Sometimes it seems that way, doesn’t it? Unlike other dams, Glen Canyon does not provide any meaningful flood control (except for in the Grand Canyon). It doesn’t regulate streamflow to stretch out the irrigation season (because there are virtually no fields to irrigate between Glen Canyon Dam and the upper end of Lake Mead). And it isn’t so great at storing excess water since, well, there is no excess water. At best it serves as an overflow basin for when Lake Mead fills up. But with both Lake Powell and Lake Mead holding only about 25% of their total capacity, the upper reservoir has become redundant — at least from a water storage standpoint.
It is from this redundancy that the Fill Mead First philosophy has emerged. Wouldn’t it make more sense, adherents of this school ask, to drain Lake Powell and put what water remains there into Lake Mead, so that you’d have one half-full reservoir rather than two quarter-full ones? So that you’d have billions of gallons of water evaporating off just one reservoir rather than two?
It’s a great question. And it brings up another one: Why Lake Powell? As in, what purpose does Glen Canyon Dam still serve in a climate-changed, diminished Colorado River world?
Let me start by saying that I believe the construction of Glen Canyon Dam was a crime against Nature. It inundated countless cultural sites, killed 186 miles of the mainstem of the Colorado River along with hundreds of additional miles of side canyons and tributaries, and deprived everyone born after 1963 of the opportunity to experience one of our nation’s natural marvels. It radically altered the ecology of the Grand Canyon and further endangered already imperiled native fish.
For what was this sacrifice made? Primarily it was to enable the Upper Colorado River Basin states to comply with the Colorado River Compact.
The Compact did two big things: First, it divided the assumed average annual flows of the river between the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico) and the Lower Basin states (California, Arizona, Nevada). The Lower Basin got 8.5 million acre-feet per year; the Upper Basin got 7.5 million acre-feet per year. Mexico was added later, getting 1.5 million acre-feet.
But there was something else: To ensure the Lower Basin would get its share, the Compact mandates that the Upper Basin “not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted below an aggregate of 75 million acre-feet” for any 10-year period. In other words, the Upper Basin couldn’t merely take out its 7.5 MAF share each year and let whatever remained run down to their downstream compatriots. It had to deliver an annual average of 7.5 MAF.
That’s no problem during big water years, but during years when less than 15 MAF is in the river, the Upper Basin would have had to reduce its take accordingly, while the Lower folks would still get their share. During some dry years, the total flow of the river has been lower than 7.5 MAF, meaning the Upper Basin States would be left high and dry.
Unless they had a savings account. Or, in this case, a dam and reservoir above Lee Ferry capable of storing enough water during wet years to be able to release the Lower Basin’s 7.5 MAF during even the driest years, i.e. Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. If not for Lake Powell, the Upper Basin States would have been in deep doo doo over the last couple of decades, because they would have had to substantially cut consumption or go to war with California for failing to deliver the required water to the Lower Basin.
So you could say that the Colorado River Compact’s downstream delivery mandate is the main reason we now are cursed or blessed with Lake Powell. It’s also perhaps the biggest hurdle for Fill Mead First folks to clear: You can’t really get rid of Glen Canyon Dam without scrapping the Compact, for better or worse.
The mandate and the reservoir have another consequence: It forces the Upper Basin States to count evaporation losses against its consumptive use of the River (because it has to deliver the 7.5 MAF after evaporation occurs). Meanwhile, the Lower Basin States can simply take their allotted share out of the river, regardless of evaporation: Another inequity baked into the system.
Glen Canyon Dam serves other purposes, too, such as:
Silt Control: Well, control may not be the right word, since no one has control over the clay and mud and sand (and other less savory sediments) that are carried down the Colorado and San Juan Rivers. But Lake Powell does a good job of catching the silt and keeping it from continuing downstream to clog up Lake Mead. Silt was piling up in Mead at a rate of up to 137,000 acre-feet per year before Glen Canyon. Now it’s down to less than 10,000 acre-feet annually, thanks to that big silt-catcher upstream.
Hydropower Production: We’ve written about this one a lot. The short version: If you did away with Glen Canyon Dam, you’d be depriving the grid of enough electricity annually to power about a quarter of a million homes in the Southwest. It would also drain between $100 million and $200 million annually from dam electricity sales, which helps fund endangered fish recovery programs. That said, by putting that water in Lake Mead, you’d offset some of that loss by increasing the generating capacity of Hoover Dam’s hydroelectric plant.
Recreation: I will confess that when the Blue Ribbon Coalition announced its “Fill Lake Powell: The path to 3,588” initiative last year, I laughed. After all, the motorized recreation lobbying group was calling for massive consumption cuts by all of the Colorado River’s users not to save the River or keep the system from collapsing, but to keep Lake Powell boatable. That just seemed like some slightly lopsided prioritizing. But then a friend and Lake Powell lover called me out on it, and I do have to admit that I’ve done some recreating on Powell, myself, and loved it.
The first time I saw Lake Powell was in the mid-1970s when the reservoir was still filling up. My parents’ friends had rented a houseboat and we spent a week or so with them exploring side canyons, camping, swimming — which for me was floating around in my life jacket — in the warm waters, and hiking to out-of-the-way places that the reservoir and boat had made easily accessible.
There’s something surreal, even shocking about this vast body of water within an arid sea of stone. It’s easy to imagine someone heading off from their houseboat for a hike, getting lost, running out of water, and dying of thirst on a precipice hanging out over a 300-foot vertical drop to a trillion gallons of water. It’s otherworldly in that it seems horribly out of place on this world, which maybe is why it played the part of a post-apocalyptic planet in the opening scene of Planet of the Apes.
But the otherworldliness is part of the appeal, I suppose. Over the years I would return to Lake Powell with friends to camp out on the sandstone shores, sometimes getting there with boats, other times taking creaky old cars on sandy backroads to sections of shoreline that are now miles from the water. We spent a Summer Solstice or two on the reservoir and it was so damned hot and the days so long that early each morning I’d peel myself out of my sun-cooked and sweat-soaked sleeping bag and head straight for the tepid water.
It was usually a lot of fun: A luxurious change from the death march backpacking trips I tended to go on and a sort of novelty to be able to go on a big swim behind the Slickrock Curtain. Well, besides that time that some friends and I encountered a half-submerged cow carcass in the murky water near shore, its legs jutting skyward out of a horribly bloated body, Coors Light cans floating nearby like offerings to a bovine God. But hey.
Back in 2006 or 2007 my wife Wendy headed to Powell for a different sort of trip, setting out from Halls Crossing Marina in sea kayaks for a three-day tour. There’s something eerie about being right down in the glassy, dark water like that. When out in the main channel I tried not to think about how those waters went down below me for hundreds of feet. I tried not to think about the story my cousins used to tell about how divers searching for one of the reservoir’s many victims didn’t find the body but did encounter 12-foot-long catfish in the depths. I tried not to think of what would happen if one of those monster houseboats crashed into me in my skinny little skiff. But all in all it was a marvelous trip and a great way to see that part of the world. I’ve been plotting a longer journey ever since, one in which maybe we hitch a ride with a motor boat up the Escalante or something.
My experiences notwithstanding, recreation at Lake Powell is not only big business, but has also become critical to the economies of the communities that have sprouted near its shores. A National Park Service study found nearly 3 million visitors to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area spent $332 million in and around the park in 2021 (down from $420 million in 2019 when reservoir levels were higher).
Page, Arizona, was established to house the workers who constructed Glen Canyon Dam, and later became the park’s main gateway community, housing its employees, boats, and businesses that cater to park visitors. When the Navajo Generating Station coal plant shut down in 2019, a lot of folks worried that Page would collapse, economically. But it’s stayed afloat — pardon the pun — thanks in part to Lake Powell tourism.
If you drained Lake Powell would tourism to the area dry up, too? I doubt it. Plenty of folks — myself included — would flock to the place to see what the actual canyon looks like, even if it is half silted over. Others, I’m sure, would want to witness the carnage of climate change wrought collapse. Hell, I’d pay good money to be on a house boat as the reservoir drained just to see the place revealed in real time.
I suspect Powell will be drained or drain itself in the next few decades, but I doubt it will happen in the next few years. The Bureau of Reclamation is clearly intent on keeping reservoir levels viable for as long as possible, even if it means bringing the hammer down on the states and forcing cuts in consumption. Combine those efforts with a few good snow years and, who knows, the reservoir might just rebound somewhat.
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I don’t want to jinx it, but maybe, just maybe, this is going to be one of those good spring runoff years of yore. The snow is piling up at above average rates, but it is still early: We may be two-thirds of the way through meteorological winter (Dec-Feb), but not even halfway through the big snow season, which can stretch into May. There’s still time for the snow-deluge to turn to drought.
Oh, and then there are the party poopers who are saying a good snow year is actually bad because it will cause people to let their guards down and ease up on efforts to conserve.
But what the hell, I’m gonna celebrate. Because you know what? There’s a s%$t-ton of snow out there, which is great for the ski areas and the rivers, sure, but best of all it means even lowlanders can go nordic skiing at the golf course, just like in the good ol’ days. Here’s some of the graphs that really stood out for me:
Getting ready for an interview this morning with Mark Brodie at KJZZ (waving at my Phoenix friends!) I put together a table to make it easier to compare the six-state proposal submitted Monday to reduce Lower Colorado River Basin water use, and the California proposal submitted yesterday (Tues. 1/31/23).
Perhaps worth sharing here? “Elevation” is Lake Mead elevation, the numbers are million acre feet of total cuts.
Two keys to note.
First, despite big disagreements about how to approach this, we have unanimity among all seven states that very deep cuts in Lower Basin water use are needed. At the lowest Lake Mead elevations, the numbers are similar.
The difference is in timing. California’s cuts don’t kick in until later – essentially a gamble on good hydrology once again helping us avoid conflict by letting us use more water in the short term.
The six-state proposal says “go big” any time Mead drops below 1,050. The California proposal doesn’t start “going big” until 1,025.
The six-state proposal yanks the bandaid off now.
Under the current “most probable forecast” for the coming year, we’d end up in 2024 with:
Six state proposal: 3,168 million acre feet in cuts
California proposal: 2,188 million acre feet in cuts
There are other differences too – huge disagreements on how to approach the allocation of the cuts! No time for that this morning, I’ve a book to write, but I hope to get back to that in the next few days, stay tuned.
Click the link to read the article on the AZCentral.com website (Brandon Loomis). Click through for the photo gallery, here’s an excerpt:
Late last year, the federal government asked the seven states that share the Colorado River’s water to submit a plan by the end of January to rapidly cut their use of water or face mandatory cuts. Six of them found a consensus proposal andsubmitted their idea on Tuesday. The seventh — California — is an ominous exclusion, given that it is the largest water user on the river and could thwart efforts to preserve the system if it presses its rights in court. Even so, water policy experts found it encouraging that six states could come together to present the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation with a state-driven option, one that fast-forwards through a plan devised 15 years ago…One of the proposal’s authors, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger, said talks with California would continue.
“We absolutely intend to continue to work in good faith with California,” he told The Arizona Republic. “I don’t see the fact that that six states submitted a letter as any sort of declaration of failure.”
Reclamation officials have said river users must cut between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet to stabilize the system. Officials from the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — believe their plan will save 3.3 million. Each acre-foot contains about 326,000 gallons and is enough to supply two or three households, though roughly 80% of the river’s water is applied on farms…
“You’re just rolling the dice on an extremely high-percentage chance that these reservoirs are going to continue to decline and you could go below minimum-power pool at Lake Powell and dead pool at Lake Mead,” he said.
Click the link to read the article on the Associated Press website (Kathleen Ronayne and Felicia Fonseca). Here’s an excerpt:
Competing priorities, outsized demands and the federal government’s retreat from a threatened deadline stymied a deal last summer on how to drastically reduce water use from the parched Colorado River, emails obtained by The Associated Press show…
“We are out of time and out of any cushion to allow for a voluntary plan,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told a Bureau of Reclamation official in a July 18 email…
As 2023 begins, fresh incentives make the states more likely to give up water. The federal government has put up $4 billion for drought relief, and Colorado River users have submitted proposals to get some of that money through actions like leaving fields unplanted. Some cities are ripping up thirsty decorative grass, and tribes and major water agencieshave left some water in key reservoirs — either voluntarily or by mandate. Reclamation also has agreed to spend $250 million mitigating hazards at a drying California lake bed, a condition of the state’s water users agreeing to cut their use by 400,000 acre feet in a proposal released in October. The Interior Department is still evaluating proposals for a slice of the $4 billion and can’t say how much savings it will generate, Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said in an interview…
Figuring out who absorbs additional water cuts has been contentious, with allegations of drought profiteering, reneging on commitments, too many negotiators in the room and an unsteady hand from the federal government, the emails and follow-up interviews showed. California says it’s a partner willing to sacrifice, but other states see it as a reluctant participant clinging to a water priority system where it ranks near the top. Arizona and Nevada have long felt they’re unfairly forced to bear the brunt of cuts because of a water rights system developed long ago, a simmering frustration that reared its head during talks…But state officials said when it became clear the federal government wouldn’t act unilaterally, it created a “chilling effect” that removed the urgency from the talks because water users with higher-priority water rights were no longer at risk of harsh cuts, Arizona’s Buschatzke said in an interview…
Reclamation is now focused on weighing the latest round of comments from states on how to save the river. Nevada wants to count water lost to evaporation and transportation in water allocations — a move that could mean the biggest volume of cuts for California — and some Arizona water managers agree, comment letters obtained by the AP show. But disputes remain over how to determine what level of cuts are fair and legal. California’s goal remains protecting its status while other states and tribes want more than old water rights taken into account — such as whether users have access to other water sources, and the effects of cuts on disadvantaged communities and food security. Reclamation’s goal is to get a draft of proposed cuts out by early March, then a final decision before mid-August, when Reclamation regularly announces how much — or how little — river water is available for the next year.
“Think of the Colorado River Basin as a slow-motion disaster,” said Kevin Moran, who directs state and federal water policy advocacy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re really at a moment of reckoning.”
