#ColoradoRiver crisis: Dispute, #drought have local implications — The #Pueblo Star Journal #COriver #aridification

A view across Lake Pueblo in Lake Pueblo State Park. The view is towards the south from Juniper Road. By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61042557

Click the link to read the article on the Pueblo Star Journal website (Joe Stone):

Two decades of drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have prompted dire warnings and alarming headlines about climate change and the Colorado River water crisis. Critically low water levels in lakes Mead and Powell now threaten the ability to generate electricity at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams and spurred Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton to issue an ultimatum: On June 14, Touton announced that Colorado Basin states would have 60 days to come up with a plan to reduce water use by 2-4 million acre-feet per year. (An acre-foot of water is the amount needed to cover an acre of land with one foot of water.)

If Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California can’t agree on a plan, the bureau will use its emergency authority to make the cuts, Touton said.

Fryingpan-Arkansas Project via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Click to enlarge)

The Arkansas Basin receives about 130,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado Basin – up to 23 percent of Arkansas River flows, according to Colorado Division of Water Resources data. The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which imports an average of 57,000 acre-feet of water per year. Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West combine to import the other 73,000 acre-feet. Fry-Ark Project water supports local agriculture, cities, towns and industry. Fry-Ark water and infrastructure also underpin the Voluntary Flow Management Program, which supports the multimillion-dollar recreation economies of Upper Ark communities as well as the Arkansas River’s Gold Medal fishery.

Water imports to the Arkansas Basin already face risks. Worsening drought conditions could impede Fry-Ark water imports as the project is required to meet minimum streamflows on the West Slope. A call for water on the Colorado River could also curtail water imports.

‘Living within our means’

The 1922 Colorado River Compact divided Colorado River water between Upper Basin states – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico – and Lower Basin states – Arizona, Nevada and California. The compact requires the Upper Basin states, where most of the precipitation falls, to deliver a 10-year rolling average of 7.5 million acre-feet, or maf, of water to Lees Ferry, Arizona, just south of the Utah state line. Of that water, California is entitled to 4.4 maf, Arizona 2.8, and Nevada 0.3. The compact also established a benchmark of 16.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water per year for Colorado River flows. However, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that average flows from 2000 to 2021 have dropped to 12.3 maf per year.

To date, the Upper Basin states have consistently met the 7.5-maf compact requirement. At a recent meeting of the Interbasin Compact Committee, Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell shared statistics showing that Upper Basin states have significantly reduced water usage while Lower Basin states have not.

As the numbers reveal, Lower Basin states’ water usage – more than 2 maf per year beyond the 7.5 maf delivered by the Upper Basin – has trended higher, even as the 10-year rolling average dropped to 11.78 maf for 2012-21. Specifically, 2019 saw Colorado River flows of 17.75 maf, a rare yearly surplus of 3.8 maf. In 2020, flows dropped to 9.6 maf, 4.5 maf less than the water used that year. In 2021, flows dropped further, to 7.1 maf.

Even with Upper Basin states reducing their water use by more than a million acre-feet, total water use in the basin exceeded flows by 6.4 maf in 2021.

Colorado officials have indicated they have no plans to make additional cuts to meet the federal mandate. Amy Ostdiek, a section chief with the CWCB, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that sending water downstream from Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs represents a significant sacrifice in water security for the Upper Basin states. At a recent Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District meeting, Ostdiek observed that, while the Upper Basin states have always lived with the need to limit water use to whatever is available, the Lower Basin states have “drawn down reservoirs instead of limiting usage. … We are living within our means in the Upper Basin, but that’s not happening in the Lower Basin.”


Ostdiek acknowledged that Arizona and Nevada are taking cuts to their Colorado River water allocations “for the first time ever,” but what about California, the most prodigious user of Colorado River water? All seven basin states signed on to the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, agreeing to reduce their use of Colorado River water, but the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California’s Imperial Valley refused to compromise, according to an Aug. 27, 2021, story by ProPublica. With 3.1 million acre-feet of Colorado River water rights, the Imperial District accounts for 70% of California’s compact allotment and is by far the largest single water rights holder in the Colorado Basin.

Imperial District Board President James Hanks expressed the district’s refusal to compromise when state officials gathered in Phoenix to sign the 2019 plan.

“As champagne is being prepared for debauched self-congratulation in Phoenix, remember this: The IID is the elephant in the room on the Colorado River as we move forward. And like the elephant, our memory and rage is (sic) long,” Hanks said.

As the Bureau of Reclamation’s mandate now makes clear, the 2019 plan proved insufficient to avert the current crisis and the Imperial District is indeed the elephant in the room, refusing to recognize the current reality on the Colorado River.

Growing cotton in a desert

The Imperial Valley lies within the Sonoran Desert and receives less than 3 inches of rain per year. It was uninhabited until 1901, when the Imperial Canal brought Colorado River water into the valley from Mexico. Because of the desert climate and poor groundwater quality, virtually all water demand in the Imperial Valley is satisfied with Colorado River water. The Imperial Irrigation District delivers that water, and 97% goes to agriculture.

Food production is a critical use of water, but not all agricultural water uses produce food. Growing cotton is one example, and the Imperial District supplies Colorado River water to 463,721 acres of cotton fields, according to the District’s most recent crop report. Arizona also uses Colorado River water to grow cotton in the desert. U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that Arizona farmers grew 258,000 acres of cotton in 2021.

Water consumption data from the University of Arizona shows that growing cotton in the desert requires 41.2 inches of water per year. In other words, cotton grown in the Imperial District and Arizona requires about 2.8 million acre-feet of water per year. But while one area of the federal government (Bureau of Reclamation) calls for reduced water use in the basin, another (Department of Agriculture) subsidizes those cotton fields, providing more than $4 billion between 1995 and 2015.

Not a sudden crisis
Mitchell and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser recently penned an editorial pointing out that Colorado is one of the few U.S. states that administers water rights based on “the availability of water supply in a particular location at a particular time.” Colorado’s water management system was key to the Upper Basin reducing water usage by 25% in 2020, “a huge reduction in water use of almost one million acre-feet.” When added to the “661,000 acre-feet of water provided from Upper Basin reservoirs in 2022, the Upper Basin is providing roughly 43% of its annual water use to help protect Lake Powell.”

In spite of the disparities between Upper and Lower Basin water use, officials in Lower Basin states – like Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona Department of Water Resources, and Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – responded to the bureau’s mandate by urging collaboration. As the numbers show, the Upper Basin states, especially Colorado, have done much more to conserve water than the Lower Basin states, which have consistently taken more than their share of water under the 1922 compact.

Another example of Colorado’s leadership in responsible water use is groundwater management. Since 1969, Colorado has recognized the physical connection between surface waters and most groundwater aquifers. The Lower Basin states have not. For example, rivers deposit rocks and sand along their channels and floodplains. River water fills the spaces between the rocks and sand, forming alluvial aquifers. These aquifers are an integral part of streams and rivers; pumping water from them reduces surface-water flows.

In general, Arizona law does not recognize the physical connection between groundwater and surface water. From a legal standpoint, Arizona allows groundwater pumping that reduces streamflows to the detriment of senior water rights. California is just beginning to legally recognize the connection between surface water and groundwater, but groundwater extraction continues to deplete aquifers and cause subsidence, a gradual sinking of land. Ground currently is sinking more than a foot per year in some parts of California, according to ongoing research and multiple news reports.

Finally, anyone reading the alarming headlines would be tempted to believe that the Colorado River crisis is a sudden, unprecedented result of accelerating climate change, but a report published in the May 2007 issue of Geophysical Research Letters indicates otherwise. The authors used paleo-climate data to reconstruct Colorado River flows at Lees Ferry dating back to the year 762. They document multiple “multi-decadal (Upper Colorado River Basin) droughts” during the past 1,260 years, including one “in the mid-1100s” that persisted for “about six decades.”

This means that 15 years ago scientists demonstrated that, even without the effects of climate change, the current 20-year drought was not uncommon and the situation can get much worse, a reality that the Lower Basin states ignored.

“It should be obvious to anyone: Trying to fill a bathtub with the drain wide open is foolish,” wrote Terry Scanga, general manager of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District. “This is precisely what the operators of the Colorado River system (lakes Powell and Mead) have been attempting to do for the past 20 years. They have disregarded the increased withdrawals by the Lower Basin states and the ubiquitous arid nature of the Southwest.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Aspinall Unit operations update (August 11, 2022): 550 cfs in Black Canyon #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Click to enlarge.

Tourist haven #GrandLake asks state to intervene in federal #water quality stalemate — @WaterEdCO

Shadow Mountain Dam, astride the main stem of the upper Colorado River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Fourteen years after Colorado adopted standards to restore Grand Lake, the state’s largest natural water body once known for its astonishing clarity and high water quality continues to deteriorate.

Frustrated and worried about the future, Grand Lake locals are asking the state to intervene to break through a log jam of federal and environmental red tape that has prevented finding a way to restore the lake’s clarity and water quality, despite a 90-year-old federal rule known as Senate Bill 80 requiring that the work be done.

At issue: Grand Lake serves as a key element of Northern Water’s delivery system, which provides water to more than 1 million people on the northern Front Range and thousands of acres of irrigated farmlands.

Owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and operated by Northern Water, what’s known as the Colorado-Big Thompson Project gathers water from streams and rivers in Rocky Mountain National Park and Grand County, and stores it in man-made Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Reservoir. From there it is eventually moved into Grand Lake and delivered via the Adams Tunnel under the Continental Divide to Carter Lake and Horsetooth Reservoir, just west of Berthoud and Fort Collins respectively.

During that process, algae, certain toxins and sediment are carried into Grand Lake, clouding its formerly clear waters and causing algae blooms and weed growth, and harming recreation.

Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water

In a hearing before the Colorado Legislature’s Interim Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee on Aug. 4, Mike Cassio, who represents the Three Lakes Watershed Association in Grand County, pleaded with state lawmakers to intervene and launch a study process that would help trigger federal action.

by Jerd Smith | Aug 10, 2022 | Climate and Drought, Colorado River, Environment, Infrastructure, Recreation, Restoration, Water Legislation, Water Quality |

Tourist haven Grand Lake asks state to intervene in federal water quality stalemate
A woman paddles on Shadow Mountain Reservoir, which is caught in federal stalemate over how to improve water quality to help improve its neighboring Grand Lake. Credit: Daily Camera

Fourteen years after Colorado adopted standards to restore Grand Lake, the state’s largest natural water body once known for its astonishing clarity and high water quality continues to deteriorate.

Frustrated and worried about the future, Grand Lake locals are asking the state to intervene to break through a log jam of federal and environmental red tape that has prevented finding a way to restore the lake’s clarity and water quality, despite a 90-year-old federal rule known as Senate Bill 80 requiring that the work be done.

At issue: Grand Lake serves as a key element of Northern Water’s delivery system, which provides water to more than 1 million people on the northern Front Range and thousands of acres of irrigated farmlands.

Owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and operated by Northern Water, what’s known as the Colorado-Big Thompson Project gathers water from streams and rivers in Rocky Mountain National Park and Grand County, and stores it in man-made Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Reservoir. From there it is eventually moved into Grand Lake and delivered via the Adams Tunnel under the Continental Divide to Carter Lake and Horsetooth Reservoir, just west of Berthoud and Fort Collins respectively.

During that process, algae, certain toxins and sediment are carried into Grand Lake, clouding its formerly clear waters and causing algae blooms and weed growth, and harming recreation.

In a hearing before the Colorado Legislature’s Interim Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee on Aug. 4, Mike Cassio, who represents the Three Lakes Watershed Association in Grand County, pleaded with state lawmakers to intervene and launch a study process that would help trigger federal action.

