Federal pressure mounts as states attempt to break #ColoradoRiver standoff — KUNC #COriver #aridification

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 KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:

The federal government has asked them to weigh in on tweaks to how the river is managed, and could force water cutbacks if states can’t come up with their own plan to reduce demand before February. That’s no small task for states deadlocked in a years-long standoff over how to cut back demand on a river that supplies 40 million people and a multibillion-dollar agricultural sector. Each of those states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California — each bring a varied set of interests and motivations to the negotiating table to ensure any cutbacks don’t hit them harder than the rest…The Bureau of Reclamation will investigate plans for future releases regardless of whether the states agree on their own plan for cutbacks, and says the states “imposed an unofficial deadline on themselves for January 31, 2023, to ensure that their ideas were included in the draft SEIS process.”

“The notion of a certain date for states to submit their plans was the result of the states’ own recognition of the timing constraints of the supplemental process,” wrote Tyler Cherry, a Department of Interior spokesperson, in an email to KUNC. “States’ contributions to the process began during the scoping period and will continue throughout the comment period.”

[…]

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)

Sources tell KUNC that delegates from the seven states have met in Colorado in recent days to hash out a deal, but the details of that meeting have been kept behind closed doors, and experts don’t see an obvious outcome. Negotiations are difficult — and have been for decades — because of the river’s diverse user base and complex, multi-layered governance system. While the river supplies major cities such as Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, 80% of its water is used for agriculture. Farmers in southern California have some of the oldest, and most protected water rights in the Colorado River Basin.

“What you’re talking about are people’s livelihoods and farmers’ livelihoods,” said John Berggren, a water policy analyst at the conservation group Western Resource Advocates. “If you’re an irrigator or a rancher or a farmer, your water is your most important asset.”

#Colorado should kick lawns to the curb: The billions of gallons of fresh #water that goes to grass is an egregious misuse of resources — #Colorado Newsline

Thornton home and lawn 2019. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the opinion piece on the Colorado Newsline website (Sammy Herdman):

Over the course of the next seven years, an average 35,000 housing units will be built each year in Colorado. If past trends persist, around 70% of those housing units will be single-family homes. From Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, it’s likely that Coloradans will see more single-family suburban developments popping up — and with them, lawns.

Conventional grass lawns ornament the vast majority of American homes, covering three times as much surface area as irrigated cornfields in the United States. Although lawns are often purely aesthetic, sometimes they are chosen for their durability; lawns hold up against cleats, dogs and kids. Lawns used frequently for games and playtime are easy to justify, especially when they are public.

But there are far too many cropped, green lawns that are neglected until a weed sprouts up or it’s time to mow. Too many lawns exist just for the sake of being maintained.

Despite covering 2% of land in the U.S., most grasses can’t survive in the West’s arid climate without constant watering. In Denver, about half of the water used by the average single-family home is devoted to lawn care. Combined with the water sprinkled onto parks, medians and golf courses, a whopping 25% of Denver’s municipal water is devoted to lawns.

Considering that the Western U.S. is in the midst of the most severe drought in a millennium, allocating billions of gallons of fresh water to grass seems like an egregious misuse of resources. The drought is so dire that the Colorado River, which provides 40 million people across the Western U.S. with water, has shrunk by 20% over the past 20 years.

Native solitary bee. Photo: The Xerces Society / Rich Hatfield

Lawn maintenance is also a threat to Colorado’s pollinators and public health. Americans use approximately 70 million pounds of pesticides to maintain lawns each year. Of the 30 most common lawn pesticides, more than half are probable or possible carcinogens, and many of them are linked with birth defects, neurotoxicity, kidney damage, liver damage and more.

In Colorado cities and towns, such as Colorado Springs, the glyphosate-based herbicide known as Roundup is sprayed on lawns in public parks, despite being a possible carcinogen. Lawn pesticides and fertilizers commonly run off into lakes, streams and groundwater, wreaking havoc on aquatic ecosystems and polluting drinking water. Pollinators, which are on the decline globally and in Colorado, are harmed when lawn pesticides contain neonicotinoid chemicals. Insecticides aimed at lawn pests don’t spare bees and butterflies.

Lawn equipment also contributes to the climate crisis and the Front Range’s bad air quality. According to the EPA, in just one year, gas-powered lawn and garden equipment produced more than 20 million tons of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Even more emissions are created when lawn clippings are disposed of in landfills. In the Front Range, gas-powered lawn and garden equipment contribute as much as one-fifth of the region’s ozone pollution.

Landscaping alternatives better suited to Colorado do exist. Replacing lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping — termed xeriscaping by Denver Water — can reduce water usage by 30-80%. Replacing lawns with native plants can reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizers. Growing native plants also patches together habitat for dwindling pollinator populations.

Colorado is a state defined by mountainous vistas, natural landscapes and abundant wildlife. Its residents are outdoor enthusiasts and free-thinkers, demonstrably not afraid to break the mold (consider the legalization of marijuana, the decriminalization of psychedelics). Yet many of Colorado’s yards exhibit a custom justified primarily by tradition and peer pressure.

Some cities, such as Aurora and Castle Rock, have passed ordinances to limit new lawns. However, statewide and in Denver, little to no progress has been made to incentivize xeriscaping.

Lawns are antithetical to the climate and character of Colorado. Colorado’s leaders should implement educational programs about alternative landscaping and introduce greater financial incentives for home-owners and developers to replace lawns.

As our state enters another year of drought, climate chaos and habitat loss, hopefully Colorado will kick lawns to the curb.

Discussion ready to roll on #CrystalRiver — #Aspen Daily News

An image of the Crystal River Valley from an EcoFlight mission in August 2022. The view is downvalley, toward Mount Sopris. A group is exploring a federal designation of wild and scenic for the Crystal River in Gunnison and Pitkin counties. Courtesy of Ecoflight

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Daily News website. Here’s an excerpt:

The effort to explore getting a federal designation of wild and scenic for the Crystal River is about to get turned up a notch. The Wild and Scenic Feasibility Collaborative announced Monday it has selected Wellstone Collaborative Strategies and P2 Solutions to facilitate and lead a community engagement and stakeholder process. American Whitewater, a national nonprofit that advocates for the preservation and protection of whitewater rivers, will support Wellstone in the administration of its outreach efforts…

Denver-based Wellstone Collaborative Strategies and Loveland-based P2 Solutions were selected for their experience and competence in facilitation and community engagement. Both Jacob Bornstein, founder and principal of Wellstone Collaborative Strategies, and Wendy Lowe, owner of P2 Solutions, have demonstrated exceptional facilitation skills and experience shepherding broad community conversations to successful outcomes, according to a statement from the selection committee, according to an announcement. The principals in the businesses have strong backgrounds in natural resource issues and direct knowledge of the Crystal River…

With a goal of identifying long-lasting river protection, the collaborative envisions the creation of a stakeholder group that would engage in fact finding, identification of overlapping interests and concerns, and a robust discussion of shared goals and strategies. The initial phase of the stakeholder process will bring together a representative cross section of interested individuals to provide informed input; examine, explore and investigate river protection; access and rely on experts in river and riparian health; engage experts to provide factual information relevant to protective designations; agree upon rules of engagement; be a process grounded in the highest integrity and inclusiveness; and result in identification of shared principles for protection of the Crystal River.

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

#ColoradoRiver District considers criteria for water conservation program: Contracts approved only if no new projects take water to Front Range — @AspenJournalism

A herd of elk feast on a sprinkler-irrigated meadow in the Starwood subdivision. The area is irrigated with water from Hunter Creek via Red Mountain Ditch. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

A Western Slope water conservation district has released a draft of the rules it plans to use to guide a program paying water users to cut back.

The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District Board of Directors discussed the policy at its quarterly meeting this week. In December, the Upper Colorado River Commission unveiled details of a rebooted water conservation program, which originally ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid water users to use less Colorado River water.

Along with state officials, it will be up to the River District to approve or deny applications for the restarted program within its 15-county boundary, with the aim of preventing speculation and permanent damage to the Western Slope’s agricultural communities.

“While we didn’t come up with the idea of system conservation and certainly didn’t ever endorse the idea that $125 million should be made available for this particular system conservation program, we recognize that we need to act to protect our communities and our water supply here,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the River District.

According to the River District’s criteria, an applicant must prove saving water will not injure other water users. In a given year, no more than 30% of the land owned by a single person or entity can be dried up and no more than 30% of the irrigated land in any sub-basin can be dried up.

The policy says that Front Range water providers — which in total take about 500,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water each year across the Continental Divide to growing cities and for agriculture — must also contribute their fair share of water. The River District will only approve contracts so long as there are no new transmountain diversion projects or expansion of an existing TMD project — at all.

“We are not going to ask our water users to cut back when what that means is essentially making room for new transbasin diversions,” Mueller said.

The policy also recommends that if the farm operator is not the owner of the land, that 40% of the federal payments go to the operator.

“Should all the funds go to landowners and not the farm operators, we may see families leave the area or be forced to switch professions,” Mueller said. “That’s a real potential negative of a program like this.”

The restarted System Conservation Pilot Program — which the River District is referring to as just the System Conservation Program, dropping the “pilot” since it’s no longer new — will pay water users a starting price of $150 per acre-foot of saved water. It will be funded with $125 million of federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act. The deadline to submit applications is Feb. 1 and the UCRC expects to award contracts in March to begin conserving water during the 2023 irrigation season.

The goal of the SCP is to reduce Colorado River water use in the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) to lessen the impacts of long-term drought and depleted reservoirs. The program is one arm of the UCRC’s 5-Point Plan, released in July, which is aimed at protecting critical elevations at the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Fueled by a two-decade drought and climate change, the reservoirs have fallen to historically low levels, threatening the ability to make hydro-electric power at the dams. Upper basin water managers have called on the lower basin (California, Arizona and Nevada) to bear the brunt of the cuts needed to sustain the system, given that the lower basin regularly uses its full annual appropriation of Colorado River water, while the upper basin uses far less overall.

River District board members will provide feedback on the policy and could approve a final draft at a meeting in two weeks.

The original SCPP saved about 47,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of about $8.6 million over four years. UCRC officials have repeatedly said they cannot put a number on how much water they expect to be conserved in the new iteration of the program.

The UCRC held a webinar on Wednesday [January 15, 2022] to provide additional information to applicants and walk through the review process and timeline. According to UCRC Executive Director Chuck Cullom, the webinar had more than 120 participants.

Cullom said the UCRC, which has just three employees, will be looking to contractors and state leaders to get the program up and running.

“In order to engage in something as regionally diverse as system conservation requires a team,” he said. “So we are engaging with a consultant who will provide technical and administrative support work as well as the leadership and work from each of the four states.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.

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

Authorities scramble to entice paid, volunteer #water savings: Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin officials will accept ‘incomplete’ applications to jump-start participation in water #conservation program this spring — @WyoFile #COriver #aridification

he Green River meanders past irrigated ag land north of the town of Green River Sept. 27, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

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

Upper Colorado River Basin states, including Wyoming, are looking for agricultural irrigators, municipalities and other water users interested in a volunteer program that pays them to leave water in streams flowing to the troubled Colorado River.

But with just two weeks left to enroll in the System Conservation Pilot Program, water users still have myriad questions regarding eligibility, how water savings are measured and what participation in the program might mean to their operations. 

Given the short timeframe, the Upper Colorado River Commission, and the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, which oversees the program in Wyoming, are urging interested water users to submit project proposals by the Feb. 1 deadline, even if they’re unsure whether their water savings plans qualify.

