are being strengthened by President Biden’s Investing in America agenda and will invest in long-term durable system efficiency improvements that result in quantifiable, verifiable water savings in the Basin.

The Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing much-needed resources to enhance Western communities’ resilience to drought and climate change, including protecting the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought.

To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete:

Credit: Reclamation
Credit: Reclamation

The #Runoff: Non-depletion vs. delivery obligation — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River from Navajo Bridge below Lee’s Ferry and Glen Canyon Dam. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the newsletter on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

Colorado River politics is heating up with the looming negotiation of the post-2026 operational guidelines and state representatives are laying the groundwork to get Colorado’s water world on the same page regarding the state’s position and talking points. 

Colorado’s now full-time commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission Becky Mitchell has embarked on what she called a road show, meeting with water managers and organizations around the state to open the lines of communication and share news related to the negotiations. Among what she called her “irrefutable truths” is that according to the 1922 Colorado River Compact that divided the waters equally (7.5 million acre-feet per year to each) between the upper and lower basins, the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) do not have an obligation to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower basin. What they have is a “non-depletion” obligation. So long as the upper basin uses less than 75 million acre-feet over 10 years, there’s no compact violation. I doubt the lower basin sees it that way.

What the compact actually says is this: “The States of the Upper Division will not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted below an aggregate of 75,000,000 acre-feet for any period of ten consecutive years…” 

Its actual meaning has long been a point of contention for Colorado River scholars. Many people believe the language represents a de facto delivery obligation, with the upper basin required to send 75 million acre-feet over 10 years to the lower basin. 

This delivery obligation interpretation favors the lower basin and the non-depletion obligation interpretation favors the upper basin. It’s important because whether the upper basin violates the compact, which would trigger mandatory cutbacks, may hinge on this interpretation.

Also, presumably in an effort to communicate the state’s positions going into the post-2026 negotiations — while presenting it as the Law of the River 101 — representatives from the Colorado Attorney General’s office made an appearance at the Colorado Basin Roundtable meeting in July and pushed the non-depletion point of view as the law of the land. While seeing it as a non-depletion obligation is a very good political messaging strategy for the upper basin, it is in fact an unsettled legal argument. 

Another wrinkle in the non-depletion vs. delivery obligation debate is climate change. Scientists have found that Colorado River flows have declined nearly 20% from the 20th century average and that higher temperatures are responsible for about one-third of that. The compact clearly says that the states of the upper division will not cause flows to be depleted, but what if it’s not the states’ water use (which remains well below their 7.5 million acre-feet per year allocation), but climate change that causes flows to be depleted? Would that still be considered a compact violation? Colorado River expert and author Eric Kuhn has been asking this question for years, but he isn’t ready to test it. 

“Will it survive legal scrutiny? I’m not sure I would want to be the attorney that leads with that argument,” he said.

2023 #COleg: New #ColoradoRiver task force buckles down to work this week [July 31, 2023] on problems no one is calling easy — Fresh #Water News (@WaterEdCO) #COriver #aridification

Rancher Bryan Bernal irrigates a field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. Credit: William Woody

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

A new state Colorado River Drought Task Force will meet nine times between now and early December, and hold two public hearings to develop recommendations on how the parched river’s supplies will be managed inside state lines as its flows continue to decline.

At its first meeting Monday [July 31, 2023], 100 people joined the virtual session as the 17-member task force began planning the work it must conclude by Dec. 15.

“We are at a truly historic moment in Colorado River history,” said Kathy Chandler-Henry, an Eagle County Commissioner who is non-voting chair of the group.

“We are tasked with providing recommendations for programs addressing drought in the Colorado River Basin. … It’s a tall order but I am confident we can deliver. … My hope is that we can reach a broad consensus. My concern is the time crunch … 4.5 months in water time is a blink of an eye.”

Lawmakers created the Colorado River Drought Task Force in May when they approved Senate Bill 23-295. The 17-member task force includes representatives of environmental groups, urban and agricultural water users, and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, among others. Its task: to recommend state legislation that would create new tools and programs to address drought and declining flows on the Colorado River.

The seven-state Colorado River Basin is divided into two regions, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming comprising the Upper Basin, and Arizona, Nevada and California making up the Lower Basin.

But it is in the Upper Basin and in Colorado, specifically, where roughly two-thirds of its flows originate.

Colorado is home to eight major rivers, four of which are major tributaries to the Colorado River on the West Slope. They are the Yampa/White/Green, the Gunnison, the San Juan/San Miguel/Dolores, and the Colorado River itself.

Four river basins, the Colorado, Yampa/White, Gunnison and Southwest would participate in a demand management program that eventually will include the entire state. Source: Colorado River District

This year, negotiations among the states and the federal government are beginning on how to manage and protect the river now and beyond 2026, when many of the existing Colorado River management agreements expire.

Overuse in the Lower Basin is considered to be the largest issue to resolve, but Upper Basin states may be called on to reduce their agricultural water use as well. One proposal, known as demand management, is to create a new drought pool in Lake Powell by having farmers and ranchers fallow their fields in return for cash payments. And the state’s urban water users may also be called on to cut back.

Colorado water users on the West Slope and Front Range are concerned that changes to the river’s seven-state management system could harm their water rights.

Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, checks out a recently installed Parshall flume on an irrigation ditch in this August 2020 photo. Compliance with measuring device requirements has been moving more slowly than state engineers would like. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Mike Camblin, a task force member representing agricultural water users, said it would be critical to find ways to ensure farmers’ and ranchers’ lands remain healthy and their operations profitable. Agriculture uses 80% of the Colorado River’s supplies across the basin and the agricultural industry is deeply worried that it will take the hit if and when reductions are required.

“I hope we can come up with a plan. I would hate to see our ancestors cuss us down the road,” Camblin said.

Melissa Youssef, a task force member who is also mayor of Durango, said her city is already seeing its water supplies reduced. She said she was glad to have a seat on the task force and to have a say in how her community should be protected.

“My hope is that we can come together, making our positions abundantly clear. We have senior water rights on two rivers, but we are exposed to a reduction in water supplies through drought,” Youssef said.

Alex Davis, assistant general manager of Aurora Water, is a task force member representing Front Range water users. She said urban reliance on the Colorado River is significant.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Roughly half of water supplies for Aurora and Denver, among others, come from the Colorado River.

“My concern is that people will bring very specific agendas from different entities that will benefit their constituents but may not be beneficial to the state as a whole,” she said.

The group will meet at sites around the state, with one meeting each month slated to be in-person and the others designed to be virtual. The next meeting is Aug. 10 in Denver. It is in-person. A location has not yet been determined. All meetings are open to the public.

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

Map credit: AGU

New state task force starts work on responding to worst-case #ColoradoRiver scenarios — #Colorado Public Radio #COriver #aridification

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

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

The Colorado state legislature created the task force last year to bring together representatives from agriculture, water managers from Front Range cities and Western Slope towns, environmentalists, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute representatives and industry. The 17 members will meet 10 times until Dec. 7, when it will submit a report of recommendations to lawmakers ahead of the 2024 legislative session…Colorado’s new task force will consider how the state might be affected if the Colorado River and its reservoirs drop to critically-low levels. The federal government has threatened to step in and make water cuts necessary to prevent that. There’s also concern that, eventually, Colorado and the other upper-basin states— Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — might have to respond to legal challenges if the downstream states — Arizona, Nevada and California — feel they aren’t getting enough water. 

“My greatest fear about the task force is that we know that the lower basin is going to be watching, other states in the Colorado River Basin are watching,” said Lee Miller, general counsel of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “That we don’t give them fuel to divide us more or use it against us in the negotiations for the interim guideline extension.”


Upper Colorado River Commissioner Rebecca Mitchell, who was recently appointed as the state’s first full-time Colorado River representative and negotiator, is a member of a subcommittee that will focus on tribal water issues. 

“I think really my focus is to make sure that as I go into the negotiations, that Colorado stands united, because I think that’s going to be incredibly important,” Mitchell said at the meeting.

She said the current guidelines on how managing the Colorado River and Lake Mead and Lake Powell, “aren’t working for us right now, and they really have not worked for the tribes ever.”

Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

Southwest states facing tough choices about water as #ColoradoRiver diminishes — CBS News #COriver #aridification

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Click the link to read the article on the CBS News website (Bill Whitaker). Here’s an excerpt:

Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University, went out on Lake Powell with us…

Bill Whitaker: So what does this tell you about what’s happening on the Colorado River?

Brad Udall: Well, it’s a signal of the long-term problem we’ve been seeing since the year 2000, which is climate change is reducing the flows of the Colorado significantly…

Brad Udall has strong connections to the river. As secretary of the interior, his uncle, Stewart Udall, opened the Glen Canyon Dam. His father, Congressman Mo Udall, fought to channel river water to Arizona. As a young man, Brad was a Colorado River guide. Today he analyzes the impact of climate change on water resources.  

Bill Whitaker: Is the west on a collision course with climate change?

Brad Udall: In some ways yes, but we have fully utilized this system. We’ve over-allocated it, and we now need to think about how to turn some of this back. ‘Cause the only lever we control right now in the river is the demand lever. We have no control over the supply. So we have to dial back demand.

Seventy percent of Colorado River water goes to agriculture. When the federal government declared the water shortage, it triggered mandatory cutbacks. Pinal County, Arizona got hit hard…

Amelia Flores: All the water users are gonna have to give up something to keep that water in the lake. 

Amelia Flores is chairwoman of The Colorado River Indian Tribes, a reservation of four tribes a few hours west of Phoenix, with the oldest and largest water rights in Arizona. After being moved to reservations, Southwest tribes got rights to about a quarter of the river’s flow, but government red tape and lack of infrastructure have prevented them from using their full allotment. Flores told us until this drought, tribes were never included in water negotiations.  

Bill Whitaker: Why had you not had a seat at the table before this? 

Amelia Flores: Because the tribes have always been overlooked in the policymaking and– and in– in the law of the river. But that day has come to an end.

Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

Deadpool Diaries: mid-July #ColoradoRiver status report — John Fleck (InkStain) #COriver #aridification

Ringside seats to the decline of Lake Mead. Sometimes all we can do is sit and watch and wonder. Credit: InkStain

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

When last we visited, Lake Mead sat at elevation 1,054.28 feet above sea level. It’s now at 1,058.34, which is up ~13 feet from when I took the above photo last December.

I hope they moved those chairs.

The good news is the current forecast calling for the combined storage of Lake Mead and Lake Powell to end the water year up nearly 5 million acre feet from a year ago.

The bad news is that total identifiable water use reductions in this year of chaotic crisis fire drill total just 1.2 million acre feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s July 14, 2023 forecast.

This is not enough.

Who’s Using What?

Kudos to Southern Nevada, which at ~202kaf is on track for its lowest take on the Colorado River since 1992. Clark County’s population has nearly tripled in that time.

At ~860kaf, the Central Arizona Project is on track to make its lowest draw on the Colorado River since 1995.

At ~803kaf, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s forecast draw on the river is taking 12.5 percent less than its average over the last decade, but Met is weird because of California State Water Project wet year chaos, so I’m not sure I fully understand what they’re up to. (Jump in the comments and explain, Met friends!)

The Imperial Irrigation District is forecast to take ~2.5maf from the river this year, which is basically unchanged from its use over the previous decade.

What is Needed

The analysis by Jack Schmidt et al suggests that, based on 21st century hydrology, we need to cut 1.5 million acre feet per year just to stabilize the system. If we want to actually refill a bit, to provide cushion against the sort of catastrophe that was narrowly averted this year by a big snowpack, the cuts need to be even deeper.

Four decades of dithering, with the last big snowpack circled in red.

The above graph from their paper shows the problem. I’ve circled the last big snowpack year in red, and you can see the others as well. Every time we got bonus water, we just used it.

We need to avoid making that mistake again.


A big thanks to friends of Inkstain for helping support this work.

Exit interview: As @DenverWater CEO Jim Lochhead steps down, his fascination with the #ColoradoRiver continues — Fresh Water News @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead at the Hydro building on the new CSU Spur Campus at the National Western Stock Show complex in Denver in January. Courtesy: Denver Water

Click the link to read the article on the Fresh Water News website (Jerd Smith):

Veteran Colorado water attorney Jim Lochhead has been part of most of the history-making Colorado River deals crafted over the last 30 years including California’s landmark 2003 quantification settlement agreement, where the state famously agreed to cut back its overuse of the Colorado River. For decades, he advised state and local agencies on Colorado River issues. He also served as head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources under Gov. Roy Romer from 1994 to 1998.

But in 2010 he moved into a decidedly different role: running Denver Water, a 1,200-employee agency that serves more than 1.5 million customers in the Denver metro area and which operates as an independent government agency.

Under his leadership, Denver Water launched a major capital investment program, which included a new, hyper-green operations complex. It built a new water treatment plant and battled on many fronts to launch a controversial expansion of Gross Reservoir. The agency also launched one of the largest lead pipe replacement programs in the country.

Lochhead, who announced he was leaving Denver Water in December, has a departure date of Aug. 7.  Alan Salazar, chief of staff for the city of Denver, will take over as interim CEO for the next year, until a permanent hire is made.

But is Lochhead, 71, planning to retire? Not just yet. See what this high-profile water veteran has to say about the state of the Colorado River these days and what his future may hold.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Question: Why leave now, when issues on the Colorado River are just getting interesting?

Answer: I think as a CEO you need to realize what your shelf life is. I’ve accomplished what I was hired to do. When I came, Denver Water was right in the middle of negotiating the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement [a deal that resolved many, though not all, conflicts between West Slope Colorado River water users and those on the Front Range, including Denver.]

I was really brought in to move Denver Water forward in terms of being a trusted leader in the water industry and in serving customers, and to focus us on the sustainability of our water supply and the health of our watersheds. I’d like to leave Denver Water in a good place, and I feel like we’re in good a place.

Question: This summer critical negotiations begin on how to operate the Colorado River system and the two major reservoirs on the river, lakes Powell and Mead, in ways that stop overuse and allow the system to operate more efficiently. Have you heard any great ideas that you think would solve its problems?

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

Answer: Unfortunately, no. What we need is a path forward that includes the tribes in the basin. We need a process that is not so onerous for participants so that we can collaborate and come to solutions. It’s going to require tremendous leadership.

Question: Lakes Powell and Mead operate under different agencies, in some cases use different calendars, and serve different regions. Some have suggested that the two lakes should be operated as one, to simplify management and improve operational efficiencies. Do you support this idea?

Answer: It’s worth exploring. We need to be looking at totally different ideas about how the system is managed.

Question: Others have suggested that any new reservoirs or dams should be stopped, that the seven-state Colorado River Basin should be closed to new water development. What are your thoughts on this?

Answer: I don’t even know how you would do that. There is no authority. In Colorado [and the other Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming] the prior appropriation system is self-limiting. [The system delivers water in times of scarcity based on which water right is the oldest. Any newly claimed water rights, in practicality, would never receive water.] All of our rivers are over-appropriated. If you are going to do something new you have to buy an existing water right. You would just be shifting use between sectors.

And in the Lower Basin [Arizona, California and Nevada] the amount of water that is taken is limited by contract and federal law to 4.4 million acre-feet in California, 2.8 million acre-feet in Arizona, 300,0000 in Nevada and 1.5 million acre-feet in Mexico. The big problem is that river [transit] losses and evaporation sit on top of all of that.

Question: Farms and ranches use as much as 80% of the water in the Colorado River Basin. What could be done to reduce agricultural water use while protecting the farm economies and food supplies?

Answer: The fundamental dilemma that we have is the conflict between the priority dates of long-established irrigation districts in the Lower Basin and the Upper Basin under the priority system, versus new development and growth that is occurring that is junior in priority.

If we strictly went by those priorities, you would literally be cutting off the Central Arizona Project, as well as Las Vegas, Denver and the Metropolitan Water District [of Southern California]. That’s just not going to happen. So how do we equitably manage through that dilemma, so that ag economies and the communities that have grown to depend on those priorities grow and can rely on that supply? And how do we have security of water for the 40 million people who live in this basin?

It is going to result in a shift of waters. The Lower Basin has asked for $1.2 billion to reduce demands. I don’t have a silver bullet, but to me that is the heart of the negotiation that is going to have to occur.

Question: A number of people have suggested that a new forum of some kind needs to be created to help solve the Colorado River’s problems now. You’ve said that you don’t plan to retire. If you were offered the opportunity to run that new entity, would you take it?

Answer: Going out to pasture is not my nature. I would have to think about it. I would love to stay involved.

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

Map credit: AGU

Freeing up #ColoradoRiver water from #California farms will take more than just money, just ask the farmers — KUNC #COriver #aridification

The Salton Sea (pictured above ) straddles the Imperial and Coachella valleys and has long been a sticking point in Colorado River deals. But the federal government recently committed up to $250 million for restoration efforts at the sea. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

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

The Imperial Valley produces $2.9 billion in crops and livestock each year. That’s because the valley’s Imperial Irrigation District (IID) holds the largest single allocation of Colorado River water – bigger than any other farming district or city between Wyoming and Mexico. But now, that water allocation is under increasing scrutiny from water managers looking to cut back on water use and correct a perilous gap between supply and demand on the Colorado River. The valley’s farmers are bound together by IID. The body represents growers in negotiations about water rights and wields a tremendous amount of clout. California’s share of Colorado River water is larger than any other state, and about 70% of it is earmarked for IID…

A field of produce destined for grocery stores is irrigated near Yuma, Ariz., a few days before Christmas 2015. Photo/Allen Best – See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2016/02/09/drying-out-of-the-american-southwest/#sthash.7xXVYcLv.dpuf

Imperial Valley growers often court criticism for the amount of water they use, but are quick to assert just what they do with it – grow a sizable portion of America’s vegetables. Estimates vary because Imperial’s greens are packaged and counted alongside veggies from other nearby regions, but around 90% of the nation’s leafy greens sold in the winter are grown with Colorado River water between a few valleys in California, Arizona and Mexico. Imperial contributes a large portion of that…

[Jack] Vessey and his peers are also churning out fields of alfalfa hay, a particularly thirsty crop fed to cattle. Vessey said alfalfa is an important piece of his growing portfolio, and can be planted when fields need a break between seasons of leafy greens better suited for human consumption. Alfalfa growth in the Imperial Valley and elsewhere across the river basin has drawn widespread criticism. Cities under pressure to use Colorado River water more judiciously are quick to point out that about 80% of the river’s water is used for agriculture, and some critics point to alfalfa as a glaringly inefficient use within that sector. The Colorado River basin as a whole ships an estimated $880 million of hay overseas each year, with most going to China, Japan and Saudi Arabia…

[John] Hawk’s sentiment is a common one around these parts. Conservation takes a backseat to the bottom line. New technologies and methods exist that could help farmers like Hawk cut back on water use, but there’s little incentive to install them without money on the table…Hawk argued that even compensated cuts would be painful – threatening local jobs and risking an increase to the cost of vegetables and the cost of beef and dairy produced with the help of Imperial hay…[Michael] Cohen is skeptical that drip irrigation could serve as a silver bullet for agencies looking to squeeze some extra water out of the Imperial Valley, and expects farmers would bristle at programs that incentivize them to fallow their fields – pausing or permanently stopping growth in some areas. The next frontier, he said, is shifting to different types of crops, exploring alternatives to alfalfa and other similar water-intensive grasses. That’s a process that could see some of the Colorado River’s biggest tensions play out in the grocery aisle.

Map credit: AGU

Romancing the River: The First Peoples, Part 1 — Sibley’s Rivers #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

If you are following the ever-unfolding sagas of the Colorado River in the 21st century, the Early Anthropocene, you are probably aware that there are water-related issues with the 30 remaining First Peoples living within the Colorado River Basin.

I’ll say, to start, that I don’t like to call the 574 recognized First Peoples in the United States and Alaska ‘Indians’ (colonizing and homogenizing term, inaccurate too), ‘American Indians’ (two Eurocentric colonizing words), or ‘Native Americans’ (anyone born here is a ‘native’). I prefer to think of them as ‘First People’ for a couple reasons. First, because many of the groups tend to call themselves ‘the people’ – Dine’e, the name the Navajos give themselves translates as ‘the people.’ Navajo, on the other hand, is from a Tewa People word meaning ‘planted field,’ hardly descriptive of a people still ambivalent about farming as a way of life. The Apaches call themselves Ndee, which translates as ‘the people’; but Apache is from the Zuni People’s word for ‘enemy.’ Just as Comanche comes from a Ute People’s word for ‘one who fights with me,’ while to themselves the Comanche are the Numinu, which translates as – you guessed it: ‘the people.’ These are more precise and intimate designations than ‘we the people’ in our constitution.

