6 #ColoradoRiver states submit a plan to cut #water use, but #California says ‘no deal’ — AZCentral.com #COriver #aridification

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the AZCentral.com website (Brandon Loomis). Click through for the photo gallery, here’s an excerpt:

Late last year, the federal government asked the seven states that share the Colorado River’s water to submit a plan by the end of January to rapidly cut their use of water or face mandatory cuts. Six of them found a consensus proposal andsubmitted their idea on Tuesday. The seventh — California — is an ominous exclusion, given that it is the largest water user on the river and could thwart efforts to preserve the system if it presses its rights in court. Even so, water policy experts found it encouraging that six states could come together to present the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation with a state-driven option, one that fast-forwards through a plan devised 15 years ago…One of the proposal’s authors, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger, said talks with California would continue.

“We absolutely intend to continue to work in good faith with California,” he told The Arizona Republic. “I don’t see the fact that that six states submitted a letter as any sort of declaration of failure.”

[…]

Reclamation officials have said river users must cut between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet to stabilize the system. Officials from the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — believe their plan will save 3.3 million. Each acre-foot contains about 326,000 gallons and is enough to supply two or three households, though roughly 80% of the river’s water is applied on farms…

Entsminger said the “no action” alternative is too risky in an age when a warming and drying climate has drained most of the reservoirs’ capacity.

“You’re just rolling the dice on an extremely high-percentage chance that these reservoirs are going to continue to decline and you could go below minimum-power pool at Lake Powell and dead pool at Lake Mead,” he said.

As the #ColoradoRiver dries up, [6 states and #California] can’t agree on saving #water — The Washington Post #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon Dam, seen here in May 2022, was a major electrical generation but has produced less as volumes in Lake Powell have declined. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

“This is what climate change + an out-dated law of the river looks like: ‘There’s a problem of aridification. But on top of that, there’s a problem with the rules…The rules governing the system are not sustainable.’ — Jonathan Overpack via Twitter

Click the link to read the article on The Washington Post website (Joshua Partlow). Here’s an excerpt:

The river’s biggest water user, California, didn’t join six states in a proposal to cut some 2 million acre feet of usage

For the second time in six months, states that depend on the Colorado River to sustain their farms and cities appear to have failed to reach an agreement on restricting water usage, setting up the prospect that the federal government will make unilateral cuts this year…

“Obviously, it’s not going swimmingly,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the former general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a water provider that is a major player in the talks. “It’s pretty tough right now.”

[…]

The proposal by the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — seeks to protect the major reservoirs in Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling below critical levels, such as when the dams would no longer be able to generate electricity or at “dead pool,” when water would effectively be blocked from flowing out of these lakes. Before above-average snows in recent weeks, the Bureau of Reclamation was projecting that Lake Powell could start to reach such thresholds by this summer.

One of the central tensions of these complicated negotiations is how to balance cuts between farming regions against those in cities, including major population centers. Agriculture uses some 80 percent of the river’s water and also tends to have the most senior rights, some dating back to the 19th century. The way this “priority system” works, residents of Phoenix would lose water before vegetable farmers in Yuma. Those who grow alfalfa in Southern California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys would keep their water before people in parts of Los Angeles.

Kightlinger, along with many other water experts and officials, says cuts of this magnitude and severity have to be shared, rather than doled out according to seniority.

“They can’t follow the priority system. That would be a disaster. That would be: We’re basically going to put all the cuts on the major share of the economy. That just simply can’t be reality,” he said.

Map credit: AGU

Six states agree on a proposal for #ColoradoRiver cutbacks, #California has a counter — KUNC #COriver #aridification

Horseshoe Bend, Arizona. Photo credit: Getches-Wilkinson Center

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:

Six of the seven states that use water from the Colorado River have agreed on a proposal to leave more water in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir. California, which has the largest and oldest water rights in the region, was the lone holdout. The proposal was sent to the Bureau of Reclamation as the federal agency considers adjusting the amount of water released from Lake Mead and Lake Powell each year…

“I think the fact that six states are willing to issue this letter without California being on board shows the gravity of the situation for them,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “I’m sure they all would have preferred to have California be a cosigner of this, and it just shows how seriously they’re all taking this.”

The six-state proposal, branded as the “Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative” would add about 1.5 million acre-feet to Lake Mead in each of the next two years. That’s roughly the same amount of water that is lost each year due to evaporation and inefficient infrastructure. The plan attempts to correct an accounting problem. Each year, some water users in Nevada, Arizona and California are legally entitled to water in Lake Mead that does not physically exist, because it evaporates off of the reservoir’s surface before it ever has a chance to flow downstream. The total amount of evaporated water varies each year depending on reservoir levels and weather. Accounting for that quantity of lost water could get the basin’s users closer to the needed conservation to slow the decline of water levels at Lake Mead. Without changes, federal scientists say the reservoir will continue dropping towards “minimum power pool,” the level at which hydropower generation within the Hoover Dam becomes impossible, and “deadpool,” the level at which water is too low to flow through the dam at all…

California released details of its own proposal to Reclamation late Tuesday. The state suggested the adoption of a water-saving plan it first outlined last October. Under that plan, the state would voluntarily cut back on its water use from the Colorado River use by 400,000 acre-feet – about 9% of its total annual use – each year until 2026. In a press release, the state’s Colorado River board wrote that its proposal would reduce water use while “protecting infrastructure, prioritizing public health and safety, and upholding the existing body of laws, compacts, decrees, and agreements that govern Colorado River operations.” California’s proposal emphasizes the state’s desire to follow existing legal structures for river management, and says further steps could be taken if water levels at Lake Mead dip below 1,000 feet above sea level.

Colorado River Basin Plumbing. Credit: Lester Doré/Mary Moran via Dustin Mulvaney and Twitter

As the #ColoradoRiver Shrinks, Washington Prepares to Spread the Pain — The New York Times #COriver #aridification

Water users are urgently trying to keep Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border from dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on The New York Times website (Christopher Flavelle). Here’s an excerpt:

“Think of the Colorado River Basin as a slow-motion disaster,” said Kevin Moran, who directs state and federal water policy advocacy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re really at a moment of reckoning.”

Negotiators say the odds of a voluntary agreement appear slim. It would be the second time in six months that the Colorado River states, which also include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, have missed a deadline for consensus on cuts sought by the Biden administration to avoid a catastrophic failure of the river system. Without a deal, the Interior Department, which manages flows on the river, must impose the cuts. That would break from the century-long tradition of states determining how to share the river’s water. And it would all but ensure that the administration’s increasingly urgent efforts to save the Colorado get caught up in lengthy legal challenges. The crisis over the Colorado River is the latest example of how climate change is overwhelming the foundations of American life — not only physical infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, but also the legal underpinnings that have made those systems work.

A century’s worth of laws, which assign different priorities to Colorado River users based on how long they’ve used the water, is facing off against a competing philosophy that says, as the climate changes, water cuts should be apportioned based on what’s practical. The outcome of that dispute will shape the future of the southwestern United States.

“We’re using more water than nature is going to provide,” said Eric Kuhn, who worked on previous water agreements as general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Someone is going to have to cut back very significantly.”

The rules that determine who gets water from the Colorado River, and how much, were always based, to a degree, on magical thinking…But the premise that the river’s flow would average 17.5 million acre-feet each year turned out to be faulty. Over the past century, the river’s actual flow has averaged less than 15 million acre-feet each year. For decades, that gap was obscured by the fact that some of the river’s users, including Arizona and some Native American tribes, lacked the canals and other infrastructure to employ their full allotment. But as that infrastructure increased, so did the demand on the river. Then, the drought hit. From 2000 through 2022, the river’s annual flow averaged just over 12 million acre-feet; in each of the past three years, the total flow was less than 10 million.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

How to Save the #ColoradoRiver? Use Less Water: Audubon submits comments to Bureau of Reclamation as they develop new operating rules #conservation #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell, a key reservoir on the Colorado River, has seen water levels drop precipitously as a result of two decades of drought. (Source: The Water Desk and Lighthawk Conservation Flying)

Click the link to read the article on the Audubon website (Jennifer Pitt):

The massive dams on the Colorado River were supposed to protect us.

President Franklin Roosevelt at dedication of Boulder (now Hoover) Dam, September 30, 1935

At the dedication of Hoover Dam, the colossus just outside of Las Vegas created Lake Mead, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt celebrated “its contribution to the health and comfort of the people of America who live in the Southwest.” The Glen Canyon Dam was built in the 1960’s into the red rocks of Glen Canyon to form Lake Powell. Floyd Dominy, the Reclamation Commissioner who presided over its construction extolled that “you wouldn’t have anywhere near the number of people living comfortably in the West if you hadn’t developed the projects, if you hadn’t managed the water.”

Today, the water stored behind them is so diminished that the federal government has warned of “system collapse.” The two reservoirs are dangerously close to dead pool, the point at which the water level sinks below the dams’ intakes. At risk are the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River water supply and a substantial share of the U.S. agricultural economy, not to mention the hundreds of bird species and every other living thing that depends on the basin’s rivers as habitat.

How did this happen? The river is legally overallocated, the basin is experiencing extended drought conditions, and climate warming is exacerbating the drought. Perhaps most significantly, consumptive water uses in the past 20 years have exceeded supply. Rather than reducing water uses a little bit year over year, those who control the river (water users, state and federal agencies) largely sustained consumptive uses by draining those reservoirs. Now that they are nearly emptied, that strategy won’t work anymore, and the region is in for a rough transition.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation has initiated a process to substantially reduce water releases from Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams as soon as next year (see “Notice of Intent to Prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the December 2007 Record of Decision Entitled Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations For Lake Powell and Lake Mead” as published in Federal Register Notice – 87 FR 69042 on November 17, 2022). This will allow Reclamation to change Colorado River operations in the near-term without having to enact “emergency measures” (read: not subject to environmental review) as they did in 2022. This is taking place at the same time that Reclamation is working with stakeholders on a longer-term process to revise Colorado River operating rules post-2026.

Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. Photo: Marti Phillips/Audubon Photography Awards

In response to Reclamation’s most recent request for public comment regarding near-term changes to Colorado River operations, Audubon submitted a letter asking for considerations for birds and other living things that depend on the river. We expect to comment again once Reclamation issues a draft plan, likely in March.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

“We are not going to be afraid to litigate” to protect #Colorado’s water rights: Attorney General Phil Weiser said era of lower basin states over-consuming #ColoradoRiver “is over” — The #Denver Post #COriver #aridification

Lees Ferry streamgage and cableway on the Colorado River, Arizona. The point where the upper and lower Colorado River basins divide the river. (Public domain.)

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Nick Caltrain). Here’s an excerpt:

Colorado’s attorney general is seeking to reinforce his office’s water-focused legal team so it could be prepared for upcoming fights over the Colorado River. Attorney General Phil Weiser, who was just re-elected to a second term, said his office needs to be prepared for litigation or negotiation with other stakeholders to defend Colorado’s water rights. He’s not asking for an overhaul of the office — his ask to the Joint Budget Committee is for two new positions, and water and natural resources make up an overall small percentage of his office’s total budget — but he noted that “the challenges with water are heating up.”

“The era of the lower basin states taking as much water as they wanted — up to 10 million acre-feet when they’re only entitled 7.5 — is over,” Weiser said recently…

Ideas on bolstering the water supply — or at least not drinking too deep from it — vary. Weiser said his focus is on protecting the state’s share. Lawmakers have said water will be a “centerpiece” of this legislative session. House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon, has also singled out lower basin states for overusing their allotment. Weiser noted the strain on the reservoirs and the pressure that puts on water users up and down the river. Navigating the legal rapids will require negotiation or litigation, he said.

“We’ve got to be prepared for either way,” Weiser told reporters after his investiture ceremony Thursday. “We are not going to be afraid to litigate and protect our rights, and as we can find collaborative solutions, we’ll work hard to do that.”

[…]

If lawmakers approve the request this spring for more water specialists, it would bring the department’s total staff working on interstate water issues to 11, including eight attorneys, according to budget documents. The internal team has already won legal victories against other states and the federal government, as well as saved the state money on outside experts, according to the proposal.

Department of Interior needs to review agricultural use of #water amid negotiations for #ColoradoRiver cuts — Bruce Babbit for The #Nevada Independent #COriver #aridification

A center-pivot irrigation system that replaced a less efficient irrigation system in Diamond Valley through a Nevada Department of Agriculture grant. (Courtesy of Nevada Department of Agriculture)

Click the link to read the guest column on Nevada’s only statewide nonprofit newsroom The Nevada Independent website (Bruce Babbit):

As Lake Mead continues to decline toward dead pool, federal officials are requesting the  Colorado River states  to offer major cuts in water usage.

Nevada has responded with a detailed and innovative plan set forth in a  December 20, 2022 letter to the Bureau of Reclamation,  calling for basic reform of water management throughout the entire Colorado River system. It is centered on protecting water levels in Lake Powell  and Lake Mead with new rules for apportioning reduced water deliveries throughout the system.

The plan assures that water levels behind Glen Canyon Dam in the upper basin will not fall below a level necessary to protect hydropower production and the structure of the dam itself.

For Lake Mead in the lower basin the plan would set rules assuring that water levels cannot fall below a new “Lake Mead Protection Level” sufficient to provide an 18 month reserve for “public, health and safety” of municipal users.

The plan calls on the three lower Basin states, Arizona, California and Nevada, to offer a million and a half acre feet of reductions, in addition to cuts previously agreed upon in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). This new round of cuts calls for “equitable sharing of evaporation and system losses”  among the three states in proportion to their “average annual consumptive use for the period 2019 to 2021.” 

Reaching consensus on such an inventive, far reaching proposal, will take time. The seven basin states and the Interior Department have until 2026, when current regulations expire, to reach agreement on new rules. 

However, one critical provision—the 1.5 million acre feet reduction in diversions from Lake Mead—cannot wait that long. It must be agreed upon and implemented immediately to avoid disaster.  

Arizona and California have not responded in public.  They remain on the sidelines, unable  to summon the political will to either agree or to propose an alternative.   

The reason Arizona and California are internally deadlocked can be summed up in one word: agriculture. Irrigated agriculture uses more than 70 percent of  the water allocated to the two states from Lake Mead.  A fair settlement will not be possible unless agriculture takes its share of the cuts. 

Agricultural Irrigation districts in Arizona and California resist offering cuts, claiming an absolute priority under century-old legal doctrines. They claim an unqualified priority right to continue growing alfalfa for cattle feed that comes ahead of an adequate water supply for Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego and Los Angeles. 

The Interior Department has the power to break this deadlock. The department, as water master of the lower Colorado River, has broad authority over water allocation and management. A federal regulation, known as Section 417, gives the department authority to limit agricultural water deliveries to that amount “reasonably required for beneficial use.”

What is reasonably required is a judgment that can take into account many factors, including the needs of cities, towns, power plants, mineral extraction, recreation, and more. And what is reasonable for irrigation allocations in normal years may be entirely unreasonable when Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon Dam and the entire Colorado River system are at risk of collapse. 

It is now time for the Interior to use its Section 417 authority for an expansive review of all agricultural use contracts and to reduce allocations to reflect a fair measure of burden sharing.  This review should begin in an open and transparent process without further delay.

Bruce Edward Babbitt is an attorney and politician from the state of Arizona. A member of the Democratic Party, Babbitt served as the 16th governor of Arizona from 1978 to 1987, and as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of the interior from 1993 to 2001.

