The decision of who gets to sit at that table, whose interests are represented, and what’s on the menu is still very much in flux. But the uncertainty isn’t stopping would-be participants from voicing concerns they feel leaders in the southwestern watershed can no longer ignore.
And when it comes to the water supply for 40 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico, the stakes are much higher than a one-night feast.
“Who’s at the existing table?”
Late last year, the seven states that make up the Colorado River basin — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, California, Nevada and Arizona — made clear that after a federal government-induced year-long pause to negotiations, they were ready to start negotiating future policies.
In a letter dated Dec. 17 to then-Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, water officials gave notice they were “initiating preliminary conversations with one another,” to figure out how to operate the river’s biggest reservoirs.
The talks are focused on creating policy past 2026, when a current set of guidelines established in 2007 expires. The 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for the first time addressed the issue of looming water shortages in the basin, and linked the operations of Lakes Powell and Mead. While those who negotiated the agreement slapped each other on the back in Las Vegas, plenty of others in the basin said it failed to truly address the wide range of problems that have plagued the watershed for decades.
When water managers negotiated that major policy overhaul in 2007, the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the watershed were left out.
Daryl Vigil of the Jicarilla-Apache Nation says that’s also true for a landmark 2012 study that calculated water supplies and demands in the basin. According to a letter sent by 17 tribal leaders to the federal government about the 2007 guidelines, it’s only been in the last five years that tribes have seen the federal government meaningfully engage with them on Colorado River issues. Even now, as basin leaders commit to more tribal inclusivity this time around, the mechanism to do so doesn’t currently exist.
“There’s no process at all in the current structure to have inclusivity of tribes,” Vigil said.
Vigil is a co-leader of the Water & Tribes Initiative. The initiative receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River coverage. The project’s main goal is to build capacity of tribes to participate in the renegotiation of the 2007 guidelines, Vigil said.
For all the talk of consensus-building in the watershed, up until now it’s only been among a narrow group of players, Vigil said. Many other perspectives, like the river’s cultural and spiritual value or its ecological role in some of the driest reaches of the country, are ignored or rejected.
“Who’s at the existing table? The existing table in terms of policy in the Colorado River truly is controlled by the basin states and the federal government,” Vigil said…
Tribal leaders aren’t the only people who’ve been summarily excluded in the past. Environmentalists, recreation advocates, scientists and water officials from Mexico have also been left out of various agreements in the past, depending on the issue at hand.
Paper’s authors say unrealistic projections make it harder to plan for a future under climate change
Some water experts fear that a long-held aspiration to develop more water in the Upper Colorado River Basin is creating another chance to let politics and not science lead the way on river management.
“Alternative Management Paradigms for the Future of the Colorado and Green Rivers,” a white paper released this month by the Center for Colorado River Studies, says that in order to sustainably manage the river in the face of climate change, we need alternative management paradigms and a different way of thinking compared with the status quo.
Estimates about how much water the upper basin will use in the future are a problem that needs rethinking, according to the paper.
The paper says unrealistic future water-use projections for the upper basin — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — confound planning because they predict the region will use more water than it actually will. The Upper Colorado River Commission’s estimates for future growth are unlikely to be realized and are perhaps implausible, unreasonable and unjustified, the paper says.
“The projection of demand is always higher than what is actually used,” said Jack Schmidt, one of the paper’s authors and the Lawson Chair in Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. “We said you can’t plan the future of the river based on these aspirational use projections when there’s a clear demonstration that we never end up using as much as we aspire to use.”
The Center for Colorado River Studies is affiliated with Utah State but draws on expertise from throughout the basin. The paper is the sixth in a series of white papers that is part of The Future of the Colorado River Project. The project is being funded by multiple donors, including the Walton Family Foundation, the USGS Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, the Utah Water Research Laboratory and two private donors, as well as by grants from the Catena Foundation, which is a major donor to Aspen Journalism’s water desk.
According to the paper, between 1988 and 2018 consumptive water use in the upper basin has remained flat at an average of 4.4 million acre-feet a year. This figure is based on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Consumptive Uses and Losses reports. The UCRC’s most recent numbers from 2016 show future water use in the upper basin — known as a “depletion demand schedule” — at 5.27 million acre-feet by 2020 and 5.94 million acre-feet by 2060.
“In percentage terms, these UCRC projections for 2020 are already 23% higher than actual use and would be more than 40% higher than present use in 2060,” the paper reads.
And future water use is unlikely to increase because of three main reasons: thirsty coal-fired power plants are on their way to being decommissioned; land that was formerly used for irrigated agriculture is transitioning to residential developments, which use less water; and there are regulatory and political barriers to more large transmountain diversions from the headwaters of the river to the Front Range.
The white paper’s authors say these unrealistic future projections of water use make it harder to plan for a water-short future under climate change.
“Unreasonable and unjustified estimations create the impression that compact delivery violations, very low Lake Powell and Lake Mead storage content and greater Lower Basin shortages are inevitable,” the paper reads. “Such distortions mislead the public about the magnitude of the impending water supply crisis and make identifying solutions to an already difficult problem even harder.”
The issue is twofold: With climate change, there is not enough water for the upper basin to develop new projects without the risk of a compact call; and if the past three decades are any indication, the upper basin is not on track to use more water in the future anyway.
So why might the UCRC be overestimating future water use? To understand that, one must take a closer look at the Colorado River Compact.
The law of the river
In 1922, the framers of the Colorado River Compact divided the waters of the river, giving the upper basin and the lower basin — California, Nevada and Arizona — 7.5 million acre-feet each. This amount, known as an apportionment or “entitlement,” was thought to be fair at the time because it gave the slow-growing upper basin time to develop their share of the water without the faster-growing lower basin claiming it first.
The mission of the UCRC is to protect the upper basin’s ability to use its share of the river. And this entitlement is symbolic of the upper basin’s dreams and aspirations: growing cities and towns and thriving agricultural communities.
The problem is that the century-old agreement didn’t account for dwindling flows caused by climate change. Studies have found — under what Brad Udall, one of the paper’s authors and a climate and water researcher at Colorado State University, calls “the new abnormal” — that runoff decreases as temperatures rise.
Compounding the issue is that under the compact, the upper basin is still required to deliver the same amount of water to the lower basin regardless of declining flows.
“The reason we entered into a compact was because we knew we couldn’t develop as quickly as the lower basin, so the whole idea is that we could develop later,” said Jennifer Gimbel, former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and interim director at the CSU Water Center. “But as we know, streamflow is not as strong and climate change is cutting into it even more and more, and that puts you into a conundrum.”
The result is that there are 15 million acre-feet of entitlements on paper, not including Mexico’s share, but just 12 million to 13 million acre-feet of water. And that number is likely to decline even further as temperatures rise. Soon, there may not be enough water for the upper basin to meet its compact obligations to the lower basin and to develop new water projects.
“You cannot have a situation where climate change is reducing the yield of the basin and everyone is sticking to what they think their entitlements are under the compact,” said Eric Kuhn, one of the study’s authors. “Something has to give.”
In other words, if the water physically is not there anymore, it doesn’t really matter what the compact says the upper basin is entitled to.
Kuhn is the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and also co-author of the 2019 book “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.” One of the book’s main points is that past Colorado River decision-makers let politics and competition for a limited supply of water — not science — be the main drivers of river management. Because of that, the river was over-allocated from the beginning. Kuhn worries that this trend may be continuing.
“The fear is that this is another opportunity to ignore the science,” he said. “Forget about these projections that show how much water we might have been able to develop 40 years ago and focus on the river that nature has given us with climate change and not the one we wish we had from decades ago.”
Interstate poker game
The upper basin, including Colorado, is currently exploring the concept of a demand-management program, which could reduce water use by paying irrigators to not irrigate. The goal of the program, which would be temporary and voluntary for participants, would be to send as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water to Lake Powell to prop up levels and avoid a compact call.
A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower-basin states as required by the compact. This could trigger an interstate legal quagmire, a scenario that water managers desperately want to avoid.
If it appears contradictory that the upper basin is looking at how to reduce water use while at the same time clinging to a plan for more future water use, that’s because it is.
Water attorney Peter Fleming said some are asking why the upper basin is planning to reduce existing depletions while also planning an additional million acre-feet of depletions. Fleming is general counsel for the River District. He also is on the legal committee for the UCRC, but is not speaking on behalf of that organization here. “It seems the upper basin as a whole needs to reconcile that seeming contradiction,” he said.
Some water experts compared the UCRC’s depletion schedule to an interstate chess or poker game, complete with bluffing. The upper basin must insist it will one day put to beneficial use all of its unused share — or else the lower basin, which already uses all of its own share, could somehow claim the unused portion.
“There’s still this fear that if we don’t use our water, the lower basin will establish an economic use and economic reliance on that water, and it will be very difficult to get it back in the future, even though we are entitled to it,” Kuhn said. “The downside to that right now is the water is just not there.”
UCRC Director Amy Haas said in an email that although the paper is thought-provoking, the authors base their analysis on an obsolete projection of future Upper Basin water use demands from 2007 instead of relying on the current 2016 projections, which show a decrease in future demand as well as a slower rate of projected future demand. She said the authors did not consult the commission on the paper before its release.
Study authors have said that current data from the Bureau of Reclamation wasn’t released in time for the 2016 numbers to be used in the paper, and that they used the most up-to-date information available to them. They also say the differences between the two sets of numbers are minor and don’t change their findings.
FromThe High Country News (Nick Bowlin) [February 24, 2021]:
Water availability is going from bad to worse in the seven states that rely on the drought-stricken river.
Southern California farmers spend their winters watching the snowpack in the Colorado Rockies, and what they see is the climate crisis hitting hard. When it melts, the snow that falls on these peaks will, eventually, make its way into the Colorado River, which connects the Southwest like a great tendon, tying the Continental Divide in Colorado to Southern California’s hayfields, where the Imperial Irrigation District is one of the country’s largest, and pouring from the faucets of urban users in Los Angeles and San Diego.
From California’s perspective, the view upriver is not encouraging. More than half of the upper part of the river basin is in “exceptional drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, while the Lower Basin is even worse off: More than 60% of it is in the highest drought level. In January, water levels in Lake Powell, the river’s second-largest reservoir, dropped to unprecedented depths, triggering a drought contingency plan for the first time for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.
Since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has seen a sustained period of less water and hotter days. This is, as climate scientists like to say, the “new normal.” But within this new normal, there have been exceptional drought years. One of them was 2020. Last year began with an encouraging snowpack in the Colorado Rockies. But a warm spring followed, and, then the seasonal summer monsoons never came to drench the Southwest. The lack of precipitation persisted into the fall and early winter, leaving the basin in a condition dire enough that water policy wonks — not a crowd known for melodrama — have begun using words like “scary” and “terrifying.”
“In the 20th century on the Colorado River, nature was bent to human will,” the study stated. “Because we are now fully consuming its waters, and inflows are expected to decline, in the 21st century humans will be forced to bend to the will of nature.”
The current version of the Colorado River Compact — the legal agreement that governs the river — expires in 2026. It will be renegotiated over the next several years amid a patchwork of interests, including seven Southwestern states, myriad agricultural districts, the Mexican government, some of the nation’s fastest-growing urban areas, including Las Vegas and Phoenix, and many tribal nations, whose legal claims have historically been discounted. A compendium of policies, historic water rights, court rulings, laws and agreements, the Colorado River Compact allocates water for tens of millions of people and some of the most important agricultural regions in the country. The impending renegotiation will determine how that water is distributed as the demand for water outstrips the river’s dwindling flow. Meanwhile, according to numerous models, the impacts of climate change will only intensify. A recent study from the Center for Colorado River Studies predicted that the Lower Basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona could be forced to reduce their take from the river by up to 40% by 2050.
“It’s a red alert,” said Felicia Marcus, a fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West Program and former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board. “Everyone knows the red alert is ringing, and we’ve known this is coming for a long time.”
OF ALL THE VARIOUS METRICS available to measure this challenge, storage capacity at the Colorado River’s important reservoirs is one of the most useful. In January, a study by the Bureau of Reclamation estimated that Lake Powell could dip below a crisis threshold by 2022.
This forecast is not the most likely one, but the study triggers a drought-planning process — an acknowledgement that the worst-case scenario could come to pass for one of the country’s most important water storage sites. In 2019, Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., hit its own version of this threshold, which led Arizona, Nevada and Mexico to voluntarily limit their Colorado River water use for the first time ever. Put together, both Mead and Powell are on track to reach their lowest recorded levels ever in 2021, KUNC reported. Water levels in Mead and Powell languish at about 40% capacity, according to the most recent figures.
This future complicates the amalgamation of treaties, policies, laws at various levels of government, court decisions and agreements that make up the governance of the river, stretching all the way back to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the original interstate agreement. To give just one example, the Upper Basin states have long planned increased water use — water that the over-allocated basin can’t afford — thereby increasing the likelihood, according to the study, of a situation where the Lower Basin states would not receive their fair share of water. The result would be a “call” on the river, with the Lower Basin states demanding more water and legally mandated cutbacks for more junior water users higher on the river, including the city of Denver. The ensuing legal fights would be ugly.
This grim future hangs over the next several years, as both the Upper and Lower Basin states renegotiate the Colorado River Compact [ed. the parties to the Colorado River Compact are not renegotiating the compact] and work to reduce the water they use and keep crucial reservoirs filled. But these negotiations are difficult and political, with self-interest competing against the need to do right by the basin as a whole. Meanwhile, sensing profit in scarcity, Wall Street and hedge funds are pushing to privatize Colorado River water and allow markets to trade the resource as a commodity, according to a recent New York Times investigation.
The problem with vast water negotiations like the Colorado River Compact, said Marcus, the Stanford water policy expert, is that every entity, from governments down to people watering their lawns, come to expect the current amount of available water — even if that availability is an outlier or set to change. “Farmers can’t expect that they can plant whatever they want or not expect water to be expensive,” she said. “Urban areas need to get way more efficient, people need to ditch way more lawns.”
Nick Bowlin is a contributing editor at High Country News. Email him at email@example.com.
FromThe Associated Press (John Locher) via Tucson.com:
Less water for the Central Arizona Project — but not zero water.
Even more competition between farms and cities for dwindling Colorado River supplies than there is now.
More urgency to cut water use rather than wait for seven river basin states to approve new guidelines in 2025 for operating the river’s reservoirs.
That’s where Arizona and the Southwest are heading with water, say experts and environmental advocates following publication of a dire new academic study on the Colorado River’s future.
The study warned that the river’s Upper and Lower basin states must sustain severe cuts in river water use to keep its reservoir system from collapsing due to lack of water.
That’s due to continued warming weather and other symptoms of human-caused climate change, the study said.
The study from Utah State University said Arizona and the other two Lower River Basin states may have to slash their take from the river up to 40% by 2050 to keep reservoirs from falling too low. The other Lower Basin states are California and Nevada.
The study also says the four Upper Basin states must dramatically scale back or kill plans to divert more water from an already depleted river. Those states are Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The study appeared as the seven states are preparing to renegotiate the operating guidelines that expire at the end of 2025.
More immediately, the first cutbacks in Central Arizona Project deliveries from the river — primarily to Central Arizona farmers — appear likely for next year…
Eric Kuhn, one of the new study’s co-authors, speculated that over time, the Central Arizona Project will make a bunch of deals with irrigators along the river to buy water rights, following the footsteps of Colorado and Southern California water transfers.
“CAP water flows uphill to the money. Municipalities in Central Arizona have political power and money. How many votes are there along the river vs. how many votes there are in Maricopa County?” said Kuhn, retired director of the Colorado River Water District in Glenwood Springs.
It’s pretty clear the Imperial Irrigation District, the river basin’s largest water user by far, will also be a target for future water transactions to help cities, [Mark] Udall said. Imperial takes more than one-third of the Lower Basin’s 7.5 million acre-feet annual supply from the river…
Upcoming negotiations: Arizona’s top water officials and some outside water experts and activists are taking different stances toward the impending seven-state river negotiations.
Those talks should start sometime this year, although the Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the reservoirs, isn’t being specific on when.
It’s working on developing a plan “that ensures that all of our partners on the river are able to participate and contribute in a collaborative and meaningful way,” bureau spokeswoman Patricia Aaron said…
Reacting to the negotiations and the new study, a CAP official said that agency has long understood risks to the Colorado River system associated with a hotter, drier future, and realizes that more work is needed to address them for the longer term…
The state has a good start in preparing for the seven-state talks, thanks to the structure of water interest groups the state assembled to put together the 2019 drought plan, said ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke.
“We anticipate looking at a variety of hydrologic futures, how they might impact lake levels, how we might protect those lake levels under those hydrologic scenarios, as well as how our efforts might equate to the frequency or magnitude of reductions,” Buschatzke said…
Retiring coal-fired power plants faster than now planned can save water because they use a lot, Bahr said.
Having water priced more “appropriately” — charging more for water use beyond what homeowners need for drinking, cooking and bathing, is also advisable, she said — something Tucson already does in its water rate structure.
Amid dry soils and struggling snowpack in Denver Water’s collection area, longer-term Colorado River challenges also loom large.
Denver Water’s supply managers are closely attuned to the dry weather, lagging snowpack and poor soil moisture in its mountainous collection area that could mean heightened efforts to conserve water this summer.
At the same time, the utility is closely engaged with a more persistent and growing long-term challenge: a drying trend across the seven-state Colorado River Basin.
The two issues go hand-in-hand.
While early snowpack has been underwhelming, a few recent storms brought us closer to average in the two nearby basins that matter most to Denver Water: The South Platte and the Colorado.
Even so, the long-running drought across the southwestern United States persists. And earlier this year, a new warning was triggered after updated projections from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation suggested poor inflows to Lake Powell could put the reservoir at a level low enough to take new steps.
