Colorado NRCS now accepting applications for 2019 Agricultural Land Easement and Wetlands Reserve Programs — High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal

Irrigation sprinklers run over a farm in Longmont in the South Platte River basin. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt/Aspen Journalism

From The High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal:

Clint Evans, Colorado State conservationist for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service recently announced applications for the 2019 Agricultural Conservation Easement Program—Agricultural Land Easement and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program-Wetlands Reserve Program—are currently being accepted on a rolling basis. Due to the new 2018 Farm Bill, Colorado NRCS will not be announcing an application deadline for either program at this time. A subsequent announcement will be made at least 30 days prior to any established deadline in 2019.

The purpose of the ACEP-ALE program is to protect the agricultural viability, grazing uses and related conservation values by limiting nonagricultural uses of the land. The purpose of the ACEP-WRE program is to protect and restore wetlands, wildlife habitat, and water quality on agricultural lands. These programs are voluntary and the landowner retains ownership of the land.

Applicants for ACEP-ALE must be a federally recognized Indian Tribe, state or local units of government, or a non-governmental organization. Individual landowners may apply for ACEP-WRE if their land includes farmed or converted wetlands that can be successfully restored or other eligible wetland type.

Completed application packets for ACEP-ALE should be emailed to Heather Foley at or mailed to Heather Foley, easements coordinator, USDA-NRCS, Denver Federal Center, Building 56, Room 2604, Denver, CO 80225. Completed application packets for ACEP-WRE must be submitted to the local NRCS field offices located within USDA Service Centers. Application packets for either program must be submitted based on the 2018 guidelines.

For more information about NRCS easement programs, please contact Heather Foley at 720-544-2805 or You can also visit your local NRCS Service Center or visit the Colorado NRCS website at

Resisting the Lure of the Lawn — The Walton Family Foundation #ActOnClimate

From The Walton Family Foundation (Jill Ozarski):

In Colorado, water-conscious homeowners are protecting river health by removing thirsty turf landscapes

For millions of homeowners, the romantic lure of the lawn is impossible to resist.

Americans are said to have a “love affair with lawns,” spending billions of dollars each year to cultivate and care for vast expanses of lush green grass in front and back yards across the country.

Rachel Mondragon doesn’t understand the appeal.

Over the past four years, the suburban Denver resident has been steadily removing turf grass from her property in the foothills of Colorado’s front range.

Not only does a ‘perfect lawn’ hold little aesthetic value for Rachel, she is bothered by the environmental costs of keeping the grass growing in a semi-arid region under persistent threat of water shortages.

“I kept thinking, ‘Why are we spending so much time, water and effort on this grass turf when, honestly, it just doesn’t bring any joy to my life,” Rachel says.

“I want to save on water. The idea of needing to water the lawn every day, and the thought of all that water going just to grow grass that’s not even native to this area, it just didn’t make sense to me.”

Rachel’s desire to remove her thirsty lawn led to her participation this year in a pilot project designed to help Colorado residents to make the shift from turf to a more water-efficient landscape.

The program, run by the Boulder-based non-profit Resource Central, offered a menu of incentives to 60 homeowners interested in converting their lawns into xeriscape gardens that feature low-water plants, mulches and other turf options that reduce or eliminate the need for supplemental irrigation.

Video: Ranching in the New Normal: Adapting to Drier Future — @AmericanRivers @AudubonRockies #RioGrande #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Green River Ranch. Photo credit: Abby Burk

From Audubon Rockies:

After 19 years of drought in the Colorado River basin, many experts are calling this prolonged drying out of the southwest by a new name: aridification. Drought implies there’s an end, but what if there’s not? Right now people across Colorado and the Colorado River basin are working together to find water solutions to save the Colorado River and the livelihoods of those who depend on it.

The land and water support us now, but belong to the next generation of people and wildlife. The people who understand this most work Colorado’s land and water every day. Working land operations—like ranchers—survive by how they relate to land and water. These operations, in turn, provide vast open space for birds, other wildlife, and our enjoyment.

The dry year of 2018 pushed working lands and rivers to the brink across Colorado and the Colorado River basin. Many Colorado ranching families, communities, and wildlife that rely on healthy flowing rivers were stretched thin as some rivers completely dried up.

Take a look at our thoughtful new film: Ranching In The New Normal, a collaborative project between Audubon Rockies and American Rivers. This film takes a peek into three Colorado ranches as they adapt to increasingly dry conditions and the hope they have for their land and water legacy.

Help us keep rural agriculture and hardworking rivers thriving. Join Audubon’s Western Rivers Action Network to help protect our rivers, working lands and wide open landscapes that birds and people need.

Restoring the #ColoradoRiver: Bringing New Life to a Stressed River — Yale 360 #COriver #aridification

Colorado River Delta

From Yale 360 (Jim Robbins). Here’s an excerpt click through for the photos and to read the whole article:

The Colorado River has been dammed, diverted, and slowed by reservoirs, strangling the life out of a once-thriving ecosystem. But in the U.S. and Mexico, efforts are underway to revive sections of the river and restore vital riparian habitat for native plants, fish, and wildlife. Fifth in a series.

From the air, the last gasp of the Colorado River is sudden and dramatic. The pale green river flows smack into the Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border, and virtually all of it is immediately diverted into a large irrigation canal that waters a mosaic of hundreds of fields — alfalfa, asparagus, lettuce, and other vegetables, their vivid green color clashing against the sere desert. The slender thread of water that remains in the Colorado’s channel continues to flow south, but is soon swallowed up by a sea of sand, far short of its delta, which lies 100 miles farther on.

The Colorado River once surged through the delta during high flows, carrying so much water at times that shallow draft steamboats chugged hundreds of miles up the river into the U.S. with loads of freight. The water in the delta nourished a vast fertile landscape, a fitting end to a river known as the Nile of North America.

