Colorado won’t be buying up agricultural water rights to reduce water use and help stabilize the Colorado River, according to a briefing top river officials provided state lawmakers last week.
Rebecca Mitchell, Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, reassured lawmakers that the state would not buy agricultural water rights from growers as part of any program to reduce Colorado River water use within the state.
Asked by Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, whether the state wants to permanently acquire water from agriculture, Mitchell responded with an emphatic “No … We don’t have our eyes set on agricultural [water] rights.”
She also emphasized that whatever policies Colorado considers “should focus on making our own state stronger… We need to do this to protect Colorado.”
Mitchell’s comments came at a meeting of the legislature’s Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee Aug. 23 in Steamboat Springs, held during the Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference.
The Colorado River, despite a bountiful water year thus far, has been mired in a 23-plus year drought, believed to be the worst in at least 1,200 years, and it is witnessing alarming reductions in flows due to climate change and overuse.
Last year lakes Powell and Mead, the river’s largest reservoirs, dropped to historic lows and federal officials ordered all seven Colorado River Basin states to permanently reduce water use by 2 million acre-feet to 4 million acre-feet annually.
This summer critical negotiations on how to continue to operate the river beyond 2026, when current operating guidelines expire, have begun. Mitchell said it was critical the new federal operating guidelines change the way water is released from lakes Powell and Mead. “Operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead must respond to actual hydrology [how much the river produces] and available water supply.” She noted that currently, in eight out of 10 years, more water leaves Lake Powell than comes in.
As the crisis on the river continues, Colorado water users, growers and lawmakers have been asking for more clarity and more assurances on how the state intends to protect their water interests and help stabilize the giant river system.
Because agriculture uses roughly 80% of the Colorado River’s supplies, a major focus across the seven-state basin is on how to reduce agricultural water use while maintaining farm economies and food production.
Earlier this year a new federal program, known as the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP), launched, but it received little interest from Colorado growers.
It used federal funds to provide incentives to Upper Basin irrigators to temporarily reduce their use of Colorado River water.
Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, the agency that represents Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming on Colorado River issues, said the idea was “to demonstrate that the Upper Basin has the tools to manage water uses and to take actions necessary to live within the means of the river.”
But the results so far have been disappointing, with low farmer participation and only 2,700 acre-feet of water conserved. Cullom said there is no commitment yet to run the SCPP again in 2024.
Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, asked how it might be improved. Cullom said the program would need to operate differently, including starting earlier, developing different pricing policies, and providing more clarity on the program’s purpose and scope, among other things.
Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, asked what additional tools could help agriculture engage in more conservation? Based on feedback he has received from water users, Cullom suggested expanding investments in irrigation efficiency infrastructure—such as canal lining, sprinkler drip systems, center pivot irrigation—and growing alternative crops.
Key to maintaining ownership of water, under Colorado law, is to demonstrate it is being used. Some growers fear that if they reduce use through conservation techniques, their water rights could be taken from them.
Roberts asked Mitchell if Colorado should consider a recently enacted Arizona law that protects agricultural water users who invest in greater efficiencies from losing their water rights. She thought the state already offered those protections “at some level” and would get back to the committee to see if they could be expanded.
Roberts said it would be a good idea “if we could give them assurances in law that they won’t lose their water rights just because they tried to be more efficient.”
Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at email@example.com.
At the conference, [U.S. Senator] Bennet addressed his priorities for the return of Congress after the August break. At the top of the agenda will be writing the 2023 Farm Bill; which is normally approved and funded for a five-year period of time. This is expected to include protecting the $20 billion for agricultural conservation in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and $10 billion for forestry in the IRA and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law…Both [U.S. Senator] Hickenlooper and Bennet have advanced the role that must be played by the 30 tribes of the Colorado River Basin; recommending a permanent seat at the table on water renegotiations. The tribes did get attention from the infrastructure bill with about $5 billion set aside for their projects, said Bennet. But in Colorado River Basin negotiations, they have had no voice…
How much money? Bennet has estimated about $4 billion from the inflation bill for permanent and long-term reductions in the lower basin states, as well as $8 billion from the infrastructure legislation. The next step is to try to forge a consensus among the seven basin states of the Colorado River about how to reapportion the water, that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation can ratify. That could be easier said than done, given the friction between the Upper Basin states and the Lower Basin states. The Biden Administration has directed the Bureau of Reclamation to get the seven states to agree on a plan to handle the water crisis on the Colorado River. It’s not that they don’t agree on the science and the diminished flow of the Colorado. Regardless of being red or blue states they do — they are just not yet at the point of agreeing on what to do about it…
By the end of 2023, the Bureau is expected to have some rulemaking in place that will cobble the agreement among the states to the year 2026. But that is the limit of the extension because the current operating guidelines for the Colorado River expire then and there is no choice: they have got to be renegotiated.
Bennet is on record saying, “I do not want the Bureau telling the American West what this will look like.”
From the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Katie Weeman):
Good morning. My name is Becky Mitchell and I am proud to be joining you as Colorado’s first, full-time Colorado River Commissioner. This change took effect on July 1st. With thanks to the General Assembly and Governor Polis, I stepped out of the CWCB Director role – which is now in Lauren’s very capable hands – and have dedicated myself full-time to protecting our state’s significant interests in the Colorado River. The Commissioner role is a unique one. I am charged by the Governor to represent the state in interstate Colorado River matters, which includes all of our diverse water users, sectors, and geographies. It is not a role that I take lightly. And I truly appreciate the support that so many of you have lent as we shape the future of the Colorado River. I’d like to take “the last word,” as the agenda says, to update you on interstate Colorado River matters; plus, what I’m doing to push everyone in the basin to live within its means –- something we in Colorado have always done.
The past year has been tumultuous for the Colorado River. Last summer, when we gathered here in Steamboat, the Upper Division States had just completed the Five Point Plan in response to Commissioner Touton’s call for the basin states to conserve 2 to 3 million acre-feet. To put that in perspective: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming – combined – used three and a half million acre-feet in 2022.
You’ll remember how bad the situation was. The reservoirs were declining quickly, with daily headlines in the papers. The federal government took emergency action to reduce releases from Lake Powell. The Upper Division States provided DROA water from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up elevations at Lake Powell. You might also remember how the Lower Basin was unable and unwilling to reach agreement to do their part to conserve water.
The Five Point Plan showed the federal government that the Upper Division States are united, committed to being part of the solution, and limited in the scale of what we can do.
One of the five points was a commitment to pursue water conservation on a voluntary, temporary, and compensated basis through the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP). After an incredibly fast reauthorization by Congress, the UCRC launched SCPP earlier this year. Contracts were temporary – for just one year; completely voluntary; and fairly compensated – on average, $422 an acre-foot. All conserved water became system water, used to mitigate the impacts of drought in the Upper Basin. In total, the Upper Basin conserved less than 38,000 acre-feet of water in 64 projects; 2,700 acre-feet of which was conserved by 22 projects in Colorado.
A second point in the Five Point Plan was to continue the Demand Management Feasibility Investigation. Like SCPP, Demand Management would be a temporary, voluntary, and compensated program. The difference is that water conserved in a Demand Management program would be stored in a pool to ensure ongoing Compact compliance for the Upper Division States. Each Upper Division State must find that a Demand Management program is feasible for their state, before any such program could be established. We’ve been discussing Demand Management for a few years now. I want to take a quick second to thank you all for your continued engagement on the topic. Regardless of whether Colorado moves forward with any such program, your input – and debates – have shaped our state’s understanding of conservation programs overall.
Then – and now – the Upper Division States recognized that we did not cause and cannot solve the problem. Overuse in the Lower Basin has driven the Colorado River System into crisis. But inaction is not the answer.
COMPACT COMPLIANCE EMPHASIS
I want to pause here to emphasize something that is so, so important to say: even in the driest of years, the Upper Division States have never been out of compliance with the Compact. We are not even close. If flows at Lees Ferry fall below 75 million acre feet over a 10-year period, it would prompt an inquiry into the cause. If the cause is something other than our depletions, we have not violated the Compact. Remember, we are currently using less than half the flows of the River and less than half of what the Compact apportioned to us.
My team takes the importance of protecting Colorado’s legal interests very seriously. The Compact assures us the ability to develop our half of the river into perpetuity – at our own pace, without risk of a Lower Basin giant guzzling up our share.
I can’t say this clearly enough: Colorado is not at risk of Compact curtailment. We do ourselves a disservice by suggesting otherwise and play right into the Lower Basin’s strategies.
COLORADO RIVER UPDATES – SEIS & Post 2026
Now, back to our recap of the last year. Even to those who actively read about the Colorado River, the issues have been complicated by two distinct federal processes
The first process – the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to revise the ‘07 Guidelines – started in late 2022 to provide the Bureau of Reclamation with additional tools to protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams between now and 2026. Specifically, the SEIS could change operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead in the near-term to allow for lower releases out of those reservoirs. Last January, I was driving back-and-forth between Water Congress and a Basin States meeting, trying to reach an agreement with our neighbors about what input to provide to the federal government on this process. Ultimately, six states signed a letter urging the Bureau of Reclamation to consider several options for reductions in uses in the Lower Basin, including assessment of evaporation and transit losses. Fast forward to spring, and Reclamation released a draft SEIS with two action alternatives and one no-action alternative. No alternative reached upstream to the Upper Basin – each was focused on reducing uses downstream of the reservoirs. In response, the Lower Basin States negotiated a different proposal, which they say will conserve 3 million acre-feet. The Upper Division States agreed to transmit that plan to Reclamation for analysis. We are expecting their findings in the coming weeks, and a revised Draft EIS should provide this analysis. To be clear: while we applaud our downstream neighbors’ efforts to conserve water, the Upper Division States did not, and cannot, endorse the Lower Basin’s proposal. We have not yet seen enough detail about the conservation efforts.
But please keep in mind: this SEIS would develop a short-term fix for the ‘07 Guidelines, which have proved inefficient to protect the System.
This year’s hydrology has given us a much-needed reprieve, but it has not changed the fundamental challenges we still face. We must re-focus our efforts on developing longer-term solutions for management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. This is the only way to stop living crisis to crisis on the Colorado River.
That brings me to the second federal process – in June, the federal government announced the Post-2026 Environmental Impact Statement Process, which will develop new operating guidelines for Powell and Mead. To be blunt: this is the process that matters the most for Colorado. The current guidelines, the ‘07 Guidelines, have been gamed by the Lower Basin. They have knowingly maximized releases from Powell for decades, simultaneously draining Mead and ignoring basic physics like evaporation and transit losses. The silver lining is that the ‘07 Guidelines were interim, by design, so that we could learn from their implementation – and we did learn a lot.
The ‘07 Guidelines have illustrated why Colorado and the Upper Division States must care about sustainable operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead. We cannot have our fate tied to continued Lower Basin overuse.
I met with many of you, with the Tribal Nations, with entities like the Basin Roundtables, IBCC, and conservancy districts, to develop my guiding principles for the post-2026 negotiation.
First, we must acknowledge that climate change is real. We can’t count on decades like the 80s and 90s; we need to be prepared for years like the early 2000s. Our future is going to be drier and more variable.
Second, water users in the Lower Basin are not more important than water users in the Upper Basin. The Upper and Lower Basins have equal apportionments to the river in perpetuity, established by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. We are not re-negotiating the Compact, and any guidelines for post-2026 operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead must be rooted in the Compacts and the Treaty with Mexico.
Third, the Colorado River is not providing enough to sustainoveruse in the Lower Basin. We’ve seen the reservoirs crash to critically low levels. Water use in the Lower Basin cannot continue to exceed available supplies and operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead must better respond to actual hydrology. The Lower Basin must account for all depletions, including evaporation and transit losses.
Fourth, Compact curtailment is not an option. The Upper Basin is apportioned half of the river’s flows in perpetuity, and we are using a lot less that.
Fifth, operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead must respond to actual hydrology and available water supplies. This will be hard for water users in the Lower Basin because it will demand change. Lake Powell releases must be determined by actual hydrology and protecting storage rather than by Lake Mead conditions.
Sixth, the Tribal Nations have federal reserved water rights that must be preserved. The Tribal Nations have water rights that they are entitled to use. Solutions for overuse in the Lower Basin cannot continue to depend on Tribes’ undeveloped federal reserved water righ.
And finally, we need solutions that comply with federal environmental law and advance coordination between the United States and Mexico.
I am honored to be Colorado’s interstate negotiator, and will stand firm by these principles. Future operations must live within the means of the river.
We are in difficult negotiations with the Basin States, and I suspect things will get harder before they get easier. From experience, I know we are better when we stand together as seven basin states. But I also know we must be ready to stand alone when necessary to defend our significant interests in the river. The only way that I can stand alone in the basin is if Colorado can stand together as a state.
I have worked hard to facilitate unity across our state – and a huge thank you to you who’ve organized meetings, rearranged agendas, and teed up discussions with me. Unity is a two-way street. While I work to understand the needs and concerns of Colorado’s diverse water users, diverse water users work to understand the needs and concerns of other people in the state. Unity does not necessarily mean agreement. It’s not an echo chamber – Coloradans have never seen eye-to-eye on all of our water issues, and the post-2026 negotiations will be no different. But unity does mean that we’re good-faith actors with one another; that we agree to protect Coloradans’ rights on our namesake river; and that we commit to finding shared values where we can.
As Commissioner, I represent the entire state – all of our diverse interests and needs. It is so important that we put our best foot forward on the matters where we are unified, while leaving room for difficult discussions to continue within our state.
The post-2026 negotiations matter to Colorado: we must seek operations that are responsive to climate change and actual hydrology. I hope you’ll stay interested, involved, and committed to a future where all in the basin live within the means of the river. You have heard me say it before, but I am going to say it again: we are at a critical juncture on the Colorado River. We have an opportunity to negotiate a better deal on how Lake Powell and Lake Mead are operated – a better deal for our State and also for the 40 million people who depend on this critical resource. I am bringing all of myself and the State’s resources to this effort, and I will need each of you, too.
Something remarkable is happening this year in the Lower Colorado River Basin that provides both a glimmer of hope about what durable basin solutions might look like, and also a clear demonstration of the obstacles still standing in their way.
NEVADA’S COLORADO RIVER WATER USE IS ON TRACK TO BE THE LOWEST IT’S BEEN SINCE 1992
Nevada has demonstrated its ability to take deep cuts without jeopardizing the structure and function of the communities that depend on Colorado River water.
ARIZONA’S COLORADO RIVER WATER USE IS ON TRACK TO BE THE LOWEST IT’S BEEN SINCE 1992
Arizona’s projected 2023 use, 1,974,819 acre feet, has dropped below 2 million acre feet, also the lowest since 1992. The Central Arizona Project, which supplies the Phoenix-Tucson area, is projected to take just 605,171 acre feet this year. That is 40 percent of CAP’s 21st-century average.
Arizona has demonstrated its ability to take deep cuts without jeopardizing the structure and function of the communities that depend on Colorado River water.
CALIFORNIA’S COLORADO RIVER WATER USE IS ON TRACK TO BE THE LOWEST IT’S BEEN SINCE 2019
California’s use has dropped below 4 million acre feet, which would be the first time that’s happened since 2019, currently 10 percent below the state’s 21st century average.
Ok, the comparison is striking, right? Some states are doing a lot, other states are doing less. But I’m trying to be optimistic here, California’s water use reductions aren’t nothing! Everyone’s using less water!
But the relative depth of California’s cuts has not yet demonstrated its ability to take deep cuts without jeopardizing the structure and function of the communities that depend on Colorado River water.
The new Schmidt/Yackulic/Kuhn paper puts the needed cuts at 20 percent just to stabilize the system – more if we’re going to rebuild a buffer against a repeat of last year’s shit show. Arizona and Nevada have figured out how to cut a lot more than that.
California, not so much.
A CLARIFYING NOTE ON THE PICTURE
The above picture, which I took in October, no longer represents reality. Based on the latest Sentinel satellite imagery, a bit of water has returned to Boulder Harbor on Lake Mead’s western shore.
Click the link to read the article on the Grist website (Jake Bittle):
The water shortage crisis on the Colorado River is improving, but it’s far from over.
That was the message from the Biden administration on Tuesday, as officials announced they would loosen water restrictions on the river in 2024. Thanks to robust winter snowpack that provided about 33 percent more moisture than the average year, the water levels in the riverʻs two main reservoirs have begun to stabilize after plummeting over three years. This has lessened the need for states in the Southwest to cut their water usage.
The total cuts will be about 20 percent lighter than they were last year, requiring three Southwest states and Mexico to save around 600,000 acre-feet of water — enough to supply roughly 1.2 million homes.
Even so, the administration left some mandatory restrictions in place to account for the fact that the reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are still emptier than they have been at almost any point in history. That’s due in large part to a millennium-scale drought that researchers believe was made much more likely by climate change. And even as federal officials eased up on mandatory restrictions, they were also preparing to dole out billions of dollars to the region’s farmers and cities in an effort to further reduce water usage on the river.
“The above-average precipitation this year was a welcome relief,” said Camille Camimlim Touton, the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees the river, in a press release. “We have the time to focus on the long-term sustainability solutions needed in the Colorado River Basin.”
During the past three years, as the Colorado River has dried up, the federal government has used the elevation of Lake Mead as a benchmark to determine what restrictions it needs to impose on Arizona, Nevada, and California, the three states in what’s known as the riverʻs “Lower Basin,” as well as Mexico. In practice, the state that has suffered the most under this system is Arizona, which has junior rights to the river as a result of a compromise it made in the 1960s to secure funding for canal infrastructure; it has borne almost all the early cuts.
The Biden administrationʻs announcement this week, which will move the river from a “Tier 2a” shortage back down to a “Tier 1” shortage, should give Arizona cotton farmers and Phoenix-area cities a little more breathing room next year. But the river’s long-term prognosis means that it may not be wise for farmers to start planting more fields, or for cities to keep adding new golf courses and lawns.
“I’d say it’s probably not going to help that situation much,” said Paco Ollerton, a farmer who grows cotton and other crops outside the city of Casa Grande, south of Phoenix. “The acreage has dropped quite a bit. We’re probably about 25 percent fallow in the district this year.” The easing of drought restrictions might help some farmers increase their acreage, Ollerton added, but many will hold off on replanting because they’re wary of future cuts.
Even as the Biden administration sets a more relaxed standard for 2024, officials are preparing to roll out a larger series of water cuts that will last for the next three years. These bigger cuts, which the administration hopes will lift the river out of the drought-induced crisis of the past few years, were the result of a hard-fought compromise between the seven states that use the river — and in particular between the two largest users, Arizona and California.
The announcement of the compromise plan in May brought an end to a year of tense negotiations between the states and the Biden administration, triggered by unprecedented fears that Lake Powell and Lake Mead would bottom out altogether. In that doomsday scenario, hydroelectric plants that provide power to millions of people would have shut down, and water might not have been able to move past the reservoirs at all. The compromise plan uses about $1.5 billion in drought funding from the Inflation Reduction Act to compensate farmers and cities for using less water over the next three years.
This was a welcome outcome for farmers in places like Imperial County, California, who had expected to take uncompensated water cuts for the first time in history, as well as for city leaders in Arizona, who had stood to lose a huge share of their Colorado River water during the negotiations. The compromise was only possible because of this year’s wet winter, which deposited enough snow to prop up water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. With reservoirs recovering, the states could get away with more modest cuts — and pay for them with money that Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona secured within the Inflation Reduction Act last year.
Even so, the compromise leaves several questions unanswered. The biggest question is how the states can reduce usage over the long term to account for the gradual aridification of the river. Farmers and cities can save water through techniques like drip irrigation or wastewater recycling, but these technologies are expensive to implement. In all likelihood, some places will have to farm less or build fewer houses. Furthermore, many tribal nations along the river still can’t access the water to which they have legal rights, and satisfying those rights could mean taking water away from other non-tribal users.
The federal government needs to hash out answers to these questions with states and tribes by the end of 2026, when the current operating guidelines for the river will expire. The Biden administration already kicked off that process last month when it asked stakeholders to weigh in on the river’s future. The negotiations won’t kick off in earnest for months or even years, but the administration’s goal is clear: avoid a repeat of the past yearʻs crisis at all costs.