In short, the BOR said Lake Powell — the massive storage vessel that serves as the bank account for the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — is at risk of falling below an elevation of 3,525 feet in 2022.
That’s important to Denver Water and many Colorado water users as a century-old law requires states in the upper basin to send a certain allotment out of Lake Powell each year to the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.
Under major agreements developed between the federal government and the seven states in 2019 called drought contingency plans, Reclamation’s projection initiates a planning process with water leaders across the upper basin states to address ways to avoid further elevation declines in Powell.
This is a trigger point to say, “Hey, it’s time to ramp up our monitoring and planning, to be ready to address the potential further decline in reservoir levels,” explained Rick Marsicek, planning manager for Denver Water. “This was a metric, developed to ensure the upper basin states focus harder on next steps should Lake Powell be at risk of hitting that level.”
Planners focused on 3,525 feet as a trigger point, so as to have time to act before Lake Powell falls another 35 feet, which would threaten its ability to send enough water through turbines to generate hydropower, another important element of Powell’s operations. Hydroelectricity at the dam provides power to more than 5 million customers.
It’s an initial step toward drought contingency plans, which could be triggered as early as 2022 in the Upper Basin. The lower basin’s DCP was triggered last year, when projected shortages in Lake Mead, the other gargantuan Colorado River reservoir — a sister of sorts to Powell — required Arizona and Nevada to pull smaller amounts from supplies stored there.
All of this movement comes amid other developments important to Denver Water and water interests throughout Colorado.
The state of Colorado is working with water providers and users across the state to gauge the potential of a “demand management” plan. Such a plan would compensate water users to temporarily and voluntarily conserve water that would flow instead to Lake Powell as a deposit in a sort of bank account. Such a “pool” of water would maintain critical water levels in Lake Powell and could later be released if necessary to assure Colorado River Compact compliance.
Water users kicked off a study related to demand management in 2020. Irrigators in the Kremmling area fallowed some parcels as part of a detailed study on how high-elevation farmland would respond should water be left off the land in some growing seasons.
At the same time, the basin states, in partnership with the federal government, are beginning to dig into a new set of guidelines to help manage river supplies that must be complete in 2026, when an existing set of interim guidelines is set to expire. These guidelines co-exist with the 1922 Colorado River Compact and numerous other agreements that make of the “law of the river,” which split the river between the two big basins and the country of Mexico.
Closer to home, Denver Water and other metro area and Front Range water providers are coordinating in preparation for a year when they may have to toughen summer watering restrictions to address a dry winter and spring. It’s too early yet to know for sure how supplies will look, but the meetings that kicked off this month are an effort to get ahead of the situation and see where watering and conservation messages can be aligned to help the public understand the potential need to reduce outdoor irrigation between May and October.
“There is a lot happening, and that’s a good thing,” Marsicek said. “Far better to overplan and overprepare than to simply hope for the best. We’ve had drought years before, and we have a long-term drought now in the Colorado River Basin. By working together and planning not just for a hot summer, but for a drier long-term future, we can meet this challenge with our eyes wide open.”
Last month the governor appointed the state’s newest Colorado River commissioner, but just what does this position entail and how does it relate to Southern Utah?
“The role of the commissioner is to represent the state of Utah in negotiations with regards to the use of its portion of the Colorado River,” Gene Shawcroft, the state’s newly appointed Colorado River Commissioner said Monday. “(It’s) coordinating with the other six (Colorado Basin) states, as well as the federal government as decisions are made state by state with each state’s individual right to use its allocation from the Colorado River.”
Gov. Spencer Cox announced Shawcroft’s appointment Jan. 14. As the state’s Colorado River Commissioner, Shawcroft will serve on the Upper Colorado River Commission. In addition to Utah, this commission includes fellow commissioners from Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming…
While sitting on the commission, Shawcroft will continue to serve in his current position as the general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District located in Orem…
“I think Utah has water they are not yet using and the intent would be for us to find the most efficient and productive way to use that water,” Shawcroft said, adding it is important for the other basin states to be able to do the same.
Water, overall, is extremely important to the state, and people in the state are worried about the Colorado River, Shawcroft added. While he will be focused on current projects and uses connected to the river, Shawcroft said he is also mindful of Southern Utah and the pipeline proposed to bring water to it…
Currently, Washington County’s sole source of water is the Virgin River Basin.
Last week, Shawcroft spoke before the Utah House Natural Resources Committee in support of a bill that would create the Colorado River Authority of Utah. The new agency would bring the state’s best minds together to help promote and protect Utah’s interest on the river.
Though Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, argued the creation of the new agency was a front for building of the Lake Powell Pipeline.
Shawcroft said that wasn’t the case, as he and the authority – should it be created – are focused on all of Utah’s uses of the Colorado River and not one that hasn’t been built yet. However, planning for the future, particularly where water is concerned, is vital, he said.
“Water isn’t something we look at three or five years in the future – it’s something we have to look at, sometimes a couple of generations – 50 years out – into the future,” he said…
Utah’s Colorado River Compact allotment is 1.725 million acre-feet of water per year, or 23% of the [Upper Colorado River under the Colorado River Compact]. The state is currently using about one million acre-feet annually, according to a statement from the governor’s office.
Shawcroft has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Brigham Young University and is a licensed professional engineer in Utah. He also is active in various professional groups and serves on several governing boards in the water industry, including serving as a trustee for the Colorado River Water Users Association and board member of the National Water Resources Association.
A bill would allow the new agency — which environmentalists call “shadowy” — to close its meetings and keep its records confidential.
Utah legislative leaders on Thursday unveiled plans for a new $9 million state agency to advance Utah’s claims to the Colorado River in hopes of wrangling more of the river’s diminishing flows, potentially at the expense of six neighboring states that also tap the river.
Without any prior public involvement or notice, lawmakers assembled legislation to create a six-member entity called the Colorado River Authority of Utah, charged with implementing “a management plan to ensure that Utah can protect and develop the Colorado River system.”
Sponsored by House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, HB297 would establish the Colorado River Commission of Utah, with a $600,000 annual budget. Utah shares the river’s flow with six neighboring states, most of which have dedicated large resources and expertise to preserve their interests in the river, according to Wilson. HB297 would help Utah better compete as it renegotiates the century-old agreement that governs how the river’s water is apportioned…
Dismayed the bill was drafted in secrecy, environmentalists argued the legislation is premised on the false idea that Utah is not receiving its full allotment of the Colorado’s flow. They characterized the commission as a “shadowy new government agency” aimed at promoting the Lake Powell pipeline and other big water diversions…
The bill would give broad authority to the new agency to close its meetings and keep its records confidential.
“This bill isn’t about water. It’s about money. It’s about climate change denial,” said Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council. “This bill is a water war. This bill ignites more frustration from other states by creating mythologies and ignorances and disinformation. And those conversations can be done behind closed doors because this bill exempts [the authority] from having to comply with all of the open and public meetings.”
Frankel’s impassioned remarks swayed no Republicans on the committee, who voted to advance HB297 on a party-line 9-2 vote…
Utah officials have long complained that the Beehive State is not taking its full allotment, which they say is 1.4 million acre-feet. For years, Utah’s unused share has been slipping past Glen Canyon Dam for use elsewhere, they complain.
But Frankel and others say state water officials ignore the reality of climate change, which has reduced the river’s flows by about 20% over the past two decades. That means Utah’s cut is a lot less than what has been claimed.
HB297 appears to be an outgrowth of a resolution passed last year that commits Utah agencies to “expeditiously develop and place to beneficial use [the Colorado’s flow] wherever within the state the need may arise.”
HCR22 sponsor Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, told colleagues Utah must either use its share of the Colorado or lose it to the other states, framing the question of water development as an us-versus-them proposition…
According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Utah is drawing about 1 million acre-feet from the Colorado, or about two-thirds of what Utah water officials contend is Utah’s share under the 1922 compact.
The river is under severe pressure from drought and urban growth, according to Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission and the general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District.
In the gloomiest long-term forecast yet for the drought-stricken Colorado River, a new study warns that lower river basin states including Arizona may have to slash their take from the river up to 40% by the 2050s to keep reservoirs from falling too low.
Such a cut would amount to about twice as much as the three Lower Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — agreed to absorb under the drought contingency plan they approved in early 2019.
Overall, the study warned that managing the river sustainably will require substantially larger cuts in use by Lower Basin states than currently envisioned, along with curbs on future diversions by Upper Basin states.
While climate change’s impacts on the river have been repeatedly studied, this is the first study that seeks to pinpoint how warming temperatures would translate into reductions in water that river basin states could take over the long term.
Carrying out the study’s recommendations, under the most likely conditions of climate change, almost certainly would mean more supply curbs for the $4 billion Central Arizona Project.
The CAP is already slated to lose nearly half its total allocation under the worst case, shorter-term scenarios envisioned under the 2019 drought plan.
Tucson and Phoenix-area cities and tribes, along with Central Arizona farmers, all depend on the CAP for water for drinking or irrigation.
The study, written by 13 researchers, was posted online about a week ago, at a time the drying river is on the edge of its first major shortage.
Federal forecasters predict Lake Mead will drop low enough to require cutbacks in water deliveries to Central Arizona farmers in 2022 due to river flow declines.
But exactly how much will be cut in long-term, future water deliveries is far from settled. The seven states are about to start renegotiating guidelines under which the river has been managed since 2007. Changes to the guidelines won’t take effect until 2026.
In other forecasts, the study took a shot at longstanding plans by the four Upper Basin states — New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — to increase their take from the river under rights held from the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
The Upper Basin states’ forecasts of river diversions are unrealistic and would make it virtually impossible to maintain stable water supplies over an extended period, the study said.
“New demands in the era of climate change resulting in decreasing flows are the equivalent of self-inflicted wounds,” the study said.
Also, more, major Upper Basin diversions could drain both lakes Mead and Powell, dramatically reducing the amount of water available to serve people for drinking and irrigation and to generate electricity, the study said.
That would also result in the release of very warm water from Powell, compared to colder waters being released today. The Grand Canyon’s ecosystem downstream would be drastically changed, said Jack Schmidt, one of the study’s authors.
The study also warned that the current, downward trend in river flows will likely continue or worsen as temperatures keep rising.
That will lead to additional evapotranspiration — the absorption of atmospheric water supplies by plants — and aridification of the landscape, in which soils get drier and runoff keeps declining, the study said.
“Under this scenario, the basin will soon face a tipping point,” the study said.
Basin might become far drier than what managers have been planning for
Much has been said about a “new normal” in the Colorado River Basin. The phrase describes reduced flows in the 21st century as compared to those during much of the 20th century.
Authors of a new study contemplate something beyond, what they call a “new abnormal.”
The future, they say, might be far dryer than water managers have been planning for. This needs to change.
In the white paper, Kevin Wheeler and 11 others affiliated with the Utah State University-based Center for Colorado River Studies argue for the need for “wide-ranging and innovative thinking about how to sustainably manage the water supply, while simultaneously encouraging the negotiators of new agreements to consider their effects on ecosystems.”
In the 133-page report, they identified a wide variety of alternative management ideas, not simple tweaks but “significant modifications or entirely new approaches.” Some may consider these proposed approaches radical, they say, but the situation of the Colorado River Basin demands more than small, incremental changes.
“If the Millennium Drought, which has now persisted for more than two decades, has become the ‘new normal,’ or if the progressive decline of runoff resulting from climate change becomes even more apparent, major structural changes to water management in the basin will be urgently required,” the authors say in an executive summary.
They say they hope their research triggers further thinking and proposals.
Colorado will have to make do with what it has. This is despite projected population growth during the next three decades that will expand the current 5.8 million population by 3 million residents by mid-century. Think of another Aurora, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo every 10 years.
The era of massive new diversions from Colorado’s Western Slope ended decades ago. Relatively small—the key word is relatively—new diversions are planned: two in Grand County, where both Denver Water and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District have projects using existing infrastructure. Aurora also wants to divert additional water from Eagle County.
This is from theBig Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
Big, new diversions, such as from the Yampa River near Craig, face difficult and likely prohibitive economics, with the need to cross two or three mountain ranges to deliver water to the northern Front Range. Too, with warming very probably decreasing flows over coming decades, there’s uncertainty whether water will be available with any reliability, given Colorado’s commitments under compacts governing the Colorado River.
Between 85 and 90 percent of the Colorado River originates in snowmelt, mostly from Colorado but also Wyoming. A century ago there was plenty for the taking by all these states as well as the three lower-basin states, Arizona, Nevada, and California. Many, however, could see ahead to a time when there would not be plenty for all.
The Colorado River Compact drawn up by representatives of the seven states in 1922 assumed plentiful supplies of that time. The river delivered 17.7 million acre-feet from 1906 to 1930. They accordingly allotted 7.5 million acre-feet to Colorado and its neighboring headwater states and 7.5 million acre-feet to California and its neighbors, leaving water left over for delivery to Mexico.
At times, the river has delivered well enough. Keeping in mind that 90% of the flows come from the upper basin, the gauging station at Lees Ferry, at the top end of the Grand Canyon, the dividing point between upper and lower basins, has had an average annual natural flow of 14.8 million acre-feet between 1906 and 2018.
The drought since 2000 has bent down the numbers. From 2000 to 2018, the average estimated flows have been 12.4 million acre-feet. This is the Millennium Drought.
It could get worse—and it has been worse in the past. Tree rings indicate flows of 11.8 million acre-feet for the last quarter century of the 1500s. That’s natural.
Now come unnatural conditions, the influences of the greenhouse gas emissions that have been accumulating in the atmosphere. Climate change will make some places wetter, and some places drier. In the Colorado River Basin the evidence points strongly toward drier in the basin altogether.
Colorado State University’s Brad Udall and others have already documented a drying underway, the increased evaporation and transpiration caused by rising temperatures. Udall’s research has found roughly half of the Millennium Drought can be attributed to those rising temperatures. He calls it a “hot drought.”
As for future warming, the authors of the report used temperature projections from two pathways identified by the International Panel on Climate Change. They analyzed reductions of flows ranging from 3% to 10% for each degree Celsius of warming.
Where does all this take the 40 million of us who live in the Colorado River Basin or depend in part on imported water from the basin? The latter includes the nearly 5 million people along Colorado’s urbanized Front Range corridor and the nearly 24 million people of southern California.
“Probable climate change conditions” will cause flow declines of 6.5% for each degree of warming, the study says. With less water available, less must be used. “Aggressive commitments to water conservation by both the Upper and Lower Basins will become critical in the next 25 years” to avoid drawing down the reservoirs in the basin, most notably Mead and Powell, below 15 million acre-feet.
Colorado and other upper-basin states should not try to use more water beyond 4 million acre-feet , despite the compact apportionment of 7.5 million acre-feet. They aren’t. Total consumptive use flattened out beginning in 1988. As for lower-basin states, they need to reduce demand to 6 million acre-feet after already cinching their collective belt in the 21st century to get within the 7.5 million acre-feet and then, within the last five years 6.9 million acre-feet.
John Fleck, the author of one book about the Colorado River and the co-author of a second book and former water reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, wrote in his blog on inkstain.net that the report clearly calls for water managers to commit publicly to deeper reductions in water use.
He also credits the level of details in the report, “a credible incorporation of the best climate science into the current Colorado River Basin policy framework, with an analysis done using CRSS, the modeling tool the management community uses to think about the Colorado River. This report, in other words, is written by a team deeply fluent in the language of Colorado River management.”
The report was posted on the same day that I spoke with a resident in Colorado’s Summit County, who said that in 30 years she had never seen it so dry during mid-winter.
As of mid-January, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projected 5.72 million acre-feet flow into Lake Powell. That’s 53% of average.
This comes after a subpar runoff in 2020 followed by a hot and dry summer, with massive wildfires from August to November, and now a winter that is, like the children of Lake Wobegone, above average—for warmth, that is.
From the Colorado Water Conservation Board via The Delta County Independent:
During the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) meeting on Jan. 25, an update on the current and ongoing Demand Management Feasibility Investigation was presented, including reiteration of the state’s guiding principles and the first steps of potential framework concepts for what a program could look like.
“The Demand Management Investigation remains an open, collaborative process, as we continue conversations with the Interbasin Compact Committee, Tribal Nations, non-governmental organizations, and stakeholders across the state,” said CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell. “The big question is, can we design a program that creates a net benefit for Colorado and protects Colorado water users?”
The Step II Work Plan, which was approved in November 2020, aims to use information developed throughout the course of work done pursuant to the previous 2019 Work Plan to analyze whether a Demand Management program would be achievable, worthwhile, and advisable for Colorado as a whole.
The guiding principles articulated at the board meeting include: Demand Management is not a foregone conclusion; The framework is not a program, but a point for discussion; Issues are explored in an open and collaborative manner including engagement with Tribal Nations; and a program would be run by the state for the benefit of the whole state and its water users.
As part of the Step II Work Plan, CWCB will develop strawman concepts based on a matrix of elements, which were identified by each of the eight workgroups last year.
At the board meeting, staff presented on elements for monitoring and verification; education and outreach; and environmental considerations areas. These were presented as examples, as staff develops content relating to the other subject areas.
While no large-scale pilot programs will be implemented at this time, CWCB will soon begin looking at opportunities to use existing programs and funding sources to conduct smaller-scale demonstration projects that might help with on-the-ground learning. CWCB will also work to incorporate existing and ongoing projects and information into the framework.
A CWCB workshop will be scheduled in the near future to provide the next update on the feasibility analysis. The date and time of this virtual event will be added to the CWCB calendar.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel editorial board:
Nothing unites rivals like a common enemy.
Colorado may be notorious for its intrastate water conflicts, but a recent flurry of newspaper articles on the potential for water speculation by Wall Street firms has water managers across the state agreeing on one thing: Private investment in a precious public resource that dictates every aspect of life in the West is too risky to tolerate.