“The river was everywhere and nowhere,” the naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote during a 1922 canoe trip to the delta, describing the waterway as it ebbed, flowed, braided, and stalled into pools, nourishing a rich and diverse ecosystem of “a hundred green lagoons,” a “milk and honey wilderness” with thick stands of cottonwoods and willows that provided habitat for hundreds of species of birds. The delta’s marshes, mudflats, and white sand beaches were home to clapper rails, bitterns, mallards, teal, and clouds of egrets.

Bobcats, puma, deer, and wild boar wandered the delta’s forests. Leopold was searching for the jaguar that roamed there, but didn’t see any…

Morelos Dam. Photo credit American Rivers.

As a natural river, before it was dammed, the Colorado was a massive, dynamic waterway. It flowed from elevations above 14,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, then dropped to sea level, which meant that it moved at high water with tremendous force, liquid sandpaper carving out red rock canyons. It flooded the desert plains, carving new channels and braids with every inundation. When it receded, it left behind a mosaic of fecund marshes, wetlands, and ponds.

In its natural state, the Colorado had more extreme flows than any river in the U.S., ranging from lows of 2,500 cubic feet per second in the winter to 100,000 cubic feet per second in the summer. In 1884, an all-time historical peak flow reached 384,000 cubic feet per second in Arizona.

But extreme flows are too capricious to support a civilization, so over the past century or so humans have built a network of expensive dams and reservoirs, pipelines, canals, flumes, and aqueducts to tame and divert the flow. Yet these projects also strangled the life out of a once-thriving ecosystem. By design, the river will never again function as a free-flowing stream.

Now, however, experts and environmentalists are rethinking this technological marvel of a river, and looking at ways a natural Colorado can flourish — to some degree, and in some places — with the permission of the engineers. One of those places is in the delta.

The water that flowed in the once-lush delta has been replaced by sand, and the cottonwoods and willows have surrendered their turf to widespread invasive salt cedar and arrowweed. Without the river and its load of nutrients, marine productivity in the Gulf of California — where the Colorado River once ended — has fallen by up to 95 percent. But despite the dismal forecast for the future of water on the Colorado, some conservationists are hoping to return at least a portion of the delta to its former glory.

Point 24 in the Colorado River Delta, September 12, 2016. Photo credit The Nature Conservancy.

“We are trying to restore a network of sites that creates a functional ecosystem,” said Francisco Zamora, who manages the project for the Sonoran Institute. “We’ve acquired water rights, but use them for habitat instead of cotton or wheat.”

The delta is one of a disconnected series of restoration projects that government agencies, local groups, and environmental organizations are undertaking along the Colorado. Numerous efforts are focused on tributaries to the main stem of the river, seeking to enhance resiliency by increasing the flow of water and protecting and restoring riparian habitat for fish and other wildlife.

For example, a coalition of groups — including state agencies, nonprofits, and the Arizona cities of Buckeye and Agua Fria — have been removing invasive salt cedar, planting native species, and building levees to reclaim a 17-mile stretch of the Gila River. Invasive salt cedars are a region-wide problem on the lower Colorado, with a single tree sucking up 300 gallons a day. The invasive forest on this stretch of the river uses enough water to serve 200,000 households.

In the upper basin, meanwhile, a number of groups and local landowners are working to restore a 15-mile-long floodplain with globally significant biodiversity on a narrow section of the Yampa River, another Colorado tributary. Called Morgan Bottom, the section has been damaged by deforestation and poor agricultural practices, threatening bald eagles and greater sand hill cranes, as well as a rare riparian forest of narrowleaf cottonwood and red osier dogwood.

But there are limits to how natural the Colorado River can become, especially along the river’s main stem. “We should not kid ourselves that we are making it natural again,” said John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program and the author of a book about the restoration of the Colorado. “We are creating an intensively managed system to mimic some nature because we value it.”

Because of the Colorado’s extensive infrastructure, serious disruption of the river’s ecology is inevitable.

Indeed, some of the remaining naturalness on the Colorado is, paradoxically, because of the human-made system. “The geography of the Colorado gives it hope because L.A. and southern California, which everybody loves to hate, guarantee that a lot of water stays in the system through the Grand Canyon,” says Jack Schmidt, a professor at Utah State University and a member of the Colorado River Research Group. “The best friend endangered fish ever had in the Colorado River Basin is that giant sucking sound” of California withdrawing water.

Widespread protection efforts are focused on native fish in the Colorado. The river once was home to an unusual number of endemic fish. But dams, irrigation, and the introduction of bullhead, carp, and catfish did them in. While the upper basin still has 14 native fish species, the lower basin, according to one study, “has the dubious distinction of being among the few major rivers of the world with an entirely introduced fish fauna.”

The Colorado pike minnow — something of a misnomer for a fish that historically grew to 6 feet in length and weighed up to 80 pounds — once swam through the entire system from Wyoming to Mexico. It is now listed as endangered, with two distinct populations remaining in the upper Colorado and the Green River.

The humpback chub lived in various canyon sections, and though once seriously endangered, it has fared better in recent years through transplantation efforts, growing from 2,000 to 3,000 fish to 11,000. Officials say it may soon be taken off the endangered list.

Beginnings. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Razorback suckers, once common, are now rare. The bonytail, a type of chub that is one of North America’s most endangered fish, no longer exists in the wild. A handful of these fish exist in hatcheries, and attempts are underway to restock them in the river throughout the basin.

Because of the Colorado’s extensive infrastructure, serious disruption of the river’s ecology is inevitable. Dams trap most of the river’s sediment in reservoirs, which means there is no material to rebuild beaches, sandbars, and important fish habitat downstream.

Dams also deprive the river downstream of nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, and stratify water temperatures. The native fish in the Colorado adapted to a wide range of temperatures, from cold to very warm. They also evolved to tolerate high flood flows along with extremely dry periods. Now, the water is cold in the summer for miles below the dams, and the humpback chub and other fish that had adapted to a range of water temperatures and flows suffer.