Negotiators say the odds of a voluntary agreement appear slim. It would be the second time in six months that the Colorado River states, which also include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, have missed a deadline for consensus on cuts sought by the Biden administration to avoid a catastrophic failure of the river system. Without a deal, the Interior Department, which manages flows on the river, must impose the cuts. That would break from the century-long tradition of states determining how to share the river’s water. And it would all but ensure that the administration’s increasingly urgent efforts to save the Colorado get caught up in lengthy legal challenges. The crisis over the Colorado River is the latest example of how climate change is overwhelming the foundations of American life — not only physical infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, but also the legal underpinnings that have made those systems work.
A century’s worth of laws, which assign different priorities to Colorado River users based on how long they’ve used the water, is facing off against a competing philosophy that says, as the climate changes, water cuts should be apportioned based on what’s practical. The outcome of that dispute will shape the future of the southwestern United States.
“We’re using more water than nature is going to provide,” said Eric Kuhn, who worked on previous water agreements as general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Someone is going to have to cut back very significantly.”
The rules that determine who gets water from the Colorado River, and how much, were always based, to a degree, on magical thinking…But the premise that the river’s flow would average 17.5 million acre-feet each year turned out to be faulty. Over the past century, the river’s actual flow has averaged less than 15 million acre-feet each year. For decades, that gap was obscured by the fact that some of the river’s users, including Arizona and some Native American tribes, lacked the canals and other infrastructure to employ their full allotment. But as that infrastructure increased, so did the demand on the river. Then, the drought hit. From 2000 through 2022, the river’s annual flow averaged just over 12 million acre-feet; in each of the past three years, the total flow was less than 10 million.
Another deadline to establish new cutbacks in water use in the seven-state Colorado River Basin is quickly approaching on January 31, 2023, as states continue their talks, as ordered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
In addition to the cutbacks, several other key decisions also lie ahead in the coming weeks, including how a $125 million, broad-based water conservation pilot program would operate, whether a permanent water conservation program known as demand management could work among the Upper Basin states, and how the third-year of an emergency drought plan, known as the Drought Response Operations Agreement, will function this spring and summer.
All are tied to reducing short-term and long-term demands on the drought-strapped river as part of a five-point plan put forward by the Upper Basin states last summer. In releasing that plan, the Upper Basin recognized its effectiveness would hinge on additional actions to reduce use in the Lower Basin.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation late last year had given the seven basin states until Jan. 31 to come up with a new agreement on water reductions, after an August deadline had passed.
Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said talks were continuing but that more work and specific plans from California, Arizona and Nevada would be necessary to reach an agreement and take action.
“The basin states, the federal government, and the tribes have been working collaboratively and tirelessly to find potential points of consensus on short-term actions to protect lakes Powell and Mead,” Mitchell said Monday at a meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board in Aurora.
“I continue to believe strongly that the Lower Basin states must take action to reduce their demands out of Lake Mead.
“We are moving forward on our commitments, but it is important to recognize that those commitments and that work alone mean nothing if the Lower Basin use continues as it has been,” she said. She also stressed the importance of considering what must occur in the Lower Basin before Colorado moves forward with widespread participation in the System Conservation Pilot Program.
The basin is divided into two regions. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin covers Arizona, California and Nevada.
Last summer U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered the states to figure out how to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet by August, but no agreements have been reached. Now the states, along with tribal leaders and the feds are aiming to agree to cuts by Jan. 31. If no consensus is reached next week, it leaves the possibility that the federal government will decide how to make the cuts in the coming weeks.
As lakes Powell and Mead have dwindled, all seven states have had to get by with less water and federal forecasts indicate that is likely to be the case for several more years.
Since December, the water forecast has improved slightly thanks to heavy mountain snows in Utah and Colorado, according to Michelle Garrison, a water resources specialist at the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“Snowpack and runoff in all of western Colorado and Utah is quite a bit above average … but from here on, it could get really dry just like it did last year. So folks need to be prepared to plan for a continued wet or a sudden drop to really dry or anything in between as they’re looking forward,” Garrison told the board.
Now 23 years into a megadrought widely believed to be the worst in 1,800 years, the highly developed river system is on the brink of collapse, with lakes Powell and Mead falling dangerously close to dead pool, a water level so low that, if it is reached, Powell won’t be able to produce hydropower and Mead won’t be able to serve the millions of people in the Lower Basin who rely on the river.
The river begins in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains, high in Rocky Mountain National Park. It gathers water from major tributaries in Colorado, such as the Yampa and Gunnison rivers, and throughout the Upper Basin, accumulating some 90% of the streamflow that it will provide throughout the seven-state river system thanks to the runoff from the Upper Basin’s deep mountain snows.
But since 2002, those mountain snowpacks have been shrinking, crushed by warming temperatures and fewer snow days.
Beginning in July of 2021, the U.S. Department of the Interior ordered, for the first time, emergency releases from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs. But that has done little to restore levels, although the releases are credited with providing some protection to the power supply.
While Lower Basin states have been forced to begin cutting back water use under a special set of operating guidelines and drought plans approved respectively in 2007 and 2019, negotiations in recent months have failed to achieve the federally ordered cutbacks. Upper Basin states are considering new programs and actions to further cut Upper Basin water use, but are hoping for additional Lower Basin commitments before taking additional water use reductions of their own.
At the same time, the drought has continued, and this winter could be dry once again, particularly in the Lower Basin. In response, last week, the federal government announced it would expedite negotiations on a new set of operating guidelines designed to protect lakes Powell and Mead to help restore the river.
Under the terms of the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the river’s supplies are divided equally between the Upper and Lower basins. But because the Upper Basin states have smaller and fewer reservoirs than the Lower Basin, users here have had to cut back their water use as the drought has continued. At the same time, Lower Basin users have been able to rely on stored supplies in Powell and Mead, at least until now.
Looking ahead, Jessica Brody, who represents the Metro Basin on the CWCB Board of Directors, said she would like to see more time taken before critical Upper Basin decisions are made, including participation in the $125 million System Conservation Pilot Program, which is accepting applications through Feb. 1.
“I’m a little bit concerned about the Feb. 1 deadline when we don’t yet know whether the Lower Basin will be able to come to the table in terms of reducing the demands in the Lower Basin,” Brody said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Click the link to read the guest column on the Aspen Times website (Stacy Standley). Here’s an excerpt:
Now is the time to take a giant step into the future with revolutionary ideas that transcend the parochial local interests of the Roaring Fork River Valley by recognizing that climate/weather change, along with population growth, has erased the boundaries of the Colorado River Basin…Aspen is now the pivotal headwaters of the Colorado River Basin, which has become a small, compacted irrigation canal instead of a great river system and has shrunk many hundreds of miles into but a few feet…
1. There should be 100% metering and billing of every drop of water: 7% of the Aspen distribution is unmetered and/or unbilled and unmetered, and this should be eliminated.
2. You can not distribute or control what you do not measure: Metering and billing should be by constant recorded, instantaneous, wifi-linked electronic services on all distribution points and reported to every customer and the Water Department on a instantaneous daily basis, with auto shutoffs for an aberration of usage by 1% or more.
3. All wastewater and storm water must be a fully-integrated part of the treated water-supply system by municipal recycling and/or irrigation and municipal water usage.
4. Downstream water flows that exceed minimum stream flow must be acquired and piped back into the upstream Aspen intake.
5. Aspen and Pitkin County must negotiate with Twin Lakes Canal and Reservoir Co. and the Fry-Ark project to create water savings for their service area and water that can be allowed to stay in the Roaring Fork River Valley.
6. Salvation Ditch, Red Mountain Ditch, and all other local irrigation systems should become a part of the Aspen water conservation and re-use ethic.
7. 100% of all leaks and water waste must be ended immediately.
8. Every tree, plant, and natural out-of-house improvement must be identified and the water usage calculated by Lysimeter and/or other instantaneous soil moisture storage measurement system and then a local research and development lab created to test, grow, and install water conserving plants and systems for out-of-house water management and control.
9. All local streets should be coated with bright reflective surfaces to maintain a cooler urban-heat island and, thus, improve out-of-house water usage.
10. Aspen should create its own bottled (no plastic) water supply for individual use from a high-quality spring and distribute at least 2 gallons per person per day inside of the city service area for drinking water usage at cost to increase the Aspen water supply.
11. Aspen should divert into vertically oriented pipeline coils (24 to 48 inch) in all area streams to capture water runoff that exceeds minimum stream flows and keep the vertical-coiled pipelines at or above the city base elevation for instantaneous “pipeline coil reservoir storage.”
12. Every new or remodeled home and business must have installed an on-site water-storage tank for at least three months of driest in-house water usage.
13. Aspen should participate individually and/or with other Colorado River Basin water users in regional ocean, salt flats, and poor quality oil field wastewater/produced water (i.e., Rangely Field and Utah Basin) purification desalination and urban wastewater recycling for earning water-use credits.
14. Aspen should negotiate with Colorado River Basin Native American tribes to create constructive water savings and water-credit system for the benefit of reservation and also Aspen water usage.
15. Aspen should negotiate to replace Colorado River Basin hydroelectric-power generation with renewable energy to earn water storage credits for regional reservoir.
Upper Colorado River Basin states, including Wyoming, are looking for agricultural irrigators, municipalities and other water users interested in a volunteer program that pays them to leave water in streams flowing to the troubled Colorado River.
But with just two weeks left to enroll in the System Conservation Pilot Program, water users still have myriad questions regarding eligibility, how water savings are measured and what participation in the program might mean to their operations.
Given the short timeframe, the Upper Colorado River Commission, and the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, which oversees the program in Wyoming, are urging interested water users to submit project proposals by the Feb. 1 deadline, even if they’re unsure whether their water savings plans qualify.
“We can still take incomplete applications by Feb. 1, and we’ll work with you to complete those, finalize them and get you into the system,” UCRC Deputy Director Sara Larsen said during a public question-and-answer webinar Wednesday.
The UCRC staff, along with state-level water officials, will verify qualifications and otherwise help applicants complete their proposals — post-submission, if necessary — in order to enroll as many participants as possible, according to the commission.
Successful applicants for the 2023 program will be notified by the end of February.
Water conservation rush
The SCPP is one of five short-term strategies that Upper Colorado River Basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — have offered to help meet a challenge by federal officials to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water in the over-taxed system this year.
The UCRC announced a call for SCPP proposals Dec. 14 with a filing deadline of Feb. 1.
The quick turn-around stems from intensifying drought conditions that helped drain Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado River — to historic lows this past summer, threatening water availability for some 40 million people who depend on the river. Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo announced drought response actions in May intended to maintain hydropower generation at Powell and Mead, which included taking extra releases from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border.
“More needs to be done as the system reaches critically low water levels,” Trujillo testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in June. “The system is at a tipping point.”
Though Wyoming and its upper basin partners didn’t commit specific water-saving volumes in response to the Interior Department’s call for conserving 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water this year, the UCRC put forth a 5-point plan. The SCPP is the first to be implemented.
“Upper [Colorado River Basin] states have made no commitment with regard to the number of [SCPP] projects or target volumes or anything other than adapting to the interest from willing partners among water users and tribes in the upper basin,” UCRC Executive Director Chuck Collum said during the Wednesday webinar.
Addressing the short turn-around for SCPP proposals, applications don’t “have to be perfect,” Collum said. “But it needs to be in the hopper [by Feb. 1] so we can work with you to refine it.”
The UCRC and Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, however, are not beginning from square one. Wyoming enrolled a couple dozen water users in the program’s initial iteration from 2015 through 2018, and found exponential interest among irrigators — particularly in the upper reaches of the Green River and its tributaries, according to state officials.
How it works
To qualify for the SPCC in Wyoming, a water user must have a valid water right within the Little Snake or Green River basins and demonstrate that that right has been exercised in recent years, according to state officials. Participants are credited only for voluntary reductions of “consumptive use,” which is described as Colorado River-bound water “that can be estimated or measured,” according to the UCRC.
In the case of industrial and municipal water users, consumptive use is generally measured by determining how much water is diverted and not returned to the river system. Water reuse and recycling may qualify, however, according to the UCRC. For agricultural irrigation operations, consumptive use, generally, is measured by determining how much diverted water is consumed by crops.
For example, an irrigator might divert 10 acre-feet of water but 2 acre-feet returns to the system. Water officials would credit the irrigator for volumes of water allowed to flow downstream that would otherwise normally have been consumed.
For now, the UCRC envisions a “fixed term” compensation of $150 per acre-foot of water under the SCPP in 2023, although it may consider higher rates based on circumstances, according to the agency’s request for proposals. The UCRC secured $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act to support the program — an amount that water officials say is more than enough to cover payments and expenses in 2023.
In the first iteration of the SCPP — from 2015 through 2018 — a total 23,886 acre-feet of water was conserved among 26 projects in Wyoming, according to a report by the upper basin commission. It paid water users a total $4,079,233 — about $171 per-acre foot.
Priority for SCPP proposals in 2023 will be given to “projects that are likely to mitigate impacts of the ongoing drought,” larger volumes of water to be conserved and the ability to verify water savings, according to the request for proposals.
Further details about how the program works in Wyoming and what qualifies can be found on the Colorado River Working Group’s website.
Water managers in the Colorado River basin are gaining a better understanding that what happens in the weeks after peak snowpack — not just how much snow accumulated over the winter — can have an outsize influence on the year’s water supply.
Water year 2021 was historically bad, with an upper basin snowpack that peaked around 90% of average but translated to only 36% of average runoff into Lake Powell, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It was the second-worst runoff on record after 2002. One of the culprits was exceptionally thirsty soils from 2020’s hot and dry summer and fall, which soaked up snowmelt before runoff made it to streams. But those dry soils are only part of the story.
A new paper from the Desert Research Institute, a nonprofit science arm of the Nevada university system, found that heat waves in April 2021 drove record snowmelt rates at about 25% of snow-telemetry (SNOTEL) sites looked at across the West. SNOTEL is a network of remote sensing stations throughout the West’s mountainous watersheds that collect weather and snowpack information.
A heat wave that was concentrated over the Rocky Mountains on April 1-7 contributed to record snowmelt at 74 stations, including areas that feed the Colorado River.
A few different agencies release monthly water-supply forecasts for April through July, including the National Resource Conservation Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. The April forecast is the first prediction of how streamflows will shape up for the year.