#Wyoming: Unhappy in its own way at the top of the #ColoradoRiver — The Desert Review #ImperialValley #COriver #aridification #GreenRiver

Map of the Colorado River drainage basin, created using USGS data. By Shannon1 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Click the link to read the article on The Desert Review website (Brian McNeece). Here’s an excerpt:

The system for irrigating is vastly different between Wyoming and Imperial Valley, and because of this, water negotiators of the region have vastly different points of view. In the Green River Basin, there are 2500 gates diverting water onto ranchers’ lands, but in the greater scheme of things, the basin is essentially a collector system. Some of those far-flung gates are “unregulated,” or unmonitored. The Green River has 2,000 named natural tributaries. Accurately measuring the supply and consumption of water in such a system is a work in progress. 

The All American Canal diverts water from the Lower Colorado River to irrigate crops in California’s Imperial Valley and supply 9 cities. Graphic credit: USGS

In the Imperial Valley, we have one gate diverting water from the Colorado River. It is where Imperial Dam turns water into the All-American Canal. While the Green River Basin is a collector system like the roots of a tree, ours is a distribution system like the branches to the leaves. The IID has 5500 gates. Since every one of them is monitored by the IID, water supply and consumption are easy to measure with gauges throughout the system. 

Water management is a world apart as well. In the Green River Basin, there are thirty-seven small water distribution agencies, both public and privately owned, often with zero or a handful of fulltime employees. There are irrigation districts, conservancy districts, ditch companies, and canal companies. Ranchers, and often non-agricultural property owners, pay an assessment, or a flat fee, or a per-acre fee, or a price per share for water delivery. The water itself is owned by the state of Wyoming and is made available for free. The overseer of all this is the Wyoming State Engineer, which in turn has a representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, the governing agencies for the Upper Basin states. 

In the Imperial Valley, the Imperial Irrigation District is the sole holder of water rights to Colorado River water and the sole manager for water distribution. Here, as in all the Lower Basin States, the Bureau of Reclamation is our overseer. With nearly 500 employees in its water division, IID outguns the whole state of Wyoming for water workers about 2 to 1. The Bureau also supplies IID’s 3.1 million acre-feet of water for free, and IID charges farmers $20 an acre-foot (af), a fee subsidized by revenue from the transfer of water to the San Diego County Water Authority. Industrial water users pay a much higher fee…

So far, the cuts that Mother Nature has forced on Wyoming and others in the Upper Basin states, and the cuts agreed to by Arizona, Nevada, and California, are far below the amount necessary to save the reservoirs from circling the drain in the next few years. Negotiators have until the end of this month to reach consensus on a plan to satisfy the Bureau of Reclamation’s demand for 2-4 million acre-feet of cuts in water use next year. We’re all unhappy in our own way on the Colorado River. Like the sparsely populated Cowboy state, we can only fight the good fight against the odds.

#Nevada calls on #Utah and Upper Colorado Basin states to slash #water use by 500,000 acre-feet: Drastic measures are needed to rescue #LakePowell — The Salt Lake Tribune #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Water users are urgently trying to keep Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border from dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on The Salt Lake Tribune website (Brian Maffly). Here’s an excerpt:

Nevada water managers have submitted a plan for cutting diversions by 500,000 acre-feet in a last-ditch effort to shore up flows on the Colorado River before low water levels cause critical problems at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams. But the Silver State’s plan targets cuts in Utah and the river’s other Upper Basin states, not in Nevada, whose leaders contend it already is doing what it can to reduce reliance on the depleted river system that provides water to 40 million in the West.

“It is well past time to prohibit the inefficient delivery, application, or use of water within all sectors and by all users; there simply is no water in the Colorado River System left to waste and each industrial, municipal, and agricultural user should be held to the highest industry standards in handling, using, and disposing of water,” states a Dec. 20 letter the Colorado River Commission of Nevada sent to the Interior Department. “It is critical that Reclamation pursue all options that will help reduce consumptive uses in the Basin and provide water supply reliability.”

[,,,]

One option Nevada offers is for Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming to accept substantial cuts in the amount of river they tap to ensure enough water reaches Lake Powell to keep Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower turbines spinning and Lake Powell functioning as a reservoir…The proposal comes in the form of Nevada’s official comments to the supplemental environmental impact statement the Bureau of Reclamation is preparing for proposed changes to the operations of the drought-depleted reservoirs. One of three Lower Basin states, Nevada called on the Upper Basin states to reduce their withdrawals by a combined 500,000 acre-feet if Lake Powell’s level is projected to drop below 3,550 feet above sea level at the start of the coming calendar year…Today, the lake’s level is already far below than that, at 3,525.7 feet, just 35 feet above the point at which Glen Canyon Dam’s turbines would be damaged if water passes through the penstocks.

Lake Powell key elevations. Credit: Reclamation

“The reason [The Upper Colorado River Commision’s] five-point plan doesn’t have any specific numbers is because we don’t know what’s ahead of us. We don’t know whether the runoff is going to be 7 million acre-feet or 20 million acre-feet,” Shawcroft said. “The real challenge is the hydrology. But we know for a fact that that we’re not going to be able to continue operating the river like we always have. The majority of the water gets used in the lower basin states, but does that mean that Upper [Basin] states are off the hook? I don’t think they are.”

Annual water conference ends as new cuts loom over #ColoradoRiver users — KJZZ #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Colorado Water Conservation Board Executive Director and commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission Becky Mitchell, center, speaks on a panel with representatives of each of the seven basin states at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas Thursday. The UCRC released additional details of a water conservation program at the CRWUA2022 Conference. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the KJZZ websits (Ron Dungan). Here’s an excerpt:

Colorado River Basin states recently gathered in Las Vegas for their annual water users convention. The states are trying to figure out how to get by with less water. The conference focused on a variety of topics, such as new technology, conservation and funding that will guide water users into the next century. But federal water managers say that new conservation measures need to be put in place or they will impose cuts.

‘It is going to take real cuts to everyone’: Leaders meet to decide the future of the #ColoradoRiver — KUNC #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Interior celebrates the 200th anniversary of diplomatic relations between 🇲🇽 and 🇺🇸 at @CRWUA_water to honor the crucial role of the U.S. International Boundary Waters Commission and Comisión Internacional de Límites y Aguas entre México y Estados Unidos – Sección Mexicana in ensuring the equitable and sustainable use of the Colorado River for the benefit of us all. Photo credit: Tanya Trujillo’s Twitter Feed

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:

The most powerful policymakers in the arid Southwest spent three days in Las Vegas, reviewing the grim state of a river that supplies 40 million people from Wyoming to Mexico. Federal and state authorities emphasized the need for collaboration to avert catastrophe, but have been reticent to make sacrifices during negotiations over plans that would reduce demand for water. This year marked the 76th meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association and the event’s first ever sold-out attendance. Journalists, scientists, farmers and city officials packed the conference center at Caesar’s Palace to watch water managers hash out the river’s future in the public eye.

“There’s no substitute for being face-to-face,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies Las Vegas. “It’s a lot easier to talk a little smack, call some people some names, when you’re not looking them in the eye.” […]

The current guidelines for the river are set to expire in 2026, and states are largely focused on coming up with new ones before that deadline. A century-old agreement governs how water is allocated across the arid Southwest, Meanwhile, some experts suggest that agreement, the Colorado River Compact, should be replaced to meet the modern demands of a region with sprawling fields of crops and booming urban populations.

“I think there is some heavy optimism that hopefully everyone will come to something that we can all agree on,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s top water policy agency. “But it is going to take real cuts to everyone.”

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Romancing the River: Quo vadimus? — Sibley’s Rivers #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Belleview Mountain East River Headwaters. Photo credit: Ray Schoch via Sibley’s Rivers

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

Enough gallivanting around the Mississippi Basin and its rivers; back to the troubled and troublesome Colorado River, currently experiencing its worst dry spell since around 800 CE. The Colorado Rivers, I should maybe say, since for all practical (human) purposes the river is now managed in a quasi-de jure way as two river basins under the Colorado River Compact and subsequent ‘Law of the River’ actions: an Upper Colorado River and a Lower Colorado River.

Previously here, I’ve been exploring the Colorado River Compact at its centennial, in what is certainly the worst year in its century. Here are some things I came up with in that exploration, that I don’t think are getting enough attention in our efforts to search our own souls and the soul of the river in the desert as we try to figure out where we are going from here:

1. The Colorado River Compact is not the ‘foundation of the Law of the River.’ The foundation of the Law of the River is the appropriation doctrine: the body of law that bases the right to use the water of the river and its basin (groundwater too, now) primarily on the seniority of use. First come, first served, for any economically beneficial use for as long as the use continues. Appropriations law is basically a powerful growth engine.

The Colorado River Compact, and all the subsequent laws, treaties, acts of Congress, and other consensual agreements involving the river thus become efforts to deal with the consequences of applying a powerful growth engine to an erratic and relatively modest river  – and they fall short to the extent that they too cautiously circle around (or just ignore) the problem of a body of law encouraging unlimited demand on a limited resource.  

2. The Compact could not do what its creators set out to do, so they settled for an expedient resolution to facilitate development of the River.  The Compact was created because Euro-Americans wanted to control a rambunctious river whose erratic flows made it hard to use for civilized pursuits. But the growth logic of the foundational Law of the River (the appropriation doctrine) made six of the seven Colorado River states fear the pace of development of the seventh state, California, if the river were controlled; California could conceivably lay claim to most of the river’s water before the other states really got settled. 

The six states thus wanted an ‘overlay’ to the unconstrained law of appropriation that would assure each state of enough water to meet their own future needs at their own pace. Unfortunately, they did not have – could not have had in the 1920s – enough solid information of what their reasonable future needs were. So they settled for an expedient resolution; they divided the river into two basins, above and below the uninhabited canyon region; each basin was given a little less than half the estimated flow of the river to develop, with the upper river basin committed to deliver a fixed amount of water to the lower river basin (75 million acre-feet over any ten-year period).

Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS

3. Mistakes were made. Much has been made of the fact that the Compact commissioners selected an estimated flow of 15 million acre-feet of water to divide between the two basins, well above what has been proven to be a more realistic estimate of an average annual river flow of 13 million acre-feet by E.C. LaRue and some other Geological Survey scientists. It was, however, well below the optimistic 16.8 million acre-feet estimate by the Bureau of Reclamation. 

It was also an ebulliently optimistic time in America – the advent of the Anthropocene, when we thought we were on the verge of freedom from the stodgy limitations of nature. The commissioners acknowledged that they did not have enough information to accurately divide the waters of the river seven ways, and were content to leave that task ‘to the hands of those men who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information.’ We now know that they should have listened to the USGS scientists, but it is easier and kind of superior to tsk-tsk as ex post facto Monday morning quarterbacks, than it is to acknowledge and understand – maybe even regret the loss of – the spirit of the times when the mistake was made.

The Compact commissioners have also been faulted for ‘leaving the Indians out of the Compact.’ That is not entirely accurate; what they said was that ‘Nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indian tribes.’ But what was the obligation of the United States to the Indian tribes?

On the one hand, in 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court had decided, in a case involving an Indian reservation in Montana, that when the federal government reserved public lands for any specific purpose, such as an Indian reservation, that it also implicitly reserved enough water to carry out that purpose. In the case of an Indian reservation, this meant enough water to teach the Indians to be farmers rather than hunter-foragers – meaning irrigation water, in the West.

But on the other hand, when the Compact was created in the early 1920s, the federal government was aggressively pursuing the ‘soft genocide’ of forced assimilation. Between 1900 and 1925, the number of Indian youth essentially kidnapped into ‘Indian Boarding Schools’ swelled from around 20,000 to more than 65,000. The official policy was ‘kill the Indian to save the man.’ The Compact commissioners were all white professionals receiving mixed messages from the government, and might be expected to think, even hope (river gods forgive them), that any Indian water claims might fade away if government policy succeeded – which it didn’t, no thanks to federal Indian policies before or since. And a reserved water obligation for the reservations remains an untransacted and pending commitment.

So yes, the Compact kicked some cans down the road, that it’s now time to pick up and deal with. But no one seems to be saying anything about a much larger and more consequential Compact mistake…

4. Dividing a desert river basin into two river basins is not a good idea. It worked – sort of (Arizona didn’t accept it) – as a temporary fix to break the logjam of not knowing enough to make an equitable seven-way division of the waters. What made the two-basin Compact work at all, sort of, was the fact that, until the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, the river itself, flowing unconstrained past Lees Ferry, kept the water supply (nearly all from the Upper River Basin) united with the growing water demand (mostly in the Lower River Basin). 

But once the big dam near Lees Ferry was in place, the supply-demand distribution became a management problem that gradually succumbed to bad power politics. The Bueau gave the Lower River Basin its Compact allocation and more, regardless of growing water supply problems upriver, and the Upper River Basin developed a large supply of justifiable but unproductive resentment. The Compact, which confused ‘equitable’ with ‘equal’ in its division between two basins, is broken by the dam that turns it into two rivers, one supplying the other in ways both unequal and inequitable. It’s not the ‘structural deficit’ per se, but the refusal to address it, that breaks the Compact.

So – what can we do?How do we muddle forward from where we are now? No one is asking me, but of course I have some thoughts….

First and foremost, we should reunite the two river basins into one squabbling river basin (with transbasin extensions). Drop the expedient Compact solution of two river basins – a mistake perpetrated by subsequent ‘Law of the River’ measures, and finally fatal when the Colorado River Storage Project Act enabled building a wall – literally – between the two river basins. 

This reunion would have to start with a consensual seven-state agreement – a new compact, if you will, to execute the task deemed impossible in 1922: a seven-state division of the river’s use. After a century of development, this has been achieved, de facto, and equitably enough. The lower river basin states get the consumptive use of almost twice as much water as the upper river basin, but they spread it over far more people and quite a bit more (and more productive) ag land. 

This will not be easy, of course – but nothing ever is in the Colorado River region. California and Arizona have gotten so used to using ‘undeveloped upper river basin water’ that they’ve forgotten that that ‘surplus’ hasn’t existed for decades. They think the ‘structural deficit’ is an act of God about which nothing can be done, rather than just the consequence of their growing on borrowed water, a loan now being called in. But the hardest part for the lower river basin will come when the firm numbers for present use apportionments by state all have to be converted into percentages of the diminishing whole river – which the upper river basin states have already been doing, living closer to the vagaries of a desert river. The upper river states will no longer have to fear a call from the lower basin states, so long as they stay within their apportioned percentage of what’s there.

The real reunion of the basins into one river might begin when those in the lower river basin acknowledge that the water supply for the river’s desert lands comes mostly from snowfall in mountains in the river’s headwaters. This suggests that the downriver users of a desert river should accept some responsibility for the maintenance and improvement of the river’s mountain headwaters, their water supply. And those in the upper river basin would need to acknowledge the need for that help, especially if it is financial.

‘Maintenance and improvement’ of the water supply? Can we ‘improve’ the water yield from a river’s headwaters? An undigested fact about the mountain headwaters of the Colorado River Basin is the scientists’ consensual estimate that somewhere around 90 percent of the precipitation that falls over the river basin does not make it into the river. It either returns fairly quickly to the heavens as water vapor, or soaks into the ground to be transpired by trees, grasses and other plants back into the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that as much as a third of the precipitation that falls is lost through sublimation in the high headwaters: snow and ice being vaporized by sun and wind without even turning into water first. 

