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 email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
The four tribes agreed to take 10,000 acres of farmland out of production for three years, allowing the water to instead remain in Lake Mead. In return, the tribes receive $38 million, including $30 million from the state and $8 million from the Environmental Defense Fund and the Walton Family Foundation.
“I don’t think Arizona could have met their requirements without the water that the tribes put on the table,” says Larry MacDonnell, an adjunct law professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder and a member of the Colorado River Research Group.
California has different tensions. The state has more Colorado River water, 4.4 million acre-feet, the majority of it claimed for agriculture prior to the Colorado River Compact.
About a quarter of southern California’s water comes from the Colorado River. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California delivers this Colorado River water, along with water imported from northern California, to smaller agencies that collectively serve 19 million people. Metropolitan’s basic annual apportionment of Colorado River water is 550,000 acre-feet, and it gets about 400,000 of additional Colorado River water through transfers and exchanges, largely from irrigation districts. Under the DCP, if Lake Mead drops below 1,045 feet, California will contribute between 200,000 and 350,000 acre-feet of water a year, depending on the lake’s elevation. Because of the wet year in 2018-2019, Reclamation estimates a less than 10 percent chance that the reservoir will fall to that level by 2026.
California’s contribution under the DCP is shared by two of the state’s three big irrigation districts and Metropolitan. Initially, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) was also planning to participate. It conditionally approved the plan in December 2018 but in March 2019, just before a federal deadline, IID decided it would not support the DCP as negotiated because one of its conditions—federal funding for the Salton Sea—had not been satisfied. Metropolitan’s board of directors voted to contribute an additional 250,000 acre-feet to Lake Mead if necessary to cover the Imperial Irrigation District’s portion. But these contributions are not permanent. Metropolitan, along with others in California, Arizona and Nevada, can in the future withdraw water left in Lake Mead under a provision in the 2007 guidelines called “intentionally created surplus,” or ICS.
ICS water is made through projects that create water system efficiency, conservation, or even importation of water into the Colorado River Basin. ICS water temporarily augments reservoir levels but is then available for later drafting by whomever contributed it. The Bureau of Reclamation reported provisionally that in 2018 Nevada had 700,448 acre-feet, California 698,432 acre-feet, and Arizona 343,052 acre-feet of ICS water stored in Mead.
This water might better be understood as a savings deposit. Metropolitan has stored and withdrawn water three times. But what if an entity wants to withdraw when those savings are most desperately needed? Imagine the scene from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when the panicked townspeople of Bedford Falls show up at the savings and loan, demanding their C-notes.
Brad Udall, senior scientist and scholar at Colorado State University, told a U.S. House subcommittee in February 2019 that this illustrated an implicit flaw in the concept. “These water storage efforts allowed us to push the problem forward in time, hoping Mother Nature will rescue us,” Udall said.
Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources for Metropolitan, says his agency’s savings balance is responsible for about a 12-foot increase in Mead—contributing significantly to keeping the reservoir out of shortage. But he agrees that the savings device is not the long-term answer to the oversubscribed Colorado River Basin. “Eventually we have to make some permanent cuts in the lower basin, and that’s what we’re gearing up for in 2026 negotiations,” Hasencamp says.
More tension revolves around the shrinking Salton Sea, located 125 miles northeast of San Diego. It’s an ancient sea bed, below sea level, and filled sporadically through the ages by the Colorado River as it wandered on various paths toward the ocean. Its current iteration dates to 1905, when the river wrestled free of an attempt to channel it into orderly submission. It’s a shallow, salty marvel with twice the surface area of Lake Tahoe that also serves as a major stop for migrating birds, some listed on state and federal endangered and threatened lists, along the Pacific Flyway.
Water levels were sustained by 1.3 million acre-feet of annual runoff from Imperial Valley farms until 2003, when the Imperial Irrigation District began transferring water saved through conservation measures to San Diego County, Metropolitan, and the Coachella Valley Water District. The sea has fallen 9 feet since those transfers began, the saline water lapping onto shore at 237 feet below sea level in July 2019. As it does, the Salton becomes saltier, some 4 million tons of salt arriving through farm runoff each year, increasing the salinity 1 percent annually.
The Pacific Institute’s Michael Cohen, whose work for the past 20 years has focused on revitalizing the Salton Sea, identifies two problems. First is the decline of the sea in size and in its capacity for sustaining fish. It has dramatically fewer fish than 20 years ago, which in turn sustain resident and migratory birds. Birds have also lost roosting and breeding habitat.
A second issue is the human health impact of the wind blowing chemical-laden dust from the receding shores. The 650,000 residents of the Coachella and Imperial valleys already had a high incidence of asthma. The American Lung Association gives Imperial County an “F” score in high ozone and particulate pollution. The county seat, El Centro, is ranked eighth worst among 203 metro areas across the country for annual particle pollution. As transfers from irrigation districts to cities ramp up in the next decade, Salton Sea levels are expected to drop another 15 feet or so, exposing more toxic dust and more chronic respiratory issues. The shoreline by then will have receded 5 miles since 2003.
A 10-year Salton Sea mitigation plan, approved in 2017, has had stubby financial legs. To implement the phase-one plan requires $400 million, of which $300 million has somewhat belatedly been secured. That’s just the start of a longer-term plan for wetlands restoration and other mitigation.
For the Imperial Irrigation District, mitigating Salton Sea problems became the defining issue in the DCP. The district has legal rights to 18 to 20 percent of all Colorado River Basin water, 3.1 million acre-feet altogether, including use of 2.68 million acre-feet pre-compact, as of 2019. District directors in December voted to support the overall DCP framework. However, that support was contingent upon the federal government delivering $200 million for Salton Sea remediation.
Led by Metropolitan, California supported the DCP without the provision of contingency upon the federal funding. In March, Imperial sued Metropolitan and three other water districts, citing absence of a thorough environmental review of the drought plan. “Just as it is hydrologically connected to the Colorado River, the Salton Sea is inseparable from the DCP, and any attempt to sweep it aside or pretend it doesn’t exist is as unsustainable as it is cynical,” said Erik Ortega, president of the district, in a March 1 statement. “We all need to cross the finish line together, in California and across the two basins, but that won’t happen by taking shortcuts, environmental, economic or otherwise.”
In April 2019, on the day President Trump signed the DCP into law, Imperial asked a California court to suspend approvals of the lower basin DCP until after an environmental analysis was completed. With that, California, the lower basin, and all seven basin states moved forward on the DCP without the Imperial Irrigation District and without solving the problem of the Salton Sea.
Mexico is also part of the Colorado River Basin, apportioned 1.5 million acre-feet annually by the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty. It, too, is a partner in the effort to keep Mead from declining. A 2012 binational agreement specified that a shortage declaration under the 2007 interim guidelines would reduce deliveries to Mexico of up to 125,000 acre-feet. That agreement, Minute 319, also produced the historic 2014 pulse flow that used Mexico’s water stored in Lake Mead to wet the delta for the first time in 16 years. Minute 319 has since been supplanted by Minute 323. Signed in 2017, Minute 323 authorizes Mexico to continue storing water in Lake Mead and also commits the United States to financially support water efficiency projects in Mexico with the goal of leaving 200,000 acre-feet of water in Mead to benefit both countries. It also requires both countries to provide water and funding for delta habitat restoration.
Looking forward, Jennifer Pitt, director of Audubon’s Colorado River Program, sees need to build on existing binational relationships. “I think Mexico has already demonstrated that they are willing to be a partner in the equitable distribution of shortages, and I don’t think we should expect any different,” she says. Equitable, she believes, means proportionate to the shortages absorbed by the lower basin states.
Both the DCP and Minute 323 will expire in 2026. Negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico to determine what comes next after Minute 323, the DCP, and the interim guidelines, “will be tied to their implementation and operating experience [of Minute 323] between now and then,” Pitt says.
Minute 323 identifies specific projects but has no provision for another pulse flow. Pitt sees the river delta being like the Salton Sea: undeniably a part of the Colorado River Basin. The drying of the delta was the first visible signal of water imbalance.
Doing something about it means finding water to create a more resilient ecosystem that can address the habitat needs of birds that used that area as part of their migration path, she says. That this ecosystem is in Mexico also matters. “If the restoration effort were to be abandoned, we don’t know if Mexico would be as willing to share in the shortages with other water users,” Pitt says.
Even before the DCP was signed in May 2019, eyes were already on replacement of the interim guidelines and the DCP. It poses a greater challenge yet. The word “drought” probably should be discarded in the 2026 document’s title because the big overlapping issues of climate change and structural deficit that it must address are broader. “Hard issues left unresolved by the DCP will make the coming negotiations even more challenging,” said Udall in his February testimony to the U.S. House subcommittee.
