Romancing the River: The #ColoradoRiver Compact at 100 — Sibley’s Rivers #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article the Sibley’s Rivers website [http://sibleysrivers.com] (George Sibley):

We’ve been exploring the Colorado River Compact here – which, like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ‘wonderful one-hoss shay’ has now lived almost ‘one hundred years to the day’ – the commissioners signed off on it November 24, 1922.  The century mark is a good place to pause and pull back for a larger perspective on something like a multi-state agreement and see what it has and hasn’t actually accomplished – but without losing sight of the romantic vision of conquest that drove the Compact’s formation, back in the early decades of the Anthropocene Epoch when reorganizing the prehuman world was still fun.

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.

Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. Members of the Colorado River Commission stood together at the signing of the Colorado River Compact on November 24, 1922. The signing took place at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover presiding (seated). (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

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.’

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

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.

The Compact that the seven commissioners signed in late November 1922 might have raised as many questions as it answered for the states and the nation. That unexplained million acre-feet is one such instance. But the big one was, and continues to be – what did the commissioners mean when they said, in Article III(d): ‘The States of the Upper Division will not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted below an aggregate of 75,000,000 acre-feet for any period of ten consecutive years.”

Does this mean – well, what it seems to say: that the users in the Upper Basin states should do nothing themselves, in the way of consumptive uses, to deplete the flow at Lees Ferry below the 7.5 maf/year average? Or does it mean that the Upper Basin has a ‘delivery obligation’ to the Lower Basin regardless of what happened naturally (drought) as well as culturally (over-use) in the Upper Basin? 

This map shows the Colorado River Basin and surrounding areas that use Colorado River Water, with four regions delineated, based on the degree to which flow is regulated and the channel physically manipulated. The dividing line for the upper and lower basin is Lee Ferry near Glen Canyon Dam. CREDIT: CENTER FOR COLORADO RIVER STUDIES

That particular question has remained unanswered because there has been no need to raise the question – yet. The Upper Basin is now consuming only around 4 maf/per year, with nearly all of its good agricultural land watered. Colorado commissioner Carpenter had opined early in the meetings that even at full development the Upper Basin states would still be passing more than half the river to the Lower Basin; that seems prescient in retrospect.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

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.

Republished with permission.

#California #water agencies strike an agreement to conserve some #ColoradoRiver supply — KUNC #COriver #aridification

Southern California water agencies have agreed on a deal to cut back on the amount of water they use for the Colorado River, some of which is used to grow crops in the Imperial Valley. Ted Wood/The Water Desk

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

Water agencies in southern California announced a new agreement to voluntarily cut back on their total water from the Colorado River use by 9%. The deal is a rare instance of collaboration between water departments representing cities and farms, and comes amid federal pressure to conserve water in the face of historic drought…California’s contribution represents the first public commitment to conserve a specific volume of water among the Colorado River’s basin states since the mid-August deadline passed…The new plan from California proposes a 400,000 acre-foot reduction in water use each year, beginning in 2023 and lasting through 2026. The agencies involved – Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Imperial Irrigation District, Coachella Valley Water District and Palo Verde Irrigation District – said it’s an effort to help boost low levels in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir…

Map of the Salton Sea drainage area. By Shannon – Background and river course data from http://www2.demis.nl/mapserver/mapper.asp and some topography from http://seamless.usgs.gov/website/seamless/viewer.htm, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9707481

The California agencies said they will only take voluntary cutbacks if the federal government provides “funding and commitments on the Salton Sea.” The lake is kept full by irrigation runoff from neighboring agricultural areas. As farmers conserve more water in the Imperial and Coachella valleys, the lake declines causing public health and ecological crises for that valley. Its future has been at the heart of fractious debates in California about its use of Colorado River water.

The All American Canal diverts water from the Lower Colorado River to irrigate crops in California’s Imperial Valley and supply 9 cities. Graphic credit: USGS

Click the link to read “California agencies float Colorado River water cuts proposal” on the Associated Press website (Kathleen Ronayne). Here’s an excerpt:

The agencies, which supply water to farmers and millions of people in Southern California, laid out their proposal in a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior. It comes as drought exacerbated by climate change continues to diminish the river, and months after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation first called on users to voluntarily limit their reliance on it. California shares the river’s water with six other states, tribes and Mexico. It has rights to the single largest share and is the last to lose water in times of shortage…California has been under pressure from other states to figure out how to use less as river reservoirs drop so low they risk losing the ability to generate hydropower and deliver water…

Four California agencies use the river’s water: The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Imperial Irrigation District, the Palo Verde Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District. The proposed cuts are contingent on the water agencies getting money from the $4 billion in drought relief included in the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as a commitment by the federal government to help clean up the Salton Sea, a drying lake fed by diminishing runoff from Imperial Valley farms. The letter was scant on details. The agencies said they have “a collection of proposed water conservation and water use reduction opportunities” that would help keep more water in Lake Mead, one of the river’s key reservoirs…It did not list any specific projects, or specify the rate of payment the agencies are expecting. But the federal government has previously said the $4 billion could be used for short-term conservation measures, like paying farmers to leave their fields unplanted, and long-term efficiency projects such as lining canals to prevent water loss.

The Imperial Irrigation District receives a larger share of the river than any other entity. It’s the only source of water for crops in California’s southeastern desert, where many of the nation’s winter vegetables, like broccoli, as well as feed crops like alfalfa are grown.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

Flaming Gorge drawdown threatens local fishing, recreation economy — WyoFile #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez stands next to a stake that indicates the extent of lowering water levels at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

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

The shoreline of this large reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border has steadily receded this summer as the Bureau of Reclamation pumped more water out to help maintain critical water levels 500 miles away at Lake Powell.

The water shrunk from boat ramps and forced marinas to scoot docks ever inward. By September, 6 feet of vertical drop in the water level translated into vast areas of exposed lakebed, leaving many boat ramps on the northern reaches of the reservoir high and dry. All told, the reservoir’s elevation is about 12 feet lower today than two years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Thousands of acres that had been underwater for 58 years now comprise a rainbow of boggy sediment, grasses and invasive plants.

Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez and his staff scrambled all summer to keep boat docks in the water, but they couldn’t always keep up. Two large floating docks near a drop-off sank so low that their access ramps became too steep to safely walk. Toxic cyanobacterial blooms have also migrated further down the lake.

Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez observes toxic cyanobacteria blooms at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“I can’t take my grandkids or my dogs to the water,” Valdez said, motioning to big green globs and sheets of muck as he stood on a boat dock. “We’re losing our marina. It will be gone after next year.”

When Valdez bought the marina in 2019, he immediately began making renovations. It was a solid investment, he believed, for a popular service at the largest recreational draw in southwest Wyoming. 

The BOR had maintained seasonably stable water levels at Flaming Gorge since 1964 when the dam was completed. Businesses in Wyoming and Utah built an economy around the fishermen, boaters, bird-watchers and others drawn to the massive impoundment.

Things began to change, however. Valdez first noticed that vehicles and boat trailers with plates from California, Arizona and other southwestern states became increasingly prevalent at the marina, he said, as reservoirs along the Colorado River began drying up.

Campers, seen here Sept. 26, 2022, are set up in areas previously under water across the bay from the Buckboard Marina at Flaming Gorge Reservoir. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

More than 20 years of drought — intensified by human-caused climate change — have pushed the Colorado River Basin and the 40 million people who depend on it into a water crisis. The system’s two largest reservoirs, Powell and Lake Mead, sank below 30% capacity this summer — the lowest levels since they were constructed. If the situation worsens, Powell and Mead could reach “deadpool” status at which the reservoirs would no longer release water downstream into the Colorado River.

The crisis is traveling upstream to places like Flaming Gorge, where it has implications for everything from riparian ecosystems to economic livelihoods. Currently, Flaming Gorge is at about 74% storage capacity, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Whether the reservoir shrinks further depends on whether the BOR will continue to tap Flaming Gorge and how quickly it might be naturally replenished.

Lower Green River Lake

Emergency water supply

In a legal sense, Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which is fed by headwaters in western Wyoming, was created for a moment like this. Its primary purpose, according to federal officials and Colorado River Compact scholars, is to serve as a backup water bank to help maintain the Colorado River system. Specifically, Flaming Gorge and a handful of other reservoirs in the upper Colorado River Basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico are key to ensuring a minimum flow of 7.5 million acre-feet of water at Lees Ferry just downstream of Powell on a running 10-year average.

So far, the upper basin states have met the threshold. Nonetheless, when Powell and Mead saw drastic lows in 2021, the BOR drew an extra 125,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge. This past spring when the situation in the lower basin states became even more dire, the BOR initiated a draw of an additional 500,000 acre-feet, estimating a 15-foot vertical drop in the reservoir over the water season ending in April 2023.