Federal officials on Tuesday temporarily eased Colorado River water use restrictions due to a “lucky” year of increased precipitation, but drought and overuse remain a crisis as officials begin negotiations for the future of the river on which 40 million people in the West rely for drinking, agriculture and water. Colorado’s top water officials on Tuesday submitted the state’s first formal comments on negotiations that will govern the use of the river after current guidelines expire in 2026. They urged change in how Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two major water storage reservoirs on the river — are operated as the West becomes hotter and drier…
Negotiations for a new plan to replace a 2007 agreement began in June between federal officials, tribal leaders and the seven basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and California. The groups must come to an agreement by 2027, when the current guidelines established in 2007 end. New operating guidelines must account for climate change as well as “recognize that Lower Basin overuse is unsustainable and puts the entire system at risk,” according to the letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from Mitchell and Lauren Ris, acting director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board…
Water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell rose this spring due to increased snow and rain in the region. The wet winter and spring mean for the next year Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Storage Condition, a “significant improvement” from the Level 2 Shortage Condition implemented in 2022, the Bureau of Reclamation announced Tuesday…That means two Lower Basin states that rely on releases from the reservoirs for water — Nevada and Arizona — will have a little more water to work with this year. Cuts don’t affect allocations to the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico or Wyoming — because they are upstream of the reservoirs…
Heavy snowfall and increased rains helped boost flows in the Colorado River Basin this winter and spring, raising the water levels of reservoirs across the system. Lake Mead rose more than 10 feet and Lake Powell rose more than 50 feet.
“We were on the verge of a crash,” said Matt Rice, director of the Colorado Basin Program at American Rivers. “There’s no doubt we got lucky.”
Significant improvement for Lake Mead due to improved hydrology, ongoing conservation efforts. Operating guidelines in effect until Reclamation finalizes SEIS, including analysis of consensus-based state conservation agreement.
August 15, 2023
BOULDER CITY, Nev. – The Bureau of Reclamation today released the Colorado River Basin August 2023 24-Month Study, which determines the tiers for the coordinated operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead for 2024. These operating conditions, which are based on existing agreements under the 2007 guidelines and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans, will be in effect until the near-term guidelines from the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) are finalized. Reclamation is currently analyzing the consensus-based Lower Division States proposed alternative for the SEIS.
Based on projections in the 24-Month Study, Lake Powell will operate in a Mid-Elevation Release Tier with a 7.48 million acre-feet release in water year 2024. Consistent with existing agreements, Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Shortage Condition – an improvement from the Level 2 Shortage Condition announced last year – with required shortages by Arizona and Nevada, coupled with Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan water savings contributions. Mexico’s water delivery will be reduced consistent with Minute 323.
Lake Mead’s release in 2023 is projected to be the lowest in 30 years, approximately one and half million acre-feet lower than an average normal year, reflecting extensive, ongoing conservation efforts in the Lower Basin states funded in part by President Biden’s historic Investing in America agenda, above-normal inflows in the lower basin below Hoover Dam, and conservation in Mexico.
Investments in system conservation and improved hydrology this year have provided an opportunity to recover some reservoir storage. At the same time, the Colorado River system continues to face low elevations, with Lake Powell and Lake Mead at a combined storage of 36%.
“The above-average precipitation this year was a welcome relief, and coupled with our hard work for system conservation, we have the time to focus on the long-term sustainability solutions needed in the Colorado River Basin. However, Lake Powell and Lake Mead – the two largest reservoirs in the United States and the two largest storage units in the Colorado River system – remain at historically low levels,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “As we experience a warmer, drier west due to a prolonged drought, accelerated by climate change, Reclamation is committed to leading inclusive and transparent efforts to develop the next-generation framework for managing the river system.”
The Development of Near- and Long-Term Guidelines
Reclamation is simultaneously developing both near- and long-term guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead operations. The supplemental SEIS in progress focuses on near-term actions, which would be applicable from 2024 through 2026 based on potential changes to limited sections of the 2007 Interim Guidelines. Reclamation temporarily withdrew the SEIS so it could fully analyze the consensus-based Lower Division States proposed alternative and will publish an updated draft SEIS for public review and comment with the consensus-based proposal as an action alternative later this year.
In addition to several agreements that have already been finalized, a consensus-based proposal – agreed upon by the three Lower Basin states earlier this year – commits to measures to conserve at least 3 million-acre-feet (maf) of system water through the end of 2026, when the current operating guidelines are set to expire.
The long-term guidelines, informally referred to as Post 2026 Operations, will revisit the 2007 Interim Guidelines in full, as well as other operating agreements that expire in 2026, including Drought Contingency Plans and Minute 323. In June, Reclamation initiated the formal process to develop the long-term operating guidelines.
Reclamation is committed to an inclusive and transparent process that enhances meaningful Tribal engagement as well as collaboration with all stakeholders in the basin. In response to Tribal feedback, the Department of the Interior established the first-ever Federal-Tribal-State partnership to promote equitable information-sharing and discussion among the sovereign governments in the Colorado River Basin. All 30 Colorado River Basin Tribal Nations and the seven U.S. basin states were invited to participate in this new group. The group met for the first time last week with Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, Commissioner Touton, and other Department leaders. The formation of this new group does not replace any independent consultation with either Tribes or states.
2024 Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead
Until the updated near-term guidelines are finalized once the supplemental SEIS is complete, Reclamation will continue to implement the plans developed over the past two decades that lay out detailed operational rules for these critical Colorado River reservoirs through 2026:
Lake Powell Mid-Elevation Release Tier: The 24-Month Study, with an 8.23 maf release pattern in October – December 2023, projects Lake Powell’s January 1, 2024, elevation to be 3,568.57 feet – about 130 feet below full and about 80 feet above minimum power pool. Based on this projection, Lake Powell will operate in the Mid-Elevation Release Tier in water year 2024 (October 1, 2023, through September 30, 2024). Under this tier, Lake Powell will release 7.48 million acre-feet in water year 2024 without the potential for a mid-year adjustment in April 2024. Under the most probable scenario, and with a 7.48 maf release pattern in October – December 2023, Lake Powell’s projected elevation on January 1, 2024, is 3,573.68 feet.
Lake Mead Level 1 Shortage Condition: The 24-Month Study projects Lake Mead’s January 1, 2024, elevation to be 1,065.27 feet – about 10 feet below the Lower Basin shortage determination trigger of 1,075 feet and about 25 feet below the drought contingency plan trigger of 1,090 feet. This elevation is based on a 7.48 maf release from Lake Powell in water year 2024. Based on this projection, Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Shortage Condition for calendar year 2024 (January 1, 2024, through December 31, 2024). This is a significant improvement from the Level 2 Shortage Condition announced last year. The required shortage reductions and water savings contributions under the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, 2019 Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan and Minute 323 to the 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico are:
Arizona: 512,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 18% of the state’s annual apportionment.
Nevada: 21,000 acre-feet, which is 7% of the state’s annual apportionment.
Mexico: 80,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 5% of the country’s annual allotment.
Lower Basin projections for Lake Mead include updated water orders to reflect additional conservation efforts and new completed system conservation agreements under the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program.
President Biden’s Investing in America Agenda
System conservation and efficiency programs in the Colorado River Basin are being strengthened by President Biden’s Investing in America agenda and will invest in long-term durable system efficiency improvements that result in quantifiable, verifiable water savings in the Basin.
The Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing much-needed resources to enhance Western communities’ resilience to drought and climate change, including protecting the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought.
To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete:
WASHINGTON — The Department of the Interior today announced $50 million over the next five years to improve key water infrastructure and enhance drought-related data collection across the Upper Colorado River Basin. The Bureau of Reclamation is making an initial $8.7 million investment in fiscal year 2023 to support drought mitigation efforts in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming that will help ensure compliance with interstate water compact obligations, maintain the ability to generate hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam, and minimize adverse effects to resources and infrastructure in the Upper Basin.
President Biden’s Investing in America agenda represent the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing much-needed resources to enhance Western communities’ resilience to drought and climate change, including protecting the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought. Today’s announcement is one of the many historic investments the Biden-Harris administration is implementing as part of an all-of-government effort to make the Colorado River Basin and all the communities that rely on it more resilient to climate change, including the ongoing drought in the West.
“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to bringing every tool and every resource to bear to as we work with states, Tribes, and communities throughout the West to find long-term solutions in the face of climate change and the sustained drought it is creating,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. “As we look toward the next decade of Colorado River guidelines and strategies, we are simultaneously making smart investments now that will make our path forward stronger and more sustainable.”
“Resources from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda are allowing us to meet a number of program needs across the Colorado River System, including expanding the Basin’s existing network of instrumentation to improve water accounting, weather predicting and monitoring,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “Today’s funding will enhance critical data and empower us with the best-available science and technology to more accurately measure the Upper Basin’s consumptive water use.”
The initial $8.7 million announced today will purchase and place 12 new eddy covariance stations. Reclamation will locate the stations throughout the basin to measure evapotranspiration, a key measurement for determining consumptive water use. There are currently four of these stations in the Upper Basin, one placed in each of the Upper Basin states. Reclamation and the Upper Basin states, along with other partners, studied evapotranspiration in the Upper Basin from 2018 through 2020. The data that was collected and analyzed provided critical insight and demonstrated the need and value of expanding the data gathering ability.
This funding helps further Drought Contingency Planning activities in the Upper Colorado River Basin and is consistent with the obligations of the Secretary under the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act (P.L. 116-14) and related agreements.
To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete:
Kudos to Southern Nevada, which at ~202kaf is on track for its lowest take on the Colorado River since 1992. Clark County’s population has nearly tripled in that time.
At ~860kaf, the Central Arizona Project is on track to make its lowest draw on the Colorado River since 1995.
At ~803kaf, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s forecast draw on the river is taking 12.5 percent less than its average over the last decade, but Met is weird because of California State Water Project wet year chaos, so I’m not sure I fully understand what they’re up to. (Jump in the comments and explain, Met friends!)
The Imperial Irrigation District is forecast to take ~2.5maf from the river this year, which is basically unchanged from its use over the previous decade.
What is Needed
The analysis by Jack Schmidt et al suggests that, based on 21st century hydrology, we need to cut 1.5 million acre feet per year just to stabilize the system. If we want to actually refill a bit, to provide cushion against the sort of catastrophe that was narrowly averted this year by a big snowpack, the cuts need to be even deeper.
The above graph from their paper shows the problem. I’ve circled the last big snowpack year in red, and you can see the others as well. Every time we got bonus water, we just used it.
The graph above is from a study released a couple weeks ago, mid-June, on ‘The Colorado River Water Crisis: Its Origin and the Future,’ authored by two elders of Colorado River affairs: Dr. John Schmidt, river scientist at Utah State University, and Eric Kuhn, longtime manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, now retired; both are deeply immersed in the river’s issues, and committed to working through the current crisis to a more reality-based future for the river and those who use its waters. A third author is Charles Yackulic, a noted scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, but not so well known in Colorado River matters. When Jack Schmidt and Eric Kuhn speak about the river, everyone listens – especially when they speak together.
This graph alone explains a lot of the pain and anxiety we’ve been experiencing, and anticipating experiencing, in the Colorado River region – the natural basin plus technological out-of-basin extensions. (Sometimes the anticipation of pain can be more painful than the actual eventuality – try to think ‘dead pool’ without a serious twitch.)
The black line meandering through the graph is a smoothing curve tracing the general up-or-down-and-how-far of the erratic annual flows of the river (the little black dots peppered all over the graph). But the genius of their analysis is in the three horizontal lines. They’ve divided the 117 years for which we have some semblance of measures for Colorado River’s flows into three fairly distinct periods: The Early 20th-Century Pluvial (two-bit word for ‘really wet period’) when the river averaged almost 18 million acre-feet a year (maf/yr) for a quarter-century; then the six-decade Mid to Late Century period when the river averaged 14.3 maf/yr; and then what they’ve chosen to call the Millennium Drought in which the river has only averaged flows of 12.5 maf/yr. (I would just call it ‘The Anthropocene.’)
In terms of flow, that might be three different rivers. The large-scale management of the Colorado River began with the Colorado River Compact in 1922, created just past the peak of the Early 20th-century Pluvial; it was written for the ‘first river,’ as it was then. It’s true there were scientists like E.C. ReRue saying that tree rings indicated that the pluvial period was highly unusual, and 12-13 maf might be a better average flow when the river had a lot of pooled up storage and irrigation water spread out to dry under the desert sun…. But try telling that dour perception to a bunch of engineers and city-builders in the Early Anthropocene, sitting with their new-fangled bulldozers idling on the banks of a wild river running 18 maf a year….
As the river slipped into the severe drought of the 1930s, and the rest of the 20th century where the average flow was less than the 15 maf that had been divided in the Compact, to say nothing of the 1.5 maf for Mexico, it still seemed possible, with the addition of new elements in what became known as ‘The Law of the River,’ to continue governing that ‘second river’ more or less by the Compact. But it was an increasingly shaky situation, saved mostly by the fact that the Upper Basin states were using quite a bit less than their 7.5 maf/yr, and the water they weren’t using was pooled up in not one but two huge reservoirs that were occasionally both full.
But when the Millennial Drought struck just after the turn of the century, the ‘third river’ was born, its flows 40 percent lower than those of the ‘first river,’ things began to fall apart….
It’s interesting that the publication of this study more or less coincided with news releases about the official beginning of meetings to work out a new management regime for the Colorado River, to be in place by the end of 2026. There is nothing mystical or even historical about the choice of 2026 for this; the date stems from the fact that, early in what Schmidt, Kuhn and Yockulic call the ‘Millennial Drought,’ the managers of the Colorado River storage and delivery systems realized they were in trouble. After a really bad water year in 2002, followed by half a decade of mediocre-to-pretty-bad water years, storage in the River’s two big ‘fail safe’ reservoirs had dropped from near-full in 2001 to half-full. So the managers gathered in 2006 to work on new river management stratagems – beginning by creating ‘Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead’; the ‘interim’ for the Interim Guidelines would be two decades, to 2026, at which time they planned, or at least hoped, to have a new river management plan.
Management for all three of the rivers portrayed on the graph has been done under the auspices of ‘The Law of the River,’ the bag of compacts, treaties, laws, court decisions, state resolutions, federal regulations and other elements, that have accumulated over the past century around the original 1922 Colorado River Compact, to clarify, interpret, legislate, and otherwise support the Compact. The ‘Interim Guidelines’ went into the bag with the rest of the Law of the River – as did a set of Drought Contingency Plans (Upper and Lower Basins) in 2019.
But now – practically on the eve of 2026 – storage has continued to drop so alarmingly in the Mead and Powell Reservoirs, despite cuts in consumptive use under the Interim Guidelines, that last summer the Bureau of Reclamation and Interior Department issued a semi-panicky mandate that, to fend off the possibility of going to dead pool in the big reservoirs, it would be necessary to cut consumptive uses much more – by 2-4 maf/yr, a huge cut.
This has engendered several plans, the most popular of which would produce a reduction of three maf over three years – only half of the Bureau’s minimum request – and would require the federal government to pay $1.2 billion to get it done. This plan will probably be accepted, however, even though it too may prove insufficient to get us on to 2026, partly because any of the other plans would probably end up in court for the next decade, and partly because we just had a big fat pluvialish year of snow in the mountains that will give a stay to the increasingly scary decline in the big reservoirs.
This new agreement to reduce use will go in the bag along with the rest of the Law of the River. The question then becomes – what will happen in 2026? Will we just be adding another set of patches, bandaids and crutches to the Law of the River bag, to keep the 1922 Colorado River Compact propped up and somewhat afloat?
When I think of the Colorado River Compact today, I think of the 1950 Chevy I bought for $50 in 1970-something from an old guy in Crested Butte. After driving it for a couple years, it started running worse than usual, so I took it to the garage to see what the mechanic recommended.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘if it was mine, I’d jack up the radiator cap and put a better car under it.’
That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. And there are still a lot of people who think the Colorado River Compact is still just fine, with a little help from the Law of the River bag of tricks. People who say it would be impossible to replace the Compact, and don’t want to hear of it.
But look at the graph. The Colorado River Compact was written for a river that for a quarter century was running an average of 17.9 maf. Now it is a considerably different river. There is one sentence in the Colorado River Compact we ought to revisit – its first sentence:
“The major purposes of this compact are to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System; to establish the relative importance of different beneficial uses of water, to promote interstate comity; to remove causes of present and future controversies; and to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin, the storage of its waters, and the protection of life and property from floods.“
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Compact for managing the river we have now that did all of those things? The 1922 Compact really only fulfilled the fourth objective; it sufficed to ‘secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin,’ so long as Congress was willing to ignore that there was ‘interstate comity’ with only six of the seven states, and there were plenty of ‘present and future controversies’ lurking in the wings.
The commissioners had also failed in their original intentions for ‘providing for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters’. What they had wanted to do was to effect a seven-way division of the river so that each state would know that, when it was ready to go into super-growth mode like California already was, there would be water for them to develop. Essentially, they wanted to abrogate the appropriation doctrine at the interstate level, so that one state (California) could not preclude development in the other states.
They spent most of their first week of compact commission meetings trying to work out that seven-state division, but they were all so full of their own big dreams that it would have required a couple ‘first rivers’ to fulfill their hopes. The two-basin division of the river they eventually settled on sufficed to get the Boulder Canyon Project underway, but was not what they had hoped to do. It did give the Upper Basin states a temporary sense of relief, until the drought of the 1930s made them realize the implications of the ‘shall not cause the flow to be depleted below’ clause, which afforded plenty of potential future controversies; the Lower Basin states, meanwhile, found immediate cause for controversy, with Arizona soon suing California.
All of this makes me think it may be time to, as it were, jack up the first sentence of the existing Compact, and create a new Compact to put under it, one that actually accomplishes the three worthy stated objectives that remain unfulfilled.
Also in the news last week was the announcement that The Supremes, our jolly kick-ass band of judicial activists, have delivered another kick to some of the First People in the Colorado River basin. We’ll begin to delve into that in the next post here….
Chuck Cullom was speaking before a friendly audience on June 1 when he shared his perspective on the messy story in the Colorado River Basin.
“Is the press here?” he asked early in his remarks, surely knowing that the event, the Colorado Drought Summit, was being taped for later posting on the website of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the sponsor of the two-day meeting. “Is anybody here from a ski town?”
Since 2021, Cullom has directed the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents Colorado and three other upper-basin states of Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. This is distinct from the lower basin, which consists of Arizona, California and Nevada.
The bifurcation, primarily a legal one but a hydrologic one, too, was created by the Colorado River Compact in 1922. The division is marked by Lee Ferry, just below what is now Glen Canyon Dam and the launch point for boaters rafting the Grand Canyon. Most of the water in the Colorado River Basin comes from upstream, especially from snow and especially in Colorado.
For the 25 years prior to his current position, Cullom was in the lower basin, most immediately before at the Central Arizona Project. That giant straw, the last major one stuck into the Colorado River, delivers water to Phoenix, Tucson, and other cities as well as some agriculture users in Arizona. It’s also worth noting that there has always been friction between Arizona and California.
Now, from his base in the greater Salt Lake City area, he’s just across the hill from Park City, one of the top mountain resorts.
“So we have what are referred to as the trustafarians, which is a tribe of people who live off their trust funds,” he said. “Trustafarians tend to drive something between a new Subaru and a Range Rover, but with the latest kit bolted atop. I don’t know if they ever take it off, but they do have skis and mountains bikes and stuff—and they expect their paycheck every month from daddy or whomever. And they are insufferable.”
“You better be going someplace with this,” quipped another panelist, Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, known in water circles by CWCB. She is also Colorado’s voice on Colorado River affairs.
Mitchell had just wrapped up a critique of the recently announced agreement in which the federal government is to give lower-basin states $1.2 billion to curtail about 10% of their withdrawals from the Colorado River during the next three years. During that time, at least in theory, the basin states will have figured out how to solve their bad-math problem. During the 21st century, they’ve been withdrawing more water than the river has delivered. The two basins – upper and lower – do not share equal responsibility. The lower-basin has been drafting on the water banked during wetter times.
Like ski town trustafarians, Cullom explained, the lower-basin has a sense of entitlement. Trustafarians don’t have to get a job when the money runs out, and the lower-basin states for most of the last century have never had to live within the limitations of natural runoff.
Upstream of the desert empires lies Hoover Dam and, above that, Glen Canyon Dam – plus a lot of other much smaller dams and reservoirs, about 50 million acre-feet in total capacity, which provide assurances that the water will be available, no matter what is happening in the headwaters. But what has been happening most years in the 21st century has been drought and its longer-term and less reversible component, aridification.
Mitchell, who was first in the batting order in the program, has never been one to mince words. She seemed particularly animated as she described being in Phoenix the previous day to present the upper-basin’s perspective. The majority of the day was devoted to sharing “their concerns over security and certainty that they felt they were entitled to,” she said.
One can wonder how her message may have been delivered on the road as opposed to a home-court crowd.
“When we talk about security and certainty, the way that water is being used in the lower basin is damaging all of our security and certainty, not just their own.”
As did Cullom, Mitchell described a system that has shielded the lower-basin states from the hydrologic realities.