“We can still take incomplete applications by Feb. 1, and we’ll work with you to complete those, finalize them and get you into the system,” UCRC Deputy Director Sara Larsen said during a public question-and-answer webinar Wednesday.

The UCRC staff, along with state-level water officials, will verify qualifications and otherwise help applicants complete their proposals — post-submission, if necessary — in order to enroll as many participants as possible, according to the commission.

Successful applicants for the 2023 program will be notified by the end of February.

Water conservation rush

The SCPP is one of five short-term strategies that Upper Colorado River Basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — have offered to help meet a challenge by federal officials to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water in the over-taxed system this year.

The UCRC announced a call for SCPP proposals Dec. 14 with a filing deadline of Feb. 1.

Lake Powell, just upstream from Glen Canyon Dam. At the time of this photo, in May 2021, Lake Powell was 34% full. (Ted Wood/The Water Desk)

The quick turn-around stems from intensifying drought conditions that helped drain Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado River — to historic lows this past summer, threatening water availability for some 40 million people who depend on the river. Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo announced drought response actions in May intended to maintain hydropower generation at Powell and Mead, which included taking extra releases from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border.

“More needs to be done as the system reaches critically low water levels,” Trujillo testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in June. “The system is at a tipping point.”

Though Wyoming and its upper basin partners didn’t commit specific water-saving volumes in response to the Interior Department’s call for conserving 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water this year, the UCRC put forth a 5-point plan. The SCPP is the first to be implemented.

This diagram shows water levels among major reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin as of Jan. 17, 2023. (Bureau of Reclamation)

“Upper [Colorado River Basin] states have made no commitment with regard to the number of [SCPP] projects or target volumes or anything other than adapting to the interest from willing partners among water users and tribes in the upper basin,” UCRC Executive Director Chuck Collum said during the Wednesday webinar.

Addressing the short turn-around for SCPP proposals, applications don’t “have to be perfect,” Collum said. “But it needs to be in the hopper [by Feb. 1] so we can work with you to refine it.”

The UCRC and Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, however, are not beginning from square one. Wyoming enrolled a couple dozen water users in the program’s initial iteration from 2015 through 2018, and found exponential interest among irrigators — particularly in the upper reaches of the Green River and its tributaries, according to state officials.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

How it works

To qualify for the SPCC in Wyoming, a water user must have a valid water right within the Little Snake or Green River basins and demonstrate that that right has been exercised in recent years, according to state officials. Participants are credited only for voluntary reductions of “consumptive use,” which is described as Colorado River-bound water “that can be estimated or measured,” according to the UCRC.

Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which receives water draining off 15,000 square miles of western Wyoming, was more than 30 feet below its maximum height in this December 2022 image. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

In the case of industrial and municipal water users, consumptive use is generally measured by determining how much water is diverted and not returned to the river system. Water reuse and recycling may qualify, however, according to the UCRC. For agricultural irrigation operations, consumptive use, generally, is measured by determining how much diverted water is consumed by crops. 

For example, an irrigator might divert 10 acre-feet of water but 2 acre-feet returns to the system. Water officials would credit the irrigator for volumes of water allowed to flow downstream that would otherwise normally have been consumed.

For now, the UCRC envisions a “fixed term” compensation of $150 per acre-foot of water under the SCPP in 2023, although it may consider higher rates based on circumstances, according to the agency’s request for proposals. The UCRC secured $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act to support the program — an amount that water officials say is more than enough to cover payments and expenses in 2023.

In the first iteration of the SCPP — from 2015 through 2018 — a total 23,886 acre-feet of water was conserved among 26 projects in Wyoming, according to a report by the upper basin commission. It paid water users a total $4,079,233 — about $171 per-acre foot.

Priority for SCPP proposals in 2023 will be given to “projects that are likely to mitigate impacts of the ongoing drought,” larger volumes of water to be conserved and the ability to verify water savings, according to the request for proposals.

Further details about how the program works in Wyoming and what qualifies can be found on the Colorado River Working Group’s website.

Ansel Adams The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the National Park Service. (79-AAG-1). By Ansel Adams – This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=118192

#Colorado nonprofit among winners of #ColoradoRiver scarcity challenge — @WaterEdCO #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 Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

A Colorado nonprofit is one of three winners of the national Colorado River Basin Water Scarcity Challenge, a philanthropic initiative to spur creative solutions to water shortages in the crisis-ridden, seven-state Colorado River system.

The Denver-based Colorado Water Trust will spend the next year working with Quantified Ventures developing new models for securing funds and identifying valuable water rights that can be used to help restore riparian areas, aid streams and maintain agricultural water uses.

Founded in 2002, the Colorado Water Trust partners with existing entities, such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board, as well as environmental and farm groups, to acquire or lease water rights, keeping that water in the streams to stretch the amount of water available for fish and the environment, irrigators and industry even during dry times.

Quantified Ventures is a finance and consulting company that specializes in developing sustainable solutions to environmental problems.

Across the American West, water users, government agencies, regulators and environmental groups are scrambling to find ways to save the river. Crippled by a megadrought thought to be the worst in 1,200 years, and shifts in climate that are reducing the mountain snows on which it relies, the river system is on the brink of collapse.

The Colorado River Basin Scarcity Challenge is funded by a $500,000 donation from the  Gates Family Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, according to Quantified Ventures spokesman Matt Lindsay. [Editor’s note: Fresh Water News is an initiative of Water Education Colorado which receives support from the Gates and Walton foundations.] Winners were announced Jan. 12.

“The Colorado River is facing an unprecedented crisis that requires innovative thinking and investment at an equally historic scale,” said Morgan Snyder, in a prepared statement. Snyder is senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation Environment Program. “Projects like these that move past outdated systems and instead find new ways to conserve, adapt, and become more resilient are essential to ensure a sustainable water supply for the millions who depend on the river.”

Kate Ryan, a senior attorney at the Colorado Water Trust, said winning the scarcity challenge will help her organization develop new relationships in the finance world and find ways to move more quickly in an arena in which deals can take years to finalize, allowing the water trust to accomplish more.

“This will allow us to become more nimble and potentially to meet new investors,” Ryan said. “We will also be looking at strategies for using water for additional sources of revenue, such as remarketing it downstream in a way that is complementary to our project partners. It will also help us recoup investment and turn that into operating revenue, or for funding new acquisitions or leases of water.”

The Tucson, Arizona-based Watershed Management Group is another winner. The Watershed Management Group will work with Quantified Ventures to develop new “green” infrastructure to improve the health of Tucson’s groundwater system, among other projects, with the goal of using less Colorado River water, according to Watershed Management Group’s Catlow Shipek.

“Our goal is to build hydro local resilience to reduce our dependence on Colorado River supplies,” Shipek said. “The idea is how do we restore our watershed but not at the expense of another watershed.”

The third winner, Ndrip, will use Quantified Ventures to evaluate how to increase the scale of its drip irrigation systems on tribal lands throughout the Colorado River Basin. Unlike other drip irrigation systems, Ndrip uses existing water distribution systems on farms and is gravity-based. These features help offset the high capital costs of more traditional drip irrigation systems, according to Ndrip’s website.

Ndrip, which has offices in Australia, Israel, South Africa and the U.S., could not be reached for comment.

Each of the scarcity challenge winners will spend roughly the next year with Quantified Ventures developing new solutions that will help improve the sustainability of the Colorado River system.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

On July 7, 2020, we closed our headgate that takes water from the Little Cimarron for irrigation. The water in the above photo will now bypass our headgate and return to the river. Photo via the Colorado Water Trust.

Want to solve #ClimateChange? This #California farm kingdom holds a key — The Los Angeles Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Southern California’s Imperial Valley. Ted Wood/The Water Desk

Click the link to read the article on The Los Angeles Times website (Sammy Roth). Here’s an excerpt:

…welcome to the Imperial Valley. Wedged in California’s southeastern corner, it’s one of the most important places you’ve probably never been. To one side of [Ralph] Strahm’s farm is the Sonoran Desert at its most stark, where creosote-studded washes give way to glimmering sand dunes and craggy mountain peaks. To the other side is an astonishingly productive agricultural empire. Nearly half a million acres of lush green fields sprawl into the distance, popping out lettuce, sugar beets, onions, cattle feed and more…

But keeping the vegetable aisle stocked comes at a cost. Imperial County farm barons use more Colorado River water than the rest of California combined. And as the planet heats up, there’s less and less water to go around…

Clean energy advocates see Imperial as an ideal place for solar farms and battery projects that can help solve the American West’s energy and water crises. The land is flat; the sunlight, abundant. The Colorado River desperately needs relief. And Imperial is one of California’s poorest counties, its agriculture-heavy economy practically crying out for diversification and higher-paying jobs But resistance to change runs deep, particularly among the few hundred families who own all the farmland. Agriculture is the only way of life many of them have known, and they’re raring to defend it. Their ancestors settled here a century ago, staking an early claim to the Colorado and carving canals to carry its riches through the desert. Again and again, they’ve faced pressure to sell water to coastal cities. They’re ready to pounce on anything that smells like a water grab. And to some of them, solar power smells like a water grab…

Lurking beneath these battles are urgent questions with no easy answers: What is the land’s best use? Who gets to decide? And how do we balance water conservation, food production and clean power generation in an era of climate emergency?

A solar farm off CO 17 in Alamosa County. The San Luis Valley produces 10 percent more power per solar panel than anywhere else in the state due to its base elevation of 7,500 feet and more days of sun than the Front Range and anywhere else in Colorado. Photo by Owen Woods via The Alamosa Citizen

“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.

Decoupling consumption from population on the Colorado River: Southwestern cities shrink their water footprint even as they grow — @Land_Desk

Wahweap Marina on Lake Powell at low water. Jonathan P. Thompson photo

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

When we think about the Colorado River water shortage, it’s natural to blame it on the burgeoning population in desert cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Too many people are sucking up too much water to keep their lawns green and their swimming pools full. And as more people move to these cities, their overall water consumption increases proportionally, putting more and more strain on the Colorado River system. 

This pattern held true for eight decades after the 1922 signing of the Colorado River Compact: The number of people relying on the river’s waters shot up from less than 1 million to nearly 40 million, and overall water consumption climbed consistently as well, peaking at just under 20 billion cubic meters in 2000.

Suffice it to say, the population has increased a bit in the last century and some. Though it has also decreased in some places: Morenci, Arizona, is now down to 1,500 people; Jerome, Arizona’s population is less than 500; Silverton, Colo., has also shrunk considerably to around 600 year rounders. Source: USGS, 1916.

But then, according to a new study in the Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management by Brian Richter, the pattern was broken. Even as the population of the region continued to shoot up, consumption of Colorado River water actually dropped and then plateaued. That is to say, water use and population growth were decoupled.  

Although the finding is counterintuitive, it won’t come as a surprise to those who have been paying close attention to the Colorado River. The crisis that has manifested over the past 20 years is rooted not in a constantly growing population, but in an already overtaxed river diminished by the most severe drought to hit the region in the last 1,800 years.

From Decoupling Urban Water Use from Population Growth in the Colorado River Basin, by Brian D. Richter. Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, Feb. 2023.

Richter’s study not only confirms that, but it also shows how, when faced with hard limits, we can reduce consumption and work toward more sustainable systems without compromising quality of life. 

Richter evaluated water use by 28 municipal utilities that collectively serve about 23 million people. More than half of them had reduced per capita water use enough to decrease total water deliveries by 18%, even as their populations grew by 24%. Albuquerque, Fort Collins, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Diego followed the trend. Perhaps the most impressive was the least expected: The Las Vegas metro area added nearly 1 million residents between 2000 and 2020, yet total water deliveries dropped by more than 40 million cubic meters, or 10%, during that same time. In other words, the land of conspicuous overconsumption cut per capita water consumption in half. 