But the DCP also marks several major achievements. The work was more inclusive, more deliberate in bringing tribes and environmental groups to the table, both of them often overlooked or strictly adversarial in the past. Even where it failed, there was success, as the Colorado River Research Group, in a May 2019 paper, pointed out: “Two of the most problematic features of the current management framework—the inability of Pinal County, Arizona, farmers to easily absorb CAP curtailments, and the environmental and public health challenges associated with limiting Salton Sea inflows—have influenced, and are influenced by, matters that were heretofore considered outside of basin water management planning.”
Too, the DCP carved a path, concrete in its details and immediate in its consequences, to reconcile reality with diversions. Based on the plan’s provisions, the Bureau of Reclamation in August 2019 ordered reduced deliveries to Arizona of 192,000 acre-feet and to Nevada of 8,000 acre-feet in 2020. In addition, under its supplemental treaty agreement, Mexico gets 41,000 acre-feet less. Those cuts were based on projections that Mead’s water would be below 1,090 feet, the new cushion level, on January 1, 2020. That water must remain in the reservoir until Mead rises above an elevation of 1,100 feet. These are the first, marked acknowledgements of the 21st century hydrologic realities.
In Arizona, David White, deputy director of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University, sees the template that emerged dwarfing the details in importance. “That was a very big win for the state,” says White. Creating an open, transparent process for figuring out how to apportion cuts was vital.
The Arizona Republic was of a like mind. “Let’s be clear. This deal isn’t perfect. It’s costly and painful, and it solves exactly zero of our water problems,” it wrote in a January 31, 2019, editorial. “All DCP does is buy us time. But it showed us how to solve our problems and move forward in a drier future.”
Colorado River users – and the 40 million people served by the river – received clarity moving into 2020 at the 2019 Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA) conference in Las Vegas.
There, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced that “the Department will immediately begin work on a new report that will analyze the effectiveness of current Colorado River operational rules to ensure continued reliable water and power resources across the Southwest – a year ahead of when the current rules require the report.” The report will be a review of the effectiveness of Colorado River operations since enactment of the 2007 Guidelines, including the implementation of the Drought Contingency Plans (DCP) in 2019.
The evaluation of the effectiveness of the 2007 Guidelines is a mandatory first step in what has come to be called the “Reconsultation” – the process that will lead to next set of rules for managing the Colorado River and the River’s major reservoirs when the current Guidelines expire at the end of 2026.
The Secretary’s comments echoed the remarks made earlier at CRWUA by U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, that it was too early to begin work on developing the next set of operating rules – that would get in the way of implementing DCP and the evaluation of the 2007 Guidelines.
Arizona’s next steps in this process are already underway. Central Arizona Project (CAP) General Manager Ted Cooke and Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke began meeting with Arizona’s DCP Steering Committee delegates two months ago to initiate post-DCP discussions. The announcements from the Department of the Interior are consistent with the expectations and approach underway by CAP and ADWR.
At the federal level, the immediate work is to prepare a report that will analyze the effectiveness of the Guidelines. This will take some time to accomplish, but the early start sets the stage for the second step of the Reconsultation, which will be the development of the next program, which will need to be in place in 2026. The Secretary estimated it would take about a year to complete the new report. The Basin States and other experts would be consulted as part of the report preparation process.
Said Barnhardt, “This conference brings together the best ideas for managing the Colorado River. This year’s historic agreements once again demonstrated that the best way to protect the Colorado River is collaboration and cooperation, not litigation. Looking ahead, we are eager to complete a review of our current operations by leveraging that collaborative approach to identify lessons learned from rules that have guided our operations since 2007. Thank you to CRWUA for providing the forum for launching this initiative.”
CRWUA is the only association focused solely on Colorado River issues. It provides an opportunity for those with interest in the river to convene and discuss issues. The CRWUA conference also provides the opportunity for the U.S. Department of the Interior to speak to Colorado River users in one venue.
This year’s conference featured a resolution recognizing the 130th anniversary of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and the 75th anniversary of the 1944 Treaty Concerning the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande. The 1944 Treaty established a framework that provides significant and enduring benefits to Colorado River water users in the United States and Mexico and stands as an example of international cooperation and collaboration.
At this year’s conference, Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) Board President Lisa Atkins moderated the Augmentation Colloquium, which featured a panel including CAP Colorado Programs Manager Chuck Cullom. Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke also served on a panel regarding the Interim Guidelines.
To learn more about CRWUA, visit its website, which was newly designed by CAP.
The annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference started up Thursday at Bally’s Hotel and Casino…
When it comes to the fight to conserve water, officials at this year’s conference say Nevadans have a lot to be proud of.
“Southern Nevada is on the cutting edge, you are at the forefront of conservation. What this town, what the water users of this town, have been able to do in the last ten years is really remarkable,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman.
The Silver State is regarded as a national leader in the fight to save the resource, citing investments in conservation infrastructure over the last two decades.
Drought markers along the Colorado River remain; dating back nearly twenty years.
Officials in Nevada are pushing back though. Working alongside reps from other states, water usage on the Colorado River has declined. Emergency drought plans have also been drawn and agreed on.
Saving water on the Colorado River system, funding the state water plan, and preserving more water for streams are expected to top lawmakers’ water agenda when the Colorado General Assembly begins its work Jan. 8
Saving Water on the Colorado River
Last May the seven Colorado River Basin states signed a drought contingency plan that requires the three lower basin states, Arizona, Nevada and California, to cut water use. It also gives the four upper basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — the option to create a large-scale water conservation program that would add more water to storage in Lake Powell. That water would be credited to the Upper Basin states and protect them from cutbacks if levels in Powell start to fall below those needed to generate power and to meet water delivery obligations to the Lower Basin. Colorado and other Upper Basin states are exploring whether such a conservation program, known as demand management, is feasible. Any water users who contributed to the new Powell storage account would do so voluntarily and would be paid for their participation.
Where would that water come from? Since irrigated agriculture is the largest user, most of it is likely to come from farmers and ranchers. That troubles Colorado Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, former manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association in southwest Colorado. “We’re still looking at agriculture as a living reservoir that we don’t have to build,” he says.
But Catlin sees “some shifting in the conversation” about sharing water cuts with East Slope communities, where there’s a growing recognition that “if it hurts western Colorado, it hurts the whole state.” That’s because East Slope urban water providers rely on transmountain diversions for much of their water supply. Denver Water, for example, counts on Colorado River imports for half its water. And since most of those rights are junior — acquired after the 1922 Colorado River Compact was signed — the metro area, along with irrigators in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys that receive water via transmountain diversions, would also be affected by any cutbacks in Colorado River water deliveries. It is anticipated that those entities and regions would participate in conservation alongside West Slope irrigators.
While the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is now examining whether to create such a program, lawmakers this year will consider a bill that would require CWCB to involve the public and the state’s nine river basin roundtables in developing a demand management program. Although CWCB would have final say, it would have to submit any draft program to the Water Resources Review Committee and consider its feedback.
Funding Colorado’s Water Plan
Implementing Colorado’s Water Plan is projected to cost $3 billion over the next 30 years, or $100 million annually. The CWCB and the General Assembly have provided some funding for the water plan, but those amounts cover only a fraction of the water plan’s estimated costs.
Enter Proposition DD, approved by voters in November. It legalizes sports betting and assesses a 10 percent tax on casinos’ net proceeds. The state can collect up to $29 million per year, with more than 90 percent of that going into a newly created Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund run by CWCB. Experience with sports betting in other states suggests that no more than $16 million in tax revenue will be generated annually, and during the first year just $7 million is expected.
Lawmakers are expected to discuss options giving them some say in how CWCB allocates that revenue, but those talks may not result in legislation this year.
Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, a member of the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) and prime sponsor of the general fund water appropriations last year, does not expect Proposition DD to affect JBC’s water plan funding recommendations this year. Last year, for the first time, lawmakers approved $10 million in general fund money for the water plan. But Rankin cautions that appropriating another $10 million in general funds to support water plan implementation and demand management development will depend on how revenue forecasts shake out.
Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, said he plans to introduce a bill that would expand the existing instream flow loan program. Under current law, a water right holder can loan water to the CWCB to further preserve water for rivers on stream segments where the board already holds an instream flow water right. The loan may be exercised for no more than three years in a single 10-year period. Roberts’ bill would increase the number of years the loan could be exercised from three to five, and allow for two additional 10-year periods.
The proposed bill is similar to one that passed the House of Representatives but was defeated in Senate committee last year. Opposition to that bill centered on the potential impact on historical irrigation return flows from leaving water in the stream rather than applying it on the land, the effects on soils fallowed for long periods, and the tight comment period allotted after a loan application is filed in which opponents can make their case. Those issues were discussed during the interim session, but the Water Resources Review Committee took no action.