Some quantity close to another third of the precipitation is transpired through the forests that form a broad band around the headwaters reaches of the river. Contrary to Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot, the forests are not ‘father’ to the rivers that work their way through the forests; the forests are just some of the first major ecosystems that depend on the river’s water for their life. We love and need the forests, and they do provide shade and shelter for the snow that makes it through the trees to the ground – but they also drink a lot of water (more as the ambient temperatures increase), and not always for their own betterment; the density and age of forests we have protected from cleansing fires result in the consumption of a lot of water by big old forest trees not really getting enough to be healthy.

Those forests are almost entirely managed by the U. S. Forest Service, management that must include the long-term health and well-being of the forest itself rather than just short-term commodity production. But are there ways to manage a healthy forest that maximizes the Forest Service’s 1897 organic act charge ‘to secure favorable conditions of water flows,’ as well as (or instead of) the charge ‘to furnish a continuous supply of timber’?We don’t really know, because the Forest Service has not paid as much attention to optimal water management as it has to optimal timber management. We do know, however – for one example – that timber managers favor denser stands to produce tall trees with less branchiness, but that density increases the amount of snow intercepted by trees, which increases snow loss through sublimation. 

To even learn how to maximize water yield from the headwaters’ rocks, ice and forests will require experimentation, trying things out, and it will require creative scientists and lots of boots on the ground that the perpetually under-funded Forest Service cannot afford. If, however, all forty million users of the Colorado River’s water thought of themselves as part of the whole river’s watershed, top to bottom, they might be willing to pony up a pittance for the health and vitality of the headwaters that produces their water. This is already happening to a modest extent; some of the big dogs in the Lower River Basin – the Metropolitan Water District, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Central Arizona Project – are contributing funding to a cloud-seeding project in the river’s headwaters, to increase snowfall from selected storms. That is a beginning.

And the next steps? Well, at some point, we have to descend into the cellar foundation of the Law of the River, and figure out how to adapt the frontier instincts of the appropriations doctrine to a civilization of 40 million. As Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s Director of Water Resources said, just last week at the meeting of the Colorado River Water Users convention: ‘The single biggest roadblock to solving the problem of stabilizing the river is the priority system.’ 

There will be more on this imagined reuniting of the two rivers and their basins. Stay tuned.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Las Vegas water boss urges states to take action to keep lakes from crashing — The Las Vegas Review-Journal #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

John Entsminger at the Colorado River Water Users Association Annual Conference December 15, 2021.

Click the link to read the article on The Las Vegas Review Journal website (Colton Lochhead). Here’s an excerpt:

Southern Nevada’s water boss is calling on other Colorado River basin states to “do the math and face reality” as they work toward finding a way to stabilize the dwindling river that supplies water to 40 million people in the Southwest. Speaking during a panel at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas on Thursday, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger said California and Arizona are going to have to shoulder the brunt of the unprecedented cuts the federal government says are needed next year in order to keep the Lake Mead and Lake Powell from crashing to points that would put hydropower and water delivery operations at risk — a possibility that is far closer than previously thought….

Since 2000, California and Arizona have accounted for nearly 70 percent of the overall water consumed annually along the Colorado River, with the majority of that water going toward agriculture irrigation.

“I’m a big believer in the law, I’m a big believer in food security. But I’m an even bigger believer in math,” Entsminger said. “When you’re cutting 4 million acre feet out of 12, and three-quarters of the use are downstream of Hoover Dam, that’s where the cuts are going to come.”

Without any plan from the states in place, the federal government has started to move forward with a plan to augment prior drought contingency plans, and one of the options it is exploring is unilaterally mandating cuts to states’ water uses in order to protect critical water elevations at the Colorado River’s two major reservoirs. Forecasting from the Bureau of Reclamation that assumes continued dry conditions across the basin show that Lake Powell could fall far enough to jeopardize hydropower production by as early as next summer, while Lake Mead could hit that same point by spring of 2025. A recent analysis by the Southern Nevada Water Authority showed that roughly 1.5 million acre feet is lost along the Colorado River system each year to evaporation and in transit as water flows downstream, losses that at this point are mostly unaccounted for in the allocation of water rights among among the seven states and Mexico that pull from the river.

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said that water lost to evaporation and other system losses do need to be accounted for moving forward, but said the “single biggest” roadblock to stabilizing the river is the priority system itself, where the oldest water rights are first in line.

#ColoradoRiver #water crisis urgent, officials say, as #LakeMead drops — The Las Vegas Review-Journal #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Hoover Dam’s intake towers protrude from the surface of Lake Mead near Las Vegas, where water levels have dropped to record lows amid a 22-year drought. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on The Las Vegas Review-Journal website (Colton Lochhead). Here’s an excerpt:

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June tasked the seven Colorado River basin states to develop a plan to cut water use from the river by as much as 4 million acre-feet starting next year, or about 30 percent of the river’s recent annual flows, in order to prevent that future. One deadline came and went in August with no deal in place. States have continued to work toward finding some form of consensus in recent months, but nothing concrete has emerged…

In an interview Friday, Touton admitted that it is “very much an expedited timeline,” but said she has full confidence that something will be developed between the seven states over the next five to six weeks.

“It is what the river and the communities need and demand for this moment,” she said…

In October, the bureau kicked off the process of modifying the current drought guidelines for the Colorado, and will look at any proposals submitted by the states while also working to develop a plan that would allow the federal government to take unilateral action and mandate cuts if need be. Another deadline of sorts comes Tuesday, the last day for states to submit proposals for how to modify those drought guidelines, but states would have until the end of January to continue working toward coming to an agreement.

This map shows the Colorado River Basin and surrounding areas that use Colorado River Water, with four regions delineated, based on the degree to which flow is regulated and the channel physically manipulated. The dividing line for the upper and lower basin is Lee Ferry near Glen Canyon Dam. CREDIT: CENTER FOR COLORADO RIVER STUDIES

‘Everything all at once, yesterday:’ Takeaways from a #ColoradoRiver gathering — The #Nevada Independent #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022 #ActOnClimate

Bath tub ring seen at Lake Mead Marina on Wednesday , Aug. 17, 2022. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

First off here’s the link to the Colorado River Water Users Association Twitter Fest.

Click the link to read the article on Nevada’s only statewide nonprofit newsroom The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):

“Everything all at once, yesterday.” That’s how a federal water manager described dealing with the Colorado River at a conference of water users in Las Vegas this week. The river faces a crisis fueled by overuse and amplified by climate change — and as Wayne Pullan, the upper Colorado River regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation stated, officials are taking an all-hands approach.

“We joke within the region that we’re going to change our slogan” to the Latin phrase for “everything all at once, yesterday,” Pullan said during a meeting Wednesday.

The conference comes on the precipice of action as federal water managers with the bureau continue to push Colorado River users to cut back and put forward a set of consensus-based policies to start stabilizing the river’s quickly declining storage reservoirs in a matter of months. 

At stake is water used by about 40 million Americans in seven Western states, from Wyoming to California, 30 Native American tribes and Mexico. Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, is  28 percent full. Lake Powell, upstream, is 24 percent full. The low reservoirs give states that tap into the river little room to negotiate, and there are few options left other than significant cuts. 

Earlier this year, the federal government, which operates infrastructure across the watershed, called on the seven states to cut massive amounts of water to stabilize Lake Mead and Lake Powell. In addition, the federal government is seeking comments from the states, tribal nations and the public about new operational policies for managing the reservoirs in the coming years. 

Those comments are due Dec. 20. But the states will have another month — until the end of January — to negotiate a consensus-based solution that federal officials said they will weigh before taking unilateral action. In the absence of a consensus set of policies, David Palumbo, the bureau’s deputy commissioner, said the agency is also preparing a federal alternative. 

He emphasized the effects of climate change reducing the amount of water running off into the river from snowpack, urging water users to think of new tools to address long-term aridification.

“We can’t rely on what we’ve done in the past to be adequate for the future,” he said.

In an interview, John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the state’s negotiator, said Colorado River states, which have had side meetings this week, are “still fairly far away from coming to consensus, but we’re closer than we were on Monday.”

The Las Vegas metro area, which gets about 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, has prepared for low-water levels at Lake Mead for decades, implementing aggressive urban conservation measures, recycling and an intake to get water from the bottom of Lake Mead. 

When asked if Nevada could be facing further cutbacks, Entsminger said past efforts should be considered but he added that the state is “certainly willing to be part of the solution.” What such a solution looks like, even if a framework for cuts is agreed upon, remains an open question.

The monumental task of what comes next: Governance of the Colorado River is diffuse, with power and water distributed differently among states, Native American tribes, irrigation districts and cities. For nearly two decades, the states have worked to cut back on their water use. Over that time, in a series of incremental deals, water users agreed to cut about 1.3 million acre-feet (one acre-foot of water is about enough water to fill a football field to a depth of one foot). 

Now the states need to cut about two to four million acre-feet — and they are being asked to do so in a matter of months, not decades. Much of those cuts will fall on water users downstream of Lake Mead. Of the states drawing on Lake Mead, Arizona and California account for the bulk of that use. The two states are wrestling with how to divide cuts among each other and among water users in each state, given a century of legal agreements about how to share shortages.

Still, they are starting to make some progress toward cuts. The three states that draw on Lake Mead submitted 32 proposals to receive federal compensation for conserving water, according to Rebecca Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But it’s likely that more painful cuts are going to be made, and some users will have to make hard choices. And states above Lake Mead, including Colorado, are also looking at compensated conservation. 

“We have to accept the situation that we are in and we need to reduce demands,” she said. “All of us — every sector, every state, every water user… We have to accept that we cannot cling to our entitlements or allocations. If they are not there, none of that matters. It does not matter.”

People fish on the Colorado River as seen from Willow Beach in Arizona on Thursday, July 7, 2022. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Hydrology is dictating the agenda: For years, a motivator for the states to cut water use was the threat and uncertainty of federal intervention. That is still on the table. But in many ways, the physical hydrology of Lake Mead and Lake Powell are also dictating the timeline for action. With another winter of low runoff — the amount of water moving from snowpack into the river — both reservoirs soon risk falling to trigger elevations that would threaten water and power supplies.

In other words, if the reservoirs continue to drop, the cuts will be physical realities. 

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

“Hydrology will dictate more than policy,” said Chuck Cullom, director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, urging water users to take real action that results in lowering demands. 

“And the alternative to inaction is brutal and entirely obvious,” he added. 

But after years of discussing the issue, the time to act is running out. 

“It took us five years to negotiate a five-year [drought plan],” Entsminger said during a panel Thursday. “And we don’t have five months to come up with an operation plan for 2023 and 2024. So it’s past time. I can look at all six microphones up here and dozens of people across this room, and I can give your well-worn talking points. It’s time to set it aside and get real.”

This is a climate change story: Even without climate change, the Colorado River would likely be facing a shortage. It has long been known that the Colorado River is overallocated — there are more rights to water on paper than there is actual water in the river, at least in many years. 

But climate change has undoubtedly amplified the problem. 

At a meeting on Wednesday, Anne Castle, the U.S. Commissioner at the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the “real enemy” is not another state or economic sector. It is climate change.  [ed. emphasis mine]

Over the last two decades, far less water has entered the river, further worsening the imbalance between water supply and demand. Even in years with near average precipitation, the Colorado River has seen below average runoff, attributed in part to dry conditions and poor soil moisture. 

Like with so many issues related to climate change, addressing the problem is forcing officials to grapple with injustices and inequalities embedded in the systems governing the Colorado River. The founding documents for the river’s governance largely ignore the rights of Native American tribes and the ecosystems that sustain wildlife and plants throughout the Colorado River Basin.

In looking at the climate-caused crisis on the Colorado River and a world with less water to go around, water officials are beginning to grapple with some of these longstanding injustices. 

Native American tribes hold the rights to roughly 20 percent of the Colorado River, but they have been excluded from past decisions about water use. That has started to change. On Thursday, top federal water officials held meetings with tribal leaders from across the Colorado River.

“We all have our own individual issues when it comes to water,” said Timothy Williams, chairman of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, whose reservation extends to Arizona, Nevada and California. 

“I think it’s coming to a head. At some point, there’s decisions that are going to be made,” he said on Thursday. “We just want to make sure that we’re part of the decision-making process.” 

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

At #CRWUA2022, inklings of a #ColoradoRiver compromise: “Managing based on inflow” — InkStain @jfleck #COriver #aridification

Ringside seats to the decline of Lake Mead. Credit: InkStain

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

I came away from a week in Las Vegas more hopeful about a deal to prevent a Colorado River crash than I have felt since the ominous day last March when Lake Powell dropped below elevation 3,525.

The annual meeting of the Colorado Water Users Association is a bit like the shadow puppets of Java – projections onto a public stage of things hinted at but largely unseen behind.

On display in public this year, in the formal CRWUA panels, was a frank discussion of the river’s problems that I found unprecedented.

Behind, in the realm of the puppeteers, was even more frank talk about the shape of a deal that would be needed to halt the reservoirs’ declines. It’s still a longshot, with a narrow path to success and a very tight deadline – whatever “consensus plan” the seven Colorado River Basin states come up with has to be delivered to the Department of Interior by the end of January.

But going into CRWUA, I could see no path. Now one is dimly visible.

MANAGING BASED ON INFLOW, RATHER THAN RESERVOIR LEVELS

A Kuhnian paradigm shift? Photo credit: John Fleck/InkStain

At the heart of the art of the possible here is shift in the discussion of a management framework, from the well-worn path of management by reservoir levels (if Powell “x” and Mead “y”, do “z”) to a system based on inflows. If less water flows in, you have to take less water out.

Phrased that way, it sounds so obvious, but it’s a major shift from the way the system was built and has been managed for a century. The reservoirs were built to store surplus when it’s wet to be used when it’s dry. I try not to use the phrase “paradigm shift” loosely, and it’s not entirely clear that it applies here. But the change that we’re seeing bears a lot of the hallmarks of the historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn’s original formulation of the concept – the accumulation of enough anomalies that you can no longer stick to the old way of thinking.

I point here, by way of metaphor, to the accumulating shipwrecks emerging from the shores of Lake Mead.

What the hydrologists call the “mass balance problem” makes this inevitable. In the long run, you can’t take more water out of a reservoir than flows in. But the realization earlier this year that Reclamation’s engineers are uncomfortable using Glen Canyon Dam’s lower elevation outlet works has place the mass balance barrier squarely within the range of the next few years’ planning. If you believe them (and, importantly, the Department of Interior seems to), then there’s no way around shifting pretty quickly to a management regime in which the water you release from Lake Powell has to match up each year with the amount that flows in.

SO WHAT CHANGES IN RIVER MANAGEMENT WHEN YOU SHIFT TO AN INFLOW-OUTFLOW REGIME?

As soon as you adopt a policy that says that releases from Lake Powell are essentially limited to what flows into the reservoir – which is the practical equivalent of “protecting elevation 3,490” or whatever line the river management community chooses above that to offer a safety buffer – 3,525 used to be the number people talked about, but we blew right through that last March – you trip two significant management triggers:

  • you face the very real prospect of Colorado River flows past Lee Ferry dropping below the 10-year standard set by the compact, triggering either a compromise or a very ugly legal fight
  • you face the very real prospect of deep cuts for water users in the Lower Basin, because you pretty quickly turn Lake Mead into an inflow-outflow system too – and/or very ugly legal fights

I could have written all of that before CRWUA began. In fact, I did.

