Demand-management groups multiply in Colorado water fight — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Water from the Roaring Fork River basin heading east out of the end of the Twin Lakes Tunnel (June 2016), which is operated by the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., a member of the Front Range Water Council. The FRWC recently declined to meet with members of a Colorado Basin Roundtable group about demand management. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The state of Colorado’s investigation into the feasibility of a demand-management program has spawned the spinoff of several additional groups to study the issue, underscoring persistent tensions between the Western Slope and Front Range water managers.

In June, the Colorado Water Conservation Board named 74 people — most of them experts in their fields — to nine workgroups charged with helping the state study whether a water-use reduction plan is right for Colorado. Now, some roundtables and conservation districts are forming their own grassroots stakeholder groups to study demand management outside of the state’s formal process.

One of those is the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. The stakeholder group, chaired by Kirsten Kurath, who is general counsel for the Grand Valley Water Users Association, invited Front Range water providers to an informal meeting on Monday to discuss demand management and address some assumptions about the contentious topic.

Although representatives from Northern Water and Aurora Water initially accepted the invitation, a subsequent letter from the Front Range Water Council made it clear that Front Range water interests were circling the wagons and closing ranks. The FRWC is an ad-hoc group made up of representatives from Front Range urban water providers.

In a letter signed by FRWC chair and Denver Water CEO James Lochhead, the group declined Kurath’s invitation to the meeting.

“We feel it is best at this point not to have ‘official’ side meetings regarding demand management and what a demand management process/program may look like because, particularly with press present, such conversations may lead to confusion and may undermine the state process,” the letter reads.

Kurath said she was extremely disappointed and discouraged by the response.

“It seemed like a great opportunity as part of our workgroup to invite folks from the Front Range Water Council and chat with them about what we are thinking about demand management,” Kurath said. “We do need to work at relationship-building between these historically adverse parties.”

This field is irrigated with water from the Roaring Fork River, under a senior water right. Some on the Western Slope worry that water savings from a water-use-reduction plan known as demand management could fall disproportionately to the agriculture sector. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Contentious topic

So, why is demand management a touchy subject that highlights tensions between Colorado’s West Slope and Front Range? It may be because some in Western Slope agriculture worry that Front Range water providers, backed by a reliable pot of money from their rate-paying customers, can simply pay ranchers to fallow fields without having to reduce their own water consumption. Some Western Slope agricultural water users have voiced concerns about how to create a demand-management program that reduces water use equitably across all sectors, not just agriculture.

On top of that, some fear that if fields are no longer producing crops, a cascade of unintended consequences for the local economy could be the result. The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District are studying the secondary economic impacts of demand management.

“What are the economic impacts should someone decide not to grow a crop?” said Frank Kugel, executive director of the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District. “What about the tractor-supply store, the feed stores, the restaurants and the workers that work on those farms?”

Adding to the controversial nature of demand management is Colorado’s social and cultural backdrop. At the heart of a demand-management program is a reduction in water use on a temporary, voluntary and compensated basis in an effort to send as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to bolster water levels in the giant reservoir and, indirectly, to meet Colorado River Compact obligations. Under such a program, ranchers and farmers could get paid to leave more water in the river.

But Andy Mueller, general manager of the CRWCD, said the concept of intentionally saving water goes against the age-old Western water adage of “Use it or lose it.” Some irrigators believe their water right, which is seen as a property right, could be considered abandoned if they don’t use their entire share of the water all the time, although it is rare in Colorado for this aspect of the law to be enforced by the state.

“We are asking people to change 150 years of cultural, family, political traditions,” Mueller said. “What we need to do in the water-policy world is help provide people with security and confidence they are not unintentionally damaging themselves for the future and that they are protected and have economic certainty.”

To this end, the river district also is forming a demand-management stakeholder group of its own. Mueller said the goal is to convene a group of roughly 30 water users to figure out how their interests would be protected if a demand-management plan is implemented.

“It’s a really critical thing for our actual water users to be driving the train because they know how their farms work,” Mueller said. “If you get ideas from them, they are much more likely to work in the long run.”

