November 7, 2023: In what’s been described as “the largest aquatic habitat connectivity project ever undertaken in state history,” crews successfully tested the new Colorado River Connectivity Channel (CRCC) at the end of October. The new channel around Windy Gap Reservoir hydrologically and ecologically now reconnects two segments of the Colorado River for the first time in approximately 40 years.
Northern Water staff were joined by Grand County officials, Windy Gap Project Participant Representatives, Colorado Parks and Wildlife representatives and others to watch the first flows go through the long-awaited channel. This new video captures the historic day and includes comments from the project participants and stakeholders who were present to witness the occasion.
While water is now running through the new channel, there is still construction work to be done. Crews will continue putting the finishing touches on the project’s new dam embankment, diversion structure and other elements before winter weather brings activity to a stop in the upcoming weeks. Construction is expected to resume
next spring and wrap up later in 2024. Vegetation establishment along the channel will continue into 2025 and 2026, before the area is anticipated to open for public recreation in 2027.
The new channel will enable fish and other wildlife to move freely upstream and downstream around what is now a smaller Windy Gap Reservoir. Meanwhile, the reservoir will continue providing a diversion point on the Colorado River for the Windy Gap Project during the high flows of spring and early summer.
The CRCC is part of a package of environmental measures, valued at $90 million, associated with construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir, which is ultimately where Windy Gap Project water will be stored once reservoir construction is completed.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser this week expressed reservations about the Colorado River District’s proposal to acquire major senior water rights associated with the Shoshone hydroelectric power plant in Glenwood Canyon, voicing discomfort with the idea of a proposed instream flow right not being owned by the state. Speaking at a Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting, Weiser told river district General Counsel Peter Fleming that the ordinary structure in Colorado is for the state, through the state board, to own instream flow rights…
The proposal is for the river district to lease the acquired water rights back to Xcel for operation of the plant. The river district proposes that it and the CWCB would apply to state water court to get an alternate beneficial purpose of an instream flow added to the Shoshone water rights, to ensure the ability to keep the water in the river when it isn’t used for power generation, such as when the power plant is undergoing repairs. Although water entities already have agreed to generally keep water flowing as if the plant is in operation even when it is shut down, the river district and partners are seeking to protect those historic flows permanently, including in the case of the plant closing…
Fleming said the river district’s position is that the river district would assign the state the right to use the water rights for instream flows. He said that effectively the state would hold the right to use the water for instream purposes, but the only caveat is that Xcel wants to use the water for hydropower as long as the plant is operating, and the river district as the owner of the water rights would lease to Xcel the right to use the water…
Fleming said that although the CWCB ordinarily owns instream flow rights, state law also lets water users loan water to the CWCB for instream flows on a temporary basis, and other types of agreements also are in place. He said state law contemplates the state board using any means of acquiring the right to use instream flows, whether it be via loans, donations, acquisitions or obtaining “any sub-interest in the water right.”
Said Weiser, “What I don’t understand is why you’re talking at all about owning a title for something that’s use is in perpetuity and ordinarily managed by the state. That is not quite making sense to me as something that is outside of the way we tend to operate.” Weiser said the river district’s goal of getting to a status quo that’s sustainable for the Western Slope “seems to be accomplished by an instream flow right that is owned by the state and this body (the CWCB).”
Finishing the new book has thrown me into a time warp.
We’re about to hand in a manuscript for a book that traces a century and a half of the evolution of Albuquerque’s relationship with the Rio Grande, leading up to now. But the now of the act of writing (November 2023) is different from the now that will exist when the book first emerges in 2025, and the now in which readers experience it in the years that follow.
This conceptual muddle is crucial for the book. We are trying to describe the process of becoming that made Albuquerque what it is. That process of becoming, we argue at some length, cannot be understood without understanding how we as a community came together to act collectively to manage our relationship with the river that flows through our midst.
But – and this is the crucial thing, because it explains why we are writing this book – the process of becoming is never done. We hope to help inform Albuquerque’s discussion of what happens next.
There’s less water. What do we do? We will never stop negotiating our complex relationship as a community with the Rio Grande.
I spent a delightful afternoon yesterday that stretched well into the evening, listening to a series of enormously consequential discussions of these issues at the monthly meeting of the board of directors of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. One of the district’s senior folks recently pointed out how often, during the most difficult of discussions, they look at me sitting in the audience and see me grinning. Those most difficult discussions are the most fascinating to me.
I found myself leaning forward in my chair frequently, shifting my position to see the faces of the board members and staff as they wrestled with this stuff.
I grinned a lot.
Three things from yesterday’s meeting stood out. All three are things that would have merited a significant newspaper story back in my Albuquerque Journal days. This blog post is not that, but if you’re paying attention to Middle Valley water you should keep an eye out for these three incredibly important developing issues.
1) NEW MEXICO’S RIO GRANDE COMPACT DEBT IS LIKELY TO RISE
The Rio Grande Compact, an agreement among Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas to share the waters of the compact’s eponymous river, has a tricky sliding formula determining how much water each state is allowed to consume (through human use as well as riparian evapotranspiration), and how much it must pass to its downstream neighbor. It’s got some wiggle room – states can run a debt, as long as it doesn’t get too large and they catch up in subsequent years. But the changing hydrology of the Middle Valley has made it increasingly difficult for New Mexico to meet its downstream delivery obligations.
New Mexico is currently 93,000 acre feet in debt because of under deliveries in recent years. The hole’s likely to get a lot deeper this year, thanks to a big spring runoff (which increases New Mexico’s required deliveries) and a lousy monsoon (good summer rains can help make up a deficit – this year they did not). If our debt rises above 200,000 acre feet, bad things happen.
2) EL VADO DAM RECONSTRUCTION IS TAKING A LOT LONGER THAN IT WAS SUPPOSED TO TAKE
El Vado Dam was built in the 1930s to store water for Middle Rio Grande Valley irrigators, allowing storage of spring runoff to stretch the growing season threw summer and into fall. But it’s kinda broken. Contractors working for the US Bureau of Reclamation began work a couple of years ago to fix it, with the expectation that it would take a couple of years. It is now widely understood that it may not be done and in operation again until 2027. Or later.
This would be devastating to the portion of irrigators in the Middle Rio Grande Valley that farm for a living. As our book will deeply argue, it’s critical to understand that this represents a minority of irrigated land in the valley. Much of the farming here is non-commercial, “custom and culture” farming, a supplemental income (or even, for the affluent, a delightful money loser) for people whose livelihood doesn’t depend on it. But for either class of irrigators, a lack of late summer and fall water makes things incredibly hard.
El Vado’s problems have not been publicly announced yet, but all the cool kids are talking about them. Expect something more substantive at December’s MRGCD board meeting.
We could see a substantial expansion of acreage fallowed, with a big chunk of federal money paid to irrigators to forego their water in the next few years. MRGCD has been building the institutional widget to do this for several years, with federal money flowing to irrigators to lay off watering their land for either a partial or full season as part of a federally funded program to generate water to meet Endangered Species Act requirements for our beloved Rio Grande silvery minnow. In 2023, that generated (in accounting terms, be skeptical of the four-digit precision) 3,615 acre feet of water.
For 2024, the MRGCD, working with federal money funneled through the state, will push for a dramatic increase. Price per acre will double, to $400 an acre for a split season (irrigate in spring and fall, but not in summer when demand is highest) and $700 an acre for a full season. It’s a voluntary program, so all depends on how much irrigators want to join in, but I can imagine a lot of people looking at the El Vado shitshow and taking the money.
There was a very confusing board discussion that involved an actual invocation of Roberts Rules of Order by the district’s legal counsel and a vote that I still don’t understand with people who support the program voting “no” and people who oppose it (I think) voting “yes”. If I was still a reporter I would have had to sort all of this out while an editor hovered barking about deadlines, but thankfully it’s just a blog that no one actually reads, written by an old guy in pajamas still working on his morning coffee and breakfast.
The bottom line is the possibility of the compensated fallowing of as much as 8,000 acres next year, ~15-ish percent of all irrigated land. I think. As I said it was a pretty confusing thing, and I’m not done with breakfast.
Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 850 cfs to 350 cfs on Tuesday, November 14th. Releases are being decreased in response to the end of irrigation diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel. The Gunnison Tunnel will be shut down on November 14th.
Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.
Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, will be 1050 cfs for November and December.
Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 500 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 320 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be 0 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will still be near 320 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.
From email from the Alamosa Citizen (Chris Lopez):
Colorado figures it over-delivered on the Rio Grande Compact this year by 10,000 to 15,000 acre-feet and as such extended the irrigation season for some Valley farmers to Nov. 8. The over delivery on Rio Grande Compact water is another reason why the Rio Grande has so little flow this fall and likely won’t pick up without some natural moisture. “It’s probably not going to happen for any time soon because we are actually over-delivered on our compact obligations,” said Craig Cotten, division engineer in the San Luis Valley for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “We will have delivered a little bit too much to downstream states.” Cotten made the comments during a taping last week of The Outdoor Citizen podcast hosted by Marty Jones. You can hear his full remarks on the over delivery of Rio Grande Compact water inthis episodeof The Outdoor Citizen.
The chair of a special task force set up in Colorado to help protect in-state interests on the Colorado River told lawmakers Tuesday that it would deliver its final report to them Dec. 15.
Lawmakers created the Colorado River Drought Task Force when they approved Senate Bill 23-295 last spring. It includes representatives of environmental and agricultural groups, urban and rural water users, and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, among others. It is charged with developing policy recommendations and new tools to help save water, and ensuring neither water users nor the environment are adversely affected by any new Colorado River programs and agreements.
The 17-member task force has drawn fire from some, who worry that its public discussions of in-state Colorado River water issues could weaken Colorado’s position as it negotiates with the other states in the basin on how to rescue the drought-strapped river system.
“Last year we put a lot of money into our Colorado River negotiating team,” said Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Arapahoe County. “And what I have heard from them is that this work is not necessarily helpful. I hope you are taking this into account.”
Bridges’ comments came at a meeting of the Colorado Legislature’s Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee on Oct. 31 in Denver. Bridges is a member of the committee.
Task force chair Kathy Chandler-Henry said the group was aware of those concerns but did not share them. “As a task force, we have talked about how we can best support our negotiators … Our plan is to do no harm, protect Colorado, and tell the Lower Basin to clean up its act,” she said. Chandler-Henry is also an Eagle County Commissioner and president of the board for the Colorado River District, which protects local water interests within the 15 counties on Colorado’s Western Slope within its boundaries.
The broader Colorado River system includes seven states, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming comprising the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada making up the Lower Basin. Chandler-Henry was referring to years of overuse in the Lower Basin, which most experts believe contributed to the current crisis on the river.
The Colorado River system has its headwaters within Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. As it flows west, Colorado’s massive mountain snowpack generates roughly two-thirds of the water that eventually serves cities from Denver to Los Angeles and millions of acres of productive farmland from Colorado to California.
But a 22-plus-year drought, widely believed to be the worst in more than 1,200 years, as well as a sharp decline in flows due to climate change nearly drained the river’s two major reservoirs, lakes Powell and Mead, last year. The crisis prompted the federal government to order the states to dramatically cut back their water use.
This year, negotiations among the states and the federal government have begun on how to stabilize the river. Suggestions include reducing water use in the Lower Basin, finding new ways to grow food using less water, and improving water delivery systems so that less water is lost to leakage and evaporation.
Interest remains high within Colorado on how to protect water users’ interests in the river here at home as well as how to protect its ecology as climate change continues to sap its flows.
Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, current chair of the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee, who was also a co-sponsor of the bipartisan bill that created the drought task force, said he believed the group’s report would prove useful and that it would be important to be prepared for what may lie ahead on the river.
“We are having conversations now so that tools are in place when we need them,” Roberts said.
Task force staffer Kelsea Macllroy said the group will have its draft report ready for public review Dec. 1 through Dec. 7 and that public comments could be submitted during that time via its website. Once the final report is completed, lawmakers will evaluate the recommendations and determine how to proceed prior to the start of the 2024 General Assembly Jan. 9.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
Maybe by now you’ve heard that the collective users of the Colorado River have come together in harmony and agreed to cut water consumption significantly to avoid further depletion of Lakes Powell and Mead. Well it’s true! And the feds even seem ready to sign onto the plan. Maybe you’ve also heard this means the crisis is over and we can all relax and go home now.
I don’t think so.
A refresher: The 1922 Colorado River Compact divvied up the river between the Upper and Lower Basin states (Mexico was added later). They assumed at least 16.5 million acre-feet ran down the river each year, when in fact it was more like 14 million acre-feet. This discrepancy became clear over the last two decades as the water users’ giant savings accounts — Lakes Mead and Powell — were depleted to critically low levels.
That prompted federal water officials to call on the states to cut consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, or else they would implement the cuts themselves. After a lot of wrangling, the Lower Basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) finally relented and proposed 3 million acre-feet of cuts. Perfect, right?
Wrong. Their cuts would be spread out over three years, meaning their reductions only amounted to 1 million acre-feet per year, which is far less than needed. The deal seemed to many of us like a non-starter — or at least like very faulty math.
But it so happens that the proposal came on the heels of an extraordinarily wet winter in the Colorado River Basin, giving a bit of a boost not only to the reservoirs, but also to forecasters’ optimism regarding river flows over the next few years. Also, water users have responded to mandated cuts and done some voluntary cuts of their own, and the wet year meant they had to irrigate less, bringing Lower Basin water consumption to its lowest point in decades.
All of that was enough to prompt the feds to include the proposed Lower Basin cuts in an updated environmental impact statement and to make it the preferred alternative. They seem to think it will be enough to fend off the crisis, for now. And maybe it will be. But here are some numbers to consider:
Lake Powell currently holds about 8.7 million acre-feet of water, which is higher than the last two years, but 2.2 million AF less than on this date in 2020.
Lake Mead currently holds about 8.8 million acre-feet, which is less even than in 2021.
Lake Powell, alone, lost 136,550 acre-feet — or about 44.5 billion gallons — to evaporation between July 1 and Nov. 1 of this year.
The combined storage of Lake Meads and Powell is currently at about 17.5 million acre feet, which is less than a third of the total capacity. In other words, the reservoirs are still two-thirds empty — even after the big winter.
Crisis averted? Probably, at least for now. And with an El Niño pattern likely in coming months, we might get another big winter. Still, it seems somewhat imprudent to relax efforts to cut consumption — and to discount more drastic plans for dealing with the diminishing Colorado River.
The chances that water levels will fall below critical elevations before 2027 are now 8% at Lake Powell and 4% at Lake Mead, according to the new analysis. Previous estimates, based on September 2022 data and an assumption that nothing would change in the management of the reservoirs, had found a 57% chance of critically low elevations at Lake Powell and 52% at Lake Mead. With the improved forecasts, the federal government appears poised to move forward with a plan by the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to reduce use for the next three years. Earlier this year, federal officials proposed forcibly cutting the amount of water sent downstream to the Lower Basin if the states could not find a compromise on reducing use. On Wednesday, the officials said they had ruled out those forced cuts…
The Bureau of Reclamation now will undertake a more thorough analysis of the states’ plan. The plan, created by the three Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — would reduce water use by those states by 3 million acre-feet over the next three years. Most of that reduced use would be achieved through projects paid for by federal money from the Inflation Reduction Act, including conservation projects in Tucson and Phoenix. The four Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — signed onto the plan this spring.
Colorado’s top negotiator for the river said in a news release Wednesday that she and her team were reviewing the revised federal analysis and considering whether the analysis can “provide meaningful and enforceable reductions in use to address near-term challenges facing the Colorado River System.”
“If there’s a lesson to be learned from the last few years, it is that we must live within the means of the river if we hope to sustain it,” said Becky Mitchell, the state’s Colorado River commissioner.
Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1100 cfs to 800 cfs on Thursday, November 2nd. Releases are being decreased in response to a decrease in diversions at the Gunnison Tunnel. Tunnel diversions will be reduced by 300 cfs on November 1st, so there will be a short period of higher flow in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon before the release change at Crystal Dam.
Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.
Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, will be 1050 cfs for November through December.
Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 800 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 320 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be 500 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will still be near 320 cfs. Gunnison Tunnel diversions are expected to stay near 500 cfs for the first 2 weeks of November for late season irrigation of the winter wheat crop. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.
In response to reduced irrigation demand and sufficient forecast flows in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 450 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs for tomorrow, October 31st, at 8:00 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.
Negotiations are underway in Colorado to purchase one of the oldest, largest water rights on the Colorado River within state lines, expanding that water’s legal use to include environmental benefits, and creating one of the most significant opportunities in the state to protect streamflows for fish, habitat and wildlife.
Led by the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, the proposed $98.5 million deal would allow a coalition of West Slope entities to purchase from Xcel Energy the most senior water right on that segment of the river and lease it back to Xcel’s Shoshone Hydropower Plant eight miles east of Glenwood Springs.
