Why these homeowners tore out their turf: A growing number of Coloradans want to kill something, namely their grass. “Living in a semiarid environment,” says one, “we shouldn’t just be throwing water on the ground.” — Allen Best (@BigPivots)

Heather Brubaker has used Resource Central services as she nibbles at her large yard in Longmont. PhotosAllen Best

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is part of a series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.

by Allen Best

Heather Brubaker had a sprawling yard of Kentucky bluegrass at her home in Longmont. Mowing the turf took her more than two hours. During summer, her monthly  water bill jumped to $400.

To what good purpose, she asked herself. “It’s not really doing anything for anybody. And the grass is not native to Colorado,” she said.

Three years later, the lot at the corner of a cul-de-sac has not shrunk. Most of it remains in grass. But in increments, Brubaker has started replacing the thirsty turf with waterwise landscaping, also called xeriscaping or Coloradoscaping.

Cactuses and rocks do not define this new front yard. Colorado’s Front Range has a semiarid climate, but it’s not in the Mojave Desert. The result has spurred Brubaker’s neighbors to inquire as to her landscaper. “I tell them that my children and I have done most of the work,” she said.

Brubaker’s front yard is part of a broad and accelerating shift in Colorado’s towns and cities. Many homeowners and some businesses have started replacing lawns of Kentucky bluegrass and other varieties of thirsty cool-weather turf with vegetation that needs less water. 

Mrs. Gulch’s landscape September 14, 2023.

Outdoor water use constitutes roughly half of the water used in Colorado’s towns and cities. Many water utilities have offered rebates for these water-saving landscape shifts, reasoning that more-efficient use of existing water supplies will be far cheaper than development of new sources to meet growing populations. This reduced demand can also insulate them from the extremes posed by a changing climate. 

Kentucky bluegrass and other cool-weather grasses are imports from wetter climates. Philadelphia, for example, gets 44 inches of annual precipitation. Even Oklahoma City gets 36 inches. Denver averages 15.6 inches. Bluegrass requires between 24 and 29 inches of water in the metropolitan area. Waterwise landscapes can reduce outdoor water use by half and, depending upon choices, even more. 

Change, however, can be hard. There’s the sod itself. Once established, it is very difficult to remove. For most homeowners, that’s the most arduous task in a landscape conversion. Deciding what to plant in place of the thirsty grass can also be perplexing.

Brubaker started in 2021 with a narrow 100-square-foot strip along her front porch. She had volunteered for research being conducted by a team from Colorado State University that wanted to see how well pollinator-attracting plants would grow along the dripline of her front porch without supplemental irrigation. She now has many more buzzing visitors.

Emboldened by that success, Brubaker then applied for grants offered through Longmont’s municipal water provider. In two sequences, each involving sod removal and then plantings, she replaced other and larger portions of her front yard. The new section will need only half the water of before. She also created a place for whiling away languid summer evenings around a fire pit.

After rebates, she has spent $1,500, which will be recouped in time with reduced water bills.

Crucial to the success of Brubaker’s transformation was Boulder-based Resource Central. Spawned by the 2002 drought, the nonprofit’s first and still most popular program is called Garden In A Box. Designed with the aid of landscape architects, these do-it-yourself kits include quart-size perennial plants, plant-by-number maps, suggestions for seasonal maintenance and recommendations for water.

You want variety? This program has it. Consumers have at least six choices based on preferences for colors, full sun or shade, and whether attracting pollinators is a goal. Each box also delivers instructions about spacing and soils. Too sandy? Too much clay? How can it best be amended? Orders are made in March for May and June plantings, and again in June for August and September plantings. 

“Everything a person needs to get started is included in their packaging, and it’s laid out very simply about what plants to put together and how to maintain them,” said Brubaker. “If you’re a novice, you can still do it easily with all the education that they put into the Garden In A Box program. It really made me want to try it.”

Resource Central volunteers Josh Kingen loads a tray of plants while volunteer Ellen Olson and event staff member Jeff Jordan await their turns during a Resource Central distribution in Westminster. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Making it easy to conserve

Neal Lurie, executive director of Resource Central, said the nonprofit seeks to meet people where they are. Often, they are pressed for time and not fully knowledgeable. Learning about how to transform landscapes can be overwhelming.

“If you make it easy to conserve water, they will do it,” he said. “If you make it really difficult, then they will come back to it when they have time. That is the reason that so many people continue with their current landscaping year after year. It takes time to make changes.”

Resource Central this year expanded Garden in a Box offerings by 30% — and still sold out in just four weeks. This year, the nonprofit distributed 13,000 boxes while working with 47 municipal and other partners for its various programs from Fort Collins to Pueblo. It secures its plants from local nurseries who agree to grow the sets without aid of chemicals that will harm pollinators.

Those ordering can pick up their choices at central distribution locations. For example, volunteers and staff quickly delivered the boxes to cars and pickups that made their way through a queue in the parking lot of the Westminster Municipal Building on a Saturday in August. Customers arrived when they wished. Waits at fast-food restaurants are often longer.

Turf removal is among Resource Central’s newer programs, a result of focus-group research that in 2019 found it was a key reason that even more people didn’t convert their lawns. Sod can be removed in several ways. All have challenges or difficult choices.

Convinced this was a needed service, Resource Central reached out to more than 30 landscape firms but found no potential partner. “The reason is that landscape service companies are in the business of mowing lawns, not removing lawns,” said Lurie.

Undeterred, Resource Central launched the service and this year removed 600 lawns, among them the plot at Brubaker’s house. This relieves homeowners of the hard part, leaving them with the fun of planting and creating. The removed turf is composted by A1 Organics and other companies.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board in September awarded Resource Central $1.6 million for turf replacement and removal. The two overlapping grants were the largest for water conservation ever awarded by the state agency. The terms require Resource Central to expand its water-conservation programs to new participants and communities. The Western Slope is one of the targeted regions.

“Our vision is to help make beautiful waterwise yards the new norm in Colorado,” said Lurie.

In many ways, Brubaker is typical of those wanting to shift their landscapes in that she hopes to be part of the answer to the West’s water limits. “I know we have a water crisis, and we have to conserve water,” Brubaker said. 

She also wanted to provide “places for the bees.” In that, she has much company. Concern about pollinators ranks third among motivations for Resource Central customers, up from seventh a few years ago. Native vegetation does that. 

Once established, maintenance of native grasses can be far easier. Other low-water landscapes, though, can still require considerable work.

There’s also this: The goal of a lawn is to grow something that, once harvested, is promptly thrown away. To some, that amounts to silly.

Retired and with her children grown, Lois Witte decided it was time to save water and help out pollinators by replacing the front-yard turf at her Lakewood home. Photo/Allen Best.

Attracting pollinators and reducing water use motivated Lois Witte. A retired water attorney, she decided last year that with her kids on their own, it was time to replace plants in her front yard with plants mostly native to the region.

Plant species with flowers from elsewhere, such as the East Coast or Europe, may attract bees and insects, said Witte. But plants native to the region will attract far more insects. After all, they evolved together.

To kill the grass, she and her husband, Scot Kersgaard, began in the late summer of 2022 using what is called a lasagna method. First came cardboard, then wood chips, followed by horse manure that a friend with a barn full of it was only too happy to share. On top of that were more wood chips, then dirt and pea-size gravel, called squeegee. Nine months of this method killed the grass — but not the bindweed. 

By late this past summer, Witte’s work was enough to spur praise from neighbors out for evening walks. Little water will be needed once the new plants are established. Until then, however, they can take more water. 

So, what spurred Witte and her husband? “In general, it’s a good idea, living in a semiarid environment,” she said of low-water landscapes. “We shouldn’t just be throwing water on the ground.”

When chaos can be good 

In south Denver during August, a street corner proved to be an ideal place to meet women — and a few men, too — who loved talking about birds and bees. They were on a tour organized by the Front Range chapter of the Wild Ones, a national organization devoted to the transformation of outdoor places to habitats for native species.

“We’re not going to save the world, but we’re going to do our part,” said Vicki Saragoussi Phillips. After she and her husband, Rick Phillips, began converting their Kentucky bluegrass lawn, water use dropped from 45,000 gallons a month to 15,000. They expect even less water use once the garden becomes fully established.

Vicki described her yard as a place of chaos. Vegetative chaos, she believes, is good. Most front yards in their upper middle-class neighborhood, near South Colorado Boulevard and Interstate 25, suggested a different aesthetic. They were deep green, possibly the result of chemical treatments. They were also mowed with the care that a shirt might be pressed to eliminate wrinkles.

Owners of this house in southeast Denver describe their front yard as a place of chaos. They belong to the Front Range chapter of a national group called Wild Ones. Photo/Allen Best

A young woman from the neighborhood, pushing her baby in a stroller, confided to the couple that when she rounded the corner to see their yard, she felt liberated.

Resource Central classifies most of its customers as early adopters. The nonprofit hopes to see their enthusiasm for alternative landscapes expand to create a paradigm shift. And if that helps save water — well, so much the better.

“Just say no to lawns and exotics,” Leslie Klusmire said in response to a Facebook post. She lives in Monte Vista, where she now has a yard in its third year of restoration to native plants. If some neighbors were skeptical about the weeds of spring, later they were admiring her wildflowers.

“If you look at my meadow now, it’s alive,” she said in early October. “It’s full of butterflies and bees and everything. That’s the point, to create an environment for everything.”

This is not new for Klusmire. Her father, a landscaper for Caltrans, the transportation agency in California, talked frequently about how imported grasses wasted water. Studying landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona in the 1970s, Klusmire got the same message.

For many homeowners, finding a contractor can be a challenge. It was for Lakewood resident Rebecca Cantwell. 

Cantwell grew up in Denver during the 1950s, a time of drought that resulted in Denver Water going forward with its boring of the Roberts Tunnel and the damming of the Blue River, creating Lake Dillon. Denver supplies water to Lakewood, a city of 157,000, and about half of that water comes from the Blue and other Colorado River tributaries.

“The crisis in the Colorado River is waking up a lot of people, but our long-held assumption that everyone deserves a bluegrass lawn is just not really OK anymore,” she said.

Cantwell knew she didn’t want rock and juniper bushes to replace the grass. “That’s a false choice,” she said. “I wanted something beautiful.”

She finally found a landscape contractor to execute her vision, but it took awhile.

With rebates from municipal water providers, consumers can choose from a great variety of plants through Resource Central’s popular Garden In A Box program. The program will be expanded next year to the Western Slope. Photo by Allen Best

In another part of the metropolitan area, professional landscaper Kevin Cox has been eager to help homeowners and businesses shift to what he calls “sustainable landscaping.” That generally involves eliminating all cool-weather, high-water turfs except in areas where specifically needed.

His company, Centennial-based Professional Landscape Services, has a dozen large commercial clients, a few dozen medium to smaller commercial accounts, and 80 to 90 residential homes across the metro area, including Castle Rock, Aurora and Denver.

Mowing bluegrass is part of what Cox’s company does. But he also suggests landscape alternatives. When he does, he sometimes gets pushback.

“Everyone still wants their green grass. They say, ‘I don’t want it to look like Arizona.’ I’ve heard that a thousand times,” said Cox. “The other thing I hear is the amount of money it costs to rip out grass. They say, ‘That buys a lot of water.’”

Pay now or pay later, Cox tells them. Water will only get more expensive over time.

Beyond money, Cox sees what he calls low-water landscapes being the moral high road. “It just starts with ethics. Water is a finite resource,” he said.

Although a good case can be made for keeping some cool-weather grasses, such as for ball fields and places where toddlers play, Cox finds much of it wasteful.

“I mean, some of this grass nobody even looks at. We’re the only ones that look at it. It’s just there for us to mow, especially in some of these people’s backyards. They’re not even there half the year.”

The best way for Front Range cities such as those where his customers live, Cox said, is to do it right the first time. When new homes and business parks are developed, they should create landscapes that use less water. Led by Aurora and Castle Rock, more jurisdictions are deciding that it’s better to get it right first instead of correcting later. And in early 2024, legislators are almost certain to hear a bill that would make that state policy.

Next in this series: Aurora, Castle Rock and other municipalities in Colorado have aggressively limited new water-thirsty turf. Should the state have a broader role? Legislators in January will take up a bill that would impose restrictions on new water-thirsty turf everywhere. Expect a lively debate about state vs. local control.

ColoradoScaping helps improve the biodiversity of the city. Adding new habitats in the Quebec Street medians provides “fuel stops” for birds and bees as they move around the city. Photo credit: Denver Water.

How bluegrass lawns became the default for urban landscapes — Allen Best (@BigPivots)

Top: Ron Mettle, left, and Sandy Bertch replaced thirsty turf with low-water native species at the edge of their HOA’s property in Greeley but hope to now expand replacements into other parts of the commons area. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

Nov 22, 2023

This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is part of a series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.

Between 50% and 60% of Coloradans live in housing governed by homeowners associations, commonly called HOAs. Squeezing water devoted to urban landscapes must necessarily involve these neighborhoods.

It’s already happening but, so far, mostly on the edges. A case in point: a small HOA in Greeley called Bittersweet Pointe.

“We keep saying that all the other HOAs are pointless,” Sandy Bertch, president of the board of directors, joked as he led visitors to a hillside on the edge of the HOA’s commons area.

There, three-fourths of an acre of Kentucky bluegrass had been replaced this year by a mixture of blue grama and buffalo grass. With a summer of watering bills now in hand, Bertch estimates that the HOA needs 60% less water to irrigate that section. More turf replacement will occur on the HOA’s 2.5 acres of common ground, Bertsch promised, now that the efficacy of the native grasses has been demonstrated.

The HOA is among the smallest you’re likely to find. It has 11 duplexes, or 22 units altogether, all of whose residents are retired. It is self-managed, unlike most HOAs, which employ property management firms.

Ron Mettler, a retired electrical engineer, was president of the board when he brought up the subject of turf conversion. He got immediate pushback. “Don’t you touch that green grass. That’s why I am here,” said a resident, who has since died. 

Finally, last year, consensus was achieved. Costs were crucial. The retirees will save money in reduced water bills and won’t need to mow the difficult hillside as frequently.

Making the decision easier was the city of Greeley’s incentive: $1 a square foot for removal of Kentucky bluegrass in addition to rebates for water efficiency.

Clinching the deal was the shared perception of growing water scarcity. Homeowners agreed that they needed to do their part in lessening demands. 

“These two are poster children,” Ruth Quade, Greeley’s water conservation administrator, said of Mettler and Bertsch. “The key to a successful project is having one or two champions, and that is what these two are.”

Every turf conversion project needs a champion, says Ruth Quade, water conservation administrator for Greeley. This lawn of this Presbyterian church has been partially replaced with pollinator-friendly vegetation. Photo/Allen Best

Replacing Kentucky bluegrass and other cool-weather grasses with native grasses and other less-thirsty species will not solve all of Colorado’s water problems. Nearly 90% of water in Colorado goes to agriculture. Only 7% of the state’s water gets used within towns and cities, and roughly half of that goes to outdoor use for lawns, gardens and other urban landscaping.

So, why does it matter? For one thing, it’s very expensive, and politically fraught, for cities to develop new water sources, usually from distant locations. Treating that water to potable standards is expensive, too. Water used indoors, which is largely contained in pipes, can be recycled. Water engineers calculate that 85% of water used for outdoor landscapes is lost because of evaporation and other causes.

All of this has water providers looking to focus on water devoted to discretionary outdoor use in road medians, business parks, homes and common areas. Experts say this transition to less water-demanding landscapes in urban areas will take many years.

Clearings around castles

How did thirsty bluegrass become the landscaping default, the cultural norm in Colorado and elsewhere?

“Nowhere in the world are lawns as prized as in America,” Michael Pollan wrote in an essay published in The New York Times Magazine in 1989. “In little more than a century, we’ve rolled a green mantle of grass across the continent, with scarcely a thought to the local conditions or expense.”

In his essay, “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns,” Pollan shared that when he was a child growing up on New York’s Long Island, his father defied convention and refused to mow the turf at the family’s tract house. The turf grew tall enough to flower and seed, something impossible with mowed lawns. “The lawn rippled in the breeze like a flag,” wrote Pollan.

Neighbors saw something else. Some instructed their children not to play with the young Pollan. Later, when he got a lawn himself, Pollan began mulling the purpose of lawns. In this suburban paradise, he concluded, such individuality was unacceptable. 

Pollan and other writers have traced our modern idea of a lawn to the early 17th century. In at least one telling, aristocrats wanted clearings around their castles for defensive purposes. They either had animals graze it or dispatched servants with scythes to keep the grasses low.

The idea of grassy lawns around homes was transferred to the United States in the mid-19th century. At first, it was limited to the American aristocracy. Thomas Jefferson put in a lawn at Monticello. So did other wealthy landowners. But for Americans of lesser means, yards were devoted to more functional pursuits, such as the growing of vegetables or the keeping of pigs and other animals. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

“Turf War,” a 2008 essay by Elizabeth Kolbert published in The New Yorker, identifies Andrew Jackson Downing as a seminal influencer as the masses began to embrace lawns. In his 1841 book, “A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening,” Downing, based in New York, took aim at the dowdy rural landscapes of his familiarity. He equated personal self-improvement with gussied-up front yards.

“In the landscape garden, we appeal to that sense of the Beautiful and the Perfect, which is one of the highest attributes of our nature,” Downing wrote. Essential to that perfect garden, Downing wrote, was an expanse of “grass mown into a softness like velvet.”

Others spread the gospel. Frank J. Scott, in an 1870 book titled “The Art Of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent,” wrote that “a smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.” Frederick Law Olmsted deployed the broad lawns of Central Park and also planted grass in some of our first suburbs.

Technology also played a role. In 1830, a textile engineer in England adapted a carpet cutter to create the world’s first reel lawn mower. After an improved design in 1870, hand-pushed lawn mowers were produced by the tens of thousands annually. In 1893 came a patent for the first steam-powered mower. We were well on our way to the Saturday ritual many people know so well. “Over time,” wrote Kolbert, “the fact that anyone could keep up a lawn was successfully, though not altogether logically, translated into the notion that everyone ought to.”

Kolbert further identified the role of what farmers call inputs. To get potassium and other essential elements to spur growth, farmers over the ages had used everything from human dung to ground-up bones. In Europe, some robbed human graves for the skeletons. On the American Great Plains, bison were shot, their bones piled high and shipped to the East Coast.

Costs of waging war on weeds

In 1909 came an invention in Germany with profound but conflicting implications. Fritz Haber, a chemist who later won the Nobel Prize, figured out an economical way to synthesize ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen.

One result: explosives and gasses used to help run up the death toll in World War I to 20 million. Another: the ability to create fertilizer that, when applied to fields, enabled the world’s population to expand by several billion more than it probably would have otherwise.

This synthesized fertilizer could also be applied to turfgrass to counteract the seasonal cycle. By tricking the plants into putting out new growth, wrote Kolbert, fertilized grass could become ever-green. Other chemicals could quell the yellow blemishes of dandelions and every other shade of plant deemed a weed. That includes clover, which otherwise has value for fixing nitrogen in the soil. Such is the cost of having unadulterated grass.

By the time baby boomers were mostly toddlers, the idea of a perfect lawn had swept the country, even to the smallest of Colorado towns and cities. Along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, Abraham Levitt, the namesake for the Long Island town, declared that “no single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and locality as well-kept lawns.”

In “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” Virginia Scott Jenkins pointed to the export of this idea to deserts of the Southwest and also to the Middle East. “Even the American community in Saudi Arabia has front lawns in the middle of the desert,” she wrote.

“Don’t crush me,” says this sign at a housing development in Timnath. Native grasses take several years to get established, but then require far less maintenance and water. Photo/Allen Best

Perfection was possible — but at a well-known cost. Rachel Carson, in her 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” described the risk to human health posed by indiscriminate pesticide use. This, wrote Kolbert, inverted the calculation about the meaning of a well-tended, unblemished lawn. “Instead of demonstrating that a homeowner cared about his neighbors, a trim and tidy stretch of turf showed that he didn’t,” Kolbert wrote.

What then? If shaved lawns of green no longer represent civic virtue, what should take their place? That’s the question now being addressed in Colorado and many other places.

Perfect lawns also bump up against a hard hydrologic reality in Colorado. It is the nation’s seventh-most-arid state, and the story of the 21st century has been of a warming, drying climate.

Cities with growing populations exist in this shifting axis between supply and demand. They’re looking to conserve water in the most-cost-effective ways. To succeed, some of this must necessarily involve homeowners associations.

Private governments

Homeowners associations have been described as private governments enforcing covenants among homeowners. Colorado as of 2022 had 10,510 HOAs with 2.4 million residents, according to the Community Associations Institute, a national organization. Most are managed by private companies. And, according to detractors, they tend to be stuck in their ways.

Perfection was possible — but at a well-known cost. Rachel Carson, in her 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” described the risk to human health posed by indiscriminate pesticide use. This, wrote Kolbert, inverted the calculation about the meaning of a well-tended, unblemished lawn. “Instead of demonstrating that a homeowner cared about his neighbors, a trim and tidy stretch of turf showed that he didn’t,” Kolbert wrote.

What then? If shaved lawns of green no longer represent civic virtue, what should take their place? That’s the question now being addressed in Colorado and many other places.

Perfect lawns also bump up against a hard hydrologic reality in Colorado. It is the nation’s seventh-most-arid state, and the story of the 21st century has been of a warming, drying climate.

Cities with growing populations exist in this shifting axis between supply and demand. They’re looking to conserve water in the most-cost-effective ways. To succeed, some of this must necessarily involve homeowners associations.

Private governments

Homeowners associations have been described as private governments enforcing covenants among homeowners. Colorado as of 2022 had 10,510 HOAs with 2.4 million residents, according to the Community Associations Institute, a national organization. Most are managed by private companies. And, according to detractors, they tend to be stuck in their ways.

Before George Teal became a Douglas County commissioner, he was a member of the Castle Rock City Council for 6½ years. Because the city was heavily reliant on a large but unrenewable underground aquifer, it wanted to encourage low-water landscapes — what it calls ColoradoScapes.

Homeowners associations resisted, said Teal. He cited “just numerous examples” given to the City Council members each year of homeowners being told by their HOAs that they could not rip out their turf. That included his own neighborhood and HOA, Crystal Valley Ranch, one that he describes as consisting of mostly working middle-class people. A change would have required a 65% vote. He similarly cites another HOA, Woodland, which consists of more-affluent residents.

“It became kind of a rallying cry on the council,” Teal said in a recent interview. “What could we do to get HOAs to accept the more water-smart landscape methodologies that were being advocated by our water utility?”

The answer was nothing. Local governments did not have the power to curb HOA powers. It had to be done at the state level.

Colorado legislators have nudged HOAs toward less water-consumptive landscapes several times in the last few years. Photo/Allen Best

In 2019, Colorado legislators passed the first of four laws that do so. House Bill 19-1050stipulates that it is contrary to public policy for common-interest communities, such as HOAs, to “prohibit or limit installation or use of drought-tolerant vegetative landscapes, or require cultivated vegetation to consist wholly or partially of turf grass.”

The law did allow HOAs to adopt aesthetic guidelines.

In 2021 came another law, HB21-1229. It required HOAs to allow artificial turf in backyards and also solar panels, once again subject to “reasonable aesthetic guidelines.”

These steps were applauded by Jody Beck, an associate professor in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado Denver. “Extensive green lawns are almost never an appropriate expression of responsible citizenship in the arid West, if by responsible citizenship we mean the conscientious use of limited shared resources,” he said. 

In 2022, legislators did not specifically target HOAs and water. Instead, HB 22-1151 instructed the state’s chief water agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to develop a program for the voluntary replacement of turf in cooperation with local governments and appropriated $2 million for that work. After administrative expenses, $1.5 million has been awarded to more than two dozen local jurisdictions in Colorado.

Later that same year, legislators were advised that another law was needed to close a loophole in the 2019 law. At least some HOAs had used the clause that gave them aesthetic discretion in reviewing plans to effectively stall or even block turf-replacement projects proposed by owners of single-family homes.

Proponents have cited abundant anecdotal evidence. The most-direct evidence came from a survey conducted in 2021 by Western Resource Advocates in cooperation with the city of Greeley. The survey was intended to reveal the primary barriers keeping residents from replacing some or all of their grass with water-wise landscaping. Cost? Expertise? Aesthetics?

Nothing was asked by the survey about HOAs, but when allowed the opportunity to describe the challenges, 41 of the 720 who completed the survey cited their HOAs.

A step in the right direction

This year’s bill had bipartisan support. “In practice, we see barriers to people who want to replant their front yards with more water-conserving plants,” said state Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Democrat from Longmont, when introducing the bill, HB23-178, at a legislative committee hearing.

Another bill sponsor, Sen. Perry Will, a Republican from New Castle, who represents seven Western Slope counties, cited demands on the Colorado River. “This will not save all of Colorado’s water, but it is a step in the right direction.”

The bill requires that HOAs must select at least three preapproved water-saving landscaping templates that residents can follow. Residents and HOAs can choose to go for other designs, but at least three options must be preapproved. There’s no real excuse for saying no.

Also in this five-part series:

Part I. Colorado squeezing water from urban landscapes Pace of transition has accelerated, deepened and broadened as headwaters state struggles to embrace limits of water supply in a warming, likely drying climate

Part II. Enough water for lawns at the headwaters of the Colorado River? The Western Slope delivers 70% of the Colorado River water. So why do Aspen, Vail and other places want to replace thirsty turf?

Part III. How bluegrass lawns became the default for urban landscapes Some Colorado HOAs have started moving the needle, while state legislators prod others into water-wise landscapes; plus, a history of how we arrived at a certain idea of landscape perfection.

Part IV coming. The outliers of the native grass movement. Some Coloradans have taken it upon themselves to remove their thirsty turf, and a non-profit is helping them do it.

Part V coming. Do we really need bluegrass in road medians? And Aurora, Castle Rock and Denver push for sharper limits on what can be installed in the first place.

The state’s most significant organization representing HOAs didn’t bother to show up to testify one way or another. The bill passed with minor opposition grounded in questions of local control.

Teal, who testified in both legislative committee hearings, said he would have preferred local control. But, given the sweeping powers of HOAs, he believed the state had to step in order to aid municipalities. “Water conservation and water reuse have become primary goals of the town of Castle Rock and, I think, soon will become one of our primary policy goals here in (Douglas) County as well,” he said.