The Drought Response Operations Agreement, signed by Colorado River Compact stakeholders in 2019, authorizes the BOR to make those, and possibly additional emergency draws from Flaming Gorge, to help maintain critical water levels and hydropower generation at Powell and Mead. If this summer is any indication, continual draws from the reservoir might drastically alter an aquatic ecosystem and fishery that local businesses have relied on for decades.

Map credit: AGU

“This has been held at a premium, high-water mark, recreational lake for [58] years,” Valedz said. “Why wasn’t this addressed 15 years ago if we knew this was coming?”

The BOR is expected to decide whether to implement another “extra” draw from Flaming Gorge in April 2023.

Flaming Gorge fishery

Kokanee salmon and trophy-sized lake trout draw tens of thousands of visitors to Flaming Gorge each year, supporting a recreational economy in southwest Wyoming and northeast Utah. But as the lake is drawn down, water recedes from shallow shorelines and fish are forced into a smaller space, essentially shrinking the fishery toward the dam side of the reservoir.

Fishing guides and Wyoming Game and Fish have cooperated to maintain an appropriate balance to the predator-prey relationship between lake trout and kokanee, according to Recon Angling owner Shane DuBois. Now, the decreasing water levels threaten to drastically alter that balance and may require shifting management strategies. 

Recon Angling owner Shane Dubois (left) and Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez observe water levels at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Kokanee spawning beds have been exposed, which will force the fish to spawn in areas covered in silt, reducing the reproduction success rate, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Regional Fisheries Supervisor Robert Keith. If Flaming Gorge’s normal water levels are restored, the episode will likely improve traditional spawning beds, Keith said. However, if BOR withdrawals from Flaming Gorge substantially outpace natural inflows for several more years, the fishery will suffer.

“That’s going to be an economic impact to communities around the reservoir that depend on the anglers showing up,” Keith said. “And If we don’t have any ramps in Wyoming that anglers can launch from, then they’re all going to launch further down the reservoir and those dollars are going to be spent down in Utah.”

Toxic cyanobacteria blooms at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The BOR is in consultation with the Wyoming State Engineer’s office and local recreation and fishery managers regarding drawdowns at Flaming Gorge. The Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area — managed by the U.S. Forest Service — as well as Wyoming Game and Fish, can apply for federal funds set aside to aid in the Colorado River Basin water crisis. But maintaining critical water levels at Powell and Mead remains a priority, while projects involving reconstructing boat ramps and shifting fishery management would take years.

For DuBois, who depends on both a healthy fishery at Flaming Gorge and functional boat ramps, the situation threatens his livelihood. He recently invested tens of thousands of dollars in a new fishing boat and hopes it pays off.

“How does the Bureau of Reclamation not know [the recent drawdown] would leave most boat ramps unusable?” DuBois asked.

As he continues to relocate and reconstruct boat docks to adjust to lower water levels, Valdez is considering how to expand his scope of clientele to make up for losses. 

“I didn’t buy this place to come up here and watch this go to shit,” Valdez said.

Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com

Why is the Colorado River in crisis, and what is being done about it?: Pressing questions to an urgent problem asked and explained — Audubon

American White Pelican and Double-crested Cormorants at Bill Williams Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. Photo: Gary Moore/Audubon Photography Awards

Click the link to read the article on the Audubon website (Haley Paul):

**Este artículo se puede encontrar en español**

Q: Why are we in this situation, with the Colorado River and its reservoirs shrinking so quickly?

A: Truth is, we saw this coming. We use more water than the river provides. The only reason we got away with it for so long was because the reservoirs were full when the climate’s shift to hotter temperatures and reduced river flows began 22 years ago. We did not reduce the amount of water we used until recently, and it has not been enough in the face of drought exacerbated by climate change. 

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

Q: What happens if we stick with the status quo?

A: If we keep doing what we’re doing, and take water out of the reservoirs—not because it’s wise but because the law allows it—our system as we know it would crash. Water could not be released from Lakes Powell or Mead. A “Day Zero.” This is bad for ALL water users in the Colorado River basin.

There is also the dreadful possibility of no water flowing through the Grand Canyon, or through the Lower Colorado River along the Arizona-California border. That would mean no Colorado River water for tens of millions of people, including numerous sovereign Tribes. No Colorado River water for drinking, bathing, or growing crops, and no water for essential habitats, birds, and other wildlife.

Q: Why does this matter for birds?

A: A future without a running Colorado River would impact 400 bird species including California Condors, Bald Eagles, Southwestern Willow Flycatchers, and countless fish species and other wildlife that reside in and migrate through the Colorado River basin. The Colorado River Delta alone provides habitat for 17 million birds during spring migration and 14 million in the fall, from American White Pelicans and Double-breasted Cormorants to Tree Swallows and Orange-crowned Warblers. 

And because the Delta acts as a “bottleneck” for migrating birds—meaning concentrations of bird populations are significantly higher inside its geographical boundaries than outside of them—changes to water availability or habitat in the Delta could have outsized impacts on tens of millions birds. These impacts could be seen on a global scale.

Environmental water delivery in the Colorado River Delta is timed during the late spring and summer to help native trees germinate. The cottonwood seeds were evident. Photo: Jennifer Pitt/Audubon

Q: Water users need to reduce use by 2-4 million acre feet for 2023, and possibly for 2024 and 2025, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). How will the seven Colorado River Basin states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming), Tribes, other water users, and the federal government agree to the water reductions necessary to stabilize the river and reservoir system? 

A: The short answer: we don’t know. 

A deadline set by USBR came and went this past August. It’s unclear whether the seven states and water users will reach their own agreement on how to use less water, if federal officials will decide, or, likely the worst-case scenario, if the courts will be the ultimate decision-makers. In the past, the states, Tribes, and other water useres have managed to come up with agreements on how they will use less. Presently, the Upper Basin states (CO, NM, UT, and WY) have agreed to reopen a program that pays water users to use less water. They have also agreed to examine how releases of water stored behind dams in the Upper Basin can help stem the decline of downstream reservoirs such as Lake Powell. The trouble now is water levels are dropping so quickly in our two largest reservoirs—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—and water managers as a whole have not been able to come to agreements fast enough.

All water users could agree to use less. That means cities, farms, and businesses could all agree to reduce the amount of water they use so that the difficult task of stabilizing the system is distributed more evenly. 

Q: Why aren’t we all doing that right now—using less? 

A: Presently, the Upper Basin states use far less water than the Lower Basin States. Upper Basin states have agreed to reopen a program that pays water users to use less water, and have agreed to release water stored behind dams in the Upper Basin, all to help stem the decline of Lake Powell. However, the Upper Basin States should not—and cannot—shoulder the crisis alone.

Part of the reason more water users are not cutting back is because of the current way water is managed. Water management in the Colorado River Basin is based on a seniority system of water rights. First come, first served. This means those with junior rights would have their water reduced completely before a senior water rights holder would see their water reduced at all. While this has been the way the system has operated for more than 100 years, it is wearing thin in the face of 20+ years of drought and a shrinking river. 

In the 1960s, Arizona accepted junior priority rights on a portion of its Colorado River water in exchange for federal funding for the Central Arizona Project (or CAP, the 336-mile long canal that delivers Colorado River water to the central, populous parts of the state). As such, Arizona has stepped up and taken water cuts, sooner than originally anticipated. That’s a good thing. But if Arizona is forced to bear the entire shortage burden in the Lower Colorado River Basin, the impacts to millions of people, including vulnerable communities, will be considerable.

The Central Arizona Project canal moves water from the Colorado River to interior Arizona. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

In the face of a shifting climate—reduced snowpack in the mountains due to hotter temperatures and thirstier, drier soils, resulting in less water in rivers—previous efforts to reduce use and save water in Lake Mead, such as the Drought Contingency Plan and the 500+ plan, have not been enough to prevent the Colorado River system from crashing. 

Q: What are specific ideas for using less water and improving the outlook of this dire situation?

A: We could pay people to use less water as well improve the health of the ecosystems and watersheds on which we all rely. Recent federal legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act allocates $4 billion across the West to do just that. We want to see wise use of this funding—through multi-year agreements and durable projects that reduce water use and improve the health of our rivers and watersheds. 

How will we get there? 

– Upgrade on-farm irrigation methods and equipment to grow crops on less water. 

– Provide incentives for farmers to shift from water-thirsty crops like cotton and alfalfa to drought-tolerant crops like guayule and sorghum.

– Restore degraded meadows and streams to allow for more water retention in the mountains.

– Forest management to prevent catastrophic wildfires. Burned watersheds degrade water quality and erode soils, impairing the ability for the watershed to function properly.

– Increase the reuse of water. Wastewater can be captured, purified, and reused for outdoor irrigation, groundwater recharge, river restoration, or even drinking water.

– Boost water conservation efforts from cities and businesses, through eliminating unnecessary grass; upgrading plumbing; saving water on outdoor landscaping; and industrial cooling water efficiency upgrades. 