But according to the paper, in 2021, “rates of snowmelt throughout April were alarming and quickly worsened summer runoff outlooks which underscores that 1 April may no longer be a reliable benchmark for western water supply.”
The paper did not quantify what exactly the record melt speed meant for water supply, but paper author and associate research professor of climatology Dan McEvoy said it definitely contributed to the poor inflow into the nation’s second-largest reservoir in 2021. It also shows there are many more factors relevant to predicting the water supply than just how much water is in the snowpack, a metric known as snow-water equivalent (SWE), which is measured by SNOTEL sites.
“There was a combination of things that was contributing to this really low runoff in places like the Colorado River basin,” McEvoy said.
Some of these other factors include very little April precipitation and warm nighttime temperatures, which didn’t allow the snowpack to get into the daily freeze-thaw cycle that’s common in the spring. Persistent high pressure kept skies clear and sunny, which meant that more of the snowpack sublimated, evaporating instead of turning into liquid.
“When it’s sunnier and warmer, you can lose some of that water directly to the atmosphere,” McEvoy said. “It doesn’t even get to melt and go into the runoff.”
These rapid melting events could also help set up prime conditions for wildfires, he said, something he wants to continue studying.
“When you have the snow disappear earlier there’s more time with the ground exposed, which contributes to drying out the vegetation in the spring and summer and an earlier onset to wildfire season,” McEvoy said.
After peak snowpack
Climatologists at Colorado State University are working on a similar study that looks at how factors such as precipitation after peak snowpack affect spring runoff. Their findings underscore how important the conditions of the six to eight weeks after peak snowpack are for predicting streamflows.
“One of the things we found that was crystal clear from the study was that one of the major sources of water-supply forecast error is what happens after peak snowpack,” said Peter Bennett Goble, a climatologist at CSU who is working on the study. “Just knowing how much uncertainty is still out there on April 1 or even April 15 probably allows water managers to be a little more cautious, maybe hold a little bit more back, especially if it looks like it’s going to be an early runoff.”
Predicting whether reservoirs will fill — and therefore how much water to release to make room for the inflow — can be tricky. Some municipal water providers use the Colorado Airborne Snow Measurement Program — with its lidar-equipped planes — to more accurately measure snowpack. For example, Denver Water has used CASM to see how much snow is in the headwaters of the Blue River basin, which feeds Dillon Reservoir, its largest storage bucket.
But aside from this technology, which is expensive and not yet available everywhere, water managers rely heavily on data from the SNOTEL sites to make streamflow forecasts. This method has limitations, providing just a snapshot of conditions at one location.
These limitations can be seen in recent years’ forecasts for Ruedi Reservoir, on the Fryingpan River. Initial forecasts in April 2021 projected Ruedi could probably fill to its entire 102,373-acre-foot capacity, but the reservoir ended up only about 80% full that year. In 2020, each of the three main forecasting agencies also overpredicted Ruedi inflow for the months of April, May and June. (An acre-foot covers 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot.)
Tim Miller, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation who manages operations at Ruedi, said his models predicted a 2021 Ruedi inflow of 111,000 acre-feet, but only 77,000 acre-feet actually flowed in. That the models are based on historical SNOTEL data from past decades is a drawback as climate change progresses, but it’s the best we have, Miller said.
“It makes the assumption that what we have seen in the past is what we will see in the future, which is a really poor assumption when you’re in the middle of a change in the climate,” Miller said. “We will probably see events like we haven’t seen in the future and we are using what we’ve seen to predict them.”
Dave Kanzer, director of science and interstate matters for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, said people often look for a single explanation when streamflows don’t match predictions. The River District owns and operates Wolford Mountain Reservoir, near Kremmling, and stores water in Ruedi Reservoir. But there is often a whole host of compounding factors that water managers will have to begin weighing more heavily as the climate warms.
“It’s not just about soil moisture, it’s not just about solar radiation, it’s not just about temperatures, it’s not just about the winds — it’s everything,” Kanzer said. “In some cases, like 2021, you get what some people like to call the perfect storm.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.
Brian Wong has a lot on his shoulders. A third-generation farmer, Wong grows crops — including nearly extinct heritage grains like white Sonora wheat — on 4,500 acres in the heart of the parched Sonoran Desert, about 25 minutes northwest of Tucson, Arizona. Bakeries, restaurants, breweries, and flour mills as far away as Minnesota and Florida rely on his grain to sustain their own businesses.
Wong’s BKW Farms is among the 80 percent of the state’s agricultural producers that rely on the Colorado River to irrigate their crops. And with the Colorado at precariously low levels, his family business faces its largest challenge in nearly 85 years. “We have a great understanding of and place great importance on water,” Wong says. “Water is something you need in almost every aspect of agriculture. Everything we grow is irrigated. We need to have a water source to put on the crops so we can continue growing food.”
All of the water irrigating Wong’s farm arrives via the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a 336-mile canal system that shuttles Colorado River water to customers throughout the state. Altogether, the Colorado irrigates 5 million acres of farm and ranch land across seven Southwestern states and Mexico. It supplies 40 million people with drinking water and supports a $1.4 trillion economy.
But climate change, extreme drought, and explosive population growth are taking an enormous toll on the river. The Colorado and its two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, dwindled to calamitously low levels in 2022, forcing the U.S. Department of the Interior to declare, for the first time in history, a Tier 1 Water Shortage. The declaration triggered deep cuts in the volume of Colorado River water delivered to Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico. Arizona agriculture took the biggest hit because CAP is on par to get 30 percent less water from the shrinking river. Even deeper restrictions will go into effect in 2023, with cities and Tribes shouldering more of the brunt.
Alongside farmers like Wong, American Rivers is urgently working together with partners at utilities, municipalities, and conservation groups to fix the massive imbalance between demand and a shrinking Colorado River.
From working with ranchers to restore habitat in the river’s headwaters, to encouraging municipalities to use less and eliminate unnecessary uses of valuable Colorado River water, to working on new guidelines for long-term management of the river, American Rivers is involved in decisions that span 1,700 miles of the Colorado River, from its headwaters in Colorado to its delta in Mexico.
“The hard truth is, there just isn’t enough water to go around for everyone,” Wong says.
We have to learn to live with a smaller Colorado River. Wong says the way forward is by partnering with advocates like American Rivers, who work with policymakers and stakeholders to elevate stories and shape water-management strategies into the future.
The bottom line is that “I” doesn’t work. We all rely on rivers, and water, and their continued existence. Our future demands that we invest boldly and immediately in strategies that will work — and that will build for all of us the kind of future we want for our children.
Fifteen towns, cities and water districts in northern Colorado hope to begin building two dams and other infrastructure in 2025 to deliver enough water to meet needs for a quarter-million people, many of them along the fast-growing Interstate 25 corridor.
Northern Water, the agency overseeing what’s known as the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), hailed federal approval of a critical permit last month as a milestone. “This action is the culmination of nearly 20 years of study, project design and refinement to develop water resources well into the 21st century,” said Brad Wind, general manager of Northern Water. Wind said that NISP will enable the 15 project members, including Windsor, Erie and Fort Morgan, to grow without buying farmland, then drying it up and using its water for growth.
The environmental group, Save the Poudre, hopes to dash those plans. The nonprofit says it will file a lawsuit in an attempt to block the $2 billion NISP. To succeed, the group will have to overcome precedent. It failed to block Chimney Hollow, the dam that Northern Water is constructing as part of a separate project, in the foothills west of Berthoud whose construction began in 2022 after a three-year court case.
“We have a much stronger case against NISP because the project would drain a dramatic amount of water out of the Poudre River, which would negatively impact the river’s ecology, its habitat, and its jurisdictional wetlands — protected by the Clean Water Act — all the way through Fort Collins and downstream,” said Gary Wockner, director of Save The Poudre.
This new court challenge was set up by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announcement Dec. 9 that it was issuing a crucial permit under the Clean Water Act. Directors of Northern Water, the overarching agency for the participating jurisdictions, are scheduled on Thursday, Jan. 5, to take up whether to accept the terms of the permit. Staff members have advised them to do so.
The impetus for NISP can be traced to the early 1980s when Northern Water began drawing up plans to dam the Poudre River in the foothills near Fort Collins. Federal agencies balked at Denver’s plans for a similar project on the South Platte River at Two Forks, in the foothills southwest of Denver. Northern shelved its initial plan. But after the scorching drought that began in 2002, Northern developed plans for NISP, which it submitted to federal agencies in 2004.
Two reservoirs are central to NISP. Glade Park, an off-channel reservoir, would be built north of La Porte, bounded by the Dakota hogbacks and a dam that would cross today’s Highway 287. It would have a capacity of 170,000 acre-feet, slightly larger than the 157,000 acre-feet of Horsetooth Reservoir. Northern’s water rights are relatively junior, dating from the 1980s and would only generate water in spring months during high runoff years.
The project promises delivery via pipeline of 40,000 acre-feet of high-quality water annually to the 11 mostly smaller towns and cities and the 4 water districts. Erie is buying the largest amount of water from the new project, claiming 6,500 acre-feet. An acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons.
The second storage pool, Galeton Reservoir, at 45,000 acre-feet, would impound water northeast of Greeley. Unlike the water from Glade, which is to be strictly dedicated to domestic use, Galeton would hold water that will be delivered to farms in Weld County that otherwise would have received water from the Poudre River. This will be done via a water-rights swap with two ditches north of Greeley. Those agreements have not been finalized.
Preservation of agricultural land, costs of water, and water quality figure prominently in the talking points both for — and, in some cases, against — the project.
Northern and its project participants argue that NISP will allow them to grow without drying up farms. It can do so, they say, by delivering the water at a lower cost.
The federal environmental impact statement’s no-action alternative found that population growth would occur regardless of whether a federal permit was issued, said Jeff Stahla, the public information officer for Northern Water. That analysis found that in the absence of NISP, the 15 cities and water districts would look to buy water rights currently devoted to agriculture, ultimately taking 64,000 acres — or 100 square miles — out of production.
The 15 utilities will be able to get NISP’s new water at $40,000 per acre-foot, substantially below current market rates for other regional water sources such as the Colorado-Big Thompson Project shares. Those shares, which constitute seven-tenths of an acre-foot, have been selling for about $75,000.
In some cases, expanding cities will take farmland out of production — and presumably gain access to the water, but not always.
“We do not want to dry up northern Colorado,” says John Thornhill, Windsor’s director of community development.
Thornhill said that Windsor, a town of 42,000 with its 20th Century sugar beet factory still standing, is participating in NISP to improve the resiliency of its water portfolio as it prepares for another 10,000 to 15,000 residents in the next 10 to 15 years.
“The town of Windsor has just as much interest in having a clean, healthy river as anybody else does,” he says. “[The Poudre River] goes right through our town.”
Fort Collins is not participating in the project. In a 2020 resolution, it said it would oppose the proposal or any variant that failed to “address the City’s fundamental concerns about the quality of its water supply and the effects on the Cache la Poudre River through the city.”
Water quality will be at the heart of Save the Poudre’s lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers’ 404 permit. The group’s Wockner says the diversion to Glade Reservoir will reduce peak flows in the Poudre, a river already suffering from E. coli and other pollutants, by up to 40%. “The water quality in the river will worsen because as you take out the peak flows what is left is dirty water,” he says.
Also at issue, says Wockner, will be the impacts to Fort Collins’ wastewater treatment. With reduced flows downstream from its two treatment plants, those plants would have to be upgraded.
On the flip side, Fort Morgan got involved partly because of Glade Reservoir’s higher water quality, according to City Manager Brent Nation.
The city of 12,000 historically relied upon aquifer water heavily laden with minerals for its domestic supply. As the aquifer became increasingly tainted by chemicals used in agricultural production, the city, in the late 1990s, began importing water through an 80-mile pipeline from Carter Lake, a reservoir that stores imported Colorado River water southwest of Loveland.
To use aquifer water for its new population growth Fort Morgan would need to upgrade its water treatment system to use reverse osmosis. That’s a more expensive treatment that also produces a problem of brine disposal.
Both Fort Morgan and Windsor have started working on land-use regulations that will restrict high-quality water for domestic use, at least in some subdivisions, leaving lower-quality water for landscaping.
If NISP as proposed survives Save the Poudre’s legal challenge, it may still need a 1041 permit from Fort Collins. Those regulations have not yet been adopted, however.
Allen Best grew up in eastern Colorado, where both sets of grandparents were farmers. Best writes about the energy transition in Colorado and beyond at BigPivots.com.
In response to sufficient flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 350 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 300 cfs for Tuesday, January 3rd, 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.
“One of the big problems with bringing water from somewhere else is a false sense of security. When we live long distances from our water, we may not understand the limits of that supply or ecosystem- so conservation is less likely” — Abby Burk
Reprinted with permisssion from Don Siefkes:
Mike Wade, “Imperial Valley can’t sustain another water cut,” Dec. 14, is absolutely right. However, if we can’t get new water to the Colorado River, and even though conservation is important, no amount of conservation is going to fix this problem.
Here’s one solution to avoid the looming disaster. The National Infrastructure Bank (NIB) set out in House Resolution 3339 would provide $5 trillion in low-cost loans for a broad range of public infrastructure projects – including massive water systems – without the need for increasing taxes or any deficit budget spending. This bill is modeled on the successful Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) started by President Herbert Hoover and used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to build Hoover Dam and bring water and electricity to the Southwest.
The NIB is prepared to invest up to $400 billion to bring new water to the Colorado River and the Southwest. One possibility would be to divert water from the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and up to the Glen Canyon Dam.
In this proposal, no water would be taken from the main channel of the Mississippi. As of Dec. 19, 1.43 million gals/sec of Atchafalaya River water was simply going into the Gulf of Mexico without producing electricity or supporting commercial shipping. Taking just 100,000 gals/sec (7%) of this water would fill Lakes Powell and Mead to 50% capacity in one year and 9 months. The project would save on construction costs by using an existing facility – the Old River Control Complex just south of Vidalia, Louisiana, where the Army Corps of Engineers diverts 30% of the downflow of the Mississippi to prevent flooding in New Orleans.