Roberts says that recommendations developed by a Colorado Water Congress working group to provide water right holders with more opportunities to comment and protect downstream users will be incorporated into the new bill. With those changes, he’s optimistic that “we have arrived at a place where more of the water community feels comfortable with the program’s expansion.”
The Water Resources Review Committee recommended three other bills for consideration this session. One would address water speculation, with concerns raised that agricultural water rights are being sold to entities with no real interest in farming that are holding those rights for future, profitable transactions. The bill would create a working group to explore ways to strengthen anti-speculation laws and report its findings and recommendations to the committee next year.
Another bill would task the University of Colorado and Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center with studying new technologies to improve monitoring, management, conservation, and trading of water rights and report back to the committee in 2021.
The final bill would increase the number of state water well inspectors and require rulemaking to help the state engineer identify high-risk wells for inspection.
And although no legislation has yet been drafted, Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Wolcott, said she anticipates discussion of how to better dovetail water planning with land use development to ensure large new communities have sustainable water supplies.
Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at http://www.wateredco.org.
Water wonks, state and tribal officials, attorneys and irrigation district representatives hit the floor at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel last week. Not to shake loose the slots. But to gamble on the future of the Colorado River.
During the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA), stakeholders from the seven US states that share the river’s water met to talk about everything from interagency cooperation to cloud seeding, forecasting to tribal water rights.
But even as the impacts of the Earth’s warming are increasingly clear, there’s still a political and practical disconnect between the cause of climate change—the burning of fossil fuels—and the challenges warming poses to water supplies in the western United States.
That decoupling was hammered home by US Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who spoke at the CRWUA meeting. During his keynote speech, Bernhardt avoided mentioning climate change.
When pressed by reporters afterwards, he said he “certainly believe[s] the climate is changing.” But he cautioned that forecasting is speculative.
And he praised the role energy development plays in states like New Mexico.
“The president was very clear when he ran for office on his position on energy; he’s for an all-of-the-above approach,” Bernhardt said. “In New Mexico last year, we sent $1.7 billion from federal lands to the state of New Mexico that went to schools and other things. So, when people tell me they want to stop oil and gas development on federal lands, I say ‘Call the governor of New Mexico.'”
Gov Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office could not answer SFR’s questions by deadline about Bernhardt’s claims related to revenues from drilling on federal land in New Mexico and balancing the disconnect between the state’s energy policies—which have spiked revenues—and emissions from that industry, which exacerbate the state’s water challenges.
The governor’s spokeswoman also could not provide a response to Bernhardt’s statements before deadline…
In 2017, a peer-reviewed study showed that warming was already causing flows on the Colorado River to decline. Between 2000 and 2014, flows averaged 19% below the 1906-1999 average, and scientists found that one-third of those losses were due to higher temperatures, rather than changes in precipitation. They also wrote that if warming continues, the Colorado River’s flows will drop even more—20 to 35% by 2050, and 30 to 55% by 2100.
A follow-up study in 2018 showed that even though annual precipitation in the Colorado River Basin increased slightly between 1916 and 2014, flows declined by 16.5 % during that same time period—due in large part to “unprecedented basin-wide warming.”
“Climate change is water change,” says Bradley Udall, one of the co-authors of both those studies. Udall is a senior water and climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University.
In arid landscapes like the US Southwest, warming affects river flows, snowpack, soil moisture and even the amount of water crops and forests need to survive.
“In our case, [climate change] means these longer, hotter droughts that threaten the Rio Grande and the Colorado River system in ways that are unprecedented,” Udall tells SFR.
“If you’re going to reduce the risk of water shortages for humans and nature, you’ve got to solve the climate change problem.”
And, he says, solving the climate change problem means stopping fossil fuel production: “You can’t solve climate change if you’re going to continue to pursue fossil fuel production willy-nilly.”
And yet, drilling is booming across the world, including in New Mexico. And that development has consequences.
Earlier this year, the World Meteorological Organization showed that carbon emissions have continued to increase. According to a story in the BBC, “Using data from monitoring stations in the Arctic and all over the world, researchers say that in 2018 concentrations of CO2 reached 407.8 parts per million (ppm), up from 405.5ppm a year previously. This increase was above the average for the last 10 years and is 147% of the “pre-industrial” level in 1750.” Not only that, but methane emissions continue to rise, as well—and is now at 259 % what it was before the Industrial Revolution.
Meanwhile, global temperatures continue to ruse. The latest numbers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that the three-month season of September through November 2019 ranked second-warmest on record for the globe—with a global temperature of 1.69°F above average. Already, New Mexico’s average annual temperature has increased by 2°F—just since the 1970s.
Continued warming will have continued impacts across the US Southwest. And even after last winter’s robust snowpack, the basin’s reservoirs, system-wide, sit at just over half-full. The two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are 52 % and 40 % full, respectively. A second year of good snowpack, Udall estimates, would put the system at perhaps 60 % full…
Asked to rectify that with the president’s statements about climate change as a “hoax” and his attacks on climate science, Bernhardt reiterated that Trump has been an “exceptional leader on western water issues.”
“I think it’s very hard to go back and find presidents who have given clear direction in memos to the secretaries, [that] say ‘Get on with it. Solve these situations,'” he said, referring to Trump’s 2018 presidential memorandum on reliable water supplies in the western US. In that memo, the White House directed federal agencies, including Interior, to “work together to minimize unnecessary regulatory burdens and foster more efficient decision-making so that water projects are better able to meet the demands of their authorized purposes.”
Bernhardt also directed the US Bureau of Reclamation to launch its review of the 2007 interim guidelines at the beginning of 2020.
FromThe Las Vegas Review Journal (Shea Johnson) via The Boulder City Review:
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said Dec. 11 that Nevada has been a national leader in water conservation by reducing demand on the Colorado River and investing in infrastructure over the past two decades.
In Las Vegas for the Colorado River Water Users Association’s annual conference, Burman declined to say, however, whether she sees Nevada’s share of the river’s water increasing, even though it draws the least amount of water than any other state.
Instead she said Mexico and seven Southwestern states served by the river were focused on working within the existing rules and regulations, known as the “Law of the River.”
In an interview with the Review-Journal, Burman said that “desalination is going to be part of the answer” to reducing draws on the river, noting that California has already made major investments on that front, and talks between Mexico and lower basin states have questioned whether desalination is possible in that country.
“We all really need to be looking at an all-of-the-above approach,” she said about viable long-term solutions to river sustainability…
The three-day annual conference culminated with a tour of Hoover Dam with federal officials. It followed a keynote speech by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.
At a meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas last week, federal officials accepted a drought contingency plan crafted this summer that will jump start voluntary conservation efforts by states and Mexico in the lower Colorado River basin beginning Jan. 1.
Nevada, Arizona and Mexico, which all drain water below Lee’s Ferry, in Marble Canyon, Ariz., have agreed to pull back water use. For the first time, California, which has a prior water right by law, has agreed to curtail water use if Lake Mead’s elevation drops significantly further…
U.S. Secretary of the Interior David [Bernhardt] told state water managers that the federal water reclamation bureau will immediately begin its review of the official river water apportionment plan, instead of waiting until the end of 2020…
Water professionals in the Colorado River watershed got scared in 2002, the driest year in recorded history, when the river trickled to 25 percent of its usual flow, said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
By 2005, river water users faced a new drought reality and states squabbled and threatened to sue each other.
“That’s when [Interior Secretary] Gail Norton laid down the gauntlet,” Entsminger said. Federal regulators stepped in and offered to come up with water-shortage guidelines.
Since then, states have tried to work together.
Lower-basin cities have ramped up water conservation efforts. For example, Las Vegas pays residents $3 per square foot to replace grass lawns with water-friendly landscaping.
“Our population has increased by 46 percent — more than 700,000 people have moved here — but our water consumption has decreased by about 25 percent during the same time period,” said Bronson Mack, a Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesperson.
Southern California cities also have drastically cut water use, drawing less from Lake Mead than ever before.
But the river flow problem won’t disappear from conservation because 80 percent of Colorado River water is used in agriculture and industry, Entsminger said. Agriculture, even with water conservation practices, uses about 2.5 times as much water as the same land developed for residential use.
From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
WESTERN WATER IN-DEPTH: WITH TALKS LOOMING ON A NEW OPERATING AGREEMENT FOR THE RIVER, A DEBATE HAS EMERGED OVER THE BEST APPROACH TO ADDRESS ITS CHALLENGES
The Colorado River is arguably one of the hardest working rivers on the planet, supplying water to 40 million people and a large agricultural economy in the West. But it’s under duress from two decades of drought and decisions made about its management will have exceptional ramifications for the future, especially as impacts from climate change are felt.
The issues facing water users are many, complex and span the entirety of the 1,450-mile river and its tributaries. The Colorado is overallocated, meaning more water is committed to water users as a whole than is available in an average year. Adding more pressure, the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico want to develop their full allocations. American Indian tribes, meanwhile, are asserting their rights to more of the river’s waters.