A second reason for calling them the First Peoples is to remind myself that they were in fact here first. They were not ‘civilized’ enough to understand the fundamental holy sanctity of private property, money, or anything else held sacred among the civilized people that overran them. Had they understood those things, and had prior appropriation doctrines in place, and the unified capability to enforce such doctrines, as we try to have in place now for selecting our immigrants – and also had a medical establishment capable of developing vaccines against strange microscopic invaders – then the history of the European Expansion into America would probably have been a little more humble than it has been. And the recent histories of the First Peoples, the people here first, might have been less traumatic and tragic.

This is a relevant topic at this point since the remaining First Peoples in the Colorado River region have made the mainstream news, at least in the West, twice just recently on water-related issues. One was a decision by the Red Meanies that are now the voice of The Supremes, singing their chorus on the power of power; they declared that, while the federal government acknowledges that the Navajo People are entitled to water for their reservation, the 1868 treaty with them contains no explicit responsibility to ‘act affirmatively’ in helping them develop or even lay claim to that water.

The other news story was reported from a conference at the Getches-Wilkinson Law Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder; 13 leaders from the 30 remaining First Peoples on reservations in the Colorado River Basin took the stage in a panel to convey the message that they will participate in the negotiations getting underway about the management of the Colorado River and its waters after 2026 and the expiring of the ‘Interim Guidelines,’ which are now proving as ineffective as the Colorado River Compact they were created to supplement.

There is, as usual, a lot more back story to these things than makes it into the news. And without at least some of the back story, the news stories make less sense. One thing to keep in mind is how ‘distinct’ the remaining 29 First Peoples in the Colorado River Basin are (like most of the 574 recognized First Peoples in the United States and Alaska). While the officially registered populations of each of the First Peoples range from a few hundred members to hundreds of thousands, each People has its own culture – an internal economy and polity that is more likely to be socialistic than individualistic, animistic spiritual practices that are closely associated with their living environment, a higher ratio of familial education (father to son, mother to daughter) to formal schooling, and often a unique language for only a few thousand people, or variations on a language common to several Peoples in the same region. These groups historically communicated with each other, traded with each other, and occasionally fought each other. Some who shared the same or similar languages would winter together in big encampments – one consequence of which was keeping their gene pools healthy with new input, new husbands usually joining their wive’s clans. But despite such interactions, they also retained their unique and distinguishing cultural characteristics. Many of these cultures are similar in their fundamentals, but they make serious efforts to retain the elements that distinguish them. These unique and passionately maintained distinctive cultures have been difficult for us dominating e pluribus unum Euro-Americans to comprehend and accept.

Adding to that difficulty is the extent to which the First Peoples throughout the Colorado River region were, at the time of contact with Euro-Americans, at different stages in adapting to the ‘trauma of success’ – the population expansions that occurred globally as the harsh Pleistocene climate mellowed into the warmer, wetter, more life-supporting Holocene interval. Expanding hunter-forager populations needed more territory.

That territorial tension was resolved – or not resolved – two different ways by the First Peoples, as it had been millennia before in Europe and western Asia. Some of the Peoples developed a culture of conflict with neighboring Peoples, cultivating warrior cultures engaged in fighting and raiding – as Steven LeBlanc documented in his Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest. Other Peoples gave up the hunter-forager life and transitioned to agriculture, concentrating their food plants and animal herds where they could be protected against the raiders. This also concentrated and stabilized the way they lived, the kind of structures they built to live in, the kinds of trading and commerce they engaged in. And pressure from the raiding Peoples also shaped the way they lived; some of those early conflicts are remembered in intertribal relations among First Peoples today.

Screen shot from episode of “Tom Talks” April 2020.

Populations continued to grow, especially with agricultural surpluses, and the ongoing ‘trauma of success’ forced some of the Peoples to develop even more complex socioeconomic organizations for production and distribution of food and other survival goods – what we call the urbanizing ‘civilization’ stage in human culture. Two civilizations-scale cultures developed in the Precolumbian Colorado River Basin: one was the ‘Ancestral Puebloans’ who developed a highly integrated system of villages linked through storing and trading of grain and other resources in the San Juan River valleys, centered in the broad Chaco Canyon. The other was the Hohokam (or Huhugam) irrigation society in the confluence area of the Salt and Gila Rivers in present-day central Arizona. The Hohokam People’s irrigation system had a high degree of sophistication, considering that its irrigation systems were all dug with stick-and-stone tools and baskets. They also had a sizable urban center whose ruins have been preserved in (and dwarfed by) present-day downtown Phoenix.

By the time the Euro-American settlers and unsettlers arrived in the Colorado basin, though, these civilizations, like all historical civilizations globally to this point, had collapsed from their own density, complexity and the depletion of vital resources. Those who survived the chaos of the collapses dropped back to some earlier stage in that cultural evolution driven by population. Some refugees from the Ancestral Puebloans’ Chaco Canyon ‘Interconnect’ left the Colorado Basin and went to the Rio Grande valley to continue farming; others found remote spots in the San Juan tributaries. Several First Peoples from the Hohokam Culture relocated along the Gila, Salt and Colorado Rivers and continued irrigated farming on a small scale.

And because not everyone is temperamentally fit for agriculture, some of the collapse refugees went all the way back to the hunter-forager life – with raiding each other and the agricultural Peoples added to the repertoire. The bands of Utes in the Southern Rocky mountains showed up around the same time that the Chaco Canyon Interconnect was falling apart, and the Apache Peoples in the Arizona and New Mexico mountains expanded following the Hohokam collapse.

And then there were ‘newcomers,’ the Dine’e People, the ones the other Peoples called the Navajo. They were hunter-foragers filtering down all the way from Canada’s over-populating Athabaskan lake region. They began arriving in the Colorado River region about the time that the Chaco Canyon Interconnect began to fail, and were still trickling in till just a few centuries before the Spanish-Americans came into the region. The Navajo brought domesticated sheep with them, and followed their sheep around the valleys and uplands of the depopulating San Juan basin and Colorado Plateau, adapting their hunting and foraging skills in a new environment – and also joining in on the raiding that had become part of that way of life.

So the Euro-Americans encountered almost the full spectrum of human cultural evolution when they arrived in the Colorado River basin, except for an active civilization. They found primal First Peoples like the Cocopah down in the delta and some of the southern Great Basin Paiutes on the Colorado Plateau, still primarily hunting and foraging but also beginning to practice some basic agriculture. There were also post-civilization First Peoples like the Salt River Pima-Maricopa, the Gila River and the Colorado River Peoples with long histories of desert agriculture, and there were both pre- and post-civilization hunter-forager-raiders.

The European Expansion came to the Colorado River region first from the south, where Spanish invaders had conquered civilized Aztec Mexico early in the 16th century; exploratory parties went northward in search of gold and silver and laid claim to everything up to around the 40th parallel, but only really settled – and unsettled – in the middle Rio Grande valleys and California. Their interest in the First Peoples they encountered was limited to whatever material wealth they could commandeer in the name of the King; they did not appear to see the people themselves as fellow humans, but as simple savages to convert and enslave.

The First Peoples they encountered, on the other hand, became very interested in the horses the Spanish brought, some which went feral and, along with European germs, spread out ahead of the Spanish. The hunter-forager-raider Peoples quickly developed a horse culture and expanded both their range and their daring; they began to harass the new white settlers as well as each other.

The Spanish Americans lost their El Norte empire in the 1846-48 Mexican War, which opened the whole Southwest up to the larger Euro-American westward expansion. The Spanish had wanted the First Peoples as slaves; the Euro-Americans just wanted them out of the way. Skirmishes between the warrior/raiders of the First Peoples, armed at first with stone age weaponry, and the heavily armed U.S. Cavalry escalated into a multi-fronted three-decade war from the end of the Civil War to nearly the turn of the 20th century.

From the perspective of many prominent 19th-century western leaders – like Col. John Chivington, Methodist minister, Masonic Grand Master, and leader of 300 volunteers in the Sand Creek Massacre – genocide would not have been too strong a word for their objective; they wanted to rid the land of those who were there first and in the way of their Manifest Destiny to subdue the continent. Cooler heads prevailed in Washington, however, and the ultimate objective of ‘Indian policy’ came to be forced assimilation: instead of ‘kill the Indians,’ it was ‘kill the Indian, save the man (woman or child).’

The First Peoples one by one accepted ‘offers they could not refuse,’ to give up most of their traditional territory in exchange for a much smaller reservation, peace, and generally vague promises of federal assistance ‘to change their habits and to become a pastoral and civilized people’ – which some of them already were, perhaps moreso than many of the Euro-Americans.

To facilitate that assimilation, children as young as six were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were forbidden to use their native language, and were schooled in becoming good industrial workers. To teach a proper respect for private property, the Dawes Act in 1887 broke up the reservations into 160-acre ‘homesteads.’ Programs were implemented to pay for the relocation of individuals and families to cities. Only the vast scale of the West and the limited number of policy enforcers for the numerous reservations enabled the First Peoples to keep their own cultural fires banked but burning.

This policy of forced assimilation prevailed until the 1930s. Current news stories about Colorado River issues have noted with righteous indignation that the Colorado River Compact ‘ignored the Indians,’ but that is not exactly the case; Article VII of the Compact says that ‘Nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indian tribes.’ In 1922, the ‘obligations to the Indian tribes’ were still construed to be facilitating their conversion to ‘civilized peoples.’ This essentially meant letting the tribes ‘disappear’ as the First Peoples discovered the blessings and advantages of assimilating into the mainstream culture, which would have negated the question of tribal waters. E pluribus unum.

It is probably important to remember that these assimilationist policies were not conceived and put into force by evil people, but by well-meaning Christians who sincerely believed they were acting in the best interests of the First Peoples; if the First Peoples had to be forced, it was because they were blind to their own best interests. Historically many bad things have come as consequences of good but naive intentions.

This was demonstrated just last month, when the constitutionality of a law intended to shut down one of the assimilationist strategies was challenged in the courts – the Indian Child Welfare Act, which put First People families first in line for adopting orphaned or abandoned First People children. Surely this is racist, was the argument against the Act; isn’t it obvious that it would be better for a child to grow up well provided for in a good middle-class home, rather than left on an impoverished reservation with an aunt or grandparent? The Supremes – a little surprisingly – upheld the Act, 7-2, against the suit brought by several ‘red’ states, but the well-meaning will continue to act in what they perceive to be the best interests of those who were here first.

That is a good place to pause; next post we’ll look at how things began to turn around for the First Peoples – how they themselves worked, and continue to work, to turn things around, and found co-conspirators in the larger society, even in the government. What’s the saying? What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. And the First Peoples have survived the efforts to kill them, first physically then culturally, and are here to stay – and to be heard on our common future.

Stay tuned for Part 2, when we will look more closely at the Navajo decision, and at some things the First Peoples might contribute to the next chapters in the management of our coyote river.

Native land loss 1776 to 1930. Credit: Alvin Chang/Ranjani Chakraborty

Federal, state officials promise more tribal inclusion in #ColoradoRiver negotiations: Tribes say structural inclusion is key — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

Lake Nighthorse, near Durango, Colorado on May 26, 2023. Both of Colorado’s tribes, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Utes have water in Lake Nighthorse they haven’t been able to access. CREDIT: MITCH TOBIN/THE WATER DESK

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

Federal and state officials have promised more tribal inclusion on the next round of negotiating the operating guidelines for the Colorado River, but what exactly that will look like is still unclear.

On June 16, the Bureau of Reclamation released a notice of intent (NOI), which formally advanced the process for the development of new operating guidelines for the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. In the document, Reclamation says that during the upcoming guidelines negotiations, it intends to develop an approach that facilitates and enhances tribal engagement and inclusivity. Officials say they will also prioritize regular, meaningful and robust consultation with tribal nations.

“Existing forums and groups will be continued and leveraged, such as the monthly Reclamation-hosted Tribal Information Exchanges,” the NOI reads. “Reclamation is also exploring options for increasing tribal involvement through the potential development of new groups and forums.”

Tribes have historically been largely excluded from policy talks and some have said they only learn about decisions made by the seven states and federal government after the fact.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton previewed the NOI the week before it was released, speaking at a law conference on natural resources at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“We are looking to stand up a forum in which we are engaging with tribal nations,” she said. “There will be a specific framework how we engage with the tribes.”

A Reclamation spokesperson said they don’t have any details to add at this time about what the framework will look like beyond Touton’s comments.

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

The Colorado River basin’s 30 tribes have rights to use about 25% of the water, a percentage that is slowly increasing as river flows decline overall due to drought and climate change. And most of their rights are senior to nearly all other water users in the basin.

Although they were not included in the Colorado River Compact that divided the river, giving half of the flows to the upper basin and half to the lower basin, the 1908 Winters Doctrine reserved water rights for tribes. The doctrine established tribes’ water rights on the same date the federal government established their reservation, but not the amount of water to which they were entitled.

Tribes have had to quantify and settle their water rights within their states and tribal water comes out of each state’s allocation from the Colorado River. Unlike other water users, tribes don’t have to put the water to beneficial use to hang onto the rights for future development. That means there are unquantified water rights out there on paper that have never been used, although some tribes say they still fully intend to develop their water.

But in an already over-allocated system, any new water project that takes more from the Colorado River could be problematic. Tribes’ unused water has been propping up the system for years, and when finally put to beneficial use, it could exacerbate shortages for other water users.

“Water that is undeveloped tribal water rights is sitting in Powell and being used in some way, shape or form at some point,” said Becky Mitchell, commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Somebody else is benefiting from it. Who benefits from continuing the way that we have, that’s the question we need to ask ourselves.”

Lake Nighthorse, near Durango, Colorado on May 26, 2023. Bureau of Reclamation officials have promised more tribal inclusion in the negotiation of the post-2026 reservoir operating guidelines. Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk CREDIT: MITCH TOBIN/THE WATER DESK

Structural inclusion

The seven basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, California, Arizona and Nevada — negotiated the current interim guidelines for reservoir operations in 2007, and the guidelines are set to expire at the end of 2026. Developed in response to drought conditions in the first years of the century, the 2007 guidelines set shortage tiers based on reservoir levels and spelled out which states in the lower basin would take shortages and by how much their water deliveries would be cut in dry years.

Every component of the 2007 guidelines — and then some — is up for renegotiation as water managers figure out river management post-2026, said Anne Castle, a federal appointee and chair of the Upper Colorado River Commission. Castle is also on the leadership team for the Colorado River Basin Water & Tribes Initiative.

“There’s also discussion about broadening the scope of what will be considered in this set of guidelines,” she said. “That could include environmental benefit for the river. It could include development of undeveloped tribal rights. It could include a number of things that have not been previously part of the river operations plumbing discussion.”

One thing on which many agree is the need for tribes’ structural inclusion, meaning their seat at the table will be formally guaranteed and won’t be dependent on the promises of individual state or federal officials who could be replaced at the whims of a new administration. Tribal inclusion was a focus of the CU conference and included a panel discussion with representatives of 14 of the 30 tribes from across the basin.

“We really want tribes to be part of the negotiations and the discussions and the development of the post-2026 operational guidelines and we want this to be institutionalized as well,” Lorelei Cloud, vice chair of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in southwestern Colorado, said as a panelist at the CU conference.

“Having a formal process is what’s needed,” said Cloud, a director on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, representing the San Miguel/Dolores/Animas and San Juan river basins. “It didn’t happen in 1922 or before, so we know it really needs to be in writing as we go forward.”

USBR Commissioner Touton giving a diplomatic speech at Getches-Wilkinson/Water and Tribes Initiative conference, outlining the ongoing federal spending and the upcoming SEIS revisions. One big upshot from her: There’s no reason to believe this winter wasn’t a “one-off.” Photo credit: Kyle Roerink via Twitter

How to do it

Each tribe is a sovereign government with their own unique water issues, which creates challenges when trying to include everyone.

“If you know one tribe, you know one tribe,” said Daryl Vigil, co-director of the Water & Tribes Initiative, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation and panel moderator at the CU conference. “To think there’s an Indian solution really dishonors that individuality and uniqueness of those tribes.”

In 2020, the Water & Tribes Initiative released a report called “Toward a Sense of the Basin: Designing a Collaborative Process to Develop the Next Set of Guidelines for the Colorado River System.” In it, the report’s writers set out potential options for tribal participation, including a Sovereign Review Team (SRT) and a Tribal Advisory Council (TAC). An SRT would consist of federal, state and tribal representatives; would treat tribes as equal players with the states and federal government; and would be an advisory group and the main forum to receive input from stakeholders and the public. A TAC would include representatives from each of the 30 tribes in the basin.

“One of the real issues is how do you choose tribal representatives that would represent more than their own tribe. That’s very problematic,” Castle said. “But at the same time, it’s recognized that having representatives of seven states and 30 tribes sitting in a room is a logistical problem and difficult to have meaningful discussions with that many people. There are logistical issues that need to be talked about further and worked out.”

Representatives from the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) and upper basin tribes have been meeting over the past year, usually on tribal territory, partly in an effort to strengthen relationships between water managers. Vigil said that representatives from the group of 14 tribes, known as the basin tribal coalition, have also been meeting over the past year with the seven basin states to talk about collaboration. He said his hope is that tribes will also have to be signatories, along with the seven basin states and the federal government, on governing policy documents — such as the post-2026 guidelines — regarding river operations.

“Tribes understand that this is probably one of the most important components in terms of the forward movement of water policy in the basin: to have structural inclusion in the decision-making process,” he said.

Mitchell said tribal inclusion and engagement is a top priority for her going into the negotiations. Her commitment to the tribes includes communication, consultation and coordination on decision-making, she said.

“I view their involvement as critical and imperative to the success of the post-2026 reservoir operations negotiations,” Mitchell said. “It’s no secret when the compact was signed in 1922, no tribes were involved, consulted or even informed. I cannot alone correct that, but we can do better and we should do better, and we have a responsibility to do better.”

Colorado has two tribal nations, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Utes. They both settled their water rights with the state in 1986. But that doesn’t mean they can put their water to beneficial use. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has about 38,000 acre-feet of stored water for municipal and industrial use in Lake Nighthorse, part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Animas-La Plata project. But because of a lack of infrastructure and high operation and maintenance costs, they haven’t been able to access it.

“In a perfect world, I want to see the federal government fulfill its obligations to the tribal nations,” Mitchell said. “That includes its responsibility to consult with the tribes on a sovereign to sovereign basis and to support the tribes in accessing and utilizing their water resources.”

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Native land loss 1776 to 1930. Credit: Alvin Chang/Ranjani Chakraborty

Beyond 2026: Governance for the #ColoradoRiver in the #Anthropocene — Sibley’s Rivers #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

The graph above is from a study released a couple weeks ago, mid-June, on ‘The Colorado River Water Crisis: Its Origin and the Future,’ authored by two elders of Colorado River affairs: Dr. John Schmidt, river scientist at Utah State University, and Eric Kuhn, longtime manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, now retired; both are deeply immersed in the river’s issues, and committed to working through the current crisis to a more reality-based future for the river and those who use its waters. A third author is Charles Yackulic, a noted scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, but not so well known in Colorado River matters. When Jack Schmidt and Eric Kuhn speak about the river, everyone listens – especially when they speak together.

This graph alone explains a lot of the pain and anxiety we’ve been experiencing, and anticipating experiencing, in the Colorado River region – the natural basin plus technological out-of-basin extensions. (Sometimes the anticipation of pain can be more painful than the actual eventuality – try to think ‘dead pool’ without a serious twitch.)

The black line meandering through the graph is a smoothing curve tracing the general up-or-down-and-how-far of the erratic annual flows of the river (the little black dots peppered all over the graph). But the genius of their analysis is in the three horizontal lines. They’ve divided the 117 years for which we have some semblance of measures for Colorado River’s flows into three fairly distinct periods: The Early 20th-Century Pluvial (two-bit word for ‘really wet period’) when the river averaged almost 18 million acre-feet a year (maf/yr) for a quarter-century; then the six-decade Mid to Late Century period when the river averaged 14.3 maf/yr; and then what they’ve chosen to call the Millennium Drought in which the river has only averaged flows of 12.5 maf/yr. (I would just call it ‘The Anthropocene.’)

Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS

In terms of flow, that might be three different rivers. The large-scale management of the Colorado River began with the Colorado River Compact in 1922, created just past the peak of the Early 20th-century Pluvial; it was written for the ‘first river,’ as it was then. It’s true there were scientists like E.C. ReRue saying that tree rings indicated that the pluvial period was highly unusual, and 12-13 maf might be a better average flow when the river had a lot of pooled up storage and irrigation water spread out to dry under the desert sun…. But try telling that dour perception to a bunch of engineers and city-builders in the Early Anthropocene, sitting with their new-fangled bulldozers idling on the banks of a wild river running 18 maf a year….

As the river slipped into the severe drought of the 1930s, and the rest of the 20th century where the average flow was less than the 15 maf that had been divided in the Compact, to say nothing of the 1.5 maf for Mexico, it still seemed possible, with the addition of new elements in what became known as ‘The Law of the River,’ to continue governing that ‘second river’ more or less by the Compact. But it was an increasingly shaky situation, saved mostly by the fact that the Upper Basin states were using quite a bit less than their 7.5 maf/yr, and the water they weren’t using was pooled up in not one but two huge reservoirs that were occasionally both full.

But when the Millennial Drought struck just after the turn of the century, the ‘third river’ was born, its flows 40 percent lower than those of the ‘first river,’ things began to fall apart….

It’s interesting that the publication of this study more or less coincided with news releases about the official beginning of meetings to work out a new management regime for the Colorado River, to be in place by the end of 2026. There is nothing mystical or even historical about the choice of 2026 for this; the date stems from the fact that, early in what Schmidt, Kuhn and Yockulic call the ‘Millennial Drought,’ the managers of the Colorado River storage and delivery systems realized they were in trouble. After a really bad water year in 2002, followed by half a decade of mediocre-to-pretty-bad water years, storage in the River’s two big ‘fail safe’ reservoirs had dropped from near-full in 2001 to half-full. So the managers gathered in 2006 to work on new river management stratagems – beginning by creating ‘Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead’; the ‘interim’ for the Interim Guidelines would be two decades, to 2026, at which time they planned, or at least hoped, to have a new river management plan.

Management for all three of the rivers portrayed on the graph has been done under the auspices of ‘The Law of the River,’ the bag of compacts, treaties, laws, court decisions, state resolutions, federal regulations and other elements, that have accumulated over the past century around the original 1922 Colorado River Compact, to clarify, interpret, legislate, and otherwise support the Compact. The ‘Interim Guidelines’ went into the bag with the rest of the Law of the River – as did a set of Drought Contingency Plans (Upper and Lower Basins) in 2019.

But now – practically on the eve of 2026 – storage has continued to drop so alarmingly in the Mead and Powell Reservoirs, despite cuts in consumptive use under the Interim Guidelines, that last summer the Bureau of Reclamation and Interior Department issued a semi-panicky mandate that, to fend off the possibility of going to dead pool in the big reservoirs, it would be necessary to cut consumptive uses much more – by 2-4 maf/yr, a huge cut.

This has engendered several plans, the most popular of which would produce a reduction of three maf over three years – only half of the Bureau’s minimum request – and would require the federal government to pay $1.2 billion to get it done. This plan will probably be accepted, however, even though it too may prove insufficient to get us on to 2026, partly because any of the other plans would probably end up in court for the next decade, and partly because we just had a big fat pluvialish year of snow in the mountains that will give a stay to the increasingly scary decline in the big reservoirs.

This new agreement to reduce use will go in the bag along with the rest of the Law of the River. The question then becomes – what will happen in 2026? Will we just be adding another set of patches, bandaids and crutches to the Law of the River bag, to keep the 1922 Colorado River Compact propped up and somewhat afloat?

Crested Butte

When I think of the Colorado River Compact today, I think of the 1950 Chevy I bought for $50 in 1970-something from an old guy in Crested Butte. After driving it for a couple years, it started running worse than usual, so I took it to the garage to see what the mechanic recommended.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘if it was mine, I’d jack up the radiator cap and put a better car under it.’

That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. And there are still a lot of people who think the Colorado River Compact is still just fine, with a little help from the Law of the River bag of tricks. People who say it would be impossible to replace the Compact, and don’t want to hear of it.

But look at the graph. The Colorado River Compact was written for a river that for a quarter century was running an average of 17.9 maf. Now it is a considerably different river. There is one sentence in the Colorado River Compact we ought to revisit – its first sentence:

“The major purposes of this compact are to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System; to establish the relative importance of different beneficial uses of water, to promote interstate comity; to remove causes of present and future controversies; and to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin, the storage of its waters, and the protection of life and property from floods.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Compact for managing the river we have now that did all of those things? The 1922 Compact really only fulfilled the fourth objective; it sufficed to ‘secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin,’ so long as Congress was willing to ignore that there was ‘interstate comity’ with only six of the seven states, and there were plenty of ‘present and future controversies’ lurking in the wings.

The commissioners had also failed in their original intentions for ‘providing for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters’. What they had wanted to do was to effect a seven-way division of the river so that each state would know that, when it was ready to go into super-growth mode like California already was, there would be water for them to develop. Essentially, they wanted to abrogate the appropriation doctrine at the interstate level, so that one state (California) could not preclude development in the other states.

They spent most of their first week of compact commission meetings trying to work out that seven-state division, but they were all so full of their own big dreams that it would have required a couple ‘first rivers’ to fulfill their hopes. The two-basin division of the river they eventually settled on sufficed to get the Boulder Canyon Project underway, but was not what they had hoped to do. It did give the Upper Basin states a temporary sense of relief, until the drought of the 1930s made them realize the implications of the ‘shall not cause the flow to be depleted below’ clause, which afforded plenty of potential future controversies; the Lower Basin states, meanwhile, found immediate cause for controversy, with Arizona soon suing California.

All of this makes me think it may be time to, as it were, jack up the first sentence of the existing Compact, and create a new Compact to put under it, one that actually accomplishes the three worthy stated objectives that remain unfulfilled.

Also in the news last week was the announcement that The Supremes, our jolly kick-ass band of judicial activists, have delivered another kick to some of the First People in the Colorado River basin. We’ll begin to delve into that in the next post here….

Map credit: AGU

Tribes seek greater involvement in talks on #ColoradoRiver #water crisis — The Los Angeles Times #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River cuts through Lees Ferry in the Navajo Nation en route to the Grand Canyon. Photo credit. Gonzo fan2007 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3631180

Click the link to read the article on the Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:

Leaders of several tribes say they continue to be left out of key talks between state and federal officials, and they are demanding inclusion as the Biden administration begins the process of developing new rules for dealing with shortages after 2026, when the current rules are set to expire.

Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis advocates early engagement of tribes in the decision-making process. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

“They’ve met, they’ve discussed, they’ve made decisions that we only find out afterwards,” said Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, leader of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. “And the 30 tribes — and I’ve heard this from my fellow tribal leaders — they are very frustrated by that, especially as we look at a post-2026 process moving forward.”

During the upcoming talks, Lewis said he and other Native leaders want to see the federal government include representatives of the 30 tribes whenever they convene a meeting with all seven states. He said this approach wouldn’t stop state representatives from meeting among themselves. Lewis raised the concern at a conference in Boulder, Colo., last week, saying that as work begins on a post-2026 plan, “it’s no longer acceptable for the U.S. to meet with seven basin states separately, and then come to basin tribes, after the fact.” He said when leaders of the tribes met with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last year, she made a commitment “that we would be at the table when these highest-level decisions were being made.”


The Interior Department said the process of developing new rules to replace the 2007 guidelines will involve “robust collaboration” between the seven states, tribes, other stakeholders and Mexico…For the next two months, until Aug. 15, the Interior Department and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will accept comments from the public on how the existing rules should be changed to “provide greater stability to water users and the public throughout the Colorado River Basin.”

Map credit: AGU

Tribal voices at the #ColoradoRiver table — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification

Lorelei Cloud. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

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

Native Americans were not invited to craft the Colorado River Compact in 1922. Now they are at the table — and insist they must be part of solutions. Big Pivots

Voices of Native Americans, long shunted to the side room, if acknowledged at all, are being heard more clearly in Colorado River discussions, as reflected in two recent water conferences in Colorado.

At the first, a drought summit held in Denver, a panel that was devoted to the worsening imbalance between water supplies and demands included Lorelei Cloud, the vice chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Her presence was an overt acknowledgement by conference organizers that the Ute tribe, if a part of Colorado, is also a sovereign. That’s something new.

The conference was sponsored by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s preeminent water policy agency. Cloud recently became a board member, representing southwestern Colorado. She’s the first Ute ever on the board.

Cloud lauded Colorado for being ahead of many other states in including native voices. “We’re making strides,” she said but added that work remains.

The next week, she was on a stage in Boulder, at the Getches-Wilkinson Center’s annual conference about the Colorado River. Thirteen of the 30 federally recognized tribes that hold water rights in the Colorado River Basin were present.

Their rights stem from a 1908 Supreme Court decision involving tribal lands in Montana. The high court agreed that when the U.S. government created reservations and expected tribes to live there, water sufficient to the presumed agrarian ways was part of the deal.

This decision, called the Winters Doctrine, has enormous implications for the shrinking Colorado River. Tribes collectively hold 25% to even 30% of the water rights in basin. Not all claims have been adjudicated. Most tribal rights predate others. The Southern Ute rights, for example, date to 1868.

The Compact’s Signers. Photo via InkStain

All predate the Colorado River Compact. Tribes were not invited to Santa Fe in 1922 to apportion the river’s waters among the seven basin states, though the compact does acknowledge federal obligations.

Now, with the Colorado River delivering an average 12.5 million acre-feet, far less than the 20-plus assumed by those who crafted the compact, with flows expected to decline further, we have hard decisions to make. Tribal voices are being integrated into the discussions. Not fast enough for some, but very different than just a few years ago, when the federal government merely “consulted” tribes in the 2019 drought plan. The states were fully engaged.

“We need to be at the table, not just at a side table,” said one tribal representative at the Boulder conference.

Some tribes have been amenable to leasing their rights to cities and others. But will tribes with a few thousand members exert as much influence as California with its giant farms and its huge cities? California maintains that its senior rights be respected in any agreements. Still unclear is what hewing to that principle means when it comes to tribes with their even more senior rights.

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

Also unclear is the practicality of fully integrating the 30 tribes, each with unique circumstances and perspectives, in discussions with the seven basin states and federal government about how to address the sharp limitations imposed by the river. What has changed is broad recognition that tribal voices must better be included. Through the Water and Tribes Initiative, the tribes themselves have insisted upon being heard.

Residual anger at being shunted aside remains. Also ample is a spirit of cooperation. Many representatives suggested their tribes offer creativity and innovations in the community of 40 million Colorado River water users that extends from the farms of northeastern Colorado to the metropolises of Southern California.

Stephen Roe Lewis, the governor of the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix, pointed out that his tribe has undertaken the largest integration of solar panels over water canals in North American, a practice called aquavoltaics.

The Gila River Indian Community, located south of Phoenix, has worked with Arizona collaboratively on projects. Top: Lorelei Cloud, vice chairman of the Ute Mountain Indian Tribe and a director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, at the entrance to the Ute exhibit at History Colordo in downtown Denver. Photos/Allen Best

Others suggested they offered perspective. The Hopi have been in Arizona for more than 2,000 years. They’ve experienced drought before, said tribal member Dale Sinquah. “Our ceremonies and prayers revolve around water,” he said. “That is what Hopi can contribute, along with dialogue.”

Native Americans often talk of water as being sacred, but that does not mean roped-off, kept in closets. The Native understanding is different than the legalistic framework most of us use. They see water as something to be used, yes, but not in the same lens as most of us, who view it more narrowly as a commodity. What that means in practice is hard to tease out.

Peter Ortego, a non-native attorney representing the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of Colorado, said he found it odd the session had not started with a prayer. “Maybe we should ask, ‘What should we do day to day to respect the spirituality of water?’”

He’s got a point. I’ve never asked that question, but I am very curious about the answer.

Map credit: AGU

Interior Department Initiates Process to Develop Future Guidelines and Strategies for Protecting the #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell. Photo credit: USBR

Click the link to read the release on the Department of Interior website:

WASHINGTON — The Department of the Interior today [June 15, 2023] announced that it is initiating the formal process to develop future operating guidelines and strategies to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River. The new guidelines will replace the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are set to expire at the end of 2026.

The robust and transparent public process will gather feedback for the next set of operating guidelines, including new strategies that take into account the current and projected hydrology of the Colorado River Basin. The Basin is currently facing an historic drought, driven by climate change, that is increasing the likelihood of warming temperatures and continued low-runoff conditions, and therefore reduced water availability, across the region.

“The Biden-Harris administration has held strong to its commitment to work with states, Tribes and communities throughout the West to find consensus solutions in the face of climate change and sustained drought. Those same partnerships are fundamental to our ongoing work to ensure the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River Basin into the future,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. “As we look toward the next several years across the Basin, the new set of operating guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead will be developed collaboratively based on the best-available science.”

“Developing new operating guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead is a monumentally important task and must begin now to allow for a thorough, inclusive and science-based decision-making process to be completed before the current agreements expire in 2026,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “The Bureau of Reclamation is committed to ensuring we have the tools and strategies in place to help guide the next era of the Colorado River Basin, especially in the face of continued drought conditions.”

The process announced today is separate from the recently announced efforts to protect the Colorado River Basin through the end of 2026. The Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to revise the December 2007 Record of Decision will set interim guidelines through the end of 2026; the process announced today will develop guidelines for when the current interim guidelines expire.

The Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement asks the public to consider the past 15 years of operating experience since adoption of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, as well as how the best-available science should inform future operational guidelines and strategies that can be sufficiently robust and adaptive to withstand a broad range of hydrological conditions. The NOI also asks the public to consider how and whether the purpose and elements of the 2007 Interim Guidelines should be retained, modified, or eliminated to provide greater stability to water users and the public throughout the Colorado River Basin. The NOI will be available for public comment until August 15, 2023.

While the post-2026 process would only determine domestic operations, the Biden-Harris administration is committed to continued collaboration with the Republic of Mexico. It is anticipated that the International Boundary and Water Commission will facilitate consultations between the United States and Mexico, with the goal of continuing the Binational Cooperative Process under the 1944 Water Treaty.

President Biden’s Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing pivotal resources to enhance the resilience of the West to drought and climate change, including to protect the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought.

To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete:

Map credit: AGU

A lot is still unknown heading into high-stakes negotiations on the future of the #ColoradoRiver — #Colorado Public Radio #COriver #aridifcation

Bluff UT – aerial with San Juan River and Comb Ridge. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6995171

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

Representatives from more than a dozen Indigenous tribes spoke at a CU Boulder law conference last week about their interests in the Colorado River from each of their perspectives.  Many of the prominent state and federal officials who manage the water attended the conference. But as they and other water authorities prepare to negotiate the river’s future, it’s unclear how tribes will participate, to what degree tribes will be treated as equal sovereigns, and how their desire to use all the water they legally have rights to will be considered. It’s also unclear whether negotiators will aim for a way to make the long-term reductions in water usage that a decades-long megadrought has made necessary or whether they will propose more short-term changes. 

The gathering happened at a critical time: Collectively, Colorado River users have to figure out how to live with significantly less water going forward, and the federal government is forcing states to come to an agreement…

The group of tribal representatives and state water officials, along with academics who study the river, used the two-day conference for discussions about how to make their collective use of the river more sustainable over the long term…The tribes have a shared history of using the river and its tributaries over thousands of years and migrating based on water availability. In the century since the river has been dammed and diverted across seven states, each tribe has a different story about how their water rights have been denied and what they seek to change in the river’s management going forward…

Some river scholars and even people with roles in the negotiations are unclear about what’s possible as they determine longer-term allocations of the water…A lot is at stake for tribes, and each circumstance is unique…For example, Hopi Tribe council member Dale Sinquah said his people still need to have their water rights settled. Southern Ute Tribal Council Vice Chair Lorelei Cloud said the tribe wants to use water they have legal rights to in southwestern Colorado, but they don’t have the infrastructure. She said about 1,000 tribal members still have to manually haul water to their homes, and the tribe hasn’t been able to develop farmland…Crystal Tulley-Cordova from the Navajo Nation said her tribe couldn’t rely on groundwater because of abandoned uranium mines on their land. Dwight Lomayesva, vice chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes on the border of California and Arizona, said his people would like to upgrade their farming and water infrastructure to make it more efficient, but the federal government still owns it. “The last major change in our irrigation infrastructure was made in 1942, when the United States government built some canals for the Japanese who were interned on our reservation,” he said. Each needs to negotiate for themselves individually.

“To think that there’s an ‘Indian solution,’ really dishonors that individuality and the uniqueness of each one of those tribes,” said Daryl Vigil, a Jicarilla Apache water leader who used to direct a tribal partnership in the Colorado River basin.

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

Three big ideas to rescue the #ColoradoRiver, but are states and #water users ready for them? — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, near Grand Junction, Colorado, on April 26, 2019. Photo by Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk

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

To save the Colorado River, its water users must look at radical new options, including a hard stop on new diversions, dams and reservoirs across the seven-state river basin, managing lakes Powell and Mead as one entity, and paying millions to farmers who agree to permanently switch to water saving crops and to change irrigation practices.

Those were among suggestions experts offered at a University of Colorado conference focused on the river June 8 and June 9 presented by the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment and the Colorado River Basin’s Water & Tribes Initiative.

Mark Squillace, a University of Colorado law professor who specializes in water law acknowledged that the ideas, such as banning nearly all new development of water on the river, weren’t likely to be popular among established water users.

“But we can’t just keep appropriating water,” he said. Already heavily overused,  the river’s dwindling supplies must still be reallocated to set aside water for the 30 Native American tribes whose reservations are located within the basin. Several of them have been waiting more than a century to win legal access to water promised to them by the federal government.

Pushed to the brink by a 22-plus year drought, overuse and shrinking flows caused by climate change, the river’s dwindling supplies prompted the federal government last summer to order the seven states to permanently reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet annually.

The call to stop water development on the Colorado River is being heard more often due to the crisis, but it is a tough sell, especially in states, such as Colorado, that have not developed all the water to which they are legally entitled.

The basin is divided into two segments, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming comprising the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada making up the Lower Basin.

The river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell in the Upper Basin and Lake Mead in the Lower Basin, have long been managed separately with different rules, including the time periods in which water is measured, a critical component of forecasting supplies. But experts say that approach isn’t working and is making it more difficult to rebalance the system.

Map credit: AGU

“Why not do things far more simply,” said Brad Udall, a senior scientist and climate expert at Colorado State University. “Let’s give up the game on Upper Basin and Lower Basin. It just seems stupid. The old system is overly complex. It allows people to game the system.”

Udall was referring, in part, to a set of operating rules adopted in 2007, known as the Interim Operating Guidelines, that were intended to better coordinate operations between the two reservoirs, but which some now believe exacerbated the river’s problems.

This year, thanks to abundant mountain snows and a cool, rainy spring, the river is enjoying a bit of a reprieve. But critical negotiations on how to manage it in the future are set to begin this year, with painful decisions facing the seven states, the tribes and Mexico.

Lessening some of that pain is hundreds of millions of dollars in new federal funding dedicated to helping the basin reduce water use and find more sustainable ways to support critical industries, including agriculture, which uses roughly 80% of the river’s supplies.

But agricultural water use is critical to feeding the nation, and finding ways to reduce it without crippling rural farm economies and threatening the food supply is a major challenge.

To that end, Squillace and others say simple steps will deliver big results. Take alfalfa hay production. Most alfalfa growers irrigate their fields all summer, harvesting the crop multiple times over the course of a growing season. Eliminating one of those harvests late in the growing season could save as much as 845,000 acre-feet of water in the Lower Basin states each year. That alone would cover nearly one-quarter of the water use experts say is needed to help the river recover and sustain itself in an era of dwindling flows.

Also high on the list of important steps to better balance the river is to use most of the tens of million in federal funding to pay for permanent reductions water use.

“I would hate to see us waste our money on temporary things when we know we have a permanent problem,” Squillace said.

Colorado’s U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper, who made a brief video appearance at the conference, said he and other senate colleagues did not want to interfere in state-level talks.

“None of the senators want to meddle in state efforts to come to an agreement,” Hickenlooper said, “But we have to make sure that money is spent wisely, and we also have to look at lasting solutions … we recognize that a lot of traditional landscapes and lifestyles are dependent on us finding the right solutions.”