Robert Greer, a Denver attorney, helped draft the bill that he says closed the loophole in the 2019 law that was big enough to “drive a solar system through.”

He was driven, he said, most powerfully by a desire to create urban landscapes that accommodate pollinators of the natural ecosystem. His sentiment is part of a broad and powerful undercurrent in Colorado’s push to replace Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and other imported cool-season varieties. It’s not all about saving water.

Also testifying was Chris Marion, who began work in 2017 as a water conservation specialist. After getting a master’s degree in sustainability planning from the University of Colorado Boulder, he founded a company called 3.0 Management. It provides management for about 40 HOAs in metropolitan Denver.

Marion sees an opportunity for HOAs and other places with large expanses of turf to rethink their landscapes. Irrigation systems installed 40 to 50 years ago need replacement or updating, Some HOAs are poorly funded for replacement of leaking pipes and so forth.

 “It’s not only the cost of water, but the associated maintenance costs of older grass,” he said.

Something else is going on, a shifting cultural norm. The impetus for expanses of Kentucky bluegrass that we see today was “simple, cost-effective landscaping, which was primarily bluegrass.” Now, said Marion, younger generations in particular have become at least aware of “the concept of personal ecological footprints.” 

That shift in attitudes is now being integrated into governance of HOAs.

A sidewalk divides Kentucky bluegrass on the left from the native grasses at the Oak Ridge commons area in Fort Collins. Photo/Allen Best

Lessons from Fort Collins

In Fort Collins, Colorado’s fourth-largest city, with a population of 170,000, residents of the Oak Ridge VII homeowners association were informed in 2018 that they would have to pay $18,000 more annually for water. 

When the tap fee for the commons area owned by the 52 members of Oak Ridge VII and two other HOAs had been assessed several decades ago, it assumed a maximum volume of water. Water use for that commons area had been rising, exceeding the maximum. Homeowners had to figure out how to use less water or pay the greater fee.

The 10.1-acre commons area consists of expansive lawns interspersed with trees that turn bright with warm colors during the fall. It also has a soccer field and a 1.4-acre detention area designed to hold stormwater. Water can get 1 foot deep when it rains, as it did prodigiously this year. In previous drier years, though, Kentucky bluegrass required irrigation to maintain its well-coiffed look. 

In 2019, HOA directors approved conversion of the bluegrass to buffalo and blue grama grasses. A survey of homeowners found that 80% supported the shift. Later, another problem area — a small south-facing hill that was difficult to irrigate and mow — was also replaced. Water use for the park has declined to 3.1 million gallons per year — the original projected need when the subdivision was created 30 years ago — from 4 million to 5 million gallons per year.

The full cost of the landscaping work of $86,000 was defrayed by $57,000 in grants from Northern Water, the bulk water provider, and the city of Fort Collins. “We never could have done it without the grants,” said Susan Gilbert, a homeowner who championed the shift.

“People have loved it,” said Gilbert during a walk through the park. A pollinator park along the concrete pathway, buzzing with bumblebees, has been particularly popular.

Weeds can be a problem in conversions, and this was no exception. The HOA had its landscaper apply herbicides in some spots. 

“Everybody gets a little jittery when we do spraying,” said Milan Hanson, president of the HOA’s board of directors. 

“During the first year or two, I think every native grass conversion looks pretty bad,” he added.

Tony Koski, a professor of turfgrass sciences at Colorado State University and described by many as the guru of water-wise landscaping in Colorado, condones the use of herbicides as essential in landscape conversions, but he counsels care and transparency. 

Native turf grasses green up more slowly in spring and turn brown more rapidly in autumn, as was evident at this commons area of a homeowners association in Fort Collins in mid-October. Kentucky bluegrass and other imported grasses have a longer season of green. Photo/Allen Best

The need for herbicides diminishes as the native grasses become dominant over the course of about three years. But homeowners planting native grasses should expect to see the new turf brown more quickly in the fall and green up more slowly in the spring.

Still, Oakridge residents have seen enough to think about converting other places to native grasses.

What caused the increased water use? It’s not uncommon, said Frank Kinder, water-efficiency manager for Northern Water. The agency distributes Colorado River water to providers along the northern Front Range. 

“People are watering earlier and watering more during a year to keep up the appearance,” said Kinder. “The landscape may take up to 120% of the previous amount in order to keep looking like what people want it to look like.”

HOAs undertaking conversions can have different motivations: costs, concerns about climate change, a desire for landscape diversity or easier maintenance. “Bluegrass takes a lot of work to meet certain expectations,” said Kinder.

Key lessons from Fort Collins and Greeley HOAs are that turf replacements take time and are most easily accomplished with partnerships. Key in both cases, too, were grassroots champions. 

Very likely, you will also begin to see more and more cool-weather turf converted to low-water landscapes in Colorado’s HOAs. That’s exactly what some of those who helped draft some of Colorado’s recent laws intended. Call it a grassroots movement.

Next: Colorado allows sales of only low-flush toilets to better conserve limited water. What role should the state have in reducing water use allocated to urban landscapes? A task force has been studying the state’s options and opportunities. 

Allen Best, a longtime Colorado journalist, publishes Big Pivots, which tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment and community. This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at https://bigpivots.com and at https://aspenjournalism.org

Enough water for lawns at the headwaters of the #ColoradoRiver? — Allen Best (@BigPivots) #COriver #aridification

Eagle River Water & Sanitation District General Manager Siri Roman. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

The Western Slope delivers 70% of the Colorado River water. So why do Aspen, Vail and other places want to replace thirsty turf?

This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is part of a series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.

If you’ve ever slipped and spun your way across Vail Pass through a wet, heavy snowstorm, you can be excused for wondering how Eagle River Valley communities could ever have too little water.

Vail and its neighbors do have that problem, though. It has become evident in the growing frequency of drought years in the 21st century.

U.S. Drought Monitor July 23, 2002.

First came 2002. Water officials, verging on panic, restricted outdoor water use. The drought was believed to be the most severe in 500 years. Fine, thought water officials as rain and snow resumed, we’re off the hook for at least our lifetimes.

West Drought Monitor map October 12, 2021.

In 2012 came another drought, one nearly identical in severity. More bad years followed in 2018 and 2021. The Eagle River normally chatters its way down the valley through Avon and to a confluence with the Colorado River near Glenwood Canyon. In those bad, bad drought years, it sulked. The shallow water was hot enough to endanger fish.

“New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019” — Brad Udall

Colorado River flows have declined 20% since 2000. Having water rights is not enough. And the future looks even hotter and, because of that heat, drier. Brad Udall, a senior scientist and scholar at Colorado State University, warns of up to 20% additional flow loss by midcentury.

Average temperatures in the Colorado River Basin are projected by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to rise 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit during the 21st century. The agency projects slightly greater increases in Colorado and other upper basin states.

Average temperatures in the Colorado River Basin are projected significantly, even in headwaters areas such as in Glewnood Springs, where this photo was taken after a rainstorm in September 2023. Photo/Allen Best Top photo: Siri Roman of Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. Courtesy photo.

In Vail, managers of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District have decided they need more storage. They plan a 1,200-acre-foot reservoir near Minturn called Bolts Lake. That compares with the 257,034-acre-foot storage of Dillon Reservoir. At that capacity, this new reservoir will be the most cost-effective way to ensure resilience as the climate becomes more variable. With the reservoir, they hope to capture water during high-runoff years for use in the district’s service territory from Vail through Edwards. 

Demand reduction will be another tool of growing importance in a hotter, sometimes drier climate. Managers hope to reduce water demand in the district 5% by 2026 even as new housing, especially more affordable units, gets built. That’s 400 acre-feet per year. 

The most productive place to wring these savings will be in water used for outdoor landscapes. Only 25% — or even less — of water applied to lawns returns to streams and rivers compared with 95% of water used indoors. 

Siri Roman, the district’s general manager, said short-term change, such as restricted lawn watering in drought years, can be a strategy. But her district wants to effect permanent change.

“It’s not about drought years,” she said. “It’s about a drying climate. We have to get people to shift their attitudes, to know that water is getting to be more scarce.”

Roman’s district, like other water utilities in Colorado, is targeting nonfunctional turf. Precise definitions vary, but nonfunctional generally refers to grasses that require large volumes of water to irrigate but rarely see human feet except when mowed. It is also described as aesthetic turf. 

Three years ago, Eagle River Water began offering rebates of $1 per square foot to customers willing to replace thirsty lawns with landscapes that use less water. Using state aid, the district this year bumped up the incentive to $2. 

“We are not saying it needs to be stone and look like Arizona,” Roman said. 

Directors of the district in October also agreed to new tiered rates that will discourage high-volume consumption.

Other Western Slope communities have also set out to discourage thirsty landscape choices. Motivations vary, but for many, there is also acknowledgement of the need to walk the talk of water conservation expected of Front Range communities. “That is something I hear a lot from communities I am working with,” said Marjo Curgus, a consultant.

‘Lawn Begone’ in Durango

Almost a decade ago, Steve Harris, a water engineer in Durango, summoned the local news media to his house to watch him remove sod from his front yard. He also had bumper stickers produced: “Lawn Gone.” In an editorial, the Durango Herald offered an alternative: “Lawn Begone.”

Harris believed that Colorado needed to make clear that decorative lawns had less value than agriculture. He worked with his state legislators to draft a bill that would have limited transfers of agricultural water to cities if that water went to lawns. As for his own lawn, Harris thought that he and others on the Western Slope couldn’t just pay lip service to this idea.

At the Colorado Capitol, the bill introduced in 2014 by then-Sen. Ellen Roberts and then-Rep. Don Coram was quickly shelved. Local governments objected. So did ag producers who thought state legislators had no business blocking their abilities to sell water rights.

Instead, the idea was directed to an interim committee for further study. Bills sometimes get sent there to die. In this case, the conversation continued, as Roberts had intended. 

Since then, legislators have adopted several laws. A bill that passed in 2022, House Bill 22-1151, does not institute a prohibition but instead allocated $2 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, $1.5 million of which went to local jurisdictions to spur voluntary replacement of irrigated turf.

The law asserts that for every 100 acres of turf converted to water-wise landscaping, up to 200 acre-feet of water can be conserved. The act defines water-wise landscaping as a water- and plant-management practice that emphasizes using plants with lower water needs.

Whether that much water gets saved also depends upon whether irrigation systems are changed to match the lesser water needs of the new landscapes. Grass that needs 12 inches of supplemental water per year need not continue to get 25.

All that funding has now been allocated. On the Western Slope, the municipalities of Cortez, Glenwood Springs and Frisco were awarded funds as was the Eagle County Conservation District. The state agency said 25% of turf-replacement funds were for Western Slope entities.

Rep. Marc Catlin of Montrose and then-Rep. Dylan Roberts of Frisco, two of the four prime sponsors, are from the Western Slope. Another prime sponsor, Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa, now has a district that encompasses southwest Colorado, while Roberts has become a senator.

Without state funding, Montrose County approved grants for seven turf-replacement projects.

“From the start, I thought this initial effort might have more value from an education and outreach perspective than actual water savings,” said Justin Musser, the county’s natural resources manager. 

Projects were chosen based on various objectives. For example, do the new landscapes provide energy savings or wildlife benefits? “We are not overly prescriptive,” said Musser. “If you have a good plan that references standards from the Colorado State University Extension or another reputable source, the application gets a higher ranking.”

Why would Montrose County be interested in yanking sod to save water?

“It’s important that we look at these types of things across the Colorado River basin,” Musser said. “We would want people in California and Arizona and Nevada to be looking at these types of programs, too. I think it makes sense for a place like Montrose County to be conserving water as much as we can, too.”

But, he added, this is “one part of a very complex issue.”

As this diagram (Snake Diagram) shows, native flows in the Arkansas River Basin are dwarfed by the amount of water in West Slope basins (created by the Colorado Water Conservation Board).

Droughts versus aridification

The Western Slope of Colorado produces 70% of the water in the Colorado River, according to the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Some of that water stays in Colorado. About half of the water for Front Range cities comes from the Western Slope. Yet more of the Colorado River gets diverted to farms in the South Platte and Arkansas river valleys.

And, of course, water from the Western Slope flows downstream to farms and cities in Arizona, California and Nevada.

The Colorado River has infamously been falling short of meeting all demands. The river first failed to reach the Sea of Cortez in the 1960s and, as diversions in Arizona and elsewhere expanded, has ceased to reach the sea altogether since the 1990s — save for an especially engineered pulse in 2014.

In 1922, when delegates of the seven states met to negotiate the Colorado River Compact, they assumed that flows of the early 20th century would be the norm, delivering more than 20 million acre-feet. As Eric Kuhn and John Fleck explain in their book, “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” it had been a wet period.

It didn’t stay that wet, and in the 21st century it has been delivering far less water, an average 13.2 million acre-feet through 2022. Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, and others have warned that continued warming could depress flows to 9 million acre-feet during coming decades. Or even less.

Grand Junction has a maze of irrigation canals but the municipal water utility gets water from a creek that flows from the Grand Mesa. Photo/Allen Best

Grand Junction more recently adopted regulations curbing water needed for urban landscaping. The city has adopted sustainability goals, “and water plays a big part of that,” said Randi Kim, utilities director for the city of 69,000 people.

Cost savings enter into the city’s calculation as it prepares for a projected 91,000 residents by 2040. The municipal  utility  taps high-quality water from Kannah Creek, which originates on Grand Mesa. When that is insufficient to meet demands, as the city utility projects will be the case by 2040, the city will tap the Gunnison River but will need to pay more to treat the dirtier water.

Rising heat can also drive higher demand. Grand Junction in July reached 107 degrees, tying the record that had been set just two years before. The city’s 13 highest temperatures have occurred this century.

This is but one aspect of the changing and drying climate, a process that many — including Kim — describe as aridification. “I think people realize that we have to change the way we use and manage water, and it really affects every aspect of our lives,” she said.

Grand Junction’s new regulations apply to new developments. Turf that does not meet the city’s definition of “functional” cannot exceed 15% of landscaping. The new regulations also require low-water vegetation in traffic medians and some other common areas.

Steamboat Springs, although cooler and wetter than Grand Junction, faces similar challenges. It gets 24 inches of precipitation a year, compared with 10 inches for Grand Junction. Some years, the snow along streets of Steamboat gets piled higher than the head of a rim-rattling professional basketball player. 

These prodigious snowfalls have not been yielding equally impressive runoffs in the Yampa River. Several times during the longer, hotter summers of the 21st century, the river slunk to such shallow depths that water officials decreed a temporary end to fishing. It almost happened again in July before temperatures cooled and rain arrived.

“We were one day from the river being shut down again,” said Madison Muxworthy of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, a nonprofit. “It was crazy.”

The Yampa River at Deerlodge Park July 24, 2021 downstream from the confluence with the Little Snake River. There was a ditch running in Maybell above this location. Irrigated hay looked good. Dryland hay not so much.

Muxworthy calls the Yampa River the “life beat of our community.” The description is apt. Kayakers paddle amid the waves during runoff months, and anglers drop lines every season. There are always people along the river banks.

In 2021, heeding local sentiment, the sustainability council launched a water-conservation program focused on outdoor use. Working with the city government and Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, the group created a guidance document for landscapes called “Yampascaping.” Four educational workshops this year were well attended.

“Citizens are really interested in this because they see the impacts from climate change that we’re already having,” said Muxworthy, her organization’s soil moisture, water and snow program manager. “It’s really easy for them to make the connection and want to do something about it.”

The Mount Werner district, which serves the base of the city’s bigger ski area, offers rebates of $1 per square foot for turf removal.

Eighty miles south of Steamboat, at a 131-unit multifamily project along the Eagle River called The Reserve, turf-removal incentives of $2 per square foot have also helped the homeowners association replace a half-acre of thirsty grasses with native vegetation. The homeowners hope to replace another 60% of the more than 4 acres of common area.

Saving water is paramount in the mind of Deb Forsline, a director of the homeowners association. She sometimes lulls her grandchildren to sleep with the soothing sound at river’s edge and, at other times, accompanies her husband on fishing expeditions, knitting while he dangles lines. “It’s about saving water for the river, not the money,” she said of the efforts to reduce water for landscaping. 

It’s all about saving water, says Deb Forsline, explaining the native grasses installed at The Reserve, a housing project at Edwards where she lives. Photo/Allen Best

Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager at Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, concurs. The $2 per square foot “helps move the thinking of people who have already been thinking about it,” she said.

Roman, the district’s general manager, points to the innate connection that most of her district’s 31,000 consumers have with the outdoors. “A lot of people who live here year-round know that it is irresponsible to overuse.”

A steeper staircase of water rates 

After the 2002 drought, the Eagle River district adopted an inclining block rate structure. The more you use, the more you pay. The district got inconsistent results. Larger homes and those with more expansive and water-intense landscaping dropped their use in smaller percentages than smaller homes. The rate structure had been flawed, allowing larger homes to pay less per 1,000 gallons than smaller homes for the same volume of water. Different rates were needed to snag the attention of high-volume consumers.

Aspen had the same problem. It adopted tiered water rates in 2005. Managers thought the rates would discourage high volumes of consumption. But even in drought years, some properties continued stubbornly high volumes.

In 2017, Aspen adopted a new approach. The regulations require reduced water use in the landscape and irrigation plans for new and redeveloped projects. Such caps are called budgets. Like Denver and Boulder, Aspen has almost no new development of raw land. The law imposes a hard cap of 7.5 gallons per square foot of landscape. That’s about a foot of water, or roughly half of the supplemental water required in Colorado for Kentucky bluegrass. The law also requires so-called “smart” irrigation systems and alternative plants but leaves some flexibility in how developers and their consultants stay within the water budgets.

So far, 110 to 120 projects in Aspen have been reviewed, but only 15 to 20 have been executed – still too soon to discern clear results in water savings for the city, said Rob Gregor, utilities permit coordinator. Still, the city has leveled its water use and hopes to achieve even greater efficiencies in water devoted to residential and commercial landscapes. That could leave more water in Castle Creek and the Roaring Fork River, one of the goals of the program. 

Durango, with 19,000 people and a projected population of 25,000 by 2035, has considered using rates to nudge high-volume users to less demanding landscapes. Justin Elkins, utilities manager, said the city hopes to encourage voluntary reductions in water use by allowing water users to monitor the volume of their use and compare it to consumption by their neighbors.

The Ute Water Conservancy District has successfully used rates to encourage water conservation. The Grand Junction-based district delivers water to rural and exurban areas of the Grand Valley from Cameo to the Utah border. Customers tend to be more responsive “when it hits them in the pocketbook,” said Andrea Lopez, the district’s external affairs manager. “As they use more water and enter into tiers that become steeper with the more they use, we usually see a reduction in use.”

That’s what Eagle River Water has done. Like Aspen, the Vail Valley has some wealthy homeowners. Under the old tier system, somebody in a smaller home paid more per gallon than somebody in a larger home, if they both used the same large volume. 

Beginning in January, Roman was on the agenda of everybody from Rotary clubs to Eagle County commissioners. “Really, this is targeting our excessive users,” she told the Vail Town Council at a June meeting. “They’re the ones that are going to feel this.”

District directors in October approved the new tiered rates that intend to discourage high-volume consumption.

Linn Brooks uses about 7,000 gallons of water a month at her house in Avon after transitioning the yard to water-wise principles. Before, it used 15,000 to 25,000 gallons. Courtesy photo

In Wildridge, a neighborhood on the south-facing slopes of Avon, Linn Brooks has shown what is possible in landscape conversions. Fifteen years ago, before she started transitioning her landscape, her home used 15,000 to 25,000 gallons a month. Now, it uses, at most, 7,000 gallons a month and her landscape is commanding.

The takeaway, she said, is that communities can have vibrant landscapes and protect property values – and still use less water.

Next: How did bluegrass lawns in Colorado become the default? Some trace it to the castles of Europe. Half or more of Coloradans live in neighborhoods governed by homeowners associations. Some have started to curb thirsty bluegrass, but others needed a firm nudge this year from state legislators.

Allen Best, a longtime Colorado journalist, publishes Big Pivots, which tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment and community. This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at https://bigpivots.com and at https://aspenjournalism.org

Map credit: AGU

#Colorado squeezing water from urban landscapes — Allen Best (@BigPivots) #conservation

Meredith Slater, S. Denver. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

Pace of transition has accelerated, deepened and broadened as headwaters state struggles to embrace limits of water supply in a warming, likely drying climate 

This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is the first of a five-part series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.

Like weekly haircuts for men, a regularly mowed lawn of Kentucky bluegrass was long a prerequisite for civic respectability in Colorado’s towns and cities. That expectation has begun shifting.

A growing cultural norm blesses a broader range of respectable landscapes, which require not much more water than what occurs naturally across most of Colorado. Denver, for example, averages 15.6 inches annually.

Native grasses, most prominently buffalo and blue grama, need half to one-third as much of the supplemental water a year required to keep Kentucky bluegrass — a species native to Europe — bright green. In metro Denver, for example,  Westminster and Broomfield estimate that these cool-season grasses require 24 to 29 inches of supplemental water annually in addition to the 15 to 16 inches of average precipitation.  Other water-wise landscape choices can also ratchet down water requirements by at least half.

Many homeowners have the additional goal of installing shrubs, flowers and other plants that attract pollinators.

The shift can be traced back to at least 1981, when Denver Water coined the term “xeriscape” to reflect landscaping choices that use less water. The drive to cut excessive water use for landscapes picked up significantly during and after the searing drought of 2002. When that drought ended, many consumers retained their new, more judicious habits of irrigation.

Now, say water providers and others, the pace of transition has accelerated, deepened and broadened. If still far from universal, Coloradans have started developing a new aesthetic around urban landscapes. What is required to be a responsible homeowner and property manager is being redefined. 

With Colorado River water woes still unresolved and depletion of aquifers in the Denver Basin and elsewhere continuing, Big Pivots in collaboration with Aspen Journalism set out to understand water devoted to urban landscapes in Colorado. This is the first of five stories about this giant and probably long-term shift in how we use water in urban landscapes.

Nobody argues that this shift alone will solve Colorado’s water challenges. Water devoted to lawns and other urban landscapes constitutes just 3% to 4% of Colorado’s total water consumption. Nonetheless, that use is being questioned as never before.

Western Slope residents have long objected to dewatering of rivers and streams for lawns along the Front Range. Now, water utilities on both sides of the Continental Divide see more-judicious use of water as being the most cost-effective strategy in serving larger populations in a hotter and possibly drier climate. And many homeowners have decided that by replacing imported varieties of turf with native plants, they can be part of the solution to declining populations of pollinating insects. 

Colorado legislators have passed several laws in recent years to curb standard turf-growing practices. In January, they will be asked to approve a bill that would require local governments and homeowners associations to ban the installation, the planting or the placement of new nonfunctional turf, artificial turf or invasive plant species in commercial, institutional or industrial properties. The bill takes aim at purely aesthetic non-functional turf along roads and in medians.  Residential homes would be exempted from the prohibition.

At Interlochen, a business park in Broomfield, an expanse of grass lies behind a fence at a corporate headquarters. Photo by Allen Best

Nonfunctional turf generally means grass intended to be seen but rarely, if ever, touched by human feet. For example, the Flatirons Mall in Broomfield, a hospital in Fort Collins and a warehouse complex in Aurora have broad swathes of green grass surrounding them. Another example is along the drive-up lane to an ATM at a bank on East Colfax Avenue in Denver. Cosmetic or aesthetic turf is universal.

The bill has the backing of both Denver and Aurora. They argue that replacing existing turf, a costly task, is negated if the saved water is then used for new development that hews to the old habits of landscape. Aurora, in particular, has made clear that voluntary approaches have had only marginal success.

Colorado Springs, although equally committed to reducing water use, believes that a harder but better approach will be more effective in the long term. The Colorado Municipal League, representing 270 of the state’s 272 towns and cities, has concerns. At issue is a familiar one in Colorado: state mandate vs. local prerogative.

Voluntary approaches, though, have been impressive. For example, thoughtful design can be found in abundance at Centerra, a commercial and housing complex in Loveland. There’s still bluegrass, but it tends to be minimized.

In Boulder, Resource Central began offering water-conservation services to Front Range communities during the severe drought of 2002. The nonprofit reports a rapid uptick in its lawn replacement and other programs. It now has relationships with 47 water providers who help support the nonprofit’s Garden In A Box and other programs.

“This is the first year that we have seen more than 10,000 people participating in our various water-conservation programs, which tells us that this is rapidly becoming the new norm in Colorado,” said Resource Central CEO Neal Lurie, referring to lower-water landscapes. “What happens is one person makes a change in their yard and their neighbors come over and ask, ‘What are you doing?’”

It is that neighbor-to-neighbor conversation that is driving the urban landscape changes evident to anyone moving about most Colorado towns and cities.

Centerra, a business and residential complex in Loveland, blends traditional and new landscaping in ways that lessen water requirements and heighten visual interest. Photo by Allen Best

Growing awareness of water scarcity also drives these altered sensibilities as well as new government regulations limiting outdoor water use. Declined flows in the Colorado River figure prominently in the thinking of many individuals but also public officials.

Aurora adopted bold restrictions on water use for outdoor landscapes in 2022. No use of Kentucky bluegrass or other so-called cool-weather varieties that use higher volumes of water will be allowed at new golf courses. The same applies to new front yards, although 500 square feet or 45% of backyards, whichever is less, will be permitted. The regulations also take aim at water for road medians and curbside landscapes. Fountains, waterfalls and other ornamental water features will also be banned in new development.

Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman — whose city has the state’s third-highest population, at 400,000 — cites worries about potential diminishment of water imported from the Colorado River basin as one of several reasons for taking action. “The longer you wait, the more dramatic your decisions have to be,” he said. “I think we’re on the right path.” 

At least 38 utilities and other water providers have instituted turf-replacement programs, offering incentives that in some places can reach $3 per square foot of turf removed. That’s almost double the number of jurisdictions of just a few years ago. Like Aurora, many local governments have also adopted limitations on outdoor landscaping. Broomfield adopted regulations in late August.

Doing their small parts

In southeast Denver, Meredith Slater took a break on an August morning to explain why she and her husband, Jake Hyman, earlier this year had replaced the lawn of their brick home with plants native to Colorado and nearby areas. The yellow, red and orange flowers were thick with bees and other pollinators.