– Deploy funding to mitigate the impacts of less water flowing into affected communities and to improve habitat. Funding should prioritize multiple benefit projects and move beyond one-year water deals.

There is also plenty of work to do just within the state of Arizona to improve our water outlook. We must do everything we can to use the water we do have as wisely as possible. Audubon and our partners in the Water for Arizona Coalition developed the Arizona Water Security Plan, which outlines six critical steps the state of Arizona could take to get our own water house in order. 

Q: What should we be watching out for in Arizona?

A: Given the circumstances, with less Colorado River water coming into Arizona, some may want to rely more heavily on groundwater and weaken existing laws that protect it in the populous parts of the state. Weakening existing groundwater protections just so Arizona can continue to grow without changing how we use and manage water would be irresponsible and short-sighted. We should be closely watching the next legislative session to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Furthermore, Arizona has failed to pass meaningful groundwater protections in the rural parts of the state where none currently exist. We cannot allow Arizona’s rural groundwater to meet the same fate as the Colorado River–especially as rural leaders plead for change. For the benefit of all people in the state, lawmakers must allow rural communities to protect their groundwater supplies. And the better we manage all of our water resources, the more credible a partner Arizona is with other states in ongoing Colorado River negotiations.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

 

Extended rainfall benefits fishing in #YampaRiver — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

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

While the Yampa River has not closed quite as much this year as it did last year, local fishermen lost out on most of July and August and a chunk of September in 2022…

“There’s three criteria that would determine a closure or trigger a closure,” [Johnny] Spillane said. “One is water temperature, another is water flow meaning (cubic feet per second) and the third criteria is dissolved oxygen in the river. If any of those three criteria are not being met, that will trigger a closure and that seems to be fairly common in the last five, six or seven years.”

As far as the rain’s effect on fish behavior, Spillane says it is complicated but mostly acts as a good thing for the fish and therefore a good thing for those fishing.

Yampa River. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

Supreme Court hears lively debate on protecting wetlands, led in part by Justice Jackson — The Los Angeles Times #wotus

Ephemeral streams are streams that do not always flow. They are above the groundwater reservoir and appear after precipitation in the area. Via Socratic.org

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

The Supreme Court opened its new term on Monday by hearing a property rights appeal that calls for limiting the government’s power to protect millions of acres of wetlands from development. At issue is whether the Clean Water Act forbids polluting wetlands and marshes that are near — but not strictly part of — waterways.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson in her first day on the bench led the way in questioning why the court should move to limit the protection for wetlands. She said Congress in 1977 determined that wetlands “adjacent” to rivers and bays should be protected. Why should the law be narrowed, she asked, “when the objective of the statute is to ensure the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters? Are you saying that neighboring wetlands can’t impact the quality of navigable waters?” Justices Elena Kagan and Brett M. Kavanaugh said they agreed with that view. Kavanaugh said that seven administrations — Republican and Democratic — had taken the view that wetlands were protected if they were near a waterway.

Damien Schiff, an attorney for Pacific Legal Foundation, agreed that some wetlands can be protected, but he argued property owners should not be blocked from developing their land simply because it has a marshy area. His argument won favor with several of the court’s conservatives who questioned how property owners of land near a waterway or a wetland would know if they were subject to federal regulation. Jackson noted that the prior owners of the Idaho land were told it included protected wetlands.

“You keep talking about fair notice and property owners, about not being able to tell or know about this issue,” she told Schiff. But with respect to the Idaho couple, “there seems to have been a prior determination that the land was a wetland before they bought it, and whether or not they know, they could have known, I presume.”

Idaho Rivers via Geology.com

Aspinall unit operations update: Bumping releases down to 1050 cfs October 3, 2022

East Portal Gunnison Tunnel gate and equipment houses provide for the workings of the tunnel. Lisa Lynch/NPS

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1250 cfs to 1050 cfs on Monday, October 3rd. Releases are being decreased due to the heavy rainfall that occurred over the weekend which has reduced demand at the Gunnison Tunnel.  

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 790 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 790 cfs for October. 

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 350 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 750 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will still be near 350 cfs.  Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review. 

State of #Wyoming: #Water cuts might be forced on #WY by 2025 — WyoFile #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A fisherman tries his luck near the dam at Fontenelle Reservoir Sept. 27, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

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

The state has neither the legal right, nor inclination, to preemptively curtail water use in the ongoing Colorado River crisis, according to Chris Brown, senior assistant attorney general for the state engineer’s water division. Only a determination by the Upper Colorado River Commission can result in a water curtailment order for Wyoming users subject to the Colorado River Compact, he said.

The earliest a curtailment order might happen, in Brown’s estimation, is 2025, if drought conditions persist and Colorado River flows at Lees Ferry downstream of Lake Powell in Arizona fall below a certain threshold. If that happens, the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office will implement water restrictions.

“The way things are going, it’s coming,” Brown told a crowd of more than 100 at the Sublette County Public Library in Pinedale Tuesday afternoon.

Exactly when and how much water Wyoming might be asked to conserve due to the Colorado River crisis depends on myriad factors — none more important, from a legal standpoint, than Wyoming’s obligation to the Colorado River Compact, according to Brown. And that “ends at Lees Ferry,” he said.

Chris Brown of the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office discusses the implications of the Colorado River Compact with water users in Pinedale Sept. 27, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Wyoming and the other upper Colorado River Basin states — Utah, Colorado and New Mexico — are obligated to send 7.5 million acre-feet of water to Lees Ferry annually, on a running 10-year average. Modeling by the federal Bureau of Reclamation suggests flows could fall below the threshold by 2025 or 2028. Much also depends on how the BOR regulates flows out of Lake Powell, Brown said. 

Ultimately, all seven Colorado River Basin states — along with the federal government, tribes and Mexico — have much to negotiate. Meantime, the state engineer’s office is initiating conversations with irrigators, municipalities and industrial water users about how they can use less water and still meet their needs. Voluntary and compensated conservation measures — backed by $4 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act — will be key to minimizing disruptions when there is a curtailment order, Brown said.

“How can you do more with less water?” Brown asked the Pinedale audience. “And what can we do to help you do your work with less water?”

Who’s vulnerable

In the event of a curtailment, Wyoming is only held responsible for its actual use, which averages about 600,000 acre-feet of water annually. Irrigated agriculture accounts for nearly 84% of the state’s consumptive use, according to the engineer’s office.

Other water users are also considered vulnerable, however, including trona processing plants, coal-burning power plants and municipalities. The City of Cheyenne, for example, relies on a water collection system that diverts otherwise Colorado River Basin-bound water for 70% of its municipal water supply. These water users are among some of the most “junior” in the pecking order of water rights, and therefore could be among the first ordered to reduce consumption.

A pump pulls water from the Green River at a Sweetwater County-managed recreation area Sept. 27, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Water rights in Wyoming are appropriated within the first-in-time, first-in-right doctrine. The earlier a water right was obtained, the more senior, the later are most junior. A curtailment order would be applied to those with the most junior water rights and work back in time until the curtailment volume is met. However, the Colorado River Compact, struck in 1922, does not apply to those with water rights appropriated before 1922. No matter how much water Wyoming might be asked to curtail under the compact, it would only apply to those with water rights adjudicated after 1922, according to Brown.  

One audience member asked Brown, “What if you’re one of the [junior] water rights holders and everything you have is going to get cut — are we just SOL?”

“You could be SOL,” Brown answered.

However, the Interior Department is expanding existing programs, and initiating new ones, to support trading, buying and leasing water allocations to encourage balance among users. Another irrigator at the meeting, George Kahrl, said he’s interested in forgoing some of his normal water use to help those with more junior rights — for compensation.

Ideally, those who benefit monetarily from voluntarily reducing their water use will invest that money into more efficient operations so they can maintain their agriculture operations with less water, Brown said.

Wyoming ag operators need assurance that that’s how such programs will actually work out, Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) said. “I don’t know what those programs are or what they’re going to pay for, but we have to [maintain agricultural production] or we’re going to get hurt.”

Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com

Pick your #ColoradoRiver metaphor — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification

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

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

The river is in deep doo-doo, and worse may very well come. So why such a sluggish reaction?

On a day in late May when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. It was my first visit.

Turning off the paved highway, I drove about 10 miles around the toe of Sleeping Ute Mountain, past a few irrigation ditches, one carrying water, and a lot of fields and center-pivot sprinklers. I knew the runoff the San Juan Mountains, the source of water for the 7,700-acre farming operations by the Utes, was bad. I didn’t realize just how bad it was.

Unlike many tribal rights in the Colorado River Basin, the water rights of the two Ute tribes in Colorado were negotiated in 1986. The agreement resulted in delivery of water to Towaoc, where I ate at the casino restaurant twice on that trip. Before, potable water had to be trucked in.

Mike Preston, filling in for a Ute leader at the Colorado Water Center conference this week, remembers a time before that delivery of water. “There were stock tanks sitting in people’s yards, and a water truck would back up and fill those tanks, and people would go out with buckets to get their potable water.”