This undertaking would build a 1,400 mile series of pipelines, open channels, tunnels and pumping stations (similar to the California, Los Angeles, Colorado River Aqueducts and the Central Arizona Project). It could be built in a year, along interstate highway rights-of-way, using huge earth-moving machines like those employed in Holland for their canal systems.
There is historical precedent for building systems like this project with deliberate, urgent, speed. In less than a year between 1942 and 1943, the RFC financed and built two pipelines of similar length, 1,200 and 1,400 miles, to carry crude oil from Texas oil fields to the East Coast. These pipelines rescued the entire East Coast industrial oil refining system and won World War II for the Allies.
Such a water aqueduct system might cost on the order of $14 billion-23 billion, a small amount for a $5 trillion bank and also small compared to cutting off water supplies to farmers in the Southwest who produce $39 billion worth of our annual food supply. Without new water in the Colorado, food prices will skyrocket more than they already have, and we will all needlessly suffer. It is also unthinkable to allow water levels in Lakes Mead and Powell to fall to the point where the dams can no longer generate electricity or provide drinking water.
We don’t think anything about pumping crude oil and gasoline through 190,000 miles of U.S. pipelines from areas that have oil and gasoline to areas that don’t. We certainly can do the same with water.
Alphecca Muttardy is a Macroeconomist with the Coalition for a National Infrastructure Bank (NIBCoalition.com), and 25 year veteran of the International Monetary Fund. Don Siefkes is an MIT-trained chemical engineer who represents the Coalition for the NIB in the San Francisco Bay Area. Their emails are, respectively, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nevada water managers have submitted a plan for cutting diversions by 500,000 acre-feet in a last-ditch effort to shore up flows on the Colorado River before low water levels cause critical problems at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams. But the Silver State’s plan targets cuts in Utah and the river’s other Upper Basin states, not in Nevada, whose leaders contend it already is doing what it can to reduce reliance on the depleted river system that provides water to 40 million in the West.
“It is well past time to prohibit the inefficient delivery, application, or use of water within all sectors and by all users; there simply is no water in the Colorado River System left to waste and each industrial, municipal, and agricultural user should be held to the highest industry standards in handling, using, and disposing of water,” states a Dec. 20 letter the Colorado River Commission of Nevada sent to the Interior Department. “It is critical that Reclamation pursue all options that will help reduce consumptive uses in the Basin and provide water supply reliability.”
One option Nevada offers is for Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming to accept substantial cuts in the amount of river they tap to ensure enough water reaches Lake Powell to keep Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower turbines spinning and Lake Powell functioning as a reservoir…The proposal comes in the form of Nevada’s official comments to the supplemental environmental impact statement the Bureau of Reclamation is preparing for proposed changes to the operations of the drought-depleted reservoirs. One of three Lower Basin states, Nevada called on the Upper Basin states to reduce their withdrawals by a combined 500,000 acre-feet if Lake Powell’s level is projected to drop below 3,550 feet above sea level at the start of the coming calendar year…Today, the lake’s level is already far below than that, at 3,525.7 feet, just 35 feet above the point at which Glen Canyon Dam’s turbines would be damaged if water passes through the penstocks.
“The reason [The Upper Colorado River Commision’s] five-point plan doesn’t have any specific numbers is because we don’t know what’s ahead of us. We don’t know whether the runoff is going to be 7 million acre-feet or 20 million acre-feet,” Shawcroft said. “The real challenge is the hydrology. But we know for a fact that that we’re not going to be able to continue operating the river like we always have. The majority of the water gets used in the lower basin states, but does that mean that Upper [Basin] states are off the hook? I don’t think they are.”
Click the link to read the article on the KJZZ websits (Ron Dungan). Here’s an excerpt:
Colorado River Basin states recently gathered in Las Vegas for their annual water users convention. The states are trying to figure out how to get by with less water. The conference focused on a variety of topics, such as new technology, conservation and funding that will guide water users into the next century. But federal water managers say that new conservation measures need to be put in place or they will impose cuts.
“We pray for the rains to come, for the snow to fall, for moisture in the earth. Not just for the Hopi, but for everybody. For every living thing that’s out there.” – Dennis Hopper, Hopi Elder
The Green and Colorado river systems form the backbone of the American West. Once spanning a 1,450-mile journey from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California, today, none of the sediment-rich water reaches the Pacific Ocean. Instead, its water lies stymied in reservoirs and siphoned off to feed and nurture 40 million people from Salt Lake to Los Angeles.
One hundred and fifty years after John Wesley Powell’s historic descent of the Green and Colorado rivers, an unlikely crew of scientists, artists, educators, and river lovers repeated his journey on a trip that was simultaneously a celebration of modern river life and a critical look at how we interpret the Colorado River’s history and use its waters.
As the demand we place on the water of the Colorado continues to exceed its supply, we are forced to face uncomfortable truths about decisions made in our past. And we are reminded that the way we think about water—and all those dependent upon it—needs to shift if we want things to change for our future.
“Water is a life force for all of us. It has a spiritual and physical being to it that deserves respect. It’s not something that you take for granted.” – Lyle Balenquah, Hopi archaeologist
On a crisp day this fall I drove southeast from Grand Junction, Colorado, into the Uncompahgre Valley, a rich basin of row crops and hayfields. A snow line hung like a bowl cut around the upper cliffs of the Grand Mesa, while in the valley some farmers were taking their last deliveries of water, sowing winter wheat and onions. I turned south at the farm town of Delta onto Route 348, a shoulder-less two-lane road lined with irrigation ditches and dent corn still hanging crisp on their browned stalks. The road crossed the Uncompahgre River, and it was thin, nearly dry.
The Uncompahgre Valley, stretching 34 miles from Delta through the town of Montrose, is, and always has been, an arid place. Most of the water comes from the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, which courses out of the peaks of the Elk Range through the cavernous and sun-starved depths of the Black Canyon, one rocky and inaccessible valley to the east. In 1903, the federal government backed a plan hatched by Uncompahgre farmers to breach the ridge with an enormous tunnel and then in the 1960s to build one of Colorado’s largest reservoirs above the Black Canyon called Blue Mesa. Now that tunnel feeds a neural system of water: 782 miles worth of successively smaller canals and then dirt ditches, laterals and drains that turn 83,000 Western Colorado acres into farmland. Today, the farm association in this valley is one of the largest single users of Colorado River water outside of California.
I came to this place because the Colorado River system is in a state of collapse. It is a collapse hastened by climate change but also a crisis of management. In 1922, the seven states in the river basin signed a compact splitting the Colorado equally between its upper and lower halves; later, they promised additional water to Mexico, too. Near the middle, they put Lake Powell, a reserve for the northern states, and Lake Mead, a storage node for the south. Over time, as an overheating environment has collided with overuse, the lower half — primarily Arizona and California — has taken its water as if everything were normal, straining both the logic and the legal interpretations of the compact. They have also drawn extra releases from Lake Powell, effectively borrowing straight out of whatever meager reserves the Upper Basin has managed to save there.
This much has become a matter of great, vitriolic dispute. What is undeniable is that the river flows as a much-diminished version of its historical might. When the original compact gave each half the rights to 7.5 million acre-feet of water, the river is estimated to have flowed with as much as 18 million acre-feet each year. Over the 20th century, it averaged closer to 15. Over the past two decades, the flow has dropped to a little more than 12. In recent years, it has trickled at times with as little as 8.5. All the while the Lower Basin deliveries have remained roughly the same. And those reservoirs? They are fast becoming obsolete. Now the states must finally face the consequential question of which regions will make their sacrifice first. There are few places that reveal how difficult it will be to arrive at an answer than the Western Slope of Colorado.
In Montrose, I found the manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, Steve Pope, in his office atop the squeaky stairs of the same Foursquare that the group had built at the turn of the last century. Pope, bald, with a trimmed white beard, sat amid stacks of plat maps and paper diagrams of the canals, surrounded by LCD screens with spreadsheets marking volumes of water and their destinations. On the wall, a historic map showed the farms, wedged between the Uncompahgre River and where it joins the Gunnison in Delta, before descending to their confluence with the Colorado in Grand Junction. “I’m sorry for the mess,” he said, plowing loose papers aside.
What Pope wanted to impress upon me most despite the enormousness of the infrastructure all around the valley was that in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River system, there are no mammoth dams that can simply be opened to meter out a steady release of water. Here, only natural precipitation and temperature dictate how much is available. Conservation isn’t a management decision, he said. It was forced upon them by the hydrological conditions of the moment. The average amount of water flowing in the system has dropped by nearly 20%. The snowpack melts and evaporates faster than it used to, and the rainfall is unpredictable. In fact, the Colorado River District, an influential water conservancy for the western part of the state, had described its negotiating position with the Lower Basin states by claiming Colorado has already conserved about 28% of its water by making do with the recent conditions brought by drought.
You get what you get, Pope tells me, and for 15 of the past 20 years, unlike the farmers in California and Arizona, the people in this valley have gotten less than what they are due. “We don’t have that luxury of just making a phone call and having water show up,” he said, not veiling his contempt for the Lower Basin states’ reliance on lakes Mead and Powell. “We’ve not been insulated from this climate change by having a big reservoir above our heads.”
He didn’t have to point further back than the previous winter. In 2021, the rain and snow fell heavily across the Rocky Mountains and the plateau of the Grand Mesa, almost as if it were normal times. Precipitation was 80% of average — not bad in the midst of an epochal drought. But little made it into the Colorado River. Instead, soils parched by the lack of rain and rising temperatures soaked up every ounce of moisture. By the time water reached the rivers around Montrose and then the gauges above Lake Powell, the flow was less than 30% of normal. The Upper Basin states used just 3.5 million acre-feet last year, less than half their legal right under the 1922 compact. The Lower Basin states took nearly their full amount, 7 million acre-feet.
All of this matters now not just because the river, an unwieldy network of human-controlled plumbing, is approaching a threshold where it could become inoperable, but because much of the recent legal basis for the system is about to dissolve. In 2026, the Interim Guidelines the states rely on, a Drought Contingency Plan and agreements with Mexico will all expire. At the very least, this will require new agreements. It also demands a new way of thinking that matches the reality of the heating climate and the scale of human need. But before that can happen, the states will need to restore something that has become even more scarce than the water: trust.
The northern states see California and Arizona reveling in profligate use, made possible by the anachronistic rules of the compact that effectively promise them water when others have none. It’s enabled by the mechanistic controls at the Hoover Dam, which releases the same steady flow no matter how little snow falls across the Rocky Mountains. California flood-irrigates alfalfa crops destined for cattle markets in the Middle East, while Arizona takes water it does not need and pumps it underground to build up its own reserves. In 2018, an Arizona water agency admitted it was gaming the timing of its orders to avoid rations from the river (though it characterized the moves as smart use of the rules). In 2021, in a sign of the growing wariness, at least one Colorado water official alleged California was repeating the scheme. California water officials say this is a misunderstanding. Yet to this day, because California holds the most senior legal rights on the river, the state has avoided having a single gallon of reductions imposed on it.
By this spring, Lake Powell shrank to 24% of its capacity, its lowest levels since the reservoir filled in the 1960s. Cathedral-like sandstone canyons were resurrected, and sunlight reached the silt-clogged floors for the first time in generations. The Glen Canyon Dam itself towered more than 150 feet above the waterline. The water was just a few dozen feet above the last intake pipe that feeds the hydropower generators. If it dropped much lower, the system would no longer be able to produce the power it distributes across six states. After that, it would approach the point where no water at all could flow into the Grand Canyon and further downstream. All the savings that the Upper Basin states had banked there were as good as gone.
In Western Colorado, meanwhile, people have been suffering. South of the Uncompahgre Valley, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe subsists off agriculture, but over the past 12 months it has seen its water deliveries cut by 90%; the tribe laid off half of its farmworkers. McPhee Reservoir, near the town of Cortez, has teetered on failure, and other communities in Southwestern Colorado that also depend on it have been rationed to 10% of their normal water.
Across the Upper Basin, the small reservoirs that provide the region’s only buffer against bad years are also emptying out. Flaming Gorge, on the Wyoming-Utah border, is the largest, and it is 68% full. The second largest, Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, is at 50% of its capacity. Blue Mesa Reservoir, on the Gunnison, is just 34% full. Each represents savings accounts that have been slowly pilfered to supplement Lake Powell as it declines, preserving the federal government’s ability to generate power there and obscuring the scope of the losses. Last summer, facing the latest emergency at the Glen Canyon Dam, the Department of Interior ordered huge releases from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and other Upper Basin reservoirs. At Blue Mesa, the water levels dropped 8 feet in a matter of days, and boaters there were given a little more than a week to get their equipment off the water. Soon after, the reservoir’s marinas, which are vital to that part of Colorado’s summer economy, closed. They did not reopen in 2022.
As the Blue Mesa Reservoir was being emptied last fall, Steve Pope kept the Gunnison Tunnel open at its full capacity, diverting as much water as he possibly could. He says this was legal, well within his water rights and normal practice, and the state’s chief engineer agrees. Pope’s water is accounted for out of another reservoir higher in the system. But in the twin takings, it’s hard not to see the bare-knuckled competition between urgent needs. Over the past few years, as water has become scarcer and conservation more important, Uncompahgre Valley water diversions from the Gunnison River have remained steady and at times even increased. The growing season has gotten longer and the alternative sources, including the Uncompahgre River, less reliable. And Pope leans more than ever on the Gunnison to maintain his 3,500 shareholders’ supply. “Oh, we are taking it,” he told me, “and there’s still just not enough.”
On June 14, Camille Touton, the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Department of Interior division that runs Western water infrastructure, testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and delivered a stunning ultimatum: Western states had 60 days to figure out how to conserve as much as 4 million acre-feet of “additional” water from the Colorado River or the federal government would, acting unilaterally, do it for them. The West’s system of water rights, which guarantees the greatest amount of water to the settlers who arrived in the West and claimed it first, has been a sacrosanct pillar of law and states’ rights both — and so her statement came as a shock.
Would the department impose restrictions “without regard to river priority?” Mark Kelly,, the Democratic senator from Arizona, asked her.
“Yes,” Touton responded.
