Grand County rancher Paul Bruchez stands in a hay field near Kremmling, holding a small tuft of hay between his fingertips, twirling it back and forth, seeing how quickly it disintegrates after a summer without water.
The plant, known as timothy, is native to Colorado and feeds thousands of cattle here in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
This hay species and others are being closely watched this year as part of a far-reaching $1 million science experiment, one designed to see if ranchers can take water off of hay fields and successfully measure how much was removed, how much evaporated, and how much was used by plants. They also need to know how reducing their irrigation in this fashion affects the nutritional value of the hay.
If certain hay species retain more nutrients than others when they’re on low-water diets, then ranchers know their cattle will continue to eat well as they evaluate whether they can operate their ranches on less H20—not all the time, but perhaps every other year or every two to three years.
“We’ve spent centuries learning how to irrigate these lands,” Bruchez said. “Now we’re learning what it’s like not to irrigate them.”
Any water saved could be left in the Colorado River, allowing it to become more sustainable, even as the West’s population grows and drought cycles become more intense.
While similar small-scale experiments on five or 10 acres have been done before, this one by comparison is vast in scale, involving 1,200 acres of high-altitude hay meadows, nine ranch families, a team of researchers spread across Colorado, Utah and Nevada, and the backing of powerful water groups, farm interests, and environmentalists.
“We’ve never had a project this large in the state of Colorado,” said Perry Cabot, a Colorado State University researcher who is the lead scientist on the project.
The undertaking is sponsored by the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, whose members include Bruchez.
“We set out on a mission to ensure we have as much science and data as possible,” Bruchez said.
The data being collected serves several needs. It should help ranch families see if they can afford to participate in these modern-era conservation efforts.
It will allow researchers to better understand what works on the ground and what to do, for instance, when rambunctious bulls destroy research equipment enclosures 25 miles from the nearest town.
And it will give policy makers insight into the political problems that will have to be solved, as well as how much money could need to be raised, to make large-scale conservation on the Colorado River feasible.
The $1 million, three-year project is being funded by the state and several environmental groups, with the money being used to pay researchers, buy equipment, and compensate ranch families who temporarily fallow their fields.
Water for Powell?
Agriculture uses some 80 percent of the water in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, and hay meadows that grow feed for cattle are among the basin’s largest water users.
Last year, under an historic drought agreement on the Colorado River, a new specially protected drought pool in Lake Powell was authorized.
Now Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, the four states that comprise the Colorado River’s Upper Basin, above Lake Powell, are studying whether they can or should help save enough water to fill that drought pool. The pool, authorized at 500,000 acre-feet, is intended as further insurance that the Upper Basin won’t be forced to involuntarily reduce water use from the river under the terms of the Colorado River Compact.
Colorado expects it would need to provide roughly half the water for the drought pool, and, led by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, is working out difficult questions about how that water would be saved and ushered downstream to Lake Powell under a possible voluntary program known as demand management. The research being done near Kremmling will help answer several critical questions.
Wendy Thompson is a rancher who also serves as the research technician for the pilot program, cutting hay samples and gathering soil moisture and precipitation data, among dozens of other tasks. She has driven hundreds of miles across Grand County this summer, checking each of the program’s 24 research sites every week or so, lugging an aging laptop from one meadow to the next.
She knows better than most that ranch families will need real information, such as how fallowing affects crop yields and soil health and production costs, in order to make decisions about whether to join in a voluntary multi-state conservation effort or to back away.
Intuition vs. facts
“The experiment is important to us,” Thompson said. “We want to make decisions based on the science and the data, not a gut feeling.”
Much of the work is grueling, like cutting hay samples week after week, and low tech, like measuring water levels in rain gauges.
But dramatic advances in satellite imagery and global evapotranspiration databases are helping people like Perry Cabot create science-based templates that eventually will be useful not just in Colorado, but Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and perhaps even farther downstream, on cotton fields in Arizona and avocado groves in California’s Central Valley.
“We now have the ability to measure the whole field,” Cabot said. “It’s becoming more accurate and it’s tremendously convenient if you’re trying to get a good understanding of patterns. We don’t have to rely on one data point anymore.” [Editor’s note: Cabot sits on the board of Water Education Colorado, which is a sponsor of Fresh Water News.]
That this particular team has agronomists, economists and environmentalists pitching in with their expertise is also helping move the science forward.
“What makes this different is the scale and the depth of the questions we’re asking,” said Aaron Derwingson, an agricultural water specialist with The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program, which is helping to fund the project.
“When we’re done it will be relevant to more people than just the ranchers. We will be able to extrapolate these field conditions and what it means for water savings and the recovery of different species,” he said.
“It’s tough to figure all that out on paper. Here we’re getting down to brass tacks,” Derwingson said.
With irrigation season over, Cabot and his team have serious number crunching to do before they begin monitoring next year, measuring how the hay fields survived their fallowed season, how quickly they return to health, and precisely how much water was conserved.
Early estimates indicate that the ranchers may have saved 1,500 acre-feet to as many as 2,500 acre-feet of water this year. If this process can be replicated, scientists and ranchers could begin to see how long it might take to fill the 500,000 acre-foot drought pool at Lake Powell.
No collateral damage
But even more important to Bruchez and state policy makers is the impact the pilot is having on a highly skeptical ranching community, some of whom are deeply worried that they will lose control of their water.
“We wanted a project that would be as smooth as possible,” Bruchez said. “We wanted to simplify it and ensure there weren’t unintended damages to neighbors who weren’t participating.
“Some people were comfortable about what we were doing and others had great fears,” he said. “We just had to keep telling them, ‘We are not delivering water to Lake Powell. We are trying to fill data gaps.’”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
With another drought year draining the Colorado River system, a new economic study suggests that a wide-scale water conservation program in Colorado to reduce stress on the river could cost more than $120 million, depending on the amount of water saved for use in the program.
The study examined how much money it would take to adequately compensate ranchers and farmers who agree to temporarily remove water from Colorado’s West Slope hay meadows and corn fields using a practice known as fallowing. It also looked at how such a conservation program would affect the farm economy and the communities and workers who rely on it for jobs.
“Potentially the program could be beneficial to the participants,” said BBC Managing Director Douglas Jeavens, a principal with BBC Consulting, which conducted the work. “The payments have to be large enough to offset any losses,” he said.
The water saved would go into a special drought pool in Lake Powell. The pool is envisioned as a way for Colorado and other states in the Colorado River Basin’s Upper Basin—Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico—to further protect their ability to use the river’s water even as Lake Powell continues to shrink.
Kathleen Curry, a former lawmaker and rancher in the Gunnison River Basin, said the analysis covered all the variables at play.
“I thought they did a good job,” she said. “The numbers they came up with are reasonable.”
The study looked at two different scenarios. Under a moderate scenario it examined the impact of fallowing 25,000 acres of West Slope land annually over five years, and an aggressive scenario under which 100,000 acres of land would be fallowed for the same period of time.
The study, released Sept. 25, was sponsored by the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission. It adds important new detail to a statewide discussion about whether Colorado should participate in the drought pool.
Since the state began studying the pool’s feasibility in 2019, West Slope ranchers have said repeatedly that they can’t make a decision about whether to participate if they don’t know how much money they would be paid and how such a program would affect the local economy.
The study provides some preliminary answers.
Across the Yampa, Colorado, Gunnison and Dolores river basins, under the moderate scenario, ranchers would see a net benefit of nearly $9 million, while under the aggressive scenario, the net benefit would rise to $36 million over a five-year period. The water in the study was priced in a range starting at $194 an acre-foot and rising to $263 an acre-foot.
Individual ranchers who agree to fallow 100 acres of land could see an annual benefit, after expenses, of more than $50,000 under at least two scenarios, according to BBC’s analysis.
In modeling changes to the economy, the study found that 55 jobs would be lost under the moderate scenario, while 236 jobs would be lost under the aggressive scenario.
It also found that hay prices would rise 6 percent as supplies tighten and livestock populations would shrink by 2 percent.
Another key concern for ranchers and others is whether taking water off the fields could harm other water users on the river farther downstream.
“This is a critical issue,” said Jeavens. “But we think looking ahead we could design a program that either reduces or eliminates that risk.”
The pool would be filled with 500,000 acre-feet of water, roughly half of which would likely come from Colorado, should it, along with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, agree that filling the drought pool is doable.
Under a broader statewide study also underway, ranchers and cities would be asked to voluntarily set aside water for the drought pool and would be paid for whatever water they contributed to the program.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is conducting the statewide feasibility analysis, declined to comment on the West Slope economic study.
Whether Colorado’s Front Range will embark on a similar study focusing on its contributions to the conservation program isn’t clear yet.
Previously Front Range cities have said they would be willing to contribute whatever water and/or cash is necessary to fill the drought pool in a way that is fair to cities and agricultural producers, as well as to different regions of the state.
The Colorado River, which starts high in Rocky Mountain National Park, supplies roughly half of the drinking water on the Front Range and is also used to irrigate millions of acres of hay meadows, corn fields and other crops on both the West Slope and Eastern Plains.
But if the drought-stressed river continues its decline, it could feasibly trigger involuntary cutbacks under the Colorado River Compact for the Upper Basin states, affecting both Colorado’s West Slope and Front Range.
Though such a scenario is still considered unlikely, policy makers and others want to see Colorado develop some kind of insurance against such a catastrophic event.
Who would pay for the conservation program remains to be decided. Some have suggested that thirsty state’s in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin—California, Nevada and Arizona—ante up any needed cash. Others believe that a new set of fees or taxes could fund the ambitious effort.
Don Schwindt, a rancher who sits on the board of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, said the study is a good step forward, but he wants more detailed analyses.
“These numbers are as good as any that have been generated. But the simple answer right now is that this is not enough money to generate the water. For my operation, I have to have a higher dollar than those averages or I am going to go broke.
“We’ve moved forward,” he said, “but we don’t have anything we can take to the bank yet.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Here’s a guest column from Hannah Holm that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
Lately, I’ve been savoring clear skies like never before. My appreciation was magnified by days of feeling trapped in the smoke from California fires, even as our own Pine Gulch Fire calmed down. Meanwhile, friends and family in Washington and Oregon are choking on airborne soup thicker than anything we’ve had to deal with this summer.
I feel vaguely guilty that the same weather system that finally brought us rain, cooler temperatures and clear air earlier this month also fanned the heartbreakingly destructive flames farther west. We share the air, and that gives us in western Colorado a direct, tangible connection to the fate of West Coast forests and fires.
Water connects us, too, even if the connections aren’t as immediate and visible as wildfire smoke. Most of the water that flows into the Colorado River comes from Colorado’s mountains, so a bad snow year (or decade, or two) for us means less water for the 40ish million people that depend on the river, from Denver to Phoenix, Los Angeles and Mexico. Likewise, more snow in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and the eastern side of the Rockies reduces the draw on the river by giving Los Angeles and Denver more source water closer to home. Conservation actions in those cities benefit the river, and the whole river community, for the same reason.
Downstream conditions affect the headwaters in other ways, too, as desiccated, beat-up rangeland in the Four Corners area sends dust to the mountains that melts the snowpack earlier and reduces the amount of water that runs off into our streams.
Food also connects us, and food is very directly connected to water. If you like to eat salad in January, you need to keep water flowing to the Southern California farms that produce it.
To bring us back to where we started, fire and water are also connected, just as both fire and water connect far-flung communities. When the Pine Gulch Fire was at its most active, incident managers reported that the moisture content of the vegetation in the fire area was less than what you would typically find in a (perfectly flammable) piece of paper. That was a direct consequence of the same high temperatures and precipitation deficit that have diminished our streamflows and runoff into Lake Powell. Post-fire, we can expect ash and naked soil to run off into waterways, fouling fish habitat and drinking water intakes.
All of these connections are important to keep in mind as the states that share the Colorado River prepare to embark on a new round of negotiations over how to manage it. Representatives from all the states will face pressure to focus narrowly on enabling local water users to secure access to as much of the shrinking river as they can. That’s fair enough — no one wants to diminish their own future just to be the nice guy. But over the long term, it will help all of us to pursue actions that benefit the Colorado River system as a whole. That includes reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the atmosphere and intensifying both drought and wildfire.
Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Support for Hutchins Water Center articles is provided by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Learn more about the center at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The secondary economic impacts of paying western Colorado farmers to temporarily fallow fields in times of drought could be similar to the secondary benefits resulting from the spending of those payments, a new study has found.
But BBC Research and Consulting says the dollars from payment spending would flow to different businesses, potentially shifting from smaller, agriculturally focused communities to larger towns and cities.
In addition, the payments would only benefit the regional economy if they come from outside western Colorado, because payments originating on the Western Slope would only result in shifting money around within the region as opposed to creating a new economic benefit, the study says.
The research was commissioned by the Colorado River Water Bank Workgroup, which consists of the Colorado River District, the Southwestern Water Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.
It’s intended to help gauge the impact on local agricultural economies should Western Slope farmers participate in voluntary, temporary, compensated fallowing as part of a demand management program involving Upper Colorado River Basin states including Colorado.
Such a program is being considered as a means for the states to be able to store extra water in Lake Powell so they can continue meeting their water delivery obligations to downstream states in times of drought, and head off potential mandatory curtailment of water uses under an interstate compact…
The study looks at fallowing grass hay, alfalfa and corn. It estimates that regionally it would cost an average of $236 per acre-foot of water involved, or about $470 per fallowed acre, to get farmers to participate. It says producers also may require payments covering direct fallowing costs, such as weed and pest control, and payments also may have to be made to irrigation companies for lost revenues and added management costs.
The study evaluates a moderate, 12,700-acre hypothetical fallowing program involving 25,000 acre-feet of water a year for five years across western Colorado, and a more aggressive, 52,100-acre program that would involve 25,000 acre-feet a year for five years within each of four major Western Slope river basins.
The study finds that the moderate approach would result in a minimum of a $5.7 million annual reduction in crop production, and the aggressive approach, at least a $23.2 million reduction.
Those reductions would result in an estimated loss of at least 64 or 260 on-farm jobs, respectively, although most of those would involve the farmers themselves who are being compensated.
The study estimates that when comparing that compensation to their lost farm income, farmers collectively would come out at least $2.2 million ahead each year in the moderate scenario and $8.6 million ahead in the aggressive approach.
The bigger focus of the study is what secondary effects would result from the fallowing due to impacts on businesses such as farm and ranch suppliers, and businesses providing household goods and services to affected workers.
In the moderate scenario, the study estimates at least 55 secondary jobs would be lost to reduced crop production, while there would be an increase of at least 27 jobs resulting from spending of fallowing payments.
Under the aggressive scenario, at least 236 secondary jobs could be lost from reduced production, compared to at least 109 new jobs being supported related to payment spending.
But the study says there could be a net annual gain of $546,000 in secondary income from the fallowing under the moderate scenario, and $2.4 million under the aggressive one.
Doug Jeavons, managing director at BBC Research and Consulting, said that despite the net job loss, the new jobs that would be created could tend to be in banking and finance, and those could pay more than the lost farm-related jobs.
The fallowing would mean fewer sales of seed, fertilizer, hauling services and labor, but could boost spending in areas such as purchase of vehicles and farm machinery, with some of the fallowing payments also being used for household consumption and reducing debt…
The study also says annual net secondary income also could fall with fallowing, by as much as $393,000 under the moderate scenario and as much as about $1.46 million under the aggressive one.
This could happen if farmers spend less of their fallowing money locally. It also accounts for the possibility that reduced forage production from fallowing could affect the livestock industry, driving up hay prices and causing ranchers to reduce herd sizes.
It says that based on what has been historically seen when it comes to hay production declines in the region, the moderate fallowing approach could result in just over a 0.5% drop in livestock production and a $3 million drop in annual livestock sales, and the aggressive approach, a possible 2.2% production drop and $13.4 million annual revenue loss.
The Colorado River District said in its news release that its board hasn’t weighed whether a fallowing program is good for the Western Slope, but is gathering data through efforts such as the study to determine if it would have negative impacts, and if so, at what scale.
It also said if a demand management program is created in Colorado, Western Slope agriculture would only be part of the solution and Colorado River users in all parts of the state must contribute water to the program. This would include Front Range cities that divert that water across the Continental Divide…
Speaking on a river district webinar Thursday on the study, Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, said any Western Slope fallowing program won’t be one-size-fits-all, and would have to be structured to address local concerns such as soil impacts…
One concern in her district is that parts of it may have such shallow soils that they could take three to five years to recover from fallowing.
Another consideration is that some western Colorado basins export substantial amounts of hay to other states, and even other countries.
If fallowing primarily reduced exports, effects on local livestock production might be minimal.
But BBC Research and Consulting’s report notes that hay exporters may be resistant to jeopardize customer relationships by fallowing fields…
BBC Research and Consulting says measures such as split-season versus full-season fallowing could reduce economic impacts from fallowing, and ensuring that participation is spread widely across and within various river basins could spread out the impacts.
Chavez likes the general idea of widely distributing fallowing, but says that could increase costs for monitoring such a program, evaluating results and ensuring that conserved water makes it downstream to be stored rather than being used elsewhere.
The state cited as a reason the 14,000 public comments submitted in response to a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) released in June.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was supposed to have the final EIS out by November, with a final decision in January, but that ambitious time frame is expected to be pushed back while a “supplemental” analysis is conducted, according to Todd Adams, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
“The extension will allow more time to consider the comments and complete further analysis, which will contribute to a more comprehensive draft and final EIS,” he said. “When you think about the sheer volume of comments, it’s going to take some time.”
Among those comments was a bombshell request by the six other states that rely on the Colorado River for water to refrain from completing the EIS until the states work out their differences regarding the legality of diverting the water across major drainages…
“The Bureau [of Reclamation] comes out with a draft that says, ‘We [in Washington County] need another source of water,’ but they don’t say why. The EIS failed to consider a water conservation alternative,” said Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council
Frankel and other pipeline critics speculated that commenters or higher-ups in the Interior Department had identified “fatal flaws” in the draft study that could render the pipeline’s approval vulnerable to legal challenges that are sure to follow.
“The delay of the environmental review affirms that Nevada and the other Colorado River Basin States are having an impact in this process against Utah,” said Tick Segerblom, who represents Las Vegas suburbs on the Clark County Commission. “With climate change and drought threatening us every day, we must be vigilant until the end. We cannot let our water supply be sucked away for golf courses and green lawns in southern Utah.”
From email from the Colorado River District (Alesha Frederick):
Study found demand management could result in fewer agricultural support jobs and reduce livestock production on the West Slope
The Colorado River Basin is in the 21st year of drought, and major reservoirs on the river are sitting at less than half full. There is growing concern that agricultural economies on the West Slope might be harmed if Colorado and other Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) are unable to meet their obligations under the Colorado River Compact. With these concerns in mind, the state of Colorado is looking at ways to prevent such a crisis from occurring. One of the ideas Upper Basin states are discussing is paying water users to consume less water. The water saved would then be banked in Lake Powell. The states are calling it demand management.
The question is, if farmers and ranchers are paid to voluntarily fallow their fields, how would it change West Slope communities where agricultural businesses employ people, pay taxes and buy equipment? The recently released Upper Basin Demand Management Economic Study in Western Colorado sought to determine the secondary economic impacts that might occur if West Slope agricultural producers participate in a demand management program.
Consistent with its charge to represent and protect the Western Slope’s water interests, the Colorado River District has been actively engaged in statewide conversations about a potential Demand Management program. Through its participation in the Water Bank Workgroup, the District led the call for additional economic analysis that would help to inform the state’s decision whether or not to move forward with such a program.
“Our job is to protect West Slope water users. Studying the potential negative impacts of a new program such as demand management is vital to this work,” said Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller. “This secondary economic impact study ensures that agricultural producers on the West Slope have the information they need to make decisions about their farms and ranches. It’s part of the River District’s ongoing efforts to ensure water security for our farms, ranches, and rural communities.”
The Colorado River District’s Board of Directors has not weighed in on whether such a program is good for the West Slope. However, the Board is gathering data from efforts like this study to determine if such a program will have negative impacts, and if so, what the scale of those impacts is likely to be.
While the study examined the impacts of fallowing West Slope agriculture if a demand management program is created in Colorado, Western Colorado agriculture will only be one piece of the solution. If such a program is implemented, all types of Colorado River water users in all regions of the state must contribute water to the program. This study is not an endorsement of demand management but a study of its potential impacts.
The study examined two scenarios, a moderate and aggressive demand management program. The moderate demand management scenario considered a 25,000 acre-feet per year reduction in consumptive use by Western Colorado agricultural users for five years, while the aggressive scenario considered 25,000 acre-feet per year within each Western Slope river basin over a 5-year timeframe.
These are some of the key findings of the study:
* To pay producers at a level that they would incentivize participation in such a program, annual payments to irrigators are projected to range from an average of $194 per acre-foot under the moderate scenario to $263 per acre-foot under the aggressive scenario.
* For compensation payments and spending of those payments to benefit the regional economy, funding for those payments must come from outside of Western Colorado. If all that money was raised in Western Colorado, the payments would shift money around within the region, but it would not create a new economic benefit to offset the impacts.
* Growers producing forage crops including grass hay, alfalfa and corn are most likely to take part in such a program compared to fruit growers and small grain producers.
* Reduced production of forage crops, mostly hay, would require fewer purchases of items such as seed, fertilizer, labor, hauling and other services. This in turn could lead to a loss of an estimated 55 agricultural support jobs under a moderate scenario and 236 jobs under the aggressive scenario. Jobs supported by demand management payments could look very different from the jobs currently supported by hay production.
* Under an aggressive demand management scenario, a demand management program could increase local hay prices by about 6% and decrease the regional livestock inventory by about 2%. The potential price and livestock impact under the moderate demand management scenario would be much smaller.
