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. According to preliminary data from the Bureau of Reclamation, the total inflow into Lake Powell for the 2020 water year was about 6 million acre-feet, just 55% of average. Photo 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.