On [the January 30, 2021] front page, the Sentinel’s Dennis Webb traced the angst stemming from press coverage of this issue to its primary source: friction between James Eklund, a Grand Valley native and fifth-generation Coloradan, and the Colorado River District.
Eklund should be a familiar name. He is the former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. He played a major role in getting the state’s water factions to agree to a state water plan that former Gov. John Hickenlooper called for in 2013. Perhaps more relevant, Eklund served as the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission during negotiations over a drought contingency plan that saw creation of a special storage account in Lake Powell.
Water conserved under a “demand management” program would be stored in this separate account to ensure adequate delivery of water to Lower Basin states. It’s a hedge against a disastrous “compact call” in which Upper Basin water uses could be curtailed to meet delivery obligations of the 1922 interstate compact.
Eklund has since moved to private practice as a Denver-based water attorney. Among his clients is Water Asset Management, a New York investment firm that has spent more than $16 million buying more than 2,000 acres of irrigated farmland in the Grand Valley.
Naturally, the Colorado River District is suspicious about WAM’s intentions — even though Colorado has some of the toughest anti-speculation laws in the nation. While individual landowners own water rights, they must put water to “beneficial use,” which doesn’t include selling water for profit.
Still, “buy and dry” scenarios — in which water is converted from one beneficial use (agriculture) to another (municipal taps) illustrate the ongoing battle against the commoditization of water.
The Colorado River District’s executive director, Andy Mueller, has openly speculated that Eklund is behind a media campaign “to discuss the virtue of free markets and water markets” in the western United States.
More troubling is the district’s assertion that Eklund is trying to help WAM take advantage of a potential drought mitigation tool he helped set up — the storage account in Lake Powell — by lobbying for private accounts within that pool.
That would grease the skids for marketing water from the Upper Basin (where the water is) to the Lower Basin (where the money is).
Eklund met with the Sentinel’s editorial board on Jan. 22. With every right to be indignant about assertions he labeled as “flat-out false,” Eklund struck a conciliatory tone.
“I’m leading with empathy here,” he said. “I share the anxiety of private investment in Colorado water. I understand it.”
Much of Webb’s reporting recounts the series of events that led to the imbroglio, but it’s also offers Eklund an opportunity to defend himself. He wouldn’t push for private accounts in Lake Powell, he said, because it violates the “Law of the River” and undermines the benefit of the bargain Colorado got when it joined the 1922 compact.
Nor would he represent a client bent on profiteering, he said.
In contrast, Eklund said, WAM hasn’t done anything but invest in improvements on agricultural land — boosting efficiency, sequestering carbon in soils and keeping land in production.
“I care too much about my family (his parents operate a ranch in the Plateau Valley), the Western Slope and Colorado agriculture to advise anyone that would cause harm.”
As Eklund noted, for all the district’s concerns, there’s not much separating their views. “They want the Western Slope to control the Western Slope’s destiny and I completely agree with that,” he said.
Eklund will be judged on whether WAM deviates from its current course. In the meantime, the silver lining in this all of this mistrust is that it has brought into sharp focus the need to protect water.
There are all kinds of doomsday scenarios at our doorstep. If we hope to continue life in western Colorado as we know it, we need to fight any changes to the law and work like hell to prevent a call on the river.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
James Eklund remembers having to work to get the Colorado River District’s trust before, when he was director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and was seeking support for a state water plan.
He said when talks began on the plan it was “dead on arrival” among representatives of the Western Slope district.
“People were saying it’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s going to be an excuse for more transmountain diversions” of water to the Front Range, he recalls.
Eventually, a plan was agreed on that the district got behind. But these days Eklund once again finds himself in a battle to gain the district’s trust, now because of his work as a private water attorney representing a New York investment firm that has been buying up Mesa County agricultural land and associated water rights and leaving the river district nervous about its — and Eklund’s — intentions for that water.
Viewed from the river district’s perspective, Eklund is a Denver water attorney that the district fears is trying to help his client take advantage of a potential drought mitigation tool he helped set up, involving the storage of water in a dedicated account in Lake Powell.
But Eklund also is someone who was born in Grand Junction, to parents who own a family ranch in the Plateau Valley that his great-great-grandparents homesteaded in 1888.
He spent every summer there while growing up, and continues to visit and pitch in doing ranch chores to this day when time allows. Given that background, he insists that for all the river district’s concerns, there isn’t much daylight between it and him when it comes to the desire to protect the Western Slope and its water…
He said the river district wants the same thing he does — strong Western Slope agriculture and water that is not at risk…
A MEDIA CAMPAIGN?
The river district’s concerns about Eklund and Water Asset Management, the New York company that now owns more than 2,000 acres of agricultural land in the Grand Valley, were amplified as a result of a Jan. 3 New York Times article on Wall Street investments in the West, followed by a Denver Post guest column in support of temporary, compensated, voluntary fallowing of Western Slope irrigated land to bolster water levels in Lake Powell.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the river district, views the two pieces as part of a media strategy by Water Asset Management, and likely Eklund…
He also views it as an attempt to put pressure on the state and the Upper Colorado River Commission, which includes representatives from Colorado and other Upper Colorado River Basin states, to move forward quickly with a proposal for managing water demand in times of droughts through measures including fallowing by farmers and ranchers, without safeguards to protect local economies…
Agricultural, municipal and other water conserved under a demand management program would be stored in a separate account in Lake Powell as provided for under a drought contingency plan involving the states. It would be available to ensure adequate delivery of water to Lower Basin states as required under a 1922 interstate compact, in order to avoid a potential “compact call” under which Upper Basin water uses could be curtailed to meet delivery obligations.
The river district long has been insistent that water conserved through demand management be temporary, compensated and voluntary, concepts the Colorado Water Conservation Board has committed to as it explores the idea.
The river district also wants the impacts of conservation shared proportionally among users in a way that Western Slope agriculture and ag-based communities are protected…
Mueller also long has been concerned that some entities might push to set up individual accounts within the pool of water created through demand management, to protect water diversions for municipal utilities while Western Slope agricultural use gets shut down under a compact call.
Theoretically, water in those accounts could come from investment firms buying up Western Slope agricultural land and water rights.
Mueller believes Eklund is lobbying for such accounts, based in part on the Times article exploring the concept of a market-based approach to western water that could result in more water being moved from agriculture to municipal use.
If that’s true, it could be argued that Eklund is gaming the very system he helped set up. He served as Colorado’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission during the negotiations leading to the drought contingency plan agreements, including establishment of a separate storage account in Powell…
But Eklund said he isn’t pushing for private water accounts in Powell. Only sovereigns can hold water there — not special districts, private entities or individuals — he said.
“That’s always been the case. That always will be the case as far as I can see,” he said.
He said it’s also the way it should be, and he wouldn’t lobby to change something he doesn’t believe in…
Eklund said allowing only sovereigns to hold water in the reservoir is linked to the bargain Upper Basin states got from the 1922 compact. That deal assured that Upper Basin states could develop water at their own pace, as opposed to fast-growing places such as southern California getting their hands on the bulk of Colorado River water.
Mueller told The Daily Sentinel that he knows Water Asset Management has been directly in contact with several Front Range water utilities arguing for their support for individual accounts in Powell.
“James Eklund himself was in the halls of one of the water utilities while I was there, doing exactly that, meeting with them and trying to lobby them for their support on those individual accounts,” Mueller said.
“That’s an amazing accusation,” Eklund said when told of Mueller’s comments. He added that Mueller’s assertion is “flat-out false.”
Denver Water spokesman Todd Hartman said, “Mr. Eklund has not been lobbying us on the matter of private accounts, and certainly has not done so in our hallways, as they’ve been largely empty since remote work began amid COVID-19 in March of last year.”
Hartman added that “Denver Water is in opposition to the concept of private water storage pools in Powell, as is the law. Private sector entities don’t have the legal ability to manage water across state lines nor within federally owned reservoirs. This can only be done by the states and the federal government.”
Eklund said he understands the river district’s nervousness about what’s being characterized as outside investments in Colorado water. Its job is to protect West Slope water, he said…
[Mueller] said Water Asset Management views water scarcity on the Colorado River as an opportunity to make money by moving water from rural to urban areas. The district believes investment firms are angling to speculate on Colorado’s water, contrary to Colorado’s antispeculation laws when it comes to water. A state task force is looking at strengthening such laws…
The Times article was followed within days by a column in the Denver Post by Brian Richter bluntly headlined, “Western Slope needs to suspend irrigation to avert water shortage catastrophe,” in which Richter supports agriculture playing a role in helping boost Powell water levels…
He said all he and Water Asset Management can do is “make sure we walk the talk” by the company not taking actions such as flipping water for profit and being involved in buy-and-dry schemes to move water off agricultural lands. Eklund said it hasn’t done such things during three years of being invested in the Grand Valley. Rather, he said it is investing in improvements, boosting efficiency, sequestering carbon in soils and keeping land in production.
Eklund said he doesn’t represent companies that speculate on water, and antispeculation is important to him just as it is to the river district.
Dry conditions are the worst they’ve been in almost 20 years across the Colorado River watershed, which acts as the drinking and irrigation water supply for 40 million people in the American Southwest.
As the latest round of federal forecasts for the river’s flow shows, it’s plausible, maybe even likely, that the situation could get much worse this year.
Understanding and explaining the depth of the dryness is up to climate scientists throughout the basin. We called several of them and asked for discrete numbers that capture the current state of the Colorado River basin.
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.
1. 84% of Upper Basin in extreme to exceptional drought
This is the highest percentage of land in the river’s Upper Basin since 2002, which stands as the region’s driest year on record. The Lower Basin fares worse, with 93% of the land area in those categories…
Nancy Selover, Arizona’s state climatologist, says the Upper Basin figure is concerning because that accounts for the river’s headwaters. If it’s dry there, that means many more problems as the water flows downstream.
“This is when we’re supposed to be gaining and accumulating water in the form of snowpack, and that’s not happening,” Selover said.
Conditions have been deteriorating across the river basin since the summer of 2020. Monsoon rains didn’t arrive. Record-breaking high temperatures dragged well into fall. Even hardy desert plants, the ones well-adapted to water scarcity, have struggled…
2. Three exceptional droughts in 20 years
Exceptional drought is a category that is supposed to capture the severity and frequency of an extended dry period. Climate scientists call it D4. For context, on the scale of “no drought” to “worst drought,” there’s no category that captures conditions more dry than exceptional.
“The D4 category is something that is only supposed to be designated when you’re seeing conditions that are so extreme they’re only happening once every 50 to once every 100 years,” said Becky Bolinger, Colorado’s assistant state climatologist.
The Colorado River basin has experienced three D4 droughts in the last 20 years, including the current one. 2002, 2018 and 2021 are the most intense dry periods on record for the basin.
“The droughts that we are seeing are becoming that much more severe because of the temperature component, they’re warmer,” Bolinger said…
3. A 12-inch deficit
The dryness is currently off the charts in parts of the watershed. Both Utah and Nevada experienced their driest years on record in 2020. Every other state in the watershed had one of its top five driest years on record.
Climatologist Jon Meyer with the Utah Climate Center said the number that captures the severity for him is 12 inches.
“That’s about the amount of water that our soils are behind in terms of what they normally would have,” Meyer said.
That deficit is about the same amount of precipitation that falls across Utah in an entire year. A year’s worth of rain and snow is missing from Utah’s ground…
4. Colorado River reservoirs at 46% capacity
The Colorado River system’s reservoirs combined are currently less than half full. Because of the record dry soils and lagging snowpack, they’re likely headed to their lowest levels since they were filled decades ago.
“These reservoirs are as empty now as when they started filling Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s,” said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program.
The low levels aren’t just causing hand-wringing among the West’s water officials. The dropping water and the reservoirs’ expanding bathtub rings are also tied to policy. As Lake Mead outside Las Vegas and Lake Powell in Utah decline, certain policies are triggered into action. Drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basin are now in use.
The Lower Basin states of Arizona and Nevada have begun to see their deliveries from the river curtailed. Those cutbacks are likely to grow steeper in 2021. An official shortage declaration from the federal government could come as early as this year, as Lake Mead is currently projected to be below 1,075 feet in elevation at the end of 2021.
Meanwhile, Lake Powell’s projected decline in 2021 recently triggered the Upper Basin plan to be used for the first time. Water managers in the four Upper Basin states and the federal government are expected to start monthly planning calls this year to consider options for propping up the reservoir if needed…
5. A deadline in 2026
With the reservoirs approaching their lowest levels in modern history, that brings us to our final number: 2026.
That year is the deadline for water users to negotiate a new set of managing guidelines for the Colorado River.
“The challenges are really hard,” Fleck said. “And it’s easy to put them off if you get a wet year. The dry years are what force the really important steps forward in the policy community.”
The negotiations promise to be a more intense process than the basin saw in the lead-up to the last set of guidelines in 2007, or the effort to bring together drought contingency plans in 2019. Federal and state officials have committed to a more inclusive process that integrates the needs of tribes, environmental and recreation groups, and Mexico.
Meanwhile, climate change is adding pressure to the entire river system, exacerbating existing supply and demand imbalances.
Extremely dry years that produce eye-popping statistics tend to grab officials by the shoulders and give them a good shake. That’s important for the entire region, Fleck said, because the backdrop of an impending crisis will set the tone for those negotiations. For those talks to start in the middle of another record-breaking dry period should make it clear to everyone involved: the future of the Colorado River is all about learning to live with less.
The calls came in shortly after the story in The New York Times announced Wall Street was on the prowl for “billions in the Colorado’s water.”
“Can you help us? How do we get started?” wondered the New York financiers, pals of Andy Mueller, the manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
“My response was really that if you want to invest in Colorado, you might want to look at something other than water,” Mueller said. “There is nothing to see here.”
The national story raised hackles across Colorado. It defined agriculture as a “wrong” use of Colorado River water and detailed a growing swarm of investors eager to inject Wall Street’s strategies into the West’s century-old water laws. The idea of private investment in public water has galvanized the state’s factious water guardians…
Population growth and persistent drought exacerbated by climate change are stressing the Colorado River, which supports 40 million people in seven states and Mexico and irrigates some 5.5 million acres of crop land. Now, the increasingly parched communities along the 1,450-mile river can add an additional threat: speculation.
It’s rare to see Front Range water managers like Denver Water and Northern Water joining counterparts on the Western Slope. Heck, neighbors on the Western Slope don’t often agree over agricultural, municipal, recreation and tourism-based uses of water. But everyone involved in the perpetual tug-of-war over Colorado water is ready to fight Wall Street investors eyeing “billions” in the state’s most precious resource.
“We have different interests and we have different things we use water for on the Western Slope,” Martha Whitmore, the Ouray County board member on the Colorado River Water Conservation District Board, said during the board’s quarterly meeting last week. “but the one thing we are really unified on … is we don’t want this to be a New York hedge fund’s new thing.”
Water law requires beneficial use
Colorado has some of the toughest laws to prevent profiteering on water in the West, anchored in a nearly 160-year-old state water law that requires users to put their rights to beneficial use. That definition has expanded from irrigation and home taps to include snowmaking, protecting wildlife and even kayaking in a whitewater park. Beneficial use does not include making money.
Even with the state’s strict law preventing a gold rush on water, an 18-member Anti-Speculation Law Work Group created by Colorado lawmakers last year is studying how to give the law preventing water profiteering even more teeth.
Jim Lochhead, the head of Denver Water, agrees with water managers around the state that institutionalized private investment in water “is inherently a problem for the entire state of Colorado.”
The Law of the River could be upended by Wall Street investors buying up and fallowing farmland for water rights, or even worse, buying agricultural water and holding it unused until it makes them rich, like some kind of water-logged bitcoin bros. (Which, by the way, is illegal under Colorado law that doesn’t really allow the sale of actual water as much as the right to use water for beneficial use.)
But, in a way, that buy-and-dry scenario is already part of Colorado’s water landscape. Cities like Aurora and Pueblo often buy water rights to support growth. And more of that is coming. The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan — part of a historic water management agreement inked in 2019 by federal officials and leaders in seven states — aims to cut water use, by, in part, paying farmers and ranchers and other water users to temporarily suspend their water rights.
Details on the controversial “demand management” element of the drought contingency plan are still being hammered out. But the prospect of water speculation has led to calls for all types of safeguards of public water in a demand-management market.
There is a big difference between investors who likely would be moving water from farms to cities willing to pay big and water districts trying to temporarily secure water rights to bolster supplies, said Taylor Hawes, who directs The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program.
Demand management is about conserving water and “creating water security, which is a public good,” said Hawes, who earlier this month published a letter in Western Slope Colorado newspapers along with the the national Family Farm Alliance and Trout Unlimited urging partnerships among often-contentious Colorado River users “to find durable solutions that make economic sense for water users and rural communities, as well as cities.”
“Demand management should be more of a guided market not a free market,” Hawes said in an interview. “It needs to have sideboards and restrictions, and one of those restrictions needs to be that it is serving the public good, to make sure we have water security for the future and that we can adapt to the changing climate.”
Mueller, with the Colorado River District, led a spirited discussion last week with his board, detailing specific issues with the increasing call for private investment in water. He warned that eroding trust in government institutions could sway more people toward a revamp of Colorado laws that would increase the role of market forces.
“The demand-management market needs to focus on rules and regulations and structures that protect our communities and if it can’t be done, the program should go away,” Mueller said.
Mueller, who has many issues with the New York Times article, says the article may “help make our case” as a launching point to rally not just water managers, but state residents, around the need to protect water.