The study was completed by BBC Research and Consulting and commissioned by the Colorado River Water Bank Workgroup made up of the Colorado River District, Southwestern Water Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.
Here’s the release from Aurora Water (Greg Baker):
Reservoir release being made in cooperation with State Engineers Office
Beginning Wednesday, September 23, 2020, the Homestake Partners, which is comprised of Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities, will make a one-time release of approximately 1,800 acre feet of water from Homestake Reservoir in Eagle County. The objective of this reservoir release is to determine the effectiveness of current administrative practices in shepherding released water from Homestake Reservoir, located south of Minturn, CO, downstream to the Colorado State Line.
This pilot project was developed by the Front Range Water Council and utilizes water contributed by Aurora Water and Colorado Springs Utilities, as well as by the Pueblo Board of Water Works. This water will be released from Homestake Reservoir into Homestake Creek, which is tributary to the Eagle River and the Colorado River.
The pilot release protocols were developed cooperatively with the Colorado State Engineer’s Office, with the release expected to provide the State and Division Engineers, as well as water users on the West Slope and East Slope, with valuable information related to compliance with the Colorado River Compact and the Upper Colorado River Compact. The project will test important aspects of administration practice. It will also provide data on hydrologic influences that would affect the timing and amount of the arrival of the released water at the state line.
“For municipalities that rely either wholly or partially on the Colorado River for their drinking water, it’s critical to understand all of the potential aspects a compact curtailment could have on our supplies,” said Pat Wells, General Manager for Water Resources and Demand Management for Colorado Springs Utilities. “Gathering this data before we get to that point will help us all plan for the future.”
As the water is released into Homestake Creek and travels downstream to the Eagle River and the Colorado River, the State Division of Water Resources will “shepherd” or facilitate the released water to the state line. The release of 1,800 AF represents contributions of 600 AF each by Colorado Springs Utilities, Pueblo Board of Water Works, and Aurora Water. This will not put any of the entities’ storage at risk; for example, 600 AF represents less than 0.3% of current system-wide storage in Colorado Springs Utilities’ raw water system and less than 0.4% of Aurora’s storage.
“The timing is perfect for this sort of investigation,” stated Alexandra Davis, Deputy Director for Water Resources for Aurora Water “Our reservoirs are well positioned at this time, even with the current drought conditions, and the lower flows in the rivers mean we will generate valuable information regarding protocols and practices currently in place for releasing stored water.”
The release is scheduled to occur Sept 23 – Sept. 30 and will produce flows of less than 175 cfs (cubic feet/second). These flows are higher than normal for this time of year in Homestake Creek and Eagle River, but within normal spring/summer runoff levels. There is no inundation concern for property adjacent to the tributaries.
The project also has the support by Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates.
“We are pleased these Front Range communities are taking a proactive step to address questions about conserving municipal water and shepherding saved water downstream,” Laura Belanger, senior water resources engineer and policy advisor with Western Resource Advocates said. ”This test release will help us understand potential benefits for water security and streams and demonstrates that all Colorado communities have an important role to play in ensuring a sustainable water future for Colorado.”
For the West this summer, the news about water was grim. In some parts of California, it didn’t rain for over 100 days. In western Colorado, the ground was so dry that runoff at first evaporated into the air. And in New Mexico and Nevada, the rains never came.
Bill Hasencamp is the manager of California’s Metropolitan Water District, which provides treated water to 19 million people. What was most unfortunate, he said, was that, “the upper Colorado Basin had a 100 percent snowpack, yet runoff was only 54 percent of normal.” In 2018, a variation happened – light snow and little runoff, which doesn’t bode well for the future.
What everyone wants to know, though, is who loses most if severe drought becomes the norm…
What makes the Western Slope of Colorado most vulnerable to drought is a pact among seven states signed in 1922. It bound the states to give priority in a water crisis to the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada, potentially leaving the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming high and dry.
A crisis could be approaching. The two giant reservoirs on the Colorado River are both below 50 percent of capacity. If drought causes even more drastic drops, the Bureau of Reclamation could step in to prioritize the making of electricity by the hydro plants at lakes Mead and Powell. No one knows what BuRec would do, but it would call the shots and end current arrangements.
Before that happened, California could “call” for the water it is owed — 4.4 million acre-feet annually. In that case, Wockner said, ranches and farms would be forced to go dry before city residents suffered.
For now, California has avoided flexing its muscle to get its fair share of the Colorado River. To stop the Colorado River’s reservoirs from dropping to “dead pool” where power generation fails, California acts as if serious drought never ended. Since 2000, when the punishing drought began, California has cut annual water consumption by 30 percent, using both carrot and stick.
California charges the highest water rates in the West and also pays for efficiency. Under a program called Cash for Grass, “A good size lawn removal can net a homeowner $30,000,” said Rebecca Kimitch, who works for the Metropolitan Water District.
The state also invests in smarter irrigation, piping leaky ditches in the Imperial Valley, the Colorado River’s biggest irrigator. And it invests in desalinization plants and reuses some of its water via a program that was first derided as “toilet-to-tap.” More recently, statewide laws restrict personal daily consumption to a measly 55 gallons, declining to 50 gallons by 2030.
As for the Upper Basin, states continue to push not for water conservation but for more dams and reservoirs that would drain water from the basin, such as the proposed St. George, Utah, Diversion from Lake Powell. John Fleck, Director of the water resources program at the University of New Mexico said, “it’s not a binary question of: Is there enough water? The way we need to think is that the system is at risk, and every time you take more water you create risks for existing users.”
Meanwhile, California is king of the Colorado River and wants you to know it.
“We’ll never give up that right – our first priority among all Colorado River water users — and never say we’ll give up that right,” Hassencamp told me. “ That’s our fallback position, though we’ll set it aside for now and try to work out a solution.”
For Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, this is a clear warning. As Hassencamp put it: “We recognize the pie is shrinking for good.”
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range (writersontherange.org), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.
Risk of severe water shortages in the seven-state Colorado River Basin have risen dramatically since April with new forecasts indicating that lakes Powell and Mead could hit crisis levels much sooner than previously expected.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said the change in the forecast is noteworthy.
“We’re dealing with more uncertainty than we thought,” she said during a virtual press conference Tuesday.
The Bureau of Reclamation is responsible for managing the two storage vessels and monitoring the mountain snowpack and runoff that feeds them every year.
As recently as April, when the last forecast came out, inflows to Lake Powell were projected to be roughly 75 percent of average this year. The latest report, however, indicates inflows will be just 55 percent of average.
In just five months, the risk that reservoir levels could fall low enough by 2025 to threaten power generation and the ability to release physical water to downstream users has risen 12 percent, according to Reclamation.
Carly Jerla, a hydrologist and water modeling expert, runs the modeling team for Reclamation’s Lower Basin operations.
The 21-year stretch of drought in the Colorado River Basin has made the system extremely vulnerable to changes in weather patterns, Jerla said.
“In this system, one year of poor hydrology can influence the ways these reservoirs are impacted for multiple years into the future,” she said.
Reclamation officials stopped short of saying how states should respond to the dire water supply predictions.
Seven U.S. states share water from the Colorado River Basin. These include Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah in the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin. Mexico also relies on the river’s flows.
The two regions in the U.S. are governed separately, with the Upper Basin states overseen by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the Lower Basin overseen by the Bureau of Reclamation.
The river is a major source of water in Colorado, where it supplies roughly half of the drinking water on the Front Range and irrigation water for ranches, fruit orchards and corn fields on the Western Slope and Eastern Plains.
Brad Wind is general manager of Northern Water. It serves cities and farms from Boulder to Greeley and is one of the largest water providers in the state. Wind said the rising risk levels aren’t that surprising.
But, he said, to help the drought-stressed system regain some semblance of balance will require much more work. “We can’t walk away from this.”
Last year, for the first time in history, the seven states agreed to adopt a basin-wide Drought Contingency Plan. The Lower Basin component of that plan is now complete and requires cutbacks in water use as levels in the reservoirs fall and reach certain elevations. Arizona has already had to cut back its water use in 2020 as a result of the agreement, and Mead’s levels have risen as a result of these actions and other conservation programs. Now at 44 percent full, the reservoir is the highest it’s been in six years, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
But the Upper Basin, though it has agreed to big-picture elements of an Upper Basin plan, has more work to do to define how a major piece of that plan involving large-scale water conservation, called demand management, would work.
Rebecca Mitchell is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the agency managing the demand management study process in Colorado. She also serves on the Upper Colorado River Commission, representing Colorado. In a written statement, she said the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan has provided additional security for the system and that the study will move forward even as conditions on the river worsen.
“Colorado will continue to track the hydrologic conditions, and work collaboratively with the other basin states,” she wrote.
With the new forecast, however, pressure to cut back water use is rising.
Since 2000, lakes Powell and Mead have lost nearly half of their stored water supplies. Back then the system was nearly full, at 94 percent, according to Reclamation. This year the two reservoirs are collectively projected to end what’s known as the water year, on Sept. 30, at just 53 of capacity.
Climate change and warmer temperatures continue to rob the river of its flows. In fact, water flowing into Lake Powell during that 20-year period was above average just four out of the past 19 years, according to Reclamation.
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.
Hoover Dam, straddling the border between Nevada and Arizona, holds back the waters of the Colorado River in Lake Mead. In 2016, Lake Mead declined to its lowest level since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s. Source: Bureau of Reclamation
Seen from the air, Glen Canyon Dam holds back the Colorado River to form Lake Powell. The state of Colorado is looking into how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
FromThe Associated Press (Sam Metz) via The Durango Herald:
After a relatively dry summer, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released models this week suggesting looming shortages in Lake Powell and Lake Mead – the reservoirs where Colorado River water is stored – are more likely than previously projected.
Compared with an average year, only 55% of Colorado River water is flowing from the Rocky Mountains down to Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona line. Because of the below-average runoff, government scientists say the reservoirs are 12% more likely to fall to critically low levels by 2025 than they projected in the spring.
“This is a pretty significant increase over what was projected in April due to the declining runoff this year,” hydrologist Carly Jerla said.
The forecast could complicate already-fraught negotiations between Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico over future shares of the river that supply their cities and farms. Those talks will draw up new agreements by 2026 about use of the river that’s under siege from climate change and prolonged drought.
Some urban and agricultural water users have been forced to conserve water to secure the river long term, but it remains overtapped. And as cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas keep growing, the region is only getting thirstier.
“We know that warmer temperatures have contributed to the drought of the last 21 years, and we know that they have exacerbated it,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said.
Unlike the 24-month projections that the agency uses to allocate water to the seven states and Mexico, the models released Tuesday simulate various weather and usage patterns to help water users prepare for different scenarios.
Scientists use what’s called the Colorado River Simulation System to project future levels of the two reservoirs. They employed “stress testing” techniques based on river flows since 1988 to determine potential shortages if drought conditions persist.
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico agreed to cuts for the first time under a drought contingency plan signed last year. The water level in Lake Mead sits at 1,083 feet. When projections drop below 1,075 feet, Nevada and Arizona will face deeper cuts mandated by the plan.
Stress test models suggest a 32% chance Lake Mead will fall below 1,075 feet by 2022 and a 77% chance by 2025. The model’s median estimates indicate Lake Mead will drop by 35 feet by 2026.
The water level in Lake Powell is at 3,598 feet, and estimates suggest it could drop by 50 feet by 2026.
Click here to register and for all the inside skinny:
Topic: Colorado River District’s Annual Seminar: Zooming in on West Slope Water
Monday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “West Slope Water 101.” This session will cover how water rights are deployed in irrigation, drinking water and recreation. Transmountain diversions will be described as will be the importance of water rights associated with irrigation in the Grand Valley and the Shoshone Hydropower Plant.
Tuesday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “Water Works: the Colorado River District in Action.” Learn how the Colorado River District overcomes challenges with its partners and constituents to protect the water security of western Colorado while promoting better water use and protection of the environment with projects across the district.
Wednesday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “Heating Up the Talk About Why River Flows are Down.” Rising temperatures are robbing the Colorado River system of flows. Drought, aridification of the West and reduced river flows are driving down Lakes Powell and Mead while impacting local water use at the same time. A panel of speakers will review the current science, the on-the-ground impacts and how two major water providers are planning for a new normal
Thursday, noon to 1:15 p.m.: “Of Primary Importance: The Secondary Economic Impacts of Demand Management.” The River District and its partners in the Water Bank Workgroup commissioned a study of how demand management of water, meaning not using it and sending it to Lake Powell, would impact communities if water were to become a “cash crop.” Spending patterns could change. How would demand management impact our mainstreet economies? How would it change spending at rural businesses such as local diners and mechanics?
From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
Western water in-depth: Major science report that highlights scientific shortcomings and opportunities in the basin could aid water managers as they rewrite river’s operating rules
Practically every drop of water that flows through the meadows, canyons and plains of the Colorado River Basin has reams of science attached to it. Snowpack, streamflow and tree ring data all influence the crucial decisions that guide water management of the iconic Western river every day.
Dizzying in its scope, detail and complexity, the scientific information on the Basin’s climate and hydrology has been largely scattered in hundreds of studies and reports. Some studies may conflict with others, or at least appear to. That’s problematic for a river that’s a lifeline for 40 million people and more than 4 million acres of irrigated farmland.
From the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah to the urban centers of Arizona, Nevada and California in the Lower Basin, water managers depend on that science to guide their decisions. More than ever, as those managers grapple with a hotter, drier Colorado River Basin and growing demand for a shrinking resource, they need an accessible scientific handbook as they get ready to draft a new set of rules for managing the river.
A new report synthesizes that science and puts it into context. Titled Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science, the report released earlier this year draws from about 800 peer-reviewed studies and agency reports on crucial topics – weather, streamflow, historical hydrology and climate change – to help navigate the future of river management. It doesn’t provide answers but offers a technical manual of sorts for a river system so vital to the Southwestern United States and Mexico.
“It’s attempting to create that two-way dialogue, but to do so in a way that water managers aren’t having to go and read 20 different reports,” said Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which helped fund the report. “It’s a fabulous tool in that [it] is one guiding document to look at if you want to increase your understanding.”
Written by a veteran cadre of more than a dozen scientists and engineers, it pulls no punches in describing a river system in peril.
“The average conditions, over time and across the basin, suggest a (barely) sufficient supply and, by smoothing out the variability, mask existing and prospective shortages,” says the report, produced through the Western Water Assessment, an interdisciplinary research program based at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
The report notes that the ultimate aim of integrating new research into practice is to produce more accurate short- and mid-term forecasts of runoff and more meaningful long-term projections of expected water supply.
“The future is and always has been uncertain,” said Jeff Lukas, research integration specialist with the Western Water Assessment and co-lead author of the report. “Now, at a time in which the Basin’s water supply and depletions are in delicate balance at best, system storage is half-full, and climate change is increasingly impacting hydrology, these forecasts and projections have become even more critical.”
Improving Forecasting Tools
Funded by the Bureau of Reclamation and its partners in the seven Western states that depend on the river, the report emphasizes the need to improve hydrologic forecasts, projections and predictive tools in the Colorado River Basin, all the while acknowledging the need for resilience.
“There is not now, and likely never will be, perfect weather and climate data,” the report says. “Producers of climate information need to communicate, and users should be cognizant of, the strengths and weaknesses of the data they choose and how climate data choices influence their conclusions.”
Terry Fulp, regional director of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region, said the report emphasizes that Colorado River Basin hydrology is increasingly volatile and must be planned for accordingly.
“This made it very clear that we can’t rely on the 100-year record,” he said. “You can’t just look at the past and assume it’s replicated in the future. We all knew that, but it is good to have the body of science conclude that, too.”
Brad Udall, a senior climate and water research scientist at Colorado State University who was a technical reviewer for the report, said that while it covers an amazing breadth of material, it has key advice for water managers.
“At the broadest level, the take-home message is, a tremendous amount of science has been done in the Basin,” he said, “and while it may not give us the answers that tell us what to do, it strongly suggests we need to be prepared for a very different kind of future that’s hotter and drier.”
The past 40 years have seen a substantial warming trend, the report says, noting that the period since 2000 has been about 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th-century average and likely warmer than at any time in the past 2,000 years.
Authors of the State of the Science report note they did not evaluate current Basin water management, address ecosystem needs or provide recommendations. Instead, they concentrated on assessing the chain of data and models that provide an understanding of the Basin’s hydrology, while recognizing how the rapid expansion of scientific knowledge and its increasing complexity parallel the growing uncertainties about how future climate will affect hydrology. Absent a dramatic increase in rain and snow, the Basin’s runoff and water supply are increasingly being affected by warmth.
With temperature, there is “a very clear signal and that trend … is significant enough that people have a fair amount of confidence it is impacting the hydrology in the Basin,” said lead co-author Liz Payton, Western Water Assessment’s Colorado River Basin assessment specialist.
Those effects were evident this year as a warm spring quickly erased what had been a robust snowpack leading up to April 1.
“I’m still stunned by the 100 percent snowpack and the 52 percent runoff,” Udall said. “That’s just mind-boggling.”
Adding the Climate Change Factor
The State of the Science report comes at an important time. Fresh from completing unprecedented Drought Contingency Plans in 2019, key players in managing the river will next turn their attention to updating and renegotiating the river’s 2007 Interim Operating Guidelines, which expire in 2026. Crafted in the early stages of a two-decade drought, the 2007 guidelines along with the subsequent Drought Contingency Plans are a testament to managing the Basin’s extreme volatility.
Coming to terms on a new set of guidelines, including their length, will differ from 2007 because the last set of guidelines was based on limited modeling data that didn’t fully incorporate climate change projections, said Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
While it is hard to predict specifically how the science report will inform the renegotiations, its recurring themes of increased temperatures, reduced streamflow and variable precipitation “will almost certainly arise in the context of the modeling efforts undertaken in the renegotiation,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.
New revelations about Colorado River Basin science appear with increasing frequency. In a lengthy July thread on Twitter, Udall noted the growing footprint of climate change in the Basin and how the expected pace of warming, which some models project could be as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, would greatly amplify the impacts seen in 2020. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey this year said warmer temperatures by 2050 could reduce the amount of water flowing in the river by as much as 30 percent.
“All of this has a name: aridification,” Udall wrote on Twitter. “Get used to it.”
The State of the Science report helps water managers understand key subjects, such as what climate monitoring is revealing and where uncertainty and errors exist.
Report contributor Carly Jerla, who manages Reclamation’s Modeling & Research Group, called it a “no-nonsense” scientific platform with a clear message. “We know we can’t just let history repeat itself,” she said. “This report clearly lays out that something else has to be done.”
Pellegrino, with Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the report provides a “one-stop shop” for busy river managers.
“Of all the many hats water managers wear, we are not researchers and we are not innovators,” she said. “It’s difficult to have an eye on all of the things we are doing related to species and policy and water supply planning and also be able to comb through the various sources of new hydrologic or climate change data.”
Like many, Pellegrino would prefer a consistent pattern of climate and water supply projections from which to base management decisions.
“It’s really hard for somebody who wants predictability to acknowledge there is going to be wide range of variability that’s going to persist for a very long time,” she said. “But that’s where we are.”
The State of the Science report stems from the 2017 Colorado River Hydrology Research Symposium aimed at giving water resource managers a better understanding of new hydrologic research initiatives, and giving researchers a better understanding of the Basin water system and the tools used by managers. Together, they explored how research could help improve those tools. That was crucial because research not fully grounded in the particulars of the managed system can produce alarming results. Hasencamp recalled one study that gave Lake Mead an even chance of going dry by 2021, a finding that dumbfounded water managers.
“We all looked at it and said, ‘What assumptions are they making?’” he said. “This is not very good science because they didn’t talk to the people who are actually running the system and managing it.”
Reaching Consensus on Science
The historical record illustrates the dramatic swerves in Colorado River Basin hydrology. Some years the snow never stops. Other times, unseasonable warmth and dryness dominates as officials nervously watch lake levels plummet in the river’s two major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Scientists devote their careers to figuring how forecasts and projections can improve. On the ground, life can be more stressful for water resource practitioners charged with providing a reliable water supply. Report authors acknowledge the conundrum.
“Given the stakes involved, it is reasonable that Colorado River Basin planners and managers desire greater certainty in water supply forecasts and long-term projections,” the report’s authors wrote. “They need some sense of the likelihood of hydrologic shifts, especially shifts to the dry side.”
One area of possible improvement is the 24-month water supply forecasting system that is partly based on assumptions of average monthly inflows to the Colorado River between Lake Powell and Lake Mead, said Payton.
“That’s a significant reach because if there is a lot or not as much inflow as the monthly average, you could shift Lake Mead above or below one of the important thresholds” that determine how much water agencies can draw from the river, she said. “If Mead is right at a shortage threshold and you have underestimated the inflow, you may end up declaring a shortage when you didn’t have to.”
Improvements in forecasting are needed from months to years to even decades out, said Pellegrino, with Southern Nevada Water Authority.
“Obviously, the long-term time scale is probably the most relevant for policy decisions, but the short and mid-terms are just as important,” she said. “The question is, if we knew next year was going to repeat the hydrology we saw in 2002, the driest year on record, would we make different water management decisions? I think the answer to that is yes at all time scales.”
Faced with uncertainty, Pellegrino believes the prudent approach is to be “eyes wide open” to the implications of the wide range of variability.
“Instead of identifying the hydrology that’s problematic or exact streamflow record that’s correct, spend your efforts coming up with the benchmarks for your water management community or basin that really mean something,” she said.
Making Better Decisions
For an area such as Las Vegas, that means preparing for more heat and dryness. Pellegrino said her agency has calculated that the creeping temperature rise could increase per capita water use by nine gallons a day by 2035.