Colorado and other upper-basin states must largely live within the natural water budget, what falls from the sky. There are many dams and reservoirs, but even the largest are almost tiny in their capacities compared to the behemoths of Powell and Mead. Having those giant reservoirs above them allows California and Arizona to be certain that the water will be there for their cities and crops, be it lettuce in winter, or alfalfa and almond groves in summer. Agriculture, particularly in the Imperial Valley of California and the Yuma area of Arizona, has the most secure water systems.
In a sense, Mead and Powell represent savings accounts. Now, as all of the nation understands, the result of new and devoted national media interest, those bank accounts have verged on functional depletion. Going into this winter, the two reservoirs were 26% and 23% full. There was legitimate worry that, given just another dry winter, hydroelectric production at Glen Canyon would cease and, with another dry winter or two, Powell might drop to levels such that it could not allow water to go downstream, a level called dead pool.
The marvel in all this is that California, especially, and to a lesser extent Arizona, have not fundamentally changed anything in the last 20 years. According to Cullom, the lower basin states have been consuming about 10 million acre-feet. This compares to about 3.5 to 3.75 million acre-feet by the upper-basin states.
The Colorado River Compact stipulates equal apportionment between the two basins of 7.5 million acre-feet on a rolling 10-year average.
Almost everybody has heard talk about whether the Colorado River Compact needs to be renegotiated, said Mitchell. It does not, she declared. Instead, it needs to be honored.
“The foundational principle of that compact is equity. Sit with that for a little bit,” she said.
“While these quantities are distracting and we know that the river is suppling less than it did a 100 years ago, that doesn’t take away from the foundation principles of this compact. With that being said, I believe that the compact is flexible enough to adapt to these conditions. We, as humans, are flexible enough to include other voices in these conversations,” added Mitchell, a reference to Lorelei Cloud, a representative of the Southern Utes who was also on the Colorado River panel at the conference.
Native Americas, if almost completely ignored when the waters of the Colorado River were being apportioned, in fact have the most senior of rights as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1908 case that yielded the Winters Doctrine. Those rights in the Colorado River Basin are estimated to be 20% to 25% of the river’s total flows. Tribes in Colorado and other upper-basin states have had their allocations determined, but the work remains incomplete in the lower basin.
Mitchell and Cullom also described efforts by upper basin states, if not always successful, to begin pruning water use in anticipation of possibly hotter, drier times ahead. Lower basin states have made some adjustments, but the question is whether they are remotely close to what is needed.
“When we saw the flags of a crisis coming, there was a choice by some to not make changes that are going to be painful,” said Mitchell, alluding to the lower basin.
Upper-basin states, she went on to explain, did make choices. In her description, users in upper-basin states did suffer, pointing to the divergent numbers of the upper-basin and the lower basin. in a chart on the screen behind her. (See above).
“These numbers tell the story of how change has to happen. And so when people get tired of us sharing the numbers, we’re going to share them some more.”
Cullom made a similar point. “It’s a threshold difference when you live downstream of 50-plus million acre-feet of storage. Your concerns about your year-over-year precipitation and runoff in operations are pretty marginal. It’s very, very different up here. Last summer, fully one-third of Wyoming’s users on the Green (a tributary to the Colorado) were shut off, regulated off.”
That, he added, is not something understood in the lower basin. “It means you are out of priority.”
It means that you are out of priority that day, that week, that month. And the state engineer, who in Wyoming is a law-enforcement official, comes and shuts you off. That is not a thing in the lower basin. But in August and September (of 2022, fully one-third of growers in the Green were curtailed. Ninety percent of the Ute Mountain Ute water was curtailed, their agricultural productivity was reduced because of hydrology.”
There’s another difference, he went on to say: the upper basin has tens of thousands of individual water users and “turnouts,” places where water is diverted. In the lower basin, there are probably 30 main-stem turnouts of which fewer than 10 really matter.
The upper basin, he said, is “small, messy and complicated. The lower basin is just a corporate machine of giant turnouts.”
A bit of history: The reservoirs entered the 20th century close to full. The 1990s had been good snow years and the upper basin states had not developed their full allocation of 7.5 million acre-feet. California famously had been allocated 4.4 but was using about 5.5
Then came the lean years, worst of all 2002. The river carried only 4.5 million acre-feet of water. Attorneys who framed the Colorado River Compact had assumed 20 million acre-feet of water on average. The thin “bathtub rings” on the sides of the reservoirs representing high marks widened considerably—and then widened more in subsequent years.
The first response was the Interim Guidelines of 2007. Then came other very small belt-tightening measures. California, for example, cut back to its legal entitlement.
By 2015, though, it had become clear that more would be needed. A modestly good water year allowed the lower-basin states to postpone any serious talk. Then came a bad year—and finally there was action. The result was the 2019 drought contingency plan.
At the time, Brad Udall, who has family roots in Arizona but a lifetime mostly in Colorado, told me that he believed that 2019 agreement that was broadly heralded was not close to being enough. “I hope I’m wrong,” he said.
More lean years followed, the reservoirs shrank, and the small measures weren’t near enough.
In their remarks at the Drought Summit in Denver on June 1, Mitchell and Cullom mentioned several of those efforts in the upper basin, with Mitchell describing one as “clumsy.” Cullom said something similar, noting the call for accelerated action as not without risk. “Part of the challenge with picking up the pace is you stub your toe,” he said, alluding to mistakes made in the system conservation pilot program.
Finally, in August 2021, the Colorado River story became national in a way that it had not been before. “In a First, U.S. Declares Shortage on Colorado River, Forcing Water Cuts,” announced the New York Times.
That cut off some farmers in Arizona. More reduction was needed, though.
On June 14, 2022, Camille Calimlim Touton, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, which is sort of the task-master on the Colorado River because of its role in regulating the dams, told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of additional conservation was needed just to protect reservoir levels. She gave the basin states 60 days to come up with a plan.
To compare, the entire state of Colorado uses about 2.2 million acre-feet from the river each year.
“I wasn’t surprised by the two-million acre-feet,” recounted Mitchell last week. “It wasn’t rocket science. It was addition and subtraction. It’s not even multiplication and division. It didn’t work. There was an overuse that was not sustainable.”
That deadline from the Bureau of Reclamation was missed, as was an extension.
Finally, in late January, something came out, if it also fell short. California wasn’t on board.
“Cut the crap,” Udall was quoted as saying in a Denver Post story in January.
Finally in late May, a new agreement was announced, getting front page attention from New York and Washington DC to Los Angeles (and, of course, in Denver).
“We’ve received a page and a half of bullet points saying what the lower-basin intends to do. We don’t know how they’ll do it. We don’t know where the water will come from (among existing uses). We don’t know if it will be binding and enforceable,” said Mitchell.
She said Colorado and other upper basin states are waiting to see a revised draft supplement environmental impact statement.
Mitchell was unsparing. “I think it’s also important to recognize that we don’t get paid for the conservation that happens in the upper-basin states, because it’s in response to hydrology,” she said.
There is yet another bone of contention, one that all but Colorado River wonks will have a hard time understanding. That is who takes responsibility for evaporation from the reservoirs as well as transmission loss.
Hydrologists estimate a million acre-feet of evaporation occurs on Lake Mead – but in the accounting of the lower-basin states, he said, it doesn’t exist.
“In the lower basin,” said Cullom, “they, uh, somehow , uh, there’s an atmospheric thing that prevents evaporation from being considered. Apparently physics doesn’t work (the same) everywhere.”
By that point, Cullom had left his metaphor for ski town trustafarians alone. Do you think he uses that when he speaks in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Needles?
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720.415.9308.
Lake Mead ended May 2023 at elevation 1,054.28 feet above sea level. That’s up five feet in a month, at a time of year when the reservoir is usually dropping, so I guess yay? It’s also up 6 1/2 feet from last year, so I guess yay?
But also worth noting: Mead is down 32 feet from May of 2019, the year the oddly-named “Drought Contingency Plan” was signed. I say “oddly named” because the clear outcome here suggests that our plan for the contingency of drought must have been to drain Lake Mead.
2023 WATER USE FORECAST
We’re far enough into the year that we can get a pretty good feel for how deeply Lower Basin water users are cutting in response to the current crisis.
Total cuts from the states’ base allocations are 1.079 million acre feet, which is less than the 1.2 million acre feet in Reclamation’s classic “Structural Deficit” calculation, and well below the 1.5 million or more – a 20 percent reduction – that’s been widely discussed as the need in a climate-change altered Colorado River Basin.
Here’s how the cuts are being made in 2023:
California: 4.178 million acre feet, a 5 percent reduction from California’s base allocation
Arizona: 2.031 million acre feet, a 27 percent reduction from Arizona’s base allocation
Nevada: 212,000 acre feet, a 29 percent reduction from Nevada’s base allocation
We can argue over whether this is “fair” – I’ve made my case here – but the reality is that Arizona and Nevada right now are contributing disproportionately to the cuts needed to save Lake Mead.
A big part of the reductions for 2023 are based on the requirements of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the Drought Contingency Plan. (Puzzled over why Arizona and Nevada have to make cuts under the ’07/DCP and California doesn’t? California’s power politics in the 1960s gave it higher priority rights.)
In response to the near term crisis on the river, California is taking an additional 5 percent in cuts this year beyond the ’07/DCP requirements, Arizona is taking 6 percent, and Nevada is taking 24 percent.
percent cut from base
Cut beyond ’07/DCP
END OF YEAR FORECAST
The latest Reclamation 24-month study has Mead ending calendar 2023 at elevation 1,062.32.
Despite this year’s monster snowpack and the gazillions of federal dollars currently chasing water use reductions, that’s still down 28 feet since the end of 2019, the year the DCP was signed.
A big thanks to my supporters – Inkstain will always be free, your help makes it possible.
When a deal to protect the Colorado River’s water supply finally came together after a year of contentious negotiations and a marathon weekend of last-minute haggling by phone and video calls that ran well past midnight, whatever sense of achievement the participants felt seemed outweighed by relief and fatigue…Within hours, Arizona’s negotiator stressed at a news conference that the deal was simply “an agreement to submit a proposal.” The four northern states along the river signed off on further study of the plan but would concede little else. The negotiations wrapped up with a call to immediately start another multi-year round of talks…
The problems with the negotiations arose partly from the size of the task. The amount of water that the administration was asking states to cut from their farms and cities had never been tried…
Negotiating teams kept meeting throughout the winter, as a barrage of atmospheric rivers pummeled the California coast and snows piled up in the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, promising a big runoff year into reservoirs. On Jan. 26, they gathered at Woolley’s Classic Suites, a hotel near the Denver airport. Interior had asked for proposals on potential cuts by the following week. Six of the states were coalescing around a plan that would assign cuts based on evaporation of the river, an approach that would hit California particularly hard. California negotiators were caught off guard that lawyers and technical staff from the other states had arrived early and were huddling at the hotel, already writing proposals…
That month, Beaudreau held separate conference calls with Upper and Lower Basin officials to clarify the lines of command. Lower Basin officials related that the turmoil and strife was not helpful, and they wanted clear direction from Interior. Beaudreau informed state officials that he would be in charge, along with Touton, in the months ahead. Trujillo, the assistant secretary, was taken off the Colorado River negotiations.
Click the link to read the article on the Grist website (Jake Bittle):
After a year of intense negotiations, the states along the Colorado River have reached a deal to solve one of the most complex water crises in U.S. history. The solution to this byzantine conundrum is deceptive in its simplicity: Pay farmers — who collectively use 80 percent of Colorado River deliveries — to give up their water.
Representatives from Arizona, Nevada, and California announced on Monday that they had agreed to reduce their states’ collective water usage by more than 3 million acre-feet over the next three years. That equals around a trillion gallons, or roughly 13 percent of the states’ total water usage. Under the terms of the deal, cities and irrigation districts in these so-called Lower Basin states will receive around $1.2 billion from the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, in exchange for using less water. Most of the reductions are likely to come from farming operations.
Many had anticipated a more painful resolution to the crisis. Rather than taking mandatory cuts and losing out on billions of dollars from crop sales, irrigators in the Southwest will get millions of dollars to reduce their water usage for just three years — and will cut their usage by less than half of what federal officials demanded last year.
This rosy outcome is only possible because of a wet winter that blanketed the river basin with snow and stabilized water levels in its two main reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Thanks to the ample runoff, the states could lower their target enough that the federal government could afford to compensate them for almost all of it.
his deal also resolves a key dispute between Arizona and California, the two largest water users on the river, which have clashed over how to respond to the water shortage. California has argued that Arizona should take the most cuts as the most junior user on the river, while Arizona argued that the cuts should be spread more evenly between all the states. The disagreement caused negotiations to drag out for months, and it’s only thanks to the payout from the federal government that they reached an accord.
These compensated cuts are larger than anything the river states have ever implemented before, but they are temporary, a Band-Aid for a crisis that is not going away any time soon. When the three-year agreement expires in 2026, the states will have to come back to the table again and address the elephant in the room: If water use is growing, and the river’s size is shrinking, some people are going to have to make do with less — not temporarily, but for good.
“This is a step in the right direction but a temporary solution,” said Dave White, a professor at Arizona State University who studies sustainability policy. “This deal does not address the long-term water sustainability challenges in the region.”
The basic blueprint of the deal is not new. Federal and state agencies in the Colorado River basin have tried to pay farmers to use less water before, but they have had difficulty scaling up these compensation measures. That’s in part because many farmers view the measures as an affront to their industry, even when they’re compensated. When a group of states in the river’s Upper Basin relaunched a dormant conservation program earlier this year, offering farmers money to leave their fields unplanted, just 88 water users across four states ended up participating.
The other issue is that conserving water is expensive. In order to convince farmers to plant fewer acres, officials need to give them more money per acre-foot of water than they would have made from selling crops on a given field. In California’s Imperial Valley, the “salad bowl” region that grows almost all the nation’s winter vegetables, irrigation officials have paid growers to invest in technology that makes their farms more efficient. But farmers in the valley have balked at the idea of taking money to leave their fields unplanted, especially as vegetable prices have remained high.
“Water is a valuable asset, and I think people are nervous about parting with it, because it kind of suggests that you don’t really need it after all,” said George Frisvold, an extension specialist at the University of Arizona who studies agricultural policy. “I think there’s real concern that this is voluntary now, but it could come back and bite you.”
The Biden administration has resolved those issues for the moment by offering a very generous price for conservation under the new deal. The compensation arrangement in the new deal works out to about $521 an acre-foot on average — three times the price in the Upper Basin pilot program and almost twice the conservation rate in the Imperial Valley’s program.
Frisvold says these payments will be hard to maintain over the long term.
“We have a bunch of IRA money to pay for this right now,” he told Grist. “But is this going to be an ongoing thing? It’s kind of up in the air.”
Until recently, these experimental conservation programs were just that — experiments. But over the past two years, as a once-in-a-millennium drought has all but emptied out the river’s two main reservoirs, the river states have scrambled to cut their water usage and stop draining the river. It is all but impossible to do that without using less water for agriculture.
The Biden administration kicked off the scramble last summer by delivering an ultimatum to the river states. While testifying before Congress in June, a senior official from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation ordered the states to cut their water consumption by between 2 and 4 million acre-feet, or as much as a third of the river’s normal annual flow. The administration threatened to impose unilateral water cuts if the states couldn’t reach a deal on their own.
The states tangled for months over who should shoulder the burden of reducing water usage. The so-called Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico pointed the finger at Arizona and California, which together consume the majority of the river’s water. Meanwhile, representatives from California insisted that legal precedent shields the Golden State from taking cuts and that Arizona should bear the pain. (It isn’t clear whether the other four states on the river’s Upper Basin will make any corresponding reductions.)
In the end it was a very wet winter rather than a diplomatic breakthrough that helped ease tension between the states. Thanks to historic snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, it’s likely that water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead will stabilize this summer, even if just for a few months. This plentiful runoff has made the worst-case outcomes for the river much less likely and has given the states some breathing room to negotiate smaller cuts.
The new target was just small enough to make voluntary conservation feasible with the money from the Inflation Reduction Act: In the final hours of the debate over the bill last year, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona negotiated a $4 billion tranche of funding for “drought response.” That money will anchor the deal for the next three years, but it’s unclear whether payments will continue after that.
The big question now is what happens at the end of 2026, when the conservation deal will expire and when states and tribes will gather to negotiate the river’s long-term future. At that point, the river’s water users will once again debate the big questions that this deal has allowed them to punt on: How much water use can a shrinking river support? Who should use less water to account for the river’s decline? How can the government make whole the tribal nations that still don’t have their water?
Even amid the relief surrounding Monday’s deal, some water officials were already looking ahead.
“This proposal protects the system in the short term so we can dedicate our energy and resources to a longer-term solution,” said Brenda Burman, the manager of the Central Arizona Project water authority, which delivers water to Phoenix and Tucson, in a press release. “There’s a lot to do and it’s time to focus.”
I’ve had long conversations this week with smart friends grudgingly supporting of the Lower Basin deal to reduce Colorado River water use over the next few years. Their case for it is simple. Yes, it’s an awful deal in so many ways, but it does have the potential to generate some short term water use reductions and cut the red wire on the ticking time bomb.
My friends making this argument have a crucial credential that I don’t have in making their “sure whatever, it’s terrible but let’s just smile politely and get on with things” argument: they have been or are in the room for negotiations like this. I’m just heckling from the cheap seats.
The best thing about the deal is an apparent commitment (see below for my reasons for italicizing) to deeper reductions in Lower Basin water use than folks down at that end of the system have been willing to agree to in the past. Three million new acre feet of savings above and beyond what has already been agreed to falls well short of the two to four million acre feet Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told us last year would be needed, but with a big snowpack the numbers have changed.
BUT THE SAVINGS FALL SHORT OF WHAT WE KNOW IS NEEDED
It’s been clear for as long as I’ve been writing seriously about the Colorado River that, if the Upper Basin meets its (contested) Lee Ferry delivery obligation, the Lower Basin needs to cut 1.2 million to 1.5 million acre feet per year. Permanently. Three million acre feet from 2023-26 falls well short of that.
For more than two decades, the Lower Basin has been dithering over how to make the cuts and in the meantime draining the reservoir, essentially building the time bomb that we’re now trying to defuse.
To be clear, enormous progress has been made in the last two decades to build the necessary institutional widgets to bring the system into balance.I wrote a whole book about it! My purpose in writing the book was to build a case for three things:
that fears communities often have about the impact of water reductions are misplaced – that we can all get by with less water
that successful institutional widgets had been built based on collaboration and sharing that could allow us to adapt
that a lot more work was needed to cut far more deeply than we had by the time I handed in the book’s manuscript in December 2015
But in the midst of crisis, and with a ticking bomb, we still haven’t been able to come up with even the bare minimum that we’ve all known for decades that we need in Lower Basin cuts.
WE DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW WHAT THE DEAL IS
What we’ve got at this point documenting the deal is a “term sheet” and a round of celebratory press releases. We have no official breakdown of the makeup of the 3 million acre feet – what’s California’s share, Nevada’s, Arizona’s – how much is Imperial and Metropolitan and Palo Verde, how much is CAP and Yuma. We’ve got individual state reps telling reporters (shout out to my friends in the fourth estate for trying to push down the path of actually breaking down the numbers). But that’s not the same thing as all of us being able to look at it in writing rather than passing around news site links, to be interpreted like fragments of a Dead Sea scroll.
The deal at this point is a pile of stuff shrouded in a tarp that we’re not allowed to peak under. We’ve just gotta trust the Lower Basin folks that they’ll actually come up with the water.
The reason, as one of my smart “been-in-the-room-where-it-happens” friends pointed out, is that the actual detailed reductions will need to go before the boards of a bunch of water agencies. Which hasn’t happened yet. Which means there are umpty reasons for this to spin out of control.
We all remember the ducking and diving around the celebrated “500 Plus Plan”. Know, those of you who know what’s under the tarp, why those of us who don’t are legitimately nervous about your approach to cutting the red wire.
So spare me the celebratory press releases and puff pieces about politicians breaking roadblocks.
Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):
The News: Arizona, California, and Nevada have come up with a landmark agreement to slash their consumption of Colorado River water by 3 million acre-feet in coming years. The Colorado River and its reservoirs are saved!
The Buzzkill: Nope. Not quite.
Yes, the three Lower Basin states came up with an agreement to cut water use substantially. Yes, it’s a breakthrough (as any such agreement would be). But no, it won’t be enough to save the Colorado River if the climatic conditions of the last couple decades persist or worsen. Plus, the proposed cuts are only for the next few years. What then?
The Background: For those who may have forgotten, the 1922 Colorado River Compact divvied up the river between the Upper and Lower Basin states (Mexico was included in the 1940s). The problem: The 16.5 million acre-feet pie they parceled out was bigger than what actually existed—even back then. They assumed the river carried about 20 million acre-feet each year, on average. In fact, it was more like 14 million acre-feet, so they were already in debt to reality when the Compact was signed. Oof.