“We have the highest respect for all of our partners,” Cassio said, referring to ongoing remediation efforts involving Northern Water and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“But due to the design of the system, you have this beautiful natural lake and then you fill it up with reservoir water. Usually, in July when spring runoff is going on, Grand Lake is flowing from east to west. It is extremely clear. But as soon as Shadow Mountain’s water sits and starts to cook and grow weeds and algae, and the pumps come on, this massive plume of nitrates, inorganics, just basic muddy water flows into Grand Lake,” Cassio said.

In 2008, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission moved to set a clarity standard, but it has since been replaced with a clarity goal and the aim of achieving “the highest level of clarity attainable.” Instead of working under a regulated water quality standard, Northern Water and others have implemented different management techniques, including changing pumping patterns, to find ways to improve water quality in all three water bodies.

In 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation took the first steps required under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) to do the scientific and engineering studies and public hearings that would be required to fix the system. But Reclamation stopped the process in 2020, saying that it could not definitively establish any structural alternatives that would work, nor could it find a way forward on funding what could be a project that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Jeff Rieker, general manager of Reclamation’s Colorado Eastern Plains office.

During last week’s hearing, lawmakers said they want more information and that Northern Water’s system is too critical to the northern Front Range to do anything without careful consideration.

“We are in a moment of time like none other,” said State Rep. Hugh McKean, a Republican who represents Loveland and other northern Front Range communities. He cited the warming climate and the effects of the massive East Troublesome fire in 2020, which engulfed lands around the three lakes and created additional water quality problems, which still impact the watershed today.

“Is this the moment to create a long-term plan, when right now our water situation is in flux? I’m resistant to say let’s stop everything and study this,” McKean said.

But Grand Lake Mayor Steve Kudron disagreed.

“This is exactly the right time,” Kudron said. “Tourism impacts my community more than almost any other community in the state. One million people visited [Fort Collins’] Horsetooth Reservoir last year. Are we getting to the time when recreation on the East Side of the [Continental Divide] is more important than the West Side?”

Grand Lake via Cornell University

Northern Water’s Esther Vincent told lawmakers at the hearing that management efforts have improved clarity somewhat. In 1941, before the Colorado Big Thompson Project began operating, clarity was measured at 9.2 meters, Vincent said.

“The [state’s] clarity goal is 3.8 meters,” she said. “We don’t hit it every year, but we’re doing a lot better. Over the past 17 years we’ve met the 3.8-meter goal 35% of the time and in the past five years we’ve hit the goal 60% of the time,” she said. “But East Troublesome complicates everything. We are still trying to wrap our heads around what this means for the system.”

Still, she said Northern was committed to finding a path forward and indeed is legally obligated to do so under the terms of its operating contract with Reclamation.

What that path may look like isn’t clear yet. Lawmakers did not recommend any action in the form of bills to authorize a study after Thursday’s hearing, according to interim committee staff.

But Grand Lake advocates say the state rightly should step in because it was the Colorado water users in Northern’s system that repaid the federal construction loans on the project.

“We have a lake unlike any lake in the country,” Kudron said. “The moment we start talking about closing the lake, it has a long rippling effect. There isn’t a Target [store] that will make up the tax dollars that would be lost. There are just 16,000 people in Grand County. If the natural resources that attract people to our county are interrupted, the county becomes interrupted. If we can’t rely on the water resource, we are in big trouble.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

#Arizona and #California Farmers, Targets for #ColoradoRiver Cuts, Draft Their #Conservation Strategy — Circle of Blue #COriver #aridification

The All American Canal carries water from the Colorado River to farms in California’s Imperial Valley. The Imperial Irrigation District holds more rights to Colorado River water than any other user in the basin. Photo credit: Adam Dubrowa, FEMA/Wikipedia.

Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website (Brett Walton):

  • A plan is circulating among irrigation districts in southern Arizona and California to reduce Colorado River use by as much as 925,000 acre-feet.
  • Such a plan would require billions in funding.
  • These discussions foreshadow difficult negotiations in the coming years to balance water demand with a declining supply.
  • Knowing they are targets, farmers in southern Arizona and California who receive irrigation water from the Colorado River are discussing a plan that could go a long way toward meeting a federal conservation mandate in the drying basin.

    With key reservoirs Mead and Powell at record lows and despite the continued decline of the Salton Sea, federal officials are demanding historic cuts in water use next year, on the order of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, or roughly one-third of the river’s recent annual flow.

    Irrigation districts in Arizona’s Yuma County and California’s Imperial and Riverside counties control more of the river’s water than any other entity in the basin. The Colorado River Indian Tribes, whose reservation abuts the river, also hold significant secure water rights.

    A plan is now circulating among those districts to forgo 1 acre-foot of water per irrigated acre next year. In the Yuma area that amounts to a 20 percent cut, according to Tom Davis, manager of the Yuma County Water Users’ Association.

    The emergency actions foreshadow difficult negotiations that will take place in the coming years as a river that irrigates 5 million acres and supplies 40 million people with a portion of their drinking water is decimated by a drying climate. Agriculture consumes about 80 percent of the basin’s water, making it a cornerstone for bringing demand in line with supply.

    The discussions today could set the tone. As many as 925,000 acre-feet could be part of the current deal, about half or a quarter of the total cuts the federal government is seeking.

    The forgone water would remain in Lake Mead, which is at its lowest level since 1937, when the big reservoir was being filled. Federal officials want to prevent a catastrophic outcome: the reservoir dropping so low that it can no longer generate hydropower or deliver water downstream.

    Irrigation districts are willing to contribute — as long as they are paid.

    “If agriculture steps up and makes it possible for the river to survive, they are taking a huge risk for their industry,” said Wade Noble, coordinator of the Yuma County Agriculture Water Coalition, which represents farmers in southwest Arizona. “And that risk and the cost analysis that goes into it is going to require some sort of compensation because they have a water right.”

    The dollars at play could be significant. A range of values are being discussed, but a center point is $1,500 per acre-foot. If all 925,000 acres participated in the program, the total cost would be $1.4 billion a year.

    It is unclear at this point how many irrigation districts are on board. Camille Touton, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, told the states to present a plan by mid-August. But observers in the basin do not consider that a firm deadline. Davis cited the accelerated timeline and delicate nature of the negotiations.

    Noble outlined the agriculture conservation plan at the July 13 meeting of the Arizona Reconsultation Committee, a group that is advising the state government on Colorado River negotiations. He suggested a four-year program with a total cost between $4 billion and $8 billion.

    “As we look at the risk to economies,” Noble added. “As we look at the risk to other industries. As we look at the risk to our urban areas, we don’t believe that you can say that is too much money.”

    Noble did not return multiple phone messages seeking comment.

    Robert Glennon, a water law and policy expert and professor emeritus at the University of Arizona said that though the dollar figures may seem high at first glance, they are miniscule compared with the risks involved.

    “Why should that be a deal breaker?” Glennon asked about a nearly $2 billion annual price tag. “I mean, it’s only a one-year deal. But it’s wet water that saves everyone’s bacon while you’re trying to develop some long-term criteria.”

    Aerial view of Imperial Valley and Salton Sea. By Samboy – I took a picture from the window of an airplane I was on, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76273834

    These irrigated areas are among the harshest climates in the United States, arid lowland regions of the Sonoran Desert that receive no more than 4 inches of rain in an average year.

    The Colorado River is the ingredient that turned these drylands green. Applying more than 5 feet of water per acre of land each year allows farmers in Imperial Irrigation District, Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation District, Palo Verde Irrigation District, and a half dozen others to produce a staggering bounty of vegetables, grains, forage, and seed crops. Growing more than 100 crops, these counties are among the richest farming regions in the country, each generating more than $1 billion in sales in 2021.

    The steady flow of the Colorado is the fuel that powers the ag machine. The threat that the spigot will be turned off has brought the irrigation districts to the table.

    If dividing the river during a period of shortage were based purely on the law, then the irrigation districts would not have to worry. They hold some of the most legally ironclad rights to the river, those that are last in line for cuts.

    Imperial Irrigation District, the largest of the bunch, has claim to 2.6 million acre-feet for irrigation, nearly as much water from the Colorado River as the entire state of Arizona. That water nurtures about 470,000 acres of alfalfa, Bermuda grass, Sudan grass, sugar beets, onions, lettuce, and other crops. Secured by a U.S. Supreme Court decree, Imperial’s water rights would be the last to be touched.

    The political reality, however, is altogether different, according to Michael Pearce, an attorney with Gammage and Burnham who has more than three decades of experience in Arizona water law and policy.

    “In a practical sense, you can’t see the cities of Phoenix and Los Angeles, and even Las Vegas and some of the cities on the Colorado River — Bullhead City, Lake Havasu City — have their water supply cut off so that you can grow alfalfa in Yuma and in the Imperial Valley,” Pearce told Circle of Blue. “This cannot be a practical solution.”

    Aerial photo – Central Arizona Project. The Central Arizona Project is a massive infrastructural project that conveys water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona, and is central to many of the innovative partnerships and exchanges that the Gila River Indian Community has set up. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=326265

    The Central Arizona Project, the 336-mile canal that supplies Phoenix and Tucson, has junior water rights to the Colorado River. But Arizona’s water leaders have publicly stated that they will not sign any agreement that allows the canal to run dry.

    Leaders in the four upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming are also looking downstream for solutions. In a July 18 letter they argued that the burden of the conservation mandate should be placed on Arizona, California, and Mexico, which together use more than double the water than the upper basin. Besides the irrigation districts, urban suppliers in the basin are also putting forward conservation plans.

    Another factor in the irrigation districts’ willingness to come to the table is that the mechanics of water delivery will eventually triumph over the law. Even the most secure legal rights are worthless if Mead sits at dead pool and no water can pass downstream.

    How might the farmers be paid off? Glennon and Pearce noted a number of options. Congress could appropriate money. A wildfire and drought response bill that the House passed at the end of July authorizes $500 million to prevent Mead and Powell from declining to unacceptable levels. Or the White House could declare a federal disaster. Any outcome, they said, would likely require states to contribute funds.

    Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck.

    Those are potential short-term actions. In the long run, the current water rights arrangement is untenable, Glennon said. The drying basin has a structural deficit — more promises of water than physical water to distribute. The states, tribes, and federal government will have to not only rebalance water supply and demand, but also address the shrinking Salton Sea.

    “That conversation has to take place,” Glennon said.

    Located north of Imperial Irrigation District, the Salton Sea is an agricultural sump, a desert depression that receives most of its water from farm runoff. Less irrigation means less water flowing into the sea. A receding shoreline exposes more seabed salts and chemicals to winds. The area has some of the nation’s worst air quality.

    Whether a system established more than a century ago that privileges desert agriculture is compatible with a hotter, drier, ecologically imperiled, urbanized 21st century is a question that will take years to resolve — but with little time to waste.

    City of #Aurora #Water #conservation ordinance passes first reading unanimously: Prohibits aesthetic #turf in new development

    From email from the City of Aurora (Greg Baker):

    At its August 8, 2022 meeting, the Aurora City Council unanimously approved on first reading an ordinance sponsored by Mayor Mike Coffman that will restrict the use of turf in new developments and golf courses. This ordinance is forward-looking, impacting new development and redevelopment by prohibiting aesthetic cool-weather turf. Parks would be permitted to use turf in sports fields, informal play areas and social areas.

    West Drought map Monitor August 2, 2022.