“It feels like the biggest investment we could make for water security for this side of the mountain,” said Kathy Chandler-Henry, chair of the river district board and an Eagle County Commissioner. She was referring to the Western Slope of the Continental Divide.
“I know it’s a big price tag, but in the future it will feel like a bargain,” she said.
That’s true in part because the volume of water is so large. According to Colorado River District documents, the water right generates anywhere from 41,000 to 86,000 acre-feet of water in a dry year. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons. For comparison, Cheesman Reservoir, a Denver Water reservoir 50 miles southwest of the metro area, holds 79,000 acre-feet.
West Slope water interests have been trying for decades to find a way to purchase or at least control the Shoshone plant water right because it provides an important buffer for the river itself and for West Slope water users, Chandler-Henry said. If another electric company or water utility won control of the water right, West Slope interests worried that the water would not be managed in their interests.
But Xcel has never agreed to a sale of the water right and as recently as 2018 has said it wasn’t interested in changing the status quo.
Xcel declined to comment on this proposed purchase, but Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, said a draft agreement with the utility is in place and that Xcel is ready to support the change, in part to help protect the crisis-ridden Colorado River system.
“Xcel has shown a renewed interest in the health and viability of the Colorado River,” Mueller said via email.
In Colorado, water rights are tied to a particular stream segment and are regulated, or administered, based on the date they were first legally established. The Shoshone water right has a 1902 date.
Under the terms of the current proposal from the River District and its West Slope partners, which include 17 local governments and water entities, Xcel would continue to use the water to drive the turbines in the hydropower plant. When the plant isn’t operating, if it’s temporarily shut down for repairs for instance, the water would remain in the river, protected from upstream diverters by its 1902 water right.
Denver Water is one of those upstream diverters and, in years past, when the power plant wasn’t operating, has been able to use water it would otherwise need to leave in the river to flow downstream to fulfill the plant’s more senior water right. Whether the utility will back the purchase isn’t clear. Denver Water declined to comment, saying it was waiting to learn more about the proposal.
In or out of the stream?
In the water arena, a water right can have one of several designated rights to use, including agricultural, industrial, municipal and, just since the 1970s, instream or environmental.
Water rights are also classified based on whether they take water out of the stream for the intended use, termed a consumptive use, or whether they protect water from diversion so it can continue flowing in the stream for a prescribed benefit, which is referred to as a nonconsumptive use. Most uses fall in the consumptive use category. But the Shoshone water right, because the water returns to the stream once it passes through the hydropower plant, is nonconsumptive, as are environmental and recreational flow water rights, which keep water in the stream for the benefit of fish, wildlife, habitat and recreation.
“The whole state benefits from having a good, strong environment. And because this is the most senior nonconsumptive water right on the Colorado River, its ecological and environmental benefits are huge, especially with drought and climate change,” Chandler-Henry said.
The river district has agreed to contribute $20 million to the $98.5 million purchase, and is asking the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) for an additional $20 million grant. Another $10 million would be contributed by 17 governments and water agencies. The river district is seeking another $48 million from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which has $4 billion set aside for drought resiliency in the Colorado River Basin, according to the grant proposal submitted to the CWCB.
The negotiations are likely to take months, Mueller said, and will require approvals from the CWCB and potentially state legislators, as well as the Bureau of Reclamation and eventually a state water court, which will have to approve the expansion of legal uses from industrial to both industrial and environmental.
Another benefit of the Shoshone Water right is that its bountiful flows help support the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a federal initiative that works to protect four endangered fish species on the river. Water utilities are obligated to help support the program as well and can face harsh penalties if there isn’t enough water in the stream to support the fish.
“Importantly, upstream and downstream water users all benefit from Shoshone’s contributions to the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program,” Mueller said.
A unifying effect
Environmental groups such as American Rivers see the proposed purchase as a major opportunity to help stabilize the Colorado River within state lines and across its seven-state basin.
Matt Rice is southwest regional director for American Rivers. “I see this as a real opportunity to do a really big transformative thing for the river and the state, and an opportunity to unify the state around the river. A big thing like this has a way of bringing people together,” he said.
Chuck Ogilby is a long-time river advocate and former member of the Colorado (River) Basin Roundtable, a public group that represents local water users reliant on the Colorado River mainstem within Colorado and that helps decide how state funding is spent within the basin.
“It’s the best news the Western Slope could ever have,” Ogilby said. “All we can do now is cross our fingers and hope the West Slope gets those water rights.”
“You asked about Social Media. I’m disgusted with Elon and have been completely quiet on Twitter. It is only a matter of time before I delete my account for good. I have both BlueSky and Threads accounts but both have only about 10 followers as I have not posted. Mostly the world gets me down these days and I have a hard time thinking Social Media is a force for the good. Feel free to post this.”
Click the link to read the guest column on the Vail Daily website (James Dilzell). Here’s an excerpt:
What are we to do in those years when we’re up against poor snowpack, warmer summers and a lack of a monsoon season? Our fisheries will still need water. Our recreation-based economy relies on the river for both its whitewater and rafting season and its role in snowmaking at resorts. Ranchers will still need to irrigate. Locals, visitors and wildlife across Colorado will need to access clean drinking water. How can we better protect our community’s values when it comes to our rivers? Enter the Colorado River Drought Task Force. Senate Bill 23-295, which passed this spring, created a task force of diverse stakeholders — including representatives of agriculture, recreation, conservation, natural resources, the environment, municipal water providers, state and local agencies, and Colorado’s Indigenous Peoples. The group of 17 stakeholders is tasked with providing recommendations for programs to assist Colorado in addressing drought in the Colorado River Basin and the state’s interstate commitments related to the Colorado River and its tributaries…
Ultimately, the goal is to come up with creative and proactive policies and programs that can benefit river users, the environment, and all Coloradans. Our state has been hard at work to conserve water and find reasonable solutions, but the policies that this group creates will strengthen our abilities and options when it comes to managing water. This group is meeting biweekly on Thursdays, with public comment on the agenda at every meeting. Rivers are at the mercy of Colorado River Water users’ willingness to work together and collaborate to find solutions that benefit the environment and all of us now, and well into the future. To learn more about the Colorado River Drought Task, its members, and meeting topics, visit CRDroughtTaskForce.com. If you’d like to get more involved, reach out to me at ERWC.org.
WASHINGTON – The Biden-Harris administration today announced next steps in the Administration’s efforts to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System and strengthen water security in the West. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation released a revised draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) as part of the ongoing, collaborative effort to update the current interim operating guidelines for the near-term operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams to address the ongoing drought and impacts from the climate crisis.
In order to protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety through 2026 – at which point the current interim guidelines expire – an initial draft SEIS was released in April 2023. Following a historic consensus-based proposal secured by the Biden-Harris administration in partnership with states – which committed to measures to conserve at least 3 million-acre-feet (maf) of system water through the end of 2026 enabled by funding from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda – Reclamation temporarily withdrew the draft SEIS to allow for consideration of the new proposal.
Today’s revised draft SEIS includes two key updates: the Lower Basin states’ proposal as an action alternative, as well as improved hydrology and more recent hydrologic data. The release of the revised draft SEIS initiates a 45-day public comment period.
“Throughout the past year, our partners in the seven Basin states have demonstrated leadership and unity of purpose in helping achieve the substantial water conservation necessary to sustain the Colorado River System through 2026,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, who led negotiations on behalf of the Administration. “Thanks to their efforts and historic funding from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, we have staved off the immediate possibility of the System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production.”
“The Colorado River Basin’s reservoirs, including its two largest storage reservoirs Lake Powell and Lake Mead, remain at historically low levels. Today’s advancement protects the system in the near-term while we continue to develop long-term, sustainable plans to combat the climate-driven realities facing the Basin,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “As we move forward in this process, supported by historic investments from the President’s Investing in America agenda, we are also working to ensure we have long-term tools and strategies in place to help guide the next era of the Colorado River Basin.”
Key Components of Revised Draft SEIS
Reclamation conducted updated modeling analyses using June 2023 hydrology for the No Action Alternative, Action Alternatives 1 and 2 from the initial draft SEIS, and the Lower Division proposal. The results of that modeling indicate that the risk of reaching critical elevations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead has been reduced substantially. As a result of the commitment to record volumes of conservation in the Basin and recent hydrology, the chance of falling below critical elevations was reduced to eight percent at Lake Powell and four percent at Lake Mead through 2026. However, elevations in these reservoirs remain historically low and conservation measures like those outlined by the Lower Division proposal will still be necessary to ensure continued water delivery to communities and to protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System.
Based on these modeling results, Reclamation will continue the SEIS process with detailed consideration of the No Action Alternative and the Lower Division Proposal. The revised SEIS designates the Lower Division Proposal as the Proposed Action. Alternatives 1 and 2 from the initial SEIS were considered but eliminated from detailed analysis.
Historic Funding from Investing in America Agenda
President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is integral to the efforts to increase near-term water conservation, build long term system efficiency, and prevent the Colorado River System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. Because of this funding, conservation efforts have already benefited the system this year.
This includes eight new System Conservation Implementation Agreements in Arizona that will commit water entities in the Tucson and Phoenix metro areas to conserve up to 140,000-acre feet of water in Lake Mead in 2023, and up to 393,000-acre feet through 2025. Reclamation is working with its partners to finalize additional agreements. These agreements are part of the 3 maf of system conservation commitments made by the Lower Basin states, 2.3 maf of which will be compensated through funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, which invests a total of $4.6 billion to address the historic drought across the West.
Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is also investing another $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety.
To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete:
The process announced today is separate from the recently announced efforts to protect the Colorado River Basin starting in 2027. The revised draft SEIS released today would inform Reclamation’s ongoing efforts to set interim guidelines through the end of 2026; the post-2026 planning process advanced last week will develop guidelines for when the current interim guidelines expire.
The end of September marked the end of Water Year 2023 (WY2023). This is a good time to take stock of the year’s runoff and to understand how much reservoir storage improved. What kind of a year was WY2023? How long will any added storage last? Can we ease our collective effort to reduce consumptive uses and losses in the basin?
The short answer is that WY2023 was certainly a good year for runoff, reservoir inflow, and increases in reservoir storage—but the same amount of inflow would have to occur for several additional years to fully recover storage to what it was in summer 1999 when the system was last full. Such a string of high flow years has not occurred in the 21st century and is unlikely in the future.
History also warns that we should work to conserve the gains of WY2023. In notably wet WY2011, WY2017, and WY2019, extra storage that accumulated during each year’s snowmelt runoff was totally consumed in approximately two years. Thus, our past shows that there is potential to quickly consume the benefits of a good water year. We’ve done it before. It is imperative to keep a keen eye toward accomplishing significant reductions in water use throughout the basin to save what we have gained. We should not expect Mother Nature to bail us out again.
Estimates of WY2023 unregulated inflow and natural flow indicate that the year’s runoff was the second largest in the 21st century, exceeded only by WY2011. The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center estimates that the April to July unregulated snowmelt inflow to Lake Powell was 10.6 million acre feet (maf) and that the total unregulated inflow for the year was 13.4 maf. Reclamation estimates that natural flow at Lees Ferry in WY2023 was 17.7 maf (Table 1). Unregulated inflow is the estimated stream flow if little of this year’s runoff had been stored in reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell, and natural flow is the estimated flow at Lees Ferry if there were no reservoirs in the basin and no upstream consumptive uses.
Data concerning reservoir storage are made available by Reclamation at their comprehensive basin-wide hydrologic data base. Daily water storage data are available for 46 reservoirs in the basin including all the large reservoirs and many small ones.
The most striking trend in these data is that reservoir storage decreased greatly between August 1999 and October 2004 when total storage decreased by 27.4 maf and storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell decreased by 24.5 maf. There was a small amount of recovery in storage between October 2004 and August 2019; total basin storage increased by 4.1 maf, and storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell increased by 0.9 maf. Between August 2019 and March 2023, storage plunged again, decreasing by 14.8 maf in the entire watershed of which 11.4 maf was lost from Lake Mead and Lake Powell. These trends were described in more detail by Schmidt, Yackulic, and Kuhn (2023, The Colorado River water crisis: its origins and the future. WIREs Water).
On 30 September 2023, the total storage in the watershed’s reservoirs was 28.4 maf, of which 62% was in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The storage in all reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell was 8.6 maf and comprised 30% of the total basin storage. Total basin storage in WY2023 peaked on 13 July at 29.7 maf, and the combined storage in Mead and Powell peaked on 16 July at 18.0 maf (Table 2).
How does this year’s increase in storage compare to increases in other years of large inflow? At the beginning of the WY2023 runoff season in mid-March, total reservoir storage in the basin had dwindled to 21.3 maf (Table 2), which is approximately 18 months of supply, based on the average basin-wide water consumption rate for 2016-2020. The combined storage contents of Lake Mead and Lake Powell was 12.7 maf.
Between mid-March and mid-July, total basin-wide storage increased by 8.4 maf, of which 5.3 maf accumulated in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. In comparison, the other four large runoff years of the 21st century — 2005, 2011, 2017, and 2019 – resulted in increases in basin reservoir storage between 5.2 and 8.8 maf and increases in storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell between 3.7 and 6.9 maf (Table 2). Not only was WY2023 the second largest runoff year of this century, but reservoir storage increase was also the second largest of the century.
Nevertheless, the increase in reservoir storage in WY2023 was small in comparison to the total loss in storage that had occurred since summer 1999. Between August 1999 and March 2023, the reservoir system lost 38.1 maf, and the increase in storage in WY2023 was only 22% of that amount. It would take another 3 to 6 years of very large runoff to fully recover the basin’s reservoirs to what they had been at the turn of the 21st century.
It is unrealistic to expect that the next several years will be similar to the remarkable winter of 2022-2023. No other high flow year of the 21st century was immediately followed by another high flow year. Our best hope for achieving sustainability in water supply is for the Basin States and the federal government to reach new agreements to greatly reduce basin-wide water use so that the modest recovery in reservoir storage in WY2023 might be preserved. Otherwise, our gains may quickly disappear.
Historical data from the previous wet years of this century provide a cautionary tale about how slowly the political process responds to the opportunity provided by a wet winter. Table 3 summarizes the duration of months it took to consume the increased supply of each of the previous years of large runoff. Half of the supply provided by the largest inflow year of WY2011 was gone 11 to 13 months after peak storage had occurred in early August 2011; 8 to 10 months after that, all of WY2011’s large runoff had been consumed (Table 3). The historical story is the same for WY2017 and WY2019.
Since mid-July when the snowmelt season had ended, reservoir storage has begun to decline. The basin’s reservoirs lost 1.3 maf of storage between mid-July and 30 September of which 0.3 maf was lost from Lake Mead and Lake Powell and 0.9 maf from the reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell. The total consumption in these 2.5 months was 16% of the “benefit” of WY2023. Today, the contents of Lake Mead and Lake Powell are about the same as what they were in mid-June 2021.
A Last Thought
One strategy for maintaining a public focus on water conservation would be to widely report—every month—changes in total reservoir storage. The Basin States, and the basin’s citizens, would benefit from knowing the rate at which we are consuming the bounty of the WY2023 supply. It would be especially useful to know the point in time when we consume half of what we gained this year. If we reach that point in less than a year, we would have fair warning that the political process by which we now seek to reduce water consumption is too slow. Hope for a secure and sustainable water supply must rely on nimble and adaptable strategies for reducing water consumption and saving the gains of each wet year.
The Rio Grande is one of the longest rivers in North America, running some 1,900 miles (3,060 kilometers) from the Colorado Rockies southeast to the Gulf of Mexico. It provides fresh water for seven U.S. and Mexican states, and forms the border between Texas and Mexico, where it is known as the Río Bravo del Norte.
The river’s English and Spanish names mean, respectively, “large” and “rough.” But viewed from the Zaragoza International Bridge, which connects the cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, what was once mighty is now a dry riverbed, lined ominously with barbed wire.
In the U.S., people often think of the Rio Grande mainly as a political border that features in negotiations over immigration, narcotics smuggling and trade. But there’s another crisis on the river that receives far less attention. The river is in decline, suffering from overuse, drought and contentious water rights negotiations.
For nearly 80 years, the U.S. and Mexico have managed and distributed water from the Colorado River and the Lower Rio Grande – from Fort Quitman, Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico – under the 1944 Water Treaty, signed by presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Manuel Avila Camacho. The Colorado River was the central focus of treaty negotiations because officials believed the Colorado basin would have more economic activity and population growth, so it would need more water. In fact, however, the Rio Grande basin has also seen significant growth.
For the Rio Grande, the treaty allocates specific shares of water to the U.S. and Mexico from both the river’s main stem and its tributaries in Texas and Mexico. Delivery of water from six Mexican tributaries has become the source of contention. One-third of this flow is allocated to the U.S., and must total some 76 million cubic feet (2.2 million cubic meters) over each five-year period.
