Opinion: The 2023 session will determine #Colorado’s #water future — Abby Burk and Jessica Gelay #COleg #COWaterPlan

Colorado River February 2020. Photo: Abby Burk via Audubon Rockies.

“Water is the conversation. It will be the centerpiece of our agenda this year,” said newly elected Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie, setting the tone and elevating water issues for Colorado’s 2023 General Assembly.

It’s no secret Colorado’s rivers and streams are suffering and our state’s challenges are a good example of water crises gripping the American West. Parched rivers; stressed farms, livestock and fish; and more frequent floods and wildfires are all symptoms of the disruption wrought as climate change impacts our region and already strained water supply.

Abby Burk brings a lifetime love of rivers, particularly of the Colorado River and its tributaries. As the western rivers regional program manager for Audubon Rockies. Photo credit: Audubon Rockies

Colorado’s lawmakers and other leaders have a responsibility to ensure Coloradans have the tools we need to proactively respond to drought and its impacts — on the legislature’s opening day, Senate President Steve Fenberg made it clear water will be among the high priority items the General Assembly takes on. And Speaker McCluskie concurred, saying: “Colorado has to be seen as a leader in this space.” Gov. Jared Polis’s proposed 2023 budget has already highlighted support for addressing our state’s water challenges. Last year the federal government injected a once-in-a- generation allocation of public funds to support water needs in the West. Now action is needed within the Colorado legislature to increase funding and capacity to establish both immediate and long-term drought security and to protect clean drinking water alongside river and watershed health.

We’re excited to see the Governor’s budget request for a historic $25.2 million to advance implementation of the state’s water plan, providing capacity to meet increasing demands, to combat the effects of climate change, and to support the health of our rivers. It’s important to note: these state funds are vital for unlocking matching federal dollars, dollars that are expected to be leveraged for approximately $100 million worth of water project grants across the state — a 4-to-1 return on investment. By engaging local communities, investing federal funds in needed infrastructure projects, and empowering millions of people to take action to conserve water, Colorado will make significant progress toward responding to long-term climate trends.

Flows in the Colorado River have decreased by more than 20% in just the past 20 years, which is why improving the struggling Colorado River system has been, and remains, the top priority for Water for Colorado. A healthy and vibrant river system serves as habitat for wildlife, increases resilience to floods and wildfires, enhances the quality and availability of water and forage for livestock, bolsters critical rural recreation economies and provides numerous ecological services that protect our sources of clean drinking water. With increasing threats of extreme weather events, healthy and functioning streams are critical to ensuring resilient communities, and a thriving state. This is why we are supporting efforts by the state’s Department of Natural Resources to pass legislation clarifying stream restoration projects can proceed without unnecessary red tape; and also why we support Governor Polis’s budget request to increase Colorado’s ability to leverage federal funds and assist with the crisis we are facing on the Colorado River.

Water policy is no longer a niche issue. Water conversations are happening at every level of state leadership — from the Governor’s office, to the General Assembly, to the Attorney General’s office — and across issue areas this session, making national headlines week after week. For example, as Governor Polis and the General Assembly seek to address land-use patterns and the affordable housing crisis, they are inserting water use into the conversation as a vital element. Integrating land use, development planning and more flexible water management can be another area on which our state leads.

Jessica Gelay Colorado Government Affairs Manager. Photo credit: Western Resource Advocates

The focus on water needs to be wide-ranging, but it also must be consistent. The time is now for Colorado to implement innovative policies that keep rivers flowing and proactively respond to drought conditions. In doing so, we will be a leader, showing other states how to do more with less, supporting the health of our river systems, and securing our state’s long-term vitality in the face of a hotter, drier future.

As Speaker McCluskie told us, the work ahead on water may be “the most challenging work the state has ever done.” While this is likely true, it may also be the most

rewarding — we can tell our children and grandchildren they live in a more resilient state because of the work conducted this session.

In his 2023 State of the State, Governor Polis reminded us “water is life in Colorado and the (W)est, it’s as simple as that.” The consequences of inaction this session are too great to consider. Failing to protect our water resources is not an option. Luckily, Colorado has the opportunity to not only protect our water resources in the near-term, but lead the charge toward longer-term drought resilience and climate resilience. It’s incumbent upon our lawmakers to secure Colorado’s water future. We look forward to working together to do so.

Abby Burk is Western Rivers Regional Program Manager for Audubon Rockies. Jessica Gelay is the Colorado Government Affairs Manager for Western Resource Advocates. Audubon Rockies and Western Resource Advocates are both members of the Water for Colorado Coalition.

Important Things Ahead for #Colorado #Water Policy in 2023: Audubon supports proactive water #resilience strategies for 2023 #Colorado legislation #COleg

Click the link to read the article on the Audubon website (Abby Burk):

Water is our most precious natural resource and life-sustaining force for Coloradans, birds, and other wildlife. On January 9, Colorado lawmakers headed to the Capitol to start the 120-day legislative session. As a centerpiece of the session, water will connect and unite lawmakers and constituents with ripple effects for years to come.

At a critical time for water, leadership from all three legislative chambers have commented on the importance of Colorado’s water to the sustainability and vitality of our state. “(Water) is the conversation, it will be the centerpiece of our agenda this year, if for no other reason than that Colorado has to be seen as a leader in this space,” said Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie. “The conversation around water is going to be a big one,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg.

On January 17, 2023, Governor Jared Polis, in the State of the State address, remarked: “Water is life in Colorado and the west, it’s as simple as that. But we’re at a crossroads. Increased demand, chronic and extreme drought, conflicts with other states, and devastating climate events are threatening this critical life source— and we’ve all seen the impacts. Wildfires have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres and devastated entire communities. Farmers and ranchers across the state fear that Colorado won’t have the water resources to sustain the next generation of agricultural jobs… When Colorado is 150, I want our state to have the water resources necessary for our farms, communities, and industries to thrive, and the tools in place to protect our state’s waterways and defend our rights.” 

Clearly, water is a legislative priority. Big water ideas are in the wind, but proponents need to share concepts broadly. Our decisions about water influence all areas of life for people and nature. We’re doing a better job of including and valuing a diversity of input in water decisions, but we need to do more. A diversity of water stakeholders must support legislative proposals that support multiple beneficial uses.

Audubon Rockies is busy working with lawmakers, agencies, and partners to prioritize healthy, functioning, and resilient watersheds and river systems for people and birds—the natural systems that we all depend upon. There are already seven bills on our water watch list, plus several draft bills. Here are three water priority areas for Audubon in the 2023 Colorado legislative session. Please make sure you’re signed up to hear about opportunities to engage with them.

Funds provided by grants and landowners near Kremmling, Colorado, have facilitated improvements such as this back stabilization project. (Source: Paul Bruchez)

Stream Health 

Colorado’s ability to thrive depends upon the health and function of our natural stream systems. Healthy, functioning stream systems provide critical habitat to most of Colorado’s wildlife; improve wildfire resilience, drought mitigation, flood safety, water quality, forest health, riparian and aquatic habitat; and provide many other ecological benefits that are beneficial to all Coloradans.

Stream restoration practices have been successfully implemented across Colorado for more than 30 years by federal, state, and local agencies, conservation organizations, water providers, and private landowners. The projects are usually designed to address the environmental, public safety, infrastructure, and economic impacts of degraded river corridor conditions. However, recently there has been increased uncertainty about stream restoration practices in regards to water rights issues. Project proponents need a clear path to initiating and completing a stream restoration project. 

Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is on track to introduce proposed 2023 legislation to provide clarity and certainty on where stream restoration projects may take place based on the historical footprint (the presence of a stream and its riparian corridor’s location before disturbance occurred) without being subject to water rights administration. Without a legislative solution, Colorado could miss out on the critical benefits of healthy functioning river corridors and the significant funding currently available for watershed restoration work through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act.

This stream restoration legislation is a top priority for Audubon. We have partnered with DNR to host a water legislator webinar series on this bill. 

Join me on February 2, 8-8:45 AM for a bill orientation webinar with DNR leadership, bill sponsors, and leading experts. Register here.

Climate stripes through 2022. Credit: Ed Hawkins

Climate Resiliency 

Despite near-term optimism from a snowy December and January, climate change and unprecedented drought conditions in recent years are threatening Colorado’s ability to satisfy water users, environmental needs, and potentially interstate obligations. We need more flexible ways to manage and deliver water to support the Colorado we love. The Colorado River Basin has been in an extended drought going on 24 years. There are real consequences for people, birds, and every other living thing that depends on rivers in this region. Colorado needs tools and resources to proactively respond to drought conditions and maximize the benefits to the state, its water users, and river systems from once-in-a-generation competitive federal funds that have recently been made available to address the Colorado River Basin drought. Audubon will be watching this session for legislation to support that will provide new innovative solutions to the water threats we face.

Water Funding & Projects 

Governor Polis’ proposed budget request includes a historic $25.2 million to advance the state’s Water Plan implementation and expansion of staff and funding to capture competitive federal funds. These much-needed proposals should be well-received by lawmakers, given that water security, drought, and fire are on everyone’s mind for this legislative session. We must ensure that these funds are invested wisely in water projects and water resources management strategies. The strategies must be equitable and fair for vulnerable communities and improve the health of Colorado’s watersheds for people and nature. Funding and water projects that support our river ecosystems are intrinsically related to our public health, economy, and the Coloradan ways of life.

Colorado Rivers. Credit: Geology.com

Deadline on new #ColoradoRiver #water cuts looms — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

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

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

Another deadline to establish new cutbacks in water use in the seven-state Colorado River Basin is quickly approaching on January 31, 2023, as states continue their talks, as ordered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

In addition to the cutbacks, several other key decisions also lie ahead in the coming weeks, including how a $125 million, broad-based water conservation pilot program would operate, whether a permanent water conservation program known as demand management could work among the Upper Basin states, and how the third-year of an emergency drought plan, known as the Drought Response Operations Agreement, will function this spring and summer.

All are tied to reducing short-term and long-term demands on the drought-strapped river as part of a five-point plan put forward by the Upper Basin states last summer. In releasing that plan, the Upper Basin recognized its effectiveness would hinge on additional actions to reduce use in the Lower Basin.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation late last year had given the seven basin states until Jan. 31 to come up with a new agreement on water reductions, after an August deadline had passed.

Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said talks were continuing but that more work and specific plans from California, Arizona and Nevada would be necessary to reach an agreement and take action.

“The basin states, the federal government, and the tribes have been working collaboratively and tirelessly to find potential points of consensus on short-term actions to protect lakes Powell and Mead,” Mitchell said Monday at a meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board in Aurora.

“I continue to believe strongly that the Lower Basin states must take action to reduce their demands out of Lake Mead.

“We are moving forward on our commitments, but it is important to recognize that those commitments and that work alone mean nothing if the Lower Basin use continues as it has been,” she said. She also stressed the importance of considering what must occur in the Lower Basin before Colorado moves forward with widespread participation in the System Conservation Pilot Program.

Map credit: AGU

The basin is divided into two regions. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin covers Arizona, California and Nevada.

Last summer U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered the states to figure out how to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet by August, but no agreements have been reached. Now the states, along with tribal leaders and the feds are aiming to agree to cuts by Jan. 31. If no consensus is reached next week, it leaves the possibility that the federal government will decide how to make the cuts in the coming weeks.

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

West snowpack basin-filled map January 27, 2023 via the NRCS.

Since December, the water forecast has improved slightly thanks to heavy mountain snows in Utah and Colorado, according to Michelle Garrison, a water resources specialist at the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“Snowpack and runoff in all of western Colorado and Utah is quite a bit above average … but from here on, it could get really dry just like it did last year. So folks need to be prepared to plan for a continued wet or a sudden drop to really dry or anything in between as they’re looking forward,” Garrison told the board.

Now 23 years into a megadrought widely believed to be the worst in 1,800 years, the highly developed river system is on the brink of collapse, with lakes Powell and Mead falling dangerously close to dead pool, a water level so low that, if it is reached, Powell won’t be able to produce hydropower and Mead won’t be able to serve the millions of people in the Lower Basin who rely on the river.

Colorado River headwaters tributary in Rocky Mountain National Park photo via Greg Hobbs.

The river begins in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains, high in Rocky Mountain National Park. It gathers water from major tributaries in Colorado, such as the Yampa and Gunnison rivers, and throughout the Upper Basin, accumulating some 90% of the streamflow that it will provide throughout the seven-state river system thanks to the runoff from the Upper Basin’s deep mountain snows.

But since 2002, those mountain snowpacks have been shrinking, crushed by warming temperatures and fewer snow days.

Beginning in July of 2021, the U.S. Department of the Interior ordered, for the first time, emergency releases from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs. But that has done little to restore levels, although the releases are credited with providing some protection to the power supply.

While Lower Basin states have been forced to begin cutting back water use under a special set of operating guidelines and drought plans approved respectively in 2007 and 2019, negotiations in recent months have failed to achieve the federally ordered cutbacks. Upper Basin states are considering new programs and actions to further cut Upper Basin water use, but are hoping for additional Lower Basin commitments before taking additional water use reductions of their own.

West Drought Monitor map January 24, 2023.

At the same time, the drought has continued, and this winter could be dry once again, particularly in the Lower Basin. In response, last week, the federal government announced it would expedite negotiations on a new set of operating guidelines designed to protect lakes Powell and Mead to help restore the river.

Under the terms of the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the river’s supplies are divided equally between the Upper and Lower basins. But because the Upper Basin states have smaller and fewer reservoirs than the Lower Basin, users here have had to cut back their water use as the drought has continued. At the same time, Lower Basin users have been able to rely on stored supplies in Powell and Mead, at least until now.

Looking ahead, Jessica Brody, who represents the Metro Basin on the CWCB Board of Directors, said she would like to see more time taken before critical Upper Basin decisions are made, including participation in the $125 million System Conservation Pilot Program, which is accepting applications through Feb. 1.

“I’m a little bit concerned about the Feb. 1 deadline when we don’t yet know whether the Lower Basin will be able to come to the table in terms of reducing the demands in the Lower Basin,” Brody said.

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

2023 #Colorado Water Plan Will Inspire Action to Build Stronger #Water Future — Colorado Water Conservation Board #COWaterPlan @CWCB_DNR

Colorado Water Plan 2023 update cover. Click the image to go to the CWCB website for the update.

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Water Conservation Board website:

On January 24, 2023, to meet Colorado’s most critical water challenges, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) unanimously approved the finalized the 2023 Colorado Water Plan. First released in 2015, the Water Plan provides a comprehensive framework to guide collaborative action from water partners, agencies, and Coloradans. From securing supplies that provide safe drinking water to improving farm irrigation to rehabilitating streams—the 2023 Water Plan targets specific, key actions to contribute to a stronger, more water-resilient Colorado.

“In Colorado, water is life,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis. “Colorado’s Water Plan sets a vision for vibrant communities, successful farming and ranching, thriving watersheds, and climate resilient planning. I’m excited to see how the updated plan supports a more resilient future here in Colorado for years to come.” 

Governor Polis championed approval of $17 million this year to kick-start local-level implementation of the Water Plan  and is proposing $25.2M, including $12.6M General Fund, for the Water Plan Grant Program, which supports statewide water projects by providing grants and loans in collaboration with local partners in his FY 2023-2024 budget.