Private, profit-driven investment in Colorado River water might not respect agricultural roots of communities that exist because of the river. But the eye of Wall Street might help champion the case for drought management and it’s share-the-pain plan to spread potential cuts. Mueller said the threat of speculators moving into Colorado’s water market could help convince residents about the need for big, climate-adapting changes in how water is conserved and protected in the state…
Most of the angst over Wall Street is coming from a group called Water Asset Management, a New York investment firm that has spent more than $16 million over the past few years buying more than 2,000 acres of farmland in the Grand Valley. The company is the largest landowner in the influential Grand Valley Water Users Association, which operates the 55-mile Government Highline Canal and 150 miles of irrigation pipe and ditches that water more than 23,000 acres of farmland.
It’s safe to say that Water Asset Management has succeeded where all others have failed: The fund has found a way to get Front Range and Western Slope water users in quick and easy agreement.
And advising the investment firm is James Eklund, the former director of the state’s top water protector, the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Eklund spent years as the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, helping to draw up the drought contingency plan that, among many things, creates a pool of water for Upper Basin states inside Lake Powell that serves as the upper state’s own bank within the larger bank.
Eklund bristles at the notion that the WAM group is angling to take over that bank of Upper Basin water in Lake Powell.
“You can’t do that now and you could not do that before the Drought Contingency Plan and you can’t do it in the future. Because the Law of the River forbids it,” he said. “If we allow private accounts in Lake Powell, we will undo the benefits of the bargain of the 1922 compact.”
Water Asset Management buys farms, pays for upgrades that increase the efficiency of water used in irrigating crops and then leases the property back to the farmer, Eklund said.
The firm’s investment fund “develops and markets the water assets while our farming operators manage the farming operations of the properties, mitigating agriculture risk,” reads the firm’s website details of its Water Property Investor Fund.
The group is not trying to flip water. If it was, it would have already sold the water rights it has, Eklund said. The group wants to invest in agriculture in the Western United States, he said…
Across Colorado, water managers agree with at least of one of Eklund’s ideas: It is time to work together. But not necessarily with his group. A host of water managers across the state have been meeting, amiably, to discuss how best they can form a united front to stop Wall Street speculation on public water.
“The coming together of all these different interests is a recognition that the challenges we face on the Colorado River are already complex enough. So, so complex,” said Hawes with the Nature Conservancy. “The last thing we need is Wall Street getting in the middle of this as we try to work out the solutions which are going to be really really difficult to do.”
From Yale Climate Connections (Jan Ellen Spiegel):
The region is transitioning to a more arid climate, challenging longstanding practices of water-sharing in the basin.
Colorado is no stranger to drought. The current one is closing in on 20 years, and a rainy or snowy season here and there won’t change the trajectory.
This is what climate change has brought.
“Aridification” is what Bradley Udall formally calls the situation in the western U.S. But perhaps more accurately, he calls it hot drought – heat-induced lack of water due to climate change. That was the core of research released in 2017 by Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center, and Jonathan Overpeck at the University of Michigan.
Their revelation was that the heat from climate change was propelling drought. “Previous comparable droughts were caused by a lack of precipitation, not high temperatures,” the study said. And all the factors at play were having compounding effects on each other that made the situation even worse. Those impacts were being felt most acutely on the biggest water system in the West – the Colorado River Basin.
Without a dramatic and fast reversal in greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change, Udall and Overpeck said, the additional loss of flow in the basin could be more than 20% by mid-century and 35% at the century’s end – worse than currently assumed.
“I always say climate change is water change,” says Udall, whose father was Arizona congressman Morris (Mo) Udall, an iconic environmental activist. “It means too much water, not enough water, water at the wrong time. It means reduced water quality. You get all of these things together as the earth warms up.”
In Colorado it’s all pretty much coming true. The drought is the second worst 20-year period in the past 1,200 years, according to Udall. This summer/fall alone had some of the hottest spells on record and the worst wildfire season ever. On the other hand, 2013 brought catastrophic floods to the Front Range. “I got 17 inches of water in my house here in four days. It’s all part of the same change,” Udall says.
It’s forced Colorado to start facing the reality that its perpetual struggle for water can no longer be written off as cyclical weather that will all balance-out over short periods of time. It’s climate change at work, and it requires long-term planning and likely fundamental changes to the paradigm of how the state gets, uses, and preserves its water.
The state and individual municipalities are beginning to address their new reality with policies that range from the obvious – conservation, just using less water, to the more innovative – considering using beaver dams to restore mountain wetlands and generally remediating the landscape to better handle water.
But all those actions and more must face the political reality of the longstanding way water-sharing is handled in the basin. It pits state against state, rural against urban, agriculture against, well, everyone.
The Colorado River Compact
The Colorado River Basin provides water to a massive swath of the Rocky Mountain and western states. The Compact that rules it dates to 1922, with California, Nevada and Arizona – the lower basin states – essentially getting first dibs on water that flows from upper basin states – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah – with secondary access to the water, so they generally absorb the brunt of water losses.
Colorado is a headwaters state – where the river flows down from the continental divide. It relies on whatever falls out of the sky: It does not have the luxury of access to whatever water may flow in farther downstream.
A process to re-evaluate aspects of the Compact is underway with a 2026 deadline. No one expects the basic structure to change, though other contingencies are likely to be layered on, as has happened a number of times in the intervening years.
River levels are off some 20% since the Compact was initiated, compounding the water crunch while the region’s population has grown dramatically, especially in Colorado. That combination of factors have many water experts and administrators convinced any new strategy has to do more than divvy-up the water differently.
That’s because it’s climate change and not cyclical weather causing the problems, Udall says emphatically: “Yup. Yup. Yup.” He notes that scientists already see impacts they hadn’t expected to see until 2050.
“I think some of the predictions about reduced flows in the Colorado River based on global warming are so dire it’s difficult to wrap your brain around them. We have no operating rules for that kind of reduction in supply,” says Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources at the University of Colorado. “Even with these discussions that will be taking place over the next five years for the Colorado River system, I’m not sure that they will be able to get to an agreement about what would happen if flow is reduced by 50%.”
The critical climate change impacts seem to act in a loop: heat causes more evaporation of surface water. The resulting lower water level means water will warm more easily, and in turn evaporates more readily.
Global warming is also changing the dynamics of snowpacks. They melt faster and earlier and don’t regularly continue to slowly dissipate, creating a gradual runoff that is more beneficial and sustaining to the water supply. Udall notes that on April 1, 2020, there was 100% of normal snowpack above Lake Powell, which with Lake Mead are the two enormous reservoirs in the system. In a normal year that would provide 90-110% of runoff. But it provided only 52% in 2020 as a result of dry warm weather through fall.
Sustainable water supplies are also threatened as weather events occur more often as extremes: major rains in a short period of time sandwiched by extended dry periods. Torrential rains that follow a long drought may help the soil, but runoff may never make it to the water supply.
Wildfires, in recent years larger and longer, complicate matters by dumping ash and crud into water bodies, which results in less water and contamination that can render unusable what water there is. And if difficult climate conditions keep trees from growing back after fires, the resulting ecosystem changes could further damage water supplies.
Big ideas in place
“This is not your average variability,” says Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which covers most of the water used by the state. “Cooperative management of water resources can really help in these hot dry summers,” he says.
Mueller says the district tried releasing additional water from a reservoir that also creates hydropower. The extra water helps cool the river it flows into – slowing evaporation and allowing fishing and other activities often stopped when the water gets too warm and low to resume. That same water was also used for other hydropower plants downstream. Some then continued to other river areas. And some was diverted for crop irrigation, important given that farming and ranching are the biggest consumers of water in the state.
Basic conservation – just using less water – is always the first step, but even Colorado Water Conservation Board senior climate specialist Megan Holcomb admits: “We’re definitely beyond that conversation.”
The Board is considering systems that employ the technique of demand management: finding ways to use minimal water to allow for storage for dry years. So far, the thinking involves a voluntary program.
Already in place is an online tool called the Future Avoided Cost Explorer or FACE: Hazards. It helps quantify impacts of drought and wildfires on sectors of the Colorado economy.
“We know these hazards are going to continue to impact our economy, but we have no numbers to even say how much we should invest now so that we don’t have financial impacts in the future,” Holcomb says.
Castle talks about ideas such as consideration of water footprints on new developments and re-developments; integrating land use planning with water planning including things such as landscaping codes; and use of technology at various levels of water monitoring.
In search of more equitable sharing of water
She notes also a drought contingency plan adopted in 2019 by the Compact states calling for reductions in deliveries to the lower basin. It’s pointed in the right direction, she says. “At the same time pretty much everyone involved in those discussions and that agreement also agreed that it was not sufficient,” Castle says.
Many experts have called for more equitable sharing of water reductions. But ideas on what is fair differ from state-to-state and also among different groups within a region where some interests are pitted against agriculture, which accounts for 80% of the water usage in the basin.
“I think people look at that huge volume of water being used in irrigated agriculture as a place where there’s flexibility. And when you get to the politics of working through that in an equitable way, it gets really complicated,” says Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society.
The suggestions have included crop switching or alternative transfer mechanisms that call on farmers to periodically grow less water-intensive crops, or pay them not to grow, as a way to make water available for municipal use or storage.
“From a pure economic perspective, it may seem like you pay them and they’re whole,” Udall says. “There are actually a lot of things where they don’t get whole. They potentially lose a market that they’ve established over years and a great relationship with a buyer. And if that goes away for a year, that buyer may not come back.”
In the end, experts say people in the Southwest should definitely not count on more precipitation arriving to bail them out. “I would disabuse people of the idea that you’re going to get more water,” Udall says. “I think it’s pretty clear you’re going to have less water.” So for folks who think building more reservoirs is a solution, Udall says: “It’s not at all clear to me that that works.”
But less conventional strategies just might.
Beaver dams to the rescue?
Beaver dams are a water management technique that has worked in nature for eons – at least for beavers. Sometimes for people? Not so much.
But the thinking is they could help slow water loss from high-elevation wetlands. That includes the real deals built by beavers or human-constructed beaver dam alternatives.
“We think there’s a possible synergy there that helps to improve water supply for water users and helps to improve habitat conditions for species – birds in particular – that depend on that kind of wetlands being around,” Pitt says.
The goal would be to protect remaining ones, help establish new ones, and do the same for high-elevation meadows.
A lot of research is still needed, Pitt says. “There’s all kinds of instrumentation that has to go into place to understand the groundwater, the surface water, evaporation, the water balance, what it does to your river downstream,” she says. There are water law considerations. And then the inevitable pilot projects.
Overall, she says, this type of holistic approach to water through natural ecosystem restoration could become a component of water-sharing agreements as have already been done with Mexico. In exchange for getting river areas restored to better flow, Mexico agreed to a sharing agreement it might not otherwise have.
More people, less water, and a touch of Johnny Appleseed
More people and less water has forced Denver Water to work with uncertainties not previously considered. “Variability is the name of the game in Colorado,” says lead climate scientist Laurna Kaatz. “And that variability’s going to increase over time. That makes it incredibly challenging to continuously provide high-quality drinking water when you’re not sure what’s coming around the corner.”
The situation calls for adaptive capacity, she says, to provide technical and legal flexibility to adjust for changing circumstances.
Kaatz pointed to the One Water project that pairs water with usage. For instance, treated wastewater could be used to water a golf course, saving the purest water for drinking.
Another project is called From Forests to Faucets, which works on watersheds as natural infrastructure to optimize water flow. It has already proved successful at keeping a wildfire in 2018 from encroaching on a reservoir. In April, Denver Water plans to expand its Airborne Snow Observatory, which uses technology developed by NASA to track snow availability, but now it can be deployed above an altitude of 8,000 feet.
Together the efforts seem to be working – since the 2002 drought, Denver Water has maintained a 22% per-person reduction in water usage from pre-drought levels.
Steamboat Springs is opting for tree-planting. The idea is that trees will help cool down the Yampa River, which is part of the Colorado River Basin. Hot, dry seasons had been pushing stream temperatures so high that part of the river wound up on EPA’s impaired waterbody list.
“That was a call to action,” says Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat Springs’ water resources manager.
The timing also dovetailed with the 2015 release of a Colorado Water Plan that included goals for stream management. Steamboat Springs did a streamflow management plan – released in 2018. In it was the idea of shading the Yampa.
“What we learned was that flow alone cannot overcome the thermal load for the solar radiation, as strength of that radiation increases over time,” she says. “The more that we can prepare the river for that, the better it will buffer against the impacts of climate change.”
They joined forces with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council’s ReTree program that began in 2010 as a reforestation effort to counteract trees killed by pine beetle infestations. It morphed into a three-year Yampa River restoration.
“That work also increases resilience to future changes,” says Michelle Stewart, the council’s executive director. “We’re really learning the important role soil moisture plays in resilience.”
ReTree planted 200 narrow leaf cottonwoods in 2019 and another 350 this past October. This coming October, its plans are for 450 cottonwoods and 150 mountain alders. All were raised at the Colorado State Forest Nursery from Yampa Valley clippings. “We’re using local trees that are already kind of adapting to big swings in temperature and probably have a little bit more of that hardiness that we need and drought readiness,” she says.
It’s too early to know how the shading is working but there are plans for citizen help to monitor that and to implement a soil moisture monitoring network in the Yampa Basin.
“This is a Johnny Appleseed project,” says Romero-Heaney. “We plant today and hopefully my children will get to enjoy it.”
Sustaining Lake Mead for the benefit of downstream water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin has been a key objective of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. (Source: Lighthawk via The Water Desk)
The “bathtub ring” at Lake Powell evidences lower flows coming into the reservoir. According to preliminary data from the Bureau of Reclamation, the total inflow into Lake Powell for the 2020 water year was about 6 million acre-feet, just 55% of average. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
FromS&P Global Market Intelligence (Richard Martin):
In an era of perennial [aridification], when the future of the Colorado River watershed, the lifeline of the U.S. Southwest, is the subject of fierce debate in state capitols across the region, the idea of bringing more than 26 billion gallons of water a year to a community of fewer than 200,000 people on the edge of the Mojave Desert strikes many as folly. To officials in Washington County, of which St. George is the county seat, though, it is a critical resource for the future.
Currently the county has one primary source of water, the Virgin River, said Todd Adams, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, and more will be needed in the coming decades.
“They only have one water source, and they have potential vulnerabilities with the Virgin River,” Adams said in a recent interview. “They need a second reliable source.”
What’s more, St. George, a bedroom community about 120 miles from Las Vegas with more than a dozen golf courses, lavish resorts and a high percentage of retirees, is expected to continue to grow rapidly through mid-century. To serve all those new arrivals, and all those fairways, more water will have to be imported, say local and state officials.
“Based on the population growth projections for Washington County through 2060, it’s expected to triple in size to over 500,000,” said Adams. “And with that growth, additional water sources will be needed.”
The problem is that taking water from one part of the Colorado River watershed diminishes the water available for other parts. And long before St. George reaches its ultimate population level, there may not be enough to go around…
Approved by the Utah state legislature in 2006, the Lake Powell Pipeline has become one of what opponents and environmentalists have dubbed “zombie water projects”: proposals for diversion and transportation in the Colorado River watershed that face significant opposition and may never get built, but that refuse to die.
The pipeline was originally pitched as a source of water and power generation. The initial plan called for a large hydropower generating station along the route and a reservoir for pumped energy storage, but those elements were scrapped to reduce the environmental impact of the overall system, according to Karry Rathje, a spokesperson for the Washington County Water Conservation District. The line will still include six smaller inline hydropower facilities, to manage the water pressure and to reduce the electricity load from the pipeline on the regional grid. Those stations will total 85,000 MWh of generation annually, at full capacity; the full project will consume around 317,500 MWh, making it a net consumer of 232,500 MWh a year.
Reducing the amount of water in Lake Powell, though, could affect electricity production at the two major downstream hydro stations on the Colorado, at Glen Canyon Dam below Lake Powell, built in 1964, with 1,312 MW of generation capacity, and the two plants at Hoover Dam, built in 1936, with a combined capacity 2,078 MW, below Lake Mead. Both dams have become symbols of the 20th-century conquest of the Southwest and of the human depredation of the Colorado River ecosystem. Glen Canyon, in particular, was controversial from its conception; environmentalists today loudly demand its removal…
Together, the two dams produce enough electricity to feed roughly 630,000 homes across the region. Because hydropower generation is dependent on the volume of water stored in the reservoirs, as the levels of lakes Mead and Powell fall, electricity production will follow. Lake Powell has been below its average annual elevation every year in this century, according to data collected by Western Resource Advocates; in 2018 the difference was more than 30 feet.
Electricity production from all three facilities has fallen slightly in recent years, and water experts believe the future could be far worse.
“Higher temperatures and altered precipitation patterns” — i.e., the effect of global climate change — are expected to reduce streamflows in the basin by up to 11% by 2075, according to a 2013 white paper by Aaron Thiel of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Water Policy. “These factors, combined with increased summer evaporation rates, could reduce reservoir storage by as much 10-13 percent, and ultimately reduce electricity generation by 16-19 percent in the Colorado River Basin.”
Reduced electricity from hydropower could be only one of the obstacles facing big water-diversion projects like the LPP, as policymakers face the new drier, hotter era in the Southwest.
Governed by a complex web of agreements and water rights stemming from the Colorado River Compact of 1922, water use in the basin has long outstripped the actual water available. As the climate warms that gap is sure to expand.
A 2017 paper in the journal Water Resources Research, by Bradley Udall of Colorado State University and Jonathan Overpeck of the Colorado River Research Group, found that “As temperatures increase in the 21st century due to continued human emissions of greenhouse gasses, additional temperature‐induced flow losses [in the Colorado River] will occur.” Those losses could exceed 20% below the 20th-century average flow by mid‐century and 35% by 2100.