The Government Highline Canal, near Grand Junction, delivers water from the Colorado River, and is managed by the Grand Valley Water Users Association. Representatives from the Grand Valley Water Users Association invited members of the Front Range Water Council to discuss demand management, but the FRWC declined. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Water from ag?

Although some might assume that the easiest way to save a large amount of water in a demand-management program is to take it from Western Slope agriculture, Front Range water providers say that isn’t the case. Lochhead said that Denver Water would participate in a demand-management program along with everyone else using “wet water,” not just by throwing money at the problem.

Brad Wind, general manager of Northern Water, agreed that water savings solely from Western Slope agriculture isn’t the solution.

“I get the impression from some West Slope entities … that they think the whole burden of demand management is going to come on the backs of the West Slope,” he said, “and honestly, I don’t think anybody on the Front Range Water Council is saying that.”

These were some of the issues Kurath was hoping to clear up in a meeting with her stakeholder group and Front Range water providers.

“We just wanted to explore that with folks,” she said. “It was a real disappointment to me to have them decide they didn’t want to participate.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story ran in the Oct. 30 edition of the Times.

#Colorado lawmakers plan to intervene in talks about water cuts — @COindependent

Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in April 2017. The dam is 15 miles upstream from Lees Ferry, Arizona. Photo by Alexander Stephens/courtesy Bureau of Reclamation.

Republicans worry the process has been too ‘secretive’ and could hurt the agriculture industry

Colorado lawmakers want a greater say in how the state manages its Colorado River water supplies. 

The legislative Water Resources Review Committee has endorsed a bill proposal that requires the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to consider the committee’s feedback before finalizing a plan to slash the state’s water use in order to send more of it downstream. The Republican-backed proposal won bipartisan support last week from all 10 committee members.

Overuse and climate change is causing a decline in the flow of the Colorado River, which 40 million people, not to mention a major agricultural industry, depend on. The seven states that share Colorado River water supplies are working to ensure enough water makes it downstream to satisfy legal obligations under the 1922 Colorado River Water Compact.

Here in Colorado, water managers are creating a so-called “demand management” plan to reduce the amount of water siphoned off from the river so that more can be stored in Arizona’s Lake Powell and sent downstream during dry years.

But where that water will come from is yet to be decided and figuring it out has been controversial from the start. The water cuts are intended to be equitable, but agriculture accounts for more than 80% of the state’s water use and part of the state’s demand management plan will include paying farmers to irrigate less. Lawmakers worry land will be leased and permanently taken offline for farming, a process dubbed “lease and cease.” 

“A lot of us that are still out there running a shovel are concerned that we are going to have to change the way we live so that people that just run a sprinkler head and try to grow more sidewalks in town don’t have to change theirs,” said Rep. Marc Catlin, a Republican from Montrose, during a committee hearing last week.  

Angst over the planning grew stronger when the CWCB ask 74 volunteers it selected to brainstorm a demand management plan to sign non-disclosure agreements. The intention was to encourage the free exchange of ideas, but the CWCB came under fire. Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling sent CWCB Director Becky Mitchell an email calling the process “secretive.”

Volunteers are no longer required to sign non-disclosure agreements. The tension over the plan is illustrative of a much larger and longer tug-of-war between the executive and the state legislature over how to manage the state’s water supplies in the coming years. GOP Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, was visibly steamed at last week’s meeting and his distrust resulted in the drafting of a bill that explicitly requires the CWCB to gather public feedback before coming up with a plan. The proposed bill also requires the Water Resources Review Committee to tour the state and gather feedback on CWCB’s draft of a plan.

“We have to develop trust among the general public. And when we started hearing early on (about) non-disclosure agreements and everything else, it kinda reminded me of … the Colorado Water Plan. It was called the ‘governor’s water plan,'” Coram told the committee. He continued, “It is imperative that the general public be involved in this most important process.”

Water managers are concerned such involvement could slow down critical and urgent multi-state negotiations. Arizona lawmakers almost derailed a major agreement on how to share water cuts earlier this year. A deal was struck just hours before the Bureau of Reclamation said it would step in an issue mandatory water cuts. 