In the decades since, the population of all of the states burgeoned and water consumption also increased. Meanwhile, after the wet and wild 1980s, long-term drought and warmer temperatures diminished the river and the reservoirs that were supposed to carry the users over during dry years. Last summer it looked like Lake Powell might drop below minimum power pool, or the level needed to allow water to flow through the hydroelectricity-generating turbines, within a couple of years. Losing hydropower is one thing, but losing the ability to release water through the penstocks is another, with its own dire ramifications.
That prompted federal water officials to call on the states to cut consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, or else they would implement the cuts themselves. The states blew past deadlines without an agreement until finally, last month, the Bureau of Reclamation presented two alternatives:
Cut Lower Basin use according to the concept of priority (meaning Arizona would take the biggest cuts); or,
2. Cut a flat percentage of each state’s water use (meaning California would take the biggest cuts).
The prospect apparently was enough to scare the bejeezus out of the states, pushing them back to the negotiating table where they came up with this week’s deal. Details so far are sketchy, but here’s what we know:
The Lower Basin states together will cut consumption by 3 million acre-feet over the 2023-2026 period, with at least 1.5 million acre-feet in cuts coming by the end of 2024 (there is no indication of how these cuts will be distributed across the states, but the Washington Postreports California will bear about half the cuts);
Up to 2.3 million acre-feet of those cuts will be federally compensated by about $1.2 billion in Inflation Reduction Act funds. Most likely this means that farmers will be paid not to irrigate their crops.
So what’s wrong with this deal? I’ll admit that when I first read the stories on this, I was pretty damned impressed: 3 million acre-feet is good! Thing is, all those cuts are spread out over three years, meaning it’s only about 1 million acre-feet per year. That’s only half the minimum amount of cuts the feds say are needed to shore up the river system and its reservoirs. It just won’t cut it, so to speak, if the drying trend continues.
Furthermore, the deal clearly is meant only to be temporary — a stopgap, a band-aid — that runs out in three years. What happens then? Even if the agreement were to be extended, where would the billions of dollars come from to keep paying the farmers not to irrigate? What if the Republicans’ obstructive ways nix the payments? And what about the additional 700,000 acre-feet of cuts promised? Where will they come from? Or will that require a whole new round of negotiations?
I don’t want to be a party pooper. It’s great that the states came to an agreement and, yes, it is a solution, of sorts. But it’s not the sustainable, permanent one that’s necessary.
But who knows? Maybe this past wet winter and huge runoff isn’t an anomaly. Maybe it’s the new normal and big rains and snows will come regularly over the next 20 years, filling up the reservoirs, saturating the soil, and swelling the Colorado River into the muddy monster of yore. Maybe we won’t need these cuts after all. But I sure as heck wouldn’t bank on it.
Seven Basin states agree on analyzing consensus-based approach proposed by the Lower Basin
Funding from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda combined with voluntary commitments will conserve 3-million-acre feet of water through 2026
WASHINGTON — The Department of the Interior today [May 22, 2023] announced significant new developments in the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System now and into the future.
As part of the Department’s continued efforts to address ongoing severe drought conditions and a changing climate in the Colorado River Basin, representatives from the seven Colorado River Basin states have agreed to the submission of a Lower Basin, consensus-based system conservation proposal. They are requesting the proposal be fully analyzed as an action alternative under the Bureau of Reclamation’s draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), published last month.
The consensus-based proposal – agreed upon by the three Lower Basin states – commits to measures to conserve at least 3 million-acre-feet (maf) of system water through the end of 2026, when the current operating guidelines are set to expire. Of those system conservation savings, 2.3 maf will be compensated through funding from the historic Inflation Reduction Act, which is supporting efforts to increase near-term water conservation, build long term system efficiency, and prevent the Colorado River System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. Under this consensus proposal, the remaining system conservation needed for sustainable operation will be achieved through voluntary, uncompensated reductions by the Lower Basin states.
“There are 40 million people, seven states, and 30 Tribal Nations who rely on the Colorado River Basin for basic services such as drinking water and electricity. Today’s announcement is a testament to the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to working with states, Tribes and communities throughout the West to find consensus solutions in the face of climate change and sustained drought,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “In particular I want to thank Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau and Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton, who have led the discussions with Basin state commissioners, Tribes, irrigators, local communities, and valued stakeholders to reach this critical moment.”
“I commend our partners in the seven Basin states who have demonstrated leadership and unity of purpose in developing this consensus-based approach to achieve the substantial water conservation necessary to sustain the Colorado River System through 2026,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. “Reclamation’s SEIS process succeeded in facilitating this agreement, and we will carry forward the consensus proposal by analyzing it under the SEIS.”
“For over a century, Reclamation has led with solutions grounded in partnership and collaboration. The agreement today continues in this tradition,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “I am proud of the Reclamation team’s work and thank our partners across the basin and the Basin states representatives for reaching this moment. This is an important step forward towards our shared goal of forging a sustainable path for the basin that millions of people call home.”
In light of the Lower Basin states’ conservation proposal, the Department today announced that it is temporarily withdrawing the draft SEIS published last month so that it can fully analyze the effects of the proposal under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Reclamation will then publish an updated draft SEIS for public comment with the consensus-based proposal as an action alternative. Accordingly, the original May 30, 2023, deadline for the submission of comments on the draft SEIS is no longer in effect. The Department plans to finalize the SEIS process later this year.
Early next month, the Department will formally advance the process for the development of new operating guidelines replacing the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead at the end of 2026. In the coming weeks, Reclamation will publish the Notice of Intent for the Environmental Impact Statement related to the post-2026 guidelines.
President Biden’s Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing pivotal resources to enhance the resilience of the West to drought and climate change, including to protect the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought.
To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete:
Click the link to read “Colorado River Protection” release from The Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project on the CAP website (Doug MacEachern, Shauna Evans, Crystal Thompson, and DeEtte Person):
The Arizona Department of Water Resources and Central Arizona Project announce a consensus proposal developed by Arizona, California, and Nevada to conserve historic volumes of Colorado River water in Lake Mead.
This proposal is expected to have an immediate impact on the stability of the Colorado River system, a source of water for 40 million people, including some of the most productive farmland in North America.
“This proposal does more than just ‘protect’ elevations in the system’s major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” said Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke. “It builds critical elevation in both reservoirs.”
The proposal is built around the collaborative actions by water users in the lower basin through enforceable commitments to conserve water that will total three million acre-feet in Lake Mead over the next three years. This winter’s good hydrology in the west has provided the flexibility for water users to pledge their water to this program.
We commend our Arizona partners including tribes, cities, agriculture and industry who have committed water as part of this effort.
We also appreciate our river partners, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of the Interior for working together on these agreements.
“This proposal protects the system in the short term so we can dedicate our energy and resources to a longer-term solution, ” says Central Arizona Project General Manager Brenda Burman. “New guidelines for operating the river system will be due by the end of 2026. There’s a lot to do and it’s time to focus.”
This was an abrupt departure from the way tribes had lived before white colonizers arrived in the West and forced the tribes onto reservations. For thousands of years, many Indigenous people moved with the river; they adapted to it and responded to it. This is how Daryl Vigil’s ancestors lived in communion with the river.
“That’s the level of reverence you give that stream or that river,” Vigil, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and of Jemez and Zia Pueblo descent, said. “The dances all revolved around this cyclical nature of the environment and most importantly, rain and snow in terms of what it meant to our existence.”
But as the colonizers built gigantic dams and carved up the river, filling Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the Jicarilla Apache and dozens of other tribes that rely on the Colorado River no longer had the same access to the water as they once did. This was the West that Vigil was born into and where he grew up on three different reservations – at times without indoor plumbing. He now lives on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and until recently was the tribe’s water administrator. He is among the most recent generation of leaders in a decades-long fight for tribes to regain rights to the water they had access to for thousands of years.
“Part of the need to build economies is also based in an ability to build a basic infrastructure that everybody else in this country is supposed to be entitled to: water, wastewater,” he said. “Native American communities [are] 19 times more likely to not have indoor plumbing.”
“My message for 20 years now has been: watch out,” said Brad Udall from his home near Boulder, Colorado. “We’ve overdone it, we need to cut back and this is going to get worse. And that’s not a message that, for years, anybody wanted to hear.”
Remember the Colorado River water rights that took 20 years for the Jicarilla Apache Nation to win? They and other tribes have collectively secured rights to use 25 percent of the water in the river. That’s more than Arizona has rights to. But here’s the catch: reservoirs and canals the reservations need to access their full supplies of water don’t exist yet. Without that infrastructure, the water is still going to states, rather than the tribes. This is why many people, including Vigil and Udall, want tribes to have an equal say in how we save the Colorado River in the face of climate change.
After nearly a year wrestling over the fate of their water supply, California, Arizona and Nevada — the three key states in the Colorado River’s current crisis — have coalesced around a plan to voluntarily conserve a major portion of their river water in exchange for more than $1 billion in federal funds, according to people familiar with the negotiations. The consensus emerging among these states and the Biden administration aims to conserveabout 13 percent of their allocation of river water over the next three years and protect the nation’s largest reservoirs…But thorny issues remain that could complicate a deal. The parties are trying to work through them before a key deadline at the end of the month, according to several current and former state and federal officials familiar with the situation…
State officials have suggested they could make a deal on their own and are resisting a May 30 deadline to comment on the alternatives the federal government has laid out in that process, according to people familiar with the talks. The review process is intended to define Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s authority to make emergency cuts in states’ water use, even if those cuts contradict existing water rights. These developments represent a new phase in the long-runningtalks about the future of the river. For much of the past year, negotiations have pitted California against Arizona, as they are the states that suck the most from Lake Mead and will have to bear the greatest burden of the historic cuts that the Biden administration has been calling for to protect the river. But these states now appear more united than ever and are closing their differences with the federal government, even as significant issues remain unresolved…
Some water authorities in the West want to ensure that any deal that emerges would entail binding commitments among the Lower Basin states, which draw from Lake Mead and consume more of the river each year than the states of the Upper Basin: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
“We want to support the Lower Basin if they have significant additional reductions, verifiable, binding and enforceable,” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner for the negotiations. “Are we going to make a choice to do better? If we don’t want the secretary to manage us, can we show we can manage ourselves?”
But the bleak reservoir levels outlined in that review date back to September and the weather has improved markedly since then. Abundant snow cloaked the Rocky Mountains over the winter and atmospheric rivers doused California’s drought. Water levels in the big reservoirs have started to rise. Colorado River experts have grown increasingly confident that the most draconian cuts in fact wouldn’t be needed, at least this year. And the $4 billion in federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act pledged to this problem meant that those that voluntarily gave up their rights to water would be well-compensated for it. Those conditions helped the Lower Basin negotiators come up with a plan to volunteer about 3 million acre-feet of cuts total until 2026, when a major renegotiation of the rules of the river is scheduled to begin. This scale of cuts is smaller than some of the most dire scenarios outlined in the environmental review if reservoirs had continued to plummet.
Click the link to read “Western states and feds are closing in on a landmark deal to prevent Lake Mead from plummeting further” on the CNN webslite (Ella Nilsen). Here’s an excerpt:
Top water negotiators from California, Arizona and Nevada have discussed leaving 3 million acre-feet of water in Lake Mead over the next four years, the sources said – while cautioning negotiations with the US Interior Department were fluid and could change. The tentative amount would be around 10% of the states’ normal water allocation and would be in addition to previously agreed-to cuts that were negotiated in 2019 and 2007. The federal funding being offered for water cuts was part of $4 billion in drought relief funding passed in the Inflation Reduction Act. States and the US government are trying to clinch a framework agreement ahead of May 30, the end of the comment period for a dramatic environmental analysis released by federal officials last month. That analysis could force the three states to cut nearly 2.1 million additional acre-feet of their Colorado River usage in 2024 alone. At the time, top federal officials said publicly they hoped their proposal would spur discussion among states who have spent the past year sparring over cuts. Even though the states have struck an agreement among themselves, finalizing the details with the federal government could prove tricky. Outstanding issues include a proposal that some of the water cuts go uncompensated by the feds, and whether the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming will go along with the agreement…
Western water officials say a key goal this year is to build water elevation at Lake Mead. Some of that will be refilled naturally from the good winter runoff, but state officials said more should come from farmers, cities and tribes reducing their water use in exchange for federal dollars.
“What I’m hoping happens is people who were considering putting their water into the (federal water cut) program still do,” Arizona’s top water official Tom Buschatzke told CNN in April. “It’s a bit easier to do the conservation when you can be compensated and when it’s really wet, versus when it’s really dry and you’re looking at forced cuts – a lot more uncertainty about how far down Lake Mead could go and how big those cuts might get.”
Before this month’s breakthrough, California, Arizona and Nevada struck an agreement among themselves, which was unveiled to Deputy Interior Sec. Tommy Beaudreau and Touton at an April 21 meeting in Nevada, one source told CNN. But some new tensions between the states and feds have cropped up over the analysis produced by the Interior Department last month. States were hoping their plan for voluntary, compensated cuts could essentially happen in the place of federal action on the river, an idea federal officials pushed back on, according to one source familiar with the meeting. And there has also been haggling over what level Lake Mead would have to drop to in order for the federal government to be able to step in and make additional unilateral cuts.
Yes, that diagram again. I was chastised by readers last week for using it – partly for the ‘Antique’ in the diagram’s title, but also for not adequately explaining what the diagram shows. I apologize for the latter. These posts tend to run long and demand a lot more of readers than the 15-second attention span for which Americans are derided. But just to keep them down to a couple thousand words or so, I find myself having to go through some things too quickly in order to get to whatever point I was aiming for. Brevity unfortunately is not the soul of my wit.
But having a sense of the structure and infrastructure of our big dams is critical to understanding what is going on along the Colorado River these days, where it is easy to confuse the river itself (which is experiencing chronic low flows but is not ‘drying up’) with the ‘river management system’ (which really could dry up critical stretches of the river under the current management regime). The ‘river management system’ is the integrated set of physical structures along the river for storing the river’s water and distributing it to users – and the operating systems whereby those structures are managed.
The ‘Supplemental Environmental Impact Study’ the Bureau of Reclamation is doing now is basically an analysis of its own operating systems for the big structures on the Colorado River, and how those systems might be radically changed with an equitable distribution of impacts on humans – systems that could have been changed gradually over the past several decades, the past century even, to reflect undeniable evolving realities, both natural and cultural, but now must be done with radical surgery – the call for an almost-immediate reduction in Lower Basin uses of two million acre-feet.
This might be what life in the Anthropocene will mostly be on many fronts: learning how to live well enough with the world we have imposed on the world we found here. A recreated world where some cultural works were done naively and maybe profligately, under assumptions now needing correction – which one might hope we will learn to begin sooner rather than later – or too late, period.
So it is fitting to look critically at what we’ve done along the ‘First River of the Anthropocene’ – trying not to fall into hypocritical analysis, gnawing on the hands that feed us. And on that spectrum of critical analysis, I do need to explain, if not defend, using a diagram that calls the ‘plumbing’ of a major element in the management system we’ve imposed on the Colorado River ‘antique.’
I will say first that I do not necessarily think of ‘antique’ as a derogatory term (although that was probably intended by the creators of this diagram). If an automobile is fifty years old and still running, it qualifies for an ‘antique’ license plate; that’s cool, an achievement for those who kept the car functional. I think of the word as more descriptive than judgmental: an antique is an artifact whose time is past but which reflects that time, something old but with an element of class, something that summons memories of a previous time, a time we want to remember but not necessarily carry forward.
So, being more than 50 years old at this point – is Glen Canyon Dam an antique? We can start with an examination of its ‘plumbing,’ which says something about its life and times. (My doctor uses colonoscopies for a similar analysis.)
One piece of plumbing not shown on the diagram is the dam’s spillways – two huge ‘drains’ up at the 3,700-foot elevation, near the dam’s 3,715-foot crest (for context, 583 feet above the original streambed). The purpose of the spillways is to keep the reservoir from filling to the point where it would go over the crest. Glen Canyon’s spillways have only been used once, in 1983, when a very wet May and hot June caught the dam managers unaware, with the reservoir already too full to perform its flood-control function. The spillways proved to be not up to the task of getting the flood waters past the dam; the water pouring down them caused a cavitation problem – a million tiny ‘air-hammers’ beating on the concrete with enough cumulative force to break it up. The managers knew there was a problem when large chunks of concrete, then sandstone, started washing out the bottom of the spillway outlets. That threatened the integrity of the dam itself; it was necessary to close off the spillways, lining the top of them with sheets of plywood four feet high and praying that the water would stop rising before it topped the plywood. It did stop in time, and the dam was saved. The spillways were rebuilt, hopefully resolving the cavitation problem, and have not been used since – and at this point, given the projections about climate change, it is hard to imagine the reservoir ever being that full again. The spillways alone might qualify as ‘antiques,’ built for a river that needed them (once) but may no longer exist. (Oh great river gods, please make me eat my words!)
For the dam managers, however, to ‘spill’ water at all is a mark of bad management; their ideal is for every gallon of water contained by the dam to be released through openings 210 feet below the spillways, at hydropower generation level, the 3,490-foot elevation (see diagram). Those openings into the dam drop the water through pentstocks a couple hundred vertical feet to turbines in generators the size of small houses; on its way to its designated use downstream, the water generates electricity. The higher the reservoir level, the more pressure the water’s weight exerts in pushing the water through the turbines; with the reservoir at high levels, the Glen Canyon generators can produce annually up to five billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. In 2022, however, with the reservoir level only around 35 feet above the pentstock inlets, it only produced 2.6 kilowatt-hours. (Bureau figures)
The Bureau’s semi-panicky call in 2022 for massive reductions in use basin-wide was based on projections forward of another couple water years like the 2020-22 period; under the current river management regime, the level of the reservoir would have dropped below the level of the pentstock intakes in a couple years, and year-round power generation would have been impossible.
Even if that were to happen, however, it would still be possible to move water downstream from Powell Reservoir, through river outlet works with intakes 120 feet lower down in the dam, at the 3,370-foot elevation. The river outlets there are four big pipes, each eight feet in diameter, with a total flow capacity of 15,000 cubic feet per second – when there’s a lot of water in the reservoir to push water through them. If the water pressure stayed at that level, and all four tubes worked 24/7/365, it would be possible to move around 10 million acre-feet (maf) through the dam annually and down to Mead Reservoir, roughly the amount the Bureau has been releasing from Mead for Lower Basin and Mexican use – plus the system losses for which no one has wanted to claim responsibility.
That 10 maf leaving the system at the lower end obviously becomes problematic if only 6-8 maf are flowing into the system at the upper end, as has been the recent situation. For one thing, the Bureau is not sure the outlet works can stand that kind of constant use; they are getting old, and may not have been built for constant use anyway. So if the Bureau were able to keep only three tubes running all the time, with one in maintenance mode, the amount of water that could be moved at full pressure would drop to just about the Upper Basin’s Colorado River Compact commitment – 7.5 maf plus the Upper Basin’s share of the Mexican obligation (750,000 af).
But as the water level in the reservoir dropped closer to the outlet works intakes – 6-7 maf inflow minus 8 maf outflow equals a storage decrease of 1-2 maf/year – the water pressure through the tubes would also drop, and below the 3,430-foot elevation, it would no longer be possible to push the full Upper Basin commitment to the Lower Basin and Mexico through the tubes.
Worst case – if the reservoir level dropped below the 3,370-foot elevation, it would no longer be possible to move any water at all past the dam, even though there would still be just under two million acre-feet left in storage – the ‘dead pool.’ At that point, the Lower Basin states would either have to do something completely nonconstructive like sue somebody (Upper Basin states? Interior Department? The Bureau?), or argue about which states should pay how much to Upper Basin water users to let their water (not federally controlled) flow to Powell to try to raise the level back above the 3,370-foot elevation. And most of the Upper Basin water rights junior to the Compact are not a bunch of rugged individualist farmers and ranchers; they are the big transmountain diverters – Colorado’s Front Range cities, the Santa Fe-Albuquerque corridor, the Salt Lake basin, who are already ‘lawyered up.’
The ramshackle ‘Law of the River,’ grounded in appropriation law and followed to the letter of the laws, would have nothing to offer to relieve that situation; it is easier to imagine Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘Water Knife’ war commencing.
That is an overview of Glen Canyon Dam’s plumbing – pretty standard for a big 20th century dam, designed to operate optimally when the reservoir is more than two-thirds full and able to maintain a full power head in releasing water through the turbines for – oh yeah, not primarily power generation, but the dam’s main job of providing dependable water for agricultural and domestic users downstream. A specific warning in the Colorado River Compact (IV(b)).