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

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

Trustafarians on the #ColoradoRiver: In #Denver, before a friendly crowd, a scathing description of the upper basin vs. the lower basin. Guess who was compared to ski town trustafarians? — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification

L to R: Becky Mitchell, Chuck Cullom, Lorelei Cloud and Amy Ostdiek. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

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

Chuck Cullom was speaking before a friendly audience on June 1 when he shared his perspective on the messy story in the Colorado River Basin.

“Is the press here?” he asked early in his remarks, surely knowing that the event, the Colorado Drought Summit, was being taped for later posting on the website of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the sponsor of the two-day meeting. “Is anybody here from a ski town?”

Since 2021, Cullom has directed the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents Colorado and three other upper-basin states of Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. This is distinct from the lower basin, which consists of Arizona, California and Nevada.

The bifurcation, primarily a legal one but a hydrologic one, too, was created by the Colorado River Compact in 1922. The division is marked by Lee Ferry, just below what is now Glen Canyon Dam and the launch point for boaters rafting the Grand Canyon. Most of the water in the Colorado River Basin comes from upstream, especially from snow and especially in Colorado.

For the 25 years prior to his current position, Cullom was in the lower basin, most immediately before at the Central Arizona Project. That giant straw, the last major one stuck into the Colorado River, delivers water to Phoenix, Tucson, and other cities as well as some agriculture users in Arizona. It’s also worth noting that there has always been friction between Arizona and California.

Now, from his base in the greater Salt Lake City area, he’s just across the hill from Park City, one of the top mountain resorts.

“So we have what are referred to as the trustafarians, which is a tribe of people who live off their trust funds,” he said. “Trustafarians tend to drive something between a new Subaru and a Range Rover, but with the latest kit bolted atop. I don’t know if they ever take it off, but they do have skis and mountains bikes and stuff—and they expect their paycheck every month from daddy or whomever. And they are insufferable.”

“You better be going someplace with this,” quipped another panelist, Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, known in water circles by CWCB. She is also Colorado’s voice on Colorado River affairs.

Mitchell had just wrapped up a critique of the recently announced agreement in which the federal government is to give lower-basin states $1.2 billion to curtail about 10% of their withdrawals from the Colorado River during the next three years. During that time, at least in theory, the basin states will have figured out how to solve their bad-math problem. During the 21st century, they’ve been withdrawing more water than the river has delivered. The two basins – upper and lower – do not share equal responsibility. The lower-basin has been drafting on the water banked during wetter times.

Like ski town trustafarians, Cullom explained, the lower-basin has a sense of entitlement. Trustafarians don’t have to get a job when the money runs out, and the lower-basin states for most of the last century have never had to live within the limitations of natural runoff.

Upstream of the desert empires lies Hoover Dam and, above that, Glen Canyon Dam – plus a lot of other much smaller dams and reservoirs, about 50 million acre-feet in total capacity, which provide assurances that the water will be available, no matter what is happening in the headwaters. But what has been happening most years in the 21st century has been drought and its longer-term and less reversible component, aridification.

On May 17, Rabbit Ears Pass still had plentiful snow for Muddy Creek, a tributary to the Colorado, and for the Yampa River tributaries. Photo/Allen Best

Mitchell, who was first in the batting order in the program, has never been one to mince words. She seemed particularly animated as she described being in Phoenix the previous day to present the upper-basin’s perspective. The majority of the day was devoted to sharing “their concerns over security and certainty that they felt they were entitled to,” she said.

One can wonder how her message may have been delivered on the road as opposed to a home-court crowd.

“When we talk about security and certainty, the way that water is being used in the lower basin is damaging all of our security and certainty, not just their own.”

As did Cullom, Mitchell described a system that has shielded the lower-basin states from the hydrologic realities.

A field of produce destined for grocery stores is irrigated near Yuma, Ariz., a few days before Christmas 2015. Photo/Allen Best – See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2016/02/09/drying-out-of-the-american-southwest/#sthash.7xXVYcLv.dpuf

Colorado and other upper-basin states must largely live within the natural water budget, what falls from the sky. There are many dams and reservoirs, but even the largest are almost tiny in their capacities compared to the behemoths of Powell and Mead. Having those giant reservoirs above them allows California and Arizona to be certain that the water will be there for their cities and crops, be it lettuce in winter, or alfalfa and almond groves in summer. Agriculture, particularly in the Imperial Valley of California and the Yuma area of Arizona, has the most secure water systems.

In a sense, Mead and Powell represent savings accounts. Now, as all of the nation understands, the result of new and devoted national media interest, those bank accounts have verged on functional depletion. Going into this winter, the two reservoirs were 26% and 23% full. There was legitimate worry that, given just another dry winter, hydroelectric production at Glen Canyon would cease and, with another dry winter or two, Powell might drop to levels such that it could not allow water to go downstream, a level called dead pool.

Graphic credit: Becky Mitchell/CWCB

The marvel in all this is that California, especially, and to a lesser extent Arizona, have not fundamentally changed anything in the last 20 years. According to Cullom, the lower basin states have been consuming about 10 million acre-feet. This compares to about 3.5 to 3.75 million acre-feet by the upper-basin states.

The Colorado River Compact stipulates equal apportionment between the two basins of 7.5 million acre-feet on a rolling 10-year average.

Almost everybody has heard talk about whether the Colorado River Compact needs to be renegotiated, said Mitchell. It does not, she declared. Instead, it needs to be honored.

“The foundational principle of that compact is equity. Sit with that for a little bit,” she said.

“While these quantities are distracting and we know that the river is suppling less than it did a 100 years ago, that doesn’t take away from the foundation principles of this compact. With that being said, I believe that the compact is flexible enough to adapt to these conditions. We, as humans, are flexible enough to include other voices in these conversations,” added Mitchell, a reference to Lorelei Cloud, a representative of the Southern Utes who was also on the Colorado River panel at the conference.

Native Americas, if almost completely ignored when the waters of the Colorado River were being apportioned, in fact have the most senior of rights as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1908 case that yielded the Winters Doctrine. Those rights in the Colorado River Basin are estimated to be 20% to 25% of the river’s total flows. Tribes in Colorado and other upper-basin states have had their allocations determined, but the work remains incomplete in the lower basin.

Mitchell and Cullom also described efforts by upper basin states, if not always successful, to begin pruning water use in anticipation of possibly hotter, drier times ahead. Lower basin states have made some adjustments, but the question is whether they are remotely close to what is needed.

“When we saw the flags of a crisis coming, there was a choice by some to not make changes that are going to be painful,” said Mitchell, alluding to the lower basin.

Upper-basin states, she went on to explain, did make choices. In her description, users in upper-basin states did suffer, pointing to the divergent numbers of the upper-basin and the lower basin. in a chart on the screen behind her. (See above).

“These numbers tell the story of how change has to happen. And so when people get tired of us sharing the numbers, we’re going to share them some more.”

Cullom made a similar point. “It’s a threshold difference when you live downstream of 50-plus million acre-feet of storage. Your concerns about your year-over-year precipitation and runoff in operations are pretty marginal. It’s very, very different up here. Last summer, fully one-third of Wyoming’s users on the Green (a tributary to the Colorado) were shut off, regulated off.”

That, he added, is not something understood in the lower basin. “It means you are out of priority.”

It means that you are out of priority that day, that week, that month. And the state engineer, who in Wyoming is a law-enforcement official, comes and shuts you off. That is not a thing in the lower basin. But in August and September (of 2022, fully one-third of growers in the Green were curtailed. Ninety percent of the Ute Mountain Ute water was curtailed, their agricultural productivity was reduced because of hydrology.”

There’s another difference,  he went on to say: the upper basin has tens of thousands of individual water users and “turnouts,” places where water is diverted. In the lower basin, there are probably 30 main-stem turnouts of which fewer than 10 really matter.

The upper basin, he said, is “small, messy and complicated. The lower basin is just a corporate machine of giant turnouts.”

Water levels in Lake Powell have been rising rapidly this year, but in May 2022 there was a very real risk that levels would drop too low for hydroelectric generation. Photo/Allen Best

A bit of history: The reservoirs entered the 20th century close to full. The 1990s had been good snow years and the upper basin states had not developed their full allocation of 7.5 million acre-feet. California famously had been allocated 4.4 but was using about 5.5

Then came the lean years, worst of all 2002. The river carried only 4.5 million acre-feet of water. Attorneys who framed the Colorado River Compact had assumed 20 million acre-feet of water on average. The thin “bathtub rings” on the sides of the reservoirs representing high marks widened considerably—and then widened more in subsequent years.

The first response was the Interim Guidelines of 2007. Then came other very small belt-tightening measures. California, for example, cut back to its legal entitlement.

By 2015, though, it had become clear that more would be needed. A modestly good water year allowed the lower-basin states to postpone any serious talk. Then came a bad year—and finally there was action. The result was the 2019 drought contingency plan.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

At the time, Brad Udall, who has family roots in Arizona but a lifetime mostly in Colorado, told me that he believed that 2019 agreement that was broadly heralded was not close to being enough. “I hope I’m wrong,” he said.

He wasn’t.

More lean years followed, the reservoirs shrank, and the small measures weren’t near enough.

In their remarks at the Drought Summit in Denver on June 1, Mitchell and Cullom mentioned several of those efforts in the upper basin, with Mitchell describing one as “clumsy.” Cullom said something similar, noting the call for accelerated action as not without risk. “Part of the challenge with picking up the pace is you stub your toe,” he said, alluding to mistakes made in the system conservation pilot program.

The Yampa River emerging from Cross Mountain Canyon in northwest Colorado had water in October 2020, but only the second “call” ever was issued on the river that year. Photo/Allen Best

Finally, in August 2021, the Colorado River story became national in a way that it had not been before. “In a First, U.S. Declares Shortage on Colorado River, Forcing Water Cuts,” announced the New York Times.

That cut off some farmers in Arizona. More  reduction was needed, though.

On June 14, 2022, Camille Calimlim Touton, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, which is sort of the task-master on the Colorado River because of its role in regulating the dams, told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of additional conservation was needed just to protect reservoir levels. She gave the basin states 60 days to come up with a plan.

To compare, the entire state of Colorado uses about 2.2 million acre-feet from the river each year.

“I wasn’t surprised by the two-million acre-feet,” recounted Mitchell last week. “It wasn’t rocket science. It was addition and subtraction. It’s not even multiplication and division. It didn’t  work. There was an overuse that was not sustainable.”

That deadline from the Bureau of Reclamation was missed, as was an extension.

Finally, in late January, something came out, if it also fell short. California wasn’t on board.

“Cut the crap,” Udall was quoted as saying in a Denver Post story in January.

Finally in late May, a new agreement was announced, getting front page attention from New York and Washington DC to Los Angeles (and, of course, in Denver).

Center-pivot sprinklers on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in southwestern Colorado were mostly sitting idle in May 2022 after another low-snow and warm year in the San Juan Mountains. Photo/Allen Best

“We’ve received a page and a half of bullet points saying what the lower-basin intends to do. We don’t know how they’ll do it. We don’t know where the water will come from (among existing uses). We don’t know if it will be binding and enforceable,” said Mitchell.

She said Colorado and other upper basin states are waiting to see a revised draft supplement environmental impact statement.

Mitchell was unsparing. “I think it’s also important to recognize that we don’t get paid for the conservation that happens in the upper-basin states, because it’s in response to hydrology,” she said.

There is yet another bone of contention, one that all but Colorado River wonks will have a hard time understanding. That is who takes responsibility for evaporation from the reservoirs as well as transmission loss.

Hydrologists estimate a million acre-feet of evaporation occurs on Lake Mead – but in the accounting of the lower-basin states, he said, it doesn’t exist.

“In the lower basin,” said Cullom, “they, uh, somehow , uh, there’s an atmospheric thing that prevents evaporation from being considered. Apparently physics doesn’t work (the same) everywhere.”

By that point, Cullom had left his metaphor for ski town trustafarians alone. Do you think he uses that when he speaks in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Needles?

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at allen.best@comcast.net or 720.415.9308.

Map credit: AGU

Ahead of new #ColoradoRiver talks, governments and tribes weigh in on the future — KUNC #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

USBR Commissioner Touton giving a diplomatic speech at Getches-Wilkinson/Water and Tribes Initiative conference, outlining the ongoing federal spending and the upcoming SEIS revisions. One big upshot from her: There’s no reason to believe this winter wasn’t a “one-off.” Photo credit: Kyle Roerink via Twitter: https://twitter.com/KyleRoerink1/status/1666853176299991061

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

Hot on the heels of a short-term agreement to cut back on Colorado River water use, states are looking ahead to talks about more permanent cuts. The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency which manages the West’s water, announced that those negotiations will formally begin next week with a notice in the Federal Register. The announcement came at an environmental law conference in Boulder, Colorado on Thursday [June 8, 2023], where scientists, state and federal governments, and tribes met at the University of Colorado’s law school…

It still remains unclear how exactly the states plan to arrive at permanent cutbacks that will likely be painful to some of the farms and cities that depend on the river’s water, which flows to tens of millions of people and a multi-billion dollar agriculture industry. Pressed for details, state leaders shared little beyond high-level ideas about the need for water conservation across all seven states that use the Colorado River…Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, emphasized that post-2026 guidelines need to “acknowledge that climate change is real.”


Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, shared new details about the agency’s upcoming plans for water management. The agency has withdrawn its draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement while it reviews the proposal, and plans to arrive at a final plan – or “Record of Decision” – by the end of 2023. Reclamation has so far been tight-lipped with details about negotiations related to the 2026 deadline, but Touton said the agency will “formally advance” the process for those multi-year talks starting the week of June 12. Starting the process next week, she said, will allow the agency to publish a new draft SEIS by the end of 2024…

A panel with representatives from 13 tribes spoke about the evolving role of tribes in water negotiations. Officials and attorneys spoke about their current struggles to maintain steady access to clean water, the historic aggression and exclusion that drove them away from water management and the need for tribes’ input as talks continue.

Hopi tribal members collecting spring water at Yam’taqa –Place of ever-flowing water- (vasey’s paradise) in the Grand Canyon. Photo credit: From the Earth Studio

Although Indigenous people in the Southwest have been using Colorado River water longer than any other group in the region, they have largely been excluded from discussions about how the river is shared. The 30 federally-recognized tribes that use the river control about a quarter of its flow, but most lack the money and infrastructure to use their full allotments. Tribal leaders said their millennia-long history in the region could offer lessons for the future of water management.

Fear, frustration and fatigue: How a deal to save the #ColoradoRiver was struck — The Washington Post #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River from Navajo Bridge below Lee’s Ferry and Glen Canyon Dam. The proposed Marble Canyon Dam would have been just downstream from here. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on The Washington Post website (Joshua Partlow). Here’s an excerpt:

When a deal to protect the Colorado River’s water supply finally came together after a year of contentious negotiations and a marathon weekend of last-minute haggling by phone and video calls that ran well past midnight, whatever sense of achievement the participants felt seemed outweighed by relief and fatigue…Within hours, Arizona’s negotiator stressed at a news conference that the deal was simply “an agreement to submit a proposal.” The four northern states along the river signed off on further study of the plan but would concede little else. The negotiations wrapped up with a call to immediately start another multi-year round of talks…

The problems with the negotiations arose partly from the size of the task. The amount of water that the administration was asking states to cut from their farms and cities had never been tried…

West snowpack basin-filled map April 2, 2023 via the NRCS.

In the end, a record-breaking deluge of snow and rain this winter, and a mountain of federal dollars, opened a path to consensus and avoided, at least for now, a battle in the courts…

Camille Calimlim Touton being sworn in as Reclamation’s Commissioner by Secretary Deb Haaland.

Negotiating teams kept meeting throughout the winter, as a barrage of atmospheric rivers pummeled the California coast and snows piled up in the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, promising a big runoff year into reservoirs. On Jan. 26, they gathered at Woolley’s Classic Suites, a hotel near the Denver airport. Interior had asked for proposals on potential cuts by the following week. Six of the states were coalescing around a plan that would assign cuts based on evaporation of the river, an approach that would hit California particularly hard. California negotiators were caught off guard that lawyers and technical staff from the other states had arrived early and were huddling at the hotel, already writing proposals…

That month, Beaudreau held separate conference calls with Upper and Lower Basin officials to clarify the lines of command. Lower Basin officials related that the turmoil and strife was not helpful, and they wanted clear direction from Interior. Beaudreau informed state officials that he would be in charge, along with Touton, in the months ahead. Trujillo, the assistant secretary, was taken off the Colorado River negotiations.

At last, states reach a #ColoradoRiver deal: Pay farmers not to farm — Grist #COriver #aridification

A field of produce destined for grocery stores is irrigated near Yuma, Ariz., a few days before Christmas 2015. Photo/Allen Best – See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2016/02/09/drying-out-of-the-american-southwest/#sthash.7xXVYcLv.dpuf

Click the link to read the article on the Grist website (Jake Bittle):

After a year of intense negotiations, the states along the Colorado River have reached a deal to solve one of the most complex water crises in U.S. history. The solution to this byzantine conundrum is deceptive in its simplicity: Pay farmers — who collectively use 80 percent of Colorado River deliveries — to give up their water.

Representatives from Arizona, Nevada, and California announced on Monday that they had agreed to reduce their states’ collective water usage by more than 3 million acre-feet over the next three years. That equals around a trillion gallons, or roughly 13 percent of the states’ total water usage. Under the terms of the deal, cities and irrigation districts in these so-called Lower Basin states will receive around $1.2 billion from the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, in exchange for using less water. Most of the reductions are likely to come from farming operations. 

Many had anticipated a more painful resolution to the crisis. Rather than taking mandatory cuts and losing out on billions of dollars from crop sales, irrigators in the Southwest will get millions of dollars to reduce their water usage for just three years — and will cut their usage by less than half of what federal officials demanded last year. 

This rosy outcome is only possible because of a wet winter that blanketed the river basin with snow and stabilized water levels in its two main reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Thanks to the ample runoff, the states could lower their target enough that the federal government could afford to compensate them for almost all of it. 

his deal also resolves a key dispute between Arizona and California, the two largest water users on the river, which have clashed over how to respond to the water shortage. California has argued that Arizona should take the most cuts as the most junior user on the river, while Arizona argued that the cuts should be spread more evenly between all the states. The disagreement caused negotiations to drag out for months, and it’s only thanks to the payout from the federal government that they reached an accord.

These compensated cuts are larger than anything the river states have ever implemented before, but they are temporary, a Band-Aid for a crisis that is not going away any time soon. When the three-year agreement expires in 2026, the states will have to come back to the table again and address the elephant in the room: If water use is growing, and the river’s size is shrinking, some people are going to have to make do with less — not temporarily, but for good. 

“This is a step in the right direction but a temporary solution,” said Dave White, a professor at Arizona State University who studies sustainability policy. “This deal does not address the long-term water sustainability challenges in the region.”

The basic blueprint of the deal is not new. Federal and state agencies in the Colorado River basin have tried to pay farmers to use less water before, but they have had difficulty scaling up these compensation measures. That’s in part because many farmers view the measures as an affront to their industry, even when they’re compensated. When a group of states in the river’s Upper Basin relaunched a dormant conservation program earlier this year, offering farmers money to leave their fields unplanted, just 88 water users across four states ended up participating. 

The other issue is that conserving water is expensive. In order to convince farmers to plant fewer acres, officials need to give them more money per acre-foot of water than they would have made from selling crops on a given field. In California’s Imperial Valley, the “salad bowl” region that grows almost all the nation’s winter vegetables, irrigation officials have paid growers to invest in technology that makes their farms more efficient. But farmers in the valley have balked at the idea of taking money to leave their fields unplanted, especially as vegetable prices have remained high. 

“Water is a valuable asset, and I think people are nervous about parting with it, because it kind of suggests that you don’t really need it after all,” said George Frisvold, an extension specialist at the University of Arizona who studies agricultural policy. “I think there’s real concern that this is voluntary now, but it could come back and bite you.”

The Biden administration has resolved those issues for the moment by offering a very generous price for conservation under the new deal. The compensation arrangement in the new deal works out to about $521 an acre-foot on average — three times the price in the Upper Basin pilot program and almost twice the conservation rate in the Imperial Valley’s program.

Frisvold says these payments will be hard to maintain over the long term.

“We have a bunch of IRA money to pay for this right now,” he told Grist. “But is this going to be an ongoing thing? It’s kind of up in the air.”

Until recently, these experimental conservation programs were just that — experiments. But over the past two years, as a once-in-a-millennium drought has all but emptied out the river’s two main reservoirs, the river states have scrambled to cut their water usage and stop draining the river. It is all but impossible to do that without using less water for agriculture.