And they could be devastating to the region’s economy. According to a 2014 study that was produced by Arizona State University’s Seidman Research Institute and commissioned by Business for Water Stewardship, a non-profit organization, the Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs across the seven states of the basin. Water from the river is essential to at least half the gross economic product in each of those states, including 65% in New Mexico and 87% in Nevada, the economists found. A drop in available water of only 10% would endanger some $143 billion in economic activity in a year.
Businesses everywhere are increasingly vulnerable to the risks presented by inadequate supplies of clean water. The 2019 Global Water Report produced by CDP, a nonprofit organization focused on the environmental impacts of companies, investors and governments, found that, worldwide, the total business value at risk due to water shortages and water pollution reached $425 billion. In the U.S. Southwest, that risk grows more acute with each year of persistent drought…
Despite being identified in a June 2020 executive order from the Trump administration as among the infrastructure projects that should be pushed quickly through the environmental review process, the LPP has sparked near-universal opposition from the other six states of the basin. That opposition crescendoed in September with a letter to the Secretary of the Interior from a coalition of state water agencies and governors’ offices in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming demanding that the project be paused or abandoned…
In southern Utah that debate is complicated by a range of factors with origins in the economics and politics of water in the West.
People in Washington County use around 300 gallons of water per capita per day, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Geological Survey, more than twice the national average and 90 gallons more per capita than residents of Las Vegas, a city of nearly 650,000. And they get their water cheaply: water rates in the county average around $1.50 per 1,000 gallons, less than half of what Las Vegans pay and way below the $5/1,000 gal. that Denverites pay.
Zach Renstrom, the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservation District, disputes those numbers, saying that the state of Utah includes evaporation from reservoirs and re-used water in its water-use calculations…
Still, simple economics indicate that if people in southwest Utah paid more for their water, they would use less.
“Water use in Utah is subsidized, mostly by property taxes,” said Gabriel Lozada, an associate professor of economics at the University of Utah who has extensively modeled the Lake Powell Pipeline project. “So people in urban areas don’t see what the right price of water is. Unsurprisingly, Utah urban dwellers use a lot more water. The price of water we face is way way too low.”
And Washington County residents will eventually have to pay for the new pipeline, after the state fronts the construction costs. That, says Lozada, in turn would raise water rates — thus obviating the need for the pipeline as residents use less water. The possibility of rising prices leading to more conservation, and thus less demand, has not factored, at least publicly, into the developers’ considerations.
“In many scenarios it’s possible for Washington County to raise rates enough to pay back the cost of the pipeline,” said Lozada, “but they’d be so high that demand for water would be so low that no one would want to buy the water in the pipeline.”
Renstrom claims that Lozada and other opponents have an underlying agenda…
The argument over the Lake Powell Pipeline is a proxy for a larger debate about the future of the economy and society in the West, between competing visions of unlimited growth and boundless prosperity, on the one hand, and a new era of scarcity, conservation and more modest expectations on the other.
The biggest consumer of water in the Southwest, by far, is not cities like St. George but big agriculture. Since the early 20th century farmers have been growing water-intensive crops like alfalfa and cotton in the desert, using groundwater and Colorado River water. That era could be coming to a close. As the region urbanizes, converting farmland to towns, average water use goes down. Even a golf course uses less water than an alfalfa farm. A 2015 report on Utah’s future water resources and needs by the state’s Legislative Audit Division found that the Utah Division of Water Resources “understates the growth in the water supply when estimating Utah’s future water needs.”
“The division has not attempted to identify the incremental growth in supply that will occur as municipalities develop additional sources of water,” the auditors wrote. “That additional supply will mainly come from agriculture water that is converted to municipal use as farmland is developed.”
At the same time, municipal water districts in the West, such as Las Vegas, are actually using less water per capita as their populations grow…
“The widespread presumption that population growth means growing water demand drives much of the politics of water planning in the Colorado River Basin,” write Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservancy District, and John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, in their 2019 history of Colorado River management, Science Be Dammed. “But it is wrong. Simply put, we are consistently using less water. In almost all the municipal areas served with Colorado River water, water use is going down, not up, despite population growth.”
That means the fundamental presumption at the heart of the Lake Powell Pipeline — that in order to grow, Washington County needs more water from the river — is likewise flawed. And it offers hope that as the climate warms and the region dries, it’s possible to forge a new relationship between the Colorado River and the communities that depend on it.
“We have been getting it wrong for a century,” write Kuhn and Fleck. Time to get it right is growing short.
Click here to read Ian James’ fantastic article about the current state of the Colorado River from stem to stern that’s running up at AZCentral.com. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
The warming climate is intensifying drought, contributing to fires and drying out the river’s headwaters, sending consequences cascading downstream.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colorado — Beside a river that winds through a mountain valley, the charred trunks of pine trees lie toppled on the blackened ground, covered in a thin layer of fresh snow.
Weeks after flames ripped through this alpine forest, a smoky odor still lingers in the air.
The fire, called the East Troublesome, burned later into the fall than what once was normal. It cut across Rocky Mountain National Park, racing up and over the Continental Divide. It raged in the headwaters of the Colorado River, reducing thick forests to ashes and scorching the ground along the river’s banks.
The fires in Colorado spread ferociously through the summer and fall of 2020 after months of extreme heat that worsened the severe drought.
As smoke billowed over the headwaters, the wildfires raised warning signs of how profoundly climate change is altering the watershed, and how the symptoms of heat-driven drying are cascading down the heavily used river — with stark implications for the entire region, from Colorado’s ranchland pastures to the suburbs of Phoenix…
Over the past year, the relentless hot, dry months from the spring to the first snows left the soil parched. The amount of runoff into streams and the river dropped far below average. With reservoirs sinking toward new lows, the risks of shortages are growing.
Much of the river’s flow begins as snow and rainfall in the territory of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which includes 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope. Andy Mueller, the district’s general manager, said the extreme conditions over the past year offer a preview of what the region should prepare for in the future.
“Climate change is drying out the headwaters,” Mueller said. “And everybody in the Colorado River Basin needs to be concerned.”
Mueller saw the effects while backpacking in Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness in the summer with his 19-year-old daughter. Above the tree line, at an elevation of 12,000 feet, they expected to see mushy green tundra. Instead, they found the ground was bone dry…
People who focus on the river have widely acknowledged the need to adjust to a shrinking system with less water to go around.
Many suggest solutions can be achieved through collaborative efforts — often with money changing hands in exchange for water — while working within the existing rules. Others say solutions shouldn’t fall on the backs of farming communities by taking away water that fuels their economies. Some people argue the river seems headed for a crash and its rules need to be fundamentally reimagined…
The deals between the seven states are designed to temporarily lower the odds of Lake Mead and Lake Powell dropping to critical lows over the next five years. The states’ representatives have yet to wade into the details of negotiations on what shortage-sharing rules will look like after 2026, when the current agreements expire.
Still unresolved are difficult questions about how to deal with the shortfall over the long term.
What’s increasingly clear is that the status-quo methods of managing the river are on a collision course with worsening scarcity, and that eventually something will have to give…
Watershed ‘thirstier’ with heat
Last winter, after a dry year, the Rocky Mountains were blanketed with a snowpack that was slightly above average. Then came extremely hot and dry conditions, which shrank the amount of runoff and flows into tributaries and again baked the soils dry.
[Andy] Mueller said the change occurred abruptly at the end of the snow season in the spring…
With the heat, some of the snow didn’t melt but instead evaporated directly into the air, which scientists call sublimation — something that has been happening more over the past two decades. The flows in streams dropped over the next few months, and then August brought record heat, which dried out the headwaters and fueled the fires through the fall…
In a 2018 study, scientists found that about half the trend of decreasing runoff in the Upper Colorado River Basin since 2000 was the result of unprecedented warming. In other research, scientists estimated the river is so sensitive to warming that it could lose roughly one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise…
“A warmer atmosphere is a thirstier atmosphere, and we’re seeing less runoff bang for our precipitation buck,” said Jeff Lukas, an independent climate researcher in Colorado. “We’ll still have wetter and drier years, but the baseline is very likely to be shifting downward, as it has in the last 20 years.”
And when extreme heat comes, it leaves less water running in tributaries and also translates into drier forests, leading to increased fire risk.
The soils were so dry over the past year that they soaked up moisture, contributing to below-average stream flows, said Megan Holcomb, a senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“You can think of it as like the dry sponge that you haven’t wetted in forever,” Holcomb said. “That kind of soil moisture deficit is not something that you rebound from immediately.”
After the hot spring came a dry summer. The lack of monsoon rains compounded the drought. And then came August, Holcomb said, when a map of record-hot temperatures hugged the Colorado River Basin like a “massive red handprint.”
In areas of western Colorado that drain into the river, it was the hottest and driest August on record, breaking the previous temperature record by 2 degrees F, said Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist and director of the Colorado Climate Center.
The state usually gets its largest wildfires in June and July. But with the severe drought, the fires burned through August, and then exploded in October with unprecedented speed and intensity. The ultradry conditions, together with high winds, contributed to the three largest wildfires in Colorado history, which together devoured more than half a million acres.
In the future, rising temperatures will lead to more of these scorching summers.
Firefighters on the march: The Pine Gulch Fire, smoke of which shown here, was started by alighting strike on July 31, 2020, approximately 18 miles north of Grand Junction, Colorado. According to InciWeb, as of August 27 2020, the Pine Gulch Fire became the largest wildfire in Colorado State history, surpassing Hayman Fire that burned near Colorado Springs in the summer of 2002. Photo credit: Bureau of Land Mangement-Colorado, via InciWeb and National Interagency Fire Center.
The Cameron Peak fire soon after it started on Aug. 13, 2020. By Sept. 11, the fire had grown to more than 102,000 acres (now >200,000 acres) and was not expected to be considered out until Oct. 31. Photo credit: InciWeb via The Colorado Sun
East Troublesome Fire October 21, 2020 via Wildfire Today.
Scenes of the CalWood Oct. 17, 2020 (Jivan West/CU Independent)
Abby Burk of the conservation group Audubon Rockies noticed how low the river was in the summer when she went paddling in her kayak. In parts where the river was full and muddy a year earlier, she found bars of gravel. Where there once were channels to paddle through, she encountered dead-end lagoons.
In November, when Burk drove through the headwaters near the smoldering fires, she snapped photos of the hills and mountains, still golden-brown beneath a dusting of snow.
When the soil is so parched, it will always “take the first drink” before water reaches the streams, Burk said. “We need a lot more snow for many years to come to really replenish the soil moisture deficits that we’re seeing now.”
The fire scars will also bring challenges come spring, she said, when melting snow will send runoff carrying ash, debris and sediment into streams, potentially creating complications for water systems.
Burk said she’s hoping there will be a slow melt so the runoff comes gradually, without “bringing down the mountain into the river.”
A rancher looks to adapt
Paul Bruchez raises cattle on his family’s ranch in the headwaters near the town of Kremmling, where the Colorado River winds through pastures…
Bruchez has been involved in discussions about the river as a member of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. And while he’s heard many people voice alarm about the watershed lately, Bruchez said he and other neighboring ranchers have been talking about the need to adapt to a river with less water since 2002, when severe drought came.
The flows dropped so low then that even ranchers with the longest-standing water rights, known as senior rights, couldn’t get it to their fields.
“Within this river basin, we have seen a change over time of the quantity and volume of water that is available. And in that same time, we’ve seen a growth of population that relies on it,” Bruchez said. “We knew this in 2002 when we hit that drought, that if we didn’t change how we operated, we weren’t going to survive.”
Since then, Bruchez and other ranchers have been talking about ideas for adapting…
The closer the region gets to a scenario of curtailing water allotments, Bruchez said, the more investors and representatives of cities and towns are going to be contemplating ways of securing water from elsewhere.
For people in agriculture, he said, “we need to be at the table or we’re going to be on the menu.”
‘It affects everybody’
One of the main tributaries that feeds the Colorado is the Gunnison River, which like the mainstem has shrunk during the heat-amplified drought. Along the Gunnison, cattle ranchers got less water last year and their pastures produced less hay.
The river’s low flows also forced an early end to the river rafting season on Labor Day weekend. After that, releases from a dam had to be cut back and the Gunnison was left much shallower than usual, with rocks protruding in stretches where boats would normally be drifting until the end of September.
The river has dropped to some of its lowest levels in years, said Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.
The effects are visible at Blue Mesa Reservoir, one of the state’s largest, which has declined to less than half its full capacity.
Visiting the lake, Chavez walked on sandy ground that used to sit underwater.
Looking across the inlet where the river pours into the lake, she pointed to a gray line on the rock showing the high-water mark. During spring runoff, she said, the river in this channel can reach about 20 feet higher. But with the soil so parched, its level dropped.
“When we are dry in the Upper Gunnison Basin, it affects everybody downstream of us,” Chavez said. And the swings between high and low flows, she said, have made it difficult to plan how to operate the reservoirs…
Photo credit from report “A Preliminary Evaluation of Seasonal Water Levels Necessary to Sustain Mount Emmons Fen: Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests,” David J. Cooper, Ph.D, December 2003.
Gunnison River in Colorado. Source: Bureau of Reclamation via the Water Education Foundation
Upper Gunnison watershed May 2019. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs
In the Gunnison Valley, a local climate action group meets to talk about potential solutions. Some conversations have focused on how to manage forests that have grown thick with vegetation over the past century as federal agencies have focused mostly on putting out fires.
While the forests have grown thicker, warmer temperatures have enabled beetles to flourish, littering the mountains with dead trees.
Chavez and others want to prioritize efforts to make the forests healthier and more fire-resilient by thinning the trees through logging, mechanical treatments or controlled burns, which they say would make the whole watershed healthier. She said the federal government needs to be more involved and the region needs funding for these projects.
“Our big push this year is to do some watershed management planning and work with the Forest Service to identify zones of concern, or areas that we can treat,” Chavez said. “We’re worried if we had a big fire what would happen.”
Alongside those efforts, water managers are discussing ways of dialing down water usage…
Ranchers, farmers consider using less
One lifelong rancher who had a smaller-than-usual hay crop was Bill Trampe, who has worked on water issues for years as a board member of the Colorado River District.
His cattle graze on meadows near Gunnison where the grasses survive year after year. He was short of water to irrigate after mid-June, which left the pastures parched.
Over the past two decades, only a few years brought good snowpack, he said, and ranchers have repeatedly had to weather the financial hits of years when they must buy hay for their cattle…
‘We need to set the terms’
In other parts of the river basin, some representatives of agricultural water agencies are worried about the potential consequences of paying farmers to leave land dry.
One such voice is J.B. Hamby, a newly elected board member of California’s Imperial Irrigation District, who said he’s concerned that while cities and sprawling suburbs continue to grow rapidly, agricultural communities are increasingly at risk. He said people in cities need to realize there is a priority system that shouldn’t be changed…
Arizona gets nearly 40% of its water from the Colorado River. Much of it flows in the Central Arizona Project Canal, which cuts across the desert from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson.
In 2020, Arizona and Nevada took less water from the river under the drought agreement among Lower Basin states, and in 2021 they will again leave some of their water in Lake Mead. The latest projections show Mead could fall below a key threshold by summer, which would trigger a shortage declaration and larger cutbacks in 2022…
Now, with less water flowing to farms, the amount of runoff into the Salton Sea has shrunk, leaving growing stretches of exposed lakebed that spew dust into the air. The dust is contributing to some of the worst air pollution in the country, and many children suffer from asthma.
Hamby said the Imperial Valley would have been better off without the water transfer deal. Looking at the proposed approach in Colorado, Hamby said, it seems to replicate what occurred in Imperial.
“When you tie money to water, you get users who become addicted to the money and don’t actually in the end start to want to farm anymore,” Hamby said. “That is really corrosive to the long-term survival, much less thriving, of rural communities when people get more hooked on money rather than the way of life and putting the water on the land.”
He argued that such an approach would be “subverting the whole priority system” and enabling cities to avoid taking cuts themselves…
‘Are we doing enough?’
At his ranch by the river, Bruchez said he wants to be on “the preventative side,” getting ahead of the looming problems instead of reacting. And that includes studying and promoting conservation, he said, because the bottom line is “we just all have to figure out how to use less water.”
In early 2019, Bruchez began talking with Perry Cabot, a researcher from Colorado State University, about a project that would help provide data on crop water use, impacts of reduced irrigation and strategies for conserving water.
Cabot gave a presentation to the Colorado Basin Roundtable, and members supported the idea of a study. The project began in 2020 with about $900,000 in funding, including support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and groups including Trout Unlimited and American Rivers.
A group of nine ranchers participated and were paid for leaving some fields dry or partially dry, Bruchez said. More than 900 acres weren’t irrigated for the entire year, and about 200 acres were “deficit irrigated,” meaning they received less water.
Bruchez’s ranch totals about 6,000 acres. He participated on about 41 acres, where he stopped irrigating on June 15 and didn’t water the rest of the year.
“My end goal is to understand the impacts of water conservation for agriculture so that if and when there are programs to participate, agriculture is doing it based on science,” Bruchez said…
Paul Bruchez said he’s seen that when people talk about solutions, they often seem to draw boxes around different approaches like demand management, water conservation, climate change and forest management, but he thinks they’re all quite connected.
“It’s all the same conversation,” Bruchez said. “To me, the question just comes down to, are we doing enough, quick enough?”
“It’s that water that is provided by the Colorado River that ties us all together,” Mueller said. “And truly, when we recognize the importance of the Colorado River and how it ties us together, that’s when we succeed as a society.”
Ian James is a reporter with The Arizona Republic who focuses on water, climate change and the environment in the Southwest. Send him story tips, comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @ByIanJames.
On Nov. 30 Governor Jared Polis sent a “memorandum of drought emergency” to executive directors of state government departments. The memo marks the beginning of phase 3 “full plan activation” of the state’s Drought Mitigation and Response Plan.