Outcomes like that mean agencies should prepare for as many scenarios as possible, aiming for maximum flexibility, “like a dimmer switch,” said Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director with The Nature Conservancy. Waiting too long to act could be costly.
“We should consider this time before a full-blown crisis as a gift,” she said. “We are on ‘water time,’ and developing new water management tools takes years. We should not squander this time now, because we will never have a perfect picture of what the next year or two holds. Trying to develop these kinds of tools in the middle of the crisis will create chaos, social and economic impacts and unintended consequences. It is much more effective to have the tools ready to deploy before they are needed.”
Fulp, Reclamation’s regional director, said the report helps reframe the basis for near-term planning and gives a glimpse of what to expect further out, uncertainty and all.
“You’re talking about looking at hundreds, if not thousands of different futures and seeing what the statistics tell us,” he said. “Is one decision better under a lot of scenarios or is it only better under a few scenarios?”
The flow of scientific data about the Colorado River Basin will continue. Some reports will generate more response than others. Amid that, the depth and breadth of the Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science stands out.
“We hear about so many studies with dire predictions for the Colorado River but I think the bigger meta message is we have this great collaboration among water agencies to gather more information about the past, present and future of climate hydrology to make better decisions and planning,” said Lukas, with Western Water Assessment. “That’s the story I like to emphasize.”
Reach Gary Pitzer: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @GaryPitzer
The six Colorado River Basin states that do not have the letters “U-T-A-H” in their names just sent a remarkable letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt with a plea – don’t let the rush toward federal approval of Utah’s proposed Lake Powell Pipeline blow up the Colorado River Basin’s framework of collaborative rather than confrontational problem solving:
The six-state letter, the product of intense discussions in recent weeks among the states (including the one with “U-T-A-H” in its name) takes great pains to point to an important historical norm in Colorado Basin governance – states don’t mess in other states’ internal water use decisions. But in asking to move Upper Basin water to a Lower Basin community, Utah has crossed a line that the other states simply couldn’t let pass.
A study by the Bureau of Reclamation predicts that the current water levels in the Colorado River Basin will only postpone water shortages.
The study found that water levels in western reservoirs this year are similar to the past few years. John Berggren, a water policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, said the overall trend in water levels over the past 30 years has been downward.
Because water levels have been in decline, Berggren said one good snow year is not enough to replenish the reservoirs. He said this year will only postpone water shortages by a few years…
Berggren said dry soil, warmer air, and earlier blooms use up more water that doesn’t end up in the reservoirs.
At 710 feet, Glen Canyon Dam is the second highest concrete-arch dam in the United States. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation via the Water Education Foundation)
Coyote Gulch in a borrowed hard hat on the deck of the Arizona powerhouse at Hoover Dam on December 13. 2019.
State regulators in the Yampa River basin say most water users are now willingly complying with an order to measure how much water they are taking — an order once greeted with suspicion and reluctance. But challenges to compliance remain, including the cost of installing equipment.
Last fall, the Colorado Division of Water Resources ordered nearly 500 water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices to record their water use. Nearly a year later, most of those water users are embracing the requirement, according to water commissioner Scott Hummer.
“I am fully confident that over 90% of the people who have orders pending have either complied, are in the process of complying or have asked for an extension,” Hummer said. “So we are getting the cooperation and buy-in that we are requesting from our water users. They are understanding why we are doing it, at least in my area.”
Hummer is the water commissioner for Water District 58, which spans 400 square miles and includes all the water rights above Stagecoach Reservoir. He oversees between 350 and 400 diversion structures.
Measuring water use is the norm in other river basins, especially where demand outpaces supply. But the tightening of regulations is new to the Yampa River basin, and the order was initially met with resistance from some ranchers.
John Raftopoulos, whose family ranches along the Little Snake River, a tributary of the Yampa in Moffat County, said he thinks most irrigators are complying. His cattle ranch has about 15 measuring devices, and he has to install a few more to be completely compliant.
“I know (the state) has to use them. There’s no other way they can control the water; they’ve got to have the measuring device,” Raftopoulos said. “You just got to bite the bullet and install them.”
State law requires water users to maintain measuring devices on their canals and ditches, but this rule was not enforced in Division 6 — consisting of the Yampa, White, Green and North Platte river basins — because historically there was plenty of water to go around in the sparsely populated northwest corner of the state. Long seen as the last frontier of the free river, there has been little regulatory oversight from the state when it came to irrigators using as much water as they needed. But that changed in 2018 with the first-ever call on the river.
A call is prompted when streamflows are low and a senior water rights holder isn’t receiving their full amount. They ask the state to place a call, which means upstream junior water rights holders must stop or reduce diversions to ensure that the senior water right gets its full amount.
Although the order for a measuring device comes with a deadline and the threat of fines, Division 6 engineer Erin Light has been lenient with water users and willing to give them extra time to get into compliance. The process to request an extension is simple: A water user can simply email Light.
“If a water user is working with our office, we are not going to go shut their headgate off,” she said. “We are going to work with them.”
Light doesn’t have an exact count on how many water users have complied so far — water commissioners are working in the field this summer and haven’t had time to enter the most current information into the division’s database yet — but as of January, the Yampa had 49% compliance.
“I am not hearing anything (from water commissioners) about concerns of noncompliance. If there were problems, they would let me know,” Light said. “I have a fair amount of confidence that things are going well in all my areas as to compliance.”
Still, some worry that the cost of installing the devices — which in most cases are Parshall flumes — is too big a financial burden for some water users. The devices, which channel diverted water and measure the flow below the headgate, can cost thousands of dollars, which adds up for water users who need to install multiple devices.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable have teamed up in recent months to create a $200,000 grant program to help water users with infrastructure-improvement expenses. According to Holly Kirkpatrick, the communications manager for the conservancy district, water users so far have completed about $3,500 worth of work. That money will be reimbursed through the grant program.
“We expect to see a huge influx of applications as the season comes to an end,” she said.
In March, Light issued notices to water users in the other Division 6 river basins — White and Green — but decided to delay sending orders after talking with some who had concerns over the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a June letter to Light, signed by four water conservancy districts — White River, Rio Blanco, Yellow Jacket and Douglas Creek — representatives said they would be interested in seeking opportunities for financial assistance for their water users. Under the best-case scenario, it would take until spring to secure grant money and begin installing devices, the letter said.
“This year is a tough year to try and ask people to do anything above and beyond what they already have to do,” said Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts. “I know (Light is) willing to give extensions, but right now, our folks don’t need that additional financial or emotional stress.”
Colorado River Compact influence
Some water users have questioned why, after years of not enforcing requirements for measuring devices in Division 6, the state is now doing so. One answer is that more and better data about water use is becoming increasingly necessary as drought and climate change reduce streamflows, create water shortages and threaten Colorado’s ability to meet its Colorado River Compact obligations.
Division 6 has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as state regulators saw with the 2018 call, that dynamic is no longer guaranteed every year. As the threat of a compact call and the possibility of a state demand-management program grow, state officials say the need to measure water use grows, too.
A major unknown is what would happen in the event of a compact call. A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — as required by the 1922 compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, in part because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.
State engineer Kevin Rein said that without knowing how much water is being used, it’s a blind guess as to which junior water users would have to cut back.
“We could see the (cubic feet per second) amount that the water right is decreed for, but we don’t know how much is really being diverted and we don’t know how much is really being consumed, so we don’t know what effect it’s going to have on meeting our compact obligations,” Rein told Aspen Journalism last week.
It’s a similar scenario with a potential demand-management program. At the heart of such a program is a reduction in water use in an attempt to send as much as 500,000 additional acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to help the upper basin meet its compact obligations. Agricultural water users could get paid to take part in the temporary, voluntary program to fallow fields and leave more water in the river.
But before they could participate in a demand-management program, the state needs to know how much water that an irrigator has been using.
“The first thing we need is diversion records,” Rein said. “If there’s no measuring device, no record of diversions and somebody wants to participate, they are simply not going to have the data to demonstrate their consumptive use.”
Since nearly everyone is making progress, Hummer said he doubts that enforcement will reach a point where he has to fine someone for not measuring their water use. Still, the transition is a tough one for an area not accustomed to state government oversight of their ditches.
“We are just dealing with difficult circumstances within the whole Colorado River basin system that dictates change, and folks don’t like change, especially in rural areas,” Hummer said. “But it’s here and it’s not going away. The demand for measurement will become more stringent in the future, not less.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times, along with other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 15 edition of the Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Aug. 17 edition of The Aspen Times.
Here’s the release from the Central Arizona Project:
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has issued its August 24-Month Study. The purpose of this study is to project the year-end elevation of Lake Mead, which in turn determines the 2021 Lower Basin water supply conditions for CAP. BOR projects the Lake Mead elevation will be 1085.3’ on Jan. 1, 2021, which signals the Tier Zero supply of Colorado River water will continue for 2021.
Under Tier Zero, CAP’s water supply will be reduced by 192,000 acre-feet. This represents about a 12% reduction to CAP supplies. The Tier Zero reduction impacts CAP supplies previously available for underground storage, banking and replenishment. In addition, the reductions will likely reduce CAP agricultural uses by about 15%. While the word “reduction” is never popular, the fact that in 2021 Lake Mead will again operate in Tier Zero status shows that DCP is working to stabilize the reservoir from experiencing deeper shortages.
The August 24-Month Study also shows, in the most likely projection, continued Tier Zero conditions in 2022. However, due to hot and dry conditions across the Colorado River basin, the risk of a deeper reduction under Tier One shortage has increased for 2022. The reductions under Tier One are almost three times larger than Tier Zero. But thanks to the continued hard work across the Arizona water community, including the mitigation programs implemented through the Arizona DCP framework, we are prepared to manage Tier One reductions if they occur.
Here’s the release from the Arizona Department of Water Resources:
The United States Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) has released its August 24 Month Study, which projects Colorado River operations for the next two years. The study projects the operating conditions of the Colorado River system, as well as runoff and reservoir conditions. The Upper Basin experienced around average snowpack (107%) this year, and the April-July inflow into Lake Powell came in at 52% of average. The below-average projection was due to extremely hot and dry conditions in the Upper Basin during the spring and summer of 2020. Consistent with the 2007 Interim Guidelines, Lake Powell will operate under an annual release of 8.23 million acre-feet in water year 2021 with a potential of an April adjustment up to 9.0 million acre-feet.
The August 24 Month Study projects Lake Mead’s January 1, 2021 elevation to be 1085.28 feet, putting Lake Mead in a Tier Zero condition for 2021. The Study also projects a Tier Zero condition for Lake Mead in 2022 with the projected January 1, 2022 elevation of 1086.90 feet. Tier Zero conditions require a 192,000 acre-foot reduction in Arizona’s 2.8 million acre-foot allocation. The Lower Colorado River Basin is in Tier Zero for 2020. The August 24 month study projects that the Lower Colorado River Basin will remain in the Tier Zero condition in 2021.
“This is more evidence that the Drought Contingency Plan that was approved by the Arizona Legislature and signed by Governor Ducey in early 2019 was a success,” said Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
“Its implementation offsets potentially deeper cuts in Arizona’s Colorado River allocation beyond the 192,000 acre-feet that the State annually has stored in Lake Mead for several years.”
These reductions will fall entirely on Central Arizona Project (CAP) supplies, impacting CAP supplies for water banking, replenishment and agricultural users. The Tier Zero reductions will not impact tribal or municipal CAP water users.
While the Tier Zero reductions are significant, they are part of broader efforts being implemented to reduce the near-term risks of deeper reductions to Arizona’s Colorado River supplies. In addition to the Tier Zero reductions to CAP supplies, other programs to conserve and store water are being implemented in Arizona.
These include programs with the Colorado River Indian Tribes, Gila River Indian Community, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR), and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD), as well as Reclamation. Including the 192,000 acre-foot allocation reduction, Arizona entities conserved a total of 385,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead in 2020.
The August 24 Month Study shows that in the near term, the programs being implemented in Arizona and across the Colorado River system, along with favorable hydrology, have helped avoid a near-term crisis in the Colorado River system. However, we continue to face significant near-term and long-term risks to Arizona’s Colorado River supplies. We have much more work to do to address our shared risks. ADWR and CAWCD have jointly convened Arizona water stakeholders to address these risks and to prepare for new negotiations regarding the long-term operating rules on the Colorado River.
The white rings that wrap around two massive lakes in the U.S. West are a stark reminder of how water levels are dropping and a warning that the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River face a much drier future.
Amid prolonged drought and climate change in a region that’s only getting thirstier, when that reckoning will arrive — and how much time remains to prepare for it — is still a guess.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released projections Friday that suggest Lake Powell and Lake Mead will dip 16 feet (5 meters) and 5 feet (1.5 meters), respectively, in January from levels recorded a year earlier. Despite the dip, Lake Mead would stay above the threshold that triggers severe water cuts to cities and farms, giving officials throughout the Southwest more time to prepare for the future when the flow will slow.
“It’s at least a couple of decades until we’re saying, ‘We don’t have one more drop for the next person that comes here,’” said Ted Cooke, general manager of Central Arizona Project, the canal system that delivers river water. “But people certainly ought to be aware that water — the importation of a scarce commodity into a desert environment — is expensive and, with climate change, going to get even more expensive.”
Last year, with increasingly less water flowing to Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two largest man-made reservoirs in the United States — Arizona, California and Nevada agreed to a drought contingency plan that built in voluntary cuts to prevent the reservoirs from dropping to dangerous levels. The other states historically haven’t used their full allocation of water and focus on keeping Lake Powell full enough to generate hydropower.
Nevada and Arizona will make those voluntary cuts under the new projections, which they also made last year for the first time. But because neither state is using its full share of water, the impact has been minimal and hasn’t trickled down to homes. Mexico also is facing another round of cuts.
Lake Mead’s expected level of 1,089 feet (332 meters) is almost identical to last year’s projections because conservation efforts and a snowy winter prevented an expected drop, said Michael Bernardo, Bureau of Reclamation river operations manager. The wet weather didn’t last, prompting engineers to forecast the lakes will keep receding.
When projections drop below 1,075 feet (328 meters), Nevada and Arizona will face deeper cuts mandated by agreements between the seven states and Mexico.
Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, shows the effects of persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)
Lake Mead in 2001 vs. 2015 via the Department of Interior.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aaron):
The Bureau of Reclamation today released the Colorado River Basin August 2020 24-Month Study, which sets annual operations for Lake Mead and Lake Powell in 2021. Based on projections in the Study, Lake Mead will operate in the Normal Condition in Calendar Year 2021 and Lake Powell will operate in the Upper Elevation Balancing Tier in Water Year 2021 (October 1, 2020 through September 30, 2021).
The August 2020 24-Month Study projects:
– Lake Mead’s Jan. 1, 2021, elevation to be 1,085.28 feet, about 10 feet above the Lower Basin shortage determination trigger of 1,075 feet.
– Lake Powell’s Jan. 1, 2021, elevation to be 3,591.60 feet — 109 feet below full and 101 feet above minimum power pool.
Because Lake Mead is projected to begin the year below the Drought Contingency Plan elevation threshold of 1,090 feet, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will make water savings contributions to Lake Mead in calendar year 2021. Those Drought Contingency Plans, adopted by the seven Basin States, the U.S. federal government and Mexico in 2019, continue to proactively reduce risk in the basin.
“After a promising start to the snow season last winter, spring and summer turned very dry,” said Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. “Thankfully, our reservoirs continue to do what they were built to do and are providing reliable water by holding it over from wetter years.”
The Upper Basin experienced a dry spring in 2020, with April to July runoff into Lake Powell totaling just 52% of average. The projected water year 2020 unregulated inflow into Lake Powell—the amount that would flow to Lake Mead without the benefit of storage behind Glen Canyon Dam—is only 58% of average. Total Colorado River system storage today is 51% of capacity, down from 55% at this time last year. Drought contingency plans are proactively addressing risks to the system from the ongoing 21-year drought.
A key component of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin activities is the integration of sophisticated modeling tools and scientific research to inform water management decisions. Through a decades-long partnership with the Center for Advanced Decision Support for Water and Environmental Systems at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Reclamation hydrologic engineers and hydrologists are actively collaborating with climate, hydrology and decision support scientists to provide advanced modeling tools.
“This scientific expertise is key,” Commissioner Burman continued. “It helps us understand what’s happening in the basin now and how changes to climate and demand are likely to impact the river in the future so we can best operate our reservoirs to protect water reliability for generations to come.”
Their work is helping Reclamation link advances in science to water resource management decisions in the face of greater uncertainty and increased hydrologic and operational risks. Reclamation’s modeling and operations teams further refine these tools, such as the 24-Month Study, to make annual operational determinations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead through close coordination with water and power customers throughout the basin.
A statewide public effort to determine whether Coloradans should engage in perhaps the biggest water conservation program in state history enters its second year of study this summer, but the complex, collaborative effort on the Colorado River has a long way to go before the state and its water users can make a go/no-go decision, officials said.
On Aug. 26, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) will hold a virtual public workshop to unveil some of the key findings from the first year’s work, as well as to gather more input on where to go from here. Another meeting is scheduled for Sept. 2 to brief the agency’s board members and discuss next steps. It will also be open to the public.
More than a year ago, Colorado launched the study involving dozens of volunteer ranchers, environmentalists, water district officials, and others to determine if water users should opt to help fill a newly authorized drought pool in Lake Powell. The concept has been dubbed demand management.
Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District in Cortez, said farmers in his district remain skeptical of the conservation effort primarily because there isn’t enough clarity about how it would work.
“Clearly, one of the themes of our conversations down here has been momentum. There has been a lot of talk but it’s not out there as a policy with well-defined terms that can be read,” he said. “That tells us that we’re nowhere near a demand management program.”
The 500,000 acre-foot pool, approved by Congress last year as part of the historic Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, would help protect Coloradans if the Colorado River, at some point in the future, hits a crisis point, triggering mandatory cutbacks in the Upper Basin above Lake Powell.
But finding ways to set aside that much water, the equivalent of what roughly 1 million average Colorado households use in a year, is a complex proposition. Although the concept is still evolving, most agree the voluntary program, if created, would need to pay water users who agree to participate. And it would mean farmers fallowing fields in order to send their water downstream and cities convincing their customers to do with less water in order to do the same.
The Colorado River Basin includes seven U.S. states, Mexico, and more than two dozen sovereign tribal nations. Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico comprise the Upper Basin, while Arizona, California and Nevada make up the Lower Basin before the river crosses the U.S.-Mexican border.
The drought pool would belong to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. Each of those states is examining whether filling it is doable and desirable.
In Colorado, eight demand management work groups involving dozens of volunteers and experts on such issues as agriculture, economics, stream health, and water law met throughout the past year. Among the overarching conclusions to date, based on a report issued in July, is the need for equity between rural and urban communities, the need to analyze environmental impacts and benefits, and the need for a multi-pronged approach to funding such a program, which could include taxes, water-user fees, and cash from the federal government. The CWCB is funding and facilitating the process.
“This has never been done before,” said Russell George, a former Colorado Speaker of the House who helped create the state’s hallmark system of local water governance, where each of its eight river basins, as well as the Denver metro area, is represented by a public roundtable.
“What we’re doing is writing the textbook from whole cloth,” he said.
Bart Miller is healthy rivers program director at Western Resource Advocates, which has participated in the work groups. Miller said the first year of work was noteworthy because no one was able to identify “a fatal flaw. No one came up with a reason this can’t be done,” he said.
Despite the pandemic and deep state budget cuts, the CWCB has enough funding to move forward with another year of work, according to Amy Ostdiek, deputy chief of the Federal, Interstate and Water Information Section at the CWCB. The agency spent nearly $268,000 in the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, and has set aside another $396,000 for the current year.
George said the work done to date represents only the beginning of the collaborative search for a statewide drought protection plan on the Colorado River.
“When we started this, we didn’t want to foretell the answer to the question, ‘What does the end look like?’ I don’t think we’re ready to say yet. This is still the beginning,” George said.
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.
Click here to read the report. Here’s the Executive Summary:
The Upper Division States of the Colorado River Basin are currently investigating the feasibility of a potential Demand Management program. Demand Management is defined as temporary, voluntary, and compensated reductions in consumptive use. The Demand Management Storage Agreement, one element of the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) finalized by the Colorado River Basin States in 2019, provides the authorization for the Upper Division States to store water created pursuant to a Demand Management program in Lake Powell. The water would only be used for Compact compliance purposes at the direction of the Upper Colorado River Commission. Whether a program is set up and how such a program would operate are still open questions. Each Upper Division State must make an initial determination that Demand Management is feasible before moving forward with creating a potential program.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board is Colorado’s agency charged with setting the State’s water policy, and is therefore the agency with authority to determine whether Demand Management is feasible for Colorado. Following adoption of the DCP in March 2019, the CWCB Board adopted the 2019 Work Plan to help guide the initial stage of this feasibility investigation, to take place in Fiscal Year 2019-2020. The Work Plan had three primary components: (1) establish workgroups comprised of subject-matter experts and key Colorado River stakeholders, which were directed to meet publicly at least four times in Fiscal Year 2019-20, and to identify key threshold issues for board consideration; (2) regional workshops designed to facilitate the public discussion around Demand Management and provide opportunities for CWCB staff updates on the feasibility investigation; and (3) continued education and outreach. In addition, the Board directed staff to facilitate a literature review, currently underway by consultants hired following a Request for Proposal process.
The purpose of this Report is to provide an update of work done pursuant to the 2019 Work Plan. This report will assist the CWCB Board in considering the key threshold issues associated with a potential Demand Management program. The purpose of the report is not to provide guidance on next steps of the feasibility investigation. However, it may help shape the discussions and decision-making about the next phases of Colorado’s feasibility investigation. While the complete report provides a full summary of workgroup discussions and other work, below is a summary of each workgroup’s main discussion points.