James Eklund, a former CWCB director who represented Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission during last year’s drought negotiations, said climate change is forcing managers to act more swiftly. Efforts by lawmakers to gather more public input, he told The Colorado Independent, could make acting quickly more difficult.

“If there’s another 2002- or 2003-type drought this year or next year, the [demand management] program is going need to be stood up very quickly,” Eklund said. “It’s hard for me to see that happening if you’re scheduling outreach meetings.”

CWCB Director Mitchell was not available for comment. The CWCB declined to comment on how the proposed bill would affect drought contingency planning. Sara Leonard, the marketing and communications director for the CWCB, said the board recognizes the importance of public comments and is committed to stakeholder engagement. 

Coram dismissed concerns his bill will slow down multi-state negotiations. “Bullshit,” he responded. He told The Colorado Independent the process fits within the timelines already suggested by the CWCB. There is no hard deadline for finalizing the demand management program. The CWCB plans to issue a status update in July 2020.   

The committee also approved a bill that would make it harder to speculate on the state’s water supplies — buying up water rights with the intention of selling them at a profit later — and another dealing with new technologies. 

The proposed bills still require committee approval, a vote in the House and Senate, and the signature of Gov. Jared Polis. The legislative session begins Jan. 8.

This article first appeared on The Colorado Independent and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Leaders Of #DCP Effort Take Home #Arizona Forward “Governor’s Award” For Environmental Excellence — @AZwater #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

L to R: Ted Cooke, Grady Gammage, Jr., Tom Buschatzke, and Anni Foster. Photo credit: Arizona Department of Water Resources

From the Arizona Department of Water Resources:

In several respects, the big environmental winner this year in the Southwest has been in the realm of water.

The Rocky Mountains snowpack last winter was deep and cold, resulting in an excellent runoff into the Colorado River system. Likewise, California largely shrugged off its terrible struggle with drought as wave after wave of “atmospheric rivers” delivered deep moisture to the Sierra Nevada.

In terms of water-resource management, meanwhile, the Colorado River Basin States and the Department of the Interior signed the long-sought Drought Contingency Plans on May 20, a huge step forward for Colorado River system management.

Nowhere was the pursuit of a DCP more front and center than in Arizona, the only one of the seven Colorado River states that required legislative authorization to join in signing onto the DCP.

Following more than eight months of debate and negotiation, Arizona’s water-using community turned to the state Legislature, which quickly responded with legislation authorizing Arizona’s standard-bearer – Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke – to sign the DCP on the State’s behalf. Governor Ducey signed the authorizing legislation on January 31, the same day lawmakers passed it.

On the evening of September 21, at a black-tie gala at the Arizona Biltmore Resort, all that hard work by Arizona’s water-user community and its elected officials received a great nod of appreciation.

A panel of officials from the lower basin states at the Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas, on Dec. 13, 2018. From left, Thomas Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources; Ted Cooke, General Manager, Central Arizona Project;Peter Nelson, chairman, Colorado River Board of California; and John Entsminger, General Manager, Southern Nevada Water Authority.

With over 650 people in attendance, Arizona Forward – one of the State’s leaders in promoting quality of life issues and sustainability – presented the Governor’s Award for Arizona’s Future to Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan Process and the co-chairs of the effort, ADWR’s Director Buschatzke and Ted Cooke, General Manager of the Central Arizona Project.

In accepting his award, Director Buschatzke observed that Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan process “was one built on collaboration, compromise and consensus and its success was the direct result of the tireless efforts of many in this room.”

He noted, too, that the DCP already was proving its value: “Its focus on stabilizing Lake Mead and creating incentives to “bank” water in the reservoir are already proving that DCP is already a success.”

Stephen Roe Lewis via the Gila River Indian Community.

The evening’s most prestigious award – the President’s Award, the top honor of all of the competition’s 93 submissions – went to the MAR 5 Gila River Indian Community Interpretive Trail.

