As the region’s climate becomes drier, more pipelines are being proposed despite the economic and climate risks.
Pipelines that are advancing the fastest are rural and tribal projects backed by federal funding.
The proposals echo a century of large-scale water engineering that ushered in the modern era in the American West.
Across the country’s western drylands, a motley group of actors is responding to the region’s intensifying water crisis by reviving a well-worn but risky tactic: building water pipelines to tap remote groundwater basins and reservoirs to feed fast-growing metropolitan areas, or to supply rural towns that lack a reliable source.
Government agencies, wildcat entrepreneurs, and city utilities are among those vying to pump and pipe water across vast distances — potentially at great economic and environmental cost. Even as critics question the suitability of the water transfers in a new climate era, supporters in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, the federal government, Indian tribes, and other states are prepared to spend billions on water-supply pipelines.
The pipelines range in length from several dozen miles to several hundred and the largest are intended to transport tens of millions of gallons per day. Among these is the 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline, a roughly $2 billion project that aims to deliver 86,000 acre-feet (28 billion gallons) each year to Washington County, in Utah’s southwest corner.
Not all the projects are cut from the same cloth. Because of the daunting expense, lengthy permitting process, and legal battles, projects with federal backing have a leg up. The infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden last November includes $1 billion for rural water supply projects in the western states. Many of these projects, including one in progress in eastern New Mexico, were authorized more than a decade ago.
The infrastructure bill also includes $2.5 billion for tribal water rights settlements, which typically include a water-supply component. The Navajo-Gallup water pipeline, now under construction in northwest New Mexico to supply the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache Tribe, and the city of Gallup, is part of the San Juan River water rights settlement.
The current batch of pipeline proposals traces its lineage to a century of engineering and building mammoth water supply projects that ushered in the modern era of the American West. State and federal canals snake the length of California. Los Angeles bullied its way into the Owens Valley in the 1910s, eventually siphoning the valley’s water through an aqueduct. A few years later, San Francisco reached into Hetch Hetchy Valley for a reservoir and pipeline. The Central Arizona Project, which broke ground in the 1970s, was built to lift 1.5 million acre-feet of water — almost 500 billion gallons a year — more than a half mile in elevation along its 336-mile course to supply Phoenix and Tucson. In Colorado, at least 11 major projects pierce the Rockies, transferring water to the high-growth Front Range. States west of the 100th meridian would not have been able to attract millions of residents or develop their commercial and agricultural sectors without these water projects.
As the region’s climate becomes drier, more diversions are being proposed despite the economic and climate risks. Large-scale engineering retains its appeal and pipeline options are doggedly pursued by state and local agencies, and a band of self-styled water entrepreneurs.
Renewable Resources, a firm backed by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, wants to pump groundwater from the San Luis Valley to Front Range cities that are mushrooming with new subdivisions. A competing outfit, Water Horse Resources, is led by Aaron Million, who has dreamed for more than a decade of piping more Colorado River water to the Front Range. The potential water source for Water Horse is some 500 miles away: Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which straddles Wyoming and Utah. Another Front Range project in the Fort Collins area envisions a pair of new reservoirs and an 80-mile pipe network that extends to 15 communities. Called the Northern Integrated Supply Project, it is still waiting on an key federal permit.
In New Mexico, meanwhile, supporters of the Agustin Plains scheme wish to export 54,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year from a high desert basin to communities along the Rio Grande, some 60 miles to the east. The state engineer rejected the permit in 2018, but the applicant is appealing.
Southwest Utah is another epicenter of contested water diversions. The most recent came to light in April, when Escalante Valley Partners filed an application with the state Division of Water Rights for more than 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year for export. The water, more than 44 million gallons a day, would come from 115 wells drilled between 1,000 and 5,000 feet deep in Beryl-Enterprise, a basin where the state has restricted use of shallow groundwater due to over-extraction.
In the same area, the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District is championing the $260 million Pine Valley Water Supply project, currently being reviewed by the Bureau of Land Management for a right-of-way permit. If approved, the district would construct 66 miles of pipeline to access groundwater in neighboring Beaver County.
The most expensive water project in southwest Utah is a proposed 140-mile pipeline to Lake Powell. Critics contend that Lake Powell and the Colorado River that flows into it cannot handle any more diversions. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Powell and is reviewing the pipeline application, is already taking emergency action to augment the shrinking reservoir, holding back more water than usual and releasing extra supplies from reservoirs higher in the watershed.
Zach Renstrom is the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, the pipeline project’s chief beneficiary. The basic logic of today’s water manager is not so different from an investment adviser: manage risk through a portfolio of investments. Critics assert that Washington County residents, though use has declined from its very high early 2000s peak, still consume more water than almost any community in the U.S. and that water conservation practices should be sufficient. But Renstrom defends the need for another water source — even a very expensive one, with an overall price tag of about $2 billion — because Washington County’s single source right now is the Virgin River.
“Especially as someone who looks at climate change very seriously and believes in climate change and knows we need to account for that, to make sure the next generation has the tools that it needs to deal with those issues, I think we need to build these large water infrastructure projects,” Renstrom told Circle of Blue.
Utah officials are also pursuing a project in the state’s northern reaches to send water from the Bear River, the main tributary of the shrinking Great Salt Lake, to communities some 90 miles distant along the Wasatch Front. The state does not anticipate needing the project for several decades.
Those projects are miniscule compared to calls to divert eastern rivers like the Mississippi. An undertaking like that — which has legal, technical, environmental, and economic hurdles so enormous as to be implausible today, water experts say — echo even more grandiose and farfetched schemes that were proposed in the 1960s: engineering fantasies like the North American Water and Power Alliance, a continental-scale replumbing of North America’s watersheds, which never advanced much farther than the Parsons Company’s drafting board.
Few of these projects have secured all required permits and fewer still have broken ground. But it is often the case that designs that look appealing in sketches fold when they collide with real world obstacles.
One of the biggest obstacles is supply, says Denise Fort, a professor emerita at the University of New Mexico. Do these areas hold enough water to support more diversions?
Nearly a decade ago, Fort co-authored a report with the Natural Resources Defense Council on the proliferation of pipeline proposals in the western states. In reviewing that report today, Fort told Circle of Blue that the findings still hold true.
“Many of the pipeline projects under consideration today are dramatically different from those constructed in the past, in terms of sustainability of water supplies, available alternatives, costs, environmental impacts and energy use,” the report concluded. “The communities and agencies that are considering these projects would be well served by a careful analysis of the implications of these important choices.”
Fort said that, in many cases, pursuit of these pipelines is an attempt to continue a water-consuming lifestyle in a region that can no longer support the burden of that demand. Scientists expect the flow of the Colorado River to decline by 9 percent with each degree Celsius that the planet warms.
“We know what the future is, it’s coming,” Fort said. “And so we can’t continue to act as though it’s just a cyclical thing, and the water will reappear. We know that it will not.”
Fort believes that instead of sticking more straws into a shrinking pool, municipalities should seriously consider reallocating water from agriculture, which uses the lion’s share of the region’s supply. Instead of growing alfalfa for export, that water could be directed to cities. This approach is not without controversy and requires careful crafting — rural communities, in some cases, have resisted “buy and dry,” preferring leases that do not permanently sever water from land.
But such a move is what El Paso is banking on. The largest city in West Texas has spent $220 million since 2016 to purchase 70,000 acres of ranch land about 90 miles east, in Dell City. Crucially, the land comes with water rights. Today, El Paso leases the land for farming. But in several decades the city plans to pipe the water beneath those fields to its residents.
At the foundation of these debates about pipelines are competing views of the American West.
One school of thought is that water follows growth. “I think it’s much cheaper to take the water to the people than move people to the water. You disrupt a lot less lives that way,” Todd Adams, deputy director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, told the Utah Water Summit last October.
The other view is one of conservation and restraint, championed by people like Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a group that advocates against transferring water out of its natural basin.
“There is a suburban Manifest Destiny mindset throughout the region that I think is antithetical as it relates to the amount of resources that are available,” Roerink told Circle of Blue.
Looking at the history of pipeline projects and water transfers in the West, Roerink worries about unintended financial and environmental consequences if the current contenders move ahead. In the arid Great Basin, which covers much of Nevada and Utah, he is particularly attuned to dry soils if groundwater-dependent basins are depleted. It’s not an unheard of risk. To offset environmental damage in the Owens Valley from its aqueduct, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has spent $2.5 billion in ratepayer funds to suppress dust storms.
Many of the biggest projects were built in an era of minimal environmental review and major government subsidy. Those conditions have changed, one of many reasons why mega-projects like diverting the Mississippi River westward are implausible, even fanciful.
Of the pipeline projects currently under construction, most are not fanciful. Most are like the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System — smaller in scale and federally supported.
Congress authorized the 140-mile project in 2009 and is contributing 75 percent of the cost. The rest is coming from local partners, which include four communities in Curry and Roosevelt counties.
The project received $177.4 million from the federal government this year and $30 million from the state government. If funding in future years comes in as expected, construction should be completed in six to eight years, Orlando Ortega, the administrator of the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority, told Circle of Blue.
The project is a federal priority because the partner communities are all served by groundwater from the depleting Ogallala aquifer. At some point, the water will run out. The pipeline is designed to bring surface water from the state-owned Ute Lake.
Like all western water supply projects, there are questions about the long-term availability of Ute Lake as the region dries.
“We are very sensitive to drought conditions, and would certainly be cutting back on our reservation, if needed,” Ortega said.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies.
The Colorado River Basin encompasses seven U.S. states and supplies water to 40 million people. Over the past two decades, the basin has experienced record-setting heat and some of the driest years ever recorded, which have combined to sap the river of water at unprecedented rates. The largest reservoirs on the river have dropped to alarmingly low levels in recent months, forcing Western water managers to rethink how they operate in the face of scarcity.
Last month, federal officials sounded the alarm by declaring the first-ever water shortage in the basin. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cited “historic drought,” climate change, and low levels of runoff from the Rocky Mountains as reasons for the continued decline of Lake Mead…
With every foot that Lake Mead falls, the basin comes closer to triggering substantial cutbacks for certain water users along the river. The first round of reductions, which will take effect next year, will primarily impact farmers in central Arizona. But if lake levels continue to decline, future cutbacks could impact the 30 Native American tribes with lands in the basin…
Indigenous nations have recognized rights to more than one-fifth of the basin’s annual supply — more than a trillion gallons, or nearly enough to cover an area the size of Connecticut in a foot of water. That allocation is likely to increase in the future, because 12 of the tribes in the Colorado River Basin are still engaged in the decades-long process of resolving their water rights claims, according to the Water & Tribes Initiative, a coalition of tribal representatives, water rights attorneys and academics.
Tribal water rights differ from state-based rights in several ways. Unlike a state or irrigation district, a tribe’s right to water dates back at least as early as the creation of its reservation. Despite having federally reserved water rights, tribal claims were largely ignored until the 1960s, when the U.S. Supreme Court adopted standards allowing tribes to have their rights quantified, a form of legal recognition that identifies the amount of water to which users hold rights.
But even for tribes that have resolved their rights, some face significant barriers to fully using their water, including a lack of necessary infrastructure, funding challenges, and limited legal options to put their water to use outside their reservations through leases or other arrangements.
If a tribe does not (or cannot) use all the water it is entitled to, it doesn’t go unused; thirsty cities and agricultural fields downstream from reservations siphon off the surplus, but with no compensation for the tribe…
Tribes with substantial diversion rights may remain unscathed by the initial reductions, with some even in the position to contribute water back into the system. But other tribes are less fortunate; in addition to unrecognized water rights, deteriorating infrastructure, and water insecurity issues, some tribes could face cutbacks to their water supply as early as 2023.
Whether a tribe is flush with mainstream flows or struggling to access clean drinking water, every tribe in the basin must navigate the complicated legal landscape that governs water rights on the Colorado.
Much of the water that flows through the Colorado River starts as snowpack in the southern Rockies. The snowmelt produced in spring then flows into tributaries in states like Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. These states are part of the Upper Colorado River Basin: The lands fed by waters of the Colorado River system were divided into an upper basin and a lower basin during the negotiations for the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The so-called “law of the river” is an amalgamation of interstate compacts, statutes, regulations, court decisions, an international treaty, and the seminal 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decree in Arizona v. California, which enabled several tribes to quantify their rights.
In Utah, one of those tributaries — the Green River — flows through the lands of the Ute Indian Tribe, which had a portion of its water rights quantified in the 1920s but is still litigating unresolved claims. Because the Ute tribe has not fully resolved nor developed those rights, much of the tribe’s water goes unused and flows toward Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir on the Colorado River.
Despite the declining water levels at the lake, the state of Utah is forging ahead with a proposed $2 billion pipeline that would pump water from Lake Powell to largely non-Native communities near St. George — 140 miles away, in southwestern Utah. Critics blasted the proposal, citing the state’s failure to recognize the tribe’s water entitlements, its refusal to conduct meaningful tribal consultation and, more generally, its antiquated approach to water development in the Western U.S.
The Ute Indian Tribe has a pending lawsuit challenging the project, arguing that the pipeline would obstruct the tribe’s efforts to fully develop its water rights. (The Ute Indian Tribe declined a request to be interviewed for this article, citing the ongoing litigation.)
Battling for water rights is more than just a struggle for adequate water resources; it’s a fight for better health.
Tribes with unresolved water rights must undertake a convoluted settlement process to have their share of the river quantified. And while every tribe is legally entitled to enough water to satisfy their on-reservation needs, having unquantified rights poses additional challenges for those tribes, according to Bidtah Becker, an associate attorney with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.
The Navajo Nation has extensive water rights in both the upper and lower basins, but the tribe’s claims in the state of Arizona remain unquantified. Proposed settlements negotiated by the tribe a decade ago never materialized. In the coming years, court proceedings are scheduled to resolve the water rights of the Navajo, as well as the neighboring Hopi Tribe.
Becker said tribes without recognized water rights often face challenges in securing funding for water infrastructure projects, especially in areas where substantial water pipelines and other facilities would be required. The lack of adequate water infrastructure has long plagued the Navajo Nation, where residents are 67 times more likely than other Americans to live without access to running water…
As tribes with unresolved rights fight to settle their claims, the basin-wide shortage is forcing all stakeholders on the river to find ways to conserve water. That scarcity is likely to make striking a deal even more challenging than it has been in the past…
[Pam] Adams is one of the chief liaisons between the tribes and Reclamation, an agency under the Department of the Interior. Acknowledging the persistent challenges faced by tribes seeking settlements in the past, Adams said resolving all outstanding tribal claims is a priority among the department’s leaders, including Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is a member of the Laguna Pueblo. Clarifying the rights of each tribe also gives greater certainty to other stakeholders in the basin, Adams said, adding, “It’s best for everyone to get them settled and this administration is certainly very supportive of that.”
The Bureau of Reclamation is currently building a 300-mile-long pipeline that will supply water from the San Juan River to portions of the Navajo Nation and Jicarilla Apache Nation. Becker said projects like the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project are significant steps, but that more needs to be done to address the lack of water security in Native American communities…
Members of the Gila River Indian Community, or GRIC, irrigate thousands of acres south of Phoenix. With a population of more than 13,000 living on the reservation, the tribe traces its roots to ancient cultures that built expansive networks of irrigation canals to support large villages along the waterway. These days, the farmlands are fed by a new stream. The Central Arizona Project, or CAP, completed in the 1990s, is a 330-mile-long canal that conveys Colorado River water from Lake Havasu, on the California border, to central and southern Arizona…
Because the CAP has some of the lowest-priority rights on the river, the canal is subject to the first round of reductions next year. The basin-wide Drought Contingency Plan established a three-tiered system for imposing reductions in the lower basin based on the level of Lake Mead. Under a Tier 1 shortage (which is triggered when the elevation of Lake Mead falls below 1,075 feet), CAP water supplies will be cut by 30 percent — reductions that will primarily impact farmers in places like Pinal County.
The five tribes that draw from the CAP have some of the highest-priority rights on the canal, which largely buffers them from the initial round of cutbacks. If Lake Mead were to fall below 1,025 feet in elevation, the lower basin would enter a Tier 3 shortage, at which point Arizona’s diversion rights would be reduced by roughly 45 percent compared to the canal’s current supply…
Even if continued declines were to trigger a Tier 3 shortage — the direst scenario envisioned in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan — water deliveries to the Gila River Indian Community would be largely the same, according to Jason Hauter, a tribal member who represents the GRIC as an attorney…
But a Tier 3 shortage is far from the worst-case scenario, because declining streamflows could push the level of Lake Mead below the 1,025-foot mark — a situation left unaddressed by the Drought Contingency Plan. While the chances of Lake Mead reaching critically low levels seemed remote when planning efforts began, projections released by Reclamation last month indicate there is a 66 percent chance the reservoir falls below 1,025 feet by 2025.
Falling below that level would trigger additional cutbacks, which would likely include curtailing tribal water deliveries from the CAP. And, because tribes on the CAP are allowed to lease their water rights directly to municipalities, future reductions to tribal water could also impact the water-supply holdings of cities and towns throughout central Arizona.
If Lake Mead were to fall below 900 feet, it would elicit the disaster scenario known as “dead pool,” in which water would no longer flow through Hoover Dam, cutting off the lower basin and shutting down a hydroelectric plant that provides electricity for millions of people in the Southwest.
Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, said via email that the tribe is committed to working with other stakeholders in the basin to avoid that fate.
But, as hydrological conditions in the basin continue to worsen, deeper cuts seem inevitable…
For thousands of years before the first concrete dams were built on the Colorado, the Mojave people — or AhaMacav, which means “people of the river” — maintained large settlements on either side of the surging stream. In 1865, the U.S. government lumped members of the Mojave and Chemehuevi tribes together to form the Colorado River Indian Tribes, or CRIT, which later came to include Navajo and Hopi families.
The CRIT’s water rights were quantified as part of Arizona v. California, the series of U.S. Supreme Court cases beginning in the 1930s that dealt with water disputes between the two states. Along with confirming the rights of the five mainstream tribes in the lower basin, the case also established the standard of determining tribal entitlements based on a tribe’s “practicably irrigable acreage.”
The tribe’s history of agriculture, including an 80,000-acre irrigation project built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, enabled the CRIT to secure annual diversion rights of more than 700,000 acre-feet, the largest entitlement of any tribe in the basin. Although the CRIT uses a large portion of its water for farming and agriculture, much of its entitlements in both Arizona and California go unused — a fortunate fact for farmers in central Arizona.
The tribe has employed a number of creative approaches to generate revenue using its reserved water rights, including discontinuing certain existing water uses on tribal land, and using the water that is conserved to prop up levels in Lake Mead.