The treaty allows Mexico to roll any accrued deficits at the end of a five-year cycle over to the next cycle. Deficits can only be rolled over once, and they must be made up along with the required deliveries for the following five-year period. https://www.youtube.com/embed/Ym6m2rZeXPw?wmode=transparent&start=0 Farmers as far north as Colorado rely on water from the Rio Grande for irrigation.
These five-year periods, called cycles, are numbered. Cycles 25 (1992-1997) and 26 (1997-2002) were the first time that two consecutive cycles ended in deficit. Like the Colorado River, the Rio Grande has become over-allocated: The 1944 treaty promises users more water than there is in the river. The main causes are persistent drought and increased water demand on both sides of the border.
Much of this demand was generated by the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement, which eliminated most border tariffs between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. From 1993 through 2007, agricultural imports and exports between the U.S. and Mexico quadrupled, and there was extensive expansion of maquiladoras – assembly plants along the border. This growth increased water demand.
Ultimately, Mexico delivered more than the required amount for Cycle 27 (2002-2007), plus its incurred deficit from cycles 25 and 26, by transferring water from its reservoirs. This outcome appeased Texas users but left Mexico vulnerable. Since then, Mexico has continued to struggle to meet its treaty responsibilities and has experienced chronic water shortages.
In 2020, a confrontation erupted in the state of Chihuahua between the Mexican National Guard and farmers who believed delivery to Texas of water from the Rio Conchos – one of the six tributaries regulated under the 1944 treaty – threatened their survival. In 2022, people lined up at water distribution sites in the Mexican city of Monterrey, where the population had doubled since 1990. As of 2023, halfway through Cycle 36, Mexico has only delivered some 25% of its targeted amount.
It also pits the needs of different sectors against one another. Agriculture is the dominant water consumer in the region, followed by residential use. When there is a drought, however, the treaty prioritizes residential water use over agriculture.
The Rio Grande is affected by nearly the same hydroclimate conditions as the Colorado River, which flows mainly through the southwest U.S. but ends in Mexico. However, drought and water shortages in the Colorado River basin receive much more public attention than the same problems on the Rio Grande. U.S. media outlets cover the Rio Grande almost exclusively when it figures in stories about immigration and river crossings, such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s 2023 decision to install floating barriers in the river at widely used crossing points.
The compact that governs use of Colorado River water has widely recognized flaws: The agreement is 100 years old, allocates more rights to water than the river holds, and completely excludes Native American tribes. However, negotiations over the Colorado between compact states and the U.S. and Mexico are much more focused than decision-making about Rio Grande water, which has to compete with many other bilateral issues.
Adapting to the future
As we see it, the 1944 water treaty is inadequate to solve the complex social, economic, hydrological and political challenges that exist today in the Rio Grande basin. We believe it needs revision to reflect modern conditions.
This can be done through the minute process, which permits Mexico and the U.S. to adopt legally binding amendments without having to renegotiate the entire agreement. The two countries have already used this process to update the treaty as it pertains to the Colorado River in 2012 and again in 2017.
These steps allowed the U.S. to adjust its deliveries of Colorado River water to Mexico based on water levels in Lake Mead, the Colorado’s largest reservoir, in ways that proportionally distributed drought impacts between the two countries. In the Rio Grande basin, Mexico does not have similar flexibility.
The U.S. also has the ability to proportionally reduce deliveries under a separate 1906 agreement that outlines water delivery from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. In 2013, for example, Mexico received only 6% of the water it was due under the 1906 Convention.
Enabling Mexico to proportionally reduce Rio Grande deliveries according to drought conditions would distribute drought and climate change impacts more fairly between both countries. As we see it, this kind of cooperation would deliver human, ecological and political benefits in a complex and contentious region.
The federal government will fight the 11th hour settlement that came down last year, and will stretch into 2024 at least.
Whether the water is low or high, the Supreme Court fight over Rio Grande water stretches on.
The latest iteration of the legal fights that span decades, is the Texas claim before the U.S. Supreme Court that New Mexico groundwater pumping below Elephant Butte Reservoir shorts the downstream state its rights to the river’s water.
This would be a violation of the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, which splits the water between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.
The federal government officially laid out its objections to the special master’s recommendation that the U.S. Supreme Court adopt a compromise to end the lawsuit over the Rio Grande’s water between Texas and New Mexico.
In a 96-page document, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar and other Department of Justice attorneys lay out three legal arguments arguing why the high court should reject the deal.
First and foremost, they argue, settlement is impossible without the federal government’s consent.
A settlement requires consent from each party, and the agreement adds a “host of obligations,” on the federal operation of the Rio Grande Project, which delivers water in a series of canals and ditches to two regional irrigation districts and to Mexico.
Finally, the federal government argues the settlement violates the compact by moving the location of water deliveries, and fails to recognize a “1938 baseline,” of minimal groundwater pumping.
The proposed settlement uses a mathematical model to determine splitting the water, based on drought conditions from 1951 until 1972, when drought and development pushed pumping to increase significantly. Much of the region’s agriculture and its entire residential use is pumped from groundwater.
The federal government argues using the model violates the Compact.
“But the baseline on which the Compact was predicated was the baseline that existed when the Compact was signed — not decades later, after groundwater pumping in New Mexico had greatly increased and drawn water away from the Project,” the federal government wrote.
TheElephant Butte Irrigation District and El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 supported the federal government’s position in legal briefs of their own.
They agreed that the state compacts have no authority over the operation of the Rio Grande Project.
The Supreme Court has accepted the federal government’s arguments over a special master’s recommendation in this case before. In 2018, justices unanimously admitted the Department of Justice as a party into the case.
Additional responses and replies from the party will be collected into 2024, and there’s no expectation of scheduling a hearing with the Supreme Court until then.
The Colorado River District is leading a coalition in what would be a history-making purchase involving historic water rights that are pivotal to Colorado River flows and water uses in western Colorado. The district and others in the Western Slope coalition are proposing spending potentially $98.5 million to acquire the rights from Xcel Energy for operation of the Shoshone hydroelectric power plant in Glenwood Canyon. According to the river district, Shoshone holds the most senior major water rights on the river, dating back to the early 1900s and totaling 1,408 cubic feet per second…
When river flows drop below 1,408 cfs the plant puts a “call” on the river, preventing access to water by many junior rights holders above the plant to ensure flows to it. That also keeps more water flowing for recreational purposes such as fishing and whitewater boating, and to benefit the environment. Because the flows used by the plant return to the river, they continue downstream, along with the benefits they provide, which also include access to the water by junior water rights holders downstream, and improved water quality for communities and water utilities that rely on the river for their supply. The improved water quality results from higher river flows that dilute pollution. Critically, the water also helps shore up flows in what is called the 15-mile reach of the river starting in the Palisade area, which is important habitat for fish federally listed as endangered or threatened.
”Preserving the Shoshone call permanently secures the flow of the Colorado River and the health of that river for our economies and our environment, literally from the headwaters in Grand County all the way down to the border with Utah,” said river district General Manager Andy Mueller.
The Upper Colorado River Basin Compact was signed by representatives from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming on October 11, 1948, after over two years of negotiations. It was an attempt to resolve the allocation of water among the five states, and for three quarters of a century it performed that task well.
But as we approach the middle of the third decade of the 21st century, the challenges of overallocation of Colorado River, over-appropriation of the water we have, and climate change reducing the river’s flows, the Upper Basin Compact and the extended body of rules in which it is embedded are showing their age.
At its simplest, the Upper Basin Compact divided the water use available from the 7.5 million acre-feet per year apportioned to the Upper Basin by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The compact accomplished two major tasks:
It apportioned the consumptive use of water among the Upper Basin states using percentage allocations. Colorado received 51.75%, New Mexico 11.25%, Utah 23%, and Wyoming 14% of the water available for use in the Upper Basin. Arizona received a fixed 50,000 acre-feet per year.
It defined the obligations of the Upper Division states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) to deliver water to the Lower Basin at Lee Ferry to satisfy the requirements of the Colorado River Compact.
In pursuing a new set of post-2026 Colorado River Operating rules, major water agencies and state leaders have insisted that the “Law of the River” – the suite of rules dating to the 1922 Colorado River Compact and including the Upper Basin Compact – should be a fundamental guiding principle of future river management. “The Post-2026 Operations should reside in a framework consistent with a reasonable interpretation of the Law of the River,” the Central Arizona Project wrote, to cite one example among many. But a careful review of the history of the Upper Basin Compact shows how tenuous a foundation the Law of the River provides, and how uncertain any attempt at “reasonable interpretation” might be, because of fundamental uncertainties about what the Law actually says.
When the Upper Basin compact was signed there was agreement on the definition of the “what” to which the percentage allocations apply. Water use in the Upper Basin was limited by water availability after meeting the Colorado River Compact’s Lee Ferry delivery requirements. Today, because of the impacts of climate change on flows, there is no such agreement and there are claims that the intent of the compact was to provide an equal amount of water for use to each basin. This creates deep uncertainty in the actual volumes of water available to each state.
There is still no consensus on how to measure consumptive use basin-wide. The Upper and Lower Basins use different methods, and Lower Basin tributary use is neither well understood nor quantified. This makes managing the river system challenging.
The Upper Division States claim overuse by the Lower Basin based by using one measurement method, while using a different method for their own uses. There is valid dispute over these theories and methodologies.
Tribal water rights remain unresolved and limited in some cases by provisions aimed at preventing tribes from using their full legal entitlements.
In negotiating the Upper Basin Compact, the states made key decisions on critical compact issues that continue to echo through 21st century water management.
Colorado River management has always suffered under controversy and ambiguity around the question of how to measure consumptive use. The Colorado River Compact did not include a definition of “beneficial consumptive use.” In the century since it was signed, two competing (and conflicting) methods have been used: diversions less return flow, and stream depletion. On some scales, they may look the same. But on large enough scales, they do not, in ways that have profound implications for 21st century river management decisions.
Under the stream depletion theory, each basin’s consumptive use is measured as the net reduction in natural flows caused by man-made activities. For example, the Upper Basin’s consumptive use would be calculated as the amount that upstream uses deplete the natural flow of the river at Lee Ferry.
During the Upper Basin Compact negotiations, Colorado and Arizona were the main proponents of this theory. It was ultimately adopted in Article VI of the Upper Basin compact as the method for measuring consumptive use.
But the stream depletion theory is not universally used in river management today. It is, for example, used to quantify reservoir evaporation in the Upper Basin, but not the Lower Basin. It is not used to measure Lower Basin mainstream uses, where the “diversions minus return flows” method is used instead. Uses on the Lower Basin tributaries, which are included in the compact definition of “Colorado River System” are currently not measured at all – using either theory.
ALLOCATING STATE WATER BY PERCENTAGES RATHER THAN ABSOLUTE AMOUNT
The Upper Basin Compact is frequently praised for state-by-state allocations based on percentages (except Arizona), rather than absolute numbers, thus avoiding the mistake in the Colorado River Compact that over-allocated the river’s water.
But modern policy discussions are unsettled on a central issue – percentage of what? On their own, the percentages are meaningless without reference to some sort of underlying total amount of water available to be shared among the states.
When negotiating the Upper Basin Compact, the states’ representatives were clear on what they intended as the basis for using the percentages. They intended to apply the percentages to the amount of water available for consumptive use in the Upper Basin after meeting what they viewed as their compact “delivery obligations” at Lee Ferry.
Today, there is no such consensus. Climate change has altered the river’s hydrology, putting the burden of impacts on the Upper Basin. Its leaders have responded by arguing that the compact’s negotiator’s intention was to equally divide the water available to each basin for use. Since climate change is causing a decline in natural flows, whatever Lee Ferry obligations the Upper Division States have must now be adjusted to reflect the new hydrologic reality.
Resolving this issue requires either litigation, negotiated settlement, or collectively agreeing on a modified approach – one that appropriately factors in climate change and maintains the benefits of the 1948 flexible percentage allocations.
While large Native American water needs and legal entitlements were identified before the Upper Basin Compact was negotiated, Tribal communities were excluded from the negotiations. Instead, Indian water use, which the negotiators knew was legally perfected long before 1922, was lumped into state allocations, with each state being responsible for meeting tribal needs from its share of the water. This gamble set up a potential conflict between the apportionments made by the Upper Basin Compact and the protections provided Indian rights under the Colorado River Compact.
A decade after the compact was signed, this conflict became real. In response, Upper Basin leaders took steps to limit tribal water rights and prevent full use of tribal entitlements, by inserting provisions in project authorizing legislation. The implications today are a legacy of intentional discrimination against tribes, unresolved legal questions around tribal water rights, and provisions that treat Native Americans as second-class citizens.
 Brenda Burman letter to Bureau of Reclamation, Aug. 15, 2023. See also comments by the state of Wyoming, the Salt River Project, the state of Colorado and the Upper Colorado River Commission.
Ranchers and farmers across the Colorado River Basin, who control roughly 80% of the drought-strapped river’s flows, are reluctant to sign up for voluntary, government-funded water conservation programs for a variety of reasons identified in a new report.
Chief among them are a fear of losing their water rights, seeing their water use reduced, and engaging with far-off bureaucracies that they believe aren’t qualified to help.
The WLA launched the research effort to better understand how agricultural water users in the region view different water conservation efforts and what it would take to convince them to participate. Hallie Mahowald, a co-author of the report and chief programs officer at the WLA, said in a webinar in September that the landowners will be key to finding solutions to the growing shortages on the river because they control so much of its water.
“We feel it is critical to understand landowner perspective and to solicit landowner input if we are going to develop successful strategies to address Western water shortages,” she said.
The report comes as the river basin remains mired in a long-running drought that has come close to crippling lakes Powell and Mead and experiences ongoing shortages as climate change continues to sap its flows.
At the same time, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding is being made available to help the Colorado River Basin states better manage the river, reduce water use, and develop programs to sustain the basin’s cities and farms as the region continues to warm.
Drew Bennett, MacMillan Professor of Practice in Private Lands Stewardship at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, said the survey results show a disconnect between ranchers and farmers and the agencies who are charged with overseeing Colorado River Basin water management. In fact, more than 85% of those surveyed said they did not trust the water agencies that help manage the giant river system.
“We need to build additional trust…it will be absolutely critical moving forward,” Bennett said.
And while more than 50% of those surveyed are engaging in at least limited conservation practices, they are not interested in doing more if their water rights aren’t strongly protected, if they are not adequately compensated, and if the programs aren’t administered locally.
This lack of trust, the report says, “may create a barrier to gaining buy-in for new water management strategies, even if they are supported by significant funding from state and federal government agencies.”
The river basin spans seven states. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Lower Basin includes Arizona, California and Nevada.
Researchers broke out survey responses based on which basin a grower operates in. Key findings of the report include:
97% of Upper Basin growers (Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah) and 96% of Lower Basin growers (Arizona, California and Nevada) are worried about coming shortage-related changes in water policy and new constraints on their water use.
Just 14% of Upper Basin growers and 13% of Lower Basin growers believe that existing water policies and management practices are adequate to address coming shortages.
69% of Upper Basin and 74% of Lower Basin growers have implemented at least one water conservation practice, largely in response to local water shortages.
56% of growers in both basins would engage in programs to improve their water delivery systems if funding is provided.
Just 8% of Upper Basin and 18% of Lower Basin growers would participate in programs that would fallow, or cease production, on the same field for multiple years.
And just 13% of Upper Basin and 14% of Lower Basin growers said there was a high level of trust between water users and water management agencies.
In Colorado, the Colorado Ag Water Alliance has been working to help producers use water more efficiently to prepare for future droughts and manage with less water. But CAWA’s Executive Director Greg Peterson said it’s a difficult task.
“Our goal is to help these people survive. People [who don’t farm] don’t actually understand that there are few opportunities to reduce water use in an agricultural setting,” Peterson said. “You might be able to reduce water use by 5% or maybe 10% without reducing yields. But it’s not easy to do.”
Wyoming and other basin states have begun installing sophisticated new technologies that help determine how much water crops consume, known as consumptive use, and how much water runs off and returns to the river or natural environment after a field has been irrigated. This is a critical measurement because it is only the consumptive use portion of irrigation water that can be administratively “saved” as water left in the river system.
Jeff Cowley is administrator for interstate streams in the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, the top water regulator in the state. Cowley is implementing new conservation technologies and working with growers who are already participating in one of the new federal programs known as the System Conservation Pilot Program.
Homing in on how much water is saved and left in the river is a complicated question whose answer differs from field to field and crop to crop. When water was plentiful, before the drought and climate change, there was enough water that this kind of precision wasn’t required. But that is no longer the case.
Cowley said this new level of precision is another critical factor in working with skeptical farmers and ranchers because it provides some certainty on what impact programs could have on their water supplies.
“Folks are attached to their water,” Cowley said. “They are willing to try new things, but not on their own dime.”