Now to the question: is Glen Canyon Dam an ‘antique’? I think, at this point, given the prognostications for the future of the regional water supply, we could truly say that the dam was built for a different era, a different river – some of which river may have existed only in the minds of the dam builders. The ‘Hassayampa romance,’ carried along, like Deacon Holmes’ wonderful one-hoss shay, ‘for a century to the day’ – the day the Bureau finally abandoned its paper surplus calculations and called a shortage.
In addition to working on new river operation protocols, the Bureau now has a team working on ways to possibly modify the dam, undoubtedly at considerable cost, maybe enlarging the outlet works, maybe generating some flow of electricity through openings lower in the dam, and maybe constructing tunnels to bypass the dam entirely, leaving Mead Reservoir as the river’s major storage.
The latter concept could relieve a problem that the dam has created for ‘today’s river’ through the Grand Canyon: the beaches and sandbars that are essential as night stops for the billion-dollar Grand Canyon recreational boating industry are eroding away, with no replacement sand and silt getting past the dam. This is being dealt with now by occasional staged ‘floods’ like the one just recently: pouring 200,000-plus acre feet of water over 2-3 days down through the Grand Canyon to stir up sediment that has slumped from the beaches down into the riverbed, in hopes that it will be redeposited on a beach downstream. Ultimately this mostly just escalates the passage downstream of all the beach material with only irregular and inadequate deposits of new material from side streams. That this ultimate losing effort was done in April 2023, with Powell Reservoir under 30 percent full, but anticipating a runoff that might get it all the way up to half-full or only half-empty, depending on your psychological inclination…. There’s an underlying desperation there that is not goimng to let us look back on this period with any pleasant sense of nostalgia. But we might look back on antiquities like Glen Canyon Dam as a reminder of the consequences of operating on assumptions and standards not fully grounded in demonstrable reality.
A problem with this analysis, however, is that for better or worse, it evaluates Glen Canyon Dam out of context. To really understand why we have Glen Canyon Dam at all, it is necessary to see our river’s physical structures in the larger context of the less visible political and legal infrastructure that led us to pile five million yards of concrete (with internal plumbing) in the river’s path in that particular place. That is another great story in the evolution of this mixed bag we call America. Up next in a couple weeks; stay tuned.
Hi all, and thank you for joining Audubon Rockies and conservation photographer Dave Showalter for his multimedia journey through the living Colorado River! In his new book, Living River: The Promise of the Mighty Colorado, Dave shares the beauty of the watershed and a story of resiliency and resolution to continue the work for healthy watersheds. You can watch last week’s virtual book launch event recording here.
The Colorado River existing management guidelines are set to expire in 2026. The states that draw water from it are about to undertake a new round of negotiations over the river’s future. The use of the river will be renegotiated amid climate change, reduced snowpack, and water shortages, presenting an opportunity to ensure universal access to clean water for more than 30 federally-recognized Native tribes and make the allocation of the Colorado equitable as well as sustainable.
This May is a critical time to be a voice for the river, as the United States Bureau of Reclamation seeks public comment on the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to the 2007 Interim Guidelines. This SEIS evaluates different scenarios to better balance water supply in the Colorado River watershed, which will impact ecosystem health in the Grand Canyon and other areas.
The stories, art, and lifeways that deepen our relationships to water are what build the collective voice for healthy rivers that benefit wildlife and people. The Mighty Colorado changes everything it touches, including us. Here are a few ways you can join the Living River conversation:
Take action by May 30 and urge the Bureau of Reclamation to recognize the important links between human health, stable communities, and the environment and also implement measures that better balance water supply and protect the Grand Canyon ecosystem.
Presently, there is less water in the Colorado River system than at any time in recorded history, threatening the vitality of its ecosystem. But wherever there is water, there is abundant, dynamic life. As Dave Showalter says: “The river is not dying. She flows with the same pure purpose as before we arrived.”
There’s no giving up on the Colorado for riverkeepers engaged in riparian restoration. The hard work ahead requires widespread engagement in our future, which begins with all of us asking: Where does our water come from, and who does it connect us to?
On April 11, the Bureau of Reclamation released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS). The SEIS is a mechanism to adjust the current operating guidelines for Glen Canyon (Lake Powell) and Hoover Dams (Lake Mead), providing tools for Reclamation to adapt to potentially dry years in the next few water years. Several news outlets, including The Colorado Sun, Politico, Colorado Politics, and AP News, covered the release with commentary from CWCB experts. CWCB Director and Colorado Commissioner Becky Mitchell is seeking public input to inform Colorado’s response to the SEIS. Share your feedback.
California and Arizona are currently fighting each other over water from the Colorado River. But this isn’t new — it’s actually been going on for over 100 years. At one point, the states literally went to war about it. The problem comes down to some really bad math from 1922.
To some extent, the crisis can be blamed on climate change. The West is in the middle of a once-in-a-millennium drought. As temperatures rise, the snow pack that feeds the river has gotten much thinner, and the river’s main reservoirs have all but dried up.
But that’s only part of the story: The United States has also been overusing the Colorado for more than a century thanks to a byzantine set of flawed laws and lawsuits known as the “Law of the River.” This legal tangle not only has been over-allocating the river, it also has been driving conflict in the region, especially between the two biggest users, California and Arizona, which are both trying to secure as much water as they can. And now, as a massive drought grips the region, the law of the river has reached a breaking point.
The Colorado River begins in the Rocky Mountains and winds its way southwest, twisting through the Grand Canyon and entering the Pacific at Baja California. In the late 19th century, as white settlers arrived in the West, they started diverting water from the mighty river to irrigate their crops, funneling it through dirt canals. For a little while, this worked really well. The canals made an industrial farming mecca out of desert that early colonial settlers viewed as “worthless.”
Even back then, the biggest water users were Arizona and California, which took so much water that they started to drain the river farther upstream, literally drying it out. According to American legal precedent, whoever uses a body of water first usually has the strongest rights to it. But other states soon cried foul: California was growing much faster than they were, and they believed it wasn’t fair that the Golden State should suck up all the water before they got a chance to develop.
In 1922, the states came to a solution — kind of. At the suggestion of a newly appointed cabinet secretary named Herbert Hoover, the states agreed to split the river into two sections, drawing an arbitrary line halfway along its length at a spot called Lee Ferry. The states on the “upper” part of the river — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico — agreed to send the states on the “lower” end of the river — Arizona, California, and Nevada — what they thought was half the river’s overall flow, 7.5 million acre-feet of water each year. (An acre-foot is enough to cover an acre of land in a foot of water, about enough to supply two homes for a year.)
This agreement was supposed to prevent any one state from drying up the river before the other states could use it. The Upper Basin states got half and the Lower Basin states got half. Simple.
But there were some serious flaws to this plan.
First, the Law of the River overestimated how much water flowed through the river in the first place. The states’ numbers were based on primitive data from stream gauges placed at arbitrary points on the waterway, and they took samples during an unusually wet decade, leading to a very optimistic estimate of the river’s size. The river would only average about 14 million acre-feet annually, but the agreement handed out 15 million to the seven states.
While the states weren’t able to immediately use all this water, it set in motion the underlying problem today: The states have the legal right to use more water than actually exists in the river.
And you’ll notice that the Colorado River doesn’t end in the U.S. — It ends in Mexico. Initially, the Law of the River just straight-up ignored that fact. Decades later, Mexico was squeezed into the agreement and promised 1.5 million acre-feet, further straining the already over-allocated river.
On top of all of this, Indigenous tribes that had depended on the river for centuries were now forced to compete with states for their share of water, leading to these drawn-out lawsuits that took decades to resolve.
But in the short-term, Arizona and California struck it rich — they were promised the largest share of Colorado River water and should have been primed for growth. For Arizona, though, there was a catch: The state couldn’t put their water to use.
The state’s biggest population centers in Phoenix and Tucson were hundreds of miles away from the river itself, and it would take a 300-mile canal to bring the water across the desert — something the state couldn’t afford to build on its own. Larger and wealthier California was able to build all the canals and pumps it needed to divert river water to farms and cities. This allowed it to gulp up both its share and the extra Lower Basin water that Arizona couldn’t access. California’s powerful congressional delegation lobbied to stop Congress from approving Arizona’s canal project, as the state wanted to keep the Colorado River to itself.
Arizona was furious. And so, in 1934, Arizona and California went to war — literally. Arizona tried to block California from building new dams to take more water from the river, using “military” force when necessary.
Arizona sent troops from its National Guard to stop California from building the Parker Dam. It delayed construction, but not for very long because their boat got tangled up in some electrical wire and had to be rescued.
For the next 30 years, Arizona and California fought about whether Arizona should be able to build that canal. They also sued each other before the Supreme Court no fewer than 10 times, including one 1963 case that set the record for the longest oral arguments in the history of the modern court, taking 16 hours over four days and involving 106 witnesses.
That 1963 case also made some pretty big assumptions: Even though the states now knew that the initial estimates were too high, the court-appointed expert said he was “morally certain that neither in my lifetime, nor in your lifetime, nor the lifetime of your children and great-grandchildren will there be an inadequate supply of water” from the river for California’s cities.
A few years after that court case, in 1968, Arizona finally struck a fateful bargain to ensure it could claim its share of the river. California gave up its anti-canal campaign andthe federal government agreed to pay for the construction of the 300-mile project that would bring Colorado River water across the desert to Phoenix. This move helped save Arizona’s cotton-farming industry and enabled Phoenix to eventually grow into the fifth-largest city in the country. It seemed like a success — Arizona was flourishing!
But in exchange for the canal, the state made a fateful concession: If the reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead were to run low, Arizona, and not California, would be the first state to make cuts. It was a decision the state’s leaders would come to regret.
In the early 2000s, as a massive drought gripped the Southwest, water levels in the river’s two key reservoirs dropped. Now that both Arizona and California were fully using their shares of the river, combined with the other states’ usage, there suddenly wasn’t enough melting snow to fill the reservoirs back up. A shrinking Colorado River couldn’t keep up with a century of rising demand.
Today, more than 20 years into the drought, Arizona has had to bear the biggest burden. Thanks to its earlier compromise decades earlier, the state had “junior water rights,” meaning it took the first cuts as part of the drought plan. In 2021, those cuts officially went into effect, drying out cotton and alfalfa fields across the central part of the state until much of the landscape turned brown. Still, those cuts haven’t been enough.
This century, the river is only averaging around 12.4 million acre-feet. The Upper Basin states technically have the rights to 7.5 million acre-feet, but they only use about half of that. In the Lower Basin, meanwhile, Arizona and California are gobbling up around three and four million acre-feet respectively. In total, this overdraft has caused reservoir levels to fall. It’s going to take a lot more than a few rainy seasons to fix this problem.
So, for the first time since the Law of the River was written, the federal government has had to step in, ordering the states to reduce total water usage on the river, this time by nearly a third. That’s a jaw-dropping demand!
These new cuts will extend to Arizona, California, and beyond, drying up thousands more acres of farmland, not to mention cities around Phoenix and Los Angeles that rely on the Colorado River. These new restrictions will also put increased pressure on the many tribes that have used the Colorado River for centuries: Tribes that have water rights will be pressured to sell or lease them to other water users, and tribes without recognized water rights will face increased opposition as they try to secure their share.
And Arizona and California are still fighting over who should bear the biggest burden of these new cuts. California has insisted that the Law of the River requires Arizona to shoulder the pain, and from a legal standpoint they may be right. But Arizona says further cuts would be disastrous for the state’s economy, and the other five river states are taking its side.
Either way, the painful cuts have to come from somewhere, because the Law of the River was built on math that doesn’t add up.
Under a plan approved in 2012, the bureau had been conducting high-flow experiments almost annually until 2018. Since then, a string of dry years and excessive water use have depressed levels of Lake Powell, which today is only 23% full, sitting at 3,525 feet above sea level. That is about to change drastically in the coming weeks as the upper Colorado basin’s snowpacks, which are 157% of normal, melt and flow into Powell and upstream reservoirs. The lake level is projected to climb by more than 50 feet this year, according to Bart Leeflang, the CRAU’s hydrologist…What happened in those months was a big snowpack getting bigger, holding twice as much water in some places as normal for this time of year, coming after back-to-back years of skimpy snow accumulations. According to Bureau projections, the lake level is expected to peak in July at 3,591 feet, 71 feet above its historic low recorded April 13…
At 3,576 feet, Powell would still remain 124 feet below full pool, holding just 39% of its capacity. This year’s bounty doesn’t put an end to the crisis on the Colorado River, which supplies 40 million Westerners and irrigates 5 million acres, but it buys Utah and the six other basin states time to find a lasting solution to the river’s chronic deficits. It may even rescue boating this summer at Lake Powell, among Utah’s top recreation draws, where most of the ramps are high and dry and marinas are unusable…This year, the Bureau plans to increase releases from Glen Canyon Dam to 9.5 acre-feet to bring up the level of Powell’s downstream big sister, Lake Mead. That’s the maximum amount released under the dam’s operating guidelines and 2 million more than what is typically released in a year. The big spike in Lake Powell’s projected “regulated” inflows, expected to total 13.2 million acre-feet, has enabled federal river managers to resume the high-flow experiments.
As you no doubt already know, if you follow Colorado River news, the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Interior have issued a ‘Near-term Colorado River Operations: Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement’ (SEIS) analyzing two alternatives for making massive cuts in the consumptive use of the Colorado River’s waters, beginning in 2024. The SEIS analyzes strategies for cutting use by two million-acre feet (maf) next year, with cuts up to four maf in following years if the water supply in storage continues to decline – roughly a third of the total volume of the river as it has run since the turn of the century.
The alternatives discussed in the SEIS will look familiar to those who have followed the river news for the past couple months; they are similar to the plans for large reductions created by the seven River Basin states: one plan by six of the states, the other by the seventh, California. One of the Bureau’s ‘action alternatives’ divides the big cuts equitably among the three states based on the size of their allotments, like the six states’ plan; the other adheres mostly to priority of water rights in dishing out the cuts, like the California plan.
If there is anything to be learned for the future from the past, it should be noted now that this sudden dramatic need for really major cuts in consumptive use in the lower part of the river basin is the consequence of problems that could have been dealt with gradually – intelligently, one might say, far-sightedly – over at least the past 30 years, if not the whole last century since the discovery that the Colorado River Compact was based on false numbers.
But through the 1940s and 50s, there was a lovely sense of abundant water in the Lower Basin. The four states of the Upper Basin were considerably slower in developing than the three in the Lower Basin, so a lot of the river was still flowing freely to the desert states below the canyons and eventually being ‘wasted’ to the ocean, then regarded as a sad end for freshwater.
Even before Hoover Dam was completed, the Californians, with Bureau permission, decided to borrow some of that water to grow on – with really no firm plan about what to do when the Upper Basin developed its water. They did not really know how much (or how little) water the river really carried, and the spirit of the times decreed that the engineers would figure something out to solve the problems of the future. California’s 1931 ‘Seven Parties Agreement’ divvied up more than 900,000 af of borrowed water – and built their permanent systems large enough to carry that along with their legal allotment.
The Lower Basin states were also, kind of semiconsciously, depending on that ‘surplus’ water to cover all of the substantial ‘system losses’ in the Lower Basin – evaporation and conveyance losses – and also the Lower Basin’s 750,000 af share of the commitment to Mexico: all told, at least 2 maf of water for which the Lower Basin states were accountable, but none of which was deducted from their allotments as set by the Boulder Canyon Project Act. They developed their 7.5 maf Compact allotment to the max, and this ambiguous but very real 2 maf became known as ‘a structural deficit,’ as though it were just inherent in the structure of the system and nothing could be done about it, not unlike an Act of God.
But the Upper Basin states eventually got up to around 4 maf of consumptive use (including Upper Basina system losses) late in the century, with big out-of-basin projects like the Colorado-Big Thompson, San Juan-Chama, Dillion Reservoir, Homestake, and Arizona’s big Central Arizona Project came on line in 1993 – and everyone knew by then how little water the river actually carried, with no big river augmentation projects on the horizon…. Common sense would seem to dictate that, at least by the 1990s, the Californians would have begun a schedule for weaning themselves from the borrowed water, and all three Lower Basin states would have begun figuring out how to deal with the ‘structural deficit.’ But that kind of sense was of course completely contrary to the naive energies of the Early Anthropocene that still prevailed in the Basin, and the Lower Basin states – graciously enabled by the Bureau – continued using consumptively somewhere around 800,000 af of borrowed Upper Basin water in addition to their full 7.5 maf Compact allotments, and ignoring any responsibility for the 2 maf structural deficit.
The water, by then, was no longer flowing freely through the canyons to the Lower Basin, but was being released by the Bureau from Powell Reservoir, requiring some complex definitions of ‘surplus’ – possibly trying to disguise its decline – and some big water years in the 1980s and 90s allowed them to continue to cover the profligate release of more than 10 maf to cover Lower Basin’s legal allotments, plus borrowings, plus ignored system losses.
But the climate and the river turned against them with the turn of the century. For the five water years 2000-2004, inflows into Powell Reservoir averaged a measly 6 maf, less than two-thirds the 20th-century average inflows. Meanwhile, however, the Bureau continued to release more than 8 maf annually from Powell to Mead, and then the usual Compact allocation plus borrowings from Mead to the desert states with no accounting for the system losses: basically, 6 maf in, and 10+ maf out of the system. Predictably enough, storage took a dive in both reservoirs, and everyone realized that something different needed to be done soon.
The first thing done was in 2003; Interior Secretary Gale Norton, mustered the gumption to tell California that it was time to stop borrowing no-longer-existing surplus water. To the surprise of all the Caliphobics, California complied, and began to work its way back to its 4.4 maf allotment. But nothing was said then about the ‘structural deficit,’ so between their full consumptive use of their 7.5 maf Compact allotment, and the 2 maf of system losses and Mexican obligations for which they continued to decline responsibility, the Lower Basin states were still consuming between nine and ten million acre-feet annually; storage was still declining and something really different still needed to be done.
For two years representatives from the seven states and other stakeholders met with the Bureau, to address that need, and the result was a 2007 agreement called ‘Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.’ This was essentially an attempt to try out some ideas for more carefully coordinating the use of the two big reservoirs while encouraging Lower Basin users to cut their use and leave some of their water in Mead (‘Intentionally Created Surpluses), making it possible to draw less from Powell. The ‘interim’ for these temporary guidelines was the 20 years to 2026, at which time, according to plan or hope, the Bureau and the seven states would have developed a new longterm management regime that actually incorporated the realities of a desert river.
The Interim Guidelines rely on a ‘balancing’ of the water in the two reservoirs, to keep both reservoir levels high enough so the generation of electric power can continue – an elevation of 3,490 feet (above sea level) for Powell Reservoir and 1,000 feet for Mead Reservoir. And if that proved to be impossible in an extended period of aridification, then the last-ditch effort would be to keep levels above each reservoir’s outlet works – an elevation of 3,370 feet in Powell and 895 feet in Mead. If the reservoirs fell below those outlet levels for either dam, then it would be impossible to convey any water at all beyond the dam. Dead pool.
A complex table of ‘Lake Powell Operational Tiers’ is the heart of the Interim Guidelines, defining the various levels at which releases from Powell should increase or decrease depending on both the level in Powell and how the level in Mead was increasing or (generally) decreasing. And if levels continued to decline (which they have), the grinding gut of the Interim Guidelines is a set of ‘shortage conditions’ – levels at which delivery cuts will be imposed on the Lower Basin states. In 2022, the Bureau finally acknowledged the reality of the situation and declared the first level of cuts, on Arizona and Nevada.
Why not California too? More history: Back in 1968, when Arizona was lobbying desperately for approval of the legislation that would finally enable the CAP, California had said that it would only support the project if Arizona would accept a junior status for the CAP to all of California’s Colorado River water rights. For Arizona, even in the late 1960s, that seemed like a gamble worth taking; who could imagine water shortages that might shut down Hoover Dam and the vast array of urban-industrial development it watered? So the Arizonans agreed to California’s condition – and half a century later the unimaginable happened.
But California did not entirely employ the Shylock gambit; they reluctantly agreed in a neighborly way to accept some Interim Guideline cuts before Central Arizona was completely dried up; their cuts begin at about the fourth level of escalating cuts for Arizona and Nevada.
Everywhere in the Colorado River region today, it is entirely too easy to get lost in the numbers, all those abstract thousands and millions of acre-feet. Suffice it to say for now that under the Interim Guidelines, by the time the balanced levels of Powell and Mead Reservoirs dropped to within 30-40 feet of the power generation cutoff levels, central Arizona would be giving up 720,000 af, Nevada 30,000 af, and California 350,000 af, for a total of 1.1 maf. Substantial pain – but only about half of the 2 maf structural deficit, the number to keep in mind for this unfolding melodrama. Because there is simply no way, short of constant climate miracles, to avoid an eventual dead-pool situation if the Lower Basin continues ignoring the structural deficit, with inflows to Powell way below the outflows plus system losses from the Lower Basin storage and distribution systems.