The 2023 Colorado Water Plan builds on the successes that followed the initial release of the pioneer plan in November 2015. For example, in recent years: water conservation efforts have decreased statewide per capita water use by 5 percent, water outreach and messaging reached 2.7 million people, and in 2019 Colorado voters passed Proposition DD to dedicate funding for the Colorado Water Plan grants program. 

“We are excited about this much-anticipated update. Seven years ago, the CWCB released the original Water Plan—and now, guided by state-of-the-art data and innovative tools, the 2023 Plan puts Colorado’s values into a set of actions that tackle the specific challenges and opportunities of our state,” said Becky Mitchell, CWCB Director. “The 2023 plan will spark the action we need across all sectors to build a better water future in Colorado, setting the stage for future decision-making and water resiliency.” 

Now, the 2023 update maintains the values and priorities of the original plan, while reframing actions into four key areas: Vibrant Communities, Robust Agriculture, Thriving Watersheds, and Resilient Planning. Within these four interconnected areas, a list of approximately 50 actions for partners and 50 actions for the state aim to address themes such as equity, climate resilience, water conservation, land use, education, and more. The Water Plan Grant Program welcomes projects and programs that fall in five major funding categories: Water Storage and Supply, Conservation & Land Use, Engagement & Innovation, Agricultural projects, and Watershed Health & Recreation.

Colorado’s water challenges impact everyone from local leaders to stakeholders to families in their own backyards. The CWCB encourages people from all walks of life to get involved with Colorado’s Water Plan: whether that’s by practicing personal water conservation, getting involved in critical water initiatives—or applying for a Water Plan grant or encouraging local organizations to pursue a grant to advance projects that build water resilience.

Throughout the development of the Colorado Water Plan, engaging with the public has been critical for the CWCB. The team conducted a year-long public engagement phase to incorporate all Colorado’s voices, hosted a public comment period, held workshops, and encouraged Coloradans to share their own water conservation success stories and commit to actionthrough a water conservation pledge. 

In total, the public comment period yielded over 528 pages of comments, 1,597 suggested edits to the plan and more than 2,000 observations. Comments came in a variety of formats including letters, emails, survey responses, feedback at events, and public listening sessions.  Of those comments, about 60% were either already captured in the plan or were addressed by modifying the draft plan.

“I congratulate the Colorado Water Conservation Board, staff and all the Colorado water stakeholders who contributed to the 2023 Colorado Water Plan,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The Plan provides an important vision and roadmap for Colorado’s water future which faces increased challenges from climate change, population growth and changing water demands.  But working together we can meet these challenges and ensure our Colorado communities, agriculture and environment will continue to thrive for generations to come.”

CWCB will celebrate the release of the Water Plan on January 24, 2023, at Improper City in Denver from 5-9 p.m. The celebration is open to the public, and will feature speakers, live music, and recognition of 14 local water heroes who were instrumental in bringing the updated Plan to fruition. The Basin Water Heroes include Garret Varra (South Platte Basin), Bob Peters (Metro), Carl Trick (North Platte Basin), Daniel Boyes (Rio Grande Basin), Ken Brenner (Yampa/White/Green Basin), Mark Shea (Arkansas Basin), Carrie Padgett (Southwest Basin), Jason Turner (Colorado Basin), Kathleen Curry (Gunnison Basin); as well as the following Community Water Heroes: Ronda Lobato, Ernest House Jr., Jared Romero, CREA Results, and Water Education Colorado.

Download the 2023 Colorado Water Plan here.

The #Colorado #Water Conservation Board invites you to celebrate the launch of the 2023 Colorado Water Plan! — @CWCB_DNR #COWaterPlan

#SouthPlatteRiver #Water & #Drought Symposium: February 1, 2023 — #Colorado Ag Water Alliance

8:50 – Welcome, Phil Brink Colorado Cattlemen’s Ag Water NetWORK

9:00 – Proven Drought Mitigation Strategies Joel Schneeklolth, CSU Water Resources Specialist, Great Plains Research Station

9:40 – Colorado Water Plan Update – Ag Focus Nora Flynn, Senior Agricultural Specialst, Colorado Water Conservation Board

10:10 – Break

10:20 – Lower South Platte River Update Joe Frank, GM, Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District 

11:00 – Funding for Irrigation Projects Greg Peterson, Exec. Director, Colorado Ag Water Alliance

11:30 – Update on USDA-NRCS Programs David Colburn, Resource Team Lead – DC 1

1:50 Lunch — grab and go or stay and chat (Lunch sponsored by Centennial Conservation District)
Please RSVP: Amber Beeson, centennialcd1@gmail.com (970) 571-5296 or Madeline Hagan, morganconservationdistrict@gmail.com (970) 427-3362

The impacts of urban sprawl on #Colorado’s #water supply — 9News.com

The downtown Denver skyline from Arvada. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the 9News.com website (Cory Reppenhagen). Here’s an excerpt:

The state of Colorado is projected to gain 1.8 million more residents by the year 2050.  While that can be a sign of economic prosperity, a study by NumbersUSA indicates most residents think that growth will have too many negative impacts.  

“We as a society, and the Western world in general, have got to find ways to have long-term sustainable prosperity that doesn’t depend on population growth,” said Leon Kolankiewicz, the science director for NumbersUSA, an advocacy group that favors immigration levels that would allow for population stabilization…

The study includes a scientific survey of 1,024 Colorado residents conducted by the Rasmussen research group. It focuses on several environmental issues, including water. Citing increased traffic, the loss of open space, and a strain on the water supply, 75% of Coloradans surveyed said urban sprawl, which is the encroachment of cities into natural space and agricultural space, is making Colorado a worse place to live.  Kolankiewicz said urban sprawl damages natural waterways, takes water away from agriculture and reduces the supply of water. Of those surveyed, 70% said water should not be diverted away from agriculture in favor of supporting further urban development.  And 76% said water should be kept in streams to support wildlife.  

Rebecca Mitchell, Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said even with a stable or reduced population, there still may not be enough water because of a 20-plus-year mega-drought in the West.

“We don’t fight with Mother Nature; we dance with her, and we embrace her. And I think how we do that is by living within what she provides,” she said. 

‘The brink of disaster’: 2023 is a critical year for the #ColoradoRiver as reservoirs sink toward ‘dead pool’ — CNN #COriver #aridification

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 article on the CNN website (Ella Nilsen and Rachel Ramirez). Here’s an excerpt:

The cuts that are needed are on an unprecedented scale, and officials will be fighting an uphill battle against a deep, multi-year drought to get them done. State officials tried drastic measures to cut their usage this year, but the river’s continued decline was an alarming reality check…Experts told CNN that even with a good winter and spring runoff season, water managers still need to plan for the worst-case scenario.

“You can’t live with no water in the reservoirs hoping for good years; you need to refill the system,” Eric Kuhn, former manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, told CNN. “People realize that you can’t live on the brink of disaster.”

[…]

Anxiety is growing in the West as reservoir levels plummet. Negotiations between the states on voluntary water cuts have been tense and closely watched, particularly between the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. Those talks have stalled amid disagreement on how much water each state should sacrifice and how much money farmers, tribal nations and cities should be paid to reduce their water consumption. State negotiators are themselves waiting for the feds to decide how it will dole out $4 billion in drought relief money, which the Biden administration fronted from the Inflation Reduction Act to essentially pay people to not use water.

“I would not say it has put anything on hold,” Buschatzke told CNN.

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

A #Water War Is Brewing Over the Dwindling #ColoradoRiver — ProPublica #COriver #aridification

Known for its breathtaking scenery, the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area is a fine example of the spectacular canyon country of Colorado’s Uncompahgre Plateau. Red-rock canyons and sandstone bluffs hold geological and paleontological resources spanning 600 million years, as well as many cultural and historic sites. The Ute Tribes today consider these pinyon-juniper–covered lands an important connection to their ancestral past. The Escalante, Cottonwood, Little Dominguez and Big Dominguez Creeks cascade through sandstone canyon walls that drain the eastern Uncompahgre Plateau. Unaweep Canyon on the northern boundary of the NCA contains globally significant geological resources. Nearly 30 miles (48 km) of the Gunnison River flow through the Dominguez-Escalante NCA, supporting fish, wildlife and recreational resources. The Old Spanish National Historic Trail, a 19th Century land trade route, also passes through it. A variety of wildlife call the area home, including desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, golden eagle, turkey, elk, mountain lion, black bear, and the collared lizard. There are 115 miles (185 km) of streams and rivers in the NCA, and there is habitat suitable for 52 protected species of animals and plants. By Bob Wick; Bureau of Land Management – Dominguez-Escalante NCA, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42092807

by Abrahm Lustgarten

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Series: Killing the Colorado

The Water Crisis in the West

On a crisp day this fall I drove southeast from Grand Junction, Colorado, into the Uncompahgre Valley, a rich basin of row crops and hayfields. A snow line hung like a bowl cut around the upper cliffs of the Grand Mesa, while in the valley some farmers were taking their last deliveries of water, sowing winter wheat and onions. I turned south at the farm town of Delta onto Route 348, a shoulder-less two-lane road lined with irrigation ditches and dent corn still hanging crisp on their browned stalks. The road crossed the Uncompahgre River, and it was thin, nearly dry.

The Uncompahgre Valley, stretching 34 miles from Delta through the town of Montrose, is, and always has been, an arid place. Most of the water comes from the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, which courses out of the peaks of the Elk Range through the cavernous and sun-starved depths of the Black Canyon, one rocky and inaccessible valley to the east. In 1903, the federal government backed a plan hatched by Uncompahgre farmers to breach the ridge with an enormous tunnel and then in the 1960s to build one of Colorado’s largest reservoirs above the Black Canyon called Blue Mesa. Now that tunnel feeds a neural system of water: 782 miles worth of successively smaller canals and then dirt ditches, laterals and drains that turn 83,000 Western Colorado acres into farmland. Today, the farm association in this valley is one of the largest single users of Colorado River water outside of California.

I came to this place because the Colorado River system is in a state of collapse. It is a collapse hastened by climate change but also a crisis of management. In 1922, the seven states in the river basin signed a compact splitting the Colorado equally between its upper and lower halves; later, they promised additional water to Mexico, too. Near the middle, they put Lake Powell, a reserve for the northern states, and Lake Mead, a storage node for the south. Over time, as an overheating environment has collided with overuse, the lower half — primarily Arizona and California — has taken its water as if everything were normal, straining both the logic and the legal interpretations of the compact. They have also drawn extra releases from Lake Powell, effectively borrowing straight out of whatever meager reserves the Upper Basin has managed to save there.

This much has become a matter of great, vitriolic dispute. What is undeniable is that the river flows as a much-diminished version of its historical might. When the original compact gave each half the rights to 7.5 million acre-feet of water, the river is estimated to have flowed with as much as 18 million acre-feet each year. Over the 20th century, it averaged closer to 15. Over the past two decades, the flow has dropped to a little more than 12. In recent years, it has trickled at times with as little as 8.5. All the while the Lower Basin deliveries have remained roughly the same. And those reservoirs? They are fast becoming obsolete. Now the states must finally face the consequential question of which regions will make their sacrifice first. There are few places that reveal how difficult it will be to arrive at an answer than the Western Slope of Colorado.

In Montrose, I found the manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, Steve Pope, in his office atop the squeaky stairs of the same Foursquare that the group had built at the turn of the last century. Pope, bald, with a trimmed white beard, sat amid stacks of plat maps and paper diagrams of the canals, surrounded by LCD screens with spreadsheets marking volumes of water and their destinations. On the wall, a historic map showed the farms, wedged between the Uncompahgre River and where it joins the Gunnison in Delta, before descending to their confluence with the Colorado in Grand Junction. “I’m sorry for the mess,” he said, plowing loose papers aside.

Colorado Rivers. Credit: Geology.com

What Pope wanted to impress upon me most despite the enormousness of the infrastructure all around the valley was that in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River system, there are no mammoth dams that can simply be opened to meter out a steady release of water. Here, only natural precipitation and temperature dictate how much is available. Conservation isn’t a management decision, he said. It was forced upon them by the hydrological conditions of the moment. The average amount of water flowing in the system has dropped by nearly 20%. The snowpack melts and evaporates faster than it used to, and the rainfall is unpredictable. In fact, the Colorado River District, an influential water conservancy for the western part of the state, had described its negotiating position with the Lower Basin states by claiming Colorado has already conserved about 28% of its water by making do with the recent conditions brought by drought.

You get what you get, Pope tells me, and for 15 of the past 20 years, unlike the farmers in California and Arizona, the people in this valley have gotten less than what they are due. “We don’t have that luxury of just making a phone call and having water show up,” he said, not veiling his contempt for the Lower Basin states’ reliance on lakes Mead and Powell. “We’ve not been insulated from this climate change by having a big reservoir above our heads.”

He didn’t have to point further back than the previous winter. In 2021, the rain and snow fell heavily across the Rocky Mountains and the plateau of the Grand Mesa, almost as if it were normal times. Precipitation was 80% of average — not bad in the midst of an epochal drought. But little made it into the Colorado River. Instead, soils parched by the lack of rain and rising temperatures soaked up every ounce of moisture. By the time water reached the rivers around Montrose and then the gauges above Lake Powell, the flow was less than 30% of normal. The Upper Basin states used just 3.5 million acre-feet last year, less than half their legal right under the 1922 compact. The Lower Basin states took nearly their full amount, 7 million acre-feet.

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

All of this matters now not just because the river, an unwieldy network of human-controlled plumbing, is approaching a threshold where it could become inoperable, but because much of the recent legal basis for the system is about to dissolve. In 2026, the Interim Guidelines the states rely on, a Drought Contingency Plan and agreements with Mexico will all expire. At the very least, this will require new agreements. It also demands a new way of thinking that matches the reality of the heating climate and the scale of human need. But before that can happen, the states will need to restore something that has become even more scarce than the water: trust.

The northern states see California and Arizona reveling in profligate use, made possible by the anachronistic rules of the compact that effectively promise them water when others have none. It’s enabled by the mechanistic controls at the Hoover Dam, which releases the same steady flow no matter how little snow falls across the Rocky Mountains. California flood-irrigates alfalfa crops destined for cattle markets in the Middle East, while Arizona takes water it does not need and pumps it underground to build up its own reserves. In 2018, an Arizona water agency admitted it was gaming the timing of its orders to avoid rations from the river (though it characterized the moves as smart use of the rules). In 2021, in a sign of the growing wariness, at least one Colorado water official alleged California was repeating the scheme. California water officials say this is a misunderstanding. Yet to this day, because California holds the most senior legal rights on the river, the state has avoided having a single gallon of reductions imposed on it.

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

By this spring, Lake Powell shrank to 24% of its capacity, its lowest levels since the reservoir filled in the 1960s. Cathedral-like sandstone canyons were resurrected, and sunlight reached the silt-clogged floors for the first time in generations. The Glen Canyon Dam itself towered more than 150 feet above the waterline. The water was just a few dozen feet above the last intake pipe that feeds the hydropower generators. If it dropped much lower, the system would no longer be able to produce the power it distributes across six states. After that, it would approach the point where no water at all could flow into the Grand Canyon and further downstream. All the savings that the Upper Basin states had banked there were as good as gone.