Amid these challenges, and with critical negotiations looming for an agreement that will chart how the river is operated and managed possibly for decades, a debate is emerging: Should stakeholders pursue a visionary “grand bargain” to wrap their arms around the host of challenges facing the Colorado River? Or is an incremental approach – solving the puzzle piece by piece instead of the whole puzzle at once — the best path toward getting disparate stakeholders to reach a consensus?
The stakes are high. Parties with an interest in the river will renegotiate the 2007 Interim Guidelines for shortage sharing and river operations that expire in 2026. The landmark 2007 deal spelled out Lower Basin shortage guidelines and rules to store conserved water in Lake Mead and equalize storage in both Mead and Lake Powell. Those issues have become even more critical as a two-decade drought and a structural deficit continue to drop the level in Lake Mead.
The debate surfaced anew in September at the Water Education Foundation’s Colorado River Symposium in Santa Fe, N.M. Panelists representing major stakeholders across the basin repeatedly invoked the idea of an incremental vs. a visionary approach as key interests prepare for those guideline negotiations, expected to begin in late 2020.
David Palumbo, the Bureau of Reclamation’s deputy commissioner, challenged the notion of a dividing line between incrementalism and grand visionary, suggesting to symposium participants that the two can coexist and are not mutually exclusive.
“Incrementalism is not small,” he said. “It is visionary and … maybe … we can purge our vernacular from this idea of incrementalism, at least the connotation that it’s small, that it’s not visionary.”
In a region that has seen its share of big projects and prolonged drought, some have said the time is right to take unprecedented problem-solving steps such as reopening the terms of the Colorado River Compact, the landmark 1922 document that divided the river into two basins and apportioned its waters.
Obstacles and Challenges
Since the Compact was signed in 1922 and then ratified by Congress in 1928, Colorado River water users have successfully navigated obstacles by a variety of means. Those include landmark deals for shortage sharing and voluntary use reductions to help protect Lake Mead’s water level and keep it from reaching dead pool – the point at which no water could pass Hoover Dam for downstream water users. Set to expire in 2026, the current operating guidelines for water deliveries and shortage sharing are designed to prevent disputes that could provoke conflict.
There is a sense among some that a big plan is needed for 2026 and beyond.
“We need to be more creative in our work and I think incrementalism should be thrown out of the dictionary and we should all become visionary,” Ted Kowalski, senior program officer with the Walton Family Foundation, said at the symposium. He formerly served as chief of the Interstate, Federal and Water Information Section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Kowalski does not advocate reopening the Compact but believes creativity is needed in all aspects of the river’s operating agreements to support a vision that reconnects it with the Sea of Cortez, such as what occurred through a U.S.-Mexico agreement in 2014.
Advocates of incrementalism say it makes sense to maintain the course of collaboration and cooperation, staying within the existing framework of the Law of the River – the all-encompassing term that describes the compacts, federal laws, court decisions and decrees, and contracts and regulatory guidelines that oversee the use and management of the river among the seven basin states and Mexico.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman is no fan of reopening the Colorado River Compact to forge a grand bargain.
“I see all these challenges on the river, but I don’t see a clear or a better outcome for this Basin by assuming that all of these challenges could be easily addressed if we were simply to rip up our founding document, the Compact, and start over,” she said at the symposium.
Former Interior Secretary and Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt echoed that sentiment, saying at the symposium that it’s not the time to begin a big negotiation about the Compact prior to 2026.
“I’m not a Compact modifier because every time I read that I say, ‘Man, if you can’t find your way to a consensus past that document, you better go back to school, because there’s all kinds of possibilities out there of reconciling these differences rather than stacking them up and sending out our respective advocates to build anticipatory cases,” he said.
Big River, Big Vision
Much of the discussion about Colorado River water use involves semantics. Can the many agreements enacted through years be categorized as incremental progress or evidence of a grander vision? Or is that characterization even the right way to view all the actions that have built dams and aqueducts, solidified water sharing agreements and provided for environmental needs.
Long-time policy participants say the scale and scope of what’s occurred in the past century has not been done piecemeal.
“The Colorado River Compact was not incremental,” Jim Lochhead, chief executive officer and manager of Denver Water, said at the symposium. “It was based on a huge idea of a major dam on the river and the All-American Canal. And it was premised on a lot of structural development in the Upper Basin.”
On the flip side, he said, there have been environmental actions — the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act — that created a legacy of stewardship and balance on the river.
Babbitt said stakeholders can be locked into a narrow focus on the river and their relationship with it.
“All of us have tended for these vision discussions to be compartmentalized into sort of Lower Basin/Upper Basin, as if there’s kind of a virtual curtain across the basin line in which our best efforts at vision tend to look into our basin,” he said.
Major players “need to be out there in this basin, working the vision not via a negotiation, but by some real outreach to talk about the future,” Babbitt said.
One possible element of a bold, visionary approach that has been talked about would remove the Lower Basin’s legal right to “call” for water during dry times that was established by the Compact. Under the Compact, the Upper Basin cannot cause flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted below an aggregate of 75 million acre-feet for any period of 10 consecutive years.
According to a November white paper called “The Risk of Curtailment Under the Colorado River Compact,” a debate has swirled since the drafting of the Compact as to whether this imposes a delivery obligation on the Upper Basin states, or merely a requirement that those states not deplete the flows of the river beyond that amount. That debate has intensified as projections of a drying basin have raised concerns that the water won’t be there to meet the obligation to the Lower Basin.
“A delivery obligation (as opposed to a non-depletion obligation) would mean the Upper Basin must absorb any climate change reductions to the flows in the Colorado River … even if that requires curtailing existing uses,” says the paper, written by Anne Castle, senior fellow with the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado Law School, and John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program.
Meanwhile, American Indian tribes in the Colorado River Basin want access to water allocations that are rightfully theirs, but which have not been developed. Combined, tribes have rights to more water than some states in the Basin. That means inclusion, collaboration and cooperation are crucial.
“What I’m advocating for is that the Basin states engage with tribes early on and incorporate them into the decision-making process,” Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community said at the symposium. “Especially if tribes can bring something meaningful and innovative to the table to help address the difficult challenges we all face in managing our water resources.”
Looking Ahead to 2026
Because the task of creating a revised framework for the operation of the Colorado River in 2026 is so monumental, leadership from key players is critical, said Michael Cohen, senior researcher with the Pacific Institute, a water think tank that promotes sustainable water policy.
Through the years, Colorado River water users have deployed several tools to hone water use accounting and conducted mutually beneficial interstate sharing agreements, actions that were previously unheard of and far from incremental in nature, he said.
“There’s been significant changes in the river to date, and we like to call them incremental, and that’s how they’re framed,” Cohen said. “But what we’ve seen is dramatic change.”
The 2007 Interim Guidelines to better coordinate the operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead are an example of the dramatic change that’s enabled users to prevent Lake Mead dropping to levels that crash the system. Forged from long-standing water accounting issues between the Upper and the Lower Basins, including the obligation to meet water deliveries to Mexico, the imbroglio resulted in then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton essentially strong-arming the Basin states to get together and resolve their disputes.
Former Reclamation Commissioner Robert Johnson said at the symposium that Norton warned stakeholders that if they didn’t solve the problem, she would.
“She was basically throwing down the gauntlet, an approach that Bruce Babbitt took frequently when he was secretary,” Johnson said. “That was the start of the 2007 guidelines, and true to form, the Basin states came through. They went far beyond just defining on an interim period. I’m sure that the disagreement over the legal aspects of the delivery to Mexico is still there, but the interim guidelines solved that problem for 20 years by putting operational procedures in place.”
Chuck Cullom, manager of Colorado River programs with the Central Arizona Project, said programs such as the 2007 guidelines, compensated conservation programs and voluntary use reductions demonstrate what can happen within the existing framework of laws and regulations to achieve resiliency.
There is a “false choice” between visionary focus and incrementalism, he said, adding that he describes it as incremental transformation. That transformation is evident in interstate and intrastate agreements in which people invested their time and resources to take concepts from development to implementation.
“It is not possible to understand all of the intended and unintended costs of an incremental transformation without testing it first,” Cullom said. “Metropolitan Water District took that concept in the early 90s to demonstrate that water could be saved in Lake Mead by investing with Palo Verde Irrigation District. There was no clear accounting framework to make all that happen, but they created a pathway for intentionally created surplus to be something that we’re all using on the river today.”
The challenges facing Colorado River water users are varied and complicated. The decline of water levels in Lake Mead spurred Basin states to sign on to a Drought Contingency Plan in May after more than five years of discussion. Yet Imperial Irrigation District, the river’s largest water rights holder, walked away from the agreement because it failed to address air and water quality issues of a shrinking Salton Sea.