What about the Upper Basin states? They get a bye on this round. For one thing, the federal government does not control their water supply, nature does; and they are also way under their 7.5 maf Compact allotment. Also since the beginning of the drought period, the Bureau had already let more than 10 maf of ‘their’ water flow down to Mead above and beyond the Compact requirement. They also have no ‘structural deficit’; their usage includes their system losses – although the half-million acre-feet, plus or minus, evaporated out of Powell should probably be included in the unaccounted-for reservoir system losses since it occurs after the measured inflow. But people in the Upper Basin know their opportunity to participate in the reductions will come.
Even as the first level of shortages was being executed on Arizona and Nevada in 2022 (with the second level promised for this year), Powell was in its third consecutive year of inflows of 6 maf or less with outflows and system losses from Mead still in excess of 9 maf, and the Bureau realized that even the Interim Guidelines reductions might not get them all the way to 2026. Facing that, the Bureau and Interior Secretary issued a somewhat desperate announcement that it would be necessary to quickly implement much heavier cuts – at least two and maybe four million acre-feet. The Bureau Director and Interior Secretary asked the seven states to come up with a plan for how that might happen – and said that if the states did not come up with a plan, they would impose one of their own.
They actually said this twice, midsummer in 2022, and midwinter in 2023; the first time I think the states were too stunned to respond, and no plans emerged from either the states or the Bureau. But now, after the second call, there are four alternatives on the table, two from the states and two from the Bureau. Two of these alternatives argue for using the foundational ‘Law of the River,’ the appropriation doctrine, to distribute the necessary cuts; a big faction (mostly those with senior water rights) believes appropriations law can and should resolve every issue involving water in the arid West.
The other two alternatives seem to see the 2 maf structural deficit as a foundational mistake that needs to be corrected outside or below the rules governing the use of the river’s water; the structural deficit is water that isn’t there to use, and therefore shouldn’t be dealt with through the laws for the use of water. It thus makes the most sense to share those ‘structural’ losses out proportionally among the three states rather than trying to apply the use-allocation law to them.
It is clear enough that the resolution will have to involve a middle ground, similar to that arrived at in the Interim Guidelines, when California’s priority was acknowledged but the state conceded to take some cuts before completely drying up the CAP. The Bureau’s second alternative comes closest to seeking that middle ground. If it were implemented, that accommodation to seniority would be carried forward with reduced assessments to California despite their use of more than half the Lower Basin’s water. In getting to the 2.083 maf goal, Arizona would take the hardest hit (1.087 maf), more than a third of their 2.8 maf allotment; and California would lose 927,000 af, only a fifth of their 4.4 maf allotment. Nevada would lose 69,000 af, about a fourth of their 300,000 af allotment.
Ultimately something along those lines has to sound better to California than going to court on principle for the usual decade, and driving the river into a dead-pool status under which they would get no water at all much of the year. Laws that can’t bend or open up to fit changing situations eventually break under the stress.
And then – well, the 20-year interim period for the water mavens to figure out what to do for the next century has shrunk to three years. And the last I heard, they are still trying to figure out who does and doesn’t get to sit at the table to figure it out the future.
The 24-Month Study projects future Colorado River system conditions using single-trace hydrologic scenarios simulated with the Colorado River Mid-term Modeling System (CRMMS) in 24-Month Study Mode. Three Studies, the Most, Minimum, and Maximum Probable 24-Month Studies, are released monthly, typically by the 15th day of the month.
Initial Conditions: The 24-Month Study is initialized with previous end-of-month reservoir elevations.
Hydrology: In the Upper Basin, the first year of the Most Probable inflow trace is based on the 50th percentile of Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC) forecasts and the second year is based on the 50th percentile of historical flows. To represent dry and wet future conditions, the Minimum Probable and Maximum Probable traces use the 10th and 90th forecast percentiles in the first year and the 25th and 75th percentiles of historical flows in the second year, respectively. The Lower Basin inflows are based only on historical intervening flows that align with the Upper Basin percentiles.
Water Demand: Upper Basin demands are estimated and incorporated in the unregulated inflow forecasts provided by the CBRFC; Lower Basin demands are developed in coordination with the Lower Basin States and Mexico.
Policy: Reservoir operations are input manually in the 24-Month Study by reservoir operators and align with Colorado River policies.
The 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan includes an additional release of 500 kaf from Flaming Gorge from May 2022 through April 2023.
The reduction of releases from Lake Powell from 7.48 maf to 7.00 maf in water year 2022 will result in a reduced release volume of 0.480 maf that normally would have been released from Glen Canyon Dam to Lake Mead as part of the 7.48 maf annual release volume, consistent with routine operations under the 2007 Interim Guidelines. The reduction of releases from Glen Canyon Dam in water year 2022 (resulting in increased storage in Lake Powell) will not affect future operating determinations and will be accounted for “as if” this volume of water had been delivered to Lake Mead. The August 2022 24-Month Study modeled 2023 and 2024 operations at Lakes Powell and Mead as if the 0.480 maf had been delivered to Lake Mead for operating tier/condition determination purposes for the Lower Basin States and for Mexico.
Because the 2022 operations were designed to protect critical elevations at Lake Powell, Reclamation will implement Lower Elevation Balancing Tier operations in a way that continues to protect these critical elevations, or preserves the benefits of the 2022 operations to protect Lake Powell, in water year 2023. Specifically, Reclamation modeled operations in WY 2023 as follows in the 24-Month Studies:
The Glen Canyon Dam annual release has initially been set to 7.00 maf, and in April 2023 Reclamation will evaluate hydrologic conditions to determine if balancing releases may be appropriate under the conditions established in the 2007 Interim Guidelines;
Balancing releases will be limited (with a minimum of 7.00 maf) to protect Lake Powell from declining below elevation 3,525 feet at the end of December 2023;
Balancing releases will take into account operational neutrality of the 0.480 maf that was retained in Lake Powell under the May 2022 action. Any Lake Powell balancing release volume will be calculated as if the 0.480 maf had been delivered to Lake Mead in WY 2022; and
The modeling approach for WY 2023 will apply to 2024.
Consistent with the provisions of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, and to preserve the benefits to Glen Canyon Dam facilities from 2022 Operations into 2023 and 2024, Reclamation will consult with the Basin States on monthly and annual operations. Reclamation will also ensure all appropriate consultation with Basin Tribes, the Republic of Mexico, other federal agencies, water users and non-governmental organizations with respect to implementation of these monthly and annual operations.
Reclamation will continue to carefully monitor hydrologic and operational conditions and assess the need for additional responsive actions and/or changes to operations. Reclamation will continue to consult with the Basin States, Basin Tribes, the Republic of Mexico and other partners on Colorado River operations to consider and determine whether additional measures should be taken to further enhance the preservation of these benefits, as well as recovery protocols, including those of future protective measures for both Lakes Powell and Mead.
For more detailed information about the approach to the 24-Month Study modeling, see the CRMMS 24-Month Study Mode page. All modeling assumptions and projections are subject to varying degrees of uncertainty. Please refer to this discussion of uncertainty for more information.
The latest 24-Month Study reports for each study can be found at the links below:
WASHINGTON – The Bureau of Reclamation today released its April 24-Month Study, which includes an increase to downstream flows from Lake Powell to Lake Mead of up to 9.5 million acre-feet (maf) this water year (Oct. 1, 2022 through Sept. 30, 2023).
Glen Canyon Dam’s annual release volume for water year 2023 was initially set at 7.0 maf, based on the August 2022 24-Month Study, and is now projected to increase to up to 9.5 maf because of high snowpack this winter and projected runoff in the Colorado River Basin this spring. The actual annual release volume from Glen Canyon Dam is adjusted each month throughout the water year and is determined based on the observed inflow to Lake Powell and the storage contents of Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
While this water year’s projections are above average, the Colorado River Basin is experiencing severe drought conditions and system reservoirs remain at historically low levels. In response to this historic drought, Reclamation recently released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to potentially revise the current interim operating guidelines for the near-term operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams.
“This winter’s snowpack is promising and provides us the opportunity to help replenish Lakes Mead and Powell in the near-term — but the reality is that drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have been more than two decades in the making,” said Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “Despite this year’s welcomed snow, the Colorado River system remains at risk from the ongoing impacts of the climate crisis. We will continue to pursue a collaborative, consensus-based approach to conserve water, increase the efficiency of water use, and protect the system’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production.”
Lake Powell is currently operating in the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier, and Reclamation is required to “balance the contents” of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, as outlined in Section 6.D.1 of the Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead (2007 Interim Guidelines).
Reclamation utilized the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center’s (CBRFC) April forecasts and other relevant factors such as Colorado River system storage and reservoir elevations to make balancing adjustments to Lake Powell operations.
The CBRFC’s April through July unregulated inflow forecast for Lake Powell is 11.3 maf (177% of average) — an increase of 3.3 maf from March, which was 125% of average. Reclamation’s April 24- Month Study projects Lake Powell’s elevation at 3,576.50 feet at the end of the water year (Sept. 30, 2023). This is approximately 40 feet higher and 2.74 maf of additional storage than projected in the August 2022 Most Probable 24-Month Study, which was used to set the annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
For the past several years, Reclamation has had to take drought response operations, including modifying monthly releases from Glen Canyon Dam, to keep water in Lake Powell and help prevent it from dropping to critically low elevations.
The higher annual release volume for the remainder of this water year is inclusive of water previously kept in Lake Powell:
480,000 acre-feet of water kept in Lake Powell by reducing the annual release volume in water year 2022 from 7.48 maf to 7.0 maf
523,000 acre-feet of water held back this winter to increase Lake Powell elevations during the lowest point in the water year until post-runoff months of May through September
Reclamation has already increased the monthly release volume for April from Glen Canyon Dam from 552,000 acre-feet to 910,000 acre-feet to be better positioned to release up to 9.5 maf by the end of the water year (Sept. 30, 2023). Monthly releases for May through September will also be adjusted as needed.
Reclamation will take advantage of April’s higher water releases and will conduct a 72-hour high-flow release from Glen Canyon Dam later this month. This will involve a release of water from Glen Canyon Dam that is more rapid than normal — up to 39,500 cfs during its peak — to move sediment stored in the river channel and redeposit it onto beaches, which will benefit conditions at Grand Canyon National Park and aid in management of invasive species in the Colorado River. The release will not change the annual release volume of up to 9.5 maf from the dam.
“The steps announced by the Bureau of Reclamation today respond adaptively to the unusual conditions this year with an action grounded in the sound science of the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center scientists,” said National Park Service’s Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Ed Keable. “This release is critical to rebuild the sandbars and protect the archeological resources and restore the camping beaches in the canyon in compliance with the 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act.”
Based on the April 24-Month Study, Lake Mead’s elevation is also projected to improve in calendar year 2023, with a projected end of calendar year elevation of 1,068.05 feet — approximately 33 feet higher than the March 24-Month Study. With this improvement in Lake Mead’s elevation, a mid-year review of Lake Mead operations is not expected in 2023.
While improved hydrology and projected forecasts have provided an opportunity to recover upstream reservoir storage and use the higher runoff to take positive action in the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River system remains at risk, with Lake Powell and Lake Mead at a combined storage capacity of just 26%.
Reclamation is committed to protecting and sustaining the system and is undertaking an expedited, supplemental process to revise the current interim operating guidelines for the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams. This process will provide the alternatives and tools needed to address the likelihood of continued low-runoff conditions and reduced water availability across the basin over the next two years. This draft SEIS is available for public review and comment until May 30, 2023. The document can be found on the project website, www.usbr.gov/ColoradoRiverBasin/SEIS.html, as well as information on how to submit written comments and when virtual public meetings will be held.
Earlier this week [April 11, 2023], federal water officials released the draft of a much-awaited document outlining potential major short-term cuts to stabilize a Colorado River shrinking due to overuse and drought — unless the seven states that rely on the watershed come up with an alternative.
The last part is key.
Officials made it clear that they still wanted the states to reach a consensus on what painful cuts might look like as any action that is taken by the federal government faces a risk of litigation.
Speaking in front of Lake Mead, with its prominent bathtub ring — one of the most apparent illustrations of the Colorado River shortage — Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the Department of Interior, said the choices federal water officials laid out “provide room for additional work and solutions.”
The document, he said, “is intended to drive those conversations and negotiations forward.”
The announcement served as a step in an ongoing environmental impact study, led by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, to analyze the cuts needed to stabilize the Colorado River’s reservoirs, which serve about 40 million people across the West and have hit record lows in recent years.
The Colorado River and its tributaries form a watershed that spans a massive geography, which includes seven U.S. states, 30 Native American tribes and Mexico. The river supports millions of acres of agricultural land, countless ecosystems, aquatic species, recreation and many of the West’s largest cities, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver.
Southern Nevada receives about 90 percent of its water directly from the Colorado River. All of the states below Lake Mead — Arizona, California and Nevada — comprise the Lower Colorado River Basin and face the possibility of major cuts. In recent years, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has taken proactive steps to offset future cuts with aggressive conservation measures, including the removal of decorative water-guzzling turf and limiting the size of residential pools.
The water authority is still conducting a detailed analysis of the nearly 500-page draft document, authority spokesman Bronson Mack said. But conversations among the states continue.
On Friday, John Entsminger, the head of the water authority, met with counterparts in Arizona and California. In a statement, he called the draft “the next step in the process to find workable solutions to protect water supplies for 40 million Americans and more than a trillion dollars in economic activity.”
The document released Tuesday is a draft of what is known as a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, or an SEIS. It amends the current set of guidelines that govern shortages on the river.
As the Western U.S. experienced its worst drought in 1,200 years, it became clear that the existing shortage guidelines, finalized in 2007, were not sufficient to keep the river’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, from crashing so low it would threaten water deliveries across the West.
Federal water officials launched the SEIS process last year after the seven states tried but failed to reach a consensus over how the painful cuts to the Colorado River should be allocated within a framework of law, known as the Law of the River, that gives California a priority to its Colorado River share over Arizona’s major diversion, a 336-mile canal called the Central Arizona Project.
The draft SEIS outlines three approaches that the federal government could take:
The do-nothing approach: Federal operations would implement the existing operating agreements for the Colorado River reservoirs, which would risk the possibility of one or both major reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — declining so low they would effectively become inoperable in future years if dry conditions continue.
Rely on the water rights system: Follow what is known as the priority system outlined in the Law of the River, a compilation of the many compacts, settlements, decrees and treaty documents pertaining to the Colorado River. In general, this system often gives priority to those who have the oldest or “senior” rights, including agricultural districts and tribal nations. This more closely aligned the proposal that California had advocated for.
Apportion additional cuts evenly: The other action alternative outlined by federal water managers calls for building on existing agreements, which reflect priority, and applying cuts on a proportional basis by assigning an across-the-board cut of up to 15.6 percent. The cuts in this scenario would more closely align to the cuts outlined in the six-state plan and backed by Arizona, putting a larger burden of cuts on California.
But federal officials were clear: This draft document is not the last word. Notably, federal officials did not endorse a preferred option, instead framing the actions as “tools” they could implement.
“It was interesting that they did not do what they said they were going to do and offer a federal [preferred] option,” said John Fleck, a University of New Mexico professor who focuses on the Colorado River and water governance. “They simply offered a federal-lite version of the six-state proposal and the California proposal, and a positive ‘power of collaboration’ argument.”
At a press conference Tuesday, negotiators for California and Arizona signaled willingness to reach a consensus deal and avoid either option, both of which come with risks for each state.
Between two bookend scenarios, a possible deal?
J.B. Hamby, the chair of the Colorado River Board of California and on the board of the Imperial Irrigation District, which holds the single largest entitlement to the Colorado River, said “it is our hope and our fervent desire that the tools laid out in the [document] never have to be used.”
The best way to get there, he said, “is through ongoing work with collaborative processes.” He said that the ideal situation would be to develop a seven-state consensus in the coming months, if not weeks.
During the press conference Tuesday, Tom Buschatzke, who directs the Arizona Department of Water Resources, also echoed the continued need for states to come up with a negotiated deal, noting that officials from Arizona, California and Nevada have been discussing paths forward.
Buschatzke said the goal is to avoid litigation.
“So we have to avoid that outcome,” Buschatzke said, arguing that it could take decades to settle any lawsuit, time that negotiators do not have to reach major agreements on cutbacks. “Once litigation occurs, if it does, it’s going to be very difficult to negotiate something moving forward.”
Setting up bookend alternatives could give the states more boundaries by which to negotiate a path forward that balances the priority system and equity, water experts said.
“What they are trying to do is set up the worst-case scenario for California” by showing what could be done if officials deviate from a strict application of priority, said Elizabeth Koebele, a UNR professor who focuses on water policy and has followed the negotiations over the cuts.
Each state has internal dynamics to sort through
Much of the rhetoric around the Colorado River negotiations has focused on the long-held and ongoing tensions between California and Arizona’s share of water on the river.
While California has priority rights over water that flows through the Central Arizona Project — water that is delivered to cities, tribal nations, agricultural districts and industrial users — each state has internal dynamics that will influence what happens next.
What priority looks like within — and between — the three states is extremely complicated.
For instance, although California is often seen as the senior user on the river, the Metropolitan Water District — the major municipal water purveyor for Southern California — has rights that have less priority relative to other water users and could be cut off in either of the alternatives.
In a statement, the water agency’s general manager said neither alternative is ideal.
“Both include significant supply cuts that would hurt Metropolitan and our partners across the Basin,” General Manager Adel Hagekhalil said. “There is a better way to manage the river.”
Arizona also faces complicated internal dynamics when it comes to what curtailment by priority would actually look like. Although Arizona supported an equitable approach and is often seen as junior to California, several Arizona water users have high-priority water rights to the Colorado River. During the Tuesday press conference, Buschatzke said that the several water users in Arizona, including Colorado River Indian Tribes and farmers in the Yuma area, wrote letters urging officials to respect the priority system.
Last week, federal water officials began a 45-day comment period on the SEIS as talks continue. A final version of the document will be released after the comment period ends.
“Optimistically, the next 45 days look like meeting some middle ground between the priority approach and the equity-based approach,” said Rhett Larson, law professor at Arizona State University. “It’s going to require a fair amount of give and take, including intrastate negotiations.”
Still searching for a long-term agreement
The two options weighed by federal officials are part of a larger dialogue over the long-term management of the river. The cuts are meant to stabilize Colorado River reservoirs until 2026.
The 2007 guidelines for operating the river are set to expire in 2026, and officials must renegotiate a new set of rules in the coming years.
Since last year, drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have improved with large storms increasing the snowpack — the primary source of the Colorado River — to well-above average.
As the snow melts this summer, reservoirs could start recovering from record lows. But one year of low runoff after 2023 could quickly put the river back into a dire situation, especially given the existing deficit. In addition, many water experts believe significant cuts are still needed to ensure the basin is able to rebuild storage in the reservoirs, rather than continuing to overuse water.
“The hydrology this year has been nothing short of amazing and I think it’s up to us to ensure that we don’t squander it,” said Estevan López, the Colorado River negotiator for New Mexico. “We have an opportunity here to rebuild supplies that were kind of loaned to the system, if you will, under the emergency drought actions that were taken over the course of the last year.”
Even with one good year of snowpack, the Colorado River faces significant challenges — with more rights to water than there is water to go around. On top of these structural problems and continued overuse, a changing climate and warmer temperatures are making the region more arid, contributing to less runoff in recent decades and more uncertainty about water supply.
As negotiators focus on long-term river management and renegotiating the 2007 rules, they must also address inequities embedded in the river’s foundational documents, which excluded tribal governments and gave little consideration to the river’s ecosystems, which have been damaged by overuse.
At the press conference Tuesday, Rosa Long, vice chair of the Cocopah Indian Tribe and chair of the Ten Tribes Partnership, urged all states to focus on conservation measures.
“In closing, let us commit to continuing our collaboration and to work together in the spirit of mutual respect and understanding,” Long said in her remarks Tuesday. “By doing so we can ensure that the Colorado River remains a vital and thriving resource for generations to come.”
I’ll need a few more days to digest all 476 pages of the Department of Interior’s Colorado River Draft Supplemental Environmental Environmental Impact Statement, but the top line numbers are worth sharing right away. The DEIS includes a couple of action alternatives, which I’ll briefly describe below, but what’s immediately striking to me is that Interior’s cuts are significantly less ambitious than the states’. Here’s a quick update of the table I built back in January comparing the proposal submitted by Arizona/Nevada/Utah/Colorado/New Mexico/Wyoming, and the California plan.
As you can see, the states were far more willing to cut more quickly, and more deeply, than the federal alternatives. The numbers are cuts, in thousands of acre feet, from the old pre-chaos baselines of 4.4 maf for California, 2.8 maf for Arizona, 300kaf for Nevada.