And any given year, he said, “there is not a lot of room for mistakes.”
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
More by Jerd Smith Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Click here to download the report. (Bennett, D., Lewis, M., Mahowald, H., Collins, M., Brammer, T., Byerly Flint, H., Thorsness, L., Eaton, W., Hansen, K., Burbach, M., and Koebele, E. 2023.). Here’s the executive summary:
Executive Summary The Colorado River Basin is in crisis. There is no longer enough water for all of those who depend on it. The agricultural sector is the largest water user in the Colorado River Basin, meaning that farmers and ranchers are central to both the impacts of and solutions to water shortages. Their involvement will be key to developing effective policy solutions to today’s water crisis.
We surveyed 1,020 agricultural water users throughout six states in the Colorado River Basin to understand their perspectives on the present crisis, their current water conservation practices, and their preferences for strategies to address water shortages going forward. Agricultural water users were primarily concerned about how the current situation could impact water policy, constrain irrigators’ own water use, and constrain other agricultural water users. We also conducted qualitative research to capture preferences for local approaches to managing water and provide additional context on dynamics in the Colorado River Basin, including interviews with 12 agricultural producers and water experts and a focus group with 10 agricultural water users in Colorado.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found agricultural water users are already responding to water shortages. Roughly 70% of surveyed agricultural water users have already adopted one or more water conservation practices or adaptation strategies. Importantly, many would consider adopting additional practices. Despite this, few respondents participated in or were aware of formal programs to support water conservation. One exception, however, was the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). A third of respondents currently or previously participated in EQIP and an additional 37% were aware of the program. Information gathered from interviews and the focus group identified multiple burdens to participation in EQIP and similar programs, and several participants thought the benefits were not worth the effort. These insights suggest an opportunity for revisiting how formal programs meant to incentivize water conservation connect with water users.
Most survey respondents were unlikely to adopt water conservation practices as part of formal demand management or system conservation programs to address water shortages. Only one of eight practices included in the survey – enhancing water delivery systems – had a majority of respondents state that they were likely to adopt the practice. The remaining seven practices had a considerably lower likelihood of adoption. Respondents were also generally opposed to water transfers as a solution to shortages. Opposition was strongest to permanent transfers broadly, as well as to temporary transfers from agricultural to non-agricultural uses. Only temporary transfers from agricultural water users to other agricultural water users had less than 50% opposition. Major barriers to supporting water transfers included concerns about losing water rights, even in temporary transfer arrangements, as well as insufficient financial compensation. Addressing these concerns will be critical to increase participation of agricultural water users in demand management or system conservation. Still, although support for temporary water transfers and demand management practices was low, even equivalently low participation (e.g., 10% to 20%) could help address water shortages as part of a portfolio of strategies for the Colorado River Basin.
We also documented an overwhelming preference for local approaches to managing water shortages and a trust gap with non-local agencies. This was evidenced by respondents’ preference for the local management of formal programs, such as some of the demand management and system conservation programs under consideration, as well as for the administration of funding for water conservation and other programs. Qualitative research participants communicated that strategies to address water shortages must account for the diversity of local contexts across the Colorado River Basin. These strategies could therefore be best implemented at the local level through existing delivery infrastructure and by managers with track records of success. State and federal water managers and agencies involved in program delivery should emphasize building trust with agricultural water users and gaining knowledge about unique features of local contexts. Simply providing additional funding for formal water conservation programs may be inadequate to meet the diversity of challenges across an area of 246,000 square miles. Developing opportunities for dialogue and listening can help foster relationships and improve trust among key stakeholders.
Given the importance of agriculture as the primary water user in the Colorado River Basin, proactively engaging agricultural communities will be critical to successfully managing water shortages. Understanding the perspectives and preferences of agricultural water users, as documented in this report, can help guide the development of solutions that work for producers and other users in the Basin.
A Carbondale ditch company is looking for sources of funding after 30-foot-deep sinkholes caused the ditch to collapse in early September, cutting off water to downstream irrigators.
The East Mesa Ditch pulls water from the Crystal River mostly to irrigate about 740 acres of hay and alfalfa south of Carbondale. The ditch operator, East Mesa Water Co., received approval Sept. 20 for an emergency loan up to $418,140 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to pipe the ditch and relocate it away from the area prone to sinkholes. The piped section will include a siphon and be about 1,500 feet long.
According to the CWCB memo, about 34% of the acres irrigated by the East Mesa Ditch are currently without water. The ditch is able to pull 41.8 cubic feet per second from the Crystal River using two water rights, the oldest of which dates to 1902.
East Mesa Water Co.’s secretary and treasurer, Richard McIntyre, said at the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board meeting in September that the company would like to repair the ditch as soon as possible — definitely before next irrigation season — but first, they have to do a geophysical investigation so that they can avoid more sinkhole issues in the future. The ditch company, which has 12 shareholders, also plans to ask for grant money from the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s Community Funding Partnership as well as the Healthy Rivers program.
McIntyre and water company president Tim Nieslanik gave a presentation during the Healthy Rivers board meeting, held Sept. 21, but declined to speak further with Aspen Journalism. They have not yet asked Healthy Rivers for a specific amount of money.
“That is really going to depend on what the geophysicist discovers in this mesa and where the stable ground is,” McIntyre said. “You guys know water is kind of the lifeline for the ranchers here. Without it, we’re washed up, so to speak.”
Some Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board members see the East Mesa Ditch repair project as not only an opportunity to help local agricultural producers but a chance to potentially benefit the Crystal River.
“We are excited about opportunities where we can both help out the ranchers and farmers that are being hurt by this damage to the canal but also set ourselves up for a partnership in the future where we can look at opportunities for water savings that can potentially be returned to the environment or ways to manage the ditch in a way that benefits the Crystal River more so than it has in its current state,” Healthy Rivers board vice chair Kirstin Neff said.
On the Western Slope, agriculture efficiency infrastructure projects — such as upgrading headgates and diversion structures, lining and piping ditches, and replacing flood-irrigated meadows with sprinkler systems — are often funded with grants from public entities and environmental organizations. Pitkin County Healthy Rivers also helped to fund repairs to the East Mesa Ditch in 2016.
The idea is that when irrigators have more-efficient systems, they don’t need to take as much water from the river, leaving more for the benefit of the environment and recreation. But whether these agricultural efficiency projects actually result in more water in the river is unclear. Some say it’s likely that if irrigators can more easily access their full water right, they will use more — unless they are paid not to do so.
At the Sept. 21 meeting, Neff asked how the project would support Healthy Rivers’ mission, which is to improve the water quality and quantity in the Roaring Fork River watershed.
Nieslanik responded that the East Mesa Water Company is interested in leasing some of their water for the benefit of the environment. An example of this is a program that allows irrigators to temporarily loan water to the state’s instream flow program. Colorado water law was tweaked in 2020 to make it more attractive to water-rights holders and effective as a conservation tool, and ranchers in the Gunnison River basin are leasing their water through this program.
“We’d actually like to lease water to help pay back these loans,” Nieslanik said. “We have water at certain periods of time in the year after second cutting. … We would like to consider the ways that our additional water could be a monetary source for us, as well as maybe a safety net for municipalities.”
Representatives of the East Mesa Water Co. have said in the past they would be open to leaving water in the river. Also, they have let other water users borrow some of the ditch’s flow in the past. During an August 2018 first-ever call on the Crystal River, the East Mesa Ditch loaned 1 cfs to the town of Carbondale under an emergency substitute water supply plan.
“We bailed them out. They kindly sent us a check six months later for $10,000,” Nieslanik said. “We would love to do something the same way with you guys if you can help us fund this somehow.”
Nieslanik added that the company would like to get more irrigators to use sprinkler systems, which are more efficient than flood irrigation.
Finding creative arrangements with irrigators to boost streamflows on the Crystal during dry periods has long been a desire of some Healthy Rivers board members. So far, there has been just one such nondiversion agreement between rancher Bill Fales and the Colorado Water Trust that aims to leave more water in the Crystal River that he would usually divert using the Helms Ditch late in the irrigation season of dry years.
At the Sept. 21 meeting, Pitkin County Attorney John Ely voiced his approval for the county’s funding the East Mesa Ditch piping project. With agricultural water users laying claim to 86% of the water used in Colorado, many water managers who are focused on the environment agree that working with them instead of against them is the best way forward.
“The question is: How can we stay true to our charter of maintaining streamflow while helping somebody divert water from the river?,” Ely said. “You simply can’t preserve water in the river at all without someone you can work with and someone who holds a relatively senior water right. … You can’t solve the riddle of how to protect streamflow without working with agriculture.”
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust (Tony LaGreca and Mike Holmes):
Granby, Co., (Sept 18, 2023) – On September 18, 2023, the Grand County Irrigated Land Company (GCILC) started releasing water from Meadow Creek Reservoir to boost instream flows in the Upper Fraser River. Releases from the reservoir will be picked up by the Moffat Collection system and in exchange Denver Water will reduce diversions at the Jim Creek collection point. This will boost flows in the Upper Fraser River through the Town of Winter Park and on downstream. This project is part of a one-year agreement between GCILC and Colorado Water Trust (the Water Trust). Both parties hope it can be the first year of a longer-term solution to low flows of the Fraser River.
The added flow from the project, estimated at 3 cfs (cubic feet per second), is intended to support river health during times of low flow. The Water Trust analysis shows that flows in the reach of the Fraser River from Crooked Creek to the Town of Winter Park are regularly below the 8 cfs necessary to preserve the natural environment; and that low flows are most common in September.
To implement this project GCILC and the Water Trust obtained approval for a Water Conservation Program from the Colorado River District. This program allows GCILC to release the stored water for an environmental benefit without impacting the use records associated with those storage rights. GCILC worked with the Learning By Doing group to decide which stream reach would benefit from the project and with Denver Water to move the water through the Moffat collection system to the Upper Fraser.
“Historically the Upper Fraser River near Winter Park has seen low flows, particularly in August and September when resident trout are starting their fall spawning migration. Boosting flows at this time can help those fish have successful spawning runs and keep this valuable recreational fishery healthy. We are fortunate to have an excellent partner in GCILC and we look forward to working with them long into the future to keep the Fraser River flowing strong,” Tony LaGreca, Project Manager, Colorado Water Trust.
“By partnering with the Water Trust, GCILC hopes the releases of water from Meadow Creek Reservoir will, in a small way, help to mitigate the impacts to the watershed from the trans mountain diversions, and beconsistent with the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement,” Mike Holmes, Grand County Irrigated Land Company.
Under state statute, Water Conservation Programs can operate in 5 years out of a 10-year period. This is the first year of operation for this project. The parties plan on evaluating the success of this first year of operation before applying for future years of operation.
This is a true, broad collaboration between a local irrigation company (GCILC), a statewide Colorado nonprofit (The Water Trust), and international and national companies providing the funding to help make it all possible (The Coca-Cola Company and Swire Coca-Cola). Thanks to the financial support of the two companies, the Water Trust will reimburse the GCILC for the environmental flow releases.
ABOUT COLORADO WATER TRUST: Colorado Water Trust is a private, nonprofit organization that restores water to Colorado’s rivers by developing and implementing voluntary, water sharing agreements. Since 2001, the Water Trust has restored nearly 21 billion gallons of water to 600 miles of Colorado’s rivers and streams.
ABOUT THE COCA-COLA COMPANY: The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE: KO) is a total beverage company with products sold in more than 200 countries and territories. Our company’s purpose is to refresh the world and make a difference. We sell multiple billion-dollar brands across several beverage categories worldwide. Our portfolio of sparkling soft drink brands includes Coca-Cola, Sprite and Fanta. Our water, sports, coffee and tea brands include Dasani, Smartwater, vitaminwater, Topo Chico, BODYARMOR, Powerade, Costa, Georgia, Gold Peak and Ayataka. Our juice, value-added dairy and plant-based beverage brands include Minute Maid, Simply, Innocent, Del Valle, Fairlife and AdeS. We’re constantly transforming our portfolio, from reducing sugar in our drinks to bringing innovative new products to market. We seek to positively impact people’s lives, communities and the planet through water replenishment, packaging recycling, sustainable sourcing practices and carbon emissions reductions across our value chain. Together with our bottling partners, we employ more than 700,000 people, helping bring economic opportunity to local communities worldwide. Learn more at http://www.coca- colacompany.com and follow us on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.
ABOUT SWIRE COCA-COLA: With revenues of $3 billion, Swire Coca-Cola, produces, sells and distributes Coca-Cola and other beverages in 13 states across the American West. The company’s territory includes parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Employing more than 7,200 associates the company’s headquarters is in Draper, Utah.
Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1750 cfs to 1400 cfs on Monday, October 2nd. Releases are being decreased in response to a reduction in diversions at the Gunnison Tunnel.
Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.
Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, will be 1050 cfs for October through December.
Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 700 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be 700 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will still be near 700 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.
Water commissioners from Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming are focusing on water demand management in the future of a conservation pilot program. The Upper Colorado River Commission met for a special meeting on Sept. 21 and heard an update regarding the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP)…Ultimately, the water commissioners unanimously voted to support narrowing the program in 2024 to focus on water demand management and tools for innovation and local drought resiliency. There was also emphasis during the meeting on improving upon what was learned in 2023…
Collum reviewed three options the commission had on the table for 2024. The first option was to have no program in 2024, but no commissioners spoke in favor of that option. The second option was to maximize water conservation.
Option three, unanimously favored by the commissioners, was presented during the meeting as: “Narrow the 2024 SCPP to explore Demand Management (DM) Studies and Support Innovation & Local Resiliency – implement recommended SCPP improvements AND narrow project criteria towards remaining DM questions and supporting innovation & local resiliency resulting in water conservation.”
“…I think when we specifically look at the change in hydrology (and) the definite need for the cuts to happen where the cuts are needed in the lower basin,” Mitchell said. “I really want to think about resiliency on the home front and the thing that we do being focused on building security for our own states and our own water users. And so I think when we look at the implementation with the recommended improvements and the narrow project criteria that are focused on supporting innovation and local resiliency that results in water conservation.” — Becky Mitchell
Colorado River managers on Thursday [September 21, 2023] decided to continue a water conservation program designed to protect critical elevations in the nation’s two largest reservoirs.
The Upper Colorado River Commission decided unanimously to continue the federally funded System Conservation Program in 2024 — but with a narrower scope that explores demand management concepts and supports innovation and local drought resiliency on a longer-term basis. This was the third of three options that commissioners had regarding SCP and whether they would continue it next year. The other options, which commissioners rejected, were to not do a program in 2024 or to maximize the program, with a focus on increasing the amount of water conserved.
Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner to the UCRC, said she could support doing system conservation again since it will now be focused on water security and innovative conservation for upper basin water users.
“We have an opportunity to do better this time around and learn from last year’s experience and do it in a way that’s responsive to the input that we heard across the upper basin,” Mitchell said. “Option 3 has modified the program in a way that with that prioritization of projects that support innovation of water conservation and development of drought-resiliency tools, it’s something that I can support.”
The System Conservation Program is paying water users in the four upper basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — to voluntarily cut back with $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act. According to UCRC officials, nearly $16.1 million was spent on system conservation in 2023. Nearly $1 million of that went to 22 project participants in Colorado, resulting in a water savings of about 2,517 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot and can supply one or two families a year).
Project participants in Colorado are being paid an average of about $394 for every acre-foot of water they conserve in 2023. Officials say the average price per acre-foot across the upper basin is $422. Although water users from all sectors can participate, all of the projects in Colorado this year involved agricultural water users on the Western Slope.
System conservation was first tried in the upper basin from 2015 to 2018 and saved an estimated 47,000 acre-feet, at a cost of about $8.6 million. Last year, the UCRC announced it would restart a system conservation program as part of its 5-Point Plan, aimed at protecting critical elevations in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which have fallen to record-low levels in recent years because of overuse, drought and climate change.
The program for 2024 is being rolled out sooner than the one for 2023 was, giving irrigators more time to plan for next season, which could lead to more interest and enrollment. UCRC Executive Director Chuck Cullom gave commissioners a timeline proposal: an announcement of the 2024 program Oct. 2; request for proposals issued Oct. 10; project applications due Dec. 11, followed by a nearly two-month review period of applications by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the upper basin states and UCRC’s consultant. Contracts are slated to be executed by March 15.
“We believe that this draft timeline would significantly address the shortcomings that we had identified in the lessons learned report and provide the improvements in the application and review process for a more successful program in 2024,” Cullom said.
The 2024 program’s focus on studying demand management addresses an often-heard criticism of SCP: Any water conserved in a system conservation program is not guaranteed to make it to Lake Powell and could just be picked up by the next downstream user. Conceptually, system conservation and demand management are the same: paying irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to conserve water.
But there’s an important legal difference. If water conservation is done under the umbrella of an official demand management program, that water can be “shepherded” to a special 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell.