“Over the last few years, I’ve come to recognize that native bees, birds and insects don’t have a place to call home in much of Denver because of all the grass and nonnatives,” Slater said as her husband used a tiller to rip out  the remaining Kentucky bluegrass on the other half of the front yard. “That was part of the impetus for this.”

Slater works for a global organization called ActionAid. It operates in 40 countries, many of them in Africa and Asia, to assist farmers faced with the challenges of a warming climate. That work has made her particularly attentive to the challenge of protecting adequate water for agriculture. In Denver, she sees water devoted to lush green lawns as wasteful. 

“I’m just trying to do my little part with my front yard,” she said.

Her thought was echoed by dozens of homeowners from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins to Durango who were interviewed for this series of stories. “We’re not going to save the world, but we’re doing what we can,” said a Denver homeowner.

Colorado gets 83% of its water from rivers, streams and other surface sources, while the other 17% comes from groundwater, according to the 2023 Colorado Water Plan. Agriculture uses about 90% of Colorado’s water, towns and cities 7%, and industry 3%.

Within urban areas, outdoor irrigation consumes roughly 50% of water. 

Why would cities want to cut outdoor use? Motivations vary.

For most jurisdictions, conserving water through reduced outdoor use represents the cheapest way to serve larger populations. Colorado Springs Utilities, for example, serves a population of 500,000 but has expectations of serving 800,000 at buildout.

Population growth along the Front Range during the past century has been primarily satisfied by transmountain diversions. Half of the water for Front Range cities comes from the Western Slope. In theory, Colorado has undeveloped water in the Colorado River. New transmountain diversions, though, can be very expensive and problematic. Aurora and Colorado Springs, for example, completed their Homestake diversion project in 1967. Since the early 1980s, they have been seeking additional diversions from Homestake Creek, an Eagle River tributary. Conservation has been more easily accomplished.

Easier in most cases than transmountain diversions — but still difficult — has been converting agriculture water to municipal use. That’s true even in the South Platte River Basin. As The New York Times reported in a September story, the Denver suburb of Thornton began acquiring water rights near Fort Collins in 1985. Construction of a 72-mile pipeline to bring that water to Thornton residents and businesses has barely started.

A pipeline almost to Nebraska

Several of Denver’s south-metro-area cities have been unsustainably drafting the Denver Basin aquifers. Parker gets nearly 60% of its water from the aquifers; Castle Rock attributes “most” of its water from the aquifers. 

Parker Water and Sanitation District, working with farmers in the Sterling area, plans to pump water roughly 125 miles across eastern Colorado. It estimates the cost at $800 million. Castle Rock may participate in that project and also has a project called Box Elder that would draw water from 60 miles away in northeastern Colorado.

Lessened demand from landscaping means less need for costly new infrastructure. It also makes water utilities more resilient in the face of drought. Landscapes can sparkle with little water. Actually, they can be even brighter at times. After all, the “perfect” lawn is a monotone, unblemished by yellow dandelions or anything else. 

Still other water providers have been motivated simply by a desire to leave water in streams and rivers. That’s the case in Vail, which is landlocked with no expectations of significant expansion. There, the town has been replacing water-consumptive Kentucky bluegrass in town parks since 2019 with less-thirsty native species. This year’s projects also include removal of grass from an on-ramp to Interstate 70.

Vail’s motivation is simple: to preserve flows in Gore Creek and protect the aquatic environment, said Todd Oppenheimer, the town’s capital projects manager. 

Boulder has a robust portfolio of water rights and self-imposed growth limitations. Unlike neighboring jurisdictions along the Front Range, It has no practical considerations driving landscape changes. But for 20 years, it has been participating in Resource Central’s water-saving programs. This year, the city provided each customer $500 that can be applied toward either turf removal or Garden In A Box programs.

Turf removal reflects community values, said Laurel Olsen, Boulder’s utilities engagement and outreach senior program manager. “We have decided as a community that wise use of our resources is a high priority.”

Turf grown to be seen but rarely, if ever, used, can be found across Colorado, including along roads and parking lots surrounding a shopping complex in Broomfield. Photo/Allen Best

In theory, this should result in Boulder’s leaving more water in creeks. The city, however, does not have a tabulation of that.

Colorado’s state government has also been delivering nudges. State legislators in 2022 directed the state’s leading water agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to develop a statewide program that would use financial incentives to encourage the voluntary replacement of irrigated turf with water-wise landscaping. That law allocated $2 million for the programs. Through early September, funding had been awarded to 25 jurisdictions with 13 others considered “eligible.” A deadline to apply for a second round of grants was in late August.

In February, Gov. Jared Polis appointed 21 members to a new Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force. He asked them to identify practical ways to advance outdoor water-conservation through state policy and local initiatives. Members must report their findings in January.

Several of the major water providers in the Colorado River basin have also agreed to reduce water for urban landscapes.

In August 2022, water providers from Denver, Aurora and Pueblo, along with those from Los Angeles and other southwestern cities, announced a memorandum of understanding. The MOU commits participating water utilities to “reduce the quantity of nonfunctional 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.”

The MOU does not specify water savings, only the reduction in turf. 

Shifting attitudes 

Driven, at least in part, by the Colorado River troubles, public perceptions have been shifting rapidly. 

Denver Water has conducted surveys since 2016 that ask respondents how scarce they think water is now, and how scarce they think it will be in 10 years. Survey results show a sharp uptick in concern.

“Two-thirds of people think water is scarce now, and 90% of people think water is going to become more scarce in the future,” said Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning for Denver Water. 

Fisher sees a link to the “innumerable Colorado River stories” that have been published and broadcast in recent years. “We’re attaching that to climate change. And I think from what I read, it’s a lot of people asking, ‘What can I do? I now understand there’s this problem in the Colorado River. What can I do to help that?’ And I think we’re starting to show them a way that they can help.”

Denver Water in 1981 coined the term “xeriscape,” combining the Greek prefix “xero,” which means dry, with landscape. Water conservation advocates now rarely use it. They say too many people take it to mean zero-landscape, and for many, that means rocks and cactus. Yards of gravel are anathema to landscape architects. Not only are gravel yards boring, but they contribute to the heat-island effect of urban areas.

Colorado Springs-based landscape architect Carla Anderson said she constantly stresses the alternatives to turf grasses imported from other parts of the world to Colorado’s semi-arid climate.

“I have been advocating for years – not saying that grass is bad but to put it in places that make sense. A little bit of turf can go an awful long way in creating a feeling of an oasis,” she said. “The good thing is we’re getting some wonderful options to bluegrass.”

Gravel spread across lawns, such as this one in Denver, may seem like an easy replacement for turf, but landscape architects roll their eyes, as do others. Also, gravel yards contribute to the heat-island effect of urban areas. Photo by Allen Best

In her work, she sees a generational shift. Older people, generally 70-plus, tend to insist on bluegrass lawns because they see it as a status symbol. “If you have this big, sweeping front lawn, you have made it,” she said.

Younger generations, even including those in their 60s, have a broader perspective. They are less likely to assign status to a lawn. 

But conversions to water-wise landscapes do take time and energy. “That is a stumbling block for a lot of lower-income people,” said Anderson.

Riding on a bus in Colorado Springs, her attention was directed toward a weedy front yard. “What would you call that?” she was asked. “An unkempt yard.”

Colorado Springs officials estimate that 30% of homes in the city are unkempt. The challenge they see is to ease the conversion to low-water yards. They hope to help foster native grasses, which use little water and, once installed, demand less maintenance.

The process of changing attitudes will take time, said Anderson. “It won’t happen overnight. We have this long affair with the bluegrass lawn in all corners of our country, and so the process of changing people’s perception of what is right and looks good, what is aesthetically pleasing, is a significant process. It is just going to take time. Unfortunately, we don’t have that much time. We need to crack down and save water in a hurry.” 

A new word

As the word “xeriscape” falls out of favor, it is being replaced with new words: water-wise, water-efficient and Coloradoscape.

“There is no agreement yet” on which should be the commonly accepted phrase, said Lindsay Rogers of Western Resource Advocates, a group that has devoted substantial resources to the shift.

“We want climate-appropriate landscapes in Colorado that are verdant and beautiful and use native plants but also use less water than Kentucky bluegrass,” she said.

Westminster is unusual among Front Range cities in its small reliance on the Colorado River. The city’s water utility located midway between Denver and Boulder serves 135,000 people. Most of the water comes from Clear Creek. And it has no expectations of rapid growth, unlike Aurora, which envisions a near doubling of population in the next 50 years. 

More than 80% of Westminster residents live in single-family homes and have above-average affluence. Converting lawns into water-efficient landscapes, which saves both time and money in the long term, has high up-front costs that rebates by utilities only partially cover.

From his perspective as Westminster’s senior water resource analyst, Drew Beckwith sees a broad social transformation beginning.

“We are in the midst of seeing this social change in how people view a green lawn along the Front Range of Colorado,” he said. 

Beckwith perceives a challenge to prevailing notions. Bright-green lawns require not only regular irrigation in most years, but frequent fertilization. They must be mowed regularly, at least to conform to cultural expectations.

“My customers are saying, ’I don’t want to do that anymore,’ and I don’t think it’s only because of the cost of water,” Beckwith said. “I think there is a new social idea, that a green-grass lawn is not a very responsible thing to do in a water-short and dry area like Colorado.”

Westminster, like dozens of other municipalities along the Front Range, has been paying homeowners to replace thirsty turf. The city shares the costs of landscape transformation with homeowners by providing a rebate on physical turf removal, providing new plants to take its place, or a mix of the two. From 11,000 square feet, when the program began in 2020, the program expanded last year to 107,000 square feet in 191 separate projects. On average, customers paid $560 for each project, and the city paid $650. 

“We have taken out 4 acres of turf grass in residential properties in Westminster over the last three years,” Beckwith said. That’s enough water for 20 single-family homes.

In these numbers, Beckwith sees just the earliest stage of a transformation.

“You will have the bleeding edge of folks who pick it up because they are super trend-setters. They were doing this over a decade ago,” he said. “I think we are past the bleeding edge, and we are now into the early adopters. These are normal people who are saying, ’Yeah, this is probably something we should do.’”

Beckwith expects to see, during the next three to five years, many more of the early adopters wanting to replace their turf.

”And then we are going to be in the meat of that general population that is going to start changing their landscapes,” he said. “Beyond will be some people who will never want to change. And that’s OK.”

Nothing to the contrary

By Beckwith’s classification, Don and Jill Brown would be classified as being on the bleeding edge. They live in a red-brick house in Colorado Springs with a large lot. He’s a counselor, of marriages among other things, and she is an author.

In 2017, they decided to do something with a weedy 30-foot-by-80-foot section of their large lot. But instead of Kentucky bluegrass, said Don Brown, they wanted vegetation more natural to Colorado. They chose blue grama.

After planting buffalo grass in their yard in Colorado Springs, Don and Jill Brown rarely need to mow it and give it little water. Once established, it outcompetes weeds. Photo by Allen Best

The grass can go brown in a drought but does not die. “In a dry year, we might water it once or twice. This year, not at all,” he said.

It grows to be about knee-high, but that’s it. Once established, it leaves no room for weeds. He rarely mows.

“We really love it,” he said. “We like the look of it. We like the low maintenance. And we especially like the sense of being responsible stewards of this property.”

A native grass, blue grama evolved in the context of Colorado’s arid environment, the nation’s seventh driest, with an average 18.1 inches of precipitation annually. Colorado Springs gets a little less: 15 to 16 inches.

“In this fairly arid state, we learned that if you use native plants, you will do a lot better,” Don Brown said.

As for the aesthetics, it hasn’t provoked any contrary comments from passersby. “It looks like a meadow,” he said.

Next in the series:  The Western Slope delivers 70% of the Colorado River water. So why do Aspen, Vail and Grand Junction, too, want to crimp thirsty turf? 

Allen Best, a longtime Colorado journalist, publishes Big Pivots, which tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment and community. This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at https://bigpivots.com and at https://aspenjournalism.org

Colorado River crisis averted? — Jonathan P. Thompson (@Land_Desk) #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead’s stark bathtub ring. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

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

Maybe by now you’ve heard that the collective users of the Colorado River have come together in harmony and agreed to cut water consumption significantly to avoid further depletion of Lakes Powell and Mead. Well it’s true! And the feds even seem ready to sign onto the plan. Maybe you’ve also heard this means the crisis is over and we can all relax and go home now. 

I don’t think so. 

A refresher: The 1922 Colorado River Compact divvied up the river between the Upper and Lower Basin states (Mexico was added later). They assumed at least 16.5 million acre-feet ran down the river each year, when in fact it was more like 14 million acre-feet. This discrepancy became clear over the last two decades as the water users’ giant savings accounts — Lakes Mead and Powell — were depleted to critically low levels.

The “Natural Flow” is an estimate of how much water would flow past Lees Ferry if there were no diversions or dams upstream. Basically it’s the amount of water available for all of the river’s consumers. Source: USBR

That prompted federal water officials to call on the states to cut consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, or else they would implement the cuts themselves. After a lot of wrangling, the Lower Basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) finally relented and proposed 3 million acre-feet of cuts. Perfect, right?

Wrong. Their cuts would be spread out over three years, meaning their reductions only amounted to 1 million acre-feet per year, which is far less than needed. The deal seemed to many of us like a non-starter — or at least like very faulty math

But it so happens that the proposal came on the heels of an extraordinarily wet winter in the Colorado River Basin, giving a bit of a boost not only to the reservoirs, but also to forecasters’ optimism regarding river flows over the next few years. Also, water users have responded to mandated cuts and done some voluntary cuts of their own, and the wet year meant they had to irrigate less, bringing Lower Basin water consumption to its lowest point in decades.

“New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019” — Brad Udall

All of that was enough to prompt the feds to include the proposed Lower Basin cuts in an updated environmental impact statement and to make it the preferred alternative. They seem to think it will be enough to fend off the crisis, for now. And maybe it will be. But here are some numbers to consider:

  • Lake Powell currently holds about 8.7 million acre-feet of water, which is higher than the last two years, but 2.2 million AF less than on this date in 2020.
  • Lake Mead currently holds about 8.8 million acre-feet, which is less even than in 2021.
  • Lake Powell, alone, lost 136,550 acre-feet — or about 44.5 billion gallons — to evaporation between July 1 and Nov. 1 of this year.
  • The combined storage of Lake Meads and Powell is currently at about 17.5 million acre feet, which is less than a third of the total capacity. In other words, the reservoirs are still two-thirds empty — even after the big winter.

Crisis averted? Probably, at least for now. And with an El Niño pattern likely in coming months, we might get another big winter. Still, it seems somewhat imprudent to relax efforts to cut consumption — and to discount more drastic plans for dealing with the diminishing Colorado River.

Click here to read “Breaking down the’breakthrough’ Colorado River deal” from Jonathan written last May.

Disaster averted on #ColoradoRiver — for now — thanks to wet winter and states’ plan to conserve water, feds say — The #Denver Post

New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019.

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

The chances that water levels will fall below critical elevations before 2027 are now 8% at Lake Powell and 4% at Lake Mead, according to the new analysis. Previous estimates, based on September 2022 data and an assumption that nothing would change in the management of the reservoirs, had found a 57% chance of critically low elevations at Lake Powell and 52% at Lake Mead. With the improved forecasts, the federal government appears poised to move forward with a plan by the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to reduce use for the next three years. Earlier this year, federal officials proposed forcibly cutting the amount of water sent downstream to the Lower Basin if the states could not find a compromise on reducing use. On Wednesday, the officials said they had ruled out those forced cuts…

The Bureau of Reclamation now will undertake a more thorough analysis of the states’ plan. The plan, created by the three Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — would reduce water use by those states by 3 million acre-feet over the next three years. Most of that reduced use would be achieved through projects paid for by federal money from the Inflation Reduction Act, including conservation projects in Tucson and Phoenix. The four Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — signed onto the plan this spring.

Colorado’s top negotiator for the river said in a news release Wednesday that she and her team were reviewing the revised federal analysis and considering whether the analysis can “provide meaningful and enforceable reductions in use to address near-term challenges facing the Colorado River System.”

“If there’s a lesson to be learned from the last few years, it is that we must live within the means of the river if we hope to sustain it,” said Becky Mitchell, the state’s Colorado River commissioner.

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

Biden-Harris Administration Announces Next Steps to Protect the Stability and Sustainability of #ColoradoRiver Basin — Reclamation #COriver #aridification #LakePowell #LakeMead

View of Glen Canyon Dam from Lake Powell. Photo credit: USBR

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

Oct 25, 2023

WASHINGTON – The Biden-Harris administration today announced next steps in the Administration’s efforts to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System and strengthen water security in the West. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation released a revised draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) as part of the ongoing, collaborative effort to update the current interim operating guidelines for the near-term operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams to address the ongoing drought and impacts from the climate crisis.

In order to protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety through 2026 – at which point the current interim guidelines expire – an initial draft SEIS was released in April 2023. Following a historic consensus-based proposal secured by the Biden-Harris administration in partnership with states – which committed to measures to conserve at least 3 million-acre-feet (maf) of system water through the end of 2026 enabled by funding from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda – Reclamation temporarily withdrew the draft SEIS to allow for consideration of the new proposal.

Today’s revised draft SEIS includes two key updates: the Lower Basin states’ proposal as an action alternative, as well as improved hydrology and more recent hydrologic data. The release of the revised draft SEIS initiates a 45-day public comment period.

“Throughout the past year, our partners in the seven Basin states have demonstrated leadership and unity of purpose in helping achieve the substantial water conservation necessary to sustain the Colorado River System through 2026,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, who led negotiations on behalf of the Administration. “Thanks to their efforts and historic funding from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, we have staved off the immediate possibility of the System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production.”

“The Colorado River Basin’s reservoirs, including its two largest storage reservoirs Lake Powell and Lake Mead, remain at historically low levels. Today’s advancement protects the system in the near-term while we continue to develop long-term, sustainable plans to combat the climate-driven realities facing the Basin,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “As we move forward in this process, supported by historic investments from the President’s Investing in America agenda, we are also working to ensure we have long-term tools and strategies in place to help guide the next era of the Colorado River Basin.”

Key Components of Revised Draft SEIS

Reclamation conducted updated modeling analyses using June 2023 hydrology for the No Action Alternative, Action Alternatives 1 and 2 from the initial draft SEIS, and the Lower Division proposal. The results of that modeling indicate that the risk of reaching critical elevations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead has been reduced substantially. As a result of the commitment to record volumes of conservation in the Basin and recent hydrology, the chance of falling below critical elevations was reduced to eight percent at Lake Powell and four percent at Lake Mead through 2026. However, elevations in these reservoirs remain historically low and conservation measures like those outlined by the Lower Division proposal will still be necessary to ensure continued water delivery to communities and to protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System.

Based on these modeling results, Reclamation will continue the SEIS process with detailed consideration of the No Action Alternative and the Lower Division Proposal. The revised SEIS designates the Lower Division Proposal as the Proposed Action. Alternatives 1 and 2 from the initial SEIS were considered but eliminated from detailed analysis.

Historic Funding from Investing in America Agenda     

President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is integral to the efforts to increase near-term water conservation, build long term system efficiency, and prevent the Colorado River System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. Because of this funding, conservation efforts have already benefited the system this year.

This includes eight new System Conservation Implementation Agreements in Arizona that will commit water entities in the Tucson and Phoenix metro areas to conserve up to 140,000-acre feet of water in Lake Mead in 2023, and up to 393,000-acre feet through 2025. Reclamation is working with its partners to finalize additional agreements. These agreements are part of the 3 maf of system conservation commitments made by the Lower Basin states, 2.3 maf of which will be compensated through funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, which invests a total of $4.6 billion to address the historic drought across the West.

Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is also investing another $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety.

To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete:

The process announced today is separate from the recently announced efforts to protect the Colorado River Basin starting in 2027. The revised draft SEIS released today would inform Reclamation’s ongoing efforts to set interim guidelines through the end of 2026; the post-2026 planning process advanced last week will develop guidelines for when the current interim guidelines expire.

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 Year 2023 in Context: A Cautionary Tale — Center for #ColoradoRiver Studies (Jack Schmidt) #COriver #aridification

Photo credit: Center for Colorado River Studies

Click the link to read the article on the Utah State University website (Jack Schmidt):

The end of September marked the end of Water Year 2023 (WY2023). This is a good time to take stock of the year’s runoff and to understand how much reservoir storage improved. What kind of a year was WY2023? How long will any added storage last? Can we ease our collective effort to reduce consumptive uses and losses in the basin?

In Summary

The short answer is that WY2023 was certainly a good year for runoff, reservoir inflow, and increases in reservoir storage—but the same amount of inflow would have to occur for several additional years to fully recover storage to what it was in summer 1999 when the system was last full.  Such a string of high flow years has not occurred in the 21st century and is unlikely in the future.

History also warns that we should work to conserve the gains of WY2023. In notably wet WY2011, WY2017, and WY2019, extra storage that accumulated during each year’s snowmelt runoff was totally consumed in approximately two years. Thus, our past shows that there is potential to quickly consume the benefits of a good water year. We’ve done it before. It is imperative to keep a keen eye toward accomplishing significant reductions in water use throughout the basin to save what we have gained. We should not expect Mother Nature to bail us out again.

The Details

Estimates of WY2023 unregulated inflow and natural flow indicate that the year’s runoff was the second largest in the 21st century, exceeded only by WY2011. The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center estimates that the April to July unregulated snowmelt inflow to Lake Powell was 10.6 million acre feet (maf) and that the total unregulated inflow for the year was 13.4 maf. Reclamation estimates that natural flow at Lees Ferry in WY2023 was 17.7 maf (Table 1). Unregulated inflow is the estimated stream flow if little of this year’s runoff had been stored in reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell, and natural flow is the estimated flow at Lees Ferry if there were no reservoirs in the basin and no upstream consumptive uses.

Table 1. Natural flow and total basin consumptive use in the five largest runoff years of the 21st century. Total basin consumptive use includes reservoir evaporation and use by Mexico but does not include use in Lower Basin tributaries.

Data concerning reservoir storage are made available by Reclamation at their comprehensive basin-wide hydrologic data base. Daily water storage data are available for 46 reservoirs in the basin including all the large reservoirs and many small ones.

Figure 1 shows how reservoir storage changed during the 21st century. Total storage in all the reservoirs reported in Reclamation’s database is shown in blue, and storage in the three different parts of the watershed are distinguished. Between 60 and 80% of all reservoir storage in the basin occurs in Lake Mead and Lake Powell (orange line). Between 16 and 32% of basin reservoir storage occurs in the many reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell (green line), and between 4 and 8% of basin storage occurs in Lake Mohave and Lake Havasu (red line) that are downstream from Hoover Dam. Graph showing daily storage contents of reservoirs of the Colorado River basin, as reported by Reclamation,
between 1 January 1999 and 30 September 2023. Data do not include reservoirs on Lower Basin tributaries.

The most striking trend in these data is that reservoir storage decreased greatly between August 1999 and October 2004 when total storage decreased by 27.4 maf and storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell decreased by 24.5 maf. There was a small amount of recovery in storage between October 2004 and August 2019; total basin storage increased by 4.1 maf, and storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell increased by 0.9 maf. Between August 2019 and March 2023, storage plunged again, decreasing by 14.8 maf in the entire watershed of which 11.4 maf was lost from Lake Mead and Lake Powell. These trends were described in more detail by Schmidt, Yackulic, and Kuhn (2023, The Colorado River water crisis: its origins and the future. WIREs Water).

On 30 September 2023, the total storage in the watershed’s reservoirs was 28.4 maf, of which 62% was in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The storage in all reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell was 8.6 maf and comprised 30% of the total basin storage. Total basin storage in WY2023 peaked on 13 July at 29.7 maf, and the combined storage in Mead and Powell peaked on 16 July at 18.0 maf (Table 2).

How does this year’s increase in storage compare to increases in other years of large inflow? At the beginning of the WY2023 runoff season in mid-March, total reservoir storage in the basin had dwindled to 21.3 maf (Table 2), which is approximately 18 months of supply, based on the average basin-wide water consumption rate for 2016-2020. The combined storage contents of Lake Mead and Lake Powell was 12.7 maf.

Between mid-March and mid-July, total basin-wide storage increased by 8.4 maf, of which 5.3 maf accumulated in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. In comparison, the other four large runoff years of the 21st century — 2005, 2011, 2017, and 2019 – resulted in increases in basin reservoir storage between 5.2 and 8.8 maf and increases in storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell between 3.7 and 6.9 maf (Table 2). Not only was WY2023 the second largest runoff year of this century, but reservoir storage increase was also the second largest of the century.

Nevertheless, the increase in reservoir storage in WY2023 was small in comparison to the total loss in storage that had occurred since summer 1999. Between August 1999 and March 2023, the reservoir system lost 38.1 maf, and the increase in storage in WY2023 was only 22% of that amount.  It would take another 3 to 6 years of very large runoff to fully recover the basin’s reservoirs to what they had been at the turn of the 21st century.

It is unrealistic to expect that the next several years will be similar to the remarkable winter of 2022-2023. No other high flow year of the 21st century was immediately followed by another high flow year. Our best hope for achieving sustainability in water supply is for the Basin States and the federal government to reach new agreements to greatly reduce basin-wide water use so that the modest recovery in reservoir storage in WY2023 might be preserved. Otherwise, our gains may quickly disappear.

Historical data from the previous wet years of this century provide a cautionary tale about how slowly the political process responds to the opportunity provided by a wet winter. Table 3 summarizes the duration of months it took to consume the increased supply of each of the previous years of large runoff. Half of the supply provided by the largest inflow year of WY2011 was gone 11 to 13 months after peak storage had occurred in early August 2011; 8 to 10 months after that, all of WY2011’s large runoff had been consumed (Table 3). The historical story is the same for WY2017 and WY2019.

Since mid-July when the snowmelt season had ended, reservoir storage has begun to decline. The basin’s reservoirs lost 1.3 maf of storage between mid-July and 30 September of which 0.3 maf was lost from Lake Mead and Lake Powell and 0.9 maf from the reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell. The total consumption in these 2.5 months was 16% of the “benefit” of WY2023. Today, the contents of Lake Mead and Lake Powell are about the same as what they were in mid-June 2021.