In addition to the, “whatever, let’s just crash the system”, the DEIS includes two alternatives….
Alternative one would allow the cuts in my “DEIS” column based on the priority system. This plan is similar to California’s, in that the brunt of deep cuts falls on others. At current reservoir levels, Arizona would be required to cut 1.2 million acre feet, while California cuts nothing.
SHARING THE IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Alternative two would spread additional needed cuts based on a pro-rata share of 2021 water use among all the users. At current levels, Arizona would cut 1.025 million acre feet, California would cut 1.067.
HOW IT PLAYS OUT
Contrary to that crazy New York Times headline (click soon, it’ll certainly change!) Interior isn’t picking a preferred alternative. These are really just starting points for a push toward a seven-state negotiation between now and summer.
Click the link to read “Federal government considers major water cuts to protect Colorado River” on The Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:
The stakes in the decision are high for California, which receives the largest share of water from the Colorado River, as well as for Arizona and Nevada. Imposing an equal across-the-board cut would hit California harder, particularly in agricultural regions, while strict adherence to the water-rights priority system would bring larger reductions for cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation presented its alternatives as an initial step in a review aimed at revising the rules for dealing with shortages through 2026. Federal officials said that the proposals still could change and that a solution somewhere between the two options could emerge as representatives of states, water agencies and tribes continue negotiations on how to address the chronic water shortages.
“The prolonged drought afflicting the American West is one of the most significant challenges facing our country today,” Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said. “We’re in the third decade of a historic drought that has caused conditions that the people who built this system would not have imagined.”
The Bureau of Reclamation said it released its initial review of alternatives, called a draft supplemental environmental impact statement, to “address the continued potential for low run-off conditions and unprecedented water shortages” in the Colorado River Basin. Officials said they need plans in place to protect critical levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell and prevent them from dropping so low that the dams would stop generating power and water deliveries would be at risk…
The agency is revising the 2007 guidelines for its operations of Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam, which include measures for dealing with shortages through 2026 — but which federal officials say would no longer be sufficient if reservoirs continue to decline. The Biden administration released its options more than two months after officials from California and six other states presented two conflicting proposals for water reductions. Closed-door talks among state officials and managers of water agencies are set to continue while the federal government receives input on the proposals. And representatives of California, Arizona and other states pledged to continue working toward a seven-state consensus…
Under one of the options, the federal government would consider making water reductions based predominantly on the existing priority system for water rights. That would mean smaller cuts or no cuts for agencies and entities that hold older senior rights, including agricultural suppliers such as California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which uses the single largest share of Colorado River water to supply about 500,000 acres of farmland in the Imperial Valley. Strict adherence to the water-rights priority system would also mean large cuts for junior water rights holders that started taking water from the river later, such as the Central Arizona Project, which supplies Phoenix, Tucson and other cities.
Under a second alternative, the Bureau of Reclamation would analyze the effects of reductions “distributed in the same percentage” for all water users in the three Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. This approach would mean across-the-board cuts for all water users in the region, including senior water rights holders, amounting to a reduction of about 13% on top of cuts that were already agreed to under a 2019 deal. Agricultural irrigation districts, cities and tribes would all need to participate based on a schedule of reductions tied to the levels of Lake Mead. Beaudreau said this second alternative reflects the Interior secretary’s authority to “provide for human health and safety” and manage supplies under emergency conditions. If reservoir levels drop further and additional cuts are triggered, this approach would shore up the allocations of agencies with more junior water rights, such as cities in Arizona, Nevada and Southern California.
Both of these alternatives call for progressively larger reductions as the level of Lake Mead declines. The total amount of potential cuts in 2024, including reductions under existing agreements, could reach slightly more than 2 million acre-feet — a major reduction from the three states’ total apportionment of 7.5 million acre-feet.
After months of fruitless negotiations between the states that depend on the shrinking Colorado River, the Biden administration on Tuesday proposed to put aside legal precedent and save what’s left of the river by evenly cutting water allotments, reducing the water delivered to California, Arizona and Nevada by as much as one-quarter. The size of those reductions and the prospect of the federal government unilaterally imposing them on states have never occurred in American history…
The Biden administration is desperately trying to prevent that situation, known as deadpool. But it faces a political and ethical dilemma: How to divvy up the cuts required.
The Interior Department, which manages the river, released a draft analysis Tuesday that considered three options. The first alternative was taking no action — a path that would risk deadpool. The other two options are making reductions based on the most senior water rights, or evenly distributing them across Arizona, California and Nevada, by reducing water deliveries by as much as 13 percent beyond what each state has already agreed to…
If changes were based on seniority of water rights, California, which among the seven states is the largest and oldest user of Colorado River water, would mostly be spared. But that would greatly harm Nevada and force disastrous reductions on Arizona: the aqueduct that carries drinking water to Phoenix and Tucson would be reduced almost to zero.
“Those are consequences that we would not allow to happen,” Tommy Beaudreau, the deputy secretary for the Interior Department, said in an interview on Monday…
Another challenge with letting the cuts fall disproportionately on Arizona: Doing so would hurt the Native American tribes that rely on that water, and whose rights to it are guaranteed by treaty. Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, which is entitled to a significant share of Colorado River water, said the goal should be “a consensual approach that we can all live with.” Spreading the reductions evenly would reduce the impact on tribes in Arizona, and also help protect the state’s fast-growing cities. But it would hurt Southern California’s agriculture industry, which helps feed the nation, as well as invite lawsuits. The longstanding legal precedent, often called the law of the river, has been to allocate water based on seniority of water rights…
The draft analysis did not formally endorse any option; a final analysis is expected this summer, and it could include still other approaches. But Mr. Beaudreau said he was “pretty comfortable” that allocating cuts evenly would let the department meet its goals — preventing water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell from falling below critical levels, protecting health and safety, and not exceeding the department’s legal authority. He defended the government’s willingness to depart from longstanding seniority rules about water rights, arguing that the shocks of climate change couldn’t have been predicted when those rights were agreed to decades ago. The proposal marks a new and painful phase in America’s efforts to adapt to the decades-long drought in the West. Until now, the federal government has responded to drought primarily by paying farmers, cities and Native tribes to voluntarily use less water.
Click the link to read “Colorado River cities and farms face dire trade-offs with new federal review” on The Washington Post website (Joshua Partlow). Here’s an excerpt:
Interior officials also defended Secretary Deb Haaland’s right to make cuts in a proportional way in times of emergency even if that goes against water rights held by farming communities from more than a century ago…
Through the windows behind [Deb Haaland], the bleached “bathtub ring” on the hillside above Lake Mead was clearly visible — a reminder of how far the reservoir, now about a quarter full, has fallen over the past two decades of drought.
“Some may believe that this winter’s snow and rain has saved the river, but that is not the case,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “We have a lot of hard work and difficult decisions ahead of us in this basin.”
State officials expressed the desire for all seven Colorado River basin states to reach an agreement over the next few months and avoid the need for the federal government to impose cuts unilaterally. Federal officials described the two alternatives they laid out — strictly following water rights, or making cuts of the same percentage across California, Arizona and Nevada — as “bookends” on a spectrum, giving state officials direction to seek compromise in between…
“It gives us the framework … on which we can build and perhaps find something that is partway between those two bookends,” said Estevan Lopez, New Mexico’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. “I think that’s our challenge right now.”
The goal of the document is to assess potential rule changes for how water is released from Lake Powell and Lake Mead to protect these reservoirs from falling below what is known as “minimum power pool.” That’s the point at which the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams can no longer produce hydropower because there is not enough water to flow through the turbines safely. These reservoir elevations — about 3,500 feet above sea level at Lake Powell and 950 feet at Lake Mead — will be the thresholds that the federal government is working to avoid. Lake Powell stands just 20 feet above that level and is less than a quarter full…
In January, six of the states — Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — agreed on an approach that would make major cuts in a proportional way among states. That would hit California farmers in places such as the Imperial Valley — who suck up a lot of the river and have rights to it that predate some cities — particularly hard. California, the largest user of Colorado River water, rejected that approach, and called for cuts that adhered to water rights priority. The plan would be devastating to Arizona, state officials there say…
But Tuesday’s environmental review also establishes a different way to justify the reductions. The six-state plan rationalized departing from a strict adherence to water rights by attributing some 1.5 million acre-feet of cuts to evaporation and other losses as water travels down the canals from the major reservoirs. But the federal government’s second alternative — the one for proportional cuts — is based not on evaporation but on Haaland’s legal authority to protect the river.
“In our mind, the appropriate presentation is grounded in the secretary’s authorities to provide for human health and safety, manage the system under emergency conditions, and provide for beneficial use,” Beaudreau said. “It is the secretary’s responsibility, and she has the authority, to protect the system.”
Click the link to read “Without agreement among states, federal officials say Colorado River cuts are coming” on the KUNC website (Luke Runyon). Here’s an excerpt:
Federal officials made clear they hope not to have to use the plan at all, whether that’s because the region experiences a string of wet winters or the states come up with commitments to reduce their reliance on the river without federal intervention.
“We’re looking to develop a true seven-state consensus in the coming months, ideally in this next 45-day period, if possible,” said J.B. Hamby, California’s top Colorado River negotiator.
If the federal government moves ahead and turns its draft plan into a final form, it could increase the likelihood of interstate lawsuits over state water rights.
“We do see that litigation could be possible,” said Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s top water official. “We are committed to avoiding that litigation outcome as best we can by coming up with a collaborative solution.”
Public comment is open on the draft plan until the end of May, with a final plan expected this summer.
Click the link to read “Federal officials propose reducing Colorado River water to lower-basin states in “shot across the bow” on The Denver Post website (Conrad Swanson). Here’s an excerpt:
The move strengthens the federal agency’s resolve to conserve water from the Colorado River as the seven states within its basin repeatedly fail to find common ground, said Rhett Larson, a water law professor at Arizona State University.
“I am reading this as a shot across the bow,” Larson said. “The federal government is saying, ‘Brace yourselves, because if you don’t come up with something, we will.’”
The cuts are needed because, despite a massive snowpack in the Rocky Mountains this winter, water levels at lakes Powell and Mead — the country’s two largest reservoirs — are still projected to diminish as they face historically dry conditions exacerbated by climate change.
“We’re thankful for this winter’s snow and rain,” Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said at a news conference Tuesday. But, he added, “One good year will not save us from more than two decades of drought.”
While federal officials consider their options, each of the seven states in the Colorado River Basin will continue to negotiate water use for the long term. At risk is the water supply for cities, towns, farms and industries across the West. And if any of the states or Native American tribes in the basin sour on the plan they could sue, which would plunge the entire scheme into an expensive and time-consuming legal tangle…
“So we can do nothing, do what California wants or do what everybody else wants and have cuts across the board,” [Rhett] Larson said.
Doing nothing isn’t an option, Larson said. Doing what California wants could devastate several major cities and cutting water use equally could be illegal and result in major lawsuits.
Larson said he feels as though federal officials, particularly President Joe Biden, might ultimately lean further toward cutting water use across the board.
“Realistically, there isn’t a solution to this that doesn’t require California to take some cuts,” Larson said…
Still, the idea, Beaudreau said, would be to keep water at Powell and Mead high enough so that their dams could still generate electricity and pass water downstream. As of Monday, Lake Powell sat at 22% full while Lake Mead was 29% full.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:
Outlines alternatives and tools needed to manage drought in the Basin and strengthen water security in the West
BOULDER CITY, Nev. — To address the continued potential for low run-off conditions and unprecedented water shortages in the Colorado River Basin, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) today released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to potentially revise the current interim operating guidelines for the near-term operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams. Today’s release comes on the heels of historic investments the Biden-Harris administration announced last week as part of an all-of-government effort to make the Colorado River Basin and all the communities that rely on it more resilient to climate change and the ongoing drought in the West.
The draft SEIS released today analyzes alternatives and measures to address potential shortages in the event that such measures are required to protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety in 2024 through 2026, after which the current operating guidelines expire. It also ensures Reclamation has the tools to protect continued water deliveries and hydropower production for the 40 million Americans who rely on the Colorado River.
“The Colorado River Basin provides water for more than 40 million Americans. It fuels hydropower resources in eight states, supports agriculture and agricultural communities across the West, and is a crucial resource for 30 Tribal Nations. Failure is not an option,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. “Recognizing the severity of the worsening drought, the Biden-Harris administration is bringing every tool and every resource to bear through the President’s Investing in America agenda to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System now and into the future.”
“Drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have been two decades in the making. To meet this moment, we must continue to work together, through a commitment to protecting the river, leading with science and a shared understanding that unprecedented conditions require new solutions,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “The draft released today is the product of ongoing engagement with the Basin states and water commissioners, the 30 Basin Tribes, water managers, farmers and irrigators, municipalities and other stakeholders. We look forward to continued work with our partners in this critical moment.”
The SEIS process was initiated in October 2022. The release of the draft follows months of intensive discussions and collaborative work with the Basin states and water commissioners, the 30 Basin Tribes, water managers, farmers and irrigators, municipalities, and other stakeholders. The draft alternatives in the SEIS incorporate concepts from many models and proposals received during the scoping period, including from all seven Basin states.
The alternatives presented in the draft SEIS analyze measures that may be taken under Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s authorities to protect system operations in the face of unprecedented hydrologic conditions, while providing equitable water allocations to Lower Basin communities that rely on the Colorado River System.
The draft SEIS includes proposed alternatives to revise the December 2007 Record of Decision associated with the Colorado River Interim Guidelines. The 2007 Interim Guidelines provide operating criteria for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. These include provisions designed to provide a greater degree of certainty to water users about timing and volumes of potential water delivery reductions for the Lower Basin States, as well as additional operating flexibility to conserve and store water in the system.
The draft SEIS will be available for public comment for 45 calendar days and the final SEIS is anticipated to be available with a Record of Decision in Summer 2023. This document will inform the August 2023 decisions that will affect 2024 operations for Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams.
This proposal to address immediate water supply challenges complements Reclamation’s ongoing process to develop new guidelines for Colorado River Operations when the current interim guidelines expire at the end of 2026.
Draft SEIS Alternatives
The draft SEIS analyzes three alternatives, which reflect input from the Basin states, cooperating agencies, Tribes and other interested parties, including comments submitted during the SEIS public scoping period, including two written proposals from the Basin states that informed the following alternatives considered in this draft SEIS:
No Action Alternative: The No Action Alternative describes the consequences of continued implementation of existing agreements that control operations of Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam, including under further deteriorating hydrologic conditions and reservoir elevations.
Action Alternative 1: Action Alternative 1 models potential operational changes to both Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam. Action Alternative 1 includes modeling for reduced releases from Glen Canyon Dam, as well as an analysis of the effects of additional Lower Colorado River Basin shortages based predominately on the priority of water rights. Action Alternative 1 models progressively larger additional shortages as Lake Mead’s elevation declines, and larger additional shortages in 2025 and 2026, as compared with 2024. The total shortage contributions in 2024, including those under existing agreements, are limited to 2.083 million-acre-feet because this is the maximum volume analyzed in the 2007 Interim Guidelines final environmental impact statement.
Action Alternative 2: Action Alternative 2 is similar to Action Alternative 1 in how it models potential operational changes to both Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam. Action Alternative 2 includes modeling for reduced releases from Glen Canyon Dam, as well as an analysis of the effects of additional Lower Colorado River Basin reductions that are distributed in the same percentage across all Lower Basin water users under shortage conditions. While both the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan encompass shortages and contributions that reflect the priority system, the incremental, additional shortages identified in Action Alternative 2 for the remainder of the interim period would be distributed in the same percentage across all Lower Basin water users. Action Alternative 2 models progressively larger additional shortages as Lake Mead’s elevation declines and models larger Lower Basin shortages in 2025 and 2026 as compared with 2024. The total shortage contributions in 2024, including those under existing agreements, are limited to 2.083 million-are-feet because this is the maximum volume analyzed in the 2007 Interim Guidelines FEIS.
Members of the public interested in providing input on the SEIS can do so through May 30, 2023, per instructions in the Federal Register that will be published on April 14, 2023. Additional information about virtual public meetings can be found at Reclamation’s website.
Historic Investments to Address the Drought Crisis
President Biden’s Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing much-needed resources to enhance the resilience of the West to drought and climate change, including to protect the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought.
To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete:
In the absence of consensus among all entities affected by changed operations, the Department must consider the overall conditions in the Basin in order to make the most prudent operational decisions. The overall sound and prudent operation of the major reservoirs on the Colorado River system during a period of declining inflows and historically low reservoirs will almost certainly lead to objection by specific entities to the impacts of one or more aspects of water management decisions. The Department will follow applicable federal law and prudent reservoir operations with respect to any modified operating guidelines, recognizing that with current reservoir elevations at historic lows, even one additional low-runoff winter season could have unprecedented adverse consequences across the Basin. In short, every potential option involves difficult water management impacts and unprecedented reductions for entities in the Basin.
Calling this year’s forecasted Colorado River streamflows a “a once-in-a-century” event, water officials are warning decision makers not to squander the river’s surprising 2023 bounty.
The drought-strapped Lake Powell could see new supplies of more than 10 million acre-feet this year, 2 million more than had been forecast just one month ago, according to the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center.
Due to drought, and climate-driven reductions in mountain snows, Lake Powell hasn’t been full in 20 years and plummeted to just 23% full last year. It holds roughly 26 million acre-feet when it reaches maximum storage capacity. One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons.
“It’s a tremendous gift. Our challenge is to not squander it,” said Chuck Cullom, director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents the four Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the Lower Basin.
Cullom’s comments came March 31 at a seminar by Colorado’s Southwestern Water Conservation District in Ignacio, Colorado.
With the new streamflow forecasts, reservoirs are expected to recover dramatically. Upper Colorado River water officials say the water needs to be held in the Upper Basin to improve the health of the system and to help cope with future drought years and reduced mountain snowpacks.
Even with the unexpected surge in new water supplies, Powell is only expected to recover slightly this year. Another bad year could throw the river back into crisis, officials said.
The seven-state Colorado River basin has been mired in a drought for more than 22 years, a dry spell widely believed to be the worst in more than 1,200 years. Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the largest reservoirs in the nation, have dropped to record lows, threatening water supplies to millions of people and jeopardizing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s ability to generate low-cost, renewable hydropower for thousands of electric utilities across the West.
In 2019, in response to the ongoing drought and an alarming drop in storage levels at Powell and Mead, all seven states agreed to an historic set of drought contingency plans, which include cutbacks in use in the Lower Basin, as well as emergency releases from Utah’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir and Colorado’s Blue Mesa in the Upper Basin, to bolster Powell.
Those emergency plans were activated in the summer of 2021. Since then roughly 600,000 acre-feet of water has been released from Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa, with the majority coming from Flaming Gorge.
Just a few weeks ago it wasn’t clear that any of the actions taken would be enough to keep Powell and Mead from dropping into crisis territory, where power generation would stop and deliveries out of Lake Mead to Lower Basin states would not be enough to satisfy demand.
But now, because of the surprising depth of mountain snows, suddenly there will be water and Reclamation has pledged to hold as much of it as it can in the Upper Basin to restore levels in Flaming Gorge and elsewhere, Cullom said.
In the coming weeks, the seven states have critical decisions to make about how the system will operate for the rest of this year, including how much water will be released from Powell and from Mead.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, which oversees the river across a 15 county region in western Colorado, said he is grateful for the watery surge, but he said the Upper Basin states will push hard to limit releases from Powell and Mead this year and in years to come.
“We have to recognize that the water supply has changed underneath our feet. Yes, this year is a good year, and we appreciate that. What we have to remember is that one good year means the weather was good. It doesn’t mean the climate is going to go back to what we experienced in the 1970s or before,” Mueller said.
“The current guidelines have been focused on crisis management … We can’t continue to do that if we are going to get out of this problem,” he said, referring to the drought contingency plans and current guidelines for reservoir operations.
Manuel Heart is chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in southwestern Colorado. The tribe is a major agricultural producer in the region. In 2021, the tribe received just 10% of its Colorado River water allocation due to the drought. Fields went dry and workers were laid off.
Now, along with other Colorado River farmers and ranchers, the tribe is looking for ways to adapt to a drier climate.
But this year, Heart said he is enjoying this remarkable wet season.
“Our prayers got answered this year,” he said. “It’s good to see the mountains the way they are supposed to look. I like to see the rivers flow and our lands green.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
From email from The Colorado River Authority of Utah (Mary Carpenter):
Utah and its three sister states in the Upper Colorado River Basin voted to suspend additional releases at Flaming Gorge, starting March 1.
“The releases from Flaming Gorge succeeded in protecting critical elevations at Lake Powell” said Utah’s River Commissioner Gene Shawcroft, who chairs the Colorado River Authority of Utah. “Given the operation’s success and improving hydrology, it’s time to stop sending water downstream and start focusing on restoring Flaming Gorge.”