The tribe has agreed to fallow a portion of its historically irrigated farmland over the next three years, conserving a total of 150,000 acre-feet of water that will be left in Lake Mead. For its help in minimizing cutbacks for lower-priority users — such as agriculture served by the CAP — the tribe is receiving $38 million, mostly from the state of Arizona.
Margaret Vick, an attorney for the CRIT, said that although the tribe is well-positioned to contribute conservation water, its ability to benefit from other types of off-reservation uses are limited. Unlike tribes with water settlements, she said, the CRIT’s decreed water rights generally prohibit the tribe from directly leasing its water to off-reservation users. The tribe proposed federal legislation last year that would allow it to market some of its Arizona allocation, but the bill hasn’t been introduced in Congress, Vick said.
Although the CRIT’s water rights are quantified and it has enough water to contribute to Mead, the tribe has historically suffered from a lack of funding for necessary infrastructure — something that is often negotiated as part of a water settlement, Vick said. According to the Tribal Water Study, parts of the federal irrigation project were built in the late 1800s, and suffer from “design limitations and simple aging problems,” such as unlined canals and deteriorating gates.
Weiner, the attorney for the Quechan tribe, said that while each tribe is in a different situation, they generally agree on the need for more flexibility in the legal framework that governs the river…
Despite the challenges facing tribes in the basin, tribal leaders and water managers see opportunities for solutions that would help alleviate some of the water-supply pressures on non-Native stakeholders while enabling the tribes to benefit from their water. And, regardless of the water management decisions that are made going forward, the tribes want a seat at the table.
Tribal leaders often lament the lack of tribal consultation that occurs when federal or state governments make decisions that impact tribal resources. Secretary Haaland has emphasized the importance of tribal engagement during her time leading the Interior Department, but the level of tribal involvement in the basin’s next round of drought planning remains to be seen.
Noting the importance of cooperation between basin stakeholders, Becker, the attorney for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, said the ongoing shortage should also serve as a reminder that water is not simply a commodity, but a vital substance on which our survival depends.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aaron and Becki Bryant):
The Bureau of Reclamation today released the Colorado River Basin August 2021 24-Month Study. This month’s study projections are used to set annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2022. Releases from these massive reservoirs are determined by anticipated reservoir elevations.
Most of the flow of the Colorado River originates in the upper portions of the Colorado River Basin in the Rocky Mountains. The Upper Basin experienced an exceptionally dry spring in 2021, with April to July runoff into Lake Powell totaling just 26% of average despite near-average snowfall last winter. The projected water year 2021 unregulated inflow into Lake Powell—the amount that would have flowed to Lake Mead without the benefit of storage behind Glen Canyon Dam—is approximately 32% of average. Total Colorado River system storage today is 40% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year.
Given ongoing historic drought and low runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin, downstream releases from Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam will be reduced in 2022 due to declining reservoir levels. In the Lower Basin the reductions represent the first “shortage” declaration—demonstrating the severity of the drought and low reservoir conditions.
“Like much of the West, and across our connected basins, the Colorado River is facing unprecedented and accelerating challenges,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo. “The only way to address these challenges and climate change is to utilize the best available science and to work cooperatively across the landscapes and communities that rely on the Colorado River. That is precisely the focus of the White House Interagency Drought Working Group—a multi-agency partnership created to collaborate with States, Tribes, farmers and communities impacted by drought and climate change to build and enhance regional resilience.”
“Today’s announcement of a Level 1 Shortage Condition at Lake Mead underscores the value of the collaborative agreements we have in place with the seven basin states, Tribes, water users and Mexico in the management of water in the Colorado River Basin,” said Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Camille Touton. “While these agreements and actions have reduced the risk, we have not eliminated the potential for continued decline of these critically important reservoirs. Reclamation is committed to working with all of our partners in the basin and with Mexico in continuing to implement these agreements and the ongoing work ahead.”
Plans that have been developed over the past two decades lay out detailed operational rules for these critical Colorado River reservoirs:
Based on projections in the study, Lake Powell will operate in the Mid-Elevation Release Tier in water year 2022 (October 1, 2021 through September 30, 2022), and Lake Mead will operate in its first-ever Level 1 Shortage Condition in calendar year 2022 (January 1, 2022 through December 31, 2022).
Lake Powell Mid-Elevation Release Tier: The study projects Lake Powell’s January 1, 2022, elevation to be 3,535.40 feet – about 165 feet below full and about 45 feet above minimum power pool. Based on this projection, Lake Powell will operate in the Mid-Elevation Release Tier in water year 2022. Under this tier, Lake Powell will release 7.48 million acre-feet in water year 2022 without the potential for a mid-year adjustment in April 2022.
Lake Mead Level 1 Shortage Condition: The study projects Lake Mead’s January 1, 2022, elevation to be 1,065.85 feet – about 9 feet below the Lower Basin shortage determination trigger of 1,075 feet and about 24 feet below the drought contingency plan trigger of 1,090 feet. Based on this projection, Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Shortage Condition for the first time ever. The required shortage reductions and water savings contributions under the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, 2019 Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan and Minute 323 to the 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico are:- Arizona: 512,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 18% of the state’s annual apportionment
– Nevada: 21,000 acre-feet, which is 7% of the state’s annual apportionment
– Mexico: 80,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 5% of the country’s annual allotment
In July 2021, drought operations to protect Lake Powell were implemented under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement which project releasing up to an additional 181,000-acre feet of water from upstream initial units of the Colorado River Storage Project to Lake Powell.
Relying on the best available scientific information to guide operations, investing in water conservation actions, maximizing the efficient use of Colorado River water and being prepared to adopt further actions to protect the elevations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead remains Reclamation’s priority and focus.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation today announced that 2022 will bring unprecedented water shortages to Arizona, Nevada and the Republic of Mexico. The shortage determination follows release of a forecast of water supply in the Colorado River’s reservoirs, indicating that levels continue precipitous decline.
While last year’s snowpack was decent, extraordinarily warm temperatures through the spring meant that by the time the snow melted and flowed into Colorado River reservoirs much of it had evaporated, and the year’s water supply was only 32% of the 30-year average. Since 2000, the decline in Colorado River reservoir elevations has been dramatic, and scientists studying climate change tell us there is no end in sight.
As we watch climate change impacts unfold before our eyes, we worry about the birds and other wildlife that depend on Colorado River (and tributary) habitats. We worry about the communities that rely on Colorado River water supply. We also worry about how decision-makers will respond, because in a crisis, environmental resources will be at risk.
In recent years, the U.S. and Mexican federal governments and states that share the Colorado River have adopted shortage rules (2007 Interim Guidelines, Minute 323, Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans). That is important, because it allows water users to plan ahead for dry times with some predictability, even in extraordinary drought. Arizona, Nevada and Mexico all have known the 2021 shortage is coming. On a short-term basis, they have plans to mitigate the shortages. Arizona, which will take by far the biggest cuts, will employ diverse strategies including temporarily buying water from willing sellers (funded by Arizona taxpayers and philanthropies), increased water releases from in-state reservoirs, and increased groundwater pumping.
These are good strategies for the short-term, but what about 2023 and beyond? Historically, water management was based on the premise that drought would be followed by wet years. Climate change means we can no longer make that assumption. Good short-term solutions may not be sustainable: Will public and philanthropic funds remain available over the long term? Local reservoirs will need to be refilled with Colorado River water, so what happens once they are emptied? How long can water users rely on fossil groundwater before that resource is threatened as well?
A recent report from Audubon and conservation partners suggests that we need to start investing now in solutions for the long term, including improving forest health, wetlands restoration, and regenerative agriculture. These practices improve soil health such that over time more of the snowpack will translate into water supply as well as improved resilience of the entire watershed.
Good planning and robust investments can help minimize the pain of Colorado River water shortages, and are critical to maintaining reliable water supplies for people and nature alike. It is reassuring that the United States and Mexico have held fast to their commitments to provide a small volume of water to the Colorado River Delta, and the river has been flowing to the sea this summer.
The Colorado River is due for new operating rules in 2026, and Audubon will be working hard to ensure that the results are designed for the 21st century, starting with a process that includes all stakeholders, including Native American tribes with Colorado River water rights and environmental interests. Our goals include a new management framework that stabilizes reservoirs as the water supply declines, robust public investment in long-term strategies to improve the water supply and the basin’s resilience, measures that ensure tribes benefit from their water rights, and that decision-makers do not raid the last drops of water supporting habitats Colorado River habitats.
“deeper levels of shortage are likely in the next few years… additional reductions to CAP water users are likely to occur pursuant to the DCP. Such reductions would include impacts to CAP water currently available to some central AZ municipalities and tribes.” #AZWater#CORiverhttps://t.co/NFHTtB0cNp
Director Buschatzke of @azwater notes that another key trigger has been reached: Lake Mead is projected to hit 1030’. This requires AZ, CA and NV to reconvene to decide what additional steps they will take to keep Mead from falling below 1,020’. #CORiver#AZWater
Due to the low levels of water, the federal government has declared a Tier 1 water shortage in the Colorado River for the first time ever. This declaration reduces the amount of water that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico can claim from the river.
“The Tier 1 shortage declaration highlights the challenges facing the Colorado River Basin; however, this did not come as a surprise,” says Taylor Hawes, The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program Director. “The Colorado River has witnessed a steady decline in flows since 2000 that impacts communities, agriculture, industry, and the health of our rivers in the region. Even as flows decreased, our demand reductions have not kept pace.”
The declaration not only reduces the amount of water available for cities, but it will likely restrict water supplies for farmers. Some farmers may be forced to sell cattle, switch to different crops, or use groundwater from wells.
Colorado River Hit Hard by Climate Change
The Colorado River provides drinking water for more than 40 million people, hydroelectric power to meet the needs of over 7 million people, and water for 30 Native American Tribes. It irrigates around 5 million acres of fields that supply vegetables to the entire world and supports a thriving $26-billion recreation and tourism economy, as well as a wide variety of wildlife.
But climate change is hitting the Colorado River hard. The West has been in the grip of a drought for over 20 years that scientists believe is the worst in a thousand years, and the river is starting to feel the pinch. Its flows are powered by snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains, and as precipitation declines across the region, the river’s supply has dwindled too. Higher year-round temperatures also mean that the water evaporates faster while water use increases. These challenges make it harder and harder to balance the needs of people and the fish and wildlife that depend on healthy, flowing rivers.
“The Colorado River can be a model for resiliency and sustainability but not without a concerted and significant effort by stakeholders in the region,” Says Hawes. “While stakeholders have been developing solutions and adapting to a drier future, we must all accelerate the pace. We need short term solutions to stabilize the system while also working on longer term solutions. These include reducing water use across sectors, modernizing infrastructure, improving forest health, enhancing natural infrastructure, using technology to bolster groundwater levels, and improving stream and river health.”
Leading on Innovative and Collaborative Solutions
Already, water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two major reservoirs that store the Colorado River’s water, are down to 34% of their capacity and may soon drop too low to spin the hydroelectric turbines in their dams. Some smaller reservoirs began emergency releases in summer 2021 to prop up water levels in these lakes.
The situation is serious, but there’s plenty we can do to improve it. We know that the West will continue to get hotter and drier due to climate change. By proactively working together and planning for this future, we can share the Colorado River’s water equitably among all those who need it, including nature. We can use water more efficiently in our homes and businesses, improve agricultural irrigation infrastructure, adopt innovative water sharing approaches, and plant crops that use less water. With proper planning, the river will have enough water for fish and animals as well as people.
“Water issues are complex and require partnership and collaboration,” says Hawes. “The Nature Conservancy has worked in the Colorado River Basin for 20 years and appreciates the critical importance of partnerships in charting a sustainable and resilient future. However, the river system has changed more quickly than we have adapted. We must accelerate our efforts and think more broadly and creatively than ever before to chart a sustainable course. We must work together, testing ideas, sharing knowledge and investing in both short-term and long-term solutions in order to have the greatest impact in a short amount of time. This approach is our best path forward to minimize more future shortages on the river.”
With our contacts in the region and our history of bringing diverse stakeholders together, TNC is ideally situated to broker agreements that keep the Colorado River healthy. In Colorado, we developed the Yampa River Fund, a compact in which downstream users pay to protect the health of their water supply near its source. In Arizona, we developed a groundwater recharge system and helped farmers switch to water-efficient crops. We helped Mexicali, Mexico, invest in wastewater treatment solutions to leave more water available for nature. We are supporting policies at local, regional, and national levels that safeguard water supplies in the arid West.
Here’s a release from the Southern Nevada Water Association (Bronson Mack):
Low water levels in Lake Mead prompted the federal government today to issue a water shortage declaration on the Colorado River, which will reduce the amount of water Southern Nevada will be allowed to withdraw from Lake Mead beginning in January 2022.
Combined with existing water reductions outlined in the Drought Contingency Plan, the declared shortage will cut Southern Nevada’s annual water allocation of 300,000 acre-feet from Lake Mead—the source of 90 percent of the community’s supply—by a total of 21,000 acre-feet (nearly 7 billion gallons of water) in 2022.
“During the past two decades, Southern Nevada has taken significant steps to prepare for these cuts, including constructing Intake 3 and Low Lake Level Pumping Station and storing unused water in reserve for our community’s future use,” said Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) General Manager John Entsminger. “But water conservation remains our most effective management tool, and now is the time for all of us to redouble our conservation efforts in order to remain ahead of the curve and continue protecting the investments we have all made in our community.”
Entsminger said Southern Nevada must continue to reduce outdoor water consumption—which accounts for about 60 percent of the region’s overall water use—by following mandatory seasonal watering restrictions, replacing unused grass landscapes with drip-irrigated trees and plants through the SNWA’s Water Smart Landscapes rebate program (WSL), and preventing and reporting water waste (water flowing off a property into the gutter) to local water utilities.
“Southern Nevada has the capability, the obligation, and the need to be the most water-efficient community in the nation,” Entsminger said. “We already safely treat, recycle and return indoor water use back to Lake Mead, so conserving the water we use outdoors will help us achieve that goal and ensure our long-term sustainability.”
While the shortage declaration is the first of its kind, it is not the first time Southern Nevada was required to reduce its water use in response to drought conditions and a hotter, drier climate. When the drought was first declared in 2002, Southern Nevada was using more than its legal entitlement of 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water. However, the community’s commitment to conservation led to a 23 percent decline in water use since 2002 despite the addition of nearly 800,000 new residents.
But conservation progress has stalled in recent years. As an example, only about half of single-family households comply with the year-round seasonal watering restrictions, which limits the number of days landscapes can be watered each season. If every water user diligently followed these restrictions each season, Southern Nevada could save more water than is being cut under the shortage conditions.
In addition, tens of millions of gallons go to waste each year as poor irrigation practices result in water flowing off properties. Reporting this waste to local water utilities helps educate property owners about the issue and gives them an opportunity to correct it. However, those that continue to waste water receive a violation and a water-waste fee.
“In the face of this unprecedented shortage, we must step-up our commitment to conservation,” Entsminger said. “These efforts are imperative to assure our community’s long-term economic success—and history has shown that they work.”
For information on what you can do to conserve water, including SNWA conservation programs, seasonal watering restrictions, and preventing and reporting water waste, visit http://snwa.com.
The federal government declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time since a compact between seven river basin was inked a century ago, with major 2022 water delivery cutbacks for Arizona and a lesser amount for Nevada and the nation of Mexico.
But water resource experts warned Coloradans not to be smug about far-away troubles in Arizona, where central state farming methods and production will take a big hit. The duty of Upper Colorado River Basin states to continue delivering set quotas of water under the treaty is one of the next big climate change battles in the West, and it will force changes here at home.
“The announcement today is a recognition that the hydrology that was planned for years ago, that we hoped we would never see, is here today,” Camille Touton, deputy commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation, said at a news conference bringing together officials from all the compact states.
“It’s really a threshold moment,” said Bart Miller, healthy rivers program director for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates. “They are words a water manager doesn’t like hearing: unprecedented, never done this before. That short-term response is a good one, but the longer term response might be most interesting.”
At the news conference Monday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officially announced what its previous reports had warned was coming: Drought and climate change have drained so much water from the Lower Basin compact states’ main pool, Lake Mead, that the most junior rights on the lower river must be suspended until supplies are restored.
“They will not be delivered the water,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona Department of Water Resources. “They will physically not have the water, and they will have to figure out how to deal with the ramifications of that outcome.”
Arizona, with primarily junior water rights for its Central Arizona Project canals that take farm water into the desert, will lose more than 500,000 acre-feet from its projected allotment for 2022. That’s about 18% of the state’s usual allotment from the Colorado River.
Nevada will lose 21,000 acre-feet, or about 7% of its planned 2022 allotment; Mexico, which has a treaty with the U.S. over Colorado River water, will lose 80,000 acre-feet, or about 5% of its annual total.
Though the 22-year drought in the West prompted years of contingency planning for the river that delivers water to 40 million people, failing snowpack and dry soils that drink up runoff have forced federal regulators to speed their efforts…
Earlier this summer, another contingency move triggered by the drops at Mead and Powell included partial draining of Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison to help refill Powell and keep its pool above the minimum level needed for generating hydroelectric power. Federal regulators also moved water down to Powell from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border, and Navajo Reservoir straddling the Colorado-New Mexico border.
All the compact states will have to contribute to solutions as the drought continues, federal and state officials warned.
“We also recognize the very real possibility that the hydrology that was planned for years ago may not be the worst that the basin may see in the future,” Touton said…
There are a few ways Colorado and federal water managers are working on to leave more water in the river, Miller said:
Improving the efficiency of agriculture — which uses 85% of the water available in Colorado — through fixing canals and ditches and moving to drip irrigation when possible. Capital costs could be funded in part by the infrastructure bill on the verge of passage by Congress, some of which was earmarked for water projects.
Changing crops to those that take less water. Arizona gets criticized for using Colorado River water to irrigate cotton, alfalfa and other high-water crops in an arid climate, but most of western agriculture takes place in a high desert. Colorado farmers could switch from alfalfa and other fodder to rye or other crops.
Letting water go through “demand management.” Cities have been drying up farms for their water rights for decades, raising the anger of rural Colorado. Demand management, by contrast, can rent the water from farmers for a set number of years in a given period, without drying up the land or the water rights entirely. Renting the water takes big money, though, another possible use of infrastructure stimulus.
City water conservation. Front Range cities have come a long way providing household water to millions of new residents without taking more water overall, Miller said, but those efficiency gains are slowing. Still, the cities could make additional trims: Las Vegas spends large amounts buying up lawn grass and paying homeowners to keep low-water or zero-water plantings.