A Last Thought

One strategy for maintaining a public focus on water conservation would be to widely report—every month—changes in total reservoir storage. The Basin States, and the basin’s citizens, would benefit from knowing the rate at which we are consuming the bounty of the WY2023 supply. It would be especially useful to know the point in time when we consume half of what we gained this year. If we reach that point in less than a year, we would have fair warning that the political process by which we now seek to reduce water consumption is too slow. Hope for a secure and sustainable water supply must rely on nimble and adaptable strategies for reducing water consumption and saving the gains of each wet year.

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

New head of state water board (Lauren Ris) talks #conservation programs with River District — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

This hayfield near Rifle is irrigated with water from a tributary of the Colorado River. West Slope water managers say they are being left out of the process to review and approve applications of a water conservation program. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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

The newly appointed director of the state water board visited the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs [October 18, 2023], and their conversation focused on a topic that has long been a concern for the district: temporary, voluntary and compensated water conservation programs.

Lauren Ris, who took over as director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board in August, replaces former CWCB director Becky Mitchell, who is turning her full attention to her position as the Colorado representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission and negotiating on behalf of the state on how to operate the Colorado River system. Ris, a water policy expert, had been deputy director of CWCB since 2017.

At the River District’s quarterly meeting, held Wednesday, Ris talked with board members about two water conservation programs, both of which have long been contentious and critical issues for the district. In 2018, the CWCB adopted a policy statement about demand management that said it would aim to avoid disproportionate negative economic or environmental impacts to any single sub-basin or region in Colorado. Ris assured the River District that was still the case.

“I don’t think anything has changed about our board’s position on that,” Ris said. “That has been our mantra all along.”

At the heart of a demand-management program would be paying Western Slope irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to use less water in an effort to boost Lake Powell’s levels, which have fallen to historic lows as a result of overuse, drought and climate change. The participation of Western Slope agriculture is key to creating a workable program, but the River District has said propping up the Colorado River system cannot come solely at the expense of its constituents; impacts must be spread equitably across the state.

The mission of the River District, which is based in Glenwood Springs and spans 15 counties in western Colorado, is to lead in the protection, conservation, use and development of Western Slope water. Paying water users to irrigate less has long been controversial on the Western Slope, with fears that these temporary and voluntary programs could lead to a permanent “buy and dry” situation that would negatively impact rural farming and ranching communities. With roughly 86% of the state’s water use in agriculture, irrigators often say they “have a target on their back” when it comes to finding places to cut water use.

In 2019, the state of Colorado undertook a two-year investigation into the feasibility of a demand-management program, convening nine workgroups, but the investigation has been tabled, and so far, the state has not created a program. The River District also conducted its own parallel study of demand management.

“I think it’s still a question out there whether it makes sense for the state at this time with what we have available to us right now and the information we have, given everything that’s going on at the federal level, if it makes sense to pursue that,” Ris said.

New director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board Lauren Ris and board president Greg Felt spoke to the Colorado River Water Conservation District board at its quarterly meeting in Glenwood Springs on Oct. 18. Board members had questions and concerns about two water conservation programs that could impact the West Slope. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

System conservation

Although a state demand-management program may not be on the immediate horizon, another upper basin water conservation program — which is conceptually similar — will take place for a second year, in 2024: system conservation. Administered by the Upper Colorado River Commission and funded by the federal Inflation Reduction Act, system conservation pays water users in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico to cut their water use, typically by drying up fields, for one season.

The River District had sought to have a say in the project approval process, going so far as developing its own criteria for projects within its boundaries. But in March, water managers said that the UCRC had sole authority over the program and that the River District could not be involved in approving 2023 projects after all.

A recent study makes the case for River District involvement and points out what many already know: Water users in the Colorado River basin have a preference for local approaches to water conservation and do not trust formal programs run by state or federal officials — such as the UCRC. But despite this evidence, there probably won’t be an oversight role for the River District in system conservation again in 2024.

“Is there a role for the conservation districts to help them in that process of looking at applications?,” River District board president and Eagle County representative Kathy Chandler-Henry asked Ris. “We feel like we’re one level closer to the users on the ground and able to support that process.”

Ris replied that system conservation is being run by UCRC and that even the CWCB’s role is fairly limited.

Greg Felt, CWCB chair and representative from the Arkansas River basin, accompanied Ris at the River District meeting. The CWCB will consider whether to approve system conservation again for 2024 at its November meeting. He said he does not like the idea of paying people not to farm, but the 2024 program will have a narrower scope that explores demand-management concepts and supports innovation and local drought resiliency on a longer-term basis.

“What we were presented with was an additional layer, which was to prioritize projects that either helped enhance drought resiliency or conservation,” Felt said. “All of a sudden, I saw a value there that I hadn’t seen before. … I can get behind this because I think it will really help agriculture.”

Ris said that, going forward, the process would have more transparency, echoing a promise made by Mitchell.

For the 2023 program, the UCRC released few details about the individual projects. Payment amounts, the exact location of projects, names of participating ditches and information about water rights, including priority dates and decreed amounts of water, were redacted in the publicly available contracts between irrigators and the UCRC.

“We’re committed to making some changes based on the feedback that we heard,” Ris said. “We are planning on making as much information as possible available to interested parties. … We will still redact personal identifying information but are going to try and go light on the black pen.”

River District General Manager Andy Mueller said transparency for SCP 2024 was imperative, but he also pushed for a process to protect the district’s water users.

“I know (demand management and system conservation) are two different programs, but they may potentially have the same effect inside of our state, and that is reducing consumptive use and potential injury,” Mueller said. “We’d love to work with you to continue to improve both protections on injury and how we address proportionality. We think those are really important to our water users. This board has voiced great concern.”

Ris said the CWCB shares that concern and that the two agencies should continue to talk about it as they go forward.

This story ran in the Oct. 22 edition of The Aspen Times.

A map showing the boundaries of the Colorado River District, and its 15 member counties

Water usage on the #ColoradoRiver is way down as the West begins planning for a future with less — CNN #COriver #aridification

West snowpack basin-filled map April 16, 2023 via the NRCS.

Click the link to read the article on the CNN website (Ella Nilsen). Here’s an excerpt:

record-breaking winter snowpack last year halted a precipitous downward spiral on the river and raised water levels at the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell. But something else is also at play this year – farmers, cities and Native tribes are simply using less. Arizona, California and Nevada’s usage of Colorado River water has hit new lows, state officials and US Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told CNN in an interview.

“The record conservation is already seeing its impact within the reservoirs,” Touton said. “It’s easy to see our success within the levels of the reservoirs we manage.” Lake Powell has risen 52 feet since hitting a low point in February of this year, while Mead has risen nearly 23 feet since November…

Part of the reason is last winter’s blockbuster precipitation, which helped replenish levels in reservoirs across the West. In California, southern cities like Los Angeles that are normally more dependent on Colorado River water have been able to pull more from its own refilled reservoirs like Lake Oroville…

[Bill] Hasencamp told CNN the three lower-basin states have only used 5.8 million acre-feet this year of the 7.5 million acre-feet they are allotted annually.

“We’re pretty much at a sustainable level,” Hasencamp said. “It really gives hope for the future. Despite it being a wet winter, we’re going to do everything we can to reduce use and work with the feds.”

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 Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin Compact at 75 — John Fleck and Eric Kuhn (InkStain) #COriver #aridification

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

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

Editor’s note: Today (Oct. 11, 2023) is the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact. The following is an excerpt from Revisiting the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact on its Diamond Anniversary, a forthcoming analysis by Eric Kuhn and John Fleck, co-authors of the book Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.


The Upper Colorado River Basin Compact was signed by representatives from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming on October 11, 1948, after over two years of negotiations. It was an attempt to resolve the allocation of water among the five states, and for three quarters of a century it performed that task well.

But as we approach the middle of the third decade of the 21st century, the challenges of overallocation of Colorado River, over-appropriation of the water we have, and climate change reducing the river’s flows, the Upper Basin Compact and the extended body of rules in which it is embedded are showing their age.

At its simplest, the Upper Basin Compact divided the water use available from the 7.5 million acre-feet per year apportioned to the Upper Basin by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The compact accomplished two major tasks:

  • It apportioned the consumptive use of water among the Upper Basin states using percentage allocations. Colorado received 51.75%, New Mexico 11.25%, Utah 23%, and Wyoming 14% of the water available for use in the Upper Basin. Arizona received a fixed 50,000 acre-feet per year.
  • It defined the obligations of the Upper Division states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) to deliver water to the Lower Basin at Lee Ferry to satisfy the requirements of the Colorado River Compact.

In pursuing a new set of post-2026 Colorado River Operating rules, major water agencies and state leaders have insisted that the “Law of the River” – the suite of rules dating to the 1922 Colorado River Compact and including the Upper Basin Compact – should be a fundamental guiding principle of future river management. “The Post-2026 Operations should reside in a framework consistent with a reasonable interpretation of the Law of the River,” the Central Arizona Project wrote, to cite one example among many.[1] But a careful review of the history of the Upper Basin Compact shows how tenuous a foundation the Law of the River provides, and how uncertain any attempt at “reasonable interpretation” might be, because of fundamental uncertainties about what the Law actually says.

  • When the Upper Basin compact was signed there was agreement on the definition of the “what” to which the percentage allocations apply. Water use in the Upper Basin was limited by water availability after meeting the Colorado River Compact’s Lee Ferry delivery requirements. Today, because of the impacts of climate change on flows, there is no such agreement and there are claims that the intent of the compact was to provide an equal amount of water for use to each basin. This creates deep uncertainty in the actual volumes of water available to each state.
  • There is still no consensus on how to measure consumptive use basin-wide. The Upper and Lower Basins use different methods, and Lower Basin tributary use is neither well understood nor quantified. This makes managing the river system challenging.
  • The Upper Division States claim overuse by the Lower Basin based by using one measurement method, while using a different method for their own uses. There is valid dispute over these theories and methodologies.
  • Tribal water rights remain unresolved and limited in some cases by provisions aimed at preventing tribes from using their full legal entitlements.
Native America in the Colorado River Basin. Credit: USBR

In negotiating the Upper Basin Compact, the states made key decisions on critical compact issues that continue to echo through 21st century water management.


Colorado River management has always suffered under controversy and ambiguity around the question of how to measure consumptive use. The Colorado River Compact did not include a definition of “beneficial consumptive use.” In the century since it was signed, two competing (and conflicting) methods have been used: diversions less return flow, and stream depletion. On some scales, they may look the same. But on large enough scales, they do not, in ways that have profound implications for 21st century river management decisions.

Under the stream depletion theory, each basin’s consumptive use is measured as the net reduction in natural flows caused by man-made activities. For example, the Upper Basin’s consumptive use would be calculated as the amount that upstream uses deplete the natural flow of the river at Lee Ferry.

During the Upper Basin Compact negotiations, Colorado and Arizona were the main proponents of this theory. It was ultimately adopted in Article VI of the Upper Basin compact as the method for measuring consumptive use.

But the stream depletion theory is not universally used in river management today. It is, for example, used to quantify reservoir evaporation in the Upper Basin, but not the Lower Basin. It is not used to measure Lower Basin mainstream uses, where the “diversions minus return flows” method is used instead. Uses on the Lower Basin tributaries, which are included in the compact definition of “Colorado River System” are currently not measured at all – using either theory.


The Upper Basin Compact is frequently praised for state-by-state allocations based on percentages (except Arizona), rather than absolute numbers, thus avoiding the mistake in the Colorado River Compact that over-allocated the river’s water.

But modern policy discussions are unsettled on a central issue – percentage of what? On their own, the percentages are meaningless without reference to some sort of underlying total amount of water available to be shared among the states.

When negotiating the Upper Basin Compact, the states’ representatives were clear on what they intended as the basis for using the percentages. They intended to apply the percentages to the amount of water available for consumptive use in the Upper Basin after meeting what they viewed as their compact “delivery obligations” at Lee Ferry.

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

Today, there is no such consensus. Climate change has altered the river’s hydrology, putting the burden of impacts on the Upper Basin. Its leaders have responded by arguing that the compact’s negotiator’s intention was to equally divide the water available to each basin for use. Since climate change is causing a decline in natural flows, whatever Lee Ferry obligations the Upper Division States have must now be adjusted to reflect the new hydrologic reality.

Resolving this issue requires either litigation, negotiated settlement, or collectively agreeing on a modified approach – one that appropriately factors in climate change and maintains the benefits of the 1948 flexible percentage allocations.


While large Native American water needs and legal entitlements were identified before the Upper Basin Compact was negotiated, Tribal communities were excluded from the negotiations. Instead, Indian water use, which the negotiators knew was legally perfected long before 1922, was lumped into state allocations, with each state being responsible for meeting tribal needs from its share of the water. This gamble set up a potential conflict between the apportionments made by the Upper Basin Compact and the protections provided Indian rights under the Colorado River Compact.

A decade after the compact was signed, this conflict became real. In response, Upper Basin leaders took steps to limit tribal water rights and prevent full use of tribal entitlements, by inserting provisions in project authorizing legislation. The implications today are a legacy of intentional discrimination against tribes, unresolved legal questions around tribal water rights, and provisions that treat Native Americans as second-class citizens.

[1] Brenda Burman letter to Bureau of Reclamation, Aug. 15, 2023. See also comments by the state of Wyoming, the Salt River Project, the state of Colorado and the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Map credit: AGU

Report: Cash isn’t enough to bring #ColoradoRiver Basin growers to the water #conservation table — Fresh Water News #COriver #aridification

Rancher Bryan Bernal irrigates a field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. Credit: William Woody

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

Ranchers and farmers across the Colorado River Basin, who control roughly 80% of the drought-strapped river’s flows, are reluctant to sign up for voluntary, government-funded water conservation programs for a variety of reasons identified in a new report.

Chief among them are a fear of losing their water rights, seeing their water use reduced, and engaging with far-off bureaucracies that they believe aren’t qualified to help.

“Agricultural Water Users’ Preferences for Addressing Water Shortages in the Colorado River Basin” is a study conducted by the Western Lands Alliance (WLA) in partnership with the Ruckelshaus Institute at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Released late last month, it includes survey responses from more than 1,000 ranchers and farmers in six Colorado River Basin states, as well as interviews with producers. The WLA represents landowners and agricultural producers across the West.

The WLA launched the research effort to better understand how agricultural water users in the region view different water conservation efforts and what it would take to convince them to participate. Hallie Mahowald, a co-author of the report and chief programs officer at the WLA, said in a webinar in September that the landowners will be key to finding solutions to the growing shortages on the river because they control so much of its water.

“We feel it is critical to understand landowner perspective and to solicit landowner input if we are going to develop successful strategies to address Western water shortages,” she said.

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 report comes as the river basin remains mired in a long-running drought that has come close to crippling lakes Powell and Mead and experiences ongoing shortages as climate change continues to sap its flows.

At the same time, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding is being made available to help the Colorado River Basin states better manage the river, reduce water use, and develop programs to sustain the basin’s cities and farms as the region continues to warm.

Drew Bennett, MacMillan Professor of Practice in Private Lands Stewardship at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, said the survey results show a disconnect between ranchers and farmers and the agencies who are charged with overseeing Colorado River Basin water management. In fact, more than 85% of those surveyed said they did not trust the water agencies that help manage the giant river system.

 We need to build additional trust…it will be absolutely critical moving forward,” Bennett said.

And while more than 50% of those surveyed are engaging in at least limited conservation practices, they are not interested in doing more if their water rights aren’t strongly protected, if they are not adequately compensated, and if the programs aren’t administered locally.

This lack of trust, the report says, “may create a barrier to gaining buy-in for new water management strategies, even if they are supported by significant funding from state and federal government agencies.”

The river basin spans seven states. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Lower Basin includes Arizona, California and Nevada.

Researchers broke out survey responses based on which basin a grower operates in. Key findings of the report include:

  • 97% of Upper Basin growers (Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah) and 96% of Lower Basin growers (Arizona, California and Nevada) are worried about coming shortage-related changes in water policy and new constraints on their water use.
  • Just 14% of Upper Basin growers and 13% of Lower Basin growers believe that existing water policies and management practices are adequate to address coming shortages.
  • 69% of Upper Basin and 74% of Lower Basin growers have implemented at least one water conservation practice, largely in response to local water shortages.
  • 56% of growers in both basins would engage in programs to improve their water delivery systems if funding is provided.
  • Just 8% of Upper Basin and 18% of Lower Basin growers would participate in programs that would fallow, or cease production, on the same field for multiple years.
  • And just 13% of Upper Basin and 14% of Lower Basin growers said there was a high level of trust between water users and water management agencies.

In Colorado, the Colorado Ag Water Alliance has been working to help producers use water more efficiently to prepare for future droughts and manage with less water. But CAWA’s Executive Director Greg Peterson said it’s a difficult task.

“Our goal is to help these people survive. People [who don’t farm] don’t actually understand that there are few opportunities to reduce water use in an agricultural setting,” Peterson said. “You might be able to reduce water use by 5% or maybe 10% without reducing yields. But it’s not easy to do.”

Wyoming and other basin states have begun installing sophisticated new technologies that help determine how much water crops consume, known as consumptive use, and how much water runs off and returns to the river or natural environment after a field has been irrigated. This is a critical measurement because it is only the consumptive use portion of irrigation water that can be administratively “saved” as water left in the river system.

Jeff Cowley is administrator for interstate streams in the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, the top water regulator in the state. Cowley is implementing new conservation technologies and working with growers who are already participating in one of the new federal programs known as the System Conservation Pilot Program.

Homing in on how much water is saved and left in the river is a complicated question whose answer differs from field to field and crop to crop. When water was plentiful, before the drought and climate change, there was enough water that this kind of precision wasn’t required. But that is no longer the case.

Cowley said this new level of precision is another critical factor in working with skeptical farmers and ranchers because it provides some certainty on what impact programs could have on their water supplies.

“Folks are attached to their water,” Cowley said. “They are willing to try new things, but not on their own dime.”

And any given year, he said, “there is not a lot of room for mistakes.”

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.

More by Jerd Smith 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.

Click here to download the report. (Bennett, D., Lewis, M., Mahowald, H., Collins, M., Brammer, T., Byerly Flint, H., Thorsness, L., Eaton, W., Hansen, K., Burbach, M., and Koebele, E. 2023.). Here’s the executive summary:

Executive Summary
The Colorado River Basin is in crisis. There is no longer enough water for all of those who depend on it. The agricultural sector is the largest water user in the Colorado River Basin, meaning that farmers and ranchers are central to both the impacts of and solutions to water shortages. Their involvement will be key to developing effective policy solutions to today’s water crisis.

We surveyed 1,020 agricultural water users throughout six states in the Colorado River Basin to understand their perspectives on the present crisis, their current water conservation practices, and their preferences for strategies to address water shortages going forward. Agricultural water users were primarily concerned about how the current situation could impact water policy, constrain irrigators’ own water use, and constrain other agricultural water users. We also conducted qualitative research to capture preferences for local approaches to managing water and provide additional context on dynamics in the Colorado River Basin, including interviews with 12 agricultural producers and water experts and a focus group with 10 agricultural water users in Colorado.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found agricultural water users are already responding to water shortages. Roughly 70% of surveyed agricultural water users have already adopted one or more water conservation practices or adaptation strategies. Importantly, many would consider adopting additional practices. Despite this, few respondents participated in or were aware of formal programs to support water conservation. One exception, however, was the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). A third of respondents currently or previously participated in EQIP and an additional 37% were aware of the program. Information gathered from interviews and the focus group identified multiple burdens to participation in EQIP and similar programs, and several participants thought the benefits were not worth the effort. These insights suggest an opportunity for revisiting how formal programs meant to incentivize water conservation connect with water users.

Most survey respondents were unlikely to adopt water conservation practices as part of formal demand management or system conservation programs to address water shortages. Only one of eight practices included in the survey – enhancing water delivery systems – had a majority of respondents state that they were likely to adopt the practice. The remaining seven practices had a considerably lower likelihood of adoption. Respondents were also generally opposed to water transfers as a solution to shortages. Opposition was strongest to permanent transfers broadly, as well as to temporary transfers from agricultural to non-agricultural uses. Only temporary transfers from agricultural water users to other agricultural water users had less than 50% opposition. Major barriers to supporting water transfers included concerns about losing water rights, even in temporary transfer arrangements, as well as insufficient financial compensation. Addressing these concerns will be critical to increase participation of
agricultural water users in demand management or system conservation. Still, although support for temporary water transfers and demand management practices was low, even equivalently low participation (e.g., 10% to 20%) could help address water shortages as part of a portfolio of strategies for the Colorado River Basin.

We also documented an overwhelming preference for local approaches to managing water shortages and a trust gap with non-local agencies. This was evidenced by respondents’ preference for the local management of formal programs, such as some of the demand management and system conservation programs under consideration, as well as for the administration of funding for water conservation and other programs. Qualitative research participants communicated that strategies to address water shortages must account for the diversity of local contexts across the Colorado River Basin. These strategies could therefore be best implemented at the local level through existing delivery infrastructure and by managers with track records of success. State and federal water managers and agencies involved in program delivery should emphasize building trust with agricultural water users and gaining knowledge about unique features of local contexts. Simply providing additional funding for formal water conservation programs may be inadequate to meet the diversity of challenges across an area of 246,000 square miles. Developing opportunities for dialogue and listening can help foster relationships and improve trust among key stakeholders.

Given the importance of agriculture as the primary water user in the Colorado River Basin, proactively engaging agricultural communities will be critical to successfully managing water shortages. Understanding the perspectives and preferences of agricultural water users, as documented in this report, can help guide the development of solutions that work for producers and other users in the Basin.

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

Medians get a makeover in #Denver’s Central Park: Landscape transformation set to save millions of gallons of water along busy city corridor — News on Tap

Denver Parks and Recreation is replacing the Kentucky bluegrass in four medians along Quebec Street in Denver and turning it into a prairie grass meadow. The project will save millions of gallons of water every year. Denver Water and the Colorado Water Conservation Board are helping fund the project. Learn about the project in this video

Click the link to read the article on the Denver Water website (Jay Adams):

It’s not often that a median in the middle of a street gets a lot of attention, and that makes it a perfect candidate for a landscape makeover.

For decades, the four medians separating the north and southbound lanes of Quebec Street, just south of Interstate 70 between Smith Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, have featured 10 acres of thirsty Kentucky bluegrass. 

Now, the Denver Parks and Recreation department is transforming the grass fields into prairie grass meadows that will be home to a more appropriate type of ColoradoScape that needs significantly less water to thrive.

“The medians had what we call ‘nonfunctional grass,’ which means the grass was not being used for any type of activity. That made it a perfect location for landscape transformation,” said Ian Schillinger-Brokaw, a Denver Parks and Recreation urban ecology planner. 

“We were using around 9 million gallons of water every year to keep grass green that no one used, so it was really not a good use of water.”

Sprinklers irrigate the old, water-intensive Kentucky bluegrass fields before the project in June 2023. The bluegrass on the Quebec Street medians required additional irrigation to stay green during the summer. Photo credit: Denver Water.

The landscape transformation project on the four medians is being done in partnership with Denver Water, which is helping to fund the work. 

The project also received money from the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Turf Replacement Program, which uses state funds to help transform water-intensive turf into a more natural ColoradoScaped environment.

What to expect

During summer 2023, the city shut off the sprinklers and let the bluegrass die. Then in September, landscape crews from Western States Reclamation planted more than 60 species of prairie grasses and wildflower seeds through the remains of the dead bluegrass. 

Learn more about ColoradoScaping at denverwater.org/Conserve.

After the seeds were in the ground, workers sprayed the field with “hydromulch,” which is the process of spraying water mixed with small particles of wood fiber on top of the seeds, so they don’t blow away or get eaten by birds.

The field will be watered over the next two to three years to help the seeds grow. Depending on the weather, some grasses will sprout this fall, while others will begin to grow next spring and summer. 

It will take roughly three years for the new plants to become established.

A tractor plants seeds across the Quebec Street medians in September. It will take about three years for the plants to be fully established. Photo credit: Denver Water.

“The field will have a variety of grasses with different heights, colors and textures and the wildflowers will provide an added boost of color,” Schillinger-Brokaw said.

The wide variety of plants will help the new prairie meadows thrive in different weather conditions. For example, some grasses and flowers will do better in dry years, while others will grow better in wet years.

Workers spray hydromulch on the field after seeding. The hydromulch is a mix of water and tiny wood particles that will protect the seeds from blowing away and improve germination. Photo credit: Denver Water.

“By adding a variety of grass species, we’re ensuring that each season the field will have plants that are in good shape,” he said.

“The field will look very similar to some of our other parks and open spaces in the area, such as Westerly Creek and Prairie Meadows parks.”

Schillinger-Brokaw said the landscape will keep safety in mind by making sure plants around the corners of the medians will be shorter, so they won’t impact drivers’ ability to see other cars and make safe turns at the intersections.

The Quebec Street medians will have a native prairie grass look similar to the landscape at Westerly Creek Park in northeast Denver. Photo credit: Denver Water.
The new prairie meadow will feature a variety of wildflowers with different colors and bloom times. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Water savings

Before the landscape conversion, the field required roughly 9 million gallons of extra water every year to keep the Kentucky bluegrass green. By transitioning to a prairie meadow, the goal is to eventually stop watering the field and let Mother Nature provide all the moisture the plants need to survive, Shillinger-Brokaw explained.

The Denver Parks and Recreation department will continue to water the trees on the medians. However, by eliminating the extra irrigation that the bluegrass needed, the overall water use for the medians could be reduced by roughly 8.5 million gallons each year once the plants are established.

Carpio-Sanguinette Park near the National Western Center in Denver features native prairie grasses and wildflowers that use 70% less water than fields of water-intensive Kentucky bluegrass. Photo credit: Denver Water.

“Kentucky bluegrass has been used as the default form of landscaping for decades across many parts of Colorado, but it requires a lot of water,” said Austin Krcmarik, a water efficiency planner at Denver Water. 

“With water being such a scarce resource across the West, it’s great to see Denver Parks and Recreation switching to landscaping that fits our climate.”

Additional benefits

The new medians full of prairie grasses and wildflowers are an example of ColoradoScaping, which is landscaping that features low-water-use plants that thrive in our state’s semi-arid climate.