To encourage agricultural participation, a potential program must be viewed as equitable and proportional while remaining voluntary; furthermore, it must be adequately communicated that the potential program is necessary to achieve the objectives set out in the Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan and will serve as an insurance policy against mandatory curtailment.
In designing a potential program, care must be given to program design to minimize and mitigate on-farm and off- farm agronomic impacts such as reductions in crop yield and soil erosion, including the provision of technical assistance and information; furthermore, the program should account for secondary economic impacts and evaluate potential benefits.
Non-injury to water right holders and non-participants is critical and can be achieved through the possible consideration of utilizing existing change of water use approval processes and providing additional mitigation expenses to agricultural water providers to account for potential operational impacts.
Structuring the potential program application, review, and the contracting process should consider alignment with the timing of when producers make critical operational decisions and allow for some operational flexibility; furthermore, payments should consider all potential impacts including both agronomic and operational changes.
In considering the design of a potential Demand Management program, current programs in place similar to a potential Demand Management program, such as the Federal Conservation Reserve Program and Colorado Fallow-Leasing Pilot Program should be further analyzed; furthermore, pilot and demonstration projects could be useful in better understanding potential impacts and effects of temporary irrigation reductions and should be explored with an effort to capture the potential diversity of projects.
Economic Impacts and Local Government
Any potential Demand Management program will be voluntary; those who do not wish to participate should not do so.
In designing any potential Demand Management program, the initial goal should be to “do no harm,” meaning to minimize and mitigate any adverse impacts to communities. A number of factors should be considered in analyzing this question, including but not limited to the type of water use, the duration of the Demand Management program, the length of individual project participation, and the geographic location and concentration of projects.
Any potential program should create benefits for individuals, the community, and the economy wherever possible. Potential benefits may include avoidance of Compact administration actions, increased revenue to local economies, environmental benefits, and opportunities to improve long-term management of water and land.
A number of process considerations should be taken into account when considering how to assure no harm is done to communities where possible, or mitigated if there is harm.
In operating a potential Demand Management program, the process should be transparent and collaborative.
Education and Outreach
Workgroup members identified many challenges in helping the State explore threshold questions related to communication, education, and outreach needs around a potential Demand Management program.
In lieu of assisting with a communication plan for the active “investigation” process or a future program, the workgroup focused their expertise around priority considerations should the CWCB elect to continue with feasibility, project pilots, or full program development.
While it is essential to develop a communications plan well before a Demand Management program is enacted, content substance is needed to proceed in which common terms are defined across workgroups and state partners, clear frames are developed to help unite messaging across stakeholder groups, and essential content from FY19- 20 workgroups are considered by CWCB and incorporated into an agreement on a Demand Management program’s general (initial/draft) shape.
At this stage, there is a branding problem, as different stakeholders have different ideas of what a program may look like, how it can be explained, and how often communication is carried to individuals’ direct communities.
This workgroup recommends immediate messaging discussions to identify shared priority framing. Several guiding examples are presented in the workgroup’s final deliverable.
Throughout the investigation, workgroup members identified the need to help stabilize communication chains, the need for extra transparency, and the need to maintain an open line for all users to communicate concerns and ideas to/from CWCB and to/from one another.
A Demand Management program could provide opportunities for projects with net environmental benefits that would not be available under potential Compact administration.
A Demand Management program should not harm the environment, should build in considerations to minimize adverse environmental effects, and should incentivize projects that provide net environmental benefits.
A Demand Management program should use the suggestions in the Environmental Considerations document to evaluate project environmental benefits and impacts without creating an unnecessarily burdensome process for applicants. The suggestions should also be used as part of the criteria to prioritize projects. Potential environmental benefits are location and project specific and would need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
A Demand Management program should identify project impacts and benefits to environmental resources including changes to flow regimes, instream flows, water quality standards, critical habitat, management/planning documents, and conservation needs and strategies if evaluation tools are readily available and applicable (for a more detailed list of potential resources impacted, see Environmental Considerations document).
Research and data gaps exist for evaluating environmental benefits and impacts, such as information on changes to hydrology, return flows, and wetlands. Streamlined approaches and methods are needed to make these assessments.
The funding workgroup initially identified a number of questions to help frame the conversation around funding a potential Demand Management program, including how much funding would such a program require.
To help quantify potential funding needs, workgroup members discussed factors that could affect a Demand Management program and built scenarios around them.
The factors included: volume of water needed, cost of potential program (i.e. $/acre-foot), percent of water savings expected from a Demand Management program (versus funded investments in infrastructure), acute or chronic need, year by which water is needed, and reservoir storage options.
Workgroup members came up with a preliminary list of funding ideas noting that not one concept, but rather a portfolio (potentially paired with a reverse auction model) would be beneficial: statewide tax (income, sales, property), regional tax, statewide fee, Bureau of Reclamation contribution, hydropower user fee, export user fee (i.e. Front Range water user rate increase).
Even with a diverse portfolio, COIVD-19 fundamentally changed the calculus and workgroup members expect we will likely see transformations in many water use sectors and the larger economies of the Western US if hydrology continues to deteriorate and Compact Administration becomes necessary.
Law and Policy
There are several open legal and policy questions relating to a potential Demand Management program, and the conclusions drawn could impact how a program operates and whether it works within existing law. These key legal and policy issues include, but are not limited to:
Would participation in a potential program be considered a beneficial use under Colorado law? What is the definition of Compact compliance?
How is program eligibility determined?
How is conserved consumptive use defined for purposes of participation in a potential program?
What is the appropriate definition of “temporary” in the context of a potential Demand Management program?
What is the appropriate procedure for project review and approval?
Monitoring and Verification
Quantification, measurement, monitoring, and verification must be honest, accurate, and defensible.
Participation and monitoring and verification must be protective of other water users.
Participation must result in added water to the system.
Participation and monitoring and verification must be as simple, easy, and flexible as possible while still meeting the first three principles.
Water Rights Administration and Accounting
Any potential program should take into consideration the appropriate process for changing the use of a water right from its current use to Demand Management.
The question of whether Demand Management is a beneficial use of water should be considered before a potential program is established.
Changes in administration and accounting for storage should be considered in establishing a potential program.
Appropriate scrutiny for any program should be balanced against the need for ease and flexibility.
The Imperial Irrigation District has filed its opening brief in a case against the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that it launched last year in an attempt to halt the implementation of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan for the Colorado River. IID wants to see it paused until the Salton Sea is also considered.
The two behemoths in the world of Western water are locking horns in court over the plan, which is an agreement made between California, Nevada and Arizona to keep more water in Lake Mead, the man-made lake created by the Hoover Dam. Nearly 40 million people rely on water from the Colorado River system, but growing demand across the West and a warming climate are threatening the important waterway…
In its 38-page brief filed on July 8, IID attorneys argue that Metropolitan’s approval of the Drought Contingency Plan in March 2019 was improper because it did not include an environmental analysis conducted under the California Environmental Quality Act. IID asked the court to stop Metropolitan from acting on its plan until a CEQA review had been completed…
In a statement sent to The Desert Sun, Metropolitan General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said the the two water agencies already spoke about the Salton Sea when the Drought Contingency Plan was created.
“During that negotiation, we worked closely with IID to ensure that the agreement has no adverse impacts on the Salton Sea, as the water contributions made to Lake Mead will not affect the amount of water flowing into the sea,” Kightlinger said.
But in its court filing, IID questioned the math underpinning Metropolitan’s contribution to the Drought Contingency Plan, saying it “relied on statistical slight-of-hand” that needed to be studied further.
Between amendments to the plan in December 2018 and March 2019, Metropolitan said it would take over what had originally been IID’s responsibility to keep 250,000 acre feet of water in Lake Mead over the first two years when it eventually fell to the level that would trigger the Drought Contingency Plan. This was a “sudden and abrupt departure” from earlier decisions and cut IID out from the negotiations, the rural water agency alleged in its court filings…
The Coachella Valley Water District, the Palo Verde Irrigation District in Blythe and the city of Needles are also listed as interested parties on the brief, as they are the other three agencies within California that have rights to divert water from the Colorado River.
Ortega said Metropolitan has until September 25 to file its response.
Charismatic is hardly the best word to describe the humpback chub, a fish with a frowny eel face jammed onto a sportfish body in a way that suggests evolution has a sense of humor. Nor did tastiness build a fan base for this “trash fish” across its natural habitat throughout the Colorado River Basin. But, in 1973, the humpback chub became famous by winning federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Researchers in the Grand Canyon now spend weeks at a time, several times a year, monitoring humpback chub, which has become central to an ecosystem science program with implications for millions of westerners who rely on Colorado River water…
…the humpback chub’s experience is surprisingly meaningful now, as its river habitat deep in the iconic, redrock canyon becomes the subject of new scrutiny. New negotiations about the Colorado’s future begin later this year in a world that has fundamentally changed since foundational water agreements were drawn up, back when the river was flush and the entire basin was treated like a giant network of irrigation ditches.
Now, nearly a century after the original Colorado River Compact was forged, river stakeholders also find themselves in alien terrain as they try to reconcile an old management scheme with new realities, such as tribal rights, environmental protection and, especially, climate change.
‘The Pie is Getting Smaller.’
About 40 million people in seven states and Mexico rely on the Colorado for irrigation, drinking and even hydropower. Most of the water is used in agriculture to irrigate more than 5.5 million acres.
Meanwhile, the Colorado is shrinking. Average river flows have dropped 19 percent over the last century. About half of the decline is blamed on global warming, and scientists project that unchecked climate change could nearly triple flow reductions by the century’s end. Meanwhile, basin tribes want to tap into allocations they haven’t been able to use because they lack means to store and pipe the water.
And thanks to research mandated by the 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act, the fate of the chub and the canyon ecology are factors that will also need to be considered in the yet-to-be-scheduled negotiations. Ultimately, everyone’s worried about losing their share of the Colorado River, of going home with partly empty buckets because there’s just not enough water to go around…
Water Rights: A Dramatic Struggle
The U.S. Interior Department must begin updating plans for managing the river, and convene all the states that rely on it, by the end of the year under the Colorado River Interim Guidelines, one of the agreements that determine how much water is allocated for each stakeholder to use or develop.
Like everything about Colorado River management, it’s legally complex and controlled by a deeply entrenched power structure involving the seven basin states, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and established users in agriculture and municipalities that have assigned positions in the line to the spigot—spots known as “water rights.”
But even the guidelines, which were implemented in 2007, have fallen short in the new, drier West. Last year, Congress approved a pair of Drought Contingency Plans, requiring varying levels of conservation to be implemented, state-by-state, whenever water levels sank too low at Lake Powell or Lake Mead, the ginormous storage reservoirs for Colorado River water. Both lakes dropped to emergency levels within months.
The original compact guarantees certain water volumes to the lower basin states—Arizona, Nevada and California. The upper basin states—Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico—historically haven’t used all of their allocations but plan to develop theirs, too. For example, Utah is pressing forward with a multibillion-dollar project to pipe 86,000 acre feet halfway across the state to the fast-growing southwestern part of the state. A diversion of water from the Utah-Wyoming border to Colorado’s populous Front Range—killed and resurrected so many times it’s called the “zombie pipeline”—would use 55,000 acre feet.
Still, Schmidt said: “I am actually very hopeful. I believe that climate change and the real need to renegotiate agreements have brought us together.”
The role of global warming as a motivator for revisiting the water allocations probably can’t be overstated. The average temperature in the Southwest has already risen twice as fast as the global average and future temperatures are projected to increase as much as 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.
Climate change is just one reason Daryl Vigil, water director for the Jicarilla Apache Nation and interim director of the Ten Tribes Partnership, is determined to see tribes at the table in the next round of negotiations. He says the 29 basin tribes have priority rights to about 20 percent of the Colorado River’s water but were snubbed by current users from past Colorado River talks.
“The system is going to protect itself, to perpetuate what it already does because it benefits those who already are doing okay,” he said. “Familiar story, right?”
The exclusion, which amounts to environmental racism, means tens of thousands of indigenous people have not been able to access their water and tap into the associated economic opportunities, such as selling their water rights and using the water for energy projects, he said. Instead, other stakeholders are using tribal water without paying for it.
Another reason the tribes should be part of the decision making, he said, is because of their experience—thousands of years of dealing with water scarcity in the region—and their cultural views about the environment belong in any critical conversations about the Colorado. Otherwise the future looks “pretty catastrophic to us,” Vigil told High Country News this spring.
“When we start talking about climate change,” he said, “absolutely pushing to make sure that we’re thinking about a mindset of how we fit into Nature, rather than Nature fitting into us.”
[John] Fleck said the people deciding the basin’s fate need information about the tradeoffs. And data from Grand Canyon research will help them understand not only how to preserve a “sacred space” in American culture but also how to continue relying on a resource essential to the West.
As the Colorado basin grapples with climate change, shortages and declining reservoir levels, we revisit one of the critical legal milestones in the evolution of “the Law of the River.”
As Utah pushes forward with its proposed Lake Powell Pipeline – an attempt move over 80,000 acre feet per year of its Upper Colorado River Basin allocation to communities in the Lower Basin – it is worth revisiting one of the critical legal milestones in the evolution of what we have come to call “the Law of the River.”
The division of the great river’s watershed into an “Upper Basin” and “Lower Basin”, with separate water allocations to each, was the masterstroke that allowed the successful completion of the Colorado River Compact in 1922. But the details of how that separation plays out in water management today were not solidified until a little-discussed U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1955, in the early years of the decade-long legal struggle known as “Arizona v. California.”
Most, if not all, of the small army of lawyers, engineers, water managers, board members, academics, tribal officials, NGO representatives, and journalists now actively engaged in Colorado River issues are familiar with the 1963 Arizona v. California Supreme Court decision. It was Arizona’s great legal victory over California that cleared the road for the Congressional authorization and construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP). Many in the ranks are also quite familiar with Simon H. Rifkind, the court-appointed Special Master who conducted lengthy hearings and worked his way through a mountain of case briefs and exhibits before writing his 1960 master’s report that set the stage for the court’s decision. Few of us, however, are familiar with George I. Haight. Haight was the first special master in the case, appointed on June 1st, 1954. He died unexpectedly in late July 1955. Two weeks before his death he made a critical decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court and set the basic direction of the case. Today, as the basin grapples with climate change, shortages, declining reservoir levels, and most recently, Utah’s quest to build the Lake Powell Pipeline exporting a portion of its Upper Basin water to the Lower Basin to meet future needs in the St. George area, Haight’s forgotten opinion looms large.
In late 1952 when Arizona filed the case, it was about disputed issues over the interpretation of both the Colorado River Compact and the Boulder Canyon Project Act. Among its claims for relief, Arizona asked the court to find that it was entitled to 3.8 million acre-feet under Articles III(a) & (b) of the compact (less a small amount for Lower Basin uses by New Mexico in the Gila River and Utah in the Virgin River drainages), that under the Boulder Canyon Project Act California was strictly limited to 4.4 million acre-feet per year, that its “stream depletion” theory of measuring compact apportionments be approved, and that evaporation off Lake Mead be assigned to each Lower Division state in proportion to their benefits from Lake Mead. California, of course, vigorously opposed Arizona’s claims. One of California’s first moves was to file a motion with Haight to bring into the case as “indispensable” parties the Upper Division states; Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. California’s logic was that the compact issues raised by Arizona impacted both basins and every basin state (history has shown California was right on).
The Upper Division states were desperately opposed to participating in the case. Backing the clock up to the early 1950s, these states, including Arizona, had successfully negotiated, ratified, and obtained Congressional approval for the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact. They were now actively seeking Congressional legislation for the Colorado River Storage Project Act (CRSPA), the federal law that would authorize Glen Canyon Dam (Lake Powell) and numerous other Upper Basin projects. Upper Basin officials feared that if they became actively involved in Arizona v. California, California’s powerful Congressional delegation would use it as an excuse to delay approval of CRSPA (as it had successfully done with the CAP). Thus, these states and their close ally, Arizona, opposed California’s motion.
The basis of their opposition was relatively simple; Under the compact, except for the Upper Basin’s obligations at Lee Ferry, the basins were separate hydrologic entities, the issues raised by Arizona were solely Lower Basin matters, and that Arizona was asking for nothing from the Upper Division states. Their strategy worked. In a July 11, 1955 opinion, Haight recommended California’s motion be denied. By a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court upheld his recommendation and, except for Utah and New Mexico as to their Lower Basin interests only, the Upper Division states were out of the case. The Upper Division states cheered the decision. Arizona’s crafty Mark Wilmer devised a new litigation strategy built on Haight’s logic and ultimately his successor, Simon Rifkind, ruled that there was no need to decide any issue related to the compact. For more details, see Science Be Dammed, Chapter 15.
In convincing Special Master Haight to deny California’s motion, Arizona and the Upper Division states turned him into an ardent fan of the Colorado River Compact. Haight opined “The compact followed years of controversy between the states involved. It was an act seemingly based on thorough knowledge by the negotiators. It must have been difficult of accomplishment. It was the product of real statesmanship.” In justifying his decision, he found “The Colorado River Compact evidences far seeing practical statesmanship. The division of the Colorado River System waters into Upper and Lower Basins was, and is, one of its most important features. It left to each Basin the solution to that Basin’s problems and did not tie to either Basin the intra-basin problems of the other.” A few pages later, he says “The Compact, by its terms, provides two separate groups in the Colorado River Basin. Each of these is independent in its sphere. The members of each group make the determinations respecting that group’s problems,” and finally “because by Article III of the Colorado River Compact there was apportioned to each basin a given amount of water, and it is impossible for the Upper Basin States to have any interest in water allocated to the Lower Basin States.”
Fifty five years later, how would Special Master Haight view the problems the Colorado River Basin is facing where climate change is impacting the water available to both basins, through the coordinated operation of Lakes Mead and Powell the basin’s drought contingency plans are interconnected, critical environmental resources in the Grand Canyon, located in the Lower Basin, are impacted by the Upper Basin’s Glen Canyon Dam, and most recently two states, New Mexico and Utah, have found it desirable to use a portion of each’s Upper Basin water in the Lower Basin? With one major exception, I think he would be pleased. Haight understood that through Article VI, the compact parties had a path to resolve their disputes and implement creative solutions. The first part of Article VI sets forth a formal approach where each state governor appoints a commissioner, the commissioners meet and negotiate a solution to the issue at hand and then take the solution back to their states for legislative ratification. This formal process has never been used, but luckily, Article VI also provides an alternative. The last sentence states “nothing herein contained shall prevent the adjustment of any such claim or controversy by any present method or by direct future legislative action of the interested states.” After Arizona refused to ratify the compact in the 1920s Colorado’s Delph Carpenter successfully used federal legislation to implement a six-state ratification strategy (the Boulder Canyon Project Act).
The exception that would concern Haight is Utah’s unilateral decision to transfer about 80,000 acre-feet of its Upper Basin water to the Lower Basin via the Lake Powell Pipeline. The LPP violates the basic rationale that Haight used to keep the Upper Basin out of Arizona v. California and for which Utah and its sister Upper Division states fought so hard. The project uses water apportioned for exclusive use in the Upper Basin, terms carefully defined by the compact negotiators, to solve a water supply problem in the Lower Basin.
Defenders of Utah’s may believe a precedent has already been set– the Navajo-Gallup Pipeline, which delivers 7,500 acre-feet of New Mexico’s Upper Basin water to the community of Gallup and areas of the eastern Navajo Nation. But if that is to be cited as a precedent, it comes with an important caveat. New Mexico addressed the compact issues through federal legislation with the participation and consent of the other basin states and stakeholders. Utah, by comparison, apparently believes federal legislation, and by implication the consent of others in the basin, is not needed.
In the face of climate change induced declining river flows and increased competition for the river’s water, there is no question that the basic compact ground rules devised by the negotiators a century ago will face increasing pressure. There will likely be more future projects and decisions that, like the LPP, will challenge the strict language of the compact. The question now facing the basin is how will this revisiting be accomplished? Will it be done in an open and transparent manner that engages not just the states, but a broad range of stakeholders and implemented through legislation (not easy in today’s world, as a practical matter it requires no opposition from any major party to get through the Senate) or by a series of unilateral decisions designed to benefit or advantage individual states or specific entities, but with no input or buy-in from the basin as a whole?
If, like me, you live in Los Angeles — or Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix or Salt Lake City — you drink water from the Colorado River. You probably eat vegetables grown with Colorado River water, and maybe you eat beef fed on alfalfa grown with Colorado River water. When you switch on a light or charge your phone, some of the electricity may be generated by Colorado River water.
The Colorado, in other words, makes life possible in the American West.
Nowhere is that more true than the Imperial Valley, a sun-baked desert in California’s southeastern corner where around 500 landowning families use Colorado River water to grow much of the country’s winter vegetables. I’ve spent lots of time there as a reporter. It’s a tragic and beautiful place. Beautiful in the way the sunlight glints across a lattice of irrigation canals that crisscross endless green farm fields, and tragic in the widespread poverty and pollution that undergird a lucrative agricultural economy.
And more recently, tragic because Imperial County has California’s highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases.
In terms of water, the valley is especially important because the Imperial Irrigation District holds a right to an astounding 3.1 million acre-feet of the Colorado River’s annual flow. That’s roughly 20% of all the river’s water allocated across seven western states. It’s about two-thirds of California’s stake in the Colorado, and as much as Arizona and Nevada receive combined.
Climate change, meanwhile, is diminishing the river’s flow, which is especially worrying because longstanding legal agreements already promise western states more water from the Colorado than is typically available, as John Fleck and Eric Kuhn detailed in a recent book. There’s a reckoning coming, unless cities and farm districts across the West band together to limit consumption.