While larger cities have been able to cut consumption while growing, mid-sized communities have guzzled and grown at the same time. Figures from Richter.

So does this mean that Las Vegans are suffering from perpetual dehydration? Have the golf courses turned to sand? Have the Bellagio fountains gone dry? Nope, (at least not yet). I’d bet most Las Vegans don’t even notice the difference in their own collective water use, though they might have sensed the gradual disappearance of ornamental turf around the city. Same goes for the other cities with big savings. 

That’s because they are realizing these consumption cuts not by rationing water, but by implementing system-wide efficiencies and incentives. New ornamental turf is banned in many of these places, for example, but folks are paid to remove the existing stuff. Same goes for switching to more efficient appliances. Most Las Vegas golf courses are irrigated with treated wastewater and a high-tech, vigilant leak detection and repair program saves hundreds of millions of gallons of water per year. The oil and gas industry ought to hire the Las Vegas leak police to deal with their methane problem. 

One of the reasons Las Vegas and other cities were able to make such big gains is because there was so much waste in the system to begin with. Many of the low-hanging fruit have been plucked, but some still remain: Las Vegas’ top residential water users — ultra-wealthy mansion owners — still use tens of thousands of gallons of water per day; water pricing structures are not adequately progressive; and Nevada’s accounting system for Colorado River use disincentivizes indoor water conservation. 1.

Source: Decoupling Urban Water Use from Population Growth in the Colorado River Basin.
  • 1.3 million gallons: Daily water use by the Venetian Casino Resort in Las Vegas, the metro’s largest commercial user. 
  • 35,646 gallons: Daily water use by Trophy Hills Residence, LLC, the Las Vegas mansion owned by the late Sheldon Adelson. 
  • 25,682 gallons: Daily water use by Via Tivoli LLC, the 75,000 square foot Henderson, Nevada, mansion owned by EBay founder Pierre Omidyar. 
  • 112 gallons: Average total daily per capita water use in Las Vegas (includes residential, commercial, industrial).
  • 30 million gallons: Daily water loss to evaporation at Lake Powell in July. 

So even Las Vegas still has ample room for cuts. Meanwhile, some cities remain ridiculously wasteful — we’re looking at you, Farmington and St. George and Scottsdale. The good news is that if these smaller cities follow the larger metros’ lead, they could realize significant cuts. The bad news is that it still won’t be nearly enough to save the Colorado River system on which so many of us depend. 

And even if population and water consumption have been partially decoupled, they aren’t completely divorced. Las Vegas and Phoenix and L.A. eventually will hit a limit of per capita cuts, at which point a growing population will again cause overall consumption to increase. Thing is, there is no extra water in the system to sustain it, and the old practice of cities “buying and drying” farms and transferring the water rights to new housing development is untenable. Any agricultural water saved through efficiency or fallowing or crop-changes must go back to the river, not to new subdivisions. 

For the last century, the Southwestern Growth Machine — fueled by greed, cheap and dirty power, and the mirage of abundant water — has churned away relentlessly. Now it’s time to shut it down and to practice not only water consumption-control, but also growth control — decoupling or not.

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

NRCS in #Colorado Announces NEW Agricultural #ConservationEasement Program – ​​​​​​​Agricultural Land Easement (ACEP-ALE) Application Signup Cut-off Date: Fiscal Year 2023 ACEP-ALE Applications are due February 17, 2023

Photo credit: NRCS

Click the link to read the release on the USDA website:

Colorado Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) State Conservationist, Clint Evans, announced the 2023 application cut-off dates for eligible entities to participate in the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program – Agricultural Land Easement (ACEP-ALE) in Colorado. There is one signup offered for complete and eligible applications to compete for available funding.  Application packages are due on Friday, February 17, 2023, by 4:00 PM Mountain Standard Time (MST) for funding.  Ranking pools offered for parcel applications are General, Grasslands of Special Significance (GSS), GSS Gunnison Sage Grouse, GSS Greater Sage Grouse, and General Urban Agriculture

The purpose of the ACEP-ALE program is to (1) protect the agricultural viability and related conservation values of eligible land by limiting nonagricultural uses of that land that negatively affect the agricultural uses and conservation values and (2) protect grazing uses and related conservation values by restoring or conserving eligible land.

Applicants (eligible entities) must be a federally recognized Indian Tribe, state or local units of government, or a non-governmental organization. Applicants must have an established farmland protection program that purchases agricultural conservation easements for the purpose of protecting agriculture use and related conservation values by limiting conversion to nonagricultural uses of the land.

USDA provides up to 50 percent of the appraised fair market value of the conservation easement in this voluntary program and up to 75 percent for qualifying Grasslands of Special Significance (GSS), including projects in Sage Grouse territory. The qualified landowner retains ownership and continues to use the land for agricultural purposes.

To be eligible to receive ALE funding, eligible entity applicants must demonstrate a commitment to long-term conservation of agricultural lands; a capability to acquire, manage, and enforce easements; adequate staff capacity for monitoring and easement stewardship; and the availability of funds. All landowners of record and the land being offered for enrollment must also meet specific eligibility criteria as outlined in the application materials posted to the State ACEP website.

Fully completed application packets must be received by no later than 4:00 PM MST on an advertised signup date to be considered. Application packets may be sent to the attention of Easements Program Manager, by email (preferred) to laura.trimboli@usda.govby FedEx or UPS to USDA-NRCS, Denver Federal Center, Building 56, Room 2604, Denver, CO 80225; or by USPS to USDA-NRCS, Denver Federal Center, PO Box 25426, Denver, CO 80225.

Applications postmarked or time stamped after the deadline WILL NOT be accepted. Only fully completed and properly executed applications that are submitted by the signup date on the appropriate forms and accompanied by all required supporting documentation will be considered for funding in FY 2023. All qualified applications will be reviewed, ranked, and considered for funding according to the Final ACEP rule, policy, and guidance. Complete applications received after the cutoff date may be considered if another sign-up date is announced

Incomplete applications WILL NOT be considered.

For more information about ACEP-ALE, please contact Laura Trimboli at 970-403-6379 or laura.trimboli@usda.gov.  You can also visit your local NRCS at your nearest USDA Service Center or visit the Colorado NRCS ACEP website.

#RioGrande #Water Conservation Subdistrict 1 back in the spotlight — @AlamosaCitizen #SanLuisValley

Supermoon over the San Luis Valley August 11, 2022. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

From the “Monday Briefing” newsletter from the Alamosa Citizen:

The new year likely will bring a new amended Plan of Water Management for irrigators in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. The subdistrict’s board of managers in December approved a new amended plan that ties the allowable groundwater pumped to the natural surface of water of the property. This is a huge change that values snowpack, and if there isn’t any, irrigators can expect to pay a handsome fee to get surface water from a neighbor. The plan will get a hearing and vote before the Rio Grande Water Conservation District on Jan. 17. If approved there, as is likely, the amended Plan of Water Management then gets filed with Colorado Division of Water Resources for its blessing, or not.

We frequently note the activity of farmers in Subdistrict 1 because it is the subdistrict that pulls from the unconfined aquifer of the Upper Rio Grande Basin and is under state watch to reduce its groundwater pumping to recover water flows in the unconfined aquifer. It’s also the Valley’s most lucrative corridor for irrigated agriculture, and as such, the bellwether for farming in the Valley. The amended Plan of Water Management is a way for farmers in the subdistrict to try to stay in business while making gains in recovering the unconfined aquifer. More to come in 2023.

Living With Less: Farmers in #Arizona are no longer in a “what if” scenario. A shrinking #ColoradoRiver is transforming life in the West. The solutions will take all of us — @AmericanRivers #COriver #aridification

BKW Farms is a model for what sustainable water consumption and conservation can look like in the heart of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert | Photo: Sinjin Eberle

Click the link to read the post on the American Rivers blog (Katy Neusteter):

Brian Wong has a lot on his shoulders. A third-generation farmer, Wong grows crops — including nearly extinct heritage grains like white Sonora wheat — on 4,500 acres in the heart of the parched Sonoran Desert, about 25 minutes northwest of Tucson, Arizona. Bakeries, restaurants, breweries, and flour mills as far away as Minnesota and Florida rely on his grain to sustain their own businesses. 

Wong’s BKW Farms is among the 80 percent of the state’s agricultural producers that rely on the Colorado River to irrigate their crops. And with the Colorado at precariously low levels, his family business faces its largest challenge in nearly 85 years. “We have a great understanding of and place great importance on water,” Wong says. “Water is something you need in almost every aspect of agriculture. Everything we grow is irrigated. We need to have a water source to put on the crops so we can continue growing food.” 

The Central Arizona Aqueduct delivers water from the Colorado River. Photo credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

All of the water irrigating Wong’s farm arrives via the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a 336-mile canal system that shuttles Colorado River water to customers throughout the state. Altogether, the Colorado irrigates 5 million acres of farm and ranch land across seven Southwestern states and Mexico. It supplies 40 million people with drinking water and supports a $1.4 trillion economy. 

But climate change, extreme drought, and explosive population growth are taking an enormous toll on the river. The Colorado and its two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, dwindled to calamitously low levels in 2022, forcing the U.S. Department of the Interior to declare, for the first time in history, a Tier 1 Water Shortage. The declaration triggered deep cuts in the volume of Colorado River water delivered to Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico. Arizona agriculture took the biggest hit because CAP is on par to get 30 percent less water from the shrinking river. Even deeper restrictions will go into effect in 2023, with cities and Tribes shouldering more of the brunt.  

Alongside farmers like Wong, American Rivers is urgently working together with partners at utilities, municipalities, and conservation groups to fix the massive imbalance between demand and a shrinking Colorado River. 

Colorado River, AZ | Photo by Fred Phillips

From working with ranchers to restore habitat in the river’s headwaters, to encouraging municipalities to use less and eliminate unnecessary uses of valuable Colorado River water, to working on new guidelines for long-term management of the river, American Rivers is involved in decisions that span 1,700 miles of the Colorado River, from its headwaters in Colorado to its delta in Mexico.  

“The hard truth is, there just isn’t enough water to go around for everyone,” Wong says. 

We have to learn to live with a smaller Colorado River. Wong says the way forward is by partnering with advocates like American Rivers, who work with policymakers and stakeholders to elevate stories and shape water-management strategies into the future.  

The bottom line is that “I” doesn’t work. We all rely on rivers, and water, and their continued existence. Our future demands that we invest boldly and immediately in strategies that will work — and that will build for all of us the kind of future we want for our children.

Less #water, fewer farmers: the future of agriculture on the #OgallalaAquifer — KUNC

Yuma Colorado circa 1925

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

“The yields are off,” [Ruben] Richardson explained. “We’re a little bit short of water. This soil – you have to water a bunch every day to maintain it.” He had to use a lot more water in his fields than usual this year, just to produce any crop under drought conditions. That water was delivered by 58 center pivot sprinklers, across Richardson’s fields of irrigated corn and sugar beets. The sprinklers were fed, in turn, by 45 high-capacity wells pumping groundwater out of the Ogallala Aquifer, far below the ground…

Ogallala Aquifer. Credit: Big Pivots

Picture a bathtub. But this bathtub has a very rocky, jagged bottom. When you pour in the water, the tub doesn’t fill evenly. Instead, it forms pools of different sizes within the crags and pits of that rocky floor. Now imagine that bathtub is huge: 175,000 square miles huge. It stretches across 8 stations, from South Dakota all the way down to Texas, including parts of eastern Colorado. Also, the whole thing is deep underground. That is the Ogallala Aquifer. A vast, but uneven reserve of freshwater stored under the earth. The people who live on top of the aquifer pump it out of the ground. More than 90 percent of Ogallala water is used for agriculture, and that water transformed the high plains dust bowl of eastern Colorado into highly productive farmland.

