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.