“There’s still more there,” Miller said.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
What does this water shortage mean for Colorado? Nothing, legally.
Lake Mead stores water for the states in the lower Colorado River basin — that’s Nevada, Arizona and California. Because Lake Mead has dropped below 1,075 feet, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation can mandate water cuts in Arizona and Nevada…
Currently, Colorado and this group of states are complying with the water-sharing agreement. The upper basin is not legally at fault for the low levels in Lake Mead.
“When we hear a shortage declaration, that definitely causes angst,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “But I do feel like it’s a call to action both in the upper basin and the lower basin.”
Mitchell said all of the states in the Colorado River basin are working to manage “this very precious resource,” so that federal emergency actions like this are rare.
The official shortage declaration in the lower-basin states does add pressure to renegotiations of the Colorado River’s existing management guidelines, which are set to expire in 2026.
“It is much easier to make decisions in times of plenty,” [Rebecca] Mitchell said. “But the decisions are more important in times like now, and they have a greater impact.”
But additional cuts affecting more people may be coming more quickly than anticipated until now, officials said at a news conference called to make the formal announcement of the river’s first shortage declaration.
The shortage declaration by the bureau will reduce deliveries to the Central Arizona Project by roughly one-third, or 512,000 acre-feet.
Besides farmers, these cuts will also affect some Indian tribes, “excess water” deliveries to parties who normally buy water that other users don’t have contracts for and recharge of CAP water into various underground storage basins.
The cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico together will be about 613,000 acre-feet, although California will have no cuts in 2022. An acre-foot is enough water to cover a football field one-foot deep with water. The cuts were all prescribed by the 2019 drought contingency plan, an agreement among the seven Colorado River Basin states including Arizona that sought to prop up Lakes Mead and Powell by gradually reducing the states’ take of that water when reservoirs declined to low enough elevations.
But Arizona’s water chief indicated at the news conference that to keep already ailing Lake Mead from falling too low, the three Lower Colorado River Basin states including Arizona will need to take additional water-saving actions beyond what’s already planned. That additional action is legally required under the three-state drought contingency plan, because the latest bureau forecast says it’s possible that Mead could drop to close to critically low levels by June 2023.
The state representatives have already started meeting to discuss possible future cuts, Tom Buschatzke, Arizona Department of Water Resources director, told the news conference without providing much more detail.
“The tools we have to achieve the goal are conserving more water in Lake Mead and reducing water use,” Buschatzke said. “This is a serious turn of events, not a crisis…
…at a separate news conference held after the one held by officials, a group of environmentalists and the head of a huge Southern California irrigation district blasted as grossly inadequate the efforts of federal and state officials to respond to declines in Colorado River flows that have drastically lowered its reservoirs’ water levels since 2000.
They said that despite the much-touted drought plan the basin states approved in 2019, the states and feds really don’t have a long-term plan to bring the river into balance between how much water people use and how much nature provides.
“This is not the time for small steps, this is a time for large ones,” said J.C. Hamby, director of the Imperial Irrigation District, headquartered in El Centro, California, near Yuma. “This is a tremendous problem that requires tremendous solutions, bold solutions, to respond to the continued drawdown on Powell and Mead.”
The drought contingency plan is only a plan to manage reservoir levels, not to truly adapt to long-term declines in river flows triggered by climate change and the accompanying warming weather, added Zachary Frankel, director of the Utah Rivers Council.
“There is not a climate plan for the Colorado River, it’s just the federal government and states watching the reservoir levels drop,” Frankel said.
The bureau’s CAP cuts for 2022 will take away about 60 percent of the Pinal farmers’ current CAP supplies of about 250,000 acre feet a year, said Paul Orme, a Phoenix attorney representing four Central Arizona irrigation districts. In 2023, the Pinal farmers’ share of CAP will shrink to zero, as prescribed by the 2019 drought plan, he said…
The latest bureau forecast for the end of 2022 is more dire still. The most likely lake level then will be barely above 1,050 feet, the bureau’s monthly 24-month study said. If Mead drops below 1,050 feet at the end of any calendar year, additional cuts kick in, affecting some Phoenix-area cities, Indian tribes and some industrial users, although Tucson wouldn’t be affected.
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico would lose a total of 613,000 acre-feet under that scenario, although California would lose no Colorado River water unless the lake drops below 1,045 feet…
But the bureau’s latest forecast also predicts that under the worst case climate scenario, Lake Mead could hit 1,030 feet by June 2023. If a forecast predicts the lake will fall that low within the next two years, the drought contingency plan requires the basin states to start meeting and find additional water use cuts to keep Mead.
The purpose of such cuts would be to keep Mead from dropping to 1,020 feet or below. The 1,020 foot level is five feet below the lowest level now planned for in the drought contingency plan, a level that would for the first time require cuts to Tucson’s CAP supply of 144,000 acre-feet…
The environmentalists and Hamby, however, said the reservoirs’ continued declines shows that it’s folly for Upper Basin states such as Utah and Wyoming to keep pushing to build more water diversion projects such as the Lake Powell pipeline. It would take 86,000 acre-feet a year of water — almost as much as Tucson Water customers use in a given year — from the lake to fast-growing St. George, Utah.
Cuts to Colorado River apportionments announced Monday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation triggered a new flood of protests against St. George’s Lake Powell Pipeline project, the largest proposed diversion of additional water from this river that serves the needs of 40 million people throughout the West.
“St. George is not going to get their pipeline,” said Robin Silver, a founder of the Center for Biological Diversity and a former Phoenix emergency-room physician, in a press conference hosted by environmental groups on Monday afternoon following the one held by the Bureau of Reclamation. “Whether they’re listening or not, they’re going to have no choice. But it’d be nice if they were listening so we could all figure out how to get out of this fix.”
The Lake Powell Pipeline is the Washington County Water Conservancy District’s (WCWCD) solution to the current rate of population growth outpacing its estimation of the local water supply. The project, which has been pursued by the state since the 1990s, would transport up to 28 billion gallons of water per year — enough to support around 150,000 households — from the Colorado River at Lake Powell 140 miles through the desert in a buried pipeline to Sand Hollow Reservoir for use by future St. George residents.
Despite the long history of the project and the $40 million the state of Utah has already spent on feasibility and environmental studies for it, however, the current megadrought has created a region-wide political climate where additional diversions from the Colorado River are becoming increasingly controversial.
The declaration of a shortage by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has been anticipated for months and was triggered by the spiraling decline of Lake Mead, which stores water used by Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico…
Federal water managers said the first shortage declaration shows how severe the drought has become and how climate change is having serious effects on the river…
“The Bureau of Reclamation cannot control the hydrology. And we also recognize the very real possibility that the hydrology that was planned for years ago may not be the worst that the basin may see in the future,” Touton said. “This may also mean that additional actions will likely be necessary in the very near future.”
The cuts will be the largest to date on the river, shrinking the flow of water through the 336-mile Central Arizona Project Canal, which for more than three decades has supplied Arizona’s growing desert cites and vast stretches of farmlands.
Farmers in part of central Arizona will face major cutbacks in water deliveries next year, and they’re preparing for the supplies to be entirely shut off in 2023. The reductions will force growers in Pinal County to leave some fields dry and unplanted, while the state is providing funds to help local irrigation districts drill wells to pump more groundwater.
“The cutbacks are happening. The water’s not there,” said Will Thelander, whose family has been farming in Arizona for three generations. “We’ll shrink as much as we can until we go away. That’s all the future basically is.”
The announcement from the Bureau of Reclamation, which is based on projected reservoir levels over the next two years, also shows that even bigger cuts are possible in 2023 and 2024, meaning some Arizona cities could begin to see their water deliveries slashed as well.
The level of Lake Mead is projected to end the year at an elevation of 1,065 feet, putting the river’s Lower Basin in what’s called a tier-one shortage. The government’s estimates show the reservoir is likely to continue to fall in subsequent years toward lower-level shortages that would bring larger cuts.
The reductions are taking effect under a 2019 agreement called the Drought Contingency Plan, which was aimed at reducing the risks of Lake Mead falling to critical lows. But as extreme heat and unrelenting drought have persisted across much of the watershed, the levels of the Colorado’s largest reservoirs have fallen faster than had been expected.
“There’s no doubt that climate change is real. We’re experiencing it every day in the Colorado River Basin and in other basins in the West,” Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said. “I think the best strategy for planning is to think about a broad range of scenarios and a broad range of potential hydrology, and to work closely with our partners in the basin to try to think through all of those scenarios.”
The 2019 drought agreement included a backstop provision that called for the states to reconvene to consider additional measures, if necessary, to guard against the risk of Lake Mead falling to critically low levels below the elevation of 1,020 feet. Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said the state’s officials have begun to meet to discuss options with representatives of California and Nevada.
While they haven’t yet determined exactly what additional actions they may take, Buschatzke said, the possible steps include reducing the amounts taken from Lake Mead and conserving water in the reservoir…
Representatives of Nevada and California echoed that willingness to cooperate.
“We must adapt to the new reality of a warmer, drier future,” said John Entsminger of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “While the future is sobering, we are in this together.”
With Lake Mead projected to continue dropping, water researchers have also warned that the cuts agreed to under the 2019 agreement now are insufficient to deal with the severity of the situation, and that the region will soon need bigger efforts to adapt.
“We’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation. And we have to figure out how we get along with less Colorado River water coming into the state,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “I would say that everything’s on the table. How do we continue to have our cities and our economy and quality of life and prosperity on significantly less Colorado River water?”
Porter said the rapid declines of the river’s reservoirs show that the 2019 drought deal won’t be enough and that Arizona and neighboring states need to “figure out strategies to make sure that the Colorado system can stay functional” over the next several years…
Growers in Pinal County have said they may have to stop irrigating about a third of the area’s farmlands, leaving them dry and fallow…
Growers in Pinal County have known for years that their supply of CAP water would eventually be cut off, with a 2004 settlement outlining a schedule of decreasing water deliveries between 2017 and 2030. But the 2019 shortage agreement and the deteriorating conditions at Lake Mead have meant that Pinal farmers will lose their supply of Colorado River water much sooner…
Water’s retreat has accelerated
The Colorado River provides water for cities, tribal nations and about 4.5 million acres of farmland from Wyoming to the U.S.-Mexico border. About 70% of the water diverted from the river in the U.S. is used for agriculture, flowing to fields of hay and cotton, fruit orchards and farms that produce much of the country’s winter vegetables.
The watershed has been hit by one of the driest 22-year periods in centuries. Scientists describe the past two decades as a megadrought worsened by climate change, and say long-term “aridification” of the Colorado River Basin will require the region to adopt substantial changes to adapt to getting less water from the river.
In 2000, Lake Mead was nearly full. Since then, the water level in the reservoir has fallen about 147 feet, leaving a growing “bathtub ring” of minerals coating the rocky shores. The water’s retreat has accelerated over the past year during months of severe drought and extreme heat…
Arizona and Nevada took less water from the river in 2020 and 2021 under the agreement among Lower Basin states, and Mexico has been contributing water agreed under a separate accord to help the levels of Lake Mead.
California agreed to start taking cuts at a lower trigger point (1,045 feet) if the reservoir continues to fall — which the latest projections show could occur in 2024.
When the deal was signed, some of the states’ representatives described the agreement as a temporary “bridge” solution to lessen the risks of a crash and buy time through 2026, by which time new rules for sharing shortages will need to be negotiated and adopted.
Climate change ‘is making us face this reality quicker’
The deal wasn’t intended to prevent a shortage, which managers of water agencies have been expecting for the past few years. But the shortage has arrived sooner than officials and observers had hoped.
“We are in unprecedented territory,” said Haley Paul, policy director for the National Audubon Society in Arizona…
“In the end, hydrology is catching up to us and climate change is here and we’re hitting this new threshold,” Paul said. “Climate change is making us face this reality quicker than we would have otherwise. And we have no other choice but to learn to live with this smaller river.”
Scientific research has shown that the Colorado River watershed is sensitive to the higher temperatures caused by climate change, which intensify dry conditions and evaporate more moisture from the landscape. In a 2018 study, researchers found the river’s flow since 2000 had dropped 19 percent below the average of the past century, and that about half of the trend of decreasing runoff was due to unprecedented warming in the river basin.
Paul said the shortage might spur more water-efficiency innovation on top of what’s already been done, or more cultivation of crops that require less water.
“Does this shift how we farm? Both in the crops and the traditional ways of farming?” Paul said. “I think that it’s an opportunity for sure.”
One such crop is guayule, a shrub that tire manufacturer Bridgestone has been paying some farmers to grow while researching the crop as a new source of natural rubber for tires. Thelander said he’s one of two growers in his area who are experimenting with guayule, which requires much less water than cotton or alfalfa.
Dixon said he thinks there’s still a future for agriculture in Arizona if farmers make water-saving changes, like switching to drip irrigation, planting less water-intensive crops and improving management of watersheds. Dixon said he already has drip irrigation installed on some of his cotton fields, which he leases to another farmer, and plans to convert the remaining 120 acres to a drip system to save more water.
Cities face no cutbacks for now
Under a shortage, Arizona faces the largest reductions of any state.
Arizona gets about 36% of its water from the Colorado River, while other sources include groundwater and rivers such as the Salt and Verde. The state next year will lose 18% of its supplies from the Colorado River.
Arizona’s plan for dealing with the shortages involves deliveries of “mitigation” water to help temporarily lessen the blow for some farmers and other entities, as well as payments for those that contribute water. The state and CAP officials approved more than $100 million for these payments, with much of the funds going to the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community for water they contributed…
The river’s shrinking flows have coincided with warnings from experts about insufficient water supplies for some of Arizona’s growing cities and suburbs.
Porter and fellow ASU researcher Kathleen Ferris said in a recent report that Arizona doesn’t have adequate measures in place to sustain groundwater, and that the state’s existing laws have allowed for unsustainable over-pumping in many areas. They said state leaders should reform the groundwater rules to safeguard these finite water reserves.
The state’s water agencies have for years been storing some imported Colorado River water in underground aquifers with the aim of using these reserves in the future when needed. The water has flowed into a network of basins, where the water has soaked down to recharge aquifers. The reductions in deliveries through the CAP Canal, however, have eliminated water that would have been available for replenishing groundwater…
Managers of the Arizona Department of Water Resources have also sought to halt approvals for new development dependent on groundwater in Pinal County.
In 2019, the agency’s officials said their data showed the county doesn’t have enough groundwater to provide for all of its planned subdivisions over the coming decades. And during a meeting this June, Deputy Director Clint Chandler laid out the agency’s position: “The days of utilizing native groundwater for development in Pinal are over. It’s done.”
He said ADWR won’t approve new “assured water supply” applications for development reliant on groundwater in Pinal. Those who want to develop in Pinal, he said, “will need to bring their own, non-groundwater supplies.”
In Pinal and other areas, new subdivisions have often been built on former agricultural land. Porter said farmers in Pinal have been “waking up to the fact” that if they heavily draw down the groundwater in the years to come, that could lead to long-term declines in the value of their land…
A new approach to managing the river?
The sorts of struggles that farmers are facing in Pinal could soon spread to other parts of the Southwest.
Paul said dealing with the new reality on the Colorado River will require looking at a wide range of short-term and long-term approaches for adapting to less water, and also examining in detail how severe the shortages might become as negotiations move forward on plans for new rules after 2026…
And while this summer’s monsoon rains have brought flooding and a burst of green vegetation in the Arizona desert, much of the Colorado River watershed remains in an extreme drought.
To address the chronic water deficit on the Colorado River, managers of water agencies have been discussing a variety of other possible steps, such as investing in more wastewater recycling and desalination, and scaling up programs that pay farmers to temporarily leave some fields dry.
But critics have argued that the Colorado River needs to be managed differently as climate change and drought take a worsening toll on the watershed…
“You have this largest reservoir in the nation going empty. There is more water coming out than there is going in,” said J.B. Hamby, vice president of California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which holds the largest single water entitlement on the river.
“Things like continued sprawl, demands for new sources of water being taken from this declining stream, which is the Colorado River, does not make sense when we’re dealing with what could be potentially catastrophic,” Hamby said.
He said everyone needs to recognize the Colorado River is now in “an era of limits” that requires everyone along the river to understand that water use must be limited. He and others stressed that the water level at Lake Mead has been getting closer to 895 feet, a point called “dead pool” at which water would no longer pass at Hoover Dam.
Here’s a release from the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project:
The Colorado River Basin continues to experience drought and the impacts of hotter and drier conditions. Based on the Jan. 1 projected level of Lake Mead at 1,065.85 feet above sea level, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior has declared the first-ever Tier 1 shortage for Colorado River operations in 2022.
This Tier 1 shortage will result in a substantial cut to Arizona’s share of the Colorado River – about 30% of Central Arizona Project’s normal supply; nearly 18% of Arizona’s total Colorado River supply; and less than 8% of Arizona’s total water use. Nearly all the reductions within Arizona will be borne by Central Arizona Project (CAP) water users. In 2022, reductions will be determined by Arizona’s priority system – the result will be less available Colorado River water for central Arizona agricultural users.
While Arizona will take the required mandatory reductions under a Tier 1 shortage, the reductions to CAP water users will be partially mitigated by resources that have been set aside in advance for this purpose.
“The 2019 Drought Contingency Plan put in place agreements and Arizona water users have taken collective action to mitigate reduced CAP water for affected municipalities, tribes and CAP agriculture,” said Ted Cooke, general manager, Central Arizona Project. “These DCP near-term actions will provide relief from reductions that will occur in 2022 as a result of a Tier 1 shortage.”
Given the recent intensification of the drought, deeper levels of shortage are likely in the next few years. As impacts of drought persist, additional reductions to CAP water users are likely to occur pursuant to the DCP. Such reductions would include impacts to CAP water currently available to some central Arizona municipalities and tribes.
The near-record low runoff in the Colorado River in 2021 significantly reduced storage in Lake Powell. The reduction in storage, combined with projections for future months, has triggered provisions of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan designed to protect critical elevations in Lake Powell and Lake Mead through additional collective actions.
“ADWR and CAP are working collaboratively with Arizona stakeholders and the Basin States to deploy more adaptive measures consistent with the Drought Contingency Plan and associated agreements,” said Tom Buschatzke, director, Arizona Department of Water Resources. “At the same time, ADWR and CAP will continue to work with partners within Arizona and across the Basin to develop and implement longer-term solutions to the shared risks we all face on the Colorado River now and into the future.”