The coming dealmaking will almost certainly need to involve the river’s largest water user, the Imperial Irrigation District.
But at the moment, it’s unclear to what extent the district actually controls the Imperial Valley’s Colorado River water.
That was the issue debated in a San Diego courtroom last week, or at least a video conference standing in for a courtroom. A three-judge appellate court panel heard arguments from lawyers for the irrigation district and landowning farmer Mike Abatti, who sued the agency to overturn a water apportionment plan that he says would unjustly limit his use of water for irrigation.
Who is Mike Abatti? As a reporter for the Desert Sun in Palm Springs, I spent many months investigating his enormous influence in the Imperial Valley. I discovered a pattern of government officials with ties to Abatti making decisions that advanced his financial interests — including a public agency that awarded a $35-million energy contract to a company led by Abatti, and a district attorney who publicly cleared Abatti of wrongdoing on the energy contract after describing him as a “good friend.”
I also found that the trial court judge who presided over Abatti’s water lawsuit against the Imperial Irrigation District — and ruled in his favor — had a long history of business and social ties to the Abatti family.
In a sweeping decision, Judge L. Brooks Anderholt found that Imperial Valley farmers hold a “constitutionally protected property right” to the region’s Colorado River water, and that the irrigation district’s elected board members have a limited ability to reduce deliveries to agricultural users. Anderholt’s ruling seemed to tilt the balance of power from the district to landowning farmers…
Lawyers for both sides focused their arguments on the central question of who controls the water.
Abatti’s attorney, Cheryl Orr, said farmers have a right to however much water they “reasonably need” to cultivate their crops, based on past use. (Farmers currently use 97% of the Imperial Valley’s water.) Orr told the judges that under established law, farmers “have a priority of water that is different and higher than just an ordinary use,” such as household drinking water.
The irrigation district board “just unilaterally determined that they were going to reorder the priorities and put agriculture at the bottom of the list,” Orr said. “They’re treating farmers as customers of the water district. And they’re not customers.”
Irrigation district attorney Jennifer Meeker countered that the agency’s elected board members have wide latitude in how they apportion water, so long as they don’t cut off deliveries to farmers. A constitutionally protected property right, she said, would give farmers “a first grab at the water to fulfill all of their past use, and then whatever’s left can go to anybody else.”
“If you get to a point where there is such a shortage that there just simply is not enough water, everybody is going to end up being curtailed,” Meeker told the judges. The irrigation district’s elected board, she said, “has the right and the discretion” to develop a plan for spreading water cutbacks fairly among farmers, cities and industrial users such as geothermal power plants.
Whichever side wins, the outcome is liable to radiate outward across the West, like a stone creating ripples in a reservoir.
More control for the landowning farmers could make future Colorado River negotiations more difficult — or make it harder for growing cities to acquire water supplies that rightfully belong to the Imperial Valley, depending on how you look at it.
It’s not just Abatti’s lawsuit that could affect Imperial’s role in high-stakes Colorado River negotiations. Local politics are an important factor, too. In April, I wrote about a contentious election for a seat on the irrigation district board. The campaign has fueled rampant speculation over which candidates might secretly be backed by which local power brokers — including Abatti.
Use of Colorado River water in the three states of the river’s lower basin fell to a 33-year low in 2019, amid growing awareness of the precarity of the region’s water supply in a drying and warming climate.
Arizona, California, and Nevada combined to consume just over 6.5 million acre-feet last year, according to an annual audit from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees the lower basin. That is about 1 million acre-feet less than the three states are entitled to use under a legal compact that divides the Colorado River’s waters.
The last time water consumption from the river was that low was in 1986, the year after an enormous canal in Arizona opened that allowed the state to lay claim to its full Colorado River entitlement.
States have grappled in the last two decades with declining water levels in the basin’s main reservoirs — Mead and Powell — while reckoning with clear scientific evidence that climate change is already constricting the iconic river and will do further damage as temperatures rise.
For water managers, the steady drop in water consumption in recent years is a signal that conservation efforts are working and that they are not helpless in the face of daunting environmental changes.
“It’s quite a turnaround from where we were a decade ago and really, I think, optimistic for dealing with chronic shortages on the river in the future, knowing that we can turn the dial back and reduce demand significantly, all three states combined,” said Bill Hasencamp, the manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a regional wholesaler and one of the river’s largest users.
Observers of the basin’s intricate politics are also impressed with the trend lines for a watershed that irrigates about 5 million acres of farmland and provides 40 million people in two countries and 29 tribal nations with a portion of their water.
“It is an incredibly important demonstration of the fact that we can use less water in this incredibly important water-use region,” John Fleck told Circle of Blue. Fleck is the director of the University of New Mexico water resources program.
Projections for 2020 indicate that conservation will continue, though not quite at last year’s pace. Halfway through the year, the Bureau of Reclamation forecasts water consumption to be roughly 6.8 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water that will flood an acre of land to a depth of one foot, or 325,851 gallons.
“I have to give them credit,” Jennifer Gimbel, a senior water policy scholar at Colorado State University, told Circle of Blue about the lower basin states. “They’re working hard to get these numbers.”
Raising Lake Mead
Just five years ago, in 2015, the three states were making use of their entire 7.5-million-acre-foot allotment. By statute and tradition, the basin is divided into a lower basin, where use is higher, and an upper basin, which includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. The basins have different water allocation systems and rules governing its use.
In the lower basin, Arizona’s annual allocation is 2.8 million acre-feet, but last year it used just 2.5 million. Nevada used 233,000 of its 300,000 acre-feet. The big savings were in California, which used only 3.8 million of its 4.4 million acre-feet. California hasn’t used that little water from the Colorado since the 1950s, Fleck said.
The drop in California last year is due in large part to Metropolitan Water District, which consumed only 537,000 acre-feet. Five years ago, the district’s tally was around 1 million acre-feet per year. Urban conservation and development of local water sources have played a large role in the decline, but the district’s Colorado River water use is also influenced by snow levels in the Sierra Nevada mountains. When more water is available to be imported from the northern part of the state, as it was last year, the district leans less heavily on the Colorado River.
Reclamation’s annual audit measures the amount of water consumed by humans, plants, and animals in the lower basin. Consumptive use equals total withdrawals minus any water that is returned to the river system, from irrigation runoff or wastewater treatment plants.
As meticulous as it is, the audit neglects a significant piece of the basin’s water budget: evaporation from reservoirs and system losses, which is water consumed by riverside vegetation and absorbed by the ground. Together, these add up to about 1 million acre-feet per year, Jeremy Dodds, water accounting and verification group manager for Reclamation, told Circle of Blue.
This factor is part of the lower basin’s “structural deficit,” which means that total demand in the lower basin — use by Arizona, California, and Nevada, plus evaporation and required deliveries to Mexico — exceeds the amount of water that flows into Lake Mead, the lower basin’s supply source.
Gimbel, who was the principal deputy assistant secretary for water and science for the U.S. Department of Interior from 2014 to 2016, said that despite the conservation efforts reflected in the audit, the lower basin still has much work to do. “They’re closing the deficit, but they’re not there yet,” she said.
The goal of the lower basin’s conservation is to keep Lake Mead from a precipitous decline into “dead pool” territory, where the reservoir is too low to send water downstream. The dead-pool threshold is at elevation 895 feet. Not using 1 million acre-feet last year most certainly helped the reservoir. Dodds said that at the current elevation of 1,089 feet, each block of 85,000 acre-feet equals 1 foot of elevation. So last year’s conservation added 12 feet to Mead, compared to a scenario in which the three states use their full entitlement.
The conservation tool box that the states have employed has a range of instruments. Cities have provided incentives to remove grass lawns and replace inefficient toilets, showerheads, and washing machines. In Imperial Irrigation District, farmers have lined earthen canals with concrete to prevent seepage and they have agreed to fallow land to save water. Those measures, in both town and country, have helped to reduce demand. Supplies, on the other hand, have been bolstered by more investment in recycling and reuse, groundwater treatment, and desalination. As a whole, the seven states in the watershed came together in 2019 to modify rules for mandatory water-use restrictions that kick in as Lake Mead drops.
The decline in Colorado River water consumption mirrors regional and national trends. In Metropolitan Water District’s service area in Southern California, water use per person fell from about 181 gallons per person per day in the mid-1990s to 131 gallons in 2018, a drop of 27 percent. Colorado River consumption on the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation, in Arizona, is down about 20 percent since 2016.
According to Tom Ley, a water consultant to the tribes, the decline is due to changes in farming practices and participation in a land fallowing program that will see 10,000 acres taken out of production in the next three years. The tribes’ decrease in consumptive water use “may look even more dramatic once the 2020 report comes out,” Ley told Circle of Blue.
All of these actions amount to a shift in the perception of what’s possible, Fleck said.
“It shows that the expectation that a growing population and a robust agricultural economy require more water is wrong,” explained Fleck, who is optimistic about the basin’s capacity to wield the tools of conservation effectively. Environmental doom is not the inevitable outcome, he says. “We’re seeing success in the transition away from the tragedy narrative,” he added.
Still, there are minefields to navigate. There are dozens of proposals in the upper basin states to withdraw more water from the river, which, if they were built, would further stress supplies. Some of the water conserved in Lake Mead is stored as a credit that participating agencies can theoretically draw upon in the future. How agencies handle those withdrawals, especially if large requests are made as lake levels plummet, is an uncertainty. On top of that, a warming climate will suck more moisture from the basin, even before rain and snow reach the river.
A hot, dry spring this year in the upper basin is evidence of what aridity can do. Snowpack in the basin’s headwaters was roughly average on April 1 and runoff into Lake Powell, a key water supply indicator, was expected to be 78 percent of normal. But then dry conditions arrived in April and May. Combined with dehydrated soils, which took their share of water, the runoff forecast by June 1 had diminished to just 57 percent of normal.
Those climate signals are the counterbalance to the conservation success so far. Water managers, now wary, know the risk.
“Just hopefully we don’t get a string of dry years coming back,” Hasencamp said.
The water has made development possible and is used for farms, homes and businesses. Meanwhile, recreation has risen to over 4 million annual visitors in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, with tourists bringing in over $420 million to local communities.
But climate scientists studying the Colorado River find the lake’s water source is quickly declining…
According to Brad Udall, a water and climate researcher at Colorado State University, the lake is crucial for honoring the commitments laid out in that Colorado River Compact.
“Lake Powell is what the upper basin considers its bank account for meeting required deliveries to the three lower basin states. So, it’s essential to the management of the river,” Udall said.
When Lake Powell reached capacity on June 22, 1980, it was a wetter period of time for the region. Today, the lake is just above half full, and a large part of that is because of climate change.
“Since the year 2000, the flow of the river is roughly down 20% and about half of that decline is due to higher temperatures,” Udall said.
And as states continue to use the water, lower flows mean there is less to store in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Even though extreme dry and wet years have fluctuated, the West is generally getting drier, said John Fleck, the director of water resources at the University of New Mexico.
“We really need to call [what we’re experiencing] aridification — the drying out of the Colorado River Basin because of climate change, we can’t just call it ‘drought’ anymore,” Fleck said. “It appears to be this permanent phenomenon that’s lowering the lake levels. You should not expect it to return to high lake levels over long periods of time. That’s just not something we can expect to happen.”
While the river flow has declined, the demand for water has increased with regional growth. Upper and lower basin states are making drought contingency plans to keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead from reaching critically low levels.
Udall said states will also have to rethink those original water allocations from the 1920s.
“It’s hard to balance the equities of trying to respect these agreements that people have planned on versus changing circumstances that make these agreements totally inappropriate for right now. And I don’t know what the answer is but something’s gotta give.”
Lexi Peery is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER’s Southwest Bureau in St. George. Follow Lexi on Twitter @LexiFP
No one denies it: Overconsumption of water and extreme drought caused by climate change are realities driving the Colorado River into crisis. But some solutions are better than others.
Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt suggested recently in a Writer’s on the Range column that “retiring” 10 percent—some 300,000 acres—of irrigated agriculture would save 1 million acre-feet of the Colorado River. Secretary Babbitt wants the federal government to pay farmers in both the Lower and Upper Colorado River basins to dry up their cropland.
The imbalance on the Colorado River needs to be addressed, and agriculture, as the biggest water user in the basin, needs to be part of a fair solution. But drying up vital food-producing land is a blunt tool. It will damage our local food supply chains and bring decline to rural communities that have developed around irrigated agriculture.
Let’s look at the river’s problems. First, Secretary Babbitt minimizes the challenge as the overuse of the river’s system is even greater than 1 million acre-feet. The flow is so diminished that the end of the line, the Colorado River Delta, hardly receives any water.
The three states that make up the Lower Colorado River Basin—including the former Secretary’s home state of Arizona—have in recent years consumed at least 1.2 million acre-feet more per year than the 8.5 million acre-feet allotted to them under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
This overuse has been perpetuated because the Lower Basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation fail to account for the losses caused by evaporation from reservoirs and the transit losses during water deliveries. The first step in fixing the imbalance must be elimination of the Lower Basin’s overuse.
Through the Drought Contingency Plan, the Lower Basin is actively reducing its water consumption when Lake Mead hits critically low levels. But while this is a good start, more must be done.
Climate change is a major cause in reducing Colorado River flows, with recent studies putting the reduction between 3-5.2 percent for every 1 degree rise in temperature. Important water-producing parts of our basin, such as Western Colorado, have already seen temperatures rise by as much as 4 degrees since 1895, and predictions for a 2- to 5-degree increase in the foreseeable future will compound the trend.
It might be surprising to learn that the Upper Basin’s annual consumption of Colorado River water—less than 4.5 million acre-feet—is far below the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted to the four Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. But this is hardly the time to increase diversions. To sustain the communities and the ecosystems that depend upon the Colorado River, all water users—both Upper and Lower Basin states—will need to consume less water.
The Colorado River District has taken a stand against “buy-and-dry” practices because we recognize the environmental and economic harm of drying up agricultural lands. If the health of the river is balanced solely on the back of agriculture, the 10 percent suggested by Secretary Babbitt today will almost certainly lead to 20 percent tomorrow.
In Western Colorado, most of our agriculture is family owned and operated. These family farms provide a local food supply, form the backbone of our rural communities, and they are already under economic stress. So what can be done to both help the river and keep rural life intact?
Initiatives must be aimed at reducing consumptive losses due to inefficient irrigation systems. At the same time we need to incentivize selective retirement of marginal land, all while providing technical support and funding for growers to switch to higher-value crops. The Lower Basin must reduce the cultivation of highly water consumptive crops in the increasingly hot desert, such as cotton and alfalfa raised solely for export.
Increased funding is better directed to off-farm and on-farm irrigation improvements and growing alternative crops. An example of that kind of effort is the Lower Gunnison Project in Western Colorado, a partnership between agricultural producers, the Colorado River District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This project improves diversion structures by piping delivery ditches and modernizing irrigation technology on farms. The producers are also experimenting with new crops such as hemp and hops.
From a purely mathematical standpoint, the Lower Basin has to reduce its 1.2 million acre-feet in overuse. That’s a big start. But in both basins, agriculture must improve the way it uses scarce water taken from the river. We have no time to lose.
Andy Mueller is a contributor to Writers on the Range (writersontherange.org), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is general manager of the Colorado River District and spends his time protecting the flows of the Colorado River and its tributaries in Western Colorado.
It’s a sobering prospect for those of us who call the West home – especially at a moment when the coronavirus is underscoring just how essential a healthy and available water supply is to public health.
The findings underscore the urgent necessity of continued efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change and work together to make progress for the environment.
The study’s release coincides with the one-year anniversary of the passage of the Drought Contingency Plan. It was about a year ago that leaders from the seven states of the Colorado River Basin – as well as leaders from the U.S. and Mexico – agreed to one of the largest voluntary water conservation plans in history to respond to the ongoing drought.
Reaching the agreement to protect the water supplies for roughly one in eight Americans was a long and complex process, and tribal leaders and environmental advocates played an integral role. Both of our organizations are proud to have contributed to this effort.
Tribes have rights to 20% of this water
There are 29 federally recognized tribes across the Colorado River Basin. Together, these tribes have water rights to roughly 20% of the water that flows through the river annually. In Arizona, the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) and the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) were critical partners in making the Drought Contingency Plan possible.
For CRIT, this was a choice that reflects deeply rooted values, including the spiritual and cultural significance of rivers and wildlife. Supporting water conservation also puts a clear value on basic human needs that are important to us all.
Regardless of individual reasons for supporting water conservation that brought such a wide group of interests together, it is now more evident than at any other time in our lives how we are all connected to each other, and to our natural resources. And with that in mind, there is great work yet to be done to make sure that all water users are truly part of a more sustainable future.
Tribal nations have historically been left out of planning and negotiations that develop river management across the Colorado River Basin. Meaningful tribal inclusion going forward will not be an easy task.
It requires leadership from all involved to authentically understand each other’s interests and responsibilities. It requires sharing expertise to build tribal capacity so that we are in equitable positions to negotiate. Diversity, equity and inclusion enhance the process for all of us.
All communities across the Colorado River Basin deserve to be part of the discussions as decisions about managing the river are made. All water users, water managers and elected leaders need to work together to address the inequities in water availability in the basin.
That process started last year in Arizona with the CRIT and GRIC participation in the drought plan, and it needs to continue as plans develop for our water future. We need each other if we are going to protect and save the life of the Colorado River that supports us all.
In this moment of such dire need, and in the face of one of the most severe droughts in over a century, it is time for each of us to recommit to what connects all of us – and what it means to conserve and live in a responsible, sustainable way, together.
Dennis Patch is chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, whose reservation in Arizona and California is bisected by the Colorado River. Ted Kowalski leads the Colorado River Initiative for the Walton Family Foundation, which encourages water conservation and a healthy, sustainable Colorado River Basin.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released its projections for the Colorado River’s water supply for the next two years. Spring and summer inflow to Lake Powell is expected to be 78 percent of average, due to dry conditions last fall. Lake Mead is projected to fall into “Tier Zero” conditions for 2021 and 2022. That’s a new designation under the Drought Contingency Plan which requires Arizona, Nevada and Mexico take cuts in their water supply. Arizona’s reduction of nearly two hundred thousand acre-feet of water will come from the Central Arizona Project, the canal that serves Phoenix and Tucson. The Tier Zero reduction will affect CAP’s water banking program and agricultural customers, but not cities or tribes.
If Colorado decides to join in an historic Colorado River drought protection effort, one that would require setting aside as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell, can it find a fair way to get the work done? A way that won’t cripple farm economies and one which ensures Front Range cities bear their share of the burden?
That was one of the key questions more than 100 people, citizen volunteers and water managers, addressed last week as part of a two-day meeting in Denver to continue exploring whether the state should participate in the effort. The Lake Powell drought pool, authorized by Congress last year as part of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, would help protect Coloradans if the Colorado River, at some point in the future, hits a crisis point, triggering mandatory cutbacks.
But finding ways to set aside that much water, the equivalent of what roughly 1 million people use in a year at home, is a complex proposition. The voluntary program, if created, would pay water users who agree to participate. And it would mean farmers fallowing fields in order to send their water downstream and cities convincing their customers to do with less water in order to do the same. The concept has been dubbed “demand management.”
Among the key issues discussed at the joint Interbasin Compact Committee and demand management work group confab last week is whether there is a truly equitable way to fill the drought pool that doesn’t disproportionately impact one region or sector in the state.
In addition, a majority of participants reported that they wanted any drought plan to include environmental analyses to ensure whichever methods are selected don’t harm streams and river habitat.
Some pointed to the need to identify “tipping points” when reduced water use would create harmful economic effects in any given community, and suggested that demand management be viewed as a shared responsibility.
Flipping the narrative of shared responsibility, participants said sharing benefits equally was important as well. They want to ensure that people selected to participate would do so on a time-limited basis, so that a wide variety of entities have the opportunity to benefit from the payments coming from what is likely to be a multi-million-dollar program.
“People are starting to get it,” said Russell George. George is a former lawmaker who helped create the 15-year-old public collaborative program which facilitates and helps negotiate issues that arise among Colorado’s eight major river basins and metro area via basin roundtables. He chairs the Interbasin Compact Committee, composed of delegates from those roundtables.
“It’s understood that we have to be fair about this and we have to share [the burden] or it won’t work. I think we’re making great progress,” George said.
The Colorado River is a major source of the state’s water, with all Western Slope and roughly half of Front Range water supplies derived from its flows.
But growing populations, chronic drought and climate change pose sharp risks to the river’s ability to sustain all who depend on it. The concept behind the drought pool is to help reduce the threat of future mandatory cutbacks to Colorado water users under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
The public demand management study process, facilitated by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, has caused concern among different user groups, including farmers. Because growers consume so much of the state’s water, they worry that they are the biggest target for water use reductions, which could directly harm their livelihoods if the program isn’t implemented carefully and on a temporary basis.
In early 2019 the seven states that comprise the Colorado River Basin—Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin, and Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the Upper Basin—agreed for the first time to a series of steps, known as the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, to help stave off a crisis on the river.
And while Lower Basin states have already begun cutting back water use in order to store more in Lake Mead, the four Upper Basin states are still studying how best to participate to shore up Lake Powell. For the drought pool program to move forward, all four states would need to agree and contribute to the pool. George pointed to Colorado as a leader among the four states, saying it would likely be responsible for contributing as much as 250,000 acre-feet to the pool.
“We appreciate the focus, dedication and collaboration of our work group members,” said CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell in a statement. “This workshop was the next step in sharing ideas for Colorado’s water future, and positioning our state as a national leader for cooperative problem solving.”