Something called hydro-peaking also has had serious impacts on the food web. Dams generate power according to demand. As people come home from work and switch on the stove, air conditioning, and lights, demand soars and dams release more water to produce power. “Prior to the construction of dams, there were almost no major daily changes in river levels,” said David Lytle, a professor of integrative biology at Oregon State University. When fluctuations in water levels occur, they “can interrupt the egg-laying practices of some species. It’s a serious problem.”

Insects lay their eggs just below the water level, and if levels drop rapidly it can dry them out. A recent study found that below the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, there was a complete absence of stoneflies, mayflies, and other species — insects that are vital food for fish, bats, birds, and other creatures.

Because of the ecological effects of the Glen Canyon Dam, the Grand Canyon stretch of the Colorado is one of the least productive sections of river in the world. The Colorado here will always be highly unnatural, a novel, human-created ecosystem with some natural elements.

Today, there is a large and growing backlash against dams in America and elsewhere as the immense damages they have inflicted on rivers become manifest. Few dams, though, are as reviled as the Glen Canyon, which was built in 1963 and took 17 years to fill Lake Powell.

Before the Glen Canyon was dammed, those who saw it say it was not unlike the Grand Canyon, with towering walls of red, tan, and ochre. Early Native American sites were plentiful. Environmental activist Edward Abbey decried the dam, and in his novel the Monkey Wrench Gang fantasized about using houseboats packed with explosives to blow it up. In 1981, members of Earth First!, a radical environmental group with a connection to Abbey, rolled a black plastic “crack” down the face of the dam to symbolize its demise.

Changes in the northeastern reaches of Lake Powell are documented in this series of natural-color images taken by the Landsat series of satellites between 1999 and 2017. The Colorado River flows in from the east around Mile Crag Bend and is swallowed by the lake. At the west end of Narrow Canyon, the Dirty Devil River joins the lake from the north. (At normal water levels, both rivers are essentially part of the reservoir.) At the beginning of the series in 1999, water levels in Lake Powell were relatively high, and the water was a clear, dark blue. The sediment-filled Colorado River appeared green-brown. To see the complete series go to: Photos via NASA

Removing the dam was part of the reason the Glen Canyon Institute was formed, but activists have now dropped that idea, says Rich Ingebretsen, a Salt Lake City physician who founded the group. Today, he advocates draining Lake Powell to fill Lake Mead, which is downstream and where the need for water is by far the greatest. The “Fill Mead First” campaign would restore a free-running Colorado River to what was once Lake Powell.

“You’d get much of Glen Canyon back,” said Ingebretsen. “A free-flowing river through the Grand Canyon means you’d restore the river — riparian zones, animals that belong there, a beautiful canyon with arches and bridges and waterfalls. Much of that would come back very quickly.” There would also be increased water in the river, he says, because so much of the Colorado is now lost from Lake Powell; scientists estimate that the lake loses three times Nevada’s allotment of water because of evaporation. As levels in Lake Mead drop due to prolonged drought, a growing number of people are taking this idea more seriously.

Paradoxically, two of the Colorado River’s most important wetlands for wildlife are the product of runoff from irrigated farm fields — and are now at risk from a changing climate and agreements to reduce water use.

In the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico, the 40,000-acre La Cienega de Santa Clara wetland was inadvertently created in the 1970s when U.S. officials built a canal to dispose of salty wastewater from agricultural fields in Arizona. As the water began spilling into the desert, myriad forms of life began to appear. Now its cattail-studded marshes and mudflats are considered one of the most important wetlands in North America, home to 280 species of birds — including the endangered Ridgeways rail — on what was once hard-baked desert.

Meanwhile, in California, the Salton Sea was once a shallow inland lake whose levels routinely fluctuated. In 1905, an effort to increase Colorado River flow into the Imperial Valley led farmers to allow too much river water into their irrigation canal, overwhelming their system; for two years the water poured into the 35-mile-long, 15-mile-wide Salton Sea and expanded it.

But as less water becomes available to agriculture and rising temperatures cause more water to evaporate, scientists are concerned that these wetlands will dry and shrink faster than they already have. A 2003 agreement, for example, allows agricultural water in the Imperial Valley to be sent to San Diego for municipal uses. That could cause water levels in the Salton Sea to drop by more than 40 percent, dramatically reducing bird habitat and increasing toxic dust because wetlands would dry out. Local, state, and federal officials have devised a plan — still not fully funded — to restore 15,000 acres of wetlands, at a cost of more than $700 million.

The largest project to restore some semblance of nature to the Colorado River, though, is in the delta. An unusual agreement in 2012 between the U.S. and Mexico, called Minute 319, mandated that the two countries would provide water and funding to revive sections of the delta and release a one-time pulse of 105,000 acre-feet to again connect the river to the delta temporarily. Scientists would then study the effects.

In 2014, for the first time in decades, the river flowed again in Mexico — for eight weeks. San Luis Rio Colorado — once a Colorado River town, but now a dusty desert settlement — became a river town for two months, to the delight of locals, many of whom had never seen the river. The pulse offered a glimpse of what reclamation efforts might look like. “It gave us an idea of how the river behaves, and the best sites for restoration,” said Zamora.

Martha Gomez-Sapiens, a monitoring team member and postdoctoral research associate in the UA Department of Geosciences, stands on a riverbank next to willows and cottonwoods that germinated as a result of the pulse flow. (Photo: Karl W. Flessa/UA Department of Geosciences)

Minute 319 and its 2017 replacement, Minute 323, have funded the restoration of sections of the river. A group of nonprofits — including the National Audubon Society, the Sonoran Institute, The Nature Conservancy, and a Mexican group called Pronatura Noroeste — is working on a project called Raise the River to revive a significant swath of the delta.