Buschatzke continued, “We in Arizona have acted and will continue to act to protect the water resources of our state and of the Colorado River system overall.”
With federal officials expected to announce a water shortage at Lake Mead next month, this would be an ideal time for Utah officials to kill off that state’s insane plan to divert a huge amount of upstream water to fuel development in the St. George area.
On Thursday, a diverse group of Colorado River stakeholders gathered near Hoover Dam called on Utah to do just that, and pressed for a moratorium on other projects that would divert water from the river.
This wasn’t simply people from other states ganging up on Utah, either. One of the most strident speakers was Zach Frankel from the Utah Rivers Council, who blistered the officials in his state who were backing the pipeline for St. George.
“While the Lower Basin is going on a diet of cutting its water use, we should not allow the Upper Basin to go to an all-you-can-eat buffet of water waste,” Frankel said.
Well put, neighbor.
The Utah pipeline would suck 86,000 acre-feet of water per year from Lake Powell to St. George, where it would be used to grow crops, maintain the grass lawns that are common in the area and to expand development.
Not only is this pipeline unconscionable given the dwindling water supply of lakes Powell and Mead, but the water would be going to a community whose residents are water hogs already. As Frankel pointed out, water usage in Washington County, the home of St. George, averages 306 gallons per person per day — about three times the usage in more water-conscious places like Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Plus, to give some perspective to the amount of water involved in the project, consider that Nevada’s entire annual allotment from Lake Mead is 300,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of ground 1 foot deep, or about 326,000 gallons of water.)
That allotment is all but sure to get a haircut soon, with the looming water shortage declaration by the feds. We’ll lose about 21,000 acre-feet total in mandatory and voluntary cuts. But since Nevada has learned to live with less, we currently use only 256,000 acre-feet per year, meaning we’ll still fall below the 279,000 acre-feet we’ll have after the cutbacks.
Decline of Lake Mead. Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain
Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain
Meanwhile, though, there’s no indication that years of dwindling flow in the Colorado River will reverse themselves anytime soon. To the contrary, long-range forecasts of snowmelt and rain runoff in the Colorado River watershed suggest that what’s happening now shouldn’t be considered a drought but rather a normal condition.
With Lake Mead at just 36% capacity and shrinking, it’s important to note that the Utah pipeline project isn’t the only one of its type. There are more than a dozen proposed dams and diversions upstream of Southern Nevada in the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico.
That was another point of emphasis from the group of stakeholders last week at Lake Mead, which included business operators, agricultural interests, Native American advocates and more. They urged all Southwestern states to recognize that their own water projects would affect the entire region and the millions of Americans who rely on the Colorado River.
“No flow, no future,” said Brea Chiodini, tour boat operator and member of the Laughlin-Bullhead City River Flow Committee.
Putting a moratorium on every current project might be extreme, but at the very least the criteria for approval should be stiffened to reflect the upcoming shortage and the long-term outlook.
One thing is crystal clear, though: The Utah pipeline needs to be shelved. The upcoming water shortage declaration gives officials in the Beehive State an opportunity to terminate the project and save face. If they don’t act on their own, though, it’s a no-brainer that federal officials should put a stake in the heart of this horrible proposal.
It is simply madness that as the Colorado River reaches its lowest levels in recorded history that we’d be proposing a new water diversion upstream,” Frankel said. “At some point, we have to put our foot down and stop this madness.”
Again, a voice of reason from Utah. Frankel’s fellow state residents should listen to him.
On a spring morning in 1996, then–Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt stood at Glen Canyon Dam, a concrete bulwark in Arizona that holds back the Colorado River to form Lake Powell. During a live broadcast on the Today show, a popular national TV program, Babbitt opened valves to unleash an unprecedented experimental flood into the Grand Canyon just downstream. As onlookers applauded, water gushed from gaping outlet pipes. Babbitt called the experiment, which was testing one way of restoring Grand Canyon ecosystems damaged by the dam, the start of “a new era” in environmental management.
Jack Schmidt was underwhelmed by the scene. He had spent years helping design the controversial experiment—which cost electric utilities nearly $3 million in lost revenue—and fighting to launch it. But compared with the natural deluges that raged down the canyon before the dam was completed in 1963, he remarked to a Los Angeles Times reporter, “This is a pretty wimpy flood.”
That verdict was typical of Schmidt, a river scientist at Utah State University who thinks big and speaks candidly. During his long research career, he has played a major role in revealing how the Colorado River functions, and how forces—natural and human—are reshaping and often damaging it. Despite his bluntness, Schmidt is a go-to expert for stakeholders and policymakers. He has taken them on river trips to explain key research findings, drawing graphs in the sand. And with other researchers, Schmidt has catalyzed far-reaching changes in how government agencies manage the Colorado River system, a critical source of water shared by seven states and Mexico.
“Jack looms very large in both the science and the policy of the Colorado River,” says Gordon Grant, a hydrologist and geomorphologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon. “He’s not afraid to push back on the water managers and he’s not afraid to push back on the environmental groups,” says Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “He’s willing to use science to try to find practical solutions.”
As a warming climate reduces the river’s flow, Schmidt, 70, is making what could be his most important push to shape the fate of his beloved waterway. He and his colleagues are working to inject a dose of scientific reality into public debate over water resources that, the team says, is too often clouded by wishful or outdated thinking. The biggest delusion: that there will be enough water in a drier future to satisfy all the demands from cities, farmers, power producers, and others, while still protecting sensitive ecosystems and endangered species. The hard truth, according to long-term scenarios produced by Schmidt and his colleagues, is that some users will have to consume less water, and that policymakers will face agonizing choices sure to produce winners and losers.
Those are messages that many players aren’t eager to hear, especially states planning to drain more water from the river to fuel growth. But Schmidt says he and his colleagues simply want everyone to understand the potentially divisive trade-offs. “We ask provocative and uncomfortable questions,” he says.
The moment is ripe, as a record-breaking drought provides a taste of what more climate change could bring. Last month, Lake Mead, a second massive reservoir downstream from Lake Powell, dropped to its lowest level ever. At the same time, government officials are beginning a 5-year process of renegotiating several key agreements over use and management of the river’s water. They have sought Schmidt’s views. “We had Jack and his team present to our leadership because of the high regard we hold for their research,” says Katrina Grantz, assistant regional director of the Upper Colorado Basin for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates many major dams.
Some see Schmidt’s tell-it-as-it-is approach as critical to developing realistic policies. “Jack is never afraid to speak the truth, according to what the research is saying,” says Mike Fiebig of American Rivers, an environmental group that Schmidt advises. And, he adds, Schmidt will speak “to whoever is listening.”
FOR A CONTINENTAL-SCALE river, the Colorado is not very big, but it has an outsize importance. Rising in the Rocky Mountains, its muddy water has always been crucial to the development of the arid West. In 1936, the Hoover Dam created what is still North America’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead. The dam’s 17 turbines generate electricity that lights Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and other cities, and also powers pumps that lift river water over mountains and into southern California. Engineers built hundreds of kilometers of canals to carry the water to cities and farmers. In Colorado, they constructed numerous tunnels, including one below the continental divide, to deliver water to Denver. Today, more than 40 million people in seven states and many Native American tribes rely on the Colorado River.
The water has long been worth fighting over. In 1922, in a bid to prevent conflicts, states in the watershed divided the rights to nearly 20 cubic kilometers of water, which they assumed was only part of the river’s annual flow. The compact gave half of the water to the lower basin, where cities and farms, especially in California and Arizona, have long used about twice as much water as consumers in the upper basin. The other half was promised to the upper basin, so that states including Colorado and Utah could develop in the future. A follow-on agreement in 1944 gave water to Mexico, where the river’s last drops barely trickle into the sea.
Lawyers and politicians spent decades disputing the terms of the original compact, parts of which remain contested. Meanwhile, it became ever clearer that the compact rested on flawed assumptions, because it was struck when the region was abnormally wet. After the 1930s, the Colorado River carried considerably less water on average for the next 4 decades (see chart, below). The past 2 decades have seen another decline, as the region endures its worst dry spell in 1250 years; flows have been about 19% less than the entire 20th century average. Climate models suggest an additional 30% decline by 2050, as precipitation continues to decrease and the atmosphere warms. The heat dries the soil and causes plants to transpire more, reducing the runoff efficiency—the fraction of precipitation that reaches the river.
The impacts are impossible to miss. From the air, bathtub rings of white stone encircle Lake Mead, which has been less than 40% full since 2015, as well as Lake Powell, which has been below 50% capacity since 2013. Boat ramps have been extended to help keep a large recreational industry afloat. Farmers in multiple states are expecting cutbacks in water deliveries next year. Nevada is launching new conservation measures, including a ban on using Colorado River water to irrigate lawns after 2026.
In some states, the shrinking river has only intensified claims on its flow. “It’s our water,” Utah State Senator Don Ipson (R) proclaimed in March. He was urging his colleagues to support a bill, now awaiting the governor’s signature, that creates a new commission to advocate for the state’s right to develop future water supplies.
Such assertive political jockeying highlights the challenge facing negotiators. They must grapple with key agreements that expire in just 5 years, as well as an inexorably changing climate. “All of that,” says water policy expert Brad Udall of Colorado State University, Fort Collins, “has combined into this slow-moving trainwreck.”
SCHMIDT GREW UP far from the Colorado in suburban New Jersey. He first glimpsed southwestern landscapes in undergraduate geology classes at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. An encounter with famed river scientist Luna Leopold during his master’s work at the University of California, Berkeley, inspired his passion for natural resource issues. He went on to a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, studying water policy and how rivers reshape landscapes with one of the field’s top experts, Gordon “Reds” Wolman.
Soon he was immersed in a conflict over the Colorado River that had begun in the 1970s, not long after Glen Canyon Dam was completed. The barrier nearly doubled the storage capacity for water, but it dramatically changed river conditions in the Grand Canyon. It cut off supplies of sediment that had created vast sandbars, for example, and released clear, cold water that allowed introduced species, such as trout, to displace native fish adapted to warm, muddy flows. Sudden releases of water to meet electrical demand, an operation called hydropeaking, disturbed wildlife, plants, and thousands of rafters who were floating the canyon each year.
Environmental groups sued, demanding that the Bureau of Reclamation do more to protect the ecosystem. In response, in 1982 the federal government launched what became a $12 million research program to probe dam impacts. Schmidt was funded to study the Grand Canyon’s sandbars, which river guides complained were shrinking, depriving them of camping spots.
Schmidt’s research helped explain the losses, revealing how swirling water digs up sediment in certain places and drops it elsewhere. The work “really has been foundational for all the thinking about sandbar dynamics since,” says Grant, who was a student alongside Schmidt at Johns Hopkins.
During a chilly rafting trip studying erosion, Schmidt and others discussed what could be done to prevent the losses. By the light of a campfire, they drafted a “beach bill” in his field book, sketching out the kind of federal legislation that could safeguard the canyon’s beaches.
A few years later, Bill Bradley, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, visited Middlebury College, where Schmidt was a faculty member. He and three students handed the senator a report they had written on sandbar erosion. Bradley took it with him when, the next month, he visited the canyon to see the problems for himself.
Bradley and other lawmakers were crafting their own bill, which became the Grand Canyon Protection Act of 1992. It helped set the stage for the experimental floods that began in 1996. The idea, developed by a small group of researchers including Schmidt, was that artificial floods could carry sand downstream. Although Glen Canyon Dam blocks most of the sand that used to wash down the main river channel, tributaries below the dam still supply some. The floods would drop the sediment onto sandbars. Dam operators weren’t eager to cede control to the scientists, though. “Jack had to duke it out,” Grant says.
The experimental floods have proved only modestly successful, in large part because the tributaries don’t deliver enough sediment to make a huge difference. Rich Ingebretsen, co-founder of the Glen Canyon Institute, an environmental group, says the real significance of the first experiment was that dam operators now consider environmental impacts—and not just the needs of electric utilities, farmers, or recreational boaters—in deciding when and how much water to release. “It ushered in a new world,” Ingebretsen says. “Environmentalists were now working with water managers for the first time in the history of the country.”
POLICYMAKERS HAVE BEEN slower to grapple, at least publicly, with a question that extends far beyond the river’s ecosystems and recreational opportunities: the limits of its ability to supply all the water the West wants, now and in the future.
Schmidt remained focused on river dynamics and developing strategies to lessen the impact of dams on ecosystems, first at Utah State and then, starting in 2011, as chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center (GCMRC), which helps guide restoration and management efforts. Martin Doyle, who studies river science and policy at Duke University, says he was skeptical that Schmidt would thrive as a government official, in part based on his frank approach to peer-reviewing papers. “He always signed his reviews and it was always just brutal, because he wasn’t tolerant of sloppy thinking.” But Schmidt had remarkable success boosting his staff ’s morale and conditions for research, Doyle says. “He started to turn the GCMRC from a monitoring center to a science center.”
The new abnormal
For the first third of the 20th century, the Colorado River supplied plentiful water on average, despite large annual fluctuations (top). Then water supply fell to a relatively constant level while use by cities and farms ramped up. Over the past 3 decades, climate change affected supply as rising air temperatures (bottom) increased water loss from soil and plants. Lower runoff efficiency means less rain and melted snow end up reaching the streams that feed the Colorado River.
One research goal was to figure out exactly when an experimental flood would most benefit ecosystems. “Jack had a huge influence,” says Anne Castle, a fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who oversaw water and science policy at the Department of the Interior from 2009 to 2014. “He cares about getting it right, that the river is managed in a way that reflects the best science available.”
The experience at GCMRC also got Schmidt thinking about how regional water supply decisions, often made decades ago, could thwart efforts to improve river management. For example, when his team participated in writing a new plan for operating the Glen Canyon Dam to make sandbars more stable and protect endangered fish such as the humpback chub, it could not consider any changes that were inconsistent with existing water supply agreements. That was frustrating, Schmidt recalls: “Nobody really asked the question: What’s the way to manage the [whole] system that’s the best for Grand Canyon?”
AFTER SCHMIDT LEFT GCMRC to return to Utah State in 2014, he wanted to explore those possibilities—unhindered by political and institutional constraints. He set up an interdisciplinary research center, and 2 years ago pulled together an all-star team of water experts for the effort, called the Future of the Colorado River Project. Among the collaborators: Udall, a veteran of western water policy; Eric Kuhn, retired general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, a planning agency, who provides a practical perspective; and Kevin Wheeler of the University of Oxford, a master of complex hydrological models.
The group has so far released six white papers. Some address technical matters, such as how to improve the models used to develop management policy for reservoirs. Others have scrutinized hot-button proposals, such as prioritizing water storage in Lake Mead and keeping less in Lake Powell. This proposal, called Fill Mead First, could be a first step toward dismantling Glen Canyon Dam and restoring the canyon behind it. (Schmidt’s team concluded the approach wouldn’t save much water and would likely greatly perturb the downstream ecosystem.)
The latest installment, released in February, evaluated for the first time how rising temperatures and declining runoff might jeopardize the regional water supply. The white paper also looked at how demand might change in coming decades. Using the same computer model that the Bureau of Reclamation and state water agencies use, known as the Colorado River Simulation System, the team examined numerous scenarios, including how meager runoff could reduce water storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead to critical levels. At one threshold dam turbines couldn’t generate electricity. If levels fall even lower, the reservoirs can no longer release water to alleviate downstream shortages, leaving users at nature’s mercy.
The modeling, done by Wheeler, showed reservoirs might dip into the danger zone, perhaps within 2 to 3 decades, assuming the present drought persists. To maintain a degree of water security, the study found that upper basin users would have to cap consumption at a long-term average, and lower basin states might have to cut their use by as much as 40% by the 2050s. “Colorado River outlook darkens dramatically in new study,” ran a headline in the Arizona Daily Star.
That is a “really bold and difficult upshot,” Fiebig of American Rivers says. And although it’s not news to veteran water experts, says Elizabeth Koebele, an environmental social scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno, “bringing that [message] into the broader policy conversation is pretty provocative now.” The results mean the upper basin can’t develop all of its water rights, Schmidt says. Making that scenario “completely transparent forces everybody to deal with it.”
Not surprisingly, some groups argue the study is overly pessimistic. Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, notes the white paper uses “obsolete” water demand forecasts from 2007. The more recent forecast predicts less of an increase, she says. (Schmidt says those numbers don’t change the overall picture.) Average demand for water has not risen in recent decades in the upper basin, Schmidt notes, and it will likely stay flat and shift. More water may become available to citiesas coal-fired power plants close and agricultural practices shift. Other change may be in store if Native American tribes decide to assert their water rights and develop or market them outside of their reservations.
Buschatzke of the Arizona Department of Water Resources says the group’s sobering scenarios are helpful for informing decision-making. “We understand what they’re doing is pushing the envelope, rightly so for academia.” But he says the department must create a water supply plan that is acceptable to diverse parties. Some lower basin groups are likely to oppose any plan that calls for cuts, he says, whereas conservation-minded advocates might push for even larger cuts.
Upper basin states, meanwhile, remain staunchly opposed to any notion of giving up future development. In Utah, which had the nation’s fastest growing population over the past decade, despite having the second driest climate, officials want to build a 225-kilometer pipeline to tap more water from Lake Powell. They shrug off concerns about how that could affect downstream supplies. Critics of Utah’s new water advocacy agency worry it will simply deny the reality of climate change as it attempts to protect the state’s water rights. “The Utah State Legislature is still mired in an era of unreality,” says Daniel McCool, a political scientist at the University of Utah. The state’s recent moves amount to “a declaration of water war, frankly.”
THE NEW ROUND OF NEGOTIATIONS over the Colorado compact will reveal just how far the parties are willing to go in acknowledging the worst case scenarios. “It’s all coming to a head,” Koebele says. “The extreme drought … is really highlighting that we do need to think more creatively.” Some of the big ideas floated by Schmidt’s group include new water accounting methods that span the entire basin, which would allow more flexible dam operations, and expand voluntary water banking and market exchanges of water rights.
Even as Schmidt works to highlight the risks of business as usual, he knows he may have to accept another difficult truth: that, in the end, people might once again decide to sacrifice the Colorado River ecosystems in order to get the water they want for cities, farms, and power.
Currently, environmental management programs—including some he helped design—mitigate some of the most severe impacts of existing dams and other infrastructure. But that won’t suffice as climate change and new water demands take hold. “We can’t solely rely on tweaking small aspects of reservoir operations to protect river ecosystems,” he says. “We also have to consider how much water rivers need to remain healthy.”