The spectacular MAR 5 project combined the Tribe’s Managed Aquifer Recharge Site 5 and an interpretive trail that provides the community with a sustainable way to provide water for farming, materials for artisans to carry on their crafts, and educational classes to teach future generations, rejuvenating land that for decades had languished.

“It is an honor to have our Community recognized as a leader in Arizona for innovative water management and sustainability practices, as we are focused on addressing the ongoing drought and climate change,” said Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis.

How do we sustain the #ColoradoRiver past 2026? Here’s how #Arizona intends to find out — Arizona Central #DCP #COriver #aridification #conservation

Here’s a guest column from Tom Buschatzke and Ted Cooke that’s running in Arizona Central:

The Drought Contingency Plan is working, but it’s just the beginning. Here’s how we move forward.

It didn’t take long for the completion of the Drought Contingency Plan to create value to Arizona and the Colorado River Basin. Its focus on stabilizing Lake Mead and creating incentives to “bank” water in the reservoir already are paying dividends.

We can say with confidence that DCP is already a success.

DCP is providing a safe harbor while we work on important issues leading up to 2026, when the existing guidelines for the operation of the Colorado River system expire.

We now have an opportunity to build on the successful Arizona process that led to the DCP signing. Arizona is Stronger Together. And that will serve us well as we work toward the next step – maintaining a stable, healthy Colorado River system as we face a hotter and drier future.

Lake Mead is 22 feet higher than expected

A year ago, many of us were immersed in the details of Arizona’s Drought Contingency Implementation Plan, which benefited from the cooperative spirit of its participants, including elected leaders and representatives from every sector of the state’s water-using community.

In 2020 and likely 2021, we will be operating under DCP’s Tier Zero, a reduction of 192,000 acre-feet to Arizona. The estimated impact of contributing this water is more than $40 million, but the investment is worth it to protect the Colorado River system.

DCP’s incentives allow for greater storage in Lake Mead this year. That, coupled with a lot of snow from the Rocky Mountains and additional tributary flow, increased storage in Lake Mead by more than 22 feet from what was initially projected.

An excellent winter snowpack in the Rockies helped Lake Mead a lot. But here is the kicker: Almost half of that 22-foot rise in Lake Mead was due to storage and contributions to system conservation.

And conservation and storing water in the reservoir is a trend that will continue. Arizonans are doing our share, with more than 20 water users, agencies and the state having signed agreements to contribute to implementing the DCP.

But DCP won’t hold us forever

The term used for the coming negotiations on the system’s new guidelines is “reconsultation” of the “Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.”

The emphasis is on “interim.” The 2007 guidelines expire in 2026. So, when people ask “What’s next?” for Colorado River management, that’s it: The difficult challenge of assessing the effectiveness of the current guidelines, with the DCP overlay, and exploring new approaches for the next iteration of the guidelines.

As we learned on Jan. 31 when the state Legislature passed and Gov. Doug Ducey signed Arizona’s DCP, we achieved success because we worked together. We intend to bring the steering committee process back to life, reviving that spirit of cooperation that so infused negotiations.

To that end, we are embarking on a listening and data-collecting effort. It is our plan to meet first with the elected leaders who contributed so much time and effort to the successful steering committee process. Then we plan to sit down with other delegates, including those representing Arizona tribes, cities, agriculture, mining, development and the nonprofi community.

Our goal: To develop a shared vision

Our new goal? Gather our stakeholders’ thoughts and develop a shared vision as we plan for Arizona’s Colorado River water supply.

This will ensure Arizona is a strong voice among the Colorado River Basin states and the federal government as we hammer out the next set of agreements for managing the Colorado River Basin beyond 2026.

That is our “next step.” It’s a big one and we must be prepared. And we will be, because Arizona truly is Stronger Together.