    Mayor Coffman noted that continual drought in the arid west and the impacts of climate change weighed heavily in his decision to sponsor this ordinance. “Colorado is in a crisis,” he said. “We need to take action to ensure that Aurora can continue to grow responsibly.”

    Credit: U.S. Women’s National Team

    The ordinance will allow cool weather turf for new development only in active or programmed recreation areas, such as sport fields and organized social/cultural gatherings. It would prohibit turf in common areas, medians, curbside landscape (“tree lawns”) and in most residential front yards, while restricting it in backyards to allow for 45% coverage or 500 sq. ft., whichever is smaller. The ordinance permits turf in the front yard in alley-loaded developments that do not include substantial backyards. It also creates a path for transition zones to allow developments with site plans that are currently approved to better blend in appearance with the new areas that will be covered by the ordinance.

    Broken Tee Golf Course via Golf Digest

    Finally, the ordinance prohibits the use of cool-weather turf for development of new golf courses and it restricts ornamental water features, such as exterior decorative fountains, waterfalls, basins and ponds. Warm weather turfs that use less than 15 inches of supplemental irrigation, such as buffalo grass, will still be permitted.

    Lindsay Rogers, Water Policy Analyst for Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder nonprofit conservation organization, provided support for the ordinance. “Aurora has long been a trailblazer and early adopter of water conservation and reuse programs and through this ordinance, Aurora is taking a critical step to ensuring water supply resiliency now and into the future,” she said during the City Council meeting.

    Assuming passage on final reading on August 22, the ordinance will go into effect beginning Sept. 30, 2022. Development with complete site plans submitted prior to that date will not be impacted.

    West Slope #water managers ask: What authority do the feds have? — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Houseboats on Lake Powell on Dec. 13, 2021, near Wahweap Marina, where the quarter-mile-long boat ramp is unusable due to low water levels. The Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner has said 2 to 4 million more acre-feet of conservation is needed to protect the system, leaving water managers wondering what authority the feds have over upper basin water projects. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

    Projects with Reclamation ties could be at risk

    As the deadline approaches for the seven Colorado River basin states to come up with a plan to conserve water, some Colorado water managers are asking what authority the federal government has in the upper basin and which water projects could be at risk of federal action.

    U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton sent water managers scrambling when she announced in June that they had a 60-day window to find another 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water to conserve or the federal government would step in to protect the system. With many reservoirs, transbasin diversion systems and irrigation projects in Colorado tied in one way or another to the Bureau of Reclamation, some are asking if the water in these buckets could be commandeered by the feds to make up the shortfall.

    “I think that there’s probably a good argument that the Secretary (of the Interior) has some authority under those projects,” said Eric Kuhn, Colorado River author and former Colorado River Water Conservation District general manager. “The projects on the Western Slope and in the upper basin states that are owned by the federal government and are ultimately under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior, those are the projects at risk.”

    There are many dams and reservoirs across Colorado that are tied to the Bureau of Reclamation’s 20th century building frenzy to impound water and “reclaim” arid regions through irrigation. On the Western Slope, some of the well-known projects include the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project (Ruedi Reservoir), Dallas Creek Project (Ridgway Reservoir), the Dolores Project (McPhee Reservoir), Paonia Reservoir, the Grand Valley Project, the Silt Project (Rifle Gap Reservoir), the Uncompahgre Project (Taylor Park Reservoir) and more.

    In general, the local entities like conservancy districts, irrigators and municipalities who use the water are responsible for repaying the Bureau for the cost of the project. But the infrastructure is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. Some projects are operated by Reclamation and some are operated by a local entity. Many also have a hydropower component.

    “I think each project operator is having to look at their contractual obligations with the Bureau and their attorneys are going back over those with a fine tooth comb to see if the arm of the Bureau can reach up through Lake Powell and into the upper basin states,” said Kathleen Curry, a rancher and Gunnison County representative on the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “All of the upper basin projects are going to need to look real hard at what authority the Bureau has.”

    Last year Reclamation made emergency releases out of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to prop up Lake Powell. In this instance their authority was not questioned since these reservoirs are, along with Lake Powell, the four initial reservoirs of the Colorado River Storage Project. They store what’s called “system water,” which is used specifically to help the upper basin meet its delivery obligations to the lower basin.

    But water managers still don’t know exactly what, if anything, Reclamation is allowed to do with the water contained in other reservoirs with Reclamation ties.

    The crest of the dam across the Fryingpan River that forms Ruedi Reservoir, which can hold 102,373 acre-feet of water. Some Western Slope water managers are asking what authority the Bureau of Reclamation has over water projects with Reclamation ties in the upper basin.
    CREDIT: PHOTO: COURTESY OF BUREAU OF RECLAMATION

    No answers from officials

    At the River District’s third quarterly board meeting in July, board members repeatedly tried to pin down answers from federal and state officials without much luck.

    Montrose County representative and state Rep. Marc Catlin asked state engineer Kevin Rein where he stood on whether the Bureau of Reclamation could make reservoirs with Reclamation ties release water downstream to Lake Powell to meet the 2 to 4 million acre-feet conservation goal.

    “If the Bureau of Reclamation comes into the state of Colorado and says it wants to move water… down to Lake Powell, what’s the state engineer going to do?” Catlin asked. “Are those water rights under state law or federal law?”

    Rein did not know the answer.

    “I’m not sure what authority — this is not one of those rhetorical ‘I’m not sure,’ I really am not sure — what authority the Bureau of Reclamation would have to induce a federal project with state water rights to release them to get to Powell,” Rein said.

    Later in the meeting, Katrina Grantz, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Assistant Regional Director, gave a presentation and took questions from board members. Curry asked if changes could be proposed to the operation of projects within the 15 counties represented by the River District with federal ties to get closer to the 2 to 4 million acre-feet. Grantz side-stepped the question.

    “At this point we are not looking at specific locations,” she said. “I would turn it around and say: Are there areas where you locally think there might be areas to conserve?”

    River District General Counsel Peter Fleming said the authority of the feds in the upper basin is untested. This is partly because the upper basin has dozens of small Reclamation projects as well as thousands of individual water users on private ditch systems that are not affiliated with the federal government. Colorado has generally been left alone to administer this complex system of water rights under the state doctrine of prior appropriation, which means older water rights get first use of the river.

    The lower basin, in contrast, has only about 20 diversions — and only six or so big ones — from the Colorado River. And each entity that uses water from Lake Mead has to have a contract with Reclamation, meaning the federal government is directly involved with water deliveries.

    “The reason I think these issues are untested is historically the secretary’s role in the upper basin has been different than the secretary’s role in the lower basin,” Fleming said. “It’s much more hands-off. The difference in river administration is huge.”

    Fleming said that the River District does not have advice for its water users on the situation, other than to reiterate the upper basin stance that the responsibility to come up with the 2 to 4 million acre-feet lies overwhelmingly with the lower basin.

    “At the end of the day I think there will be a big effort to try to resolve things through agreement and I believe the secretary will exercise her authority to the greatest extent she can without triggering litigation,” Fleming said.

    Water managers may not have to wait long to get some clarity. The deadline for the states to come up with a conservation plan before the feds take action to protect the system is fast approaching. The upper basin states, through the Upper Colorado River Commission, have put forward a 5 Point Plan, which lays out actions they say are designed to protect the reservoirs.

    Amee Andreason, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Reclamation, said officials may answer the question of federal authority in the upper basin at a media event on Aug. 16 that coincides with the release of the August 24-month study, which lays out reservoir operations for the following water year.

    If the feds end up curtailing uses in the lower basin, it could set a precedent that would strengthen the argument that they can do the same in the upper basin, Kuhn said.

    “That’s one I think is the elephant in the room,” he said. “The fact that the River District board was asking about authorities tells you people are thinking about it.”

    This story ran in the Aug. 4 edition of the Sky-Hi News.

    Hard choices for the #ColoradoRiver — Writers on the Range #COriver #aridification

    Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (Quinn Harper and Mark Squillace):

    The seven Colorado River states – Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming – face a daunting mid-August deadline. The federal government has asked them to come up with a plan to reduce their combined water usage from the Colorado River by up to 4 million acre-feet in 2023.

    That is a massive reduction for a river system that currently produces about 12.4 million acre-feet. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Colorado River, warned that it will “act unilaterally to protect the system” if the states cannot come up with an adequate plan on their own.

    The seven states have worked cooperatively over the past two decades to identify solutions to a shrinking river. But their response now, much like the global response to climate change, seems far from adequate to the enormous challenge.

    In a recent letter to BuRec, the Upper Colorado River Commission, speaking for the four Upper Basin states, proposed a plan that adopts a business-as-usual, “drought-reduction” approach. They argue that their options are limited because “previous drought response actions are depleting upstream storage by 661,000 feet.”

    The Commission complains that water users “already suffer chronic shortages under current conditions resulting in uncompensated priority administration, which includes cuts to numerous present perfected rights in each of our states.”

    This leads the Commission to conclude that any future reductions must come largely from Mexico and the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada, because they use most of the water.

    But the Lower Basin states have already taken a significant hit to their “present perfected rights,” and if BuRec makes good on its promise to act unilaterally, they will face another big reduction. The cooperative relationship among the Basin states will not endure if the Upper Basin refuses to share the burden by reducing its consumption.

    The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project involves raising the height of the existing dam by 131 feet. The dam will be built out and will have “steps” made of roller-compacted concrete to reach the new height. Image credit: Denver Water

    A good place to start might lie with two Colorado projects to divert water from the Colorado River basin to the Front Range. Both began construction this summer. The Gross Reservoir Expansion Project will triple the size of one of Denver Water’s major storage units. Denver Water’s original justification for this project – to serve Denver’s growing urban population – seems odd given that water demand in their service area over the past two decades has shrunk, even as its population rose by nearly 300,000.

    Outflow from the dam across the Colorado River that forms Windy Gap Reservoir. Taken during a field trip the reservoir in September, 2017.

    Similar questions have been raised with the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Windy Gap Firming Project, which plans to store Colorado River water to support population growth in Front Range cities.

    These two projects suggest that Colorado is prepared to exacerbate the current crisis when the opposite response is so desperately needed.

    Abandoning these two projects would signal that Colorado is serious about giving the Colorado River a fighting chance at survival. It might also jump-start good-faith negotiations over how Mexico, the states, and tribes might work to achieve a long-term solution to this crisis.

    The homestead laws of the 19th century attracted a resilient group of farmers to the West who cleverly designed water laws to secure their water rights against all future water users. “First in time, first in right” became the governing mantra of water allocation, because, except for Tribal Nations, the farmers were first.

    That system worked well for many years. As communities grew, cities and water districts built reservoirs to store the spring runoff, ensuring that water was available throughout the irrigation season.

    Climate change and mega-droughts have upended that system. Nowhere have the consequences been as dire as in the Colorado River Basin. America’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead – key components of the Colorado River’s water storage system – have not filled for more than two decades. They now sit well below 30% of their capacity.

    Hotter temperatures, less mountain snowpack, and dry soils that soak up runoff like a sponge have brought us to this seven-state crisis. All seven states must now share the pain of addressing this crisis.

    The Upper Basin Commission’s anemic response to BuRec’s plea is not a serious plan. We can do better and we must.