But according to Meagan Schipanski, an associate professor at Colorado State University and Co-Director of the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project, the aquifer has its limits. The water has been over-allocated for decades. The current drought is exacerbating the shortage. “That water is a nonrenewable resource,” Schipanski said, “we’re going to use it faster than it can recharge itself.”


The hydrology and terrain of the aquifer is highly variable, making it difficult to generalize about just how much water has been depleted. But across northeastern Colorado, on average the aquifer is down about 30% from where it started before groundwater irrigation became widespread in the mid 20th-century.

‘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

#Water managers across #drought-stricken West agree on one thing: ‘This is going to be painful’ — The #Nevada Current #ColoradoRiver #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 Nevada Current website (Jennifer Solis):

Water authorities in the Western U.S. don’t have a crystal ball, but rapidly receding reservoirs uncovering sunken boats and other debris lost in their depths decades ago give a clear view of the hard choices ahead.

If western states do not agree on a plan to safeguard the Colorado River — the source of the region’s vitality — there won’t be enough water for anyone.

Water managers, researchers, agricultural producers and others from across the drought-stricken river basin met in Las Vegas last week for the Colorado River Water Users Association annual convention to face hard truths about the state of the river and historically-low levels of its biggest reservoirs.

Two decades of drought and poor planning have caused the river’s biggest reservoirs — Lakes Mead and Powell — to drop to their lowest collective volume since they were filled.  [ed. emphasis mine]

“Time is not on our side. Hydrology is not on our side. That’s the frightening reality,” said Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The hydrology “is going to force us to do something because we will have no other choices. Every day that passes this problem gets harder and harder to solve.”

Water storage in Lakes Mead and Powell is at a fraction of what it was two decades ago, and could drop below what’s needed to generate power as soon as next year, said water experts.

To put it in perspective, this winter both reservoirs were about a quarter full. In December 1999, Lake Powell was at 88% capacity, and Lake Mead was at 96% capacity, according to analysts.  

Lower basin states faced their first-ever federally declared water shortage, which directs how much states can draw from the Colorado River in 2021. Deeper cuts were subsequently declared this year.

Water experts say more water cuts for lower basin states – including Nevada – are likely in 2024 due to even lower water levels.

Even further restricting water allocation “doesn’t mean the lakes won’t go lower than that,” said Ted Cooke, the general manager for the Central Arizona Project.

If nothing is done, there is a real possibility water levels in both reservoirs will drop so low in the next two years that water will no longer flow downstream to the 40 million people in the West who rely on the Colorado River.

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 this week. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Faulty numbers and an over-allocated river

At the center of discussions last week was one of the most important legal documents governing how the river’s waters are shared: the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which allocated 7.5 million acre-feet for each basin, based on a faulty model that assumed the river system could supply 15 million acre-feet annually.

Today, officials acknowledge only 12.4 million acre-feet flows from the river each year, meaning western states will have to agree on massive cuts to their water supply for the sake of the river — a politically perilous decision.

Despite clear evidence of diminishing water supplies over the past century, not much has changed in terms of how states allocate and use water.

But those in charge are starting to understand that western states are getting to a tipping point that will force them to adjust their attitudes and change their consumption habits.

In June, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton issued an ultimatum to states: Develop a plan to save 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water by next year — roughly one-fifth of the water currently allocated to states—or the federal government will step in.

During a panel discussion at last week’s convention in Las Vegas, representatives for the seven western states who rely on the Colorado River said reaching a compromise will be their collective priority for the next six months.

They agree that the longer it takes to stabilize the river and conserve the water needed to keep the river functional, the more likely reservoir levels will continue to plummet, leaving states with fewer and fewer options.

Water managers also agree that about 75% of future water cuts will need to come from lower basin states — including Nevada — to reach reductions large enough to protect critical elevations in the reservoirs.

Lower basin states — Nevada, Arizona, and California — use nearly all their 7.5 million acre-feet Colorado River allocation compared to the 4.5 million acres-feet used by the upper basin states, said water managers.

“Yes, the lower basin will have to take the lion’s share of the reductions,” said John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “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.”

Nevada uses only a small share of the river’s water and has made great strides in conservation, but Arizona and California are still far from a deal. Both states will need to make painful reductions and incur massive expenses to stabilize their water use, say water experts.

Just last week, all of Southern California was declared to be in a drought emergency by the Metropolitan Water District, the main water supplier for Los Angeles county.

Lower basin states argue that upper basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico — also need to make a firm commitment to lower their water use.

Officials for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned that aridification, the long-term shift to a drier climate, means even less snow runoff is making it to the river each year.

“It’s really hard to come up with solutions” based on who has priority water rights, said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. If cities in lower-basin states “wipe out every drop of their water, it’s still not going to stabilize the system,” said Buschatzke.

The upper basin has committed to looking into the feasibility of cutting back their water use — a move critics say amounts to “planning to make a plan.”

Upper basin states have not released an estimate of how much water they are able or willing to cut. However, the Upper Colorado River Commission says they are slowly taking steps to create a management plan with potential water cuts.

“We live within the means of the river every day,” said Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “What we like to do is under-promise and over-deliver, and make sure if there is a number out there it is a number that can actually be achieved.”

Reservoirs in upper basin states are currently providing what amounts to 19% of their annual water usage to Lake Powell, based on a 2019 drought response agreement.

“Those releases have had significant impacts, huge impacts on the local communities,” Mitchell said. “What you’re asking for is a big ask. We are willing to look at this, but we also need to look at the impacts at the same time.”

Water managers representing the four upper basin states released details of a temporary conservation plan last week.

One critical component of the plan is the reauthorization of the System Conservation Pilot Program, a program that paid water users to reduce their use, with the goal of implementing it by the summer.

It’s unclear how much water the pilot program will successfully conserve as a voluntary and temporary solution. The original program saved about 47,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of about $8.6 million over the four years.

“The System Conservation Pilot Program is called a pilot program for a reason,” said Gene Shawcroft, general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District. “We believe we will learn a lot from that. We believe that it can easily be transitioned into a management plan.”

‘This is going to be painful’

Brandon Gebhart, the top water official in Wyoming, said previous conservation programs that depend on voluntary cuts were not as effective as water managers had hoped, but a recent shift in mentality among water users could make the difference.

Another change that could make the difference is the nearly $4 billion set aside for the Colorado River that would allow the Bureau of Reclamation to pay users to voluntarily forgo water use.

“There are positives. The funding that is coming in provides opportunity. It provides the ability to change,” said Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. 

Still, water managers say the federal government will need to invest even more money into the river.

“If you look at the federal investment in Florida, after one hurricane they got an order of magnitude more federal assistance than the entire Colorado basin is getting in the face of this crisis,” said Entsminger, the Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager.

Western states will need all the assistance they can get to find ways to run their economies with less water, and time is running out.

A recent survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation found that more than 650 farmers in 15 Western states saw a 74% reduction in harvests, and 42% switched crops due to the drought.

It took Western states five years to agree on a short-term five year plan to address the region-wide drought that is set to expire in 2026, said Entsminger.

“We don’t have five months to come up with an operation plan for 2023,” Entsminger said. “It’s time to set aside the talking points and get real.”

Climate change has shrunk the river’s flows roughly 20% in the past two decades, and scientists predict they will shrink nearly 10%  more with each additional degree of temperature rise.

“We have to move quickly and we’re committed to that,” said Mitchell. “We need to accept the situation we’re in and we need to reduce demands. All of us, every sector, every state, every water user. There isn’t any other way.”

“We have to accept that we can not cling to our entitlements or allocations. If they are not there none of it matters,” Mitchell continued. “Folks in the room have to be willing to let us make hard decisions, because this is going to be painful.”

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: info@nevadacurrent.com. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.

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

#Groundwater #conservation easement: A new way to manage #RioGrande — @AlamosaCitizen

The sun rises over Ron Bowman’s ranch in Mosca. Photo by Andrew Parnes for The Citizen.

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

WHEN you’re working on an enormous issue like water – in this case how to recover the Upper Rio Grande Basin and the two aquifers of the San Luis Valley – you have to stretch your mind to find new approaches.

The idea that groundwater pumped to irrigate crops could be restricted through a conservation easement is one of those moments when something that’s never been tried bubbles to the top and provides a new way to look at an urgent problem.

On Nov. 8, Valley farmer Ron Bowman signed the first-ever groundwater conservation easement to restrict the use of groundwater on his nearly 1,900-acre ranch in Mosca. The commitment also set a timeline for Subdistrict 4 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to purchase the ranch for $2.6 million, a deal it will be looking to close in 2023 with a loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The subdistrict’s acquisition of the entire ranch not only saves groundwater from being pumped, but importantly helps Subdistrict 4 achieve its sustainability requirements for the confined aquifer as well as offset stream depletions to nearby San Luis Creek from groundwater pumping that occurs in Subdistricts 4 and 5.

“How the law is written and works, we’ll hold those water rights and they’ll still be water rights but we won’t pump them ever again,” said Chris Ivers, program manager for Subdistrict 4 and one of the architects of the deal. “That protects those water rights from being abandoned and somebody else coming in and saying ‘Because these water rights have been abandoned, I can pump water over here.’ So we’re holding their place in line but saying, you can’t pump this water, this is our water to pump.”

Bowman’s groundwater pumping has accounted for about 10 percent of that being pumped by irrigators across Subdistrict 4. The farm has been operating with 12 center-pivot irrigation circles, growing mostly forage crops including some alfalfa.

“If by discontinuing irrigation on my farm, it means that my neighbors may be able to keep their multigenerational farms in their families, then it feels like the right thing to do,” Bowman said. He and his wife, Gail, purchased the property about five years ago.

The reduction in groundwater pumping and the fact the water is being placed in a conservation easement so it’s never pumped again creates a new way for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the state agencies and nonprofit land trusts it partners with to address depletion in the aquifers.

“The nice thing about a groundwater conservation easement is each one can be tailored to that property,” explains Sarah Parmar, director of conservation at Colorado Open Lands.

Parmar has been instrumental in helping create a framework for the groundwater conservation easement that Bowman entered into. She credits Cleave Simpson, the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and state senator representing the Valley’s six counties, with the initial brainstorm.

From there it was getting other smart water people in the room, like Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District; local farmers Sheldon Rockey and Nathan Coombs; and state division engineer Craig Cotten to lend their expertise to determine if groundwater could be placed in a conservation easement.

The concept also went through a rigorous exercise with water attorneys to determine the legality of such a move, and Colorado Open Lands and the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust in Del Norte lent support to the project. There was also the matter of figuring out how to appraise the land given the new construct of groundwater being placed in an easement as part of a sale.

Over 20 years ago conservation easement work began to grow in the San Luis Valley largely with the establishment of the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, which was formed primarily out of concern for the surface water provided by the Rio Grande and its tributaries,” Colorado Opens Lands noted. “Now through this new application of a conservation easement on the Valley’s groundwater resources, the land trust community in the Valley is reinforcing its commitment to supporting the community in protecting its most precious resource: water.”

More common in the Valley are announcements of land conservation easements, where a portion of agricultural land is placed in an easement to prevent future development and preserve the land as a natural habitat.

Now water managers like Simpson have figured out that groundwater can also be placed in a conservation easement, which creates a new way for farmers to think about their operations as they continue to reduce the amount of water they use to farm to meet the state’s groundwater pumping rules.