In 2008, the group secured rights to 1,200 acres along the desiccated river channel. Since then, local residents have torn out acres of salt cedar and planted irrigated fields of cottonwood, willow, and other endemic species — more than 200,000 trees in all. A small supply of water mandated by the treaty, along with excess water that flows off of irrigated fields, have been dedicated to the restoration.

On a recent visit, I joined Zamora and botanist Celia Alvarado on a short boat ride to Laguna Grande, a 6-mile section of restored river and estuary. We skimmed across still water the color of weak tea, minnows darting away from our paddles. Thick groves of cottonwoods and willows lined the river. Zamora remarked that bobcats and beaver lived there now, along with blue grosbeaks and yellow-billed cuckoos. “Impacting the target species is key,” he said.

And what about the jaguar? I asked. It has not returned, he said. Will it come back?

“Yes,” said Zamora, smiling. “Someday. If they allow me to introduce them.”

In Era of #Drought, Phoenix Prepares for a Future Without #ColoradoRiver Water — Yale 360 #COriver #aridification

A canal delivers water to Phoenix. Photo credit: Allen Best

Here’s a report from Jim Robbins writing for Yale 360. Click through and read the whole article and to check out the photo gallery (from Ted Wood). Here’s an excerpt:

Once criticized for being a profligate user of water, fast-growing Phoenix has taken some major steps — including banking water in underground reservoirs, slashing per-capita use, and recycling wastewater — in anticipation of the day when the flow from the Colorado River ends. Fourth in a series.

The Hohokam were an ancient people who lived in the arid Southwest, their empire now mostly buried beneath the sprawl of some 4.5 million people who inhabit modern-day Phoenix, Arizona and its suburbs. Hohokam civilization was characterized by farm fields irrigated by the Salt and Gila rivers with a sophisticated system of carefully calibrated canals, the only prehistoric culture in North America with so advanced a farming system.

Then in 1276, tree ring data shows, a withering drought descended on the Southwest, lasting more than two decades. It is believed to be a primary cause of the collapse of Hohokam society. The people who had mastered farming dispersed across the landscape.

The fate of the Hohokam holds lessons these days for Arizona, as the most severe drought since their time has gripped the region. But while the Hohokam succumbed to the mega-drought, the city of Phoenix and its neighbors are desperately scrambling to avoid a similar fate — no easy task in a desert that gets less than 8 inches of rain a year.

“We are fully prepared to go into Tier 1, 2, and 3 emergency,” said Kathryn Sorensen, Phoenix’s water services director, referring to federally mandated cutbacks of Colorado River water as the levels of Lake Mead, the source of some of the city’s water, continue to drop. And what of the dreaded “dead pool,” the point at which the level in the giant man-made lake falls so low that water can no longer be pumped out?

“I can survive dead pool for generations,” says Sorensen, pointing to a host of conservation and water storage measures that have significantly brightened the city’s water outlook in an era of climate change and drought.

These days, Phoenix’s alternative water supplies are not dependent on the Colorado. But there’s a caveat. Phoenix may have enough water to secure its near-term future, but it still needs to build $500 million of infrastructure to pipe it to northern parts of the city that now rely on Colorado River water. And Phoenix may need the water sooner than it planned. “You could hit dead pool in four years,” Sorensen said. “That’s worst case.”

Many cities and towns in the Southwest — including Los Angeles, San Diego, and Albuquerque — are trying to figure out solutions to a dwindling Lake Mead, the key reservoir on the Colorado. One of the most ambitious efforts is a new $1.35 billion, 24-foot-wide tunnel — the so-called Third Straw — that Las Vegas drilled at the very bottom of Lake Mead to function like a bathtub drain. Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water from the Colorado via the lake, which is located just east of the gambling and tourist mecca. In 2000, as the lake’s level dropped, the city placed a second, deeper straw to replace the original outtake. As the region moved into its second consecutive decade of drought and lake levels continued to drop, Las Vegas officials got more nervous and the third straw was completed in 2015; it should continue to siphon off water unless the lake dries up completely.

In Arizona, the modern equivalent of the Hohokam irrigation system is the 17-foot-deep and 80-foot-wide concrete aqueduct called the Central Arizona Project, which carries water from the Colorado River to Phoenix, Tucson, and elsewhere. It was a feat of engineering when it was finished in 1993, snaking across the sere desert landscape for 336 miles as it pumps water up 2,900 feet in elevation. So much power is needed to flush this water along its route that the massive coal-fired Navajo Generating Plant was built to provide it.

Supplying enough water to sustain a city this size in the desert has long been controversial, and as Phoenix and its neighbors continue their unrelenting sprawl — Arizona’s population has more than tripled in the past 50 years, from 1.8 million in 1970 to 7.2 million today — the state has often been regarded as the poster child for unsustainable development. Now that Colorado River water appears to be drying up, critics are voicing their “I told you so’s.”

That’s a bad rap though, at least for Phoenix, according to Sorensen. The city is prepared to carry on with business as usual even if the last of the Colorado River water evaporates into the desert sky, depriving Phoenix of 40 percent of its water supply. City officials have been busy planning for this eventuality, and much of the responsibility for that has fallen to Sorensen.

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

As she stands behind her large desk on the 9th floor of the municipal building in the heart of downtown Phoenix, surrounded by windows that look out on glass office towers gleaming in the desert sun, Sorensen deftly handles questions about the city’s water future. On her desk sits a crystal ball, a joke gift that she says she wishes was real. She’s proud of the work she has done since she was appointed in 2013 — before that she served four years as head of Mesa, Arizona’s water department — although she admits it has been a challenge.

The Phoenix Water Services Department is one of the nation’s largest, with 1.5 million customers spread out across 540 square miles. It maintains 7,000 miles of water lines and 5,000 miles of sewer lines.

The Salt River is the single biggest source of water for metro Phoenix, and provides about 60 percent of its needs. It is a large desert river, some 200 miles long, that begins at the confluence of the snow-fed White and Black rivers, is joined by a series of perennial, spring-fed streams, and then meets the Verde River east of Phoenix.