The eight major volunteer work groups, addressing such topics as the law, the environment, agriculture and water administration, will continue meeting throughout the year, with a mid-point report based on their findings to date due out sometime this summer.
Travis Smith, a former CWCB board member from Del Norte who is now participating on the agriculture work group, said he is hopeful that the work groups will be able to come up with a plan the public will endorse. Any final plan will likely have to be approved by Colorado lawmakers.
“Coming together to address Colorado’s water future is something we’ve been practicing through the [nine river basin roundtables] for years. Will we get there? Absolutely,” Smith said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
FromThe High Country News [March 10, 2020]: (Anna V. Smith):
The Colorado River Basin is the setting for some of the most drawn-out and complex water issues in the Western U.S. In 2019, the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan — a water-conservation agreement between states, tribal nations and the federal government for the basin, now in its 20th year of drought — passed Congress. This year, it goes into effect.
2020 will also see the start of the renegotiation of the Colorado River Interim Guidelines. The guidelines, which regulate the flow of water to users, were created in 2007 without tribal consultation and are set to expire in 2026. The 29 tribal nations in the upper and lower basins hold some of the river’s most senior water rights and control around 20% of its annual flow. But the tribes have often been excluded from water policymaking; around a dozen have yet to quantify their water rights, while others have yet to make full use of them. Most of the tribal nations anticipate fully developing their established water rights by 2040 — whether for agriculture, development, leasing or other uses. Drought and climate change are still causing shortages and uncertainty, however. Already, the Colorado River has dropped by about 20%; by the end of this century, it could drop by more than half.
High Country News spoke with Daryl Vigil (Jicarilla Apache, Jemez Pueblo and Zia Pueblo), water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation. Vigil, the interim executive director of the Ten Tribes Partnership, helped co-facilitate the Water and Tribes Initiative, coalitions focused on getting increased tribal participation on Colorado River discussions. Those efforts are critical, Vigil says, “because left to the states and the federal government, they’ve already proven that they will leave us out every time.”
HCN and Vigil spoke about “the law of the river” — the colloquial term for the roughly 100 years of court cases, treaties, agreements and water settlements that govern the Colorado — as well as tribal consultation and climate change.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
High Country News: Sometimes it can be hard to really understand the core value of water, because it gets so caught up in things like policies and laws and bureaucratic language. Could you boil it down a bit and explain, at the core, what’s so important about this?
Daryl Vigil: Through the Water and Tribes Initiative (in 2018), we did over a hundred interviews of all the major stakeholders in the basin: states, water providers, tribes, NGOs, conservation groups. And it was pretty amazing, to find out that when you talk to all these folks, almost universally they’re all committed; they have a personal relationship to the river as a living entity that needs to be sustained. And so there’s two different mindsets looking at ’07 guidelines and some of the policy that’s been created around the river. One really looks at the Colorado River as a plumbing system, getting water to people who need it, versus the other end of the spectrum — when you start to look at tribes and others who have similar values, who look at it as a living entity, who look at it as an entity that provides life. And so we started to try to articulate traditional, cultural values and integrate that into current policy so that people can understand. Because we know most people want to see a healthy, sustainable Colorado River, but they also have their constituencies that they protect. And so, how is it that we bridge that divide? Because people really do care about the basin, and they really do want healthy environments and healthy ecosystems. And so that’s proven part of the conversation that we were having — that the next set of guidelines absolutely needs to be able to capture not only the water-delivery issues that already are at the forefront, but really start to address the cultural, environmental, traditional values of the Colorado River and integrate that into the next set of planning. Because if we don’t, this system cannot be sustained.
HCN: How does climate change figure into the discussion?
DV: We’re already seeing the impacts. And I think that’s something that absolutely has to be considered in the planning of the future, because right now — with 41 million people in the basin — as of 2010, the imbalance between supply and demand is already a million acre-feet. It’s projected, according to the basin study, to be 3 million acre-feet by 2060. We continue to act surprised when something new comes about in terms of a fire or a flood or an incredible drought. We’re making an impact on this planet, and it’s not a good one. That’s where, with the Ten Tribes Partnership, (we’re) really trying to make sure that we integrate those traditional, cultural values and spiritual values that the tribes have for the river as we move forward. Because if we’re not going to address it, it looks pretty catastrophic to us. And so I think, when we start talking about climate change, absolutely pushing to make sure that we’re thinking about a mindset of how we fit into nature, rather than nature fitting into us.
HCN: These kinds of discussions, compromises and negotiations can often, especially around water in the West, go on for decades. I’m curious what gives you momentum to keep working at it and putting so much energy into it.
DV: A few different things. You know, those hundred-plus interviews that we did, we got to know people on a real personal basis. We got to know who they are and their commitment — many of these people have had decades working in the Colorado River Basin and doing the best that they could, given the structure. And everybody understands and agrees that the current system is not sustainable, and it doesn’t work; it’s not inclusive of the voices that need to be included into this process. And so that gives me great hope. And then you see things like the pulse flow, where they got water all the way to the Sea of Cortez. And to look at the faces of those Mexican kids who had never seen water in the Colorado River in their whole life come out, and just the wonder and the magic in their eyes of seeing what water does.
And then we just recently had our second basin-wide workshop and gathering up in Phoenix. We had a hundred-plus of the major stakeholders: states, feds, water providers, tribes and four tribal chairman present at this particular meeting, which is just huge, a bunch of people all in this room all talking about their joint commitment to the river. It’s moving to me because, I mean, I think that’s what it’s going to take.
HCN: Every tribal nation is different, but how might a tribal nation view water similarly or differently than a city or a state or the federal government in terms of water and management?
DV: That’s the thing that we’re really trying to create awareness of. Because in the Colorado River Basin alone, you have 29 distinct sovereign entities — geographically, culturally, languages, and mindsets and traditions and culture in terms of how they think about the river. A lot of it’s really about the same, but in terms of the reverence and the spiritual connection that most tribes have, they look at it in different ways. For instance, invasive species of fish: You get tribes who are really aggressive about wanting to remove them because they’re not part of the natural environment that was always there. Then you get other tribes who are just like, eh, who cares and it’s not on their radar. And that’s why it’s important that a conversation about the next set of guidelines for the Colorado River has to include all 29 tribes — in terms of at least the opportunity to participate and at least having the information to determine whether they want to or not.
HCN: What are some big things that you would like people to better understand about the discussions around water in the Colorado River Basin?
DV: I would like them to understand, from a tribal perspective, the incredible role that tribal water already plays in the basin. The other thing I would like people to understand is that this current law of the river is not sustainable. At some point in time there’s collapse. And I think if we don’t address it quickly, that collapse could happen sooner than later. And I really would like to have them understand that the way that the law of the river is structured — upper, lower basins, and how they’re managed differently, and how there’s different requirements and how states are engaged — it’s really complex and doesn’t make any sense, and, ultimately, I don’t think it’s going to get us where the broader consensus wants us to go in terms of a healthy, sustainable river, and still provide water to all living creatures and plants in the basin.
HCN: Specifically, what is it that tribal nations are bringing to the conversation that was lacking in the 2007 agreements?
DV: I think absolutely a point of view about the sacredness of the river that most people really do share, whether they’re tribal or not. And then the other thing is the unique role that tribes are going to continue to play in the West — the large land areas and our resource development and how we move forward. It creates this mindset, in my mind, of building a pathway of who we want to be in the future. But a huge thing, too, is tribes bring certainty to the table. You know, it’s like, wow, what if we negotiated together about being able to move water where it needs to move, and work from a standpoint of collaboration and need rather than protect, defend and win, lose.
HCN: That’s a good point. Because that’s how water is so often talked about, as somebody versus somebody.
DV: And I think that’s what the law of the river does. It’s contentious, and it automatically puts you in a position to protect and defend. And if that’s the foundation we’re operating from, what does that get us? It’s just going to get us this recurring, vicious cycle that we’ve been stuck in. The work that we’re doing at the partnership and Water and Tribes Initiative hopefully has broader implications in terms of tribal sovereignty, and looking at tribal sovereignty from the standpoint of an opportunity to create your future.
Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at email@example.com or submit a letter to the editor. Follow @annavtoriasmith.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:
Colorado Water Conservation Board Hosts Two-Day Forum
On March 4 – 5, Colorado continued to carve the path forward in its Demand Management Feasibility Investigation during a two-day joint meeting between the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) and eight Demand Management Workgroups.
Hosted by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), this was the first workshop convening all eight Workgroups – together representing diverse water-related interests across the state. Workgroups reflected on the past year of discussions and presented on challenges and benefits they foresee in a potential temporary, voluntary, compensated program to address Demand Management.
Demand Management is the concept of temporary, voluntary, and compensated reductions in the consumptive use of water in the Colorado River Basin. Any water saved would only be used to ensure compact compliance and to protect the state’s water users from involuntary curtailment of uses.
“We appreciate the focus, dedication and collaboration of our Workgroup members who gathered this week from across Colorado to move this important conversation forward,” said CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell. “This workshop was the next step in sharing ideas for Colorado’s water future, and positioning our state as a national leader for cooperative problem solving.”
IBCC Director Russell George said, “We began this process of meeting as individual Workgroups in order to begin exploring concerns and benefits of a potential Demand Management Program. The next step in the process was bringing these Workgroups together in this larger forum, which has fostered the critical conversation needed to ensure we are using a grassroots approach. This approach will help inform our state’s decision-makers as they consider options for a possible Demand Management program.”
Demand Management Workgroups include:
Administration & Accounting
Economic & Local Government
Education & Outreach
Law & Policy
Monitoring & Verification
As a headwaters state, Colorado is thoroughly exploring potential tools for managing water in the western United States, and will continue to inform Coloradans throughout the investigation and during the decision-making process.
This year, the first-ever Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan is set to launch, and water officials expect 2020 to bring unprecedented changes to the way the river is run, including cutbacks in water use by some states.
Drought and climate change are expected to play a leading role in determining how to reduce water use and bring the stressed river system into a sustainable, balanced state of being.
After historically low levels were reached last year in Lakes Powell and Mead, Arizona and Nevada are now poised to implement their first-ever cuts in water diversions, while Colorado and the other upper basin states are working to explore ways to conserve water and bank it in Lake Powell’s new drought pool to avoid future shortages.
Brad Udall, a senior climate scientist at Colorado State University’s water center, said the river’s operations are set for a major rework.
2019, he said, was “a really big [water] year, so I think everybody’s happy, but to think somehow the drought is over and climate change isn’t happening—or to hope for the best and ignore the lessons of the last 19 years—I think these high temperatures will remind people, ‘This is not the same old game we used to play in the 20th century.’”
A look back
A lot has changed since the Colorado River Compact first divvied up the river’s waters in 1922. Today, more than 40 million people in two countries rely upon the river, which originates on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains in northern Colorado, and is fed by major tributaries like the Green, Gunnison and San Juan rivers. Cities from Denver to San Diego, though geographically outside of the natural river basin, divert water from the river for drinking and industry, and farmers irrigate 5.5 million acres of everything from alfalfa to melons.
The Colorado River Basin is also now more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the twentieth century average—with “hotter” droughts depleting river flows. By necessity, as the climate continues to change, bringing continued warming and drying, shortage-sharing agreements on the river must continuously be updated to keep changing, too. The Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) was needed as a stop-gap until a new set of operating guidelines, due by 2026, are written.
The DCP’s predecessor
The DCP’s origins lie with the Colorado River Interim Guidelines. Written in 2007, the operating guidelines were designed to address the Colorado River’s deteriorating storage levels. They identify how to operate the river’s two major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, under hotter, drier conditions, and to share the risk of shrinking water supplies between the upper and lower basins.
But the 2007 interim guidelines, while temporarily keeping the basin out of crisis, did not anticipate the extent of drought that the basin would experience. In 2013, then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell directed states to consider additional measures or face unilateral federal action to avoid a potential crisis. With its own interests to protect, including water deliveries to contractors and tribal water rights, the federal government needed states to put a more robust plan in place.
That led to the latest temporary plan, the DCP, which negotiators say provides some security in avoiding a potential crash of the Colorado River system.
Six years in the making, the DCP includes two plans, hammered out separately by the lower and upper basin states. The upper basin plan focuses on flexibility in reservoir operations during drought conditions, investigating how to reduce water demands—including with voluntary water conservation programs—and weather modification to augment precipitation. In the lower basin, the process needed to move more quickly because water use already exceeds allocations. Cities and farms in Arizona, California and Nevada agreed to scale back and take deeper cuts as Lake Mead reaches threshold elevations that trigger those cutbacks. This summer, the first threshold was triggered, so Arizona and Nevada will implement their cutbacks this year.
Developing plans for each basin was tricky considering that within each state there are also individual tribes, competing interests, and conflicts between urban and rural water users. But, pushed by a deadline from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, in March 2019, the seven states asked Congress to provide necessary authorizations to execute their final plans. In an era when Congress spends much of its time at an impasse, legislators on both sides of the aisle recognized the need for drought planning. In April, federal legislators passed the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act and the following month, on May 20, representatives from the seven basin states and Department of the Interior signed completed upper and lower basin drought contingency plans.
Not a new problem
As Eric Kuhn and John Fleck write in their new book, “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” even during compact negotiations in the 1920s, records showed the river’s annual flows were lower than the total 17.5 million acre-feet allocated to the seven states and Mexico. In fact, three different studies during the 1920s estimated natural river flows at Lee Ferry at between 14.3 million acre-feet and 16.1 million acre-feet.
Planners chose to ignore that information, Fleck says, and with it, they ignored convincing evidence showing the basin regularly experienced long periods of drought. “We have rules written down on paper, allocating water across the basin, that essentially allocate more water than the river actually has—and this manifests itself quite differently in the lower basin than the upper basin,” says Fleck, director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico. Fleck’s co-author Kuhn is the now-retired general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
In the lower basin, California, Nevada and Arizona have long overused their share of the river (approximately 7.5 million acre-feet annually, averaged over 10-year rolling cycles), Fleck says, whereas the upper basin states have yet to use more than around 4 million acre-feet (of the “remaining” 7.5 million acre-feet originally intended, but not necessarily guaranteed, for them). But everyone needs to come to terms with the fact that there is less water in the basin, Fleck says. “And that’s what the DCP is,” he says. “The first steps toward a long-term plan for everyone to use less water.”
Today, Kuhn and Fleck note, the river’s average flow between 2000 and 2018 has been only 12.4 million acre-feet—16 percent lower than the 1906-2017 average of 14.8 million acre-feet per year.
To use less water, the two basins need their own strategies. In the lower basin, the DCP sets rules to scale back use of lower basin allocations as Lake Mead drops, or until storage conditions improve. Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will see cuts this year, while California could follow in future years if reservoir storage declines continue. Over the past few years, water users already started scaling back voluntarily, and, says Fleck, “The DCP gives the structure that gives us the confidence [the cutbacks] will continue,” he says.
The upper basin occupies a precarious position of its own, even though it uses less water than it technically could under the compacts that govern its use—use in the upper basin has remained flat, at around 4 million acre-feet per year, since 1990. Because upper basin states must not interfere with a specific quantity of water flowing downstream, they’ll take on much of the burden of dealing with declining flows in a warmer future, Fleck adds. “That means the upper basin has to be sure it has the tools in place to make sure it can continue to meet its compact obligations, to send water out of Lake Powell,” he says. “And it may have to figure out how to conserve water below 4 million acre-feet.”
Challenges of a warming world
Any planning on the Colorado River—from the crops farmers plant, to the ways in which cities incentivize conservation among customers, to the DCP’s successor—must address the fact that the basin is facing a hotter, drier future.
Rainfall records, reconstructed from tree ring chronologies that stretch back more than a thousand years, reveal past patterns of southwestern droughts, marked by dry conditions associated with natural climate variability. Today’s droughts in the basin are different. They are notable not just for a lack of precipitation, but also for warmer temperatures, which spur changes in snowpack, increase transpiration in forests and fields, and boost evaporation from reservoirs.
The U.S. Global Change Program’s Fourth National Climate Assessment in 2018 painted a troublesome picture of reduced water supplies and future food insecurity in the region. It also identified risks to southwestern tribes from drought and wildfire, and challenges to the region’s infrastructure and energy supplies.
More localized studies of the Colorado River Basin also show that as climate change continues to heat and dry the region, the river’s flows will keep dropping. A 2017 study by Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University and Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, showed that flows between 2000 and 2014 averaged 19 percent below the 1906-1999 average, with one-third of those losses due to higher temperatures, versus changes in precipitation. If warming continues, according to that 2017 study, Colorado River flows could decline by 20 to 35 percent by 2050 and 30 to 55 percent by the end of the century.
A study published the following year by Udall and others reiterated that “unprecedented basin-wide warming” was responsible for the declines, this time looking at 1916 through 2014, when the river’s flows dropped by 16.5 percent during that period, even though annual precipitation had increased slightly. The study also revealed the entire basin’s sensitivity to shifts in precipitation patterns—that it matters whether precipitation comes as rain or snow, and also where it falls. Snowfall in the upper basin is more beneficial to the system, for example, than rainfall in southern Arizona. And the future doesn’t look promising: The 2018 study forecasts a future decline in snowfall within four sub-basins in Colorado.
Healthier snowpack this past winter offered everyone a bit of a reprieve, but the Colorado River Basin’s problems aren’t over. At the end of the water year, total system storage was at only 53 percent, according to Reclamation, though that’s up from just under 47 percent in October 2018.
The loss of the reflective snowpack drives evaporation and reduces the flow of water, the study found.
The 40 million people who rely on Colorado River water need to prepare for a drier future.
Global warming is shrinking the Rocky Mountain snowpack that feeds the river and flows are declining at a rate of about 9.3 percent for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit increase in temperature, according to a new study that “identifies a growing potential for severe water shortages in this major basin.”
The decline is “mainly driven by snow loss and consequent decrease of reflection of solar radiation,” a pair of scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey wrote in a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science. The study helps resolve a “longstanding disagreement in previous estimates of the river’s sensitivity to rising temperatures.”
The study links dwindling flow of water with the loss of albedo, a measure of the snowpack’s reflective quality. Like ice in the Arctic, white snow reflects solar radiation back to space. But as the snowpack in the Colorado River declines, the ground and, crucially, the air directly above the ground, warm up. Water from the melting snow or from rain evaporates from the soil, rather than trickling into the streams that feed the Colorado River.
The scientists found the link by measuring the relationship between the amount of water in the snow, the amount of the sun’s incoming radiation and how much of that was reflected back by the snowpack’s albedo, showing that, as the snowpack dwindled, the river’s flow declined.
Brad Udall, a climate scientist with the Colorado River Research Group, said the study “adds another brick in the wall of evidence that it’s very likely we’re going to see significant declines in Colorado River flows.
“Scientists have been trying to figure out how sensitive the river is to global warming,” he said, “and these numbers put the sensitivity at the upper end of what’s possible.”
The research divided the Colorado River Basin into 960 sub-areas and broke down the data, including satellite measurements of albedo, month by month. That enabled the scientists to see that the effect was dominant in the late spring and early summer, when the snowpack was being depleted, said Chris Milly, the senior U.S. Geological Survey researcher who led the new research. Previous studies on the Colorado River’s climate sensitivity focused primarily on precipitation and temperatures, without considering the radiation balance, he added.
“Before our study there was a huge range of estimates of how sensitive Colorado River flows are to warming, from 2 percent to 15 percent for every 1 degree Celsius of warming. We really wanted to try and understand and narrow that uncertainty,” Milly said.
It’s not just a Colorado problem. “Many water-stressed regions around the world depend on runoff from seasonally snow-covered mountains,” the authors wrote in the journal report, “and more than one sixth of the global population relies on seasonal snow and glaciers for water supply.”
The findings suggest that the snow cover offers a “protective shield” that limits evaporation from this natural reservoir, the scientists wrote in the study. As the shield shrinks, it will crimp water availability in snow-fed regions that are already stressed, including the Colorado River Basin…
Unending Stream Flow Decline
University of Michigan climate researcher Jonathan Overpeck said the new study is valuable because it details the mechanism “by which regional human-caused warming is reducing flows in the Colorado River.”
Continued warming, he said, “will lead to significant and unending reductions in river flows. Until global warming is stopped, the Colorado and other key rivers of the Southwest will continue to provide less and less water to the region.”
Research since then has confirmed that global warming is affecting water supplies in the West in several different ways. As early as 2013, U.S. Geological Survey research showed that warmer spring temperatures since 1980 have cut the Rocky Mountain snowpack by 20 percent.
A 2016 study in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains showed how the snowfall line is speeding uphill. At lower elevations where the mountains aren’t so steep, tens of thousands of square miles that used to be white all winter now stay brown and heat up, and the moisture in the soil evaporates.
In 2017, Overpeck, along with Udall, showed a clear relationship between warming temperatures and less water in the Colorado River Basin, as they studied the Colorado River’s 21st century “hot drought.”
The new study doesn’t take into account extreme events like the crippling 2012 drought that sent Colorado River flows to record lows while reservoir storage plummeted.
By the end of May that year, 100 percent of Colorado was in some stage of drought, including the mountains that supply more than three-quarters of the Colorado’s total flow. It would end up being Colorado’s hottest year on record, as well as one of the state’s worst wildfire seasons, burning a quarter million acres and causing temporary evacuations of 35,000 people.
But so-called Black Swan climate events like megadroughts lasting several decades have happened regularly in the last few thousand years, and are increasingly likely in a world that’s cooking in a thickening stew of greenhouse gases.
In May 2019, the Colorado River Research Group published a warning about “unexpected shocks from Black Swan events.” That includes megadroughts or extreme floods, as well as “socioeconomic events that might stress the existing legal/management framework beyond any known circumstance,” the report said.