If the past is a reliable indicator, the answers going forward will build on the legacy of cooperation and innovation while steering away from precedent-setting action.
“There’s lots of increments that have gotten us to where we are today,” Palumbo with Reclamation said. “And those are visionary actions that were taken. They were visionary at the time and as we reflect on them, they’re visionary today.”
Water providers are “too humble” in describing the collective efforts taken to brace against the conditions caused by drought and an overallocated system, Cullom said. “We talk about increments,” he said. “We need to say these are visionary. The system conservation project (in which agricultural users were compensated for conserving water) is a visionary thing instead of an incremental approach to protecting Lake Mead.”
Reclamation Commissioner Burman said she believes there is much left to be done to solidify river management between the Upper and Lower basins.
“I don’t think we’re even close to being done with innovation and flexibility,” she said. “We have tools we haven’t invented yet and we have so much still to learn and do and cooperate and collaborate on this river.”
Does that mean renegotiating the Colorado River Compact is off the table?
“If you merely asked should we reopen the Compact, perhaps everyone can imagine that outcome would be better for their interest group, but I really question how could it be simultaneously better for all of our interest groups?” Burman said. “Looking for a panacea in that Compact renegotiation is just the wrong investment of time and talent.”
Castle with the University of Colorado Law School said the time is now for communities to bolster themselves against a future supply shock through varying responses, including clarifying shortage sharing rules and setting up voluntary, compensated water conservation programs.
“We think that any of those discussions need to be based on an objective risk assessment that could lead to either incremental or more radical approaches to Colorado River management,” she said in an email, referring to herself and Fleck, her research paper coauthor.
Castle, who served as assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior in the Obama administration, believes there is a false dichotomy between the incremental and visionary characterization of river management.
“I suggest that the best way to proceed is to have an articulated visionary goal with specific incremental steps to get there,” she wrote. “The vision is needed to guide choices along the way, but it’s not either desirable or realistic to suddenly make big changes in operations on the river, precipitously undermining investments and reliance on the previous status quo.”
Scientists warn that a drying climate means Colorado River flows could diminish substantially in the next 50 years. The prospect of steep declines in flows adds a sense of urgency because of the potential impacts to the environment, cities and agriculture.
“This river can turn on a dime, and we need to be prepared for it as a Basin,” said Lochhead, with Denver Water. “If we take too incremental of an approach, we could be caught short. We need to be aspirational in terms of what we think we can achieve and reach for that and get as far as we can in this next set of negotiations.”
Kowalski, with the Walton Family Foundation, urged stakeholders to be innovative and not be afraid to act.
“We need to remember the river in all of this,” he said. “It’s critically important to take care of the river as well as your service requirements. I want to challenge you … as we’re looking at the renegotiations, how do we do that and not just have it be for the benefit of the system but for the benefit of the river that sustains us all?”
Reach Gary Pitzer: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @gary_wef
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The country’s top federal water manager said it was not time to renegotiate rules for managing water among the seven states and two countries that share the river. The current guidelines for the Colorado River are governed by a 2007 agreement that expires in 2026.
First, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates a series of dams and reservoirs in the watershed, will conduct a review of how the current rules have worked and report back by the end of next year. That review will encompass input from the states, tribes and other water users. After the review is complete, negotiations for a new set of guidelines are set to begin in 2021.
“This is an important, foundational task,” said Brenda Burman, who leads the agency.
But the history of the Colorado River is a history of ongoing deliberation within a legal framework that has traditionally overestimated how much water the river could deliver to farms, cities and businesses from Wyoming to Mexico. Agreements tend to be complex. Although five years might seem like enough time to hammer out a deal, water users expect reaching a deal to be a difficult task.
“It’s going to be a much more complex set of agreements that we’ve done on the river,” said Bill Hasencamp, who oversees Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Even though the negotiations won’t start for at least another year, top water managers were already laying the foundations for future talks last week, or at least identifying the questions that are likely to come into play. How do you prepare for the uncertainty of climate change on a river that is already strained? How do you share risk in a fair way? Who gets to be at the table?
‘Most water secure area’
Of the seven states that share the Colorado River, Nevada has the smallest share. At the same time, Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its drinking water from the river.
In recent years, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new infrastructure to ensure that it can access water from Lake Mead, even if the man-made reservoir behind Hoover Dam ever fell so low that other states couldn’t access their supplies. With increased conservation and turf removal, the water authority has also decreased how much total water it removes from the reservoir each year. It consumes less than 80 percent of its total share.
“Between our physical security and our [conservation efforts], I really do feel that we’re the most water secure area in the Colorado River Basin,” water authority General Manager John Entsminger said during an interview at the conference…
Who’s at the table?
In 2007, the 29 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin were largely left out of the negotiations of the guidelines. But several speakers, including Burman, stressed the importance of tribal participation moving ahead.
Together, tribes are entitled to a share of water equal to about one fifth of the Colorado River, with many of their claims unresolved. Their water rights tend to be the most senior and protected from shortages. Tribal leaders say that it is all the more reason that they should be part of long-term river planning negotiations.
“Somebody used the word certainty,” Daryl Vigil, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico, said during a panel discussion on Thursday. “If you don’t include tribes in the conversation, given the nature of the volume of water rights that they have, how is that we start to create certainty if there is a big piece of the puzzle missing in terms of water rights in the basin?”
He said the track record is that states have not protected tribal rights in negotiations. Not including tribes now, he said, would be “irresponsible.”
“We have a long way to go,” he said…
Climate rhetoric and reality
In addition addressing equity issues in the upcoming negotiations, water managers will be tasked with a new challenge looming over the river: how to prepare for climate change. Warming temperatures and more evaporative demand are expected to decrease river streamflow. River flows could decline by about 20 percent in the middle of the century, according to climate scientists.
During a panel, Entsminger stressed the importance of being prepared for that.
“Success is knowing in advance objectively what everyone’s pain is going to be,” he said, when asked how to prepare for a climate change scenario of low river flows…
Other water managers who were representing Arizona, California and Colorado stressed the importance of addressing climate change, acknowledging a need to use less water. But their direct rhetoric contrasted with the rhetoric from federal officials who spoke at the conference. When one reporter asked about human-caused climate change, federal officials gave non-answers.
Despite that, Fleck said “Reclamation is taking climate change seriously.”
Given the administration’s position (President Trump is withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Accords), he said that “they use their language with care.”
In an interview with reporters, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the climate was changing, but his rhetoric about how it fit into the calculus was restrained.
“I certainly believe the climate is changing,” he said. “I spend a lot of time with our scientists and I spend a lot of time with our models. Scientists tell me the best thing we can do is make sure we use multiple models and multiple ranges within each model.”
He added that scientists say it is the most “speculative” part of forecasting.
Although the negotiations heading into 2026 will encompass more issues, some water managers cautioned against biting off too much at once.
Ted Cooke, who manages the Central Arizona Project, a canal that runs that delivers water to Tucson and Phoenix, said that the guidelines should not be viewed as the only opportunity to revisit how the Colorado River is managed.
Here’s a report from Andrew Davey writing for Nevada Today. Click through and read the whole article, here’s an excerpt:
Around this time last year, Commissioner Brenda Burman delivered this ultimatum to CRWUA attendees: “Close isn’t done, and we are not done. Only done will protect this basin.” This year, as in just yesterday, Burman said, “It was truly remarkable to have the divergent interests of the basin forge a compromise and make the difficult agreements to complete the DCP.”
And unlike last year, when Burman urged officials from across the Colorado River Basin to finish the DCP already, this year she urged patience on matters like renegotiating the 2007 agreement that turned Lake Mead into a sort of regional water bank. On that, Burman declared, “It’s not yet time to take up that task.”
Yet despite Burman’s more relaxed approach, some at CRWUA want to see more “fierce urgency of now”. While the DCP successfully fended off the threat of federal water rations, and while Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack is currently running 15% above average, ongoing legal concerns and the ever escalating threat of climate change may yet upend the delicate peace that the DCP has ushered in for now…
While Burman voiced confidence in the states’, municipal water agencies’, and Native American tribal authorities’ ability to cooperate, some of these very local officials were voicing notes of warning and caution. Shortly after Burman’s presentation on the main stage, Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) Director of Water Resources Colby Pellegrino noted their use of data from the U.S. Geological Survey and UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) showing less Colorado River water for everyone to work with in the next 50 years.
As Pellegrino described this challenge, “It’s a pretty severe stress test for our water resource portfolio.” Pellegrino then noted how SNWA and the larger community have already been rising to this challenge with conservation programs like outdoor watering schedules and turf removal. As Pellegrino put it, “There’s significant water savings to be achieved by changing the mindset of how we use it.”