But going into CRWUA I believed the only way to tackle those problems was with a federal intervention. Now there seems a hope of a collaborative solution – of which I’m a big fan.

RELAXING THE LEE FERRY CONSTRAINT

There were encouraging signs this week that compromise might be possible on the first point, that the Lower Basin might agree to look the other way at a Lee Ferry shortfall, if the Upper Basin states are willing to get past their “it’s a Lower Basin overuse problem” mantra of recent years and kick in some reductions of their own. My read on the situation is that it won’t take a lot of water – folks in the Lower Basin get the fact that it’s primarily their problem. But I’m not in the negotiating room. This will almost certainly be harder than my usual naively optimistic expectation, right?

September 21, 1923, 9:00 a.m. — Colorado River at Lees Ferry. From right bank on line with Klohr’s house and gage house. Old “Dugway” or inclined gage shows to left of gage house. Gage height 11.05′, discharge 27,000 cfs. Lens 16, time =1/25, camera supported. Photo by G.C. Stevens of the USGS. Source: 1921-1937 Surface Water Records File, Colorado R. @ Lees Ferry, Laguna Niguel Federal Records Center, Accession No. 57-78-0006, Box 2 of 2 , Location No. MB053635.

CUTTING LOWER BASIN USE

Regardless of how the Lee Ferry thing plays out, the hydrologic reality is that there will have to be deep Lower Basin cuts – far deeper than anything contemplated to date. The fact that extreme scenarios are being discussed among the states, rather than having state officials step aside and make the federal government impose them (or, in reality, as newly named Upper Colorado River Commission member Anne Castle reminded us, having climate change impose them) was encouraging to see in the shadows of the CRWUA puppets visible to us outsiders.

That’s incredibly important to the Lee Ferry point, because if the Lower Basin can get together and take on the herculean task of coming up with a formula to agree to the necessary cuts rather than having them be imposed, the Upper Basin is more likely to be willing to contribute without their longstanding worry that anything they kick in will just be sucked up and used in the Lower Basin.

In other words, legitimate action by the Lower Basin states makes Upper Basin action more possible.

My twinkly collaboration fanboy smile should not mislead you into thinking this will be painless – there will be a lot less water for cities and agriculture, and it would be a legal and moral failing if Tribal sovereigns are not brought into this discussion. All of those things make this really hard.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

All of this – an implicit relaxation of the Lee Ferry constraint, voluntary deep cuts in the Lower Basin, and an Upper Basin commitment to contribute some water – seemed to me beyond reach before we gathered at CRWUA. But behind the scenes there was serious, good faith attention to all of them, without the people making the proposals getting laughed out of the room. As Southern Nevada’s John Entsminger told the Nevada Independent’s Daniel Rothberg, the basin states are “still fairly far away from coming to consensus, but we’re closer than we were on Monday.”

Responses to Interior’s request for comments on its crisis-management-in-real-time planning effort are due Tuesday. It will be interesting to see if any of the Basin States offer up a formal first pass at a plan. And Reclamation has asked the states to provide a consensus scheme by the end of January.

Heading into CRWUA, I believed no such consensus was possible. I’ve updated my priors.

How would you feel if the #GrandCanyon ran dry? — American Rivers #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

The Grand Canyon | Photo by Sinjin Eberle

Click the link to read the article on the American Rivers website (Sinjin Eberle):

The situation on the Colorado River continues to get worse. For months, there has been abundant news about falling lake levels (Lake Powell is below 25% full, and Lake Mead is hovering below 30% full) and while some areas of the west had a terrific monsoon, other areas were left high and dry. Now consider a forecasted La Nina winter (could be the third in a row,) which generally features a warmer and dryer season and reduced snowpack throughout the West, including the Rockies; the confluence of a grim water year is staring at us in the face.

The back of Glen Canyon Dam circa 1964, not long after the reservoir had begun filling up. Here the water level is above dead pool, meaning water can be released via the river outlets, but it is below minimum power pool, so water cannot yet enter the penstocks to generate electricity. Bureau of Reclamation photo.

Without being overly melodramatic, the reality is that unless some serious decisions are made, and fast, we could be facing the difficult reality of very little to no water being able to pass through Glen Canyon Dam, in essence creating a Grand Canyon without the guarantee of a flowing Colorado River. For anyone who has been on the river, whether on a raft trip or hiking to Phantom Ranch or trout fishing at Lee’s Ferry, this is a frightening vision. But what would someone who simply peers over the edge of the Canyon at the South Rim, enjoying the expanse and color and light of the distant rocks and buttes – does it matter to them that the small, silver ribbon in the distance is actually dry, rather than wet? Does it matter to people that the very thing that helped create, and certainly supports the web of life, culture, and connection of one of the grandest landscapes in the world, could be reduced to a mere trickle if we don’t take action – and soon? Are we ok with that scenario?

Could a rig like this even make it through the Canyon at severely reduced flows? | Photo by Sinjin Eberle

Let’s review what all this means in a practical sense. You may know that the Bureau of Reclamation, the Federal government agency that oversees/manages many of these big reservoirs and the Colorado River system overall, publishes a set of forecasts periodically to try to “project” what lake levels might be – usually up to two years into the future. These are called “24-month studies” and they take scores of different scenarios into account to forecast where the lake levels might be given varying amounts of runoff, soil moisture, snowpack, different temperature possibilities, and how much water is being used in different places across the entire basin. This all feeds into planning how much water needs to be stored, or how much can be released and when, for Lake Powell, Grand Canyon, and Lake Mead, among other federal facilities within the system. These predictions impact millions of people across the Southwest, and across the country when we start to consider that the vast majority of vegetables grown for our winter food supply rely on Colorado River water.

On average, about 8 million acre-feet of water (just one acre-foot is a football field of water, one foot deep, or just over 326,000 gallons) flows from Lake Powell to Grand Canyon in a normal year. But what happens if that number is drastically reduced, or water can’t safely flow through the dam at all? What happens then? Already this year, nearly a million-acre feet has both been sent downstream (from storage in Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir) and held back in Lake Powell to slow the fall of the lake. Right now, there is only about 7 million acre-feet flowing into the Canyon in 2022. But levels are still declining, and we are getting closer to the point where Glen Canyon Dam cannot generate electricity, and potentially even worse, where water really can’t safely flow through the dam at all. What if those flows ultimately consisted of about 10% of what flows today – and all from seepage and springs dotting the length of the canyon itself?

Now back to the most recent 24-month study, where Reclamation projects through what they call the “minimum, most, and maximum probable” hydrology projections.  For the first time in the history of these projections, the minimum probable projection indicates that Lake Powell could decline to a level where no electricity can be generated (below elevation 3,490ft) by as early as December of 2023. But that says nothing about the efficiency of that power, since the lower the lake gets, the weaker the power generation capability is.

What would this view look like if the Colorado River became Colorado Creek? | Nankoweep Straight on the Grand Canyon | Photo by Sinjin Eberle

Below that, water would need to be released through tubes that have never been tested for sustained use. Limited space exists where water can still flow through the dam, supplying water to Grand Canyon and Lake Mead, but not generating any power.  Overall, this space is only 120 feet, then the lake would be at “dead pool” (at elevation 3,370 ft.) which is in essence exactly how it sounds – a pool of water not flowing through the dam at all.)

So how much more water needs to be held back in order to keep Lake Powell on life support? John Fleck, Eric Kuhn, and Jack Schmidt contemplate that very question as they set forth the rationale for doing keeping Lake Powell functional in an article they authored last week. We know that the Federal government has emphatically said that they will protect “critical infrastructure” which means Glen Canyon Dam and both the hydropower and water supply systems that depend upon it. We also know that there are many rules that dictate how this whole system is managed. The Colorado River community is comprised of 7 states, as well as the Republic of Mexico and the Department of Interior, along with stakeholders that include municipalities, irrigators, hydropower customers, recreationalists, and environmentalists.  Each hold varying interests in different parts of the Basin, but all must find a way to participate as a whole within the Basin that sustains us all.  Critical to considering the Basin going forward also requires recognition of the 30 Federally recognized Tribal nations which have long been left out of the decision-making process around the river. Their rights and role as it relates to the river can no longer be overlooked.  Their opportunities to participate are gaining and they should be even more deeply included in decisions going forward. In short, nobody can go it alone, and everyone needs water security and predictability to plan for the future.

Fleck, Kuhn, and Schmidt argue that now might be the time for Reclamation to impose a restricted flow through the dam of only 5.5MAF – ~ 30% less than “normal” flows and still another 13% less water than is flowing into Grand Canyon today. And last week, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed “Moving forward with administrative actions needed to authorize a reduction of Glen Canyon Dam releases below seven million acre-feet per year, if needed, to protect critical infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam.” This proposal would attempt to keep at least some water flowing through the hydropower turbines (and further lower the levels at Lake Mead) but would keep electricity flowing in both. But what impact would this have on the Grand Canyon ecosystem, including the four species of native fish, the coldwater fishery above Lee’s Ferry, and the amazing diversity of plant, animal, and bird life throughout the Canyon? What would happen to the vibrant and sought-after rafting industry, which between both private and commercial trips, ferry’s more than 26,000 people per year through one of the most amazing, humbling, and majestic landscapes on earth? And maybe most importantly, where does this leave the cultural and spiritual considerations that water flowing through the Canyon has for the various Tribal communities that consider the Colorado River and Grand Canyon sacred places – essential to their way of life?

Grand Canyon cliffs at sunrise | Photo by Sinjin Eberle

Can everyone come together with a solution to at least hold the river and the two reservoirs it feeds to a level that would at least triage the situation? If not, what then? While hypothetical, we need to recognize that a nearly dry or severely depleted Grand Canyon in a few short years is more plausible than ever. For anyone who has ever done a river trip leaving at Lee’s Ferry, you know that the Paria River comes in just a mile or so below the put-in, but that is a highly unpredictable river – often either pretty small or nearly dry much of the year, or a raging torrent during the monsoon season. The next “reliable” water coming into the Canyon is at the Little Colorado River, 75 miles from the dam – and 75 miles is a long way when there is so much riding on the health and sustainability of this ecosystem. Some water from seepage around the dam does occur, but with lowering lake levels, does that seepage get reduced as well? So many unknowns are staring us all in the face.

Confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River. Climate change is affecting western streams by diminishing snowpack and accelerating evaporation. The Colorado River’s flows and reservoirs are being impacted by climate change, and environmental groups are concerned about the status of the native fish in the river. Photo credit: DMY at Hebrew Wikipedia [Public domain]

The upshot is that this is a scary time in the Colorado River system, with many options to consider – rules and laws, and treaties to follow (or change) and lots of people depending on getting it right. And increasingly important in all this, is that getting it right means getting it right together – the possibility of litigation or other legal action would define the worst-case scenario, as any opportunity for compromise and collaboration and finding solutions together instantly stops the minute the first lawsuit is filed.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

The 22-year drought and its associated aridification of soils and plants, the exposure of more than 40 million people to water shortage, the whole country being impacted by the potential of reduced food production, and in the middle of all this, one of the seven wonders of the world and the ecosystem, and people, who are deeply connected to this place. Where do we go from here?

#Wyoming #Water managers: Lower #FlamingGorge levels the ‘new norm,’ for now: Lower inflow and extra releases at Flaming Gorge portend diminished water levels for years to come as the Bureau of Reclamation relies on the reservoir for hydropower backup — WyoFile #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah side near the dam in September 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Dustin Bleizeffer):

Lower water levels at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which have left several boat ramps and docks high and dry, are likely the “new normal” for years to come, according to federal officials.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s most recent water-balancing adjustment under the Colorado River drought contingency plan, announced this month, maintains current plans at Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border. Those plans entail releasing an extra 500,000 acre-feet of water through April as per actions implemented in May. However, Flaming Gorge — along with two other major Upper Colorado River Basin reservoirs, Blue Mesa in Colorado and Navajo in New Mexico — remains a primary backup water source and may likely be tapped for more water, according BOR officials. 

This graphic indicates Colorado River reservoir levels as of November 2022. (Arizona Department of Water Resources)

The BOR, meanwhile, will reduce releases from the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell by 523,000 acre-feet of water from December through April, then allow that same volume to flow downstream to Lake Mead during the summer months. Future adjustments will likely include siphoning more water from Flaming Gorge, according to BOR officials.

Ongoing incremental adjustments are intended to sustain hydropower generation at the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams as a 22-year drought  — exacerbated by human-caused climate change — continues to push the Colorado River Basin into a water scarcity crisis.  

Taken all together, that means the bathtub rings of exposed shoreline at Flaming Gorge represent what is likely a “new normal” for the reservoir, Drought Response Operations program manager for the Upper Colorado Basin Region Dale Hamilton told WyoFile.

“We will continue to work with our Basin partners to consider additional releases implemented under the Upper Basin [drought contingency plan] from the upstream Colorado River Storage Project initial units, which includes Flaming Gorge,” Hamilton said.

Much depends on winter precipitation and spring runoff, Hamilton added, so any decision regarding further actions at Flaming Gorge is likely months away. “Those actions are still being discussed,” he said.

New normal

After decades of relatively steady water levels at Flaming Gorge, the reservoir is undergoing unprecedented changes as water managers release extra water in an attempt to to help balance water levels among major downstream storage reservoirs along the Colorado River.

The BOR released an extra 125,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoir in 2021 as part of the Colorado River drought contingency plan, dropping the surface level by about 5 feet. The current “extra” release of 500,000 acre-feet of water, combined with lower-than-average natural infill (just 57% of average from April through July) diminished the reservoir to 72% capacity in November, according to the BOR.

Recon Angling owner Shane Dubois (left) and Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez observe water levels at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The reservoir has dropped by about 9 feet this year, exposing vast areas of lakebed at the upper reaches and water-ring patterns on canyon walls in some areas. 

Recon Angling fishing guide Shane DuBois tried his luck ice-fishing Monday in 7 feet of water where, normally, the water depth should be nearly 40 feet, he said.

“A lot of [fishermen] have been fishing different spots for burbot,” DuBois told WyoFile. “I think [lower water levels are] going to start messing up everything, especially with all the sediment that’s pushed up on the rocks where [fish] usually spawn. It’s not going to be conducive for successful spawning for, really, any fish.”

Recreational access is becoming increasingly difficult, as water recedes from boat ramps. The ramp at the Anvil boat launch area on the west side of the reservoir in Wyoming was closed recently, DuBois said, while the Buckboard Marina in Wyoming continues to try to keep boat docks in the water.

“We’re not naive,” DuBois said. “Even if we have a big-snow year, they’re probably just gonna take all that water right back out.”

Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com

If elevation 3,490 is #LakePowell’s new “dead pool” — InkStain @jfleck #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #LakeMead #CRWUA2022

Lake Mead shipwreck. Photo credit: John Fleck

Click the link to read the post on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

The Park Service has cut a raggedy new dirt road (“4×4 recommended”) north of Hemenway Harbor along Lake Mead’s receding shoreline so you can still get in to go fishing and do the beach thing.

Mead was at elevation 1,043 and change as I rode it on my bike yesterday afternoon, with lunch and time on my hands to ponder the stakes. You could see the uppermost Las Vegas water pipe, exposed to the winter air, and the stranded intake from the World War II-era Basic Magnesium factory.

I passed three Lake Mead shipwrecks, the media icons of the great collapse, ruin porn of the Colorado River. I was happy, I guess, to finally bag the pictures for myself. I guess?