The Biden administration kicked off the scramble last summer by delivering an ultimatum to the river states. While testifying before Congress in June, a senior official from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation ordered the states to cut their water consumption by between 2 and 4 million acre-feet, or as much as a third of the river’s normal annual flow. The administration threatened to impose unilateral water cuts if the states couldn’t reach a deal on their own.

The states tangled for months over who should shoulder the burden of reducing water usage. The so-called Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico pointed the finger at Arizona and California, which together consume the majority of the river’s water. Meanwhile, representatives from California insisted that legal precedent shields the Golden State from taking cuts and that Arizona should bear the pain. (It isn’t clear whether the other four states on the river’s Upper Basin will make any corresponding reductions.)

In the end it was a very wet winter rather than a diplomatic breakthrough that helped ease tension between the states. Thanks to historic snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, it’s likely that water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead will stabilize this summer, even if just for a few months. This plentiful runoff has made the worst-case outcomes for the river much less likely and has given the states some breathing room to negotiate smaller cuts.

The new target was just small enough to make voluntary conservation feasible with the money from the Inflation Reduction Act: In the final hours of the debate over the bill last year, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona negotiated a $4 billion tranche of funding for “drought response.” That money will anchor the deal for the next three years, but it’s unclear whether payments will continue after that.

The big question now is what happens at the end of 2026, when the conservation deal will expire and when states and tribes will gather to negotiate the river’s long-term future. At that point, the river’s water users will once again debate the big questions that this deal has allowed them to punt on: How much water use can a shrinking river support? Who should use less water to account for the river’s decline? How can the government make whole the tribal nations that still don’t have their water

Even amid the relief surrounding Monday’s deal, some water officials were already looking ahead. 

“This proposal protects the system in the short term so we can dedicate our energy and resources to a longer-term solution,” said Brenda Burman, the manager of the Central Arizona Project water authority, which delivers water to Phoenix and Tucson, in a press release. “There’s a lot to do and it’s time to focus.”

Map credit: AGU

Deadpool Diaries: The Case for a Shitty Deal — John Fleck (InkStain) #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Lower Basin “structural deficit”, reified. Maybe if Lake Mead rises enough this year the boats will be back underwater and we can stop worrying about deadpool. Photo credit: John Fleck

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

I’ve had long conversations this week with smart friends grudgingly supporting of the Lower Basin deal to reduce Colorado River water use over the next few years. Their case for it is simple. Yes, it’s an awful deal in so many ways, but it does have the potential to generate some short term water use reductions and cut the red wire on the ticking time bomb.

SNWA’s John Entsminger made the case this way in an interview Monday with Colton Lochhead at the Las Vegas Review Journal:

My friends making this argument have a crucial credential that I don’t have in making their “sure whatever, it’s terrible but let’s just smile politely and get on with things” argument: they have been or are in the room for negotiations like this. I’m just heckling from the cheap seats.


The best thing about the deal is an apparent commitment (see below for my reasons for italicizing) to deeper reductions in Lower Basin water use than folks down at that end of the system have been willing to agree to in the past. Three million new acre feet of savings above and beyond what has already been agreed to falls well short of the two to four million acre feet Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told us last year would be needed, but with a big snowpack the numbers have changed.


It’s been clear for as long as I’ve been writing seriously about the Colorado River that, if the Upper Basin meets its (contested) Lee Ferry delivery obligation, the Lower Basin needs to cut 1.2 million to 1.5 million acre feet per year. Permanently. Three million acre feet from 2023-26 falls well short of that.

For more than two decades, the Lower Basin has been dithering over how to make the cuts and in the meantime draining the reservoir, essentially building the time bomb that we’re now trying to defuse.

To be clear, enormous progress has been made in the last two decades to build the necessary institutional widgets to bring the system into balance.I wrote a whole book about it! My purpose in writing the book was to build a case for three things:

  • that fears communities often have about the impact of water reductions are misplaced – that we can all get by with less water
  • that successful institutional widgets had been built based on collaboration and sharing that could allow us to adapt
  • that a lot more work was needed to cut far more deeply than we had by the time I handed in the book’s manuscript in December 2015

But in the midst of crisis, and with a ticking bomb, we still haven’t been able to come up with even the bare minimum that we’ve all known for decades that we need in Lower Basin cuts.


What we’ve got at this point documenting the deal is a “term sheet” and a round of celebratory press releases. We have no official breakdown of the makeup of the 3 million acre feet – what’s California’s share, Nevada’s, Arizona’s – how much is Imperial and Metropolitan and Palo Verde, how much is CAP and Yuma. We’ve got individual state reps telling reporters (shout out to my friends in the fourth estate for trying to push down the path of actually breaking down the numbers). But that’s not the same thing as all of us being able to look at it in writing rather than passing around news site links, to be interpreted like fragments of a Dead Sea scroll.

The deal at this point is a pile of stuff shrouded in a tarp that we’re not allowed to peak under. We’ve just gotta trust the Lower Basin folks that they’ll actually come up with the water.

The reason, as one of my smart “been-in-the-room-where-it-happens” friends pointed out, is that the actual detailed reductions will need to go before the boards of a bunch of water agencies. Which hasn’t happened yet. Which means there are umpty reasons for this to spin out of control.

It crucially depends on federal money flowing to water users to compensate them for water they don’t use, but as Janet Wilson pointed out this week in the Desert Sun, we’ve already missed the chance to save some of that water this year because of bureaucratic stuff. That process is not going well.

We all remember the ducking and diving around the celebrated “500 Plus Plan”. Know, those of you who know what’s under the tarp, why those of us who don’t are legitimately nervous about your approach to cutting the red wire.

So spare me the celebratory press releases and puff pieces about politicians breaking roadblocks.


The “seven state letter” is comical, but also revealing.

One imagines federal officials desperate to somehow fly a seven-state flag over the deal, and the last-minute phone calls and emails over the weekend aimed at drafting a letter that says something.

At this point, Upper Basin communities (That’s me! Hi!) are just hostages in the next room, unable to help defuse the bomb and hoping y’all down there can figure out how to cut the right wire.

It’s even worse that y’all in the Lower Basin are demanding that the federal taxpayers kick in a billion dollars or you won’t cut any wire at all.


Oh shit. Was it the red wire we were supposed to cut? The blue one?

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

Breaking down the”breakthrough” #ColoradoRiver deal: It’s big news, but probably won’t be enough to save the river system — @Land_Desk #COriver #aridification #runoff

The Colorado River and the silt flats left behind by a receding Lake Powell. Note the old Hite Marina boat ramp on the left side of the image. This was once at water’s edge. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

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

The News: Arizona, California, and Nevada have come up with a landmark agreement to slash their consumption of Colorado River water by 3 million acre-feet in coming years. The Colorado River and its reservoirs are saved!

The Buzzkill: Nope. Not quite.

Yes, the three Lower Basin states came up with an agreement to cut water use substantially. Yes, it’s a breakthrough (as any such agreement would be). But no, it won’t be enough to save the Colorado River if the climatic conditions of the last couple decades persist or worsen. Plus, the proposed cuts are only for the next few years. What then?

Map credit: AGU

The Background: For those who may have forgotten, the 1922 Colorado River Compact divvied up the river between the Upper and Lower Basin states (Mexico was included in the 1940s). The problem: The 16.5 million acre-feet pie they parceled out was bigger than what actually existed—even back then. They assumed the river carried about 20 million acre-feet each year, on average. In fact, it was more like 14 million acre-feet, so they were already in debt to reality when the Compact was signed. Oof.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

In the decades since, the population of all of the states burgeoned and water consumption also increased. Meanwhile, after the wet and wild 1980s, long-term drought and warmer temperatures diminished the river and the reservoirs that were supposed to carry the users over during dry years. Last summer it looked like Lake Powell might drop below minimum power pool, or the level needed to allow water to flow through the hydroelectricity-generating turbines, within a couple of years. Losing hydropower is one thing, but losing the ability to release water through the penstocks is another, with its own dire ramifications.

That prompted federal water officials to call on the states to cut consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, or else they would implement the cuts themselves. The states blew past deadlines without an agreement until finally, last month, the Bureau of Reclamation presented two alternatives:

  1. Cut Lower Basin use according to the concept of priority (meaning Arizona would take the biggest cuts); or,
The matrix for the Bureau of Reclamation’s priority-based alternative, which would burden Arizona with the biggest cuts and barely lean on California at all. USBR.

2. Cut a flat percentage of each state’s water use (meaning California would take the biggest cuts).

The matrix for the Bureau of Reclamation’s flat percentage-based alternative, which would result in larger volume cuts for California. USBR.

The prospect apparently was enough to scare the bejeezus out of the states, pushing them back to the negotiating table where they came up with this week’s deal. Details so far are sketchy, but here’s what we know:

The Agreement:

  • The Lower Basin states together will cut consumption by 3 million acre-feet over the 2023-2026 period, with at least 1.5 million acre-feet in cuts coming by the end of 2024 (there is no indication of how these cuts will be distributed across the states, but the Washington Post reports California will bear about half the cuts);
  • Up to 2.3 million acre-feet of those cuts will be federally compensated by about $1.2 billion in Inflation Reduction Act funds. Most likely this means that farmers will be paid not to irrigate their crops.

So what’s wrong with this deal? I’ll admit that when I first read the stories on this, I was pretty damned impressed: 3 million acre-feet is good! Thing is, all those cuts are spread out over three years, meaning it’s only about 1 million acre-feet per year. That’s only half the minimum amount of cuts the feds say are needed to shore up the river system and its reservoirs. It just won’t cut it, so to speak, if the drying trend continues.

Furthermore, the deal clearly is meant only to be temporary — a stopgap, a band-aid — that runs out in three years. What happens then? Even if the agreement were to be extended, where would the billions of dollars come from to keep paying the farmers not to irrigate? What if the Republicans’ obstructive ways nix the payments? And what about the additional 700,000 acre-feet of cuts promised? Where will they come from? Or will that require a whole new round of negotiations?

I don’t want to be a party pooper. It’s great that the states came to an agreement and, yes, it is a solution, of sorts. But it’s not the sustainable, permanent one that’s necessary.

Colorado River from CR-311(?) May 23, 2023.

But who knows? Maybe this past wet winter and huge runoff isn’t an anomaly. Maybe it’s the new normal and big rains and snows will come regularly over the next 20 years, filling up the reservoirs, saturating the soil, and swelling the Colorado River into the muddy monster of yore. Maybe we won’t need these cuts after all. But I sure as heck wouldn’t bank on it.

Big water! That’s what this chart shows in the form of unregulated inflow into Lake Powell. That is an estimate of how much water would be flowing into the reservoir if there were no upstream diversions or dams. The actual inflow is slightly lower (74,000 cfs instead of 84,000), but the patterns are basically the same. Note that 2023’s runoff is bigger even than the monster flows of 1983 — so far. That’s unlikely to continue as the snowpack is melting fast. This also illustrates just how awful 2002 and 2021 were. USBR.

Biden-Harris Administration Announces Historic Consensus System #Conservation Proposal to Protect the #ColoradoRiver Basin #COriver #aridification

Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. Photo credit: USBR

Click the link to read the release on the Department of Interior website:

Seven Basin states agree on analyzing consensus-based approach proposed by the Lower Basin

Funding from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda combined with voluntary commitments will conserve 3-million-acre feet of water through 2026

WASHINGTON — The Department of the Interior today [May 22, 2023] announced significant new developments in the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System now and into the future.

As part of the Department’s continued efforts to address ongoing severe drought conditions and a changing climate in the Colorado River Basin, representatives from the seven Colorado River Basin states have  agreed to the submission of a Lower Basin, consensus-based system conservation proposal. They are requesting the proposal be fully analyzed as an action alternative under the Bureau of Reclamation’s draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), published last month.

The  consensus-based proposal – agreed upon by the three Lower Basin states – commits to measures to conserve at least 3 million-acre-feet (maf) of system water through the end of 2026, when the current operating guidelines are set to expire. Of those system conservation savings, 2.3 maf will be compensated through funding from the historic Inflation Reduction Act, which is supporting efforts to increase near-term water conservation, build long term system efficiency, and prevent the Colorado River System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. Under this consensus proposal, the remaining system conservation needed for sustainable operation will be achieved through voluntary, uncompensated reductions by the Lower Basin states.

“There are 40 million people, seven states, and 30 Tribal Nations who rely on the Colorado River Basin for basic services such as drinking water and electricity. Today’s announcement is a testament to the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to working with states, Tribes and communities throughout the West to find consensus solutions in the face of climate change and sustained drought,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “In particular I want to thank Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau and Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton, who have led the discussions with Basin state commissioners, Tribes, irrigators, local communities, and valued stakeholders to reach this critical moment.”

“I commend our partners in the seven Basin states who have demonstrated leadership and unity of purpose in developing this consensus-based approach to achieve the substantial water conservation necessary to sustain the Colorado River System through 2026,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. “Reclamation’s SEIS process succeeded in facilitating this agreement, and we will carry forward the consensus proposal by analyzing it under the SEIS.”

“For over a century, Reclamation has led with solutions grounded in partnership and collaboration. The agreement today continues in this tradition,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “I am proud of the Reclamation team’s work and thank our partners across the basin and the Basin states representatives for reaching this moment. This is an important step forward towards our shared goal of forging a sustainable path for the basin that millions of people call home.”

In light of the Lower Basin states’ conservation proposal, the Department today announced that it is temporarily withdrawing the draft SEIS published last month so that it can fully analyze the effects of the proposal under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Reclamation will then publish an updated draft SEIS for public comment with the consensus-based proposal as an action alternative. Accordingly, the original May 30, 2023, deadline for the submission of comments on the draft SEIS is no longer in effect. The Department plans to finalize the SEIS process later this year.

Early next month, the Department will formally advance the process for the development of new operating guidelines replacing the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead at the end of 2026. In the coming weeks, Reclamation will publish the Notice of Intent for the Environmental Impact Statement related to the post-2026 guidelines.

President Biden’s Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing pivotal resources to enhance the resilience of the West to drought and climate change, including to protect the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought.

To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete:

A field of produce destined for grocery stores is irrigated near Yuma, Ariz., a few days before Christmas 2015. Photo/Allen Best – See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2016/02/09/drying-out-of-the-american-southwest/#sthash.7xXVYcLv.dpuf

Click the link to read “Colorado River Protection” release from The Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project on the CAP website (Doug MacEachern, Shauna Evans, Crystal Thompson, and DeEtte Person):

The Arizona Department of Water Resources and Central Arizona Project announce a consensus proposal developed by Arizona, California, and Nevada to conserve historic volumes of Colorado River water in Lake Mead.

This proposal is expected to have an immediate impact on the stability of the Colorado River system, a source of water for 40 million people, including some of the most productive farmland in North America.

“This proposal does more than just ‘protect’ elevations in the system’s major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” said Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke. “It builds critical elevation in both reservoirs.”

The proposal is built around the collaborative actions by water users in the lower basin through enforceable commitments to conserve water that will total three million acre-feet in Lake Mead over the next three years. This winter’s good hydrology in the west has provided the flexibility for water users to pledge their water to this program.

We commend our Arizona partners including tribes, cities, agriculture and industry who have committed water as part of this effort.

We also appreciate our river partners, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of the Interior for working together on these agreements.

“This proposal protects the system in the short term so we can dedicate our energy and resources to a longer-term solution, ” says Central Arizona Project General Manager Brenda Burman. “New guidelines for operating the river system will be due by the end of 2026. There’s a lot to do and it’s time to focus.”

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Indigenous tribes were pushed away from the #ColoradoRiver. A new generation is fighting to save it — #Colorado Public Radio #COriver #aridification

Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry. Photo credit. Gonzo fan2007 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3631180

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

Here at Lee’s Ferry, seven southwestern American states divided up the Colorado River with the 1922 river compact. Every single drop was spoken for, between Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, and later Mexico. The water was destined for colonized farmland and cities. But crucially, that 1922 compact denied 30 different Indigenous tribes any share of the water that they needed to survive in the hot and dry southwest. While the federal government helped states build pipes, dams and reservoirs to access the water they were allocated, it didn’t do the same for Indigenous reservations, and many people living on those reservations didn’t know what water they could use.

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

This was an abrupt departure from the way tribes had lived before white colonizers arrived in the West and forced the tribes onto reservations. For thousands of years, many Indigenous people moved with the river; they adapted to it and responded to it. This is how Daryl Vigil’s ancestors lived in communion with the river. 

“That’s the level of reverence you give that stream or that river,” Vigil, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and of Jemez and Zia Pueblo descent, said. “The dances all revolved around this cyclical nature of the environment and most importantly, rain and snow in terms of what it meant to our existence.”

But as the colonizers built gigantic dams and carved up the river, filling Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the Jicarilla Apache and dozens of other tribes that rely on the Colorado River no longer had the same access to the water as they once did. This was the West that Vigil was born into and where he grew up on three different reservations – at times without indoor plumbing. He now lives on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and until recently was the tribe’s water administrator. He is among the most recent generation of leaders in a decades-long fight for tribes to regain rights to the water they had access to for thousands of years.

“Part of the need to build economies is also based in an ability to build a basic infrastructure that everybody else in this country is supposed to be entitled to: water, wastewater,” he said. “Native American communities [are] 19 times more likely to not have indoor plumbing.”

When the Colorado River Compact was written in 1922, tribes were left without a legal say in how the river should be shared and managed across the west. But slowly, over the last 100 years, they have pushed for legislation, court cases and settlements — some of which dragged on for decades — to take back their rights to the river…

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

As tribes were fighting for their rights to the water, and a seat at the bargaining table, the total amount of water to go around was evaporating. Climate change was working hand-in-hand with exponential population growth in the West to deplete the supply of water in the river.

“My message for 20 years now has been: watch out,” said Brad Udall from his home near Boulder, Colorado. “We’ve overdone it, we need to cut back and this is going to get worse. And that’s not a message that, for years, anybody wanted to hear.”

Udall is senior water and climate research scientist and scholar at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center — a “delightful title,” he said. Udall studies the Colorado River and the climate change that’s impacting water levels. As part of his work, he often points out that the country’s largest dams, reservoirs and water projects will go dry if we continue using water as we are today

Remember the Colorado River water rights that took 20 years for the Jicarilla Apache Nation to win? They and other tribes have collectively secured rights to use 25 percent of the water in the river. That’s more than Arizona has rights to. But here’s the catch: reservoirs and canals the reservations need to access their full supplies of water don’t exist yet. Without that infrastructure, the water is still going to states, rather than the tribes. This is why many people, including Vigil and Udall, want tribes to have an equal say in how we save the Colorado River in the face of climate change.

States near historic deal to protect #ColoradoRiver: States and Interior Department are still wrestling over process, compensation for conserving a river that sustains millions — The Washington Post #COriver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the article on The Washington Post website (Joshua Partlow). Here’s an excerpt:

After nearly a year wrestling over the fate of their water supply, California, Arizona and Nevada — the three key states in the Colorado River’s current crisis — have coalesced around a plan to voluntarily conserve a major portion of their river water in exchange for more than $1 billion in federal funds, according to people familiar with the negotiations. The consensus emerging among these states and the Biden administration aims to conserveabout 13 percent of their allocation of river water over the next three years and protect the nation’s largest reservoirs…But thorny issues remain that could complicate a deal. The parties are trying to work through them before a key deadline at the end of the month, according to several current and former state and federal officials familiar with the situation…

State officials have suggested they could make a deal on their own and are resisting a May 30 deadline to comment on the alternatives the federal government has laid out in that process, according to people familiar with the talks. The review process is intended to define Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s authority to make emergency cuts in states’ water use, even if those cuts contradict existing water rights. These developments represent a new phase in the long-runningtalks about the future of the river. For much of the past year, negotiations have pitted California against Arizona, as they are the states that suck the most from Lake Mead and will have to bear the greatest burden of the historic cuts that the Biden administration has been calling for to protect the river. But these states now appear more united than ever and are closing their differences with the federal government, even as significant issues remain unresolved…

Some water authorities in the West want to ensure that any deal that emerges would entail binding commitments among the Lower Basin states, which draw from Lake Mead and consume more of the river each year than the states of the Upper Basin: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

“We want to support the Lower Basin if they have significant additional reductions, verifiable, binding and enforceable,” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner for the negotiations. “Are we going to make a choice to do better? If we don’t want the secretary to manage us, can we show we can manage ourselves?”