Schmidt would like that need to be a larger part of the upcoming negotiations. His own priority is to preserve the flows of rivers in the upper basin, which are wilder than the lower basin’s highly engineered reaches. When pressed, he confesses to an “aesthetic and philosophical wish” for a return to vanishing and long-gone landscapes of the Colorado. He recognizes that it may be impossible.
Still, Schmidt wants officials debating the future of the Colorado to know the region’s vast and growing human presence is not the only thing at stake. Next month, he will lead scientists, water managers, tribal leaders, and other river stakeholders on a raft trip down the Green River, the longest headwaters tributary of the Colorado. During the 5-day trip, organized by his center at Utah State and American Rivers, Schmidt will use sandbars as classrooms, sharing what he and other researchers have learned about the fish, plants, sand, and dams. The goal, he says, is that “when people are sitting in those conference rooms making decisions about water supply, they have in the back of their mind what these rivers are all about.”
According to the recent U.S. census, Utah was the fastest-growing state in the nation between 2010 and 2020, increasing its population at a blisteringly fast rate of 18.4%. And in its southwest corner, Washington County, with its stunning vistas, National Park access, recreation opportunities and warm, sunny climate led the state in that trend, attracting nearly 50,000 new residents over the last decade, a 36% increase over its 2010 population.
Those 50,000 new people are just the beginning of a growth pattern projected by the Gardner Institute to flood Washington County with 321,000 additional residents over the next 45 years, to reach a local population of 509,000 by 2065. That number of people — 80% of the current population of Las Vegas — will require a lot of water in this desert landscape, more than is locally available at our current rate of use.
The WCWCD, along with the Utah Division of Water Resources, saw this problem coming as early as the 1990s, and started making plans to import Colorado River water from Lake Powell via a buried pipeline that would stretch 140 miles through rocky desert terrain, crossing some tribal lands and sensitive habitats. The project has inched its way forward over the decades since, finally advancing its federally-required Environmental Impact Statement through the public review process during the Trump administration, which identified the pipeline as one of its infrastructure priorities…
What is most important to today’s Utahns?
Despite these sentiments about Utah’s cultural values driving water infrastructure decisions, there has never been a widespread, unbiased attempt to poll existing Washington County locals on their thoughts about the pros and cons of the Lake Powell Pipeline project and whether they are willing to bear its approximately $2 billion cost. So The Spectrum & Daily News, with funding from The Water Desk, designed and commissioned a survey to do just that.
Survey data were collected by the Utah-based market research firm Dynata, hired based on their reputation and reasonable cost quote. Employees of this company randomly selected residents of Washington County to contact for a phone survey and received responses from 400 of them. Respondents represented a balanced range of ages, gender, household income levels and length of time they had lived in Washington County. The results presented below have been weighted slightly by Dynata to best reflect the actual demographic makeup of the county.
Knowledge is lacking
Of the 400 people surveyed, nearly a quarter (22%) said they had never heard of the Lake Powell Pipeline, despite the fact that this is a decades-old project that will have major financial and lifestyle implications for all Washington County residents. 35% felt they “knew a little about it” and 12% felt they “knew a lot about it.” Only 52% of those surveyed said they felt they knew enough about the project to have an opinion on it.
Support is high
Support for the project outweighed opposition to it, with 59% expressing some level of support for it and 35% expressing some level of opposition to it. A majority held relatively mild views on the project, but 35% of all respondents were “very supportive” and 19% were “very opposed.”
But few want to pay
This high level of support, though, did not carry through to a willingness to help fund the project, which has been estimated to cost anywhere between $1.1 and $2.4 billion, to be initially bankrolled by the state and then repaid over 50 years by Washington County residents. In fact, some already-implemented increases in impact fees, property taxes and water rates are currently being put towards project expenses. The WCWCD estimates that the state has already spent around $40 million on planning costs and feasibility studies.
Only 40% of survey respondents answered yes to the question of whether, “knowing what you do about the project, and that the pipeline is proposed as a way to address potential water shortages in the future, are you willing to help fund it, either through increased water rates, higher taxes, or higher fees charged for new water hookups.” 44% answered no to that question and 15% declined to answer.
Among that 40% of people willing to help fund the project, just 8% said they would pay anything more than $50 per month in fees for it, though some estimates suggest the actual cost may be much higher than this. 22% of those who initially answered both that they supported the project and would be willing to help fund it then said that they would not be willing to contribute anything or refused to answer a question about specific amounts.
Overall, then, 50% of all surveyed residents indicated at some point — either in response to the initial funding question or when asked about specific amounts — that they would not be willing to contribute financially to the project at all, despite the fact that some fees are already being collected county-wide to support it. An additional 18% of all those surveyed said that they were unsure about contributing or refused to answer the question. Less than 1% were willing to pay amounts in the highest tier.
Instead, they show a willingness to conserve
In 2011, the Utah Division of Water Resources submitted a 256-page study to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission detailing how their water needs assessment justified pursuing the Lake Powell Pipeline project. In it, they outline how much water conservation they determined was “feasible for this area based on local conditions, development types, cost and public acceptance.” Conservation options that were considered but not deemed feasible to adopt included turf removal and some appliance rebates.
Survey results, however, indicate perhaps an increased willingness over the past decade to voluntarily adopt stricter water conservation measures.
When asked if they would be “willing to adopt any conservation practices in your own home or accept fewer amenities in your community if it would help avoid construction of the project,” 63% of survey respondents said they would, including 48% of those who had expressed support for the project. Only 26% said they would not be willing to conserve more water and 11% said they didn’t know.
Specific measures respondents said they would be willing to adopt included high levels of support for conservation measures previously ruled out by state and local officials as conflicting with Utah’s traditional cultural values:
75% of people who were amenable to conserving more water said they would reduce the size of their lawn.
88% were willing to take shorter showers.
75% were in favor of requiring desert-friendly landscaping in new housing developments.
67% thought we should stop building water features in parks and public places.
83% would support scaling back lawns in public places or on golf courses.
78% would be willing to update their home appliances.
76% supported increasing water rates/accelerating a tiered pricing structure.
Overall, results of our independent survey indicate that Washington County residents generally support the idea of the Lake Powell Pipeline project despite feeling that they don’t know much about it. But few want to contribute to it financially and instead they expressed a greater willingness to adopt new water conservation practices than has previously been recognized.
Climate stresses are raising the stakes. Rising temperatures require farmers to use more water to grow the same amount of crops. Prolonged and severe droughts decrease available supplies. Wildfires are burning hotter and lasting longer. Fires bake the soil, reducing forests’ ability to hold water, increasing evaporation from barren land and compromising water supplies.
As a longtime observer of interstate water negotiations, I see a basic problem: In some cases, more water rights exist on paper than as wet water – even before factoring in shortages caused by climate change and other stresses. In my view, states should put at least as much effort into reducing water use as they do into litigation, because there are no guaranteed winners in water lawsuits.
Dry times in the West
The situation is most urgent in California and the Southwest, which currently face “extreme or exceptional” drought conditions. California’s reservoirs are half-empty at the end of the rainy season. The Sierra snowpack sits at 60% of normal. In March 2021, federal and state agencies that oversee California’s Central Valley Project and State Water Project – regional water systems that each cover hundreds of miles – issued “remarkably bleak warnings” about cutbacks to farmers’ water allocations.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact allocated 7.5 million acre-feet (one acre-foot is roughly 325,000 gallons) to California, Nevada and Arizona, and another 7.5 million acre-feet to Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. A treaty with Mexico secured that country 1.5 million acre-feet, for a total of 16.5 million acre-feet. However, estimates based on tree ring analysis have determined that the actual yearly flow of the river over the last 1,200 years is roughly 14.6 million acre-feet.
The inevitable train wreck has not yet happened, for two reasons. First, Lakes Mead and Powell – the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado – can hold a combined 56 million acre-feet, roughly four times the river’s annual flow.
Second, the Upper Basin states – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico – have never used their full allotment. Now, however, they want to use more water. Wyoming has several new dams on the drawing board. So does Colorado, which is also planning a new diversion from the headwaters of the Colorado River to Denver and other cities on the Rocky Mountains’ east slope.
Truth be told, that’s not a lot of water, and it would not exceed Utah’s unused allocation from the Colorado River. But the six other Colorado River Basin states have protested as though St. George were asking for their firstborn child.
Utah blinked. Having earlier insisted on an expedited pipeline review, the state asked federal officials on Sept. 24, 2020 to delay a decision. But Utah has not given up: In March 2021, Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill creating a Colorado River Authority of Utah, armed with a US$9 million legal defense fund, to protect Utah’s share of Colorado River water. One observer predicted “huge, huge litigation.”
Before Utah takes the precipitous step of appealing to the Supreme Court under the court’s original jurisdiction over disputes between states, it might explore other solutions. Water conservation and reuse make obvious sense in St. George, where per-person water consumption is among the nation’s highest.
St. George could emulate its neighbor, Las Vegas, which has paid residents up to $3 per square foot to rip out lawns and replace them with native desert landscaping. In April 2021 Las Vegas went further, asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw ornamental grass.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that the Las Vegas metropolitan area has eight square miles of “nonfunctional turf” – grass that no one ever walks on except the person who cuts it. Removing it would reduce the region’s water consumption by 15%.
Water rights litigation is fraught with uncertainty. Just ask Florida, which thought it had a strong case that Georgia’s water diversions from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin were harming its oyster fishery downstream.
That case extended over 20 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ended the final chapter in April 2021. The court used a procedural rule that places the burden on plaintiffs to provide “clear and convincing evidence.” Florida failed to convince the court, and walked away with nothing.
A showdown is looming on the Colorado River. The river’s existing management guidelines are set to expire in 2026. The states that draw water from it are about to undertake a new round of negotiations over the river’s future, while it’s facing worsening dry conditions due in part to rising temperatures.
That means everyone with an interest in the river’s future — tribes, environmentalists, developers, business groups, recreation advocates — is hoping a new round of talks will bring certainty to existing water supplies and demands.
The table at which those deals will be hammered out is beginning to take shape. The federal government, mostly in the form of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the seven basin states hold the greatest power in determining what will be up for debate, what will be left out, and whose voices are listened to.
To prepare for the talks, and to coalesce around a set of priorities, leaders in the individual states are attempting to settle their internal issues before coming to that broader negotiating table. We reached out to leaders in three of those states to learn how they’re preparing:
In Utah, all eyes are pointing toward the state’s southwest corner. That’s where the proposed Lake Powell pipeline would transport water from the Colorado River’s second largest reservoir and deposit it near the fast-growing communities of Washington County.
The proposed pipeline is shaping up to be an important bargaining chip in the state’s overall Colorado River negotiation strategy.
Utah’s pursuit of the project has also led the six other states in the watershed — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona — to raise serious concerns…
In Arizona, water from the Colorado River enters the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal, and becomes a ribbon of blue that winds through miles of arid desert to reach the cities of Phoenix and Tucson, where it supplies homes, gardens, businesses, agriculture and golf courses.
Under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, Arizona is already taking cuts to its CAP supply. If current projections hold, those cuts will increase nearly three-fold next year, said Ted Cooke, the project’s general manager.
“So 512,000 acre-feet coming out of the CAP supply is about a third — 30% to a third. That’s a lot,” Cooke said.
Arizona could lose a lot more water if the levels in Lake Mead keep dropping. The state’s junior rights mean its Colorado River supply is more vulnerable than others. With drought plans in place now, Arizona is getting good practice at reining in its uses and finding flexibility as supplies shrink, he said…
The Colorado River starts as a modest-sized stream high up in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. As the river flows through the Southwest, it picks up enough water from its tributaries to supply 40 million people across the seven basin states and Mexico.
About 70% of the river’s flow comes from Colorado’s Western Slope. That fact alone leads water officials in the state to feel protective of the river, said Colorado Water Conservation Board director Becky Mitchell. She also sits on the Upper Colorado River Commission.
“First and foremost, I think it’s important, as Colorado’s commissioner, that we’re looking at protecting our legal entitlement on the Colorado River and protecting our state’s waters for those who depend on it,” Mitchell said.
Leading up to this new round of negotiations, Upper Basin leaders, like Mitchell, have been under pressure to consider implementing what’s referred to as a “demand cap.” In theory, it could be one half of a “Grand Bargain,” a concept that’s been in the Colorado River management ether for years.
Water demands on the river in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico have been flat since the late 1980s. Putting a hard limit on future uses would give water planners throughout the entire basin more certainty, and could appease downstream users from ever issuing a dreaded Compact Call on the river. But Mitchell said that much buzzed-about concept is a non-starter.
FromThe Associated Press (Sophia Eppolito and Felicia Fonseca):
As persistent drought and climate change threaten the Colorado River, several states that rely on the water acknowledge they likely won’t get what they were promised a century ago.
But not Utah.
Republican lawmakers approved an entity that could push for more of Utah’s share of water as seven Western states prepare to negotiate how to sustain a river serving 40 million people. Critics say the legislation, which the governor still must sign, could strengthen Utah’s effort to complete a billion-dollar pipeline from a dwindling reservoir that’s a key indicator of the river’s health.
Other states have had similar entities for decades, but Utah’s timing raised questions about its commitment to conservation and finding a more equitable way of surviving with less.
“There’s a massive disconnect all centered around climate change,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, which opposed the legislation. “The other six basin states know the Colorado River is dropping, and they know they have to decrease their usage, while Utah is running around in this fantasy.”
The six members of the Colorado River Authority of Utah would oversee the state’s negotiations on the drought plan and other rules that expire in 2026. Opponents worry parts of the legislation would allow the authority to avoid scrutiny by keeping some documents secret and permitting closed meetings.
House Speaker Brad Wilson said Utah will pursue conservation, but that alone won’t meet the needs of one of the nation’s fastest-growing states. Utah is entitled to the water under longstanding agreements among the states…
The bill comes six months after the other states rebuked Utah’s plan to build an underground pipeline that would transport billions of gallons of water 140 miles (225 kilometers) from Lake Powell to a region near St. George, Utah, close to the Arizona border. Other states, such as Colorado and Wyoming, also are pursuing projects to shore up their water supply.
Water experts worry Utah, which experienced its driest year ever in 2020, is banking on water that might not be available and could further deplete Lake Powell. Utah is one of the…upper basin states that get their share of water based on percentages of what’s available but historically haven’t used it all. The lower basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — get specific amounts that are subject to cuts.
Utah plans to tap 400,000 acre-feet of water on top of the 1 million acre-feet it typically uses.
Sustaining Lake Mead for the benefit of downstream water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin has been a key objective of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. (Source: Lighthawk via The Water Desk)
The “bathtub ring” at Lake Powell evidences lower flows coming into the reservoir. Federal officials are making emergency releases from upper basin reservoirs to prop up levels and Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydroelectric power. CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM
FromS&P Global Market Intelligence (Richard Martin):
In an era of perennial [aridification], when the future of the Colorado River watershed, the lifeline of the U.S. Southwest, is the subject of fierce debate in state capitols across the region, the idea of bringing more than 26 billion gallons of water a year to a community of fewer than 200,000 people on the edge of the Mojave Desert strikes many as folly. To officials in Washington County, of which St. George is the county seat, though, it is a critical resource for the future.
Currently the county has one primary source of water, the Virgin River, said Todd Adams, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, and more will be needed in the coming decades.
“They only have one water source, and they have potential vulnerabilities with the Virgin River,” Adams said in a recent interview. “They need a second reliable source.”
What’s more, St. George, a bedroom community about 120 miles from Las Vegas with more than a dozen golf courses, lavish resorts and a high percentage of retirees, is expected to continue to grow rapidly through mid-century. To serve all those new arrivals, and all those fairways, more water will have to be imported, say local and state officials.
“Based on the population growth projections for Washington County through 2060, it’s expected to triple in size to over 500,000,” said Adams. “And with that growth, additional water sources will be needed.”
The problem is that taking water from one part of the Colorado River watershed diminishes the water available for other parts. And long before St. George reaches its ultimate population level, there may not be enough to go around…
Approved by the Utah state legislature in 2006, the Lake Powell Pipeline has become one of what opponents and environmentalists have dubbed “zombie water projects”: proposals for diversion and transportation in the Colorado River watershed that face significant opposition and may never get built, but that refuse to die.
The pipeline was originally pitched as a source of water and power generation. The initial plan called for a large hydropower generating station along the route and a reservoir for pumped energy storage, but those elements were scrapped to reduce the environmental impact of the overall system, according to Karry Rathje, a spokesperson for the Washington County Water Conservation District. The line will still include six smaller inline hydropower facilities, to manage the water pressure and to reduce the electricity load from the pipeline on the regional grid. Those stations will total 85,000 MWh of generation annually, at full capacity; the full project will consume around 317,500 MWh, making it a net consumer of 232,500 MWh a year.
Reducing the amount of water in Lake Powell, though, could affect electricity production at the two major downstream hydro stations on the Colorado, at Glen Canyon Dam below Lake Powell, built in 1964, with 1,312 MW of generation capacity, and the two plants at Hoover Dam, built in 1936, with a combined capacity 2,078 MW, below Lake Mead. Both dams have become symbols of the 20th-century conquest of the Southwest and of the human depredation of the Colorado River ecosystem. Glen Canyon, in particular, was controversial from its conception; environmentalists today loudly demand its removal…
Together, the two dams produce enough electricity to feed roughly 630,000 homes across the region. Because hydropower generation is dependent on the volume of water stored in the reservoirs, as the levels of lakes Mead and Powell fall, electricity production will follow. Lake Powell has been below its average annual elevation every year in this century, according to data collected by Western Resource Advocates; in 2018 the difference was more than 30 feet.
Electricity production from all three facilities has fallen slightly in recent years, and water experts believe the future could be far worse.
“Higher temperatures and altered precipitation patterns” — i.e., the effect of global climate change — are expected to reduce streamflows in the basin by up to 11% by 2075, according to a 2013 white paper by Aaron Thiel of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Water Policy. “These factors, combined with increased summer evaporation rates, could reduce reservoir storage by as much 10-13 percent, and ultimately reduce electricity generation by 16-19 percent in the Colorado River Basin.”
Reduced electricity from hydropower could be only one of the obstacles facing big water-diversion projects like the LPP, as policymakers face the new drier, hotter era in the Southwest.
Governed by a complex web of agreements and water rights stemming from the Colorado River Compact of 1922, water use in the basin has long outstripped the actual water available. As the climate warms that gap is sure to expand.
A 2017 paper in the journal Water Resources Research, by Bradley Udall of Colorado State University and Jonathan Overpeck of the Colorado River Research Group, found that “As temperatures increase in the 21st century due to continued human emissions of greenhouse gasses, additional temperature‐induced flow losses [in the Colorado River] will occur.” Those losses could exceed 20% below the 20th-century average flow by mid‐century and 35% by 2100.