Later in the day, I caught up with Pellegrino to talk some more about her presentation and the challenges that lie ahead for her agency and the entire region. When asked how SNWA plans to handle those future challenges, she replied, “Conservation is still right here, under our noses, the quickest and most cost effective way.”
[Friday], it was Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s turn to make news here in Nevada. And make news he did, as Bernhardt announced the federal government will launch an early start of its review of the 2007 Interim Guidelines (as in, the 2007 agreement that launched the ICS program to manage the Lower Basin’s water supply).
Soon after his main floor presentation, Bernhardt spoke with reporters about this and other pressing water issues. On his announcement to jump-start review of the Interim Guidelines, Bernhardt said, “We have an opportunity right now. We have the people in place. We might as well build on the success we have here.”
So what can we expect in this review? And for that matter, what kinds of future changes might we expect in federal oversight of the Colorado River? When I asked Bernhardt whether he’d take into account climate science and the changing needs and consumption patterns of the increasingly urban American Southwest, he replied, “I’ve never taken a position of what we need to tell a city or county what they need to do.”
Yet as Bernhardt’s discussion with reporters continued, the conversation occasionally veered into other environmental matters. And when a couple reporters asked about the proposed oil and gas leases on public lands that have run into local opposition, including right here in Nevada, in the Ruby Mountains outside Elko and in parts of Lincoln County that supply drinking water for Mesquite, Bernhardt declared, “The president was clear when he ran for office what his policy is on energy. He supports an ‘all of the above’ approach.” Bernhardt also suggested these leases are required by federal statute, even though the Obama administration took a more cautious and targeted approach toward such fossil fuel extraction on public lands…
Funny enough, one of my takeaways from my conversation with SNWA’s Colby Pellegrino on Thursday was that regardless of what becomes of the long-fought pipeline plan, SNWA has enough water available to keep the Las Vegas region going for the next 50 years. Also, I noticed that regardless of the Trump administration’s curious comments on climate change and “all of the above” approaches to water infrastructure and fossil fuels, SNWA officials recognize the clear and present danger of climate change, and they’re already acting on it.
And it may not just be SNWA doing this. Even as Trump appointees are skirting around acknowledgement of climate science, fossil fuel pollution, ongoing regional tensions, or the reality of urban and suburban growth in the Colorado River Basin, federal civil servants continue to collect data, analyze trends, and manage the water we all share. We’ll talk more about that next week.
Still, there’s a rather large gap between the rhetoric and overarching policies of the Trump administration and the promises of strong climate action that U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), former Vice President Joe Biden, and the other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are providing. And yet, we don’t hear as much about the Colorado River and our fragile water supply as you’d expect considering their environmental and geopolitical importance. Yet no matter how much we ignore it, all we have to do is glimpse at Lake Mead to remember how important it truly is to our very livelihood.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told federal, state and local water managers that abiding by the promises they made will be crucial to ensuring that more painful cuts aren’t required…
“We need to be proud of what we’ve done,” Burman told hundreds at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference at a Las Vegas Strip resort, while also warning of “tougher challenges in the future.”
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will start taking less water from the river Jan. 1 under a drought contingency agreement signed in May. It followed lengthy negotiations and multiple warnings from Burman that if the seven states didn’t reach a deal, the federal government, which controls the levers on the river, could impose severe water restrictions.
California would voluntarily cut water deliveries if reservoir levels keep falling at the river’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead…
Cuts will most affect farmers in Arizona. The Central Arizona Project will stop storage and replenishment operations and cut water for agricultural use by about 15%. The agency gets more than half of Arizona’s entitlement of water from the Colorado River…
The drought contingency plan is a voluntary agreement to use less water than users are allowed, and its success is measured at the surface level of Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam east of Las Vegas.
The agreements are designed to prevent a more drastic drought-shortage declaration under a 2007 pact that would cut 11.4 percent of Arizona’s usual river water allocation and reduce Nevada’s share by 4.3 percent. That amount of water, combined, would serve more than 625,000 homes.
California would reduce its Colorado River use by about 6 percent.
Due to a relatively wet winter, Lake Mead is now 40% full and Lake Powell, an upstream reservoir, is at 53% capacity, Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Patricia Aaron said. A year ago, Lake Powell was 43% full, and Lake Mead was at 38%…
Water managers have called the last 20 dry years a drought, but climate researchers warn the river will continue to carry less water in coming years.
“Respected climate scientists have conservatively estimated declines in river flows of 20% by the middle of the 21st century and 35% by the end of the century,” researchers Anne Castle of the University of Colorado Law School and John Fleck of the University of New Mexico wrote in a study released in November.
The report refers to a “structural deficit” under which states and Mexico are promised more water than the river usually carries and encourages the seven states to clarify rules for handling future shortages.
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will start taking less water from the Colorado River in January as a hard-fought set of agreements kicks in to reduce the risk of reservoirs falling to critically low levels.
The two U.S. states agreed to leave a portion of their water allotments in Lake Mead under a deal with California called the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP, which the states’ representatives signed at Hoover Dam in May.
California agreed to contribute water at a lower trigger point if reservoir levels continue to fall. And Mexico agreed under a separate accord to take steps to help prop up Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir near Las Vegas, which now sits 40% full after a nearly 20-year run of mostly dry years.
The agreements, including another deal in the river’s Upper Basin, increase the odds of Western states making it through the next seven years without reservoir levels crashing. But researchers examining the latest climate projections have also warned of the possibility that declines in the river’s flow could force water curtailments in the coming years, and they’ve suggested looking at options to reduce risks.
For the first time since signing the drought contingency deals, representatives of seven states will meet this week at a conference in Las Vegas to talk over their next steps in managing the Colorado River…
Arizona will see a cut of 192,000 acre-feet in water deliveries next year, or 6.9% of its total allotment of 2.8 million acre-feet. Nevada’s share will be reduced by 8,000 acre-feet, while Mexico’s will take 41,000 acre-feet less.
That water will remain in Lake Mead, and will only be recovered in future years once the reservoir rises above an elevation of 1,100 feet. Its level now stands about 15 feet below that threshold.
The cuts under the deal represent 12% of the total water supply for the Central Arizona Project, which delivers water by canal to Phoenix, Tucson and other areas. The agency that manages the canal has said the cuts will reduce deliveries for agriculture by about 15% and eliminate water that would have been available for storing underground and replenishing groundwater at facilities along the CAP Canal…
According to Bureau of Reclamation figures, Arizona and California together conserved 316,000 acre-feet in 2018, and are on track to conserve an estimated 685,800 acre-feet in 2019. Burman said voluntary conservation efforts by the states have helped, and the drought contingency plan has incentivized more conservation…
Arizona’s plan for managing the water cutbacks involves deliveries of “mitigation” water to help lessen the blow for some farmers and other entities, as well as compensation payments for those that contribute water. The payments will be covered with more than $100 million from the state and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.
Much of the money will go toward paying for water from the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community…
In one study, climate scientists Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck used climate models to estimate a business-as-usual scenario of greenhouse gas emissions. They projected that without changes in precipitation, warming will likely cause the Colorado River’s flow to decrease by 35% or more by the end of the century…
In a new report, water researchers Anne Castle and John Fleck warn that the Colorado River’s water supply could decline so much in the next decade that the ability of the four Upper Basin states “to meet their legal obligations to downstream users in Nevada, Arizona, California, and Mexico would be in grave jeopardy.”
Castle and Fleck examined the latest science on projected flows and analyzed the legal framework governing the Colorado River…
Patti Aaron, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation, responded to the researchers’ findings.
“We applaud a continued focus on the Colorado River, particularly regarding the risks we all are facing going forward,” Aaron said in an email. “We have a solid history in this Basin of finding solutions to complex problems by working together in an open and collaborative way. Reports of this nature help us stay on that path.”
California signed on to the deal, but the state’s Imperial Irrigation District balked at participating.
Imperial holds the single largest share of Colorado River water, which flows to farms producing crops such as alfalfa, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Imperial’s officials have called for the state and federal governments to urgently address a worsening environmental crisis at the Salton Sea, which is shrinking and exposing dry lake bed that sends dust blowing into surrounding communities.
The sea has been shrinking more rapidly under a 2003 deal that is transferring water from the Imperial Valley to growing urban areas in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley.
In October, the Imperial Irrigation District’s board members voted unanimously to declare an emergency at the Salton Sea, pressing for California officials to break through years of wrangling and red tape to get working on dust-control and habitat projects along the retreating shores.
Last month, the IID board adopted a resolution laying out parameters for IID’s involvement in future Colorado River negotiations. They said in the resolution that “the linkage between the Colorado River and the Salton Sea is inextricable.”
Burman, who is scheduled to speak, said the drought contingency plan has laid a foundation that will help the states and other parties work through their next steps.