For Colorado, this was tantamount to a declaration of war. “The feds have no ability to restrict our state decree and privately owned ditches,” the general manager of the Colorado River District, Andy Mueller, told me. “They can’t go after that.” Mueller watches over much of the state.Pope faces different stakes. His system depends on the tunnel, a federal project, and his water rights are technically leased from the Bureau of Reclamation, too. Touton’s threat raised the possibility that she could shut the Uncompahgre Valley’s water off. Even if it was legal, the demands seemed fundamentally unfair to Pope. “The first steps need to come in the Lower Basin,” he insisted.
Each state retreated to its corners, where they remain. The 60-day deadline came and went, with no commitments toward any specific reductions in water use and no consequences. The Bureau of Reclamation has since set a new deadline: Jan. 31. Touton, who has publicly said little since her testimony to Congress, declined to be interviewed for this story. In October, California finally offered a plan to surrender roughly 9% of the water it used, albeit with expensive conditions. Some Colorado officials dismissed the gesture as a non-starter. Ever since, Colorado has become more defiant, enacting policies that seem aimed at defending the water the state already has — perhaps even its right to use more.
For one, Colorado has long had to contend with the inefficiencies that come with a “use it or lose it” culture. State water law threatens to confiscate water rights that don’t get utilized, so landowners have long maximized the water they put on their fields just to prove up their long-term standing in the system. This same reflexive instinct is now evident among policymakers and water managers across the state, as they seek to establish the baseline for where negotiated cuts might begin. Would cuts be imposed by the federal government based on Pope’s full allocation of water or on the lesser amount with which he’s been forced to make do? Would the proportion be adjusted down in a year with no snow? “We don’t have a starting point,” he told me. And so the higher the use now, the more affordable the conservation later.
Colorado and other Upper Basin states have also long hid behind the complexity of accurately accounting for their water among infinite tributaries and interconnected soils. [ed. emphasis mine] The state’s ranchers like to say their water is recycled five times over, because water poured over fields in one place invariably seeps underground down to the next. In the Uncompahgre Valley, it can take months for the land at its tail to dry out after ditches that flood the head of the valley are turned off. The measure of what’s been consumed and what has transpired from plants or been absorbed by soils is frustratingly elusive. That, too, leaves the final number open to argument and interpretation.
All the while, the Upper Basin states are all attempting to store more water within their boundaries. Colorado has at least 10 new dams and reservoirs either being built or planned. Across the Upper Basin, an additional 15 projects are being considered, including Utah’s audacious $2.4 billion plan to run a new pipeline from Lake Powell, which would allow it to transport something closer to its full legal right to Colorado River water to its growing southern cities. Some of these projects are aimed at securing existing water and making its timing more predictable. But they are also part of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s vision to expand the Upper Basin states’ Colorado River usage to 5.4 million acre-feet a year by 2060.
It is fair to say few people in the state are trying hard to send more of their water downstream. In our conversation, Mueller would not offer any specific conservation savings Colorado might make. The state’s chief engineer and director of its Division of Water Resources, Kevin Rein, who oversees water rights, made a similar sentiment clear to the Colorado River District board last July. “There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve,” Rein said. “It’s a public resource. It’s a property right. It’s part of our economy.”
In November, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis proposed the creation of a new state task force that would help him capture every drop of water it can before it crosses the state line. It would direct money and staff to make Colorado’s water governance more sophisticated, defensive and influential.
I called Polis’ chief water confidante, Rebecca Mitchell, who is also the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. If the mood was set by the idea that California was taking too much from the river, Mitchell thought that it had shifted now to a more personal grievance — they are taking from us.
Last month, Mitchell flew to California for a tour of its large irrigation districts. She stood beside a wide canal brimming with more water than ever flows through the Uncompahgre River, and the executive of the farming company beside her explained that he uses whatever he wants because he holds the highest priority rights to the water. She thought about the Ute Mountain Ute communities and the ranchers of Cortez: “It was like: ‘Wouldn’t we love to be able to count on something? Wouldn’t we love to be feel so entitled that no matter what, we get what we get?’” she told me.
What if Touton followed through, curtailing Colorado’s water? I asked. Mitchell’s voice steadied, and then she essentially leveled a threat. “We would be very responsive. I’m not saying that in a positive way,” she said. “I think everybody that’s about to go through pain wants others to feel pain also.”
Here’s the terrible truth: There is no such thing as a return to normal on the Colorado River, or to anything that resembles the volumes of water its users are accustomed to taking from it. With each degree Celsius of warming to come, modelers estimate that the river’s flow will decrease further, by an additional 9%. At current rates of global warming, the basin is likely to sustain at least an additional 18% drop in its water supplies over the next several decades, if not far more. Pain, as Mitchell puts it, is inevitable.
The thing about 4 million acre-feet of cuts is that it’s merely the amount already gone, an adjustment that should have been made 20 years ago. Colorado’s argument makes sense on paper and perhaps through the lens of fairness. But the motivation behind the decades of delay was to protect against the very argument that is unfolding now — that the reductions should be split equally, and that they may one day be imposed against the Upper Basin’s will. It was to preserve the northern states’ inalienable birthright to growth, the promise made to them 100 years ago. At some point, though, circumstances change, and a century-old promise, unfulfilled, might no longer be worth much at all. Meanwhile, the politics of holding out are colliding with climate change in a terrifying crash, because while the parties fight, the supply continues to dwindle.
Recently, Brad Udall, a leading and longtime analyst of the Colorado River and now a senior water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, teamed with colleagues to game out what they thought it would take to bring the river and the twin reservoirs of Mead and Powell into balance. Their findings, published in July in the journal Science, show that stability could be within reach but will require sacrifice.
If the Upper Basin states limited their claim to 4 million acre-feet, or 53% of their due under the original compact, and the Lower Basin states and Mexico increased their maximum emergency cuts by an additional 45%, the two big reservoirs will stay at roughly their current levels for the next several decades. If the basins could commit to massive reductions below even 2021 levels for the Upper Basin and to more than doubling the most ambitious conservation goals for the south, the reservoirs could once again begin to grow, providing the emergency buffer and the promise of economic stability for 40 million Americans that was originally intended. Still, by 2060, they would only be approximately 45% full.
Any of the scenarios involve cuts that would slice to the bone. Plus, there’s still the enormous challenge of how to incorporate Native tribes, which also hold huge water rights but continue to be largely left out of negotiations. What to do next? Israel provides one compelling example. After decades of fighting over the meager trickles of the Jordan River and the oversubscription of a pipeline from the Sea of Galilee, Israel went back to the drawing board on its irrigated crops. It made drip irrigation standard, built desalination plants to supply water for its industry and cities, and reused that water again and again; today, 86% of the country’s municipal wastewater is recycled, and Israel and its farmers have an adequate supply. That would cost a lot across the scale and reach of a region like the Western United States. But to save the infrastructure and culture that produces 80% of this country’s winter vegetables and is a hub of the nation’s food system for 333 million people? It might be worth it.
A different course was charted by Australia, which recoiled against a devastating millennium drought that ended 13 years ago. It jettisoned its coveted system of water rights, breaking free of history and prior appropriation similar to the system of first-come-first-served the American West relies on. That left it with a large pool of free water and political room to invent a new method of allocating it that better matched the needs in a modern, more populous and more urban Australia and better matched the reality of the environment.
In America, too, prior appropriation, as legally and culturally revered as it is, may have become more cumbersome and obstructive than it needs to be. Western water rights, according to Newsha Ajami, a leading expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the former director of the urban water policy program at Stanford University, were set up by people measuring with sticks and buckets, long before anyone had ever even considered climate change. Today, they largely serve powerful legacy interests and, because they must be used to be maintained, tend to dissuade conservation. “It’s kind of very archaic,” she said. “The water rights system would be the first thing I would just dismantle or revisit in a very different way.”
This is probably not going to happen, Ajami said. “It could be seen as political suicide.” But that doesn’t make it the wrong solution. In fact, what’s best for the Colorado, for the Western United States, for the whole country might be a combination of what Israel and Australia mapped out. Deploy the full extent of the technology that is available to eliminate waste and maximize efficiency. Prioritize which crops and uses are “beneficial” in a way that attaches the true value of the resource to the societal benefit produced from using it. Grow California and Arizona’s crops in the wintertime but not in the summer heat. And rewrite the system of water allocation as equitably as possible so that it ensures the modern population of the West has the resources it needs while the nation’s growers produce what they can.
What would that look like in Colorado? It might turn the system upside down. Lawsuits could fly. The biggest, wealthiest ranches with the oldest water rights stand to lose a lot. The Lower and Upper Basin states, though, could all divide the water in the river proportionately, each taking a percentage of what flowed. The users would, if not benefit, at least equally and predictably share the misery. Pope’s irrigation district and the smallholder farmers who depend on it would likely get something closer to what they need and, combined with new irrigation equipment subsidized by the government, could produce what they want. It wouldn’t be pretty. But something there would survive.
The alternative is worse. The water goes away or gets bought up or both. The land of Western Colorado dries up, and the economies around it shrivel. Montrose, with little left to offer, boards up its windows, consolidates its schools as people move away, and the few who remain have less. Until one day, there is nothing left at all.
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:
The most powerful policymakers in the arid Southwest spent three days in Las Vegas, reviewing the grim state of a river that supplies 40 million people from Wyoming to Mexico. Federal and state authorities emphasized the need for collaboration to avert catastrophe, but have been reticent to make sacrifices during negotiations over plans that would reduce demand for water. This year marked the 76th meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association and the event’s first ever sold-out attendance. Journalists, scientists, farmers and city officials packed the conference center at Caesar’s Palace to watch water managers hash out the river’s future in the public eye.
“There’s no substitute for being face-to-face,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies Las Vegas. “It’s a lot easier to talk a little smack, call some people some names, when you’re not looking them in the eye.” […]
The current guidelines for the river are set to expire in 2026, and states are largely focused on coming up with new ones before that deadline. A century-old agreement governs how water is allocated across the arid Southwest, Meanwhile, some experts suggest that agreement, the Colorado River Compact, should be replaced to meet the modern demands of a region with sprawling fields of crops and booming urban populations.
“I think there is some heavy optimism that hopefully everyone will come to something that we can all agree on,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s top water policy agency. “But it is going to take real cuts to everyone.”
Municipalities of Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, and Tijuana rely heavily on the river for their water supplies. About 70% of the water is used to irrigate nearly 5.7 million acres (2.3 million hectares) of agriculture. The basin is home to 30 recognized Native American Tribes that hold senior legal rights to divert substantially more water than they currently use. Between 2000 and 2021, the average annual energy generation from the two major dams was 7.6 terawatt-hours (TWh)/year, enough to serve 2.5 million people. The river’s landscapes and ecosystems provide critical habitat for federally protected species and support an extensive recreation-based economy. Today, the entire flow is diverted along its 1400-mile course. In its lower reaches, only 10% of the natural flow reaches Mexico; rarely does the river flow to the Gulf of California…
Current reservoir storage levels could, however, be stabilized if consumptive uses decrease under different scenarios (see fig. S1). If the Upper Basin commits to limit water uses to 4.5 MAF/year (60% of their 7.5 MAF/year allocation, approximately 0.8 MAF/year higher than recent use), then the Lower Basin and Mexico must commit to more than doubling their current maximum reductions in existing use to 3.0 MAF/year (see the figure and fig. S1). In this scenario, the Lower Basin and Mexico receive 66.7% of their allocation, nearly matching the Upper Basin percentage. If the Upper Basin limits their depletions to 4.0 MAF/year (53.3% of their allocation, 0.3 MAF/year higher than recent use), then the Lower Basin and Mexico would need to decrease uses by approximately 2.0 MAF/year to stabilize the reservoirs (see the figure and fig. S1), assuring 77.8% of their allocation. This is close to recently proposed maximum Lower Basin and Mexico commitments to reduce existing use, which would not be invoked until Lake Mead declines further by 3 MAF. Delaying these reductions until then would result in greater loss of storage and stabilization occurring at lower levels than shown in the figure…
Our results show that although current policies are inadequate to stabilize the Colorado River if the Millennium Drought continues, various consumptive use strategies can stabilize the system. However, these measures must be applied swiftly. Although these concessions by both basins may seem unthinkable at present, they will be necessary if recent conditions persist.
The next coordination meeting for the operation of the Navajo Unit is scheduled for Tuesday, January 17th 2023, at 1:00 pm. This meeting is open to the public and will be held as a hybrid meeting with the following attendance options:
In-person: Farmington Civic Center, 200 West Arrington, in Farmington, New Mexico.
Virtual attendance: For those who wish to remain remote, there is a Teams video option at this link. This link should open in any smartphone, tablet, or computer browser, and does not require a Microsoft account You will be able to view and hear the presentation as it is presented.
Phone line: You can call-in from any phone using the following information: (202) 640-1187, Phone Conference ID 775 074 607#. You will not be able to see the presentation with this option. A copy of the presentation will be distributed to this email list and posted to our website prior to the meeting for those who wish to listen by phone.
We hope the options provided make it possible for all interested parties to participate as they are able and comfortable. If you are using a virtual/phone option, please try to log on at least 10 minutes before the meeting start time. For technical issues, feel free to call the number below.
A copy of the presentation and meeting summary will be distributed to this email list and posted to our website following the meeting. If you are unable to connect to the video meeting, feel free to contact me (information below) following the meeting for any comments or questions.
The meeting agenda will include a review of operations and hydrology since August, current soil and snowpack conditions, a discussion of hydrologic forecasts and planned operations for remainder of this water year, updates on maintenance activities, drought operations, and the Recovery Program on the San Juan River.
As part of a new water conservation program, the Upper Colorado River Commission “is seeking proposals immediately for the voluntary, compensated, and temporary water conservation projects for 2023.”
Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are Commission members, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is a partner in the new conservation program, according to a statement issued Wednesday, Dec. 14, at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada.
To be considered for funding, proposals for conservation projects will need to be submitted by Feb. 1, 2023. Details are available here.*
The Commission touts the new program as “a key component of the Upper Division States’ 5-Point Plan to address the impacts of the ongoing drought and depleted (water) storage in the Upper Colorado River Basin.”
The new conservation program is relevant here in the Arkansas River Basin because about 130,000 acre-feet of water per year, up to 23 percent of Arkansas River flows, are imported from the Colorado Basin according to Colorado Division of Water Resources data.