    Mark Squillace and Quinn Harper are contributors to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. Mark Squillace is the Raphael J. Moses professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School. Quinn Harper is a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in natural resource policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

    Responding to #Drought in the #ColoradoRiver Basin: Federal and State Efforts — The Congressional Research Institute #COriver #aridification

    Click the link to access the report on the Congressional Research Service website (Charles V. Stern):

    The Colorado River Basin (Figure 1) covers more than 246,000 square miles in seven U.S. states and Mexico. Basin waters are managed and governed by multiple laws, court decisions, and other documents known collectively as the Law of the River. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 established a framework to apportion water supplies between the river’s Upper and Lower Basins (divided at Lee Ferry,AZ). Each basin was allocated 7.5 million acre-feet (MAF) annually under the compact; an additional 1.5 MAF in annual flows was made available to Mexico under a 1944 treaty. Since the Upper Basin’s waters were developed after much of the Lower Basin, its apportionments are significantly less than the full amount allowed under the compact and are framed mostly in terms of percentages of available supplies. The Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) plays a prominent role in basin water management due to the many federally authorized projects in the basin.

    Credit: The Congressional Research Service

    The Colorado River Basin is in the midst of a long-term drought, during which consumptive use has regularly exceeded natural flows. When federal and state governments originally approved the 1922
    compact, it was assumed based on the historical record that river flows would average 16.4 MAF per year.

    Actual flows from 1906 to 2020 were approximately 13.9 MAF, with flows averaging approximately 12.5 MAF since the onset of the basin’s drought in 2000. These conditions are projected to continue.

    Observers track the status of two large federal reservoirs—Lake Powell in the Upper Basin, impounded by Glen Canyon Dam, and Lake Mead in the Lower Basin, impounded by Hoover Dam—as an indicator of basin storage conditions. Reclamation makes operational decisions for basin reservoirs in monthly 24-month studies. Recent 24-month studies projected additional reductions in water storage at both reservoirs (Figure 2, Figure 3).

    Credit: USBR
    Credit: USBR

    Mitigating Drought in the Colorado River Basin Previously, there have been multiple efforts to improve the basin’s water supply outlook, including the
    2003 Quantitative Settlement Agreement, the 2007 Interim Shortage Guidelines, and the 2019 drought contingency plans (DCPs) for the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins. (The latter were authorized by Congress in P.L. 116-14.) The DCPs required reduced Lower Basin deliveries based on Lake Mead storage levels, authorized additional water conservation efforts, and put in place the framework for a Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) to coordinate Upper Basin operations to prevent the loss of hydropower generation at Glen Canyon Dam.

    Despite these efforts, storage levels at both reservoirs have continued to fall. In August 2021, Reclamation declared the first-ever Level One Shortage Condition for the Lower Basin, which formally triggered delivery curtailments for Arizona (512,000 AF) and Nevada (21,000 AF). Reclamation’s August 2021 24-month study also indicated for the first time the possibility of Lake Mead falling below 1,020 feet within two years, which resulted in agreement on a new set of actions in 2021, known as the 500+ Plan. This effort is expected to result in the conservation of an additional 500,000 AF in Lake Mead in 2022 and
    2023 (i.e., 1 MAF total).

    In March 2022, Lake Powell fell below 3,525 feet for the first time since the late 1960s. To alleviate the potential for lost hydropower generation at Glen Canyon Dam, the Department of the Interior initiated DROA operations, resulting in operational changes in July 2021 and January 2022. In May 2022, Reclamation invoked emergency authority to move approximately 500,000 AF of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Lake Powell and held back 480,000 AF of Lower Basin releases pursuant to the 2007 guidelines.

    At a June 14, 2022, congressional hearing, Reclamation announced that states needed to conserve an additional 2 MAF to 4 MAF in 2023 to protect storage volumes over the near term (2023-2026). This estimate was the result of a 2022 Reclamation analysis. Reclamation noted that if the target is not met with voluntary commitments by August 2022, the agency would act unilaterally. In a July 18, 2022, letter to Reclamation, Upper Basin representatives declined to contribute a specific volume of cutbacks to these
    efforts, instead laying out a five-point plan as the basis for its water conservation efforts.

    Congress is involved in basin management primarily through directives and authorizations for Reclamation projects and activities. In addition to the 2019 authorization of the DCPs, Congress has authorized “system conservation” efforts in the basin that expire in 2022. Congress also has appropriated regular and supplemental appropriations for Colorado River water conservation efforts in addition to regular operational funds. Legislation under consideration in the 117th Congress would enact other new authorities aimed at improving basin water management.

    The 2007 Interim Shortage Guidelines and the 2019 DCPs are set to expire at the end of 2026. Extending or amending previous agreements is central to future basin water management. On June 20, 2022, Reclamation published a “pre-scoping” notice seeking input on how to foster participation in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to develop post-2026 basin operations. A formal notice for NEPA scoping is expected in 2023.

    Author Information
    Charles V. Stern
    Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

    Is the #ColoradoRiver a bellwether for the [#Colorado’s] other river systems? — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #COriver #aridification

    Click the link to read the guest column on the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website (Eric Kuhn and Jennifer Gimbel). Here’s an excerpt:

    Unfortunately, the situation on the Colorado River is not unique. Colorado’s mountains are the headwaters of four major river systems: the Colorado, the Platte, the Arkansas and the Rio Grande. Each river provides critical water supplies for the present and future needs of our state; each is being impacted by the effects of climate change; and under Interstate water compacts signed decades ago, Colorado must share each with its neighboring downstream states. Climate change, or what scientists are now referring to as aridification, has caused all of Colorado to be hotter and drier. The combined effects of climate change, interstate water compact obligations and intense competition for the available water among different communities and water use sectors within our state means that future Coloradans will have to learn to do more with less water. This will take bold action, compromise and a new era of innovation and cooperation among competing water interests within Colorado and among Colorado and its neighboring states.

    Rio Grande through the eastern edge of Alamosa July 5, 2022. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

    Already, the farmers in Colorado’s fertile Rio Grande Basin are struggling to maintain an aquifer by restricting pumping. They face an awful choice — reduce their collective uses of the aquifer to a sustainable level so that some farms can survive, or they all fail. At the same time, the surface water supply from the Rio Grande River, which must be shared with New Mexico and Texas, has diminished and most likely will continue to do so.

    The Republican River’s South Fork near Hale, Colorado, with the region’s seemingly endless fields. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Jeffrey Beall

    The Republican River Basin, a small but agriculturally important river system that originates on the plains and flows east to its confluence with the Missouri River, is also stressed by overuse of the river supply. Productive farm fields are being fallowed so that Colorado can comply with the Republican River Compact. Fortunately for the Rio Grande and Republican river basins, the General Assembly set aside $60 million to buy out farms in order to leave water in the aquifers and river systems. That amount is a drop in the bucket for what will be needed to recover and sustain those systems.

    The Arkansas River and South Platte River systems also have significant challenges. These basins are home to 85% of Colorado’s population and to most of its commercial agriculture. The farm economy in the Arkansas has already suffered when the Colorado State Engineer had to cut back the use of alluvial wells, which were depleting flows to the Arkansas River and causing Colorado to be out of compliance with the Arkansas River Compact. The South Platte River system, which relies on return flows to sustain the river past the state line, is seeing much higher demands. The current return flow regime is threatened by Nebraska reinvigorating the proposed Perkin’s Ditch, a century-old feature provided for in the 1923 South Platte Compact. Both these basins are being hammered by the combined impacts of Front Range cities rushing to buy and dry existing farms to provide water for future growth while their water supplies imported from the Colorado River Basin have become less reliable due to climate change caused drought and compact obligations.

    Colorado’s future economy will depend on implementing innovative methods to sustain, deliver and treat water supplies while leaving enough water in our streams to maintain healthy and thriving aquatic ecosystems. Water delivery entities need to think broader to collaborate with others on ways to manage and share their supplies and their systems.

    Tribal sovereigns complain of being left out of #ColoradoRiver negotiations — @JFleck at Inkstain #COriver #aridification

    From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

    Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

    In a July 22 letter, the leaders of 14 Colorado River Basin Tribal governments complained to the U.S. Department of Interior about being left out – again – of the current negotiations around short terms Colorado River cutbacks:

    Colorado River Basin Tribes express concern about lack of access to summer 2022 negotiations (p. 1)

    View the entire document with DocumentCloud

    At this point, a voluntary “2 to 4 MAF of additional #conservation” #ColoradoRiver deal by August 16, 2022 seems out of reach — @JFleck at Inkstain #COriver #aridification

    Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Click the link to read the article on the Inkstain website (John Fleck):

    Janet Wilson had a helpful story yesterday in the Desert Sun about California’s negotiations over its piece of the looming Colorado River cutbacks. Its bottom line is that California – the state with the largest Colorado River allocation – is talking about kicking in 500,000 acre feet of water. Or maybe it’s really just 400,000 acre feet of water – as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Bill Hasencamp told her, paraphrased, the negotiations are fluid and numbers could change.

    A reminder of what Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told senators just seven weeks ago:

    4 million acre feet is obviously out of reach. It always was.

    But if Wilson’s numbers about California’s contributions are right – and she’s a good reporter, we have every reason to believe they’re in the ballpark – 2 million acre feet of additional conservation is beyond the grasp of a voluntary deal as well.

    The arithmetic is straightforward.

    The Upper Basin has said “not our problem“.

    Nevada’s share of the river is so tiny that its contribution is couch cushion change, a rounding error.

    That leaves, in round numbers, 1.5 million acre feet of water to come out of Arizona just to get to Touton’s bottom line number for additional conservation. That would require completely drying up the Central Arizona Project canal. (CAP is taking 1.031maf this year, and averaged ~1.4maf over the previous fives years). I’m frequently surprised by Arizona, but it seems unlikely that they’ll agree to a voluntary deal that dries up the CAP canal. If that’s where we end up, Arizona’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement will be to just make the feds do it, make them take the heat. (Worth noting that FiveThirtyEight has Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly slightly favored to hold his seat. Water politics is high stakes politics.)

    Combine that with the reality that Arizona’s Native American communities, major water rights holders, have complained that they’ve been cut out of this entire process, according to a July 22 letter just surfaced.

    I can imagine creative accounting that might allow everyone to grin through their teeth and count water moved down to Lake Powell from Flaming Gorge and other Upper Basin reservoirs as part of the 2 million. That’s pretty clearly not what Touton called for in June. It’s not “additional conservation”. But it might create some space for a face-saving deal.

    Whether that would be enough to protect us from dead pool is another question.

    A REMINDER OF THE STAKES

    The Bureau of Reclamation’s most recent “minimum probable” model runs show Lake Powell dropping below power pool – unable to generate electricity, and forced to move water through bypass tubes that Reclamation has made clear it does not trust – by October 2023.

    Under that same scenario, Lake Mead drops to elevation 992 feet above sea level over the next 24 months.

    (Trust me, having to type a Lake Mead elevation level without having to use a comma made me clench.)

    At that point, a lack of water will make massive cuts a self-executing reality. We’ve drained our buffer. You can’t use water that doesn’t exist.

    The #ColoradoRiver Compact and the future of green spaces — #Colorado State University #COriver #aridification

    nd the proliferation of green spaces. Credit: Colorado State University

    Click the link to read the article on the Colorado State University website (Corinne Neustadter):

    This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Colorado River Compact, an innovative and influential legal agreement among seven U.S. states that governs water rights to the Colorado River. In recognition of this anniversary, the Colorado State University Libraries will be spotlighting a series of stories in SOURCE about the ripple effects of this 100-year-old document on diverse people, disciplines and industries in 2022.

    Previous stories in this series include: How Colorado water history shapes the science of snow and why Western river compacts were innovative in the 1920s but couldn’t foresee today’s water challenges.

    One hundred and fifty two years ago, Colorado Agricultural College’s first buildings sat among sagebrush and prairie grasses. As the campus grew, its center became enshrined in a green meadow ringed by elms, a space now known as the iconic Oval.