The memo said “deep and persistent drought conditions” had covered the state for 15 weeks, noting that this level of drought had not been observed since 2013. It also activated the “Municipal Water Impact Task Force,” chaired by members of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Department of Local Affairs.
The memo states: “The initial objective of the Task Force is for water suppliers to coordinate with each other and the state going into winter to prepare for anticipated drought-related challenges and opportunities in 2021.”
“So it’s telling you to get planning for a drought, which is what your water conservancy districts, Yellow Jacket and the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy districts are attempting to do” said Alden Vanden Brink, District Manager for the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District.
During a Dec. 14 Board of County Commissioners work session, he spoke about the Governor’s memo and its implications for the basin. “I’ve been following up on this quite a bit trying to make sure they understand that there is no drought contingency within our White River basin,” he said.
By drought contingency, Vanden Brink was referring to storage, of which he said there is very little in the basin. “You’re looking at just a couple of days worth of water, literally,” said Vanden Brink, later adding “we have a real problem with the lack of storage in our basin, a real problem, and it makes us extremely vulnerable.”
That vulnerability, though not exactly new to the basin, is growing more urgent. Colorado’s record drought in 2020 was just the beginning of a more long term trend, according to leading climatologists and groups like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)…
That planning includes preparations for an upcoming water court lawsuit set to begin in the first week of January. “It’s to get a conditional water right to construct a reservoir for drought contingency within the White River basin.” said Vanden Brink, referring to the Wolf Creek Reservoir, also known as the White River Storage project. The project would store between 66,000 and 73,000 acre feet of water, depending on the exact location.
In an expert report submitted earlier this year, state engineers contested that Rio Blanco had failed to identify the need for that much water. Ultimately that disagreement is what prompted the lawsuit between the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the State’s Division of Water Resources.
Adding to his message of urgency, Vanden Brink talked about proposed “demand management” strategies which are likely to become more prevalent in coming years. “What they’re looking at doing is paying a rancher to idle his field for a given period of time, and allow that water to flow by,” said Vanden Brink, noting that the development of those strategies was a changing dynamic. Although he didn’t speak negatively about the concept in general, he was concerned about its potential impact in the region. “Not allowing that water to go be used for flood irrigation….flood irrigation is what recharges our groundwater aquifer. That’s taking away from that groundwater aquifer what little storage we have, which is the aquifer” said Vanden Brink.
He argues that given the lack of existing storage, and thus lack of drought contingency in the basin, the Governor’s memorandum of drought emergency provides more legitimacy to Rio Blanco’s proposed reservoir project.
FromColoradoPolitics.com (Marianne Goodland) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
The week of Dec. 14, the seven states that are part of the Colorado River Compact began the first step for renegotiating guidelines that will decide how much water the three lower basin states and Mexico will get from Lake Mead, on the Arizona-Nevada border, and from Mead’s source, the Colorado River.
The guidelines are interim, signed in April 2007, and are due to expire in 2026. Among the most significant, the guidelines provide long-term stable management of the river and also determine the circumstances under which the Interior secretary could reduce the annual amount of water available from Lake Mead to the Colorado River lower basin states. The guidelines also are a way for the basin states to avoid litigation, part of what prompted the 2007 interim guidelines.
The seven states that make up the Colorado River Compact, and which will negotiate those guidelines, are divided into upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) and lower basin states (Arizona, Nevada and California). Mexico is also part of the lower basin water allotment, as well. About 40 million people across the seven states rely on the Colorado River for water.
Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico are dealing with extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
What that means for the river heading into in the future, said John Fleck, a former journalist and author and now with the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, is water levels in Lake Mead could drop to 1,060 feet by 2022. That’s 15 feet below what triggers “the next tier of mandatory Lower Basin water use cuts under the river’s 2007 interim guidelines and the supplemental drought contingency plan” signed last year…
Last week, the seven states signed a joint letter to Trump administration Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman requesting technical support from the federal agency, as the states move forward with negotiations. The states are setting up a working group to look at modeling for the management and operations of Mead and Lake Powell, which is the water “bank” on the Colorado River for the upper basin states…
[Rebecca] Mitchell said she thinks “everything is on the table as we look toward the future.” What’s in the final report — or not — “doesn’t mean we can’t deal with bigger issues outside of the guidelines.”
That’s also where the Biden administration, and his Interior nominee, U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, could make a difference. One of the signs from Biden toward the Colorado River is his appointment of Tanya Trujillo of New Mexico to the Department of the Interior’s transition team. Trujillo is vice chairwoman of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and lower basin project director for the Colorado River Sustainability Campaign. A water lawyer, Trujillo has experience working in Interior on water issues.
“We’re hoping (the new administration) will foster negotiations that are rooted in science and create a framework that recognizes how climate change is affecting and will continue to affect the basin,” Kim Mitchell, a senior water policy adviser with Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates, told BloombergLaw.com in November.
Officials from all seven states in the watershed sent a letter State letter to USBR re: Colorado River 2026 guidelines.[/caption] this week to Interior Department secretary David Bernhardt, letting the federal government know they’re ready to start hammering out details of operating guidelines for the biggest reservoirs in the country.
Dry conditions made worse from climate change have hit Lakes Mead and Powell hard during the last two decades, leaving them well below capacity.
But as those talks begin, long-standing tensions remain.
“The states noted in that correspondence the importance of engaging with water users, tribes, NGOs and Mexico as those discussions progress,” said John Entsminger, president of the Colorado River Water Users Association and general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Tribes, environmentalists and recreation advocates have routinely been kept out of past negotiations, and say they’ll be pushing for more transparency in crafting the new rules…
“Greater inclusion earlier in the processes, will likely lead to more creative solutions, with more buy-in from the affected parties,” said Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman. The agency oversees water infrastructure in the West…
Current guidelines put in place in 2007 expire in 2026.
FromThe Associated Press (Felicia Fonseca) via U.S. News & World Report:
A set of guidelines for managing the Colorado River helped several states through a dry spell, but it’s not enough to keep key reservoirs in the American West from plummeting amid persistent drought and climate change, according to a U.S. report released Friday…
The report by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation found that the guidelines provided stability, along with other agreements among the states and with Mexico, but they won’t be enough to sustain a region that’s getting warmer and drier and has demanded more from the Colorado River.
The guidelines and an overlapping drought contingency plan expire in 2026. Officials in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada told the Interior Department on Thursday that they have started talking about what comes next…
The Bureau of Reclamation was tasked with reviewing the effectiveness of the 2007 guidelines before year’s end to help with a baseline for the new negotiations. The guidelines spelled out the operations of the nation’s two largest manmade lakes — Lake Powell along the Arizona-Utah border and Lake Mead along the Arizona-Nevada border — outlining what happens when the river can’t supply the water that states were promised in the 1920s.
The guidelines allow water to be stored in Lake Mead, the reservoir created by the Hoover Dam. They set marks for the lake that would trigger water cuts to Nevada and Arizona. California and Mexico have been looped in on possible cuts in other plans.
The guidelines were meant to be flexible and encourage consensus among states, rather than the federal government dictating management of the river, and to avoid litigation because states were required to consult with each other before suing…
In comments before the report was finalized, Native American tribes said they largely were left out of the discussions that led to the guidelines and want a bigger role in the next round of talks, with recognition of their sovereign status. They hold the rights to 3.4 million acre-feet of water annually in the Colorado River basin.
Not all tribes, including the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe in northwestern Arizona, have secured the legal right to the water they claim in the basin.
Burman said the Bureau of Reclamation, states, tribes and others will focus in the weeks ahead on creating timelines for the negotiations…
When the 2007 guidelines took effect, Lake Powell and Lake Mead together were about half full. Conservation, delayed water deliveries, a balancing act and other measures have kept them hovering at that level.
States, tribes, cities and other water users are expected to use the Bureau of Reclamation report as a resource for deciding what will replace the guidelines.
Here’s the release from Reclamation (Patti Aaron and Linda Friar):
The Bureau of Reclamation today released a report intended to bring partners, stakeholders and the public to a common understanding of the effectiveness of the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The technical report documents conservation efforts and operations on the Colorado River since 2007 and provides an essential reference to inform future operations.
“The report presents a thorough review of operations and highlights that we have experienced historic collaboration among states, tribes, water users, non-governmental organizations and the international community in addressing issues affecting one of America’s most important rivers,” said Commissioner Brenda Burman. “Forty million people across seven states and Mexico depend on the Colorado River for life and livelihood, so it’s critical that our actions protect this resource now and into the future. Today’s report highlights both the historic steps taken in the basin, as well as the need for continued progress to meet the growing challenges in the years ahead.”
The report concluded:
– The 2007 Interim Guidelines were largely effective as measured against both their stated purpose and common themes as provided in the 2007 Record of Decision.
– Increasing severity of the drought necessitated additional action to reduce the risk of reaching critically low elevations in Lakes Powell and Mead.
Experience over the past 12 years provides important considerations:
– enhanced flexibilities and transparency for water users
– expanded participation in conservation and Basin-wide programs
– increased consideration of the linkage that occurs through coordinated reservoir operations, particularly with respect to the inherent uncertainties in model projections used to set operating conditions
– demonstrated need for more robust measures to protect reservoir levels
Here’s the release from the Upper Colorado River Commission (Rebecca Mitchell):
Colorado joined Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming to begin preliminary discussions regarding the upcoming negotiations of the Colorado River Basin operational guidelines.
Governors’ representatives from each of the Colorado River Basin States signed a joint letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman requesting technical support from the federal agency as the states move forward with these discussions. Colorado’s Upper Colorado River Commissioner Rebecca Mitchell signed the letter on behalf of Colorado.
“Colorado will continue leading the effort with the other Colorado River Basin States on negotiating the next set of operational guidelines to ensure western water is managed effectively and sustainably, and during the process will engage with all groups invested in the outcome including water users, the Tribal Nations, Mexico, and non-governmental organizations,” said Commissioner Mitchell. “As we continue to face climate change impacts, including persistent drought, working together to find solutions to our water challenges is more important than ever.”
Politico (Annie Snider) takes a deep dive featuring Paul Bruchez and the efforts to keep water in the Colorado River. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:
The power politics of the Colorado River have long pitted families like Paul Bruchez’s against big cities. Under pressure from climate change, they might be finding a path out.
Paul Bruchez’s family has ranched cattle in Colorado for five generations. And twice in his lifetime, his generation has nearly become the last.
The first time, it was the city of Denver that squeezed them out. By the 1990s, when Bruchez was still in high school, the city’s fast-growing suburbs had swept north and totally surrounded their roughly 2,000 acres in Westminster. Bruchez’s father had taken dirt roads to get to school, but by the time Bruchez was a teenager development had engulfed the family homestead so completely that at one point the city needed to send a police escort to help move their harvest equipment safely between fields on what were by then city roads. Running a full-scale farm operation in the middle of a city soon became untenable and the family opted to cut a land deal with the city and start fresh on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.
The second time, it was a drought. Their new land near Kremmling, a small ranching community 100 miles to the west, had one particularly appealing feature for a family that needed hay to feed its cattle: the Colorado River literally ran through it. The ice-cold mountain runoff from the river’s headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park would feed their land through a network of ditches, offering plentiful water to grow 2,000 acres of hay. And for a family of fly fishermen, it had another attraction. The lush cottonwood trees lining the main stem of the river promised cool water and insects, a spot where trout would bite.
They had one good year before the ditches went dry.
The drought hit while Bruchez was in college and his father was facing a battle with cancer, and it nearly bankrupted the family. It marked the beginning of Bruchez’s mission to secure the future of not just his family’s operation, but the very West that made cowboys like him…
Technically, families like Bruchez’s have the upper hand in water disputes. The whole Western water system is built on a roughly 150-year-old legal regime that gives priority access to whoever put the water to use first. Farmers and ranchers led the settlement of the West, giving them the most “senior” rights and ensuring that they get their water before newer users like sprawling suburbs. Some 70 percent of the Colorado River’s flow is consumed by agriculture.
But as climate change keeps squeezing the water supply, the ranchers’ position is growing more precarious. They are far less powerful and wealthy than the cities that need water, which have often swooped in and bought out farms for their water rights. It is inevitable, now, that large amounts of water will have to leave agriculture in order to sustain cities and suburbs in the far-drier future; the question is simply whether it can be done in a way that keeps agriculture on the landscape.
Over the past century, Denver, Boulder and other cities on Colorado’s dry Front Range have steadily bought up farmers’ water rights on the wet, western slope of the Rockies and built massive, transmountain tunnels to ship the water to thirsty city dwellers. Today, roughly 65 percent of the water that would naturally flow into Grand County, where Kremmling sits, is diverted elsewhere. Many farm and ranch families nurse a grudge to this day, holding tight to the old Mark Twain adage that “whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.”
But Bruchez’s twin near-disasters and his path to recovering from them led him to a different conclusion: that in the long term, financial and climatic forces are aligned against agriculture, and ranchers and farmers are likely to lose if they don’t find a way to make themselves part of the solution.
Instead of seeing agriculture and new suburbanites as locked in a zero-sum struggle over who gets the West’s diminishing water, Bruchez has spent the past two decades hatching a series of projects to help ranchers by making common cause with sportsmen, environmental groups and even some big city water officials and lawyers.
Now, Bruchez has emerged as a leading voice for agriculture in Colorado as the state explores a controversial new scheme to manage its own, internal water usage—almost certainly by paying farmers to forgo using their water—in a bid to avoid a nightmare scenario in which river flows dip so low that the terms of a 1922 river compact force junior users like cities to be abruptly cut off. It’s an idea that has been knocking around water policy circles across the West for years without action, but that could be called into place quickly if the river’s flows continue to shrink rapidly.
Bruchez, 39, is as comfortable on a Zoom conference call with state water managers as he is riding horseback with a neighbor to steer cattle away from a quickly spreading forest fire, and in between he steals quiet moments to cast a line into the nearby river, in search of a rainbow or brown trout. What drives him is not just a desire to protect his family’s way of life, but to prove that farmers and ranchers aren’t just part of a mythical Western past but can be a part of the solution to weathering climate change and preserving the environment for the future.
Click here for posts on Coyote Gulch that mention Paul.
Rancher and fly fishing guide Paul Bruchez (Source: Russell Schnitzer, used with permission via the Water Education Foundation)
This mowed hay field is part of Reeder Creek Ranch, owned by the Bruchez family near Kremmling. Little data exists on the impacts of reducing irrigation water on higher elevation pastures like this one, but Paul Bruchez and a group of local ranchers have volunteered their fields for a study that will help scientists learn more about what happens to pastures that receive less irrigation water. Photo credit: Paul Bruchez via Aspen Journalism
Rancher and fly fishing guide Paul Bruchez’s daughter and nephew sit in a hay field at the family ranch near Kremmling. Bruchez is helping spearhead a study among local ranchers, which could inform a potential statewide demand management program. Photo credit: Paul Bruchez via Aspen Journalism
Funds provided by grants and landowners near Kremmling, Colorado, have facilitated improvements such as this back stabilization project. (Source: Paul Bruchez)
Restoration work along the Colorado River reestablished a riverbank more conducive to irrigation access. (Source: Paul Bruchez)
Banks erosion along the Colorado River near Kremmling, Colorado, affected the ability of irrigators to convey water through ditches. (Source: Paul Bruchez)
Channel and habitat improvement projects along the Upper Colorado River promote irrigation systems and soil and water quality near Kremmling, Colorado. (Source: Paul Bruchez)
Stream improvements on the Upper Colorado River have been going on for five years, the result of a collaborative effort by ranchers and others near Kremmling, Colorado, and Trout Unlimited. (Source Paul Bruchez)
Strategic placement of rocks promotes a more natural streamflow that benefits ranchers and fish. (Source: Paul Bruchez)
From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
Western Water Spotlight: draft assessment of 2007 interim guidelines expected to provide a guide as talks begin on new river operating rules for the iconic southwestern river
Twenty years ago, the Colorado River Basin’s hydrology began tumbling into a historically bad stretch. The weather turned persistently dry. Water levels in the system’s anchor reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead plummeted. A river system relied upon by nearly 40 million people, farms and ecosystems across the West was in trouble. And there was no guide on how to respond.
So key players across the Basin’s seven states, including California, came together in 2005 to attack the problem. The result was a set of Interim Guidelines adopted in 2007 that, according to a just-released assessment from the Bureau of Reclamation, mostly worked. Stressing flexibility instead of rigidity, the guidelines stabilized water deliveries in a drought-stressed system and prevented a dreaded shortage declaration by the federal government that would have forced water supply cuts.
Those guidelines, formally called “Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” are set to expire in 2026 As stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin — including water agencies, states, Native American tribes and nongovernmental organizations — prepare to renegotiate a new set of river operating guidelines, Reclamation’s assessment is expected to provide a guide for future negotiations.
“We find that the guidelines were largely effective,” said Carly Jerla, modeling and research group manager with the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado River region and one of the report’s authors. However, the Interim Guidelines could not solve all of the challenges brought by what has become a two-decade-long drought in the Basin. Said Jerla: “We saw risk getting too high and needed additional assets.”
Preserving Lake Mead
With the guidelines as a foundation, those assets arrived in 2019 through drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basin – voluntary reduction commitments that built a firewall against the likelihood of Lake Mead dropping to critically low levels.
Chris Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, said the guidelines achieved their objective, considering that the drought has essentially persisted since 2000. Even with the severity and longevity of the drought, the guidelines kept the two reservoirs at about 50 percent of capacity since 2007.
“To my mind that’s a pretty good marker that we were generally successful,” Harris said.
Reclamation’s review of the Interim Guidelines was released for public comment in October. It is expected to be finalized in December. After that, discussions are expected to begin to hammer out a new set of operating rules that would be ready to take effect when the existing guidelines expire in 2026.