In Western Colorado, meanwhile, people have been suffering. South of the Uncompahgre Valley, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe subsists off agriculture, but over the past 12 months it has seen its water deliveries cut by 90%; the tribe laid off half of its farmworkers. McPhee Reservoir, near the town of Cortez, has teetered on failure, and other communities in Southwestern Colorado that also depend on it have been rationed to 10% of their normal water.

Across the Upper Basin, the small reservoirs that provide the region’s only buffer against bad years are also emptying out. Flaming Gorge, on the Wyoming-Utah border, is the largest, and it is 68% full. The second largest, Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, is at 50% of its capacity. Blue Mesa Reservoir, on the Gunnison, is just 34% full. Each represents savings accounts that have been slowly pilfered to supplement Lake Powell as it declines, preserving the federal government’s ability to generate power there and obscuring the scope of the losses. Last summer, facing the latest emergency at the Glen Canyon Dam, the Department of Interior ordered huge releases from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and other Upper Basin reservoirs. At Blue Mesa, the water levels dropped 8 feet in a matter of days, and boaters there were given a little more than a week to get their equipment off the water. Soon after, the reservoir’s marinas, which are vital to that part of Colorado’s summer economy, closed. They did not reopen in 2022.

South Canal. Photo credit: Delta-Montrose Electric Association via The Mountain Town News

As the Blue Mesa Reservoir was being emptied last fall, Steve Pope kept the Gunnison Tunnel open at its full capacity, diverting as much water as he possibly could. He says this was legal, well within his water rights and normal practice, and the state’s chief engineer agrees. Pope’s water is accounted for out of another reservoir higher in the system. But in the twin takings, it’s hard not to see the bare-knuckled competition between urgent needs. Over the past few years, as water has become scarcer and conservation more important, Uncompahgre Valley water diversions from the Gunnison River have remained steady and at times even increased. The growing season has gotten longer and the alternative sources, including the Uncompahgre River, less reliable. And Pope leans more than ever on the Gunnison to maintain his 3,500 shareholders’ supply. “Oh, we are taking it,” he told me, “and there’s still just not enough.”

On June 14, Camille Touton, the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Department of Interior division that runs Western water infrastructure, testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and delivered a stunning ultimatum: Western states had 60 days to figure out how to conserve as much as 4 million acre-feet of “additional” water from the Colorado River or the federal government would, acting unilaterally, do it for them. The West’s system of water rights, which guarantees the greatest amount of water to the settlers who arrived in the West and claimed it first, has been a sacrosanct pillar of law and states’ rights both — and so her statement came as a shock.

Would the department impose restrictions “without regard to river priority?” Mark Kelly,, the Democratic senator from Arizona, asked her.

“Yes,” Touton responded.

For Colorado, this was tantamount to a declaration of war. “The feds have no ability to restrict our state decree and privately owned ditches,” the general manager of the Colorado River District, Andy Mueller, told me. “They can’t go after that.” Mueller watches over much of the state.Pope faces different stakes. His system depends on the tunnel, a federal project, and his water rights are technically leased from the Bureau of Reclamation, too. Touton’s threat raised the possibility that she could shut the Uncompahgre Valley’s water off. Even if it was legal, the demands seemed fundamentally unfair to Pope. “The first steps need to come in the Lower Basin,” he insisted.

Each state retreated to its corners, where they remain. The 60-day deadline came and went, with no commitments toward any specific reductions in water use and no consequences. The Bureau of Reclamation has since set a new deadline: Jan. 31. Touton, who has publicly said little since her testimony to Congress, declined to be interviewed for this story. In October, California finally offered a plan to surrender roughly 9% of the water it used, albeit with expensive conditions. Some Colorado officials dismissed the gesture as a non-starter. Ever since, Colorado has become more defiant, enacting policies that seem aimed at defending the water the state already has — perhaps even its right to use more.

For one, Colorado has long had to contend with the inefficiencies that come with a “use it or lose it” culture. State water law threatens to confiscate water rights that don’t get utilized, so landowners have long maximized the water they put on their fields just to prove up their long-term standing in the system. This same reflexive instinct is now evident among policymakers and water managers across the state, as they seek to establish the baseline for where negotiated cuts might begin. Would cuts be imposed by the federal government based on Pope’s full allocation of water or on the lesser amount with which he’s been forced to make do? Would the proportion be adjusted down in a year with no snow? “We don’t have a starting point,” he told me. And so the higher the use now, the more affordable the conservation later.

Colorado and other Upper Basin states have also long hid behind the complexity of accurately accounting for their water among infinite tributaries and interconnected soils. [ed. emphasis mine] The state’s ranchers like to say their water is recycled five times over, because water poured over fields in one place invariably seeps underground down to the next. In the Uncompahgre Valley, it can take months for the land at its tail to dry out after ditches that flood the head of the valley are turned off. The measure of what’s been consumed and what has transpired from plants or been absorbed by soils is frustratingly elusive. That, too, leaves the final number open to argument and interpretation.

All the while, the Upper Basin states are all attempting to store more water within their boundaries. Colorado has at least 10 new dams and reservoirs either being built or planned. Across the Upper Basin, an additional 15 projects are being considered, including Utah’s audacious $2.4 billion plan to run a new pipeline from Lake Powell, which would allow it to transport something closer to its full legal right to Colorado River water to its growing southern cities. Some of these projects are aimed at securing existing water and making its timing more predictable. But they are also part of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s vision to expand the Upper Basin states’ Colorado River usage to 5.4 million acre-feet a year by 2060.

It is fair to say few people in the state are trying hard to send more of their water downstream. In our conversation, Mueller would not offer any specific conservation savings Colorado might make. The state’s chief engineer and director of its Division of Water Resources, Kevin Rein, who oversees water rights, made a similar sentiment clear to the Colorado River District board last July. “There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve,” Rein said. “It’s a public resource. It’s a property right. It’s part of our economy.”

In November, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis proposed the creation of a new state task force that would help him capture every drop of water it can before it crosses the state line. It would direct money and staff to make Colorado’s water governance more sophisticated, defensive and influential.

I called Polis’ chief water confidante, Rebecca Mitchell, who is also the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. If the mood was set by the idea that California was taking too much from the river, Mitchell thought that it had shifted now to a more personal grievance — they are taking from us.

On a day in late May [2022] when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Last month, Mitchell flew to California for a tour of its large irrigation districts. She stood beside a wide canal brimming with more water than ever flows through the Uncompahgre River, and the executive of the farming company beside her explained that he uses whatever he wants because he holds the highest priority rights to the water. She thought about the Ute Mountain Ute communities and the ranchers of Cortez: “It was like: ‘Wouldn’t we love to be able to count on something? Wouldn’t we love to be feel so entitled that no matter what, we get what we get?’” she told me.

What if Touton followed through, curtailing Colorado’s water? I asked. Mitchell’s voice steadied, and then she essentially leveled a threat. “We would be very responsive. I’m not saying that in a positive way,” she said. “I think everybody that’s about to go through pain wants others to feel pain also.”

Here’s the terrible truth: There is no such thing as a return to normal on the Colorado River, or to anything that resembles the volumes of water its users are accustomed to taking from it. With each degree Celsius of warming to come, modelers estimate that the river’s flow will decrease further, by an additional 9%. At current rates of global warming, the basin is likely to sustain at least an additional 18% drop in its water supplies over the next several decades, if not far more. Pain, as Mitchell puts it, is inevitable.

The thing about 4 million acre-feet of cuts is that it’s merely the amount already gone, an adjustment that should have been made 20 years ago. Colorado’s argument makes sense on paper and perhaps through the lens of fairness. But the motivation behind the decades of delay was to protect against the very argument that is unfolding now — that the reductions should be split equally, and that they may one day be imposed against the Upper Basin’s will. It was to preserve the northern states’ inalienable birthright to growth, the promise made to them 100 years ago. At some point, though, circumstances change, and a century-old promise, unfulfilled, might no longer be worth much at all. Meanwhile, the politics of holding out are colliding with climate change in a terrifying crash, because while the parties fight, the supply continues to dwindle.

Average combined storage assuming drought conditions continue Average end-of-year combined Lake Powell and Lake Mead storage is shown, assuming hydrologic conditions of the Millennium Drought continue. Results show combined reservoir contents using a range of Upper Basin consumptive use limits (colored ribbons) along with a range of Lower Basin maximum consumptive use reductions (line styles) triggered when the combined storage falls below 15 million acre-feet (MAF). The status quo lines use the 2016 Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) projections and existing elevation-based shortage triggers. All water use and shortage values are annual volumes (MAF/year).

Recently, Brad Udall, a leading and longtime analyst of the Colorado River and now a senior water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, teamed with colleagues to game out what they thought it would take to bring the river and the twin reservoirs of Mead and Powell into balance. Their findings, published in July in the journal Science, show that stability could be within reach but will require sacrifice.

If the Upper Basin states limited their claim to 4 million acre-feet, or 53% of their due under the original compact, and the Lower Basin states and Mexico increased their maximum emergency cuts by an additional 45%, the two big reservoirs will stay at roughly their current levels for the next several decades. If the basins could commit to massive reductions below even 2021 levels for the Upper Basin and to more than doubling the most ambitious conservation goals for the south, the reservoirs could once again begin to grow, providing the emergency buffer and the promise of economic stability for 40 million Americans that was originally intended. Still, by 2060, they would only be approximately 45% full.

Any of the scenarios involve cuts that would slice to the bone. Plus, there’s still the enormous challenge of how to incorporate Native tribes, which also hold huge water rights but continue to be largely left out of negotiations. What to do next? Israel provides one compelling example. After decades of fighting over the meager trickles of the Jordan River and the oversubscription of a pipeline from the Sea of Galilee, Israel went back to the drawing board on its irrigated crops. It made drip irrigation standard, built desalination plants to supply water for its industry and cities, and reused that water again and again; today, 86% of the country’s municipal wastewater is recycled, and Israel and its farmers have an adequate supply. That would cost a lot across the scale and reach of a region like the Western United States. But to save the infrastructure and culture that produces 80% of this country’s winter vegetables and is a hub of the nation’s food system for 333 million people? It might be worth it.

A different course was charted by Australia, which recoiled against a devastating millennium drought that ended 13 years ago. It jettisoned its coveted system of water rights, breaking free of history and prior appropriation similar to the system of first-come-first-served the American West relies on. That left it with a large pool of free water and political room to invent a new method of allocating it that better matched the needs in a modern, more populous and more urban Australia and better matched the reality of the environment.

In America, too, prior appropriation, as legally and culturally revered as it is, may have become more cumbersome and obstructive than it needs to be. Western water rights, according to Newsha Ajami, a leading expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the former director of the urban water policy program at Stanford University, were set up by people measuring with sticks and buckets, long before anyone had ever even considered climate change. Today, they largely serve powerful legacy interests and, because they must be used to be maintained, tend to dissuade conservation. “It’s kind of very archaic,” she said. “The water rights system would be the first thing I would just dismantle or revisit in a very different way.”

This is probably not going to happen, Ajami said. “It could be seen as political suicide.” But that doesn’t make it the wrong solution. In fact, what’s best for the Colorado, for the Western United States, for the whole country might be a combination of what Israel and Australia mapped out. Deploy the full extent of the technology that is available to eliminate waste and maximize efficiency. Prioritize which crops and uses are “beneficial” in a way that attaches the true value of the resource to the societal benefit produced from using it. Grow California and Arizona’s crops in the wintertime but not in the summer heat. And rewrite the system of water allocation as equitably as possible so that it ensures the modern population of the West has the resources it needs while the nation’s growers produce what they can.

What would that look like in Colorado? It might turn the system upside down. Lawsuits could fly. The biggest, wealthiest ranches with the oldest water rights stand to lose a lot. The Lower and Upper Basin states, though, could all divide the water in the river proportionately, each taking a percentage of what flowed. The users would, if not benefit, at least equally and predictably share the misery. Pope’s irrigation district and the smallholder farmers who depend on it would likely get something closer to what they need and, combined with new irrigation equipment subsidized by the government, could produce what they want. It wouldn’t be pretty. But something there would survive.

The alternative is worse. The water goes away or gets bought up or both. The land of Western Colorado dries up, and the economies around it shrivel. Montrose, with little left to offer, boards up its windows, consolidates its schools as people move away, and the few who remain have less. Until one day, there is nothing left at all.

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

#Water managers across #drought-stricken West agree on one thing: ‘This is going to be painful’ — The #Nevada Current #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

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

Click the link to read the article on The Nevada Current website (Jennifer Solis):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faulty numbers and an over-allocated river

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, the lower basin will have to take the lion’s share of the reductions,” said John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “I’m a big believer in the law, I’m a big believer in food security, but I’m an even bigger believer in math.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘This is going to be painful’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#ColoradoRiver #conservation program will pay for reduced #water use — Heart of the Rockies Radio #COriver #aridification

Fryingpan-Arkansas Project water from the headwaters of the Colorado River flows into Turquoise Lake in the Arkansas Basin via the Boustead Tunnel (photo by Klambpatten, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turquoise_Reservoir.JPG).

Click the link to read the article on the Heart of the Rockies website (Joe Stone):

As part of a new water conservation program, the Upper Colorado River Commission “is seeking proposals immediately for the voluntary, compensated, and temporary water conservation projects for 2023.”

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are Commission members, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is a partner in the new conservation program, according to a statement issued Wednesday, Dec. 14, at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada.

To be considered for funding, proposals for conservation projects will need to be submitted by Feb. 1, 2023. Details are available here.*

The Commission touts the new program as “a key component of the Upper Division States’ 5-Point Plan to address the impacts of the ongoing drought and depleted (water) storage in the Upper Colorado River Basin.”

The new conservation program is relevant here in the Arkansas River Basin because about 130,000 acre-feet of water per year, up to 23 percent of Arkansas River flows, are imported from the Colorado Basin according to Colorado Division of Water Resources data.

The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which imports an average of 57,000 acre-feet of water per year. Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West combine to import the other 73,000 acre-feet. Fry-Ark Project water supports local agriculture, cities, towns and industry.

Fry-Ark water and infrastructure also underpin the Voluntary Flow Management Program, which supports the multimillion-dollar recreation economies of Upper Ark communities as well as the Arkansas River’s Gold Medal fishery. 

Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Becky Mitchell expressed support for the new program in a statement Wednesday. She emphasized, “The most impactful thing that can be done to manage the Colorado River System is to reduce uses in dry years.”

Mitchell noted that Colorado’s “strict administration of water rights based on hydrology” effectively achieves drought-year water-use reductions. “In 2021, administration impacted water use on over 203,000 acres within the Colorado River Basin in Colorado.”

Mitchell cited preliminary data from the Upper Colorado River Commission showing that the four Upper Basin states used 25% less water in 2021 than in 2020” in response to limited water availability.

“We must continue to live within the means of what the river provides year to year,” Mitchell said, “and we ask others to do the same. This is the only way the system will continue as we know it into the future.”

In requesting that others “live within the means of what the river provides,” Mitchell implicates the three Lower Colorado River Basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada.