Because of global warming, the chances of such events are increasing at the same time that reservoir storage and groundwater reserves are being depleted, a disconcerting situation “given the role of multiple megadroughts in undermining past civilizations in the region,” the river researchers wrote.
They said planning scenarios should be based on water records that stretch back longer than the last century, and should take into account that “the abnormally wet period of the early 20th century … might be better viewed as a highly unlikely hydrologic event that cannot be assumed to be part of the future.”
The paleoclimate record clearly shows that the first 100 years of the European settlement era in the Colorado River Basin was an unusually stable period of abundant water, and that there were sudden extreme swings between drought and floods during past geologic eras of rapid climate change.
One of most severe drought periods on record in the Colorado River Basin was between the years 900 to 1300, when regional temperatures close to today’s triggered “a period of extensive and persistent aridity over western North America,” according to a 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…
Overpeck said, “The good news is that we understand what is happening to the Colorado River and why. This means we can have confidence on the solution, which is putting a rapid stop to climate change, mainly by ending the burning of fossil fuels.”
He added, “Simply put, the more oil and gas we burn, the less water will be available to the American Southwest.”
Using hydrologic models, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey, found that the Colorado River basin is extremely sensitive to slight changes in temperature. In their new paper in the journal Science, they show for each degree Celsius temperatures rise, flows in the river are likely to decline more than 9%.
That decline is likely to cause severe water shortages in the Colorado River basin, where more water exists on paper in the form of water rights than in the river itself. Warmer temperatures diminish snowpack, lessening the amount of water available…
The reductions might sound small, Milly said, but they will be felt throughout the basin.
“There’s not a lot of slack in the system,” Milly said. “In the long-term communities, states will be making adjustments to how they allocate water.”
The finding comes as water managers throughout the watershed are gearing up for negotiations over a long-term plan for the river’s management. The Colorado River’s current operating guidelines expire at the end of 2026, and the states that make up the watershed are required to start negotiating new ones by the end of this year.
“The new rules must consider how to manage the river with unprecedented low flows in the 21st century,” Udall said. “The science is crystal clear — we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately. We now have the technologies, the policies and favorable economics to accomplish greenhouse gas reductions. What we lack is the will.”
FromThe Washington Post (Juliet Eilperin, Chris Mooney):
Up to half of the drop in the Colorado’s average annual flow since 2000 has been driven by warmer temperatures, four recent studies found. Now, two U.S. Geological Survey researchers have concluded that much of this climate-induced decline — amounting to 1.5 billion tons of missing water, equal to the annual water consumption of 10 million Americans — comes from the fact that the region’s snowpack is shrinking and melting earlier. Less snow means less heat is reflected from the sun, creating a feedback loop known as the albedo effect, they say.
“The Colorado River Basin loses progressively more water to evaporation, as its sunlight-reflecting snow mantle disappears,” write the authors, USGS senior resource scientist Chris Milly and physical scientist Krista A. Dunne…
Milly and Dunne, who analyzed 960 different areas in the Upper Colorado River Basin to determine how disappearing snowpack influenced the river’s average annual flow, determined that the flow has dipped 9.3 percent for each temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). The average annual temperature for the area they surveyed has risen 1.4 degrees C (2.5 degrees F) in the past century, Milly said in a phone interview.
The region is poised to warm even more in the years ahead, Milly said, and it isn’t “likely” that precipitation can compensate for these hotter and drier conditions. Comparing the Colorado River’s historic flow between 1913 and 2017 to future conditions, he added: “That flow, we estimate, due to the warming alone would be reduced anywhere from 14 to 31 percent by 2050.”
Colorado State University senior scientist Brad Udall, who has written two papers attributing half of the Colorado River’s lower flows to warming temperatures, said in a phone interview that researchers now “have multiple lines of evidence pointing to a very similar number.”
“And this number is worrying,” Udall said of the new study. “I would say eye-popping.”
Andrew Mueller, general manager for the Colorado River District, said in an email that the new findings provide “confirmation of significantly grim indicators about future flow in the Colorado River.”
The amount of water that would disappear with another 1 degree C temperature rise, he added, is nearly five times what Las Vegas uses each year. “A decline in flows of this magnitude will present a significant challenge to all inhabitants in the Colorado River Basin.”
The current operating rules for the river expire at the end of 2026, and negotiations over how to share the water going forward start this year.
Udall said that in light of current projections, policymakers need to consider crafting an agreement where all the major players in the West will use less water than they do now.
“These projections are dire, but we’re looking at a glass that’s 70 percent full, not half full,” he said. “It could be grimmer.”
Officials at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, who brokered a drought contingency plan among seven states and Mexico last year, said that they are continuing to monitor the way climate change is affecting the river.
“Reclamation works closely with leading scientists at the state and federal level, as well as universities to understand the potential impacts of climate change on the Colorado River,” said bureau spokesman Marlon Duke. “We will continue to use the best available science to manage the river to sustain reliable water far into the future.”
Click here to read the White Paper (Jian Wang, David E. Rosenberg, Kevin G. Wheeler, and John C. Schmidt). Here’s the executive summary:
Colorado River managers and stakeholders face many uncertainties—issues like climate change, future water demand, and evolving ecological priorities. Managers and stakeholders are looking for new ways to communicate about uncertain future conditions, help cope with an uncertain future, and develop public policy when future conditions are highly uncertain. Historically, Colorado River managers have operated Lake Powell and Lake Mead under the assumption that the future natural flow regime of the Colorado River at Lee Ferry will resemble the previously observed regime, but most climate scientists believe that the flow regime is changing, and that future flows will be lower, more variable, and more uncertain.
• It is also difficult to predict future demand for Colorado River water, future river ecosystem conditions, or the values that future generations will attach to those ecosystem conditions. These uncertainties present immense challenges when developing river management policies to enhance water supplies and ecosystem condition.
• To help Colorado River stakeholders think about, talk about, and better manage the river in the face of these unknowns, this white paper distinguishes four levels of uncertainty. Future conditions can be described by point estimates with small ranges (Level 1), probabilities (Level 2), scenarios of possible future conditions (Level 3), or a level of complete unknown (Level 4).
• We represent each level with day-to-day and Colorado River examples. These examples illustrate how the further a stakeholder attempts to peer into the future, the greater the level of uncertainty.
• Managers and stakeholders can classify the uncertainty level of each key system factor to guide decisions about which modeling tools and public policies to use. Tools include defining alternative scenarios, Many Objective Robust Decision Making (MORDM), Decision Scaling (DS), and Dynamic Adaptive Policy Pathways (DAPP) for uncertain future conditions that can only be described by scenarios (Level 3).
• There is need to expand the discussion about how to renegotiate the Interim Guidelines and the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). This discussion should consider uncertainties in future hydrology, demands, and river ecosystem conditions that can only be described by scenarios (Level 3). Revisions to the Interim Guidelines should (1) include more information about future conditions as new information becomes available, (2) define interim decision points (called signposts) when existing policies should be reconsidered, and (3) allow more flexibility in day-to-day management decisions that respond to unforeseen conditions.
• This white paper suggests that new guidelines designed to adapt to uncertain future hydrology, water demand, and river ecosystem conditions are likely to look quite different than the current guidelines, which seek to provide certainty about the amount of water managers can divert.
• New guidelines that acknowledge different levels of uncertainty levels will be more adaptable, more flexible, and will be better able to anticipate and respond to a wider range of future Colorado River conditions. This adaptability and flexibility can help avert future crises.
Policy priorities for the 2020 Colorado legislative session.
Colorado lawmakers returned to the Capitol on January 8th to kick off the 2020 legislative session. Even before bills were introduced, it was clear that the General Assembly will wrangle with issues that will touch every corner of the state and impact the daily lives of Coloradans. Water is one of these key issues.
Despite the optimism from a snowy December, Colorado’s snowpack is now starting to fall closer to average. Although Colorado is perched at 108 percent average snowpack statewide, much of the West Slope remains in drought conditions. With enough snowpack, flurries will melt and become flows for healthy rivers that support all of us. But as water supplies are becoming more unpredictable, sharing a limited water supply—statewide—between urban, rural, agriculture, industry, environmental and recreational needs is the challenge at hand.
Audubon Rockies is working with lawmakers and partners to prioritize water security for people, birds, and the healthy rivers that we all depend upon. Colorado’s birds and people cannot thrive unless our rivers do too. Here are three water priority areas for Audubon Rockies in the 2020 Colorado legislative session.
Funding Colorado’s Water Plan
Water security for Coloradans, birds, and rivers begins with implementing the state Water Plan. In the light of climate change and booming population growth, Colorado’s Water Plan, finalized in 2015, aims to ensure a sufficient supply of water for the various users across the state including environmental, agricultural, municipal, industrial, and recreational needs. Implementing Colorado’s Water Plan is projected to cost $3 billion in total, or $100 million a year over the next 30 years.
In November 2019, voters approved Proposition DD to legalize sports betting and a 10% tax on these casino revenues which will result in an estimated $12 million to $29 million annually, the majority of which will go toward the Water Plan. Proposition DD is expected to generate more than $7 million in new tax revenue for the Colorado Water Plan in 2020, a significant bump up from past funding sources.
At this point, it is not clear how the state will spend these dollars given the various priorities and the considerable Water Plan funding gap. The language in DD was vague and will need refinement and transparency. Stakeholders and lawmakers will likely explore options with the legislature to guide how DD funds are spent on Water Plan implementation.
Audubon will advocate for spending that supports healthy rivers for the birds and people that depend on them, as we support a fully funded Water Plan.
Supporting the Colorado River
In 2019, the Drought Contingency Plan was adopted by the upper and lower Colorado River basin states. One of next steps for Colorado and the other upper basin states is to investigate the feasibility of a demand management program. The Water Resources Review Committee recommended SB20-024 to create a robust public engagement process similar to the development of the Water Plan before adopting any rules or recommendations regarding demand management. While public input is nearly always a positive, this process seems to get ahead of the process established by the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s (CWCB) demand management workgroup. Audubon is monitoring SB20-024.
With Colorado’s water supply becoming more unpredictable and valuable, particularly on the West Slope, concerns were raised by the Water Resources Review Committee to address anti-speculation. Specifically, concerns were raised that agricultural water rights are being sold to entities with no real interest in farming or ranching in Colorado that are holding those rights for future, more profitable transactions. SB20-048, Study Strengthening Water Anti-Speculation Law, would create a working group to explore ways to strengthen anti-speculation laws and report its findings and recommendations to the committee next year. Audubon is in favor of SB20-48 to keep Colorado’s water out of the hands of risky transactions. We need to support our agricultural heritage and the habitats our working landscapes provide.
For the second year, Colorado lawmakers will see the return of two similar bills attempting to expand the instream flow program. Since 1973, the instream flow program has given the CWCB the unique ability to hold instream flow rights—water rights with the sole purpose of preserving the natural environment by remaining in streams or lakes. First, HB20-1037, Augmentation of Instream Flows, is essentially a rerun from last year with key benefits for the Cache la Poudre River near Fort Collins. The bill permits the CWCB to use water for instream flow purposes, if the water has been decreed for augmentation without seeking a further change of use in water court. (Augmentation water restores water uses that are out of priority.) This would create a new pool of water, with lower administrative costs, which could be available for instream use.
The second bill, HB20-1157, Loaned Water For Instream Flows To Improve Environment, looks to expand the existing instream flow loan program. Under the current law the instream flow loan program allows water right holders to loan water for three years out of a 10-year period to the CWCB to preserve water for rivers where there is an existing instream flow water right. The current program participation is not renewable.
HB20-1157 looks to expand the instream flow loan program by increasing the years of participation from three to five years in a ten-year period, and allow for two additional ten-year renewal periods. It also supports greater notification to local water users, provides for an expedited process to address water-short river emergencies, and adds a longer term procedure for loaning water to instream flow decreed river segments for improvement of the environment. The instream flow loan program is completely voluntary and allows greater flexibility for the water right holder to use their property right in a beneficial way.
In 2019, a similar bill to HB20-1157 passed the House of Representatives only to die in Senate Committee. Perceptions around the potential impacts to soil health from fallowed fields and on historical irrigation return flows from leaving water in stream rather than applying it on the land may have caused the bill to fail. With robust engagement and input from Audubon, partners, stakeholders and the Colorado Water Congress over the past year, bill sponsors are more optimistic for successful instream flow loan expansion in 2020.
Audubon supports multiple tools in the toolbox to support healthy rivers, agriculture, and economies. HB20-1157 and HB20-1037 bring greater flexibility and beneficial options for rivers and water right holders.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Demand Management – a Hot Topic!!
There was an in-depth conversation around the Demand Management topic!
Celene Hawkins stated that the Demand Management workgroups are just at the beginning stages of work and there are still many questions. There is a greater need for coordination and keeping a steady pace of the work, while not moving too quickly so as to not miss things, as these are very complicated issues and need to take that time that is needed to do the work. There will be a joint IBCC and Demand Management work-group meetings that will take place March 4-5 where discussion could take place about that better coordination and how the CWCB can support the work-groups moving forward.
Russell George stated that the IBCC is not a work-group in Demand Management, they intentionally stand aside because they wanted to be ready as the IBCC to pick any particularly thorny question with the statewide implication that needed their help. The IBCC believes that at this point in time, and because of what’s going on with the river as a whole and the water levels of the big reservoirs, Demand Management becomes probably one of the most important issues for discussion on Colorado water issues that there is today. George explained that we owe it to the other Upper Basin states who are going through this drill, to work together to find an approach that works in all four states or to learn together that Demand Management can’t be done. Whatever conclusion is reached, it needs to be based on open and careful consideration of Demand Management as a tool that is being evaluated, as called for in the Drought Contingency Plans and Legislation.
“It’s time to protect Lake Mead and Arizona,” the state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, said in his state of the state address in January 2019. He spoke to lawmakers in the midst of uncomfortable, emotional discussions at the statehouse in Phoenix about who gets access to water in the arid West, and who doesn’t.
“It’s time to ratify the Drought Contingency Plan,” Ducey said to a round of applause.
The multi-state deal was the first issue Ducey brought up in the speech, and indicated it should be the legislature’s first priority. The deal was designed to keep the Colorado River’s largest reservoir — Lake Mead outside Las Vegas — from dropping rapidly and putting the region’s 40 million residents in a precarious position.
Within weeks Arizona finished its portion of the plan. Tribal leaders in the state didn’t receive any accolades in Ducey’s speech. But a recent Arizona State University report suggests they should have. The report’s authors said without the actions of two tribes — the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes — the deal would’ve likely collapsed.
“We know that you have to live in harmony with your surrounding community, with the water resources, you have to respect that,” Gila River Indian Community governor Stephen Roe Lewis said after Ducey’s speech.
To get the deal across the finish line, Lewis’s tribe agreed to lease a portion of its water to the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, which supplies water for new homebuilding in the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas. The Colorado River Indian Tribes agreed to fallow cropland on its reservation, which spans the Arizona-California border, and leave the unused water in Lake Mead.
“This is a legacy, history making moment for all of Arizona,” Lewis said.
Arizona’s portion of the Drought Contingency Plan became a unique example in the basin of tribal leaders asserting themselves in broader discussions about the river’s management. Historically, tribes in the Colorado River basin have been marginalized and ignored, left out or outright banned from discussions of Western water development.
With the drought plan done, some tribal leaders say their water rights can’t be ignored any longer, and that it’s irresponsible of Western water leaders to leave them out of large multi-state agreements. And a recently finished federal study is amplifying tribes’ call for a seat at the table to negotiate the river’s future.
“Early on, five years ago, the tribes didn’t think, well, how do we participate in this process?” said Daryl Vigil, member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation in northern New Mexico, and acting director of the Ten Tribes Partnership, an organization that represents the interests of 10 Colorado River basin tribes.
“But, I think given the nature of the senior nature of tribal water rights, they absolutely needed to be involved in that process,” Vigil said.
In December 2018, the federal government released the Tribal Water Study, which looked at water use within tribes, and projected future demands. One big takeaway from the report gained attention across the Southwest: On paper, tribes have rights to about 20% of all the water in the Colorado River watershed. Tribes aren’t using all the water they have rights to, but they plan to, which will have ripple effects throughout the entire southwestern watershed, Vigil said…
Celene Hawkins, who heads up The Nature Conservancy’s work on tribal water issues in the Colorado basin, said while tribes were largely left out of the negotiating process that led to the 2007 guidelines, the tone is different now. (The Nature Conservancy receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River coverage)
“I am hearing more conversation throughout the basin about tribal inclusion in the process,” Hawkins said. “I don’t know how it’s going to look yet, but there seems to be a commitment to doing better by having the tribal voices at the table this time.”
When the tribes show up to negotiate, they’ll be entering the room with some of the most senior water rights in the basin, which comes with their own level of value and power. Selwyn Whiteskunk, who manages water issues for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in southern Colorado, said he plans to push for more flexibility in the tribe’s water rights portfolio.
FromThe Boulder City Review (Celia Shortt Goodyear):
The water at Lake Mead is projected to be at its highest level in years, but the drought is still not over, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
Lake Mead’s elevation is around 1,092 feet, which is the highest it has been since May 2014, but it is still only 42% full, said Patti Aaron, public affairs officer for the bureau’s Lower Colorado Basin Region.
“Drought isn’t determined by the amount of water in Lake Mead,” Aaron said. “We would need to see at least two to three back-to-back years of above-average hydrology, hopefully more, to say we are out of the drought. There isn’t a set definition of when drought ends.”
There have not been two back-to-back good years since the late 1990s.
Aaron said the higher water levels are due to a wet November and December, causing an above-average inflow into the lake.
“Regarding the rising lake levels, this is part of the normal seasonal trend in which cooler weather reduces water orders from Lake Mead,” she said.
She added that the water level will decline by nearly 20 feet in the spring and summer because water orders will increase before the elevation rebounds later in the year.
The higher water levels are also due to conservation by the lower basin states and Mexico. The Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which took effect on Jan. 1, requires water savings contributions by the United States and Mexico.
Aaron said voluntary conservation activities added about 9 feet to Lake Mead’s elevation last year.
The Colorado River had a great 2019, with Lake Mead rising the most in a decade due to heavy flows into the river stemming from last year’s primo snowpack.
But 2020 isn’t shaping up as well, with a dry monsoon season and fall in 2019 paving the way for expected below-average spring summer runoff this year.
Right now, the April-July runoff is supposed to be 82% of average. That compares to 145 % of average in 2019, the second-best runoff season in the past 20 years, says the federal Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
Despite last year’s excellent river flows, most experts also say the Colorado still faces long-term supply issues because of a prolonged pattern of below normal runoff that has existed since 2000 due to drought and climate change…
Last year’s high river flows, fueled by heavy late winter and spring snows, caused Lake Mead to rise 9 feet to a little more than 1,090 feet in elevation. That’s its highest year-end elevation since 2013, although it’s well below the lake’s 1,213 foot elevation at the end of 1999…
Part of the reason was that the federal government released an above-average amount of water last year from Lake Powell to Mead, of 9 million acre feet. The river’s tributaries between the two lakes also got a lot more water than usual.
Arizona and the other Lower Basin states also took a lot less water from the river than they normally do — the lowest amount in 33 years.
But that doesn’t mean the area’s long-term structural deficit is fixed, said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Research Center, who posted last year’s favorable results on his “Inkstain” blog this week.
“Without bonus water released from Powell and extra-big inflows through the Grand Canyon, Mead would still be dropping,” he said.
The runoff forecast for 2020 is below average right now in part because total precipitation has been near to below average in the majority of the Upper Colorado River Basin, said the forecast center.
Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack, which feeds the river that supplies Lake Powell, was at 90% of normal [January 10, 2020], U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show.
Water managers from throughout the Colorado River Basin took the stage at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference earlier this month to talk about conserving water in the face of the twin threats to the river: increasing demand and climate change.
The state of Colorado is currently exploring a water-use-reduction program that is largely designed to pay farmers and ranchers on the Western Slope to voluntarily conserve water. While there’s still debate whether such a program should be implemented, the first question many ask is how to pay for such a program. In recent months, some water managers have come up with innovative ways to fund the controversial water-use-reduction plan — known as demand management — that wouldn’t rely entirely on taxpayers.
The drought contingency plan, which water leaders inked at last year’s annual CRWUA meeting, set up a reserve account of 500,000 acre-feet of water that the Upper Basin — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — could use to store water in Lake Powell as an insurance policy against dwindling reservoir levels.
In November, Colorado voters passed Proposition DD, which is projected to funnel roughly $16 million a year to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, or CWCB, by taxing sports betting. Demand management is one of the two things money from Proposition DD could fund (the other is Water Plan grants).
However, it’s widely accepted that $16 million is not enough to fund either of those things in their entirety. Demand management needs other sources of money.
Although the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District still isn’t convinced that a demand-management program is the right approach for the Western Slope, general manager Andy Mueller told the Las Vegas crowd that the Upper Basin has to reduce its water consumption — and explore creative solutions to accomplish that.
“I often talk about the Lower Basin overuse and how that’s driving the problem, and I will say they in the Lower Basin need to fix that problem,” Mueller said. “I will also say we in the Upper Basin … need to reduce our use. The science is pretty clear. Water we all thought was there even 15 years ago is not going be there. You can’t have water for the environment and the people if we are not reducing consumptive use throughout the basin.”
Who should pay?
So, if nearly all water users on the Colorado River, including those in the Lower Basin — California, Nevada and Arizona — would stand to benefit from a demand-management program, who should pay for it?
Not Colorado taxpayers, Mueller said, at least not entirely.