The Utes got other infrastructure, too, including water from the Dolores River stored in the new McPhee Reservoir that allows the Utes to create a profitable farm enterprise. But to get the use of McPhee water, the Utes conceded the seniority of their water rights. It worked well for a lot of years, but now in a warmer, drier climate, it leaves the Utes in a hard, dry place: They got 10% of their full allocation in 2021 and 40% this year.

They have been forced to adapt. Instead of planting alfalfa, they planted corn and other crops that use less water and can be fed to cattle. They culled cattle from their herd of 650. The tribe – as are others in Colorado – is exploring the viability of kernza, a new perennial grain created at The Land Institute in Kansas.

Still, some adaptation is impossible. The agricultural enterprise has laid off about half of its employees. And last year, despite securing all available government grants created to allow farmers to make it through hard times, the operation lost $2 million.

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

Listening to that story related by Preston in a video feed to the conference on the campus of Colorado State University, I wondered whether this was a metaphor for what faces the 40 million people who, in one way or another, depend upon water from the Colorado River.

During this same conference, “Living with the Colorado River Compact: Past, Present and Future,” I heard allusions to hospital emergency wards and over-drafted bank accounts. The latter came from Jim Lochhead, who had several decades of Colorado River experience before arriving at Denver Water as chief executive in 2010.

“No wonder Lakes Powell and Mead are in the condition that they are in today,” he said after accounting the over-drafting of the two big reservoirs, now down to 24% and 26% of storage respectively. “The bank account has been drawn down,” he said, “and we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit.”

By now, the 21st century story of the Colorado River has become familiar in its broadest outlines, part of the national narrative of despair. The pivoting reality came on hard in 2002, when the Colorado River carried just 4.5 million acre-feet of water.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

To put that into perspective, as Eric Kuhn, co-author of “Science Be Dammed,” did at this conference, those who framed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 assumed 20.5 million acre-feet as they went about apportioning the river’s flows. In the 21st century, the river has averaged 13 million acre-feet.

Alarm has been sounded but…

Now, scientists are warning that river managers should plan for no more than 11 million acre-feet, a reflection of the new hotter, and in some places, drier climate. Some think that figure is overly optimistic.

The seven basin states – particularly the thirsty states of California and Arizona – have cinched their belts with various agreements. But they have not responded in ways proportionate to the risk they now face. There is a very real danger of the reservoirs dropping to just puddles of dead pool, too little to be released downstream. Imagine the Grand Canyon without water. Imagine no water below Hoover Dam. Do these images leave you dumbstruck?

A public official on the Western Slope recently confided to me that he and others had grown weary of what they called “drought, dust and dystopia” stories. That troubled me, leaving me to wonder how my own stories are being received.

At the conference this week on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, I heard something of the same self-doubt.

“With all due respect to my fellow panelists, I live in an area where some of the topics that are mentioned, we’re not uniformly and broadly received,” said Perry Cabot, the lead researcher at Colorado’s State University’s Western Colorado Research Center near Grand Junction. “I think as researchers, we tend to believe that just more educating is going to change the dynamics of the narrative.”

Other panelists agreed with Cabot’s observation that new narratives, not just information, would better convey the gravity of the situation.

“I think the scientific community has gotten its head handed to itself,” said Brad Udall, who has dome some of the pioneering research that shows that “aridification” – as much or more than drought itself – is driving the reduced flows. Drought ends, but aridification resulting from atmospheric greenhouse gases? Not any time soon.

That has gone against the grain of water managers. A decade ago, there was still skepticism about climate change, and water always has been variable. Surely, good winters would return in the mountains of Colorado and other upper basin states that produce 90% of the river’s flows. Colorado alone is responsible for 60%.

After all, every batter goes through slumps, every best-selling author can tell of rejection slips.

By now, however, a clear trend has become evident. Even in good snow years, the runoff lags.

Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, described various outcomes of a river with continued declines in flows. Photo/Allen Best

At the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for refilling the glass that is now far less than half-full in the coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.

Even so-so precipitation has been coming up as something worse. For example, the snowpack in the Gunnison River watershed last year was 87% of average, but the runoff was only 64%.

Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last year has been among the six warmest in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuizen, a water resources engineer for the River District. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to apportion demand to match supply. After all, there’s money in the bank, and for probably a year more, enough water in the reservoirs to generate electricity.

At water meetings, an element of collegiality has remained, at least until recently. Testiness has crept in, an element of what Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based River District, calls finger-pointing.

Colorado water officials, Mueller included, are doing some of that themselves.

They point out that Colorado and the other upper-basin states get nicked for 1.2 million acre-feet in evaporative losses in their delivery of water to Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas. California, Arizona, and Nevada do not. “It’s like running two sets of books,” said Mueller.

Mueller was negotiating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the day of the conference in Fort Collins. His stand-in, Dave Kanzer, explained that the Law of the River —the Colorado River Compact and other agreements – don’t necessarily apply anymore. It is “based on long-term stable water supply, and we no longer have that,” he said.

Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. Members of the Colorado River Commission stood together at the signing of the Colorado River Compact on November 24, 1922. The signing took place at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover presiding (seated). (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

Renegotiate the compact?

The Colorado River Compact assumed too much water and also used precise numbers when ratios would have been better, Mueller has observed. Instead, those who gathered in Santa Fe in November 1922 apportioned

7.5 million acre-feet to each of the two basins, upper and lower. In practice, the lower-basin states have been using twice as much water as Colorado and other upper-basin states.

Colorado’s average annual consumption from the Colorado River and its tributaries is 2.5 million acre-feet. In terms of the compact, what mattes entirely is when the diversion began, before or after the compact.

About 1.6 million-acre feet- mostly older agriculture rights – are pre-compact, but 900,000 acre-feet came later. This includes water for Western Slopes cities and the nearly all of the 500,000 acre-feet diverted across the Continental Divide to cities along the Front Range and farms in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys. This water is most imperiled.

Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District, said he does not believe it’s practical to attempt to amend or renegotiate the Colorado River Compact.

“But within a few years, maybe after we have figured out how to get out of the current crisis, we’re going to essentially ignore all of the provisions of the compact except perhaps article one, which defines the purpose and the signatures page.”

Lochhead has much the same opinion about the much-disputed element of the compact about the obligations of Colorado and other upper basin states to deliver water. It really won’t matter, he said. The real problem is that the basin states need to align demand with supply that, during the last few years, has been close to 11 million acre-feet. (Keep in mind, the compact assumed more than 20 million acre-feet).

“We’re literally in a situation of triage,” said Lochhead. “Something needs to be done in the very near term to lay a foundation for actions that can be taken in the medium and longer term to manage the river to a sustainable condition.”

The feds need to step up

Lochhead outlined three possibly overlapping alternatives.

First: involuntary regulations and restrictions. The federal government – although it has been using it with restraint – does indeed have authority to regulate use of water that enters into Mead. The U.S. Supreme Court has characterized its power as such. The Bureau of Reclamation must be seen as delivering a coherent threat.

“That gives the U.S. government enormous authority over what happens in the lower basin,” Lochhead said. This is unlikely to happen until after the November election, he said, but it absolutely must happen.

Voluntary agreements must also occur. The Bureau of Reclamation imposed an August 2022 deadline for agreements. If the deadline had been a hard one, the states would have failed. Lochhead said it came down to finger pointing. Arizona and California “stared across the river at each other, seeing who’s going to blink first.”

The federal government has now put $4 billion on the table – through the Inflation Reduction Act —to “grease” the skids in terms of voluntary agreements. (Think, perhaps voluntary retirement of water rights). “They’re going to have to buy down demands in the lower basin,” said Lochhead, conjecturing on deals involving the Imperial Irrigation District, the giant ag producer just north of the border with Mexico.

We will need to sort through what grasses we want and can afford, both in residential settings and in pubic areas, such as Colorado Mesa University, above. That will extend to grasses grown to feed livestock. Top, the Colorado River at Silt, Colo. on Sept. 17. Photo/Allen Best

Lochhead also described the need for reductions in water use in the municipal sectors. Denver Water and several other water agencies in Colorado – but also in Nevada and California and Arizona—announced an agreement in August in which they will try to pare their consumption. For example, Denver wants to end irrigation of medians along roads and highways and crimp the amount of water used for turf. But Denver and other cities need to continue to have trees, said Lochhead.

More cities will join this pact to reduce water use for residential consumption in coming weeks and months, Lochhead said.

But he said Colorado may need state legislation to ensure that real-estate developers can’t create landscaping in the future that requires lots of water, offsetting these gains.

That brings me back to the Ute Mountain Ute lands that I visited in May. By virtue of their 1986 agreement, reality has smacked them hard. There is pain, but there is also adjustment. They have had to adjust.