Reclamation’s review, which was required under the guidelines, focused solely on how effectively the Interim Guidelines managed water shortages and storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. It did not include existing environmental management programs such as the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program that are independent of the guidelines. The 2026 guidelines should take a broader view, said Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Program.
“Not just looking at the two big buckets [reservoirs], but how do we ensure the river is healthy and has water for its environmental needs,” he said.
“How do we ensure that communities are considered, certainly the tribes, and how do we evaluate additional future demands, projects like the Lake Powell pipeline (a proposed project to deliver Lake Powell water to Southern Utah).”
Ensuring Tribal Participation
Tribal water rights are a key consideration to future Colorado River water use. Ten federally recognized tribes in the Upper and Lower Basins have reserved water rights, including unresolved claims, to divert about 2.8 million acre-feet of water per year from the river and its tributaries, according to Reclamation’s 2018 Tribal Water Study. These tribes anticipate diverting their full water rights by 2040.
Reclamation’s review emphasizes the need for listening to all voices, most notably tribes. Tribal representatives were largely overlooked in the development of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and tribes want to make sure their voices are heard when the next set of operating rules are drawn up.
“We hope that the review will remind Reclamation of the importance that Indian tribes have played in the stewardship of the Colorado River and underscore the importance of meaningful and sustained participation of the Lower Basin tribes in any future guidelines development regarding management of the Colorado River,” Jon Huey, chair of the Yavapai-Apache Nation in Arizona, wrote in a letter to Reclamation.
Jerla said Reclamation recognizes how important it will be to include the tribes in future discussions.
“We definitely heard that loud and clear,” she said. “I think the critical role that tribes have played in the activities since the Guidelines … their desire to be more involved and more included, they will absolutely be a key part of efforts going forward, no question.”
Balancing Water Uses
There is inherent tension in balancing Colorado River water uses between the two basins. Part of the problem is users in the Lower Basin can use Lake Mead as a bank account, having water released downstream to them as they need it. Lake Powell, on the other hand, sits at the bottom of the Upper Basin’s drainage and water that flows into Powell is largely beyond reach of Upper Basin users.
“The guidelines have been partially successful in that they have achieved their principal objective of preventing Lower Basin shortage, as well as establishing a Lower Basin conservation mechanism and avoiding litigation in the Basin,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “However, from the standpoint of the coordinated operations of Lakes Powell and Mead, a secondary objective of the Guidelines, they have come up short.”
Haas pointed out that between 2015 and 2019, Lake Powell was required to release 9 million acre-feet of water annually under the Guidelines, even with poor inflows into Powell and below-average hydrology in the Upper Basin watershed. That’s more than has historically been required.
“Meanwhile, Lake Mead elevations have not substantially increased under the Guidelines due in large part to overuse in the Lower Basin, also known as the structural deficit,” she said. “These issues must be addressed in the post-2026 operational criteria.”
Protecting the Colorado River
Drought wreaked havoc on the Colorado River Basin between 2000 and 2004, with record dryness that depleted the combined storage of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Conditions worsened quickly. At the beginning of the 2000 water year, the review said, the combined storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead was 55.7 million acre-feet. After the worst five-year period of inflow on record ended in 2005, that storage fell to 29.7 million acre-feet – a striking loss of nearly half of the water in the two anchor reservoirs.
Something new had to be done. The business-as-usual approach of determining drought conditions for the Basin on a yearly basis was not going to provide long-term stability or prevent conflict under such historic dryness.
“Failing to develop additional operational guidelines would make sustainable Colorado River management extremely difficult,” Reclamation’s review said.
The Interim Guidelines in 2007 opened the door for Lower Basin water users and Mexico to get creative about how water is managed and used. One example that grew out of the guidelines is Intentionally Created Surplus, allowing downstream parties to bank water in Lake Mead that they could draw upon later.
“One result of this new flexibility was that critical Lake Mead elevations could be protected through the conservation of this water in the lake,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “The Basin states, meanwhile, continued to seek ways to protect reservoir levels and the health of the Colorado River system.”
Saving Intentionally Created Surplus water in Lake Mead turned out to be a critical drought response tool, said Reclamation’s Jerla, ensuring that the lake’s water level did not drop to where water users would be required to take cuts.
Reclamation’s review of the Interim Guidelines notes that there are other areas of interest beyond its scope that should be considered in future discussions, such as impacts of river operations to environmental, recreational and hydropower resources, and more meaningful engagement of Basin partners, stakeholders, tribes and states.
The review notes that since the Interim Guidelines were adopted, Reclamation has expanded its long-term modeling assumptions and worked to identify appropriate methods for analyzing uncertainty.
“Even though the true probability of any combination of conditions … cannot be assessed, a wider range of hydrology and demand assumptions and attention to those ranges … are useful for supporting a common understanding of system vulnerability,” the review says.
The Next Set of Guidelines
The 2007 Interim Guidelines have set the table for the next version of a Colorado River operations agreement. In retrospect, things have generally occurred as expected, Jerla said.
“In terms of where the reservoirs landed, what types of releases Powell made and how successful the Intentionally Created Surplus mechanism became, that is all within the range of what we were projecting,” Jerla said. “It’s informative to know that now and use that thinking about how risk influenced our decisions and how that translates into the next set of action levels.”
The Interim Guidelines instilled a degree of greater cooperation and innovation on the river and that has fostered partnerships, initiatives and actions that demonstrate what can be done in a Basin that is steadily getting drier.
“Those things have to continue,” Jerla said, adding that Reclamation’s review is one of many sources officials will consult as they draft the next set of guidelines.
Rice, with American Rivers, said he’s optimistic about the prospects of a broad group of stakeholders building the next set of Interim Guidelines.
“I am not suggesting that it’s going to be easy or straightforward by any means,” he said. “We certainly hope there will be greater participation from more stakeholders. The tribes are at the top of the list, but also nongovernmental organizations, which traditionally have not been part of these interbasin negotiations.”
The talks are likely to be frank and will explore thorny issues related to equitable water management.
Arriving at a satisfactory operational plan beyond 2026 means the Lower Basin’s structural deficit has to be addressed and balancing releases between Lake Powell and Lake Mead should be revisited to reflect actual hydrology, said Haas, with the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Also, the new guidelines should contain a mechanism whereby operations can be adapted and adjusted to meet changing conditions, something the current guidelines are not equipped to do.”
How the next set of river operating guidelines will take shape remains to be seen, but Reclamation’s review suggests the 2007 Interim Guidelines proved their worth in showing how water users can work together and think creatively, lessons that will be invaluable for the future.
The 2007 Interim Guidelines, the review said, “created the operational stability that became the platform for the collaborative decision-making that protected the Colorado River system from crisis.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
State water officials are hoping early next year to roll out a draft demand management proposal to help in evaluating the concept as a possible response to managing Colorado River water supplies in times of drought.
Creating a framework of what the program could look like isn’t meant to tie hands and say what the Colorado Water Conservation Board thinks it should look like, CWCB staff member Amy Ostdiek told the board in its meeting earlier this month. Rather, it’s aimed at giving everyone involved the ability to have something to respond to, with the hope of perhaps creating a better draft or a new concept, she said…
The CWCB, which sets state water policy, says demand management would involve temporary, voluntary and compensated reductions in consumptive use of Colorado River Basin water. This is expected to entail use reductions in municipal, agricultural and other uses, with agricultural cuts resulting from measures such as short-term fallowing of fields.
The idea is drawing particular scrutiny from entities such as the Western Slope’s Colorado River District due to concerns about potential economic impacts on agriculture-based communities. A recent study commissioned by a work group including the district found that the secondary economic impacts of paying western Colorado farmers to temporarily fallow fields could be similar to the secondary benefits from the spending of those payments. But it said the dollars from payment spending would flow to different businesses, perhaps shifting to larger towns and cities from smaller, ag-based towns.
Among other criteria for going forward, a demand management program would have to be found to be feasible by every Upper Basin state. This means looking at things such as availability of funding, whether a program would comply with state and federal laws, how it would be administered, etc.
The CWCB began evaluating the concept by establishing work groups involving experts and stakeholders from around the state looking at issues surrounding demand management.
With their input now in hand, the agency is taking the next step in investigating the concept. That will entail considering if it is achievable in terms of things such as funding, worthwhile when it comes to questions such as how much water would be stored, and ultimately advisable to pursue in Colorado.
CWCB plans to continue its evaluation in a public, collaborative way, involving water users, tribal entities, nongovernment organizations and other stakeholders in commenting on the draft proposal, Ostdiek said.
Becky Mitchell, the CWCB’s director, told the board at its meeting that fires and drought affected every Coloradan this year.
She said that with the climate changing and drought becoming more frequent and intense, it would be irresponsible for the CWCB not to look at every tool available to respond, including demand management.
New research reveals a creeping, permanent dryness expanding across the United States. It’s much more than “drought,” and researchers hope more accurate descriptions will spur critical action.
After nearly two decades of declining water flows into the Colorado River Basin, scientists have decided the word drought doesn’t cut it anymore. We need different terms, they say, to help people fully grasp what has happened and the long-term implications of climate change — not just in the Southwest, but across the country.
The term that’s caught the most attention lately is “megadrought.”
It’s not a new word, but it’s one that’s come sharply into focus in recent months, following a study published this April in the journal Science that found the North American Southwest has experienced an abnormally severe drought over the past two decades — its second driest stretch in 1,200 years.
Archaeological evidence has linked previous decades-long megadroughts to several historical societal collapses, including the Mayan civilization and Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty in China.
Let that sink in a minute if you need to.
The researchers, led by A. Park Williams of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, say this prolonged megadrought — which reached from Oregon and Idaho down to northern Mexico — would likely have been just a bad drought if not for climate change. The increase in temperatures from our burning of fossil fuels supercharged naturally varying conditions, creating one of the worst megadroughts in human history.
“The new study provided a nice basis to what many of us have felt now for a number of years,” says Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, who was not involved in the research. “The basin has really entered a fundamentally different period than what we experienced during the 20th century.”
That may not come as a surprise to those who have noticed that the Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are now sitting half-empty.
But linking modern reality to the megadroughts of history is something new — and researchers say this and other changes to our language matter for the future.
The current megadrought in the Southwest is defined not so much by declining precipitation — although that did have an effect too — but by increasing temperatures from climate change. That’s going to continue to climb as long as we keep burning greenhouse gases.
Udall and Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, have spent more than a decade studying the effect of this warming on the Colorado River, a crucial water source in the West. The river irrigates 5 million acres of farmland, provides water to 40 million people in seven states — including in the West’s biggest cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Denver — and helps keep the lights on in the “city of lights,” among other towns.
This exploitation has come at an ecological cost, though. Thanks to diversions for our various human uses, the river now runs dry before it reaches the sea. More water rights have been allotted than nature can provide, which is undoubtedly a management issue (although a complex one to solve), but in the last two decades this is being more acutely felt.
In part that’s because less water is running off into the basin.
Udall and Overpeck found in a 2017 study published in Water Resources Research that Colorado River flows between 2000 and 2014 were 19% below normal. Reduced rainfall was partially responsible. But on average, they found, about one-third of the runoff decline resulted from warming temperatures from human-caused climate change.
Higher temperatures from this “hot drought,” as it’s also called, means more evaporation from water bodies and soil, more evapotranspiration from plants and more sublimation from snow. For the West, where water resources are stretched thin already, this can have far-reaching economic and ecological consequences.
Which brings us to another proposed change in the way we describe things.
In a 2018 paper the Colorado River Research Group, which includes Udall and Overpeck, called for new language to describe the scientific reality on the ground. The term “drought,” they wrote, wasn’t accurate.
“Aridification,” they argued, was a more fitting description.
The semantics here are important.
Aridification, they explained, “describes a period of transition to an increasingly water scarce environment — an evolving new baseline around which future extreme events (droughts and floods) will occur.”
Or more simply: Drought is temporary. Aridification is permanent.
This reinforces the fact that climate change isn’t a distant phenomenon, but one that’s already underway and causing life-altering changes. Depending on where you live, it’s causing more severe floods, destructive hurricanes, prolonged droughts or lengthened fire seasons.
And it’s here to stay, given our current course. The “new normal” of climate change could, like megadroughts, be felt for decades.
“We’ve been wanting to make the case that this is not a normal drought,” says Udall. “A drought implies that some kind of return to normalcy will occur in the near future, and that’s not what we’ve seen and not what the science tells us is likely to happen.”
This isn’t a problem contained to just the Colorado River basin or the Southwest, either.
Warmer summer temperatures are likely to reduce flows in other key western rivers, including the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, and rivers across California’s Sierra Nevada, other research has shown. And warming temperatures are driving similar changes further east, too.
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined flows in the Missouri River, the country’s longest river, which cuts through the Midwest. The researchers, led by USGS scientist Justin Martin, found that during the first decade of the 2000s the Upper Missouri River Basin had drought conditions “unmatched over the last 1,200 years.”
The culprit? Warming temperatures from climate change that reduced runoff from snowfall in Rocky Mountain headwater streams that feed the Missouri.
Same story, different river.
But while that paper did occasionally use the term “megadrought,” it mostly characterized what’s happening in the Missouri as a “severe drought.”
Framing the problem in that manner, some say, may not be enough to convey the seriousness of the situation or to inspire action from water managers and the public.
To change the narrative, we have to change the framing, Udall and Overpeck argue in a new commentary published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in response to the Missouri River study. Thinking of what’s happening on the Missouri, and other rivers across the West, as a drought, they wrote, ignores the real and long-term effect that warming temperatures will have on our rivers.
“This translates into an increasingly arid Southwest and West, with progressively lower river flows, drier landscapes, higher forest mortality, and more severe and widespread wildfires,” they wrote, “not year on year, but instead a clear longer-term trend toward greater aridification, a trend that only climate action can stop.”
And that gets to about the only good news in any of the recent research. We know what’s causing the problem. We just need to do something about it.
A first step is making sure changes in water-management policy reflect scientific reality, and that’s where using language for planning that matches the task at hand becomes crucial.
Water managers traditionally use the past as a guide by examining the hydrologic record to calculate important baselines for the average high and low flows, the size of possible floods and the length of probable droughts.
But that’s all changing now “because the future is no longer going to look like the past,” says Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and coauthor of the book Science Be Damned: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River. Now, he says, “water managers are trying to move forward in what we call ‘deep uncertainty’” — a process that requires planning for any number of plausible futures, including a very dry one.
We will get a chance to see what this looks like at the basin-scale as a seven-year process to renegotiate how the Colorado River is shared among its many uses is now underway.
Whether those at the table take to heart the scientific findings about the prognosis for “aridification” and “megadrought” will have big ramifications on the future ecological, economic and political health of the Colorado River basin.
Outside the basin the larger work continues as well.
“The sooner emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere are eliminated,” Udall and Overpeck concluded, “the sooner the aridification of North America will stop getting worse.”
The state of Colorado will embark on the second phase of studying a potential water-savings plan, this time by developing a draft framework to test how the structure and design of such a program could work.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board approved at its regular meeting Nov. 18 a Step II Work Plan for its investigation into the feasibility of a demand-management program.
“People in my basin, including myself, are very excited to get down the road of this next phase,” said CWCB board member Jackie Brown, who represents the Yampa, White and Green river basins. “I think it will bring us a lot of certainty with where we end up on this really heavy issue.”
Since June 2019, eight workgroups composed of water experts from different sectors around the state have been hashing out the potential benefits, downsides and challenges of a voluntary and temporary program that would pay water users to cut back in order to leave more water in the Colorado River. The workgroups tackled eight subject areas: law and policy; monitoring and verification; water-rights administration and accounting; environmental considerations; economic considerations and local government; funding; education and outreach; and agricultural impacts. A ninth workgroup, led by the Interbasin Compact Committee, focused solely on equity.
Their work is now done. The results of a year’s worth of meetings, in-depth discussions and workshops resulted in a 200-page report, released in July.
A project management team, made up of state officials from the CWCB, the Division of Water Resources and the attorney general’s office, will now take the input from the workgroups and use it to begin Step II. The overarching goals of this phase are to figure out if demand management would be achievable, worthwhile and advisable for Colorado.
“Ultimately, again, the question is: Is demand management a feasible tool to protect Colorado water users against the risks and impacts of a potential curtailment, and can we create some additional benefits as well?” said Amy Ostdiek, CWCB deputy section chief for interstate, federal and water information.
At the heart of a potential demand-management program is a reduction in water use in an attempt to send water downstream to Lake Powell to bolster levels in the giant reservoir and meet 1922 Colorado River Compact obligations. If Colorado does not meet its obligation to deliver water to the lower basin, it could face mandatory cutbacks, known as curtailment.
Under such a program, agricultural water users could get paid to temporarily fallow fields and leave more water in the river, in order to fill a 500,000 acre-foot pool set aside in Lake Powell as a modest insurance policy. But developing a program raises many thorny questions such as how to create a program that is equitable and doesn’t result in negative economic impacts to agricultural communities.
In Step II, the project management team, with the help of consultants SGM, CDR Associates and WestWater Engineering, will develop a draft “strawman” framework of a demand-management program. Step II does not include a large-scale pilot program, but it leaves the door open to develop one in the future, potentially in collaboration with other upper-basin states. Ostdiek said the project management team should have the initial draft framework ready for the board to look at early next year.
CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell reminded board members that demand management is just one tool — but an important one — that the state is looking at to deal with looming water shortages.
“When we look at the challenge of a changing climate or a changing hydrology and the frequency and drought and the intensity of drought, it would be irresponsible of us not to look at every tool available,” she said. “I think this is the next, right, appropriate step.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Nov. 27 edition of The Aspen Times.
Opinion: We’ve known for years that a shortage is coming, but it’s alarming how quick the conditions are changing. The Colorado River system was not set up for this.
This warm, dry weather we’ve been having may be good for moving activities outside.