Along with water savings, ColoradoScaping provides additional benefits for Denver’s parks, such as:

  • Providing more resilient landscapes that can cope with extreme weather, such as drought.
  • Adding biodiversity to the city with new habitats for pollinators such as birds and bees. 
  • Establishing areas that improve stormwater drainage and improve water quality.
  • Eliminating the need for mowing the medians regularly throughout the summer.
  • Saving money on water bills that can be used for other park improvements. (The water savings on the Quebec Street project will save Denver Parks and Recreation roughly $20,000 each year.)
ColoradoScaping helps improve the biodiversity of the city. Adding new habitats in the Quebec Street medians provides “fuel stops” for birds and bees as they move around the city. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Saving water across the West

Water-saving projects like the Quebec Street median turf conversion are critical because Denver Water gets half of its water supply from the Colorado River Basin, which has seen drought conditions over much of the last 23 years.

“Denver Water and other utilities across the West are actively promoting and working with cities and park districts to look for areas of nonfunctional Kentucky bluegrass and see if other types of landscaping is a better fit to help save water,” Krcmarik said. 

It’s In Denver’s Nature

The transformation of the Quebec Street medians is an example of Denver Parks and Recreation implementing the Game Plan for a Healthy City.

The comprehensive plan serves as a roadmap to the future of Denver’s park system. A key aspect is investing in the fight against climate change through conserving water, transforming landscapes, growing the urban canopy and protecting habitats. 

A mix of seeds from more than 60 kinds of flowers and grasses will ensure that the medians, once a bland, expanse of water-intensive Kentucky bluegrass, will be home to a wide variety of prairie grasses and wildflowers sporting different textures and colors. Photo credit: Denver Water.

As part of the plan, in April 2023, Denver Parks and Recreation changed its policy of using thirsty turfgrass, like Kentucky bluegrass, as its primary landscaping groundcover in areas with no recreational value. The Quebec Street medians are an example of how the city is using drought-tolerant and ecosystem-friendly plants instead of turfgrass.

“We’re doing a lot across the city to reduce our water footprint and the Quebec Street medians project is one of the biggest landscape transformation projects we’ve done,” Shillinger-Brokaw said.

“We ask for patience as these new grasses grow, and we’re excited to see the new look coming soon to this part of the city.”

For more information about landscape transformation across the city, check out Denver Parks and Recreation’s It’s In Denver’s Nature campaign and denverwater.org/Conserve.

Improving #resilience to #drought: Soil health project tests treatments with little water — @AspenJournalism

From left, Turnabout Ranch owner Brendan Doran, ranch hand Eric Tarala, engineer with Lotic Hydrological Jessica Mason and Roaring Fork Conservancy ecologist Andrea Tupy talk about the project site at the ranch. The ranch is one of four test sites that will receive soil treatments like aeration and biochar. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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

Local ranchers are hoping a soil health experiment will reveal clues about how they can better manage their land under dry conditions as the Colorado River basin continues to struggle under the effects of climate change and historic drought. 

Four sites are participating in the project, which is being administered by the Roaring Fork Conservancy. Each of the participating grass and alfalfa fields will have six test plots: Two are controls that get no special soil treatments; two will be mechanically aerated, which involves perforating the soil with small holes so that plant roots can better receive water and nutrients; and two will receive aeration plus a layer of carbon-rich organic matter known as biochar. 

Then, one plot from each treatment category will receive a normal amount of irrigation water and the other three will be watered only in the beginning of the irrigation season to mimic drought conditions. 

The goal is to see if the soil treatments can maintain crop yield even when fields receive less water. Scientists and engineers from the conservancy and Carbondale-based engineering firm Lotic Hydrological took grass and soil baseline samples this season and will do so again next season after the treatments and compare them. If the soil treatment techniques work and are able to be scaled up, they could be part of the solution for drought-stressed crops and ranchers throughout the state. 

Carbondale’s Turnabout Ranch, which gets its water from Prince Creek via the Mount Sopris Ditch, is participating in the project. Owner Brendan Doran, a ski pro at Aspen Skiing Co., says that bad snowpack conditions carry over from the winter.

“Being in skiing in the wintertime and having hard snow years, we have the same thing in agriculture,” he said. “And there’s a way to prepare ourselves for it. … Moving forward, we can have a better idea of how to manage things and keep the yield the same.”

Mike Spayd — another skier-turned-first-generation-rancher who works at Aspen Highlands — is participating in the project on ground he leases near his home in Missouri Heights. Junior water rights from the Spring Park Reservoir and Mountain Meadow Ditch irrigate the 90 acres of grass and alfalfa that gets a single cutting a year. 

“We are dependent on a good runoff every year to fill that water right, and drought resiliency is an important part of farming no matter what your water rights are,” Spayd said. “Being able to make the most out of any water we have and develop drought resiliency is pretty important to me.”

Doran and Spayd use sprinkler systems to irrigate and say they want to improve the soil health of their land. The other two projects are on a Pitkin County-owned, 36-acre parcel in Emma known as the Shippee Open Space and a ranch near Basalt. 

Mike Spayd points out the soil health project area on ground he leases in Missouri Heights. The project is aimed at exploring ways ranchers can maintain crop yields with less water. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

More state funding scales up program

Conservancy staff are overseeing the project, which is one of 31 drought-resiliency projects across the state under the umbrella of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance (CAWA) and partially funded with a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). In addition to soil health, other projects around the state focus on growing more drought-resistant forage crops, irrigation efficiency and  livestock. 

The CWCB granted $183,700 in funding for the initial statewide program in 2022. The Pitkin County soil treatments project received $18,862, plus additional funding from The Nature Conservancy and Atlantic Aviation. The state grant money is funneled through CAWA to the conservancy and other local entities around the state that carry out the projects. 

The Roaring Fork Conservancy is a Basalt-based nonprofit that focuses on watershed science and education programs, policy, stream management and restoration. Heather Lewin, conservancy director of watershed science and policy, said water is inextricably tied to agriculture — and that’s why the conservancy decided to do this project. 

“We think agriculture brings value to our community,” she said. “There’s local food production, economic value, open space, wildlife passage, migration corridors, stewardship. … As you look at the future with less water available, are there ways for a water organization like ours to partner with people on the ground to see if agriculture can stay productive and continue to provide the benefits to the community.”

CAWA is expanding the drought-resiliency projects for next year and is accepting applications for the 2024 season. In September, the CWCB awarded nearly $1 million in funding to scale up the program. CAWA Executive Director Greg Peterson said next year’s program funding is also coming from Front Range water providers Denver Water, Aurora Water, Northern Water, Colorado Springs Utilities and the Walton Family Foundation. 

The program is intended for projects that are small, innovative and unproven. Projects that can be scaled up and could have relevant findings for a lot of agricultural producers will be given top priority, Peterson said. 

“There’s a lot of need to experiment and try out new ideas,” Peterson said. “You have to be able to make sure it’s not as risky financially for a farmer or rancher to try one of these projects.”

Doran and his wife, Sarah Willeman Doran, bought the Turnabout Ranch (formerly the Tybar Ranch) in 2021. The land needs a lot of love, he said, after years of drought and cattle grazing. His family’s vision for the 450 acres doesn’t include herds of cows, but they do plan on an equestrian facility for healing work with horses, in addition to growing hay. 

“Once we get the test results back, we will be able to take the fields and make them more productive, more sustainable,” Doran said. “I think we’re just excited to participate and keep evolving the way that our environment is evolving.” 

This story ran in the Oct. 8 edition of the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and The Aspen Times, and the Oct. 9 edition of the Vail Daily.

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

#ColoradoRiver officials to expand troubled water #conservation program in 2024 — Colorado Newsline #COriver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Newsline website (Robert Davis):

Colorado River officials plan to expand a conservation program next year that pays farmers and ranchers to use less water. But questions remain about some of the proposed ideas and the program’s overall efficacy.

The state initially launched the System Conservation Pilot Program in 2015 as a part of a multistate effort to conserve water from the Colorado River, which provides water for millions of residents throughout seven states as well as Mexico. The effort was designed to see if conservation efforts could stabilize the water levels in critical reservoirs along the river, like Lake Powell. 

While there have been some challenges, the project is set to expand in 2024, Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Lauren Ris said during the National Community Reinvestment Coalition’s Just Economy conference in Denver on Sept. 27. 

Some of the changes the CWCB is planning to implement include making it easier for farmers and ranchers to apply for the federally-funded program, creating a transparent pricing mechanism, and encouraging participants to recommend new technology solutions.

These new efforts could help preserve water resources for about 40 million people across multiple states in the Southwest as they face population increases and the need to build more housing. And Colorado is in a unique position to drive that change because of its status as a headwater state, Ris said. 

“We really rely on water from mother nature. We don’t have the ability to draw water from somewhere else,” she added.

An unparalleled challenge

When the conservation pilot program began in 2015, concerns about the Colorado River’s declining water levels, largely due to human-caused climate change, were already well established. More than a decade of declining snowfall in the Rocky Mountains created record low water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are two of the nation’s largest reservoirs. They also provide water and hydroelectric power to millions of Americans. 

To address the issue, Colorado spent about $8.5 million to conserve 47,200 acre-feet of water between 2015 and 2018, according to data shared about the pilot program during the CWCB’s board meeting on Sept. 21. That’s roughly $180 per acre-foot. One acre-foot can support up to two households for a year. 

But then the program went dark until 2022 when water levels in the Colorado River reached historic lows. The federal government initially asked several Western states including Colorado to reduce their water consumption by up to 4 million acre-feet per year before deciding to allow the states to work out their own agreement. 

From left, New Mexico Community Capital’s Jeff Atencio, Central Arizona Water Conservation Board’s Ylenia Aguilar, Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Lauren Ris, and CPR’s Michael Sakas prepare for a panel on the Colorado River at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition’s Just Economy conference in Denver on Sept. 27, 2023. (Robert Davis for Colorado Newsline)

By June 2022, the four … Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—had put together a five-point water conservation plan. The first point of the plan was to restart the SCPP. 

In December, the federal government reauthorized the program and allocated up to $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act for the Upper Basin states to spend on water conservation efforts between 2023 and 2026. 

As of this month, the SCPP has supported 64 projects across the Upper Basin states and conserved about 38,000 acre-feet of water, Amy Ostidek, the water conservation board’s interstate, federal, and water section chief, said during the Sept. 21 meeting. Twenty-two of those projects were in Colorado and they conserved a total of roughly 2,500 acre-feet of water.

Conserving the future

But the program’s re-launch wasn’t as smooth as many had hoped, Ostidek lamented. 

“Getting things kicked-off in December just wasn’t tenable for water users trying to make decisions about their operations,” Ostidek said. “And, frankly, that put all of us in a crunch to do things very quickly, and maybe not as well as they could have been done if we had more time.”

To address these issues, the SCPP will open applications for the 2024 program starting in October. Ris said this will help provide some “operational certainty” for water users.

Another aspect that will be revised is the pricing mechanism. This year’s SCPP is paying ranchers and farmers about $150 per acre-foot of water saved, which was based on the median payments allocated under the pilot program, The Colorado Sun reported. However, ranchers and farmers have been getting paid nearly $394 per acre-foot on average. 

The program is also looking to incorporate more technology to address data and efficiency gaps in the system. Some target areas include creating drought-resilience tools and implementing conservation strategies that address the needs of rural communities along the lower Colorado River Basin, like in northern Arizona. 

“At the end of the day, the people who are most impacted by these decisions are often the most vulnerable members of our communities and the most underserved,” Central Arizona Water Conservation Board member Ylenia Aguilar said. 

Map credit: AGU

Report: Agricultural #water user’s preferences for addressing water shortages in the #ColoradoRiver Basin — University of #Wyoming #conservation #COriver #aridification

Young farmers

Click the link to read the report on the University of Wyoming website (Drew E. Bennett, Max Lewis, Hallie Mahowald, Matt Collins, Travis Brammer, Hilary Byerly Flint, Lucas Thorsness, Weston Eaton, Kristiana Hansen, Mark Burbach, and Elizabeth Koebele). Here’s the executive summary:

The Colorado River Basin is in crisis. There is no longer enough water for all of those who depend on it. The agricultural sector is the largest water user in the Colorado River Basin, meaning that farmers and ranchers are central to both the impacts of and solutions to water shortages. Their involvement will be key to developing effective policy solutions to today’s water crisis.

We surveyed 1,020 agricultural water users throughout six states in the Colorado River Basin to understand their perspectives on the present crisis, their current water conservation practices, and their preferences for strategies to address water shortages going forward. Agricultural water users were primarily concerned about how the current situation could impact water policy, constrain irrigators’ own water use, and constrain other agricultural water users. We also conducted qualitative research to capture preferences for local approaches to managing water and provide additional context on dynamics in the Colorado River Basin, including interviews with 12 agricultural producers and water experts and a focus group with 10 agricultural water users in Colorado.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found agricultural water users are already responding to water shortages. Roughly 70% of surveyed agricultural water users have already adopted one or more water conservation practices or adaptation strategies. Importantly, many would consider adopting additional practices. Despite this, few respondents participated in or were aware of formal programs to support water conservation. One exception, however, was the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). A third of respondents currently or previously participated in EQIP and an additional 37% were aware of the program. Information gathered from interviews and the focus group identified multiple burdens to participation in EQIP and similar programs, and several participants thought the benefits were not worth the effort. These insights suggest an opportunity for revisiting how formal programs meant to incentivize water conservation connect with water users.

Most survey respondents were unlikely to adopt water conservation practices as part of formal demand management or system conservation programs to address water shortages. Only one of eight practices included in the survey – enhancing water delivery systems – had a majority of respondents state that they were likely to adopt the practice. The remaining seven practices had a considerably lower likelihood of adoption. Respondents were also generally opposed to water transfers as a solution to shortages. Opposition was strongest to permanent transfers broadly, as well as to temporary transfers from agricultural to non-agricultural uses. Only temporary transfers from agricultural water users to other agricultural water users had less than 50% opposition. Major barriers to supporting water transfers included concerns about losing water rights, even in temporary transfer arrangements, as well as insufficient financial compensation. Addressing these concerns will be critical to increase participation of agricultural water users in demand management or system conservation. Still, although support for temporary water transfers and demand management practices was low, even equivalently low participation (e.g., 10% to 20%) could help address water shortages as part of a portfolio of strategies for the Colorado River Basin.

We also documented an overwhelming preference for local approaches to managing water shortages and a trust gap with non-local agencies. This was evidenced by respondents’ preference for the local management of formal programs, such as some of the demand management and system conservation
programs under consideration, as well as for the administration of funding for water conservation and other programs. Qualitative research participants communicated that strategies to address water shortages must account for the diversity of local contexts across the Colorado River Basin. These strategies could therefore be best implemented at the local level through existing delivery infrastructure and by managers with track records of success. State and federal water managers and agencies involved in program delivery should emphasize building trust with agricultural water users and gaining knowledge about unique features of local contexts. Simply providing additional funding for formal water conservation programs may be inadequate to meet the diversity of challenges across an area of 246,000 square miles. Developing opportunities for dialogue and listening can help foster relationships and improve trust among key stakeholders.

Given the importance of agriculture as the primary water user in the Colorado River Basin, proactively engaging agricultural communities will be critical to successfully managing water shortages. Understanding the perspectives and preferences of agricultural water users, as documented in this report, can help guide the development of solutions that work for producers and other users in the Basin.

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

Western states vote to narrow focus of #ColoradoRiver program: #Colorado’s commissioner, Becky Mitchell, supports ‘#drought #resilency tools’ — The #Telluride Daily Planet #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River is a source of irrigation, hydropower and drinking water for 40 million people in seven Western states. Source: The Water Desk via the Water Education Foundation

Click the link to read the article on The Telluride Daily Planet website (Ashley Burton). Here’s an excerpt:

Water commissioners from Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming are focusing on water demand management in the future of a conservation pilot program. The Upper Colorado River Commission met for a special meeting on Sept. 21 and heard an update regarding the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP)…Ultimately, the water commissioners unanimously voted to support narrowing the program in 2024 to focus on water demand management and tools for innovation and local drought resiliency. There was also emphasis during the meeting on improving upon what was learned in 2023…

Collum reviewed three options the commission had on the table for 2024. The first option was to have no program in 2024, but no commissioners spoke in favor of that option. The second option was to maximize water conservation.

Option three, unanimously favored by the commissioners, was presented during the meeting as: “Narrow the 2024 SCPP to explore Demand Management (DM) Studies and Support Innovation & Local Resiliency – implement recommended SCPP improvements AND narrow project criteria towards remaining DM questions and supporting innovation & local resiliency resulting in water conservation.”


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

“…I think when we specifically look at the change in hydrology (and) the definite need for the cuts to happen where the cuts are needed in the lower basin,” Mitchell said. “I really want to think about resiliency on the home front and the thing that we do being focused on building security for our own states and our own water users. And so I think when we look at the implementation with the recommended improvements and the narrow project criteria that are focused on supporting innovation and local resiliency that results in water conservation.” — Becky Mitchell

Map credit: AGU

Implementation of System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) for Water Year 2024 — #Colorado Water Conservation Board #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Raymond Langstaff irrigates his fields outside of Rifle in May 2022. A water conservation program that pays irrigators to use less water from the Colorado River (SCPP) will be offered by the upper basin states starting in October 2023. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Katie Weeman):

September 21, 2023 (Denver, CO) – the Upper Colorado River Commissioners voted to implement the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) for the 2024 Water Year. SCPP provides Upper Basin water users with the opportunity to participate in temporary, voluntary, and compensated water conservation. SCPP simultaneously allows the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) and Upper Division States to learn from the piloted conservation efforts, expanding knowledge on aspects like monitoring, measurement, and local benefits or impacts. For water users, it provides opportunities to develop tools to build resilience and adapt to long-term drought.

The revamped SCPP integrates input from Upper Basin water users. Changes include:

  • An earlier application window, beginning in October 2023, to provide operational certainty for applicants.   
  • A transparent pricing mechanism to provide clarity to applicants.  
  • Increased education and outreach to ensure water users are fully informed.
  • Expanded information about project applications in Colorado with the opportunity to provide comment.  
  • Prioritization of projects that support innovative water conservation and development of drought resiliency tools.

“We learned a lot about SCPP last year, so this year’s revamp integrates a lot of input from Colorado water users,” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado River Commissioner for the State of Colorado. “SCPP should—and can—work in a way that makes sense for Colorado. The pilot program can provide flexibility for Coloradans who want or need to explore innovative conservation projects. As we continue to learn together and do what we can to be part of the solution, I continue to push for reductions where it matters most: in the Lower Division States.”  

 “There is no silver bullet for drought resiliency in Colorado,” said Lauren Ris, Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “SCPP is one tool in the State’s toolkit that we can all learn from. It can fund innovation, letting water users try something new, because they have that financial certainty. And, because it’s totally voluntary, temporary, and compensated, SCPP lets Coloradans choose for themselves.”

At the September 21 UCRC meeting, Commissioner Mitchell strongly advocated for SCPP reforms that would be responsive to Colorado water users’ input. More information on the revamped SCPP process will be available in the coming weeks. The Congressional reauthorization for SCPP expires in Fall 2024.

Map credit: AGU

Making the switch to save #water: Prairie grasses take root in first year of landscape transformation in Arapahoe County — News on Tap #conservation

Click the link to read the article on the Denver Water website (Jay Adams):

What a difference a year makes for the front of Arapahoe County’s Administration Building in Littleton.

Since the 1970s, the west side of the building had been covered by a 3-acre field of unused, water-intensive Kentucky bluegrass.

Recognizing the need to set a positive example regarding water conservation for the long term, in August 2022 the Arapahoe County Commissioners launched a plan to seed the field with a mix of prairie grasses in an effort to transform the bland expanse of bluegrass into a more natural ColoradoScape that will use less water.

Learn more about ColoradoScaping at denverwater.org/Conserve.

The project is part of Arapahoe County’s broader sustainability initiative that includes reducing water consumption indoors and outdoors.

One year later, all the planning has paid off and the grasses are flourishing.

Arapahoe County’s Administration Building in Littleton has a new ColoradoScape with its prairie grass field on the west side of the building. The transformation is a part of the county’s sustainability efforts to reduce water consumption. Photo credit: Denver Water.

“We’re very pleased with how the grasses have come in and are thriving,” said Lisa VanderHeyden, senior project manager of facilities and fleet at Arapahoe County. “We were lucky and got a nice boost from Mother Nature with all the rain in May and June, which really helped the grasses grow in their first season.”

The old field was chosen for landscape transformation because it was considered to have “nonfunctional grass,” which is grass that requires frequent watering from an irrigation system but is not used for activities or events.

The old Kentucky bluegrass field as seen before the transformation in 2022. The field required extensive watering to stay green and was considered nonfunctional grass because it was not used for activities or events. Photo credit: Arapahoe County.

The new field contains a mix of grasses with varying heights and textures. It resembles what the field looked like before people settled the area and started irrigating the land.

It typically takes about three years to fully establish a native grass area, in which the grasses fill in and squeeze out the weeds. Once established, the grass should be able to survive solely on the moisture provided by Mother Nature.

This is how Arapahoe County’s ColoradoScape is going. See how it started.

Arapahoe County’s staff will actively manage the field and the county anticipates saving approximately 1.5 million gallons of water per season due to the switch from the bluegrass.

“The field will have a very natural look and, like other prairie grass fields in the area, the colors will change depending on the amount of precipitation throughout the year,” VanderHeyden said.

The field, seen here in August 2023 after it was mowed for the first time. The field, which will be mowed once a year, has a mix of native prairie grass seeds including blue grama, buffalo grass, sideoats grama, western wheatgrass, green needlegrass and sand dropseed. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Changing landscapes across the Southwest

The building is in Denver Water’s service area and is a great example of a greater push across the Southwest to reduce the amount of nonfunctional grass and help boost the struggling Colorado River, where Denver Water gets half of its water supply.

“We’ve been really impressed with Arapahoe County’s efforts to examine their nonfunctional grass areas and make water-saving changes,” said Austin Krcmarik, water efficiency planner at Denver Water.

The landscape transformation in front of Arapahoe County’s Administration Building includes a garden that features low-water-use plants designed to do well in Colorado’s semi-arid climate. Photo credit: Denver Water.

“For decades, Kentucky bluegrass has been the default landscaping option for many government buildings and now we’re seeing a shift to more natural looking, water-saving ColoradoScapes.”

So, how do you start a new prairie grass field? Hear Arapahoe County officials discuss the project:

Creating a long-term plan

Krcmarik and Arapahoe County agree that there are a number of steps to take when doing large landscape transformation projects:

  • Check with the local water provider for ideas and resources.
  • Consult with the growing number of landscape experts who support water-saving transformations.
  • Work with landscapers who are willing to research what will work best and commit to support the transformation beyond the initial implementation.
  • Get the full support of management.
  • Think the project through, from start to finish and consider long-term maintenance.
Mature trees remain in front of the building. Arapahoe County has experimented with different types of irrigation techniques to ensure they stay healthy as irrigation to the field is reduced. Photo credit: Denver Water.
  • Inform the public about the reasons behind the landscape change.
  • Develop a plan for how to prepare the site for new seeds and plants.
  • Upgrade and/or modify irrigation systems to protect mature trees if the new landscape will use less water.
  • Develop a plan to manage weeds during the early years.
  • Choose plants that can survive without irrigation after establishment.

Denver Water and Arapahoe County are part of the Colorado Native Grass Working Group, which includes dozens of other cities, landscape and water professionals to put together a guide on best practices for installing low-water grass landscapes. You can check out their resources and sign up for their email list at coloradonativegrass.org.

Signs point out the challenges weeds present during landscape transformation. Grasses typically take around three years to become fully established and squeeze out the weeds. Photo credit: Denver Water.

State support

The turf replacement project was awarded a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board for supporting the Colorado Water Plan’s goal of encouraging municipalities to reduce water use through landscape change.

“It’s been great working with Denver Water, and we appreciate their support and also the grant from the CWCB,” said Anders Nelson, Arapahoe County public information officer.

“While this is a relatively small field, we hope to learn from our work, share and improve the processes and continue to look for other opportunities to reduce our water consumption here in Arapahoe County.”

Mrs. Gulch’s landscape September 14, 2023. Note the freshly mowed Blue gramma area at center left.

Building soil health important for #drought, #wildfire resiliency, experts say: Landowners learn steps to long-temr soil improvements — Steamboat Pilot & Today

This field is irrigated with water from the Roaring Fork River, under a senior water right. CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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

The consultant with UnderstandAG — which uses the tagline restoring soil, profits, farms and futures — conducted a water infiltration test in the field that after 10 minutes showed very little water soaking into the hard soil. That is because, for one reason, the field had no armor, or a soil cover of plant residue on the surface. Soil cover is one of the six key elements for building healthy soil that the landowners and ranchers learned about during the all-day Soil Health Field Day on Aug. 15.

“Hay producers might be better off in the long term if they left a 3 or 4-inch stubble of hay, which would help generate a more healthy soil system and by maintaining a continuous living root or ground cover,” said Lyn Halliday, board president of the Routt County Conservation District, which organized the free workshop.

Halliday explained that healthy soils act like a sponge helping to absorb and contain moisture. Low soil moisture can cause plants to stop growing or dry out and may provide fuels for wildfires. On the other hand, when soil moisture content is high, fires have more difficulty in igniting, burning and spreading rapidly.

In the next demonstration area on the property, Fuchs showed with an infrared thermometer the 30-40 degree difference in temperatures of healthy soil versus compacted, poor soil. When Fuchs took a reading of 143 degrees on bare soil, he stopped to take a photo of the startling results because, he said, at 140 degrees, good soil bacteria die. He pointed out a soil temperature study that showed at 130 degrees, 100% of moisture is lost through evaporation and transpiration. At 100 degrees, 15% of moisture is used for plant growth and 85% is lost…

The conservation district recently released a “Routt County Landowner Toolkit for Building Drought, Wildfire and Soil Health Resiliency,” that is online at RouttCountyCD.com. The toolkit includes links to helpful resources with the goal of inspiring county landowners and ranchers to adapt to changing conditions that affect the land and daily practices of farming and ranching. The toolkit points out the best management practices for agriculture include reducing or eliminating tillage, nurturing the living organic components of soils, promoting diversification of soil flora and fauna below ground and plants above ground, creating pollinator habitat, diversifying rotations including grazing, and reducing wind erosion by establishing wind breaks.