But the bleak reservoir levels outlined in that review date back to September and the weather has improved markedly since then. Abundant snow cloaked the Rocky Mountains over the winter and atmospheric rivers doused California’s drought. Water levels in the big reservoirs have started to rise. Colorado River experts have grown increasingly confident that the most draconian cuts in fact wouldn’t be needed, at least this year. And the $4 billion in federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act pledged to this problem meant that those that voluntarily gave up their rights to water would be well-compensated for it. Those conditions helped the Lower Basin negotiators come up with a plan to volunteer about 3 million acre-feet of cuts total until 2026, when a major renegotiation of the rules of the river is scheduled to begin. This scale of cuts is smaller than some of the most dire scenarios outlined in the environmental review if reservoirs had continued to plummet.

Map credit: AGU

Click the link to read “Western states and feds are closing in on a landmark deal to prevent Lake Mead from plummeting further” on the CNN webslite (Ella Nilsen). Here’s an excerpt:

Top water negotiators from California, Arizona and Nevada have discussed leaving 3 million acre-feet of water in Lake Mead over the next four years, the sources said – while cautioning negotiations with the US Interior Department were fluid and could change. The tentative amount would be around 10% of the states’ normal water allocation and would be in addition to previously agreed-to cuts that were negotiated in 2019 and 2007. The federal funding being offered for water cuts was part of $4 billion in drought relief funding passed in the Inflation Reduction Act. States and the US government are trying to clinch a framework agreement ahead of May 30, the end of the comment period for a dramatic environmental analysis released by federal officials last month. That analysis could force the three states to cut nearly 2.1 million additional acre-feet of their Colorado River usage in 2024 alone. At the time, top federal officials said publicly they hoped their proposal would spur discussion among states who have spent the past year sparring over cuts. Even though the states have struck an agreement among themselves, finalizing the details with the federal government could prove tricky. Outstanding issues include a proposal that some of the water cuts go uncompensated by the feds, and whether the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming will go along with the agreement…

Western water officials say a key goal this year is to build water elevation at Lake Mead. Some of that will be refilled naturally from the good winter runoff, but state officials said more should come from farmers, cities and tribes reducing their water use in exchange for federal dollars.

“What I’m hoping happens is people who were considering putting their water into the (federal water cut) program still do,” Arizona’s top water official Tom Buschatzke told CNN in April. “It’s a bit easier to do the conservation when you can be compensated and when it’s really wet, versus when it’s really dry and you’re looking at forced cuts – a lot more uncertainty about how far down Lake Mead could go and how big those cuts might get.”


Before this month’s breakthrough, California, Arizona and Nevada struck an agreement among themselves, which was unveiled to Deputy Interior Sec. Tommy Beaudreau and Touton at an April 21 meeting in Nevada, one source told CNN. But some new tensions between the states and feds have cropped up over the analysis produced by the Interior Department last month. States were hoping their plan for voluntary, compensated cuts could essentially happen in the place of federal action on the river, an idea federal officials pushed back on, according to one source familiar with the meeting. And there has also been haggling over what level Lake Mead would have to drop to in order for the federal government to be able to step in and make additional unilateral cuts.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Romancing the River: Is #GlenCanyon Dam an ‘Antique’? — Sibley’s Rivers #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Graphic credit: Sibley’s Rivers

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

Yes, that diagram again. I was chastised by readers last week for using it – partly for the ‘Antique’ in the diagram’s title, but also for not adequately explaining what the diagram shows. I apologize for the latter. These posts tend to run long and demand a lot more of readers than the 15-second attention span for which Americans are derided. But just to keep them down to a couple thousand words or so, I find myself having to go through some things too quickly in order to get to whatever point I was aiming for. Brevity unfortunately is not the soul of my wit.

But having a sense of the structure and infrastructure of our big dams is critical to understanding what is going on along the Colorado River these days, where it is easy to confuse the river itself (which is experiencing chronic low flows but is not ‘drying up’) with the ‘river management system’ (which really could dry up critical stretches of the river under the current management regime). The ‘river management system’ is the integrated set of physical structures along the river for storing the river’s water and distributing it to users – and the operating systems whereby those structures are managed.

The ‘Supplemental Environmental Impact Study’ the Bureau of Reclamation is doing now is basically an analysis of its own operating systems for the big structures on the Colorado River, and how those systems might be radically changed with an equitable distribution of impacts on humans – systems that could have been changed gradually over the past several decades, the past century even, to reflect undeniable evolving realities, both natural and cultural, but now must be done with radical surgery – the call for an almost-immediate reduction in Lower Basin uses of two million acre-feet.

This might be what life in the Anthropocene will mostly be on many fronts: learning how to live well enough with the world we have imposed on the world we found here. A recreated world where some cultural works were done naively and maybe profligately, under assumptions now needing correction – which one might hope we will learn to begin sooner rather than later – or too late, period.

Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

So it is fitting to look critically at what we’ve done along the ‘First River of the Anthropocene’ – trying not to fall into hypocritical analysis, gnawing on the hands that feed us. And on that spectrum of critical analysis, I do need to explain, if not defend, using a diagram that calls the ‘plumbing’ of a major element in the management system we’ve imposed on the Colorado River ‘antique.’

I will say first that I do not necessarily think of ‘antique’ as a derogatory term (although that was probably intended by the creators of this diagram). If an automobile is fifty years old and still running, it qualifies for an ‘antique’ license plate; that’s cool, an achievement for those who kept the car functional. I think of the word as more descriptive than judgmental: an antique is an artifact whose time is past but which reflects that time, something old but with an element of class, something that summons memories of a previous time, a time we want to remember but not necessarily carry forward.

So, being more than 50 years old at this point – is Glen Canyon Dam an antique? We can start with an examination of its ‘plumbing,’ which says something about its life and times. (My doctor uses colonoscopies for a similar analysis.)

1983 – Color photo of Glen Canyon Dam spillway failure from cavitation, via OnTheColorado.com

One piece of plumbing not shown on the diagram is the dam’s spillways – two huge ‘drains’ up at the 3,700-foot elevation, near the dam’s 3,715-foot crest (for context, 583 feet above the original streambed). The purpose of the spillways is to keep the reservoir from filling to the point where it would go over the crest. Glen Canyon’s spillways have only been used once, in 1983, when a very wet May and hot June caught the dam managers unaware, with the reservoir already too full to perform its flood-control function. The spillways proved to be not up to the task of getting the flood waters past the dam; the water pouring down them caused a cavitation problem – a million tiny ‘air-hammers’ beating on the concrete with enough cumulative force to break it up. The managers knew there was a problem when large chunks of concrete, then sandstone, started washing out the bottom of the spillway outlets. That threatened the integrity of the dam itself; it was necessary to close off the spillways, lining the top of them with sheets of plywood four feet high and praying that the water would stop rising before it topped the plywood. It did stop in time, and the dam was saved. The spillways were rebuilt, hopefully resolving the cavitation problem, and have not been used since – and at this point, given the projections about climate change, it is hard to imagine the reservoir ever being that full again. The spillways alone might qualify as ‘antiques,’ built for a river that needed them (once) but may no longer exist. (Oh great river gods, please make me eat my words!)

During the 1983 Colorado River flood, described by some as an example of a “black swan” event, sheets of plywood (visible just above the steel barrier) were installed to prevent Glen Canyon Dam from overflowing. Source: Bureau of Reclamation

For the dam managers, however, to ‘spill’ water at all is a mark of bad management; their ideal is for every gallon of water contained by the dam to be released through openings 210 feet below the spillways, at hydropower generation level, the 3,490-foot elevation (see diagram). Those openings into the dam drop the water through pentstocks a couple hundred vertical feet to turbines in generators the size of small houses; on its way to its designated use downstream, the water generates electricity. The higher the reservoir level, the more pressure the water’s weight exerts in pushing the water through the turbines; with the reservoir at high levels, the Glen Canyon generators can produce annually up to five billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. In 2022, however, with the reservoir level only around 35 feet above the pentstock inlets, it only produced 2.6 kilowatt-hours. (Bureau figures)

The Bureau’s semi-panicky call in 2022 for massive reductions in use basin-wide was based on projections forward of another couple water years like the 2020-22 period; under the current river management regime, the level of the reservoir would have dropped below the level of the pentstock intakes in a couple years, and year-round power generation would have been impossible.

The back of Glen Canyon Dam circa 1964, not long after the reservoir had begun filling up. Here the water level is above dead pool, meaning water can be released via the river outlets, but it is below minimum power pool, so water cannot yet enter the penstocks to generate electricity. Bureau of Reclamation photo.

Even if that were to happen, however, it would still be possible to move water downstream from Powell Reservoir, through river outlet works with intakes 120 feet lower down in the dam, at the 3,370-foot elevation. The river outlets there are four big pipes, each eight feet in diameter, with a total flow capacity of 15,000 cubic feet per second – when there’s a lot of water in the reservoir to push water through them. If the water pressure stayed at that level, and all four tubes worked 24/7/365, it would be possible to move around 10 million acre-feet (maf) through the dam annually and down to Mead Reservoir, roughly the amount the Bureau has been releasing from Mead for Lower Basin and Mexican use – plus the system losses for which no one has wanted to claim responsibility.

That 10 maf leaving the system at the lower end obviously becomes problematic if only 6-8 maf are flowing into the system at the upper end, as has been the recent situation. For one thing, the Bureau is not sure the outlet works can stand that kind of constant use; they are getting old, and may not have been built for constant use anyway. So if the Bureau were able to keep only three tubes running all the time, with one in maintenance mode, the amount of water that could be moved at full pressure would drop to just about the Upper Basin’s Colorado River Compact commitment – 7.5 maf plus the Upper Basin’s share of the Mexican obligation (750,000 af).

But as the water level in the reservoir dropped closer to the outlet works intakes – 6-7 maf inflow minus 8 maf outflow equals a storage decrease of 1-2 maf/year – the water pressure through the tubes would also drop, and below the 3,430-foot elevation, it would no longer be possible to push the full Upper Basin commitment to the Lower Basin and Mexico through the tubes.

Map credit: AGU

Worst case – if the reservoir level dropped below the 3,370-foot elevation, it would no longer be possible to move any water at all past the dam, even though there would still be just under two million acre-feet left in storage – the ‘dead pool.’ At that point, the Lower Basin states would either have to do something completely nonconstructive like sue somebody (Upper Basin states? Interior Department? The Bureau?), or argue about which states should pay how much to Upper Basin water users to let their water (not federally controlled) flow to Powell to try to raise the level back above the 3,370-foot elevation. And most of the Upper Basin water rights junior to the Compact are not a bunch of rugged individualist farmers and ranchers; they are the big transmountain diverters – Colorado’s Front Range cities, the Santa Fe-Albuquerque corridor, the Salt Lake basin, who are already ‘lawyered up.’

The ramshackle ‘Law of the River,’ grounded in appropriation law and followed to the letter of the laws, would have nothing to offer to relieve that situation; it is easier to imagine Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘Water Knife’ war commencing.

That is an overview of Glen Canyon Dam’s plumbing – pretty standard for a big 20th century dam, designed to operate optimally when the reservoir is more than two-thirds full and able to maintain a full power head in releasing water through the turbines for – oh yeah, not primarily power generation, but the dam’s main job of providing dependable water for agricultural and domestic users downstream. A specific warning in the Colorado River Compact (IV(b)).

Now to the question: is Glen Canyon Dam an ‘antique’? I think, at this point, given the prognostications for the future of the regional water supply, we could truly say that the dam was built for a different era, a different river – some of which river may have existed only in the minds of the dam builders. The ‘Hassayampa romance,’ carried along, like Deacon Holmes’ wonderful one-hoss shay, ‘for a century to the day’ – the day the Bureau finally abandoned its paper surplus calculations and called a shortage.

In addition to working on new river operation protocols, the Bureau now has a team working on ways to possibly modify the dam, undoubtedly at considerable cost, maybe enlarging the outlet works, maybe generating some flow of electricity through openings lower in the dam, and maybe constructing tunnels to bypass the dam entirely, leaving Mead Reservoir as the river’s major storage.

The latter concept could relieve a problem that the dam has created for ‘today’s river’ through the Grand Canyon: the beaches and sandbars that are essential as night stops for the billion-dollar Grand Canyon recreational boating industry are eroding away, with no replacement sand and silt getting past the dam. This is being dealt with now by occasional staged ‘floods’ like the one just recently: pouring 200,000-plus acre feet of water over 2-3 days down through the Grand Canyon to stir up sediment that has slumped from the beaches down into the riverbed, in hopes that it will be redeposited on a beach downstream. Ultimately this mostly just escalates the passage downstream of all the beach material with only irregular and inadequate deposits of new material from side streams. That this ultimate losing effort was done in April 2023, with Powell Reservoir under 30 percent full, but anticipating a runoff that might get it all the way up to half-full or only half-empty, depending on your psychological inclination…. There’s an underlying desperation there that is not goimng to let us look back on this period with any pleasant sense of nostalgia. But we might look back on antiquities like Glen Canyon Dam as a reminder of the consequences of operating on assumptions and standards not fully grounded in demonstrable reality.

A problem with this analysis, however, is that for better or worse, it evaluates Glen Canyon Dam out of context. To really understand why we have Glen Canyon Dam at all, it is necessary to see our river’s physical structures in the larger context of the less visible political and legal infrastructure that led us to pile five million yards of concrete (with internal plumbing) in the river’s path in that particular place. That is another great story in the evolution of this mixed bag we call America. Up next in a couple weeks; stay tuned.

Delph Carpenter’s original map showing a reservoir at Glen Canyon and one at Black Canyon via Greg Hobbs

Follow the Living River journey and take action by May 30! — @AudubonRockies

From email from Audubon Rockies (Abby Burk):

Hi all, and thank you for joining Audubon Rockies and conservation photographer Dave Showalter for his multimedia journey through the living Colorado River! In his new book, Living River: The Promise of the Mighty Colorado, Dave shares the beauty of the watershed and a story of resiliency and resolution to continue the work for healthy watersheds. You can watch last week’s virtual book launch event recording here.

The Colorado River existing management guidelines are set to expire in 2026. The states that draw water from it are about to undertake a new round of negotiations over the river’s future. The use of the river will be renegotiated amid climate change, reduced snowpack, and water shortages, presenting an opportunity to ensure universal access to clean water for more than 30 federally-recognized Native tribes and make the allocation of the Colorado equitable as well as sustainable.

This May is a critical time to be a voice for the river, as the United States Bureau of Reclamation seeks public comment on the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to the 2007 Interim Guidelines. This SEIS evaluates different scenarios to better balance water supply in the Colorado River watershed, which will impact ecosystem health in the Grand Canyon and other areas.

The stories, art, and lifeways that deepen our relationships to water are what build the collective voice for healthy rivers that benefit wildlife and people. The Mighty Colorado changes everything it touches, including us. Here are a few ways you can join the Living River conversation:

  • Buy a copy of Living River from Mountaineers Books, your local bookstore, or one of these online sellers.
    • *Audubon members, as a special thank you, get a 20% discount by using the code “LIVINGRIVERLOVE” at checkout from Mountaineers Books.
  • Attend another book launch event or encourage a friend to attend one. The Living River book tour is traveling the West and has both in-person and virtual events.
  • Explore the Living River website and follow the journey on Instagram.
  • Take action by May 30 and urge the Bureau of Reclamation to recognize the important links between human health, stable communities, and the environment and also implement measures that better balance water supply and protect the Grand Canyon ecosystem.

We also encourage you to sign up for Audubon’s Western Water Action Network to stay up to date on Colorado River information and engagement.

Presently, there is less water in the Colorado River system than at any time in recorded history, threatening the vitality of its ecosystem. But wherever there is water, there is abundant, dynamic life. As Dave Showalter says: “The river is not dying. She flows with the same pure purpose as before we arrived.”

There’s no giving up on the Colorado for riverkeepers engaged in riparian restoration. The hard work ahead requires widespread engagement in our future, which begins with all of us asking: Where does our water come from, and who does it connect us to?

All my best and hope to see you downstream,


Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

The latest “The Splash” newsletter is hot off the presses from the #Colorado Water Conservation Board @CWCB_DNR

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Click the link to read the newsletter on the Colorado Water Conservation Board website. Here’s an excerpt:

On April 11, the Bureau of Reclamation released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS). The SEIS is a mechanism to adjust the current operating guidelines for Glen Canyon (Lake Powell) and Hoover Dams (Lake Mead), providing tools for Reclamation to adapt to potentially dry years in the next few water years. Several news outlets, including The Colorado SunPoliticoColorado Politics, and AP News, covered the release with commentary from CWCB experts. CWCB Director and Colorado Commissioner Becky Mitchell is seeking public input to inform Colorado’s response to the SEIS. Share your feedback

The very bad math behind the #ColoradoRiver crisis — Grist #COriver #aridification

Arizona Navy photo via California State University

Click the link to read the article on the Grist website (Jake Bittle & Daniel Penner):

California and Arizona are currently fighting each other over water from the Colorado River. But this isn’t new — it’s actually been going on for over 100 years. At one point, the states literally went to war about it. The problem comes down to some really bad math from 1922.

To some extent, the crisis can be blamed on climate change. The West is in the middle of a once-in-a-millennium drought. As temperatures rise, the snow pack that feeds the river has gotten much thinner, and the river’s main reservoirs have all but dried up. 

But that’s only part of the story: The United States has also been overusing the Colorado for more than a century thanks to a byzantine set of flawed laws and lawsuits known as the “Law of the River.” This legal tangle not only has been over-allocating the river, it also has been driving conflict in the region, especially between the two biggest users, California and Arizona, which are both trying to secure as much water as they can. And now, as a massive drought grips the region, the law of the river has reached a breaking point.

The Colorado River begins in the Rocky Mountains and winds its way southwest, twisting through the Grand Canyon and entering the Pacific at Baja California. In the late 19th century, as white settlers arrived in the West, they started diverting water from the mighty river to irrigate their crops, funneling it through dirt canals. For a little while, this worked really well. The canals made an industrial farming mecca out of desert that early colonial settlers viewed as “worthless.”

Even back then, the biggest water users were Arizona and California, which took so much water that they started to drain the river farther upstream, literally drying it out. According to American legal precedent, whoever uses a body of water first usually has the strongest rights to it. But other states soon cried foul: California was growing much faster than they were, and they believed it wasn’t fair that the Golden State should suck up all the water before they got a chance to develop. 

September 21, 1923, 9:00 a.m. — Colorado River at Lees Ferry. From right bank on line with Klohr’s house and gage house. Old “Dugway” or inclined gage shows to left of gage house. Gage height 11.05′, discharge 27,000 cfs. Lens 16, time =1/25, camera supported. Photo by G.C. Stevens of the USGS. Source: 1921-1937 Surface Water Records File, Colorado R. @ Lees Ferry, Laguna Niguel Federal Records Center, Accession No. 57-78-0006, Box 2 of 2 , Location No. MB053635.

In 1922, the states came to a solution — kind of. At the suggestion of a newly appointed cabinet secretary named Herbert Hoover, the states agreed to split the river into two sections, drawing an arbitrary line halfway along its length at a spot called Lee Ferry. The states on the “upper” part of the river — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico — agreed to send the states on the “lower” end of the river — Arizona, California, and Nevada — what they thought was half the river’s overall flow, 7.5 million acre-feet of water each year. (An acre-foot is enough to cover an acre of land in a foot of water, about enough to supply two homes for a year.)

This agreement was supposed to prevent any one state from drying up the river before the other states could use it. The Upper Basin states got half and the Lower Basin states got half. Simple.

But there were some serious flaws to this plan. 

First, the Law of the River overestimated how much water flowed through the river in the first place. The states’ numbers were based on primitive data from stream gauges placed at arbitrary points on the waterway, and they took samples during an unusually wet decade, leading to a very optimistic estimate of the river’s size. The river would only average about 14 million acre-feet annually, but the agreement handed out 15 million to the seven states.

While the states weren’t able to immediately use all this water, it set in motion the underlying problem today: The states have the legal right to use more water than actually exists in the river.

And you’ll notice that the Colorado River doesn’t end in the U.S. — It ends in Mexico. Initially, the Law of the River just straight-up ignored that fact. Decades later, Mexico was squeezed into the agreement and promised 1.5 million acre-feet, further straining the already over-allocated river.

On top of all of this, Indigenous tribes that had depended on the river for centuries were now forced to compete with states for their share of water, leading to these drawn-out lawsuits that took decades to resolve.

But in the short-term, Arizona and California struck it rich — they were promised the largest share of Colorado River water and should have been primed for growth. For Arizona, though, there was a catch: The state couldn’t put their water to use.