The 2019 Drought Contingency Plan created the possibility of this demand management pool for the upper basin states to protect against a compact call. Although Colorado studied the issue extensively from 2019 to 2021, including with nine workgroups, the upper basin states have so far not implemented a demand management program to take advantage of this pool in Lake Powell.
Cullom said the third option will also implement recommendations for improvements that came from interviews with program participants, nongovernmental organizations, tribes and water managers across the upper basin. These include a more transparent and upfront pricing process; more education and outreach to water users; and more information about project applications in Colorado and opportunity to provide comment.
During the 2023 project approval process, the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District — whose mission is to lead in the protection, conservation, use and development of water on the Western Slope — and the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District voiced concerns about a lack of transparency.
Mitchell had also promised the districts that they could participate in the review and approval process for applications, thereby securing a measure of local control. But she later walked back that commitment, saying the UCRC had sole authority in the approval process.
Information about project specifics is still scant, with much of the information about the exact location of projects, how much participants are being paid, names of participating ditches, and information about water rights such as priority dates and decreed amounts of water in the contracts blacked out.
Mitchell has publicly stated that this second round of the SCP reboot would be more transparent, at least in Colorado, but has not said exactly how.
Paying water users to irrigate less continues to be controversial on the Western Slope, with fears that these temporary and voluntary programs could lead to a permanent “buy and dry” situation that would negatively impact rural farming and ranching communities. Water managers have repeatedly said that large amounts of water cannot be saved through system conservation in the upper basin and that cuts are needed from the lower basin — California, Nevada and Arizona — to bring the Colorado River system back into balance.
At an August meeting of the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee of the Colorado legislature, Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat whose District 8 spans several Western Slope counties, including Routt, Garfield, Eagle and Summit, asked Mitchell and Cullom if Colorado would engage in system conservation prior to the lower basin implementing substantial and permanent reductions in water use.
Mitchell replied that system conservation is done with the goal of learning what lessons can be gleaned about Colorado’s water resilience and to offer flexible tools for irrigators, not to enable continued overuse in the lower basin.
“We need to ask ourselves: Is it good for Colorado?” she said. “We realized that there was only so much we could do. People wanted to do something, but they wanted it for Colorado.”
Due to the forecast for the coming week indicating sufficient flows in the critical habitat reach of the San Juan River, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 900 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 850 cfs for Wednesday September 20th, at 4:00 AM.
Reclamation continues to release project water to fulfill a project water release request by the Jicarilla Apache Nation’s subcontractors, The Nature Conservancy and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, in addition to the normally scheduled release required to maintain the minimum downstream target baseflow.
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.
A Gunnison County family ranch plans to use a relatively new tool to help keep water flowing in a chronically dry section of creek while still irrigating their hay crop.
In dry years, the Peterson Ranch will temporarily loan some of the water it diverts from Tomichi Creek to the state’s instream flow program, which is aimed at keeping water in rivers for the benefit of the environment. The agreement was approved by the Colorado Water Conservation Board this year under legislation passed in 2020 designed to make the water loans more attractive to water-rights owners and effective as a conservation tool.
“We don’t like to see the fish suffer, so we thought this was one way to allow us to continue with our operation and do something for the creek,” said ranch owner, former legislator and Colorado River Water Conservation District board member Kathleen Curry. “For us, it was a way to make a contribution.”
Historically, Curry and her husband, Greg Peterson, have flood irrigated their 220 acres of river bottom ranchland, about 15 miles east of Gunnison, beginning in the spring until the end of July. The end of spring runoff, combined with irrigation season, can cause river flows to plummet during the hottest time of year, which is bad news for fish.
“Historically, Tomichi Creek dries up in several locations,” said Tony LaGreca, a project manager for the Colorado Water Trust. “A dry-up is the complete worst thing to happen for an aquatic ecosystem because everything that needs water to live does not live.”
In late July, Curry and Peterson normally stop irrigating to allow their fields to dry out for a few weeks so that they can get their one annual hay cutting in August, during which time — with the help of monsoon rains — creek flows tend to rebound. They resume irrigating in the fall to regrow some pasture grass and to replenish the groundwater for the next season, which leads to another dip in river flows.
But with the lease agreement enacted, Curry and Peterson would turn off their four ditch headgates at the end of June and keep them off for 37 days — usually the hottest, driest time of year and when Tomichi Creek could most use a boost. By turning water off a month early, they expect to lose about 20% to 25% of their yield, for which they will be compensated nearly $25,000 by the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust.
A second part of the agreement would let them irrigate in August and leave the water in the creek in September, when streamflows are lower. Peterson Ranch could get $2,500 if it enacts the lease in the second operational window. If they do both windows, they could get $30,000.
Over seven miles of Tomichi Creek would benefit from the loan of water. Depending on the location in the stream and time of year, the project could add between 2 and 18 cubic feet per second back to the stream for a total of 116 acre-feet of water conserved.
“It’s a win-win,” Curry said. “We can go with a little bit less yield and they are compensating us very fairly.”
The statute that allows irrigators to temporarily loan their water to the state’s instream flow program was originally crafted in 2005 with the help of Curry when she was a state representative. (Curry this week told Colorado Politics that she intends to run in 2024 to represent House District 58.)
The instream flow program allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board to appropriate water rights to “preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree.” Since it was created in 1973, the CWCB has appropriated water rights on nearly 1,700 stream segments, covering more than 9,700 miles of streams, according to its website. But because these rights are so junior compared with most other water users, their effectiveness as a tool for keeping water in rivers is limited.
Under the prior appropriation system — the cornerstone of Colorado water law — the holders of the oldest water rights, which usually belong to agriculture, get first use of the river. That means in many locations across the state, the much younger instream flow water rights — 18 cfs in the case of Tomichi Creek, with an adjudication date of 1980 — are not met. Temporary leasing of agricultural water to the instream flow is one way to remedy the problem.
Still, the tool is not widely used, despite tweaks to the legislation in 2020 with House Bill 1157 that allowed projects to expand to being used five of every 10 years from three of every 10 years. The Peterson Ranch lease is one of just three projects using the five-in-10 lease program, according to CWCB staff. There are six other similar projects across the state that came about under the previous three-in-10 legislation.
“It doesn’t appear at the rate it’s being utilized, it’s going to solve environmental problems all across the state just like that,” said Kate Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Water Trust. “But on the streams and rivers where it’s used, it’s transformative. It makes a huge difference.”
State Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, who represents District 8, was one of the sponsors of HB 1157. The bill also made it possible to renew loans for two additional 10-year periods, meaning that holders of agricultural water rights can theoretically loan their water for the benefit of the environment for 15 of every 30 years. Roberts said he has heard positive feedback about the expanded loan program.
“We’ve cut down some of the barriers and made it easier to participate but the whole time we’ve kept it voluntary,” Roberts said. “I think the tool is only going to become more important as we head further into drought and dry summers.”
Curry said she got involved with the original bill that created a legal pathway to loan water to ensure that it was workable for livestock producers.
“The state is changing, and we have to face that there are other values for water,” she said. “We just need to make sure if we go down this path, these types of projects need conditions: They wouldn’t hurt ag, they wouldn’t hurt your neighbor, it’s voluntary — things like that.”
State engineers at the Division of Water Resources still need to give their final sign-off for the Peterson Ranch project to move forward. In the spring, Peterson Ranch will decide whether to enact the lease for 2024’s irrigation season. Ideal conditions for the agreement would be a below-average runoff year but not in the bottom 10%.
Despite the lease program’s limited use so far, Ryan said she has seen more interest lately in partnerships among water-user groups.
“We don’t have to choose between ag and the environment,” she said. “I think water users are seeing there is a natural partnership between ag and the environment. But it’s still complicated and takes a lot of work.”
The Rio Grande, already dry in the San Acacia reach south of Socorro, has begun drying in the Isleta reach south of Albuquerque. And with a record hot dry summer, we could see it dry in Albuquerque again this year, as it did last year for the first time in 40 years.
Problem 1 this year is that it’s hot and dry. Problem 2 is that El Vado Reservoir, built in the 1930s to store spring runoff for use at times like this, is under repair. So the stored water that would provide both irrigation and environmental benefits is unavailable.
This morning’s water management notes from the USBR noted 30 miles dry in the San Acacia Reach and a mile of dry riverbed in the Isleta reach.
Flow this morning through Albuquerque was a bit above 300 cubic feet per second. The median for this point in August is ~600 cfs.
At the confluence of the Roaring Fork and the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, it’s clear that a big, snowy winter has turned into a big spring and summer for local streamflows, too. On June 23, the water was 50 percent higher than it was at the same time last year, flowing twice as fast, according to a sensor monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey. Provisional data shows the water was colder, too, by a few degrees Celsius. That’s all good news for the fish that call these waters home — at least for now.
“My impression is that it’s a good year in a bad pattern,” said Clay Ramey, a fisheries biologist with the White River National Forest, in an interview in the U.S. Forest Service office in Aspen…
…streamflows in the Upper Basin were nearly 20% lower than the last century’s average, the worst 15-year drought on record. Researchers from the Colorado River Research Group in Boulder estimate that between one-sixth and half of that loss was due to warmer temperatures — nearly one degree Celsius hotter than averages in the 20th century. Their study reported that those higher temperatures were tied to human-caused climate change and increased greenhouse gas emissions, and that “future climate change impacts on the Colorado River will be greater than currently assumed.”
Data from the Western Water Assessment through the University of Colorado Boulder shows similar patterns on the Roaring Fork River. Since the year 2000, streamflows have been 13% lower on average than the 20th century — even though the amount of rain or snow falling didn’t change that much. Wildlife managers have seen the impacts firsthand, throughout an interconnected river system. In 2019, Ramey was counting cutthroat trout in West Divide Creek, which flows into the Colorado River near Silt. In a 100-meter stretch of stream, where fish-counters used to find 30 to 40 adult fish, Ramey said they found just one during that count. Another coldwater species, the mountain whitefish, is struggling too. They’re native to other Northwest Colorado rivers and were introduced to the Roaring Fork in the 1940s. And their populations here have plummeted in the past 15 years or so, which researchers attribute to warmer temperatures in the Roaring Fork River, along with increased sediment flushes from monsoon rain events. One of those researchers is Kendall Bakich, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Jack Schmidt, Charles Yackulic, and Eric Kuhn have published an invaluable new overview of how we got into this mess on the Colorado River, and some of the things we need to think about to get out of it.
SOCORRO COUNTY, N.M. — Four people walk the streambed, combing the pools in Socorro County’s San Acacia Reach. Two wade thigh-deep in the bank crook, a seine net strung between them, and tug it through the water. Another calls out temperatures and measures the pool. The fourth jots it down in a notebook.
At the edge of the pool, the net is suddenly boiling with violent wriggling and thrashing. Mallory Boro from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gently grasps a small fish with one deft flick of a hand. An endangered silvery minnow.
The minnow is placed in a five-gallon bucket and then moved to an oxygenated rescue tank on the back of an all-terrain vehicle. Then, onward to the next pool to do it all again. There are miles of riverbed left to go.
This is a fish rescue on the Rio Grande. And the people doing it know it’s not enough.
“This is like slapping a Band-Aid on a severed limb,” said Thomas Archdeacon, who has led the silvery minnow recovery project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, N.M., for the past decade.
These rescues require a lot of work, but even so, the fish are often in poor health from being in shallow, hot pools with little oxygen. Or they are sickened by other dead and rotting fish left behind when the water recedes.
“The ones that we rescue don’t survive very well. We’re getting between a 5% and 15% survival rate, which is bad,” he said. “Healthy fish have an 80% to 100% survival rate.”
Archdeacon drops his posture, taking a moment to rest against the ATV. He is an earnest speaker, lent gravitas by the touch of gray in his red hair. He has been studying and publishing research about the fish for nearly 15 years — most of his career.
Between 18 and 20 miles of the river dried in the San Acacia Reach overnight in mid-June, pushing the fish rescue crew to work punishing hours. The pools were smaller and drying faster than usual for June.
More effort has to go to restoring the habitat that fish could survive in, and securing water in the river, he said.
“Eventually, we’re trying to take the emphasis off of the fish rescue, because it’s not effective conservation,” he said, running a hand across his face as the day creeps above 90 degrees.
Spawning between dams
The silvery minnow is not a charismatic species. The nondescript fish is green to yellow on top, a cream underbelly usually no more than 4 inches long, with small eyes and a small mouth. It’s short-lived, estimated to survive just over one year or up to two years in the wild, and four years in captivity.
Shoals of minnows used to swim nearly 3,000 miles of the Rio Grande’s length from the Gulf of Mexico to Española, N.M., and along much of the Pecos River.
They are unique in one aspect: Unlike most freshwater fish, the silvery minnow directly spawns into the water in the spring, and then the fertilized eggs slip downstream. This technique, called pelagic broadcasting, is much more common for marine creatures. The silvery minnow is the last of five species that spawn this way living in the Rio Grande. One is extinct entirely. The others survive in different rivers, but no longer in the Rio Grande.
In earlier times, shallow wetlands emerged at the river’s bend. In slow eddies and silty bottoms, the silvery minnow was prolific. The species follows the river’s rhythms, waiting to spawn when the spike of snowmelt pulses.
But federal and local irrigation projects straightened the river, making it deeper and faster. They removed the bump of snowmelt, storing it in reservoirs for crops. The construction of Elephant Butte and other dams prevented fish from moving upstream. Eggs and larvae drift downstream to face predators or cold water in Elephant Butte. The river carries others into irrigation ditches or dry streambeds, where fish may hatch, but there is little chance for returning to the river to spawn.
In 1994, after years of steep declines, the silvery minnow was listed as endangered at the federal level.
Now, the fish are primarily found in a stretch of river between Cochiti Dam and Elephant Butte — if there’s enough river to support silvery minnow.
“If some catastrophic event occurs, they’re a lot more vulnerable because it’s more likely to affect all of them,” Archdeacon said.
For 25 years, the San Acacia Reach has dried nearly every summer when farmers divert water for crops, according to documentation held by the Rio Grande Compact Commission.
Archdeacon said he doesn’t have any answers as to why the silvery minnow population has better reproduction and recruitment chances in the reach, compared with upstream in Albuquerque, where the river has only dried once in the last 40 years — in the summer of 2022.
“My guess is that the eggs float downstream, and the channel is wider — more sand bed — and shallower, which is just better for reproduction,” he said.
Drought complicates recovery efforts on all sides. In a good year like 2017, the fish population boomed into the millions. But only a tiny number lasts long enough to continue the next generation. And in lousy years, which are more frequent, that dwindling number of spawners only shrinks. In 2018 and again in 2022, the river dried before the fish could spawn.
Even when thousands of fish spawn simultaneously, only a few successfully carry on to the next generations.
Federal agencies partnered with hatcheries and the ABQ BioPark to breed other silvery minnows, in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, both for release into the wild and as a bank against inbreeding when wild populations crash.
“Genetically speaking, it’s keeping them from going down a hole they can’t dig themselves out of,” Archdeacon said.
But dumping hatchery fish into the Rio Grande is not a silver bullet. Recovery means a wild, sustainable population, which Archdeacon added would require “serious large-scale habitat restoration” and sufficient water flows to spawn.
If 1 million to 2 million fish were upstream and successfully spawning each spring, he estimated, then fish rescue may be worth it.
But that’s not the reality.
In 2022, early drying wiped out egg collection efforts. With the 2020 and 2021 generations reaching the end of their lifespan, the 2023 generation will be vital for keeping the hatchery populations alive.
“But there’s also nothing that prevents this from happening again,” Archdeacon said.
Nothing dies quietly in the riverbed. Dozens of blue catfish, golden green smallmouth buffalo and red shiners grow brown as they writhe in the silt, seeking a pool. Some red remains as their gill slits flare, and they twist and slam their bodies into the mud.
Their moments of frantic slapping stretch into long, excruciating minutes. It takes nearly an hour before some of the larger fish heave their last breath.
When the pools are large enough, maybe between ankle- and knee-deep, the team can throw the fish back in to survive in shrinking pools. But when the pools shrink to just the barest puddle, it means throwing the fish that aren’t silvery minnows out into the mud.
Archdeacon cradles a native smallmouth buffalo. “If the river wasn’t dry, nothing would eat them,” he said, putting it onto the ground. “I’d guess this one is about 10-years-old.”
The minnow, unlike the other fish trapped in the pools, is on the federal list of endangered species — that’s why there’s a team to save them.
Human choice is central to what’s happening here, Archdeacon said, just as people make decisions to use water elsewhere, and this dry bed is a consequence.
“You’re choosing people over fish,” he said. “You cannot paint this into a rosy picture. If you’ve been out here, it’s not good.”
Some of the fish rescuers said they’ve become somewhat desensitized to the mass death of other fish. They have a job to do.
Still, it doesn’t really get easy, either.
“I think about this 365 days a year,” Archdeacon said. “I can’t sleep at night. It’s pretty bad.”