Something of the same thing must occur in the broader Colorado River Basin. So far, it’s easier to postpone action. But another so-so year – or worse? While the states are trying to make the cuts necessary for  a river that is delivering 12 million acre-feet per year, Mueller warns that the plans must contemplate a 9 million acre-foot river, as some scientists have said may come to pass.

But in Grand Junction, one of the scientists pointed out to me that it’s just possible the river may deliver 7 million acre-feet – and that could be next year and the year after.

Then, we may need a new metaphor, something worse than an empty bank account.

Coalition offers help to parched #ColoradoRiver — @COWaterTrust #COriver #aridification

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust (Dana Dallavalle Hatlelid):

Responding to drought and summer long low-flow conditions on the Colorado River, a coalition of groups and funders led by Colorado Water Trust is restoring water to the river. Colorado Water Trust deliveries began 9/25/22 and continue at a 150 cfs (cubic feet per second) rate. That rate will drop to 100 cfs over the weekend and continue through 10/20/22, most likely tapering to 50 cfs on 10/11. Division of Water Resources confirmed they will administer Colorado Water Trust’s water to the 15-Mile Reach based on average monthly flows being below the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s 810 cfs target. Total water restored will be 4500 acre-feet (1.46 billion gallons). The hard work and generosity of our partners enabled us to provide the needed water supply just in time to keep the river flowing at healthier levels in designated critical habitat, including the 15-Mile Reach just east of Grand Junction.

Philanthropic and funding partners include Western Colorado Community Foundation, Lyda Hill Philanthropies, Intel Corporation, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Nite Ize, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Fryingpan River downstream of Ruedi Reservoir. Photo credit Greg Hobbs

Colorado Water Trust and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program have arranged for a release of water from Ruedi Reservoir to the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork, and Colorado rivers. The water will be designated for improving flow conditions for endangered fish in the 15-Mile Reach. The flows will support four species of endangered and threatened fish, including the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, bonytail, and razorback sucker, as well as indirectly supporting agricultural water deliveries and the regional recreational economy.

“The corporations and individuals that stepped up to allow us to make these large additions to the Colorado’s flow are the community-minded heroes of this drought year. In the future, ever more creative ways will have to be found to share the water that Nature gives us, with each other and with Nature itself,” says Andy Schultheiss, Executive Director of Colorado Water Trust. “As we continue to experience the impacts of a changing climate, we will have to find ways to adapt to the new paradigm.”

Colorado River in Grand Junction. Photo credit: Allen Best

Between 2019 and 2021, Colorado Water Trust delivered over 6028 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River (nearly 2 billion gallons). In a typical year, Colorado Water Trust works closely with Grand Valley Water Users Association and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District to identify when there is available capacity in the Grand Valley Power Plant for hydropower generation. This year, thanks to partial support from Colorado Water Trust, the Grand Valley Power Plant is undergoing much needed reconstruction. Until the new plant is complete, Colorado Water Trust will designate the water released for endangered fish protection and not hydropower generation at the Power Plant. Colorado Water Trust also works closely with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program to determine when the 15-Mile Reach needs supplemental water most to support the fish.

Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Water Users Association have been collaborating with the Colorado Water Trust and their contributing partners for the last several years. Our partnership helps those of us in the Grand Valley and 2200 other water diverters maintain the Endangered Species Act compliance. We look forward to our continued collaboration with the Colorado Water Trust,” says Mark Harris of Grand Valley Water Users Association.

“Intel commends the Colorado Water Trust for their important work to support the health of the Colorado River,” says Fawn Bergen, Intel’s Corporate Sustainability Manager. ”Intel’s support for this project brings us closer to our goal of reaching net positive water by 2030, and we are proud to help sustain this vital habitat; a healthy river supports healthy communities.”

We are extremely grateful to the Colorado Water Trust for providing releases to support endangered fish during another challenging water year. These releases will improve habitat in the 15-Mile Reach during an especially stressful time of year,” says David Graf, Instream Flow Coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. “The Recovery Program has shown that collaborative conservation can enhance populations of endangered fish while also meeting water user needs. These efforts by the Colorado Water Trust, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, and Grand Valley Water Users demonstrate that with creative thinking and hard work, partnerships can find solutions that support humans and the environment.”

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

The Roaring Fork Conservancy also helps to inform Colorado Water Trust of conditions on the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork Rivers so that releases will complement flows on the stream sections between Ruedi Reservoir and the Colorado River. This year, the water released from Ruedi Reservoir will serve a few purposes before it supports the health of endangered, native fish in the Colorado River in the 15-Mile Reach. The water will bring flows in the Fryingpan River closer to their average, and will cool water temperatures on the Roaring Fork River.

ABOUT COLORADO WATER TRUST: Colorado Water Trust is a statewide nonprofit organization that works collaboratively with partners all across Colorado on restoring flow to Colorado’s rivers in need using solutions that benefit both the people we work with and our rivers. Since 2001, we’ve restored 16.8 billion gallons of water to 588 miles of Colorado’s rivers and streams.

Register Now for Fall Symposium Set for November 15, 2022 –@Northern_Water

Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water

From email from Northern Water:

Registration has opened for Northern Water’s Fall Symposium, set for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15, at the Embassy Suites in Loveland.

Northeastern Colorado water users will hear from multiple speakers about challenges facing the Colorado River and the intricacies of land use and water planning in times of water scarcity. A theme throughout the Symposium will highlight change and how best to adapt.

Additional presentations at the event will include a look ahead at reinvesting in our forests and protecting our source watersheds, as well as offer brief updates on the Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project and the Northern Integrated Supply Project. 

Registration is now open on our website. Spaces fill quickly for this event, so we encourage you to register no later than Nov. 1. This symposium is a great opportunity to invite your co-workers and industry professionals to learn more about the latest water challenges in our region. Doors will open at 8 a.m. for check-in and to allow attendees to network.  

If you have any questions, please email events@northernwater.org.

Cheerful delusions about the #ColoradoRiver — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification #overdrawn22

Sunset on the Colorado River at Silt September 2022. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

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

We really would rather be getting news about another Super Bowl triumph or the end of the 55-year drought in Denver Nuggets championships. But the Colorado River is rapidly nearing total disfunction. It is the story du jour.

Rivers and streams on Colorado’s Western Slope chattered excitedly with runoff during mid-September after several days of rain, softening landscapes that had turned sullen after another hot summer.

The water was a blink of good news for a Colorado River that needs something more. It needs a long, sloppy kiss of wetness.

Hard, difficult decisions have almost entirely lagged what has been needed during the last 20 years of declining reservoir levels and rapidly rising temperatures. Hope has lingered stubbornly. After all, every batter has slumps. And maybe next winter and spring it will snow hard and long in Colorado, source of 60% of the river’s water, instead of getting unseemly warm come April and May, as has mostly been the case.

This glass half-full hopefulness has left the two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell, at roughly 25% of capacity. To prevent worse, the smaller savings accounts near the headwaters – Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, Blue Mesa in Colorado, and Flaming Gorge on the Utah-Wyoming border – have been pilfered. Little remains to be tapped.

Even threats from the Bureau of Reclamation this year failed to spur definitive action. “We can’t keep doing this,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, a major water policy agency for the Western Slope.

Difference from average temperature in the top 300 meters (~984 feet) of the tropical Pacific between June 7 and August 1, 2022. A deep pool of cooler-than-average water (blue) spread eastward and will continue rising to the surface in coming months, feeding the current La Niña. Animation by NOAA Climate.gov, based on data from NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

Recently at the River District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for recovery this coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.

Even so-so precipitation comes up as something less. Yampa River Valley snowpack last winter was 84% of average; runoff lagged at 76%. The Gunnison River watershed figures were even worse; snowpack of 87% yielding runoff of 64%.

Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last 12 months have been among the six warmest years in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuisen, a water rights engineer. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to agree on cuts that would match demand with supply.

It’s tempting to accuse the states of being caught up in century-old thinking. After all, they nominally operate under provisions of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. They have taken steps but they insufficiently acknowledge the shifting hydrologic reality. Instead of delivering an average 20.5 million acre-feet, as the compact assumed, the river has delivered 13 million acre-feet in the 21st century. In the last few years, it’s been worse yet, about 12 million acre-feet.

How low can it go? Mueller talked about learning to live within 9 million acre-feet, as some climate scientists have warned may be necessary. Climate scientists have built up some credibility as their forecasts have been, if anything, a tad conservative.

A scientist I talked with in Grand Junction suggested potential for an even starker future. What if the river delivers just 7 million acre-feet a year for the next two or three years?

One of my acquaintances, a county official on the Western Slope, recently confided weariness with the now familiar narrative of “drought, dust, and dystopia” on the Colorado River. Understood. We all want to see the Broncos and Avs win. More instructive may be the Denver Nuggets, who are now in a 55-year championship drought.