It was my annual pre-Colorado River Water Users Association Lake Mead visit – a bike ride along the reservoir, a trip to Hoover Dam, some quiet time in Boulder City before heading into the madhouse of Las Vegas and CRWUA and a Colorado River in crisis.

MANAGING IN CRISIS MODE

The challenge right now is a very practical one. We’ve no longer time the sort of vague generalizations I got when I turned to ChatGPT for help – “Implementing stricter water usage regulations and reducing water waste can help bring the supply and demand of the Colorado River into balance.” Great. Thanks. How we gonna do that?

The Colorado River brain trust has to write new rules, and it has to write them now, in a very specific way, with little time or room for error.

I have long had a dodge when reporters or my students or whoever asked me what I think we should do: It doesn’t matter what I think we should do, I would tell them. What matters, I would say, is what emerges from the seven states and the federal government, and increasingly the Tribes and others who who now, rightly, find themselves at the negotiating table(s).

Unfortunately, what has emerged from that process is shipwrecks emerging from Lake Mead.

So I’ve dropped the shield and begun thinking about how I would rewrite the rules, if anyone asked me. Come to think of it, the Federal Government has asked me, along with all the rest of you, via this Federal Register notice. You’ve got a week left before your assignment is due.

Basically, we need to do two things.

First, we need to rewrite the rules governing releases from Glen Canyon Dam to protect Lake Powell from reaching critically low levels that, by forcing the use of the dam’s lower outlet works, might threaten the structural integrity of the dam. We do this by setting a maximum release from Powell based on the current year inflow.

Second, we need rules to cut far more deeply into Lower Basin water use, like right now – far deeper than the rules we’ve got now. They’re just not sufficient. We have to include evaporation and system losses as part of each Lower Basin state’s allocation.

SAVING GLEN CANYON DAM

Section 6, Interim Guidelines. Credit: John Fleck

Section 6C and 6D of the 2007 Interim Guidelines is the critical first step.

This is where the current rules lay out how much water is to be released each year from Glen Canyon Dam. Note the quaintly anachronistic “Lake Powell Active Storage” column on the right, with “dead pool” – zero active storage – at elevation 3,370.

If Reclamation decides it doesn’t trust the dam’s outlet works, which sit down there, then suddenly “active storage” doesn’t start until elevation 3,490, the level of the power plant intakes.

For now at least, 3,490 is the new dead pool.

That would mean that at elevation 3,525, rather than having 5.93 million acre feet of “active storage” – the amount of water above “dead pool” – we’ve really got less than 2 million acre feet of really actually usable, releasable water in Powell. The whole notion of “balancing” active storage in Mead and Powell, so central to the ’07 Guidelines, now has to look completely different.

When you get close to dead pool, you’ve got a “run of the river” system, which means that the only water that leaves a reservoir is the amount that comes in. Given that we’re apparently redefining that for Powell on the fly, the new versions of 6C and 6D somehow have to restrict releases from Powell to not much more than comes in. Basically starting now, and for the foreseeable future, until we can begin to refill Powell or drill some new tubes at the bottom that we trust.

A simple approach to the new rule here might be rewrite the release rules when you’re in the “Mid-Elevation Release Tier” (below 3,575) and the “Lower Elevation Release Tier” (below 3,525) to cap releases to inflow minus evaporation. That would set a sort ratchet that would prevent a further decline in Lake Powell below its current dangerously low levels.

You could start the year by capping Powell releases at the 24-month study’s “minimum probable” unregulated Powell inflow level, with the option of raising the release an April review based on the “most probable” unregulated inflow. Minus evaporation. You’d have to subtract evaporation from that.

Other than that, the 6C and 6D rules could stay the same.

SAVING LAKE MEAD

As the modeling presented by Reclamation in its webinars two weeks ago shows, if you operate Powell the way I describe under low flow scenarios, you can crash Mead in a hurry. We need rules that are ready for that.

the Lower Basin “structural deficit”, reified. Photo credit: John Fleck

Taking evaporation and system losses off the top before we begin handing out water is a start. The “structural deficit” is real, it’s a result of not taking evaporation and system losses into account, and it’s written in shipwrecks emerging from the depths of Lake Mead.

Right now evaporation and system losses are in the ballpark of 1 million acre feet per year, but to be on the safe side, let’s set them at the 1.2 million acre foot per year level in the classic Reclamation “structural deficit” Powerpoint slide.

So the cuts in section 2D of the Interim Guidelines would have to be rewritten, with Arizona, Nevada, and California taking a proportional share of system losses right off the top.

You can do this some really complicated ways, based on the distance downstream of each user’s intake – so Imperial and Yuma would take a bigger system losses hit, and Las Vegas (pulling straight out of Lake Mead) would only suffer evaporative loss.

That seems like a recipe for scientized litigation, so my proposal is simple: Everyone shares this equally (sorry, Nevada friends).

That would leave us with a base allocation that looks something like this:

The cuts in the big ’07 Guidelines/DCP allocation tables would then be deducted from these numbers. So under this scenario, if we drop into the Mead elevation 1,040-1,045 tier, the total allocations would be:

Notably, this gets us to the 2 million acre of cuts Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said we need in her testimony to Congress last summer.

UPPER BASIN

This obviously doesn’t touch the Upper Basin. The process Interior is using for this round of crisis management – a straight up revision to the ’07 Guidelines – doesn’t seem to offer a clear path to force the Upper Basin to come up with contributions of their own. For now, I’m OK with that. Since the ’07 Guidelines were signed, the Upper Basin has delivered more than 10 million acre feet of water above the required 8.25 million acre foot annual requirement. Despite that, the Lake Mead shipwrecks are emerging from the shallows. The key  here is clearly to get Lower Basin overuse under control.

But I don’t think in the longer term the Upper Basin is off the hook. Reclamation’s modeling clearly shows a risk of the Upper Basin slipping below its 82.5×10 obligation if we have a few more bad years. We need a plan to deal with that. And it’s also a matter of fairness, in my view. We all have to contribute.

My scheme for Upper Basin contributions involves the next wet year – figuring out how to forego some of the Upper Basin storage we’ve got and get that water into Lake Powell instead. Suggestions for how to write that rule are welcomed – bonus if anyone can figure out how to fit that into the rewrite of the ’07 Guidelines currently underway.

COLLABORATION

I still believe in the power of the collaborative governance framework we’ve developed in the Colorado River Basin. As Assistant Secretary of Interior Tanya Trujillo told me when I was moderating her appearance at last summer’s Getches-Wilkinson Center conference, we’d be in a lot worse shape without it.

For what it’s worth, ChatGPT agrees: “Collaboration and cooperation among states and water users is crucial in finding solutions to the supply-demand imbalance on the Colorado River.”

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The ‘power of aridity’ is bringing a #ColoradoRiver dam to its knees — KUNC #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022 #GlenCanyonDam

These turbines at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam are at risk of becoming inoperable should levels at Powell fall below what’s known as minimum power pool due to declining flows in the Colorado River. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:

The dam’s innards are a time capsule of 1960s engineering. Bolts as thick as a forearm hold together the hulking metal casing for hydroelectric generators. Here, the Colorado River surges through turbines, producing power for about 5 million people across seven states. Now, the Colorado River is on the decline, and the dam faces threats that could soon render it useless after decades as a symbol of American engineering achievement. In a room that evokes the inside of a submarine, Bob Martin opened a heavy door to reveal one of those turbines. A gleaming silver cylinder whirred along inside.

“This is all original,” he said. “This is like pulling your grandpa’s 1964 Cadillac out of the garage and it’s in the same condition it was in 1964. That’s the world class maintenance that we’ve done – generations have done – at Glen Canyon.”

[…]

The back of Glen Canyon Dam circa 1964, not long after the reservoir had begun filling up. Here the water level is above dead pool, meaning water can be released via the river outlets, but it is below minimum power pool, so water cannot yet enter the penstocks to generate electricity. Bureau of Reclamation photo.

Below the hydropower intake is the pipe which allows water to pass from Lake Powell to the river on the other side. Water levels could conceivably drop below that, too. At that point, the only pass-through would be a set of four rarely-used backup tubes near the bottom of the concrete. Those tubes, known as the “river outlet works,” were originally meant to be a failsafe pr to pass water in high flow years, and aren’t wide enough to carry the legally required amount of water from one side to the other. A century-old agreement mandates that the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico must deliver a specific amount of water downstream to the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada each year. The bulk of that water starts as high-mountain snow in the Rockies. Because winter snowpack varies widely year to year, the Upper Basin states resolved to add some insurance in the form of Lake Powell. Since the 1960s, it has served as a way to bank excess during wet years, and ensure enough would flow to the Lower Basin during dry years.

#ColoradoRiver users set to meet, but #water deal seems a ways off — The Las Vegas Review-Journal #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Hoover Dam’s intake towers protrude from the surface of Lake Mead near Las Vegas, where water levels have dropped to record lows amid a 22-year drought. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on the Las Vegas Review-Journal website (Colton Lochhead). Here’s an excerpt:

Nearly six months have passed since Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton first asked the Western states to come up with a plan to cut back on water use from the river next year by as much as 30 percent, but a cohesive proposal from the seven states that pull from the Colorado that supplies water to some 40 million people has yet to emerge. Things have only gotten worse along the river since Touton’s request, and that decline shows no signs of slowing down…

“The risks we saw then have only further materialized given the projected and plausible hydrology,” Touton said during a Dec. 2 meeting to discuss the options the federal government is looking at in lieu of a deal between the states…

Only piecemeal proposals have been made public thus far, including a proposal from California water agencies to conserve up to 400,000 acre-feet of water annually, or about 9 percent of the state’s annual allocation from the river, in exchange for the federal government making a commitment to contribute to Salton Sea stabilization efforts. The Southern Nevada Water Authority and nearly 30 other municipalities have signed a memorandum of understanding committing to drastically reducing the amount of thirsty decorative turf that lines their respective cities, an idea that took root in the Las Vegas Valley last year.

Interior Department Leaders to Highlight Actions to Protect the #ColoradoRiver System at Colorado River Water Users Association Conference #CRWUA2022 #COriver #aridification

From email from the U.S. Department of Interior:

Senior leaders from the Department of the Interior will join the 2022 Colorado River Water Users Association Annual Conference this week to highlight the urgent actions being taken to improve and protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System and the worsening drought crisis that continues to impact communities across the West. The Department is focused on the need for continued collaboration and partnerships across the Upper and Lower Basin States, with Tribes, and with the country of Mexico.

The Inflation Reduction Act includes $4 billion in funding specifically for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas experiencing similar levels of drought. The Department has announced new drought mitigation fundingopportunities for both the Upper and Lower Basins, as well as funding for the Salton Sea. To address the serious operational realities facing the System, the Bureau of Reclamation has initiated an expedited, supplemental process to evaluate potential revisions to the current interim operating guidelines for the operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams in 2023 and 2024 in order to address the likelihood of continued low-runoff conditions across the Basin.

WHO:

  • Tommy Beaudreau, Deputy Secretary
  • Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science
  • Camille Calimlim Touton, Commissioner, Bureau of Reclamation

WHEN: Wednesday, December 14, 2022 – Friday, December 16, 2022. Keynote remarks will be delivered on Friday at 8:30am PT.

WHERE: Las Vegas, Nev.

RSVP: Credentialed members of the media interested in attending the event can RSVP to Crystal Thompson at cthompson@cap-az.com.

Adapting to dry periods key for #YampaRiver #water users, regardless of larger #ColoradoRiver crisis: Yampa Integrated Water Management plan offers recommendations to help users better manage water — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Yampa River at Phippsburg June 14, 2022. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson). Here’s an excerpt:

For users in the Yampa River Basin, which lacks any reservoirs controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation, Rossi said the focus needs to be on how to exist with the water that is there, not what the [Colorado River Compact] theoretically allows…

Lindsey Marlow, executive director of Friends of the Yampa, said many strategies to help with drought issues, erosion and overall river health are outlined in the newly updated Yampa Integrated Water Management Plan. Completed in September, the update involved dozens of volunteers and stakeholder groups working together for nearly four years.

“The recommendations that came out of (the management plan) were to ensure we are managing a river in balance, so that all user groups can use it effectively while keeping it healthy and sustainable,” Marlow said…

Marlow said the plan has 20 recommendations ranging from increased education for users to adding new infrastructure to the system. Recommendations include conducting a return flow study to understand the impact of water used for agriculture, securing funding to upgrade diversion structures in Routt and Moffat counties and creating a centrally located dashboard for a variety of data concerning river health, among other recommendations. Rossi pointed to a number of initiatives the Upper Yampa district is leading in the management plan, such as exploring water diversions on Coal Creek and Morrison Creek that could add water to district-owned reservoirs and installing a network of soil moisture monitors in the basin.

“I’m not too concerned with what the Bureau of Reclamation asks us to do. I’m more concerned about how can our water users survive through drying times because they’re here to stay,” Rossi said. “When it goes dry, we just don’t have anything to use.”

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

As #ColoradoRiver flows drop and tensions rise, #water interests struggle to find solutions that all can accept — Water Education Foundation #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Hoover Dam’s intake towers protrude from the surface of Lake Mead near Las Vegas, where water levels have dropped to record lows amid a 22-year drought. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Foundation website (Nick Cahill):

Chorus of experts warn climate change has rendered old assumptions outdated about what the Colorado River can provide, leaving painful water cuts as the only way forward

When the Colorado River Compact was signed 100 years ago, the negotiators for seven Western states bet that the river they were dividing would have ample water to meet everyone’s needs – even those not seated around the table.

A century later, it’s clear the water they bet on is not there. More than two decades of drought, lake evaporation and overuse of water have nearly drained the river’s two anchor reservoirs, Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border and Lake Mead near Las Vegas. Climate change is rendering the basin drier, shrinking spring runoff that’s vital for river flows, farms, tribes and cities across the basin – and essential for refilling reservoirs.

The states that endorsed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 – and the tribes and nation of Mexico that were excluded from the table – are now straining to find, and perhaps more importantly accept, solutions on a river that may offer just half of the water that the Compact assumed would be available. And not only are solutions not coming easily, the relationships essential for compromise are getting more frayed.

With the Compact’s shortcomings and the effects of climate change and aridification becoming as clear as the bathtub ring around Lake Mead, previous assumptions of how much water the river can provide and the rules governing how it gets divvyed up must be revised to reflect the West’s new hydrology. One thing is certain among experts and Colorado River veterans: Water cuts are in the short-term and long-term forecast for major cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix, as well as farmers from Colorado’s West Slope to growers in California’s Imperial Valley near the Mexican border.

“You don’t have any other arrow in your quiver right now except to reduce use,” Pat Mulroy, former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told a gathering of Colorado River water interests this fall. “There are no other arrows.”

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

The River’s Changing Math 

Predicting the amount of water the Colorado River can provide in a given year has always been a challenge. The river’s flow is famously erratic, dictated by the size of the often-fickle Rocky Mountain snowpack and other variables such as soil moisture and changes in temperature. 

Flows in the White River (pictured above) and other Upper Basin tributaries have declined dramatically over the last 20 years, a trend experts warn will worsen as the West becomes hotter and drier. (Source: The Water Desk)

The old expectations of the Compact signers is giving way to a new reality on the river. Over the last century, the river’s flows in the Upper Basin have dropped by 20 percent. Scientists have pinned warming temperatures as the main cause of the disappearing flows and predict the trend will worsen as the Upper Basin, source of most of the river’s water, becomes even hotter and drier. 