The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which imports an average of 57,000 acre-feet of water per year. Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West combine to import the other 73,000 acre-feet. Fry-Ark Project water supports local agriculture, cities, towns and industry.
Fry-Ark water and infrastructure also underpin the Voluntary Flow Management Program, which supports the multimillion-dollar recreation economies of Upper Ark communities as well as the Arkansas River’s Gold Medal fishery.
Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Becky Mitchell expressed support for the new program in a statement Wednesday. She emphasized, “The most impactful thing that can be done to manage the Colorado River System is to reduce uses in dry years.”
Mitchell noted that Colorado’s “strict administration of water rights based on hydrology” effectively achieves drought-year water-use reductions. “In 2021, administration impacted water use on over 203,000 acres within the Colorado River Basin in Colorado.”
Mitchell cited preliminary data from the Upper Colorado River Commission showing that the four Upper Basin states used 25% less water in 2021 than in 2020” in response to limited water availability.
“We must continue to live within the means of what the river provides year to year,” Mitchell said, “and we ask others to do the same. This is the only way the system will continue as we know it into the future.”
In requesting that others “live within the means of what the river provides,” Mitchell implicates the three Lower Colorado River Basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact divided Colorado River water between the four Upper Basin states and the three Lower Basin states. The Compact requires the Upper Basin states, where most of the precipitation falls, to deliver a 10-year rolling average of 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water to Lees Ferry, Arizona, just south of the Utah state line. Of that water, California is entitled to 4.4 maf, Arizona, 2.8 maf, and Nevada, 0.3 maf.
To date, the Upper Basin states have consistently met the 7.5-maf Compact requirement. At a meeting of Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee earlier this year, Mitchell shared statistics showing that Upper Basin states have significantly reduced water usage while Lower Basin states have not.
As the numbers reveal, Lower Basin states’ water usage – more than 2 maf per year beyond the 7.5 maf delivered by the Upper Basin – has trended higher, even as the 10-year rolling average dropped to 11.78 maf for 2012-21.
Specifically, 2019 saw Colorado River flows of 17.75 maf, a rare yearly surplus of 3.8 maf. In 2020, flows dropped to 9.6 maf, 4.5 maf less than the water used that year.
In 2021, flows dropped further, to 7.1 maf. Even with Upper Basin states reducing their water use by more than a million acre-feet in 2021, total water use in the Basin exceeded Colorado River flows by 6.4 maf, dropping water levels in lakes Mead and Powell to record low levels.
* The Upper Colorado River Commission’s Dec. 14 statement notes that full implementation of the water conservation program “is contingent on the passage of pending legislation in Congress” and finalization of an funding agreement between the Commission and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Click the link to read the column on the Esquire website (Charles P. Pierce). Here’s an excerpt:
A lot of people are going to be unhappy as a dwindling Colorado River reshapes the U.S.
There is a very large portion of the 48 contiguous United States in which non-nomadic human beings were not meant to live. The reason for this is that there’s not enough water for them, and human beings need water to live. According to some estimates, 40 million human beings live there at the moment, and a lot of effort has been made over the centuries to bring water to them so that they can drink it, water 5 million acres of crops with it, and basically continue to live. Central to this has been the Colorado River. And now, due to extended drought, overuse, and the climate crisis, the Colorado River is dying, and if something isn’t done quickly, it’s going to have a lot of company…
The strange and violent political moment through which we are presently living does not fill me with optimism about the federal government’s ability to get seven states to agree on a breakfast menu, let alone agree to a cooperative strategy that might cause millions of suburban lawns to go brown. In fact, it could be argued that our current strange and violent political moment was born in the western deserts. For 40 years or so, that part of the nation has been central to all kinds of anti-government environmental activism, including actions that come very close to violating the sedition statutes. The “Wise Use Movement,” founded in Nevada in 1988, became an umbrella organization for anti-regulatory activities, many of them financed by corporate money derived from the extraction industries. A great deal of the twisted “freedom” rhetoric we heard from the Capitol steps on January 6, 2021, was beta-tested in what is now the increasingly thirsty West…
One of the most poignant parts of this crisis is that the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea. It peters out in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. According to the U.S. Geological Survey:
“The river comes to an end just south of the multicolored patchwork of farmlands in the northwestern corner of the image and then fans out at the base of the Sierra de Juarez Mountains. Only about 10 percent of all the water that flows into the Colorado River makes it into Mexico and most of that is used by the Mexican people for farming.”
Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico revived a program this week aimed at keeping water in the dwindling Colorado River by paying users who take conservation measures. Starting in April 2023, the System Conservation Pilot Program will pay users $150 per acre-foot of water they conserve. The plan is an attempt to keep more high elevation snowmelt flowing to lakes Mead and Powell, the largest reservoirs in the country, which are at historically low levels. The lion’s share of Colorado River water allocated for human consumption goes toward agriculture, and farmers and other users with a claim to the river will soon be able to submit a project proposal, then receive payment for what they conserve. The payments will come from a $125 million chunk of the Inflation Reduction Act, stemming from a $4 billion provision to fight drought in the Colorado River Basin. Participants could be paid more than the $150 per acre-foot rate if they submit a more detailed proposal…
The upper basin’s five-point plan to combat drought
Representatives from Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, which constitute the upper Colorado River Basin, unveiled the program at the annual Colorado River Water User’s Association conference hosted in Las Vegas. The System Conservation Pilot Program is the first step in a five-point plan that the upper basin rolled out this summer in response to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s drastic announcement demanding states conserve at least 2 million acre-feet of water. The upper basin’s plan also includes a drought response plan that would potentially release water from upstream holdings to keep the Glen Canyon Dam operational; consider an “Upper Basin Demand Management program as interstate and intrastate investigations are completed”; use funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law to “accelerate enhanced measurement, monitoring, and reporting infrastructure to improve water management tools”; and “continue strict water management and administration within the available annual water supply.”
Enough gallivanting around the Mississippi Basin and its rivers; back to the troubled and troublesome Colorado River, currently experiencing its worst dry spell since around 800 CE. The Colorado Rivers, I should maybe say, since for all practical (human) purposes the river is now managed in a quasi-de jure way as two river basins under the Colorado River Compact and subsequent ‘Law of the River’ actions: an Upper Colorado River and a Lower Colorado River.
Previously here, I’ve been exploring the Colorado River Compact at its centennial, in what is certainly the worst year in its century. Here are some things I came up with in that exploration, that I don’t think are getting enough attention in our efforts to search our own souls and the soul of the river in the desert as we try to figure out where we are going from here:
1. The Colorado River Compact is not the ‘foundation of the Law of the River.’ The foundation of the Law of the River is the appropriation doctrine: the body of law that bases the right to use the water of the river and its basin (groundwater too, now) primarily on the seniority of use. First come, first served, for any economically beneficial use for as long as the use continues. Appropriations law is basically a powerful growth engine.
The Colorado River Compact, and all the subsequent laws, treaties, acts of Congress, and other consensual agreements involving the river thus become efforts to deal with the consequences of applying a powerful growth engine to an erratic and relatively modest river – and they fall short to the extent that they too cautiously circle around (or just ignore) the problem of a body of law encouraging unlimited demand on a limited resource.
2. The Compact could not do what its creators set out to do, so they settled for an expedient resolution to facilitate development of the River. The Compact was created because Euro-Americans wanted to control a rambunctious river whose erratic flows made it hard to use for civilized pursuits. But the growth logic of the foundational Law of the River (the appropriation doctrine) made six of the seven Colorado River states fear the pace of development of the seventh state, California, if the river were controlled; California could conceivably lay claim to most of the river’s water before the other states really got settled.
The six states thus wanted an ‘overlay’ to the unconstrained law of appropriation that would assure each state of enough water to meet their own future needs at their own pace. Unfortunately, they did not have – could not have had in the 1920s – enough solid information of what their reasonable future needs were. So they settled for an expedient resolution; they divided the river into two basins, above and below the uninhabited canyon region; each basin was given a little less than half the estimated flow of the river to develop, with the upper river basin committed to deliver a fixed amount of water to the lower river basin (75 million acre-feet over any ten-year period).
3. Mistakes were made. Much has been made of the fact that the Compact commissioners selected an estimated flow of 15 million acre-feet of water to divide between the two basins, well above what has been proven to be a more realistic estimate of an average annual river flow of 13 million acre-feet by E.C. LaRue and some other Geological Survey scientists. It was, however, well below the optimistic 16.8 million acre-feet estimate by the Bureau of Reclamation.
It was also an ebulliently optimistic time in America – the advent of the Anthropocene, when we thought we were on the verge of freedom from the stodgy limitations of nature. The commissioners acknowledged that they did not have enough information to accurately divide the waters of the river seven ways, and were content to leave that task ‘to the hands of those men who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information.’ We now know that they should have listened to the USGS scientists, but it is easier and kind of superior to tsk-tsk as ex post facto Monday morning quarterbacks, than it is to acknowledge and understand – maybe even regret the loss of – the spirit of the times when the mistake was made.
The Compact commissioners have also been faulted for ‘leaving the Indians out of the Compact.’ That is not entirely accurate; what they said was that ‘Nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indian tribes.’ But what was the obligation of the United States to the Indian tribes?
On the one hand, in 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court had decided, in a case involving an Indian reservation in Montana, that when the federal government reserved public lands for any specific purpose, such as an Indian reservation, that it also implicitly reserved enough water to carry out that purpose. In the case of an Indian reservation, this meant enough water to teach the Indians to be farmers rather than hunter-foragers – meaning irrigation water, in the West.
But on the other hand, when the Compact was created in the early 1920s, the federal government was aggressively pursuing the ‘soft genocide’ of forced assimilation. Between 1900 and 1925, the number of Indian youth essentially kidnapped into ‘Indian Boarding Schools’ swelled from around 20,000 to more than 65,000. The official policy was ‘kill the Indian to save the man.’ The Compact commissioners were all white professionals receiving mixed messages from the government, and might be expected to think, even hope (river gods forgive them), that any Indian water claims might fade away if government policy succeeded – which it didn’t, no thanks to federal Indian policies before or since. And a reserved water obligation for the reservations remains an untransacted and pending commitment.
So yes, the Compact kicked some cans down the road, that it’s now time to pick up and deal with. But no one seems to be saying anything about a much larger and more consequential Compact mistake…
4. Dividing a desert river basin into two river basins is not a good idea. It worked – sort of (Arizona didn’t accept it) – as a temporary fix to break the logjam of not knowing enough to make an equitable seven-way division of the waters. What made the two-basin Compact work at all, sort of, was the fact that, until the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, the river itself, flowing unconstrained past Lees Ferry, kept the water supply (nearly all from the Upper River Basin) united with the growing water demand (mostly in the Lower River Basin).
But once the big dam near Lees Ferry was in place, the supply-demand distribution became a management problem that gradually succumbed to bad power politics. The Bueau gave the Lower River Basin its Compact allocation and more, regardless of growing water supply problems upriver, and the Upper River Basin developed a large supply of justifiable but unproductive resentment. The Compact, which confused ‘equitable’ with ‘equal’ in its division between two basins, is broken by the dam that turns it into two rivers, one supplying the other in ways both unequal and inequitable. It’s not the ‘structural deficit’ per se, but the refusal to address it, that breaks the Compact.
So – what can we do?How do we muddle forward from where we are now? No one is asking me, but of course I have some thoughts….
First and foremost, we should reunite the two river basins into one squabbling river basin (with transbasin extensions). Drop the expedient Compact solution of two river basins – a mistake perpetrated by subsequent ‘Law of the River’ measures, and finally fatal when the Colorado River Storage Project Act enabled building a wall – literally – between the two river basins.
This reunion would have to start with a consensual seven-state agreement – a new compact, if you will, to execute the task deemed impossible in 1922: a seven-state division of the river’s use. After a century of development, this has been achieved, de facto, and equitably enough. The lower river basin states get the consumptive use of almost twice as much water as the upper river basin, but they spread it over far more people and quite a bit more (and more productive) ag land.
This will not be easy, of course – but nothing ever is in the Colorado River region. California and Arizona have gotten so used to using ‘undeveloped upper river basin water’ that they’ve forgotten that that ‘surplus’ hasn’t existed for decades. They think the ‘structural deficit’ is an act of God about which nothing can be done, rather than just the consequence of their growing on borrowed water, a loan now being called in. But the hardest part for the lower river basin will come when the firm numbers for present use apportionments by state all have to be converted into percentages of the diminishing whole river – which the upper river basin states have already been doing, living closer to the vagaries of a desert river. The upper river states will no longer have to fear a call from the lower basin states, so long as they stay within their apportioned percentage of what’s there.
The real reunion of the basins into one river might begin when those in the lower river basin acknowledge that the water supply for the river’s desert lands comes mostly from snowfall in mountains in the river’s headwaters. This suggests that the downriver users of a desert river should accept some responsibility for the maintenance and improvement of the river’s mountain headwaters, their water supply. And those in the upper river basin would need to acknowledge the need for that help, especially if it is financial.
‘Maintenance and improvement’ of the water supply? Can we ‘improve’ the water yield from a river’s headwaters? An undigested fact about the mountain headwaters of the Colorado River Basin is the scientists’ consensual estimate that somewhere around 90 percent of the precipitation that falls over the river basin does not make it into the river. It either returns fairly quickly to the heavens as water vapor, or soaks into the ground to be transpired by trees, grasses and other plants back into the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that as much as a third of the precipitation that falls is lost through sublimation in the high headwaters: snow and ice being vaporized by sun and wind without even turning into water first.
Some quantity close to another third of the precipitation is transpired through the forests that form a broad band around the headwaters reaches of the river. Contrary to Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot, the forests are not ‘father’ to the rivers that work their way through the forests; the forests are just some of the first major ecosystems that depend on the river’s water for their life. We love and need the forests, and they do provide shade and shelter for the snow that makes it through the trees to the ground – but they also drink a lot of water (more as the ambient temperatures increase), and not always for their own betterment; the density and age of forests we have protected from cleansing fires result in the consumption of a lot of water by big old forest trees not really getting enough to be healthy.