    Today, Colorado State University’s green spaces are woven into the tapestry of campus life – from the Intramural Fields to Monfort Quad, they serve as informal parks for students and faculty alike to revel in the beauty of the Front Range.

    A western campus shaped by urban ideals

    These spaces speak to the larger power of the designed landscape in American life. Popularized by the public park movement and Frederick Law Olmsted’s layout of suburban landscapes in the late 1800s, large, green public spaces provided serene outdoor recreation in cities after the Industrial Revolution.

    “The democratic nature of large, open spaces on the East Coast was brought with people as they moved West,” said CSU landscape architecture professor Lori Catalano. “It was a way of creating central green spaces that were shared, but the plants and ideas migrated from a humid climate in the East to the semi-arid climate in the West.”

    As a growing land-grant institution, CSU’s adoption of the green aesthetic instilled the idea of parks as public spaces accessible to all.

    Though the Oval’s first elms were planted in 1881, it wasn’t until 1919 that it became the center of campus, soon after Fort Collins’ City Park was established. These spaces signified how far green spaces had spread from their wealthy urban roots and democratized access to parks in northern Colorado.

    “As humans, plants, and animals moved west, they modified the landscape,” Catalano said. “Alfred Crosby’s concept of ecological imperialism helps explain how emigrants moved westward with a variety of diseases, plants, and animals co-creating an environment that reinforced the presence of open grassy fields with trees.”

    After World War II, green spaces were adopted into front lawns by middle-class residents seeking a taste of luxury. CSU’s own green aesthetic bloomed as it grew. Spaces like the Monfort Quad, the Intramural Fields and the Lagoon complemented new architecture while creating new outdoor spaces for students between classes.

    Green oases in the prairie

    “Traditionally on campuses, buildings are grouped to create a series of outdoor rooms,” Catalano said. “Aesthetically, people and students expect large areas of green lawns with trees – they don’t expect it to look like prairie.”

    In the American West, these green landscapes live on and signal the continuing legacy of centuries-old ecological imperialism, but they contrast with the region’s naturally dry, beige prairies. CSU’s green spaces remain a central part of its identity and help unify landscapes without sacrificing flexibility and durability – which is critical for a campus that has thousands of students traverse its grounds during the school year.

    “College campuses are used a lot like parks and need a surface that is flexible and durable,” Catalano said. “Grass is very durable, as it can tolerate students walking over it, (playing) frisbee, picnicking, whereas our native grasses that require less water cannot tolerate that level of compaction.”

    Lawns are also simpler to maintain compared to native plants – all that’s required is mowing, fertilizing, and watering. But throughout the American West, green lawns contrast with dry, semi-arid landscapes and may not survive a resource-scarce future.

    “If campus reflected the natural landscape of Fort Collins, we’d see grasslands with Cottonwood trees and peach leaf willows along waterways,” Catalano said. “Visually, lawns hold a cultural power. They look good, they’re green … it’s what we know and what makes us comfortable.”

    What will green spaces look like in the future?
    With an unprecedented mega-drought in the Colorado River Basin, some states have challenged the ubiquity of green lawns.

    In Las Vegas, authorities started paying people to remove their irrigated lawns in the 1980s, and the program has been largely successful in curbing residential water use. As of 2021, any “non-functional” lawns are banned in Las Vegas to conserve water, reflecting how Nevada’s lower allocation of Colorado River water is already stretched thin.

    In Colorado, House Bill 22-1151, which was signed into law this past April, requires the Colorado Water Conservation Board to create a statewide program with $2 million in funding to incentivize replacing grass with “water-wise” landscaping.

    But, according to Catalano, changing how people understand and perceive the landscape can prove daunting.

    “It takes a lot of will and intention to make a commitment to changing the landscape,” she said. “We could incentivize it, but one challenge is, the price of water is relatively inexpensive – it takes someone who’s passionate and intentional about it to be enticed by incentives, because there’s not a huge financial gain. It’s a little like solar – we all want it, but how much are we willing to pay for it?”

    Curbing water usage through changing landscape aesthetics will be necessary to ensure the long-term health of the Colorado River Basin.

    In June, the U.S. government declared that the basin must cut its water usage by 2 to 4 million acre-feet or risk federal intervention. Meanwhile, CSU researchers found that most streams flowing through the Denver parks system only exist because of runoff sprinkler water. Reducing water consumption through limiting green lawns, then, could prove effective.

    Though CSU’s campus design now seems set in stone, its history reflects a century of cultural changes that have cultivated tree-lined avenues, sprawling fields and verdant quads. A long cry from Old Main set atop rolling plains, the future of these unifying spaces will be influenced by the state of the Colorado River Basin and pending water shortages.

    “Landscapes are often unseen, undervalued, and not understood. When people can’t see or don’t understand the processes and systems involved in creating and maintaining landscapes, it is difficult for them to value making a change,” she said. “When we begin to see and value alternative landscapes that require less water, reducing the dominance of lawns is possible.”

    Upper #ColoradoRiver leaders push back against federal ask for #conservation — KUNC #COriver #aridification

    Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Luke Runyon). Here’s an excerpt:

    State engineer Kevin Rein oversees the state’s water rights system. In a meeting with the Colorado River District board on Jul. 19, Rein assured members he would not be mandating conservation among their municipal, industrial and agricultural users. The district covers 15 counties in Western Colorado.

    “There is nothing telling me to curtail water rights. There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve,” Rein said…

    Colorado officials have argued the blame for the river’s supply-demand imbalance rests with California, Arizona and Nevada. Some doubt the federal government’s authority to demand the states use less water. The 1922 Colorado River Compact, a document that inflated available water within the entire basin, apportioned 7.5 million acre-feet of water to the river’s Upper and Lower Basins, respectively. In recent decades Lower Basin uses have exceeded that amount, while Upper Basin uses have remained below the apportionment.

    “We’re way under our allocation of 7.5 million acre-feet a year,” Rein said. “So what does that mean? ‘We need to conserve.’ To me, that means that we don’t change our administration at the state engineer’s office.”

    Rein said he has mandated water use reductions in other Colorado watersheds under the compact administration legal process. But the Colorado River has avoided that fate so far, he said. Without a solid legal basis, Rein said his hands are tied.

    “If you have a beneficial use for water and you have a right to water and the right is physically and legally available, then I would encourage people to use your water right. It’s a public resource. It’s a property right. It’s part of our economy. It’s part of your livelihood,” Rein said.

    “Somebody might tell me I’m wrong someday, but right now, I don’t see a legal basis for asking people to curtail,” Rein said…

    Colorado River District general manager Andy Mueller said he wanted to know how the federal government was planning to tighten how it accounts for water use in the Lower Basin, including evaporation from reservoirs, a longtime complaint of Upper Basin leaders.

    “It is extremely frustrating to see system water utilized for the benefit of the three Lower Basin states and us taking a hit for it. And now we are for the first time, frankly, about to be injured by it,” Mueller said.

    Upper Basin leaders have resisted calls for specific amounts of conservation on the Colorado River. In a plan released last week, the four Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — instead call for the reinstatement of a conservation program that paid farmers to forgo water supplies, first tested in 2014.

    #ColoradoRiver Basin farms stunted by #megadrought, as more sacrifice lies ahead — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette #COriver #aridification

    Palisade peach orchard

    Click the link to read the in-depth article on the Colorado Springs Gazette website (Mary Shinn). Click through for the whole article and to view the photo gallery. Here’s an excerpt:

    The same uncertainty facing [Nancy] Caywood’s family farm in Pinal County is widespread across the Colorado River basin following a Bureau of Reclamation announcement the seven states reliant on the river, including Colorado, need to conserve an additional 2-million to 4 million acre-feet of water next year to preserve the integrity of the stricken system, including power production in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Colorado Springs Utilities relies on the river for 70% of its water and so it’s possible the community could be asked to conserve more as the whole basin tries to balance the needs of farms, cities and industry. Utilities has not received any clear direction from the state or other agencies yet and is not expecting much change next year, Kalsoum Abbasi, Utilities’ planning supervisor for water conveyance, told the board in July…

    On Colorado’s Western Slope, growers with more junior rights have faced drought-driven uncompensated cutbacks and shutoffs in recent years and officials with the Colorado Water Conservation Board say that’s why major cuts to meet the Bureau’s goals should come from the Lower Basin states, such as California. Upper Basin states Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming cut 1 million acre-feet of water use between 2020 and 2021 because of the drought conditions. The board did not have an estimate of how much had been cut in Colorado alone.

    “Our water users are already really, really cut back,” said Amy Ostdiek, chief of the interstate, federal and water information section for the conservation board. For example, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Southwest Colorado fallowed more than 4,000 acres because of drought conditions…

    However, Colorado and the other Upper Basin states could achieve greater water savings by paying growers to leave land unplanted, a step known as demand management. Colorado policy makers want to avoid policies that permanently remove water rights from farmland, a practice known as buy and dry. The Upper Basin states said in a recent letter to the Bureau of Reclamation they would “consider” implementing demand management to meet the bureau’s goals. The bureau’s call for millions of acre-feet in conservation followed the first-ever Tier 1 cutbacks on the river that hit the Central Arizona Project hard this summer, showing how water shortages can play out…

    Aerial photo – Central Arizona Project. The Central Arizona Project is a massive infrastructural project that conveys water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona, and is central to many of the innovative partnerships and exchanges that the Gila River Indian Community has set up. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=326265

    As part of the Central Arizona Project deal, Arizona “would suffer losses before California would have to give up one drop of water,” said University of Arizona Professor Jeff Silvertooth, who has researched the profitability and sustainability of Southwest agriculture. “They never envisioned the possibility of what we are experiencing today.”

    Climate change has heightened the problem. While the basin has seen droughts with similar levels of low precipitation in the past, higher average temperatures further stress the environment, said Russ Schumacher, state climatologist…

    …the Central Arizona Project’s regular supply was cut by 30%, or about 500,000 acre-feet this year. The project cut agricultural deliveries by 65%, while urban areas received their full water deliveries. The cuts left farmers who are reliant on the canal to fallow large portions of land in Pinal County, near Caywood’s farm…While Central Arizona Project users are among the most junior on the river, Yuma, Ariz., a powerhouse of leafy green vegetable production, and Mesa County in Colorado, famous for Palisade peaches, are among the most senior. Still, some of those users have made water conservation changes…

    Colorado utilities support new approaches to conservation, because water saved by the Lower Basin can help preserve the levels in Lake Powell, said Todd Hartman, a spokesman for Denver Water. More study is needed to see how useful the N-Drip system would be in Colorado…Max Schmidt, with the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, said he expects water will have to leave the Western Slope to meet cities’ needs. He noted that in the Grand Valley, development typically happens on less productive farmland that already has water rights. But on the Front Range development has relied heavily on water from other basins.

    Orchard Mesa Irrigation District power plant near Palisade. Water from Colorado’s snowpack is distributed across the region through a complex network of dams, pipelines and irrigation canals. Photo credit: Orchard Mesa Irrigation District

    A #ColoradoRiver Glossary: Jargon Explained — Circle of Blue

    Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website (Brett Walton):

    These are perilous times in the troubled Colorado River basin, a make-or-break moment in which some of the nation’s fastest growing and most arid states begin to reckon with a drier future.

    The next month will be especially intense.

    Several weeks ago, in the face of another paltry runoff forecast, the Bureau of Reclamation issued an ultimatum to the basin’s seven states: to keep key reservoirs Mead and Powell from crashing, develop a plan by mid-August to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water in the next year — or the Bureau would make the cuts as it sees fit.

    Those are astounding figures. On the higher end, that amount of conservation is one-third of the Colorado’s recent annual flow. It’s also about as much water as California is allocated from the river.