Now experts agree there is little chance that Lake Powell will fall to elevation 3,490 in the near term.
The Bureau of Reclamation has yet to approve the modification.
Why it matters For almost a year, water has flowed from Flaming Gorge to Lake Powell to protect critical infrastructure and continue the generation of electricity at Glen Canyon Dam. However, given wetter-than-average conditions in the Colorado River Basin and resulting increases in levels at Lake Powell projected to occur this spring, water managers in Utah say the releases achieved their intended purpose and now it is time to stop additional releases and begin putting water back into Flaming Gorge reservoir.
Go deeper In March 2022, Lake Powell dropped below 3,525 feet in elevation, raising concerns water levels would soon drop to an elevation of 3,490 feet, limiting the release of water from Lake Powell and jeopardizing the ability to generate hydroelectric power.
In response, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, together with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, created a plan to release 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge to Lake Powell over a twelve-month period.
The plan was authorized by the Drought Response Operations Agreement, an element of the Drought Contingency Plan passed by Congress in 2019 and signed into law by President Donald Trump, which outlines specific actions to avoid dangerously low water levels at Lake Powell.
Colorado River Authority of Utah Established in 2021, the Colorado River Authority of Utah is a state agency with a mission to protect, use, conserve, and develop Utah’s Colorado River system interests. The Authority collaborates with peer agencies in the six other Colorado River Basin states. Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah make up the Upper Division States, while Arizona, California, and Nevada are the Lower Basin States. Follow the Authority on Twitter @AuthorityUT
Unless you’ve been living in a media-free cave somewhere, you are probably aware that the Colorado River is again prominent in the news. What’s not really noticed, but ought to be, is the extent to which we find ourselves today almost exactly where we were 101 years ago this winter, with six of the Colorado River states in tension with the seventh state over basically the same topic: the appropriateness of appropriation law as theonly legal means for allotting use of the river’s water.
The line of conflict today is being drawn over the increasingly depleted state of the two big storage reservoirs on the Colorado River’s mainstream, Mead and Powell Reservoirs. The Bureau of Reclamation, the ever-optimistic manager of the river’s storage and distribution system, has finally acknowledged that its reservoirs are getting uncomfortably close to a ‘dead pool’ situation whereby it would not only be unable to generate electric power, but would even be unable to get any water at all downstream from the big dams for much of the year. So they have issued two moderately panicky mandates that the states have to cut their uses dramatically in order to save the system: two to four million acre-feet (maf) of cuts from a river currently running only around 12 maf a year on average under nature’s imposed burdens of aridification – cutting between a sixth and a third of current use.
Part of the problem is probably a longer-than-usual dry spell in the natural order of fat and lean years. Another more permanent part of the problem is a warming climate that is depleting arid-land water supplies at a rate of around six percent for each additional degree Fahrenheit in average temperature. But a larger part of today’s problem is a century of increasingly bad management of the reservoirs, on the shaky infrastructure of a body of legislative acts, court decisions, environmental laws, and other interstate and intrastate agreements and contracts known as the Law of the River.
The Bureau has twice issued its mandate, first back in the summer of 2022 and again in December, saying that if the seven states cannot come up with a plan for such cuts, the Interior Department would do it for them. The states called its bluff the first time, but this second time – acknowledging the growing severity of the situation – six of the states came up with a plan for cutting usage by almost two million acre-feet. But a seventh state refused to sign on, and came up with its own plan. And it’s deja vu all over again.
Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming submitted the six-state plan, proposing just under two million acre-feet in cuts, mostly through finally reducing usage by Lower Basin states to account for evaporation and other system losses from Lower Basin reservoirs and delivery canals and the Lower Basin’s share of the Mexico allotment. The Upper Basin would suffer no further cuts initially in the two million acre-foot reduction.
California refused to participate in that plan, instead offering a nine percent reduction in use but wanting its massive senior water rights given priority, with Arizona accepting the junior status for all Central Arizona Project (CAP) water, agreed to the 1968 enabling legislation in exchange for California’s support for the CAP.
In 1922, remember, those seven states had gathered to try to work out a perceived problem, the same six against California. All seven states allocated use of the waters of the river through the appropriation doctrine, which had evolved on local watersheds everywhere in the arid and semiarid lands of the West – the down-on-the-ground rules that enabled individuals to appropriate from the public commons both the land and essential irrigation water they needed in order to make a life and a living, with rights to use the water determined by priority of use: first come, first served – determinations often worked out vigorously in the early days at headgates, sometimes with deployment of shovels or shotguns.
This common law was evolved enough when territories became states, to enshrine it in state constitutions. But the ordering of prior appropriations became complicated as local watersheds had to fit their adjudications for priority of use with those of larger downstream confluences, with whole river basins eventually sorting out priorities that might result in senior users a hundred miles downstream placing calls on headwaters users who were seniors on their local stream but juniors on the larger river.
That situation was supercharged as free water and free land became a powerful engine for growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. All seven of the Colorado River states at least doubled their population in the first two decades of the 20th century – but California’s population quintupled in that same period. And all seven states also realized that the logic of the appropriations law meant that states sharing a river would have to acknowledge priority in each other’s appropriations – and one California development company, clear down by the delta, already had a 1901 decree for more than two million acre-feet of the river’s water for converting the barren Salton Sink into the Imperial Valley….
The other six states feared that, with no law governing the distribution of water use other than the appropriation law, California’s uncontrolled growth might tie up most of the use of the river while they were still just getting started on their own uncontrolled growth. At best, it would be a seven-state horse race to appropriate as much water as possible as quickly as possible, in a competition that would hardly assure orderly and truly beneficial use. At worst, the slower states would simply be cut out of any significant water for development.
I think of it as ‘Caliphobia’: fear and loathing (and maybe a little envy) of California, the state that always seems to be ahead of everyone else in everything. Caliphobia occasionally still re-emerges today, and not just among western states. What the six states wanted was some kind of a mutual but enforceable agreement that would divide the use of the river’s water equitably among the seven states, independently of the appropriation laws; they seemed to wanted appropriation law to apply at the state level, but maybe not always at the interstate level.
California had no fear of the other states, but they had a need of their own that prompted them to sit down with the other states to work out their problem. California needed the interstate river to be controlled by at least one large structure, capable of capturing and storing the river’s annual snowmelt flood and distributing the water more evenly through the rest of the year. The company developing the Salton Sink/Imperial Valley had been bankrupted by a rogue 1905 autumn flood that had managed to divert the entire river from the delta down into the Sink, turning part of it into the Salton Sea – the whole area was actually a segment of the Gulf of California that had been diked off by the debris moved by the river in grinding out the Grand Canyon; it had dried up leaving the Imperial Valley as much as 300 feet below sea (and river) level. An interesting irrigation challenge.
So California wanted a big dam that only the federal government had the resources and interstate authority to build – and the Interior Department and Bureau of Reclamation were chomping at the bit to take on that challenge. But westerners in Congress made it clear that there would be no funding for such a project until the other basin states were assured that they would each have an equitable share of the controlled river’s water to develop. The states themselves wanted to maintain as much control over the water as possible, so they sought permission under the U.S. Constitution’s compact clause to form a compact to divide the use of the river among themselves. Congress gave them a year to do that, and they assembled in Washington in January 1922, seven commissioners with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover as chair, to create a Colorado River Compact.
Their goal going into the compact meetings was to come up with a seven-way division of the consumptive use of the river’s water that would enable each state to grow to its full potential in its own good time. But that goal itself was basically impossible at that time. In the first place, they did not really know how much water the river had to divide; the guesstimates they had to work with varied between 13 and 17 million acre-feet per year.
And in the second place, and even worse: the only information about their own future needs they could bring to the table was their wild ambitious dreams; the sum of their estimates of each state’s irrigable land and the water needed to irrigate it added up to more than half again the Bureau of Reclamation’s always optimistic estimates of the river’s flow. They had nothing but vague rosy ideas of their potential industrial growth.
The Bureau had its own more objective estimates of how much water each state could probably use, fitted to its own optimistic estimates of the river’s volume, but the states were not interested in those numbers; they would only accept their own estimates of their own glorious futures (while criticizing everyone else’s).
Such a seven-way split could only have been done in a context of setting limits anyway, and that was against the spirit of the times. This was the Early Anthropocene: having discovered the apparently unlimited power of mineable carbon, and designing formerly unimaginable machines and systems fueled by those carbon fuels, the state engineers and the engineers in organizations like Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation were ready to go nose-to-nose with nature, impatient to teach natural forces like the rampaging Colorado River to stand in and push rather than cut and run. Welcome to the Early Anthropocene, when the sky was the limit only because no one was yet thinking about outer space. While six of the basin states feared California’s fast start and uncontrolled growth in developing the river’s water, what they basically all wanted was to be California in their own good time, experiencing uncontrolled growth and the resulting uncontained wealth.
After a frustrating week of working on that seven-way split, they were on the verge of abandoning the whole effort; but they all did want to get the federal government involved in developing the river (on their terms, of course), so they had to come up with something that would satisfy Congress that Caliphobia had been addressed. After a spring and summer of letter-writing and phone calls, they reconvened in Santa Fe in November, a month and a half from their deadline, in a do-or-die push to come up with a feasible compact.
We’ve looked in previous posts here at difficulties the Compact commission tried to address in that final eleven-day effort, and also at the difficulties their ‘alternate solution’ imposed on the river and its users for the century following: the division of a desert river into two basins, separating the source of water from the main flow of the water; the bad guess on the volume of flow, resulting in an unequal division; and perhaps worst of all, making the Upper Basin responsible for delivering a relatively even and constant flow to the Lower Basin regardless of what desert-river vagaries the upper states were experiencing. Most of that could have been avoided if they had been able psychologically to submit to the limiting aspect of the seven-way split of the river’s use they thought they wanted, measured and administered by a balanced river commission of their own making. They were just not up to that; it was too early in the Anthropocene. Without going into specifics, it is hard to find anything in the subsequent agglomeration of legislative acts, court decisions, interstate and intrastate agreements, and other things bundled with the Compact as ‘The Law of the River’ that did much to relieve those difficulties, until the environmental laws of the 1970s began to corral some of the random growth driven by appropriation law.
All of which may have something to with why, today, 101 years later, we find ourselves in roughly the same situation: the six states in a stalemate with California over alternatives to straight appropriation from the commons. But at this point – couldn’t we start by finally doing the division of the river among the states (and Mexico) that couldn’t be done in 1922? Aren’t we what Hoover, in the 21st Santa Fe meeting, called ‘those men (and women now) who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information’ and capable of making ‘a further division of the river’?
More specifically – after a century of developing the river for use, with the river’s use almost certainly over-appropriated – can’t we acknowledge that the seven-way division has actually been accomplished? The seven states all have what they have and there isn’t any more to appropriate. All we need do at this point is to acknowledge that fact and put numbers on it – the actual numbers of what the states are all using and reusing today, no Compact fictions. There are those in each state who will say, but, but, but what about…. But – really.
I will not pretend that this would be a simple matter, and it would require a largeness of spirit we may still not be capable of bringing to it. Without even looking at any numbers, we can state with certainty that the four states (including Mexico) below the canyons are getting the use of approximately twice what the four states above the canyons get. This is not equal, but might it be equitable? The lower river agriculture is considerably more productive than upper river agriculture, and the lower river and out-of-basin diversions have the vast majority of the 40 million people needing some of the river’s water. And speaking only for myself, that’s fine with me; I’d rather see the water going to where the people are than see the people coming to where the water is. [ed. emphasis mine]
What is not equitable, and would need to be changed (with a largeness of spirit), is a firm delivery for some users, with other equally worthy users bearing the brunt of both natural and cultural variability in flows. Once the numbers dividing our paltry 12 million acre-feet eight ways (including Mexico) are determined, they will need to be converted to percentages – the way the four upper states did in 1948, given their uncertainty about the available future flow. As the river loses water to rising temperature, the percentages could stay the same but the volume of water per state would drop accordingly.
All eight user-states would also have to take a share of the two million acre-feet of annual system losses, prorated by some no doubt complicated formula. And there would have to be a large-spirited agreement to leave some of the water from the occasional fat water years in the reservoirs, to build reserves for the probably abundant lean years as we move into our self-made future.
The alternative to that kind of process at this point is probably a decade in the courts with those who want to stick with the appropriation laws as is, as the foundation Law of the River, versus those who realize it is time to move on to more equitable ways of allocating a scarce resource to millions who have no opportunity to appropriate the water they need. Heaven knows what might happen with the river in that decade. It is instead time to do some version of what the Colorado River Compact commissioners knew needed to be done, but could not bring themselves to do, so caught up were they in the romance of the Early Anthropocene. We are now, as the song goes, sadder but wiser. Or so we should hope.
Expect some playing around with ideas for this in future posts. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on it: how should the river in the desert be distributed, respecting but beyond first come, first served?
Click the link to read the article on the AZCentral.com website (Brandon Loomis). Click through for the photo gallery, here’s an excerpt:
Late last year, the federal government asked the seven states that share the Colorado River’s water to submit a plan by the end of January to rapidly cut their use of water or face mandatory cuts. Six of them found a consensus proposal andsubmitted their idea on Tuesday. The seventh — California — is an ominous exclusion, given that it is the largest water user on the river and could thwart efforts to preserve the system if it presses its rights in court. Even so, water policy experts found it encouraging that six states could come together to present the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation with a state-driven option, one that fast-forwards through a plan devised 15 years ago…One of the proposal’s authors, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger, said talks with California would continue.
“We absolutely intend to continue to work in good faith with California,” he told The Arizona Republic. “I don’t see the fact that that six states submitted a letter as any sort of declaration of failure.”
Reclamation officials have said river users must cut between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet to stabilize the system. Officials from the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — believe their plan will save 3.3 million. Each acre-foot contains about 326,000 gallons and is enough to supply two or three households, though roughly 80% of the river’s water is applied on farms…
“You’re just rolling the dice on an extremely high-percentage chance that these reservoirs are going to continue to decline and you could go below minimum-power pool at Lake Powell and dead pool at Lake Mead,” he said.
“This is what climate change + an out-dated law of the river looks like: ‘There’s a problem of aridification. But on top of that, there’s a problem with the rules…The rules governing the system are not sustainable.’ — Jonathan Overpack via Twitter
The river’s biggest water user, California, didn’t join six states in a proposal to cut some 2 million acre feet of usage
For the second time in six months, states that depend on the Colorado River to sustain their farms and cities appear to have failed to reach an agreement on restricting water usage, setting up the prospect that the federal government will make unilateral cuts this year…
“Obviously, it’s not going swimmingly,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the former general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a water provider that is a major player in the talks. “It’s pretty tough right now.”
The proposal by the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — seeks to protect the major reservoirs in Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling below critical levels, such as when the dams would no longer be able to generate electricity or at “dead pool,” when water would effectively be blocked from flowing out of these lakes. Before above-average snows in recent weeks, the Bureau of Reclamation was projecting that Lake Powell could start to reach such thresholds by this summer.
One of the central tensions of these complicated negotiations is how to balance cuts between farming regions against those in cities, including major population centers. Agriculture uses some 80 percent of the river’s water and also tends to have the most senior rights, some dating back to the 19th century. The way this “priority system” works, residents of Phoenix would lose water before vegetable farmers in Yuma. Those who grow alfalfa in Southern California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys would keep their water before people in parts of Los Angeles.
Kightlinger, along with many other water experts and officials, says cuts of this magnitude and severity have to be shared, rather than doled out according to seniority.
“They can’t follow the priority system. That would be a disaster. That would be: We’re basically going to put all the cuts on the major share of the economy. That just simply can’t be reality,” he said.
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:
Six of the seven states that use water from the Colorado River have agreed on a proposal to leave more water in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir. California, which has the largest and oldest water rights in the region, was the lone holdout. The proposal was sent to the Bureau of Reclamation as the federal agency considers adjusting the amount of water released from Lake Mead and Lake Powell each year…
“I think the fact that six states are willing to issue this letter without California being on board shows the gravity of the situation for them,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “I’m sure they all would have preferred to have California be a cosigner of this, and it just shows how seriously they’re all taking this.”
The six-state proposal, branded as the “Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative” would add about 1.5 million acre-feet to Lake Mead in each of the next two years. That’s roughly the same amount of water that is lost each year due to evaporation and inefficient infrastructure. The plan attempts to correct an accounting problem. Each year, some water users in Nevada, Arizona and California are legally entitled to water in Lake Mead that does not physically exist, because it evaporates off of the reservoir’s surface before it ever has a chance to flow downstream. The total amount of evaporated water varies each year depending on reservoir levels and weather. Accounting for that quantity of lost water could get the basin’s users closer to the needed conservation to slow the decline of water levels at Lake Mead. Without changes, federal scientists say the reservoir will continue dropping towards “minimum power pool,” the level at which hydropower generation within the Hoover Dam becomes impossible, and “deadpool,” the level at which water is too low to flow through the dam at all…
California released details of its own proposal to Reclamation late Tuesday. The state suggested the adoption of a water-saving plan it first outlined last October. Under that plan, the state would voluntarily cut back on its water use from the Colorado River use by 400,000 acre-feet – about 9% of its total annual use – each year until 2026. In a press release, the state’s Colorado River board wrote that its proposal would reduce water use while “protecting infrastructure, prioritizing public health and safety, and upholding the existing body of laws, compacts, decrees, and agreements that govern Colorado River operations.” California’s proposal emphasizes the state’s desire to follow existing legal structures for river management, and says further steps could be taken if water levels at Lake Mead dip below 1,000 feet above sea level.
“Think of the Colorado River Basin as a slow-motion disaster,” said Kevin Moran, who directs state and federal water policy advocacy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re really at a moment of reckoning.”
Negotiators say the odds of a voluntary agreement appear slim. It would be the second time in six months that the Colorado River states, which also include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, have missed a deadline for consensus on cuts sought by the Biden administration to avoid a catastrophic failure of the river system. Without a deal, the Interior Department, which manages flows on the river, must impose the cuts. That would break from the century-long tradition of states determining how to share the river’s water. And it would all but ensure that the administration’s increasingly urgent efforts to save the Colorado get caught up in lengthy legal challenges. The crisis over the Colorado River is the latest example of how climate change is overwhelming the foundations of American life — not only physical infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, but also the legal underpinnings that have made those systems work.
A century’s worth of laws, which assign different priorities to Colorado River users based on how long they’ve used the water, is facing off against a competing philosophy that says, as the climate changes, water cuts should be apportioned based on what’s practical. The outcome of that dispute will shape the future of the southwestern United States.
“We’re using more water than nature is going to provide,” said Eric Kuhn, who worked on previous water agreements as general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Someone is going to have to cut back very significantly.”
The rules that determine who gets water from the Colorado River, and how much, were always based, to a degree, on magical thinking…But the premise that the river’s flow would average 17.5 million acre-feet each year turned out to be faulty. Over the past century, the river’s actual flow has averaged less than 15 million acre-feet each year. For decades, that gap was obscured by the fact that some of the river’s users, including Arizona and some Native American tribes, lacked the canals and other infrastructure to employ their full allotment. But as that infrastructure increased, so did the demand on the river. Then, the drought hit. From 2000 through 2022, the river’s annual flow averaged just over 12 million acre-feet; in each of the past three years, the total flow was less than 10 million.
Today, the water stored behind them is so diminished that the federal government has warned of “system collapse.” The two reservoirs are dangerously close to dead pool, the point at which the water level sinks below the dams’ intakes. At risk are the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River water supply and a substantial share of the U.S. agricultural economy, not to mention the hundreds of bird species and every other living thing that depends on the basin’s rivers as habitat.
How did this happen? The river is legally overallocated, the basin is experiencing extended drought conditions, and climate warming is exacerbating the drought. Perhaps most significantly, consumptive water uses in the past 20 years have exceeded supply. Rather than reducing water uses a little bit year over year, those who control the river (water users, state and federal agencies) largely sustained consumptive uses by draining those reservoirs. Now that they are nearly emptied, that strategy won’t work anymore, and the region is in for a rough transition.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has initiated a process to substantially reduce water releases from Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams as soon as next year (see “Notice of Intent to Prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the December 2007 Record of Decision Entitled Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations For Lake Powell and Lake Mead” as published in Federal Register Notice – 87 FR 69042 on November 17, 2022). This will allow Reclamation to change Colorado River operations in the near-term without having to enact “emergency measures” (read: not subject to environmental review) as they did in 2022. This is taking place at the same time that Reclamation is working with stakeholders on a longer-term process to revise Colorado River operating rules post-2026.
In response to Reclamation’s most recent request for public comment regarding near-term changes to Colorado River operations, Audubon submitted a letter asking for considerations for birds and other living things that depend on the river. We expect to comment again once Reclamation issues a draft plan, likely in March.