As the #ColoradoRiver Declines, #Water Scarcity and the Hunt for New Sources Drive up  Rates — Inside #Climate News #COriver #aridification

All American Canal Construction circa. 1938 via the Imperial Irrigation District. The 80-mile long canal carries water from the Colorado River to supply nine Southern California cities and 500,000 acres of farmland in the Imperial Valley where a few hundred farms draw more water from the Colorado River than the states of Arizona and Nevada combined

Click the link to read the article on the Inside Climate News website (Wyatt Myskow and Emma Peterson, June 17, 2023):

The price of water is rising across the Southwest as utilities look to cover the cost of the increasingly scarce resource, the infrastructure to treat and distribute it and the search for new supplies.

PHOENIX—Across the Southwest, water users are preparing for a future with a lot less water as the region looks to confront steep cuts from the Colorado River and states are forced to limit use to save the river. Farms are being paid to not farm. Cities are looking to be more efficient and find new water supplies. And prices are starting to go up. 

In Phoenix, the city’s Water Services Department is preparing to increase residents’ monthly water bills starting this October if the hike is approved by the city council. The city isn’t alone. Water providers throughout the entire Colorado River Basin have raised water rates, or are preparing to, to compensate for increasing costs of infrastructure repairs and water shortages along the river. Inflation is driving up the costs of resources to treat and deliver water to customers, and other additional fees are planned to incentivize conservation.

The issue is economics 101, said Casey Wichman, an assistant economics professor at Georgia Institute of Technology and a university fellow with Resources for the Future who studies water pricing. Providers along the basin are coming to terms with the diminishing supply in the river and the infrastructure that needs to be repaired or replaced, largely driven by the rapid growth in population. All of those drive up costs, he said. 

“The cheapest way to build new supply is just to get your customers to use less.” To do that, he said, water utilities often turn to raising rates, making the need to incentivize conservation another driver of the increasing price of water. 

Finding new water sources and getting people to conserve more is becoming increasingly important as the Southwest grapples with climate change and looks to shore up its supply.

“We have a lot of people living in areas where the water supplies just aren’t there,” Wichman said.

Arizona released a report this month showing the Phoenix metropolitan area was over-drafting the region’s groundwater and announced that moving forward, no new development would be allowed if it relied on groundwater. Throughout the Valley, cities like Phoenix and Tempe are introducing drought contingency plans. Further cutbacks of Colorado River water, particularly in the Lower Basin, which consists of Arizona, California and Nevada, are unavoidable. 

The region has experienced more than 20 years of drought and decades of overallocation. Arizona’s supply from the Colorado River has already been extensively cut back, and under a proposal from the river’s Lower Basin states introduced last month and supported by the Biden Administration, the states would agree to cut an additional 3 million acre feet of water over the next three years to prevent Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, from falling to levels that wouldn’t allow electricity generation at the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, or the river stops flowing past the dams altogether. 

Aerial photo – Central Arizona Project. The Central Arizona Project is a massive infrastructural project that conveys water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona, and is central to many of the innovative partnerships and exchanges that the Gila River Indian Community has set up. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=326265

In recent years the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile-long system that delivers Arizona’s allocation of Colorado River water to around 80 percent of the state’s population, has seen a nearly 25 percent cut in the amount of water that flows through its canal. 

The price CAP charges is derived from how much it costs to deliver the water to where it needs to go, said Chris Hall, CAP’s assistant general manager for administration and finance. If less water is being delivered to the state, the price of each gallon will go up. 

“We’re spreading that cost over fewer acre feet. It’s really just that simple,” he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with us having to do any major retrofits to accommodate less deliveries or change our business operations in a meaningful way. It’s just less water.”

This year, the cost of an acre foot of water, enough for about three homes for a year, is $217. Next year it will be $270. By 2028, CAP is expecting the price to rise to $323.

“Water in the Southwest is still, especially in Arizona, relatively affordable,” Hall said. CAP’s goal, he said, is ensuring rates go up in a way that is stable. 

Rates Have Long Been Too Low, Experts Say

Among the biggest expenditures in water utility infrastructure are pipelines. In order to fund their repairs and replacements, utilities will have to raise the price of water. Many experts believe that is long overdue, and that water rates haven’t been high enough to keep up with the large investments required to keep infrastructure in acceptable condition.

The City of Phoenix has over 7,000 miles of utility pipelines that deliver water to companies and households. The average water pipe will last 70 to 75 years in Arizona, but a large portion of them are reaching that age where they need to be replaced. While these pipes are built to last using what, at the time of any given pipeline’s construction, are enormously expensive and durable components, corrosion takes place over time and the pipe can crack, introducing contaminants into the drinking water system. 

“It is a matter of water quality and water reliability,” said Kathryn Sorenson of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy. 

Utility companies and elected officials are reluctant to raise prices, she said, which underfunds these vital investments. Other experts believe water prices across the country are historically low, and increases are inevitable. 

“Water is remarkably cheap for the value it provides to individuals and how we can’t sustain life without it,” said Wichman, the assistant economics professor.

But raising rates isn’t a simple task, he said. Cities like Phoenix have a much larger customer base to spread the increased costs over, he said, but rural communities tend to just eat the costs or not increase rates at the pace needed. 

Wichman said residents feel the same way about higher water rates as they do higher taxes: They’re not big fans. 

At a May public meeting regarding the proposed increase in Phoenix’s water rates, residents were skeptical of the proposal. “I want the city to be a lot more creative in how they search for funds to help cover some of these costs other than just putting it on the backs of the ratepayers,” said Jeff Spellman, a West Phoenix resident, who also questioned how the city would make sure the parts of the city most affected by climate change—like his—get the help they need to confront it.

Residents on fixed incomes, like Spellman, have expressed concern over water increases and how they will affect their lives, as well. “My pension isn’t going up by almost 40 percent like these rates are,” he said.

Higher water rates tend to have a greater impact on people in low-income communities, who generally have less efficient appliances and households with more members, resulting in more use, Wichman said. 

He said that utilities often adopt complicated rate structures designed to recover costs, promote conservation and keep fees affordable, but those are all very different, and often contradictory, goals. “Those tend to not work that well,” Wichman said.

There are no laws capping how much municipal utilities can charge per month for water, just some that require it be reasonably priced. The Arizona Corporation Commission, however, has a strict rate-making process, Sorenson said, that is taken very seriously. 

Cutbacks, Inflation and Conservation Spike Rates

For providers in Arizona that get water from the Colorado River, the costs are beginning to add up. 

Starting this October, Phoenix customers could see a 6.5 percent increase—roughly $2 for the average user per month—with another 6.5 percent increase next March and a final 13 percent increase in 2025. Phoenix Water Services will also impose a water allowance on customers to promote conservation, resulting in a $4 increase each month should customers use more than what is allotted to them.

For Phoenix, the rate increases were born out of trying to find a way to signal to residents how much water they were using, said Water Services director Troy Hayes. The city currently has a flat rate for water until a customer uses a certain number of gallons. 

“If you use water below that, your bill doesn’t change,” Hayes said. “So they can go up and go down as long as they stay below that amount. They just don’t have really a concept of the amount of water they’re using.”

Many believe raising water rates is the best, and perhaps the only way to disincentivize citizens from overusing their allotments. 

“Back in the 1970s, something like 75 to 80 percent of single-family homes in Phoenix had majority turf or lush landscaping, that number today is down to nine percent,” Sorenson said.

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

She believes a huge amount of that change is directly related to Phoenix charging more in the summer months for water than winter months, giving a direct price signal that people will pay attention to.

The cost of raw water has gone up 35 percent in recent years, according to the city, but it’s not just the price of water itself driving the change. Inflationary pressures are having big impacts, too, with the chemicals to treat the water to drinkable standards rising by 136 percent.

Measures to reduce the demand on the river and overtaxed aquifers are forcing cities to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to find new sources of water, whether from desalination, agreements with tribal governments, recycling more wastewater or finding new untapped groundwater resources. Those costs, water utility directors and city staff have said, will force utilities to raise rates in the future to pay for the new sources of water. 

The pressures from inflation are not isolated to Arizona, though. 

Colorado Springs Utilities raised rates by 5 percent at the beginning of the year to address inflation and infrastructure projects. The utility created a separate fund supported by a new fee to purchase other water rights and infrastructure, according to Jennifer Jordan, a spokesperson for the utility. Denver also raised its rates this year.

California has also implemented fees for years to discourage overuse, which is expected to increase. 

A lot is still unknown heading into high-stakes negotiations on the future of the #ColoradoRiver — #Colorado Public Radio #COriver #aridifcation

Bluff UT – aerial with San Juan River and Comb Ridge. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6995171

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Public Radio website (Rachel Estabrook). Here’s an excerpt:

Representatives from more than a dozen Indigenous tribes spoke at a CU Boulder law conference last week about their interests in the Colorado River from each of their perspectives.  Many of the prominent state and federal officials who manage the water attended the conference. But as they and other water authorities prepare to negotiate the river’s future, it’s unclear how tribes will participate, to what degree tribes will be treated as equal sovereigns, and how their desire to use all the water they legally have rights to will be considered. It’s also unclear whether negotiators will aim for a way to make the long-term reductions in water usage that a decades-long megadrought has made necessary or whether they will propose more short-term changes. 

The gathering happened at a critical time: Collectively, Colorado River users have to figure out how to live with significantly less water going forward, and the federal government is forcing states to come to an agreement…

The group of tribal representatives and state water officials, along with academics who study the river, used the two-day conference for discussions about how to make their collective use of the river more sustainable over the long term…The tribes have a shared history of using the river and its tributaries over thousands of years and migrating based on water availability. In the century since the river has been dammed and diverted across seven states, each tribe has a different story about how their water rights have been denied and what they seek to change in the river’s management going forward…

Some river scholars and even people with roles in the negotiations are unclear about what’s possible as they determine longer-term allocations of the water…A lot is at stake for tribes, and each circumstance is unique…For example, Hopi Tribe council member Dale Sinquah said his people still need to have their water rights settled. Southern Ute Tribal Council Vice Chair Lorelei Cloud said the tribe wants to use water they have legal rights to in southwestern Colorado, but they don’t have the infrastructure. She said about 1,000 tribal members still have to manually haul water to their homes, and the tribe hasn’t been able to develop farmland…Crystal Tulley-Cordova from the Navajo Nation said her tribe couldn’t rely on groundwater because of abandoned uranium mines on their land. Dwight Lomayesva, vice chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes on the border of California and Arizona, said his people would like to upgrade their farming and water infrastructure to make it more efficient, but the federal government still owns it. “The last major change in our irrigation infrastructure was made in 1942, when the United States government built some canals for the Japanese who were interned on our reservation,” he said. Each needs to negotiate for themselves individually.

“To think that there’s an ‘Indian solution,’ really dishonors that individuality and the uniqueness of each one of those tribes,” said Daryl Vigil, a Jicarilla Apache water leader who used to direct a tribal partnership in the Colorado River basin.

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

Deadpool Diaries: “Crisis on the #ColoradoRiver – From Short-Term Solutions to Long-Term Sustainability”? — John Fleck (InkStain) #COriver #aridification

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

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

I learned stuff at last week’s Getches-Wilkinson Center Colorado River conference at the University of Colorado Law School.

I learned:

  • The bodacious snowpack means the chance of Lake Mead dropping below elevation 1,000 is zero.
  • We still need to cut 1.5 million acre feet of Colorado River water use, at least. We still have no plan to do that.
  • We remain at risk of river flows past Lee’s Ferry dropping low enough by 2026 to trigger a legal argument about what the Upper Basin really owes the Lower Basin.
  • We have what was called a “historic accord” to reduce Lower Basin use in the short run, which muchly revolves around paying people to not use water.
  • The “historic accord” does not take any steps toward resolving longstanding tribal and environmental inequities.
  • The problem of what economist Gordon Tullock called “the transitional gains trap” is a very real obstacle to moving forward on the Colorado River.


In a seminal 1975 paper, economist Gordon Tullock nailed the problem at the heart of the current Colorado River policy dilemmas:

Thus farmers in places like Palo Verde, Yuma, and Imperial umpty generations ago benefited from the significant subsidies from the rest of us (federal taxpayers) that enabled Lower Colorado River agriculture to flourish. The benefit of that subsidy has now been fully capitalized in the land and the structures of the communities.

As Tullock’s work so clearly notes, termination of this “scheme” (I love his word) would “lead to large losses for the entrenched interests.”

While there’s a lot of “property rights” framing around our 21st century arguments about this, it’s important to remember that the perfection and continued use of those water rights was enabled by massive collective action on the part of others in establishing the needed institutions, and funding and building infrastructure.

But whatever, right? That’s where we are now, and a fatalistic attitude of “let’s just pay ’em” seems to have settled over basin problem solving, at least in the short term.


I’m definitely out over the tips of my conceptual skis here, but one of the things that was made clear at the Boulder meeting was something I’ll glibly dub “the transitional losses trap”: the same decisions over the last century that locked in “transitional gains” for Lower Basin farmers also locked in “transitional losses” for Native American communities dispossessed of their land and water.

In a powerful panel last Thursday afternoon, a stage full of tribal leaders one at a time talked about that dispossession. The sheer weight of their words, and the range of their concerns, was breathtaking.

Some progress has been made on this issue, especially in Arizona. But there is no escaping the reality that all that water providing “transitional gains” to Lower Basin farmers is, acre foot for acre foot, a “transitional loss” for Native American communities. And now we’re paying those Lower Basin farmers to not use this very same water.

I get that some of the money we’re paying to reduce water use will go to Arizona and California tribes with settled water rights. But there are many tribes without settled water rights, or with rights that are settled but not yet put to use. They’re getting nothing out of any deal to pay water rights holders not to use their water. We need to remember this fact every time we pay a non-Indian farmer not to farm.


California’s lead negotiator on the recently announced agreement for short term Lower Basin water use reductions, J.B. Hamby, called it a “historic accord”. I have to agree, though we’ll have to wait through the next many months before we have clarity on what sort of history has been made.

It’s a Lower Basin agreement, among Arizona, California, and Nevada. One of the things that was abundantly clear at the Boulder meeting was that Upper Basin states are withholding judgment until the details are fleshed out.

But it’s already clear that those who negotiated the deal want our money – federal tax dollars – to solve the transitional gains trap, but not to solve any of the other problems worth talking about:

  • the Colorado River Basin’s tattered environment
  • unresolved Native American water rights and other needs

As I’ve pointed out previously, with other people’s money should come other people’s values.


My buddy/collaborator/coauthor/mentor Eric Kuhn threw up a scary slide during his talk:

The crucially nerdy backstory is in Article III(c) and (d) of the Colorado River Compact, which seem to say the Upper Basin is required to send 82.5 million acre feet every ten years. As Hamby noted, one of the premises of “we need to cut 1.5maf in the Lower Basin” is that the Upper Basin continues to hit that target. Lawyers will argue forever about Article III interpretation, but I’d prefer not to hand over our management of the Colorado River to a judge’s ruling on who’s right.


No arguments broke out over California’s insistence on enforcing its priority rights and pushing most of the climate change risk onto Arizona. Yay!

But the deep entanglement between this question and the transitional gains trap stuff I mentioned before isn’t going away. California farmers have benefited from a “property right” essentially created in 1968 through the use of power politics, but that property right, as Tullock would say, is now priced into the value of their assets. And we’ve now set a “whatever, let’s just pay ’em” precedent (at an unprecedented scale), which does seem historic, but maybe not in a good way.

West snowpack basin-filled map April 16, 2023 via the NRCS.


There were a number of mentions of the Reclamation modeling that puts the risk of Lake Mead dropping to elevation 1,000 at zero.

This is great news. It shows how the bodacious snowpack bailed us all out.

But we should remember that “keeping Lake Mead above elevation 1,000” is a very low bar.

Map credit: AGU

A heck of a time for a #drought conference — @BigPivots

Leyden street and turf. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

Like hard rains amid the Dust Bowl, Colorado has lots of water almost everywhere now amid long-term drought. That’s exactly the time to talk about what do as hotter and drier inevitably return.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board chose an awkward time to conduct a drought summit, launching the two-day event on the last day of May at History Colorado in downtown Denver.

It was the fourth wettest month in Denver since 1876, before Colorado was a state, and June got off to a soggy start, too. This followed one of the snowiest winters in decades in some parts of Colorado. The only part of Colorado still in drought is in the state’s southeastern corner.

The somewhat awkward timing was noted by Anne Castle, of the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and Environment at the University of Colorado Law School. “It’s perfect time to hold a drought summit,” she said with intended irony.

Like others, though, she doesn’t expect this wetness to last. Most of Colorado, including cities and farms east of the Continental Divide, depends upon water from the Colorado River and its tributaries, and it should be news to exactly no one that those who depend upon the largesse of that river have a serious re-reckoning underway. Too slow in some places, according to at several speakers at the conference.

Unlike last year, though, the heat is off. That is good, said Castle. “We can make better decisions when we’re not right in the midst of a crisis, as long as we recognize that one winter does not solve our long-term problems.”

That problem is not necessarily drought, although Colorado and Southwestern states clearly have seen less precipitation in the last 20-plus years. Droughts come and go, and this one in the Colorado River Basin is the worst in at least 1,200 years. Something more is happening here, what scientists call aridification. In aridification, it can snow just as much, but warmer temperatures draw more of the precipitation into the atmosphere. At least one study found that up to 50% of the declined flows in the Colorado River could be attributed to the warming now underway.

Aridification doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily as drought, noted Russ Sands, section chief for water supply planning at the CWCB.

Make no mistake, though. Climate change, a subject approached gingerly 20 years ago by state water officials, has become part of the conversation. Consider Greeley.

The once-smallish city located at the  confluence of the Poudre and South Platte Rivers has grown to a population of more than 110,000 residents. That is almost certainly just the beginning.

Sean Chambers, director of water and utility services for Greeley, said the city expects to need to expand its water portfolio, currently at 35,000 acre-feet, to 80,000 acre-feet by 2080. “That does not get Greeley to build-out; it’s only half-way there,” he said.

The city gets about 40% of its water from the Colorado River Basin.

Chambers said Greeley is starting to integrate the impacts of climate change into its planning, among them pressures on reservoirs, different times of runoff, and more watershed disruptions.

“All of these risks and challenges on the water system driven by climate change come on top of managing for growth and uncertainties around supply,” he said.

As for its planning, Greeley hopes to keep ahead of hard pressures. Last year, the city gained access to an aquifer to the north of the city that it plans to manage in conjunctive fashion. It can be drawn upon when needed but also used as a storage vessel.

“It’s really difficult to innovate when your back is against the wall,” he said during a panel discussion under a heading of “storage, conservation and innovations.”

Peter Mayer, a Boulder-based consultant who has worked for 30-plus years in water demand management, said conservation has worked very well in Colorado, especially in urban sectors. “That is my specialty. We started in the late 1980s and 1990s and have seen a gradual decline in per-capita use across the state.”

Mayer argued that this has allowed Colorado’s population to grow in a way that has been much less expensive “Because conserved water is much, much cheaper generally than (developing) new supply.”

Greg Fisher, who supervises conservation efforts for Denver Water, talked about the major water reductions in its service territory since 2000, which has allowed Denver to better keep water in its reservoirs. “Conservation really works,” he said.

But there can be tensions within water agencies between programs to reduce water use and the revenue needed to pay for the infrastructure that has been installed, as described  by representatives for both Colorado Springs and Durango.

“Your leaders say (conservation) is first, but in the process of setting rates, you tend to find out it’s second or third,” said Jarrod Biggs, from the City of Durango.

“Every councilor wants to make sure that they are saving the last drop and doing what is right for the community and regional partners. When talk gets to dollars and cents, conservation ends up being somewhat important, but it does kind of fall down that list, particularly if you have a very noisy political constituency.”

Castle, from the University of Colorado, who had a law practice for much of her career, pointed out the need for getting land use right, to produce urban landscapes that are less water-intensive. “It’s really the initial configuration of development that is the primary factor that influences future water demand,” she said. We have land-use plans, master plans, comprehensive plans, subdivision improvement agreements. That is where you can deal with and incentivize water conservation and incorporate that into any new development plans.”

Municipal use represents only 7% of total water consumption in Colorado, said Mayer, compared to 91% for agriculture. “What is the agriculture sector doing?” he asked. He suggested the answers can be found with better measuring.

Taylor Hawes, who directs the Colorado River program for The Nature Conservancy with 26 years of experience, talked about the need to pick up the pace.

“We have lost 20% of the Colorado River supply since 2002,” she said. The pace of change must accelerate to correspond with the need. “The longer we wait, the harder it gets.”

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at allen.best@comcast.net or 720.415.9308.

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

Ahead of new #ColoradoRiver talks, governments and tribes weigh in on the future — KUNC #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

USBR Commissioner Touton giving a diplomatic speech at Getches-Wilkinson/Water and Tribes Initiative conference, outlining the ongoing federal spending and the upcoming SEIS revisions. One big upshot from her: There’s no reason to believe this winter wasn’t a “one-off.” Photo credit: Kyle Roerink via Twitter: https://twitter.com/KyleRoerink1/status/1666853176299991061

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

Hot on the heels of a short-term agreement to cut back on Colorado River water use, states are looking ahead to talks about more permanent cuts. The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency which manages the West’s water, announced that those negotiations will formally begin next week with a notice in the Federal Register. The announcement came at an environmental law conference in Boulder, Colorado on Thursday [June 8, 2023], where scientists, state and federal governments, and tribes met at the University of Colorado’s law school…

It still remains unclear how exactly the states plan to arrive at permanent cutbacks that will likely be painful to some of the farms and cities that depend on the river’s water, which flows to tens of millions of people and a multi-billion dollar agriculture industry. Pressed for details, state leaders shared little beyond high-level ideas about the need for water conservation across all seven states that use the Colorado River…Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, emphasized that post-2026 guidelines need to “acknowledge that climate change is real.”


Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, shared new details about the agency’s upcoming plans for water management. The agency has withdrawn its draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement while it reviews the proposal, and plans to arrive at a final plan – or “Record of Decision” – by the end of 2023. Reclamation has so far been tight-lipped with details about negotiations related to the 2026 deadline, but Touton said the agency will “formally advance” the process for those multi-year talks starting the week of June 12. Starting the process next week, she said, will allow the agency to publish a new draft SEIS by the end of 2024…

A panel with representatives from 13 tribes spoke about the evolving role of tribes in water negotiations. Officials and attorneys spoke about their current struggles to maintain steady access to clean water, the historic aggression and exclusion that drove them away from water management and the need for tribes’ input as talks continue.

Hopi tribal members collecting spring water at Yam’taqa –Place of ever-flowing water- (vasey’s paradise) in the Grand Canyon. Photo credit: From the Earth Studio

Although Indigenous people in the Southwest have been using Colorado River water longer than any other group in the region, they have largely been excluded from discussions about how the river is shared. The 30 federally-recognized tribes that use the river control about a quarter of its flow, but most lack the money and infrastructure to use their full allotments. Tribal leaders said their millennia-long history in the region could offer lessons for the future of water management.

Thoughts on the Lower #ColoradoRiver Basin #Water Deal — Sibley’s Rivers #COriver #aridification

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

A short post, to catch up on Colorado River current events. As you probably know, if you haven’t been living in a media-free cave, the three Colorado River states below the canyon region have proposed another alternative plan for saving the River’s reservoir system.

Their proposal, for answering the Interior Department’s call for cuts of at least two million acre-feet (maf) of water annually, is to cut three maf total over the next three years – and they want 1.2 billion dollars from the federal government to execute their plan.

Their plan is basically to pay farmers to voluntarily fallow some of their land. They say they will do half of the cuts – 1.5 maf – in 2024, the remainder over the following two years. Beyond that, there are no firm details at this writing as to how much of the cuts will come from each state, how much they will be paying farmers, et cetera.

Basically, what it looks like on the surface of it, is that the Lower Basin states have countered the Bureau’s four existing scenarios – two from the Bureau of Reclamation, one from California, and one from the other six River states – with an offer to do half of the minimumcuts the Bureau said we need, and they want a billion dollars to do it. What a deal.

If their plan to pay farmers to leave the water in the system sounds familiar, that may be because the four Upper Basin States tried a similar plan this year, the System Conservation Pilot Program, with a fund of $125 million from the ill-named Inflation Reduction Act. Upper Basin farmers did not rush to take up the offer. Only 88 submitted applications to participate, of which around 20 percent were rejected; the remainder will, if things work out as projected, save 39,000 acre-feet at a cost of $16 million. That is a very small piece of two million acre-feet.

The High Line Canal is an irrigation ditch built in the 1880s. Denver Water still uses the canal to deliver irrigation water to customers when conditions allow. Photo credit: Denver Water.

It has been said that farming – especially irrigated farming – is a calling, not an occupation. I have heard farmers and ranchers talk about ‘a working contract with the land,’ and in the Upper Basin at least there seems to be something almost offensive to many farmers about the idea of being paid to not farm some of their land. Ranchers in the Upper Gunnison say it takes up to five years to bring a hayfield back to full productivity after a year of no water (or very little). We’ll see, I guess, if Lower River farmers have the same basic feelings….

A further reason for the low turnout for the Upper Basin’s System Conservation Program might be that Upper Basin farmers believe – correctly enough – that the two million acre-foot ‘structural deficit’ is not their problem and they should not be expected to exercise themselves to help deal with it. A logical enough response when working with a Compact that, as one of the Compact commissioners said, is ‘almost making two rivers out of one in the Colorado River.’ The ‘Glen Canyon Wall’ near Lee Ferry eliminated that ‘almost.’ There has been no indication from the Lower River states that they would be merciful to the Upper River states, should the drought (not ‘caused’ by the Upper States) drive the available flow past Lee Ferry below the Compact allotment; so why should the Upper River states feel empathy for the Lower Basin states?

It was reported in the national media, by the way, that the Upper Basin states have ‘accepted’ the Lower Basin’s proposal. They have not, yet. The four Upper states merely said it was okay for the plan to be evaluated along with the other four proposals in the Bureau’s ‘Supplemental Environmental Impact Study.’