And they could be devastating to the region’s economy. According to a 2014 study that was produced by Arizona State University’s Seidman Research Institute and commissioned by Business for Water Stewardship, a non-profit organization, the Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs across the seven states of the basin. Water from the river is essential to at least half the gross economic product in each of those states, including 65% in New Mexico and 87% in Nevada, the economists found. A drop in available water of only 10% would endanger some $143 billion in economic activity in a year.
Businesses everywhere are increasingly vulnerable to the risks presented by inadequate supplies of clean water. The 2019 Global Water Report produced by CDP, a nonprofit organization focused on the environmental impacts of companies, investors and governments, found that, worldwide, the total business value at risk due to water shortages and water pollution reached $425 billion. In the U.S. Southwest, that risk grows more acute with each year of persistent drought…
Despite being identified in a June 2020 executive order from the Trump administration as among the infrastructure projects that should be pushed quickly through the environmental review process, the LPP has sparked near-universal opposition from the other six states of the basin. That opposition crescendoed in September with a letter to the Secretary of the Interior from a coalition of state water agencies and governors’ offices in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming demanding that the project be paused or abandoned…
In southern Utah that debate is complicated by a range of factors with origins in the economics and politics of water in the West.
People in Washington County use around 300 gallons of water per capita per day, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Geological Survey, more than twice the national average and 90 gallons more per capita than residents of Las Vegas, a city of nearly 650,000. And they get their water cheaply: water rates in the county average around $1.50 per 1,000 gallons, less than half of what Las Vegans pay and way below the $5/1,000 gal. that Denverites pay.
Zach Renstrom, the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservation District, disputes those numbers, saying that the state of Utah includes evaporation from reservoirs and re-used water in its water-use calculations…
Still, simple economics indicate that if people in southwest Utah paid more for their water, they would use less.
“Water use in Utah is subsidized, mostly by property taxes,” said Gabriel Lozada, an associate professor of economics at the University of Utah who has extensively modeled the Lake Powell Pipeline project. “So people in urban areas don’t see what the right price of water is. Unsurprisingly, Utah urban dwellers use a lot more water. The price of water we face is way way too low.”
And Washington County residents will eventually have to pay for the new pipeline, after the state fronts the construction costs. That, says Lozada, in turn would raise water rates — thus obviating the need for the pipeline as residents use less water. The possibility of rising prices leading to more conservation, and thus less demand, has not factored, at least publicly, into the developers’ considerations.
“In many scenarios it’s possible for Washington County to raise rates enough to pay back the cost of the pipeline,” said Lozada, “but they’d be so high that demand for water would be so low that no one would want to buy the water in the pipeline.”
Renstrom claims that Lozada and other opponents have an underlying agenda…
The argument over the Lake Powell Pipeline is a proxy for a larger debate about the future of the economy and society in the West, between competing visions of unlimited growth and boundless prosperity, on the one hand, and a new era of scarcity, conservation and more modest expectations on the other.
The biggest consumer of water in the Southwest, by far, is not cities like St. George but big agriculture. Since the early 20th century farmers have been growing water-intensive crops like alfalfa and cotton in the desert, using groundwater and Colorado River water. That era could be coming to a close. As the region urbanizes, converting farmland to towns, average water use goes down. Even a golf course uses less water than an alfalfa farm. A 2015 report on Utah’s future water resources and needs by the state’s Legislative Audit Division found that the Utah Division of Water Resources “understates the growth in the water supply when estimating Utah’s future water needs.”
“The division has not attempted to identify the incremental growth in supply that will occur as municipalities develop additional sources of water,” the auditors wrote. “That additional supply will mainly come from agriculture water that is converted to municipal use as farmland is developed.”
At the same time, municipal water districts in the West, such as Las Vegas, are actually using less water per capita as their populations grow…
“The widespread presumption that population growth means growing water demand drives much of the politics of water planning in the Colorado River Basin,” write Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservancy District, and John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, in their 2019 history of Colorado River management, Science Be Dammed. “But it is wrong. Simply put, we are consistently using less water. In almost all the municipal areas served with Colorado River water, water use is going down, not up, despite population growth.”
That means the fundamental presumption at the heart of the Lake Powell Pipeline — that in order to grow, Washington County needs more water from the river — is likewise flawed. And it offers hope that as the climate warms and the region dries, it’s possible to forge a new relationship between the Colorado River and the communities that depend on it.
“We have been getting it wrong for a century,” write Kuhn and Fleck. Time to get it right is growing short.
Last month, the Utah Division of Water Resources reported that water conservation efforts have helped meet growing population needs while postponing the need for water development projects.
While state officials primarily referred to water projects in northern Utah, the southwest corner of the state has also seen its own successes with conservation efforts during an ongoing drought, according to local water officials…
The state has launched several water conservation projects in recent years that Adams gave credit to Utah’s citizens and private sectors for embracing…
State conservation efforts have included the creation of regional water conservation goals and plans, water efficiency projects, the “Slow the flow” information campaign, rebates and the metering of secondary water sources…
In Southern Utah, Zachary Renstrom, the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said the district has seen its own success with water conservation over the years thanks to collective efforts of the community. Much of that success, Renstrom said, has come through educating the public…
According to the latest data available from the Utah Division of Water Resources, Washington County’s per capita water use decreased 7.5% from 2010 to 2018…
Under regional water conservation goals – which includes Washington and Kane counties – the region is slated to reduce water use 14%, with 262 gallons per capita by 2030 and ultimately 22%, with 237 gallons per capita by 2065. The regional plan uses 305 gallons per capita per day as a baseline.
The water district either oversees, or is a partner in, several water conservation efforts and programs…
This includes demonstration gardens like the Red Hills Desert Garden, water-efficient landscape workshops, local media campaigns, the “Save the Towel” partnership with local hotels and spas, requiring water conservation plans from municipal customers, water-smart rebates and several other programs…
Has water conservation postponed the need for the Lake Powell Pipeline?
As with other water projects, some question whether conservation efforts in Southern Utah delayed the need for the Lake Powell Pipeline. Renstrom said they have but won’t for much longer.
“We’ve gotten to the point that we’ve conserved a big chunk of water already, and we’re still 10 years out from the pipeline,” Renstrom said. “When we start projecting 10 years out, it shows we’re going to get to a critical situation that will require us to have the Lake Powell Pipeline.”
Recently state and local water officials asked the Bureau of Reclamation to slow its timeline for the potential approval of the pipeline due to concerns raised by neighboring states that also rely on the Colorado River for water. The additional time will be used to review concerns and address them in a revised environmental study related to the project…
Drought and climate change
Pipeline aside, Renstrom said the climate is expected to become increasing dry with monsoonal rains being reduced to short-lived storms that drop large amounts of rain like the one that hit St. George in August.
“Yes, we are planning for a drier climate … and that’s one of the reasons we’re so adamant about our projects and making sure we have the resilience to withstand fluctuations in weather and the climate.”
The region has been in a drought for 16 of the last 20 years, Karry Rathje, a spokeswoman for the water district, said, adding that despite that, the county has been able to conserve water while a drying climate has gradually decreased supply…
However, both Renstrom and Rathje have said water conservation and the need for a secondary source of water for the county need to be pursued hand-in-hand in order to secure future water needs.
2020 has been a tough year for some of the Colorado River basin’s long-planned, most controversial water projects.
Proposals to divert water in New Mexico, Nevada and Utah have run up against significant legal, financial and political roadblocks this year. But while environmental groups have cheered the setbacks, it’s still unclear whether these projects have truly hit dead ends or are simply waiting in the wings.
The watershed’s ongoing aridification, with record-breaking hot and dry conditions over the last 20 years, and lessened federal financial support for large-scale water projects is adding more pressure on projects that attempt to divert water to fast-growing communities or slow the purchase of agricultural water supplies.
Gila River. Photo credit: Dennis O’Keefe via American Rivers
Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia
In New Mexico, a “solid plan” fails to materialize
Introduced in 2004, when Arizona settled tribal water rights with the Gila River Indian Community, the diversion was billed as a way to provide much needed water supplies for four, mostly rural New Mexican counties.
“The most recent plan was to build this diversion in the Cliff-Gila Valley,” Paskus said. “And to provide water to irrigators,” like farmers and ranchers.
What propelled the project forward was a federal subsidy to cover some of the costs associated with planning and building. Thorny questions over the project’s total cost, its eventual operation and the financial burden of those who would receive the water were present from the start, Paskus said, but the idea of leaving federal dollars unspent kept the effort alive for more than a decade.
“But there was never a really solid plan of how it would be built, or how it would be paid for,” she said. [ed. emphasis mine]
Failure to come up with a plan finally sank the proposal in June this year. The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, which had thrown its weight behind the project five years earlier, voted to stop spending money on environmental reviews related to the diversion. Roughly $17 million had already been spent on engineering plans and consultants over the years…
Legal troubles for the Las Vegas pipeline
A similar drama played out in Nevada earlier this year. For decades water providers in Las Vegas have pursued a $15 billion plan to pump groundwater from northern Nevada, and pipe it 300 miles south to the fast-growing metro area in the Mojave Desert…
The Southern Nevada Water Authority, the agency pushing for the pipeline, hit legal hurdles this past spring. Just as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold, a judge denied some water rights associated with the project. A month later the water authority chose not to appeal and tabled the pipeline altogether…
Litigation threat puts Utah pipeline on notice
Rising costs have long been at the heart of criticism over the Lake Powell pipeline, a proposal to spend upwards of $2 billion to build a 140-mile water pipeline from the beleaguered Colorado River reservoir to rapidly expanding communities in southwest Utah.
But you can now add political and potential legal troubles to the mix of factors that could put the pipeline’s future in question. And seeing the successes in other parts of the Southwest are giving Utah’s environmental advocates hope that it too can be derailed completely.
“The state of Utah is proposing to divert Colorado River water down the Lake Powell pipeline simply to use more of its water rights out of the Colorado River,” said Zach Frankel, director of the Utah Rivers Council, one of the groups opposed to the pipeline.
But opposition to the pipeline doesn’t end with environmentalists. Political pressure from other users on the river is slowing it down. In September, in the midst of a new environmental review from the Bureau of Reclamation, every other state that relies on the river besides Utah teamed up to say the project has too many unresolved issues to move forward…
The lesson here, according to Paskus, is that many of these proposals rely on outdated ideas about our relationship to water in the arid West, and that plans will have to change as the region warms.
The state cited as a reason the 14,000 public comments submitted in response to a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) released in June.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was supposed to have the final EIS out by November, with a final decision in January, but that ambitious time frame is expected to be pushed back while a “supplemental” analysis is conducted, according to Todd Adams, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
“The extension will allow more time to consider the comments and complete further analysis, which will contribute to a more comprehensive draft and final EIS,” he said. “When you think about the sheer volume of comments, it’s going to take some time.”
Among those comments was a bombshell request by the six other states that rely on the Colorado River for water to refrain from completing the EIS until the states work out their differences regarding the legality of diverting the water across major drainages…
“The Bureau [of Reclamation] comes out with a draft that says, ‘We [in Washington County] need another source of water,’ but they don’t say why. The EIS failed to consider a water conservation alternative,” said Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council
Frankel and other pipeline critics speculated that commenters or higher-ups in the Interior Department had identified “fatal flaws” in the draft study that could render the pipeline’s approval vulnerable to legal challenges that are sure to follow.
“The delay of the environmental review affirms that Nevada and the other Colorado River Basin States are having an impact in this process against Utah,” said Tick Segerblom, who represents Las Vegas suburbs on the Clark County Commission. “With climate change and drought threatening us every day, we must be vigilant until the end. We cannot let our water supply be sucked away for golf courses and green lawns in southern Utah.”
In a joint letter Tuesday, water officials from Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming asked Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to “refrain from issuing a Final Environmental Impact Statement of Record of Decision regarding the Lake Powell Pipeline until such time as the Seven Basin States and the Department of the Interior are able to reach consensus regarding outstanding legal and operational concerns raised by the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline project.”
If the approval process for the Lake Powell Pipeline is not halted so concerns can be addressed, the letter states it may result in “multi-year litigation” that could also complicate future interstate cooperation concerning use of the Colorado River…
Despite a potential threat of litigation if their concerns are not resolved, Brock Belnap, an assistant general manager at the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said Thursday the water district hopes issues can be resolved without too much disturbance to the pipeline’s timetable.
“We appreciate that they express they want to resolve the issues they may have and we are pledging likewise to work with them to address the issue they may have in regard to the Law of the River in the Colorado River,” Belnap said…
An example of the issues some of the other states have is that Washington County is geographically located in the Lower Colorado River Basin, Belnap said, and the compacts state that water rights cannot be transferred from the one basin to the other. However, Utah is counted among the Upper Colorado River Basin States, and the compacts also say each state has a right to develop its allocated portion of the Colorado River within its boundaries, he said…
The government received more than 10,000 public comments on an environmental impact report for the proposed pipeline before Tuesday’s deadline, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Marlon Duke said. The Interior Department, which oversees the bureau, is expected to issue a final report, which could bring the project a step closer to approval.
Although the proposal isolates Utah from the other states that rely on the river, it’s committed to bringing water it’s entitled to tap to those who need it, said Todd Adams, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
He said the project has been under review for about 20 years, and many other projects have gone through federal review while states worked through unresolved issues…
Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, attended the meeting and asked if the committee planned to halt the project due to the concerns expressed by the other states in Tuesday’s letter.
Utah’s largest new water diversion in Colorado River Basin ignites a modern water war, results in veiled threat of litigation by other states.
In a stunning letter to the Secretary of Interior, a coalition of state water agencies, large water suppliers, and Governors’ representatives of Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico are asking that Utah’s controversial Lake Powell Pipeline be placed on hold.
The shocking move demonstrates how out of touch the Utah Division of Water Resources and its lobbying partners have been in understanding the impacts of climate change on the Colorado River and of the Pipeline’s impact to the water supplies of seven states. The letter notes:
“As Governors’ representatives of the Colorado River Basin States of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming, we write to respectfully request that your office refrain from issuing a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) or Record of Decision (ROD) regarding the Lake Powell Pipeline until such time as the seven Basin States and the Department of the Interior (Interior) are able to reach consensus regarding outstanding legal and operational concerns raised by the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline project.”
The strong letter of opposition was signed by representatives of the Colorado River Board of California, the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Colorado River Commission of Nevada and the State of Wyoming.
They joined scores of groups and many hundreds of people across seven states submitting comments of opposition to the Lake Powell Pipeline to the Provo Office of the Bureau of Reclamation for the DEIS. The project drew criticism across the American West because the Colorado River has dropped dramatically with reservoir levels at 50% of capacity in an era of water cuts and climate change.
This is a historic first for 6 of the 7 Colorado River Basin States to reprimand another state on what they see as:
“Serious legal concerns relating to the 1922 and 1948 Compacts, including the accounting of the Lake Powell Pipeline diversion and other operational issues under the Law of the River.”
Utah ignited the water war with other Colorado River Basin states by pushing the Lake Powell Pipeline even without a demonstrable need for the water. Utah water officials justified the Pipeline with a high municipal water use of over 300 gallons per person per day, while other cities like Las Vegas, Denver, Los Angeles and Phoenix have water use between 120 and 150 gpcd, or less.
In a separate letter, the Southern Nevada Water Authority noted:
“What the Utah Board of Water Resources characterizes as extreme conservation efforts and impractical conservation, are actually commonly applied in an efficient and effective manner in many other communities.”
“This project is water hoarding at its finest. Utah wants to cash in on its ‘water entitlement’ under the Colorado River Compact so badly that it is willing to upset the fragile balance of a basin that supports 40 million people, recreational and agricultural economies, tribal lands and cultures, and irreplaceable landscapes and ecosystems.” — said Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians
“Secretary Bernhardt should listen to the six Colorado River states that just asked him to delay any decision regarding the Utah’s unnecessary and harmful proposed Lake Powell Pipeline. All six states, especially Arizona, would be hurt by Utah’s attempted water grab from the drought- stricken Colorado River.” — said Douglas Wolf, Senior Attorney, Center for Biological Diversity
“It is not often where grassroots groups and government water buffaloes are aligned on bad water projects, but the Lake Powell Pipeline is such a boondoggle that opposition is now widespread. We hope St. George finally begins to follow the lead of communities like Las Vegas, Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix and others that have implemented world-class conservation programs.” — said Kyle Roerink, Executive Director of the Great Basin Water Network
A coalition of groups also submitted extensive comments opposing the embattled Lake Powell Pipeline. The coalition has requested the Bureau of Reclamation explore other less expensive and environmentally destructive means for meeting the water needs of residents of Washington County in southwest Utah. This is also an Alternative identified as missing from the DEIS in the letter sent to the Secretary of the Interior by the 6 State Coalition. The 224 page letter can be found HERE.
The letter was submitted by Utah Rivers Council, Save the Colorado, WildEarth Guardians, Great Basin Water Network, Living Rivers, Glen Canyon Institute, Utah Audubon Council, SUWA, Conserve Southwest Utah, Citizen’s Water Advocacy Group of Arizona, Sunrise Movement of Las Vegas, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, San Diego Coast Keeper and Grand Staircase Escalante Partners. It details flaws in Reclamation’s environmental review including challenging the basis and need for the project itself, the lack of examining more cost-effective and less destructive alternatives, and its failure to analyze and mitigate the environmental harms that would arise if the project goes forward.
The Lake Powell Pipeline is one of the projects identified by the Trump Administration–in its June 4, 2020, Executive Order No. 13927–to be fast tracked through the environmental review process.
The six Colorado River Basin states that do not have the letters “U-T-A-H” in their names just sent a remarkable letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt with a plea – don’t let the rush toward federal approval of Utah’s proposed Lake Powell Pipeline blow up the Colorado River Basin’s framework of collaborative rather than confrontational problem solving:
The six-state letter, the product of intense discussions in recent weeks among the states (including the one with “U-T-A-H” in its name) takes great pains to point to an important historical norm in Colorado Basin governance – states don’t mess in other states’ internal water use decisions. But in asking to move Upper Basin water to a Lower Basin community, Utah has crossed a line that the other states simply couldn’t let pass.