Those forests are almost entirely managed by the U. S. Forest Service, management that must include the long-term health and well-being of the forest itself rather than just short-term commodity production. But are there ways to manage a healthy forest that maximizes the Forest Service’s 1897 organic act charge ‘to secure favorable conditions of water flows,’ as well as (or instead of) the charge ‘to furnish a continuous supply of timber’?We don’t really know, because the Forest Service has not paid as much attention to optimal water management as it has to optimal timber management. We do know, however – for one example – that timber managers favor denser stands to produce tall trees with less branchiness, but that density increases the amount of snow intercepted by trees, which increases snow loss through sublimation.
To even learn how to maximize water yield from the headwaters’ rocks, ice and forests will require experimentation, trying things out, and it will require creative scientists and lots of boots on the ground that the perpetually under-funded Forest Service cannot afford. If, however, all forty million users of the Colorado River’s water thought of themselves as part of the whole river’s watershed, top to bottom, they might be willing to pony up a pittance for the health and vitality of the headwaters that produces their water. This is already happening to a modest extent; some of the big dogs in the Lower River Basin – the Metropolitan Water District, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Central Arizona Project – are contributing funding to a cloud-seeding project in the river’s headwaters, to increase snowfall from selected storms. That is a beginning.
And the next steps? Well, at some point, we have to descend into the cellar foundation of the Law of the River, and figure out how to adapt the frontier instincts of the appropriations doctrine to a civilization of 40 million. As Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s Director of Water Resources said, just last week at the meeting of the Colorado River Water Users convention: ‘The single biggest roadblock to solving the problem of stabilizing the river is the priority system.’
There will be more on this imagined reuniting of the two rivers and their basins. Stay tuned.
Southern Nevada’s water boss is calling on other Colorado River basin states to “do the math and face reality” as they work toward finding a way to stabilize the dwindling river that supplies water to 40 million people in the Southwest. Speaking during a panel at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas on Thursday, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger said California and Arizona are going to have to shoulder the brunt of the unprecedented cuts the federal government says are needed next year in order to keep the Lake Mead and Lake Powell from crashing to points that would put hydropower and water delivery operations at risk — a possibility that is far closer than previously thought….
Since 2000, California and Arizona have accounted for nearly 70 percent of the overall water consumed annually along the Colorado River, with the majority of that water going toward agriculture irrigation.
“I’m a big believer in the law, I’m a big believer in food security. But I’m an even bigger believer in math,” Entsminger said. “When you’re cutting 4 million acre feet out of 12, and three-quarters of the use are downstream of Hoover Dam, that’s where the cuts are going to come.”
Without any plan from the states in place, the federal government has started to move forward with a plan to augment prior drought contingency plans, and one of the options it is exploring is unilaterally mandating cuts to states’ water uses in order to protect critical water elevations at the Colorado River’s two major reservoirs. Forecasting from the Bureau of Reclamation that assumes continued dry conditions across the basin show that Lake Powell could fall far enough to jeopardize hydropower production by as early as next summer, while Lake Mead could hit that same point by spring of 2025. A recent analysis by the Southern Nevada Water Authority showed that roughly 1.5 million acre feet is lost along the Colorado River system each year to evaporation and in transit as water flows downstream, losses that at this point are mostly unaccounted for in the allocation of water rights among among the seven states and Mexico that pull from the river.
Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said that water lost to evaporation and other system losses do need to be accounted for moving forward, but said the “single biggest” roadblock to stabilizing the river is the priority system itself, where the oldest water rights are first in line.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June tasked the seven Colorado River basin states to develop a plan to cut water use from the river by as much as 4 million acre-feet starting next year, or about 30 percent of the river’s recent annual flows, in order to prevent that future. One deadline came and went in August with no deal in place. States have continued to work toward finding some form of consensus in recent months, but nothing concrete has emerged…
In an interview Friday, Touton admitted that it is “very much an expedited timeline,” but said she has full confidence that something will be developed between the seven states over the next five to six weeks.
“It is what the river and the communities need and demand for this moment,” she said…
In October, the bureau kicked off the process of modifying the current drought guidelines for the Colorado, and will look at any proposals submitted by the states while also working to develop a plan that would allow the federal government to take unilateral action and mandate cuts if need be. Another deadline of sorts comes Tuesday, the last day for states to submit proposals for how to modify those drought guidelines, but states would have until the end of January to continue working toward coming to an agreement.
First off here’s the link to the Colorado River Water Users Association Twitter Fest.
Click the link to read the article on Nevada’s only statewide nonprofit newsroom The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):
“Everything all at once, yesterday.” That’s how a federal water manager described dealing with the Colorado River at a conference of water users in Las Vegas this week. The river faces a crisis fueled by overuse and amplified by climate change — and as Wayne Pullan, the upper Colorado River regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation stated, officials are taking an all-hands approach.
“We joke within the region that we’re going to change our slogan” to the Latin phrase for “everything all at once, yesterday,” Pullan said during a meeting Wednesday.
The conference comes on the precipice of action as federal water managers with the bureau continue to push Colorado River users to cut back and put forward a set of consensus-based policies to start stabilizing the river’s quickly declining storage reservoirs in a matter of months.
At stake is water used by about 40 million Americans in seven Western states, from Wyoming to California, 30 Native American tribes and Mexico. Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, is 28 percent full. Lake Powell, upstream, is 24 percent full. The low reservoirs give states that tap into the river little room to negotiate, and there are few options left other than significant cuts.
Earlier this year, the federal government, which operates infrastructure across the watershed, called on the seven states to cut massive amounts of water to stabilize Lake Mead and Lake Powell. In addition, the federal government is seeking comments from the states, tribal nations and the public about new operational policies for managing the reservoirs in the coming years.
Those comments are due Dec. 20. But the states will have another month — until the end of January — to negotiate a consensus-based solution that federal officials said they will weigh before taking unilateral action. In the absence of a consensus set of policies, David Palumbo, the bureau’s deputy commissioner, said the agency is also preparing a federal alternative.
He emphasized the effects of climate change reducing the amount of water running off into the river from snowpack, urging water users to think of new tools to address long-term aridification.
“We can’t rely on what we’ve done in the past to be adequate for the future,” he said.
In an interview, John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the state’s negotiator, said Colorado River states, which have had side meetings this week, are “still fairly far away from coming to consensus, but we’re closer than we were on Monday.”
The Las Vegas metro area, which gets about 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, has prepared for low-water levels at Lake Mead for decades, implementing aggressive urban conservation measures, recycling and an intake to get water from the bottom of Lake Mead.
When asked if Nevada could be facing further cutbacks, Entsminger said past efforts should be considered but he added that the state is “certainly willing to be part of the solution.” What such a solution looks like, even if a framework for cuts is agreed upon, remains an open question.
The monumental task of what comes next: Governance of the Colorado River is diffuse, with power and water distributed differently among states, Native American tribes, irrigation districts and cities. For nearly two decades, the states have worked to cut back on their water use. Over that time, in a series of incremental deals, water users agreed to cut about 1.3 million acre-feet (one acre-foot of water is about enough water to fill a football field to a depth of one foot).
Now the states need to cut about two to four million acre-feet — and they are being asked to do so in a matter of months, not decades. Much of those cuts will fall on water users downstream of Lake Mead. Of the states drawing on Lake Mead, Arizona and California account for the bulk of that use. The two states are wrestling with how to divide cuts among each other and among water users in each state, given a century of legal agreements about how to share shortages.
Still, they are starting to make some progress toward cuts. The three states that draw on Lake Mead submitted 32 proposals to receive federal compensation for conserving water, according to Rebecca Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But it’s likely that more painful cuts are going to be made, and some users will have to make hard choices. And states above Lake Mead, including Colorado, are also looking at compensated conservation.
“We have to accept the situation that we are in and we need to reduce demands,” she said. “All of us — every sector, every state, every water user… We have to accept that we cannot cling to our entitlements or allocations. If they are not there, none of that matters. It does not matter.”
Hydrology is dictating the agenda: For years, a motivator for the states to cut water use was the threat and uncertainty of federal intervention. That is still on the table. But in many ways, the physical hydrology of Lake Mead and Lake Powell are also dictating the timeline for action. With another winter of low runoff — the amount of water moving from snowpack into the river — both reservoirs soon risk falling to trigger elevations that would threaten water and power supplies.
In other words, if the reservoirs continue to drop, the cuts will be physical realities.
“Hydrology will dictate more than policy,” said Chuck Cullom, director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, urging water users to take real action that results in lowering demands.
“And the alternative to inaction is brutal and entirely obvious,” he added.
But after years of discussing the issue, the time to act is running out.
“It took us five years to negotiate a five-year [drought plan],” Entsminger said during a panel Thursday. “And we don’t have five months to come up with an operation plan for 2023 and 2024. So it’s past time. I can look at all six microphones up here and dozens of people across this room, and I can give your well-worn talking points. It’s time to set it aside and get real.”
This is a climate change story: Even without climate change, the Colorado River would likely be facing a shortage. It has long been known that the Colorado River is overallocated — there are more rights to water on paper than there is actual water in the river, at least in many years.
But climate change has undoubtedly amplified the problem.
At a meeting on Wednesday, Anne Castle, the U.S. Commissioner at the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the “real enemy” is not another state or economic sector. It is climate change. [ed. emphasis mine]
Over the last two decades, far less water has entered the river, further worsening the imbalance between water supply and demand. Even in years with near average precipitation, the Colorado River has seen below average runoff, attributed in part to dry conditions and poor soil moisture.
Like with so many issues related to climate change, addressing the problem is forcing officials to grapple with injustices and inequalities embedded in the systems governing the Colorado River. The founding documents for the river’s governance largely ignore the rights of Native American tribes and the ecosystems that sustain wildlife and plants throughout the Colorado River Basin.
In looking at the climate-caused crisis on the Colorado River and a world with less water to go around, water officials are beginning to grapple with some of these longstanding injustices.
Native American tribes hold the rights to roughly 20 percent of the Colorado River, but they have been excluded from past decisions about water use. That has started to change. On Thursday, top federal water officials held meetings with tribal leaders from across the Colorado River.
“We all have our own individual issues when it comes to water,” said Timothy Williams, chairman of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, whose reservation extends to Arizona, Nevada and California.
“I think it’s coming to a head. At some point, there’s decisions that are going to be made,” he said on Thursday. “We just want to make sure that we’re part of the decision-making process.”
Many state water officials fear they are already running out of time.
Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which delivers Colorado River water to central Arizona, said that “there’s a real possibility of an effective dead pool” within the next two years. That means water levels could fall so far that the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams — which created the reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead — would become an obstacle to delivering water to cities and farms in Arizona, California and Mexico.
“We may not be able to get water past either of the two dams in the major reservoirs for certain parts of the year,” Cooke said. “This is on our doorstep.”
The looming crisis has energized this annual gathering of water bureaucrats, the occasional cowboy hat visible among the standing-room-only crowd inside Caesars Palace. It’s the first time the conference has sold out, organizers said, and the specter of mass shortages looms as state water managers, tribes and the federal government meet to hash out how to cut usage on an unprecedented scale…
The states of the Upper Colorado River Basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — say it is difficult to specify how much they can cut because they are less dependent on allocations from reservoirs and more on variable flows of the river. The lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — also consume far more water.
“In the Upper Basin, we can say we’ll take 80 percent, and Mother Nature gives us 30,” said Gene Shawcroft, chair of the Colorado River Authority of Utah. “Those are some of the challenges we’re wrestling with.”
Speaking at a conference in Las Vegas, federal officials told water managers from the seven states that rely on the river that they will weigh immediate options next year to protect water levels in depleted reservoirs, and that the region must be prepared for the river to permanently yield less water because of climate change.
“The hotter, drier conditions that we face today are not temporary. Climate change is here today and has made it likely that we will continue to see conditions like this, if not worse, in the future,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton.
“The basin is seeing its worst drought in 1,200 years, and there is no relief in sight. And perhaps this is what it will be in the future,” Touton said.
Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, are now nearly three-fourths empty, and water levels are set to continue dropping. The latest government estimates show there is a risk that Lake Mead could reach “dead pool” levels in 2025, at which point the river would no longer flow past Hoover Dam, cutting off water for California, Arizona and Mexico. That grim scenario has given urgency to the search for solutions, as officials from states, water agencies, tribes and the federal government consider options for water cutbacks on a scale never seen before.
The annual meeting of the Colorado Water Users Association is a bit like the shadow puppets of Java – projections onto a public stage of things hinted at but largely unseen behind.
On display in public this year, in the formal CRWUA panels, was a frank discussion of the river’s problems that I found unprecedented.
Behind, in the realm of the puppeteers, was even more frank talk about the shape of a deal that would be needed to halt the reservoirs’ declines. It’s still a longshot, with a narrow path to success and a very tight deadline – whatever “consensus plan” the seven Colorado River Basin states come up with has to be delivered to the Department of Interior by the end of January.
But going into CRWUA, I could see no path. Now one is dimly visible.
MANAGING BASED ON INFLOW, RATHER THAN RESERVOIR LEVELS
At the heart of the art of the possible here is shift in the discussion of a management framework, from the well-worn path of management by reservoir levels (if Powell “x” and Mead “y”, do “z”) to a system based on inflows. If less water flows in, you have to take less water out.
Phrased that way, it sounds so obvious, but it’s a major shift from the way the system was built and has been managed for a century. The reservoirs were built to store surplus when it’s wet to be used when it’s dry. I try not to use the phrase “paradigm shift” loosely, and it’s not entirely clear that it applies here. But the change that we’re seeing bears a lot of the hallmarks of the historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn’s original formulation of the concept – the accumulation of enough anomalies that you can no longer stick to the old way of thinking.
I point here, by way of metaphor, to the accumulating shipwrecks emerging from the shores of Lake Mead.
What the hydrologists call the “mass balance problem” makes this inevitable. In the long run, you can’t take more water out of a reservoir than flows in. But the realization earlier this year that Reclamation’s engineers are uncomfortable using Glen Canyon Dam’s lower elevation outlet works has place the mass balance barrier squarely within the range of the next few years’ planning. If you believe them (and, importantly, the Department of Interior seems to), then there’s no way around shifting pretty quickly to a management regime in which the water you release from Lake Powell has to match up each year with the amount that flows in.
SO WHAT CHANGES IN RIVER MANAGEMENT WHEN YOU SHIFT TO AN INFLOW-OUTFLOW REGIME?