The 1922 Colorado River Compact divided Colorado River water between the four Upper Basin states and the three Lower Basin states. The Compact requires the Upper Basin states, where most of the precipitation falls, to deliver a 10-year rolling average of 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water to Lees Ferry, Arizona, just south of the Utah state line. Of that water, California is entitled to 4.4 maf, Arizona, 2.8 maf, and Nevada, 0.3 maf.

The Compact also established a benchmark of 16.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water per year for Colorado River flows. However, data from NOAA show that average flows from 2000 to 2021 have dropped to 12.3 maf per year.

To date, the Upper Basin states have consistently met the 7.5-maf Compact requirement. At a meeting of Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee earlier this year, Mitchell shared statistics showing that Upper Basin states have significantly reduced water usage while Lower Basin states have not.

Colorado River Consumptive use graphic credit: Heart of the Rockies Radio

As the numbers reveal, Lower Basin states’ water usage – more than 2 maf per year beyond the 7.5 maf delivered by the Upper Basin – has trended higher, even as the 10-year rolling average dropped to 11.78 maf for 2012-21.

Specifically, 2019 saw Colorado River flows of 17.75 maf, a rare yearly surplus of 3.8 maf. In 2020, flows dropped to 9.6 maf, 4.5 maf less than the water used that year.

In 2021, flows dropped further, to 7.1 maf. Even with Upper Basin states reducing their water use by more than a million acre-feet in 2021, total water use in the Basin exceeded Colorado River flows by 6.4 maf, dropping water levels in lakes Mead and Powell to record low levels.

* The Upper Colorado River Commission’s Dec. 14 statement notes that full implementation of the water conservation program “is contingent on the passage of pending legislation in Congress” and finalization of an funding agreement between the Commission and the Bureau of Reclamation.

Upper #ColoradoRiver basin moves closer to #water #conservation program: Colorado River District will play role in vetting projects — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Fountains shoot water from the Colorado River into the air outside of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas Friday. The resort hosts the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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

Upper Colorado River basin officials seemed to inch closer to implementing a demand management program, the heart of which involves paying agricultural water users to use less, at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference this week.  

At the annual gathering of water managers and experts in Las Vegas — which sold out for the first time ever with over 1,300 attendees — the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) released more details of a rebooted “system conservation pilot program” (SCPP). It originally ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid water users to use less Colorado River water. 

The restarted program comes with $125 million of federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, with the goal of reducing Colorado River use and mitigating the impacts of long-term drought and depleted reservoirs. 

A request for proposals released Wednesday set a price of $150 per acre foot of conservation. But applicants could be paid more if they can justify a higher price for their conservation project. The UCRC expects to award contracts in March to begin conserving water during the 2023 irrigation season.

The UCRC has also been studying the feasibility of a demand management program, which would also pay water users on a temporary and voluntary basis to use less water. 

Discussion of the two water conservation programs comes at a moment when the nation’s two biggest reservoirs, lakes Powell and Mead, are at historically low levels. Their combined storage is at just 26% of capacity, according to numbers provided Thursday by Bureau of Reclamation officials. 

The annual gathering has traditionally included finger-pointing among different water use sectors, but federal appointee and chair of the UCRC Anne Castle cast the real villain as climate change in her opening remarks at Wednesday’s board meeting. 

“The real enemy here is not the other basin, it’s not another state, it’s not alfalfa, it’s not golf courses,” she said. “The common cause we have to address is climate-change-induced lower flows and that’s what we have to work on together.”

This field is irrigated with water from the Roaring Fork River, under a senior water right. The upper Colorado River Basin seems to be inching closer to implementing a demand management program, the heart of which is paying agricultural water users to cut back. CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

SCPP versus demand management

Conceptually, the SCPP and demand management are the same: paying water users — mostly agricultural water users who are the biggest water users in the basin by far — to cut back. 

The major difference between the two is that water saved from a demand management program would be legally set aside in a 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell to protect the upper basin against a compact call. A compact call could occur if the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) as required by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. 

As climate change continues to rob the Colorado River basin of streamflows, the threat of a compact call becomes increasingly likely. The framework for a demand management program was set out in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan.

Any water conserved through the SCPP would simply flow downstream, becoming “system” water to be picked up by water users in the lower basin. 

“If we are going to do it, I would much rather see it done in a demand management program where we can save the water, bank the water in our storage account in Blue Mesa, Lake Powell, Navajo and Flaming Gorge,” said Colorado River Water Conservation District General Manager Andy Mueller. “It’s much more in our interest in western Colorado that we keep that water to protect our interests and obligations under the compact.”

Officials said on Thursday that the SCPP program could eventually be rolled into a demand management program. 

“We believe (the SCPP) can easily be transitioned into demand management as we learn about that,” Gene Shawcroft, general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District and commissioner to the UCRC, said in a Thursday CRWUA conference panel. “There are steps being taken to move toward (demand management), one of which is the SCPP.”

The state of Colorado conducted an in-depth study of demand management feasibility, convening nine workgroups to investigate different aspects of a potential program like impacts to the environment and agriculture and how to monitor and verify water savings. Earlier this year the CWCB placed it on the back burner to focus on a “drought resiliency toolkit” while officials waited for the report from the UCRC’s interstate demand management feasibility investigation, which was released Wednesday. 

A summary of the 63-page report says that next steps will include a committee drafting a program concept to present at the June 2023 UCRC regular meeting. Commissioners could consider approval of a demand management program at this June meeting. 

“I think if a demand management program is approved, then we will definitely use the lessons learned from the pilot program,” said Becky Mitchell, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and commissioner to the UCRC. “The difference from this pilot program versus the last one is the funding. We’ve never had this kind of funding before.”

The original SCPP saved about 47,000 acre-feet of water in the upper basin at a cost of about $8.6 million over the four years.

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

River District involvement

The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, which covers 15 counties on the Western Slope, will play a key role in approval of projects enrolled in the renewed SCPP. Both the CWCB and River District will have to sign off on projects within the district’s boundaries. Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District will also be involved in the approval of projects in its district, according to general manager Steve Wolff. 

River District General Manager Andy Mueller has long said that a demand management program could pose risks to Western Slope communities and should have sideboards to mitigate any negative impacts. Mueller said he did not yet know what exactly the River District project approval process would look like.

Along with the state of Colorado, the River District has been a leader in looking into a demand management program. The district developed its own conceptual framework for a program and was one of several entities that commissioned a study on the potential secondary economic impacts of a program. It showed a small number of jobs would be lost if some water users were paid to fallow fields. 

Upper basin officials say they will scrutinize project proposals for evidence of those trying to unfairly profit from the sale of water. Third-party agents will be a red flag, UCRC Executive Director Chuck Cullom said.

“One of the clues to speculation is compensation to a third party to help you,” Cullom said. “The other thing is the compensation relative to the activity. So if you have a corn operation and you’re asking $1,000 an acre-foot, that seems like that’s out of sync with a reasonable return on your typical corn crop.” 

But preventing speculation may be easier said than done. The state of Colorado convened a workgroup to explore how to do that, but the group did not come up with any recommendations because members couldn’t reach consensus. State lawmakers also gave up on an effort to enact anti-speculation legislation after it was met with resistance from agricultural water users. An amendment to the draft legislation floated by the River District also failed to gain traction.  

Upper basin officials have consistently pushed back on questions of how much water can be saved through conservation programs, saying there are too many uncertainties to offer a number or make guarantees. Mitchell said she would rather under-promise and over-deliver.

“It’s hard to predict what we can do next year, because the predictions have consistently failed,” Mitchell said. “We have planned on a river that is not there so for us to make a commitment… is not a gamble I would take.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the Dec. 17 edition of The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily, the Dec. 19 edition of Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Craig Press and the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent.

Local and state-wide groups join forces to boost winter flow in the #FryingpanRiver — #Colorado Water Trust #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Ruedi Reservoir, near the headwaters of the Fryingpan River, was still frozen in early April 2021. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From email from the Colorado Water Trust (Kate Ryan, Rick Lofaro, Brendon Langenhuizen, and Rob Viehl):

Colorado Water Trust and Roaring Fork Conservancy have teamed up with the Colorado River Water Conservation District (Colorado River District) and the Colorado Water Conservation Board to purchase and release water from Ruedi Reservoir to mitigate the impacts of anchor ice on the Fryingpan River. On Friday, December 16, the first release of water from Ruedi Reservoir will begin. The project aims to release 1.26 billion gallons of water (or 3,866 acre-feet) between December 16, 2022, and March 1, 2023, to the Fryingpan River, maintaining flows around 65 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs) in order to diminish ice buildup.

Anchor ice is a natural occurrence, but can have serious consequences on the hydrology of the river and the health of the ecosystem within. When there are low flows in the river during the cold winter months, large amounts of anchor ice can form on the bottom of the river, negatively impacting fish and macroinvertebrate function and diversity. Maintaining minimum winter flows between 60 to 70 cfs increases ecological resilience in the river through mitigating the formation of the anchor ice, and improving recovery from previous anchor ice impacts.

The partners will monitor the flow levels in the Fryingpan River, water temperature, air temperature, and anchor ice presence, from December through March. Anchor ice survey results will be compared to previous two years to continue to observe trends and build a long- term data set. “Roaring Fork Conservancy’s unique anchor ice monitoring program will allow us to objectively document anchor ice over time. This allows us to continue to promote management of Ruedi Reservoir with local benefits in mind” says Rick Lofaro, Executive Director of Roaring Fork Conservancy.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colorado River Basin. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Colorado, major cutbacks have already occurred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The impacts of urban sprawl on #Colorado’s #water supply — 9News.com

The downtown Denver skyline from Arvada. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the 9News.com website (Cory Reppenhagen). Here’s an excerpt:

The study includes a scientific survey of 1,024 Colorado residents conducted by the Rasmussen research group. It focuses on several environmental issues, including water. Citing increased traffic, the loss of open space, and a strain on the water supply, 75% of Coloradans surveyed said urban sprawl, which is the encroachment of cities into natural space and agricultural space, is making Colorado a worse place to live. 

Kolankiewicz said urban sprawl damages natural waterways, takes water away from agriculture and reduces the supply of water. Of those surveyed, 70% said water should not be diverted away from agriculture in favor of supporting further urban development.  And 76% said water should be kept in streams to support wildlife.  

Rebecca Mitchell, Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said even with a stable or reduced population, there still may not be enough water because of a 20-plus-year mega-drought in the West.

“We don’t fight with Mother Nature; we dance with her, and we embrace her. And I think how we do that is by living within what she provides,” she said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The River’s Changing Math 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Within New Means

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California In the Spotlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can’t be caught flat-footed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can’t be caught flat-footed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federal officials contend there isn’t a leadership void.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tribes Gain a Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cloud seeding adds to local winter — The #CrestedButte News

Graphic credit: “Literature Review and Scientific Synthesis on the Efficacy of Winter Orographic Cloud Seeding” — CIRES

Click the link to read the article on The Crested Butte News website (Katherine Nettles). Here’s an excerpt:

The Upper Gunnison Basin Cloud Seeding Program started in the 2002/2003 winter season, following a feasibility study the year prior funded by Gunnison County in response to significant drought in 2002. After the program’s first year, the UGRWCD took over and in the time since it has grown to 15 generators, on both public and private land. The UGRWCD wants to add more generators in other qualified locations, starting with one on private land on Black Mesa.  According to the UGRWCD, cloud seeding is one of the cheapest forms of augmentation water for the river basin at an estimated $0.53 per acre-foot annually. And it can provide critical water to support Gunnison River basin flows, Blue Mesa Reservoir and the local economy.

“Typically, what we plan for is that in the last five years or so the programs run at about $114,000 to $118,000 per year,” says Sonja Chavez, general manager for the UGRWCD. 

The Colorado Water Conservation Board gives anywhere between $67,000 and $94,000 and the UGRWCD covers the remaining $20,000 to $45,000. Chavez says that program costs are increasing, however. “We are adding a new generation site, and we are going to be looking for new funding partners,” she says…

Cloud seeding cannot create a snowstorm, but it can increase the precipitation from a storm that already exists. Cole Osborne, project meteorologist for NAWC, explains how the process works using manual and remote-controlled generators and propane tanks to blast a mix of silver iodide and sodium iodide into the atmosphere. 

“The solution attracts liquid particles in a cloud, and the water molecules develop into ice crystals…so you can speed up the process and make a cloud more efficient at producing precipitation,” he says…

The UGRWCD and NAWC believe a remote generator placed at Black Mesa between Crested Butte and Gunnison will do more than any other program enhancement, in terms of water augmentation in the Gunnison Range and to Blue Mesa Reservoir. The UGRWCD, with financial assistance from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, has decided to fund the initial set-up and infrastructure costs for the remote generator for approximately $67,600.  Osborne says there’s a huge area they are trying to target to lead to increased spring runoff and rises in reservoir levels. According to a memo from the UGRWCD earlier this month to potential funding partners, “NAWC analysis indicates that the generator will have significant direct benefits to northern and southern tributaries to Blue Mesa Reservoir and to eastern tributaries due to positive downwind cloud seeding impacts. The remote generator would permit cloud seeding during almost all storm periods that impact the Upper Gunnison River watershed. Seeding could occur during periods with winds ranging from northerly to southerly. 

Community Agriculture Alliance: The Colorado Water Plan — Steamboat Pilot & Today #COWaterPlan

The eight major river basins, plus the Denver metro area, are shown on this map from the South Platte River Basin Roundtable. Each basin has its own roundtable, made up of volunteers, to address local water issues. Credit: Colorado Water Conservation Board

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

You cannot look at the news today and not see a story on the Colorado River and its low flows and levels of the two major reservoirs in the United States…The goal of the nine Colorado roundtables is to drive solutions from the bottom up for this and the other eight compact demands Colorado is facing. To find out more about all of Colorado Interstate Water Compacts, please visit WaterEducationColorado.org/publications-and-radio/citizen-guides/citizens-guide-to-colorados-interstate-compacts/

Your local roundtable is the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable (YWG BRT), which brings together 36 local water users and stakeholders to drive local solutions up to the state and federal levels. These stakeholders represent water providers, municipalities and industrial, recreational, environmental and agricultural communities. They work together to collaboratively find solutions to water supply gaps using a committee structure. The Big River committee reviews the issues facing the Colorado River and how it would affect the Yampa, White and Green Rivers and provides the full YWG BRT with positions and white papers. The Grants Committee reviews Colorado State grant requests for projects that could help reduce the water supply gaps within the basin. This funding has helped projects like the Maybell Canal, the city of Craig White Water Park, the White River Algae study, Walker Ditch Headgate, the Crosho Simon Dam outlet replacement and other projects. Please refer to the YWB BRT website at YampaWhiteGreen.com

The YWG BRT drives this bottom-up collaboration to the state level through the Basin Implementation Plan and the Inter-basin Compact Committee (IBCC). The Basin Implementation Plan (BIP) was released by the YWG BRT back in 2015 and updated in 2021. The BIP has the eight goals of the YWG BRT to reduce the water supply gaps in the basin. Also included in this plan are the activities to meet those goals, the changing challenges in the basin, and a list of projects that if implemented could reduce the supply gaps the basin is facing…

All this local collaboration has led to the update to the Colorado Water Plan, which is scheduled to be released on Jan. 24. The Colorado Water Plan has four action areas — vibrant communities, thriving watersheds, resilient planning and robust agriculture. CWCB also in the plan has identified 50 CWCB partner actions that can help support the water plan and 50 agency actions that CWCB and collaborating agencies will take to support local projects, conservation and wise-water development.

Colorado Water Plan 2023 update cover. Click the image to go to the CWCB website for the update.

Governor Polis seeks $1.9 million to revamp #ColoradoRiver crisis team — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Blue Mesa Reservoir is the largest storage facility in Colorado in the Upper Colorado River system. Prolonged drought and downriver demand is shrinking the reservoir. Credit: Tom Wood, Water Desk

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

Under pressure to protect the state’s dwindling supply of Colorado River water from other states with more political clout, Colorado is reshuffling its river leadership team and asking state lawmakers to approve $1.9 million in funding for a new policy and technology task force on river issues.

The changes include shifting Rebecca Mitchell from her role as director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), and transferring her into the executive office at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. There she will focus on her work as Colorado’s commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission, according to a letter from Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Gov. Polis’ proposal, contingent on lawmakers’ approval, also calls for adding more than a dozen new positions to the CWCB and DNR and adding another $5 million to fund state water plan grants. If approved the changes would take affect July 1 when the new state budget takes effect, according to Chris Arend, DNR spokesman.

Mitchell and Gibbs declined interview requests. Mitchell was appointed to the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) by Polis in 2019 and has maintained a dual role as CWCB director and commissioner on the UCRC.

In an emailed statement, DNR’s Arend said the changes are critical to ensuring the state can adequately protect its share of the drought-stressed Colorado River.

“The Colorado River system is facing many challenges due to a dwindling water supply, which are amplified by one of the worst droughts in recorded history,” Arend said. “These issues are exacerbated by increasing tension in interstate negotiations that are contributing to unprecedented pressure on Colorado’s water supplies.”

Lee Miller, a water attorney who represents the Pueblo-based Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and who has been part of a group of experts advising Mitchell on Colorado River issues, said there needs to be clarity around who reports to whom and what the relationship between the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the new policy and technology team will look like. When a replacement for Mitchell would be named is unclear.

“It’s important that everyone know that we have a consistent leadership voice,” Miller said. “So if staff is responding to two different leaders or if we are not completely organized, that initially is going to be problematic.

“I’m not suggesting it’s going to be a problem. I just don’t know. We can’t afford to have organizational confusion because we really are getting down to the important stages of the negotiations,” he said.

The Colorado River Basin spans seven states, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming comprising the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada making up the Lower Basin.

Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin

Now 22 years into a megadrought widely believed to be the worst in 1,200 years, the highly developed river system is on the brink of collapse, with lakes Powell and Mead falling dangerously close to dead pool, a water level so low that, if it is reached, Powell won’t be able to produce hydropower and Mead won’t be able to serve the millions of people in the Lower Basin who rely on the river.

The river begins in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains, high in Rocky Mountain National Park. It gathers water from major tributaries in Colorado, such as the Yampa and Gunnison rivers, and throughout the Upper Basin, accumulating some 90% of the streamflow that it will provide throughout the seven-state river system thanks to the runoff from the Upper Basin’s deep mountain snows.

But since 2002, those mountain snowpacks have been shrinking, crushed by warming temperatures and fewer snow days.

Beginning in July of 2021, and again this year, the U.S. Department of the Interior ordered, for the first time, emergency releases from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs. But that has done little to restore levels, although the releases are credited with providing some protection to the power supply.

With the crisis deepening, in June U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered the seven states to find ways to cut water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water by 2023.

While Lower Basin states have been forced to begin cutting back water use under a special set of operating guidelines and drought plans approved respectively in 2007 and 2019, negotiations in recent months have failed to achieve the federally ordered cutbacks.

At the same time, the drought has continued, and this winter is forecast to be dry once again. In response, last week, the federal government announced it would expedite negotiations on a new set of operating guidelines designed to protect lakes Powell and Mead to help restore the river.

Under the terms of the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the river’s supplies are divided equally between the Upper and Lower basins. But because the Upper Basin states have smaller and fewer reservoirs than the Lower Basin, users here have had to cut back their water use as the drought has continued. At the same time, Lower Basin users have been able to rely on stored supplies in Powell and Mead, at least until now.

The crisis has left Colorado water users nervous that the state hasn’t moved quickly enough to protect itself from potential new demands for more water from the Lower Basin states.

Larry Clever manages the Ute Water Conservancy District, which serves Grand Junction, among others, and which has fairly senior rights to Colorado River water.

He has been concerned about what he describes as the state’s failure to be more aggressive in demanding changes in the Lower Basin, including major cutbacks in water use. He said the state’s new approach could be a good thing.

“We’ve got to get our butts in gear and do something,” Clever said. “Will this result in that? I hope so. In my opinion, we’re in trouble.

Update: This story has been edited to clarify that the proposed changes in the Colorado River team must be approved by lawmakers and would take effect July 1, 2023 and that the timing for hiring a new director at the CWCB to replace Mitchell is unclear.

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.

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

Newly Funded Water Projects to Aid in More Accurate #Water Forecasting — The #ColoradoRiver District #COriver #aridification

Soil Moisture sensing device. Photo credit: Colorado River
District

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

During the Fourth Quarterly General and Enterprise Meeting of 2022, the Board of Directors approved $195,293 for four new Community Funding Partnership projects. In less than two years of operation, the Community Funding Partnership has supported over 60 projects and awarded over $5.6 million to benefit West Slope water, according to Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships.

Two of the most recent board-approved projects represent critical steps forward in accurately forecasting water supplies in the Colorado River Basin.

The Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) Snow Mapping in the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan Watersheds, and the Roaring Fork Basin – Evaluation of Soil Moisture for Water Planning will increase the precision, reliability, and understanding of snowpack and soil moisture measurements, respectively.

According to the project summary provided by the Aspen Global Change Institute (AGCI) in its application, “In the Colorado River Headwaters Basin in 2021, a March snowpack of around 91% of average translated into only 54% of average streamflow by end of June (data from NRCS), contributing to severe deficits in the water supply and creating challenges for water managers.”

Devices such as SNOTel (snow telemetry) sites have been used for decades to measure snowpack levels. The data gathered from SNOTEL sites combined with 30-year climate averages predict how much water will likely end up in the river after the snow melts. While the sites accurately reflect snow conditions in a localized area, they are limited in scope and struggle to account for variability between drainages within the same river basin. Soil moisture measurement stations are even more sporadic across the River District’s fifteen counties. The data and analyses gathered by ASO and AGCI will create a more comprehensive picture of the overall health of the snowpack and its transition to streamflow by leveraging new technology and real time measurements.

A large part mission of the Colorado River District is to ensure that policymakers and water managers have accurate and up-to-date data and modeling. Over 65% of the Colorado River’s natural flow originates within the District’s fifteen counties making decision-support tools a critical need for water managers across the West.

Funded Projects

Airborne Snow Observatory Snow Mapping in the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan Watersheds – Water Year 2023

Project Applicant: Airborne Snow Observatory, Inc.
Approved Amount: $75,000
Location: Eagle, Pitkin Counties

Initially a program within NASA, Airborne Snow Observatory, Inc. (ASO) is a Colorado Public Benefit Corporation that combines state-of-the-art remote sensing tools with snowpack modeling and fast data processing to deliver snow measurements of high accuracy, high resolution, and full-watershed coverage. The proposed project will support ASO snow mapping flights during winter/spring 2023 in the Upper Fryingpan and Roaring Fork watersheds. This project will provide an unparalleled inventory of the mountain snowpack that supplies the majority of runoff in the Roaring Fork River system.

Roaring Fork Basin – Evaluation of Soil Moisture for Water Planning

Project Applicant: Aspen Global Change Institute
Approved Amount: $60,293
Location: Garfield, Pitkin Counties

The Aspen Global Change Institute manages the Roaring Fork Observation Network (also known as iRON) to collect and share data on soil moisture, climate, and ecology in the Colorado River headwaters basin. The iRON program centers around data collected by ten stations at different elevations and ecosystem types across the Roaring Fork Watershed. This project responds to a community need to better understand how soil moisture data can be effectively leveraged to better understand the relationship between snowpack, soil moisture, and streamflow in Western Colorado and beyond.

GVIC ML 260 Lateral Piping Project

Project Applicant: Grand Valley Irrigation Company
Approved Amount: $40,000
Location: Mesa County

The Grand Valley Irrigation Company owns and operates the ML 260 lateral, which includes a 3,540-foot stretch that remains an open, trapezoidal ditch comprised of aging concrete. The project will pipe the remaining portion of the lateral resulting in a completely enclosed system. Piping will greatly reduce maintenance, such as monthly silt and root removal and concrete work to patch the ditch, while improving flows by eliminating silt deposition. Additionally, piping will prevent approximately 153 tons of salt from entering the Colorado River and reduce seepage losses that are currently estimated at 45 AF per year.

Ruedi Winter Releases

Project
Applicant: Roaring Fork Conservancy
Approved Amount: $20,000
Location: Eagle County

Increased pressure on the Fryingpan River due to growing population, recreation, and climate change has led to the need for strategic management of Ruedi Reservoir to ensure long-term ecological health and viability of the fishery. Maintaining minimum winter flows at 60-70 cfs increases ecological resiliency through mitigating the formation of anchor ice, which can negatively impact macroinvertebrate community function and diversity. Roaring Fork Conservancy, along with Colorado Water Trust, will partner with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and local entities to fund the release of 25 cfs from Ruedi Reservoir to supplement winter flows on the Fryingpan River. The Fryingpan River, a Gold Medal Stream, hosts thousands of anglers a year. Based on a 2015 Economic Impact study, the river accounts for over $3 million in economic output.

Mixed water year not wet enough to remedy ‘dire’ supply issues — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel

North face of Pike’s Peak as seen in profile from Conifer mountain. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

Click the link to read the article on The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website (Dennis Webb). Here’s an excerpt:

Dave Kanzer, director of science and interstate matters for western Colorado’s Colorado River District, told the district’s board at its recent meeting that the recently concluded water year was an average one overall, but was punctuated by dry and wet months, with monsoonal moisture in July and August helping the state to get through a difficult year.

“But it didn’t take care of our water supply issues, which are still very dire,” he said.

ENSO plume September 2022.

The immediate future doesn’t look all that promising either, heading into what is expected to be a third winter in a row of La Niña climate conditions, something Kanzer called a “triple-dip.”

La Niñas are associated with cooler surface water conditions in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. They tend to bring less winter moisture to the Southwest and more in the Northwest.

While there’s a lot of uncertainty about what to expect in the case of a rare “triple-dip” La Niña, federal Climate Prediction Center forecasts point to above-average odds of southern Colorado being in for below-normal precipitation through January, and odds leaning toward below-normal moisture for all of the state but northwestern Colorado between February and April. It’s looking like temperatures may be above normal in the state this fall and winter, too…According to a Natural Resources Conservation Service presentation prepared in September for the state Water Availability Task Force, the state’s precipitation was much improved thanks to the summer rains, but “the bulk of streamflow annual volume comes from seasonal mountain snowmelt, which was poor this year. Improvements from the monsoon this year (were) still only a smaller few drops in the bucket when considered as a total of the entire water year budget.”

Public: New #COWaterPlan needs more urgency and accountability — @WaterEdCO

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

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

Coloradans want the state’s top water road map to mandate faster action, be more accountable, require equitable drought responses between the East and West slopes, and include the crisis on the rapidly drying Colorado River in its estimates of future water shortages.

More than 1,300 individuals and agencies submitted public comments on the draft update to the Colorado Water Plan, according to Russ Sands, chief of water supply planning for the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB).

The public comment period ended Sept. 30. The CWCB is scheduled to finalize revisions to the plan in January 2023. {Editor’s note: The CWCB is a funder of Water Education Colorado, which is a sponsor of Fresh Water News.]

Commenters, including major water utilities, environmental groups, ranchers and farmers, and city and county officials, have asked for numerous changes.

“The plan lacks the language of urgency throughout. It should emphasize the scarcity of time and water to address the life-or-death reality of the drought and the climate crisis that the state of Colorado is facing,” Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors wrote in their submitted comments.

The CWCB is responsible for drafting and updating the plan and supporting its implementation. Championed by U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper when he served as governor, the state’s first water plan was approved in 2015 after years of public meetings and data gathering.

At the time, it was hailed as a breakthrough in grassroots water planning in the West because of its comprehensive effort to engage the public, analyze existing water use, future shortages, and potential solutions.

Since then, the CWCB has awarded more than $500 million in grants and loans to help communities develop water management plans, projects and other options locals believe are necessary to ensure their water futures.

But the plan was politically difficult to finalize even then because of conflicts between water utilities and environmentalists, pro-dam and anti-dam interests, and agricultural and urban water conflicts.

Regardless, water users across the state say that the water plan has spurred more cooperation than has ever existed before, with public roundtables in each of the state’s eight river basins making decisions and sharing information with one another, using the water plan as a roadmap.

Now, as the CWCB updates the plan and a 22-year megadrought drains the Colorado River system, pressure is building to act quickly.

For example, in their comments several individuals and agencies asked that the updated plan include more measurable goals with deadlines to improve accountability in addressing the state’s looming water shortages and environmental issues.

Business for Water Stewardship (BWS), a nonprofit that seeks to connect corporate funders with environmental initiatives, was among them.

“The water plan lacks specifics and accountability,” BWS wrote. “The plan should include metrics on conservation and storage and guidelines on how we balance competing needs. These metrics are necessary to measure progress on the plan’s goals and objectives.”

Forecasts show water supplies will not keep pace with demand by 2050 for agricultural (Ag) or municipal and industrial (M & I) needs if Colorado does not find new approaches. Source: 2019 Analysis and Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

Major water diversions between West Slope river basins and Front Range cities were also a topic of concern.

Roughly 80% of the state’s water supplies originate in West Slope mountain snowpacks, while much of that water is moved to the thirsty Front Range in pipelines and canals known as transmountain diversions or TMDs.

The Colorado River District and other West Slope interests want the state to require that when the West Slope is facing ultra-dry conditions and forced to deal with water restrictions and cutbacks, as it often is just because of its geography, urban cities who are using that West Slope water, live under the same rules. The district represents 15 West Slope counties and is responsible for managing the Colorado River within state boundaries.

For years, West Slope communities whose rivers have been subject to severe drying due to drought and climate change, have complained about urban indifference to their plight.

This year, for instance, some West Slope river basins saw runoff that was well below average, while many Front Range communities, thanks to big reservoirs and better runoff from local rivers, saw normal conditions. There were water restrictions to the west, but few if any to the east.

“The river district recommends a stronger stance towards water conservation and a recommendation that communities reliant on TMD supplies tailor conservation needs when any watershed with their source water is undergoing drought conditions. This is particularly important when the end-use basin is undergoing less severe drought conditions than their TMD source watersheds,” the river district wrote.

The CWCB’s Sands said the state has limited ability to act on a request like this one, given that it has no statewide authority to impose drought restrictions.

Still another major topic of concern among several commenters is the ongoing crisis on the Colorado River. The river begins in the Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park and by the time it makes its way west to the Utah state line, it has generated the majority of the entire seven-state river system’s water.

With the river in crisis and lakes Powell and Mead at historic low levels, Arizona, California and Nevada have begun taking cutbacks, a situation that eventually could occur in Colorado, where major metropolitan areas rely on the river for roughly 50% of their supplies.

And while the draft plan acknowledges the impact of climate change and uncertainties regarding future supplies, commenters say it should include more specifics on how the crisis could affect Colorado’s own water future.

The Sierra Club called release of the draft plan premature, because it did not adequately address the Colorado River crisis. Larimer County, the City of Fort Collins and the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance, also asked that the draft plan include more specifics on the river’s dicey future.

“Adding the Colorado River crisis” to Colorado’s already well known water problems, “is like adding an overactive bull into an already somewhat ramshackle china shop,” the Sierra Club wrote. “Having the draft plan revision out at this time is premature given the likely need to stop about 30% of Colorado’s present use of Colorado River water.”

Here too, Sands said, because the plan is focused solely on intrastate water issues, rather than interstate issues, there is little more the water plan can do with data on the crisis.

The CWCB is scheduled to address which public requests for additions to the water plan will be included in the final draft at its November meeting, Sands said.

In the meantime, several commenters expressed hope that the revised water plan will create the energy and vision the state needs to address its complicated water future.

Said Colorado Springs Utilities, “The water plan is a formative document that outlines meaningful goals and actions for addressing the water supply gap in a time of increasing water scarcity. It will take political courage to ensure this plan has the impact Colorado requires.”

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.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Recreation groups ask for more inclusion in #COWaterPlan — @AspenJournalism

River guide John Saunders paddles a boat down the Yampa River in May 2021. Colorado’s recreation community is asking the state for more inclusion in the updated Water Plan, a final draft of which is scheduled to be released in early January. Photo via Aspen Journalism

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

Colorado’s river recreation community is asking for more recognition in the update to the state’s Water Plan.

In a Sept. 30 comment letter addressed to the Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell and Gov. Jared Polis, a group of recreation, environmental conservation organizations and local businesses ask for river recreation to play a more prominent role in the roadmap for Colorado’s water future.

“Adequate flows to sustain recreation and environmental water needs must be a top priority for CWCB,” the letter reads. “As the update notes, climate change and aridification will contribute to significant temperature-driven river flow declines, disproportionately impacting recreation and river health.”

State officials in July released the second iteration of the Colorado Water Plan, a 239-page document that lays out four interconnected areas for action: vibrant communities, robust agriculture, thriving watersheds and resilient planning. The update to the original 2015 plan is a roadmap for how to manage Colorado’s water under future climate change and drought scenarios. CWCB staff said they are currently reviewing the 1,376 comments with about 2,000 observations and suggested revisions they received during the 90-day public comment period, which ended Sept. 30.

In the Colorado water world, recreation usually is lumped together with the environment as a “non-consumptive” use since both seek to keep water in the stream. But signatories to the letter say that grouping overlooks the importance of recreation to the economy.

“We are always talking about environment and recreation together because they are so interconnected, but in doing so we miss out on the larger picture of the importance of recreation and really the economic development aspect of it,” said Hattie Johnson, southern Rockies stewardship director of American Whitewater. “There is special care and special consideration that require a different way of looking at recreation that we feel is still lacking in the update.”

The letter gives six recommendations to better integrate recreation into the Water Plan: reaffirm that water-based recreation is not in conflict with other water uses; include the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC) as a collaborating agency; add a CWCB recreation liaison; address recreation flows and temperatures; include recreation in watershed planning; and approach storage and water development in a way that won’t negatively impact flows for recreation.

Despite its contribution to Colorado’s outdoor culture, tourism economy and lifestyle, recreation has struggled to find a foothold in the state’s system of water rights, which was established over a century ago and still reflects the values of that time. Colorado water law prioritizes the oldest water rights, which usually belong to agriculture and cities.

As coal mines close, some communities like Craig are turning toward healthy rivers as a way to transition from extractive industries to an outdoor-recreation-based economy.

“It’s important to note that recreation is a pretty important stream use for a lot of communities on the Front Range and West Slope,” said Bart Miller, healthy rivers program director for Western Resource Advocates. “Just having vibrant rivers running through town not just for people to go and float on, but for businesses and boardwalks and the heart of town for a lot of places.”

The update to the Water Plan recognizes that climate change presents a threat to the long-term viability of water-based outdoor recreation. Some communities like Steamboat Springs, where the Yampa River through town has been closed to recreation in recent summers due to high temperatures exacerbated by low flows, are already feeling the effects. Recreation proponents asked CWCB to address this issue.

“We recommend that the final update include specific actions CWCB will take to address recreation flows, including mitigating summer recreation closures caused by high water temperatures and better quantifying the gap for recreational and environmental flow needs,” the letter reads.

The upstream wave at the Roaring Fork Whitewater Park in Basalt is tied to a recreational in-channel diversion water right. As the only way to ensure a water right for recreation, it is an imperfect tool with some drawbacks. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

RICDs are imperfect tool

Neither of two recent proposals from recreation proponents — one that would have tied water rights to a natural stream feature and one that would have designated stream reaches for recreation, allowing them to lease water to boost flows — gained wide support from water users or legislators.

Currently the only way to keep water in rivers for boaters is for a local government to get a recreational in-channel diversion (RICD) water right for a human-made wave or whitewater park. But recreation proponents say this method is an imperfect tool. The process of securing the rights can be met with opposition and take years in water court. RICD water rights also sometimes end up making concessions to future water development.

Building the wave features is expensive, meaning a RICD water right may be out of reach for less-affluent communities. Pitkin County has spent more than $3 million on constructing and subsequently fixing its two waves with a RICD water right in the Roaring Fork River near Basalt; the project had an initial budget of $770,000.

The letter also suggests adding a staff position at CWCB to focus on solving the flows challenge and guiding the RICD program.

“A big idea we included was this idea of a recreation liaison,” said Alex Funk, director of water resources and senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Having someone at CWCB that’s basically your recreation expert, someone that can handle the RICD program, work with the OREC office, someone who is more dedicated to that community and thinking through those things.”

The letter also recommends that recreation be included into watershed planning, specifically by including environmental and recreation flow target recommendations in stream management plans. The 2015 Water Plan had a goal of covering at least 80% of the state’s priority streams with SMPs. And although one of the original goals of these SMPs was to identify flow needs for recreational water uses, only 1% of the plans completed so far did so. In some cases, the SMP process was taken over by agricultural interests, watering down what was supposed to be a tool specifically for the benefit of non-consumptive water uses.

A kayaker runs the 6-foot drop of Slaughterhouse Falls on the Roaring Fork River near Aspen in June 2021. Recreation proponents gave six recommendations to the CWCB to better elevate recreation in the update to Colorado’s Water Plan. CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Coalition letter

The comment letter from recreation proponents was an add-on to a more-lengthy submission from the Water for Colorado coalition, which is made up of representatives of environmental advocacy groups including American Rivers, Audubon Rockies, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited and others.

Recreation was one of three key areas the 40-page letter focused its recommendations on. The letter lays out the criticism that environment and recreation are a secondary focus of the plan and that watershed health is merely “considered” in state water resource planning.

“While we agree that should be a minimum requirement, it doesn’t go nearly far enough,” the letter reads. “Environmental flows and watershed health must also be a coequal goal of state water resource planning itself — not just a secondary consideration.”

The update to the Water Plan lays out projected future “gaps” — the shortage between supply and demand — for agriculture and cities, but not for recreation or the environment.

“There’s not much detail about the volumes of water that are missing or needed,” Miller said. “We’ve got plenty of streams around the state that are short, and we will need to figure out how to improve their health through creative ways of reducing out-of-stream uses.”

CWCB Section Chief for Water Supply Planning Russ Sands said staff appreciates the in-depth feedback from the recreation community.

Sands acknowledged that although there are several locations across Colorado where non-consumptive streamflow needs have been identified, they have not been quantified statewide in the same way as they have been for agricultural or municipal demands. CWCB may revisit addressing those gaps during the next update to the Water Plan, he said.

Sands emphasized the fundamental need for the Water Plan to promote projects that benefit multiple water user groups: agriculture, the environment, recreation and cities.

“Climate change presents a long-term threat to the viability of all sectors of water use,” he said in an emailed statement. “The most promising tool to address this is radical collaboration.”

The final draft of the updated Water Plan is expected by early January.

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

Colorado Water Plan 2023 update cover

$500,000 grant supports Custer County reservoir project — Heart of the Rockies Radio

Photos by Allen Tian, The Colorado Independent, and courtesy of Dark Skies Inc of the Wet Mountain Valley.

Click the link to read the article on the Heart of the Rockies Radio website (Joe Stone):

The Colorado Water Conservation Board awarded a $500,000 grant to the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District and Round Mountain Water and Sanitation District for construction of a new reservoir near Westcliffe.

Upper Ark Project Manager Gracy Goodwin reported the grant award during the Thursday meeting of the Upper Ark board of directors in Salida.

Upper Ark General Manager Terry Scanga said the total cost of the project is estimated at $3 million and that the Upper Ark District is responsible for a third of the cost under its agreement with Round Mountain.

Round Mountain provides water water and sanitation services to the towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, serving a population of approximately 1,000.

As previously reported, the Upper Ark District and Round Mountain began collaborating on the project to address the need for a source of augmentation water on Grape Creek upstream from DeWeese Reservoir. The 7-acre reservoir will have a storage capacity of approximately 150 acre-feet.

Goodwin reported that Engineering Analytics, the firm hired to design the reservoir, recently completed a topographic survey for the intake infrastructure and the dam. The company is also finalizing the reservoir design and starting work on the construction drawings.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board also provided funding for an initial feasibility study and the design work, and Goodwin said Upper Ark staff are investigating additional sources of funding to help pay for construction costs.

In addition to its augmentation water needs, Round Mountain faces significant wastewater treatment challenges.

Citing an “overtaxed wastewater treatment plant” that “cannot adequately process additional effluent,” the Round Mountain board of directors enacted a moratorium on the sale of water and sewer taps Jan. 1., effectively halting new construction in Westcliffe and Silver Cliff.

Information on the Round Mountain website indicates the district’s wastewater treatment plant “is 46 years old, built with a technology that cannot meet current environmental standards and receiving considerably more sewage than it can fully process.”

The proposed Round Mountain Reservoir would provide a much-needed source of augmentation water in Custer County.

September 27, 2022 Water Availability Task Force Summary — @CWCB_DNR/@DWR_CO #CWCBWATF

Colorado Drought Monitor map October 11, 2022.

Click the link to read the summary on the Colorado Water Conservation Board website (Ben Wade):

Observed temperature
This summer has been the 6th warmest summer on record, and the 2nd warmest summer on record for Colorado in terms of average low temperatures due to consistent warm nights. While warm nights indicate more humidity and less evaporative demand, they put stress on people and livestock. September continued the trend of above average temperatures.

Observed precipitation and drought conditions
September precipitation was normal to above normal in all but the northern part of the state due to the early onset of the monsoon, particularly in southern Colorado. This summer was the 34th wettest summer on record, and the first above average summer since 2015. However much of this precipitation occurred in the southern part of the state, while the Northeast was very dry.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, much of Colorado experienced drought condition improvement with parts of central Colorado moving out of drought altogether. About 45% of the state remains in drought conditions (D1 and above), and 15% of the state has no level of drought. Persistent drought conditions still continue in the northeast portion of the state, whereas conditions have improved along the Continental Divide and in southern CO. Water year to date precipitation statewide is just above the median, picking up in mid-June after a dry spring. Most basins are near the long term average for the water year, though the northeast corner and Baca county remain dry. Portions of Phillips and Sedgwick Counties are now in exceptional drought. Summer of 2022 was warm and wet, with above average precipitation in most of the state and temperature 1.5 degrees warmer than average. According to the Drought Monitor, Weld and Yuma counties have been in D3 for 13 consecutive weeks,
Yuma for 11 weeks, Phillips and Sedgwick have been in D4 for 7 weeks, and Montezuma County was in D3/D4 for 122 consecutive weeks.

Observed streamflows
Even though higher than normal precipitation in the southern part of the state slightly improved streamflows, below normal streamflows were observed across most of the state for the April-July time period.

Snowpack and reservoir storage
Reservoir storage remains below normal in most of the state as a result of lower than expected stream flows attributable to dry soils, as well as warm, dry conditions over several years. The statewide average sits at 78% of normal. The Rio Grande and South Platte basins have the most plentiful storage at 103 and 97 percent, respectively. Reservoir storage is especially low in the Gunnison basin, due predominantly to releases from Blue Mesa, and in the southwest part of the state.

Seasonal outlook
La Niña looks likely to continue through fall and into the winter, and the Climate Prediction Center indicates Colorado is more likely to experience warmer than average conditions through the end of the calendar year. While precipitation outlook is less certain, the outlook leans toward drier than average conditions.

The #ColoradoRiver District comments on the #COWaterPlan — @AspenJournalism 

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Click the link to read the newsletter “The Runoff” on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

Colorado River Water Conservation District board members and staff discussed the comments they plan to submit on the updated version of the Colorado Water Plan at a Sept. 15 meeting. A main concern of theirs remains the very reason the River District was formed in 1937: transmountain diversions. Director of Technical Advocacy Brenden Langenhuizen said there is still a disconnect in the Water Plan between the basin of origin (the Colorado) and the place of use (the Front Range). The River District would like the Water Plan to include more context about TMDs and to address their long-term economic and environmental impacts. A point the River District continues to make is that many of the water quality issues in headwaters communities (algae, high water temperatures) are actually a water quantity issue — a result of reduced flows from TMDs taking water to the Front Range. “Water quality is not discussed as thoroughly as we think it needs to be,” Langenhuizen said. CWCB officials told Aspen Journalism in July when the new Water Plan was released that it stopped short of a detailed analysis of TMDs because of ongoing litigation and permitting processes, but promised to revisit the issue before the next update to the plan.

Towards a Deeper Equity in the #Colorado Water Plan — Water for Colorado #COWaterPlan

The difference between the terms equality equity and liberation illustrated. Credit: Shrehan Lynch https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340777978_The_A-Z_of_Social_Justice_Physical_Education_Part_1

Click the link to read the post on the Water for Colorado website (Jared Romero and Beatriz Soto):

Water impacts every aspect of life in Colorado, and therefore impacts every Coloradan. Ensuring equitable access to clean, safe drinking water as well as healthy and accessible outdoor spaces is essential. Colorado’s Water Plan, developed in 2015 and currently undergoing an update, is open for public comment through the end of September. This is a critical civic engagement opportunity, and an opportunity for everyone to make their voices heard in ensuring that the plan rises to meet the challenges facing our communities and water supplies at this moment. Historically excluded and misrepresented communities such as Latinos, communities of color, tribal nations and low-income Coloradans want and need to be a part of the solutions to combat climate change and water insecurities.

We commend the state on translating the entire draft to Spanish, providing translation during public listening sessions, and working towards justice, but more is needed. Equity language is used throughout, but the plan doesn’t actually specify who is leading this work or how it will be accomplished.

When the Water Plan and state officials speak of equity, it needs to be more actionable and have a greater focus on accountability. To that end, the state must include a concrete plan to work with a larger range of voices. One way to achieve this would be through the hiring of a Chief Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer or similar role within the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to develop trust with historically underrepresented communities and ensure equity is being advocated internally in all of the areas they list it in the plan. 

Eighteen months ago, the CWCB— the state body guiding the development of the water plan and its update — created the Water Equity Task Force with a stated mission to shape a set of guiding principles around equity, diversity and inclusion that could help inform the update to the Colorado Water Plan. While this group accomplished its “task,” we encourage the CWCB to follow the lead of CDPHE, which established its Environmental Justice Advisory Board, and create a Water Equity Advisory Board, in addition to a Chief Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer. This board would help guide implementation of the five recommendations that came from the Task Force in addition to actions outlined in the Draft Plan such as an interagency environmental justice mapping working group and increasing grant funding access, among others. Given the diversity of residents in Colorado there’s a need, and role, for providing guidance around addressing equity, diversity, and inclusion in how our state’s water supply is being managed now as we prepare for a future with less available water for all.

Decision making spaces for how our water supply is managed would benefit from an increase in racial, gender, and other forms of diversity. It is essential that governing bodies accurately represent the population they serve. For example, groups like the nine Basin Roundtables have made progress toward being more diverse and inclusive but are still predominantly white and male — if meaningful progress toward greater racial equity and inclusivity are to be fully realized, it must begin at the highest level. While we support mention of equity, diversity, and inclusivity in the identified action of supporting the long-term stability and impact of Basin Roundtables, we encourage state officials to go beyond even that. Specifically, CWCB should include collaboration with partners such as CDPHE’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board, Great Outdoors Colorado, the CPW Colorado Outdoor Equity Board among others to develop a strategy and implementation plan for creating greater racial diversity and inclusivity in decision making spaces such as Basin Roundtables and the CWCB Board of Directors. However we want to emphasize that diversity of membership without addressing inclusion and equity will only result in further disenfranchisement. 

Beyond leadership and management at the state level, guidance around policymaking and water-related legislation must also be reviewed through the lens of equity. For example as the state works to implement HB22-1151, a bill incentivizing the removal of high-water turf from municipal landscapes, efforts to reduce outdoor irrigation need to be managed from a variety of perspectives to ensure healthy communities, attractive Colorado-appropriate landscaping, places to recreate, ecosystem benefits (e.g., pollinators), and cooling impacts of vegetation.  Ornamental — and often thirsty — landscaping such as lawns can be a privilege of wealth, with lower income neighborhoods often lacking these amenities. As we work to replace non-functional turf with low water use landscaping we must consider all types of neighborhoods and levels of income and accessibility to programs. To ensure equitable access, the legislation was written so that all Coloradans, including those that live in rural areas or communities without existing turf replacement programs, have access to funds for turf removal.  When designing the program criteria, the CWCB could look at prioritizing funding or reducing matching fund requirements for communities that have a greater makeup of underserved or underrepresented individuals according to the US 2020 census data.

In addition to considering turf replacement through an equity lens, it is equally important to think about what equity looks like in new development. Colorado is an incredibly fast growing state, and more communities are updating their landscape regulations to ensure that new development is less water intensive. The city of Aurora, for example, is limiting turf in new construction to reduce the water demands of its growth. Just like with turf replacement, we must consider new landscape regulations through an equity lens and think through whether those new landscape regulations will increase the cost of development and housing, or if only affluent developments can follow the regulations in a way that looks nice and functions as a healthy ecosystem (e.g., manicured xeric landscapes with state-of-the-art irrigation systems versus only mulch, gravel or other non-living materials). These landscape regulations must be crafted in a way that achieves the overarching goal — using less water — while benefiting all Coloradoans or at a minimum not disproportionately impacting some Coloradoans.  CWCB should add equity and greatest impact scoring criteria to their grants similar to the Justice 40 Executive Order so the result is that funding is intentionally going towards projects that provide the greatest impact to historically underinvested communities and conserving water. Equity must be part of that consideration so that additional unintended consequences such as additional heat islands are not created and our most vulnerable communities are not left behind.

Water for Colorado has developed a series of recommendations for the state to consider as they finalize the draft update. Our recommendations for equity, diversity, and inclusion fall amongst the top of those, and we are asking residents to help elevate the Coalition’s priorities by signing onto our petition. But, much more is needed to elevate diverse voices throughout Colorado and how our water supply is managed. For example, attend a local Basin Roundtable meeting either in person or virtually, provide a public comment at the upcoming CWB Board of Directors meeting on September 20 and 21st in Durango, and/or participate in the Water 22 Pledge.

Jared Romero is Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.  He earned a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from Colorado State University-Fort Collins and his master’s in Applied Natural Science from Colorado State University-Pueblo. He has worked in various aspects of conservation, ranging from boots-on-the-ground work as a wildland firefighter to research in ecological toxicology to experience as an educator and administrator. Most recently, Romero spearheaded the development of One Health education and research at Boise State University. The One Health initiative focuses on the interconnected relationship of animal, human and environmental health through engaged collaborative thinking and complex problem-solving. He is a native of the San Luis Valley in Colorado. His love for the outdoors stems from his time camping, hunting, and fishing in the Rocky Mountains with family and friends.

Beatriz Soto is Director of Protégete for Conservation Colorado. Beatriz has been at the intersection of community building, social justice and working towards a stable climate for the past two decades. She is a LEED certified architect that worked on a variety of energy related projects, from Net-Zero affordable housing to high performance straw bale homes, sustainable developments in the pacific coast of Mexico, as well as providing professional trainings with the US and the Mexican Green Building Councils. She is former Director of Defiende Nuestra Tierra for The Wilderness Workshop, also a co-founding member of Voces Unidas de las Montañas, first non-profit organization in the central mountain region, made up of Latinx leaders that helps create opportunities for Latinos to speak and advocate for themselves. Beatriz is based in Carbondale, CO.

Tribal breakthrough? Four states, six tribes announce first formal talks on #ColoradoRiver negotiating authority — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification #overdrawn22

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

Colorado and three other Upper Colorado River Basin states have, for the first time in history, embarked on a series of formal meetings to find a way to negotiate jointly with some of the largest owners of Colorado River water rights: tribal communities.

The states, which include New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, began meeting with six tribes several weeks ago, according to Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission.

The tribes are the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Utah, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Paiute Tribe in Utah, as well as Colorado’s Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, based in Towaoc, and Southern Ute Indian Tribe, whose lands lie in and around Ignacio.

“We have four Upper Basin states and the six Upper Basin tribes, 10 sovereigns, in the room together saying that the table that is set is not the table that works for all, and we are going to create our own table. They are really focused on solutions and being part of the burden and part of the success,” Mitchell said.

The six tribes are among 30 tribal communities in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, which, combined, have paper water rights to roughly 25% to 30% of the river’s flows, more than 3.2 million acre-feet of water.

Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin/Water Education Colorado

The news came Sept. 16 at the Colorado River District’s Annual Seminar in Grand Junction. The river district represents 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope and is responsible for policy and managing the river within those boundaries.

For more than 100 years, modern water management in the American West has been conducted by the federal and state governments, without formal tribal leaders.

Under Western water law, water has to be measured, its historical use rates certified, and it has to be diverted so that it can be put to beneficial use. Tribal water rights are treated differently. Tribes’ water rights date back to the time when the reservations were created, based on a law that was applied retroactively – many reservations were established before the law existed and so the amount of water they received was never quantified or adjudicated. For this reason, many tribes have had to settle their water rights within the state or states where their reservation lies— some of those negotiations remain unsettled. Many tribes have never measured their water use and, even among those tribes with quantified water rights, many have never had the money to build the dams, pipelines and reservoirs that allow them to put the resource to use.

Roughly 60% of the water the tribes legally possess has never been developed or integrated into the region’s hierarchy of water rights, though they are often some of the oldest, according to tribal estimates.

Daryl Vigil, Jicarilla Apache Nation Water Administrator, said tribal leaders want the federal government to create a new framework to right past wrongs and establish a process for tribes to participate in critical river negotiations.

For too long, he said, “The policy-making process has been left up to the seven basin states and the federal government. We want to speak on behalf of our own water. We’ve heard a whole lot about scarcity and pain,” he told the Grand Junction audience of roughly 400 people. “And we know a whole lot about that. We’re asking, we’re demanding participation because it is a basic human right.”

During the past five years, as the Colorado River has sunk deeper into crisis, the tribes have begun working together and asserting their right to negotiate with federal, state and local water agencies to determine how their water will be used, how badly needed tribal water systems can be built, and how tribes can be fairly compensated for the water that has long been used by others.

Despite increased public pressure to recognize the tribes’ water rights and to include them in critical negotiations and decision-making processes, they continue to be shut out, including in the most recent talks over how to achieve the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of cuts that U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered back in June in order to keep lakes Mead and Powell operating.

Another set of critical talks set to begin in the near future still has no mechanism for including the tribes. These are talks that will determine how to operate the river well into the future, after the current framework for river operations, known as the 2007 Interim Guidelines, expires at the end of 2026. Tribes were not included in the talks leading up to the 2007 agreement either.

Lorelei Cloud, a member of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, said traditional water users in the Colorado River Basin won’t survive unless tribal waters are legally recognized, developed and put to use by tribes and other users in the basin.

“We are a sovereign government. We should be considered just as a state would be. If you think that we shouldn’t be involved, then don’t include our 30% allocation for anyone else’s use … We need to be included in every one of these conversations. My reservation was established in 1868. We are first in time first in line. You cannot discount us,” she said.

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

Native land loss 1776 to 1930. Credit: Alvin Chang/Ranjani Chakraborty

#Colorado #water plan on tap for $11.4 million from gaming revenue — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette

Colorado Water Plan 2023 update cover

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Springs Gazette website (Marianne Goodland). Here’s an excerpt:

Colorado’s state water plan will receive $11.4 million from gaming revenues this year, a 43% increase over last year’s distribution. The Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission on Thursday announced that sports betting yielded tax revenues of $12.4 million in its second year of operation. 

Under House Bill 19-1327, which later became Proposition DD on the 2019 ballot, tax revenues from sports gambling first go to a “hold harmless” fund and to address program gambling. The state water plan, while last on the list, gets the lion’s share of the revenues.

Colorado’s water plan has suffered from low investment from state government. Initially, the water plan, issued in 2015 under Gov. John Hickenlooper, was projected to require $20 billion in investments — to be paid for with higher water rates, federal grants and loans, and severance tax collections. The state’s share of that investment was projected at $100 million per year, beginning in 2020 and running through 2050.

#Colorado #Water #Conservation Board studying possible expansion of Bear Creek Lake — CBS Colorado

Following heavy rains which fell mid-September 2013 in Colorado, the pool elevation at the Bear Creek reservoir rose several feet. At 4 a.m., Sept. 15, the reservoir pool elevation surpassed its previous record elevation of 5587.1 feet, and peaked at a pool elevation of 5607.9 ft on Sept. 22, shown here. Bear Creek Dam did what it was designed to do by catching the runoff and reducing flooding risks to the hundreds of homes located downstream.

Click the link to read the article on the CBS Colorado website (Ben Warwick). Here’s an excerpt:

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, Army Corps of Engineers and City of Lakewood partnered on a study to examine gaps in water supply and demand, as part of the Colorado Water Plan. The study looked at several different scenarios to forecast and address water supply gaps through the year 2050. The South Platte Basin, which serves the Denver metro area, Northern Colorado, and the northeastern plains, is projected to have a gap anywhere between 509,000 acre-feet and 835,000 acre-feet per year. 

The CWCB and Army Corps of Engineers chose Bear Lake because it has an existing dam and provides an opportunity to store more water at what the group calls a more reasonable cost. The study is examining whether an expansion can decrease the supply/demand gap, possible impacts to flood control, and environmental and recreational impacts. 

If deemed feasible, funding for expansion and enhancement of recreational areas and open space would be a large part of the project. 

There is no set timeline for the project. The feasibility study is ongoing.

#SouthPlatteRiver Surfers Want Updated #COWaterPlan to Go With the Flow — Westword

The second wave at River Run Park, Benihanas, is a high-speed, dynamic wave that gives up great rides but can be challenging to surf for beginners. Once you have it dialed, it’s one of the best high-performance waves in the state. It features a wave shaper – a set of three adjustable plates underneath the water that allow the wave to be dialed for particular flows. At higher flows (from 250 cfs to over 750 cfs) the wave creates a large A-Frame wave that can run from waist to chest high. Under 180 cfs, the wave is usually too weak to hold a surfer. Photo credit: EndlessWaves.net

Click the link to read the article on the Westword website (Catie Cheshire). Here’s an excerpt:

People who use the South Platte River for recreation, particularly river surfers, are hoping the next iteration of the Colorado Water Plan will include stronger language about the importance of recreation on the river. An updated version of the plan originally developed in 2015 during the John Hickenlooper administration will take effect in 2023, and the public can currently weigh in on the Colorado Department of Natural Resources draft. David Riordon, an avid river surfer in Denver, says he was pleasantly surprised that the draft indicated a positive approach to recreation, but hopes there will be more specifics regarding the use of the South Platte in the final document. While Riordon recognizes that the plan must tackle big issues across the state, he points out that river surfers keep a close eye on the South Platte’s status in metro Denver when they spend time on the waves at River Run Park in Englewood. “We see what comes by us or what doesn’t come by us,” Riordon says. “That could be water. It could be people. It could be fish, it could be trash. It could be plants. All kinds of stuff comes by us.”

Currently, river surfers gauge several factors, such as the discharge from Chatfield Reservoir and the City of Englewood, to see if the water is running at enough cubic feet per second to surf, generally 180 cfs. Riordon thinks the flow of the South Platte should be controlled the way it is on the Arkansas River, where a voluntary flow management program ensures that the Arkansas will be high enough for recreation during summer months, including rafting and fishing…Although the agreement guiding the Arkansas River program is between the Colorado DNRColorado Parks and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation actually operates it, measuring the reservoirs and controlling the outlet gates to ensure a constant flow of at least 700 cfs from July 1 to August 15. It also maintains a 250 cfs level during fall and winter months to improve conditions for trout. To create something similar on the South Platte, Riordon, who’s president of the Colorado River Surfers Association, hopes to connect with other stakeholders to apply for a grant from the Metro Basin Roundtable to determine if the idea would be feasible…

The new iteration [of the Colorado Water Plan] includes goals for protecting and enhancing both environmental and recreational attributes of the South Platte. Compared to the first version, completed before the original 2015 Colorado Water Plan, it takes a stronger stance on social justice and ensuring equitable access to recreation on the river, [Sean Chambers] continues.

The South Platte River Basin is shaded in yellow. Source: Tom Cech, One World One Water Center, Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Northern Water Board Member Wins State’s Highest #Water Honor

Northern Water Director Jennifer Gimbel appears with her family upon receiving the Aspinall Award from Colorado Water Congress on August 25, 2022.

Click the link to read the release on the Northern Water website:

Northern Water Director Jennifer Gimbel was presented as the 2022 winner of the Aspinall Award by Colorado Water Congress during its summer convention Aug. 25, 2022, in Steamboat Springs. 

Gimbel received the state’s top water advocacy award based on her many accomplishments during a career with service to the Colorado Water Center, Northern Water, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Department of Interior and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. 

The Aspinall Award is named after former Congressman Wayne Aspinall, who advocated for the state’s water resources during a 24-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Previous award-winners associated with Northern Water include former general managers Eric Wilkinson (2011), Larry Simpson (2001) and Bob Barkley (1995), Municipal Subdistrict Board President W.D. Farr (1985), legal counsel John M. Sayre (1989) and legislative consultant Fred Anderson (1994). 

How the #Colorado Water Trust uses market-based agreements to benefit rivers and irrigators — Irrigation Leader Magazine

Yampa River below Oakton Ditch 6-1-22. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

Click the link to read the interview on the Irrigation Leader website. Here’s an excerpt:

Irrigation Leader: Does that mean you acquire these rights [with water rights owners willing to cut deals] and then deliver them to the Colorado Water Conservation Board? 

Andy Schultheiss: While that was the original intention, we don’t always deliver the rights to the board. Sometimes, we just cut deals with water users to allow more water to stay in rivers. However, we usually go through the board, because it is the only entity that is legally allowed to hold the water for environmental use. 

Irrigation Leader: Where do you get the funds to purchase those rights? 

Andy Schultheiss: The money comes from a variety of sources, including corporations, private donors, and the Water Conservation Board itself. Our staffing and various other operational costs are covered by funds from private donors and foundations. 

Irrigation Leader: How do instream flow rights differ from other water rights? 

Andy Schultheiss: Instream flow rights keep water in rivers and streams rather than taking it out for some consumptive use. They typically apply to a few miles of a river and are designated for sections of rivers where Colorado Parks and Wildlife determines that extra flow will be valuable for the fish and other wildlife that rely on it. The beauty of these rights is that they don’t differ from other water rights: They are regular water rights that were created by an act of the Colorado legislature in the early 1970s. Water rights for consumptive uses have existed since the 19th century, so instream flow rates came late to the scene. That means they’re junior rights, and when there isn’t enough water, which is often the case, they don’t get satisfied. That’s where the acquisition and repurposing of older rights comes in. 

Irrigation Leader: Do similar instream flow rights exist in other states? 

Andy Schultheiss: Colorado’s water rights system is more advanced and legally developed than those of other mountain West states. One other western state that has a highly developed system like Colorado’s is California. 

Irrigation Leader: Is the mechanism you use to acquire these rights as simple as going out to the market, finding a right, and buying it? 

Andy Schultheiss: We almost never buy a right in fee simple. For example, there was recently a ranch for sale for around $8 million near Rocky Mountain National Park, and more than half the property’s value was water. Buying that water outright, especially a senior right like that one, is beyond most people’s capacity. For a nonprofit like ours, a purchase like that is usually not in the cards, so we often lease a water right instead. Essentially, we buy the use of that senior right to use for one season or perhaps for half a season, or we cut deals with irrigators and ask them to not irrigate for a month or two during the year and compensate them for that. There’s often a framework and agreement that lasts more than 1 year, but the decision to run a project in any given year is always up to the water right owner. 

‘We built a house of cards:’ Deal or not, #ColoradoRiver states stare down major cuts — The #Nevada Independent #COriver #aridification

John McClow, Rebecca Mitchell, Gene Shawcroft, Tom Buschatzke at the Colorado Water Congress 2022 Summer Conference.

Click the link to read the article on the Nevada Independent website (Daniel Rothberg). Here’s an excerpt:

The Colorado River remains in an unfolding and worsening crisis. Demand far exceeds supply. Long-term drought, worsened by climate change, has meant less water refilling the river’s large reservoirs as water users have continued to overtap them. Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas, is the grim evidence, where, at 27 percent full, old boats have washed ashore in what can feel like an apocalyptic scene. The math is unavoidable: Without cuts, the reservoir will keep dropping…

Yes, some cuts went into effect for Nevada, Arizona and Mexico. Yet it’s important to note that these cuts were already planned for, accounted for and agreed to in several deals struck over the past 15 years. The cuts are not negligible; Arizona will have its apportionment reduced by 21 percent, and Nevada’s apportionment will be trimmed by 8 percent. Still, the cuts are not nearly enough to stop the rapid decline of reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell...

The reality is that, even with the original deadline passing, there is reason for the states to cut more — and act this year. Without action, Lake Mead will continue to drop, risking a major (and in some places, the only) water supply for users downstream in Arizona, California and Mexico. Only Nevada, with its “third straw,” can take water from Lake Mead if the reservoir drops below what is known as “dead pool,” a threshold at which water cannot pass through Hoover Dam. If the large-scale cuts are deferred any longer, it means more uncertainty for all water users.

#Colorado #Water Congress 2022 Summer Conference Day 3: Jennifer Gimbel recognized as the recipient of the 2022 Aspinall Water Leader of the Year Award

Jennifer Gimbel. Photo credit: Northern Water

Jennifer Gimbel received the 2022 Aspinall Water Leader of the Year award first thing on Thursday morning. She has had a long and important career in water in Colorado and nationally.

During her acceptance speech she said, “It’s been a long time since my voice was shaking at the microphone. I’ve been so lucky. My resume looks good but my retirement doesn’t. We have a mission, we’re in the national news now, so let’s take advantage of that.”

Thursday’s final session was a panel moderated by John McClow, featuring Tom Buschatzke (Arizona), Colby Pelligrino (Nevada), Rebecca Mitchell (Colorado), and Gene Shawcroft (Utah). The panelists detailed efforts by their states in 2022 to deal with the 22 year drought in the Colorado River Basin.

Rebecca Mitchell had this to say:

“We need to make sure that cuts will actually benefit the system with enhanced measurement. We are committed to continuing the strict admin. of water rights. Colorado is continuing to move on all parts of the 5-point plan. We can’t lose sight of our goals.”

Upper Colorado River Commissioner (Rebecca Mitchell) Statement on Sustaining Colorado River Basin System — CWCB #COriver #aridifcation

Becky Mitchell, the state of Colorado’s top water official. (Source: Colorado Water Conservation Board)

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Sara Leonard):

The Bureau of Reclamation released its Colorado River Basin August 2022 24-Month Study, which sets annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both of which have reached critically low levels. Below is a statement from Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell:

“The Colorado River Basin is facing unprecedented challenges, and the 40 million people who rely on this critical resource are depending on the Basin states and federal government to develop inclusive, sustainable solutions that protect the system and its infrastructure now and into the future. I am proud to say that the Upper Division States are meeting the moment with our 5 Point Plan, and our focus now turns to implementation, including additional conservation efforts to maximize efficiency in all sectors. However, this plan is ineffective without action in the Lower Basin. This will require leadership from the U.S. Department of the Interior through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and bold action across the Basin. Downstream of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, depletions must come into balance with available supply. Colorado stands ready to work with our partners in the Lower Basin, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior as they make the difficult decisions that are necessary to sustain the system.”

#Colorado not ready for #ColoradoRiver #conservation specifics ahead of federal deadline — KUNC #COriver #aridification

A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam — Photo USBR

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

“Success is dependent on what happens in the Lower Basin,” [Rebecca] Mitchell said. “Anything we can do is meaningless unless there are actual cuts to what’s being used in the Lower Basin.”

Mitchell’s comments come ahead of a federal deadline on Tuesday.

In July officials from Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah submitted a five-point plan that did not provide specific targets for conservation. In their letter to the Bureau of Reclamation, the states called for the revival of a conservation program from 2015 that paid farmers to temporarily restrict their uses. The letter also endorsed the possibility of releases from reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell to bolster its flagging levels. Providing a specific volume to conserve would be unfair to water users in her state, Mitchell said, and any commitment would be premature given that the river’s Lower Basin states have yet to come to an agreement on their conservation plans. Negotiations have stalled among the river’s Lower Basin states, according to sources familiar with the talks, making a seven-state agreement on where to find the 2 to 4 million acre-feet in savings unlikely ahead of the deadline. It’s unclear how the federal government will respond if the states fail to meet their demands.

#ColoradoRiver crisis: Dispute, #drought have local implications — The #Pueblo Star Journal #COriver #aridification

A view across Lake Pueblo in Lake Pueblo State Park. The view is towards the south from Juniper Road. By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61042557

Click the link to read the article on the Pueblo Star Journal website (Joe Stone):

Two decades of drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have prompted dire warnings and alarming headlines about climate change and the Colorado River water crisis. Critically low water levels in lakes Mead and Powell now threaten the ability to generate electricity at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams and spurred Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton to issue an ultimatum: On June 14, Touton announced that Colorado Basin states would have 60 days to come up with a plan to reduce water use by 2-4 million acre-feet per year. (An acre-foot of water is the amount needed to cover an acre of land with one foot of water.)

If Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California can’t agree on a plan, the bureau will use its emergency authority to make the cuts, Touton said.

Fryingpan-Arkansas Project via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Click to enlarge)

The Arkansas Basin receives about 130,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado Basin – up to 23 percent of Arkansas River flows, according to Colorado Division of Water Resources data. The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which imports an average of 57,000 acre-feet of water per year. Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West combine to import the other 73,000 acre-feet. Fry-Ark Project water supports local agriculture, cities, towns and industry. Fry-Ark water and infrastructure also underpin the Voluntary Flow Management Program, which supports the multimillion-dollar recreation economies of Upper Ark communities as well as the Arkansas River’s Gold Medal fishery.

Water imports to the Arkansas Basin already face risks. Worsening drought conditions could impede Fry-Ark water imports as the project is required to meet minimum streamflows on the West Slope. A call for water on the Colorado River could also curtail water imports.

‘Living within our means’

The 1922 Colorado River Compact divided Colorado River water between Upper Basin states – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico – and Lower Basin states – Arizona, Nevada and California. The compact requires the Upper Basin states, where most of the precipitation falls, to deliver a 10-year rolling average of 7.5 million acre-feet, or maf, of water to Lees Ferry, Arizona, just south of the Utah state line. Of that water, California is entitled to 4.4 maf, Arizona 2.8, and Nevada 0.3. The compact also established a benchmark of 16.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water per year for Colorado River flows. However, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that average flows from 2000 to 2021 have dropped to 12.3 maf per year.

To date, the Upper Basin states have consistently met the 7.5-maf compact requirement. At a recent meeting of the Interbasin Compact Committee, Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell shared statistics showing that Upper Basin states have significantly reduced water usage while Lower Basin states have not.

As the numbers reveal, Lower Basin states’ water usage – more than 2 maf per year beyond the 7.5 maf delivered by the Upper Basin – has trended higher, even as the 10-year rolling average dropped to 11.78 maf for 2012-21. Specifically, 2019 saw Colorado River flows of 17.75 maf, a rare yearly surplus of 3.8 maf. In 2020, flows dropped to 9.6 maf, 4.5 maf less than the water used that year. In 2021, flows dropped further, to 7.1 maf.

Even with Upper Basin states reducing their water use by more than a million acre-feet, total water use in the basin exceeded flows by 6.4 maf in 2021.

Colorado officials have indicated they have no plans to make additional cuts to meet the federal mandate. Amy Ostdiek, a section chief with the CWCB, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that sending water downstream from Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs represents a significant sacrifice in water security for the Upper Basin states. At a recent Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District meeting, Ostdiek observed that, while the Upper Basin states have always lived with the need to limit water use to whatever is available, the Lower Basin states have “drawn down reservoirs instead of limiting usage. … We are living within our means in the Upper Basin, but that’s not happening in the Lower Basin.”


Ostdiek acknowledged that Arizona and Nevada are taking cuts to their Colorado River water allocations “for the first time ever,” but what about California, the most prodigious user of Colorado River water? All seven basin states signed on to the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, agreeing to reduce their use of Colorado River water, but the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California’s Imperial Valley refused to compromise, according to an Aug. 27, 2021, story by ProPublica. With 3.1 million acre-feet of Colorado River water rights, the Imperial District accounts for 70% of California’s compact allotment and is by far the largest single water rights holder in the Colorado Basin.

Imperial District Board President James Hanks expressed the district’s refusal to compromise when state officials gathered in Phoenix to sign the 2019 plan.

“As champagne is being prepared for debauched self-congratulation in Phoenix, remember this: The IID is the elephant in the room on the Colorado River as we move forward. And like the elephant, our memory and rage is (sic) long,” Hanks said.

As the Bureau of Reclamation’s mandate now makes clear, the 2019 plan proved insufficient to avert the current crisis and the Imperial District is indeed the elephant in the room, refusing to recognize the current reality on the Colorado River.

Growing cotton in a desert

The Imperial Valley lies within the Sonoran Desert and receives less than 3 inches of rain per year. It was uninhabited until 1901, when the Imperial Canal brought Colorado River water into the valley from Mexico. Because of the desert climate and poor groundwater quality, virtually all water demand in the Imperial Valley is satisfied with Colorado River water. The Imperial Irrigation District delivers that water, and 97% goes to agriculture.

Food production is a critical use of water, but not all agricultural water uses produce food. Growing cotton is one example, and the Imperial District supplies Colorado River water to 463,721 acres of cotton fields, according to the District’s most recent crop report. Arizona also uses Colorado River water to grow cotton in the desert. U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that Arizona farmers grew 258,000 acres of cotton in 2021.

Water consumption data from the University of Arizona shows that growing cotton in the desert requires 41.2 inches of water per year. In other words, cotton grown in the Imperial District and Arizona requires about 2.8 million acre-feet of water per year. But while one area of the federal government (Bureau of Reclamation) calls for reduced water use in the basin, another (Department of Agriculture) subsidizes those cotton fields, providing more than $4 billion between 1995 and 2015.

Not a sudden crisis
Mitchell and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser recently penned an editorial pointing out that Colorado is one of the few U.S. states that administers water rights based on “the availability of water supply in a particular location at a particular time.” Colorado’s water management system was key to the Upper Basin reducing water usage by 25% in 2020, “a huge reduction in water use of almost one million acre-feet.” When added to the “661,000 acre-feet of water provided from Upper Basin reservoirs in 2022, the Upper Basin is providing roughly 43% of its annual water use to help protect Lake Powell.”

In spite of the disparities between Upper and Lower Basin water use, officials in Lower Basin states – like Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona Department of Water Resources, and Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – responded to the bureau’s mandate by urging collaboration. As the numbers show, the Upper Basin states, especially Colorado, have done much more to conserve water than the Lower Basin states, which have consistently taken more than their share of water under the 1922 compact.

Another example of Colorado’s leadership in responsible water use is groundwater management. Since 1969, Colorado has recognized the physical connection between surface waters and most groundwater aquifers. The Lower Basin states have not. For example, rivers deposit rocks and sand along their channels and floodplains. River water fills the spaces between the rocks and sand, forming alluvial aquifers. These aquifers are an integral part of streams and rivers; pumping water from them reduces surface-water flows.

In general, Arizona law does not recognize the physical connection between groundwater and surface water. From a legal standpoint, Arizona allows groundwater pumping that reduces streamflows to the detriment of senior water rights. California is just beginning to legally recognize the connection between surface water and groundwater, but groundwater extraction continues to deplete aquifers and cause subsidence, a gradual sinking of land. Ground currently is sinking mo