Just after the turn of the 20th century, the first of four dams was constructed on the Salt for a growing Phoenix, and today those reservoirs are Phoenix’s main water supply. However, Phoenix’s north side gets only Colorado River water, and should that source dry up one day, constructing infrastructure to connect north Phoenix to new sources of water would cost a half-billion dollars. Funding for such a project would hardly be a fait accompli; in late December, the Phoenix City Council rejected a water rate increase to pay for the infrastructure expansion. The Salt and Gila rivers also may someday be severely impacted by climate change. “They could be affected by a mega-drought,” said Andrew Ross, a sociology professor at New York University and author of Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City. “They are in the bullseye of global warming, too.” Perennial streams could dry up and snowfall in Arizona’s White Mountains could dwindle, as it has done in the Rockies, further depriving the rivers of a steady supply of water.

Beyond the Salt River, Phoenix has undertaken some innovative water strategies. Among the first of these was the Arizona Water Bank. California is entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of water a year from the Colorado, but because Arizona was not using its full allotment of 2.8 million acre-feet, its excess water was being slurped up by a perpetually thirsty California. So the water bank, a unique system of underground storage, was created in 1996 as a way to store Colorado River water that the state couldn’t use, rather than letting it flow through to California. It turned out to be a prescient move, but not for the reason it was created. In that era, few people foresaw the crash of the Colorado River system.

Arizona has since created seven water banks, largely in empty underground aquifers. A series of large pools has been built above the aquifers and, as water is pumped into them, it slowly leaches through a layer of gravel and rock and fills the aquifer. So far the water banks have cost the state $330 million, storing 3.6 million acre-feet in 28 sites across three counties — more than a year’s worth of Colorado River water.

One of the largest water banks is 40 miles west of Phoenix near the tiny town of Tonopah, Arizona. The nearly $20 million facility has 19 infiltration basins covering more than 200 acres. It was constructed alongside the Central Arizona Project canal, and a pipe delivers 300 cubic-feet-per-second of Colorado River water a day to fill the basins.

In addition, other aquifers underneath Phoenix are brimming with 90 million acre-feet of water, some natural and some pumped in — enough to last the city for years. One problem is that much of it is contaminated, both from natural sources of arsenic and chromium and from the city’s many Superfund sites, which include manufacturing sites polluted by industrial solvents and unlined landfills that contain hazardous waste. But Sorensen dismisses the cleanup challenges as surmountable. “As long as the contamination isn’t nuclear, we can fix it,” she says. “What matters here is that the water is wet.”

Phoenix also recycles almost every bit of wastewater that journeys through its system. The vast majority of it — more than 20 billion gallons of recycled water a year — goes to cool the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant. Another 30,000 acre-feet is traded to an irrigation district as gray water to use on agricultural fields and the district, in turn, sends potable water from the Salt River to the city.

And the city is working on “toilet-to-tap” technology aimed at someday making sewage water so clean it will be drinkable. The technology for recycling wastewater into drinking water exists, but is only used in a few places, including San Diego. Arizona says it will play a role in its water supply some day — if, that is, the city can sell the idea to consumers.

Desalinization of seawater has long been floated as a possibility for Arizona, and much of the U.S. Southwest, and officials say it too will be part of Arizona’s water mix — someday. The process, which forces water through an extremely fine filter, is energy-intensive, extremely expensive, and a major environmental problem because of the waste it generates. Nonetheless, Arizona sits on top of 600 million acre-feet of brackish water, and officials have also considered treating water from the Gulf of California, nearly 200 miles to the southwest.

For now, though, Phoenix appears to have positioned itself well for a new era of drought. Sorensen credits the people of Phoenix for adapting to the desert by using far less water per capita. “We’ve decoupled growth from water,” she said. “We use the same amount of water that we did 20 years ago, but have added 400,000 more people.” In 2000, Some 80 percent of Phoenix had lush green lawns; now only 14 percent does. The city has done this by charging more for water in the summer. Per capita usage has declined 30 percent over the last 20 years. “That’s a huge culture change,” Sorensen says.

In fact, the decoupling of water from growth through conservation has taken place throughout the Lower Colorado Basin. “Actual municipal water use across the basin, with the exception of Utah, is declining, even as population rises,” said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program. “Albuquerque has built its long-range plan around conserving more than its demand for decades to come, and Las Vegas’ demonstration of its ability to use less water is stunning.”

But while Phoenix and Las Vegas are pursuing conservation strategies as a partial solution to the withering of the Colorado River, others entities in the region aren’t. Much of conservative Arizona is in denial about what the potential drying of the West may mean, if they recognize it at all. “We’re just starting to acknowledge the volatile water reality,” said Kevin Moran, senior director of western water for the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re just starting to ask the adaptation questions.” Ross, of New York University, argues that the biggest problem for Arizona is not climate change, but the denial of it, which keeps real solutions — such as reining in unsustainable growth or the widespread deployment of solar energy in this sun-drenched region — from being considered. “How you meet those challenges and how you anticipate and overcome them is not a techno-fix problem,” he said, “It’s a question of social and political will.”

So, for now, Arizona’s rampant growth continues. To the west of Phoenix a new tech city is emerging. Mt. Lemmon Holdings, a subsidiary of computer magnate Bill Gates’s investment firm, Cascade Holdings, has plans to built a “smart city,” for example, on the outskirts of Phoenix near the town of Buckeye. The new city, on 24,000 acres — about the same size as Paris — would have infrastructure for self-driving cars, hi-tech factories, and high-speed public wi-fi.

Meanwhile, the so-called Sun Corridor — 120 miles of Sonoran Desert between Phoenix and Tucson — is seen as the state’s next burgeoning megalopolis. It’s one of the fastest-growing regions in the country and its population of more than 5.5 million — anchored by Phoenix in the northwest and Tucson to the southeast — is expected to double by 2040.