West snowpack basin-filled map April 16, 2023 via the NRCS.

All that noted – the Lower Basin proposal will probably be accepted for a variety of reasons. One reason is that the runoff from a good snowpack is probably going to give temporary relief on the reservoir levels; we should end the water year with both Powell and Mead Reservoirs higher than they were at the beginning of the year (water year is October to October), and that provides a little breathing room. (Keep in mind, though, that the Bureau first issued its major warning and challenge in 2022, saying that big reductions had to happen beginning in 2023. Now, nothing big will happen until 2024. Pray for snow next winter too.)

Another reason the proposal will probably be accepted is because if any of the other four proposals were to be chosen by the Bureau, one or more of the Lower Basin states would sue the government. There might be an element of desperation to both the gambit of promising to try to deliver only half of the requested cuts, and to the threat to sue if asked to deliver the whole 2 maf/year. The Bureau wants the Lower River region that serves a tenth of the national population and produces most of our winter fresh green stuff to cut their water use by almost one third – and do it next year. That’s a big request, maybe an unreasonable request.

Never mind that, had the Bureau and the seven Basin states been living in the real world, they would have taken care of the ‘structural deficit’ decades ago, with a gradual drop in Lower River use, reflecting the growth of use in the Upper River states that was eating into the so-called ‘surplus’ that the Lower Basin had grown to depend on take care of its system losses, and also its half of the allotment to Mexico.

And a final reason why their proposal will probably be accepted? 2024 is a presidential election year, with the current administration on the line, and both Arizona and Nevada are important swing states. ‘Nuff said.

It will come down to whether, next year, the three Lower River states can find enough farmers and cities willing to voluntarily give up a million and a half acre-feet of water next year. Tucson and the Gila River Indians have already made commitments. Meanwhile – pray for snow next winter.

Map credit: AGU

Will #ColoradoRiver cuts create a new Dust Bowl?: Plus: A little ditty on the water-energy-water nexus — @Land_Desk #COriver #aridification

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

In the comments section of last week’s Land Desk dispatch on the Lower Basin states’ Colorado River deal, reader Ann Bond had some interesting questions/points that I figured I’d address. I’ll try to sum up Ann’s questions, first:

  1. What effect will fallowing thousands of acres of fields have? Will it lead to another Dust Bowl? 
  2. Is the electricity from the dams used to deliver water (e.g. to power the pumps for the Central Arizona Project)?
  3. And what purpose do the two reservoirs (Powell and Mead) serve in the system and how does that factor into the bargaining between the states?

I’ll just explore the first two today, since that’s all I have room for.

My short answer for question #1 is: I don’t know. One of the problems with the deal is that very few details have been made public, so it’s difficult to understand what ramifications it might have. 

But we do know that the Lower Basin states plan to come up with 3 million acre-feet of water over three years — or about 1 million acre-feet per year — by paying water users to slash consumption. Federal funds will be used to reimburse folks for 2.3 million acre-feet of those cuts, while state, local, or other funds will be used for the remaining 700,000 acre-feet. It’s fair to guess that a bulk of these savings will be realized by paying farmers not to irrigate their crops, since agriculture is by far the biggest user of Colorado River water, and that makes more logistical sense than paying folks not to water their lawn. So that’s a good place to start.

I’ve also read reports saying the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest single water user in the Basin, plans to give up 250,000 acre-feet per year (which will be included in the above amounts).

One of the most abundant crops in the Colorado River Basin is hay, primarily alfalfa. It is also one of the thirstiest crops. Growing one acre of alfalfa guzzles around four acre-feet of water per year, depending on location, climate and length of growing season. In Colorado’s high-elevation, cool San Luis Valley, alfalfa consumes about two acre-feet per year; in California’s sea-level Imperial Valley — one of the hottest places in the nation — the crop can require more than six acre-feet of water per year.

Since the fallowing is likely to occur in hot, dry southern Arizona and California, we’ll go with the six-acre-feet-annually figure. That would mean that in order to reach the target water cuts, irrigation would have to be stopped on a total of 167,000 acres of alfalfa fields, or roughly three-fourths the size of the Salton Sea. Targeting less thirsty crops would require fallowing a larger amount of acreage. About 42,000 acres of that would be in the Imperial Irrigation District, assuming the fields they fallowed were alfalfa. For some more context: An MIT study found you’d need 90,000 acres of solar panels to replace the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant’s generation.

So, yeah, it’s a lot of acreage, and ceasing irrigation on that land could very well turn it into desiccated weed patches. Maybe it won’t be Dust Bowl kinda stuff for now, but it could get ugly, especially in a dry summer. In the San Joaquin Valley in California, for example, a groundwater management program (no relation to the Colorado River crisis) is forcing farmers to fallow fields, which is leading to serious dust and air quality problems

The Imperial Valley is next to the Salton Sea, where the air — and residents’ lungs — is already thick with dust. Fallowing all of the Valley’s alfalfa fields surely would further exacerbate the problem. At this point it’s not clear where fields will be fallowed, only that some will be in California and some in Arizona (Nevada uses almost all of its Colorado River water for municipal uses in Las Vegas and surrounding communities). 

Media outlets have reported that the states plan to pay those farmers $1.2 billion from the federal Inflation Reduction Act. That would put a $521 price tag on each acre-foot of water not going onto a field. Using the 6 acre-foot per acre of alfalfa figure, that would mean an Imperial Valley farmer could get more than $3,000 per acre to not grow anything.  

That’s not a bad deal. According to the UC Davis cropland data layer site, Imperial Valley farmers harvested 144,000 acres of alfalfa hay in 2020. They produced 1.14 million tons of alfalfa hay, valued at $200.44 million — or an average of $1,391 per acre. In other words, the farmers could bring in twice the revenue for not farming than for farming their acreage.

But it would also reduce the supply of alfalfa, causing prices to increase, which would likely ripple through the beef and dairy industries, where most of that alfalfa goes. That, in turn, could eventually make its way down to the ice cream and cheese aisles at your local grocery store. 

2. The second point Ann made was that moving water from the Colorado River to fields and cities takes a lot of energy, including the power generated by the dams on the Colorado River. So when irrigators reduce their Colorado River water use it’s leaving more water in the river, which can generate more energy when run through the dams’ turbines, which can move more water to the fields … Woah, I am getting dizzy here. 

It’s a classic example of the water-energy nexus or, in this case, the water-energy-water nexus, one of my favorite topics.

Glen Canyon, Hoover, and several other dams on the Colorado River system are hydroelectric, meaning as water runs through them, it can be routed through turbines, generating power. As reservoir levels drop, so does the power generation capacity of the dam. And if the reservoir levels fall below the openings to the penstocks — or tubes leading to the turbines — then power production ceases altogether.

This freaks folks out in these climate changed times for good reason: The warmer it is, the more power we need to run air conditioners, and the more water irrigators need to put on their crops, meaning more power is needed to move that water. But the warmer it is, the lower the reservoirs and the less power we have. Ack!

The Central Arizona Project is one of the biggest water-moving projects on the Colorado River. Its pumps pull water from the Colorado River at Lake Havasu and move it 336 miles across the Arizona desert (in an uncovered canal, allowing massive amounts of water to evaporate), with a total elevation gain of more than 2,900 feet. That takes a buttload of energy. In fact, it takes so much power that the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station was built in large part to run the CAP pumps. 

2 million megawatthours: Annual power consumption of the Central Arizona Project pumps. 

2 million megawatthours: Annual power consumption of the five pumping stations on the Colorado River Aqueduct, which delivers water to Los Angeles and surrounding areas.

2.5 million megawatthours: Annual power output of Glen Canyon Dam in 2022

3.9 million megawatthours: Annual power output of Glen Canyon Dam in 2008

1.5 million megawatthours: Annual power output of Hoover Dam in 2022

259 million megawatthours: California’s annual power consumption.

The Navajo Generating Station was retired in December 2019, forcing the CAP to find power from elsewhere. Now the project gets 70% to 80% of its power from market forward and short-term purchases; 12% to 15% from the Salt River Project electric utility; 6% from Hoover dam; and 4% from a solar installation. About half the power for the Colorado River Aqueduct pumps comes from Hoover and Parker dams, with the rest coming from a mix of market purchases and hydroelectric generation within the Aqueduct system.

And then there’s the question of how much of the dams’ electricity goes toward moving water around. The Western Area Power Administration markets the electricity from Glen Canyon Dam and 56 other hydropower dams. Here’s a breakdown of who purchases that power:

While only 4% goes to irrigation districts, you can assume that portions of many of the other categories go to moving water or treating it. So if the hydropower capacity of the dams were to shrink or vanish altogether, all of these customers — including the water folks — would have to find new sources of electricity.

#ColoradoRiver District hosts annual State of the River meeting in #Granby — Sky-Hi News #COriver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the article on the Sky-Hi News website (Kyle McCabe). Here’s an excerpt:

The river district’s Public Relations Director Marielle Cowdin spoke about the district’s work. She highlighted the Colorado River’s crisis, saying that the increased precipitation over the last year will not save the river…Cowdin talked about the water consumption differences between the upper and lower basin states, highlighting that upper basin states make cuts more effectively because they do not have massive reservoirs like Lake Mead or Lake Powell to rely on in drier years. 

“Between 2020 and 2021, the four upper basin states cut our water consumption by 1 million acre-feet — just on our own because the water wasn’t there,” Cowdin said. “Instead of about 4.5 million acre-feet of water use, in that year timeframe, we only used 3.5 (million).”

The lower basin states’ 2020-21 consumption went up 600,000 acre-feet from their average use, Cowdin said. The annual water usage split between the states has been about 60%, or around 8.8 million acre-feet, used by the lower basin versus 30%, or around 4.4 million acre-feet, used by the upper basin, with the remaining water going to Mexico…

The next speaker, Rebecca Mitchell, the Colorado Water Conservation Board director and Colorado’s commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission, was the special guest at the event. She spoke about the Bureau of Reclamation’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) and news that broke about it the day of the meeting. Mitchell explained that the bureau’s SEIS came after the lower basin states did not respond to the bureau’s June 2022 announcement that states needed to cut 2-4 million acre-feet. That announcement, she said, was not a surprise to those working on the Colorado River…Differences between the upper and lower basin states came up several times in Mitchell’s talk. She mentioned that the six-state plan, which included all states besides California, acknowledged that the upper states have shortages annually because, unlike the lower states, they do not have huge reservoirs from which to draw…On May 22, the day of the meeting, the bureau announced a pause on the SEIS. Mitchell explained that the lower basin states had presented a plan which included temporary cuts that would amount to 3 million acre-feet from 2024-26 but provided few details on how cuts would be enforced.

“​​Instead of coming up with 2-4 million on an annual basis, they were like, ‘Hey, there’s all this money … we can kick the can a little bit more, and we can use this money and make some temporary changes,” Mitchell said of the lower basin states.

Water vs. growth: #Colorado communities, developers struggle to juggle both: Developers look for more incentives to aid bottom line; cities, towns employ variety of strategies in face of constrained #water supplies — The #Denver Post

A small yard in Sterling Ranch, a Douglas County community that is the first in the state to undertake a rainwater harvesting project. June 27, 2022. Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

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

Across the Denver area, local governments, water utilities, homebuilders and developers are employing a number of strategies to meet the demands for housing, respond to growth and strive to ensure the long-term supply of the resource essential to a future in this semi-arid region: water. Agriculture consumes the lion’s share of Colorado’s water, about 90%, while municipal uses account for 7% of the total.

“When you start off with that number, I think it’s really easy for people to say, ‘Why does municipal water use even matter? Why are we even worried or focused on this?’ That’s a question I answer a lot,” said Lindsay Rogers, a water policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates.

One response is that state water planners say municipalities could face a shortfall of as much as 740,000 acre-feet of water by 2050…

Harold Smethills, Sterling Ranch co-founder and chairman, doesn’t want to see large portions of Colorado’s agricultural land dried up. Smethills, who has a ranch, leases land on the development south of Chatfield State Park to a cattle operation…No water-thirsty Kentucky bluegrass is allowed at Sterling Ranch, which has about 5,000 residents. The company worked with the Denver Botanic Gardens to identify roughly 155 different plants that use less water, many with the added bonus of attracting bees and other pollinators. The water meters in the homes tracks indoor and outdoor use and have revealed leaks when staff at the Dominion Water and Sanitation District noticed water use shoot up. Residents are also able to keep an eye on their water bills.

2023 #COleg: Governor Polis signs law expanding environmental options for home landscaping in #Colorado — CBS #Denver 7 #conservation

Turf replacement. Photo credit: Western Resource Advocates

Click the link to read the article on the CBS Denver 7 website (Katie Perkins). Here’s an excerpt:

Gov. Jared Polis has signed into law a measure that would change Coloradans’ Homeowner Association rules. Around 60% of Coloradans live under a HOA, according to a press release from the governor’s office. Under the newly confirmed State Senate Bill 178, homeowners can now swap their grass lawns for alternatives like turf that require less water.

Previously, state law granted an exception for an HOA to adopt design or aesthetic guidelines that apply to “nonvegetative turf grass and drought-tolerant vegetative landscapes.” The association was allowed to regulate the type, number and placement of drought-tolerant plants installed on a homeowner’s property.

SB 23-178 states that an association’s guidelines now cannot:

  • Prohibit the use of nonvegetative turf grass in the backyard of a property
  • Unreasonably require the use of hardscape on more than 20% of the landscaping area of a property
  • Prevent a homeowner from choosing an option that consists of at least 80% drought-tolerant plantings
  • Prohibit vegetable gardens in the front, back, or side yard of a unit owner’s property

#Arizona, #California and #Nevada try to make a deal to cut #ColoradoRiver usage — but is it enough? — The #Denver Post #COriver #aridification

Shadow Mountain Dam via USBR

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

Those states, which make up the river’s lower basin, are reportedly close to an agreement that would cut the amount of water they draw from the waterway. They’re racing against the clock to find an agreement before the end of the month or else the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation might make the cuts for them. But their proposed savings – reported Thursday by the Washington Post – amount to half of the minimum amount of water federal officials said the basin must save. And while the Colorado River’s headwaters saw an above-average snowpack this year, that extra water only buys the West a bit more time and the boon isn’t expected to last.

“The river is telling us that we haven’t done enough,” Jennifer Gimbel, a senior water policy scholar at Colorado State University said. “It’s challenging us.”


The proposal, which hasn’t formally been proposed, would mean the Imperial Irrigation District would be conserving nearly a quarter of its water supply, spokesman Robert Schettler said. Already those measures could mean that fewer crops come out of the major farming district in southern California (the largest water user in the most water-consumptive state), lowering national supply and raising prices. Digging deeper would exacerbate those issues, he said.,,Negotiations to meet those federal requirements are fraught, pitting rural communities against urban ones and forcing a type of standoff between Arizona and California, the two largest water users on the river. Upper-basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming offered a small effort, for their part, but water managers there are reluctant to commit further without more substantial movement from the downstream states…

Currently, the lower-basin states are nearing an agreement to conserve 3 million acre-feet over the next three years, The Washington Post reported. That’s half of Reclamation’s minimum required savings of 2 million acre-feet annually, though. And the states would want to be paid more than $1 billion from the federal government to forego that water, the Post continued, citing state and federal officials familiar with the negotiations. Massive amounts of federal money are available for conservation projects, Gimbel said. Programs are already in place to pay farmers and others to use less water and they’ve seen mixed results. But paying people, businesses and states not to use water isn’t a long-term strategy, Gimbel noted. She praised lower-basin states for coming together but noted that the water saved by the prospective deal wouldn’t be enough.

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 saved through upper-basin program unlikely to move needle in #LakePowell: Western Slope projects are small and involve agriculture — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Grand River Diversion Dam, also known as the “Roller Dam”, was built in 1913 to divert water from the Colorado River to the Government Highline Canal, which farmers use to irrigate their lands in the Grand Valley. GVWUA is not participating the rebooted System Conservation Program after water managers couldn’t agree on how much farmers should be paid to cut back their water use. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

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

Three of western Colorado’s biggest irrigation districts are not participating on a large scale in a federally funded program to conserve water, and the amount of water saved by the program overall won’t be enough to rescue depleted reservoirs.

The rebooted System Conservation Program was one of the legs of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s 5-Point Plan, announced in July and aimed at protecting critical elevations in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which have fallen to record-low levels in recent years because of overuse, drought and climate change. System conservation will take place in the four upper Colorado River basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — and will pay water users to cut back. It’s being funded by $125 million from the federal Inflation Reduction Act.

The total water estimated to be saved across the upper basin for this year of the restarted, temporary and voluntary System Conservation Program is nearly 39,000 acre-feet. By comparison, Lake Powell when full holds more than 23 million acre-feet; Ruedi Reservoir, on the Fryingpan River, can hold about 100,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot and can supply one to two households a year.)

Becky Mitchell, Colorado commissioner to the UCRC, said in a UCRC meeting last month that although the upper basin will do its part in response to last summer’s calls from the federal government that the seven Colorado River basin states needed to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water, the majority of that needs to come from cuts in the lower basin (California, Arizona and Nevada).

“(System conservation) will not resolve the crisis in the reservoirs,” she said.

Last month the UCRC approved moving forward with executing agreements with program participants, which are still being finalized.

Although a goal of the program was to get participation across all water sectors — agricultural, municipal and industrial — all of the projects proposed in Colorado involve Western Slope agriculture. None of the state’s Front Range water providers, which collectively take about 500,000 acre-feet per year of the Colorado River’s headwaters across the Continental Divide to thirsty cities and farms, are participating.

Paying water users to irrigate less has long been controversial on the Western Slope, with fears that these temporary and voluntary programs could lead to a permanent “buy and dry” situation that would negatively impact rural farming and ranching communities.

Of the four upper basin states, Colorado has the largest number of projects (29) but the least amount of saved water (3,532 acre-feet). This is an indication that most of Colorado’s participants are proposing small projects. UCRC Executive Director Chuck Cullom said if the program is undertaken again, officials may consider a minimum size requirement because doing very small projects may not be worth it.

“From a practical standpoint of the cost of monitoring and administering a verification program for that (small number of) acres may not pencil out relative to the amount of water conserved,” Cullom said.

Of the 29 Colorado projects, most involve reducing water use for forage crops, according to information provided by UCRC. Eight involve fallowing grass hay as part of a cow-calf operation, saving 1,163 acre-feet of water; seven plan to fallow alfalfa and save 1,029 acre-feet; and eight propose switching to less-thirsty crops, saving 791 acre-feet.

The UCRC received 88 proposals across the four states, 72 of which met the qualifying criteria. Utah has 20 projects that meet preliminary criteria; Wyoming has 22 and New Mexico has one. The UCRC’s opening offer was $150 per acre-foot of saved water, but the average compensation will probably end up being higher — $434 per acre-foot, according to information provided by UCRC.

Grand Valley Water Users Association not participating

Although some water users in the Grand Valley Water Users Association participated in the original system conservation pilot program, which ran from 2015 to 2018 and conserved 47,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of about $8.6 million, they won’t be taking part this time around.

The Government Highline Canal flows past Highline State Park in the Grand Valley. CREDIT: BETHANY BLITZ/ASPEN JOURNALISM

GVWUA, whose Highline Canal delivers water to roughly 24,000 acres of farmland on the north side of the valley between Grand Junction and Mack, withdrew its application from the process after manager Tina Bergonzini said she couldn’t come to an agreement on the price with the UCRC. GVWUA had rejected the concept of paying farmers based on an amount of unused water, instead proposing to pay farmers for each acre of land they took out of production.

Individual farmers would have had to apply to the program through the association, which proposed to cap total member participation at 1,000 acres and 3,000 acre-feet of water.

GVWUA was asking for between $686 and $1,306 per each acre fallowed, depending on whether farmers reduced water use during the entire irrigation season or just part of it.

Bergonzini said the price represents what it would cost to administer the program in a way that provides equity and protection; at any lower price, the funding from system conservation would not be enough to cover the extra staff and engineering costs. Cullom said his organization was unlikely to approve those costs, so GVWUA withdrew its application.

“They were not wanting to pay per acre what we had requested,” Bergonzini said. “They had a line drawn in the sand and so did I.”

The Grand Valley Irrigation Company, which serves about 40,000 acres of farmland between Palisade and Mack, has four projects proposed within its service area, covering a total of 120 acres and 285 acre-feet of water savings.

“It’s not a very big amount,” said GVIC Assistant Superintendent Charlie Guenther. “I did hear from a handful of ag people that they didn’t want to be part of this because it sounded very technical and it was government involvement. That’s something that came up.”

Unlike GVWUA, individual water users within GVIC did not have to apply to the program through the irrigation company, and the company’s board did not take a stance on whether or not to support system conservation, according to Guenther.

There is just one conservation project proposed in the boundaries of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, the largest irrigation district in Western Colorado, at more than 83,000 acres of farmland in Delta and Montrose counties. The project would enroll about 33 acres in the program and would result in about 46 acre-feet of water savings.

UVWUA manager Steve Pope said the system conservation program didn’t get much interest from his water users because of the timing. Bergonzini agreed.

“They didn’t want to do a last-minute thing,” Pope said. “By the time this thing was rolled out, these guys had already made their decisions and they were already committed for the next season.”

Cullom has acknowledged that there were shortcomings with the program’s rollout. The UCRC unveiled details of the program in December, with an original application deadline of Feb. 1, which was later pushed to March 1 for this summer’s irrigation season.

“We need to do much better when we think about how to do this in the future, if we do this in the future,” he said. “We need more clarity on the data requirements, what we expect from a proposal. We need to give people more time to engage in understanding what the opportunity is and we need to start sooner. Start in the fall for an irrigation season instead of January.”

Conservation district concerns

The Western Slope’s two largest conservation districts — the Colorado River Water Conservation District and Southwestern Water Conservation District — submitted letters to the UCRC stating their concerns with the program. Mitchell had promised the districts that they could participate in the review and approval process for applications, thereby securing a measure of local control. But in March, she walked back that commitment, saying the UCRC had sole authority in the approval process.

The UCRC has released few details so far on project proposal specifics, and publicly available applications have been heavily redacted. In addition to redacting the applicants’ personal identifying information, nearly everything else has been blacked out: the precise location of projects; which streams and ditches are involved; details of the water rights involved; and how much the applicants are asking to be paid for their water.

The districts say this makes it impossible to meaningfully review them to determine whether the projects would cause injury to other water users. Their letters to the UCRC say the lack of transparency raises questions about whether public funds are being used wisely.

“In short, SWCD is very disappointed and concerned about the process that has been undertaken by the UCRC and the state of Colorado,” reads the letter from Southwestern General manager Steve Wolff.

In response, Amy Ostdiek, CWCB section chief for interstate, federal and water information, said that the review process respected project proponents’ privacy and that striking a balance between transparency and privacy is an ongoing effort.

“The Colorado State Engineer’s Office has been directly involved as implementation agreements and verification plans are developed to ensure no injury results from SCPP participation,” Ostdiek said in an email.

She said additional information will be available when the UCRC finalizes agreements with project participants, which should happen late this month, according to Cullom.

The 39,000 acre-feet of water across the four upper-basin states will do little to boost Lake Powell. It’s the proverbial drop in the bucket. But the political value of 39,000 acre-feet may be far greater than any benefit to the nation’s second-largest reservoir. The effort shows that upper-basin water managers are willing to do their part to prevent the system from crashing, but that part is small compared with the cuts they say are needed in the lower basin.

“It’s unlikely any system conservation stood up in the upper basin is going to move the needle,” Cullom said. “But it’s important for the upper basin to participate and contribute within the resources and the tools we have available, and what we are demonstrating in this process is that we do have tools, we do have resources. They are narrow in scope and small in volume.”

Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, the environment and social justice. This story ran in the May 12 edition of The Aspen Times, the May 13 edition of the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the May 14 edition of the Summit DailySteamboat Pilot & Today, the Vail Daily, the May 15 edition of the Craig Press and the May 16 edition of the Grand Junction Sentinel.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

Deadpool Diaries: #ColoradoRiver Report Card, May 2023 – please tell us your plan — John Fleck (InkStain) #COriver #aridification

Graph showing increased flow this year on the Colorado River at Lees Ferry gauge. Credit: John Fleck: Utton Center University of New Mexico

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

The Bureau of Reclamation is currently blasting water out the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam as Lake Powell rises with this year’s big snowmelt.

(The big spike is an experimental flow pulse.)

Lake Mead, as a result, is rising for the first time in a while, with the wrecked speedboats disappearing – and with it, the apparent sense of urgency about cutting our water use.

Downstream the big ag districts and municipalities are taking advantage of the wet year to put off decisions about how, in the long term, to bring water use into balance with available supply.


The classic Reclamation “structural deficit” slide put the gap between available water and use when the Upper Basin meets its legal delivery requirement, and folks in the Lower Basin take their full allotment, at 1.2 million acre feet per year.

Under the latest official Reclamation forecast, the Lower Basin states are reducing their use by 756,000 acre feet below their nominal 7.5 million acre foot allotments. Yay for using less water! But it still falls short of the 1.2 million acre feet needed to close the structural deficit, and is far less than the amount that might be needed to refill a bit, to provide a safety cushion against a run of bad years. The only reason Lake Mead is projected to rise this year is thanks to a big snowpack and a bunch of resulting bonus water from the Upper Basin.

Here are the numbers, with officially forecast 2023 use in millions of acre feet as of May 10, 2023

2023       pct

In other words, the pattern of Lower Basin water users putting off hard decisions about reducing their use, depending instead on Upper Basin bonus water, continues. (See “Hookers and Blow on the Lower Colorado River” – this has been going on a while.)

It is possible that Lower Basin use is gonna drop more this year than the official forecast suggests, that the current talking now underway will yield more water use reductions. I keep hearing that. I keep not seeing it in the official numbers.


According to the Denver Post’s Conrad Swanson, quoting the Upper Basin’s Chuck Cullom, the Upper Basin’s system conservation program hasn’t come up with much water either


That’s it. That’s my ask of the Colorado River Basin leadership community.

Tell us your plan.

Inkstain will always be free, and is reader supported.