“We are used to keeping water rights in irrigation through conservation easements, so it feels wrong to intentionally dry a farm, but by drying this particular farm, we are ensuring that the other farms in the subdistrict are sustainable and we ensure that this groundwater stays in the aquifer and out of the hands of anyone who might want to try to move it outside of the basin,” said Parmar.

Other approaches to a groundwater conservation easement may be different, she said. Instead of a farmer putting all the groundwater in a conservation easement as Bowman did, maybe only a portion of it is conserved through an easement and the rest continues to be used for crop production.

“Our hope is to work with landowners across subdistricts to avoid the state stepping in to shut off wells,” said Parmar. “I am continually amazed by the willingness of farmers and ranchers to step up to the challenge and grateful to work with irrigators like Ron Bowman, who want to be part of the solution.”

Federal officials say urgent action needed to protect shrinking #ColoradoRiver reservoirs — The Los Angeles Times #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

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)

First off here’s the link to the Colorado River Water Users Association 2022 Conference Twitter Fest.

Click the link to read the article on The Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:

Speaking at a conference in Las Vegas, federal officials told water managers from the seven states that rely on the river that they will weigh immediate options next year to protect water levels in depleted reservoirs, and that the region must be prepared for the river to permanently yield less water because of climate change.

“The hotter, drier conditions that we face today are not temporary. Climate change is here today and has made it likely that we will continue to see conditions like this, if not worse, in the future,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton.

“The basin is seeing its worst drought in 1,200 years, and there is no relief in sight. And perhaps this is what it will be in the future,” Touton said.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, are now nearly three-fourths empty, and water levels are set to continue dropping. The latest government estimates show there is a risk that Lake Mead could reach “dead pool” levels in 2025, at which point the river would no longer flow past Hoover Dam, cutting off water for California, Arizona and Mexico. That grim scenario has given urgency to the search for solutions, as officials from states, water agencies, tribes and the federal government consider options for water cutbacks on a scale never seen before.

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

#ColoradoRiver District to Play Key Role in #Conservation Program #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Colorado River District land area.

Click the link to read the release on the Colorado River District website:

At this morning’s [December 14, 2022] Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) meeting held in concert with the Colorado River Water User’s Association (CRWUA) Conference, the Commission formally released a Request for Proposal re-initiating a System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) beginning spring 2023. The Program aims to reduce consumptive use through temporary, voluntary, and compensated measures across the Upper Division States and allocates up to $125 million for the re-initiation with the potential to increase in scale. This action implements the first element of the UCRC’s 5-Point Plan released in July 2022.

Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller responded that a program of this scale and speed poses as much risk and opportunity as a Demand Management program, therefore it is critical how the program is implemented.

“It is vital to the health of our communities and our agricultural industry that the River District have a decision-making role in this program, consistent with past implementation of a previously-authorized System Conservation Pilot Program, and we want to thank Commissioner Mitchell for her commitment to recognize the River District’s role in that effort,” Mueller said.

Commissioner Mitchell provided a written commitment stating that “in the event the source of the water and the place of beneficial use of a prospective applicant’s SCPP project is located within the boundaries of the District, enrollment in the SCPP will be subject to approval of the application by both the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and the District.”

In Commissioner Mitchell’s own release today, she stated, “We must continue to live within the means of what the river provides year to year and we ask others to do the same. This is the only way the system will continue as we know it into the future.”

Commissioner Rebecca Mitchell Commends Upper #ColoradoRiver Commission Progress on Upper Colorado River Plans — Colorado Water Conservation Board #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

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)

From email from the CWCB (Chris Arend):

The Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) announcedsignificant progress in implementing its Five-Point Plan at its meeting on December 14, 2022, at the Colorado River Water Users Association Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada. 

Colorado Commissioner Becky Mitchell emphasized that the most impactful thing that can be done to manage the Colorado River System is to reduce uses in dry years. Colorado achieves this through strict administration of water rights based on hydrology—in 2021, administration impacted water use on over 203,000 acres within the Colorado River Basin in Colorado. Collectively, preliminary data from the UCRC shows that the Upper Division States used 25% less water in 2021 than in 2020 due to constraints on the physical and legal availability of water. “We must continue to live within the means of what the river provides year to year and we ask others to do the same. This is the only way the system will continue as we know it into the future,” said Commissioner Mitchell. 

At its meeting, the UCRC released a pre-solicitation for request for proposals for participation in the System Conservation Pilot Program, a large-scale program involving temporary, voluntary, and compensated reductions in consumptive use across the Upper Division States. Conserved system water could help mitigate the impacts of drought in the Upper Basin.

The UCRC also announced progress on the interstate Demand Management feasibility investigation and released a summary report of the study detailing key findings of the interstate investigation. This report will help inform next steps in Colorado’s Demand Management investigation, which will continue into 2023. More information on Demand Management is available at the CWCB website.

The Upper Division States will also consider additional releases from upstream reservoirs pursuant to the Drought Response Operations Agreement, in addition to the 661,000 acre-feet previously committed. The Commissioners emphasized the need to maintain the benefits of this water in Lake Powell.

Confab: Feds say #ColoradoRiver flows will continue to plummet, threatening releases from #LakePowell — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton (left) alongside members of the Upper Colorado River Commission at the 2022 Colorado River Water Users Association Conference on December 14, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Jerd Smith

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

As the Colorado River crisis deepens, a new federal analysis of flows into Lake Powell shows that they will continue to plummet through 2025, before beginning to recover.

James Prairie, a hydrologic engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said flows are likely to be just 24% of average this year, making it unlikely under various planning scenarios that Powell will have enough water for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming to meet their legal commitment to deliver a minimum of 7 million acre-feet of water to the Lower Basin. That amount is already reduced from the historical delivery obligation due to low flows on the river.

The news comes as more than 1,300 of the river’s most powerful water users gather this week in Las Vegas for the Colorado River Water Users Association Conference, the largest annual confab on the river.

This year it has sold out for the first time in its history, according to Crystal Thompson, communications manager at the Central Arizona Project, a major user of Colorado River water and a conference organizer.

In the water world, stream and reservoir measurements are based on what’s known as the water year, which begins Oct. 1. Prairie said Upper Basin flows in water year 2023 are expected to be just 24% of average. In 2024 they are likely to improve, reaching 58% of average, before rising to 61% of average in 2025.

But because Lake Powell is so low — it’s just 23% full with roughly 5.5 million acre-feet of water stored right now — it won’t be able to recover enough water to keep those releases going, Prairie said. And that means that users across the seven-state Colorado River Basin will see more dramatic cutbacks in their water supplies to try to protect remaining supplies in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead, farther downstream.

The basin, mired in a drought believed to be the worst in 1,200 years, is divided into two regions. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin covers Arizona, California and Nevada.

Colorado River Basin. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

During a meeting of the Upper Colorado River Commission held Wednesday during the confab, hundreds packed a conference room to hear the reports. The commission works to ensure the Upper Basin states receive their allocation of Colorado River Water and that they meet their obligations to send water to the Lower Basin.

“We all know that we are gathering here today in a time of unprecedented crisis in the basin,” said Anne Castle, a Colorado water attorney who President Biden appointed to serve as federal chair of the commission in September 2022.

“We all know we have a huge imbalance between supply and demand and we also know we don’t have much time to correct it,” Castle said.

Last summer U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered the states to figure out how to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, but no agreements have been reached, leaving the possibility that the federal government will decide how to make the cuts.

Touton urged water users to continue working together to find a solution to the crisis.

As lakes Powell and Mead have dwindled, all seven states have had to get by with less water and federal forecasts indicate that is likely to be the case for several more years.

In Colorado, major cutbacks have already occurred.

Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the state has already had to temporarily dry up thousands of acres of irrigated farmland because of the crisis.

Mitchell said the state used 25% less Colorado River water in 2021 than it did in 2020 because of the drought.

Critical negotiations among the states are underway to reach a consensus on how to slash water use enough to keep Lake Powell full enough to continue producing power.

“The gap is big enough that no one basin, no one state, no one sector of the economy can solve it alone,” Castle said.

“The real enemy here is not another basin, or another state or alfalfa or golf courses. It is climate-change-induced lower flows. It’s not an enemy that we can defeat. It is one that we have to learn to live with,” she said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

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

Some #water users could get paid to conserve as Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin program gets planned reboot — KUNC #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Upper Colorado River basins. (The border of Wyoming and Colorado is mislabeled.) (U.S. BOR)

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

As climate change continues to shrink the Colorado River’s largest reservoirs, a group of four states that use its water are set to lay out plans to reboot a conservation program. The Upper Colorado River Commission – comprised of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico – plans to announce details of an extended “System Conservation Pilot Program” through which water users could be paid to cut back on their use. The soon-to-be-launched program aims to use a pool of $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act for payouts to “mitigate the impacts of long-term drought and depleted storage,” according to presentation slides obtained by KUNC…The new program is an extension of a previous effort. An earlier pilot program ran from 2015 through 2018. Designed to serve as a proof of concept, the UCRC distributed more than $8.5 million as a part of that program and conserved an estimated 47,207 acre-feet of water…

The 2023 program would allocate considerably more money than the prior iteration if the UCRC gets approval from Congress to extend the program. The proposed Colorado River Conservation Act authorizes the program to continue until 2026. The Bureau of Reclamation would also need to sign off on the use of $125 million in federal funds. The money will come out of $4 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act that was set aside for Colorado River projects.

Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said his agency is still sorting out how much money it will offer water users on a per-acre-foot basis in exchange for cuts, and does not have a target for a total amount of conservation. The Upper Colorado River Commission is slated to release its first request for proposals on December 14, with a deadline in February. Then each participating state, and the UCRC will be able to review each water-saving proposal, setting higher payout values on a case-by-case basis. Cullom said the intent of such a review is to discourage profiteering, a nagging concern of programs that pay water users to cut back.

Studies of the 2015 pilot program found that lingering uncertainties still surround programs that pay farmers for temporarily fallowing their fields to conserve water. Questions about pricing, soil health, monitoring and ensuring that conserved water reaches the beleaguered Colorado River reservoirs remain unanswered…Cullom said the Upper Colorado River Commission expects to make a formal announcement about 2023 system conservation plans in Las Vegas. The commission will hold a meeting during the Colorado River Water Users Association annual conference, a yearly meeting of policymakers, scientists and water users that has been under increasing scrutiny as the region’s supply-demand imbalance teeters towards crisis levels.

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.”

How lawn replacement can help save the West from #drought — Western Resource Advocates

Xeriscape garden. Photo credit: Western Resource Advocates

Click the link to read the article on the Western Resource Advocates website (Lindsay Rogers):

Did you know that 50% of urban water is used outdoors? Most of this water is used to irrigate “non-functional” turf – meaning the only use is for aesthetics that could be achieved through other, lower water use means. One of the most impactful solutions WRA is driving helps municipalities, homeowners, and other property owners replace unnecessary, thirsty grass and lawns – also called “turf” in policy arenas – with low-water alternatives, such as native grasses and plants, trees, and shrubs.

THE BENEFITS OF REPLACING NON-FUNCTIONAL GRASS

  • Saves residents money. Lower water use means lower water bills and reducing the likelihood that utilities will need to invest in costly new water projects to meet demand.
  • Supports healthy ecosystems. Native landscaping supports local wildlife, pollinators, and the environment while better reflecting the landscapes around them. They can also reduce urban air pollution from lawn mowing and improve stormwater quality by reducing pesticide and fertilizer applications.
  • Uses less water and keep more water in rivers. Reducing water use at the municipal level takes pressure off our rivers and streams.
  • Increases water security and resilience to climate change. Improving water conservation will help communities adapt to lower water supplies.