But it’s bad news for our water supply.
The chances are growing – and quickly – that a warm, dry winter could push Lake Powell to a trigger point about a year from now that could result in significantly less water for Lake Mead, which supplies about 40% of Arizona’s water supply.
That likely would push Mead into a first-time shortage declaration. And if the same thing were to happen the following year, it would likely plunge Mead into a more severe shortage – a depth from which the lake is unlikely to recover any time soon.
Like I said, bad news.
Why would Mead get less water?
The 2007 operational guidelines lay out how much water is released from the upstream Powell to the downstream Mead. In “normal” years (and yes, I use quotes because nothing about the Colorado River is normal these days), Mead gets about 8.23 million acre-feet.
That drops to 7.48 million acre-feet once Powell’s levels fall below a certain depth. This occurred once before, in 2014, and luckily, Mead was nowhere close to a shortage then.
But lake levels plunged that year and never recovered, even in wet years and despite millions of acre-feet of water that Arizona and others have stored in Mead.
The lake is currently less than 10 feet above its shortage elevation trigger of 1,075 feet. Yet a 7.48 million acre-feet release in water year 2022, which begins in October 2021, could drop levels on Lake Mead by nearly 20 feet.
That could plunge us into shortage
That would place us solidly into a Tier 1 shortage – which for Arizona, means no more Colorado River water for Pinal famers and some water lost from the non-Indian agricultural (NIA) pool, which is a rung higher on the priority list and despite its name, mostly supplies tribes and cities.
Should conditions persist and Mead get another 7.48 million acre-feet release in water year 2023, that would likely plunge us deep into a Tier 2 shortage, nixing most of the NIA water that some cities use for existing development and others had wanted to shore up their long-term supplies.
Without that water, cities will need to find other, more secure sources. Which means if the battle to transfer water from on-river communities to Queen Creek is fierce now, new ones are likely to get a lot fiercer.
How likely is this 7.48 scenario?
We’ve known for years that a shortage would eventually come to Lake Mead, and that when that happens, Arizona – the state with junior water rights – would be the first to face more severe consequences.
But it’s alarming how quickly the conditions are changing.
The chances of a 7.48 million acre-feet release have increased markedly – from less than 20% in April to more than 50% in August, depending on which hydrology forecast you use. The chances of a Tier 1 shortage on Mead were as high as 30% in August, up from roughly 10% in April.
That may not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to keep risk-adverse water managers up at night. Consider that a 1 in 5 chance of Lake Mead tanking was enough to drive ratification of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which buys time for the lake through mandatory cuts to our water supply.
So, what is provoking such quick forecast changes?
Last winter was relatively wet. It looked like we were on par for an average runoff year. But the ground was dry before all that snow fell, and as it began to melt, a lot of it sunk into the parched soil.
In the space of a few weeks, what looked like a decent runoff year turned into a mediocre one.
Then we had a record-breaking hot and dry summer. The soil is again parched.
But, unlike last winter, we are now in a relatively strong La Nina weather pattern, which historically has meant warm and dry winters for all but a small corner of the Colorado River basin.
It’s a double whammy. If this winter plays out as expected, we’ll have a meager snowpack that is unlikely to produce much runoff because warm winds blowing over the snow can suck out moisture. And much of what is produced could sink into the ground before it ever makes it to our reservoirs.
If this is the future, then what?
It’s early in the snow season, of course. Things could change.
But while few parts of the Colorado River basin were facing drought conditions a year ago, most are now in extreme or exceptional drought, the most severe categories.
And some worry that this could be the beginning of a multiyear string of similar dry conditions – a la what we saw most recently in 2012-13, the lead-up to the last 7.48 million acre-feet release on Powell.
The good news, if you want to call it that, is that Arizona’s water leaders already assumed that we’d already be in a Tier 1 shortage by now. We have plans to handle these shortages in the short term, even if the details – like forcing Pinal farmers back solely on groundwater – are less than ideal.
The more daunting challenge lies in 2026, when the drought contingency plan and the 2007 guidelines expire. Because, as bad as this winter may look, the science suggests we are in for many more of them as the Colorado River basin gets warmer and drier.
We have a system that assumes water allocations will be steady as she goes, when the best-case scenario may be one of feast or famine.
And all signs point to a future where every competing water use is a valid one and there isn’t enough water to quench them all.
How do we decide who gets what when a dwindling supply becomes even more volatile? That is the fundamental question we must now address.
Reach Allhands at email@example.com. On Twitter: @joannaallhands.
There’s a concept called “demand management” in the news in Colorado, and here’s a simple definition: Landowners get paid to temporarily stop irrigating, and that water gets sent downstream to hang out in Lake Powell.
It’s an idea long talked about because of increasing drought and the very real danger of both Lake Mead and Lake Powell dropping into “dead pool” where no hydropower can be generated. But fears keep arising about what water markets mean. To some rural people, the idea of separating water from the land sounds like heresy.
Here’s how Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District sees it: “Just talking about demand management has already attracted deep-pocketed investors, whose motives are money and not for maintaining a healthy river.”
But James Eklund, former head of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and who shares credit for creating Colorado’s version of demand management, thinks setting up demand management in Colorado is crucial.
“We need to act now,” he said. “Last winter and spring, where 107 percent snowpack turned into 52 percent runoff, was proof we’ve entered a deadly phase where millions of acre-feet of water need to be stored in Lake Powell.”
These days, Eklund is a lawyer for the New York investment company, Water Asset Management (WAM), whose land purchases in Mesa County have sounded alarms about outsiders speculating on water. State Sen. Kerry Donovan, Democrat from Vail, has co-sponsored what could be called an anti-WAM bill, aimed at beefing up the state’s water anti-speculation laws.
“If we don’t do demand management correctly,” Donovan warned, “we are going to create a commodity-based situation where water goes to the highest bidder.”
Eklund’s rejoinder: “Like it or not, we live in a capitalist system.”
Jim Lockhead, president of Denver Water, argued that by not putting demand management into place, increasing drought could bring about a crisis: “Water rates would spike in cities, just as farm income and output would plunge region-wide.” Without demand management, Lockhead predicted, there would be “an economic black hole.”
To test demand management, four municipal water districts, including Denver Water, funded a pilot program in 2015-2019. It stored 175,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead by paying irrigators in Arizona, California and Nevada to fallow fields and forgo cultivation.
Applications rose annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which funded 53 percent of the study. The rest, 47 percent, came from the four water districts and the Walton Family Foundation. Eklund wants the same players to back Colorado’s program, the first of the Upper Basin states to attempt demand management.
“BuRec built all the dams possible (and) they should steer into conservation,” Eklund said.
But to gain participation in the pilot program, water prices were set at levels that boosted farm incomes above what agriculture alone would produce. That raise in income also increased the value of their land.
Mueller doesn’t like what that could lead to: “That will squeeze out future mom-and-pop operators. Ninety-five percent of Western Slope irrigators are owner-operators and we don’t want that declining.”
Although the Colorado Water Conservation Board hasn’t ironed out how to “shepherd” the water downstream or who will round up willing sellers, investors from outside of Western Colorado are already buying up land with senior water rights.
“We are seeing large, well-financed purchasers — ostensibly agricultural organizations — coming into the Gunnison basin,” said Steve Anderson, who manages the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, a canal company in Montrose County. In Delta County, the Conscience Bay Company, operating out of Boulder, bought the 3,000-acre Harts Basin Ranch, with senior water rights on the Grand Mesa.
Yet, the new owners are hardly quick-buck artists. They have expanded the cattle herds, improved irrigation and hired locals.
For the new water owners, it’s a waiting game until demand management exists and water comes with a price. As drought worsens, the owners of these senior water rights — whether they are from New York City or Texas — could well be sitting on a fortune.
The four states in the upper basin, including New Mexico, are working on demand management plans to reduce the risk they will be mandated to reduce water use to fulfill obligations of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
While this could reduce the risk to the water users, New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen told the San Juan Water Commission that he is not highly optimistic that the upper basin states can reach an agreement about demand management and storage. He said coming to an agreement on these topics will take a while…
Recognizing that drought could strain the limited supplies in the river, both the upper and the lower Colorado River basins have created drought contingency plans. One key element of the upper basin plan is demand management. This means water users can be paid to temporarily reduce their water consumption and the water saved through that method would be placed in one of the upper basin reservoirs, such as Navajo Lake.
If a situation arose where the upper basin could not reach its contractual obligation to deliver water to Lake Powell, the water stored in one of those reservoirs would be released to meet those requirements.
The details about demand management are still being worked out and, on Nov. 4, representatives from the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission provided the San Juan Water Commission with an update on those efforts.
Schmidt-Petersn said there is only a small chance that there will be a call on the river that would require the upper basin to curtail use, but the demand management proposal will protect the water users if such situation arose.
Currently, New Mexico is in the stakeholder outreach process of developing a demand management plant, according to Ali Effati, who presented on behalf of the Interstate Stream Commission.
Effati said demand management could be easier to set up in New Mexico than in other upper basin states due to the proximity to Lake Powell, however there are still questions that remain such as how to shepherd the water that is released to meet the compact requirement and make sure that it makes it into Lake Powell.
All four upper basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — must agree on demand management and storage, as must the Upper Colorado River Commission. This type of agreement may be hard to achieve, Schmidt-Petersen warned, as each state works to protect its own interest in the Colorado River water.
San Juan Water Commissioner Jim Dunlap, who represents rural water users, emphasized the importance of having a way to meet the Colorado River Compact requirements even if a drought reduces the flows significantly in the rivers.
New Mexico currently does not use all the water that it is allocated and Dunlap said that furnishes a “false benefit” to the lower basin states and could lead to challenges if New Mexico chose to increase its utilization of its allocated water.
Farmington Community Works Director David Sypher highlighted an area that could create challenges: how to fairly share the burden of water shortages. If a drought does occur, entities will have to cut back. But Sypher said the City of Farmington has already invested in efforts to conserve water such as leak detection, storage and maintenance. This has led to higher water rates for customers.
Sypher said conservation is a huge part, if not the most important part, of demand management.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
A 2007 deal creating guidelines governing how Lake Powell and Lake Mead are operated in coordination isn’t scheduled to expire until 2026. But water officials in Colorado River Basin states are already beginning to talk about the renegotiations that will be undertaken to decide what succeeds the 2007 criteria.
“I think the guidelines have been a big success,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said Wednesday during the 10th annual Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum. The forum is put on by Colorado Mesa University’s Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center and this year is taking place online due to the pandemic.
The 2007 criteria dictate how much water must be released each year from Powell into Mead, in an effort to equalize water levels in the two reservoirs. The criteria are important to Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin because those states rely on Powell water storage for meeting long-term delivery obligations to downstream states based on a 1922 interstate compact.
Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents Upper Basin states, said she thinks the 2007 guidelines have reduced the “safe yield” of water for the Upper Basin. Even with low inflows into Powell, the guidelines resulted in releases of 9 million acre-feet a year of water from Powell every year from 2015-19, compared to the 8.3 million acre-feet negotiated average minimum objective, she said.
Entsminger called that a simplistic analysis that cherry-picks data. He says his entity’s modeling indicates that under the 2007 criteria there is more water in Powell and less in Mead than otherwise would have been the case.
Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said that with the guidelines in places, Powell water levels largely have remained around 50% of capacity “through some horrendously dry years” and only three or four years of above-average inflows.
The criteria encourage water conservation and provide rules for determining water shortages and reducing water use by Arizona and Nevada.
Entsminger said the 2007 agreement increased cooperation and communication among states in the river basin, provided certainty by operating the two reservoirs together, and headed off litigation only two years after states were close to going to the Supreme Court over river water issues…
Those states are evaluating the possibility of demand management measures to temporarily curtail agricultural, municipal and other use during droughts. The goal is to bolster Powell levels with water that could be reserved for compact delivery obligations. But Haas said it’s important to assess the risk of curtailment of Upper Basin uses occurring as well. Such a curtailment has never happened.
The “bathtub ring” at Lake Powell evidences lower flows coming into the reservoir. According to preliminary data from the Bureau of Reclamation, the total inflow into Lake Powell for the 2020 water year was about 6 million acre-feet, just 55% of average. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The white bathtub ring along Lake Mead reflects the effects of years of drought in the Colorado River Basin. Source: Water Education Foundation
Grand County rancher Paul Bruchez stands in a hay field near Kremmling, holding a small tuft of hay between his fingertips, twirling it back and forth, seeing how quickly it disintegrates after a summer without water.
The plant, known as timothy, is native to Colorado and feeds thousands of cattle here in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
This hay species and others are being closely watched this year as part of a far-reaching $1 million science experiment, one designed to see if ranchers can take water off of hay fields and successfully measure how much was removed, how much evaporated, and how much was used by plants. They also need to know how reducing their irrigation in this fashion affects the nutritional value of the hay.
If certain hay species retain more nutrients than others when they’re on low-water diets, then ranchers know their cattle will continue to eat well as they evaluate whether they can operate their ranches on less H20—not all the time, but perhaps every other year or every two to three years.
“We’ve spent centuries learning how to irrigate these lands,” Bruchez said. “Now we’re learning what it’s like not to irrigate them.”
Any water saved could be left in the Colorado River, allowing it to become more sustainable, even as the West’s population grows and drought cycles become more intense.
While similar small-scale experiments on five or 10 acres have been done before, this one by comparison is vast in scale, involving 1,200 acres of high-altitude hay meadows, nine ranch families, a team of researchers spread across Colorado, Utah and Nevada, and the backing of powerful water groups, farm interests, and environmentalists.
“We’ve never had a project this large in the state of Colorado,” said Perry Cabot, a Colorado State University researcher who is the lead scientist on the project.
The undertaking is sponsored by the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, whose members include Bruchez.
“We set out on a mission to ensure we have as much science and data as possible,” Bruchez said.
The data being collected serves several needs. It should help ranch families see if they can afford to participate in these modern-era conservation efforts.
It will allow researchers to better understand what works on the ground and what to do, for instance, when rambunctious bulls destroy research equipment enclosures 25 miles from the nearest town.
And it will give policy makers insight into the political problems that will have to be solved, as well as how much money could need to be raised, to make large-scale conservation on the Colorado River feasible.
The $1 million, three-year project is being funded by the state and several environmental groups, with the money being used to pay researchers, buy equipment, and compensate ranch families who temporarily fallow their fields.
Water for Powell?
Agriculture uses some 80 percent of the water in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, and hay meadows that grow feed for cattle are among the basin’s largest water users.
Last year, under an historic drought agreement on the Colorado River, a new specially protected drought pool in Lake Powell was authorized.
Now Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, the four states that comprise the Colorado River’s Upper Basin, above Lake Powell, are studying whether they can or should help save enough water to fill that drought pool. The pool, authorized at 500,000 acre-feet, is intended as further insurance that the Upper Basin won’t be forced to involuntarily reduce water use from the river under the terms of the Colorado River Compact.
Colorado expects it would need to provide roughly half the water for the drought pool, and, led by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, is working out difficult questions about how that water would be saved and ushered downstream to Lake Powell under a possible voluntary program known as demand management. The research being done near Kremmling will help answer several critical questions.
Wendy Thompson is a rancher who also serves as the research technician for the pilot program, cutting hay samples and gathering soil moisture and precipitation data, among dozens of other tasks. She has driven hundreds of miles across Grand County this summer, checking each of the program’s 24 research sites every week or so, lugging an aging laptop from one meadow to the next.
She knows better than most that ranch families will need real information, such as how fallowing affects crop yields and soil health and production costs, in order to make decisions about whether to join in a voluntary multi-state conservation effort or to back away.
Intuition vs. facts
“The experiment is important to us,” Thompson said. “We want to make decisions based on the science and the data, not a gut feeling.”
Much of the work is grueling, like cutting hay samples week after week, and low tech, like measuring water levels in rain gauges.
But dramatic advances in satellite imagery and global evapotranspiration databases are helping people like Perry Cabot create science-based templates that eventually will be useful not just in Colorado, but Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and perhaps even farther downstream, on cotton fields in Arizona and avocado groves in California’s Central Valley.
“We now have the ability to measure the whole field,” Cabot said. “It’s becoming more accurate and it’s tremendously convenient if you’re trying to get a good understanding of patterns. We don’t have to rely on one data point anymore.” [Editor’s note: Cabot sits on the board of Water Education Colorado, which is a sponsor of Fresh Water News.]
That this particular team has agronomists, economists and environmentalists pitching in with their expertise is also helping move the science forward.
“What makes this different is the scale and the depth of the questions we’re asking,” said Aaron Derwingson, an agricultural water specialist with The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program, which is helping to fund the project.
“When we’re done it will be relevant to more people than just the ranchers. We will be able to extrapolate these field conditions and what it means for water savings and the recovery of different species,” he said.
“It’s tough to figure all that out on paper. Here we’re getting down to brass tacks,” Derwingson said.
With irrigation season over, Cabot and his team have serious number crunching to do before they begin monitoring next year, measuring how the hay fields survived their fallowed season, how quickly they return to health, and precisely how much water was conserved.
Early estimates indicate that the ranchers may have saved 1,500 acre-feet to as many as 2,500 acre-feet of water this year. If this process can be replicated, scientists and ranchers could begin to see how long it might take to fill the 500,000 acre-foot drought pool at Lake Powell.
No collateral damage
But even more important to Bruchez and state policy makers is the impact the pilot is having on a highly skeptical ranching community, some of whom are deeply worried that they will lose control of their water.
“We wanted a project that would be as smooth as possible,” Bruchez said. “We wanted to simplify it and ensure there weren’t unintended damages to neighbors who weren’t participating.
“Some people were comfortable about what we were doing and others had great fears,” he said. “We just had to keep telling them, ‘We are not delivering water to Lake Powell. We are trying to fill data gaps.’”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.