“Our history on the Colorado River is making improvements and incremental progress as we go,” Burman said. “It’s important that we’re out there talking about the challenges. It’s important that we’re out there talking about possible solutions.”
I finished Eric Kuhn and John Fleck’s new book in the hotel last night on my way to Las Vegas for the Colorado River Water Users Association Annual Conference.
It’s a page-turner that charts the history of the “Law of the River” and how politics and enthusiastic engineers that loved the big projects mostly trumped science in the debate and decisions since the Colorado River Compact negotiations. That trumping set the stage for we users of the Colorado River going forward. The book has praise for current decision makers and the deliberate effort to listen to the scientists regarding the hydrology of the river and the acidification in the basin due to the climate crisis.
Click here to order your copy of “Science be Dammed”.
Earlier this yr, the seven states that depend upon the Colorado River made historical past. For the primary time, Arizona, California, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico agreed to search out methods to cut back the quantity of water they draw from the river as ranges drop additional at Lake Mead, the most important reservoir within the nation.
The Colorado River gives water for 40 million folks. However its flows are shrinking because the planet heats up, decreasing the snowpack that feeds the river and inflicting extra water to evaporate because the river snakes its approach from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California.
However even when local weather change weren’t a difficulty, the Colorado would in all probability nonetheless be in hassle. Again in 1922, when states initially divvied up water from the river, they grossly overestimated the quantity of water flowing via it. This set in movement a collection of selections that led to the shortages immediately. States are dipping into Lake Mead’s reserves, overdrawing 1.2 million acre toes of water yearly — sufficient to quench the thirst of a pair million households for a yr.
As standard knowledge has it, the states have been counting on unhealthy knowledge after they divided up the water. However a brand new guide challenges that narrative. Flip-of-the-century hydrologists truly had a fairly good concept of how a lot water the river may spare, water consultants John Fleck and Eric Kuhn write in Science be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River. They make the case that politicians and water managers within the early 1900s ignored proof concerning the limits of the river’s assets.
In 1916, six years earlier than the Colorado River Compact was signed, Eugene Clyde LaRue, a younger hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, concluded that the Colorado River’s provides have been “not ample to irrigate all of the irrigable lands mendacity throughout the basin.” Different hydrologists on the company and researchers finding out the difficulty got here to the identical conclusion. Alas, their warnings weren’t heeded.
I caught up with Fleck and Kuhn to study why LaRue and others have been ignored and what historical past can train us concerning the selections being made on the river immediately. This interview has been condensed and edited for readability.
Q. When did you each notice that the traditional knowledge concerning the framers of Colorado River legislation utilizing unhealthy knowledge was incorrect? Was there an “aha” second?
A. Fleck: The “aha” second for me was when I discovered the transcripts of LaRue’s 1925 congressional testimony, when he stated, as clear as could possibly be, that there’s not sufficient water for this factor they have been making an attempt to do. It erased any doubt I had that the studies have been too technical and other people didn’t actually perceive them. He was there testifying earlier than Congress, and so they simply selected to disregard it. Not one of the senators adopted up. They have been clearly selecting to willfully ignore what LaRue was saying.
Kuhn: He wasn’t alone. There was USGS hydrologist Herman Stabler, an engineering professor from the College of Arizona, and a really high-level fee appointed by Congress, headed by a well-known Military Corps of Engineers’ lieutenant normal, and so they got here to the identical conclusion. The shock to me was how widespread the knowledge was among the many consultants on the time. There was by no means even sufficient water within the system for what we wished to do earlier than local weather change turned a difficulty.
Q. So why didn’t folks hearken to the researchers?
A. Fleck: The short-term incentives have been at all times to faux that there was extra water so all people can construct the stuff they wished to — dams, canals, cities, and farms. Everybody knew, in the event that they have been being real looking, that the issues would fall on future generations. Folks weren’t as invested sooner or later as they have been within the current.
Q.Some states are nonetheless contemplating constructing dams and pipelines to attract extra water out of the Colorado. Do you suppose we’ve realized our lesson?
A.Kuhn: I believe we’ve realized from historical past, however we haven’t had a chance to use that to creating some sensible selections. Up to now, many of the states besides California have been depending on federal cash in Congress. It’s a must to put collectively coalitions to get tasks via congressional appropriations. It was a lot simpler to divide up a bigger pie politically than it was to take care of actuality.
Immediately, congressional appropriations are nonetheless vital, however new tasks are largely being dealt with by the massive municipalities or the states, like Utah’s Lake Powell pipeline. This coalition course of that labored in allocating the river, in offering cash and water — now we’re overusing that water, and we’re in all probability going to need to shrink what persons are getting. What’s the method? There isn’t one.
For those who don’t begin desirous about that fundamental downside, we’re not going to get the job finished. It’s nonetheless very tough to promote again house to state legislators and governors, as a result of they’ve been advised we nonetheless have further water.
Q. Do you suppose knowledge is getting ignored within the Colorado River basin immediately?
A.Kuhn: One place the place the information is being ignored is with municipal calls for. Las Vegas immediately is serving 40 to 50% extra folks with much less water than it was in 2003. Denver Water has doubled the dimensions of its service space with about the identical quantity of water it was utilizing within the early 1980s. Calls for have been happening. We’re a lot, way more environment friendly in how we use water, and that has but to get into the tradition of the basin.
Working example is the 2012 Colorado River Basin examine by the Bureau of Reclamation. Nearly all of the states took the identical place they did in 1922, which was “Effectively, we want extra water.” They ignored what was occurring again house and went again to conventional sport principle — in case you’re going to be negotiating with anyone, you’ve obtained to overstate your calls for.
Fleck: On the constructive aspect, we’re seeing planners be way more efficient at growing the instruments to include an evaluation of local weather change danger into the modeling. However the flip aspect is that you’ve got a bunch of water customers who’re actually uncomfortable with being real looking of their evaluation of the truth that their wants are declining and their water provide is declining. So, it’s getting the science message to permeate that political barrier in the identical approach that it was tough again within the 1920s.
Q.The final line of the guide says that with local weather change, there’s much less and fewer water, and “we don’t understand how far beneath us the ground lies.” How do you propose for the long run in case you don’t know the place the underside is?
A. Kuhn: The continued reliance on this idea of an entitlement that was primarily based on a a lot completely different river has to go away, and the administration has to develop into extra versatile. We spent 100 years slicing the pie and giving all people a chunk. Within the subsequent hundred years, we’re going to need to put the pie again and make a brand new one. The authorized entitlements add as much as greater than what’s within the river, and the administration system is designed on assembly these authorized entitlements. That has to basically change. There must be a paradigm shift.
Fleck: I’m optimistic about our skill to do that. Now we have seen the event, over the past 20 years, of the instruments we have to start to unravel this downside. We’re seeing municipalities use much less water. We’ve seen agricultural water customers be very profitable in recognizing the alternatives offered and never making an attempt to cling to those outdated allocations and this “water is for combating over” fantasy.
We will do that if we are able to negotiate some collaborative items collectively. If, alternatively, we cling to the outdated water allocation guidelines that have been written a century in the past, and all people digs of their heels and says, “Yeah, however I would like all that water,” then the entire thing may blow up, and it will be a disaster within the West.
This story was initially printed by Grist with the headline Politicians knew the inconvenient fact concerning the Colorado River 100 years in the past — and ignored it on Dec 3, 2019.
I picked up my copy of Science be Dammed on Saturday at the Tattered Cover in Denver. So far it’s a page turner, well written, not just charts and graphs.
Water sufficient for more than 1 million homes on the Front Range could be lost, and thousands of acres of farm land on both the Eastern and Western Slopes could go dry, if the state can’t supply enough water from the drought-stricken Colorado River to downstream states as it is legally required to do, according to a new study.
Among the study’s key findings:
+ In the next 25 years, if the state does nothing to set more water aside in Lake Powell, the Front Range could lose up to 97 percent of its Colorado River water.
+ All but two of the state’s eight major river basins, under that same “do nothing” scenario, also face dramatic water cutbacks.
+ If Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico increase their water use by as little as 11.5 percent, as predictions indicate they will by 2037, the risk of a legal crisis spurring such cutbacks on the river doubles, rising from 39 percent to 78 percent, under one scenario, and 46 percent to 92 percent under another.
“Every water user in every river basin [linked to the Colorado] faces some risk,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, one of the sponsors of the Colorado River Risk Study, as it is known. The Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District also sponsored the work.
“That’s an important takeaway because when you begin to realize the extent of potential damage, whether it is on the West Slope or the Front Range, then we all come to the realization that we have a shared risk,” Mueller said.
Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the river’s supplies are divided between the four Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico) and three Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona). The compact dictates that cities and farmers in the Upper Basin whose water rights were obtained after the compact was signed would have to give up some or all of their water to the Lower Basin if there isn’t enough water in Lake Powell to meet the terms of the compact. Colorado uses the most water of all the Upper Basin states and therefore faces the most risk.