SWAPPING TURF FOR LOW-WATER LANDSCAPING WILL PROTECT COMMUNITIES’ WATER SUPPLIES

The rivers that sustain our communities and environment – from the Colorado to the Rio Grande and the Gunnison to the Gila – are overtaxed due to climate change, multi-year drought, and decades of overuse. Additionally, as flows in the Colorado River and water levels in major Western reservoirs become further depleted – Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the largest reservoirs in the region, are at their lowest levels on record – there is a high likelihood in the coming years that the Colorado River system will collapse, generating a crisis across the West.

This means that local municipalities have a real water security problem. Water demand in communities across the region already outpaces available supply, and this only will get worse as climate change intensifies. WRA is developing and implementing innovative policies and programs that help communities live within their water means while getting rivers back into balance.

WHY NON-ESSENTIAL TURF?

While Western states are among the driest in the country, irrigated turf – think lush, green lawns – has been ubiquitous in many communities across the region, from front yards to sprawling office parks to roadway medians. Much of this grass is not used but requires a large amount of water. In fact, non-functional landscape irrigation makes up more than half of water use in the West. In Colorado, where I live, outdoor water use accounts for 38% of all municipal demand each year. Most of this outdoor water use is dedicated to landscaping and irrigated grass. With the growing impacts on the Colorado River, this is water the region cannot afford to waste.

Replacing grass and lawns is a key part of increasing community resilience to climate change, improving water security, and adapting to a present and future with less water. In other words, turning the sprinklers off will help cities keep the taps on. While many municipalities have had success conserving water through strategies such as requiring low-flow toilets and showers and more water-efficient home appliances, further conservation is needed in the urban sector.

Outdoor water conservation is particularly important because, unlike indoor water use, outdoor water is largely consumptive, meaning it evaporates or is used by the plant and cannot be reused down the line. Switching from grass to low-water plants is the next low-hanging fruit that will help municipalities stretch increasingly limited water supplies over the coming decades.

Additionally, one of the best parts about replacing thirsty grass is that anyone can play a role: An individual homeowner, a large business, a city, or an entire state. By swapping a traditional lawn with drought-proof landscaping, we can help save 50% or more in outdoor water use.

GRASS REPLACEMENT IS IN HIGH DEMAND

As more local communities seek opportunities to replace high-water use grass, WRA is designing, advocating for, and implementing policies and programs to support their efforts. In 2022, WRA helped develop legislation creating the first state-wide turf replacement program in Colorado and advocated for a similar program in Utah. These voluntary programs will ensure every property owner in the state can access financial resources to replace their lawn with drought-tolerant, sustainable alternatives. We’re also supporting municipalities, like the city of Aurora in Colorado, with crafting effective local water-saving ordinances that meet their unique needs, such as banning new golf courses or restricting lawns in new developments. This builds on WRA’s years of work helping municipalities integrate water into land use planning, ensuring that growth and development are efficient and water smart.

The region is moving in the right direction on lawns. A growing number of Western water providers are creating and advocating for programs that encourage their customers to swap underutilized grassy areas for waterwise landscaping. In Colorado, 22 utilities — including Castle Rock and Fort Collins — provide customers with rebates for replacing water-thirsty plants with low- or no-water alternatives. In Utah, more than a dozen municipalities participate in the Flip Your Strip program, which encourages residents to remove park-strip grass in their front yard and replace it with waterwise landscaping. The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), which serves Las Vegas and other areas of the state, has perhaps the most successful lawn replacement program in the country. SNWA’s cash for grass program has saved nearly 467,000 acre-feet of water, which is 167,000 acre-feet more than the amount of Colorado River water that the entire state of Nevada has the right to use each year. SNWA shows that, when implemented at large scale, grass replacement efforts can serve as vital water supply infrastructure — the same as pipes, tanks, and reservoirs.

WHAT CAN WATERWISE LANDSCAPING LOOK LIKE WHERE YOU LIVE?

WRA envisions a future where Western communities showcase beautiful native landscaping reflective of our region that provide all the benefits of grass with a fraction of the water. To be sustainable, communities will need to reflect the water and climate reality we now have, as well as the open spaces that surround them.

Replacing non-functional grass with waterwise landscaping will look different across our states and communities. In Arizona, a grassy highway median could be transformed with saguaros and beargrass. In Colorado, a front lawn could have pops of color with purple gayfeather, yellow rabbitbrush, and blue flax. In New Mexico, orange sunset hyssop and green agave could grow alongside a small, low water buffalo grass lawn in a backyard. Drought-resistant landscaping that occurs naturally in the Western region encompasses an extraordinary range and depth of plants, trees, shrubs, and other flora, from native grasses to fields of wildflowers to large shade trees, that mirror the unique ecosystems of each state.

Turf replacement. Photo credit: Western Resource Advocates

There is still, however, a role for grass in our communities. Playgrounds, parks, sports fields, and reasonably sized backyards all provide valuable benefits and should be prioritized. These types of spaces provide important community functions. Replacing all non-functional grass allows communities to better maintain turf spaces that are meant for all to enjoy. Replacing or reducing the size of lawns creates an opportunity to prioritize limited water for trees. A healthy tree canopy is vital to combat urban heat island, reduce power bills, and shade yards, which further reduces water needs for plants.

When it comes to the impacts of drought and climate change on the Colorado River, replacing lawns and non-functional grass must happen alongside other large-scale conservation efforts, such as boosting use of recycled water and enabling water from retired coal plants to flow back into rivers. Major water users throughout the basin, including agricultural producers, will also need to do their part to reduce use through a variety of temporary and permanent means.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR TURF REPLACEMENT IN THE WEST

Western communities need to do more – and faster – to improve their water security through expanding turf replacement programs and promoting waterwise landscaping. WRA is instrumental in supporting local governments by:

  • Pushing for additional, local lawn replacement policies and programs while increasing funding for current statewide programs in Colorado and Utah;
  • Partnering with municipalities to develop local ordinances, local codes, and improved land use and water planning to reduce non-functional turfgrass in new development and redevelopment;
  • Partnering with water utilities to develop and expand grass replacement programs;
  • Providing input on state water plans to make sure they include and prioritize grass replacement in urban conservation efforts;
  • And encouraging more waterwise training and certification opportunities for landscape and irrigation professionals.

In addition to doubling down on grass replacement programs and policies across the West, important shifts are needed to ensure success. First, programs need more dedicated funding. Lawn replacement programs, particularly at the municipal level, are incredibly popular but quickly run out of funding. States, municipalities, and water utilities need to set aside adequate funds for these programs so anyone who is interested can participate and programs can scale to maximize their impact. Water providers, city planners, and local elected officials interested in financing programs can find resources in WRA’s white paper: Financing the Future: How to Pay for Turf Replacement in Colorado.

Additionally, landscaping professionals should focus more training and industry knowledge around caring for native and low-water plants, while ensuring there is plant availability to meet growing consumer demand. Although more residents are converting their thirsty lawns to waterwise gardens, we still have a long way to go in transforming our landscapes and we need everyone involved. Increasing financial incentives, providing additional support, and offering educational resources for homeowners and other property owners will go a long way.

THE WEST NEEDS A WATERWISE FUTURE

In the face of climate change and a growing population, communities across the West must do more to make every drop of water count. Swapping underutilized and high-water-use grass is a key part of the solution with multiple benefits, from increasing water security and reducing water bills to supporting healthy, flowing rivers. States and municipalities must prioritize creating and growing lawn replacement programs in urban areas to improve their climate resilience and protect water users.

If you want to see more waterwise landscaping opportunities in your community, take action! You can contact your local elected officials, like city council members and state representatives, as well as your water utility to tell them you want more lawn replacement programs where you live. You can also help protect rivers while showing your neighbors what a waterwise garden can look like by transforming your own lawn. There are many resources to help you get started, depending on where you live, including:

‘Free Water’ Was Never Free, Writes a Historian of the American — The Revelator #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Click the link to read the guest column on The Revelator website (Nate Housley):

Subsidized water cultivated the West, but this required becoming increasingly profligate with the region’s scarcest resource

The West uses too much water. For such a simple problem, the obvious solution — use less — lies frustratingly out of reach.

That inability to change may seem hard to understand, but the root of the problem becomes clearer if we consider the role of the West in the historical development of the United States:

The purpose of our system of “free water” — heavily subsidized water for irrigation — was to provide opportunities to settlers.

The frontier has served an important function in the Euro-American imagination since before there was a United States. For historians of the American West like me, the significance of the frontier has been at the center of our field for more than a century. Thomas Jefferson made the most notable case for westward expansion, prescribing it to relieve the social and political pressures that were building up as eastern populations grew and fought over limited resources. By the mid-1800s policymakers believed his ideal of yeoman homesteaders and their patchwork of farms was the Manifest Destiny of the United States’ exceptional democracy.

But that ideal never made it all the way across the continent. It ran into a problem right around the 100th meridian, west of which there wasn’t enough rainfall for agriculture.

Agriculture would require irrigation. A lot of it.

Hayfield message to President Obama 2011 via Protect the Flows

To solve this problem, the United States formed the Reclamation Service (the precursor to the Bureau of Reclamation) just over a decade after the frontier closed in 1890. While the federal government wasn’t quite powerful or rich enough, at the time, to construct many major irrigation projects, the Service provided a signal of the nation’s commitment to investing in the West as a site for settlement. It was too important a project to leave to private irrigation companies and too much work for individual homesteaders. As historian Donald Pisani put it in his book Water and American Government, “Federal reclamation was the last stage of Manifest Destiny.”

With the New Deal, the Bureau of Reclamation came into its own: Hoover Dam, completed in 1935 as the world’s largest dam, served as a symbol for the country’s ability to conquer nature.

Progressives championed desert reclamation at the turn of the century, but the federal government’s willingness to build infrastructure and give water away on extravagantly lenient terms was just as appealing for conservatives after World War II. Even Barry Goldwater, while courting the libertarians of the nascent New Right, advocated for the federally funded Central Arizona Project in his home state so that farmers could grow cotton in the Sonoran Desert.

That’s the defining contradiction of life in the West: “Government,” in Western parlance, was and is the stuff of restrictions, even when it’s the government that underwrites ever-popular sprawl.

While some made fortunes off this deluge of government spending, the enrichment of a few landowners was not the policy objective. Rather, the purpose of all the free water was to retain the West as a “safety valve,” a place of refuge for those who wanted to avoid the taxes and regulations of the East. But to accommodate growth without limits as the population boomed, the region would need to heighten the contradictions and become increasingly profligate with its scarcest resource.

Agriculture was once the means for permanent settlement of the arid West, and it continues to drive water consumption today. Around 80% of Colorado River water goes toward agriculture. About half of that is directed toward alfalfa hay that feeds cattle, an extremely inefficient way to provide calories for humans.

Agricultural water rights are some of the oldest in the West, and water law here revolves around seniority. Yet even if there were a ready legal pathway to divert water away from alfalfa fields, the fact remains that the apparatus for western water delivery was simply not built with a regulatory lever. The underlying imperative to grow without limits would inevitably lead back to a state of crisis.

Consider St. George, Utah. The fastest growing metropolitan area in the country consumes almost no agricultural water, yet its lawns and golf courses quickly suck up its scarce water supply. The city, a popular destination for retirees, is expected to double in population by 2050. Officials now find themselves struggling to find sources of water for the surge in residents. What is quickly becoming a crisis for humans is also creating additional pressure on other species such as the endangered woundfin and Virgin River chub.

Pine Valley Mountains with St. George, Utah in the foreground. By Óðinn – Own work  This image was created with Hugin., CC BY-SA 2.5 ca

The system’s deference to ideology over pragmatism is clear when it comes to the Basin’s 30 Native American Tribes. Collectively, they control about 20% of the water rights in the Colorado River system, yet many of those rights consist of “paper water.” They’re unrealized due to a lack of infrastructure. Building the necessary water projects for the Tribes would not only cost money but also push the system past the point of collapse. The very viability of the free water system depends on a de facto denial of the water rights of Indigenous nations, just as broken treaties facilitated the “free land” policy of the 19th century.

Free water was destined to run out eventually. Facing this problem in the West will be difficult, considering that politics and culture have worked in tandem for so long to keep “government” out of government-subsidized water. It’s unclear whether the system can be retrofitted with an off switch and whether the necessary governments can work together to do so before the Colorado River system crashes.

So how do we move forward? Ending the current subsidies seems the most commonsense solution — as well as the most unlikely to gain political traction.

Another possible solution: commodities trading. The classic solution for an imbalance of supply and demand is to introduce markets. Yet applying this approach to western water faces logistical challenges and can do little about longstanding problems of equity.

Still, the problem is big enough that all interventions may be necessary. Perhaps these first two ideas can be implemented. And perhaps we can think bigger.

One way forward is for the government to recognize the inherent worth of natural waterways, rejecting the premise that all fresh water must be consumed. Giving legal rights to ecosystems is the goal of the rights of nature movement, which has had some success across the world and even in the U.S. West. The organization Save the Colorado helped the communities of Ridgway, Nederland, and Grand Lake in Colorado pass resolutions recognizing the intrinsic rights of their watersheds. I’m part of an organization, Save Our Great Salt Lake, that’s exploring a similar strategy.

Wherever the future leads, the aridification of the American West will have consequences not just for those living here, but for the entire country.

It’s conceivable that westerners will adapt more readily to a drier climate than the rest of the nation will adapt to the loss of a region that functions as a safety valve. At any rate, we’re approaching the end of an era in which water was taken for granted. Just as human beings physically depend on water, our policies and conversations need to align with the water cycle.

Cash for Grass: #Colorado to pay for turf removal, boost #water #conservation — @WaterEdCO

Thornton home and lawn 2019. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Caitlin Coleman):

A new turf replacement program, set to roll out in Colorado in 2023, will pay to convert some of the grass in urban areas and residential yards into more water-efficient landscaping. This is the first time the State of Colorado has dedicated funds expressly to turf replacement. It’s an important step to increase water conservation and get it closer to where it needs to be, said state officials and conservation leaders at a confab earlier this month. But this version of cash for grass will be just one of many tools — and maybe not the most influential one — that will transform landscaping in the state in response to climate change and reduced water availability.

As climate change, drought, and crisis on the Colorado River intensify, outdoor water use and nonessential turf become increasingly important targets for water conservation. Today, 40% of Colorado’s municipal and industrial water use goes toward outdoor irrigation.

“Water conservation is critical. We’re talking about how we can build the landscapes of tomorrow, today,” said Russ Sands section chief of water supply planning for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) in kicking off the Colorado Landscape Summit on November 9. More than 150 people attended, either online or in person, this first-ever landscape summit hosted by the CWCB at Metro State University in Denver. “Outdoor turf removal is a really critical part of this discussion.”

The outdoor water-saving conversation has been gaining momentum in Colorado. The state legislature passed House Bill 1151 in June 2022, requiring the CWCB to develop a turf replacement program that will provide incentives for replacing nonessential irrigated turf with more water-wise landscaping. According to the bill, examples of nonessential turf include medians, land adjacent to open spaces, stormwater detention basins, commercial or industrial properties, portions of residential lawns, and more. The new law also came with an allocation of $2 million to finance the program.

Now the agency is working to set up that grant program, with details expected this spring and applications set to open sometime after July 2023. Local governments, special districts, nonprofits, and tribal nations will be eligible to apply, and individuals interested in receiving funds may be able to work with those entities to access the money.

But the program’s $2 million in initial funds won’t stretch far or transform the state’s turf on its own, said Peter Mayer with Water Demand Management, or WaterDM, an engineering consulting firm.

“The amount of money being spent in Colorado is ultimately nothing compared with what’s being spent in a single year in southern Nevada or southern California,” Mayer said.

After subtracting staffing and administration costs, some $1.5 million will remain for incentives to transform landscapes. That money is expected to be distributed in two cycles of $750,000 over two years, with the majority funneled into existing local turf replacement programs. For the program to continue beyond 2025, Colorado will have to find additional funding. However, though not specifically set aside for turf replacement, the CWCB’s Water Plan Grants and Water Supply Reserve Fund Grants may also be used to fund turf replacement work.

In August 2022, some public water providers and cities who rely on water supplies from the Colorado River Basin, including Aurora Water, Denver Water and Pueblo Water, signed a Memorandum of Understanding committing to reduce per capita water use. On November 15, additional water providers and agencies signed on, bringing the total to more than 30 entities across the West. The MOU says each of the water providers will introduce a program to reduce the amount of “non-functional turf grass by 30% through replacement with drought- and climate-resilient landscaping, while maintaining vital urban landscapes and tree canopies that benefit our communities, wildlife and the environment.” Details about how this will be accomplished have not yet been released.

Colorado is hoping to maintain those same qualities with its turf replacement program, said Sands.

But there’s still a lot to learn about how much savings Colorado can expect from turf replacement, what level of incentives are necessary to encourage participation, and what other potential costs and benefits there may be.

The state is trying to learn from neighbors with large-scale programs. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which provides water to Las Vegas and surrounding cities, has been collecting data on its turf replacement program for almost 25 years, providing a helpful resource for Colorado officials.

Since the late 1990s, the authority has converted about 4,600 acres of turf, saving 467,000 acre-feet of water, at a cost of around $285 million. The average landscape conversion through the authority’s program resulted in a 19% to 21% reduction in water use. Among other findings, participation in the authority’s program correlates with the scale of the incentives – when cash incentives increase, participation increases.

Colorado should expect about one-third of the water savings that Nevada has seen, said Doug Jeavons, managing director with BBC Research, a firm that served as the CWCB’s water economy specialist in working on the 2019 Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan. That is because of cooler temperatures and the fact that we don’t water turf year-round here, which means a lower starting point for outdoor water use and therefore less potential savings from turf replacement.

“Lower [water] savings basically means less favorable economics for a property that wants to participate in this program,” Jeavons said. In other words, it will take a property in Colorado more time to see the cost savings that result from reduced water bills due to their landscape conversion than it does in Nevada.

Economics aren’t the only reason to convert a property’s turf to water-wise landscaping. A 2018 Alliance for Water Efficiency study on landscape transformation found that most customers aren’t happy with their landscaping and 69% of all respondents have already considered taking out their lawns, said Mayer, who led the study.

“There’s just not enough [state] money to buy [out] all the landscapes [to transform them from grass to water-wise vegetation] so we have to do the work ourselves toward changing the market and shifting the culture,” Mayer said. “We have to create a new Colorado landscape ethos of less water use, minimizing outdoor water use.”

According to Mayer, incentives aren’t the only way to encourage that change. Codes, ordinances, regulations, land use planning and zoning, water bills, and ultimately education and culture change all play a role, he said. But while making those changes, it’s important to minimize any unintended negative impacts, maintain the tree canopy, minimize the heat island effect, and transform landscapes in an equitable way.

To date, 22 turf replacement programs exist across Colorado, and many other utilities have water conservation programs that target outdoor irrigation.

Colorado Springs Utilities offers a turf replacement rebate and works to incentivize customers to update their landscaping, shifting to plants that can thrive on 12 inches of irrigation per year or less, said Julia Gallucci, the water conservation supervisor for the utility. The city is also focusing on retrofitting parks and public areas where people can see examples of different types of water-wise landscaping.

Colorado’s West Slope communities are also looking to reduce outdoor water use, but face different challenges.

Some residents in the Roaring Fork Valley, for instance, use untreated water for outdoor irrigation that is not metered through the utility, complicating conservation efforts. “We have raw water supplies so it’s difficult to put in outdoor water restrictions because a neighbor might be pulling water from a ditch, so there’s confusion,” said April Long manager of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority. “I think we still need to do some work on changing expectations.”

Meanwhile, the City of Aurora, which offers a grass replacement incentive, upped the ante. In August 2022, the city passed an ordinance that restricts turf in new developments. The city no longer allows “non-functional,” cool weather turf to be installed at new development projects, redevelopment, or at new golf courses. The installation of turf is also banned from medians, curbsides and residential front yards.

“The key is to not put turf in in the first place,” said Tim York, water conservation supervisor for the City of Aurora. In developing its ordinance, Aurora engaged developers and community members. “You want them to get involved because it’s the right thing to do, not because we told them to do it.”

Caitlin Coleman is a contributor to Fresh Water News and is editor of Water Education Colorado’s Headwaters Magazine. She can be reached at caitlin@wateredco.org.

New report, Nature-Based Solutions, published for the National #Climate Task Force — NOAA #ActOnClimate

Cover of the NBS report, released at COP27. Credit: White House

Click the link to read the article on the NOAA website (Genie Bey):

At COP27 in Egypt, the Biden-Harris Administration released the Nature-Based Solutions Roadmap, an outline of strategic recommendations to put America on a path that will unlock the full potential of nature-based solutions to address climate change, nature loss, and inequity. This marks the first time the U.S. has developed a strategy to scale up nature-based solutions. The report was developed in response to President Biden’s Executive Order 14072, which recognizes the importance of forests and other nature-based solutions to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen communities and local economies. Led by the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the National Climate Advisor, the report was developed in consultation with numerous agencies, and identifies key opportunities for greater deployment of nature-based solutions across the Federal government. 

The Roadmap calls on expanding the use of nature-based solutions and outlines five strategic areas of focus for the federal government: (1) updating policies, (2) unlocking funding, (3) leading with federal facilities and assets, (4) training the nature-based solutions workforce, and (5) prioritizing research, innovation, knowledge, and adaptive learning that will advance nature-based solutions. Genie Bey, Zac Cannizzo, Chelsea Combest-Friedman, Bhaskar Submaranian, and Lisa Vaughan represented NOAA’s Climate Program Office as contributors to this report and the accompanying resource guide.

Access the White House Fact Sheet here » 

Access the NBS Roadmap Report here »

Access the NBS Resource Guide here »

Read more about nature-based solutions at COP27 here »

For more information, contact Genie Bey.

Crop residue November 4, 2021. Photo credit: Joel Schneekloth

New report finds Congressional gridlock is holding up legislation to protect over 16 million acres of Western public land — The Center for Western Priorities

Highest peaks of Ruby Mtns, photo from top of Snell mountain to the south. By Nomdeploom – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45280158

Click the link to read the release on The Center for Western Priorities website:

A new report from the Center for Western Priorities finds that bills to protect over 16 million acres of public land in the West are currently languishing in Congress. Protecting these landscapes would bring the nation closer to achieving the goal of conserving 30 percent of public lands and waters by 2030, a scientifically-driven priority backed by the Biden administration.

Despite incredibly strong and enduring support for conservation actions, worsening partisan gridlock has caused progress on conservation to grind to a halt. Over the decade from 2000 to 2010, Congress protected 9.5 million acres of lands through legislation. The next decade, from 2011 to 2021, Congress protected just 3.3 million acres, one-third of what had been protected the previous decade. This has not been for a lack of effort—many bills have been introduced and several have passed the House, some of them multiple times, only to stall out in the Senate.

This report, titled Languishing Lands, details a selection of landscapes that have been proposed for protection, including the greater Grand Canyon region and the Great Bend of the Gila in Arizona, the Ruby Mountains in Nevada, Castner Range in Texas, and the Owyhee Canyonlands in Oregon. The President has a clear opportunity to deliver for the communities that have worked hard to craft broadly-supported proposals, and should not hesitate to exercise the authority that the Antiquities Act gives him for exactly this purpose.

Center for Western Priorities Policy Director Rachael Hamby said the following:

“Westerners overwhelmingly support public lands conservation and are eager to see President Biden take action to protect iconic landscapes across the West. This report shows that broadly-supported and popular conservation proposals are falling victim to gridlock in Congress.

“Communities, tribes, scientists, and lawmakers have worked tirelessly on all of these conservation proposals, and they deserve to see these sites and landscapes protected after years or even decades of persistent effort. President Biden has the power to bypass our dysfunctional Congress and protect millions of acres that are currently at risk of mining, drilling, and other forms of degradation. There’s no time to wait.”

READ THE REPORT

Learn more: 

Ruedi Water and Power Authority board unveils valley-wide outdoor watering standards: Guidance focused on time of day and day of week — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

The Weaver Ditch as it winds through Sopris Park in Carbondale. While the ditch is an amenity for the community, the water in the ditch comes directly out of the Crystal River, which is often stressed from lack of water. Some Carbondale residents irrigate their lawns and landscaping with the town’s ditches, like the Weaver Ditch, that flow through town. A new unified outdoor watering standard would not apply to those who use ditch water, but they still are encouraged to comply. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

In an effort to unify the Roaring Fork watershed, a local agency has developed valley-wide outdoor watering standards that its board members hope will be adopted by municipal water providers. 

Last week the Ruedi Water and Power Authority board, which is made up of representatives from local towns and counties, gave its unanimous support to a set of unified permanent watering standards. The standards are focused on time of day and day of week for outdoor watering and would apply to any residential or commercial customer receiving municipal water from the city of Aspen, town of Basalt, town of Carbondale, city of Glenwood Springs, Snowmass Water & Sanitation District and Mid-Valley Metropolitan District. 

The proposed schedule would limit outdoor watering to between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. three days a week. Properties with odd-numbered addresses could irrigate on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays; even-numbered properties could water on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. No outdoor watering would be allowed on Mondays. Water providers could still enact more stringent restrictions depending on local conditions in their areas; the standards are intended to be a new baseline.

“If we can make this change, the idea that (watering restrictions) change from year to year to year will go away,” said Rachel Richards, Aspen City Council and RWAPA board member. “It’s going to be much easier and less expensive than having to tell people every year what the rules are this summer.”

The new watering standards were developed with the help of a project accelerator grant from WaterNow Alliance, which according to its website is a network of water leaders advancing climate resilient water strategies, and Boulder-based environmental advocacy group Western Resource Advocates. Outdoor watering of lawns and landscaping is often the largest water use category for local water providers; for the city of Aspen, outdoor irrigation represents about 70% of total water use. 

The proposed schedule would result in water savings because watering would happen during the coolest periods of the day, peak demands would be reduced and one day a week of no watering would allow storage to be refilled, according to a memo from WaterNow Alliance and WRA. 

“The three-day-per-week schedule is relatively easy to communicate to residents and other water users and it can be easily programmed into all types of irrigation controllers,” the memo reads. 

The valley-wide watering standards were an outgrowth of the regional water efficiency plan, said RWAPA Executive Director April Long. 

“We learned from the providers that were part of that plan that they still really needed some unified messaging about outdoor water use,” Long said. “We realized we don’t even have common ground to tell people exactly what to do because we have so many drought stages, and restrictions implemented in different ways. We actually need some baseline standards so we can provide a common message that’s not confusing for all of our residents.”

There are some exceptions to the standards. Outdoor watering can still occur any time of day with a handheld hose or drip irrigation. And those who irrigate with water from a ditch, like many residents in the town of Carbondale, are not subject to the standards, but are encouraged to comply. 

The standards lay out penalties for violation, including a written warning for a first violation, and fines increasing to $500 for a fourth violation. But proponents will focus solely on an education campaign for the first season before issuing warnings or fines. 

The next step is for Long to present the watering standards to each of the participating municipalities and get them approved by elected officials. 

This story ran in The Aspen Times on Nov. 19.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

#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.

Municipal water among most vulnerable in #ColoradoRiver crisis — WyoFile #LittleSnakeRiver #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Lincoln Highway in Cheyenne, Feb. 16, 2013. (Kent Kanouse/FlickrCC)

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

When Cheyenne’s municipal water board approved a deal in October to supply up to 14,500 acre-feet of water over 15 years for a proposed gold mine west of town, attorneys insisted on inserting a clause in the contract. It retained the right to cut water deliveries if the city itself has to curtail its water use due to the Colorado River crisis.

“The majority of our water comes from the Colorado River [basin] and if that call [requiring upstream users to cut consumption] comes in, we’re in big trouble,” Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins said.

About 70% of the city’s municipal water supply originates 150 miles west in the Little Snake River drainage, a part of the Colorado River Basin. A complex “trans-basin” system of pumps, tunnels and pipelines transports the water under the Continental Divide in the Medicine Bow Routt National Forest to the city. 

Cheyenne’s legal claims to the Colorado River Basin water were appropriated from 1954 to 1982 — making it a relatively new user in the system. If there is a curtailment, it would be applied to the newest or most “junior” appropriations, then work back in time to the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That means, depending on how far back in time a curtailment extends, 70% of the city’s water supply could be shut off — an action that could come as soon as 2028 if hydrological conditions keep trending for the worse, according to the Wyoming State Engineer’s office.

This map depicts Cheyenne’s municipal water supply system, which funnels in water from the Little Snake River Basin. (Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities)

“If we lose 100% of our Colorado River Compact water, we’re upside down,” Collins said, adding that about 80,000 people rely on the city’s municipal water system. “We wouldn’t have enough water to meet our current needs.”

For now, Cheyenne, Baggs, Rock Springs, Green River, Pinedale and a handful of other towns that depend on water from the Little Snake and Green River basins in Wyoming are assessing where they stand in the pecking order of appropriated water rights in the event of a curtailment. Although municipalities make up a small percentage of Wyoming water users under the Colorado River Compact and associated laws, their legal claims to the water are among the most vulnerable.

First in time, first in right

If the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission issues a curtailment for Wyoming, it would not necessarily force all water users subject to the compact to close their spigots completely.

There’s no curtailment priority in terms of use — whether it’s irrigation for cattle and alfalfa fields, water consumed for cooling at the Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant or water piped to homes for domestic use. Instead, a curtailment would be applied based on the first-in-time, first-in-right water appropriations doctrine: Those who gained their water appropriation latest in time would be the first ordered to shut off their water.

For example, if the state had to curtail 100,000 acre-feet of water — approximately one-sixth of its annual Colorado River Basin consumptive water use — the state engineer would begin with the newest appropriations and work back in time until the 100,000 acre-feet of consumptive water use curtailment was met.

Shauna Gray and her dog, Lula Mae, paddle at Rob Roy Reservoir July 31, 2022. The reservoir is part of a trans-basin water system that supplies water to Cheyenne. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

If, let’s say, that required turning off all Colorado River Basin water appropriations back to 1970, that would choke off all water appropriated since then — whether for industrial, municipal or agricultural use. The cities of Rock Springs and Green River, which share a municipal water system that serves some 39,000 residents, would lose access to 75% of their Green River water appropriation. The towns would still be allowed to tap the 4,343-acre-feet-per-year appropriation they secured in 1928 and the 2,895-acre-feet-per-year appropriation that predates the 1922 compact. The rest — 75% — was appropriated in 1971 and after.

This type of variable vulnerability applies to many Colorado River Basin water users with appropriated rights that were obtained at different times. The exact order for how a curtailment would be applied is well documented and under continual review, according to the state engineer’s office.

Small straw, big vulnerability

Agriculture accounts for 83.7% of Wyoming’s consumptive use of water in the Colorado River system, according to the SEO. Municipal water use accounts for about 2.8% — or 3.3% if you include rural domestic water use. Industry — trona facilities, coal power plants, oil and natural gas processing — make up most of the remaining 13%.

Approximately 70% of agricultural irrigation water rights in Wyoming were appropriated before 1922. Those pre-1922 appropriations are not subject to the Colorado River Compact and cannot be shut off under a curtailment. The pre-1922 protection applies to all Colorado River Basin water users.

A majority of Colorado River Basin water appropriations held by Wyoming municipal water authorities, however, are post-1922. That means some 125,000 urban Wyoming residents and businesses are vulnerable to a curtailment.

Given the curtailment clause in Cheyenne’s water contract, gold mine developer Gold King Corp. is shopping around to secure alternative water resources, according to Mayor Collins. The city of Cheyenne — as well as Green River, Rock Springs and others — are doing the same.

“There is the possibility that we would not be able to collect any water from the Little Snake System if [a] curtailment call goes below 1954,” Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities Administrator Brad Brooks told WyoFile. “We are looking for additional water to mitigate this possibility and planning for the worst case that our Little Snake water will not be available.”

Green River and Rock Springs are in the same boat. Their joint municipal water system collects 100% of its water from the Green River and its tributaries to serve some 39,000 residents in and around the two cities. Only 10% of their Colorado River Basin water appropriations pre-date the 1922 compact.

Green River. (Google Earth)

Although the cities don’t rely on the full volume of their legal claims to Colorado River Basin water, the time to plan for supplemental water sources is now; 2028, the year Wyoming might first see a curtailment, isn’t far away, Green River/Rock Springs Joint Powers Board General Manager Bryan Seppie said.

“Understand, [a curtailment] probably isn’t a one-year event,” Seppie told WyoFile, adding that much depends on what Mother Nature has in store. “We’ve got to secure other water resources to serve as replacement water if [a curtailment] were to happen. Conservation is a tool, but with these types of curtailments, conservation is not going to get you out of it.”

Backup water

Part of the Gold King deal provides Cheyenne’s Board of Public Utilities approximately $5 million in fees that would help cover the cost to expand Cheyenne’s groundwater capacity. The city’s water board is also seeking up to $10.5 million in grants from the Wyoming Water Development Commission for its Borie wellfield expansion project. The expansion would add approximately 3,300 acre-feet of water per year to the city’s water portfolio, according to the board. 

That would boost Cheyenne’s non-Colorado River Compact water source portfolio to 9,900 acre-feet per year. But the city would still be in trouble in the event of a curtailment because its average annual use is about 14,000 acre-feet.

“We are actively pursuing possibilities” for additional water resources, Brooks of the city’s BOPU said.

Anglers try their luck on the Green River at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge on Sept. 27, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Expanding groundwater capacity, however, isn’t an affordable option for Rock Springs and Green River, according to Seppie. Instead, the cities are looking to those in the state with pre-1922 appropriations to share some water.

The federal System Conservation Program pays water users to curb consumption. Congress recently re-appropriated funding for the program, while the Inflation Reduction Act includes some $4 billion for efforts to modernize Colorado River Basin infrastructure and water management practices. Another $8.3 billion from the bipartisan Infrastructure law is available to address water and drought challenges throughout the U.S.

The SCP is an attractive option, Seppie said, for both ag irrigators and municipalities. Ag irrigators who volunteer for the program can use payments to upgrade their irrigation systems to waste less water.

“It’s a voluntary thing. It’s preemptive, and it’s benefiting the entire system,” Seppie said. “We haven’t gotten to a point where we’re having those discussions [with city officials]. But we have somewhat of a timeframe; 2028 is not all that far off.”