And what about the water for this growth? Under state law, a developer must prove it has a 100-year supply for any new housing development. The primary solution for that has been for the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District to fill or replenish aquifers where growth is planned — and the source for that is the precarious Colorado River water.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The reality, though, is that all of these well-intentioned measures may fall far short of being able to cope with a full-blown climate crisis. Someday the desert may reclaim what has been built here — as it did with the Hohokam.

Whether that unfolds remains to be seen. By Ross’s reckoning, the withering of Arizona will not be uniform, and those most affected will be the people least able to find alternatives, such as impoverished communities in South Phoenix.

“The well-resourced communities in the northeast are well set up,” for a drier future, said Ross. “And there are communities like South Phoenix that have been poisoned for decades that are not. It’s obvious who is going to suffer the most when the shortage really hits.”

“Here, we are all looking at Cape Town in shock,” said Taylor Hawes, of the Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River program, referring to the crisis last year when that South African city appeared on the brink of running out of water. “We’re not that far from that if things go south.”

@SenatorBennet and @RepJoeNeguse introduce the CORE act to promote and protect #publiclands

Here’s the release from Senator Bennet’s office:

On Friday, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) and U.S. Representative Joe Neguse (D-CO-2) attended the Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show, where they toured the floor, met with Outdoor Industry Association’s recreation advisory council, and convened stakeholders from across the state to celebrate the introduction of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act. At the event, the Outdoor Industry Association announced its official endorsement of the legislation.

“Outdoor Industry Association is one hundred percent in support of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act because it would protect nearly half a million acres of public lands across Colorado and support the state’s $28 billion outdoor recreation economy while honoring its history in protecting Camp Hale, the origin of the 10th mountain division during WWII,” said Amy Roberts, Executive Director of Outdoor Industry Association. “We cannot be prouder of Senator Michael Bennet and our own congressman, Congressman Joe Neguse, for their leadership in supporting this legislation. We hope it gets done soon!”

“The name of the bill says it all: We don’t have to choose between protecting public lands and boosting the economy,” said Bennet. “Coloradans reject that idea. We believe protecting the places we love drives economic growth. Congressman Neguse and I are grateful for the diligence and compromise of communities across Colorado that created this legislation over the last ten years. It’s a testament to their work that the Outdoor Retailer show takes place in Colorado and that the Outdoor Industry Association now supports the CORE Act.”

“Outdoor recreation in Colorado employs over 500,000 workers and brings in $10 billion in wages for our state’s economy,” said Neguse. “When we invest in our public lands, we invest in our economy and the health and well-being of people and outdoor recreation across our state. I’m grateful for the support of many outdoor businesses for championing the CORE Act and enabling us to stand up for the public lands that make us who we are as Coloradans.”

The CORE Act protects approximately 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado, establishing new wilderness areas and safeguarding existing outdoor recreation opportunities to boost the economy for future generations. Of the land protected, about 73,000 acres are new wilderness areas, and nearly 80,000 acres are new recreation and conservation management areas that preserve existing outdoor uses, such as hiking and mountain biking. The bill also includes a first-of-its-kind National Historic Landscape to honor Colorado’s military legacy and prohibits new oil and gas development in areas important to ranchers and sportsmen.

More information is available at

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Joel L. Evans):

While the CORE Act itself is new, it draws from four previously introduced bills going back years and relating specifically to the Continental Divide and Camp Hale, the San Juan Mountains, the Thompson Divide, and the Curecanti National Recreation Area.

Recreation groups, sportsmen, conservationists, governments, businesses, landowners, and other interested parties have worked together to discuss the issues and craft the language of the bill.

Packaged together as one bill, Sen. Bennet and Congressman Neguse summarized the four proposals in this way:

The Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness, and Camp Hale Legacy Act, which establishes permanent protections for nearly 100,000 acres of wilderness, recreation, and conservation areas in the White River National Forest along Colorado’s Continental Divide. It also designates the first-ever National Historic Landscape around Camp Hale to preserve and promote the 10th Mountain Division’s storied legacy.

The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act provides permanent protections for nearly 61,000 acres of land located in the heart of the San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado. It designates some of the state’s most iconic peaks as wilderness, including two 14ers: Mount Sneffels and Wilson Peak.

The Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act protects the Thompson Divide—one of Colorado’s most treasured landscapes — by withdrawing approximately 200,000 acres from future oil and gas development, while preserving existing private property rights for leaseholders and landowners. It also creates a program to lease excess methane from nearby coal mines, supporting the local economy and addressing climate change.

The Curecanti National Recreation Area (NRA) Boundary Establishment Act formally establishes the boundary for the Curecanti NRA. Although created in 1965, the boundary has never been designated by Congress, limiting the ability of the National Park Service to effectively manage the area. The bill improves coordination among land management agencies and ensures the Bureau of Reclamation upholds its commitment to expand public fishing access in the basin…

According to the bill’s sponsors “the bill permanently withdraws around 200,000 acres in the Thompson Divide near Carbondale and Glenwood Springs from future oil and gas development, while preserving existing private property rights for leaseholders and landowners” and “creates a program to lease and generate energy from excess methane in existing or abandoned coal mines in the North Fork Valley — supporting the local economy and addressing climate change”.

Running Dry: New Strategies for Conserving Water on the #ColoradoRiver — Yale 360 #COriver #aridification

The Government Highline Canal, in Palisade. The Government Highline Canal near Grand Junction. The Grand Valley Water Users Association, which operates the canal, has been experimenting with a program that pays water users to fallow fields and reduce their consumptive use of water. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Here’s a report from Jim Robbins writing for Yale 360. Click through to view the great photo gallery from Arizona:

Communities along the Colorado River are facing a new era of drought and water shortages that is threatening their future. With an official water emergency declaration now possible, farmers, ranchers, and towns are searching for ways to use less water and survive. Third in a series.