Driving out of the sand bed of San Acacia, away from fish gasping in the riverbed, irrigation canals criss-cross under roadways, full and glistening in the sun. Fields of green alfalfa zip by, watered by pivot sprinklers.
Little fish, big controversy
The silvery minnow has been central to a slew of lawsuits against the federal government, at district and appellate levels.
Out of a case brought jointly by New Mexico, irrigation districts and conservation groups, a 10th Circuit Appeals ruling in 1999 found that top U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials at the time had not followed procedures in securing habitat for the fish. Three years later, the same court found the agency was dragging its feet in providing needed documentation, writing: “These delays and irrational decisions come at the expense of the silvery minnow, officially endangered for nearly eight years.”
More years of litigation resulted in a 2020 federal appeals court decision upholding a lower court’s determination that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not allowed to provide additional water for endangered species and was not required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to change its practices.
In 2021, WildEarth Guardians — a western conservation nonprofit headquartered in Santa Fe — filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. government over a 10-year plan between agencies to ensure they wouldn’t harm endangered species.
That plan, set up just a few years before the lawsuit, was the result of a consultation on a series of reclamation projects and water operations in habitats for the silvery minnow, Southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo — all species with federal protections in the Middle Rio Grande.
The nonprofit wrote a letter addressed to federal agencies and New Mexico state department leaders, announcing their intention to sue:
“We hope that this warning (both the legal notice and the dire conditions on the river) will provide water managers, and quite frankly all people, an incentive to rethink water management as it has existed this past century and chart a new course for this dying river,” the letter said. “The Rio Grande is too valuable to lose.”
After talks and negotiations, further legal action is being taken.
In late November 2022, WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit in federal District Court, alleging that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation violated the Endangered Species Act with the 10-year plan.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife found that the bureau did not jeopardize any endangered species in its 2016 plan. WildEarth Guardians alleges that the decision was “arbitrary,” relies on “vague, uncertain and unenforceable” conservation measures, and failed to consider climate change’s impact.
The current plan wouldn’t meaningfully recover species, the nonprofit said.
WildEarth Guardians asked the court to toss out the 10-year plan and require the agencies to reexamine projects and operations on the Rio Grande.
The silvery minnow’s population is worse off than when it was listed three decades ago, said Daniel Timmons, the river programs director and Rio Grande waterkeeper for WildEarth Guardians.
“Actually limiting the amount of water that’s being taken out of the river in order to make sure there’s enough water left for fish is an action that the federal government has continued to refuse to do,” Timmons said.
Federal management of dams, diversions and depletions is the primary threat that removes water from the river ecosystem, he said.
“It’s not just about the silvery minnow. It’s about the river as a whole,” Timmons said. “That’s the piece that the federal government to date has really failed to grasp, is the importance of the species as an indicator of an entire river system in crisis and collapse.”
Crisis on the Rio Grande is a multi-part series that travels along the river from Colorado through New Mexico and into Texas.
In May, students from Palisade High School gathered on the bank of the Colorado River to kiss goodbye to 250 juvenile, endangered razorback suckers and release them into the muddy, fast-moving spring runoff, marking the 50th anniversary of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
For the past three years, PHS student scientists have been raising the fish in a hatchery, feeding and weighing them, testing the water, cleaning their tanks and inserting a transponder tag so that biologists can track their movement once released each season as part of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.
Razorback suckers, which can live to more than 40 years old and grow to 3 feet, are one of four prehistoric fish species that live only in the Colorado River basin and whose numbers declined with the acceleration of water development projects such as dams and diversions. In 1991, the species was listed as endangered under the ESA, and it has become something of a success story for the recovery program. The populations have recovered enough in the Colorado River that the program is pulling back on stocking and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed downlisting the species to threatened, a lesser category.
“In the last couple of years, we’ve gotten confirmation that at least two of the fish showed up on a spawning bar, completing the life cycle,” said Julie Stahli, director of the recovery program. “It’s a great sign.”
Because of rebounding populations, one of the razorback sucker’s fellow endangered species, the humpback chub, was downlisted to threatened in 2021. The other two endangered fish — the Colorado pikeminnow and bonytail — are not recovering as well as the razorback sucker and humpback chub.
But, despite the successes and the coordinated efforts of federal and state agencies, upstream water users and environmental organizations, meeting minimum flow requirements in a chronically dry section of fish habitat remains a challenge, and stressors such as climate change, drought and nonnative predators are creating new hurdles for helping the fish recover.
Although the fish are arguably the earliest water users on the river, under Colorado’s system of water law, water for the environment typically has some of the most junior rights. Those who use water by taking it out of the river — farmers, cities, industry — usually have senior rights, giving them first use of the water and not always leaving enough for the fish. To remedy this, one of the main goals of the recovery program and its partners is to get more water into a chronically dry section of river in the Grand Valley where the fish live, known as the 15-mile reach.
The recovery program works to reestablish healthy populations of four species of fish that are listed under the ESA by adding water to the river, restoring habitat, growing hatchery fish and controlling nonnative predator fish. It was created in 1988 to protect the fish while still allowing water development, two seemingly opposed goals.
“Shutting down water development in the West to save an endangered species was a no-go for everyone,” Stahli said. “They came up with what was then a very strange plan to use the water and recover the endangered fish at the same time. There are pathways for both.”
The 15 miles of the Colorado River between large Grand Valley agricultural diversions and where the Gunnison River adds its flow to the Colorado is critical habitat. It also tends to not have enough water to support healthy populations, especially during irrigation season in dry years. Water diversions to the Grand Valley to grow crops, including famous Palisade peaches, can combined take up to 1,950 cubic feet per second from the river — collectively, the biggest agricultural diversion from the Colorado River on the Western Slope.
A 2022 memorandum that reviewed what is known as a Programmatic Biological Opinion, originally issued by the USFWS in 1999, found that during the irrigation season of dry years, flows did not meet the minimum monthly recommendation of 810 cfs 39% of the time. Peak spring flows of more than 12,900 cfs, which are needed for healthy habitat and fish spawning, are also not met 31% of the time in dry years, despite a voluntary program where upstream reservoir operators can send extra water down to the 15-mile reach at the same time to boost the natural peak.
The inability to hit target flow recommendations has led the recovery program to begin the process of reevaluating whether the monthly 810 cfs benchmark was a realistic goal to begin with.
“The recovery program has determined that the service’s spring and summer base flow recommendations in dry years are unrealistic and appear to have been unrealistic through the entire period of record,” reads the review memo. “The recovery program should work closely with the service to determine if there is utility in revising the 15-mile reach flow recommendations to more closely align with what we know about Colorado River hydrology and which studies would be needed to support such revisions.”
This reassessment, which is scheduled to be completed by 2028, will look broadly at flow recommendations and the best ways to set them, according to Stahli. For example, a daily minimum flow recommendation may make more sense than a monthly average.
“It’s really an examination of how we are doing within the river basin and whether the 15-mile reach is still serving the ecological function we think it is,” she said.
One of the main actions of the recovery program has been working to add water to this reach. It has been the focus for the program’s environmental conservation partners such as The Nature Conservancy and Western Resource Advocates.
“Our approach is we have always very heavily emphasized the flow piece of it,” said Bart Miller, healthy rivers director at WRA. “In the last 23 years, there has been a lot of dry years. … It’s clear that in the system as a whole, there’s been less water.”
To combat these declining flows from drought and climate change, several entities offer up water they store in upstream reservoirs and release it for the benefit of the fish. For example, for the past few years, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has leased water owned by the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Garfield County and Ute Water Conservancy District in Ruedi Reservoir and sent it downstream to boost flows for the fish during dry periods.
Historically, 43% of the Upper Colorado and San Juan recovery programs’ funding, which was $8 million and $3.46 million, respectively, in 2022, has been spent on flow management and protection, according to the program’s 2023 report to Congress. Since 1998, dedicated pools in reservoirs for the fish and other sources have provided more than 1.7 million acre-feet to supplement flows in the 15-mile reach.
The recovery program helps fish in other ways, too, such as funding fish passages that help them move past dams; hatchery breeding and stocking; screens that prevent them from swimming into irrigation canals; and habitat restoration.
Nonnative predators that eat endangered fish and compete for habitat have increased since the fish were listed and are now the biggest threat to the recovery of the species, according to the PBO review memo. Smallmouth bass, northern pike and walleye are the biggest problems.
“I believe if we didn’t have nonnative fish, these (endangered) fish would be fine,” Stahli said.
Historically, the program has spent 6% of its funding on management of nonnative species. But in fiscal years 2023-24, the program expects to spend 20% of its funding on getting rid of nonnative fish. Stahli said the recovery program catches 2 million to 3 million nonnatives a year.
“What keeps me up at night is nonnative fish,” Miller said. “They have the numbers throughout the basin and have really exploded over the last decade.”
One of the advantages of such a highly engineered and manipulated river system is that it creates opportunities for water users to coordinate their operations to the advantage of the endangered fish.
The first example of this is the Historic Users Pool, a 66,000-acre-foot pool of water in Green Mountain Reservoir, which is on the Blue River in Summit County. This water is earmarked for beneficiaries on the Western Slope, including the Grand Valley irrigators. But in some years, not all the water is needed and any surplus can be made available for endangered fish.
The details of the timing and volume of water to be released are hashed out on conference calls that can include more than 40 participants.
“In most years, the HUP surplus becomes the largest single source of flow augmentation for the 15-mile reach,” said Victor Lee, an engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation who coordinates the HUP conference calls.
The second example is Coordinated Reservoir Operations (CROS), where upstream reservoir operators can voluntarily send a pulse of water that arrives at the 15-mile reach at the same time and enhances the peak flow of the year. Retiming excess flows in this way creates a flushing flow that clears out excess sediment built up on fish-spawning grounds over the previous year. CROS is managed by the CWCB.
“Each reservoir operator decides for themselves whether or not they will participate in CROS for that year,” said Michelle Garrison, a water resources specialist with CWCB. “The fundamental idea behind CROS is to retime what you were going to bypass anyway. If the reservoir operators don’t think they have excess inflow, they will not participate.”
CROS is more likely to occur in wetter-than-average years, but not extremely wet years, Garrison said. In 11 of the past 30 years, peak flows were supplemented with CROS releases. CROS did not happen this year because the prolonged high runoff from a big snowpack was enough of a benefit.
Despite its ongoing challenges, the recovery program proves that entities with different missions can come together for the good of four species of vulnerable wildlife. The fish, although they are the charismatic megafauna of the Colorado River ecosystem and are important in their own right, are also a proxy for river health. If humans can successfully aid in their recovery, it says something about our values, Miller said.
“Do we care that the rivers still flow in the month of August? And if we do, then these fish are the canary-in-the-coal-mine example,” Miller said. “They are the first species that are feeling the brunt of climate change and river management and diversions and everything humans have imposed on the river in the last century and a half. It’s a tribute to us that we can get together on a big geographic scale and put our energy behind trying to keep all the pieces of our larger Colorado River community in place.”
Flow levels in the San Juan River have dropped over the last several weeks, though they remain above median and drought conditions are not forecast for the near future. The San Juan River in Pagosa Springs was running at 1,170 cubic feet per second (cfs) at 11 a.m. on June 21, down from a nighttime peak of 1,380 cfs at 1 a.m., according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
The Bureau of Reclamation is continuing the ramp-down from the 2023 Spring Peak Release. The current release is 1,200 cfs. The next release changes are shown in the table below.
Areas in the immediate vicinity of the river channel may continue to be unstable and dangerous. Please use extra caution near the river channel and protect or remove any valuable property in these areas.
Following ramp-down, summer releases will be 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.
For more information, please see the following resources below:
Bureau of Reclamation:
• Susan Behery, Hydrologic Engineer, Reclamation WCAO (email@example.com or 970-385-6560).
The upper Roaring Fork River will likely see its highest flows of the season beginning early next week as the transbasin diversion from its headwaters to the other side of the Continental Divide is shut off.
Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. is expecting to stop diverting from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork, which will result in an additional 350 to 450 cubic feet per second flow downstream through Aspen. Local officials say that amount of water is welcome, doesn’t pose flooding concerns and is a chance to see what natural spring runoff would look like without a transmountain diversion.
“The river is flowing really low right now, particularly for this time of year,” said April Long, an engineer and stormwater manager at the city of Aspen. “We welcome the additional flow and do not believe we have any concern for flooding at this point.”
According to the stream gauge just above Aspen at Stillwater, the Roaring Fork was flowing at 257 cfs on Wednesday — about 62% of average — and the Twin Lakes diversion was taking 344 cfs through the tunnel on Wednesday and up to 437 cfs on Thursday. That means the river could be flowing as high as nearly 700 cfs at Stillwater by early next week. That’s still well below the “action stage” for flooding of 1,048 cfs, as defined by the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
Interim General Manager of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. Matt Heimerich said the company’s space in Twin Lakes Reservoir is nearing capacity and the Colorado Canal that brings water to farmers in Crowley County is also full. When those two things happen, Twin Lakes is required to shut off the Independence Pass diversion.
“It’s a little bit of a moving target,” Heimerich said. “It’s dependent on the two conditions and they have to happen in a simultaneous fashion.”
Heimerich said they are projecting to reach the storage condition on Monday, June 19, which means they will start to ramp down diversions on Sunday, June 18. Diversions will resume once water levels drop in the Arkansas River basin and the Colorado Canal can no longer be filled with water on the east side of the divide.
Transmountain Diversion system
The Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System, operated by Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., collects runoff from 45 square miles of high alpine terrain, including the New York, Brooklyn, Tabor, Lincoln, Grizzly and Lost Man creek drainages, dumping those flows into Grizzly Reservoir, which can hold 570 acre-feet of water.
From there the water runs through the 4-mile-long Twin Lakes Tunnel under the Continental Divide and into Lake Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas River. Twelve miles later the water arrives at the Twin Lakes Reservoir where it is stored before being sent down the Arkansas River, eventually reaching Front Range cities and Eastern Plains farms with the help of a network of pipelines, pumps and canals.
Four municipalities own 95% of the shares of Twin Lakes water: Colorado Springs Utilities owns 55%; the Board of Water Works of Pueblo has 23%; Pueblo West Metropolitan District owns 12% and the City of Aurora has 5%. It’s Colorado Springs’ largest source of Western Slope water and represents about 21% of the utility’s total water supply.
Because of cool temperatures and cloudy skies, this year’s runoff has been slow and steady so far.
“That’s definitely what we’ve been seeing: a fairly long, extended period of high flows versus a single, well-defined peak,” said Cody Moser, a senior hydrologist with CBRFC.
Prior to the added flows, the Fork near Aspen peaked on May 30 at 417 cfs.
Christina Medved, director of community outreach at the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy, said the additional flow is great news for the river ecosystem. The group has a planned educational float next week through the North Star Nature Preserve upstream of Aspen, which will look more like the true wetland that it is because of the extra water. Water managers and river lovers in the Roaring Fork Valley like when the Twin Lakes diversion pauses — which often happens in late summer when senior water users in the Grand Valley place the Cameo call, shutting off upstream junior users — because it means more water flowing through local communities.
“What could be exciting is for people to go look at the river,” Medved said. “This is as close as we get to seeing it as if there wasn’t a transbasin diversion.”
Even though officials don’t expect flooding in the Aspen area, they are still urging caution, especially for kids and pets, around high-flowing rivers.
CPW cautions public to avoid Arkansas River below Lake Pueblo due to high, cold, surging water flows
PUEBLO, Colo. – Colorado Parks and Wildlife and its partner agencies are urging the public to avoid the Arkansas River below the Lake Pueblo State Park dam as flows have exceeded 3,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) due to recent normal runoff from spring snow melt in the mountains and locally heavy rains.
CPW, the Pueblo County Sheriff’s office and the City of Pueblo Fire Department are warning that the currents in the river below the dam are fluctuating dramatically, causing surges in the water levels. And the water is extremely cold below the dam – just 58 degrees – because of the spring runoff from the high mountains around the Upper Arkansas River Valley.
“We urge everyone to stay out of the river until the flows calm down,” said Joe Stadterman, CPW’s park manager at Lake Pueblo. “And anyone fishing along the banks should wear life jackets. This is an especially important time to be safe around the river.”
Spring runoff from snowmelt typically causes water levels in Lake Pueblo, in the Arkansas River below the dam and through the city of Pueblo to jump dramatically. Recent heavy rains have compounded the surge of water into the lake forcing heavier than normal releases from the dam.
This week, water is being released at a rate of about 3,365 cfs. That translates to a discharge rate equal to one cubic foot of water per second or about 7.5 gallons per second. Prior to this surge, water was being discharged at just about 200 cfs or less.
“The tailwaters below the dam are a popular place to fish and tube,” Stadterman said. “But this is not a safe time for any activities in the water. Everyone should wait until this river advisory is lifted and the flows are back to normal.”