Tom Buschatzke is director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Ted Cooke is general manager of the Central Arizona Project. Together, they co-chaired the steering committee that helped finalize the state’s Drought Contingency Plan signed May 20. Reach them at and

System Conservation Pilot, water markets, and demand management #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Hay fields under Meeker Ditch 2. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Time (Lucas Isakowitz):

…scarcity is the mother of invention, and western states are coming up with innovative ways to save water. One was a pilot program which ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid farmers—including [Paul] Kehmeier—about $200 for every acre-foot of water that they had the right to but did not use…

Over the course of four years, the pilot program sponsored 64 projects, conserving an estimated 46,000 acre-feet of water. There was so much interest in some districts that participants had to be selected via a lottery system. Participating farmers closed off some of their irrigation canals, allowing water that would normally go to their fields to flow downstream; at the same time, water administrative agencies and environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited helped monitor flow rates.

The pilot cost about $8.5 million, with funding coming almost entirely from the major municipalities that rely on the Colorado River, including Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Now the states in the upper Colorado River basin are exploring how to scale it up. Colorado has formed a series of working groups, set to meet for the first time in September, which will tackle questions like who will foot the bill for a large-scale program (which could run in the hundreds of millions of dollars), how to ensure participating farmers are legally allowed to lease out their water rights, and what sort of mechanisms can safeguard conserved water as it makes its way to reservoirs…

Not everyone is thrilled about the possibility of a water market in the upper Colorado River. “Let’s be honest about what it is that we’re doing here: paying farmers not to farm, and drying up land to buy water,” says David Harold, a sweet-corn farmer from Olathe, Colorado, who participated in the pilot program for one year. “This is ‘buy-and-dry’ with another name,” he says, referring to the practice of cities buying land purely for the water rights tied to them, leaving rural communities parched and jobless…

Harold isn’t the only skeptic. “Every single person I interviewed mentioned ‘buy-and-dry,’” says Kelsea MacIlroy, a PhD student at Colorado State University who interviewed 34 irrigators and water experts in western Colorado to understand local perceptions of a demand management program, which is a technical name for a water market where farmers can lease out their water. “People said ‘maybe it’s not exactly the same thing, but we’re afraid that demand management could lead to ‘buy and dry.’’’


Some, like Harold, see a water market as putting their counties on the road towards becoming another Crowley. But others view a demand management program as a way to avoid the fate of Crowley County. As the pressure mounts along the Colorado River, something’s got to give, and a water market—in which farmers choose to lease their water out for a set period, regaining it again when the program times out—is a more palatable option than selling their water entitlements outright. “Demand management is different than ‘buy and dry’ because it leaves the water in the hands of the farmer,” says Kehmeier…

For a demand management program to significantly reduce water security risks along the Colorado River, it will need to attract a lot of farmers and funding. Policymakers are envisioning a scaled-up version of the pilot that could lease out as much as half a million acre-feet of water by 2026, costing around $100 million. But even that won’t keep the Colorado River from over allocation. That’s why, MacIlroy says, some of the irrigators she spoke with felt demand management “was a Band-Aid and that there’s no point in continuing that conversation unless there are efforts being made to address the larger issues in the Colorado River.”

@ASU water policy expert addresses new #drought plan: State will take less water from the #ColoradoRiver under a new contingency plan #DCP #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam, shows the effects of nearly two decades of drought. (Image: Bureau of Reclamation)

Here’s the release from Arizona State University (Marshall Terrill):

The Southwest’s long-standing drought has left the state staring down a historic and first-ever Colorado River water cutback in 2020.

Starting Jan. 1, Arizona will see a 6.9% reduction of Colorado River water under the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which was finalized in May with California, Nevada and the federal government. Mexico will give up 3% of its allotment under a separate agreement.

The cuts are part of a plan to keep Lake Mead, a reservoir at the Arizona-Nevada boundary, functional. Water levels for both Lake Mead and Lake Powell have precipitously dropped as a result of historic over-allocation and a drought that started in 2000.

ASU Now spoke to Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, about the cutbacks and what they will mean for Arizona’s agriculture and the state’s roughly 7 million residents.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. Photo credit: Arizona State University

Question: Are these cuts a move that has been anticipated for some time, and should Arizona residents be worried?