    The plan’s due date coincides with the publication of a highly anticipated and consequential Bureau of Reclamation report. The so-called 24-month study — tentatively scheduled for August 15 — determines how much water Mead and Powell will release in 2023. It also determines how much water Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico, which shares the basin, will be required to forgo next year.

    Discussions about the Colorado River can resemble a doctor’s visit: filled with technical jargon, unfamiliar acronyms, and the anxiety that comes from incomplete understanding.

    This glossary is an attempt to demystify the language. It outlines key terms and phrases and their context — so as the basin chatter heats up you can keep your DCP and DROA actions straight and know who’s taking ICS.

    Map credit: AGU

    Upper/Lower Basin

    In terms of law and management, the Colorado River basin is split in two.

    The upper basin states are Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming (plus a tiny sliver of Arizona that is essentially Navajo Nation land). The lower basin is Arizona, California, and Nevada. Separate agreements bring Mexico into the mix.

    Las Vegas Lake Mead intake schematic, courtesy SNWA.

    Dead Pool

    All reservoirs have limits. Dead pool, an evocative term, is the ultimate limit. It’s the point at which water can no longer be released downstream because a reservoir falls below its lowest outlet pipe.

    For Lake Mead, dead pool is elevation 895 feet. For Powell, 3,370 feet.

    Today, the reservoirs are at 1,040 feet and 3,536 feet, both at about 27 percent of full capacity.

    Even at dead pool some water might remain in the reservoir, but it can’t flow without extraordinary assistance. Las Vegas, in a proactive step, invested $1.3 billion in an intake pipe and low-elevation pumping station that allow the city to draw water from Mead when the reservoir is at dead pool.

    Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam is used to produce hydropower that is delivered over a 17,000-mile transmission grid, reaching six states and 5 million people. Photo courtesy Western Area Power Administration.

    Minimum Power Pool

    A second limit for a reservoir, minimum power pool refers to the water level required to generate hydropower.

    This is the level near the location of the penstocks. Penstocks are the pipes that move water from the reservoir to the power-generating turbines.

    For Powell, minimum power pool is 3,490 feet. The Bureau of Reclamation is attempting to prevent Powell from dropping below this level.

    For Mead, minimum power pool is 950 feet.

    Natural Flow is an estimate of how much water would have naturally run past Lee’s Ferry if there were no dams or diversions upstream. It is calculated using the actual flow, historic flows, and upstream consumptive uses. Bureau of Reclamation modeling is complete to 2019; I extrapolated 2020 and 2021 based on Lake Powell inflows. The 1922 Colorado River Compact gave 7.5 million acre feet to the Upper Basin, 7.5 MAF to the Lower Basin, and (in the ‘40s) 1.5 MAF to Mexico, based on early 1900s observations. As the graph above shows, the average flows dropped below that level a decade later and stayed there aside from a brief respite in the 1980s. Source: USBR

    Operational Neutrality

    The Bureau of Reclamation took an unprecedented step in May, announcing that it would reduce releases from Powell to Mead this year by 480,000 acre-feet.

    The move helped keep Powell above minimum power pool. But it came with a worrisome side effect for the lower basin states: less water sent downstream to Mead.

    They have good reason to worry. Depriving Mead of that water meant a greater likelihood of a more severe shortage tier for the lower basin next year. Mead, in fact, has plummeted this year, falling 21 feet since April.

    The states and the feds agreed to a work-around. To maintain “operational neutrality” the shortage tiers for next year would be calculated as if the 480,000 acre-feet had been released to Mead. In other words, on paper the water is in Mead…but in reality it sits upstream in Powell.

    Every bit of water matters these days. Currently one foot of elevation change in Mead is equal to about 70,000 acre-feet. So the 480,000 acre-feet held back in Powell corresponds to roughly 6.8 feet in Mead.

    How long will this shadow accounting be in place? Becki Bryant, a Reclamation spokesperson, told Circle of Blue that the agency is discussing that matter with the states. They hope to reach an agreement by the publication of the August 24-month study.

    24-Month Study

    The name explains its purpose. Published every month, this Bureau of Reclamation study projects reservoir elevations in the Colorado River basin for following 24 months.

    The pivotal edition is the August study, which sets the operating conditions for the reservoirs for the next year. Here’s how it works:

    Reclamation looks at the projected elevations of Mead and Powell at the beginning of the upcoming year. Their elevations determine how much water flows from Powell to Mead. There are complex charts that describe the scenarios and dictate the decision.

    In turn, Mead’s elevation determines if the lower basin states are in a shortage tier, which requires water supply cuts from the river.

    Images from the NASA Earth Observatory released in early July focused on the northern arm of Lake Mead and its decline from 2000 until now. As western states are being asked for solutions to keep Lake Mead and Lake Powell from hitting critical low points, there is more talk about what it would take to pump water from the Mississippi River to western states as well. (Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory)

    Shortage Tiers

    When Mead drops below certain elevations, the lower basin states and Mexico must reduce their withdrawals from the river.

    The shortage tiers have evolved as the basin’s water supply imbalance has become more pronounced.

    The initial tiers were set in 2007, in what are known as the interim guidelines. The tiers were updated in 2019 in the DCP. What’s that, you ask?

    Colorado River drought contingency plans signing ceremony in May 2019. Photo: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

    DCP

    Short for drought contingency plan, the DCP was approved by the basin states and the federal government in 2019.

    The DCP updated the shortage tiers by increasing the amount of water cuts that lower basin states would take as Mead drops. For the first time, California agreed to take cuts, but not until Mead drops below 1,045.

    In 2022, the lower basin is in a Tier 1 shortage. Arizona is taking most of the cuts.

    What about the upper basin? Those states signed DROA…

    Lees Ferry, located 15 miles downstream of Glen Canyon Dam is the dividing line between the upper and lower Colorado River basins. Photo/Allen Best

    DROA

    Short for drought response operations agreement, this is the upper basin’s portion of the DCP. It outlines actions that the upper basin will take to preserve water levels in Powell.

    Arizona Rivers Map via Geology.com.

    Shortage Tier 2A

    One of two possible shortage tiers for 2023. This tier occurs when the August 24-month study projects that Mead will be between 1,050 feet and 1,045 feet on January 1 of the following year.

    Mead is on the cusp right now. Alan Butler, a Reclamation hydraulic engineer, said on July 13 that Mead is projected to be at elevation 1,045.9 feet in January, after accounting for operational neutrality.

    If a 2A tier is declared, Arizona continues to take the largest cut. It would forgo 592,000 acre-feet, about four-fifths of the total cuts shared by the lower basin and Mexico.

    California Rivers via Geology.com

    Shortage Tier 2B

    This is the other possible outcome, which would take place if Mead is projected to be between 1,045 feet and 1,040 feet.

    In this tier, California takes its first shortage cuts. Though Arizona, having to cut 640,000 acre-feet, would still feel the most pain, California would be required to cut 200,000 acre-feet.

    These shortage tier numbers do not include Reclamation’s mandate for 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of additional savings, nor do they include the 500-plus plan.

    Aerial photo – Central Arizona Project. The Central Arizona Project is a massive infrastructural project that conveys water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona, and is central to many of the innovative partnerships and exchanges that the Gila River Indian Community has set up. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=326265

    500-Plus Plan

    An agreement from lower basin states to conserve an additional 500,000 acre-feet in 2022 and 2023 beyond what was required in the Tier 1 shortage declaration for 2022. The states and federal government contributed $200 million combined, money that will pay water users to leave their allocations in Mead.

    Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck.

    Protection Volumes

    When Reclamation ordered the basin states to plan for 2 million to 4 million acre-feet in additional conservation, Camille Touton, the agency’s leader, said it was to protect “critical levels” in Mead and Powell.

    What are those critical levels? Reclamation analyzed two scenarios. But the conservation mandate was derived from the scenario that keeps more water in the reservoirs.

    That scenario is Mead above 1,020 feet and Powell above 3,525 feet. The “protection volumes” are the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet needed to preserve the reservoirs above those thresholds.

    Filtration pipes at Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s wastewater recycling demonstration plant. (Source: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California)

    ICS

    An acronym that stands for intentionally created surplus, which acts like a savings account in Mead.

    Lower basin water users can accrue ICS when they undertake conservation projects that permanently reduce consumption. Combined, the lower basin states have just accumulated shy of 3 million acre-feet of ICS credits stored in Mead.

    Some of that water will be drawn this year. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a large wholesale agency, anticipates taking 175,000 acre-feet of ICS, according to spokesperson Bob Muir. This is to offset reduced allocations from the State Water Project, a canal system that moves water from north to south in California.

    Here are 5 things the #drought-parched West could do before taking Midwestern #water — The Desert Sun

    Missouri River Reuse Project via The New York Times

    Click the link to read the article on the Palm Springs Desert Sun website. Here’s an excerpt:

    Hmmm. I found a recent letter to Midwesterners published rather insulting. I think the West needs to solve its own problems without making problems for other regions at a huge cost. Who is going to pay for the water transfer anyway? Certainly, Midwesterners don’t want to. A few suggestions for Western states:

  • Stop building golf courses that use tons of water and get rid of most of them.
  • Stop planting grass and plants that don’t belong in a desert and watering them day and night to grow
  • Replace water parks with something that fits into a desert area
  • Stop developers from building more homes and promising 100 years of water usage. Obviously, you are running out much sooner. City planners are not doing a good job about growth and water management in a region that was way overbuilt 20 years ago.
  • Reduce the asphalt and concrete poured to make roads and parking lots. No trees or greenery certainly doesn’t keep things cooler.
  • Does the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin Routinely Take Shortages in Dry Years? — InkStain.net #COriver #aridification

    Click the link to read the post on the InkStain.net website (John Fleck, Eric Kuhn, and Jack Schmidt):

    As stakeholders negotiate the current crisis on the Colorado River, we believe the representatives of the states of the Upper Basin – our states – are making a dangerous argument.

    Their premise is simple. With deep cutbacks needed, the Upper Basin states argue that their part of the watershed already routinely suffers water supply shortages in dry years. Without the luxury of large reservoir storage along the rim of the watershed that might store excess runoff in wet years and supplement supplies in dry years, the argument goes, the Upper Basin is limited by the actual mountain snowpack in any given year.

    This is certainly true in many places. One of us (Fleck) lives in a community (Albuquerque, New Mexico) that has routinely seen supplies of trans-basin San Juan-Chama Project water shorted because of bad hydrology in a given year.

    Montezuma Tunnel steel arches.

    That is also the case for the oft-cited Dolores Water Conservancy District, which has junior water rights to the supply provided by McPhee Reservoir that is part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Dolores Project. In contrast, the adjacent Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company has pre-Colorado River Compact water rights and its access to the same water source is relatively unlimited. The argument of the Upper Basin states about using less water in dry times applies in many local settings, especially in the local context of prior appropriation water rights. The argument is certainly logical.

    But when one considers the regional scale of the entire Upper Basin, the argument is not supported by the data in the Bureau of Reclamation’s Consumptive Uses and Losses reports.

    Upper Colorado River Basin agricultural water use in wetter and drier years. Graph by Jack Schmidt, Utah State University

    Importantly, a scatter plot of Upper Basin agricultural water use since 1981 shows, in general, the opposite of what is being claimed. While agricultural use varies greatly from to year, in general, use has been greater in dry years and less in wet years.

    In this plot, the estimated natural flow at Lees Ferry (a good representation of whether any individual year was wet or dry) is plotted against the summed agricultural use of water by all of the Upper Basin states. This simple analysis provides results counter to the assertion of the Upper Colorado River Commission in the sense that agricultural use of water was greater in years of low natural flow at Lees Ferry and was less in years of high natural flow at Lees Ferry. Thus, this simple relationship indicates that agriculture uses less water in wet years and more water in dry years, which is exactly the opposite of the assertion by the Upper Basin community.