The partner agencies expect the river advisory to remain in place for at least a week. Please await further information as to when flows are reduced and the river is back to normal levels.
CPW manages recreation at Lake Pueblo in partnership with its owner, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The bureau built Lake Pueblo in 1970-75 as part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas water diversion, storage and delivery project. It provides West Slope water to upwards of 1 million Front Range residents, primarily in southeastern Colorado, as well as agricultural irrigation.
Representatives from more than a dozen Indigenous tribes spoke at a CU Boulder law conference last week about their interests in the Colorado River from each of their perspectives. Many of the prominent state and federal officials who manage the water attended the conference. But as they and other water authorities prepare to negotiate the river’s future, it’s unclear how tribes will participate, to what degree tribes will be treated as equal sovereigns, and how their desire to use all the water they legally have rights to will be considered. It’s also unclear whether negotiators will aim for a way to make the long-term reductions in water usage that a decades-long megadrought has made necessary or whether they will propose more short-term changes.
The gathering happened at a critical time: Collectively, Colorado River users have to figure out how to live with significantly less water going forward, and the federal government is forcing states to come to an agreement…
The group of tribal representatives and state water officials, along with academics who study the river, used the two-day conference for discussions about how to make their collective use of the river more sustainable over the long term…The tribes have a shared history of using the river and its tributaries over thousands of years and migrating based on water availability. In the century since the river has been dammed and diverted across seven states, each tribe has a different story about how their water rights have been denied and what they seek to change in the river’s management going forward…
Some river scholars and even people with roles in the negotiations are unclear about what’s possible as they determine longer-term allocations of the water…A lot is at stake for tribes, and each circumstance is unique…For example, Hopi Tribe council member Dale Sinquah said his people still need to have their water rights settled. Southern Ute Tribal Council Vice Chair Lorelei Cloud said the tribe wants to use water they have legal rights to in southwestern Colorado, but they don’t have the infrastructure. She said about 1,000 tribal members still have to manually haul water to their homes, and the tribe hasn’t been able to develop farmland…Crystal Tulley-Cordova from the Navajo Nation said her tribe couldn’t rely on groundwater because of abandoned uranium mines on their land. Dwight Lomayesva, vice chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes on the border of California and Arizona, said his people would like to upgrade their farming and water infrastructure to make it more efficient, but the federal government still owns it. “The last major change in our irrigation infrastructure was made in 1942, when the United States government built some canals for the Japanese who were interned on our reservation,” he said. Each needs to negotiate for themselves individually.
“To think that there’s an ‘Indian solution,’ really dishonors that individuality and the uniqueness of each one of those tribes,” said Daryl Vigil, a Jicarilla Apache water leader who used to direct a tribal partnership in the Colorado River basin.
The bodacious snowpack means the chance of Lake Mead dropping below elevation 1,000 is zero.
We still need to cut 1.5 million acre feet of Colorado River water use, at least. We still have no plan to do that.
We remain at risk of river flows past Lee’s Ferry dropping low enough by 2026 to trigger a legal argument about what the Upper Basin really owes the Lower Basin.
We have what was called a “historic accord” to reduce Lower Basin use in the short run, which muchly revolves around paying people to not use water.
The “historic accord” does not take any steps toward resolving longstanding tribal and environmental inequities.
The problem of what economist Gordon Tullock called “the transitional gains trap” is a very real obstacle to moving forward on the Colorado River.
WHATEVER, LET’S JUST PAY ’EM: THE “TRANSITIONAL GAINS TRAP”
In a seminal 1975 paper, economist Gordon Tullock nailed the problem at the heart of the current Colorado River policy dilemmas:
Thus farmers in places like Palo Verde, Yuma, and Imperial umpty generations ago benefited from the significant subsidies from the rest of us (federal taxpayers) that enabled Lower Colorado River agriculture to flourish. The benefit of that subsidy has now been fully capitalized in the land and the structures of the communities.
As Tullock’s work so clearly notes, termination of this “scheme” (I love his word) would “lead to large losses for the entrenched interests.”
While there’s a lot of “property rights” framing around our 21st century arguments about this, it’s important to remember that the perfection and continued use of those water rights was enabled by massive collective action on the part of others in establishing the needed institutions, and funding and building infrastructure.
But whatever, right? That’s where we are now, and a fatalistic attitude of “let’s just pay ’em” seems to have settled over basin problem solving, at least in the short term.
IS THERE A “TRANSITIONAL LOSSES TRAP” TOO?
I’m definitely out over the tips of my conceptual skis here, but one of the things that was made clear at the Boulder meeting was something I’ll glibly dub “the transitional losses trap”: the same decisions over the last century that locked in “transitional gains” for Lower Basin farmers also locked in “transitional losses” for Native American communities dispossessed of their land and water.
In a powerful panel last Thursday afternoon, a stage full of tribal leaders one at a time talked about that dispossession. The sheer weight of their words, and the range of their concerns, was breathtaking.
Some progress has been made on this issue, especially in Arizona. But there is no escaping the reality that all that water providing “transitional gains” to Lower Basin farmers is, acre foot for acre foot, a “transitional loss” for Native American communities. And now we’re paying those Lower Basin farmers to not use this very same water.
I get that some of the money we’re paying to reduce water use will go to Arizona and California tribes with settled water rights. But there are many tribes without settled water rights, or with rights that are settled but not yet put to use. They’re getting nothing out of any deal to pay water rights holders not to use their water. We need to remember this fact every time we pay a non-Indian farmer not to farm.
It’s a Lower Basin agreement, among Arizona, California, and Nevada. One of the things that was abundantly clear at the Boulder meeting was that Upper Basin states are withholding judgment until the details are fleshed out.
But it’s already clear that those who negotiated the deal want our money – federal tax dollars – to solve the transitional gains trap, but not to solve any of the other problems worth talking about:
the Colorado River Basin’s tattered environment
unresolved Native American water rights and other needs
My buddy/collaborator/coauthor/mentor Eric Kuhn threw up a scary slide during his talk:
The crucially nerdy backstory is in Article III(c) and (d) of the Colorado River Compact, which seem to say the Upper Basin is required to send 82.5 million acre feet every ten years. As Hamby noted, one of the premises of “we need to cut 1.5maf in the Lower Basin” is that the Upper Basin continues to hit that target. Lawyers will argue forever about Article III interpretation, but I’d prefer not to hand over our management of the Colorado River to a judge’s ruling on who’s right.
But the deep entanglement between this question and the transitional gains trap stuff I mentioned before isn’t going away. California farmers have benefited from a “property right” essentially created in 1968 through the use of power politics, but that property right, as Tullock would say, is now priced into the value of their assets. And we’ve now set a “whatever, let’s just pay ’em” precedent (at an unprecedented scale), which does seem historic, but maybe not in a good way.
The Bureau of Reclamation will reduce the release from 4,300 cfs to 4,000 cfs today at 12:00 PM. The release will be further ramped down beginning Thursday, June 15th, at 12:00 PM. The updated schedule is in the following table and posted to the website at the link below.
Areas in the immediate vicinity of the river channel may continue to be unstable and dangerous. Please use extra caution near the river channel and protect or remove any valuable property in these areas.
For more information, please see the following resources below:
Bureau of Reclamation:
• Susan Behery, Hydrologic Engineer, Reclamation WCAO (firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-385-6560).
This winter dropped a lot of snow on the mountains above Boulder. Our reservoirs are in good shape for now as Boulder Creek babbles. But that’s not our only water source.
Boulder and many other cities along the Front Range rely, at least in part, on water from the strained Colorado River. Younger cities with fewer senior rights for local water sources — like Superior and Erie — rely on it almost entirely.
Because every city is responsible for its own water portfolio, as the Colorado River becomes a potentially unreliable source, wholly dependent cities could be far worse off than others. This isn’t a far-fetched idea. A Colorado State University study shows that for every degree Fahrenheit of global warming, flows of the Colorado River decrease by 4%. And already, the Windy Gap Project — responsible for supplying a portion of Colorado River water to Front Range cities — sometimes doesn’t provide any water at all.
Yet for now, many municipalities in the Boulder County area seem reluctant to even discuss sharing water.
“Right now, we’re all trying to do the best job for our [own] residents and our customers,” said Melanie Asquith, the water resources manager for the City of Lafayette. “Everybody’s situation is different. Everybody’s storage is different. Everybody’s rights are different.”
Interviews with water managers across the county revealed potential stage-setting for a “Mad Max” situation. Each municipality is concerned only with securing water rights for its own residents. This means that unless the mindset in Colorado changes to one of greater collaboration, it’s safe to assume future droughts will hit some communities harder than others. And those hard-hit communities may be on their own.
“The citizens and businesses of Louisville are paying their water bills to ensure their supplies are covered — not necessarily Lafayette’s or Broomfield’s or anybody else in the region,” said Cory Peterson, the City of Louisville’s deputy director of utilities. “There’s not a regional or state presence that would do those types of activities. That’s just the way the system is set up.”
Where do Boulder County communities get their water from?
Peterson of Louisville said a foreshadowing of droughts’ impacts in Boulder County happened in 2001.
“You had some communities that were doing very aggressive water restrictions, had very low water supplies, and were really struggling to make it through,” Peterson said. “And you had other communities that had very light restrictions and had, I don’t want to say an easy time, but they were able to manage through those impacts.” (We saw a lesser instance of this last summer when Lafayette imposed year-round water restrictions while Boulder didn’t.)
This has led to water resource managers up and down the Front Range to chase water diversity to ensure they’re not the worst off. If one water source fails, it’s good to have another to lean on.
“Our biggest gift is our diversity, that we are not wholly dependent on the [Colorado River], that if we had to rely only on eastern water, we could do it,” Asquith of Lafayette said.
Age matters for water rights
Because of the way Colorado water rights work, it pays to be old. The “prior appropriation doctrine” — summed up as “first in time, first in right” — heavily favors cities that started getting water for their residents earlier. Being first has landed them “senior” water rights from local sources like Boulder Creek or St. Vrain Creek.
“Longmont is fortunate that a majority of the water rights in our water rights portfolio are very senior water rights,” said Wes Lowrie, a water resources analyst for the City of Longmont. “We feel very strong in our ability to meet our future demands for Longmont.”
Boulder, Louisville and Longmont have senior rights to local creeks, requiring them to get only a third of their water from the Colorado River. That insulates them from future uncertainty on the Colorado River and provides some resilience against climate change through diversification. Lafayette gets less than a quarter of its water from the Colorado River.
Pretty much all of Erie’s water, on the other hand, comes from the Colorado River. All of Superior’s does as well.
California, Nevada and Arizona recently reached an agreement to temper their use of water from the Colorado River. With federal assistance, the worst repercussions of overuse from the river will hopefully be avoided, for now. But Colorado wasn’t a part of the recent Colorado River agreement, because Colorado is part of the Upper Basin states: those using water above parched Lake Powell. Unlike the Lower Basin, Upper Basin states have thus far used less water than is available to them. But that could change as the river reduces more.
When a water source is diminishing, you want a senior right on that source to make sure you get your water before it runs out. Yet some of the water coming from the shrinking Colorado River to the Front Range isn’t even close to a senior right. The Windy Gap project, a water right that provides some cities with a considerable chunk of their water, only dates back to 1968 — very young by Colorado River standards.
“The Windy Gap water right is a very junior water right on the Colorado River,” said Jeff Stahla, a public information officer at Northern Water, which manages Windy Gap. “The Windy Gap Project in some years yields zero water.”
The project — which includes a diversion dam and reservoir on the Colorado River — is just one of the water rights allotting Colorado River water to eastern cities. Originally funded by Boulder, Estes Park, Fort Collins, Greeley, Longmont and Loveland to cope with booming populations, the project started delivering water across the Continental Divide in the 1980s.
Today, some Front Range municipalities are investing further in Windy Gap water. By building a new reservoir in southern Larimer County, the cities hope to store Windy Gap water from wet years to get them through the dry ones when Windy Gap may provide no water.
Called the Chimney Hollow Reservoir, the project broke ground in 2021 and is on track to cost upwards of $700 million. A dozen different water districts are funding the reservoir to add an additional fail-safe to their water supply. Involved cities include Louisville, Lafayette, Longmont, Erie and Superior. Broomfield is leaning especially heavily on the new reservoir, voting in 2021 to foot $176.4 million of the bill. (Boulder is not involved in the Chimney Hollow project.)
According to City of Broomfield staff, this investment will increase Broomfield’s reliance on Colorado River water from 60% of their source water to 70%. Broomfield’s water not delivered by Northern Water comes from Denver Water, which also gets a portion of its water from a tributary of the Colorado River. Piped through the Moffat Tunnel, water previously destined for the Colorado River is stored in Gross Reservoir that recently began a controversial expansion project.
Yet Windy Gap water isn’t the only water coming from the Colorado River. The Colorado-Big Thompson Project, or C-BT, has been pumping water east since 1947. With its right dating to the 1930s, that water “is much more guaranteed,” according to Stahla.
Almost all cities who get Windy Gap water also get a portion of C-BT water.
Pete Johnson, a water attorney for the town of Erie, said the town’s water comes from a mix of C-BT water and Windy Gap water with an investment in the Chimney Hollow project — all Colorado River water.
“The long term goal is to diversify the town’s portfolio,” Johnson said.
But C-BT water isn’t infallible either. “The CB-T water right, I don’t want to say it’s junior, junior,” Stahla said. “But certainly a 1930s water right is not senior in the state of Colorado.”
Setting up a Mad Max future
Robert Crifasi, a former City of Denver hydrologist and Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks water resources administrator, and author of a new book “Western Water A to Z: the History, Nature and Culture of a Vanishing Resource,” said one of the most important steps to avoiding a Mad Max future is ensuring water availability before building new developments. Because of overzealous development companies, Crifasi said, some Denver suburbs are now reliant on nonrenewable Denver Basin groundwater. What will those communities do when the aquifer runs dry? Rely on the Colorado River?
“There is no magic bullet in any of this,” Crifasi said. “But I do think the most important action is to legislatively require vigorously integrated water and land-use planning.”
Kim Hutton, the City of Boulder’s water resources manager, said in addition to conservation and planning, there’s a need for collaboration and coordination among municipalities around water. As it currently stands, it’s every city for itself.
“Right now, with the water rights system, individual water users really are responsible for developing a supply to meet their needs,” she said.
Lowrie of Longmont, for instance, said that Longmont has always required that developers prove a reliable water source before moving forward into construction. “And that planning has served us well,” he said.
When asked if Longmont had talked about possibly sharing with other municipalities that might, in the future, not have enough water for their residents, he suggested that long-term aid would be viewed very differently than short-term aid.
“The decision to share water on an ongoing basis might be a different conversation than if there was an emergency situation, like if somebody’s water treatment plant went out,” he said. “That’s a different scenario than saying, ‘Hey, we didn’t plan as well as Longmont, and now we don’t have enough supply.’”
Boulder Reporting Lab is a nonprofit newsroom serving Boulder County. Sign up for their newsletter here.
Click the link to read the article on the Pagosa Springs Sun website (Josh Pike). Here’s an excerpt:
River levels across the region remain above average while the snowpack on Wolf Creek Pass was 79 percent of median as of June 7, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Water and Climate Center’s snowpack report. The USDA report indicates that the pass had 10.9 inches of snow water equivalent on Wednesday, June 7, below the median of 13.8 inches.
Area rivers also remain high, with the San Juan River in Pagosa Springs running at 2,470 cubic feet per second (cfs) at 9 a.m. on June 7, down from a nighttime peak of 2,930 cfs at 2 a.m., according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The mean flow for June 7 is 1,550 cfs, while last year’s flow on the date was 1,100 cfs, according to the USGS. The San Juan River has remained consistently above the median flow for the last 30 days, only briefly dipping below the median on June 4.
Other regional rivers are also high, with the Animas River in Durango flowing at 4,410 cfs at 9 a.m. on June 7, well above the mean flow of 3,100 cfs for that date based on USGS data. The Piedra River near Arboles was flowing at 1,980 cfs at 9 a.m. on June 7, according to the USGS, compared to a mean flow of 1,170. The Los Pinos River above Vallecito Reservoir near Bayfield was flowing at 1,090 cfs at 9 a.m. on June 7, according to the USGS, above the mean flow of 670 cfs. The Animas, San Juan, Los Pinos and Piedra rivers all saw sharp increases in flow levels on Wednes- day morning due to recent pre- cipitation, but, even before that, remained at or near median flows.