Charismatic is hardly the best word to describe the humpback chub, a fish with a frowny eel face jammed onto a sportfish body in a way that suggests evolution has a sense of humor. Nor did tastiness build a fan base for this “trash fish” across its natural habitat throughout the Colorado River Basin. But, in 1973, the humpback chub became famous by winning federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Researchers in the Grand Canyon now spend weeks at a time, several times a year, monitoring humpback chub, which has become central to an ecosystem science program with implications for millions of westerners who rely on Colorado River water…
…the humpback chub’s experience is surprisingly meaningful now, as its river habitat deep in the iconic, redrock canyon becomes the subject of new scrutiny. New negotiations about the Colorado’s future begin later this year in a world that has fundamentally changed since foundational water agreements were drawn up, back when the river was flush and the entire basin was treated like a giant network of irrigation ditches.
Now, nearly a century after the original Colorado River Compact was forged, river stakeholders also find themselves in alien terrain as they try to reconcile an old management scheme with new realities, such as tribal rights, environmental protection and, especially, climate change.
‘The Pie is Getting Smaller.’
About 40 million people in seven states and Mexico rely on the Colorado for irrigation, drinking and even hydropower. Most of the water is used in agriculture to irrigate more than 5.5 million acres.
Meanwhile, the Colorado is shrinking. Average river flows have dropped 19 percent over the last century. About half of the decline is blamed on global warming, and scientists project that unchecked climate change could nearly triple flow reductions by the century’s end. Meanwhile, basin tribes want to tap into allocations they haven’t been able to use because they lack means to store and pipe the water.
And thanks to research mandated by the 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act, the fate of the chub and the canyon ecology are factors that will also need to be considered in the yet-to-be-scheduled negotiations. Ultimately, everyone’s worried about losing their share of the Colorado River, of going home with partly empty buckets because there’s just not enough water to go around…
Water Rights: A Dramatic Struggle
The U.S. Interior Department must begin updating plans for managing the river, and convene all the states that rely on it, by the end of the year under the Colorado River Interim Guidelines, one of the agreements that determine how much water is allocated for each stakeholder to use or develop.
Like everything about Colorado River management, it’s legally complex and controlled by a deeply entrenched power structure involving the seven basin states, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and established users in agriculture and municipalities that have assigned positions in the line to the spigot—spots known as “water rights.”
But even the guidelines, which were implemented in 2007, have fallen short in the new, drier West. Last year, Congress approved a pair of Drought Contingency Plans, requiring varying levels of conservation to be implemented, state-by-state, whenever water levels sank too low at Lake Powell or Lake Mead, the ginormous storage reservoirs for Colorado River water. Both lakes dropped to emergency levels within months.
The original compact guarantees certain water volumes to the lower basin states—Arizona, Nevada and California. The upper basin states—Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico—historically haven’t used all of their allocations but plan to develop theirs, too. For example, Utah is pressing forward with a multibillion-dollar project to pipe 86,000 acre feet halfway across the state to the fast-growing southwestern part of the state. A diversion of water from the Utah-Wyoming border to Colorado’s populous Front Range—killed and resurrected so many times it’s called the “zombie pipeline”—would use 55,000 acre feet.
Still, Schmidt said: “I am actually very hopeful. I believe that climate change and the real need to renegotiate agreements have brought us together.”
The role of global warming as a motivator for revisiting the water allocations probably can’t be overstated. The average temperature in the Southwest has already risen twice as fast as the global average and future temperatures are projected to increase as much as 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.
Climate change is just one reason Daryl Vigil, water director for the Jicarilla Apache Nation and interim director of the Ten Tribes Partnership, is determined to see tribes at the table in the next round of negotiations. He says the 29 basin tribes have priority rights to about 20 percent of the Colorado River’s water but were snubbed by current users from past Colorado River talks.
“The system is going to protect itself, to perpetuate what it already does because it benefits those who already are doing okay,” he said. “Familiar story, right?”
The exclusion, which amounts to environmental racism, means tens of thousands of indigenous people have not been able to access their water and tap into the associated economic opportunities, such as selling their water rights and using the water for energy projects, he said. Instead, other stakeholders are using tribal water without paying for it.
Another reason the tribes should be part of the decision making, he said, is because of their experience—thousands of years of dealing with water scarcity in the region—and their cultural views about the environment belong in any critical conversations about the Colorado. Otherwise the future looks “pretty catastrophic to us,” Vigil told High Country News this spring.
“When we start talking about climate change,” he said, “absolutely pushing to make sure that we’re thinking about a mindset of how we fit into Nature, rather than Nature fitting into us.”
[John] Fleck said the people deciding the basin’s fate need information about the tradeoffs. And data from Grand Canyon research will help them understand not only how to preserve a “sacred space” in American culture but also how to continue relying on a resource essential to the West.
The public on Tuesday had its first opportunity to pepper officials with questions about the Lake Powell Pipeline’s recently-released draft environmental impact statement, a 313-page document from the Bureau of Reclamation examining how the controversial project could impact a myriad of resources in several scenarios.
That draft statement, which will be made final later this year after a period of public comment, looks at two proposed alignments of the approximately 140-mile pipeline that roughly straddles the Utah and Arizona borders.
It also weighs one option where no pipeline is built, and another where water in the Virgin River Basin — Washington County’s only source of water — is managed and stretched to support substantial population growth over the next several decades, possibly to the detriment of the river itself…
Among the questions posed by the approximately 130 participants who logged onto the meeting, held entirely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many centered on issues of climate change, the project’s impact on the already heavily-taxed Colorado River and how the pipeline would impact sensitive cultural and ecological sites along its 140-mile corridor…
One person asked Rick Baxter, Program Manager with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, if the agency considered “discouraging” the projected population growth driving the need for the pipeline.
Baxter, whose agency is impartial to whether the project gets approved or not, deferred that question to local and state policymakers.
Out of the two alignments of the pipeline being weighed, one, deemed the “Southern Alignment,” is favored by the bureau.
That alignment would begin near the Glen Canyon Dam on the west side of Lake Powell, cross in and out of Utah and Arizona, skirt around the southern edge of the Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation and terminate at Sand Hollow Reservoir.
Its detour around the reservation means the Southern Alignment also has to pass through the Kanab Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern, a unique and fragile habitat for the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.
The Bureau of Land Management’s resource management plan for Kanab Creek currently does not allow for the pipeline to pass through there, so officials would need to amend that plan.
The other alignment roughly follows the Southern Alignment, but passes through the Kaibab Paiute Reservation and avoids the Kanab Creek protected area.
Baxter said the pros and cons of the two alignments are comparable; one doesn’t clearly stand above the other. But the reason the Southern Alignment is favored is because the project’s proponents haven’t been able to reach an agreement with the tribe.
Baxter was also pressed on why a “conservation alternative,” which would implement an aggressive conservation plan and develop local water resources, wasn’t considered.
The biggest reason a plan like that was passed over is it didn’t tap into a second water source outside the Virgin River Basin, which is one of the primary goals of the pipeline project — an effort to protect the water supply in the event something were to happen to one of the sources, Baxter explained.
“You can conserve your way to a certain point,” he said. “And even if you were to try to conserve your way to a certain point, at some point, if anything ever happened to that one source water managers would look for multiple different ways to protect the folks they’re providing water for.”
As the Colorado basin grapples with climate change, shortages and declining reservoir levels, we revisit one of the critical legal milestones in the evolution of “the Law of the River.”
As Utah pushes forward with its proposed Lake Powell Pipeline – an attempt move over 80,000 acre feet per year of its Upper Colorado River Basin allocation to communities in the Lower Basin – it is worth revisiting one of the critical legal milestones in the evolution of what we have come to call “the Law of the River.”
The division of the great river’s watershed into an “Upper Basin” and “Lower Basin”, with separate water allocations to each, was the masterstroke that allowed the successful completion of the Colorado River Compact in 1922. But the details of how that separation plays out in water management today were not solidified until a little-discussed U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1955, in the early years of the decade-long legal struggle known as “Arizona v. California.”
Most, if not all, of the small army of lawyers, engineers, water managers, board members, academics, tribal officials, NGO representatives, and journalists now actively engaged in Colorado River issues are familiar with the 1963 Arizona v. California Supreme Court decision. It was Arizona’s great legal victory over California that cleared the road for the Congressional authorization and construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP). Many in the ranks are also quite familiar with Simon H. Rifkind, the court-appointed Special Master who conducted lengthy hearings and worked his way through a mountain of case briefs and exhibits before writing his 1960 master’s report that set the stage for the court’s decision. Few of us, however, are familiar with George I. Haight. Haight was the first special master in the case, appointed on June 1st, 1954. He died unexpectedly in late July 1955. Two weeks before his death he made a critical decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court and set the basic direction of the case. Today, as the basin grapples with climate change, shortages, declining reservoir levels, and most recently, Utah’s quest to build the Lake Powell Pipeline exporting a portion of its Upper Basin water to the Lower Basin to meet future needs in the St. George area, Haight’s forgotten opinion looms large.
In late 1952 when Arizona filed the case, it was about disputed issues over the interpretation of both the Colorado River Compact and the Boulder Canyon Project Act. Among its claims for relief, Arizona asked the court to find that it was entitled to 3.8 million acre-feet under Articles III(a) & (b) of the compact (less a small amount for Lower Basin uses by New Mexico in the Gila River and Utah in the Virgin River drainages), that under the Boulder Canyon Project Act California was strictly limited to 4.4 million acre-feet per year, that its “stream depletion” theory of measuring compact apportionments be approved, and that evaporation off Lake Mead be assigned to each Lower Division state in proportion to their benefits from Lake Mead. California, of course, vigorously opposed Arizona’s claims. One of California’s first moves was to file a motion with Haight to bring into the case as “indispensable” parties the Upper Division states; Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. California’s logic was that the compact issues raised by Arizona impacted both basins and every basin state (history has shown California was right on).
The Upper Division states were desperately opposed to participating in the case. Backing the clock up to the early 1950s, these states, including Arizona, had successfully negotiated, ratified, and obtained Congressional approval for the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact. They were now actively seeking Congressional legislation for the Colorado River Storage Project Act (CRSPA), the federal law that would authorize Glen Canyon Dam (Lake Powell) and numerous other Upper Basin projects. Upper Basin officials feared that if they became actively involved in Arizona v. California, California’s powerful Congressional delegation would use it as an excuse to delay approval of CRSPA (as it had successfully done with the CAP). Thus, these states and their close ally, Arizona, opposed California’s motion.
The basis of their opposition was relatively simple; Under the compact, except for the Upper Basin’s obligations at Lee Ferry, the basins were separate hydrologic entities, the issues raised by Arizona were solely Lower Basin matters, and that Arizona was asking for nothing from the Upper Division states. Their strategy worked. In a July 11, 1955 opinion, Haight recommended California’s motion be denied. By a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court upheld his recommendation and, except for Utah and New Mexico as to their Lower Basin interests only, the Upper Division states were out of the case. The Upper Division states cheered the decision. Arizona’s crafty Mark Wilmer devised a new litigation strategy built on Haight’s logic and ultimately his successor, Simon Rifkind, ruled that there was no need to decide any issue related to the compact. For more details, see Science Be Dammed, Chapter 15.
In convincing Special Master Haight to deny California’s motion, Arizona and the Upper Division states turned him into an ardent fan of the Colorado River Compact. Haight opined “The compact followed years of controversy between the states involved. It was an act seemingly based on thorough knowledge by the negotiators. It must have been difficult of accomplishment. It was the product of real statesmanship.” In justifying his decision, he found “The Colorado River Compact evidences far seeing practical statesmanship. The division of the Colorado River System waters into Upper and Lower Basins was, and is, one of its most important features. It left to each Basin the solution to that Basin’s problems and did not tie to either Basin the intra-basin problems of the other.” A few pages later, he says “The Compact, by its terms, provides two separate groups in the Colorado River Basin. Each of these is independent in its sphere. The members of each group make the determinations respecting that group’s problems,” and finally “because by Article III of the Colorado River Compact there was apportioned to each basin a given amount of water, and it is impossible for the Upper Basin States to have any interest in water allocated to the Lower Basin States.”
Fifty five years later, how would Special Master Haight view the problems the Colorado River Basin is facing where climate change is impacting the water available to both basins, through the coordinated operation of Lakes Mead and Powell the basin’s drought contingency plans are interconnected, critical environmental resources in the Grand Canyon, located in the Lower Basin, are impacted by the Upper Basin’s Glen Canyon Dam, and most recently two states, New Mexico and Utah, have found it desirable to use a portion of each’s Upper Basin water in the Lower Basin? With one major exception, I think he would be pleased. Haight understood that through Article VI, the compact parties had a path to resolve their disputes and implement creative solutions. The first part of Article VI sets forth a formal approach where each state governor appoints a commissioner, the commissioners meet and negotiate a solution to the issue at hand and then take the solution back to their states for legislative ratification. This formal process has never been used, but luckily, Article VI also provides an alternative. The last sentence states “nothing herein contained shall prevent the adjustment of any such claim or controversy by any present method or by direct future legislative action of the interested states.” After Arizona refused to ratify the compact in the 1920s Colorado’s Delph Carpenter successfully used federal legislation to implement a six-state ratification strategy (the Boulder Canyon Project Act).
The exception that would concern Haight is Utah’s unilateral decision to transfer about 80,000 acre-feet of its Upper Basin water to the Lower Basin via the Lake Powell Pipeline. The LPP violates the basic rationale that Haight used to keep the Upper Basin out of Arizona v. California and for which Utah and its sister Upper Division states fought so hard. The project uses water apportioned for exclusive use in the Upper Basin, terms carefully defined by the compact negotiators, to solve a water supply problem in the Lower Basin.
Defenders of Utah’s may believe a precedent has already been set– the Navajo-Gallup Pipeline, which delivers 7,500 acre-feet of New Mexico’s Upper Basin water to the community of Gallup and areas of the eastern Navajo Nation. But if that is to be cited as a precedent, it comes with an important caveat. New Mexico addressed the compact issues through federal legislation with the participation and consent of the other basin states and stakeholders. Utah, by comparison, apparently believes federal legislation, and by implication the consent of others in the basin, is not needed.
In the face of climate change induced declining river flows and increased competition for the river’s water, there is no question that the basic compact ground rules devised by the negotiators a century ago will face increasing pressure. There will likely be more future projects and decisions that, like the LPP, will challenge the strict language of the compact. The question now facing the basin is how will this revisiting be accomplished? Will it be done in an open and transparent manner that engages not just the states, but a broad range of stakeholders and implemented through legislation (not easy in today’s world, as a practical matter it requires no opposition from any major party to get through the Senate) or by a series of unilateral decisions designed to benefit or advantage individual states or specific entities, but with no input or buy-in from the basin as a whole?
Click here for all the inside skinny and to read the EIS:
The public comment period for the Lake Powell Pipeline Project will close at 11:59 p.m. MDT on September 8, 2020
The Bureau of Reclamation, on behalf of the U.S. Department of the Interior, has issued a Notice of Availability of the draft Environmental Impact Statement/draft Resource Management Plan Amendment for the Lake Powell Pipeline Project, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The Department is seeking public comment on the draft EIS/draft RMPA during a 90-day public comment period that will close at 11:59 pm MDT on September 8, 2020.
State and local water officials are pleased with the results of the draft environmental impact statement, more commonly referred to as an EIS, while opponents of the project carry a different view.
“(This) is an important milestone because we can get a permit,” said Brock Belnap, an associate general manager at the Washington County Water Conservancy District overseeing the Lake Powell Pipeline project. “The law requires the federal government to study all the various impacts on the environment the project might affect.”
Based on those environmental impacts, the federal government must establish whether a proposed project is warranted…
“We’re very pleased that the environmental impact statement recognizes that Washington County has a need for the project,” Belnap said.
The EIS also finds Washington County is able to pay for the pipeline project as long as the projected growth continues, Belnap said…
There are two courses recommended for the Lake Powell Pipeline to take. One is the Southern Alternative and the other is the Highway Alternative. While both routes start at Lake Powell and end at Sand Hollow Reservoir, they also either pass through or close to lands held sacred by Native Americans in Arizona.
The Southern Alternative, which is the preferred alternative, travels south of the Kaibab Paiute Reservation along a preexisting utility corridor. The Highway Alternative would take the pipeline along Arizona 389, which cuts across the reservation…
The Kaibab Band stated in the supplement that the Lake Powell Pipeline will create an imbalance by “moving the Colorado River from where the creator placed it across a hundred miles of landscape and depositing it where it does not belong. … This action will make the river angry and confused, the results of which are unknown but clearly a source of imbalance in the world.”
There is currently a water rights change application before Utah’s state engineers that would allow just over 86,000 acre-feet of water from the Green River above the Flaming Gorge Reservoir to flow down to Lake Powell.
Utah already has rights to that water, Belnap said. If the application is approved, the point of diversion – the location where the state would be allowed to draw water from – would shift from the Green River to Lake Powell…
The Utah Rivers Council, along with over environmental advocacy groups, have sent petitions to Teresa Wilhelmsen, the state engineer, asking her to deny the application.
“Climate change is reducing the flows of the Colorado River because it’s reducing the snowpack of the entire Colorado River Basin,” Frankel said. “As the flows of the river drop, it means that there is less water available to divert. This draft EIS totally shirks the responsibility to determine whether there’s water available in the Colorado River to put in a pipeline.”
There are many peer-reviewed studies available that state there won’t be enough water in the Colorado River to support the pipeline due to climate change, Frankel said. Climate change data used in the draft EIS concerning the subject either ignores these studies or takes from a study that is at least a decade out of date, he said.
In 2002, Utah was reeling from four years of dry conditions that turned the state ‘’into a parched tinderbox,’’ as the Associated Press reported at the time. “Drought Could Last Another 1-2 years,” the headline proclaimed. Right on time, in 2004, the Salt Lake Tribune ran a similar article, on “Coming To Terms with Utah’s Six-Year Drought,” that was “believed to be the worst to strike the Southwest in half a millennium.”
Almost two decades later, the drought has raged on. In October 2019, the water supplier for St. George, a rapidly growing resort and retirement community in southwest Utah, released a statement declaring the city’s longest-ever dry spell: 122 days without rain.
A study published last month in the journal Science identified an emerging “megadrought” across all or parts of 11 western states and part of northern Mexico—a drought likely, with the influence of climate change, to be more severe and long-lasting than any since the 1500s. The area includes Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California and portions of Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.
This region is also experiencing explosive population growth—with Idaho, Nevada, Arizona and Utah topping the list of states with the highest percentage increase in residents from 2018 to 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For decades, these states and their mushrooming municipalities have been grappling with the twin concerns of rapid growth and dwindling water supply projections. Now, in the midst of an historic megadrought predicted to last many more years, the issue has grown increasingly urgent.
For the megadrought study, scientists analyzed tree rings from nearly 1,600 trees that had grown across the region over hundreds of years, says the study’s lead author, A. Park Williams, an associate research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Examining the rings under a microscope, the researchers could see when growth was slow, indicating time periods when the region was especially dry.