From the air, the Grand Valley Water Users Association canal — 10 feet wide and 8 feet deep — tracks a serpentine 55-mile-long path across the mountain-ringed landscape of Mesa County, Colorado. It’s a line that separates parched, hard-baked desert and an agricultural nirvana of vast peach and apple orchards and swaying fields of alfalfa.

The future of this thin brown line that keeps the badlands of the Colorado desert at bay, however, is growing more uncertain by the day.

Since 2000, the snow that blankets the Colorado Rockies each winter — the source of most of the river’s water — has tapered off considerably. Last year it was less than half of normal. So far, the farmers here have gotten their share of water, but this year could bring the first emergency declaration by water administrators. That would mean that some “junior” water users — those whose allocations came later — may have to forego their share in favor of senior users.

The nearly two decades of low snowpack is being called a drought, and tree rings show it’s the most severe in over 1,200 years. The term drought, however, implies it will end someday. But there are serious questions about whether this is a drought or a permanent drying of the West due to a changing climate.

Few doubt that things are building toward crisis. Last year junior water users on the Yampa River, a tributary to the Colorado, were forced to face the new reality when officials ordered them to stop taking their allocated water and allow it to flow to senior users downstream. In places, the river channel was dry; fishing and float trips were also halted.

As things get tighter throughout the Colorado River Basin, irrigators, who control 80 percent of the water on the river, fully expect others to come looking for their water. One place that has been preparing a strategy to try and head off a raid on its water is in Mesa County in western Colorado.

“There is not an active attack on our water at this time,” said Mark Harris, general manger of the Grand Valley Water Users Association and a farmer himself, as we walked along a row of peaches in a sea of orchards near Palisade, Colorado. “But we do have a huge target on our back. The crisis will require draconian measures that will savage ag. If municipalities run out of sanitary water or fire water, those steps are going to have to be taken.”

Bicycling the Colorado National Monument, Grand Valley in the distance via

The Grand Valley Water Users Association was founded in 1905 as part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It operates the canal, as well as 150 miles of pipe and open ditch that carry water to a little more than 23,000 acres of land. Without water to service this network — and with only 9 annual inches of precipitation — a new dust bowl could be in the offing.

Water law in the West is based on something called the Prior Appropriation Doctrine, or “first in time, first in line.” While water is a public asset, rights to it were promised to those who came West to homestead, ranch, and grow crops in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They have the most senior rights, and these are considered private property rights, enshrined in law. The rights of cities and towns are usually junior to these senior rights, and junior users stand to lose out first if cutbacks are mandated. However, cities and towns have considerable political and economic heft, especially in metropolitan areas in the Lower Basin, such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. The fear is that the policy of “first in time, first in line” could be discarded in a time of emergency and replaced with one that adheres to a different adage — “water flows uphill toward money.”

The water that many farmers and ranchers use on the Colorado is now cheap. Senior users like those in the Grand Valley pay from $25 to $50 for an irrigated acre for the season. A hundred acres of, say, alfalfa, the single largest crop along the river, needs up to 2 feet of water per acre. Water to irrigate for the season then, would cost the farmer about $2,500 to $5,000. The net profit from the hay is about $300 an acre, so the farmer would make about $30,000 on the 100 acres after costs.

Roller Dam near Palisade. Photo credit: Hutchinson Water Center

Currently water is selling on the open market for about $200 to $250 an acre-foot for a season, well above what farmers in the Grand Valley are paying. The rules of the Grand Valley Water Users Association do not permit separating water from the land; but if the exigencies of the drought were to cause the rules to change, on today’s market the value of the water from those 100 acres would be worth about $40,000 for a season. In that case, farmers could make more money selling their water rights than by continuing to farm. And if the crisis were to deepen and junior users such as the city of Denver were to lose their water and needed to look elsewhere, the lease price of an acre-foot for the season could go as high as $1,000, some experts say. That would mean farmers could make $100,000 annually by selling their water rights and fallowing their 100 acres.

“We don’t want an unfettered free market for water,” said Harris. “That would be a disaster,” with a range of unintended consequences.While many farmers could do well financially in the advent of a crisis, those who continued farming would see their neighbors start to disappear as farms and ranches were abandoned. And if the crisis was prolonged or permanent, and more and more water was siphoned off to cities, it could threaten the very existence of farming communities around the basin.

It’s happened on a large scale before — most famously in California in the Owens River north of Los Angeles in the early 1900s, as depicted in the fictional 1974 film “Chinatown.” William Mulholland, head of the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water, secretly began buying up ranch and farmland with water rights along the Owens River in the eastern Sierras. Officials then built an aqueduct and piped that water to Los Angeles to fuel the city’s growth. The Owens Valley is now mostly arid.

Beyond the impact on the rural social fabric, dewatering agricultural areas in the Colorado Basin would cause other serious problems, from reducing food security, to less open space if the land were developed for housing, which would release the carbon sequestered in farm fields and eliminate wildlife habitat.

That’s why places like the Grand Valley are taking unprecedented measures. “It’s time for preparation,” said Harris. “Preparation not panic, it’s a delicate balance.”

The Grand Valley Water Users Association has partnered with The Nature Conservancy, which is taking a lead role in helping agricultural interests find ways to survive the future, here in Mesa County and elsewhere in the Colorado River Basin.

In the last several years, an array of projects has been initiated around the basin — from western Colorado, to central and southern Arizona, to the upper Green River of Wyoming, to the borderlands of Mexico — to try to find solutions and, if they work, scale them up all along the Colorado. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has helped create a water bank here in the Grand Valley. Under a two-year pilot program, some farmers are paid to fallow their land — not grow anything on it — and leave the water they would have used in the river.