The state’s biggest population centers in Phoenix and Tucson were hundreds of miles away from the river itself, and it would take a 300-mile canal to bring the water across the desert — something the state couldn’t afford to build on its own. Larger and wealthier California was able to build all the canals and pumps it needed to divert river water to farms and cities. This allowed it to gulp up both its share and the extra Lower Basin water that Arizona couldn’t access. California’s powerful congressional delegation lobbied to stop Congress from approving Arizona’s canal project, as the state wanted to keep the Colorado River to itself.

Arizona was furious. And so, in 1934, Arizona and California went to war — literally. Arizona tried to block California from building new dams to take more water from the river, using “military” force when necessary.

Arizona sent troops from its National Guard to stop California from building the Parker Dam. It delayed construction, but not for very long because their boat got tangled up in some electrical wire and had to be rescued.

For the next 30 years, Arizona and California fought about whether Arizona should be able to build that canal. They also sued each other before the Supreme Court no fewer than 10 times, including one 1963 case that set the record for the longest oral arguments in the history of the modern court, taking 16 hours over four days and involving 106 witnesses.

That 1963 case also made some pretty big assumptions: Even though the states now knew that the initial estimates were too high, the court-appointed expert said he was “morally certain that neither in my lifetime, nor in your lifetime, nor the lifetime of your children and great-grandchildren will there be an inadequate supply of water” from the river for California’s cities.

A few years after that court case, in 1968, Arizona finally struck a fateful bargain to ensure it could claim its share of the river. California gave up its anti-canal campaign and the federal government agreed to pay for the construction of the 300-mile project that would bring Colorado River water across the desert to Phoenix. This move helped save Arizona’s cotton-farming industry and enabled Phoenix to eventually grow into the fifth-largest city in the country. It seemed like a success — Arizona was flourishing! 

But in exchange for the canal, the state made a fateful concession: If the reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead were to run low, Arizona, and not California, would be the first state to make cuts. It was a decision the state’s leaders would come to regret.

US Drought Monitor June 25, 2002.

In the early 2000s, as a massive drought gripped the Southwest, water levels in the river’s two key reservoirs dropped. Now that both Arizona and California were fully using their shares of the river, combined with the other states’ usage, there suddenly wasn’t enough melting snow to fill the reservoirs back up. A shrinking Colorado River couldn’t keep up with a century of rising demand.

Today, more than 20 years into the drought, Arizona has had to bear the biggest burden. Thanks to its earlier compromise decades earlier, the state had “junior water rights,” meaning it took the first cuts as part of the drought plan. In 2021, those cuts officially went into effect, drying out cotton and alfalfa fields across the central part of the state until much of the landscape turned brown. Still, those cuts haven’t been enough.

This century, the river is only averaging around 12.4 million acre-feet. The Upper Basin states technically have the rights to 7.5 million acre-feet, but they only use about half of that. In the Lower Basin, meanwhile, Arizona and California are gobbling up around three and four million acre-feet respectively. In total, this overdraft has caused reservoir levels to fall. It’s going to take a lot more than a few rainy seasons to fix this problem.

So, for the first time since the Law of the River was written, the federal government has had to step in, ordering the states to reduce total water usage on the river, this time by nearly a third. That’s a jaw-dropping demand!

These new cuts will extend to Arizona, California, and beyond, drying up thousands more acres of farmland, not to mention cities around Phoenix and Los Angeles that rely on the Colorado River. These new restrictions will also put increased pressure on the many tribes that have used the Colorado River for centuries: Tribes that have water rights will be pressured to sell or lease them to other water users, and tribes without recognized water rights will face increased opposition as they try to secure their share.

And Arizona and California are still fighting over who should bear the biggest burden of these new cuts. California has insisted that the Law of the River requires Arizona to shoulder the pain, and from a legal standpoint they may be right. But Arizona says further cuts would be disastrous for the state’s economy, and the other five river states are taking its side.

Either way, the painful cuts have to come from somewhere, because the Law of the River was built on math that doesn’t add up.

Record #snowpack expected to put 14.5 million acre-feet of water into upper #ColoradoRiver, lift drought-depleted reservoir from its record low — The Salt Lake Tribune #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon Dam high flow release photo 2018.

Click the link to read the article on The Salt Lake Tribune website (Brian Maffly). Here’s an excerpt:

Under a plan approved in 2012, the bureau had been conducting high-flow experiments almost annually until 2018. Since then, a string of dry years and excessive water use have depressed levels of Lake Powell, which today is only 23% full, sitting at 3,525 feet above sea level. That is about to change drastically in the coming weeks as the upper Colorado basin’s snowpacks, which are 157% of normal, melt and flow into Powell and upstream reservoirs. The lake level is projected to climb by more than 50 feet this year, according to Bart Leeflang, the CRAU’s hydrologist…What happened in those months was a big snowpack getting bigger, holding twice as much water in some places as normal for this time of year, coming after back-to-back years of skimpy snow accumulations. According to Bureau projections, the lake level is expected to peak in July at 3,591 feet, 71 feet above its historic low recorded April 13…

At 3,576 feet, Powell would still remain 124 feet below full pool, holding just 39% of its capacity. This year’s bounty doesn’t put an end to the crisis on the Colorado River, which supplies 40 million Westerners and irrigates 5 million acres, but it buys Utah and the six other basin states time to find a lasting solution to the river’s chronic deficits. It may even rescue boating this summer at Lake Powell, among Utah’s top recreation draws, where most of the ramps are high and dry and marinas are unusable…This year, the Bureau plans to increase releases from Glen Canyon Dam to 9.5 acre-feet to bring up the level of Powell’s downstream big sister, Lake Mead. That’s the maximum amount released under the dam’s operating guidelines and 2 million more than what is typically released in a year. The big spike in Lake Powell’s projected “regulated” inflows, expected to total 13.2 million acre-feet, has enabled federal river managers to resume the high-flow experiments.

Romancing the River: Beginning to Face Reality — Sibley’s Rivers #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Graphic credit: Sibley’s Rivers

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

As you no doubt already know, if you follow Colorado River news, the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Interior have issued a ‘Near-term Colorado River Operations: Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement’ (SEIS) analyzing two alternatives for making massive cuts in the consumptive use of the Colorado River’s waters, beginning in 2024. The SEIS analyzes strategies for cutting use by two million-acre feet (maf) next year, with cuts up to four maf in following years if the water supply in storage continues to decline – roughly a third of the total volume of the river as it has run since the turn of the century.

Table of Cuts
2025-26 cuts

​The alternatives discussed in the SEIS will look familiar to those who have followed the river news for the past couple months; they are similar to the plans for large reductions created by the seven River Basin states: one plan by six of the states, the other by the seventh, California. One of the Bureau’s ‘action alternatives’ divides the big cuts equitably among the three states based on the size of their allotments, like the six states’ plan; the other adheres mostly to priority of water rights in dishing out the cuts, like the California plan.

If there is anything to be learned for the future from the past, it should be noted now that this sudden dramatic need for really major cuts in consumptive use in the lower part of the river basin is the consequence of problems that could have been dealt with gradually – intelligently, one might say, far-sightedly – over at least the past 30 years, if not the whole last century since the discovery that the Colorado River Compact was based on false numbers.

​But through the 1940s and 50s, there was a lovely sense of abundant water in the Lower Basin. The four states of the Upper Basin were considerably slower in developing than the three in the Lower Basin, so a lot of the river was still flowing freely to the desert states below the canyons and eventually being ‘wasted’ to the ocean, then regarded as a sad end for freshwater.

​Even before Hoover Dam was completed, the Californians, with Bureau permission, decided to borrow some of that water to grow on – with really no firm plan about what to do when the Upper Basin developed its water. They did not really know how much (or how little) water the river really carried, and the spirit of the times decreed that the engineers would figure something out to solve the problems of the future. California’s 1931 ‘Seven Parties Agreement’ divvied up more than 900,000 af  of borrowed water – and built their permanent systems large enough to carry that along with their legal allotment.

The structural deficit refers to the consumption by Lower Basin states of more water than enters Lake Mead each year. The deficit, which includes losses from evaporation, is estimated at 1.2 million acre-feet a year. (Image: Central Arizona Project circa 2019)

The Lower Basin states were also, kind of semiconsciously, depending on that ‘surplus’ water to cover all of the substantial ‘system losses’ in the Lower Basin – evaporation and conveyance losses – and also the Lower Basin’s 750,000 af share of the commitment to Mexico: all told, at least 2 maf of water for which the Lower Basin states were accountable, but none of which was deducted from their allotments as set by the Boulder Canyon Project Act. They developed their 7.5 maf Compact allotment to the max, and this ambiguous but very real 2 maf became known as ‘a structural deficit,’ as though it were just inherent in the structure of the system and nothing could be done about it, not unlike an Act of God.

​But the Upper Basin states eventually got up to around 4 maf of consumptive use (including Upper Basina system losses) late in the century, with big out-of-basin projects like the Colorado-Big Thompson, San Juan-Chama, Dillion Reservoir, Homestake, and Arizona’s big Central Arizona Project came on line in 1993 – and everyone knew by then how little water the river actually carried, with no big river augmentation projects on the horizon…. Common sense would seem to dictate that, at least by the 1990s, the Californians would have begun a schedule for weaning themselves from the borrowed water, and all three Lower Basin states would have begun figuring out how to deal with the ‘structural deficit.’ But that kind of sense was of course completely contrary to the naive energies of the Early Anthropocene that still prevailed in the Basin, and the Lower Basin states – graciously enabled by the Bureau – continued using consumptively somewhere around 800,000 af of borrowed Upper Basin water in addition to their full 7.5 maf Compact allotments, and ignoring any responsibility for the 2 maf structural deficit.

During the 1983 Colorado River flood, described by some as an example of a “black swan” event, sheets of plywood (visible just above the steel barrier) were installed to prevent Glen Canyon Dam from overflowing. Source: Bureau of Reclamation

​The water, by then, was no longer flowing freely through the canyons to the Lower Basin, but was being released by the Bureau from Powell Reservoir, requiring some complex definitions of ‘surplus’ – possibly trying to disguise its decline – and some big water years in the 1980s and 90s allowed them to continue to cover the profligate release of more than 10 maf to cover Lower Basin’s legal allotments, plus borrowings, plus ignored system losses.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

But the climate and the river turned against them with the turn of the century. For the five water years 2000-2004, inflows into Powell Reservoir averaged a measly 6 maf, less than two-thirds the 20th-century average inflows. Meanwhile, however, the Bureau continued to release more than 8 maf annually from Powell to Mead, and then the usual Compact allocation plus borrowings from Mead to the desert states with no accounting for the system losses: basically, 6 maf in, and 10+ maf out of the system. Predictably enough, storage took a dive in both reservoirs, and everyone realized that something different needed to be done soon.

​The first thing done was in 2003; Interior Secretary Gale Norton, mustered the gumption to tell California that it was time to stop borrowing no-longer-existing surplus water. To the surprise of all the Caliphobics, California complied, and began to work its way back to its 4.4 maf allotment. But nothing was said then about the ‘structural deficit,’ so between their full consumptive use of their 7.5 maf Compact allotment, and the 2 maf of system losses and Mexican obligations for which they continued to decline responsibility, the Lower Basin states were still consuming between nine and ten million acre-feet annually; storage was still declining and something really different still needed to be done.

For two years representatives from the seven states and other stakeholders met with the Bureau, to address that need, and the result was a 2007 agreement called ‘Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.’ This was essentially an attempt to try out some ideas for more carefully coordinating the use of the two big reservoirs while encouraging Lower Basin users to cut their use and leave some of their water in Mead (‘Intentionally Created Surpluses), making it possible to draw less from Powell. The ‘interim’ for these temporary guidelines was the 20 years to 2026, at which time, according to plan or hope, the Bureau and the seven states would have developed a new longterm management regime that actually incorporated the realities of a desert river.

​The Interim Guidelines rely on a ‘balancing’ of the water in the two reservoirs, to keep both reservoir levels high enough so the generation of electric power can continue – an elevation of 3,490 feet (above sea level) for Powell Reservoir and 1,000 feet for Mead Reservoir. And if that proved to be impossible in an extended period of aridification, then the last-ditch effort would be to keep levels above each reservoir’s outlet works – an elevation of 3,370 feet in Powell and 895 feet in Mead. If the reservoirs fell below those outlet levels for either dam, then it would be impossible to convey any water at all beyond the dam. Dead pool.

A complex table of ‘Lake Powell Operational Tiers’ is the heart of the Interim Guidelines, defining the various levels at which releases from Powell should increase or decrease depending on both the level in Powell and how the level in Mead was increasing or (generally) decreasing. And if levels continued to decline (which they have), the grinding gut of the Interim Guidelines is a set of ‘shortage conditions’ – levels at which delivery cuts will be imposed on the Lower Basin states. In 2022, the Bureau finally acknowledged the reality of the situation and declared the first level of cuts, on Arizona and Nevada.

Hoover Dam’s intake towers protrude from the surface of Lake Mead near Las Vegas, where water levels have dropped to record lows amid a 22-year drought. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

​Why not California too? More history: Back in 1968, when Arizona was lobbying desperately for approval of the legislation that would finally enable the CAP, California had said that it would only support the project if Arizona would accept a junior status for the CAP to all of California’s Colorado River water rights. For Arizona, even in the late 1960s, that seemed like a gamble worth taking; who could imagine water shortages that might shut down Hoover Dam and the vast array of urban-industrial development it watered? So the Arizonans agreed to California’s condition – and half a century later the unimaginable happened.

But California did not entirely employ the Shylock gambit; they reluctantly agreed in a neighborly way to accept some Interim Guideline cuts before Central Arizona was completely dried up; their cuts begin at about the fourth level of escalating cuts for Arizona and Nevada.

​Everywhere in the Colorado River region today, it is entirely too easy to get lost in the numbers, all those abstract thousands and millions of acre-feet. Suffice it to say for now that under the Interim Guidelines, by the time the balanced levels of Powell and Mead Reservoirs dropped to within 30-40 feet of the power generation cutoff levels, central Arizona would be giving up 720,000 af, Nevada 30,000 af, and California 350,000 af, for a total of 1.1 maf. Substantial pain – but only about half of the 2 maf structural deficit, the number to keep in mind for this unfolding melodrama. Because there is simply no way, short of constant climate miracles, to avoid an eventual dead-pool situation if the Lower Basin continues ignoring the structural deficit, with inflows to Powell way below the outflows plus system losses from the Lower Basin storage and distribution systems.

What about the Upper Basin states? They get a bye on this round. For one thing, the federal government does not control their water supply, nature does; and they are also way under their 7.5 maf Compact allotment. Also since the beginning of the drought period, the Bureau had already let more than 10 maf of ‘their’ water flow down to Mead above and beyond the Compact requirement. They also have no ‘structural deficit’; their usage includes their system losses – although the half-million acre-feet, plus or minus, evaporated out of Powell should probably be included in the unaccounted-for reservoir system losses since it occurs after the measured inflow. But people in the Upper Basin know their opportunity to participate in the reductions will come.

Even as the first level of shortages was being executed on Arizona and Nevada in 2022 (with the second level promised for this year), Powell was in its third consecutive year of inflows of 6 maf or less with outflows and system losses from Mead still in excess of 9 maf, and the Bureau realized that even the Interim Guidelines reductions might not get them all the way to 2026. Facing that, the Bureau and Interior Secretary issued a somewhat desperate announcement that it would be necessary to quickly implement much heavier cuts – at least two and maybe four million acre-feet. The Bureau Director and Interior Secretary asked the seven states to come up with a plan for how that might happen – and said that if the states did not come up with a plan, they would impose one of their own.

Graphic credit: Colorado Water Wise

​They actually said this twice, midsummer in 2022, and midwinter in 2023; the first time I think the states were too stunned to respond, and no plans emerged from either the states or the Bureau. But now, after the second call, there are four alternatives on the table, two from the states and two from the Bureau. Two of these alternatives argue for using the foundational ‘Law of the River,’ the appropriation doctrine, to distribute the necessary cuts; a big faction (mostly those with senior water rights) believes appropriations law can and should resolve every issue involving water in the arid West.

The other two alternatives seem to see the 2 maf structural deficit as a foundational mistake that needs to be corrected outside or below the rules governing the use of the river’s water; the structural deficit is water that isn’t there to use, and therefore shouldn’t be dealt with through the laws for the use of water. It thus makes the most sense to share those ‘structural’ losses out proportionally among the three states rather than trying to apply the use-allocation law to them.

​It is clear enough that the resolution will have to involve a middle ground, similar to that arrived at in the Interim Guidelines, when California’s priority was acknowledged but the state conceded to take some cuts before completely drying up the CAP. The Bureau’s second alternative comes closest to seeking that middle ground. If it were implemented, that accommodation to seniority would be carried forward with reduced assessments to California despite their use of more than half the Lower Basin’s water. In getting to the 2.083 maf goal, Arizona would take the hardest hit (1.087 maf), more than a third of their 2.8 maf allotment; and California would lose 927,000 af, only a fifth of their 4.4 maf allotment. Nevada would lose 69,000 af, about a fourth of their 300,000 af allotment.

Ultimately something along those lines has to sound better to California than going to court on principle for the usual decade, and driving the river into a dead-pool status under which they would get no water at all much of the year. Laws that can’t bend or open up to fit changing situations eventually break under the stress.

​And then – well, the 20-year interim period for the water mavens to figure out what to do for the next century has shrunk to three years. And the last I heard, they are still trying to figure out who does and doesn’t get to sit at the table to figure it out the future.

​The Bureau encourages comments on the SEIS, by May 30: Crinterimops@usbr.gov.

Map credit: AGU

Reclamation releases April 2023 24-month study projections #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

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

The 24-Month Study projects future Colorado River system conditions using single-trace hydrologic scenarios simulated with the Colorado River Mid-term Modeling System (CRMMS) in 24-Month Study Mode. Three Studies, the Most, Minimum, and Maximum Probable 24-Month Studies, are released monthly, typically by the 15th day of the month.

  • Initial Conditions: The 24-Month Study is initialized with previous end-of-month reservoir elevations.
  • Hydrology: In the Upper Basin, the first year of the Most Probable inflow trace is based on the 50th percentile of Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC) forecasts and the second year is based on the 50th percentile of historical flows. To represent dry and wet future conditions, the Minimum Probable and Maximum Probable traces use the 10th and 90th forecast percentiles in the first year and the 25th and 75th percentiles of historical flows in the second year, respectively. The Lower Basin inflows are based only on historical intervening flows that align with the Upper Basin percentiles.
  • Water Demand: Upper Basin demands are estimated and incorporated in the unregulated inflow forecasts provided by the CBRFC; Lower Basin demands are developed in coordination with the Lower Basin States and Mexico.
  • Policy: Reservoir operations are input manually in the 24-Month Study by reservoir operators and align with Colorado River policies.
  • Drought Response Actions: CRMMS projections contain actions undertaken with the 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan2022 Glen Canyon Dam operational adjustment, and the 2023 operations described in the 24-Month Study.
    • The 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan includes an additional release of 500 kaf from Flaming Gorge from May 2022 through April 2023.
    • The reduction of releases from Lake Powell from 7.48 maf to 7.00 maf in water year 2022 will result in a reduced release volume of 0.480 maf that normally would have been released from Glen Canyon Dam to Lake Mead as part of the 7.48 maf annual release volume, consistent with routine operations under the 2007 Interim Guidelines. The reduction of releases from Glen Canyon Dam in water year 2022 (resulting in increased storage in Lake Powell) will not affect future operating determinations and will be accounted for “as if” this volume of water had been delivered to Lake Mead. The August 2022 24-Month Study modeled 2023 and 2024 operations at Lakes Powell and Mead as if the 0.480 maf had been delivered to Lake Mead for operating tier/condition determination purposes for the Lower Basin States and for Mexico.
    • Because the 2022 operations were designed to protect critical elevations at Lake Powell, Reclamation will implement Lower Elevation Balancing Tier operations in a way that continues to protect these critical elevations, or preserves the benefits of the 2022 operations to protect Lake Powell, in water year 2023. Specifically, Reclamation modeled operations in WY 2023 as follows in the 24-Month Studies:
      • The Glen Canyon Dam annual release has initially been set to 7.00 maf, and in April 2023 Reclamation will evaluate hydrologic conditions to determine if balancing releases may be appropriate under the conditions established in the 2007 Interim Guidelines;
      • Balancing releases will be limited (with a minimum of 7.00 maf) to protect Lake Powell from declining below elevation 3,525 feet at the end of December 2023;
      • Balancing releases will take into account operational neutrality of the 0.480 maf that was retained in Lake Powell under the May 2022 action. Any Lake Powell balancing release volume will be calculated as if the 0.480 maf had been delivered to Lake Mead in WY 2022; and
      • The modeling approach for WY 2023 will apply to 2024.