The authors identified megadroughts—droughts more severe and much longer than anything observed in the written record, says Williams—over the last 1200 years. The most recent was in the late 1500s, until now. Today’s megadrought has been marked by more frequent and severe wildfires, a decline in groundwater, lake and river levels and a reduced snowpack.
And climate change, added Williams, is “making it easier to go into a megadrought without the ocean and atmosphere needing to team up in as extreme of a way” as they did to create such conditions in the past.
In Utah, the situation might be considered dire.
“Our population is one of the fastest-growing in the country and we’re also one of the driest states in the country and our water supply in large part is mountain snow,” said Michelle Baker, an aquatic hydrologist at Utah State University who was project director for iUtah, a years-long research effort to transition the state to sustainable water usage.
With the mountain snowpack dwindling due to climate change, Utah researchers identified several ways to help close the supply gap, said Baker. One included storing more water underground than in reservoirs to limit the amount of water lost to evaporation. Another involved replacing Utah’s old-fashioned dirt-lined irrigation canals with pipes to curb evaporation and seepage.
In March, Utah adopted a law creating a new water banking program, similar to those in other states, that will allow water rights holders to “bank” their unused water rights and lease them temporarily to others without selling them outright…
St. George currently uses 33,000 acre-feet of water per year, Karry Rathje, a spokesperson for the Washington County Water Conservancy District, told FairWarning in an email. (An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land with one foot of water, and is roughly enough to supply three homes for a year.
Washington County, which includes St. George, “is projected to need an additional 86,000 acre feet of water to meet the demands of a population that’s projected to nearly triple by 2060,” Rathje said.
This is to say nothing of exponential growth in greater Salt Lake City, which by 2060 could swell to the size of the Seattle metropolitan area of 3.7 million residents, according to one estimate.
The proposed pipeline is still undergoing a one-year review process overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which has said that Kane County’s exit has not affected the timeline for the draft environmental impact statement it expects to release this summer…
The revised design has removed a 10-mile spur that would have carried water from the pipeline northward to Johnson Canyon in Kane County. However, a “T-joint” will likely be included where the junction would have been built, giving the county the option to tap into the resource at a later date…
Kane County’s departure marks the second time a Southwest Utah county has walked away from the project.
Iron County officials backed out in 2012, citing concerns over raised impact fees, taxes and rates.
But Washington County’s need for the water has never been clearer, said Zach Renstrom, the executive director of the Washington County Water Conservancy District.
“The same process that came back and said that Kane County won’t need this project in the foreseeable future is actually confirming that Washington County does need the water,” he said.
Washington County’s population is projected to triple to over 500,000 people by 2065, according to demographic research from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
The county was already slated to receive 95% of the water carried by the pipeline prior to Kane County’s withdrawal, Renstrom added.
For the past decade, Kane County leaders have argued that their southern Utah community will need water piped from the Colorado River to meet future needs, but the local water district abruptly announced Thursday it was pulling out of the costly Lake Powell pipeline project, leaving Washington County as the only remaining recipient of the water.
The controversial project would divert 86,000 acre-feet of water a year from the chronically depleted Lake Powell into a 143-mile pipeline terminating in a reservoir near St. George. Along the way, the billion-dollar pipeline was to offload 4,000 acre-feet in Johnson Canyon east of Kanab.
But now the Kane County Water Conservancy District has decided it didn’t have a “foreseeable need” for the water after reviewing the county’s projected population growth and available water resources, according to a release posted Thursday…
Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, and other critics have long pointed to Kane County’s ample groundwater supplies as evidence that there was not much need for the project, which would be financed by Utah taxpayers and tap an already over-allocated Colorado River. More than $25 million has been spent on environmental reviews, with a new one underway by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which assumed federal oversight of the project after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission withdrew…
The project has shrunk substantially from its original version, first unveiled in 2006 legislation. Last year, the Utah Division of Water Resources removed the hydroelectric generation components, which would have enlarged the project’s costs and environmental footprint. Iron County, another original participant, exited years ago, citing the high cost of delivering the water all the way to Cedar City.
But state officials, pointing to the mushrooming growth in and around St. George, maintained there is still a need for the pipeline.
At the request of the Kane County Water Conservancy District, the Bureau of Reclamation will no longer consider the county’s future water supply needs in its National Environmental Policy Act review for the Lake Powell Pipeline.
According to a press release from the Washington County Water Conservancy District, the decision came after a review of both Kane County’s projected population growth and available water supply showed there was no “foreseeable need” for additional water to be brought to the county by the Lake Powell Pipeline…
Kane County’s dropping from the project removes a planned 10-mile pipeline that would have come off the Lake Powell Pipeline and delivered 4,000 acre feet of water to the county. The water rights for the 4,000 acre feet of water remain with the Utah Board of Water Resources, according to the release.
Kane County now joins Iron County in having pulled out of the pipeline project. Iron County ended its participation in the project in 2012. The potential cost of Iron County’s part of the project, as well as a move to develop existing water resources for a fraction of that cost, were cited as reasons the project was dropped on their end…
Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said he was happy to see Kane County leave the project…
The group has also argued that Washington County has enough water and should focus on conservation and that the already overtaxed Colorado River isn’t a reliable long-term water resource. However, while Kane County may have removed itself as a partner in the Lake Powell Pipeline, the project is still considered crucial for Washington County by state and local officials due to increasing population projections…
Kane County’s decision to leave the pipeline project does not impact the project’s timeline and NEPA review process. The Bureau of Reclamation’s work on an environmental impact statement for the pipeline is ongoing, with a draft anticipated for public review and comment this summer.
…the Utah House of Representatives on Tuesday passed HCR22, which makes clear to neighboring states and policymakers that Utah will someday develop its unused portion of the Colorado River…
Utah has not fully developed its full 23% allocation of the river, with much of that unused water flowing downstream to lower basin states.
Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane — who lives in southern Utah where the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline would take the unused allocation — said it is important Utah send a message to its neighbors that the resource will be developed…
The resolution passed on a 57-13 vote because the Lake Powell Pipeline — and development of the Colorado River in light of drought and a changing climate — has stoked opposition by some groups that assert it’s a failed proposal that will drain an already struggling river.
Last’s measure urges development of the water in the most expeditious fashion, and Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, questioned what those parameters might be.
“As soon as we can effectively use it,” Last told him.
Briscoe added that conservation practices should have been emphasized more in the resolution and addressed higher in the language of the measure.
But Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara — another lawmaker who lives in the Utah region where the pipeline would deliver water — said the resolution is a critical message that merits support.
“It is important as a state that we indicate our intent to preserve our allocation,” Snow said. “I can’t begin to evaluate the monetary value of our water right in the Colorado. It is invaluable and will become more so in the future.”
The resolution is now awaiting action in the Senate.
Climate change is increasing the variability of the Colorado River so much so that the river could lose one-fourth of its flow by 2050, according to a new government study.
As plans for the 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline — which would divert over 86,000 acre-feet annually from the reservoir to southwestern Utah — are under review by the Bureau of Reclamation, what does the Colorado River’s diminishing flows mean for the project?
The new report, produced by the U.S. Geological Survey and published in Science, attributes a 16% decline in the river’s flow from 2000-2017 to rising temperatures. The Colorado River hydrates seven downstream states, storing water in shrinking Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs.
Washington County Water Conservancy District Manager Zach Renstrom said he thinks the variability of climate change provides even more reason for the county to pursue the pipeline.
“Climate change is a big deal to us, we are very concerned about it, and specifically how it’s going to affect our watershed,” Renstrom said. “When we look at these dynamics, they’re one of the strong arguments for the Lake Powell Pipeline because we need to make sure to have a robust infrastructure in place so we can adjust for (climate change).”
Rising temperatures, less snow
USGS scientists considered two scenarios of climate change in the Colorado River study. In one, warmer temperatures by 2050 would reduce the amount of water flowing in the river by 14-26%. In the other scenario, warming would take away 19-31% of the river’s flow…
Milly and fellow USGS scientist Krista Dunne focused on the reflectivity of snow, known as albedo, as a key element in the river’s sensitivity to warming. They zeroed in on the role of snow cover as a “protective shield” for water in the river basin.
Milly likened the flowing river to the leftovers of the “meal” of snow and rain that falls across the basin after evaporation has “eaten” its share…
And the amount consumed by evaporation is driven by how much energy the basin absorbs in the form of sunlight. The snow cover in the Rocky Mountains reflects back to the sky and space a significant fraction of the sunlight.
As the world gets hotter with the burning of fossil fuels, more of the precipitation falls as rain instead of snow. And the snow melts away earlier in the year. As the snow cover in the mountains is progressively lost, the river basin absorbs more energy…
“When we talk about structural deficits and overuse of the Colorado River system, it’s exclusive to the lower basin,” WCWCD spokesperson Karry Rathje said.
Washington County’s population is projected to grow 229% by 2050, but Renstrom says he’s worried that growth may come sooner than expected. He’s pushing to get the pipeline going in the next 10 years in order to diversify the county’s water supply.
“Even when we look at reduced flows … the water in the Lake Powell Pipeline should be available for us to withdraw,” Renstrom said. “As the guy who has to worry about where water is coming from in 30 years if some of the higher-end climate models come to pass, and the Virgin River is dried up, it makes me feel very secure that we’ll have another tool in that toolbox.”
Here’s a report from Andrew Davey writing for Nevada Today. Click through and read the whole article, here’s an excerpt:
Around this time last year, Commissioner Brenda Burman delivered this ultimatum to CRWUA attendees: “Close isn’t done, and we are not done. Only done will protect this basin.” This year, as in just yesterday, Burman said, “It was truly remarkable to have the divergent interests of the basin forge a compromise and make the difficult agreements to complete the DCP.”
And unlike last year, when Burman urged officials from across the Colorado River Basin to finish the DCP already, this year she urged patience on matters like renegotiating the 2007 agreement that turned Lake Mead into a sort of regional water bank. On that, Burman declared, “It’s not yet time to take up that task.”
Yet despite Burman’s more relaxed approach, some at CRWUA want to see more “fierce urgency of now”. While the DCP successfully fended off the threat of federal water rations, and while Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack is currently running 15% above average, ongoing legal concerns and the ever escalating threat of climate change may yet upend the delicate peace that the DCP has ushered in for now…
While Burman voiced confidence in the states’, municipal water agencies’, and Native American tribal authorities’ ability to cooperate, some of these very local officials were voicing notes of warning and caution. Shortly after Burman’s presentation on the main stage, Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) Director of Water Resources Colby Pellegrino noted their use of data from the U.S. Geological Survey and UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) showing less Colorado River water for everyone to work with in the next 50 years.
As Pellegrino described this challenge, “It’s a pretty severe stress test for our water resource portfolio.” Pellegrino then noted how SNWA and the larger community have already been rising to this challenge with conservation programs like outdoor watering schedules and turf removal. As Pellegrino put it, “There’s significant water savings to be achieved by changing the mindset of how we use it.”
Later in the day, I caught up with Pellegrino to talk some more about her presentation and the challenges that lie ahead for her agency and the entire region. When asked how SNWA plans to handle those future challenges, she replied, “Conservation is still right here, under our noses, the quickest and most cost effective way.”
[Friday], it was Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s turn to make news here in Nevada. And make news he did, as Bernhardt announced the federal government will launch an early start of its review of the 2007 Interim Guidelines (as in, the 2007 agreement that launched the ICS program to manage the Lower Basin’s water supply).
Soon after his main floor presentation, Bernhardt spoke with reporters about this and other pressing water issues. On his announcement to jump-start review of the Interim Guidelines, Bernhardt said, “We have an opportunity right now. We have the people in place. We might as well build on the success we have here.”
So what can we expect in this review? And for that matter, what kinds of future changes might we expect in federal oversight of the Colorado River? When I asked Bernhardt whether he’d take into account climate science and the changing needs and consumption patterns of the increasingly urban American Southwest, he replied, “I’ve never taken a position of what we need to tell a city or county what they need to do.”
Yet as Bernhardt’s discussion with reporters continued, the conversation occasionally veered into other environmental matters. And when a couple reporters asked about the proposed oil and gas leases on public lands that have run into local opposition, including right here in Nevada, in the Ruby Mountains outside Elko and in parts of Lincoln County that supply drinking water for Mesquite, Bernhardt declared, “The president was clear when he ran for office what his policy is on energy. He supports an ‘all of the above’ approach.” Bernhardt also suggested these leases are required by federal statute, even though the Obama administration took a more cautious and targeted approach toward such fossil fuel extraction on public lands…
Funny enough, one of my takeaways from my conversation with SNWA’s Colby Pellegrino on Thursday was that regardless of what becomes of the long-fought pipeline plan, SNWA has enough water available to keep the Las Vegas region going for the next 50 years. Also, I noticed that regardless of the Trump administration’s curious comments on climate change and “all of the above” approaches to water infrastructure and fossil fuels, SNWA officials recognize the clear and present danger of climate change, and they’re already acting on it.
And it may not just be SNWA doing this. Even as Trump appointees are skirting around acknowledgement of climate science, fossil fuel pollution, ongoing regional tensions, or the reality of urban and suburban growth in the Colorado River Basin, federal civil servants continue to collect data, analyze trends, and manage the water we all share. We’ll talk more about that next week.
Still, there’s a rather large gap between the rhetoric and overarching policies of the Trump administration and the promises of strong climate action that U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), former Vice President Joe Biden, and the other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are providing. And yet, we don’t hear as much about the Colorado River and our fragile water supply as you’d expect considering their environmental and geopolitical importance. Yet no matter how much we ignore it, all we have to do is glimpse at Lake Mead to remember how important it truly is to our very livelihood.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told federal, state and local water managers that abiding by the promises they made will be crucial to ensuring that more painful cuts aren’t required…
“We need to be proud of what we’ve done,” Burman told hundreds at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference at a Las Vegas Strip resort, while also warning of “tougher challenges in the future.”
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will start taking less water from the river Jan. 1 under a drought contingency agreement signed in May. It followed lengthy negotiations and multiple warnings from Burman that if the seven states didn’t reach a deal, the federal government, which controls the levers on the river, could impose severe water restrictions.
California would voluntarily cut water deliveries if reservoir levels keep falling at the river’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead…
Cuts will most affect farmers in Arizona. The Central Arizona Project will stop storage and replenishment operations and cut water for agricultural use by about 15%. The agency gets more than half of Arizona’s entitlement of water from the Colorado River…
The drought contingency plan is a voluntary agreement to use less water than users are allowed, and its success is measured at the surface level of Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam east of Las Vegas.
The agreements are designed to prevent a more drastic drought-shortage declaration under a 2007 pact that would cut 11.4 percent of Arizona’s usual river water allocation and reduce Nevada’s share by 4.3 percent. That amount of water, combined, would serve more than 625,000 homes.
California would reduce its Colorado River use by about 6 percent.
Due to a relatively wet winter, Lake Mead is now 40% full and Lake Powell, an upstream reservoir, is at 53% capacity, Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Patricia Aaron said. A year ago, Lake Powell was 43% full, and Lake Mead was at 38%…
Water managers have called the last 20 dry years a drought, but climate researchers warn the river will continue to carry less water in coming years.
“Respected climate scientists have conservatively estimated declines in river flows of 20% by the middle of the 21st century and 35% by the end of the century,” researchers Anne Castle of the University of Colorado Law School and John Fleck of the University of New Mexico wrote in a study released in November.
The report refers to a “structural deficit” under which states and Mexico are promised more water than the river usually carries and encourages the seven states to clarify rules for handling future shortages.
The elimination of the major hydropower components of the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline means a new federal agency will review the project and determine if it is environmentally sound to move forward.
“The division looks forward to working with reclamation on updating the timeline and cost estimate for the project and completing the environmental impact statement,” Eric Millis, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, announced Tuesday
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had been the reviewing agency. After a September decision by the Utah Board of Water Resources to eliminate two reservoirs for the generation of electricity during peak demand, that entity was no longer the appropriate reviewing agency…
Project proponents say the pipeline is necessary to meet the needs of a growing population and to diversify water supply resources. Most of southern Utah residents rely on a single and volatile source of water — the Virgin River — which has been challenged by drought conditions.
Construction of the pipeline won’t begin until 70% of the water is under contract.
Karry Rathje, with the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said the shift to another federal agency to review the project should not result in any delays.
Despite the risk that the river resource is overcommitted and it is shrinking, four Upper Basin states – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico – are pushing forward with dams, reservoir expansions and pipelines like the one at Lake Powell that will allow them to capture what they were promised under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California have been using that water downstream for nearly a century.
President Donald Trump signed the basin-wide drought contingency plan in April, just weeks after the state of Utah declared in a news release that the river, which serves 40 million people, is “a reliable source of water.”
“What they need to do – the lower states – is use their right that’s allocated to them, and we will use our right that’s allocated to us,” said Mike Styler, who retired recently after 14 years as director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
A former state lawmaker, Styler originally voted on pushing forward with the 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline. Once completed, the diversion project, which would draw from the lake, which straddles the Utah-Arizona border, about 86,000 acre-feet a year. That’s enough water to support nearly 100,000 households…
The St. George metropolitan area was the third-fastest growing in the nation last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released in April. Past data showed the area as the fastest growing in 2017 and the fifth-fastest growing between 2010 and 2018.
Pipeline proponents anticipate the trend will continue, with the current population of around 171,000 residents expected to swell to around 509,000 by 2065. And that growth is why they insist the pipeline is necessary…
The state has already spent more than $30 million on its application to build the pipeline. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is currently reviewing the project’s environmental impacts. The Washington County Water Conservancy District, a project partner, estimates that the license could be finalized in two years, construction would begin a few years later and the pipeline would be operating by around 2030.
But pipeline critics call the project too risky, too pricey and unnecessary. They contend that too much Colorado River water has already been promised to too many people.
“We are way beyond the budget of what the Colorado River can deliver, and when you just look at how much water is in the river and how much everyone else wants to take out, it’s just not there,” said Nick Schou, conservation director for the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council.
Schou said the Lower Basin states are facing cuts of as much as 500,000 acre-feet at the same time the Upper Basin states are planning nine projects that will draw about 400,000 acre-feet.
“Not only are we overusing the water, but there’s going to be a lot less to go around in the future,” Schou said…
The project’s overall cost is another big concern for critics. Proponents estimate the pipeline’s cost between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion. Critics say the price tag will probably be $3.2 billion or higher. And water users would be saddled with the cost, since the what used to be common federal subsidies for big water projects have evaporated.