So far, Grand Valley farmers have fallowed 2,200 acres, which has enabled them to leave 6,000 acre-feet of water flowing in the Colorado. They were compensated for the loss of their crops, plus paid a premium for participating. Saving that water also helped the local irrigation district meet its obligations under the Endangered Species Act to protect fish by keeping more water in the river.

Grand Valley Irrigation Canal. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

“We created a contract between all these states and Mexico that the hydrology doesn’t support,” said Taylor Hawes, head of the Colorado River program for The Nature Conservancy, referring to the 1922 Colorado River Compact which governs the allocation of water. “Ag and the environment will be the big losers if things continue, so we’re creating a more flexible system that adapts to the reality of our hydrology. Our goal is that whatever solutions we come up with for people also work for nature.”

The states of the compact are also working to find solutions. The Upper Basin states — Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming — have instituted a multi-faceted conservation program that tests ways to reduce water use, including fallowing land with compensation, irrigating crops with less water, and cutting back on municipal water use. The Lower Basin states — Nevada, Arizona, and California — are funding a host of initiatives; the city of Needles, California, for example, was given $500,000 to tear up sod at the city golf course and install drought-tolerant landscaping.

The Lower Basin states are also working on a Drought Contingency Plan. As drought conditions continue to worsen, they are coming up with ways to voluntarily give up hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water to keep Lake Mead, the key reservoir on the Colorado, above crisis levels. This would avoid the imposition of an officially declared emergency, which would force these states to make even larger cuts.

In Arizona’s Verde Valley, between Phoenix and Flagstaff, a different approach is being used. The Verde River is small, but a rare perennial desert river, borne of mountain springs in Arizona’s central highlands — a true oasis. It’s a tributary to the Salt River, which flows into the Gila River and on to the Colorado. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of desert rivers like this to biodiversity — 90 percent of all wildlife in deserts is found within a mile of a river. It’s also a critical water source for metro Phoenix.

A decade ago, The Nature Conservancy’s Kim Schonek came to the Verde Valley to work with local farmers to improve the river’s flow. The meandering, cottonwood tree-lined river is home to several endangered species, including the southwestern willow flycatcher and the loach minnow and spike dace, desert fish that are adapted to natural flows.

The project’s goal is to keep the flows no lower than at least 30 cubic feet per second or so, about a third of its natural level, but high enough to protect species. “We’re trying to re-establish the natural flow regime to the Verde,” says Schonek. “At that level, you have water in all your riffles and no stagnant pools, and that’s good for fish.”

The Nature Conservancy raised money from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo Recycling, Boeing, and other companies in Phoenix, as well as the city itself, all of which get water from the Verde and who have a stake in a more secure supply. With this funding, they are doing things such as updating irrigation technology to keep more water in the river.

Some of the fixes were simple. There were old-fashioned hand-cranked headgates along the river that farmers used to open or close by turning a wheel on top. Notoriously inefficient, the whole flow of the river was often diverted, and sections were inadvertently dried up for miles. The cantankerous headgates have been replaced with $40,000 electronic ones that neither the farmers nor the ditch companies could afford on their own.

Verde River near Clarkdale along Sycamore Canyon Road. Photo credit: Wikimedia

“I used to have to go out at 2 in the morning and close that gate,” said Claudia Hauser, whose family has the largest agricultural holdings in the valley and has partnered with The Nature Conservancy to conserve water. “Now I can do it from the house with my phone.”

Other strategies have been more challenging. The Hausers are part of an experiment to swap out 144 acres of alfalfa and replace it with barley. Not only does barley use about half the water of alfalfa, it uses that water in the spring when the flows are high and doesn’t take water out of the river during critical summer periods. The Nature Conservancy has also raised money to build a small barley malting facility, Sinagua Malt, to get the malt ready for beer brewers. Local breweries have snapped up this malt and use it for their beer, and the fact that it is helping save the Verde has become a marketing point. “It’s the essence of naturalism and conservation that truly excites this brewery!” the Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company boasts on its homepage.

Zach and Heather Hauser — part of the same Verde Valley farm family as Claudia — have also removed a field of alfalfa that was nourished by flood irrigation and replaced it with a higher value pecan orchard, using micro-jets that spray water in a circle around each tree. It was paid for by one of the project’s corporate donors. It not only saves a good deal of water, it’s better for the orchard than flooding and creates a more uniform crop. “Alfalfa is a huge issue for the West,” says Schonek, “because so much is grown and it takes so much water.”

The funding has also allowed the Hausers to install drip irrigation to raise their watermelons and their locally-renowned sweet corn — so good, it’s said, that many people eat it raw — with a lot less water.

SIEP Project design via United Water and Sanitation

The city of Phoenix, which sources water from the Salt and the Verde, is contributing to these conservation initiatives. It pays for forest thinning to prevent wildfires so the river won’t be inundated with post-fire ash and mud and become unusable for the city’s water supply.

The efforts here are paying off. “We floated the river all year this year,” said Schonek, noting the increase in the flow from the conservation measures. “You couldn’t have done that five years ago.”

Groundwater, too, is an issue that environmentalists are looking to address along the Colorado and its tributaries. The Nature Conservancy has a groundwater-focused project in southern Arizona to protect the San Pedro, the longest undammed free-flowing river in the Southwest and home to an astonishing array of biodiversity: nearly 400 bird species, several dozen reptile and amphibian species, 84 mammal species, including jaguars, and a suite of terrestrial and aquatic endangered species. The San Pedro — one of only two major rivers that flow north out of Mexico into the United States — flows into the Gila, a major tributary to the Colorado.

Groundwater pumping for homes and farms are reducing the San Pedro’s flows so that some sections of the river have dried up, which is impacting biodiversity. Among other strategies, The Nature Conservancy has, with partners, purchased properties that capture stormwater runoff and funnel it into zones where it can seep into the ground and recharge groundwater supplies.

“The important thing now,” said Hawes of The Nature Conservancy, “is to look for innovative ways to reduce demand and learn to live within our water budget.”