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

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

For more detailed information about the approach to the 24-Month Study modeling, see the CRMMS 24-Month Study Mode page. All modeling assumptions and projections are subject to varying degrees of uncertainty. Please refer to this discussion of uncertainty for more information.


The latest 24-Month Study reports for each study can be found at the links below:

Archived 24-Month Study results are also available. Descriptions of the 24-Month Study hydrologic scenarios are also documented in Monthly Summary ReportsLake Powell and Lake Mead end-of-month elevation charts are shown below.

Projected Lake Powell end-of-month physical elevations from the latest 24-Month Study inflow scenarios.
Projected Lake Mead end-of-month physical elevations from the latest 24-Month Study inflow scenarios.

For additional information or questions, please contact us via email at: ColoradoRiverModeling@usbr.gov.

Last updated: 2022-08-16

Reclamation: Above-average #snowpack and projected #runoff will send more #water from #LakePowell to #LakeMead #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

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

WASHINGTON – The Bureau of Reclamation today released its April 24-Month Study, which includes an increase to downstream flows from Lake Powell to Lake Mead of up to 9.5 million acre-feet (maf) this water year (Oct. 1, 2022 through Sept. 30, 2023).

Glen Canyon Dam’s annual release volume for water year 2023 was initially set at 7.0 maf, based on the August 2022 24-Month Study, and is now projected to increase to up to 9.5 maf because of high snowpack this winter and projected runoff in the Colorado River Basin this spring. The actual annual release volume from Glen Canyon Dam is adjusted each month throughout the water year and is determined based on the observed inflow to Lake Powell and the storage contents of Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

While this water year’s projections are above average, the Colorado River Basin is experiencing severe drought conditions and system reservoirs remain at historically low levels. In response to this historic drought, Reclamation recently released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to potentially revise the current interim operating guidelines for the near-term operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams.

“This winter’s snowpack is promising and provides us the opportunity to help replenish Lakes Mead and Powell in the near-term — but the reality is that drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have been more than two decades in the making,” said Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “Despite this year’s welcomed snow, the Colorado River system remains at risk from the ongoing impacts of the climate crisis. We will continue to pursue a collaborative, consensus-based approach to conserve water, increase the efficiency of water use, and protect the system’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production.” 

Lake Powell is currently operating in the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier, and Reclamation is required to “balance the contents” of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, as outlined in Section 6.D.1 of the Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead (2007 Interim Guidelines).  

Reclamation utilized the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center’s (CBRFC) April forecasts and other relevant factors such as Colorado River system storage and reservoir elevations to make balancing adjustments to Lake Powell operations.

The CBRFC’s April through July unregulated inflow forecast for Lake Powell is 11.3 maf (177% of average) — an increase of 3.3 maf from March, which was 125% of average. Reclamation’s April 24- Month Study projects Lake Powell’s elevation at 3,576.50 feet at the end of the water year (Sept. 30, 2023). This is approximately 40 feet higher and 2.74 maf of additional storage than projected in the August 2022 Most Probable 24-Month Study, which was used to set the annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

For the past several years, Reclamation has had to take drought response operations, including modifying monthly releases from Glen Canyon Dam, to keep water in Lake Powell and help prevent it from dropping to critically low elevations.  

The higher annual release volume for the remainder of this water year is inclusive of water previously kept in Lake Powell:

  • 480,000 acre-feet of water kept in Lake Powell by reducing the annual release volume in water year 2022 from 7.48 maf to 7.0 maf
  • 523,000 acre-feet of water held back this winter to increase Lake Powell elevations during the lowest point in the water year until post-runoff months of May through September

Reclamation has already increased the monthly release volume for April from Glen Canyon Dam from 552,000 acre-feet to 910,000 acre-feet to be better positioned to release up to 9.5 maf by the end of the water year (Sept. 30, 2023). Monthly releases for May through September will also be adjusted as needed.

Reclamation will take advantage of April’s higher water releases and will conduct a 72-hour high-flow release from Glen Canyon Dam later this month. This will involve a release of water from Glen Canyon Dam that is more rapid than normal — up to 39,500 cfs during its peak — to move sediment stored in the river channel and redeposit it onto beaches, which will benefit conditions at Grand Canyon National Park and aid in management of invasive species in the Colorado River. The release will not change the annual release volume of up to 9.5 maf from the dam.

“The steps announced by the Bureau of Reclamation today respond adaptively to the unusual conditions this year with an action grounded in the sound science of the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center scientists,” said National Park Service’s Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Ed Keable. “This release is critical to rebuild the sandbars and protect the archeological resources and restore the camping beaches in the canyon in compliance with the 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act.”

Based on the April 24-Month Study, Lake Mead’s elevation is also projected to improve in calendar year 2023, with a projected end of calendar year elevation of 1,068.05 feet — approximately 33 feet higher than the March 24-Month Study. With this improvement in Lake Mead’s elevation, a mid-year review of Lake Mead operations is not expected in 2023.

While improved hydrology and projected forecasts have provided an opportunity to recover upstream reservoir storage and use the higher runoff to take positive action in the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River system remains at risk, with Lake Powell and Lake Mead at a combined storage capacity of just 26%.

Reclamation is committed to protecting and sustaining the system and is undertaking an expedited, supplemental process to revise the current interim operating guidelines for the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams. This process will provide the alternatives and tools needed to address the likelihood of continued low-runoff conditions and reduced water availability across the basin over the next two years. This draft SEIS is available for public review and comment until May 30, 2023. The document can be found on the project website, www.usbr.gov/ColoradoRiverBasin/SEIS.html, as well as information on how to submit written comments and when virtual public meetings will be held.

Additional information about the planned high-flow release will be posted and updated online at: https://www.usbr.gov/uc/progact/amp/ltemp.html.

Federal officials lay out options for #ColoradoRiver cuts if no consensus is reached — The #Nevada Independent #COriver #aridification

A boat is shown on the Colorado River near Willow Beach Saturday, April 15, 2023. Willow Beach is located approximately 20 miles south of the Hoover Dam. Photo by Ronda Churchill/The Nevada Independent

Click the link to read the article on Nevada’s only statewide nonprofit newsroom The Nevada Independent website (Daniel Rothberg):

Earlier this week [April 11, 2023], federal water officials released the draft of a much-awaited document outlining potential major short-term cuts to stabilize a Colorado River shrinking due to overuse and drought — unless the seven states that rely on the watershed come up with an alternative. 

The last part is key. 

Officials made it clear that they still wanted the states to reach a consensus on what painful cuts might look like as any action that is taken by the federal government faces a risk of litigation.

Speaking in front of Lake Mead, with its prominent bathtub ring — one of the most apparent illustrations of the Colorado River shortage — Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the Department of Interior, said the choices federal water officials laid out “provide room for additional work and solutions.”

The document, he said, “is intended to drive those conversations and negotiations forward.”

The announcement served as a step in an ongoing environmental impact study, led by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, to analyze the cuts needed to stabilize the Colorado River’s reservoirs, which serve about 40 million people across the West and have hit record lows in recent years. 

The Colorado River and its tributaries form a watershed that spans a massive geography, which includes seven U.S. states, 30 Native American tribes and Mexico. The river supports millions of acres of agricultural land, countless ecosystems, aquatic species, recreation and many of the West’s largest cities, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver. 

Southern Nevada receives about 90 percent of its water directly from the Colorado River. All of the states below Lake Mead — Arizona, California and Nevada — comprise the Lower Colorado River Basin and face the possibility of major cuts. In recent years, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has taken proactive steps to offset future cuts with aggressive conservation measures, including the removal of decorative water-guzzling turf and limiting the size of residential pools. 

The water authority is still conducting a detailed analysis of the nearly 500-page draft document, authority spokesman Bronson Mack said. But conversations among the states continue. 

On Friday, John Entsminger, the head of the water authority, met with counterparts in Arizona and California. In a statement, he called the draft “the next step in the process to find workable solutions to protect water supplies for 40 million Americans and more than a trillion dollars in economic activity.”

The document released Tuesday is a draft of what is known as a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, or an SEIS. It amends the current set of guidelines that govern shortages on the river.

As the Western U.S. experienced its worst drought in 1,200 years, it became clear that the existing shortage guidelines, finalized in 2007, were not sufficient to keep the river’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, from crashing so low it would threaten water deliveries across the West.

Federal water officials launched the SEIS process last year after the seven states tried but failed to reach a consensus over how the painful cuts to the Colorado River should be allocated within a framework of law, known as the Law of the River, that gives California a priority to its Colorado River share over Arizona’s major diversion, a 336-mile canal called the Central Arizona Project.

Eventually, by January, six of the seven states had reached a consensus framework, but without California, the largest user of the river and a meaningful player in making any sizable cutbacks.

The draft SEIS outlines three approaches that the federal government could take:

  1. The do-nothing approach: Federal operations would implement the existing operating agreements for the Colorado River reservoirs, which would risk the possibility of one or both major reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — declining so low they would effectively become inoperable in future years if dry conditions continue.
  2. Rely on the water rights system: Follow what is known as the priority system outlined in the Law of the River, a compilation of the many compacts, settlements, decrees and treaty documents pertaining to the Colorado River. In general, this system often gives  priority to those who have the oldest or “senior” rights, including agricultural districts and tribal nations. This more closely aligned the proposal that California had advocated for.
  3. Apportion additional cuts evenly: The other action alternative outlined by federal water managers calls for building on existing agreements, which reflect priority, and applying cuts on a proportional basis by assigning an across-the-board cut of up to 15.6 percent. The cuts in this scenario would more closely align to the cuts outlined in the six-state plan and backed by Arizona, putting a larger burden of cuts on California.

But federal officials were clear: This draft document is not the last word. Notably, federal officials did not endorse a preferred option, instead framing the actions as “tools” they could implement.

“It was interesting that they did not do what they said they were going to do and offer a federal [preferred] option,” said John Fleck, a University of New Mexico professor who focuses on the Colorado River and water governance. “They simply offered a federal-lite version of the six-state proposal and the California proposal, and a positive ‘power of collaboration’ argument.”

At a press conference Tuesday, negotiators for California and Arizona signaled willingness to reach a consensus deal and avoid either option, both of which come with risks for each state.

People recreate on Colorado River-fed Lake Mojave near Katherine Landing Saturday, April 15, 2023. Katherine Landing is located just north of Laughlin, Nevada. Photo by Ronda Churchill/The Nevada Independent

Between two bookend scenarios, a possible deal?

J.B. Hamby, the chair of the Colorado River Board of California and on the board of the Imperial Irrigation District, which holds the single largest entitlement to the Colorado River, said “it is our hope and our fervent desire that the tools laid out in the [document] never have to be used.” 

The best way to get there, he said, “is through ongoing work with collaborative processes.” He said that the ideal situation would be to develop a seven-state consensus in the coming months, if not weeks. 

During the press conference Tuesday, Tom Buschatzke, who directs the Arizona Department of Water Resources, also echoed the continued need for states to come up with a negotiated deal, noting that officials from Arizona, California and Nevada have been discussing paths forward.

Buschatzke said the goal is to avoid litigation. 

“So we have to avoid that outcome,” Buschatzke said, arguing that it could take decades to settle any lawsuit, time that negotiators do not have to reach major agreements on cutbacks. “Once litigation occurs, if it does, it’s going to be very difficult to negotiate something moving forward.”

Setting up  bookend alternatives could give the states more boundaries by which to negotiate a path forward that balances the priority system and equity, water experts said.

“What they are trying to do is set up the worst-case scenario for California” by showing what could be done if officials deviate from a strict application of priority, said Elizabeth Koebele, a UNR professor who focuses on water policy and has followed the negotiations over the cuts.

Each state has internal dynamics to sort through

Much of the rhetoric around the Colorado River negotiations has focused on the long-held and ongoing tensions between California and Arizona’s share of water on the river. 

While California has priority rights over water that flows through the Central Arizona Project — water that is delivered to cities, tribal nations, agricultural districts and industrial users — each state has internal dynamics that will influence what happens next.

What priority looks like within — and between — the three states is extremely complicated. 

For instance, although California is often seen as the senior user on the river, the Metropolitan Water District — the major municipal water purveyor for Southern California — has rights that have less priority relative to other water users and could be cut off in either of the alternatives. 

In a statement, the water agency’s general manager said neither alternative is ideal.

“Both include significant supply cuts that would hurt Metropolitan and our partners across the Basin,” General Manager Adel Hagekhalil said. “There is a better way to manage the river.”

Arizona also faces complicated internal dynamics when it comes to what curtailment by priority would actually look like. Although Arizona supported an equitable approach and is often seen as  junior to California, several Arizona water users have high-priority water rights to the Colorado River. During the Tuesday press conference, Buschatzke said that the several water users in Arizona, including Colorado River Indian Tribes and farmers in the Yuma area, wrote letters urging officials to respect the priority system.

Last week, federal water officials began a 45-day comment period on the SEIS as talks continue. A final version of the document will be released after the comment period ends.

“Optimistically, the next 45 days look like meeting some middle ground between the priority approach and the equity-based approach,” said Rhett Larson, law professor at Arizona State University. “It’s going to require a fair amount of give and take, including intrastate negotiations.”

People recreate on Colorado River-fed Lake Mojave at Telephone Cove Saturday, April 15, 2023. The cove is located just north of Laughlin, Nevada. Photo by Ronda Churchill/The Nevada Independent

Still searching for a long-term agreement

The two options weighed by federal officials are part of a larger dialogue over the long-term management of the river. The cuts are meant to stabilize Colorado River reservoirs until 2026. 

The 2007 guidelines for operating the river are set to expire in 2026, and officials must renegotiate a new set of rules in the coming years.

Since last year, drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have improved with large storms increasing the snowpack — the primary source of the Colorado River — to well-above average. 

As the snow melts this summer, reservoirs could start recovering from record lows. But one year of low runoff after 2023 could quickly put the river back into a dire situation, especially given the existing deficit. In addition, many water experts believe significant cuts are still needed to ensure the basin is able to rebuild storage in the reservoirs, rather than continuing to overuse water.

“The hydrology this year has been nothing short of amazing and I think it’s up to us to ensure that we don’t squander it,” said Estevan López, the Colorado River negotiator for New Mexico. “We have an opportunity here to rebuild supplies that were kind of loaned to the system, if you will, under the emergency drought actions that were taken over the course of the last year.”

Even with one good year of snowpack, the Colorado River faces significant challenges — with more rights to water than there is water to go around. On top of these structural problems and continued overuse, a changing climate and warmer temperatures are making the region more arid, contributing to less runoff in recent decades and more uncertainty about water supply. 

As negotiators focus on long-term river management and renegotiating the 2007 rules, they must also address inequities embedded in the river’s foundational documents, which excluded tribal governments and gave little consideration to the river’s ecosystems, which have been damaged by overuse.

At the press conference Tuesday, Rosa Long, vice chair of the Cocopah Indian Tribe and chair of the Ten Tribes Partnership, urged all states to focus on conservation measures.

“In closing, let us commit to continuing our collaboration and to work together in the spirit of mutual respect and understanding,” Long said in her remarks Tuesday. “By doing so we can ensure that the Colorado River remains a vital and thriving resource for generations to come.”

Interior Department Announces Next Steps to Protect the Stability and Sustainability of #ColoradoRiver Basin #COriver #aridification

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

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:

Outlines alternatives and tools needed to manage drought in the Basin and strengthen water security in the West 

BOULDER CITY, Nev. — To address the continued potential for low run-off conditions and unprecedented water shortages in the Colorado River Basin, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) today released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to potentially revise the current interim operating guidelines for the near-term operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams. Today’s release comes on the heels of historic investments the Biden-Harris administration announced last week as part of an all-of-government effort to make the Colorado River Basin and all the communities that rely on it more resilient to climate change and the ongoing drought in the West.

The draft SEIS released today analyzes alternatives and measures to address potential shortages in the event that such measures are required to protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety in 2024 through 2026, after which the current operating guidelines expire. It also ensures Reclamation has the tools to protect continued water deliveries and hydropower production for the 40 million Americans who rely on the Colorado River.

“The Colorado River Basin provides water for more than 40 million Americans. It fuels hydropower resources in eight states, supports agriculture and agricultural communities across the West, and is a crucial resource for 30 Tribal Nations. Failure is not an option,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. “Recognizing the severity of the worsening drought, the Biden-Harris administration is bringing every tool and every resource to bear through the President’s Investing in America agenda to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System now and into the future.”

“Drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have been two decades in the making. To meet this moment, we must continue to work together, through a commitment to protecting the river, leading with science and a shared understanding that unprecedented conditions require new solutions,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “The draft released today is the product of ongoing engagement with the Basin states and water commissioners, the 30 Basin Tribes, water managers, farmers and irrigators, municipalities and other stakeholders. We look forward to continued work with our partners in this critical moment.”

The SEIS process was initiated in October 2022. The release of the draft follows months of intensive discussions and collaborative work with the Basin states and water commissioners, the 30 Basin Tribes, water managers, farmers and irrigators, municipalities, and other stakeholders. The draft alternatives in the SEIS incorporate concepts from many models and proposals received during the scoping period, including from all seven Basin states.

The alternatives presented in the draft SEIS analyze measures that may be taken under Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s authorities to protect system operations in the face of unprecedented hydrologic conditions, while providing equitable water allocations to Lower Basin communities that rely on the Colorado River System.

The draft SEIS includes proposed alternatives to revise the December 2007 Record of Decision associated with the Colorado River Interim Guidelines. The 2007 Interim Guidelines provide operating criteria for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. These include provisions designed to provide a greater degree of certainty to water users about timing and volumes of potential water delivery reductions for the Lower Basin States, as well as additional operating flexibility to conserve and store water in the system.

The draft SEIS will be available for public comment for 45 calendar days and the final SEIS is anticipated to be available with a Record of Decision in Summer 2023. This document will inform the August 2023 decisions that will affect 2024 operations for Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams.

This proposal to address immediate water supply challenges complements Reclamation’s ongoing process to develop new guidelines for Colorado River Operations when the current interim guidelines expire at the end of 2026.

Draft SEIS Alternatives

The draft SEIS analyzes three alternatives, which reflect input from the Basin states, cooperating agencies, Tribes and other interested parties, including comments submitted during the SEIS public scoping period, including two written proposals from the Basin states that informed the following alternatives considered in this draft SEIS:

  • No Action Alternative: The No Action Alternative describes the consequences of continued implementation of existing agreements that control operations of Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam, including under further deteriorating hydrologic conditions and reservoir elevations.
  • Action Alternative 1: Action Alternative 1 models potential operational changes to both Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam. Action Alternative 1 includes modeling for reduced releases from Glen Canyon Dam, as well as an analysis of the effects of additional Lower Colorado River Basin shortages based predominately on the priority of water rights. Action Alternative 1 models progressively larger additional shortages as Lake Mead’s elevation declines, and larger additional shortages in 2025 and 2026, as compared with 2024. The total shortage contributions in 2024, including those under existing agreements, are limited to 2.083 million-acre-feet because this is the maximum volume analyzed in the 2007 Interim Guidelines final environmental impact statement.
  • Action Alternative 2: Action Alternative 2 is similar to Action Alternative 1 in how it models potential operational changes to both Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam. Action Alternative 2 includes modeling for reduced releases from Glen Canyon Dam, as well as an analysis of the effects of additional Lower Colorado River Basin reductions that are distributed in the same percentage across all Lower Basin water users under shortage conditions. While both the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan encompass shortages and contributions that reflect the priority system, the incremental, additional shortages identified in Action Alternative 2 for the remainder of the interim period would be distributed in the same percentage across all Lower Basin water users. Action Alternative 2 models progressively larger additional shortages as Lake Mead’s elevation declines and models larger Lower Basin shortages in 2025 and 2026 as compared with 2024. The total shortage contributions in 2024, including those under existing agreements, are limited to 2.083 million-are-feet because this is the maximum volume analyzed in the 2007 Interim Guidelines FEIS.

Members of the public interested in providing input on the SEIS can do so through May 30, 2023, per instructions in the Federal Register that will be published on April 14, 2023. Additional information about virtual public meetings can be found at Reclamation’s website.

Historic Investments to Address the Drought Crisis

President Biden’s Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing much-needed resources to enhance the resilience of the West to drought and climate change, including to protect the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought.

To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete: