As the worsening drought crisis continues to impact communities across the West, senior leaders from the Department of the Interior are outlining new and urgent actions to improve and protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton are attending the Colorado River Symposium in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this week to highlight steps the Department is taking and propose new actions to prevent the System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production.
“The prolonged drought afflicting the West is one of the most significant challenges facing our country. As a 35th generation New Mexican, I have seen firsthand how climate change is exacerbating the drought crisis and putting pressure on the communities who live across Western landscapes,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “We must work together to make the tough choices necessary to chart a sustainable future for the Colorado River System on which more than 40 million people depend. As we move forward, we will do so with key guiding principles, including collaboration, equity and transparency. I am committed to bringing every resource to bear to help manage the drought crisis and provide a sustainable water system for families, businesses and our vast and fragile ecosystems.”
The actions being discussed this week build on those announced in August 2022 as part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s release of the Colorado River Basin August 2022 24-Month Study, which sets the annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2023. Those previously announced actions specified that Lake Powell will operate in the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier in water year 2023 and Lake Mead will operate in its first-ever Level 2a Shortage Condition in calendar year 2023 requiring reduced allocations and water savings contributions for the Lower Basin States and Mexico.
The Department is focused on the need for continued collaboration and partnerships across the Upper and Lower Basins, with Tribes, and with the country of Mexico. The agency’s approach will continue to seek consensus support and will be based on a continued commitment to engage with diverse stakeholders to ensure all communities that rely on the Colorado River will provide contributions toward the solutions. The Department is also preparing for administrative actions necessary to ensure that the Colorado River System can sustainably deliver vital water supplies, power and other services.
Executing on Efforts Already Underway
During the Symposium, which brings leaders together from across the Basin, the Department leaders are outlining steps that Reclamation is taking to facilitate ongoing efforts to conserve water and protect the System. The severity of this moment requires action now as we chart a more sustainable, resilient and equitable future for the Basin.
Department efforts include:
Ensuring that the Lower Basin states continue to work on developing voluntary measures and agreements to conserve water and finalizing those agreements as soon as possible. They also highlighted the need for ongoing collaboration with the Upper Basin states to develop additional conservation agreements and operational adjustments.
Working with the Upper Basin states to support their five-point plan, including:
development of their demand management plans
reauthorization of System Conservation
investment in improved monitoring and reporting infrastructure
encouragement of strict water management and administration
and development of a 2023 Drought Response Operations plan
Making unprecedented investments in drought resilience and water management from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act and existing programs like WaterSMART as quickly and efficiently as possible.
As we move forward with implementing ongoing efforts, the Department will focus on the strategic investments needed to improve the efficiency of water delivery systems that result in conservation and, ultimately, in reduced demands on the Colorado River’s shrinking supplies.
Taking Action to Protect the System
Department leaders will continue to affirm that action must be taken now to reduce water consumption across the Basin in light of critically low water supplies and dire hydrological projections. As the agency moves forward, it will continue to do so by utilizing the best available science, data and technology.
These actions include:
Initiating an administrative process to address operational realities under the current 2007 Interim Guidelines while we continue to develop alternatives for sustainable and equitable operations under the new guidelines.
Moving forward with administrative actions needed to authorize a reduction of Glen Canyon Dam releases below seven million acre-feet per year, if needed, to protect critical infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam.
Preparing to manage elevations in Lake Powell by implementing emergency drought operations.
Preparing to take action to make additional reductions in 2023, as needed, through an administrative process to evaluate and adjust triggering elevations and/or increase reduction volumes identified in the 2007 Interim Guidelines Record of Decision.
Accelerating ongoing maintenance actions and studies of the bypass tubes at Glen Canyon Dam to analyze the feasibility of possible modifications to increase water delivery capacity during low reservoir levels.
Ensuring that water use determinations for the Lower Basin satisfy appropriate beneficial use standards during this time of historically low reservoirs, including taking into consideration fundamental human health and safety requirements.
Assessing how to account for and allocate system losses due to evaporation, seepage, and other losses.
Additionally, as the process for developing new guidelines for Colorado River System operations is underway, Department leaders emphasized the need to develop clear alternatives that can sustain the System and work to provide reliable, sustainable and equitable water and power supplies in the coming decades.
Implementing President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act
Department leaders outlined the framework under consideration for the funds as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $4 billion in funding specifically for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas experiencing similar levels of drought.
The Department will establish, among other funding mechanisms, a two-step process to solicit short-term conservation contributions and longer-term durable system efficiency projects.
Longer-term projects could include initiatives such as canal lining, re-regulating reservoirs, ornamental and non-functional turf removal, salinity projects and other infrastructure or “on the ground” activities. Projects could also be related to aquatic ecosystem restoration and impacts mitigation, crop water efficiency, rotational fallowing, and marginal land idling.
The Bureau of Reclamation will hold listening sessions on September 30, 2022, to hear directly from states, Tribes, water managers, farmers, irrigators and other stakeholders about implementation of this historic funding from the Inflation Reduction Act.
The Bureau of Reclamation today announced the award of a $73,056,845 contract to Archer Western Construction of Phoenix, Arizona, to convey reliable drinking water to Navajo communities and the city of Gallup in northwest New Mexico. This award marks significant progress toward the completion of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project.
These areas currently rely on a rapidly depleting groundwater supply of poor quality to meet the demands of more than 43 Navajo chapters, the southwest area of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, and the city of Gallup. The NGWSP consists of two main pipeline systems: the San Juan Lateral and the Cutter Lateral. This contract award is for the Tsé Da’azkání Pumping Plant and Tó Ałts’íísí Pumping Plant on the San Juan Lateral.These drinking water pumping plants are two of 13 water transmission pumping plants on the San Juan Lateral.
“This is a significant milestone for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project and illustrates the Department of the Interior’s commitment to Tribal and rural communities,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo. “We are excited to leverage the resources in President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to make further investments that ensure that clean, safe drinking water is a right in Tribal communities.”
Both plants will be located in the Navajo Sanostee Chapter in New Mexico’s San Juan County and will operate in concert with the other pumping plants on the San Juan Lateral, pumping San Juan River water that has been treated to Safe Drinking Water Act requirements at the San Juan Lateral Water Treatment Plant to the north and delivering to downstream communities to the south. Each plant will have four equally sized pump and motor units with a combined capacity of approximately 51.5 cubic feet per second, or 23,100 gallons per minute. Work under this contract will begin this fall with groundbreaking in early 2023 and completion expected by the fall of 2025.
“Reclamation is pleased to begin construction on the Tsé Da’azkání and Tó Ałts’íísí pumping plants,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “With the Cutter Lateral delivering water to Navajo homes and construction of the San Juan Lateral now more than 50% finished, this construction contract continues our progress toward meeting the United States’ obligation to the Navajo Nation under the nation’s water rights settlement agreement on the San Juan River Basin in New Mexico, where over a third of households still haul drinking water to their homes. That importance has been underscored by our pandemic experience. A good water supply is essential to public health and safety.”
The Tsé Da’azkání and Tó Ałts’íísí pumping plants will further the progress of the NGWSP. When the full project is completed, it will include approximately 300 miles of pipeline, two water treatment plants, 19 pumping plants and multiple water storage tanks. Construction on the Cutter Lateral is complete and water deliveries are currently being made to eight Navajo communities and soon to the southwestern portion of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, serving 6,000 people or 1,500 households.
This contract continues many years of hard work by Reclamation, the Navajo Nation and other project partners constructing the NGWSP to improve the lives of residents and provide opportunities for economic development and job creation.
Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1350 cfs to 1250 cfs on Saturday, September 24th. Releases are being decreased due to the cooler and wetter conditions that have decreased demand at the Gunnison Tunnel. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 68% of average.
Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.
Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September.
Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 340 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will still be near 340 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.
Key Colorado River reservoirs Lake Powell and Lake Mead are both only about one-quarter full. The continued drop, due to overuse and an increasingly arid climate, is threatening the fish and the economies built around them…since late August, the water temperature at Lees Ferry — the site of a world-famous trout fishery — has risen above 70 degrees seven times. That might be idyllic for a summer dip under the blazing Arizona summer sun, Gunn said, but approaches peril for the beloved sport fish. A few degrees higher can be lethal. To make matters worse, when temperatures rise, the amount of oxygen dissolved in the water falls, making it tough for fish to even breathe.
As the reservoir drops, it sends warmer water with less oxygen into the river below the dam. Should that water reach 73 degrees, [Terry] Gunn said his family’s guide service could start calling off afternoon trips…
Just a few miles north of Lees Ferry and its trout fishery there’s another threat — nonnative predatory smallmouth bass. They’re supposed to be contained in Lake Powell. But this summer they were found in the river below the dam. Smallmouth bass already wreaked havoc on native fish way upriver where the government spends millions of dollars each year to control the predators. They were held at bay in Lake Powell because Glen Canyon Dam has served as a barrier for them for years — until now. The reservoir’s recent sharp decline is enabling these introduced fish to shoot through the dam and edge closer to the Grand Canyon, where the biggest groups of humpback chub, an ancient, threatened, native fish, remain.
Before dirt was moved at Chimney Hollow Reservoir in 2021, Northern Water implemented several environmental improvements nearby as part of our commitment to offset any environmental impacts of the new reservoir. A section of the Little Thompson River in Berthoud, and a second section north of Lyons, both decimated by the 2013 flood, received compensatory mitigation including the repair of natural channels and replanted vegetation. An area in west Loveland along the Big Thompson River, also impacted by the flood, had a diversion structure removed, the natural channel restored, and cottonwood and willow trees replanted.
The Big Thompson Watershed Coalition, Windy Gap Firming Project participants, AloTerra Restoration Services, ERO Monitoring and the Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict identified sites, completed restoration at each, and began the monitoring and reporting phase which are required as part a permit granted under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Water resource projects that result in impacts to Waters of the United States, such as Chimney Hollow Reservoir, are required to obtain such a permit before altering or impacting a project site. While a steadfast objective of the Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project is to minimize environmental impacts, some are unavoidable. To compensate for this, Section 404 allows project participants to identify and enhance other areas in need of restoration.
These improvements have already had positive impacts on water flows, ecological health and fisheries and we expect the Army Corps of Engineers will sign off soon that the restoration projects were successfully completed.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials have decided to increase the opportunities for members of the public to weigh in on a controversial reservoir project in northwest Colorado with an additional round of public engagement.
Members of the BLM’s Northwest Resource Advisory Council last week expressed support for early public engagement on the Wolf Creek reservoir project between Meeker and Rangely in Rio Blanco County. This will be an extra opportunity for interested people to get involved, in addition to the scoping, public comment and protest periods of the normal National Environmental Policy Act permitting process.
Some pointed out that the Wolf Creek project is sure to get lots of scrutiny and, perhaps, national attention, especially with the current spotlight on the declining reservoirs of the Colorado River system. RAC member Jeff Comstock, who represents the Moffat County Natural Resources Department, said he is very much in support of additional public sessions.
“Moffat, myself, most of your collaborators … have always been requesting public involvement prior to Notice of Intent,” Comstock told BLM staffers at the Thursday meeting in Glenwood Springs. “I am a big supporter of having those meetings.”
The project applicant, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, is proposing an off-channel reservoir with a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long, with water that will be pumped from the White River. In January 2021, the district secured a water right for 66,720 acre-feet, which can be used for municipal purposes in the downstream town of Rangely, for mitigation of environmental impacts, for recreation, for fish and for wildlife habitat.
The BLM is overseeing the NEPA process because the federal agency would need to amend its resource management plan and grant a right of way to build Wolf Creek reservoir since the project site is on BLM land. The formal NEPA process is on a tight timeline, and once the BLM issues the Notice of Intent, it has two years to enter a Record of Decision on whether to allow the right of way. The additional public engagement may delay the start of this timeline, but it is unclear by how long.
[Two] people who oppose and have concerns about the reservoir project spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. Matt Rice, Southwest regional director at environmental group American Rivers, encouraged BLM staff to focus on as much public participation as possible.
“We have grave concerns about this project,” Rice said. “As everybody is aware, the Colorado River is in crisis. … This project is going to be extremely controversial.”
Deirdre Macnab, whose 4M Ranch is adjacent to the reservoir site, also spoke and gave her reasons for opposing the project. She said a new reservoir in the proposed location would lead to water loss through evaporation.
“Now is not the time to facilitate new reservoirs in hot, dry, desert areas,” she told RAC members. “Consider the ramifications of this proposal for future generations and just say no.”
Securing the water right for the project took longer than the conservancy district expected because for five years, Colorado’s top engineers at the Department of Water Resources argued the project was speculative because Rio Blanco could not prove a need for the water. The water right was eventually granted after years of back and forth in water court, and the decree came after an 11th-hour negotiation right before the case was scheduled to go to trial. The water right gave Rio Blanco the amount of water it was seeking, but it does not allow the district all the water uses that it initially wanted, including for irrigation or Colorado River Compact compliance.
What the additional public engagement will look like remains unclear. BLM staff will now refer the project to their Collaborative Action and Dispute Resolution Program to figure out the best strategy.
“One thing we want to avoid is just doing what we typically do for scoping twice,” said Heather Sauls, BLM project manager and planning and environment coordinator. “Whether we would have public meetings or workshops to talk about focused topics, I don’t know the answers to that yet.”
Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District General Manager Alden Vanden Brink was unavailable for comment.
The BLM plans to create a webpage about the project. Those who want to join the mailing list and get alerts about future public-engagement opportunities can email BLM_CO_Reservoir@blm.gov.
In the last post here, we looked at the ‘major purposes’ cited in the first article of the Compact: the first listed purpose, ‘to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System’ in order ‘to remove causes of present and future controversies’ (fourth purpose); and the final listed purpose, ‘to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin.’
That fifth purpose, to facilitate the expeditious development of the Basin, was the main reason the seven state representatives had convened with a federal representative: they all wanted to get about the development of the river’s waters, the desire to take on Frederick Dellenbaugh’s ‘veritable dragon’ supported by rational reasons such as flood control and storage. In order to achieve that expeditious development, however, it was necessary to achieve the Compact’s first stated purpose: an equitable division and apportionment of the development and the water required – or cutting to the chase for most of the seven states: making sure that fast-growing Southern California did not get most of the water for its racehorse development.
After failed efforts to make specific seven-state divisions of the use of the River’s water, the expedient solution they settled on was to divide the river in two, around the mostly uninhabited canyon region: an Upper Basin including the four states above the canyons (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming), and a Lower Basin of the states below the canyons (Arizona, California and Nevada). It was their clear intent that each basin would get half of the river’s water for consumptive use, with the states in each basin working out an equitable division among themselves of their half, in their own good time.
It may have worked out better, had they stopped there – a 50-50 division of whatever water the river produced, with each basin responsible for half of whatever water might eventually by allotted to Mexico where the river ended. But California insisted on a specific quantification of the two shares because they were already using a substantial amount and didn’t want to over-appropriate. After much discussion and good and bad advice, the commissioners settled on 15 million acre-feet (maf) as a reasonable average flow, between the Bureau of Reclamation’s optimistic 16.5 maf and the less optimistic 13 maf of USGS scientists studying the river.
The commissioners have been chided – castigated – for settling on the 15 maf quantity, which was shown to be overly optimistic within a couple of decades. But they could have countered the criticism by asking why, if their numbers were so bad, had the states not reassembled to correct them?
Frequently in their meetings, there was either frustration or resignation at how little they knew about the river and its flow history. Chairman Hoover summarized that oft-expressed concern in their 21st meeting: ‘[W]e make now, for lack of a better word, a temporary equitable division, reserving a certain portion of the flow of the river to the hands of those men who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information; that they can make a further division of the river at such a time, and in the meantime, we shall take such means at this moment to protect the rights of either basin as will assure the continued development of the river.’ (Italics added) In other words – we can work out the details down the road when we know more; meanwhile, let’s build dams and canals. They built into the Compact, in Articles III, VI, and IX, procedures for those ‘possessed of a far greater fund of information’ to reconsider the Compact to better fit the emerging reality of the River and its flows.
I should note that the commissioners, Anthropocene romantics, actually believed that future generations would reassemble to address the distribution of surplus flows. They anticipated a larger river in the future – if not provided by nature, then by the engineers who would bring in more water from larger rivers that had a surplus. This is the ‘romance of the Colorado River’ – the romance of the Anthropocene.
California’s commissioner McClure accepted the lower 7.5 maf/year figure because it moved along the process leading to stymying the veritable dragon with a big dam for storage of the river’s annual flood. But Arizona’s commissioner, W.S. Norviel, was not happy with any aspect of the two-basin division since it left Arizona competing with California for a diminished quantity of water, a mere half of the river, for which the bigger state already had plans in the process. He was essentially – on orders from economic forces in the state he represented – in a defensive posture, protecting Arizona’s right and capacity to become another California with no interference from the Upper Basin states. Most of the commissioners were patient with Norviel, but frustration was occasionally vented, as when the New Mexico commissioner observed that ‘we are absolutely and utterly up in the air because none of us knows what it is Mr. Norviel really wants.’
What it came down to – what satisfied Mr. Norviel enough to reluctantly sign the Compact – was the concession by the Upper States that Arizona’s tributaries to the Colorado River mainstem would not be counted as part of the Lower Basin’s 7.5 maf/year. This is obscurely codified in the Compact as the mysterious statement in Article 3(b): ‘In addition to the [7.5 maf] apportionment, the Lower Basin is hereby given the right to increase its beneficial consumptive use of such waters by one million acre-feet per annum’ (with no additional responsibility for that accruing to the Upper Basin).
No rationale for this ‘gift’ is to be found in the minutes of the meetings, but it would be naive to think that everything of importance happened in the formal transcribed meetings. Bishop’s Lodge had a comped bar and restaurant, and there were undoubtedly informal meetings, over breakfast and lunch and well into the evenings, and in hotel-room Basin caucuses, as well as phone exchanges with interested parties back home.
Upper Basin depletions today also include two-thirds of a million ace-feet in out-of-basin diversions to the South Platte, Arkansas, and Rio Grande rivers and the Salt Lake region. Such diversions could conceivably be a black hole into which another million or two acre-feet could be poured, but users in the natural Upper Basin are organized enough now to put very expensive conditions on future out-of-basin diversions – as Denver Water and Northern Water have learned, on ‘firming projects’ for two relatively small diversions into the South Platte for which they already had conditional rights. The Upper Basin states assumed the worst – an unconditional delivery obligation – and have been almost obsessively diligent about keeping the ten-year running average well above 75 maf. Even today, through two decades of aridification, the ten-year average remains in the 85-90 maf range, although the long-term trend in the running average is downward, bringing closer the day when that big question must be answered…
The mysterious or obfuscatory passages of the Compact to one side, however – a larger question, for me at least, is whether the division of the Colorado River into two basins was a good idea for the long term.
As Utah’s commissioner Caldwell observed in the next to last meeting, ‘I think for a practical matter we are almost making two rivers out of one in the Colorado River, to meet a practical situation.’ The ‘practical situation’ was the need for an interstate agreement on the consumptive use of the River’s water ‘to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin,’ and the two-basin concept achieved that.
But the effect over the century has been ‘almost making two rivers out of one,’ rather than developing one river with two basins. The Upper Colorado River is a ‘natural’ river, accumulating its flows from many mountain tributaries that almost all start with snowmelt above 8,000 feet in elevation and gradually conjoin to funnel into the canyon region. The Lower Colorado River is practically a reverse of that, with a single source emerging from the canyon reservoirs and gradually being diverted into canals and smaller ditches and pipes until it has been literally all spread out in southwestern desert destinations.
The clear intent of the Compact commissioners was that these two rivers would be created equal (‘to remove causes of present and future controversies’), but they failed to deliver that in the language of the Compact. Despite some wiggle room provided by the ten-year running average, the Upper Basin was clearly going to bear most of the burden of nature’s extremes like drought, while the Lower Basin was assured under the Compact of a relatively consistent flow of water from storage regardless of what happened in the Upper Basin.
The separation into ‘two rivers’ was enhanced with the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and Powell Reservoir just above Lees Ferry the basin division point; there was no further need for the Lower River to be concerned at all with the occasional dry spell in the Upper River; their portion plus the Upper River’s share of Mexico’s portion (8.23 maf/year) was always there – plus the unused Upper River ‘surplus’ which the Bureau kept sending them, enabling all manner of bad habits in the Lower River.
The problem with ‘making two rivers from’ the Colorado River is a failure to take into account the basic nature of a ‘desert river.’ Around 85 percent of the water for the entire Colorado River Basin originates in the Upper River above 8,000 feet elevation. And around 65 percent of that water is consumed by the Lower River (whose water ‘originates’ in the bubbling ‘spring’ of spent water from Glen Canyon Dam’s power turbines). Yet the Lower River is charged with no responsibility for maintaining and improving the source of its water. The back-and-forth fussing and complaining today between the two basins is evidence of a two-river split, in which the problems of flow lie mostly in the Upper River, and means for addressing those problems ($$$) are mostly untapped in the Lower River’s users.
The Compact commissioners undoubtedly did the best they could with the knowledge they had – and the romantic vision they tried to carry forward in more rational terms: they were primarily out to get about the task of unleashing the Industrial Revolution on Frederick Dellenbaugh’s ‘veritable dragon.’ But their own words in the transcriptions, as well as the ‘reform’ clauses in the Compact itself, indicate that they intended for the Compact to be a ‘living document,’ changing as we learned more about the river.
Why have the Compact’s critics not delved into the document’s weak points and unforeseeable challenges? Some elements of the so-called ‘Law of the River’ – which we’ll explore soon – have attempted to either chip away at the challenges, or to circumvent them. But the tasks of correcting the arithmetic and addressing the two-river questions can no longer be kicked down the road – like Holmes’ one-hoss shay, the Compact could fall apart at a hundred years to a day.
Water leaders, agricultural producers, environmentalists and others from across the drought-stricken river basin met Friday for the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar to discuss the historic-low levels in the river’s biggest reservoirs — and the need to cut back usage from Wyoming to California. While the problems the basin faces were apparent in the day-long discussions about the state of the river, solutions were not. The event’s host, Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller, told attendees that scientists now recommend that water managers plan for the river to provide just 9 million acre-feet of water annually. That’s a reduction of about a quarter from the amount used in 2021 by U.S. states, Native American tribes and Mexico. In an interview, Mueller said the Friday seminar was held to educate attendees on the seriousness of the Colorado River situation. Still unanswered is what the states and tribes represented in the room will do to drastically curtail use.
While the representatives for the governments agreed that solutions need to be collaborative, no one offered to be the first to make big cuts. However, representatives from nearly every state stressed that they have already cut back on the amount of water they’re legally allowed to use.
“I think the honest answer is right now there is no plan,” J.B. Hamby of the Imperial Irrigation District in California said in response to a question from the audience about how significant cutbacks would be achieved.
The Imperial district’s farms use millions of acre-feet of water a year to produce massive portions of the national food system. Hamby said water managers along the Colorado River have been distracted by incremental “dumpster fires,” and are not adequately focusing on the need for a new long-term plan that accounts for reduced water in the river.
The theme [of the seminar “Overdrawn”] refers to the emergency status of the Colorado River and its biggest reservoirs: Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Mead, on the border of Nevada and Arizona, has dropped so low that there’s fear that turbines at Hoover Dam won’t have enough water to keep spinning and generating hydroelectric power for millions of people…
Throughout the seminar sessions Friday, upper-basin managers said lower-basin states need to take the lead in the water savings. Asked why the upper basin wouldn’t put out a plan first to get the entire river system closer to a solution, Mueller with the Colorado River Water Conservation District said in the interview with CPR News that the state of Colorado is working on specific conservation plans but doesn’t intend to release them until the lower-basin states act…Meanwhile, lower-basin water managers attending the Friday conference stressed the water savings they have made in the past and asked that states like Colorado stop waiting for the lower-basin to act.
Andy Mueller, general manager of western Colorado’s Colorado River District, said at the annual water seminar that his entity puts on that everyone in the basin needs to come to the table with solutions for reducing usage. But before that can occur, he said the federal Bureau of Reclamation needs to address the fact that the way river water is currently divvied up between Upper and Lower Basin states doesn’t account for evaporation and transit loss in the Lower Basin that amounts to 1.2 million acre-feet a year.
“The key here is getting the accounting fixed and then recognizing that we all have an obligation to participate (in conservation measures) as well,” Mueller said.
He warned that alternatively the river district may consider pursuing litigation to make that fix happen.
Friday’s event at Colorado Mesa University comes as the Colorado River Compact that divvies up river water between the Upper and Lower basins turns 100 years old this year. Drought and a warming climate have reduced precipitation and streamflows in the basin during the last 20 or so years that the compact has been in effect. While it allocated 7.5 million acre-feet a year to each of the basins, the watershed doesn’t produce that volume of water. Water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at less than a quarter of what they can hold, which is threatening their ability to produce hydroelectric power and raising the prospect of them reaching “deadpool” and being no longer functional.
The Lower Basin has been using more water than allocated to it under the 1922 compact, and the Upper Basin, far less than its share. In addition, Mueller said, evaporation of water in federal Upper Basin reservoirs such as Powell, Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa gets attributed to the usage by the Upper Basin, which he said makes sense. But evaporation and transit losses aren’t calculated into Lower Basin usage, which Mueller, an attorney, said is “probably illegal in the context of the river.” He said the Bureau of Reclamation needs to fix that, but doesn’t want to because of the pain it would cause in the Lower Basin and the potential for resulting litigation…
Mueller then added, “I just want to be clear, from my perspective and the river district’s, there very well may be litigation if they don’t fix this problem, from us, because if their threat is to come after our federal projects in the Upper Basin we will defend those projects.”
Already, the Bureau of Reclamation has been making some water releases from Upper Basin federal reservoirs such as Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa to try to shore up levels in Lake Powell.
It’s one of those days when the clouds pile up in the azure blue, their shadows gliding across the sandstone and sage, offering a bit of relief from the late June heat. They also promise rain, but I have my doubts. This is the Paradox Valley, after all, which lives up to its name in more way than one, a place of beauty and brutality.
The Uravan Mineral Belt, which roughly follows the lower Dolores River in western Colorado, slices perpendicularly across the Paradox Valley just like the river, giving it its name. The mineral belt, meanwhile, got its name from the elements that lie within: vanadium and uranium. The belt was the center of the radium boom from the early 1900s into the 1920s and was ravaged for uranium from the 1940s into the 1980s. Vanadium was mined here in between.
Jennifer Thurston, the executive director of the Colorado mining watchdog group INFORM, tells me there are 1,300 mining sites, abandoned and otherwise, in the Dolores and San Miguel River Basins, making it among the most heavily mined sites in the West. And it shows.
I’m here with Thurston and Soren Jespersen to take a look at myriad wounds inflicted by the mining industry, most still gaping and oozing with uncovered waste rock, rusty equipment, and other detritus decades after they were last active. But this is more than a journey into the past, it’s also a look at what might happen again in the not-so-distant future. A renewed interest in nuclear energy as a low-carbon power source and a desire to source reactor fuel domestically could wake the U.S. uranium industry from its long dormancy and rouse some of the mineral belt mines back into action.
“Here we go again,” Jespersen, of Colorado Wildlands Project, said earlier in the day, as we examined what looked a tombstone-looking monument marking the internment site of nearly 1 million tons of radioactive tailings from the Naturita Mill. “Are we going to stumble blindly down the same path?” Thurston and Jespersen are both working, in their own way, to prevent that from happening.
The U.S. uranium industry has been on a downward slide since the eighties. First the 1979 Three Mile Island incident gave Americans the nuclear power jitters (Chernobyl, in ’86, didn’t help matters). Then the Cold War ended, allowing the fissionable material in dismantled nuclear warheads to be downgraded to a concentration that could be used as reactor fuel, and opening up Russian and former Soviet republic markets to the world. Uranium prices dropped significantly, gutting the domestic mining industry. Now at least 95% of all of the uranium used to fuel American reactors is imported from Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Russia, and other countries.
After the Fukushima disaster it seemed as if nuclear power would gradually fade away, at least in the U.S. New conventional reactors are simply too expensive to build and low natural gas prices and a flood of new renewables on the power grid threatened to make the existing, aging nuclear fleet obsolete. But as the effects of climate change become more and more apparent, and the sense of urgency around the need to decarbonize the power sector intensifies, climate hawks are giving nuclear power a new look.
The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant outside San Luis Obispo, California, for example, is scheduled to shut down in 2025, but now California Gov. Gavin Newsom is leading a push to keep it open longer. His reasoning: The state’s grid doesn’t have the renewable generation capacity yet to replace the big plant, meaning if it were to close now grid operators would have to rely on carbon-emitting natural gas-fired generation.
Meanwhile, a Bill Gates-backed firm called TerraPower is working to build an advanced nuclear reactor in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and Oregon startup NuScale is looking to install a battery of small modular reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory and sell power to small, Western utilities.
Any of these initiatives, on their own, can’t revive the U.S. uranium industry. But this mild resurgence in nuclear power, paired with the fallout (only figurative, we hope) of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has caused the price of uranium to double over the last couple of years. If that trend continues—and if the federal government pitches in subsidies for the industry—it might be enough to make U.S. uranium mining economically feasible and spark renewed interest in the Uravan Mineral Belt.
Thurston has tirelessly worked to bring regulations and regulators out of the 19th century, sometimes by dragging them into court. She was instrumental in the fight to block a proposal to build a uranium mill in the Paradox Valley several years ago and more recently has forced regulators to revoke long-idled mines’ “temporary cessation” status, clearing the way for them to be cleaned up. (For more on her efforts, check out this Land Deskdispatch from March.
Jespersen is taking a different tack, he explains as we stand next to the confluence of the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers, swatting away pesky horse flies. His organization was formed with the aim of achieving landscape level protection for Bureau of Land Management lands on the Colorado Plateau. In this case, they are looking at the Dolores River watershed, specifically the lower, northern end, which manages to be spectacular, remote, and industrialized by uranium mining, all at once.
A piece of that is moving forward. In July, Sen. Michael Bennett introduced a bill that would establish a National Conservation Area along the Dolores River from McPhee Dam to the San Miguel County line, just upstream from Bedrock and the Paradox Valley. That would add a layer of protections to a 76-mile stretch of the river corridor, including prohibiting new mining claims. However, it would not stop mining on existing claims or Department of Energy leases, both of which are abundant.
But, thanks to local political opposition, Bennett’s bill leaves out the lower 100 river miles—along with serpentine canyons, slickrock expanses, isolated mesas, and the western edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau. Jespersen and Colorado Wildlands Project are looking to up protections on that remaining section, specifically the area from the Dolores River’s confluence with the San Miguel River downstream. During uranium mining times, much of that section of river was dead, thanks to tailings and other waste dumped into the river from the mills and mines. But still other areas remain relatively unmarred and even qualify for wilderness designation.
We drive along the Dolores River, stop for lunch at the Bedrock recreation area, which was once a well-tended and crowded takeout zone for Dolores River rafters. But since McPhee Dam’s operators have released little more than a trickle into the river due to aridification, the picnic area no longer serves much of a purpose and is sad-feeling and overgrown. Thurston tells us mining speculation has picked up in the area, but not much else. And then she explains a sort of ore pre-processing technique called ablation that some mining companies are hoping to use to save costs and maybe get around regulations.
Then we drive into the heart of the wreckage on a nearby mesa. From there we see the JD-7, a big, open pit mine in the Paradox Valley that never even produced ore. Now it sits idle and unreclaimed. We peer down into the darkness of a mine shaft and poke around in a dilapidated building where packrats have taken up residence among old equipment. This is one of the mines that INFORM won a cleanup case against, but regulators haven’t approved a reclamation plan, so nothing’s happened. “This whole formation is basically Swiss cheese,” Thurston says as we ponder yet another abandoned site, replete with a couple of ancient cars with “straight eights” under the hoods. And we go out to a point where we can look out on the landscape and see the web of roads scraped through the piñon, juniper, and sagebrush decades ago to give prospectors access to every inch of this vast space.
It’s heartbreaking to see, but hopeful, too, as the land is slowly healing. Yet it’s infuriating to think that the wounds may one day be torn open again.
Well how about that. You may remember our story last month about the Horseshoe-Gallup oil field and about how a determined group of activists and land protectors were trying to bring regulators’ attention to the blight there. Not only did they get the Bureau of Land Management’s attention, but they got their boss—Interior Secretary Deb Haaland—to come out and see one of the worst sites. Haaland also announced $25 million in federal funding to plug and reclaim orphaned oil and gas wells in New Mexico during her visit.
Pagosa Springs Town Manager Andrea Phillips began the meeting by providing an update on the pumps the PSSGID recently purchased for the pipeline running from downtown to the PAWSD Vista wastewater treatment plant. She added that the project has experienced additional costs since its installation in 2015, including spending on odor-control devices, an underground storage vault to store overflow waste and the new pumps, which had cost PSSGID approximately $800,000. Utilities Supervisor Lucian Brewster also provided an update on the pumps, indicating that the system has been fully switched over to the new pumps and the pumps have been running well.
Phillips added that she anticipates that the PSSGID will have to perform an additional $500,000 in pretreatment screening upgrades to ensure the new pumps continue to perform effectively throughout their lifetimes. She also stated that the PSSGID is working on an emergency liner for one of the previously used lagoons by Yamaguchi Park to provide additional wastewater storage, an addition that would likely cost another $100,000…
PAWSD District Manager Justin Ramsey then gave an update on PAWSD’s efforts to acquire a delay on a state-mandated upgrade to the Vista wastewater plant that was originally mandated to be completed by 2025 and would cost approximately $20 million. He indicated that PAWSD is hop- ing to get the deadline for the implementation of certain nutrient- filtering upgrades delayed to at least 2027, although the delay had already been requested and rejected once by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE)…
The group then moved on to discuss the possibility of construct- ing a joint sewer plant for the PSS- GID and PAWSD, which Ramsey suggested could be a solution to PAWSD’s difficulties in upgrading the Vista plant.
Native Excavating installed 2,265 linear feet of 24-inch sewer pipe and eight manholes this year alone. Excluding lateral connections, about 71% of the main sewer line is complete and the crews are about one week ahead of schedule. Crews will install service connections into the new sewer main while abandoning the existing main, then they’ll test and inspect the new manhole connections and sewer main. Then, the private irrigation systems that were impacted by the construction will be repaired or replaced, such as the systems at City Market Fuel and The Village at Steamboat…
Elsewhere, starting this past week, culverts in four areas of town are being rehabilitated as part of a separate project seeking to upgrade critical water infrastructure.
Click the link to read the article on the Mother Jones website (Stephanie Mencimer). Click through and read the whole article, here’s an excerpt:
Found nowhere else in the world, the native razorback has occupied the waterways of the Colorado River basin for at least 3 million years, one reason why Olsen says they’re known as the “dinosaurs” of the Colorado. Known as “detritivores,” the bottom-feeding fish were once an important part of the river’s food chain because they nosh on dead plant and animal matter that might otherwise build up and cause disease while returning essential nutrients to the ecosystem. The fish have adapted to the harsh monsoon-to-drought cycles of the desert rivers that flood with melted mountain snowpack in the spring and are parched in the late summer. Razorback suckers can grow up to three feet long, 80 pounds, and live for 50 or 60 years. But such geriatric monster fish are rare in the wild today.
The native fish have not fared so well over the past century since humans began trying to make the western desert bloom by damming the Colorado and its tributaries, a watershed that was once one of the most biologically diverse in North America. “They’re a bellwether for the health of the entire river ecosystem, from Wyoming to the Gulf of California,” says Taylor McKinnon, senior public lands advocate at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity…
The US Fish and Wildlife Service first listed the razorback as endangered in 1991, and the species would be extinct in the Upper Basin but for the hatchery program, which was established in 1996 as part of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and is funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The program has been successful enough that last year, FWS proposed downlisting the razorback from “endangered” to merely “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. But the extreme mega-drought of the past two years makes that proposal seem wildly optimistic…
Meanwhile, the biggest ongoing threat to the Colorado’s endangered fish is other, nonnative fish. Only 12 fish are native to the Upper Colorado River Basin, Breen says. But now more than 50 species compete in the rivers. Many that were intentionally introduced to promote sport fishing are highly predatory in a way the razorback and others have not evolved to survive…The recovery program spends more than $2 million a year trying to eliminate the non-native fish from the Green River and elsewhere in the system—a move that is not always popular with local anglers who like to fish for the bass. “For the record: I love smallmouth bass,” says Breen. “I grew up fishing for smallmouth bass in the Midwest. But that’s where they’re supposed to be. Bass are very predacious, and they’re not supposed to be in that river.”
Click the link to read the article on the Nevada Independent [Nevada’s only statewide nonprofit newsroom] website (Daniel Rothberg):
Only a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip, in the Mojave Desert, is an unlikely scene: A county park with walking trails and thick vegetation that surround a vibrant rush of flowing water.
Known as the Las Vegas Wash, the water running through this channel is a crucial part of how Nevada has managed to keep its net Colorado River use below its allocation, despite booming population growth and two decades of persistent drought, worsened by a changing climate.
Every time a shower or a faucet is turned on in Las Vegas, the water flowing down the drain is treated at wastewater plants and recycled. The treated water is discharged into the wash, which flows into Lake Mead, a declining Colorado River reservoir held back by the Hoover Dam. Once there, the water can be used for a second time, effectively increasing Nevada’s overall supply.
“It allows Las Vegas to exist in its present form,” said John Hiatt, a conservationist who sits on a coordination committee for the wash. “[Without it], we’d be half our size and really struggling.”
When the Colorado River Compact was negotiated in the early 1900s, only about 5,000 people lived in Clark County, home to Las Vegas. Few envisioned the massive growth that has turned the desert into a sprawling paved landscape of nearly 2.3 million people — and growing. Today, about 74 percent of all Nevadans live in Clark County, making it the state’s economic center.
The laws governing the Colorado River give Nevada the smallest cut of water: 1.8 percent, or just 300,000 acre-feet (an acre foot is the amount of water needed to fill an acre to a depth of one foot). The small share has meant Nevada has long had to live on a tight water budget and rely on conservation measures that are only now being considered by other Western states.
Nevada has one main Colorado River user: Las Vegas. It accounts for more than 90 percent of the state’s diversions, with additional water going to the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, whose rights were recognized in a case known as Arizona v. California, and other water users in Nevada.
For decades, Las Vegas has relied on wastewater recycling and removing water-guzzling grass to stretch and conserve its small Colorado River share. But even with proactive management, Las Vegas, like other cities, faces challenges and uncertainties when it comes to future growth.
“We still have some room with the water resources we have today,” said Assemblyman Howard Watts, a Democrat who has worked on water issues for years, including in the Legislature. “But eventually we’re going to reach a point where we’re going to go past that limit and that’s when we really have to consider what a sustainable path is for Southern Nevada moving forward.”
Many of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s future planning scenarios are premised on an ability to collaborate with other states to augment Las Vegas’s current supply. Yet negotiations over the Colorado River have become increasingly difficult for the seven states that rely on the shrinking river and its reservoirs, including Lake Mead, which has fallen to critically low levels.
Nevada, even though it has a small slice of the Colorado River, has a huge stake in those talks. Las Vegas is reliant on the Colorado River. It’s the source of about 90 percent of the city’s water supply. The remainder comes from a local groundwater aquifer, which was historically overused.
Any other water in Nevada is far away. For years, Las Vegas had looked to import rural eastern Nevada groundwater hundreds of miles away as a potential supply. But local water managers shelved the controversial plan in 2020 amid legal challenges and concerns about environmental impacts. While it still owns ranches in eastern Nevada, the water authority has said its focus is on supplementing its supply through collaborations, including a recycling project in California.
How Southern Nevada has managed to grow, thus far, on such a tight supply has everything to do with the Las Vegas Wash, which empties into Lake Mead. Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, described the natural stream as something of “a silent miracle,” helping Nevada operate one of the largest water reuse programs in the nation.
Through the Las Vegas Wash, recycled water flows back to Lake Mead. Each drop of water that is returned allows Nevada to divert an equivalent amount of water, while keeping its overall use within its 300,000 acre-foot allotment. Last year, Nevada diverted more than 480,000 acre-feet from Lake Mead, but it returned about half of that water for an overall use below its allotment.
Because nearly all indoor water in Southern Nevada is treated and returned to the wash, it has allowed Las Vegas to focus its conservation efforts on aggressive turf removal. This, combined with water recycling, has meant that Nevada has under-used its Colorado River apportionment.
As for future growth, Pellegrino said “it depends on how we grow.”
“The future of our growth has to have the smallest water footprint possible,” she added.
Las Vegas is preparing for the realities of a shrinking river by incentivizing and requiring greater degrees of conservation — with a target goal of decreasing per capita water use from about 110 gallons per capita per day to 86 gallons per capita per day by 2035. The water authority’s plan includes a transition from evaporative cooling, pool size limits and prohibiting decorative turf.
Still, with only 1.8 percent of the Colorado River, Las Vegas cannot fix the problem on its own. In a recent letter, water authority General Manager John Entsminger called for swift cuts aimed at stabilizing the Colorado River’s reservoirs while longer-term agreements can be negotiated. The water authority has also pushed other states to consider climate change in long-term planning.
Hiatt, on the Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee, came to Southern Nevada in the 1970s, when the population of Clark County was about 350,000 people. He said he is concerned about what a future might look like as climate change continues altering the river’s flows. If conserved water is only re-dedicated to new growth, he worries “we’re going to be in the same position of pushing against our allotment — and our allotment may be significantly lower than it is now.”
“It’s hard to believe anyone is going to come out with more water,” he added.
The Upper Colorado River Basin recorded its ninth-warmest water year on record through August — and five of those record warm water years have fallen within the last 12. Despite recent, good moisture in the Southwest — sufficient to lift some pockets into a drought-free status — the region should brace itself for another warmer, drier winter and lower snowpack next year, climatologist Peter Goble said during the Tuesday, Sept. 13, Southwest drought briefing…Montrose enjoyed some wetter weather earlier this summer. It also saw near-record temperature highs during the first week of this month, which climatologists said is in keeping with the last four or so years. The U.S. Drought Monitor on Wednesday showed most of Montrose County in moderate drought, with a pocket of severe drought.
Goble also discussed long-term temperature and precipitation in the Upper Colorado Basin, delivering the bad — although perhaps unsurprising — news that it’s experiencing yet another warm water year…When it comes to precipitation, the Upper Colorado Basin has seen three drier than normal years in a row…
Goble said although monsoons this year brought some shorter term relief, “arguably” helped with wildfire season and somewhat improved the soil moisture picture, groundwater in the basin is still well below normal. Root zone soil moistures are in better shape than groundwater, but are still on the low side, which is anticipated to negatively influence runoff next year as the drier soils drink down moisture from precip. Goble said 2022’s spring snowpack was low and runoff, even lower, with values peaking between 70 and 90% of normal…Runoff values stood in the 50 to 80% range…
The winter precipitation outlook is not good, Goble said. Data show an increased chance of it falling below normal, edging up to equal chances north of central Utah and central Colorado. The La Niña weather pattern of drier winters is expected to hold sway and overall, the odds of a warmer, drier fall and winter “are elevated,” he said.
Buschatzke and Cooke named Environmental Leaders of the Year
Wednesday’s [September 14, 2022] online presentation of the Arizona Capitol Times’ “Morning Scoop on Water Issues in Arizona” served up an hour-long assessment of how the State’s water supply is faring during the current, epic drought conditions.
Some of the news, like that from Leslie Meyers, the newly appointed Associate General Manager & Chief Water Resources Executive for Salt River Project, included refreshing good news. The in-state SRP water supply is in good shape, she reported.
But, as anticipated, most of the Morning Scoop discussion focused on the strained Colorado River system. The Morning Scoop panelists – including ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke – could report very little that could be considered upbeat.
ADWR Director Buschatzke reported that declines in the system will continue because “we are still using more water than is going into Lake Mead.”
The Director noted, however, that “we have done many good things” in recent years, including the Drought Contingency Plan of 2019, the 500+ Plan of 2021 and other conservation measures. “And while they have not stabilized the system, we would have been in much worse shape if we had not done those things.” [ed. emphasis mine]
The situation on the Colorado River system, nevertheless, is dire.
“We’re heading into, essentially, a crisis period.”
Without the 2-4 million acre-feet of needed conservation identified by Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June, “we could see as early as 2024 Lake Mead and Lake Powell falling to elevations in which the ability to move water past (Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam) could be compromised.”
Buschatzke made his online comments with an image of the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon behind him.
“If you think about the background of my picture, the Grand Canyon, if you can’t move water past Glen Canyon Dam, you would have no water in the Grand Canyon. Think about what that would mean.”
CAP General Manager Cooke gave an assessment of the current capacity of the two big reservoirs – both at a quarter of their capacity with just 13 million acre-feet of storage – a small fraction of the 50 million acre-feet of total capacity.
“We’re about a year away from not being able to move water past those two dams,” said Cooke.
Terry Goddard, chairman of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, welcomed the nearly 300 viewers in front of a virtual background photo of Lake Mead’s notorious “bathtub ring” – a reminder of the crisis enveloping the Colorado River system.
The ring, he noted, “is a grim reminder of how far that lake has fallen in a very short time.”
Goddard observed that when the states failed to find agreement, “something much bigger was supposed to happen” in addition to the announcement of the planned cutbacks. “But it didn’t,” he said. “They blinked.”
Also on the panel, was Joe Gysel, President of the private water-provider, EPCOR USA.
At Spring Born, a greenhouse in western Colorado near Silt, you see few, if any, dirty fingernails. Why would you? Hands never touch soil in this 113,400-square-foot greenhouse.
You do see automation, long trays filled with peat sliding on conveyors under computer-programmed seeding devices. Once impregnated, the trays roll into the greenhouse.
Thirty days after sprouting, trays of green and red lettuce, kale, arugula, and mustard greens slide from the greenhouse to be shorn, weighed and sealed in plastic clamshell packages. Hands never touch the produce.
Spring Born says it needs 95% less water compared to leafy greens grown using Colorado River water a thousand miles downstream in Arizona and California. That region supplies more than 90% of the nation’s lettuce. At Silt, the water comes from two shallow wells that plumb the riverine aquifer of the Colorado River, delivering about 20 gallons per minute. The water is then treated before it is piped into the greenhouse. This is agriculture like nowhere else.
Great precautions are taken to avoid contamination and prevent the spread of pathogens. Those entering the greenhouse must don protective equipment.
There’s no opportunity for passing birds or critters to leave droppings. As such, there is no need for chlorine washes, which most operations use to disinfect. Those washes also dry out the greenery, shortening the shelf life and making it less tasty. The Spring Born packages have an advertised shelf life of 23 days.
Spring Born likely constitutes the most capital-intensive agricultural enterprise in Colorado. Total investment in the 250-acre operation, which also includes traditional hay farming and cattle production, has been $30 million. The technology and engineering come from Europe, which has 30 such greenhouses. The United States has a handful.
Agribusiness in Colorado generates $47 billion in economic activity but it ties to one reality: The future is one of less water. So how exactly can agriculture use water more judiciously?
The Thirsty Future
A Desert Research Institute study published in April 2022 concluded that the warming atmosphere is a thirstier one. Modeling in the study suggests that crops in some parts of Colorado already need 8% to 15% more water than 40 years ago. Agricultural adaptations to use less water are happening out of necessity.
Colorado has warmed about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 120 years. Warming has accelerated, with the five hottest summers on record occurring since 2000.
Higher temperatures impact the amount of snowfall and amount of snowpack converted to water runoff. “As the climate warms, crops and forested ecosystems alike use water more rapidly,” says Peter Goble, a research associate at the Colorado Climate Center. “As a result, a higher fraction of our precipitation goes into feeding thirsty soils and a lower fraction into filling our lakes, streams and reservoirs. Essentially, a warmer future is a drier future.”
This year was a good example of the drying trend.
Snowpack was around average in the San Juan Mountains, but spring arrived hot and windy. Snow was all but gone by late May, surpassed in its hurried departure only in 2018 and 2002. Farmers dependent on water from the Dolores River, still reeling from last year’s meager supplies, were required to accept lesser supplies yet again as the growing season began this year.
The Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise, the most southwesterly agriculture operation in Colorado, expected less than 30% of its regular water delivery from McPhee Reservoir. This was on top of a marginal year in 2021, too. Simon Martinez, general manager of the operation, said just 15 of the 110 center pivots had crops under cultivation in early June. Employment was cut in half, and the 650-head cow-calf operation had been slimmed to 570.
Pressured by compacts
The warming climate is not alone in spurring adaptations. In many river basins, irrigators must also worry about delivery of water to downstream states specified by interstate compacts.
Water conservation districts formed in the last 20 years are paying farmers to decrease pumping and planting to save the water that remains in the aquifers, comply with compacts, and transition to less water use.
Directors of the Republican River Water Conservation District, in northeastern Colorado were successful in voluntarily retiring 4,000 acres by June 2020. They are confident about retiring 10,000 acres in the area between Wray and Burlington before 2025. They’re less sure of achieving the 25,000 acres that compact compliance will require by 2029.
Rio Grande Water Conservation District directors in south-central Colorado have an even greater lift. They must figure out how to retire 40,000 irrigated acres by 2029. They’re at 13,000.
High commodity prices have discouraged farmer participation. The pot of local, state and federal money hasn’t been sufficient to fund high enough incentives to compete with commodity pricing. A bill, SB22-028, Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund, which passed in the Colorado Legislature in May, will allocate $60 million to both the Republican and Rio Grande basins to help them comply with interstate river compacts by reducing the acreage outlined above. The law says that if voluntary reductions cannot be attained, Colorado may resort to mandatory reductions in groundwater extraction.
From Sprinklers to New Crops
Even as center-pivot sprinklers are removed in the Republican River Basin and San Luis Valley, they are going up in the Grand Valley of western Colorado. There, instead of drafting groundwater, they are distributing Colorado River water, because they are reducing labor costs and reducing water use.
The geography of the valley from Palisade to Fruita and Loma does not immediately favor center pivots. They work best as a pie within a square, a full 40 or 160 acres. Parcels in the Grand Valley tend to be more rectangular. That means a pivot can arc maybe three-quarters of a circle. That slows the payoff on investment.
Why the pivot, so to speak, on pivots? Perry Cabot, a water resource specialist with Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center near Fruita, sees two, sometimes overlapping, motivations. (Cabot also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.)
The greater motivation is the desire to save labor. That itself is good, he says, because the investment reflects an intention to continue farming. “People are obviously doing it for the long haul,” he says.
The other motivation appears to be water related. “The feedback I get is, to paraphrase the farmers, at some point in the future we are going to have less water to farm with and so we must prepare for that,” Cabot says.
Incremental improvements have improved efficiency. Experiments at the CSU research center in Walsh have shown conclusively the advantage of long-drop nozzles that spray the water just a couple feet off the ground, reducing evaporation.
Technology can help perfect a producer’s irrigation set up. Consider work in the San Luis Valley by Agro Engineering, crop consultants who seek to assist growers in producing maximum value with minimum water application. Potatoes, the valley’s largest cash crop, thrive in warm, but not hot, days and cool nights. They need 16 to 18 inches of water per year, of which 13 to 15 inches comes from irrigation. This includes two inches applied during planting, to moisten soils sufficiently for germination. They do not do well with too much water, explains Jason Lorenz, an agricultural engineer who is a partner in the firm. That, and the need to align use with legal requirements, gives growers compelling reason to closely monitor water.
The company uses aerial surveys conducted from airplanes to analyze whether the desired uniformity is being achieved. The latest advancement, multispectral aerial photography, enables the detection of green, red and near-infrared light levels. These images indicate the amount of vegetative biomass, vegetative vigor, and the greenness of the leaves. Variations show where crops are healthier and where there are problems, including insects and diseases, water quality, or soil chemistry problems.
Any discussion of water and agriculture in Colorado must include a focus on corn. In 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, almost 1.4 million acres in the state were devoted to corn, with well more than half of that irrigated.
Corn is also thirsty. So far, efforts to produce corn with less water have come up short, says Colorado State University water resources specialist Joel Schneekloth. But if corn still needs the same amount of water, researchers have succeeded in producing greater yields.
How about alternatives to corn? Sunflowers, used to make cooking oil but also for confections, came on strong, but acreage shrank from 132,000 acres to 59,000 acres statewide between 2010 and 2019. For farmers, corn pays far better.
Quinoa may be possible. It consumes less water. But no evidence has emerged that it’s viable in eastern Colorado. The demand is small. Demand also remains small for black-eyed peas, which a bean processing facility in Sterling accepts along with pinto, navy and other beans.
“We can find low-water crops, but they just don’t have huge markets,” explains Schneekloth who conducts studies for the Republican and South Platte basins at a research station in Akron. There has to be enough production to justify processing facilities, he said. One such processing facility proximate to the Ogallala aquifer in Colorado—it was in Goodland, Kansas—closed because it didn’t have enough business.
Nearly all of the corn in Colorado is grown to feed livestock. What if, instead of eating beef or pork, we ate plant-based substitutes? The shift, says Schneekloth, would save water. It takes seven pounds of forage and grain to produce one pound of meat. For a meat substitute, it’s closer to one for one. But that tradeoff isn’t that simple in most places. Much of the cattle raised in Colorado start on rangeland, feeding off of unirrigated forage, which is not suitable for crop production.
Besides, Schneekloth says he has a hard time imagining a mass migration to meat substitutes in the near future. Plant-based substitutes cost far more and the product, to many people, remains unsatisfactory. “Mass migration will be a hard one to sell,” he says. “Maybe eventually, but it won’t happen for a long time, I don’t think.”
Soil health has emerged as a lively new frontier of research and practice and the integration of livestock and crop production is one of its tenets—manure adds nutrients to the soil and builds organic matter, improving soil health.
Soil, unlike dirt, is alive. It’s full of organisms, necessary for growing plants. Wiggling worms demonstrate fecund soil, but most networking occurs on the microscopic level. This organic matter is rich with fungi and bacteria. Iowa’s rich soils have organic content of up to 9%. The native soils of Colorado’s Eastern Plains might have originally had 5%. The farms of southeastern Colorado now have 1% to 3%.
Derek Heckman is on a quest to boost the organic matter of his soil to 5% or even higher. It matters because water matters entirely on the 500 acres he farms in southeastern Colorado, just west of Lamar.
“Water is the limiting factor for our farms a majority of the time,” he explains. “We are never able to put on enough water.”
Heckman’s water comes from the Fort Lyon Canal, which takes out from the Arkansas River near La Junta. In a good year, he says, his land can get 25 to 30 runs from the ditch. Last year he got 16 runs. This year? As of early May, Heckman was expecting no more than 10 runs.
“The more organic matter there is, the more the moisture-holding capacity of the soil,” he explains. This is particularly important as water supplies dwindle during the hot days of summer.
“Let’s say we have 105 degrees every day for two weeks,” says Heckman. “Organic content of your soil of 3% might allow you to go four additional days without irrigation and without having potential yield loss or, even worse, crops loss.”
Heckman, 31, practices regenerative agriculture.
In explaining this, Heckman shies away from the word sustainable. It’s too limiting, he says. “I don’t want to just sustain what I’m doing. Regenerative is bringing the soil back to life.”
Growing corn in the traditional way involved plowing fields before planting. The working of the field might involve five passes by a tractor, compacting the soil and reducing its porosity. The plows disrupt microbial life.
For several decades, farmers and scientists have been exploring the benefits of less intrusive tilling of the soil. Beginning about 20 years ago, Heckman’s father was one of them. The scientific literature is becoming robust on the benefits of what is generically called “conservation tillage.”
Irrigated corn fields of eastern Colorado can require 10% less irrigation water depending upon tillage and residue management practices, according to a 2020 paper published by Schneekloth and others.
Heckman experiments continuously, trying to find the best balance of cover crops, minimal tilling, and the right mix of chemicals.
“A lot of guys are comfortable with what grandpa did and what dad did, and that’s what they do,” he says. “I want to see changes in our operation.”
On the Western Slope, soil health restoration is being tested in an experiment on sagebrush-dominated rangelands south of Montrose. Ken Holsinger, an ecologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, says the intent is to restore diversity to the lands and improve the water-holding capacity of the soil.
Holsinger says the federal land was likely harmed by improper livestock grazing, particularly prior to adoption of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, but may well have continued until the 1970s prior to implementing modern grazing practices.
This experiment consists of a pair of one-acre plots that have lost their topsoil and have become dominated by sagebrush and invasive vegetation. Such lands produce 200 to 300 pounds of forage per acre but should be producing 800 to 1,000 pounds per acre of native grasses. The soil will be amended with nutrients to restart the carbon cycle. Afterward, 50% of the sagebrush will be removed.
“We are looking at restarting the carbon cycle and ultimately holding more water in the soil profile,” says Holsinger.
One way these enhanced, restored soils help is by preventing the monsoonal rains that western Colorado typically gets in summer from washing soil into creeks and rivers, muddying the water. If the experiment proves successful, then the task will be to cost-effectively scale it up, ideally to the watershed level.
Back in Silt, at the site of Spring Born, Charles Barr, the company’s owner, speaks to the need for innovation. “That will be the model going forward for all of these agricultural areas,” he says. “They have to find new sources of revenue, they have to find new ways of doing business, and they have to find new ways to conserve water.”
Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1450 cfs to 1350 cfs on Thursday, September 15th. Releases are being decreased due to the cooler and wetter conditions that have caused the river to rise above the baseflow target on the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 68% of average.
Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.
Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September.
Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 440 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 340 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.
In response to a cooler weather pattern and sufficient flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 900 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 850 cfs for tomorrow, September 14th, at 4:00 AM.
Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell). The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. This scheduled release change is calculated to be the minimum required to meet the minimum target baseflow.
Lost in much of the coverage of the region’s water woes is the ecological crisis caused by prolonged drought, climate warming and development.
In the Colorado River basin, our past has come back to haunt us.
We’re not just talking about the dead bodies emerging from the drying shoreline of Lake Mead. The river’s water crisis has caused the nation’s two biggest reservoirs to sink to historic lows.
It’s a problem of our own making — in more ways than one.
The Colorado River Compact, signed a century ago, overallocated the river’s water. Experts have long warned that nature can’t continue to deliver the water that the government has promised to farms, cities and towns.
A drying West, warmed by climate change, has now made that shortage impossible to ignore.
For years demand has outstripped natural flows on the river, and some states and Tribes have already taken cuts to their allocations. Additional conservation measures were expected as the seven U.S. states that share the river — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California and Nevada — have been working on hammering out a new deal. The region’s more than two dozen federally recognized Tribes have also been fighting for a seat at that table and a hand in the river’s management. But the deadline for a revised agreement between all the parties came and went this summer with no resolution in sight.
To say there’s a lot at stake would be an understatement.
Some 40 million people rely on the 1,400-mile-long river in the United States and Mexico, including in many of the West’s biggest cities. It also greens 5 million acres of irrigated agriculture.
But that’s come at a cost. Long before cities and industrial farms emerged, the river supported diverse mountain and desert ecosystems, providing refuge and resources for countless animals and plants.
Many of those species now struggle to survive the cumulative pressures from drought, climate warming and human developments. And they remain an overlooked part of the region’s water crisis…
A lot can happen in two decades.
In 2000 Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which help manage water supplies along the Colorado, were nearly full. Today they’re both hovering just above one-quarter capacity — the lowest ever since being filled.
In the intervening 20 years the Colorado River basin has seen a prolonged drought that’s now believed to be the driest period in the region in the last 1,200 years. River flows have fallen 20% compared to the last century’s average.
And it’s not just from a lack of precipitation. Researchers attributed one-third of that reduced river flow to climate change. Warming temperatures increase evaporation, as well as evapotranspiration by plants. So even when the Rocky Mountains do receive snow or rain, less of that runoff makes it to the Colorado River and its tributaries.
Experts say we’ll see more of these so-called “hot droughts” as the climate continues to warm. The basin is expected to see a five degree-Fahrenheit jump by 2050. That will make things not just hotter but drier. If we don’t dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions, the Colorado’s flow could drop 35% to 55% by the end of the century.
Years ago the region’s prolonged drought was dubbed a “megadrought,” but some of the region’s top scientists say “aridity” may be a better term. That means that the combination of warming and drying will be much more permanent.
Aridity and Animals
The region’s ecosystems — and those who live in them — are feeling the heat.
“Climate warming is just hammering this basin, and part of what we see in addition to the water disappearing is this protracted wildfire season,” says Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for Audubon, the bird-conservation organization. “The fires are more intense and cover ever-larger landscapes, that in turn has the possibility to severely impact the health of the watershed.”
Millions of trees have also been lost to insects and disease exacerbated by drought, including along riverbanks, where less shade is warming streams. Many desert plants, like ocotillos, Washington fan palms and Joshua trees, are also declining from warming temperatures, less precipitation and thirstier animals.
Across the region streams and springs are drying up, too, leading to declines in populations of aquatic amphibians, fish and insects that make up the base of the food chain.
“We haven’t seen any entire species go extinct yet,” says Michael Bogan, an assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona. “But if you project this into the future, that’s certainly something we’re worried about.”
His concern includes the fate of endangered desert pupfish and Gila topminnows.
“They used to be present in large river systems, but the changes in the habitat and the introduction of non-native fishes have basically excluded them from all of those large historic habitats,” he says. “Now the only refuge where they can survive is these smaller habitats — these headwater streams and springs — and those are the exact types of places that are disappearing now.”
Birds are at risk, too, a recent study found. The researchers visited areas of the Mojave Desert that had been studied in the previous century and found that, on average, the sites lost 43% of their species. The main driver, they believe, is decreased precipitation from climate change.
Birds who live in the desert already endure harsh conditions, but climate change could push them past tolerable limits, causing lethal hyperthermia or dehydration. A lack of water can also cause reduced fitness and or force birds to skip a breeding cycle.
We already see this happening with burrowing owls. A study by researchers from the University of New Mexico looked at how increasing air temperature and aridity affected the species.
Between 1998 and 2013 the birds at their study area in New Mexico experienced a decline in the number of young that left the nest and a precipitous 98.1% drop — from 52 breeding pairs to just one.
The researchers associated the declines with the effects of decreased precipitation and increased temperature. “An increasingly warm and dry climate may contribute to this species’ decline and may already be a driving force of their apparent decline in the desert Southwest,” they concluded.
Mammals aren’t immune to the changes, either. Another recent study found grave threats to pronghorn across the region. Their models predicted that half of the 18 populations they studied would disappear by 2090.
A decrease in water supply affects animals’ health but can also cause behavioral changes that could put them in harm’s way. If animals need to move outside their normal range in search of declining food or water, it could lead to more interactions with predators or more human-wildlife conflicts, especially if animals look for resources in more urbanized areas.
Fewer sources of water also force a greater number of animals to congregate at the remaining watering holes. Experts say this increases the risk of disease outbreaks like the one that happened in 2020 along the Pacific flyway in California and Oregon, when 60,000 birds crowded into sparse wetlands perished from avian botulism.
An Altered River
Many of the most severe ecosystem impacts currently affecting the Colorado basin predate the 20-year drought.
Hoover Dam’s construction in 1936, followed by the building of Glen Canyon Dam 30 years later, dramatically altered river’s flow, blocked sediment that creates riparian habitat, and changed the temperature of the river…
Today the 360 miles between the two dams, which include the Grand Canyon, have become “a river that’s managed to pool-to-pool,” says Pitt. “There’s not much flowing river once you get below Hoover Dam.” That’s caused a loss of riparian forest, which supported birds and other wildlife, and pushed four native fish — humpback chub, bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker — to the brink of extinction.
“There’s concern for quite a number of species because of the historically altered river flow,” says Pitt.
It also decimated 1.5 million acres of wetlands downstream at the Colorado River Delta in Mexico.
“For most of the last 50 years, the river has not flowed to the sea,” says Pitt. “An untold wealth of wildlife disappeared off the map because of the desiccation of that landscape.”
Development, dams and water diversions along the Colorado, along with today’s drought and climate warming, have pushed many species to the razor’s edge. Some are barely hanging on.
Of particular concern right now are humpback chub, which suffered after Glen Canyon Dam’s construction. Managers have spent decades trying to recover the fish — with some recent success.
But now the species faces a new threat: non-native largemouth bass — a voracious predator of humpback chub — who thrive in the warmer water that’s being released from the diminished reservoir.
In June researchers detected the fish downstream of Glen Canyon Dam, in the same habitat where humpback chub numbers were finally improving.
“The National Park Service is really worried that if those populations of non-native fish get established in the Colorado River downstream from Glen Canyon Dam, that could be catastrophic for the humpback chub,” says Pitt.
The situation is emblematic of the larger ecological consequences stemming from our river management.
“How we manage the dams and the water levels is directly affecting the ecology of the Colorado River itself,” says Bogan.
And while that imperiled ecology may not be the headline news regarding the Colorado River crisis, its significance shouldn’t be understated.
Millions of people visit the Grand Canyon each year to peer over the canyon’s lip and glimpse the Colorado’s path through the ancient towering walls. They come, too, to see California condors, bald eagles and southwestern willow flycatchers — all of whom could disappear if the river does.
The loss of plants and animals across the basin is also a loss of cultural resources for the region’s Tribes.
And as the river declines, so does everything around it…
Worse Before It Gets Better
As states work to deal with shortages of water from the Colorado River, there’s a chance that things could get worse before they get better.
One concern is an overdrafting of groundwater, particularly in Arizona, which legally bears the brunt of shortages on the Colorado and has many areas where groundwater pumping is not regulated.
That can leave groundwater-dependent springs and streams at risk of drying.
Another area of concern is California’s Salton Sea — the famously saline lake in the desert fed now only through agricultural runoff from the neighboring irrigation districts. One of those is the Imperial Irrigation District, which gets the biggest chunk of California’s Colorado River allotment. As the region attempts to work out a new plan to decrease water use, there’s pressure on the agency to fallow some of its 475,000 acres, but that would also mean less runoff making it to the Salton Sea.
“The Salton Sea is some of the only remaining habitat for migrating water birds and shorebirds in interior California,” says Pitt. “The Central Valley was that habitat once upon a time, but has been completely developed. So it’s a critical habitat for many species.”
It’s also a public health threat. As winds sweep across the drying lake, particles of dust and pollution are swept into neighboring communities where residents suffer from high rates of asthma and respiratory problems.
“The answer is not that we can’t reduce any water use from the Imperial Irrigation District,” she says. “As uses of water are reduced in irrigated agriculture that drains to the sea, there needs to be mitigation.”
A plan, that includes habitat restoration and dust mitigation suppression projects, created decades ago to do just that has been slow to get off the ground. It needs to “ramp up quickly to protect wildlife and to protect public health,” she says.
The Path Forward
There is some good news.
Agreements between Mexico and the United States in the past decade have enabled “pulse flows” of water to flow downstream to repair a small amount of the lost wetland habitat in Mexico’s California River Delta. And in the desert, fortunately, a little can go a long way.
“We’re seeing improvements in both the number of bird species detected there and the populations of those species,” says Pitt. She’s optimistic that the two governments will continue to support that environmental program in the future.
It’s an idea that could help upstream habitat as well.
“I think really the most important thing that’s being done at both the state level and at the local level is trying to get dedicated flows in streams that are explicitly for the conservation of aquatic species,” says Bogan. Although right now, because of the complexities of water rights, that work is limited and usually local in scope.
“But it’s something that at least has given me a little bit of hope,” he says.
Another strategy, says Pitt, is “natural distributed storage,” which means restoring wetlands and high-elevation meadows to slow water down as it runs across the landscape. That can help recharge groundwater and provide moisture to soil and plants.
“The more moisture we’re keeping around the less vulnerable these areas are to fire,” she says. “It will have an incredible wildlife benefit because those meadows are rich habitat.”
It’s akin to the work that beavers do naturally, but people can replicate.
“It sounds small if you look at it on one little creek,” she says, “but if we can start to see it implemented across the upper basin, I think it could really scale up to make a difference.”
With the cumulative impacts of human development and climate change adding up, Pitt says we should look to the federal government and states to make sure that Endangered Species Act programs are supported to help protect and restore habitat for the dozens of already at-risk species in the basin. This means going beyond supplementing the number of endangered wild fish with hatchery-raised fish, which is the current management strategy.
And of course, the region still needs to grapple with how it allocates and manages the Colorado River’s water. Pitts says she’d like to see a greater role for Tribes in that process and the inclusion of adequate water to maintain healthy ecosystems.
“Environmental water needs to be recognized as part of our objectives for water management,” says Pitt.
“It’s both extremely challenging at this moment because there’s so much less water available to carve up between users,” she says. “But it’s a moment to really rethink how we do things.”
A presentation for San Juan County commissioners on the status of local watersheds on Sept. 6 illustrated that while the Four Corners region remains locked in the grip of a long-running drought, it is in relatively good condition compared to other parts of the Southwest. The 14-minute presentation delivered by Aaron Chavez, executive director of the San Juan Water Commission, was designed to bring commissioners up to speed on the health of the county’s two main watersheds, those associated with the Animas and San Juan rivers.
But Chavez, who is beginning a two-year term as president of the Colorado River Water Users Association, also devoted a significant amount of attention to the status of that watershed, which serves as a crucial water supplier to tens of millions of residents of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico…Chavez began his presentation by noting that while last winter’s snowpack in southwest Colorado was close to normal, it did not yield the kind of runoff one might have expected because the soil moisture content in the region was down substantially after years of substandard precipitation…
Nevertheless, most of the indicators Chavez examined this year were an improvement over the recent past, he said, as he noted the Four Corners area has had a good monsoon season this year that has helped make up for the relatively poor spring runoff. Most river basins in the area, he said, are at 90% to 100% of average…
According to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cited by Chavez, Navajo Lake was 55% full as of Aug. 24 — a level that was roughly equal to other local reservoirs, as Vallecito Lake northeast of Durango, Colorado, was at 49% and McPhee Reservoir north of Cortez, Colorado, was at 53%. The good news was that Lake Nighthorse west of Durango was listed at 99% full…But those figures stood in sharp contrast to the Southwest’s two mammoth reservoirs fed by the Colorado River. Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona was only 26% full, while Lake Mead in Nevada and Arizona was at only 28% of capacity.
The Maybell Ditch is the largest diversion on the Yampa River and irrigates about 2,500 acres of grass and alfalfa in northwest Colorado. But the remote and antiquated headgate, along with a hazardous diversion structure and 18 miles of nearly flat canal, create problems for irrigators, boaters and endangered fish alike.
Now the Maybell Irrigation District and The Nature Conservancy are working together on an ambitious project to rehabilitate and modernize the historic structure with the goal of improving conditions for all the water users on this stretch of river. So far, TNC has secured about $3.5 million in funds for the project, which it hopes can begin next summer.
The Yampa River flows from the Flat Tops Wilderness, through the city of Steamboat Springs, then turns west and eventually joins with the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. Along the way it turns the semi-arid landscape of Routt and Moffat counties into a ribbon of green, irrigated meadows.
In recent years the Yampa has started experiencing issues that have long been a part of other river basins like over-appropriation, calls and water shortages.
“That reach has seen declines in water levels over time with drought and long-term climate impacts,” said Jennifer Wellman, TNC project manager. “(The Maybell Ditch project) was one of those that rose to the surface where we could hopefully work with the water users to have a greater impact in that basin … . That whole reach is really special, and it warrants more water if it’s available, especially during the low flow periods.”
Challenges for irrigators, boaters, fish
Maybell Irrigation District manager Mike Camblin said historically some ranchers couldn’t get their full amount of water unless the ditch, which was constructed in the 1890s, was running full blast.
“We had one field where if the ditch wasn’t full, they couldn’t get it wet because there wasn’t enough elevation to it,” he said. “It was too flat.”
That meant more water was being sent through the ditch as “push water” to make sure flows make it to dry fields. It also meant more water was flowing back into the Yampa River at the end of the approximately 18-mile-long ditch, known as tailwater. If there’s too much tailwater, that can mean a ditch is taking more out of the river than it is able to use, a no-no according to the state Division of Water Resources.
A first round of improvements to the ditch added a liner to reduce seepage and check structures, which slow the flow of water. Those measures only partially addressed the issues.
The project that is now being proposed is much more extensive and involves reconstructing the diversion and modernizing the headgate, which controls the flow of water from the river into the ditch. By fixing a grade control structure — essentially arranging boulders in mid-stream that push up the water in the river upstream of the headgate — it creates more elevation to allow gravity to move water into the ditch, which should reduce the need to push water. It will also smooth out a passage for both fish and boats.
The twin, circular, century-old headgates are rusted and hard to operate.
“There’s no way those things are easy to adjust,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer at the state Division of Water Resources. “Quite frankly, if the water commissioner had to adjust it, I don’t think he or she could. We would have to rely on (the irrigation district) to do that, which is not preferred.”
The remote location of the headgate — a three-mile round trip hike down the rugged Juniper Canyon off an already-remote dirt road — is a challenge for the district. When all the headgates on the ditch are opening and closing according to the differing schedules and water needs of the irrigators, it can be hard to coordinate the manual operation of the main headgate. The new headgate will be automated and controlled remotely.
“That’s a four- or five-hour deal by the time you drive up there, walk up there, adjust it and drive home,” Camblin said. “The automation on that will be huge. As far as management, it will be our biggest tool.”
But construction won’t be easy. Heavy equipment can’t make it down to the river along the ditch and will have to access the diversion using newly constructed roads on Bureau of Land Management land. The BLM considers the ditch a cultural resource and project proponents will have to be careful to avoid impacts to it.
Western Colorado Area Manager for JUB Engineers Luke Gingerich explained the complexities of the project on a site visit in July.
“They are going to have to create a couple miles of nice road to get in,” Gingerich said. “It will be a large disturbance and we’ve got to come back and make sure we return this as close as we can to the condition it was in before.”
According to Camblin, it was the federal Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program that first pushed the district to take a look at where it could manage its water better. That stretch of river is designated critical habitat for species of endangered fish. Water is released out of the upstream Elkhead Reservoir for the fish, and the new automated headgate will allow the Maybell Ditch to more easily let that water flow past it, to get to where it’s needed.
Boon for boaters
The diversion reconstruction project will also be a boon for boaters. River advocacy nonprofit Friends of the Yampa said in a letter of support for the project that the Maybell Diversion is the most significant barrier for safe, passable recreation along a 200-mile stretch of the Yampa River. Boaters often have to get out to portage the rapid formed by the diversion structure. The new diversion will create a boat passage, connecting two sections of boatable river.
At July’s site visit, recreation and education coordinator for Friends of the Yampa Kent Vertrees said he’s grateful for the collaboration between the agriculture, recreation and environmental water users.
“As a recreation person, I’ve said all along we get the dregs of all the other water users,” Vertrees said. “We rely on agriculture more than anyone to make sure there’s water in the river. It’s really great, our partnerships in northwest Colorado.”
But that partnership was a bit of a hard sell at first, Camblin said. Some Maybell Ditch irrigators were skeptical about a project spearheaded by an environmental group. Tensions can sometimes run high between irrigators, who take water out of rivers, and environmental groups, who want to leave water in rivers. Camblin said the district held several meetings between irrigators and TNC to assure water users their water rights or how they manage their ranch wouldn’t be threatened.
“One of our goals we talked about when we started this was, we wanted to show people the agriculture community can work with groups they don’t normally work with,” Camblin said. “We are hoping other ag communities say, ‘Hey, you know what? Some of this stuff is possible. I might have to reach across the table to make it work but this will be a beneficial project to so many people.’”
The headgate and diversion reconstruction could come with a hefty price tag and TNC is still fundraising for what could end up costing more than originally thought due to supply chain interruptions and inflation. The project has secured almost $3.5 million so far, nearly $2 million of which comes from a Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART grant. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has contributed about $1 million so far; the Colorado River Water Conservation District will give $500,000; $40,000 will come from the Yampa River Fund and the irrigation district is also contributing money and in-kind resources. However, the total final price tag remains unknown and is likely to be higher than what’s already been secured. Wellman said some of the additional funding needed will also come from the National Resources Conservation Service.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story appeared in the Sept. 11 edition of The Aspen Times.
Brad Udall, a Senior Water and Climate Research Scientist at Colorado State University, spoke at a virtual meeting of the RNRF Washington Round Table on Public Policy on March 9, 2021. He discussed the imbalance between water supply and demand in the Colorado River basin, how climate change is exacerbating the issue, and the ongoing renegotiation of the river’s management guidelines.
Introduction and Background
The Colorado River basin extends into seven states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California) as well as Mexico, along with the land of 29 Native American tribes. The American portion of the basin represents 8% of the area of the lower 48 states. Altogether, about 40 million people, including the populations of all major cities in the Southwestern U.S., rely on the Colorado for some portion of their water supply. The river is used heavily for municipalities as well as agriculture, with about 4.5 million acres of irrigated land in the basin.
The water supply in the river is often measured by the water levels in its two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. These are the two biggest reservoirs in the U.S. In order to maintain sustainable levels in these two reservoirs over a long time period, withdrawals from the river must equal the supply being provided by the river’s flow. This was the case in 2000, when the combined contents of the reservoirs were over 90% full. Since then, their water level has dwindled to less than 50% due to a “structural deficit” – demand for the river’s water consistently outpacing supply. This is due in large part to the fact that over the past 20 years, the basin has been experiencing its worst drought on record. The flow of the river has decreased from ~14.75 million acre-feet (maf) to ~12.4 maf. Even before the drought began, water demand was high in the basin; since about 1990, it has not reliably reached the ocean.
While the current situation in the watershed is usually described as a drought, a lack of precipitation is really only half the story. Regional temperature increases, exacerbated by climate change, have also had a significant impact on the reduction of water availability. Udall noted that evaporative losses will only become more severe as climate change worsens. The Southwest is already one of the quickest-warming areas of the country, a trend that is expected to continue. The risk of multidecadal droughts will also continue to drastically increase in coming decades. The 2000-2018 period was the second-driest 19-year period in the basin since 800 AD. While this is partially attributed to natural variation, researchers have said that 50% of the decrease in soil moisture can be attributed to anthropogenic climate change. Climate change has turned what would likely be a moderate drought into an extreme, historic drying event. Aridification and heating, along with reduction in precipitation, are causing drastically drying conditions in a river basin that tens of millions of people rely on for their water.
Historical Management of the River
In 1922, to fully allocate use of the river’s water, the basin states agreed to the Colorado River Compact. This agreement still serves as the basis for the Law of the River, which is the set of rules for the river’s allocation and management. In response to the “hot drought” happening since 2000, new modifications to the Law of the River have been necessary to prevent the reservoirs from becoming depleted. The first of these, called the Colorado River Interim Guidelines, went into effect in 2007. These guidelines set out a series of complicated rules for how Lakes Powell and Mead are operated, allowing different quantities of water to be released from them when they are at certain elevations. They constrain use of water when the reservoirs are low. One innovative structure used to accomplish this is “intentionally created surplus,” which allows parties in the lower basin to store their water in a sort of “bank account” in Lake Mead.
Around 2013, it was becoming clear that persistently dry and hot conditions were rendering the 2007 Interim Guidelines insufficient. A new agreement was necessary. As a result, two new “Drought Contingency Plans” (DCPs) for the Upper and Lower Basins were adopted in 2019. Early in 2021, for the first time, drought conditions in the river reached the point where the DCPs’ provisions were activated. Udall noted that these agreements made some progress toward making the river’s use more sustainable but were not a permanent solution.
Future Management of the River
Udall finished his presentation by discussing future prospects for sustainably managing the river in these drying conditions. In 2026, the 2007 Interim Guidelines and DCPs expire. The seven basin states, 29 tribes, Mexico, and the federal government have already begun the multi-year process of renegotiating a new set of guidelines which will be adopted in 2027. The following are some central considerations for a successful new agreement described by Udall.
The Upper Basin’s “Delivery” Obligation
Among the problems that stakeholders are aiming to resolve is the nature of the Upper Basin’s delivery obligations. There is a clause in the original Colorado River Compact that says that the Upper Basin shall not allow the flow of the river to decline below 75 maf every ten running years. However, it is not clear if this obligation is really a “delivery” obligation or if it is a “non-depletion” obligation. If it is a delivery obligation, that means that the entire reduction of flow coming from the Upper Basin due to climate change falls on the Upper Basin to solve. Clearly, this was not the intent of this clause in the original 1922 compact, and the Upper Basin states are making this argument.
Native American tribes are expected to have a much more significant role in the renegotiation of the Interim Guidelines than they have had in previous decision-making processes for management of the river. There are 29 tribes in the basin. Altogether, they have a right to control about 20% of the basin’s water. This right derives from a 1908 Supreme Court decision which issued the “Winters Doctrine.” This doctrine said that when the federal government creates a reservation of land for a tribe, implicit in that reservation is a water right.
However, tribal interests were still left out of the 1922 compact, and many of their rights remain unquantified. Even in the 21st century, the tribes in the basin were not invited to participate in the 2007 Interim Guidelines negotiations or the 2012 Basin Study. The 2019 DCPs were an important development in the inclusion of tribes in river management discussions after their needs and rights had been historically ignored. For the first time, these 29 distinct tribes were acting collectively and were included in the planning process. The DCPs were also the first time that a tribe agreed to accept a monetary payment in exchange for using less than their full water right. Inclusion of tribal interests in the renegotiation of the Interim Guidelines is expected, and will be essential to the new agreement’s success.
The Structural Deficit
Fundamental to the dilemma faced by basin stakeholders in this renegotiation process is the “structural deficit.” This is, quite simply, an imbalance between the supply of and demand for water in the basin. Since 2000, demand has outpaced supply. Demand reductions are challenging because once a water user has access to a supply of water, it is difficult to get them to relinquish it. The supply-side is more challenging to address. In the absence of cooler temperatures and more precipitation – conditions increasingly unlikely as climate changes — it is difficult to create more supply. It is easier to change consumption patterns than it is to change the hydrology of the river. Without demand reductions in the Upper and Lower Basins, there is a high probability that the amount of water in the reservoirs will continue to fall.
Udall referenced a recent study that found that the Upper Basin’s water demand is unsustainably high. Despite this finding, parts of the Upper Basin actually want to increase their demand, which in the face of declining flows is an issue that will need to be addressed in the negotiation process. Demand Management measures, by which water users can voluntarily accept money in exchange for reducing their water consumption, will likely be part of the solution in the Upper Basin but caps on demand may also be necessary to ensure that the delivery obligation is fulfilled.
In the Lower Basin, the Central Arizona Project diverts water from the Colorado River into Arizona, providing water for an area including the cities of Phoenix and Tucson. As a part of the original agreement that permitted this project, it was agreed that if there ever was a shortage of water in the basin, Arizona would bear the brunt of demand reductions. Demand reductions will likely be necessary in the Lower Basin but Udall noted that it would be difficult in practice to mandate that they all come from Arizona. Solving this dilemma will be a part of the new Interim Guidelines negotiations. One method that may be used is to begin charging evaporative losses to state water budgets in proportion to their use. Currently, evaporation is being charged to nobody, which is a part of the overuse problem.
Guidelines for Successful Renegotiation
Udall also identified other steps that can be taken by stakeholders to work toward a successful new set of interim guidelines. First, he emphasized the importance of good science. Realistic climate and hydrological modelling are necessary to inform the negotiations. Udall noted that many of the models being used by watershed states are overly optimistic with regard to future hydrology. Beginning the negotiations with inaccurate presumptions about the future of the watershed are setting the new agreement up for failure. While the renegotiation is a political process, it needs to be informed by most accurate scientific information possible.
Because the structural deficit is a basin-wide issue, Udall advocated for the use of a combined metric that adds the quantity of water in Lakes Mead and Powell. This would be a more accurate way to gauge water shortages because the water in the reservoirs individually is less important than the total quantity between them when informing the management of the entire river basin. He also said that using clear language in negotiations is critical. For instance, one should never inaccurately say that the Colorado River Compact itself is being renegotiated. It is only the Interim Guidelines that are being replaced; the Compact remains the foundation for the river’s allocation.
The renegotiation process is more than just a group of stakeholders sitting around a table, working out a plan for the river. It is a series of large and small meetings, some more formal than others. Since not everything is negotiated in official sessions, there is room for behind-the-scenes discussion while also maintaining transparency. During the round table’s Q&A session, Udall mentioned that river management issues under discussion will be reported by many talented journalists, who will bring transparency to the process for interested parties.
Ultimately, the process of renegotiating the Interim Guidelines requires a balancing of political, economic, environmental, and societal values. Climate change is the defining issue of our time, and it is at the center of these water issues in the American West. While one can easily become disillusioned by political processes, especially in the realm of climate and environmental issues, Udall ended on a note of optimism. While the solutions are not all clear, there are good relationships among stakeholders, which will form a solid foundation for successful negotiations.
– Stephen Yaeger, RNRF Program Manager
The PowerPoint Udall used during his presentation can be found here.
In his presentation, Udall referenced a series of studies about the climate and hydrological conditions of the Colorado River. They can be found at the following links:
By now you may have heard that the Colorado River is in trouble, as are the 40 million or so people who rely on it and all the people (and livestock) that eat the crops it irrigates. It’s not the only Western river facing a crisis: The situation on the Klamath is dire and the Rio Grande pretty much dried up this summer, its demise delayed by an abundant monsoon.
The problem is simple: The collective water users are consuming more water than is actually in the river and its tributaries; that is, they are pulling about 14 million acre feet each year out of a river that only has about 12 million acre feet of water in it. And consumption continues to hold steady even as the river continues to shrink, drawing down reserves to a critically low level.
Or to put it in the possibly more relatable terms of a household budget: Spending is remaining constant even as the household income shrinks. The household is running a deficit, in other words, which is rapidly emptying the savings accounts (Lakes Mead and Powell). And, on top of that, the household has outstanding debts (to tribal nations whose senior water rights have yet to be developed, honored or even quantified). The accountants have tapped into retirement accounts (Upper Basin reservoirs such as Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa) and imposed temporary cuts (Tier 1 and 2a Shortages) to shore up the savings accounts, but it isn’t enough.
Spending must be dramatically and permanently slashed to better-than-sustainable levels, now, to avert crisis, allow the household to start building back its savings—and, finally, to settle those outstanding debts.
Which is why Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told the collective water users in the Colorado River Basin states that they needed to figure out how to cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of consumption, per year. That’s a whopping amount (Arizona’s total use is less than 2.8 million acre-feet per year). And it may not even be enough. The lower end of those cuts will just about solve the deficit spending, but it won’t be adequate to build up the savings or to settle outstanding debts. If climate change continues to shrink the river even 4 million acre-feet may not be enough.
So, we—the Colorado River users—must make huge cuts. And that means the biggest users of water (the biggest spenders, to go with our earlier analogy) are going to have to play a major part. The biggest user is agriculture and the thirstiest crop is hay, alfalfa in particular. For High Country News’s Landline I wrote about alfalfa and the need to grow less. This Data Dump is intended to provide some more data to support and supplement that piece. Some of it you’ve seen in previous Data Dumps, but some of it will be new.
But first, a note: I’m not making value judgments here, nor am I “vilifying” a particular crop, as one reader suggested. I’m not saying that alfalfa is somehow less valuable or more wasteful than almonds, or golf courses, or even your daily shower. Remember that alfalfa not only feeds beef cattle, but also dairy cattle (I can’t find reliable stats on how much alfalfa goes to beef vs. dairy—if anyone knows, please tell me!). So if you eat cheese or butter or ice cream, all of which are high on my list of yummy foods, you’re probably eating alfalfa. Nor am I saying that we need to fallow alfalfa fields instead of drying up golf courses or anything else (if it were up to me golf courses and turf lawns would be banned long before alfalfa, and canals covered with solar panels before alfalfa fields).
Cuts are going to have to come from across the board and across every sector. It’s just that as the biggest water user in the Colorado River Basin, alfalfa must play a part (it’s just math). And according to federal agricultural data, farmers are growing less alfalfa in the Colorado River Basin than they were five years ago. That is certainly a beginning.
Now, on to the numbers. For reference: 1 acre-foot = 325,851 gallons. Most of the stats come from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Foreign Agriculture Service and Census of Agriculture.
2 million to 4 million acre-feet Amount of additional cuts—on top of those already made this year and last year under the emergency shortage declarations—Colorado River water users need to make to bring consumption in line with water supplies. That’s enough to fill 1.8 million to 2.2 million Olympic-size swimming pools; or 222,222 Kim Kardashians-worth (see data point below).
244,635 acre-feet Amount of Colorado River water Nevada is forecast to use this year, nearly all of which goes to Las Vegas and neighboring cities. The state’s water users withdraw about 450,000 acre feet from Lake Mead, but then return about 230,000 acre-feet in the form of treated wastewater via the Las Vegas Wash.
39 Number of golf courses in Las Vegas
459 acre-feet Average annual water used to irrigate a golf course in the Southwest, according to the U.S. Golf Association.
300 Number of golf courses in Arizona, according to Golf Arizona.
921 Number of golf courses in California.
3.18 million gallons per acre (9.76 af) Amount of water needed per year to keep grass alive in the Mojave Desert. That’s about twice as much as what alfalfa requires.
13,455 square feet Size of an Olympic-size swimming pool, which holds 1.8 acre feet of water.
600 square feet Maximum size of a swimming pool in Las Vegas’ new building code, which SNWA says will save 32 million gallons of water over the next decade.
470 square feet Average size of a Las Vegas residential swimming pool, but some are over 3,000 square feet.
2.2 million Approximate number of residential swimming pools of all sizes in the seven Colorado River Basin states.
232,000 Gallons of water over the maximum limit Kim Kardashian used at her L.A. property in June (about .7 acre-feet). If she were to continue that rate of excessive use she’d consume about 9 acre-feet per year—or twice as much as alfalfa.
145million gallons Daily consumptive water use of power plants in Colorado River Basin states, which amounts to about 162,000 acre-feet per year.
Okay, those numbers are there to give some perspective, and to show that, yes, golf and lawns and soccer and football fields and coal power plants and Los Angeles celebrities use a bunch of water. And now let’s look at alfalfa:
2 to 6 acre-feet Amount of water needed annually to irrigate an acre of alfalfa, depending on location and climate. In Colorado’s San Luis Valley alfalfa consumes about 2 acre-feet per year, while in California’s Imperial Valley it can be a bit more than 6 acre-feet annually. Most other places fall somewhere in between.
4.1 million Acres of irrigated agricultural land in Utah, Arizona and Colorado in 2017.
2.7 million Acres of irrigated agricultural land in those three states planted with alfalfa and other hay crops.
3 million Acres of irrigated agricultural land in Western states (including the Colorado River Basin) planted with alfalfa grown for forage (hay), grazing or seed in 2022.
18,000acres Amount of land planted with alfalfa in in San Juan County, New Mexico, in 2022, all of which relies on water from Colorado River tributaries for irrigation.
76,070 acres Amount of land planted with alfalfa in the San Luis Valley in Colorado in 2022. Fields here are irrigated with water from the Rio Grande, which dried out in Albuquerque this year.
85,795 acres Amount of land planted with alfalfa in Imperial County, California, this year, consuming as much as 510,000 acre feet of Colorado River water—more than twice as much as the entire Las Vegas metro area’s yearly consumptive use. Imperial County has come to be known as the hottest county in the nation.
139 Number of Imperial County farms on which more than 500 acres of alfalfa was grown in 2017.
88,252acres Amount of land planted with alfalfa this year in Maricopa County, Arizona, home of Phoenix.
90,000 acres Amount of photovoltaic solar panels needed to equal the generating capacity of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, according to a 2021 MIT/Stanford study.
1.73 million metric tons Amount of hay shipped overseas via San Francisco and Los Angeles ports in 2021. This amounts to 50 million gallons of water, according to rough calculations based on 240 lbs of water/ton of hay.
$880 million Value of last year’s hay exports from Colorado River Basin states.
$450 million Value of that hay that went to China.
$73 million Value shipped to Saudi Arabia.
75% Portion of Utah’s Colorado River use consumed by agriculture in 2018.
446,000 acre-feet Estimated amount of water that evaporates annually from major Upper Basin reservoirs, including about 359,000 acre-feet from Lake Powell.
There’s no evidence that John Wesley Powell, the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, ever made it to this stretch of the Rio Grande back in the winter of 1888-89, when he dispatched a crew to the site to establish the nation’s first river flow measurement site…
In the world of U.S. water management, this narrow strip where the river funnels between high bluffs is historic. Powell, most famous as the first person to survey the Grand Canyon, had realized that the ambitions of the continent’s European immigrants spreading west across North America were running up against an arid reality that Easterners failed to understand. Collective effort would be needed to confront the region’s aridity…Powell realized, and one of the first things the young nation needed was to measure how much water there was in the rivers.
Powell’s young agency, founded a decade before, dispatched a crew to Embudo in the winter of 1888-89 to try to figure out how to do that. The initial team that winter was led by Frederick Newell, who 13 years later became the founding director of the U.S. Reclamation Service, the predecessor to today’s U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the agency responsible for the dams and irrigation systems that changed the western U.S. forever.
The first experiment, done on the Rio Grande at Embudo, just north of Española, was simple. They surveyed the channel’s depth and width, then built a simple pontoon boat and floated downstream. A bit of simple arithmetic – the river’s cross section multiplied by the speed of the flowing water – gave their first measurement of the volume of water flowing past Embudo.
Click the link to read the article on the Fort Collins Coloradoan website (Mile Blumhardt). Click through and read the whole article with video and photos. Here’s an excerpt:
Deaths, damage caused by 2013 flood in Colorado
– At least nine people were killed
– The flood covered 4,500 square miles, or the size of more than 10 Rocky Mountain National Parks
– The damage estimate reached nearly $4 billion
– More than 19,000 people were evacuated and 3,000 had to be rescued
– 26,000 homes were damaged or destroyed
– 200 businesses were destroyed and 750 were damaged
– 485 miles of road were damaged or destroyed statewide, including U.S. Highway 34 in the Big Thompson Canyon
– 50 major bridges were damaged
– There were 65 flash flood warnings
“The surprise of the 2013 flood was that it happened that time of year,” state climatologist Russ Schumacher said in a Coloradoan story on the eight-year anniversary of the flood. “Events like this that come to mind tend to come in late July and early August during monsoon storms or in May and June with intense thunderstorms.”
At its Sept. 6 meeting, the Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District (PSSGID) Board of Directors heard an update about the district’s major pump replacement project that relayed that the pumps are, so far, a success. The project, which began during the last week of June, was meant to address a history of broken parts and inefficiencies within the system. At this point, the new pumps are achieving flows “near to what is desired,” the agenda brief explains. However, the project has come with costs, with a total cost to date of $780,000, according to the brief. Town Manager Andrea Phillips explained that the project “may be slightly over budget” due to having to order some additional parts and retrofits.
However, the town will seek reimbursement from a $400,000 grant from the state, Phillips explained…
Some of these improvements include additional pretreatment that “may be needed in order to ensure that the longevity of the pumps continue,” such as a grit removal system or moving to an automated bar screen, Phillips explained.
City Spokesperson Todd Barnes said the city will decide between three ways to move forward: asking for a rehearing at the Court of Appeals, appealing to the Colorado Supreme Court or applying for a new permit. The project will now cost the city an additional $126 million because of the delays and increase in labor and steel costs.
“While we are disappointed with the court’s ultimate decision, we appreciated that the court acknowledged Thornton’s lengthy and active efforts to work with Larimer County and its citizens as we went through the permit process,” said Barnes…
The Larimer County Planning Commission voted to deny the permit on May 16, 2018. In response, Thornton worked to address the concerns raised by the Commission. Thornton then submitted a revised application, which included changing the preferred route: a corridor approach that was recommended by the Commission. With the new edits, the Commission recommended to the Board of Commissioners to approve the project. However, the Board voted unanimously to deny the application on Feb. 11, 2019, saying the project did not meet seven of the 12 criteria. Thornton took the decision to the District Court, claiming the board abused its discretion in denying Thornton’s application. While the Board said that seven of the criteria weren’t met, the District Court ruled that there were only three instances with competent evidence to support the Board’s conclusion. Thornton appealed the decision at the Court of Appeals, who dealt a blow to Thornton, but recognized the Board’s abuse of power.
“Although we agree with Thornton that the Board exceeded its regulatory powers in several respects, we ultimately affirm its decision to deny the permit application,” they wrote in the opinion…
The Larimer Board of County Commissioners also recommended Thornton use the river, but Thornton said that running that water through the City of Fort Collins would degrade the water. The Court of Appeals said the method would also require modification of the water decree and ruled in favor of Thornton. As well, that court noted that making that request is outside of the Board’s power. Additionally, the Court of Appeals ruled the Board abused its discretion by suggesting Thornton’s potential use of eminent domain weakened its application because it was “disfavored by property owners.” The Court said that can’t be considered in the 1041 process.
“It is clear that the Board may not consider Thornton’s potential use of eminent domain during its 1041 review,” the judges wrote.
Lake Mead is projected to drop about 30 feet over the next two years based on the “most probable” outlook by the Bureau of Reclamation released Aug. 31. It is most likely that Lake Mead will be at 1,013.70 feet above sea level by July 2024, according to officials.
As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, the surface of the lake at Hoover Dam was at 1,044.12 feet, a rise of 3.41 feet since its summer low of 1,040.71 feet on July 27 — partly because of unusually heavy monsoon rainfall runoff into the lake and partly because of lower demand from downstream users.
The Biden administration has given Western states a deadline to tackle the escalating emergency.
The Colorado River’s literal race to the bottom hit another low last month.
As the waterline dropped farther and shortages hit dire new levels, the Biden administration announced unprecedented cuts, giving Colorado and six other Western states 60 days to reach an agreement on how to radically reduce their water use.
There is good reason for such urgency. Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation imposed the first-ever Tier 2 water restrictions — a “break glass” emergency measure that was unthinkable even a few years ago.
The latest stark cuts mean that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico next year will see their shares of Colorado River water drop by 21%, 8% and 7%, respectively. And there are likely even more grueling restrictions ahead.
“People need to understand how important the Colorado River is for all of us,” said Elizabeth McVicker, Ph.D., J.D., a Management professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver who was instrumental in creating the One World One Water Center (OWOW). “It provides drinking water for 40 million people across seven states, fuels many major cities and generates electricity for 5 million households. If it fails, we all fail.”
Standoff among states
The crux of the current problem? Neither Upper Basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) nor Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona) want to make further water cuts — they each think the other side should make more sacrifices.
In essence, they are like seven people arguing over who gets the biggest bite of an ice-cream sandwich as it melts away before them.
However, McVicker sees glimmers of light. “Personally, I’m optimistic that the states will ultimately make progress because there’s a growing awareness that without serious action, we’ll all lose,” she said.
Unsurprisingly, she points out, state politicians are rattling their sabres and fighting their respective corners. “But we are seeing more meaningful collaboration between on-the-ground water agencies,” she added, “and that’s what counts.”
It’s no mystery how we got here. The U.S. is caught up in a historic 23-year megadrought. Our mountain snowpack is rapidly diminishing. Extreme heat is evaporating more water off the top of the great reservoirs. And unprecedented signs of depletion are seemingly everywhere.
Around the Lake Powell reservoir, a white “bathtub ring” outlines the recent steep water loss.
At Lake Mead, once-sunken boats have risen from the depths like ghoulish tombstones. Last month, receding waters in Texas revealed 113 million-year-old dinosaur tracks.
“We reached this point much more quickly than anyone thought,” McVicker conceded. “Most people thought it would be several more years before we reached Tier 2 status, but then it came along all at once.”
Students with answers
The urgency of the U.S. water shortage has long been recognized at MSU Denver, which runs a range of pioneering water-studies courses, including via the OWOW Center and a noncredit option via Innovative and Lifelong Learning. And many MSU Denver students are rolling up their sleeves to tackle an issue that will likely be around for their entire adult lives.
This summer, Victor Lemus Gomez took part in a Colorado fellowship program designed to give policymaking experience to STEM students. He created a proposal urging water providers to conduct water-loss audits, which would help state leaders plan better for the future. And the best part? He got to deliver it personally.
“It was such a privilege to present my policy proposal directly to lawmakers,” he said. “It gave me a firsthand look at the hard work and urgency that our state elected officials bring to this fight.”
Also in the fellowship program was fellow student Claire Sanford, who focused her efforts on water-wise landscaping. “It’s so important for water conservation,” she said. “Using native plants empowers people to tackle climate change while simultaneously lowering their water bills and encouraging biodiversity.”
Equally important, she said, it gives Coloradans a chance to connect with beautiful native landscapes that flourished in these same spaces centuries ago. “It’s always exciting to see people interacting with regionally appropriate plant life,” she said, “and it makes me feel hopeful for the future.”
Tackling this imminent crisis will necessarily mean improving the efficiency of U.S. agriculture, which accounts for 80% of the Colorado River’s water use. But that’s a tall order, given that there is so much waste, leakage and, sometimes, plain poor judgment.
“Right now, our desert-based farmers are using billions of gallons of American water to grow crops such as cotton and hay for export to competitor countries like Saudi Arabia and China,” McVicker said. “Where is the sense in that?” The whole agricultural industry, she argues, needs to take a strong look at itself.
For a better example of how to do things, McVicker points to Aurora, where a new city proposal seeks to eliminate “nonfunctional turf” in almost all new developments, including residential lawns, medians and commercial properties. “They are taking real, concrete action and standing up for the simple idea that we have to preserve to thrive,” she said.
Persuading Coloradans to adopt a more responsible approach is also at the core of Sanford’s fellowship work. “People are awestruck when I show them how our native plants have complex root systems up to 5 feet deep, as opposed to the shallow Kentucky bluegrass,” she said. “These plants are literally rooted in our tradition, so we should be using them much more.”
One positive side effect of the ongoing crisis has been that the water industry is growing fast and increasingly becoming a realistic career choice for students. Smitten by the water bug himself, Gomez is encouraging others to explore potential opportunities in this fascinating field.
“Water is one of those critical elements that encompasses every aspect of our lives,” he said. “And the great courses at MSU Denver offer a pathway into a field of study that isn’t just fascinating and rewarding — it can also bring about real social change.”
Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 1350 cfs to 1400 cfs on Thursday, September 8th. Releases are being increased due to the hot and dry conditions that have caused the river to drop below the baseflow target on the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 68% of average.
Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently under the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to be under the baseflow target until the additional release from Crystal Dam arrives.
Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September.
Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 345 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 400 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.
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.
Over the last two decades, however, the river has generated average flows of only 12.3 million acre-feet annually, a huge shortfall despite serious municipal conservation and reuse efforts. Southern Nevada has led the way in those laudable efforts. Despite adding 750,000 to our population since 2000, we’ve somehow managed to cut consumptive use by 26 percent due to aggressive conservation and recycling programs. Still, it’s not nearly enough. Global warming and the megadrought are projected to continue, which means river flows and lake levels will keep plummeting without drastic policy changes. We’re now only 90 feet above the “dead pool” level at which Hoover Dam will cease generating electricity.
And it’s no longer alarmist to prophesy that it could happen within our lifetime or even the next decade. That’s why the federal government recently issued its first-ever shortage declarations, reducing Nevada, Arizona and Mexico’s collective allocations by over 700,000 acre-feet annually, then tasking the seven river states to create a collaborative plan cutting an additional 2-4 million acre-feet annually next year.
So, here’s where I get brutally honest, which always seems to get me in big trouble. But I’ll say it anyway. Nevada isn’t the problem. If we were feeling generous, Nevadans could permanently donate back our entire annual allocation and it wouldn’t even make a dent. River flows would still be woefully insufficient to supply current uses and Lake Mead would still be rapidly draining. Of course, just because Nevada isn’t the problem doesn’t mean we can’t be part of the solution. Southern Nevadans should continue our conservation and recycling efforts, even if only to set an example and because it’s the right thing to do. But we need to stop pretending that eliminating more Clark County lawns, reducing the size of more (Las) Vegas golf courses and swimming pools, or even recycling all 1 million gallons of Boulder City’s daily wastewater will somehow solve the systemic river and lake problems. It won’t. Nevada amounts to nothing more than a statistical rounding error in the riverwide problem, and absolutely nothing Nevadans do to better conserve or recycle is going to change that…
Domestic water use also isn’t the problem. Nor are golf courses and resorts. If we completely wiped out the residential populations of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, for instance, drying up millions or acres of turf and water features in the process, the lake would still be dropping.
Let’s be honest. Desert agriculture is the real problem source. It uses approximately 80 percent of the Colorado River’s water to irrigate 15 percent of the nation’s farmland, producing a high percentage of winter fruits and vegetables. In fact, 20 percent of the entire Colorado River system’s output is channeled across the desert to a few wealthy landowners in California’s once-arid but now-productive Imperial Valley. And growers of cattle feed like alfalfa are by far the biggest river water consumers. So, if we really want to solve our Colorado River problem, then desert agriculture either needs to evaporate out of existence like the water it uses or become vastly more efficient. The best way to ensure that happens is to let the market dictate price. Make agriculture, commercial and industrial users pay for every drop they use, sending it to the highest bidders. With the market in control, we’ll be shocked how quickly irrigation ditches get lined with concrete, recycling projects ramp up and the lake start rising again.
The 1960s and 1970s were a golden age of infrastructure development in the U.S., with the expansion of the interstate system and widespread construction of new water treatment, wastewater and flood control systems reflecting national priorities in public health and national defense. But infrastructure requires maintenance, and, eventually, it has to be replaced.
That hasn’t been happening in many parts of the country. Increasingly, extreme heat and storms are putting roads, bridges, water systems and other infrastructure under stress.
Two recent examples – an intense heat wave that pushed California’s power grid to its limits in September 2022, and the failure of the water system in Jackson, Mississippi, amid flooding in August – show how a growing maintenance backlog and increasing climate change are turning the 2020s and 2030s into a golden age of infrastructure failure.
I am a civil engineer whose work focuses on the impacts of climate change on infrastructure. Often, low-income communities and communities of color like Jackson see the least investment in infrastructure replacements and repairs.
Crumbling bridge and water systems
The United States is consistently falling short on funding infrastructure maintenance. A report by former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker’s Volcker Alliance in 2019 estimated the U.S. has a US$1 trillion backlog of needed repairs.
A water main break now occurs somewhere in the U.S. every two minutes, and an estimated 6 million gallons of treated water are lost each day. This is happening at the same time the western United States is implementing water restrictions amid the driest 20-year span in 1,200 years. Similarly, drinking water distribution in the United States relies on over 2 million miles of pipes that have limited life spans.
The underlying issue for infrastructure failure is age, resulting in the failure of critical parts such as pumps and motors.
Jackson, a majority-Black state capital, has dealt with water system breakdowns for years and has repeatedly requested infrastructure funding from the state to upgrade its struggling water treatment plants.
Climate change exacerbates the risk
The consequences of inadequate maintenance are compounded by climate change, which is accelerating infrastructure failure with increased flooding, extreme heat and growing storm intensity.
Much of the world’s infrastructure was designed for an environment that no longer exists. The historic precipitation levels, temperature profiles, extreme weather events and storm surge levels those systems were designed and built to handle are now exceeded on a regular basis.
Unprecedented rainfall in the California desert in 2015 tore apart a bridge over Interstate 10, one of the state’s most important east-west routes. Temperatures near 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 C) forced the Phoenix airport to cancel flights in 2017 out of concern the planes might not be able to safely take off.
Power outages during California’s September 2022 heat wave are another potentially life-threatening infrastructure problem.
The rising costs of delayed repairs
My research with colleagues shows that the vulnerability of the national transportation system, energy distribution system, water treatment facilities and coastal infrastructure will significantly increase over the next decade due to climate change.
We estimate that rail infrastructure faces additional repair costs of $5 billion to $10 billion annually by 2050, while road repairs due to temperature increases could reach a cumulative $200 billion to $300 billion by the end of the century. Similarly, water utilities are facing the possibility of a trillion-dollar price tag by 2050.
After studying the issue of climate change impacts on infrastructure for two decades, with climate projections getting worse, not better, I believe addressing the multiple challenges to the nation’s infrastructure requires systemic change.
Two items are at the top of the list: national prioritization and funding.
Prioritizing the infrastructure challenge is essential to bring government responsibilities into the national conversation. Most local jurisdictions simply can’t afford to absorb the cost of needed infrastructure. The recent infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act are starting points, but they still fall short of fixing the long-term issue.
Without systemic change, Jackson, Mississippi, will be just the start of an escalating trend.
Click the link to read the article on the Rocky Mountain Collegian website (Ivy Secrest):
Dry, hot air settles over a small suburb in Fort Collins. The heat pushes residents indoors to crank the air conditioning, and the constant spurt of sprinklers is the only sound breaking the midday silence. This is a common occurrence of exceptional waste that may need to become a scene that only exists in memory, especially for states like Colorado.
Colorado has been experiencing drought conditions on and off for decades. And combating the issue of water scarcity in the region has been a priority for the states that rely on Colorado’s water resources.
“As a headwater state, we’re a really critical location in terms of the different rivers that originate in Colorado,” said Melinda Laituri, professor emeritus in ecosystem science and sustainability at Colorado State University.
One of these rivers is the Colorado River, the sixth-longest river in the country, which serves nearly 40 million people. It’s a critical resource for the Southwest United States and Mexico.
“The lower basin and the southern half of the upper basin had been in drought for 22 years,” said Steven Fassnacht, a snow hydrologist and professor at CSU.