USDA, #Colorado Introduce Additional #Conservation Practice to Address Regional #Drought Concerns

Kansas River Basin including the Republican River watershed. Map credit: By Kmusser – Self-made, based on USGS data., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4390886

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

 The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the State of Colorado are continuing and strengthening their Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) partnership to support and empower Colorado’s agricultural producers and landowners in reducing consumptive water use and protecting water quality, while conserving critical natural resources. Specifically, the newly revised Colorado Republican River CREP project, now available through USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, will offer producers a dryland crop production practice on eligible cropland. This option will give producers meaningful tools to continue farming as they work toward permanently retiring water rights and conserving the Ogallala Aquifer for future generations.

“This project is an example of how targeted and thoughtful federal-state partnerships can help address local natural resource concerns,” said FSA Administrator Zach Ducheneaux. “The Colorado Republican River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) will help us meet an intertwined and complex set of challenges head-on, providing opportunities for producers to keep working lands working while reducing their water use and adapting climate-resilient agricultural practices. With the new dryland crop production practice provided through this agreement, producers with eligible land will have both the authority and access to the necessary technical assistance to successfully transition away from irrigated production while maintaining soil health and wildlife habitat. I am deeply grateful for the State of Colorado’s commitment to not just reaching an agreement but reaching the right agreement and strengthening a long-term partnership that will support Colorado producers into the future.”

Through the revised Colorado Republican River CREP, USDA and the State of Colorado will make resources available to program participants who voluntarily enroll in CRP for 14-year to 15-year contracts. This CREP provides participants with two ways to enroll eligible land. Producers can enroll eligible land in “CP100, Annual Crop Production, Non-Irrigated.” This practice transitions irrigated cropland to non-irrigated crop production and establishes complimentary wildlife habitat in and along the cropland.  Additionally, participants within the Republican River CREP project area may enroll eligible land in “CP2, Permanent Native Grasses,” “CP4D, Permanent Wildlife Habitat,” and “CP23 or CP23A, Wetland Restoration.”  These conservation practices remove cropland from agricultural production and convert the land to an approved conservation cover.

Through both enrollment options, producers will earn an annual rental payment and cost share on eligible components of the practice. 

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

The dryland crop production practice is unique because producers will be able to keep these lands working while they implement conservation-minded agricultural practices including no till farming, cover crop installation and wildlife-friendly harvesting.  USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will work with eligible producers to develop conservation plans which include an approved annual crop rotation, minimum crop residue requirements, and management practices that support erosion mitigation and wildlife habitat. Unlike continuous and general CRP enrollment, participants with land enrolled in the CP100 may earn additional income from crops harvested from this acreage. 

“By leveraging this CREP program, we can combine significant long-term reduction of consumptive water use and conservation-based dryland crop production when drought and water conservation resource concerns exist, as they so currently do,” said Kent Peppler, FSA’s Colorado State Executive Director. “This approach showcases that when we work to promote both production and conservation hand-in-hand, we have the capacity to create unique partnerships that benefit our economies, landscapes, and communities.”

Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources, highlighted the positive impact this agreement will have on conservation efforts in the basin. Gibbs said, “We are excited about the outcome of this collaborative effort with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. This agreement will help Colorado continue to advance its conservation efforts that are leading the basin toward a sustainable future in agriculture. The dryland production alternative provides more options that attract greater participation in the reduction of irrigation while helping preserve the economy and culture of the local region.”  

“Through partnership with DNR and USDA, Colorado farmers and ranchers will have the opportunity to continue production while focusing on conservation efforts,” said Kate Greenberg, Colorado’s Commissioner of Agriculture. “This agreement dovetails with CDA’s STAR Soil Health program, which helps bring financial and technical assistance to producers interested in expanding or introducing new climate smart practices into their operations,” said Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg. “Farmers and ranchers are experiencing first-hand the impacts of drought and climate change. Tools such as dryland CREP that focus on farmer-led solutions to healthy soils and water conservation are key to mitigating these effects in agricultural landscapes and providing producers options.”

Interested farmers, ranchers, and agricultural landowners are encouraged to contact FSA at their local USDA Service Center to learn more or to participate. Find contact information at farmers.gov/service-locator.

More Information

Currently, CREP has 35 projects in 27 states. In total, more than 784,800 acres are enrolled in CREP. The Colorado Republican River CREP is part of USDA’s broader effort to leverage CREP as an important tool to address climate change and other natural resources challenges while expanding opportunities for producers and communities, especially those historically underserved by USDA. In December 2021, USDA announced improvements to the program as well as additional staff to support the program. 

USDA touches the lives of all Americans each day in so many positive ways. Under the Biden-Harris administration, USDA is transforming America’s food system with a greater focus on more resilient local and regional food production, fairer markets for all producers, ensuring access to safe, healthy and nutritious food in all communities, building new markets and streams of income for farmers and producers using climate smart food and forestry practices, making historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy capabilities in rural America, and committing to equity across the Department by removing systemic barriers and building a workforce more representative of America. To learn more, visit usda.gov.

USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer and lender.

A plan to pay farmers to use less of the #ColoradoRiver comes up dry — The #Denver Post #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon Dam just upstream from Lee’s Ferry where the Upper Basin ends and the Lower Basin begins. Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, which make up the Colorado River’s upper basin, launched the System Conservation Pilot Program late last year, offering money to farmers and others willing to forgo their water use this year. So far the program has struggled, with few people applying. The granted applications amount to less than 2% of the smallest amount of water federal officials hope to save throughout the entire Colorado River Basin. Photo credit: Simon Morris

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

One way to save massive amounts of water from the drying Colorado River — state and federal officials had hoped — was to effectively buy water this year from farmers and ranchers with a $125 million conservation program. But very few are taking the offer. Or those willing to sell were turned away.

“It’s a comical mess,” Shaun Chapoose, chairman of northeast Utah’s Ute Indian Tribe, said. “They ain’t fixing nothing.”

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, which make up the river’s upper basin, launched the System Conservation Pilot Program late last year, offering money to farmers and others willing to forgo their water use this year, restarting a water-saving initiative that ran just a few years ago. This time around, though, the program is slated to spend twice as much to save a fifth less water, Colorado River officials say. Between the four states, 88 applications came in offering to save some water, Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said. The commission approved more than 80% of them…

If each of the program’s approved applications works out as expected the upper-basin can expect to save about 39,000 acre-feet at a cost of about $16 million, Cullom said. That’s less than 2% of the smallest amount of water federal officials hope to save. Cullom said the program came together quickly because of dire conditions on the river. That timing made it difficult for farmers to participate. And he said potential participants weren’t clear on how best to apply or what kind of money they could expect in return for their water…

The concept is fairly simple. A farmer, rancher or even a city holds the rights to a certain amount of water that they’re allowed to draw from the Colorado River (or its tributaries) in a given year. The System Conservation Pilot Program had $125 million to dole out, offering them to use less. A farmer growing corn will use a certain amount of water in a typical year. But if they’re willing to grow barley instead, which might use two-thirds as much water, the state could pay them for the difference they’ve saved. Or they could offer not to grow anything, saving more water and theoretically earning even more money from the program. Expand that offer throughout each of the four upper-basin states and the hope is that enough people sign up to conserve a substantial amount of water. The more water left in the Colorado River, the higher the levels stay at lakes Powell and Mead, the more water that’s available to generate hydroelectricity, irrigate crops in Arizona and California and flow into major cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Map credit: AGU

Lose the turf, gain a garden: As #water resources dwindle in the U.S. west due to #drought and #ClimateChange, #Colorado residents are tossing the turf and opting instead for rain gardens. — 9News.com #conservation

Photo from the Colorado Independent.

Click the link to read the article on the 9News.com webite (Keely Chalmers). Here’s an excerpt:

More and more homeowners are doing away with a traditional turf lawn in order to conserve a lot of water.

“The average American uses 160 to 180 gallons of water per day and then here in Colorado, about half of that is used on our outdoor irrigation,” according to Jessica Thrasher with Colorado State University.

Over the last year, she and a team of volunteers installed rain gardens across the Front Range as part of a pilot program. It’s a simple and attractive way to save not just a little but a lot of water.  More than 300 people applied for the program…The Colorado Water Center even has tutorial on its website showing, step-by-step how to build your own rain garden. In addition, Colorado’s Turf Replacement program went into effect last summer. It offers funding to communities so they can replace turf in order to reduce outdoor water usage.

The Search for Solutions to #Colorado’s #Water Crisis — 5280.com

River guide John Saunders paddles a boat down the Yampa River in May 2021. Photo via Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the 5280.com website (Nicholas Hunt). Here’s an excerpt:

Study after study has shown that as the climate warms, more and more Centennial State snowmelt is lost through evaporation and other processes before it can find its way into our rivers, streams, and reservoirs. So we’ll need bigger than average snowpacks each winter just to keep reservoir levels and river flows from falling further—and unless everyone gets serious about tackling the climate crisis, that’s simply not going to happen. One recent study from researchers at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory found that Colorado could see a 50 to 60 percent reduction in snow within 60 years. When those same researchers used pattern recognition programs to group subregions of the Colorado River Basin by how each sector will respond to climate change, they found something disturbing: By 2080, much of western Colorado could experience aridity similar to Arizona’s…

What’s even more alarming is that, in many ways, the future is already here. This past June, the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Colorado River through a network of reservoirs, announced that the seven states in the Colorado River Basin had 60 days to devise a plan to reduce the amount of river water they use annually by two to four million acre feet, as much as a third of the waterway’s annual flow…

Meanwhile, water levels are still dropping and the ripple effects of whatever compromise is reached—or isn’t reached—will be felt far beyond that river basin, including in Denver, which gets much of its water from the Western Slope. There is some cause for hope, however. From new cash crops that aren’t nearly as thirsty to science-fiction-worthy technology for forecasting droughts, there are ways to decrease demand and stretch supply. “You need to have as many tools in your toolbox as possible,” says Greg Fisher, demand planning and efficiency manager at Denver Water. “This is Colorado. Even if you could take the drought and the Colorado River [crisis] out of the equation, we’re still a water-constrained state with a growing population. People need to appreciate what water is for. It’s for life, safety, and health. I think anything beyond that is discretionary, and I don’t know if we’re at the point where we can afford discretionary use.”

Romancing the River: Is #GlenCanyon Dam an ‘Antique’? — Sibley’s Rivers #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Graphic credit: Sibley’s Rivers

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

Yes, that diagram again. I was chastised by readers last week for using it – partly for the ‘Antique’ in the diagram’s title, but also for not adequately explaining what the diagram shows. I apologize for the latter. These posts tend to run long and demand a lot more of readers than the 15-second attention span for which Americans are derided. But just to keep them down to a couple thousand words or so, I find myself having to go through some things too quickly in order to get to whatever point I was aiming for. Brevity unfortunately is not the soul of my wit.

But having a sense of the structure and infrastructure of our big dams is critical to understanding what is going on along the Colorado River these days, where it is easy to confuse the river itself (which is experiencing chronic low flows but is not ‘drying up’) with the ‘river management system’ (which really could dry up critical stretches of the river under the current management regime). The ‘river management system’ is the integrated set of physical structures along the river for storing the river’s water and distributing it to users – and the operating systems whereby those structures are managed.

The ‘Supplemental Environmental Impact Study’ the Bureau of Reclamation is doing now is basically an analysis of its own operating systems for the big structures on the Colorado River, and how those systems might be radically changed with an equitable distribution of impacts on humans – systems that could have been changed gradually over the past several decades, the past century even, to reflect undeniable evolving realities, both natural and cultural, but now must be done with radical surgery – the call for an almost-immediate reduction in Lower Basin uses of two million acre-feet.

This might be what life in the Anthropocene will mostly be on many fronts: learning how to live well enough with the world we have imposed on the world we found here. A recreated world where some cultural works were done naively and maybe profligately, under assumptions now needing correction – which one might hope we will learn to begin sooner rather than later – or too late, period.

Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

So it is fitting to look critically at what we’ve done along the ‘First River of the Anthropocene’ – trying not to fall into hypocritical analysis, gnawing on the hands that feed us. And on that spectrum of critical analysis, I do need to explain, if not defend, using a diagram that calls the ‘plumbing’ of a major element in the management system we’ve imposed on the Colorado River ‘antique.’

I will say first that I do not necessarily think of ‘antique’ as a derogatory term (although that was probably intended by the creators of this diagram). If an automobile is fifty years old and still running, it qualifies for an ‘antique’ license plate; that’s cool, an achievement for those who kept the car functional. I think of the word as more descriptive than judgmental: an antique is an artifact whose time is past but which reflects that time, something old but with an element of class, something that summons memories of a previous time, a time we want to remember but not necessarily carry forward.

So, being more than 50 years old at this point – is Glen Canyon Dam an antique? We can start with an examination of its ‘plumbing,’ which says something about its life and times. (My doctor uses colonoscopies for a similar analysis.)

1983 – Color photo of Glen Canyon Dam spillway failure from cavitation, via OnTheColorado.com

One piece of plumbing not shown on the diagram is the dam’s spillways – two huge ‘drains’ up at the 3,700-foot elevation, near the dam’s 3,715-foot crest (for context, 583 feet above the original streambed). The purpose of the spillways is to keep the reservoir from filling to the point where it would go over the crest. Glen Canyon’s spillways have only been used once, in 1983, when a very wet May and hot June caught the dam managers unaware, with the reservoir already too full to perform its flood-control function. The spillways proved to be not up to the task of getting the flood waters past the dam; the water pouring down them caused a cavitation problem – a million tiny ‘air-hammers’ beating on the concrete with enough cumulative force to break it up. The managers knew there was a problem when large chunks of concrete, then sandstone, started washing out the bottom of the spillway outlets. That threatened the integrity of the dam itself; it was necessary to close off the spillways, lining the top of them with sheets of plywood four feet high and praying that the water would stop rising before it topped the plywood. It did stop in time, and the dam was saved. The spillways were rebuilt, hopefully resolving the cavitation problem, and have not been used since – and at this point, given the projections about climate change, it is hard to imagine the reservoir ever being that full again. The spillways alone might qualify as ‘antiques,’ built for a river that needed them (once) but may no longer exist. (Oh great river gods, please make me eat my words!)

During the 1983 Colorado River flood, described by some as an example of a “black swan” event, sheets of plywood (visible just above the steel barrier) were installed to prevent Glen Canyon Dam from overflowing. Source: Bureau of Reclamation

For the dam managers, however, to ‘spill’ water at all is a mark of bad management; their ideal is for every gallon of water contained by the dam to be released through openings 210 feet below the spillways, at hydropower generation level, the 3,490-foot elevation (see diagram). Those openings into the dam drop the water through pentstocks a couple hundred vertical feet to turbines in generators the size of small houses; on its way to its designated use downstream, the water generates electricity. The higher the reservoir level, the more pressure the water’s weight exerts in pushing the water through the turbines; with the reservoir at high levels, the Glen Canyon generators can produce annually up to five billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. In 2022, however, with the reservoir level only around 35 feet above the pentstock inlets, it only produced 2.6 kilowatt-hours. (Bureau figures)

The Bureau’s semi-panicky call in 2022 for massive reductions in use basin-wide was based on projections forward of another couple water years like the 2020-22 period; under the current river management regime, the level of the reservoir would have dropped below the level of the pentstock intakes in a couple years, and year-round power generation would have been impossible.

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.

Even if that were to happen, however, it would still be possible to move water downstream from Powell Reservoir, through river outlet works with intakes 120 feet lower down in the dam, at the 3,370-foot elevation. The river outlets there are four big pipes, each eight feet in diameter, with a total flow capacity of 15,000 cubic feet per second – when there’s a lot of water in the reservoir to push water through them. If the water pressure stayed at that level, and all four tubes worked 24/7/365, it would be possible to move around 10 million acre-feet (maf) through the dam annually and down to Mead Reservoir, roughly the amount the Bureau has been releasing from Mead for Lower Basin and Mexican use – plus the system losses for which no one has wanted to claim responsibility.

That 10 maf leaving the system at the lower end obviously becomes problematic if only 6-8 maf are flowing into the system at the upper end, as has been the recent situation. For one thing, the Bureau is not sure the outlet works can stand that kind of constant use; they are getting old, and may not have been built for constant use anyway. So if the Bureau were able to keep only three tubes running all the time, with one in maintenance mode, the amount of water that could be moved at full pressure would drop to just about the Upper Basin’s Colorado River Compact commitment – 7.5 maf plus the Upper Basin’s share of the Mexican obligation (750,000 af).

But as the water level in the reservoir dropped closer to the outlet works intakes – 6-7 maf inflow minus 8 maf outflow equals a storage decrease of 1-2 maf/year – the water pressure through the tubes would also drop, and below the 3,430-foot elevation, it would no longer be possible to push the full Upper Basin commitment to the Lower Basin and Mexico through the tubes.

Map credit: AGU

Worst case – if the reservoir level dropped below the 3,370-foot elevation, it would no longer be possible to move any water at all past the dam, even though there would still be just under two million acre-feet left in storage – the ‘dead pool.’ At that point, the Lower Basin states would either have to do something completely nonconstructive like sue somebody (Upper Basin states? Interior Department? The Bureau?), or argue about which states should pay how much to Upper Basin water users to let their water (not federally controlled) flow to Powell to try to raise the level back above the 3,370-foot elevation. And most of the Upper Basin water rights junior to the Compact are not a bunch of rugged individualist farmers and ranchers; they are the big transmountain diverters – Colorado’s Front Range cities, the Santa Fe-Albuquerque corridor, the Salt Lake basin, who are already ‘lawyered up.’

The ramshackle ‘Law of the River,’ grounded in appropriation law and followed to the letter of the laws, would have nothing to offer to relieve that situation; it is easier to imagine Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘Water Knife’ war commencing.

That is an overview of Glen Canyon Dam’s plumbing – pretty standard for a big 20th century dam, designed to operate optimally when the reservoir is more than two-thirds full and able to maintain a full power head in releasing water through the turbines for – oh yeah, not primarily power generation, but the dam’s main job of providing dependable water for agricultural and domestic users downstream. A specific warning in the Colorado River Compact (IV(b)).

Now to the question: is Glen Canyon Dam an ‘antique’? I think, at this point, given the prognostications for the future of the regional water supply, we could truly say that the dam was built for a different era, a different river – some of which river may have existed only in the minds of the dam builders. The ‘Hassayampa romance,’ carried along, like Deacon Holmes’ wonderful one-hoss shay, ‘for a century to the day’ – the day the Bureau finally abandoned its paper surplus calculations and called a shortage.

In addition to working on new river operation protocols, the Bureau now has a team working on ways to possibly modify the dam, undoubtedly at considerable cost, maybe enlarging the outlet works, maybe generating some flow of electricity through openings lower in the dam, and maybe constructing tunnels to bypass the dam entirely, leaving Mead Reservoir as the river’s major storage.

The latter concept could relieve a problem that the dam has created for ‘today’s river’ through the Grand Canyon: the beaches and sandbars that are essential as night stops for the billion-dollar Grand Canyon recreational boating industry are eroding away, with no replacement sand and silt getting past the dam. This is being dealt with now by occasional staged ‘floods’ like the one just recently: pouring 200,000-plus acre feet of water over 2-3 days down through the Grand Canyon to stir up sediment that has slumped from the beaches down into the riverbed, in hopes that it will be redeposited on a beach downstream. Ultimately this mostly just escalates the passage downstream of all the beach material with only irregular and inadequate deposits of new material from side streams. That this ultimate losing effort was done in April 2023, with Powell Reservoir under 30 percent full, but anticipating a runoff that might get it all the way up to half-full or only half-empty, depending on your psychological inclination…. There’s an underlying desperation there that is not goimng to let us look back on this period with any pleasant sense of nostalgia. But we might look back on antiquities like Glen Canyon Dam as a reminder of the consequences of operating on assumptions and standards not fully grounded in demonstrable reality.

A problem with this analysis, however, is that for better or worse, it evaluates Glen Canyon Dam out of context. To really understand why we have Glen Canyon Dam at all, it is necessary to see our river’s physical structures in the larger context of the less visible political and legal infrastructure that led us to pile five million yards of concrete (with internal plumbing) in the river’s path in that particular place. That is another great story in the evolution of this mixed bag we call America. Up next in a couple weeks; stay tuned.

Delph Carpenter’s original map showing a reservoir at Glen Canyon and one at Black Canyon via Greg Hobbs

The latest “The Splash” newsletter is hot off the presses from the #Colorado Water Conservation Board @CWCB_DNR

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

Click the link to read the newsletter on the Colorado Water Conservation Board website. Here’s an excerpt:

On April 11, the Bureau of Reclamation released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS). The SEIS is a mechanism to adjust the current operating guidelines for Glen Canyon (Lake Powell) and Hoover Dams (Lake Mead), providing tools for Reclamation to adapt to potentially dry years in the next few water years. Several news outlets, including The Colorado SunPoliticoColorado Politics, and AP News, covered the release with commentary from CWCB experts. CWCB Director and Colorado Commissioner Becky Mitchell is seeking public input to inform Colorado’s response to the SEIS. Share your feedback

Are #Denver’s best practices for outdoor watering unique? Take a look at some of the advice given by #water utilities from #California to #Florida — @DenverWater

Sunrise Denver skyline from Sloan’s Lake September 2, 2022.

Click the link to read the article on the Denver Water website (Kim Unger Kristi Delynko):

If you have lived in Denver for a few years or longer, you probably know that the efficient way to water landscapes is to follow Denver Water’s summer watering rules, which begin every year on May 1 and run through Oct. 1.

But what about those thousands of people who have moved to the City and County of Denver in recent years?

As it turns out, they are pretty familiar with Denver Water’s rules too.

Best practices for efficient, healthy outdoor watering are not just a Denver thing. They are the same best practices you’ll find utilities advocating for in California, Texas, Arizona, Illinois and Florida — the states where many of Denver’s newcomers came from.

How did we figure that out? We looked at federal census data (specifically the 72,490 people who moved in between 2012 and 2016) to learn which five states, and which county in each of those states, were the biggest suppliers of our recent round of new neighbors in Denver.

Then we looked at a sampling of the water providers in each of those counties to see what they advise their own customers to do.

Here’s what they all said:

  • There is no need to water when it’s raining, Mother Nature can handle it. And if it’s windy, it is best to hold off on watering.
  • When using a hose to wash the car, or water the lawn or trees, always use a shut-off nozzle in order to use only what you need, right when and where you need it.
  • When sweeping sidewalks and driveways, brooms are fantastic tools to use.
  • Allowing water to run off onto sidewalks or the street wastes water.
  • Watering in the cooler parts of the day, between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m., cuts down on evaporation.

So, when it comes to outdoor watering, there’s no need for a native versus transplant turf battle. Instead, let’s raise a cool glass of safe, clean tap water to everyone who knows the best way to water landscapes efficiently.

And if you need a refresher on the ins and outs of Denver Water’s annual summer watering rules, check out denverwater.org/BestPractices for more information. You’ll find all kinds of efficiency tips there for water use inside and out.

    Can a new rule fix the Bureau of Livestock and Mining?: Proposed Public Land Rule’s potential impact isn’t clear — @Land_Desk #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    Consider me adequately freaked out. Substack now has an AI image generator, about which I’m pretty damned ambivalent, at best. But I wanted to try it out, so I asked for a picture of a cow grazing in the desert in the style of Georgia O’Keefe. This is what it came up with. On the one hand, no one would ever mistake this for an O’Keefe. On the other hand, it’s not terrible or even obviously generated by a machine. Which worries me (and makes me uncomfortable about including it here, even to question the technology behind it). I did ask it to draw me a picture of Glen Canyon Dam after being blown up. It failed. And then I asked for a dam with a crack down the middle. Still didn’t work. That gives me some hope that the art apocalypse isn’t upon us … yet.

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

    When the Interior Department issued a draft of a new Public Lands Rule, designed to “guide the balanced management of public lands” and put conservation on a par with other uses, like oil and gas drilling, grazing, and mining, I thought I had been transported back in time to 1976. That’s when Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, or FLPMA, which was supposed to elevate conservation and rid the Bureau of Land Management of the well deserved monicker: Bureau of Livestock and Mining.

    FLPMA didn’t always do the job it intended: While the BLM as a whole has progressed, many of the agency’s field offices still behave as if it’s the 1950s, prioritizing drilling and grazing above all other uses, regardless of what policies are handed down from Washington.

    Given that history, I wondered whether this proposed rule really amounted to more than merely “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” as the Center for Biological Diversity put it. If it was just reiterating FLPMA policies, how could it make any difference on the ground now? I don’t have the answer, but I did dig into the rule and looked at some of the details in a recent High Country News column.

    To sum it up, the rule would elevate conservation by:

    Vernal pools form in winter and spring and support many types of animals and plants. Photo credit BLM.
    • … applying land health standards and guidelines to all BLM-managed public lands and uses; current BLM policy limits their application to grazing authorizations. The problem is that the agency is doing a piss-poor job applying land health standards to rangelands. So how can we expect them to do any better with other lands?
    • … making conservation leases available to entities that seek to restore public lands or provide mitigation for a particular action. A nonprofit could lease a parcel, pay rent, and post a reclamation bond to do riparian area restoration, for example, or a solar company might lease a parcel to do some land-healing to offset its impacts to other public land.
    • … amending the existing Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) regulations to emphasize the areas as the primary designation for protecting important natural, cultural, and scenic resources and contributing to ecosystem resilience by protecting intact landscapes and preserving habitat connectivity. It would also establish a more comprehensive framework for identifying and evaluating these areas.

    The biggest change, then, appears to be the conservation leases. But it’s still unclear exactly how they’d work or what could be done with them. In theory, someone could lease out a parcel for conservation, thereby precluding grazing or oil and gas leasing from the parcel during the lease. But what happens when the lease term ends? Josh Osher, Public Policy Director for the Western Watersheds Project, pointed out that an organization could use the leases to, say, do a regenerative grazing project, and cynically use it to lock the land into a grazing lease afterwards. He also noted that even though oil and gas drilling and mining are restricted in ACECs, grazing typically is not.

    This only reinforced my skepticism about the rule. But then I started looking at industry’s reactions to the rule and I have to say, I was a little taken aback.

    Sen. John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican, compared the bureaucrats who wrote the “decree” to the tree-spiking eco-warriors of the 1980s, while the ranching industry feels “betrayed” by what it says is a plan to “eradicate” grazing on public lands. Say, what?!

    Chris Saeger, an advocate and consultant from Montana, gathered some more responses and sent them my way, inclu