“Eighty million (dollars) a year would need to be out there in payments to get the appropriate amount of water in Lake Powell,” he said. “That cost to taxpayers is too high. So you turn to: Who else benefits from us creating a storage account in Lake Powell?”
One answer: power providers in both the Upper and Lower Basin states, who all need Lake Powell to remain above 3,525 feet, the minimum level required to continue generating hydropower. Some Upper Basin power cooperatives such as Western Area Power Administration, which sell power to local communities, including Aspen and Glenwood Springs, purchase hydropower generated at Lake Powell. Adding a small demand-management surcharge to customers’ bills is something that should be explored, Mueller said.
“Power customers should share in the costs of us storing for demand management,” Mueller said.
Another potential source of funds could be nonprofit environmental groups, since sending more water downstream to Lake Powell would also benefit stream health. The federal government, whose Bureau of Reclamation operates Lake Powell and Lake Mead, also has a role to play, Mueller said.
But no matter where the money comes from, Mueller said it must be channeled through the CWCB in a heavily regulated market to prevent speculation by private buyers.
“We have been very clear it needs to be a guided market if it’s going to happen, with lots of thoughtful, proactive rules to prevent lots of serious consequences,” he said.
The CWCB currently has a workgroup devoted to exploring how to fund demand management. The group has met twice so far, but CWCB facilitator Anna Mauss said the two biggest questions the group is grappling with are these: how much water is needed and what would the cost be. The workgroup, she said, will dive deeper into funding strategies at the next meeting, scheduled for the end of January.
“We are baby-stepping into this, trying to be diligent,” Mauss said. “It’s really just looking at scenarios at this point.”
The state is also encouraging innovative ideas from the private sector. The CWCB recently awarded $72,000 to 10.10.10, a Colorado Nonprofit Development Center project that aims to tackle “wicked problems” in water and climate. Under the program, 10 entrepreneurs will, over 10 days, attempt to tackle 10 systemic issues that are not adequately addressed by government, organizations or institutions.
“Yes, we are looking at demand management, and it could be one of the wicked problems we address,” said Jeffrey Nathanson, president of 10.10.10.
Platform for payment?
While some people work on finding sources of funding, others are already creating a platform to pay irrigators once the money is in place. Southwest Colorado water managers Steven Ruddell and David Stiller think a reverse auction to compensate water users for using less is the best way to go.
A reverse auction, which features many sellers (farmers and ranchers) and one buyer (the state of Colorado through the CWCB), would allow water-rights holders to set the lowest price they are willing to accept to voluntarily send their water downstream. According to Ruddell and Stiller’s paper on the subject, a reverse auction would remove paying for demand management from a political process and move it into a market-based process that lets water-rights holders bid the fair-market value of their water. It would also keep costs down for the CWCB.
Ruddell and Stiller presented their reverse-auction idea at the Upper Colorado River Basin Forum at Colorado Mesa University last month.
“We’ve tried to bite off a small piece of demand management by suggesting we use an auction that people are familiar with,” Ruddell said. “It’s used to determine the value of something, especially in the ag world.”
There are still many questions surrounding how a demand-management program might be paid for.
“There are all sorts of options,” Mueller said. “We shouldn’t just focus on raising taxes in our state.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Dec. 30 edition of The Aspen Times.
Click here to view the Twitter hashtag #CRWUA2019 from the conference.
Opinion: Think we’re too polarized to do anything meaningful? Tom Buschatzke and Ted Cooke prove that even those who disagree can work together.
The Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan is nothing short of historic.
Not necessarily because it’s a good deal. The multi-state agreement, which was signed in May, is costly and doesn’t solve any of the problems that threaten the Colorado River, which supplies about 40% of Arizona’s water supply.
DCP is monumental because it proves that people with wildly different viewpoints can learn to work together and accomplish things that matter. Even now, despite how divided our country has become.
California, Nevada and Arizona agreed to leave water in Lake Mead to keep it from reaching catastrophically low levels. Arizona also created its own plan to lessen the impact of those cuts on Pinal County farmers, who would have been heavily impacted by the deal.
That was a massive lift. Ironically, though, it probably never would have come together if two guys hadn’t decided to bury the hatchet – and in doing so, led a group of vastly different water interests to a deal they could all support.
It’s why Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and Ted Cooke, general manager of Central Arizona Project, are The Arizona Republic’s 2019 Arizonans of the Year.
Their agencies had locked horns over the deal’s basic details, including how to manage water levels at Lake Mead. Dueling op-eds were published in The Republic, with Buschatzke vowing not to sign CAP’s proposed plan.
Then, in May 2018, after water bills stalled in the state Legislature, Buschatzke and Cooke decided to become Switzerland – and agreed to co-chair a steering committee that produced an insane amount of water policy in a matter of months.
“It wasn’t like Switzerland,” Cooke said in a joint interview with Buschatzke. “It was as if the two most visible combatants agreed to put down their swords and take another approach.”
Their first few appearances were awkward. Words were chosen carefully. There was a palpable tension lying just below the surface, and the long hours and tense negotiations took a toll on the pair, who by February looked pale and gaunt, like they had been through the war.
But that tension helped bring the deal together.
Their example spread behind the scenes
There were a lot of strange bedfellows working on this deal, groups that had vastly different ideas about who should get the water and how it should be used. Yet they kept trading ideas, even when many felt the effort was DOA.
Some later said they were compelled to keep at it when talks broke down (and they broke down a lot) because of the example Buschatzke and Cooke were setting.
It was a poorly kept secret that their partnership had its share of “lively discussions behind closed doors,” as Buschatzke characterized it. But Buschatzke and Cooke said they were going to work together for DCP’s sake – and everyone involved knew they meant it.
There were many other players who orchestrated major compromises behind the scenes, including Paul Orme, an attorney representing Pinal County irrigation districts, and HighGround, a public-affairs consulting firm that for two years facilitated meetings between cities and farmers.
Without their efforts, this deal would not have come together.
Equally instrumental were those who put money and water on the negotiation table, including the governor, non-profit environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Gila River Indian Community. In fact, Arizona’s plan is one of the first major Western water agreements where tribes were actively involved and treated as key players in the deal.
No one was willing to let the effort die
That’s what makes DCP so remarkable.
It’s easy to dig in on water rights, and historically, disputes over limited supplies have devolved into a zero-sum game.
Yet farmers, cities and tribes made sacrifices and compromises that might not necessarily be in their best interests because they knew that being left out of the regional deal would put everyone’s water at risk.
When talks started to get off track, Gov. Doug Ducey wrote an op-ed that spelled out the principles that should be guiding the effort.
Few people liked the plan CAP passed to spare farmers from such drastic, immediate cuts. But it served as a catalyst for the plan that ultimately succeded.
Lawmakers were heavily involved – which was critical, considering they ultimately had to pass the plan – and in addition to the countless meetings that occurred behind closed doors, stakeholders met frequently in public to hold each other accountable.
These lessons have been noted repeatedly in committees that are tackling the state’s next big water crisis, a depleting groundwater supply.
Even now, collaboration continues
Even better, the working relationships that were created during DCP have continued far beyond the state’s many study groups.
The math driving DCP works only if Pinal farmers drill wells to use once their Colorado River water goes away. That means farmers will soon be pumping a lot more from an aquifer that ADWR contends does not have enough water to support everyone for the next 100 years.
Though the Legislature earmarked some cash to refurbish and relocate the wells farmers need, the project also relies on federal funding to be completed quickly.
Irrigation districts knew they would need partners to compete for that cash and began working with universities, municipal water providers, conservation districts, environmental groups and others, who have all ponied up cash to match the grant. They also have expanded the project, earmarking additional funds for farmers to experiment with low water-use crops and irrigation techniques.
According to the grant application, the goal is to involve at least 6,000 acres in these low water-use projects. The newly drilled wells also will help entities like CAP recover water they had previously stored underground for times of shortage.
This is about more than water policy
That’s a better solution than what we arrived at during DCP negotiations – one that aims to reduce the impact of groundwater pumping and spread use of the wells to more than just farmers.
And it’s yet another model that Arizona can point to as it works through water problems (or any problems, for that matter).
DCP is historic – and the example set by Buschatzke and Cooke is worth lauding – not because everyone is suddenly on the same page about our water future. Deep disagreements remain.
DCP matters because it proves that people with vastly different interests can get in a room and talk it out, maybe even shout it out in private. But they keep talking to each other. Keep looking for solutions they can live with, even if the ideas aren’t perfect.
Because they know that’s how you accomplish meaningful things.
This is an opinion of The Arizona Republic’s editorial board.
Colorado River Water Conservation District (CRWCD) board member Bill Trampe spoke to the county commissioners this past fall on behalf of the neighboring river district. Kathleen Curry, the chairman of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, also spoke with commissioners during that meeting.
Trampe reported that the transfer of ownership of Wolford Mountain reservoir near Kremmling in Grand County occurs on January 1, 2020. “So at that point in time Denver Water gets 40 percent of the ownership,” he said.
Trampe said demand management and drought contingency planning is always front and center for the board, and said the board is frustrated with the state process moving forward and its slowness putting the nine working groups involved in the state water planning process (Colorado’s Water Plan) to work…
Trampe described issues relating to water resource demand management, with “interests” on the Western Slope trying to make deals with Front Range entities.
Trampe said the district felt that individual groups making those deals could lead to a lot more “working the market and eventual condemnation rather than purchase—meaning condemnation by force rather than a deal between parties. If condemnation starts, I think that’s going to ruin everything.”
The solution, he said, is to work together with Western Slope entities and keep a strong base in the river district to negotiate more collectively. “If there’s one pot of money under state control to pay for demand management, then that’s the way it ought to be. There shouldn’t be individual groups out there doing their own thing.”
County commissioner John Messner asked if there’s been discussion among river districts about a de-Gallagherizing measure to open up current tax funding constraints. De-Gallagherizing refers to ballot measures that freeze the residential property tax rate as a way to stabilize budgets of rural governments.
Messner asked if the CRWCD has an opinion on whether a measure will address special districts such as this one.
“We considered a ballot issue for this fall, but didn’t think we were ready,” replied Trampe. He said the reason to wait was to start more outreach to the public in terms of what the districts are and what they do beforehand. He said the districts are hoping to do this in 2020.
“Whether it’s de-Gallagherization, or TABOR issues, we’re still trying to decide. But yes, we’re going to do something. We’ve got to do something,” he said.
Looking to support a water survey on the Crystal River basin
Commissioner Jonathan Houck reported that during a fall Gunnison Basin Roundtable meeting, members discussed the Upper Crystal River watershed at length.
That watershed has an application in with the state to conduct a water study, because the 2018 drought demonstrated that several subdivisions in that basin, some of which are in Gunnison County, had no water plan or storage without the Crystal River’s regular flow.
The Water Supply Reserve Fund (WSRF) is managing that application, and the Gunnison Roundtable considered and ultimately decided on drafting a letter of support…
Curry noted that a project in a different river basin asking an adjacent roundtable to write a letter is “a little out of the ordinary. So that threw our roundtable a little bit, wondering if that was even the right role. But I put it on our agenda since, if it involved looking at storage feasibility near Marble, in Gunnison County, I thought [commissioners] might be interested in that,” said Curry.
Houck responded that the county should send a message as well. “We want to see good, thoughtful water planning per all residents within the county. Due to the size and geography of our county we actually span two watersheds. And it’s important for us to advocate for that but understand that the funding needs to come from the appropriate basin,” he said…
Last, Curry said that the roundtable is preparing to submit a Basin Implementation Plan (BIP) in contribution to Colorado’s Water Plan, and that will include an updated project list. “This is our opportunity to change our project list,” she suggested, with additions or deletions as appropriate. The roundtable formed a subcommittee to begin the process, and its first meeting was this fall.
Standing atop Hoover Dam, peering over the chain-link fence down its 726-foot concave face of concrete, you simply feel impressed. The dam tamed the Colorado River’s floods and created a reservoir, Lake Mead, able to hold 26.1 million acre-feet of water, not quite two years of annual flows, when full at an elevation of almost 1,220 feet.
But Lake Mead has been nowhere close to full for most of the 21st century. The widening “bathtub ring” of white in the once-black, volcanic rocks of Boulder Canyon documents the reservoir’s 190-foot fall. Despite a rambunctious runoff from the previous winter’s snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, the reservoir was 61 percent empty by mid-August 2019. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that same month projected the reservoir would be below 1,090 feet on January 1, 2020. That finding triggered the first-ever delivery cuts to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico under the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP, signed by the basin states in 2019.
It’s a new era in the lower Colorado River Basin. The 20th century was one of engineering triumphs, ever more straws inserted into the river in defiance of geography and the innate aridity of the lower basin, the region below Lee Ferry, Arizona. This includes portions of Arizona, Nevada and California along with the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California but also tribal lands, sovereign yet part of the United States. Water stored in Mead and other vessels gives Las Vegas Boulevard its fountains and faux falls, grocery stores across the country a reliable delivery of broccoli, lettuce and spinach in mid-winter, and Phoenix, San Diego and other metropolitan areas their prosperity.
Now comes a period of cutting back, pinching water deliveries for a time or perhaps forever. The first rude shock of this new challenge arrived during the first four years of the 21st century, the river delivering only 63 percent of what was then defined as normal at Lee Ferry. During the same period, in 2003, then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton ordered annual Colorado River deliveries to California cut to 4.4 million acre-feet, the state’s legal apportionment under the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928. The state had been taking 5.3 million acre-feet. It did so because it could. Nobody was being shorted, save for the river’s delta at the Gulf of California, which has not reliably seen water since the 1960s.
The Bureau of Reclamation then began working with the seven U.S. basin states to develop a plan if water-short years continued. The result in 2007 was the Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lakes Powell and Mead. By identifying cuts in water deliveries to the lower basin keyed to reservoir elevations, the guidelines aimed to keep Mead from falling to worrisome levels. At 1,075 feet, the crisis would become real and deliveries to Arizona and Nevada would be cut. Those cuts deepen at 1,050 feet, when Mead is at 29 percent of capacity and hydroelectric production at Hoover Dam ends. More cuts come at 1,025. At elevation 895, Mead can no longer release water downstream. It’s called dead pool.
Water levels in Mead have flirted with but never crossed 1,075, the trigger for a shortage declaration under the interim guidelines. In 2013, after two years of exceptionally low flows, the Bureau of Reclamation and the seven states agreed an additional cushion was needed. That’s what the Lower Basin DCP provides, with cuts to lower basin states beginning sooner, at 1,090 feet, and greater cuts at lower elevations.
The Lower Basin DCP can be seen as part of the broader Colorado River DCP and a 2017 agreement called Minute 323 that was tacked onto the 1944 U.S.-Mexico water treaty, committing Mexico to deeper shortage sharing.
Two giant issues still loom, unresolved by the DCP. First, it does not address what experts call the “structural deficit.” Lower basin states have been using 1.2 million acre-feet annually more than the river delivers on average. Evaporation and system losses are not assessed against the lower basin.
Second, the river will likely deliver even less water in the future. Rising temperatures have been robbing the river of water, part of a climatic shift with no end in sight.
Belt-tightening identified in the DCP, though temporary, should suffice until a broader reassessment of Colorado River operations is completed. The DCP and interim guidelines expire in 2026, by which time a new river management plan will likely be in effect.
Of the lower basin states, Arizona has the most at stake in keeping Mead above crisis level. The Colorado River Compact apportions the state 2.8 million acre-feet annually, dwarfing Nevada’s allocation of 300,000 acre-feet. The Colorado River provides nearly 40 percent of Arizona’s water.
The Central Arizona Project, or CAP, delivers 1.6 million acre-feet, more than half of the state’s Colorado River supply. In 1968, when authorizing CAP funding, Congress conceded California’s demand that CAP water be junior in priority to California. That means CAP users take shortages first if Mead levels decline.
Before signing the DCP, Arizona had to develop an intra-state plan. It was a pained but ultimately self-affirming experience. Arizona began its discussion in 2015 but got little done amid internal squabbling. Then a good snow year in the Rockies caused Mead to rise. One CAP director even wondered publicly whether planning for future shortages was necessary. That myopia was dispelled by the winter of 2017-2018. It was the fifth-driest year on record, with flows from the upper basin, source of 92 percent of the river’s water, just 41 percent of average. As Arizona dithered, Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman warned that if Arizona and other states didn’t take action by January 31, 2019, her agency would.
With a hard deadline and a sharp decline in river flows, Arizona’s major water agencies, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and CAP, coalesced by June 2018 to lead a transparent and inclusive 42-member task force. The result was 14 distinct agreements that together constitute compromises, payments, and water transfers to reduce use, some temporarily and others permanently. Then Arizona legislators had to approve their state’s drought contingency plan.
“It was emotionally charged, because not everybody was going to be pleased,” says Rosanna Gabaldón, a state representative whose district straddles Tucson and rural areas. For a time, Gabaldón doubted Arizona could agree on a drought package. But the legislation was signed with six hours to spare. Upon her review, Burman said both Arizona and California hadn’t completed their work, but they met her extended deadline of March 4.
Arizona’s cuts come almost entirely from the 1.6 million acre-feet pumped from the Colorado River through the CAP. CAP’s 336-mile canal crosses Phoenix and Tucson and reaches farmers in Pinal County, between the metropolitan areas. In 2020, because the Bureau of Reclamation’s August 2019 24-month study projected Lake Mead to fall below 1,090 feet by January 1, 2020, Arizona this year will take 6.9 percent less, or a 192,000 acre-foot cut. If Mead drops to 1,075 feet, as remains distinctly possible, Arizona could lose up to an additional 512,000 acre-feet, though some of that water could be recovered at a later date if storage recovers. At 1,025 feet, it cuts back up to 720,000 acre-feet, or nearly 26 percent of its Colorado River water.
Cities fare well enough in this squeezing exercise. Phoenix and six of its suburbs will see successive cuts beginning at Mead elevations of 1,075 feet. For Tucson, the spigot tightening begins at 1,045 feet and tightens even more at 1,025. However, only if Lake Mead falls to 1,000 feet would Tucson possibly have to cut water sent to homes or businesses.
Agriculture takes Arizona’s biggest hit. That was expected. If agriculture was the primary argument for the CAP in the 1960s, it had the lowest priority among the contracts. This use is almost entirely in Pinal County. Flat and mostly rural, most drivers on Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson hurry through it. The county’s 200 farms produce 45 percent of Arizona’s cattle, 42 percent of its cotton and cottonseed, and 39 percent of its milk, according to a study commissioned by Pinal County irrigation districts. Cities were unimpressed. The total economic output of these Pinal County farms, they pointed out, was half that of the state’s golf courses.
Groundwater was the sole source of water in Pinal County from 1940 to about 1990, when CAP water arrived. Farmers, though, couldn’t repay even the subsidized costs of CAP’s capital-intensive infrastructure. In 2004, they agreed to a shorter-term contract for Colorado River water while being relieved of infrastructure costs. This lower-priced water is also subject to availability, however. Irrigators were already scheduled to stop receiving CAP water entirely by 2030. The plan was for farmers to then return to exclusive groundwater use. Arizona’s DCP will cause the farmers to lose a third of their water in years 2020-2022 and lose deliveries altogether in 2023, seven years earlier than previously scheduled.
Arizona’s compromise yielded the Groundwater Infrastructure Fund, which identifies $50 million—$20 million of it state money—for Pinal County farmers to finance new groundwater-pumping infrastructure. Not all legislators supported the aid.
“But many of us drew the line at funding groundwater-pumping infrastructure, which to us was going backwards. The last thing we should be doing is returning to depleting our groundwater aquifers”, says Airzon State Rep. Kirsten Engel, a Democrat from the Tucson area.
Will this cause farmers to pump groundwater below Pinal County to extinction? Probably—assuming that Lake Mead continues to sag. Application of Colorado River water across the cotton and alfalfa fields allowed the aquifer to rise to nearly 1940 levels. With no river water percolating into the aquifer, it will inexorably decline. Other, less thirsty crops have been getting attention: industrial hemp and a shrub called guayle, which produces an alternative to rubber. But these conversations occur in the margins.
New conservation efforts, including those in agriculture, will benefit from $2 million appropriated by state legislators. Arizona Gov. Douglas Ducey also replaced a council focused on water augmentation with one responsible for studying innovation and conservation.
New political strength of tribes, particularly those in Arizona, was evident in the drought contingency planning. Arizona tribes get 12.5 percent of the state’s water directly from the Colorado River and another 17.5 percent of CAP water. The Gila River Indian Community alone has 311,000 acre-feet, the largest single contract for CAP water. Their reservation just south of Phoenix was created in 1859, giving it the highest priority. The intra-Arizona DCP gives the Gila River Indian Community $92 million for 200,000 acre-feet lost in the DCP’s seven-year life. They also lose additional water that tribal officials value at $30 to $50 million. For the Gila River Indian Community, the DCP negotiations were something of a coming-out party. With European settlement, the tribe was dispossessed of their water until the Arizona Water Settlement Act of 2004 allowed the tribe to use water rights that had previously existed only on paper. Even so, the Gila were not invited to be at the table at the outset of DCP planning. “Tribes have to be at the policy table,” said Governor Stephen Roe Lewis. Now, they definitely are.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes—consisting of four distinct tribes, the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo, with a reservation that stretches along the Colorado River in Arizona and California—also played a significant role. They divert nearly 600,000 acre-feet directly from the Colorado River at the border between Arizona and California, with priority dates from 1865-1874. “This is not CAP water. It is not subject to being cut. It is the highest priority water in the lower basin,” explained Margaret Vick, special counsel to the Colorado River Indian Tribes, at the June 2019 Getches-Wilkinson Center Summer Water Conference at the University of Colorado-Boulder. After a history of being taken advantage of, the tribes are now “partners with the state legislative leaders,” she said.