We will need to sort through what grasses we want and can afford, both in residential settings and in pubic areas, such as Colorado Mesa University, above. That will extend to grasses grown to feed livestock. Top, the Colorado River at Silt, Colo. on Sept. 17. Photo/Allen Best

Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water, likens the situation on the Colorado River to a bank account that has been drawn down. “And we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit,” he said this week at the Colorado Water Center conference in Fort Collins.

What is needed? From a perspective in Colorado, Lochhead argues for a stronger, more assertive federal role. Lochhead was for many years a lawyer based in Glenwood Springs who represented Colorado in river issues.

Map credit: AGU

Everybody that depends upon Colorado River water from northeastern Colorado to Los Angeles and San Diego will have a role, he says. Denver for example, wants to crowd out grass from medians and incentivize turf removal.

Lower-basin states use about twice as much as the upper basin states, and there the cuts must be more radical. Lochhead wants to see the federal government, through the Bureau of Reclamation, more assertively force the lower-basin states to make those hard decisions. Federal authority over water entering Lake Mead has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, he points out, and he suggests the agency may use that power after the November election.

The broad theme will be reducing water used for low-value grasses. That takes in suburban lawns but also the water-greedy grasses grown for livestock, including corn and alfalfa. Hard choices, but they must be made. What more warning do we need?

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

Federal Water Tap — Circle of Blue

Mapa de los Estados Unidos de Méjico, by John Distrunell, the 1847 map used during the negotiations of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Public domain.

Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website:

At a conference in Santa Fe, federal officials outlined steps they are taking to respond to critically low reservoirs in the Colorado River basin.

The Interior Department is preparing now in case next year is another hydrological dud.

Officials are setting up the paperwork for releasing even less water from Lake Powell than anticipated. According to operating guidelines, 7 million acre-feet will flow out of the reservoir in 2023. If water levels recede to the point that hydropower generation is endangered, Interior could throttle back those releases, as it did this year.

Interior is also studying structural modifications that would allow for the release water from Powell when the reservoir is low, a move that environmental groups in the basin have called for.

The #ColoradoRiver at the end of #water year 2022: a status report — InkStain #COriver #aridification

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

I don’t see how this ends well.

Most of the major players – the ones that matter, anyway, by which I mean Arizona, California, and the federal government – appear boxed in by constraints they can’t seem to overcome, while the water in the Colorado River’s big reservoirs is circling the drains.

Arizona’s giving up a lot of water right now, and it’s hard to see how they solve their in-state politics and give up more without California coming up with substantial cuts of its own. Meanwhile California’s internal politics have so far constrained it from coming up with meaningful contributions. This may change soon, but the numbers being discussed may not be enough to move the needle as far as it needs to move. And the federal government seems torn between tough immediate actions and placing responsibility on the states to come up with a plan to save themselves.

Last week’s Water Education Foundation Colorado River symposium in Santa Fe was striking.

It’s an invitation-only event, and I’m not sure what the ground rules are, so I’ll treat it as a sort of “Chatham House Rules” thing.

I will say this. I moderated a panel. Harsh words were exchanged. I was kind of an asshole as I tried to get people to say the quiet parts out loud. But right now, we need to be saying the quiet parts out loud, because the water is circling the drains.

obligatory cracked mud photo (Mead is, like, 40 feet lower right now than when I took this). Credi: John Fleck

THE STATUS OF THE RESERVOIRS

Lake Mead will end water year 2022 next Friday [September 30, 2022] with a surface elevation ~1,044 feet above sea level, down 1.8 million acre feet from a year ago.

Lake Powell will end the year at somewhere around elevation ~3,529, down 1.5 million acre feet from a year ago.

Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which must now be in the end-of-water-year mix because of the way Reclamation and the states have begun moving water around like pawns on the Upper Basin chess board, will end the year at elevation 6,013, down 300,000 acre feet from last year.

Credit: USBR

Absent action by water users to use less, next year’s not-all-that-farfetched possibilities (by which I mean the Bureau of Reclamation’s latest “minimum probable” forecast) has Powell dropping below minimum power by the end of 2023 – and staying there. Absent downstream action by water users to use less water, Mead drops to 1,016 by the of water year 2023.

Credit: USBR

If the federal government holds water back in Powell to prevent the need to use the dam’s bypass tubes, that drops Mead even farther.

For those not steeped in the numbers, this is cracked-mud, five-alarm fire bad.

2022 Water Use

Source: USBR, Lower Colorado River Basin water use forecast, retrieved 9/25/2022

Californians are touchy about these numbers, specifically the observation that they’re taking more than their full allocation this year, even as the reservoirs are tanking. They point out that in recent years they have used significantly less than their allocated 4.4 million acre feet, banking unused water in Lake Mead as a hedge against drought. Which they’re suffering now, massively. Which is true, and fair to point out.

So, for completeness sake, here are the three Lower Basin states’ annual take on Lake Mead going back a decade.

I point this out as a native Californian, and with love for my California friends. The laws and policies we have developed allow – even encourage! – this. The doctrine of prior appropriation was designed to remove water from our rivers for “beneficial use”, emptying them in the process. California played a masterful game over the 20th century to ensure the priority of its water rights and the federal largesse needed to put the water to use.

But understand, please, why everyone else in the basin is glaring at you: you have a larger allocation than everyone else, and you’ve been reducing your use less than everyone else. The law gives your water use priority over others in the basin, but that doesn’t make it feel any fairer to the rest of us as everyone is being asked to cut back to save the shrinking river on which we all depend.

BOXED IN

So where do we go now?

Despite the failure of the basin states to come up with a plan to reduce water use in 2023, and the unwillingness or inability of the federal government to impose one, the mass balance problem has not changed. The “protection volumes” – the amount of cutbacks needed next year and every year thereafter for the foreseeable future – are still huge. If the 2023 water year is similar to the last three, water users need to cut 2 million acre feet just to hold the reservoirs where they are and protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell from dropping to critically low elevations, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s modeling.

Never mind about refilling.

According to a piece by Jake Bittle at Grist, California is working on a deal among the water users that would cut something – it’s not entirely clear what, Bittle references a range of 350,000 to 500,000 acre feet. This is super interesting in part because of the context – this is California going it alone. Yay for voluntary cuts! But it’s hard to see how the largest user on the system agreeing to cuts of that size gets us anywhere close to 2 million acre feet. But given the water politics within California, it’s also hard to see how California cuts more, at least voluntarily. Imperial Irrigation District is rightly demanding action on the Salton Sea, which has been shrinking as a result of past Imperial cutbacks. (Less irrigation means less percolation and runoff into the Sea. Bad air quality, bad mojo, as the Sea shrinks.) Getting Imperial farmers (and others, but Imperial’s the big player) to accept cutbacks voluntarily will have a big price tag. Forcing the cuts will almost certainly lead to litigation.

That leaves Arizona in a box. They’ve already cut nearly 800,000 acre feet this year, which is huge. There’s more water to be had in Yuma – again, for a price – but it’s hard to see Arizona coughing up more water absent California cutting more deeply. Where’s the fairness in that?

All the rest of us – Nevada, and the states of the Upper Basin – can do is look on in horror. I’ve been critical of the Upper Basin states for not agreeing to kick in some water, and I still think we’re going to have to do that sooner or later. But we’re only using ~4 million acre feet a year, on average, of our 7.5 million acre foot allocation. At this point, any savings we can muster are small relative to the use by California and Arizona. And given the Lower Basin states’ inability to come up with a plan, anything we do add to the system right now will just drain out the bottom in continued overuse.

Which leaves the federal hammer.

According to a press release last week, which (oddly?) came from the Department of Interior rather than the Bureau of Reclamation, Interior is preparing for the possibility that it may need to reduce releases from Glen Canyon Damn in 2023. (See Kuhn, Fleck, and Schmidt on this question.) This echoes something Reclamation said in August.

That would have the effect of further dropping Mead as Reclamation’s engineers scramble to protect Glen Canyon Dam.

Interior is also:

“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.”

I do not know what that means. I do not know if it is different from what Reclamation said in August, that the agency will:

“Take administrative actions needed to further define reservoir operations at Lake Mead, including shortage operations at elevations below 1,025 feet to reduce the risk of Lake Mead declining to critically low elevations.”

Folks in the federal government are frankly boxed in as well – between Lower Basin users unwilling or unable to cut use enough on their own to save themselves, with constraints imposed by a sincere attempt to be more inclusive of Tribal interests than the federal government has ever been, with the crazy problems of the Salton Sea hovering over any attept to rein in the basin’s largest water user, with the international challenge of including Mexico in the coming decisions, and with a crucial mid-term election looming.

So far, those constraints have prevented the federal government from getting specific about the threats – at least in public.

It’s hard to look at all these constraints, the boxed-in-ness – on Arizona, on California, on the federal government – and not see dead pool looming.

Absent a big snowpack, I don’t see how this ends well.

Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water, in April 2019, standing in a snowpit dug to gauge the snow’s temperature, depth,

The #Wyoming State Engineer to present options for #ColoradoRiver Basin #water crisis September 27, 2022 #COriver #aridification

Pine Street, Pinedale, Wyoming – Looking East. By Tarabholmes – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=110540227

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

The state’s top water authority will outline Wyoming’s role in the ongoing Colorado River Basin water crisis, including voluntary conservation and efficiency programs, at a public meeting [September 27, 2022] in Pinedale.

Though Wyoming declined to commit specific volumes to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s call for 2023 water savings, the state’s water users in the Green River drainage — a tributary of the Colorado River — will likely be called upon to voluntarily curb water consumption in coming years, according to the State Engineer’s Office.

Wyoming Drought Monitor map September 20, 2022.

SEO officials will provide information about ongoing drought conditions, Wyoming’s rights and obligations under the Colorado River Compact and options to “prepare ourselves to not only mitigate impacts to our water users, but to potentially help offset negative impacts to the rest of the system,” Wyoming senior assistant attorney general for the SEO’s water division Chris Brown said.

The meeting will be from 2-5 p.m. Tuesday at the Sublette County Public Library.

Why it matters:

Two decades of drought exacerbated by human-caused climate change has sapped the Colorado River Basin water system that serves some 40 million people across the West and in Mexico. The two largest reservoirs in the system, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, shrank to historic lows this summer, threatening hydroelectric power production.

This “teacup” diagram displays reservoir storage levels as of Sept. 21, 2022. (Bureau of Reclamation)

There’s simply not enough water in the system to fulfill the water allotments divvied among stakeholders by the 1922 Colorado River Compact, and the situation is expected to get worse, according to federal officials.

“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency,” Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said in a prepared statement. “In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced.”

Among other strategies, Wyoming plans to resume participation in the federal System Conservation Program, which pays water users to curb consumption, according to the Wyoming State Engineer’s office. Congress recently re-appropriated funding for the program, while the Inflation Reduction Act includes some $4 billion for efforts to modernize Colorado River Basin infrastructure and water management practices. Another $8.3 billion from the bipartisan Infrastructure law is available to address water and drought challenges throughout the U.S.

View below Flaming Gorge Dam from the Green River, eastern Utah. Photo credit: USGS

History

To help make up for shrinking water levels in Lake Powell, the Bureau of Reclamation tapped Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border for an extra 125,000 acre-feet of water in 2021 and an extra 500,000 acre feet this year. Water levels at the reservoir are expected to drop by 15 feet total this fall.

As one of three “upper basin” states, Wyoming’s plays an integral role in supplying water to the Colorado River system. Agriculture accounts for most of Wyoming’s water use in the system. However, Wyoming’s total water contribution mostly depends on seasonal climate and precipitation, Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart contends.

Those conditions have become more erratic, especially as average temperatures at Wyoming’s highest elevations — where seasonal snowpack serves as a “water bank” — warm at an alarming rate.

Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com

#YampaRiver Rendezvous recap — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Coyote Gulch on the Yampa River Core Trail August 24, 2022.

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

…after years of drought conditions in Colorado, any lingering optimism for a return to previous patterns of rain showers most afternoons in the High Country is not a realistic outlook. Water managers now need to use the most conservative, lower water flow predictions to manage shrinking water resources effectively, said Andy Rossi, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District…

The annual volume of water in the Yampa River Basin was 1.5 million-acre-feet in the early 1900s but now is 1.12 million-acre-feet, Rossi noted. Rossi compared the two consecutive years from 2011 and 2012 as one example of water projection difficulties. During the wetter 2011 at the Fifth Street river gauging station in downtown Steamboat, the flow on June 7 was 4,780 cubic feet per second compared to 305 CFS on the same date in 2012. Last week, at the same gauging station, the natural river flow contributed only half of the flow because approximately 50% of the flow was from storage releases from Stagecoach Reservoir, he said…

Although precipitation levels in the Yampa River Basin historically include highly variable ups and downs, data shows an “incredibly sharp recent decrease in precipitation” that led to five of the lowest water inflows into Stagecoach Reservoir during the past 10 years, Rossi said. From 2010 to 2021, the annual precipitation in Routt County dropped by 5.26 inches, he said…

Community members were urged to learn more about local water issues and to review the final version of the Yampa Integrated Water Management Plan that was released earlier this month available online at the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable website at YampaWhiteGreen.com

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

How to Negotiate for Peace, Resilience, and Environment on the #ColoradoRiver: Audubon’s letter to address historically low water supplies #COriver #aridification

Colorado River near Moab, Utah. Photo: Mitch Tobin/WaterDesk.org

Click the link to read the article on the Audubon website (Jennifer Pitt):

Audubon is deeply concerned about current Colorado River conditions, a crisis in the making for birds and people. Current government modeling shows the potential within the next 24 months, there could be a “day zero” scenario where reservoir water supplies fall so much that major dams are unable to reliably release water. This puts communities and wildlife at risk. We recently responded to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (USBR) request for comments on their upcoming process to establish new rules for Colorado River management (“pre-scoping for post-2026 Colorado River Reservoir Operational Strategies for Lake Powell and Lake Mead Under Historically Low Reservoir Conditions”), making the case for good governance that will increase Colorado River Basin resilience to climate change with improved outcomes for people and nature.

The Colorado River is legendary for supporting the growth of the American West, to the point where today it supplies 40 million people and underpins an economy exceeding $1 trillion. However, thirty sovereign Tribes that have been in the basin since time immemorial have not been included in management discussions, and in many cases do not have access to their Colorado River water rights.

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

The river and its tributaries are also the foundation of life in the region, essential in supporting more than 70 percent of all wildlife. The riparian forest that lines the waterways of the Colorado River Basin provides critical habitat for birds, including 400 species along the Lower Colorado River alone. Scores of dams and diversions have altered river flows, resulting in invasive shrubs that have replaced native trees and diminished habitat value. With less native habitat available, at least six breeding bird species that rely on the Colorado River Basin, including the Bell’s Vireo, Summer Tanager, Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow Warbler, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, and Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, have experienced significant population declines.

Immediate water conservation is needed to prevent the near-term crisis, but the conditions driving the crisis are not expected to abate, pointing to the need for structural changes in Colorado River management. To achieve structural changes in such a complex and high stakes setting will require USBR and all Colorado River stakeholders—the Tribes, states, local governments, water users, and environmental and recreational interests—to view the basin as a whole and work collaboratively to define solutions. Here’s what Audubon wants to see (for a more complete discussion, see our letter):

– Transparency

– Inclusivity

– Prioritization of Mexico’s role in Colorado River management

– A broad purpose and need for the federal rulemaking, to ensure it serves the full range of stakeholders, not just water rights holders

– Sound science

– Honest evaluation and communication about available reservoir water supplies

– Decision-making that anticipates uncertain future conditions

– Management that avoids crises

– Priority given to water supply reliability

– Evaluation of the difference between water shortages and voluntary, compensated reductions in water use

– Increased flexibility in Colorado River management

– Priority given to environmental water needs and environmental justice

– Consideration for how management options will interact with other responses to conditions on the Colorado River

Downloadable Resources

 nas_2026_guidelines_pre-scoping_comments.pdf

One of the two Twin Otter aircraft used by the Airborne Snow Observatory mission to study snowpack in the Western U.S. Credit: NASA

Interior Department Announces Next Steps to Address #Drought Crisis Gripping the #ColoradoRiver Basin #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead. Photo credit: U.S. Department of Interior

Click the link to read the release on the Department of Interior website. (release below):

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. 

Aspinall Unit operations update (September 24, 2022): 340 cfs in Black Canyon #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Black Canyon July 2020. Photo credit: Cari Bischoff

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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. 

On the #ColoradoRiver, growing concern for trout and chub — The Associated Press #COriver #aridification

Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry. Photo credit. Gonzo fan2007 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3631180

Click the link to read the article on the Associated Press website (Brittany Peterson). Here’s an excerpt:

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.

The Colorado River from Navajo Bridge below Lee’s Ferry and Glen Canyon Dam. The proposed Marble Canyon Dam would have been just downstream from here. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

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…

Detailed underwater photo of Smallmouth Bass Micropterus dolomieu. By Engbretson Eric, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – http://www.public-domain-image.com/public-domain-images-pictures-free-stock-photos/fauna-animals-public-domain-images-pictures/fishes-public-domain-images-pictures/bass-fishes-pictures/detailed-underwater-photo-of-smallmouth-bass-fish-micropterus-dolomieu.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24858275

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.

Romancing the River: The #ColoradoRiver Compact at 100 — Sibley’s Rivers #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon Dam just upstream from Lee’s Ferry where the Upper Basin ends and the Lower Basin begins. Photo credit: Simon Morris Creative Commons

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

We’ve been exploring the Colorado River Compact here – which, like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ‘wonderful one-hoss shay’ has now lived almost ‘one hundred years to the day’ – the commissioners signed off on it November 24, 1922.  The century mark is a good place to pause and pull back for a larger perspective on something like a multi-state agreement and see what it has and hasn’t actually accomplished – but without losing sight of the romantic vision of conquest that drove the Compact’s formation, back in the early decades of the Anthropocene Epoch when reorganizing the prehuman world was still fun.