As soon as you adopt a policy that says that releases from Lake Powell are essentially limited to what flows into the reservoir – which is the practical equivalent of “protecting elevation 3,490” or whatever line the river management community chooses above that to offer a safety buffer – 3,525 used to be the number people talked about, but we blew right through that last March – you trip two significant management triggers:
you face the very real prospect of Colorado River flows past Lee Ferry dropping below the 10-year standard set by the compact, triggering either a compromise or a very ugly legal fight
you face the very real prospect of deep cuts for water users in the Lower Basin, because you pretty quickly turn Lake Mead into an inflow-outflow system too – and/or very ugly legal fights
But going into CRWUA I believed the only way to tackle those problems was with a federal intervention. Now there seems a hope of a collaborative solution – of which I’m a big fan.
RELAXING THE LEE FERRY CONSTRAINT
There were encouraging signs this week that compromise might be possible on the first point, that the Lower Basin might agree to look the other way at a Lee Ferry shortfall, if the Upper Basin states are willing to get past their “it’s a Lower Basin overuse problem” mantra of recent years and kick in some reductions of their own. My read on the situation is that it won’t take a lot of water – folks in the Lower Basin get the fact that it’s primarily their problem. But I’m not in the negotiating room. This will almost certainly be harder than my usual naively optimistic expectation, right?
CUTTING LOWER BASIN USE
Regardless of how the Lee Ferry thing plays out, the hydrologic reality is that there will have to be deep Lower Basin cuts – far deeper than anything contemplated to date. The fact that extreme scenarios are being discussed among the states, rather than having state officials step aside and make the federal government impose them (or, in reality, as newly named Upper Colorado River Commission member Anne Castle reminded us, having climate change impose them) was encouraging to see in the shadows of the CRWUA puppets visible to us outsiders.
That’s incredibly important to the Lee Ferry point, because if the Lower Basin can get together and take on the herculean task of coming up with a formula to agree to the necessary cuts rather than having them be imposed, the Upper Basin is more likely to be willing to contribute without their longstanding worry that anything they kick in will just be sucked up and used in the Lower Basin.
In other words, legitimate action by the Lower Basin states makes Upper Basin action more possible.
My twinkly collaboration fanboy smile should not mislead you into thinking this will be painless – there will be a lot less water for cities and agriculture, and it would be a legal and moral failing if Tribal sovereigns are not brought into this discussion. All of those things make this really hard.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
All of this – an implicit relaxation of the Lee Ferry constraint, voluntary deep cuts in the Lower Basin, and an Upper Basin commitment to contribute some water – seemed to me beyond reach before we gathered at CRWUA. But behind the scenes there was serious, good faith attention to all of them, without the people making the proposals getting laughed out of the room. As Southern Nevada’s John Entsminger told the Nevada Independent’s Daniel Rothberg, the basin states are “still fairly far away from coming to consensus, but we’re closer than we were on Monday.”
From email from the Colorado Water Trust (Kate Ryan, Rick Lofaro, Brendon Langenhuizen, and Rob Viehl):
Colorado Water Trust and Roaring Fork Conservancy have teamed up with the Colorado River Water Conservation District (Colorado River District) and the Colorado Water Conservation Board to purchase and release water from Ruedi Reservoir to mitigate the impacts of anchor ice on the Fryingpan River. On Friday, December 16, the first release of water from Ruedi Reservoir will begin. The project aims to release 1.26 billion gallons of water (or 3,866 acre-feet) between December 16, 2022, and March 1, 2023, to the Fryingpan River, maintaining flows around 65 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs) in order to diminish ice buildup.
Anchor ice is a natural occurrence, but can have serious consequences on the hydrology of the river and the health of the ecosystem within. When there are low flows in the river during the cold winter months, large amounts of anchor ice can form on the bottom of the river, negatively impacting fish and macroinvertebrate function and diversity. Maintaining minimum winter flows between 60 to 70 cfs increases ecological resilience in the river through mitigating the formation of the anchor ice, and improving recovery from previous anchor ice impacts.
The partners will monitor the flow levels in the Fryingpan River, water temperature, air temperature, and anchor ice presence, from December through March. Anchor ice survey results will be compared to previous two years to continue to observe trends and build a long- term data set. “Roaring Fork Conservancy’s unique anchor ice monitoring program will allow us to objectively document anchor ice over time. This allows us to continue to promote management of Ruedi Reservoir with local benefits in mind” says Rick Lofaro, Executive Director of Roaring Fork Conservancy.
As the Colorado River crisis deepens, a new federal analysis of flows into Lake Powell shows that they will continue to plummet through 2025, before beginning to recover.
James Prairie, a hydrologic engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said flows are likely to be just 24% of average this year, making it unlikely under various planning scenarios that Powell will have enough water for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming to meet their legal commitment to deliver a minimum of 7 million acre-feet of water to the Lower Basin. That amount is already reduced from the historical delivery obligation due to low flows on the river.
The news comes as more than 1,300 of the river’s most powerful water users gather this week in Las Vegas for the Colorado River Water Users Association Conference, the largest annual confab on the river.
This year it has sold out for the first time in its history, according to Crystal Thompson, communications manager at the Central Arizona Project, a major user of Colorado River water and a conference organizer.
In the water world, stream and reservoir measurements are based on what’s known as the water year, which begins Oct. 1. Prairie said Upper Basin flows in water year 2023 are expected to be just 24% of average. In 2024 they are likely to improve, reaching 58% of average, before rising to 61% of average in 2025.
But because Lake Powell is so low — it’s just 23% full with roughly 5.5 million acre-feet of water stored right now — it won’t be able to recover enough water to keep those releases going, Prairie said. And that means that users across the seven-state Colorado River Basin will see more dramatic cutbacks in their water supplies to try to protect remaining supplies in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead, farther downstream.
The basin, mired in a drought believed to be the worst in 1,200 years, is divided into two regions. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin covers Arizona, California and Nevada.
During a meeting of the Upper Colorado River Commission held Wednesday during the confab, hundreds packed a conference room to hear the reports. The commission works to ensure the Upper Basin states receive their allocation of Colorado River Water and that they meet their obligations to send water to the Lower Basin.
“We all know that we are gathering here today in a time of unprecedented crisis in the basin,” said Anne Castle, a Colorado water attorney who President Biden appointed to serve as federal chair of the commission in September 2022.
“We all know we have a huge imbalance between supply and demand and we also know we don’t have much time to correct it,” Castle said.
Last summer U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered the states to figure out how to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, but no agreements have been reached, leaving the possibility that the federal government will decide how to make the cuts.
Touton urged water users to continue working together to find a solution to the crisis.
As lakes Powell and Mead have dwindled, all seven states have had to get by with less water and federal forecasts indicate that is likely to be the case for several more years.
In Colorado, major cutbacks have already occurred.
Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the state has already had to temporarily dry up thousands of acres of irrigated farmland because of the crisis.
Mitchell said the state used 25% less Colorado River water in 2021 than it did in 2020 because of the drought.
Critical negotiations among the states are underway to reach a consensus on how to slash water use enough to keep Lake Powell full enough to continue producing power.
“The gap is big enough that no one basin, no one state, no one sector of the economy can solve it alone,” Castle said.
“The real enemy here is not another basin, or another state or alfalfa or golf courses. It is climate-change-induced lower flows. It’s not an enemy that we can defeat. It is one that we have to learn to live with,” she said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
The situation on the Colorado River continues to get worse. For months, there has been abundant news about falling lake levels (Lake Powell is below 25% full, and Lake Mead is hovering below 30% full) and while some areas of the west had a terrific monsoon, other areas were left high and dry. Now consider a forecasted La Nina winter (could be the third in a row,) which generally features a warmer and dryer season and reduced snowpack throughout the West, including the Rockies; the confluence of a grim water year is staring at us in the face.
Without being overly melodramatic, the reality is that unless some serious decisions are made, and fast, we could be facing the difficult reality of very little to no water being able to pass through Glen Canyon Dam, in essence creating a Grand Canyon without the guarantee of a flowing Colorado River. For anyone who has been on the river, whether on a raft trip or hiking to Phantom Ranch or trout fishing at Lee’s Ferry, this is a frightening vision. But what would someone who simply peers over the edge of the Canyon at the South Rim, enjoying the expanse and color and light of the distant rocks and buttes – does it matter to them that the small, silver ribbon in the distance is actually dry, rather than wet? Does it matter to people that the very thing that helped create, and certainly supports the web of life, culture, and connection of one of the grandest landscapes in the world, could be reduced to a mere trickle if we don’t take action – and soon? Are we ok with that scenario?
Let’s review what all this means in a practical sense. You may know that the Bureau of Reclamation, the Federal government agency that oversees/manages many of these big reservoirs and the Colorado River system overall, publishes a set of forecasts periodically to try to “project” what lake levels might be – usually up to two years into the future. These are called “24-month studies” and they take scores of different scenarios into account to forecast where the lake levels might be given varying amounts of runoff, soil moisture, snowpack, different temperature possibilities, and how much water is being used in different places across the entire basin. This all feeds into planning how much water needs to be stored, or how much can be released and when, for Lake Powell, Grand Canyon, and Lake Mead, among other federal facilities within the system. These predictions impact millions of people across the Southwest, and across the country when we start to consider that the vast majority of vegetables grown for our winter food supply rely on Colorado River water.
On average, about 8 million acre-feet of water (just one acre-foot is a football field of water, one foot deep, or just over 326,000 gallons) flows from Lake Powell to Grand Canyon in a normal year. But what happens if that number is drastically reduced, or water can’t safely flow through the dam at all? What happens then? Already this year, nearly a million-acre feet has both been sent downstream (from storage in Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir) and held back in Lake Powell to slow the fall of the lake. Right now, there is only about 7 million acre-feet flowing into the Canyon in 2022. But levels are still declining, and we are getting closer to the point where Glen Canyon Dam cannot generate electricity, and potentially even worse, where water really can’t safely flow through the dam at all. What if those flows ultimately consisted of about 10% of what flows today – and all from seepage and springs dotting the length of the canyon itself?
Now back to the most recent 24-month study, where Reclamation projects through what they call the “minimum, most, and maximum probable” hydrology projections. For the first time in the history of these projections, the minimum probable projection indicates that Lake Powell could decline to a level where no electricity can be generated (below elevation 3,490ft) by as early as December of 2023. But that says nothing about the efficiency of that power, since the lower the lake gets, the weaker the power generation capability is.
Below that, water would need to be released through tubes that have never been tested for sustained use. Limited space exists where water can still flow through the dam, supplying water to Grand Canyon and Lake Mead, but not generating any power. Overall, this space is only 120 feet, then the lake would be at “dead pool” (at elevation 3,370 ft.) which is in essence exactly how it sounds – a pool of water not flowing through the dam at all.)
So how much more water needs to be held back in order to keep Lake Powell on life support? John Fleck, Eric Kuhn, and Jack Schmidt contemplate that very question as they set forth the rationale for doing keeping Lake Powell functional in an article they authored last week. We know that the Federal government has emphatically said that they will protect “critical infrastructure” which means Glen Canyon Dam and both the hydropower and water supply systems that depend upon it. We also know that there are many rules that dictate how this whole system is managed. The Colorado River community is comprised of 7 states, as well as the Republic of Mexico and the Department of Interior, along with stakeholders that include municipalities, irrigators, hydropower customers, recreationalists, and environmentalists. Each hold varying interests in different parts of the Basin, but all must find a way to participate as a whole within the Basin that sustains us all. Critical to considering the Basin going forward also requires recognition of the 30 Federally recognized Tribal nations which have long been left out of the decision-making process around the river. Their rights and role as it relates to the river can no longer be overlooked. Their opportunities to participate are gaining and they should be even more deeply included in decisions going forward. In short, nobody can go it alone, and everyone needs water security and predictability to plan for the future.
Fleck, Kuhn, and Schmidt argue that now might be the time for Reclamation to impose a restricted flow through the dam of only 5.5MAF – ~ 30% less than “normal” flows and still another 13% less water than is flowing into Grand Canyon today. And last week, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed “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.” This proposal would attempt to keep at least some water flowing through the hydropower turbines (and further lower the levels at Lake Mead) but would keep electricity flowing in both. But what impact would this have on the Grand Canyon ecosystem, including the four species of native fish, the coldwater fishery above Lee’s Ferry, and the amazing diversity of plant, animal, and bird life throughout the Canyon? What would happen to the vibrant and sought-after rafting industry, which between both private and commercial trips, ferry’s more than 26,000 people per year through one of the most amazing, humbling, and majestic landscapes on earth? And maybe most importantly, where does this leave the cultural and spiritual considerations that water flowing through the Canyon has for the various Tribal communities that consider the Colorado River and Grand Canyon sacred places – essential to their way of life?
Can everyone come together with a solution to at least hold the river and the two reservoirs it feeds to a level that would at least triage the situation? If not, what then? While hypothetical, we need to recognize that a nearly dry or severely depleted Grand Canyon in a few short years is more plausible than ever. For anyone who has ever done a river trip leaving at Lee’s Ferry, you know that the Paria River comes in just a mile or so below the put-in, but that is a highly unpredictable river – often either pretty small or nearly dry much of the year, or a raging torrent during the monsoon season. The next “reliable” water coming into the Canyon is at the Little Colorado River, 75 miles from the dam – and 75 miles is a long way when there is so much riding on the health and sustainability of this ecosystem. Some water from seepage around the dam does occur, but with lowering lake levels, does that seepage get reduced as well? So many unknowns are staring us all in the face.
The upshot is that this is a scary time in the Colorado River system, with many options to consider – rules and laws, and treaties to follow (or change) and lots of people depending on getting it right. And increasingly important in all this, is that getting it right means getting it right together – the possibility of litigation or other legal action would define the worst-case scenario, as any opportunity for compromise and collaboration and finding solutions together instantly stops the minute the first lawsuit is filed.
The 22-year drought and its associated aridification of soils and plants, the exposure of more than 40 million people to water shortage, the whole country being impacted by the potential of reduced food production, and in the middle of all this, one of the seven wonders of the world and the ecosystem, and people, who are deeply connected to this place. Where do we go from here?