    Upper Colorado River Basin water use over time. Graph by Jack Schmidt, Utah State University, based on USBR Consumptive Uses and Losses Reports

    Another way of looking at this question is to consider the long term temporal trend. If the Upper Basin’s argument was correct, we would see a decline in agricultural water use in the 21st century, because the river’s flow shrank during the aridification of the 21st century. However, use has not decreased.

    There are important nuances in the data. In the second year of some consecutive dry years like 2012-2013, the Upper Basin’s total consumptive use drops significantly, perhaps because local storage is depleted in the first year and doesn’t fully refill in the second year. This may be the situation in 2020-2021 as well.

    Why do we view the argument as dangerous? Because Lower Basin interests can do the same math we have. They almost certainly already have. That leaves the Upper Basin with a fragile foundation for entering the negotiations over the compromises that are certain to be needed to modify the Colorado River’s allocation rules in the face of climate change.

    Authors:

  • John Fleck is Writer in Residence at the Utton Transboundary Resources Center, University of New Mexico School of Law
  • Eric Kuhn is retired general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District based in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and spent 37 years on the Engineering Committee of the Upper Colorado River Commission
  • Jack Schmidt is Professor of Watershed Sciences and director of the Future of the Colorado River Project at Utah State University
  • Map credit: AGU

    Ditches are a vanishing paradise — Writers on the Range

    Highline Canal Denver

    Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (David Marston):

    “The water ditch is the basin of civilization” — Greg Hobbs.

    Annette Choszczyk lives in rural western Colorado these days, but when she was a kid, the Highline Canal in Denver was her summer paradise.

    “To us, it was river and a playground, complete with rope swings, swimming holes, crawdads and a trail alongside it that adults and kids could walk on to the foothills or far out into the prairie.” They always called it a ditch, this 71-mile-long canal that carried water all over Denver.

    Throughout the West, thousands of ditches that snake for miles through semi-arid country are nothing less than beloved. They add living green corridors to walk or bike along, impromptu wetlands frequented by birds, and always, a respite from summer heat.

    But now a warming climate delivers less melted snow to rivers that supply these diversion ditches with water. Federal legislation also mandates piping many earthen ditches to cut salinity in the Colorado River water that’s sent to Mexico.

    The result: Dry trails, disappearing wetlands and the end of a rural and urban amenity.

    Many people mourn the loss. “With less water we have to figure out how to try to retain the best of what we value the most,” says John Fleck, a water researcher at the University of New Mexico’s Utton Center. He says the Griego Lateral, in Albuquerque, that he regularly bikes along, was built in 1708, and during the COVID lockdown, the ditch bank was mobbed with bikers and walkers desperate to get outdoors. “There is incredible value in these ditches,” he says.

    But Fleck points out that we’re confronted by difficult choices: “How much water do we keep in rivers and which ditches do we save?” Any loss can be painful, and in a blog post, Fleck said simply: “I love living near a ditch.”

    You could say of Cary Denison, former project coordinator for Trout Unlimited and an irrigator, that he was born in irrigation boots. “In western Colorado, my dad was the superintendent of the Fire Mountain Canal,” he says, “and my first job was irrigating.” These days, though, Denison thinks rivers get shortchanged because too much water gets diverted into ditches.

    “Then a river suffers,” he says. “We need to maintain enough water in the river for fish and plant life.”

    Dennison recalls a startling moment as he irrigated family property outside of Hotchkiss, Co. The gated 12-inch pipe was clogged, so he and his brother began cleaning it out, expecting a mass of leaves and twigs. But the clog turned out to be the biggest brown trout — “and I fished almost daily,” he says — that he’d ever seen. That fish had come a long way. Their property was nine miles from the diversion where the river was sweeping almost entirely into the ditch.

    These days Dennison is an irrigator himself and lives in the town of Ridgway. But he recalls that giant brown trout as “a day where irrigators should have taken less.” The experience led Denison toward his work in conservation: “We need to take only the water from rivers we absolutely need.”

    Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

    Fleck and other students of the Colorado River see a time coming soon when many water diversions will cease because of their lower priority dates. Some ditches are already dry, as the water gets left in the river for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. These states share the river equally with the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, where the river begins and gathers strength.

    Over centuries, says Fleck, “one of the things that we’ve done in all these Western landscapes is to narrow the river itself with levees and dams and control it in a narrow channel. And we’ve distributed water across the floodplain through ditches. It’s this huge rich, complex social and cultural ecosystem that we’ve all lived in for hundreds of years.”

    But increasing aridity is already changing that pattern. Earlier this summer, Choszczyk, who now lives in western Colorado, mourned the loss of some of her local ditches as they got piped, ending the riparian ribbon that enhanced her neighborhood.

    “Generations of children will have poorer childhoods because they will never have a ‘wild’ place along a ditch to explore,” she says.

    It’s hard to love a semi-desert once you’ve come to appreciate the wonders that a ditch can bring.

    Dave Marston is publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to lively discussion about the West.

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    As critical deadline nears, only half of a plan to save #ColoradoRiver water has been proposed: The most substantial #water cuts must come from #Arizona and #California, which use the most water, experts say — The #Denver Post #COriver #aridification

    A field of produce destined for grocery stores is irrigated near Yuma, Ariz., a few days before Christmas 2015. Photo/Allen Best – See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2016/02/09/drying-out-of-the-american-southwest/#sthash.7xXVYcLv.dpuf

    Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Conrad Swanson). Here’s an excerpt:

    Water officials from Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming published a plan this week to appease federal officials wanting to save water from the drying Colorado River but didn’t include any specific, mandatory cuts to save the precious resource. One critic called the Upper Colorado River Commission’s five-point plan “meaningless gibberish” but Jennifer Gimbel, senior water policy scholar at Colorado State University’s Water Center, said it’s the strongest action she’s seen from the states in recent years. The most substantial cuts and savings must come from Arizona and California, Gimbel noted, since those two states are taking more water than the Colorado River has to give…

    The upper-basin states are also limited in the amount of cuts they can make in water use because they’re dependent on the amount of snow and rain that falls each year, Sara Leonard, spokeswoman for the Upper Colorado River Commission, said. Now eyes turn to those lower-basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

    “We look forward to hearing what they may bring to the table,” Leonard said.

    U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials gave all seven states until August 15 to create a plan to save between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet of water. If they fail, the federal government will take control and impose its own cuts as water use exceeds supply and an ongoing megadrought continues to sap water from the Colorado River…

    Charles Collum, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, wrote to Reclamation officials on Monday noting that water users in the four states “already suffer chronic shortages” under current conditions but also outlining his organization’s five-point plan to help save more water. The plan includes considering a new demand management program, better measuring and monitoring water use, continuing existing “strict water management and administration” and developing a new “Drought Response Operations Plan.”

    …the upper-basin states already live within their water allotment, Leonard added, and they cut water use by 25% last year.

    “Meanwhile, Lower Basin uses have not been reduced despite the unprecedented drought impacting the Basin,” Leonard said in an email.

    Those states, particularly Arizona and California, are using nearly 10 million acre-feet each year, more than they’re legally allotted. As of Friday, lower-basin states had yet to put forth any plan of their own.

    #Johnstown implements outdoor watering limits — The #Loveland Reporter-Herald

    Photo credit: Consolidated Home Supply Ditch and Reservoir Company

    Click the link to read the article on the Loveland Reporter-Herald website (Jocelyn Rowley). Here’s an excerpt:

    Amid a sharp increase in water demand, the Johnstown Town Council voted earlier this week to enact an outdoor watering schedule for residents and businesses. Starting July 19, properties in town are required to limit outdoor watering to three days per week, before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m. only…

    The new schedule limits homes and businesses with even-numbered addresses to watering lawns and gardens on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Odd-numbered addresses are limited to Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Outdoor watering is prohibited all day on Sunday.

    The town also announced that it will be curtailing municipal outdoor watering, or switching to non-potable sources. Local homeowners associations are also asked to limit their water use by adhering to the schedule for even-numbered addresses.

    The restrictions were implemented not due to a water shortage, but rather a shortage of water storage infrastructure in Johnstown. According to Barker, the typical demand of 1.5 million gallons per day “shoots up” to as much as 5.7 million during the months of July, August and September, depleting a system that has just 6.2 million gallons of total capacity.

    “We don’t have a shortage of water,” she said. “Our water portfolio is very healthy. We’re just currently dealing with a demand on our system during the hot summer weeks where we’re reaching that capacity of treated, stored water and we’re having to handle it through this water schedule.”

    Johnstown’s water is supplied from two sources — the Consolidated Home Supply Ditch and Reserve Company and the Colorado Big Thompson-Project. According to Barker, the town currently owns 4,500 acre-feet, providing 14.6 billion gallons per year or, “enough water to serve 9,000 single-family homes per year.”

    Johnstown is currently in the process of expanding its capacity to store more of that 14.6 billion gallons, and hopes to have at least one piece of the puzzle in place by the end of the year — a new water tower near the Pioneer Ridge subdivision on Weld County Road 17.

    #Wyoming options limited in #ColoradoRiver #drought effort: Under a federal deadline to commit additional #water to downstream states, Wyoming officials say they can’t get specific about volumes — @WyoFile #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification

    A paddler plies the placid waters of the upper Green River, with the Bridger Wilderness of the Wind River Mountains as a backdrop. The Green River is the main tributary to the troubled Colorado River. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

    Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile.com website (Dustin Bleizeffer):

    Wyoming joined the three other Upper Colorado River Basin states this week in telling federal officials they will take on additional water conservation efforts, but cannot commit to sending specific volumes of water to downstream states in 2023.

    “We stand ready to participate in and support efforts, across the Basin, to address the continuing dry hydrology and depleted storage conditions,” Upper Colorado River Commission Executive Director Charles Cullom stated in a July 18 letter to the Bureau of Reclamation. “The options the Upper Division States have available to protect critical reservoir elevations are limited.”

    The federal government in June asked for firm, voluntary water conservation commitments among all seven Colorado River Basin states that would keep an additional 2 million to 4 million acre feet of water flowing into Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2023. That’s the estimated volume of additional water necessary to keep the levels at Powell and Mead high enough to continue generating hydroelectricity next year. Wyoming is one of four upper-basin states governed by the Colorado River Compact.

    Map credit: AGU

    For comparison, the Flaming Gorge Reservoir straddling the Wyoming-Utah border has a storage capacity of 3.8 million acre feet of water.

    If unsatisfied with the voluntary commitments, the Bureau of Reclamation and Interior Department are prepared to use their federal authority to implement mandatory water conservation actions, according to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton. Touton issued the challenge to Colorado River Basin states in June, giving them 60 days to submit their voluntary water savings commitments. States have until Aug. 15 to respond.

    But for Wyoming, one of the four Upper Basin states along with Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, it’s impossible to either quantify or guarantee a specific volume of water savings under the ongoing Colorado River Drought Response Operations Plan, according to Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart.

    Mother Nature is the biggest reason behind that, he said. As a headwaters state, Wyoming’s role in the Colorado River system is that of a supplier, and that supply varies wildly depending on seasonal snowfall, evaporation and soil moisture — even more so than volumes of water used by ag producers, industry and municipalities.

    “We really are unable to commit to any specific volumes by the deadline [Aug. 15],” Gebhart said. “The [water supply estimating] process requires forecasting data that isn’t available until late winter and early spring of 2023.”