The study was conducted by Boulder-based Hydros Consulting and released in June. It looked at different scenarios for the way river conditions and reductions to diversions could play out, as well as ways to reduce the risk cities and farms face, including spreading the cutbacks proportionately among all the river basins, something that isn’t typically done.
Front Range water utilities are wary of the study and have begun a new round of analysis to determine if they agree with the results.
Alex Davis is a water attorney for the City of Aurora. At a recent forum on the risk study, she said that the chances of a Colorado River crisis were being exaggerated. And the study acknowledges that under some scenarios the risk of such a legal crisis is low.
“All of this talk is helpful to get people to think about the issue, but it also seems like a bit of scare tactics. If the Lower Basin states did try to do something, there would be a whole number of reasons [they would not get far],” she said.
Including the fact that they continue to overuse their share of the river by about 1.2 million acre-feet a year. Before Colorado and its northern neighbors were asked to cut back, the Lower Basin would have to do additional cutbacks as well, she said.
West meets east
Though the Colorado River flows west, and originates in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park, a large chunk of its flows, more than 530,000 acre-feet, are pumped east over the Continental Divide to the state’s Front Range cities, including Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Boulder, Fort Collins and Broomfield, among others. That’s enough water to supply 1.06 million homes or to irrigate more than one-half million acres of crops.
Because these water users built their tunnels and reservoirs decades after the 1922 Compact was signed, they could be among the first to be cut off. Denver’s largest storage pool, Dillon Reservoir, was completed in the 1960s. East Slope cities and farmers would lose 97 percent of their Colorado River supplies if those diversions were completely shut down, according to the study.
“You have to start with the fact that 50 percent of the water on the Front Range comes from the West Slope. Should the Upper Basin fail to meet its delivery obligation, half of water use on the Front Range would be curtailed. That’s an enormous problem,” said Brad Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.
Other parts of the state also face risk, some more than others. The Yampa River Basin, home to Steamboat Springs, would lose slightly more than 70,000 acre-feet of water, or 30 percent of its Colorado River supplies.
The Gunnison Basin, where agriculture controls historic water rights that pre-date the compact, is better protected, with the potential to lose just over 57,000 acre-feet of water, or 10 percent of its share of the river.
But a large swath of the southwestern part of the state would also be hard hit. Despite the historic farm water rights in this region, several small communities and irrigation districts built reservoirs after the compact was signed, just as cities did on the Front Range, meaning that those stored water supplies are also at high risk. In this basin, 178,000 acre-feet of water, roughly 36 percent of its Colorado River supplies, could be lost, according to the study.
The likelihood of ongoing drought and hotter summers only deepens the uneasiness over the river’s ability to produce the amount of water the state once relied on.
“We don’t expect to see cooler temperatures in the future, we expect to see warmer temps,” Mueller said. “If that is true, then we have to plan on reduced water supplies within our state.”
Saving more water?
The study comes as the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the lead water policy agency in the state, is examining whether to launch a massive, voluntary conservation program that would allow the state and its neighbors to save some 500,000 acre-feet of water and store it in a newly authorized drought pool in Lake Powell. The pool, to be used only by the Upper Basin states, could help protect Colorado and its neighbors if drought and climate change continue to sap the river’s flows.
Michelle Garrison is a modeler with the CWCB who has analyzed the study’s results. She said the scenarios it considered are important for comparative purposes and may help the West Slope and Front Range collaborate on any water cutbacks, something that hasn’t always occurred in the past.
“It’s a tough one,” she said. “The hydrology in the Colorado River has always been extremely variable and it’s predicted to become even more variable. But I’m really pleased to see them sharing their results.”
In places like the Yampa Basin, if the state cut back water use based strictly on prior appropriation, where water right dates determine who gets water first in times of shortage, Stagecoach Reservoir, the most significant storage pool in the valley, could be shut off because its storage rights date only to the 1980s. And residents would be hard pressed to cope if another long-term drought drained the river and their only source of stored water was no longer able to refill.
Kevin McBride is manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns Stagecoach. He, like dozens of other water managers across the state, is still contemplating the options. (Editor’s note: McBride serves on the board of Water Education Colorado, which houses Fresh Water News.)
“Generally being safe from drought is what it’s all about,” McBride said. “But how do you get there?
“It’s complicated and it comes down to how it’s done.”
McBride and others on the West Slope are asking for another round of modeling that would examine more equitable ways to cut back water use, so that no one takes the brunt of the reductions.
With insurance, or without?
Others have suggested that the state should let the rules embedded in the 1922 Compact and Colorado’s water rights system play out, rather than creating an expensive, legally complex water conservation program.
Anne Castle is a senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources who specializes in Colorado River issues. Going without a major conservation program carries its own set of very high risks, such as decades of expensive lawsuits or unplanned water shortages.
Over the next several months, the state will continue to examine how best to protect its Colorado River water as part of drought planning work it is engaged in with the other Upper Basin states. Late next year, all Colorado River Basin states will begin negotiating a new set of operating guidelines for the entire river system, designed to bring it back into balance and slash the risk of major cutbacks.
“Truly one of the points of this risk study is to make sure that anyone who is at risk understands the risk,” Mueller said. “If you’re a water planner, it may set off some alarm bells. But we don’t want people to panic. The hope is people will look at this and say, ‘Our community is at risk…what are we going to do about it?’”
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.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Hannah Holm):
Our rivers are shrinking, populations are rising, and many rural communities are suffering from drought and economic dislocation.
Urban water use is declining, despite population growth, and communities are transforming their rivers from utilitarian conveyances into playgrounds and economic development engines.
Farmers and conservation organizations are partnering to help fish, and scientists are developing better forecasting tools, which will help everyone plan better for whatever quantity of water is coming their way.
All these statements are true, and they were among the messages delivered by speakers at the Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum at Colorado Mesa University on Nov. 13-14.
As reported by the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and KUNC, participants were warned that the Upper Basin States of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming are at risk of getting into trouble with the terms of the 1922 Compact between the states that share the Colorado River. A “demand management” program to compensate water users for voluntary, temporary cuts in their Colorado River water use is the most commonly discussed “insurance policy” for managing this risk. The upper basin states are studying the feasibility of this option now.
The risk of failing to meet downstream obligations, and therefore facing mandatory, uncompensated water use cuts, is real. However, as other speakers at the forum demonstrated, our regional water challenges go far beyond compact compliance, and state officials aren’t the only ones with the capacity to take action.
Even without compact trouble, many agricultural communities are regularly short of water, because the mountains don’t always catch enough snow for the fields we want to irrigate. The Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch Enterprise, which operates southwest of Cortez, and irrigates with water from the Dolores Project, often gets less than their full supply. Enterprise managers respond by adjusting their crop plans in accordance with spring supply forecasts and employing highly efficient sprinkler technology. They also run a mill to add value to their corn crops, which brings more dollars per drop to the tribe, as well as more employment opportunities.
Urban communities have also responded to water stress with leak detection programs, pricing strategies and consumer education that have significantly dropped per capita consumption – with a big assist from more efficient toilets and appliances. New technologies and policies for cleaning up sewage to potable standards, individuals’ choices to install water-thrifty landscapes, and denser development patterns offer the promise of further stretching supplies.
Wildfires have been getting fiercer, as a result of beetle kill, hot and dry climate conditions and years of suppression that let fuels build up. Most of our rivers originate in high mountain forests, and when those forests burn hot and intense, subsequent storms can wash fish-choking ash and sediment into streams and foul up water diversion infrastructure. Speakers from southwest Colorado discussed how federal, state and local groups, including private sector forest product firms, are working together to improve forest health and resilience through thinning and prescribed fire, as well as by educating property owners on creating defensible spaces around buildings.
At the same time as our rivers have begun shrinking (on average), we’ve started expecting more from them: in addition to supplying water to our taps and fields, we want them to continue to nurture native fish and provide us with enjoyable boating experiences. Speakers working in the Price River watershed in Utah described how conservation organizations have built relationships with local farmers and brought resources to the table to improve how diversions, ditches and reservoirs serve all these interests.
The examples above demonstrate that those of us who care about the Colorado River, its tributaries and its communities don’t have to limit ourselves to wringing our hands over the seemingly intractable challenge of balancing supply and demand on the Colorado River and sit passively by, hoping that state, federal and tribal leaders will find a good fix. Getting involved in those discussions is good, but so is getting to know your neighbors on your local stream, learning how water works in your community, and finding ways to work together on whatever your particular challenges are. In addressing those challenges, you might even end up contributing to basin-wide solutions.
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. You can learn more about the center at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.
Within weeks Arizona finished its portion of the [Drought Contingency 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 Gov. 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…
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.