Water users have been able to counter previous dry spells by relying on the river’s main reservoirs. But after more than two decades of drought, both Lake Mead and Lake Powell are only about one-quarter full. The reservoirs’ rapid declines have forced the Bureau of Reclamation to order unprecedented water cuts to Arizona and Nevada. Mexico is taking similar cuts under binational agreements. And Reclamation has warned more severe actions are needed to prevent the collapse of the Colorado River system. 

The Compact signatories, relying on data from a small but abnormally wet time period, estimated the river’s annual average natural flow in the Upper Basin to be about 18 million acre-feet. The figure, they asserted, was enough to cover 7.5 million acre-feet of water in perpetuity for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and 7.5 million acre-feet for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. They also agreed that any water committed to Mexico would be supplied equally by the two Basins. Native American tribes, who now legally hold substantial rights to the river’s water, were barely mentioned.

Brad Udall, Colorado State University climate researcher, said it’s becoming harder and harder for the river to meet the promises outlined in the Compact and the accompanying set of agreements, laws and court cases referred to as the Law of the River. He warned dozens of water managers and policy experts at a recent Water Education Foundation Symposium that climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions is rapidly and permanently shifting precipitation trends in the Basin.

“It’s not a drought, it’s not temporary, it’s aridification,” said Udall. “Additional 1 degree Celsius or more warming by 2050, Lee Ferry flows in 9 million acre-feet are possible. Every important trend line [is] heading in the wrong direction, notably our reservoirs, but all the science trends as well.” [ed. emphasis mine]

Data from recent decades shows it’s becoming uncommon for the river to meet the benchmark used to craft the Compact. Estimated annual flows at Lee Ferry, a key dividing point between the Colorado River’s Upper and Lower Basins, have surpassed 18 million acre-feet just four times since 1991, while the river’s average flow since 2000 has been 12.3 million acre-feet.

“If we’re taking out more than comes in, it is really simple math that the reservoirs are going to continue to decline,” said Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s water management agency. 

The federal government may reduce releases from Glen Canyon Dam (pictured above) in 2023 by an unprecedented 2-3 million acre-feet, a move that would trigger severe cuts in the Lower Basin. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Mitchell was among nearly 200 state and regional water managers, farmers, tribal leaders and other water interests from the seven Basin states, along with key federal and Mexican officials, who attended the Foundation’s biennial Colorado River Symposium in late September to mark the Compact’s 100th anniversary and to discuss the risks and challenges ahead for the iconic Southwestern river. 

Discussions were sometimes sobering and sometimes tense, underscoring the growing risks to a river depended upon for drinking water by 40 million people and for irrigation of more than 4 million farmland acres across the Basin. An undercurrent of the discussions was whether Basin interests can avoid taking their differences to court – a prime motivation behind creating the 1922 Compact. Despite the occasional sharply worded airing of differences between Upper and Lower Basin interests, there was broad acknowledgement that action is needed to keep the river system functioning. 

Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton was among those urging water interests throughout the Basin to continue working collaboratively toward solutions and she provided a broad outline of actions that federal officials are preparing to take in 2023 – including reducing water releases from Lake Powell and Lake Mead – to keep the river from crashing. 

“The actions we choose to take over the next two years,” Touton told participants, “will define the fate of the Colorado River for the next century.”

Living Within New Means

Though the Colorado River’s annual yield has shrunk in the 21st century, demand for its diminishing supply hasn’t, creating a glaring math problem for Basin water managers. In a system where every drop of water is already allocated, the specter of an 11 million acre-foot river — or worse — is forcing users to prepare for a drier future. 

The Colorado River Compact divided the basin into an upper and lower half, with each having the right to develop and use 7.5 million acre-feet of river water annually. (Source: U.S. Geological Survey via The Water Education Foundation)

One agency that has been actively finding ways to stretch its river supply is Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves more than 2 million people in the Las Vegas area. The agency has updated its modeling and long-range planning to reflect the river’s changing hydrology. 

John Entsminger, the authority’s general manager, said computer models are sending a direct warning that the Lower Basin will end up with only a slice of the 7.5 million acre-feet per year outlined in the Compact. After accounting for evaporation and system losses, he said, it’s probable the Lower Basin and Mexico will have much less water to split.

“It is incumbent upon the Lower Basin to come up with a plan to live within its 7 million acre-feet release from Lake Powell probably forever going forward and hope it’s not less than that,” said Entsminger.

Like Nevada, Arizona is already feeling the pinch from the latest round of federal water cuts. So far, the two states and Mexico have shouldered most of the pain.

In 2022, Arizona is using approximately 2 million of its 2.8 million acre-feet Colorado River allocation, according to state officials The state’s agricultural industry is taking the hardest hit, including one rural county that fallowed more than 50 percent of its farmland for lack of irrigation water.  

“We’re already seeing huge pain, and with an 11 million acre-feet [river] that pain’s just going to continue to grow,” said Tom Buschatzke, Arizona Department of Water Resources director. 

Lees Ferry, located 15 miles downstream of Glen Canyon Dam is the dividing line between the upper and lower Colorado River basins. Photo/Allen Best

The widening gap between supply and demand is also having an impact above Lee Ferry, where inflows into Lake Powell continue to fall below historical average. Water from Powell is critical for helping the Upper Basin meet its commitment under the 1922 Compact to deliver water to the Lower Basin.

Representatives from the Upper Basin states say they have collectively cut their annual consumptive river use from 4.5 million acre-feet to approximately 3.5 million acre-feet over the last three years. Over the same period, they argue, the Lower Basin has done little to reduce its own consumptive use. Similar to Arizona, Upper Basin farmers also have been on the receiving end of water cuts. 

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has fallowed the majority of its farmland in southwestern Colorado while in Wyoming, more than 100,000 acres of farmland were cut off from surface water for most of August because of low stream flows in the Upper Basin. 

“That equates to about 100,000 acre-feet of [diverted Colorado River water] a month…that’s a third of our average irrigated use,” said Brandon Gebhart, Wyoming State Engineer. 

The Upper Basin states have proposed a five-point plan built around paying farmers to reduce water consumption. Though it doesn’t require mandatory cuts for water users, proponents say the success of the plan hinges on whether the Lower Basin agrees to leave more water in Lake Mead.

“I think we need to recognize that the uses are far outweighing what Mother Nature is providing and that is primarily not in the Upper Basin,” said Mitchell with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. 

California In the Spotlight

California’s use of the river has been a sore point among others in the Colorado River Basin. California, the largest user of Colorado River water, has been spared from water cuts so far due to its senior priority rights and has been using its full 4.4 million acre-feet entitlement in 2022. Groups in both the Upper and Lower Basins say the state must significantly reduce its use to prevent the river system’s collapse.

The Salton Sea (pictured above ) straddles the Imperial and Coachella valleys and has long been a sticking point in Colorado River deals. But the federal government recently committed up to $250 million for restoration efforts at the sea. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

California water agencies and state officials have pushed back on criticism that they aren’t doing enough to help buoy the shrinking reservoirs.

Peter Nelson, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, argued California delayed the current crisis by enacting voluntary deals that pay farmers not to plant their fields, transfer water to urban users or make their systems more water efficient.

“In the Lower Basin, since the last seven years or so, we’ve stored 1.5 million acre-feet of water in Lake Mead as Intentionally Created Surplus water,” said Nelson, who farms in the Coachella Valley. “That has enabled the lake levels at Lake Mead to stay high enough to stay out of shortages and benefit other states in the Basin.”

Though the state is using its full share amid another bitterly dry year on the Colorado River, California water managers say they are not dismissing the fact that the river is overprescribed and that future cuts are needed. But they warn that the state’s farmers shouldn’t be made the scapegoat for all the Basin’s water problems.

For example, cutting off water to farmers in the Imperial Valley may help solve one crisis but simultaneously cause another, said Henry Martinez, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District. Agriculture overwhelmingly drives Imperial County’s economy, he said, so fallowing would lead to major job losses in a region already prone to high poverty and unemployment rates.  

“You can devastate the whole industry by making the wrong cutbacks at the wrong time. There has to be consideration also as to how to prop up or maintain the economy of the region, otherwise you go from a very poor area to devastating even furthermore the economy,” said Martinez.

In response to Reclamation’s call this summer for river users to voluntarily conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water in 2023 to protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell, Imperial Irrigation District and other California agencies on Oct. 5 proposed a plan that would save 400,000 acre-feet — 9 percent of California’s river allocation — each year between 2023 and 2026.

Earlier this month, the Department of the Interior approved the deal, committing $250 million from the Inflation Reduction Act to kickstart the conservation plan and support Salton Sea restoration efforts. As a result of water conservation efforts and a long-term transfer of farm water from the Imperial Valley to urban San Diego, the sea has been shrinking, exposing more lakeshore to winds that blow hazardous, lung-choking dust into the region.

California’s offer has received mixed reviews throughout the Basin: Some have applauded the proposal and called it an encouraging first step from the river’s biggest user, but others have cast it as an underwhelming opening gambit.

Wade Crowfoot, California Natural Resources Agency Secretary, said the Basin must continue negotiating and taking advantage of federal aid earmarked for Western drought relief to spur water conservation. 

“As challenging and as tense as this is, I think that there’s a real opportunity and that failure is not an option,” said Crowfoot. “Everybody understands we have to figure this out and we have some resources at our disposal.” 

“We can’t be caught flat-footed.”

In June, Reclamation Commissioner Touton told a U.S. Senate panel that unless an emergency conservation deal was reached by river users in 60 days, the federal government would have to take unilateral action to prevent the system’s demise.

In response to Reclamation’s call this summer for river users to voluntarily conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water in 2023 to protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell, Imperial Irrigation District and other California agencies on Oct. 5 proposed a plan that would save 400,000 acre-feet — 9 percent of California’s river allocation — each year between 2023 and 2026.

Earlier this month, the Department of the Interior approved the deal, committing $250 million from the Inflation Reduction Act to kickstart the conservation plan and support Salton Sea restoration efforts. As a result of water conservation efforts and a long-term transfer of farm water from the Imperial Valley to urban San Diego, the sea has been shrinking, exposing more lakeshore to winds that blow hazardous, lung-choking dust into the region.

California’s offer has received mixed reviews throughout the Basin: Some have applauded the proposal and called it an encouraging first step from the river’s biggest user, but others have cast it as an underwhelming opening gambit.

Wade Crowfoot, California Natural Resources Agency Secretary, said the Basin must continue negotiating and taking advantage of federal aid earmarked for Western drought relief to spur water conservation. 

“As challenging and as tense as this is, I think that there’s a real opportunity and that failure is not an option,” said Crowfoot. “Everybody understands we have to figure this out and we have some resources at our disposal.” 

“We can’t be caught flat-footed.”

In June, Reclamation Commissioner Touton told a U.S. Senate panel that unless an emergency conservation deal was reached by river users in 60 days, the federal government would have to take unilateral action to prevent the system’s demise.

Bruce Babbitt, former Interior secretary and Arizona governor. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

But the deadline passed without a deal and there was no immediate federal response, causing water users to wonder whether repercussions were coming. With little progress on a watershed-wide conservation plan, some Colorado River veterans contend the federal government should take a direct role in facilitating negotiations.

“I think Reclamation is going to have to get some key players in the room, probably including Mexico, and really get down to the brass tacks of leveraging and what needs to be done,” said Tom Davis, general manager of the Yuma County Water Users’ Association. “We need to save this patient’s life in the next 24-36 months.”  

Touton’s demand that the Basin states cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet caught them off guard, said Bruce Babbitt, former Interior secretary and Arizona governor. Since the announcement, Babbitt said, the states have essentially been “stumbling around” in the absence of a well-defined negotiation framework.

Babbitt likened the current situation to the one 100 years ago, when the states’ negotiations on how to split the Colorado River had also stalled before President Warren Harding tapped Herbert Hoover to guide the talks. Babbitt told the September symposium there are important lessons to be taken from the structured discussions at Bishop’s Lodge, just outside of Santa Fe, N.M., that ultimately led to the formulation of the 1922 Compact.

“What finally emerged out of that in terms of process at Bishop’s Lodge is something that I think we need to reflect on because we’re going to have to put together a workable framework,” Babbitt added.

Federal officials contend there isn’t a leadership void.

David Palumbo, Reclamation’s deputy commissioner of operations, said Reclamation is preparing a suite of actions — including reducing releases from Lake Powell in 2023 — to prevent a scenario where water can’t flow out of the system’s main dams.  

“If we need to release less than 7 million acre-feet [from Glen Canyon Dam] … if that hydrology is not there, we’re going to have to do something to avoid the crash and we’re going to be prepared to do that,” said Palumbo. “We can’t be caught flat-footed.”

Water users are urgently trying to keep Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border from dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

With talks between the states and tribes at a standstill, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Oct. 28 announced the federal government is considering deviating from operating rules established in 2007 and 2019 to handle water shortages on the river. 

During recent public briefings, federal officials have indicated that Lake Powell releases may be slashed by 2 to 3 million acre-feet annually to keep the reservoir from reaching a point where it could no longer generate electricity or deliver water downstream.

Meanwhile, Reclamation is now offering Lower Basin water users up to $400 per acre-foot of conserved water over the next three years, part of the $4 billion in drought relief funding secured through the Inflation Reduction Act. In addition, at least $500 million will be reserved for water conservation and efficiency projects in the Upper Basin.

Some Colorado River veterans, including Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, are urging Reclamation to focus the federal drought relief on actions that will not just temporarily halt Lake Mead’s decline, but permanently change water use habits.

“We should be using that money to fundamentally change the way we do everything in this Basin to use the least amount of water possible,” she said.

Considering the scope of the damaging economic, social and ecosystem impacts that would flood the Basin if Lake Mead or Lake Powell were to reach dead pool, others argue Congress should get more involved. One idea, outlined in a policy paper presented at the Symposium by the Foundation’s 2022 Colorado River Water Leaders class, is a biennial program that would provide federal funding for programs that would reduce system demand and encourage more frequent discussions between the states, tribes and other water users in the Basin.

Congress has enacted similar regional programs in recent decades, including in the Florida Everglades, the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. A stable source of federal funding can create permanent, multi-benefit solutions, said Brenda Burman, former Reclamation commissioner who will take over as general manager of the Central Arizona Project in 2023. 

“Whether it’s biennial or yearly, I think we need to be looking at a Colorado River Basin program,” she said. 

Tribes Gain a Say

Unlike previous deals, the federal government and states say they are committed to figuring out how to share Colorado River water while acknowledging the sovereignty and water needs of Native American tribes.

Lorelei Cloud, member of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s tribal council. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

Many Basin tribes, which hold legal rights to about a quarter of the river’s water, are hoping to upgrade their infrastructure and fully develop their water rights. As the tribes assert their water rights, the amount of water available to states with junior rights like Arizona or Nevada may shrink. After fighting legal battles to secure their rights to the river — 12 Basin tribes still have unresolved water rights claims — tribes aren’t eager to halt the progress they’ve made in bringing water to their communities and farms.

Lorelei Cloud, a member of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s tribal council, said the tribe’s unused river water simply flows by its Colorado reservation to be used by others downstream. She reiterated that unused tribal water, which gets treated as “surplus water”, is a vanishing luxury the rest of the Basin won’t soon be able to bank on.

“Tribes don’t get compensated and have never been compensated for our unused tribal water, especially the water that’s sitting in Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” said Cloud.