Answer: Yes, the cuts have been anticipated and were agreed to by the parties to the Drought Contingency Plan or DCP. In fact, until a few months ago, we expected deeper cuts, but good mountain snowpack last winter and aggressive conservation efforts shored Lake Mead up a bit. The cuts are part of a larger plan to safeguard the Colorado River system. The plan was negotiated for several years and finalized this spring.

The Lower Basin DCP incentivizes conserving water in Lake Mead while also imposing bigger and bigger cuts should lake levels fall to certain levels. Water users on the Central Arizona Project, which brings Colorado River water to central and southern Arizona, are in line to take largest cuts because they are the lowest priority users.

The 2020 cuts won’t really be felt by Arizona water users because the state has never built out demand for all of its Colorado River supplies. For years, Arizona water managers have used “extra” Colorado River water for aquifer recharge and other purposes. Annually starting in 2015, Arizona has voluntarily conserved in Lake Mead the equivalent amount of this year’s cut.

Rather than worry, Arizona residents should continue to find ways to permanently use water more efficiently. Statewide, Arizona uses the same amount of water today as it did in the mid-1950s, though we now have seven or eight times the population and a much larger economy. There are still lots of opportunities to stretch our water supplies through conservation and efficiency measures.

Q: Who will be the first group of people to feel the sting of cuts in Colorado River supplies?

A: If Lake Mead falls below 1,075-feet elevation, Arizona will take additional cuts and farmers in Pinal County will be the first to feel the impacts. They plan to turn to groundwater (that is, water pumped from wells) to make up for some of those cuts.

Cities are in a different situation. Municipal providers that use CAP supplies tend to have high priority rights, so they would be among the last CAP users to experience cuts. Many cities in the Phoenix and Tucson areas have diverse water portfolios, including groundwater, reclaimed water and other surface water, which gives them a measure of resilience against cuts in Colorado River supplies. And since passage of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, growth has been tied to long-term water supplies in the state’s most populous areas, so water providers must plan well in advance for foreseeable supply reductions.

Q: So if agricultural is the first to take a hit, will this mean the cost of fruits and vegetables will likely go up — and by how much?

A: That’s a question for an economist, but I will note that Arizona’s agriculture industry is not monolithic when it comes to water supplies. Right now, only Pinal County farmers are facing cuts — other Arizona farmers have higher priority Colorado River rights or get their water from other sources. Two-thirds of Pinal County’s agricultural revenues come from cattle and dairy. That production will not be directly affected by cuts in CAP deliveries. The county’s main irrigated crops are cotton and hay.

Q: What’s the effect going to be on individual households and what should consumers be mindful of, or start practicing?

A: For some households, water rates may increase as their water providers take additional steps to ensure water deliveries in the event of decreased Colorado River supplies. In addition, some households in newer developments in Maricopa, Pinal and Pima Counties depend on groundwater and are required to pay into a fund to purchase water supplies to replenish the groundwater withdrawn for their use. This amount shows up as an assessment on county property-tax bills. As fewer supplies become available, the costs of water to meet the replenishment obligation may also increase.

We should always treat water as the precious resource it is here in Arizona. The single best way for an individual household to help is to permanently reduce the amount of water used for outside landscaping.

Q: Is this going to be the new normal or a sign of things to come?

A: We should think of this as the new normal. Lake Mead is over-allocated. The prolonged drought has exacerbated the problem because it results in less extra water in the system. There are signs that the region is aridifying, meaning that average flows in the Colorado River may decrease.

We shouldn’t overlook the conservation efforts that are critical to keeping the Colorado River system functional. The Drought Contingency Plan includes important ground rules for conserving water in Lake Mead, and Arizona’s Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community, along with CAP, will be conserving and storing significant quantities of water in the lake.

Changing nature of Colorado River droughts, Udall/Overpeck 2017.