The Rio Grande River near Cerro, N.M., was flowing at 2,150 cfs at 9 a.m. on June 7, according to the USGS. This is considerably above the mean flow of 1,050 for the date. Cerro is the closest USGS monitoring station to the Rio Grande headwaters that provides cfs data. It is located to the north of Taos, N.M.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) pro- vides another view on current climate conditions, indicating that Archuleta County is not currently experiencing drought. The NIDIS indicates that April was the eighth driest in 129 years, with 1.3 less inches of precipitation than normal, but that January to April of 2023 has been the 26th wettest in the past 129 years with 2.25 more inches of precipitation than normal…
Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) District Engineer/Manager Justin Ramsey also noted the wet conditions and stated that all PAWSD reservoirs are full. He added that there has not yet been a call on water in the Fourmile Creek drainage, meaning that water is continuing to flow into Lake Hatcher. Ramsey stated he does not expect a call before early July given current conditions, which he noted would be significantly later than the median call date of approximately June 4. He added that last year the call of Fourmile was made in the middle of May.
Chuck Cullom was speaking before a friendly audience on June 1 when he shared his perspective on the messy story in the Colorado River Basin.
“Is the press here?” he asked early in his remarks, surely knowing that the event, the Colorado Drought Summit, was being taped for later posting on the website of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the sponsor of the two-day meeting. “Is anybody here from a ski town?”
Since 2021, Cullom has directed the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents Colorado and three other upper-basin states of Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. This is distinct from the lower basin, which consists of Arizona, California and Nevada.
The bifurcation, primarily a legal one but a hydrologic one, too, was created by the Colorado River Compact in 1922. The division is marked by Lee Ferry, just below what is now Glen Canyon Dam and the launch point for boaters rafting the Grand Canyon. Most of the water in the Colorado River Basin comes from upstream, especially from snow and especially in Colorado.
For the 25 years prior to his current position, Cullom was in the lower basin, most immediately before at the Central Arizona Project. That giant straw, the last major one stuck into the Colorado River, delivers water to Phoenix, Tucson, and other cities as well as some agriculture users in Arizona. It’s also worth noting that there has always been friction between Arizona and California.
Now, from his base in the greater Salt Lake City area, he’s just across the hill from Park City, one of the top mountain resorts.
“So we have what are referred to as the trustafarians, which is a tribe of people who live off their trust funds,” he said. “Trustafarians tend to drive something between a new Subaru and a Range Rover, but with the latest kit bolted atop. I don’t know if they ever take it off, but they do have skis and mountains bikes and stuff—and they expect their paycheck every month from daddy or whomever. And they are insufferable.”
“You better be going someplace with this,” quipped another panelist, Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, known in water circles by CWCB. She is also Colorado’s voice on Colorado River affairs.
Mitchell had just wrapped up a critique of the recently announced agreement in which the federal government is to give lower-basin states $1.2 billion to curtail about 10% of their withdrawals from the Colorado River during the next three years. During that time, at least in theory, the basin states will have figured out how to solve their bad-math problem. During the 21st century, they’ve been withdrawing more water than the river has delivered. The two basins – upper and lower – do not share equal responsibility. The lower-basin has been drafting on the water banked during wetter times.
Like ski town trustafarians, Cullom explained, the lower-basin has a sense of entitlement. Trustafarians don’t have to get a job when the money runs out, and the lower-basin states for most of the last century have never had to live within the limitations of natural runoff.
Upstream of the desert empires lies Hoover Dam and, above that, Glen Canyon Dam – plus a lot of other much smaller dams and reservoirs, about 50 million acre-feet in total capacity, which provide assurances that the water will be available, no matter what is happening in the headwaters. But what has been happening most years in the 21st century has been drought and its longer-term and less reversible component, aridification.
Mitchell, who was first in the batting order in the program, has never been one to mince words. She seemed particularly animated as she described being in Phoenix the previous day to present the upper-basin’s perspective. The majority of the day was devoted to sharing “their concerns over security and certainty that they felt they were entitled to,” she said.
One can wonder how her message may have been delivered on the road as opposed to a home-court crowd.
“When we talk about security and certainty, the way that water is being used in the lower basin is damaging all of our security and certainty, not just their own.”
As did Cullom, Mitchell described a system that has shielded the lower-basin states from the hydrologic realities.
Colorado and other upper-basin states must largely live within the natural water budget, what falls from the sky. There are many dams and reservoirs, but even the largest are almost tiny in their capacities compared to the behemoths of Powell and Mead. Having those giant reservoirs above them allows California and Arizona to be certain that the water will be there for their cities and crops, be it lettuce in winter, or alfalfa and almond groves in summer. Agriculture, particularly in the Imperial Valley of California and the Yuma area of Arizona, has the most secure water systems.
In a sense, Mead and Powell represent savings accounts. Now, as all of the nation understands, the result of new and devoted national media interest, those bank accounts have verged on functional depletion. Going into this winter, the two reservoirs were 26% and 23% full. There was legitimate worry that, given just another dry winter, hydroelectric production at Glen Canyon would cease and, with another dry winter or two, Powell might drop to levels such that it could not allow water to go downstream, a level called dead pool.
The marvel in all this is that California, especially, and to a lesser extent Arizona, have not fundamentally changed anything in the last 20 years. According to Cullom, the lower basin states have been consuming about 10 million acre-feet. This compares to about 3.5 to 3.75 million acre-feet by the upper-basin states.
The Colorado River Compact stipulates equal apportionment between the two basins of 7.5 million acre-feet on a rolling 10-year average.
Almost everybody has heard talk about whether the Colorado River Compact needs to be renegotiated, said Mitchell. It does not, she declared. Instead, it needs to be honored.
“The foundational principle of that compact is equity. Sit with that for a little bit,” she said.
“While these quantities are distracting and we know that the river is suppling less than it did a 100 years ago, that doesn’t take away from the foundation principles of this compact. With that being said, I believe that the compact is flexible enough to adapt to these conditions. We, as humans, are flexible enough to include other voices in these conversations,” added Mitchell, a reference to Lorelei Cloud, a representative of the Southern Utes who was also on the Colorado River panel at the conference.
Native Americas, if almost completely ignored when the waters of the Colorado River were being apportioned, in fact have the most senior of rights as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1908 case that yielded the Winters Doctrine. Those rights in the Colorado River Basin are estimated to be 20% to 25% of the river’s total flows. Tribes in Colorado and other upper-basin states have had their allocations determined, but the work remains incomplete in the lower basin.
Mitchell and Cullom also described efforts by upper basin states, if not always successful, to begin pruning water use in anticipation of possibly hotter, drier times ahead. Lower basin states have made some adjustments, but the question is whether they are remotely close to what is needed.
“When we saw the flags of a crisis coming, there was a choice by some to not make changes that are going to be painful,” said Mitchell, alluding to the lower basin.
Upper-basin states, she went on to explain, did make choices. In her description, users in upper-basin states did suffer, pointing to the divergent numbers of the upper-basin and the lower basin. in a chart on the screen behind her. (See above).
“These numbers tell the story of how change has to happen. And so when people get tired of us sharing the numbers, we’re going to share them some more.”
Cullom made a similar point. “It’s a threshold difference when you live downstream of 50-plus million acre-feet of storage. Your concerns about your year-over-year precipitation and runoff in operations are pretty marginal. It’s very, very different up here. Last summer, fully one-third of Wyoming’s users on the Green (a tributary to the Colorado) were shut off, regulated off.”
That, he added, is not something understood in the lower basin. “It means you are out of priority.”
It means that you are out of priority that day, that week, that month. And the state engineer, who in Wyoming is a law-enforcement official, comes and shuts you off. That is not a thing in the lower basin. But in August and September (of 2022, fully one-third of growers in the Green were curtailed. Ninety percent of the Ute Mountain Ute water was curtailed, their agricultural productivity was reduced because of hydrology.”
There’s another difference, he went on to say: the upper basin has tens of thousands of individual water users and “turnouts,” places where water is diverted. In the lower basin, there are probably 30 main-stem turnouts of which fewer than 10 really matter.
The upper basin, he said, is “small, messy and complicated. The lower basin is just a corporate machine of giant turnouts.”
A bit of history: The reservoirs entered the 20th century close to full. The 1990s had been good snow years and the upper basin states had not developed their full allocation of 7.5 million acre-feet. California famously had been allocated 4.4 but was using about 5.5
Then came the lean years, worst of all 2002. The river carried only 4.5 million acre-feet of water. Attorneys who framed the Colorado River Compact had assumed 20 million acre-feet of water on average. The thin “bathtub rings” on the sides of the reservoirs representing high marks widened considerably—and then widened more in subsequent years.
The first response was the Interim Guidelines of 2007. Then came other very small belt-tightening measures. California, for example, cut back to its legal entitlement.
By 2015, though, it had become clear that more would be needed. A modestly good water year allowed the lower-basin states to postpone any serious talk. Then came a bad year—and finally there was action. The result was the 2019 drought contingency plan.
At the time, Brad Udall, who has family roots in Arizona but a lifetime mostly in Colorado, told me that he believed that 2019 agreement that was broadly heralded was not close to being enough. “I hope I’m wrong,” he said.
More lean years followed, the reservoirs shrank, and the small measures weren’t near enough.
In their remarks at the Drought Summit in Denver on June 1, Mitchell and Cullom mentioned several of those efforts in the upper basin, with Mitchell describing one as “clumsy.” Cullom said something similar, noting the call for accelerated action as not without risk. “Part of the challenge with picking up the pace is you stub your toe,” he said, alluding to mistakes made in the system conservation pilot program.
Finally, in August 2021, the Colorado River story became national in a way that it had not been before. “In a First, U.S. Declares Shortage on Colorado River, Forcing Water Cuts,” announced the New York Times.
That cut off some farmers in Arizona. More reduction was needed, though.
On June 14, 2022, Camille Calimlim Touton, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, which is sort of the task-master on the Colorado River because of its role in regulating the dams, told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of additional conservation was needed just to protect reservoir levels. She gave the basin states 60 days to come up with a plan.
To compare, the entire state of Colorado uses about 2.2 million acre-feet from the river each year.
“I wasn’t surprised by the two-million acre-feet,” recounted Mitchell last week. “It wasn’t rocket science. It was addition and subtraction. It’s not even multiplication and division. It didn’t work. There was an overuse that was not sustainable.”
That deadline from the Bureau of Reclamation was missed, as was an extension.
Finally, in late January, something came out, if it also fell short. California wasn’t on board.
“Cut the crap,” Udall was quoted as saying in a Denver Post story in January.
Finally in late May, a new agreement was announced, getting front page attention from New York and Washington DC to Los Angeles (and, of course, in Denver).
“We’ve received a page and a half of bullet points saying what the lower-basin intends to do. We don’t know how they’ll do it. We don’t know where the water will come from (among existing uses). We don’t know if it will be binding and enforceable,” said Mitchell.
She said Colorado and other upper basin states are waiting to see a revised draft supplement environmental impact statement.
Mitchell was unsparing. “I think it’s also important to recognize that we don’t get paid for the conservation that happens in the upper-basin states, because it’s in response to hydrology,” she said.
There is yet another bone of contention, one that all but Colorado River wonks will have a hard time understanding. That is who takes responsibility for evaporation from the reservoirs as well as transmission loss.
Hydrologists estimate a million acre-feet of evaporation occurs on Lake Mead – but in the accounting of the lower-basin states, he said, it doesn’t exist.
“In the lower basin,” said Cullom, “they, uh, somehow , uh, there’s an atmospheric thing that prevents evaporation from being considered. Apparently physics doesn’t work (the same) everywhere.”
By that point, Cullom had left his metaphor for ski town trustafarians alone. Do you think he uses that when he speaks in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Needles?
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at email@example.com or 720.415.9308.
Environmental groups in western Colorado are working to designate more reaches of high-elevation tributaries as Outstanding Waters, the state health department’s highest water-quality rating.
The Outstanding Waters designation can be awarded to streams with high water quality and exceptional recreational or ecological attributes, and the intent is to protect the water quality from future degradation. The program, established as part of the federal Clean Water Act, is administered through the state’s water quality control commission.
To get the OW designation, a steam’s water quality must meet 12 different standards for pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, E. coli and ammonia, and be under a threshold for seven dissolved metals: cadmium, copper, lead, manganese, selenium, silver and zinc. The designation is the highest level of three anti-degradation classifications awarded by the state. The OW designation does not affect current uses on streams; it only protects against activities with new or increased water quality impacts.
The Roaring Fork Conservancy is working to get an OW designation on potential candidate stream reaches in the watershed, including on tributaries and segments of Woody Creek and Hunter Creek, both tributaries of the Roaring Fork River; and on Bulldog Creek, a tributary of Avalanche Creek, and tributaries of Middle Thompson Creek, which all flow into the Crystal River. Chad Rudow, the conservancy’s water quality program manager, is leading the effort to collect baseline water samples on the streams in all four seasons and submit them for testing. Sometimes that requires skiing or snowmobiling into remote areas to access the streams in winter.
“As part of the water quality requirements for an Outstanding Waters designation, you want to establish that the stream has healthy characteristics and healthy water quality throughout all the major flow seasons,” Rudow said. “So we are trying to establish the water quality is consistently high across all the seasonal variation.”
After taking samples last month, staff whisked them to the lab at the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District, which tests for E. coli, and packed in ice other samples bound for a lab in Durango.
“So far, our results that have been coming back are high quality, and pollutants are coming back in really low quantities, which is what we are looking for,” Rudow said.
Roaring Fork Conservancy staff will do seven rounds of sampling over two years. So far, they have done four rounds in all four seasons, with three rounds to go. In addition to the water sampling, the potential candidate stream reaches go through a rule-making process with three public hearings — the first of which occurred in November — before CDPHE makes a final decision about whether to add them to the Outstanding Waters list.
The effort at designating more streams as Outstanding Waters is happening across the state. In the southwest corner, environmental group American Rivers and others worked to get more than 20 segments of streams designated. The Eagle River Watershed Coalition is working to get Big Alkali Creek, East Brush Creek and West Brush Creek on the list. And in the northwest part of the state, the nonprofit group Friends of the Yampa is working on getting 14 tributaries designated.
“It is a really fulfilling and rewarding thing I feel proud we are a part of,” said Lindsey Marlow, executive director of Friends of the Yampa. “When we were asked to identify which would be great, we shot for the sky and we did 14.”
According to Aimee Konowal, watershed section manager for CDPHE’s water quality control division, there are 88 stream segments and water bodies with an OW designation in Colorado; 57 are streams, which represent 7,600 miles of waterways.
How does OW protect water quality?
There are two main ways an OW designation can keep streams pristine, according to Konowal.
The first is through CDPHE-issued permits for point-source dischargers such as a wastewater treatment plant. If a future-project proponent proposed discharging to a stream with an Outstanding Waters designation, they would have to ensure — by adding conditions to the permit — that the project wouldn’t degrade the water quality. The second is through projects that need a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also require a water quality certification from CDPHE (excluding smaller projects applying under a general or nationwide Army Corps of Engineers permit).
But it’s unclear what practical effect that the designation has had on streams, because these mechanisms remain untested.
“In my time here, we have not seen one of these larger federal permits impact Outstanding Waters,” Konowal said. “We have not been in that scenario where that has happened.”
There are also no instances of a wastewater treatment plant requiring a state permit discharging into Outstanding Waters, she said.
That is probably because most of the streams both seeking designation and those previously designated are in high-alpine wilderness areas, national parks or national forest land, which means there are already limits on some development that could affect water quality.
“Streams that are generally looked at as potential candidate reaches for Outstanding Waters, they are traditionally in areas that are pretty high up in the watershed,” said Fay Hartman, southwest region conservation director for American Rivers. “I think there usually is not as much development that would go on there.”
American Rivers is helping to lead the effort and outreach for OW designations throughout the state and Hartman said it’s an excellent way to help preserve high-water-quality streams in the future.
Existing activities such as grazing are compatible with the OW designation, since the high level of water quality required would be attained with these uses in place. Grazing is also a nonpoint source of water contamination, which is not subject to any Water Quality Control Commission regulations, Hartman said.
There is an open question of how or if the federal agencies would consider OW when managing their lands, but according to David Boyd, public affairs specialist with the White River National Forest, a state designation would not directly affect the Forest Service’s management of these areas.
One of the major issues affecting streams in western Colorado is the dwindling quantity of water, a problem not addressed by an OW designation. Transmountain diversions that take flows from some Western Slope headwaters to the Front Range, as well as diversions for agriculture and cities, leave less water in rivers for ecosystems and recreation. Drought and increased temperatures from climate change decrease flows even more, driving shortages. An Outstanding Waters designation does nothing to ensure there is enough water in rivers.
“It’s not intended to protect flows, which is what the majority of people in the Western U.S. are most concerned about, especially in the headwaters tributaries,” said Matt Rice, southwest regional director with American Rivers.
Still, Rudow and others say the Outstanding Waters designation on local streams is worthwhile, especially in light of the uncertainties that come with a hotter, drier future. Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board agreed last month to write a letter of support for the effort.
“If we can get these protections applied to these streams, it covers things we don’t even know are on our radar,” he said. “We are looking at the unknown and trying to provide a level of protection for the future and for things we might not even be able to anticipate.”