Decrepit water infrastructure among other issues prevents the Southern Ute from being able to use its full river allocation as it is, so Cloud added that the tribe is unlikely to cut back its water use even if the river continues to shrink.

“When tribes start to develop their water, what are you all going to do?” Cloud asked the Symposium crowd. “Because that water is ours. We’re in Colorado, so we’re going to get our water first.”

While the tribes have been historically excluded from and considered an afterthought in Colorado River negotiations, there are signs that the balance of decision-making power is shifting. Congress is providing billions of dollars in funding in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act to help tribes across the country improve their drinking water and water delivery systems.

At the September Symposium, both federal and state officials echoed the need for tribes to be included at the bargaining table.

“Tribes across the Basin will also continue to play a vital role,” said Interior Secretary Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. “Indian tribes have water rights, and not only are they deeply affected by the drought, but they have been and will be invaluable partners in finding solutions.”  

Other Challenges

Before considering any major changes to the river’s guiding principles, water managers will have to ensure that the country of Mexico is included in the process.

Mexico, already dealing with water shortages in several of its northern cities, is taking cuts to its river supply in 2022 and 2023 under binational agreements. Tensions over sharing the Colorado River have traditionally waxed and waned but the neighboring countries have been able to reach a series of water management agreements in recent decades. 

Members of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), which oversees boundary and water issues between the U.S. and Mexico, said they are confident the two countries can continue communicating and building on previous partnerships.    

“I feel that we’re going to go very far and be able to identify what we need to solve the issues along the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Maria-Elena Giner, the U.S. commissioner to the IBWC.

Thus far, talks regarding the river’s future have focused on limiting impacts to cities, farms and tribes. But reserving enough water to ensure the Basin’s fish and wildlife survive the drought is another thorny task water managers are wrangling with.

Environmental groups and other nongovernment organizations argue they are key river partners that can bring myriad resources and ideas to the brainstorming process.

“When the system is not sustainable, it’s not resilient and the environment loses. It’s the one that gets sacrificed first,” said Taylor Hawes, The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River program director. “Finding solutions that do not sacrifice the environment, that do not look at the environment as a sacrificial lamb, need to be part of our collective path forward.”

Meanwhile, new rules that would require Lower Basin users to account for water lost in large reservoirs to evaporation or leaky water delivery infrastructure are in the works. Currently, Upper Basin states are charged for evaporation losses but the Lower Basin is not.

Federal officials estimate as much as 10 percent of the river’s flow evaporates annually, including more than 1 million acre-feet from the Lower Basin. The federal government has announced it may change the evaporation accounting practices by the end of 2024, meaning the Lower Basin could take a significant cut to its share.     

“In these serious times, we need to take the overdue step of assessing how to account for those losses throughout the Basin. This is another tough reality that we must work together to address,” Haaland said.

As water managers attempt to navigate the river’s mounting crises, they can turn to a variety of recent success stories for inspiration.

Pat Mulroy, a senior fellow at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Boyd School of Law and the former longtime general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is an advocate for extensively rethinking how the Colorado River is managed. (Image: University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Boyd School of Law)

Cities such as Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas have shown the ability to decouple water demand from population growth. Restoration efforts at the long-neglected Salton Sea are producing positive results. An innovative water sharing deal is providing economic benefits to the Jicarilla Apache Nation as well as water security for New Mexico and increased river flows for endangered species of fish.

These beneficial programs and decisions — in a refreshing twist from a river history dominated by men — are being crafted with the input of women in high-ranking positions, creating hope on a river in dire straits. 

Instead of court battles that could lead to a federal judge taking over management of the Colorado River, water users need to negotiate with open minds as they chart a path for the lifeline that means so much to so many, said Mulroy, former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. To cut through the paralysis that has bogged down negotiations, everyone will have to show the courage to deviate from old agreements and assumptions and prepare for cuts.

“We’re talking about a body of law and a structure we’ve lived with predicated on 17 to 18 million acre-feet,” Mulroy said, “and a reality that has 9 to 11 million acre-feet in the river – the two don’t mesh.”

Double Dead Pool on the #ColoradoRiver — InkStain @jfleck #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

USBR graphic via John Fleck.

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

The Bureau of Reclamation folks haven’t posted the slides yet from last week’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement briefings. In the meantime, some of us in the Colorado River nerd world have been passing around our screenshotted copies like some sort of precious mimeographed ’60s ‘zine.

It was a remarkable affair.

Buried in the tables and graphs was a sobering message: If we are to take climate change seriously, we need to be prepared for the possibility of:

  • driving Lake Mead to “dead pool” in order to protect the structural integrity of Glen Canyon Dam
  • driving Lake Powell below the critical power pool threshold, where Reclamation is forced to use Glen Canyon Dam’s dicey outlet works, in order to protect Lake Mead from reaching dead pool
  • releases from Lake Mead of as low as 3.8 million acre feet in a single near future year – a ~5 million acre foot reduction from current levels
  • Lake Powell releases dropping below the 10 year-by-75 million acre foot benchmark set by the Colorado River Compact. Not merely the 10×82.5 maf number that includes the Upper Basin’s share of the U.S. Mexican treaty obligation. Below 10x75maf.

To be clear, Reclamation is not projecting those numbers. Rather, this is the no-holds-barred reality check being offered by Reclamation’s technical team of a plausible scenario for which we need to be prepared.

Given the context in which these numbers are being offered – new operating rules under a revised version of the 2007 Interim Guidelines – it seems clear where this is headed.

REFILLING

First and foremost, if we have a wet year this year, we need to hold water back now. I can imagine, for example, a new rule that constrains releases from Glen Canyon Dam indexed to inflows – perhaps “don’t release any more water from Glen this year than last year’s unregulated inflow”. If my hypothetical rule takes evaporation into account, that would mean something around a 6maf Powell release in 2023.

Just hypothetically.

One of the flaws we can now clearly see in the ’07 guidelines is that they were keyed to reservoir elevations rather than the actual flow of the river, in a way that allowed us to drain Mead and Powell. We have a chance for a tweak to save us from the worst of that over the next few years. [ed. emphasis mine]

LOWER BASIN USE

Cutting Powell’s releases, as we must do, quickly crashes Lake Mead, pushing it well down into the ’07 guidelines shortage tiers. But the model runs presented by reclamation show those current shortage tiers won’t be enough.

So a new set of rules, to get us through the next few years, has to offer up much deeper Lower Basin cuts than the current rules in the ’07 guidelines and Drought Contingency Plan. It also seems clear, after staring at Reclamation’s slides from last week’s briefing, that we need the cuts to kick in sooner, at higher Mead levels, if we are to be prepared for the possibilities contemplated in the briefing. I’m intrigued by a “double DCP” notion that’s been kicking around the basin community, because it’s based on ratios for shortages among the Lower Basin states that have already been negotiated.

My back-of-the-envelope look at those numbers suggests to me that Double DCP at higher Mead elevations might be going a little harsh on Arizona and easy on California. Dunno. Thinking about equities, “present perfected rights”, Tribal water, environmental flows, and my friends in the Lower Basin gives me a headache.

But I’ve got plenty of aspirin and 16 days until Interior’s deadline for comments, so perhaps I’ll make it.

A Century Ago, This Water Agreement Changed the West. Now, the Region Is in Crisis: Much has changed since the #ColoradoRiver Compact was signed in 1922 — Smithsonian Magazine #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Dories at rest on a glorious Grand Canyon eve. Photo by Brian Richter

Click the link to read the article on the Smithsonian Magazine website (Margaret Osborne):

The Colorado River has long been regarded as the “lifeline of the Southwest.” It supplies water to 40 million people in seven states, 29 Native American tribes and parts of Mexico. Farmers use it to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of agricultural land. 

One hundred years ago this month, the signing of the Colorado River Compact laid the foundation for how water from the river is used today. But the signers of the 1922 agreement had no way of knowing what the future would bring. Decades of overuse because of faulty science and population growth—along with climate change—have all reduced the river’s flow and the water levels in the nation’s largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Now, the basin is facing a crisis.

“The conditions that we’re experiencing now are far worse than anyone anticipated them to ever be,” Crystal Tulley-Cordova, principal hydrologist at the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources, tells Smithsonian magazine. 

So, how did the situation evolve into what it is today? And what comes next for the basin? Here are five things you should know about the 1922 agreement for its 100th anniversary.

Where is the Colorado River?

The 1,450-mile-long river begins in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. It passes through Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead before ending in Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. Altogether, its drainage basin spans about 246,000 square miles, representing 8 percent of the land in the continental United States.

While the river historically stretched all the way to the Gulf of California, damming and overuse have prevented the water from regularly flowing into the gulf since the 1960s.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

What is the Colorado River Compact?

In the early 1920s, states in the Colorado River Basin grew concerned about their shares of water in the river. California was growing rapidly, and some feared it would establish priority access to the water.

Delph Carpenter, an attorney in Colorado, proposed that the states should come together to negotiate river water allocation. The states took 11 months to reach an agreement: the Colorado River Compact. It divided states in the watershed into an Upper Basin and a Lower Basin, which would each receive 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year. From there, the basins were left to figure out how to split up the water among themselves. 

In the decades following the compact, subsequent court cases, treaties and agreements hammered out exactly how the water would be distributed. Together, these are called the “Law of the River.”

From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

Who was involved, and who was not?

The compact was signed by delegates from seven states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—as well as a representative from the federal government, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. It was the first time so many states had come together to make an agreement—a momentous occasion in U.S. history. 

But while Native Americans had been using water in the river for millennia and had legal rights to it, per a 1908 Supreme Court case, they were left out of the agreement, as was Mexico.

All states ratified the compact except for Arizona. Its then-governor said the compact put Arizona at a disadvantage, because it would be forced to compete directly with California for water. Arizona later joined the agreement in the early 1940s, and the two states still face bitter disputes over water today.

A March 31, 1922 photo of the Colorado River Commission. Standing left to right: Delph E. Carpenter (Colorado), James G. Scrugham (Nevada), R. E. Caldwell (Utah), Frank C. Emerson (Wyoming), Stephen B. Davis, Jr. (New Mexico), W. F. McClure (California) and W. S. Norviel (Arizona). Seated: Gov. Emmet D. Boyle (Nevada), Gov. Oliver H. Shoup (Colorado), Herbert Hoover (federal representative and chair) and Gov. Merritt C. Mecham (New Mexico). The governors were not members of the Commission. Photo: Colorado State University Library

One century later, what has changed?

While the Law of the River still governs water use, conditions have shifted drastically in the 100 years since the compact was signed. Hoover predicted the basin’s population, which was about 457,000 in 1915, would quadruple. Today, the river serves 40 million people—more than 20 times his prediction. 

And states are now using more water than is sustainable. The 1922 negotiations allocated water use based on data from an unusually wet period in history, Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, tells Smithsonian magazine. Now, with reduced water in the river and its reservoirs, these allocations are outdated. The signers likely knew their agreement would create a long-term problem, some experts say, but they ignored the research and forged ahead anyway. 

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

“Uses are somewhere on the order of about 15 million acre-feet. The historical flow since 2000 is around 12 million acre-feet,” Udall says. “We’ve got a 3 million acre-foot imbalance.”

Meanwhile, climate change is reducing the mountain snowpack that feeds the river, and it’s also causing more evaporation. Warmer, drier conditions have thrown the entire basin into a 23-year-long drought that is ongoing. But Udall and other scientists argue the word “aridification” is a more accurate term, since the conditions are unlikely to change.

“Since 2000, the basin has been in a state of profound imbalance,” Udall says. “As a result, the Colorado River reservoirs, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, have declined by roughly 70 percent.” 

The water shortage has forced the federalgovernment to take drastic action—it has ordered cuts to water usage and reduced downstream releases from the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams, which form Lake Powell and Lake Mead, respectively. But even these measures haven’t been enough.

Native American tribes, which were excluded from the original 20th-century negotiations, have inherent rights to the diminishing water supply—a combined total of about 20 percent of the river’s historical flow. But many tribes are still fighting for these rights to be recognized.

“While people are conserving, we’re trying to develop our water,” Tulley-Cordova says. “A large population of our nation still don’t have running water.”

Jack Schmidt, director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University, tells Smithsonian magazine the situation is dire. One more extremely dry winter—on par with the record-breaking dry conditions that occurred in 2002—will either drain Lake Powell or force the government to take unprecedented emergency action, he says.

“We’re in abject crisis right now,” Schmidt says. “We’re on the edge of that cliff. We’re about to fall off.”

What’s next for the basin?

The basin faces an immediate crisis of dry conditions this winter. But it also faces the long-term crisis of overuse, says Schmidt. 

“We must, as a nation, reduce our long-term use rates to be consistent with the supply,” he says. “That’s just basic checkbook accounting.”

In 2026, several current agreements regarding water usage will expire, forcing new compromises to be made about water allocation. So far, though, no one has decided what those new rules will look like.

“I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know that anybody would tell you where we’re going. But if we don’t make decisions fast, nature’s going to make them for us,” Udall says. “The real threat here is that we empty these two reservoirs and then become reliant on an annual allocation that nature provides, instead of an annual allocation that we humans decide what’s best for us.” 

But Udall says one reason to remain optimistic is that relationships between states and entities in the basin are good. And moving forward, Tulley-Cordova says that continuing to forge these relationships will be key.

“It’s not to say that we all agree on the way things should be done,” she says. “But the best [strategy for] talking about a complicated subject is not assuming what the other person’s priorities, needs, and challenges and opportunities are.” 

Still, scientists say action must be taken—and soon. With Lake Mead and Lake Powell at historic lows and the states failing to cut back their water use, it’s only a matter of time before nature forces the states to make uncomfortable decisions.

“It’s going to be a wild ride. That much, I can tell you,” Udall says. “We’re in a deep hole here.”

Reclamation makes operational adjustments from #LakePowell to protect low level critical elevations #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Glen Canyon Dam November 2022. Photo credit: USBR

Click the link to read the release on the Reclamation website (Becki Bryant and Michelle Helms):

The Bureau of Reclamation has begun monthly operational adjustments with reduced releases from Glen Canyon Dam under the Drought Response Operations Agreement. The adjusted releases are designed to help protect critical elevations at Lake Powell until the spring runoff materializes.

The monthly adjustments will hold back 523,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell from December 2022 through April 2023 when inflow to the reservoir is low. The same amount of water (523,000 acre-feet) will then be added to releases to Lake Mead between June and September after the spring runoff occurs.

Consistent with the DROA and the dam’s Long-term Experimental and Management Plan Record of Decision, only the monthly volumes are being adjusted. The annual release volume of 7.0 million acre-feet for water year 2023 (October 1, 2022, through September 30, 2023) will remain the same as described in the Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead (referred to as the 2007 Interim Guidelines).  

These monthly adjustments will boost Lake Powell’s elevation by nearly 10 feet by April 2023. Latest projections show the reservoir dropping below the 3,525 feet target elevation as early as this month. The target elevation is a buffer that allows for response actions to prevent Lake Powell from dropping below elevation of 3,490 feet, the lowest elevation that Glen Canyon Dam can still release water through its eight penstocks and generate hydropower.

The modified release pattern for Glen Canyon Dam is as follows:

Modified release plan for Glen Canyon Dam December 2, 2022 via Reclamation

“Under the Drought Response Operations Agreement, making these monthly operational adjustments at Glen Canyon Dam is an integral part of ongoing actions to protect critical elevations at Lake Powell,” said Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Regional Director Wayne Pullan.