Colorado River: The West’s precious, but limited resource — Brenda Burman

From “Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries” By J. W . Powell, 1875

Here’s a guest column from USBR Commissioner Brenda Burman that’s running in The Hill:

One hundred fifty years ago, John Wesley Powell and his small band of courageous explorers captured the nation’s imagination as they completed their first expedition down the Colorado River. Powell and his team faced the unknown, and they came through the river’s canyons with a hard-earned appreciation for the Colorado River as a precious, but limited resource. His vision of diverting water for agriculture contributed to the Reclamation Act of 1902 and the birth of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Powell’s descriptions of Western water scarcity helped inspire American investment in water storage and conveyance infrastructure up and down the Colorado River — forward-thinking investment that built facilities like Glen Canyon Dam with his namesake reservoir, Lake Powell; Hoover Dam with Lake Mead; and other important reservoirs.

Today, that system of reservoirs can store four times the average annual inflow of the Colorado River Basin — absolutely critical storage for the life and livelihood of 40 million people across the West. In fact, without Lake Powell, Lake Mead and other key storage reservoirs along the Colorado River, the basin would have already faced an overwhelming water crisis many years ago.

The century and a half since Powell’s expedition brought many challenges and innovative solutions for the Colorado River. A year ago, the basin was suffering its fifth driest year in over a century; another abysmal datapoint in one of the driest 20-year periods of the last 1,200 years. In contrast, as recently as 2000, both Lake Powell and Lake Mead were nearly full. The water stored in those massive reservoirs blunted the effects of prolonged drought and protected cities, farms and families across the basin from devastating water shortage impacts.

In fact, Colorado River reservoirs helped ensure water deliveries each year during the current 20-year drought — enabling certainty and predictability for water users while avoiding the need for shortage declarations. That’s the value of water storage reservoirs and the lasting legacy of past water leaders like John Wesley Powell.

Unfortunately, not all Western river basins are positioned to withstand the effects of prolonged drought. For example, water storage infrastructure in California’s Sacramento River Basin stores less than one year’s average flow — that’s not enough to sustain ever-increasing demand. As water scarcity in the West becomes more challenging, stretching existing supplies while expanding and improving water storage infrastructure is even more important. We must strengthen our ability to capture, store and deliver limited water supplies while maximizing efficiency to enhance conservation.

While our Colorado River reservoirs have performed very well through prolonged severe drought, we cannot simply maintain the status quo. In January 2019, the combined storage of Lakes Powell and Mead fell to just 38 percent of capacity. That’s what brought the seven Colorado River basin states, the Republic of Mexico, the U.S. government, Native American Tribes, conservation interests and other non-governmental organizations together earlier this year to complete historic drought contingency plans.

Water users in the Colorado River Basin have survived the drought through a combination of water storage infrastructure and voluntary actions to protect reservoir storage and water supply. Adoption of drought contingency plans this summer, developed over years of collaborative negotiation, takes the next step by implementing mandatory action to reduce risk and protect limited water supplies.

I agree with others who believe John Wesley Powell would be happy with the level and success of collaboration in the Colorado River Basin; collaboration that helps focus governance on community and local needs along the river.

On Aug.15 the Bureau of Reclamation released its 2020 operational plans for Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Looking ahead, we are pleased that the basin will avoid deep water delivery reductions or face rapidly-declining reservoirs next year. That’s welcome news and reflects the impact of 2019’s excellent snowpack and runoff into Lake Powell and Lake Mead. That above-average runoff pushed today’s total system storage to 55 percent of capacity. But, one good year can’t undo nearly two decades of drought. We must remain focused on infrastructure improvement, conservation and other efforts to protect the Colorado River’s precious limited water.

John Wesley Powell’s courage and vision introduced America to the treasure that is the Colorado River. Our courage and vision must equal his as we confront challenges like ongoing drought and growing demand throughout the basin. Like we’ve done for the 150 years since Powell first explored those awe-inspiring canyons, we must continue to collaborate and cooperate to find innovative water management solutions for today and future generations. That’s our mandate and, if recent drought contingency plans are an indication, we are up to the task.

Brenda Burman is the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Bureau of Reclamation is a contemporary water management agency and the largest wholesale provider of water in the country. It brings water to more than 31 million people and provides one out of five Western farmers with irrigation water for farmland that produces much of the nation’s produce. It is also the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the country.