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. 

Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS via Environment360

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.’

Arizona Rivers Map via Geology.com.

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.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

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.

Republished with permission.

The #ColoradoRiver is drying up — but basin states have ‘no plan’ on how to cut water use — #Colorado Public Radio #COriver #aridification #overdrawn22

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

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

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.

The All American Canal carries water from the Colorado River to farms in California’s Imperial Valley. The Imperial Irrigation District holds more rights to Colorado River water than any other user in the basin. Photo credit: Adam Dubrowa, FEMA/Wikipedia.

“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.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

Click the link to read “Cutting river usage: Is first move up to Lower Basin?” on the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website (Dennis Webb). Here’s an excerpt:

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.

While overall demand on the Colorado River trended upward from 1970 to the late 1990s, it plateaued when the region entered the current megadrought. Although this data only goes to 2010, the plateau has pretty much held. But at over 14 MAF per year, demand is significantly higher than what the river has supplied most years. Note that more water is lost to reservoir evaporation than is sent to Mexico. Source: USBR Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study.

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.

A day in Uranium Country — @Land_Desk #DoloresRiver

Hmmm…. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

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

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.

Manhattan Project 1944, Uravan. Photo credit: Uravan.com

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. 

Dolores River watershed

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.

Abandoned car and uranium mine in the Uravan Mineral Belt. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

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.

The JD-7 open pit mine in the Paradox Valley. The landscape was torn apart to remove the overburden, but the mine never produced any ore. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

“Mining has to be part of this energy solution,” Thurston says. “The problem is, mining is not just about siting, but also bringing regulations into modern times and the future. It’s about convincing the government it’s not 1872 anymore.” 

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 Desk dispatch 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.

Looking down the Dolores River from its confluence with the San Miguel. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

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.

Jennifer Thurston walks near the head frame of the JD-5 mine above the Paradox Valley. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

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.

Sylvie’s Seat and the La Sal Mountains. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

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.

#Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch Partner to Bolster Flows in #CrystalRiver #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Helms Ditch Headgate. Photo credit: Colorado Water Trust

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust (Alyson Meyer Gould, Bill Fales and Marj Perry):

On the 13th of September, 2022, Cold Mountain Ranch, with compensation from Colorado Water Trust, is boosting streamflows in the Crystal River, which is suffering from low flows during this hot and dry summer. This is the first year of implementation in a second pilot program with Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch to add flow to the River during dry years. The agreement compensates the Cold Mountain Ranch owners, Bill Fales and Marj Perry, for leaving their irrigation water in the Crystal River when it needs it most.

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

The Crystal River drops out of the Elk Mountains near Marble and flows north to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale. The river supports a number of traditional ranching operations as well as towns, recreationalists, and fish populations. Cold Mountain Ranch relies on the Crystal River to irrigate grass meadows that support its cow-calf operation. Under the agreement, the Water Trust monitors flows in the river. When flows fall to 40 cubic feet per second (cfs) in August and September, the ranch may voluntarily decide to cease diversion from the Crystal River in August through October. Colorado Water Trust determines the amount of water left in the natural stream and then pays the ranch $250 per cfs per day for up to 20 days each year. Once streamflows reach 55 cfs in the River (based on a 3-day rolling average), payments cease, but should flow again drop below 55 cfs, diversions can stop again and compensation resume. The pilot agreement can restore up to 6 cfs in the Crystal River.

In 2018, Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch signed a similar three-year pilot agreement that ended in 2020. Unfortunately, within this initial three-year period, Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch were unable to run the project. In 2018, the Crystal River’s flows were too low to implement the agreement – there was not enough water available to result in significant benefits instream. In 2019, the river was high enough to avoid triggering the agreement during the timeframe of the agreement. Although it flirted with the low flow trigger in the late fall, the timing was out of range for the agreement. And in 2020, because of dry and hot conditions and impacts to their hay crop, Colorado Water Trust’s partners at Cold Mountain Ranch needed to use as much water as possible to maximize their late season production and keep their ranching operation sustainable.

Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch’s initial three-year pilot agreement was the first crack at a highly customized, market-based solution that works for agriculture and rivers on the Crystal River, and offered lessons for the renewal and re-tooling of that initial agreement. In this new contract, the partners tried to account for drier years and changing climatic conditions, as well as the economic needs of the Ranch. The changes include a $5,000 signing bonus to support agricultural operations, additional payment and flexibility for coordination, and extending potential coordination into October.

“Although we certainly wish conditions were wetter, we are excited for a chance to run the program. On one hand it enables an active, family-owned ranching operation to use its water rights portfolio in a new and flexible way. On the other hand, it keeps water in the river when it is most in need. It checks the boxes for the definition of a win-win solution,” Alyson Meyer Gould, Staff Attorney, Colorado Water Trust.

The legal and technical framework created by Colorado Water Trust and informed by local interests and support from Lotic Hydrological, has the potential, if successful, to have far-reaching implications. In the end, it brings environmental benefits to the river without affecting enrolled ranches’ long-term sustainability. Thus, the project will support both people and the environment.

The Water Trust would like to thank Cold Mountain Ranch, Public Counsel of the Rockies, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, Lotic Hydrological, WestWater Research, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Pitkin County, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, the Aspen Skiing Company Environment Foundation, Catena Foundation, and the stakeholders of the Crystal River Management Plan for making this project possible.

The #ColoradoRiver Is Dying. Can Its Aquatic Dinosaurs Be Saved? — Mother Jones Magazine #COriver #aridification

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.”

#Nevada again looks to deep #conservation as the #ColoradoRiver’s reservoirs dwindle — The Nevada Independent

The Las Vegas Wash(Opens another site in new window) is the primary channel through which the Las Vegas Valley’s excess water returns to Lake Mead. Contributing approximately 2 percent of the water in Lake Mead, the water flowing through the Wash consists of urban runoff, shallow groundwater, storm water and releases from the valley’s four water reclamation facilities. Photo credit: Southern Nevada Water Authority

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. 

This year, the state is currently forecast to use about 240,000 acre-feet of water, or 20 percent less than its 300,000 acre-foot allocation. Nevada, as a result, can easily absorb an 8 percent cut to its water supply next year without any significant changes to municipal water deliveries.

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.

Reprinted with permission

Arizona Department of #Water Resources Director and Central #Arizona Project General Manager give grim assessment of #ColoradoRiver conditions #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon Dam. Photo credit: USBR

Click the link to read the article on the Arizona Department of Water Resources website:

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 2019the 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.

Credit: USBR

“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.”

Credi: USBR

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.”

Credit: USBR

Goddard registered disappointment that the Department of the Interior in mid-August failed to announce actions to protect the river system from potentially catastrophic storage declines in its primary reservoirs. He recalled that, in June, the Bureau of Reclamation had vowed that if the Colorado River States failed to agree to voluntarily conserve between 2-4 million acre-feet, in addition to the already planned cuts, the federal government would act to protect the system.

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.

Arizona Capitol Times “Morning Scoop on Water Issues in Arizona” can be found below: 

This is a follow-up to our May Morning Scoop about Water issues in Arizona. In this session we will explore what has changed in the past few months, the current outlook and then dive into some solutions that are being examined. Credit: Arizona Capitol Times

Earlier in September, the Capitol Times announced the recipients of its annual “Leaders of the Year in Public Policy.”

Among those leaders were ADWR Director Buschatzke and CAP General Manager Ted Cooke, who both were cited for their work in environmental matters.

Each year, the Capitol Times recognizes leaders who have contributed to the growth of our state.

According to the Cap Times, “These are the people and groups that hunker down each day to find ways to improve the quality of life of Arizona’s citizens.”

The awardees will be recognized at an awards luncheon at noon. on Sept. 27 at the Phoenix Art Museum. They will also be profiled in a special edition of the Arizona Capitol Times.

Aspinall Unit operations update (September 15, 2022): Turning down releases to 1350 cfs #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Blue Mesa Reservoir

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

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. 

Navajo Dam operations update (September 14, 2022): Turning down to 850 cfs #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

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.

Left Out to Dry: Wildlife Threatened by #ColoradoRiver Basin #Water Crisis — The Revelator #COriver #aridification

The drought’s ‘bathtub ring’ of Lake Mead at the inlet for Hoover Dam, May 2022. Photo: Don Barrett (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Click the link to read the article on The Revelator website (Tara Lohan):

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.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

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…

Hot Drought

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.

Echo Bay Marina in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, 2014. Photo: James Marvin Phelps (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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.

CO2 trend: This graph shows the monthly mean abundance of carbon dioxide globally averaged over marine surface sites since 1980. (NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory)

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.