Reclamation and the DROA parties have amended Attachment B – Operational Adjustments at Glen Canyon Dam to reflect the decision to modify monthly releases from the dam. Work continues to develop a Drought Response Operations Plan for the 2023 DROA year (May 1, 2023 – April 30, 2024), which could include additional water releases to Lake Powell from the upstream Colorado River Storage Project initial units of Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs.

Reclamation continues to closely monitor the basin’s hydrology and will release updated projections later this month with the December 24 Month Study. Those projections, scheduled to be released Dec. 15, will include the modified monthly releases from Glen Canyon Dam.  

“We’ll continue to work with our basin partners in the future in the same collaborative spirit we have demonstrated in the past,” said Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin Regional Director Jaci Gould.

Reclamation is working with its partners in the Colorado River Basin to meet the need for long-term adaptation for drought and a changing climate. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act provide the resources to back up Reclamation’s commitment to work in a consensus manner to protect the Colorado River system.

 

#CRWUA2022: #ColoradoRiver users, facing historic uncertainty, are set to meet in Las Vegas next month — The #Nevada Independent #COriver #aridification

A portion of Lake Mead as seen from an airplane on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Click the link to read the article on Nevada’s only statewide nonprofit newsroom The Nevada Independent website (Daniel Rothberg):

As Colorado River water users prepare to meet in Las Vegas next month, the reality they face is one of growing uncertainty with few simple options left on the negotiating table. The math is well understood: There are more demands for the river than there is water coming into its reservoirs. 

But cutting back at the scale necessary — and on a voluntary basis — has proven painstakingly difficult this year as top officials from across the Colorado River watershed have failed to reach a settlement. If the cuts are inevitable based on physical realities, questions remain about what form they will take. Will they be voluntary? Mandatory? Both? And how would they be enforced?

The federal government is pursuing a two-pronged strategy: On the one hand, it is seeking to fund voluntary conservation programs, paying irrigators to forgo water. But federal officials are also analyzing mandatory cutbacks if a negotiated deal cannot be reached among water users.

How the two strategies will work together — and in light of a century of contracts, agreements and guidelines that govern the river — remains a lingering question as water managers prepare for a conference in Las Vegas next month. The conference, hosted by the Colorado River Water Users Association, or CRWUA, brings together water officials, policymakers and interest groups from across the basin, which includes seven U.S. states, 30 Native American tribes and Mexico. 

The conference will cap a dizzying year of crisis on a river beset with long-term challenges and inequities weaved into its foundational rules. In June, as negotiators were looking at reworking the operating rules on the Colorado River (set to expire in 2026), the federal government called on water users to agree on substantial short-term cuts that would stave off disastrous declines in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the river’s largest reservoirs. Yet with such deep cuts needed, negotiators failed to develop a binding agreement after an August 15 deadline came and went. 

“The level of uncertainty is increasing,” Tom Buschatzke, who directs the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said. “I haven’t seen anything that’s got the pendulum to stop swinging in the increasing direction and maybe at least stop — and maybe start going the other way.”

Since 1922, the Colorado River Compact has guided development in the watershed. On top of that foundational document are a century of treaties, federal laws and agreements dictating how the river and shortages are apportioned. But those deals have not shielded those reliant on the river, which serves 40 million people in the Southwest, from low reservoirs and mounting risk. 

Together, the many reservoirs that store water for Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico, are 33 percent full. Lake Mead, held back by the Hoover Dam and the reservoir from which the Las Vegas Valley draws 90 percent of its drinking water, is 28 percent full. Upstream at another large reservoir, Lake Powell, low water has exposed submerged landscapes. It is 25 percent full.

Modeling by federal water experts forecast both Lake Mead and Lake Powell continuing to drop below critical levels. Without changes in water use, Lake Mead, over the next two years, could drop below the threshold triggering deeper water shortages. And Lake Powell could drop below its minimum power pool, the point at which water is so low the dam cannot generate electricity. 

In June, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called on all water users and all sectors on the Colorado River to come together with a plan that would cut a huge amount of water — about 2 million to 4 million acre-feet — as a measure to stabilize the two reservoirs (an acre-foot is enough water to roughly fill a football field to a depth of one foot). 

That put most of the onus on the Lower Colorado River Basin, the states downstream of Lake Powell (Arizona, California and Nevada), where most of the water is consumed in cities, farms, businesses and lost to evaporation. Of the seven states that rely on the Colorado River, Nevada has the smallest apportionment, with entitlements to only 1.8 percent of all the water that’s been allocated. Still, Las Vegas is also heavily dependent on the river as a long-term water supply. 

John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in a recent interview that Nevada faces less physical risk than water users downstream of Lake Mead. The agency recently completed construction of a low-level intake and pumping station that allows it to draw water out of Lake Mead, even in the most extreme water-shortage scenarios. Still, the interstate negotiations are highly consequential for shaping what future cuts might look like.

“So our risk really has to be evaluated in terms of how big of a reduction we could face and what are our plans for dealing with that,” he said. “I think we have the ability to adapt to anything that might come our way… We’re not going to start publicly negotiating against ourselves about how low we think our reduction might be, but we do internal modeling and look at additional steps we can take in conservation, and I think we’re at a pretty good place to take care of ourselves.”

With no agreement in place to cut close to 2 million acre-feet, the federal government has been stepping in. Earlier this year, the federal government injected an infusion of cash — $4 billion — into managing the river, a portion of which was set aside for conservation. In October, federal water managers began soliciting proposals to pay irrigators $330 to $400 for each acre-foot of water they conserved (federal officials said they would also accept different pricing proposals). 

The proposals for voluntary and compensated conservation closed last week. California said it would commit to cutting 400,000 acre-feet of water (it is entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet), a mix of water from irrigation districts and through the primary municipal provider for Southern California. 

“This isn’t the grand solution or all that California is going to do as we look to right sizing water usage,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s natural resources secretary. “But our take was we’re on borrowed time so let’s step up and do as much as we can do collectively, voluntarily.”

In Arizona, the Gila River Indian Community announced that it would commit to forgo 125,000 acre-feet of water, according to The Arizona Republic. Native American tribes hold some of the oldest and most valuable rights to the Colorado River, but were excluded from the compact, one of the many fundamental injustices embedded into the framework of the river’s operating rules. At the same time some Native American tribes are stepping up to help conserve water, many are still fighting for their water rights, and face systemic barriers in putting the water to use. 

California uses the majority of the water in the Lower Basin, followed by Arizona (it is entitled to 2.8 million acre-feet). But a federal law gave California a priority to water relative to the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile canal running from the river through the Phoenix and Tucson areas. In theory, that means that in times of severe shortage California can use all its water before the canal gets any. Arizona says that’s not an equitable solution, and the law is not as clear-cut. 

As a result of the differing priorities to water, Arizona has already made significant cuts to its water use in past years, including through the Drought Contingency Plan, while California has not. Buschatzke said he wanted to see the state commit to further cuts, closer to the 525,000 acre-feet in additional cuts that Arizona said it had put on the negotiating table this summer. 

“I think California’s number should be closer to whatever Arizona has to do,” he said. 

How the commitments to conserve water translates into actual water savings is another issue that water managers are grappling with. It’s one thing to make a commitment. It’s another thing to get individual irrigators to cut back as farmers place water orders and prepare for the growing season. Many point to the 500+ Plan as an example. It was a voluntary program, signed by the states at the Las Vegas conference last year, and pledged to save 500,000 acre-feet of water. 

“The 500 Plus plan existed in 2022,” said Colby Pellegrino, Southern Nevada Water Authority’s deputy general manager. “We just didn’t have enough interest in voluntarily participating.”

Crowfoot said he is “confident” that California water users can meet the conservation goal, but he recognizes “that there’s work to do to actually turn that commitment into wet water.”

Voluntary programs are not the only action that water users might expect to see within the next year. There remains a second approach on the table that could result in reductions for states across the basin. Last month, federal water managers initiated a formal process to conduct an environmental analysis that could result in mandatory water use reductions in the Lower Basin. 

The federal government is evaluating a number of options, including holding back water in Lake Powell, redefining existing cuts and accounting for the significant amount of water that is lost to evaporation and leaky infrastructure. According to an analysis from the Southern Nevada Water Authority, accounting for evaporation and other losses could save about 1.5 million acre-feet.

Accounting for conservation could meet challenges. Some users said their legal priority to water should be factored into any discussion about evaporation. Otherwise, as JB Hamby, a board member for the Imperial Irrigation District (with the river’s largest single allocation) argues, “it’s an attempt to redistribute shortages from junior users to senior primarily agricultural users.” (In Western water law, those with newer “junior” rights are typically cut first in times of drought).

Hamby said the district was submitting a proposal to cut its use by about 250,000 acre-feet for a negotiated price, but he suggested uniform accounting for evaporation loss was a non-starter. 

“The shortage,” Hamby said, “was not created by those who were there first, and there was still water gushing into the Sea of Cortez.” Instead, he said it should fall on more recent water uses. 

But Buschatzke said his opinion is that everyone relies on infrastructure where evaporation is occurring, regardless of their priority. As such, all users have a responsibility in accounting for it in their water budgets. Still, he conceded that not all Arizona water users share this opinion. 

“If you are using Colorado River water…, you own a piece of that evaporation loss,” he said.

Entsminger echoed this, saying that priority should not have anything to do with it. While there has been little overall progress on a negotiated approach, Entsminger pointed to one sign that parties, with varying interests, can still work collaboratively in the Colorado River Basin. 

Last week, 30 municipal water providers from across the watershed signed a memorandum of understanding that pledged to increase water conservation and remove non-functional turf. For the larger cuts, Entsminger said that a consensus-based deal is still his preferred outcome. 

“I still think it should be the path forward because your entire universe of options is contained within negotiation, litigation or legislation, and I’m not a fan of litigation or legislation,” he said.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

As the #ColoradoRiver is stretched thin by #drought, can the 100-year-old rules that divide it still work? — AZCentral.com #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Click the link to read the article on the AZCentral.com website (Brandon Loomis). Click through and read the whole article since it captures the current state of the basin from stem to stern. Here’s an excerpt:

From mountain ranches in Wyoming to vegetable fields in Yuma, water users look for ways to keep the Colorado River flowing.

Over time the government built massive dams near Las Vegas and Page to store the water for those big downstream users: a Yuma lettuce field, an Imperial Valley melon patch, the Phoenix suburbs, all stretching toward a desert horizon far from the river’s channel.  But more than two decades into a punishing drought that climate scientists say will likely intensify with more warming, the system can no longer supply everything that some 40 million people in a warming and drying region desire from it, or that grocers nationwide sell from its verdant fields. Since 2000, water demand and evaporation have exceeded the river’s flow, on average, by roughly 15%.  The federal and state governments that share the water are now urgently seeking conservation to save the river. Their negotiations could produce either a new system of sharing the pain of cutbacks or an impasse that ends in lawsuits as states and water users try to hang onto water promised them in a different time…

Interstate negotiations have proceeded haltingly this year in an emergency effort to conserve billions of gallons needed to keep America’s biggest dammed reservoirs — lakes Mead and Powell — from emptying. The U.S. Interior Department has also begun a process for determining how to operate the dams and preserve the river beginning in four years, when current rules expire…

The devastating combination of a warming climate and sustained overuse has long bent the Colorado River, but now stands ready to break it. If neither the demand nor the weather relents, it’s possible the river could finally stop flowing past Hoover Dam by the end of President Joe Biden’s term. Farms with senior water rights on paper would not be able to claim their due from a dry riverbed. Phoenix, while backstopped with other in-state sources such as the Salt River, would have to stop pouring Colorado River water into its aquifer for future demands, and start pumping what is already there. Small ranch towns like Pinedale and even major farm service centers like Yuma would lose jobs and population as they are forced to reduce production…

Having never used all the water that they were promised in the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin states now find there’s no more to go around. The only way Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico could grow into their full allocation in the current climate would be to force Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico to give back more of the water they’re already using.  Bruce Babbitt is among those who expect the U.S. will have to change the rules if drought continues to suppress river flows and reservoir levels over the next couple of years. The former Arizona governor and U.S. Interior secretary said the river will soon decline to the point where it’s impossible for the Upper Basin to meets its fixed yearly commitments to the Lower Basin without “progressively shutting down current Upper Basin uses. That is an ethical and political impossibility. 

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

#Arizona’s #ColoradoRiver Leaders Provide Update On Discussions To Save The System: State #water providers and users hear grim news on slow progress of shortage-sharing talks — Arizona Department of Water Resources #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Colorado River in Arizona. Photo credit: Arizona Department of Water Resources

Click the link to read the article on the Arizona Department of Water Resources website:

Ted Cooke and Tom Buschatzke: Photo credit: Arizona Department of Water Resources

Arizona’s water leaders on Friday, November 4, 2022, outlined the state of negotiations over delivery cutbacks to stabilize the Colorado River system.

Even as the days tick ever closer to the start of the 2023 water year, they reported, the Colorado River States and the Department of the Interior appear to have made scant progress toward an outcome that would leave between the 2-4 million acre-feet that the system needs to keep from descending to unstable levels.

Speaking about the on-going discussions among the states about conservation contributions, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke conceded that “there was no certainty that we would get to even 1 million acre-feet (MAF).”

Director Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke made their presentation to the Arizona Reconsultation Committee, the organization of water users and providers from across Arizona that helps develop an Arizona perspective on new long-term management guidelines for the Colorado River that are expected to go into effect before the end of 2026.

A recording of the ARC meeting can be found here. The presentation by the ARC co-chairs can be found here.

As a result of existing agreements, Arizona will leave 592,000 acre-feet of its 2.8 MAF allocation – 21 percent – in Lake Mead in 2023 to help keep the reservoir from descending to critical levels.

Including mandatory and voluntary contributions from a variety of in-state sources, Arizona will have left roughly 840,000 acre-feet in the troubled reservoir in 2022.

As reported by Buschatzke and Cooke, the states are struggling to come up with a plan to secure equitable voluntary commitments to conserve the additional 2-4 MAF.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton announced earlier this year that the system needed to conserve that stunning amount of water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell to avoid potential catastrophe. The Bureau’s efforts since then have focused on winning voluntary contribution commitments from the states. The ARC co-chairs said the discussions have not proved fruitful thus far.

Buschatzke also described one of the more under-appreciated issues facing the Colorado River system: The ability of Glen Canyon Dam to funnel water downstream if water levels in Lake Powell descend below the eight power-producing intake valves.

Below those eight massive valves are just four “bypass tubes” that, comparatively, are “basically four garden hoses” compared to the eight intake valves.

Much of the discussion at the ARC meeting focused on one of the more controversial long-term options for dealing with chronic overuse of Colorado River water – creating a system that assesses users for system losses due to evaporation, seepage and other losses. Accounting for those losses, said Buschatzke, “will go a long way” toward getting to the 2-4 MAF needed to protect the system.

“Everyone… diverting water should own a piece of that evaporation and system loss,” said Buschatzke. [ed. emphasis mine]

The Director acknowledged that winning support for such an accounting among users and providers in Arizona, much less among the other states, “is not a certainty.”

The back of Glen Canyon Dam circa 1964, not long after the reservoir had begun filling up. Here the water level is above dead pool, meaning water can be released via the river outlets, but it is below minimum power pool, so water cannot yet enter the penstocks to generate electricity. Bureau of Reclamation photo.