    Further, Gebhart added, the federal government lacks the authority to force those with water rights in Wyoming to curtail their water use, and the state is reluctant to do so because it would require coordination among thousands of water rights users. “We would much rather have the water rights users decide how they want to be involved than for us to go in and regulate.”

    Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah side near the dam in September 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

    Wyoming and other Upper Colorado River Basin states should feel an obligation to do a better job of accounting for their water use compared to seasonal water availability, Great Basin Water Network Executive Director Kyle Roerink said. That would help those states set more specific targets in contributing to the system-wide drought response plan.

    “For right now, the response from the Upper Basin states has been ‘hell no, we’re not giving up a drop,’” Roerink said.

    Colorado River crisis

    The continuing climate change-driven aridification across much of the West has depleted Colorado River reservoirs to historic lows, threatening hydroelectric power generation and water supplies to some 40 million people who rely on the river system. The surface elevation at Lake Powell fell to 3,522 feet in June, the lowest since construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s. Water intake ducts at the dam’s hydroelectric power station would no longer function if the lake’s surface level reaches 3,490 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

    Increasing demand for water throughout the southwest combined with climate forecasts suggest the situation will only become worse for those dependent on the river system.

    “The conditions we see today, and the potential risks we see on the horizon, demands that we take prompt action.” Interior Department Assistant Secretary Tanya Trujillo told reporters in May.

    Boat ramps stretch to the water at Flaming Gorge Reservoir in September 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

    The Bureau of Reclamation owns and operates a large complex of reservoirs along the Colorado River and its tributaries that serve as a water banking system. That includes the Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River in Wyoming and Utah. The Green River, the chief tributary to the Colorado River, originates in the Wind River Range, flows to Flaming Gorge Reservoir, then connects with the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

    In June, the Bureau of Reclamation announced it would release an extra 500,000 acre feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir this year, dropping the surface level by an estimated 15 feet sometime in the fall. The agency also plans to withhold 480,000 acre feet of water in Lake Powell, while Colorado River Lower Basin users agreed to increased water conservation measures.

    Federal and state officials worry that more drastic measures may be required to maintain critical water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead next year and for the foreseeable future.

    “Despite the actions taken by the [Bureau of Reclamation], significant and additional conservation actions are required to protect the Colorado River system infrastructure and the long-term stability of the system,” Commissioner Touton testified to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in June.

    More conservation tools
    Rather than committing to sending specific volumes of water downstream, the four Upper Basin states say they need the Interior’s help in pushing Congress to reauthorize the 2014 System Conservation Pilot Project. The program offered payments to water rights users who voluntarily cut back on their normal water diversions.

    “[Reauthorization] is a Congressional action,” Gebhart said. “And because [the SCPP program] is voluntary, we don’t know what amount of participation will occur.”

    U.S. Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) said they would bring a reauthorization bill to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this month.

    Other elements of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s counter-offer, or “5 Point Plan,” include asking the federal government to fund better water measurement, monitoring and reporting tools. Combined with reauthorizing the SCPP, Wyoming and other Upper Colorado River Basin states can build a more “permanent” program to manage water demand, according to Gebhart and the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office.

    Setting up a comprehensive conservation plan is the best Wyoming can offer for now, said Chris Brown, Wyoming Senior Assistant Attorney General for the office’s water division.

    “It’s something we can do to try to help the system within the time period that the [Bureau of Reclamation] commissioner asked for,” Brown said. “We’ll set that up and do what we can to try to incentivize reductions in use.”

    Committing specific volumes of water savings is “logistically impossible” to do by the Aug. 15 deadline, he added.

    Meantime, Gebhart said he and other Wyoming officials will continue to work within Gov. Mark Gordon’s Colorado River Working Group and with all the Colorado River Basin stakeholders in figuring out how Wyoming can help stabilize the river system under worsening conditions.

    DUSTIN BLEIZEFFER

    Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily… More by Dustin Bleizeffer

    West Drought Monitor map July 19, 2022.

    #Arizona #Water Leaders Lay Out Plans For Facing The Emerging Crisis In The #ColoradoRiver System — Arizona Department of Water Resources #COriver #aridification

    Graphic credit: USBR

    Click the link to read the article on the Arizona Department of Water Resources website:

    Arizona’s water leaders on July 13 laid out the path forward for contending with the extraordinarily difficult choices facing all of the Colorado River system’s water users over the next several months.

    In a sobering presentation to the Arizona Reconsultation Committee (the panel assembled to help develop an Arizona perspective on new operational guidelines for the river system by 2026), Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke described the unprecedented challenges facing the system currently.

    In addition, they gave the ARC members a first glimpse into the negotiations among Colorado River states on how they will contend with enormous water-delivery cutbacks.

    Alan Butler of the Bureau of Reclamation provided an analysis of the river system’s current hydrology and an analysis of the enormous volumes of water that must be left in Lake Powell and Lake Mead to protect the system from descending to below critical levels.

    Butler told the ARC members that the system currently is at 35 percent of capacity, down from 41 percent of capacity at this time last year. He observed that Lake Mead will almost certainly be in a Tier 2 shortage condition in 2023.

    “That continued declining condition is predicted to continue,” said Butler.

    On June 14, Bureau Commissioner Camille Touton said at a U.S. Senate committee hearing that the Colorado River system would need between 2-4 million acre-feet of additional conservation in the two reservoirs to achieve stability. Butler emphasized that his analysis of the critical surface levels that needed to be maintained did not suggest specific amounts that each Basin States would need to conserve.

    “We wanted to quantify the magnitude of what it would take to keep the reservoirs at those levels, but we’re not attributing that to anyone or any one basin.”

    CAP GM Cooke recalled Commissioner Touton’s comments to the Senate in which she observed that the necessary volumes could not be achieved by any one entity, such as agriculture or municipal water providers, or by any one state.

    Map of the Colorado River drainage basin, created using USGS data. By Shannon1 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

    She said that “everyone had to participate across the Basin, and that includes Upper Basin and Lower Basin.”

    “It doesn’t take much diving into the math to realize that this is the case,” said Cooke.

    By itself, he added, Arizona has committed to conserving more than 800,000 acre-feet in the system in 2022 alone, when all the various commitments like the Drought Contingency Plan and the 500+ Plan and volunteer efforts are totaled.

    Butler’s presentation illustrated one of the most serious developments affecting the system – the fact that very low volumes of water are making it into the river system despite near-normal volumes of snowpack in the river’s main source of moisture, the Colorado Rockies.

    Director Buschatzke laid out for the audience the actions that he anticipates will be needed to stabilize the system.

    He particularly recalled Commissioner Touton’s June 14 testimony in which she asserted the federal government’s commitment to protecting the system, even if the Basin States could not come to an agreement among themselves.

    “Her answer was, ‘yes, we will protect the system.”

    “We’re hearing a consistent story from the United States that they are going to protect the system, that everyone needs to contribute, and that while priorities will be respected to some degree, they are not going to be the outcome at the end of the day.”

    With considerable emphasis, Buschatzke also declared he would vigorously oppose any effort to make the “junior” status of most Central Arizona Project water the solution to the Colorado River system’s current crisis:

    “We in Arizona are not going to walk out of any room in which an agreed-upon outcome is CAP going to zero. That is not something that Ted and I will ever agree to.

    “If they want to force that outcome on us we will deal with those impacts, but we are not going to voluntarily send CAP into the mud.”

    (Sen. Mark Kelly Questions Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton During Hearing On Extreme Drought In The Western United States)

    Big #Water Pipelines, an Old Pursuit, Still Alluring in Drying West — Circle of Blue

    The Second Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades, located in Sylmar, just east of the I-5 Freeway near Newhall Pass, in the San Gabriel Mountains foothills of the northeastern San Fernando Valley. The Cascades are the terminus of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brings water 338 miles (544 km) from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. Construction of the aqueduct began in 1908 and completed in 1913. The cascades are a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM #742), a California Historical Landmark (#653), and a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. By Los Angeles (talk · contribs) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4882240

    Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website (Brett Walton):

  • As the region’s climate becomes drier, more pipelines are being proposed despite the economic and climate risks.
  • Pipelines that are advancing the fastest are rural and tribal projects backed by federal funding.
  • The proposals echo a century of large-scale water engineering that ushered in the modern era in the American West.
  • Across the country’s western drylands, a motley group of actors is responding to the region’s intensifying water crisis by reviving a well-worn but risky tactic: building water pipelines to tap remote groundwater basins and reservoirs to feed fast-growing metropolitan areas, or to supply rural towns that lack a reliable source.

    Government agencies, wildcat entrepreneurs, and city utilities are among those vying to pump and pipe water across vast distances — potentially at great economic and environmental cost. Even as critics question the suitability of the water transfers in a new climate era, supporters in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, the federal government, Indian tribes, and other states are prepared to spend billions on water-supply pipelines.

    Lake Powell Pipeline map via the Washington County Water Conservancy District, October 25, 2020.

    The pipelines range in length from several dozen miles to several hundred and the largest are intended to transport tens of millions of gallons per day. Among these is the 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline, a roughly $2 billion project that aims to deliver 86,000 acre-feet (28 billion gallons) each year to Washington County, in Utah’s southwest corner.

    Not all the projects are cut from the same cloth. Because of the daunting expense, lengthy permitting process, and legal battles, projects with federal backing have a leg up. The infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden last November includes $1 billion for rural water supply projects in the western states. Many of these projects, including one in progress in eastern New Mexico, were authorized more than a decade ago.

    The infrastructure bill also includes $2.5 billion for tribal water rights settlements, which typically include a water-supply component. The Navajo-Gallup water pipeline, now under construction in northwest New Mexico to supply the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache Tribe, and the city of Gallup, is part of the San Juan River water rights settlement.

    Owens Valley

    The current batch of pipeline proposals traces its lineage to a century of engineering and building mammoth water supply projects that ushered in the modern era of the American West. State and federal canals snake the length of California. Los Angeles bullied its way into the Owens Valley in the 1910s, eventually siphoning the valley’s water through an aqueduct. A few years later, San Francisco reached into Hetch Hetchy Valley for a reservoir and pipeline. The Central Arizona Project, which broke ground in the 1970s, was built to lift 1.5 million acre-feet of water — almost 500 billion gallons a year — more than a half mile in elevation along its 336-mile course to supply Phoenix and Tucson. In Colorado, at least 11 major projects pierce the Rockies, transferring water to the high-growth Front Range. States west of the 100th meridian would not have been able to attract millions of residents or develop their commercial and agricultural sectors without these water projects.

    As the region’s climate becomes drier, more diversions are being proposed despite the economic and climate risks. Large-scale engineering retains its appeal and pipeline options are doggedly pursued by state and local agencies, and a band of self-styled water entrepreneurs.

    Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

    Renewable Resources, a firm backed by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, wants to pump groundwater from the San Luis Valley to Front Range cities that are mushrooming with new subdivisions. A competing outfit, Water Horse Resources, is led by Aaron Million, who has dreamed for more than a decade of piping more Colorado River water to the Front Range. The potential water source for Water Horse is some 500 miles away: Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which straddles Wyoming and Utah. Another Front Range project in the Fort Collins area envisions a pair of new reservoirs and an 80-mile pipe network that extends to 15 communities. Called the Northern Integrated Supply Project, it is still waiting on an key federal permit.

    In New Mexico, meanwhile, supporters of the Agustin Plains scheme wish to export 54,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year from a high desert basin to communities along the Rio Grande, some 60 miles to the east. The state engineer rejected the permit in 2018, but the applicant is appealing.

    Southwest Utah is another epicenter of contested water diversions. The most recent came to light in April, when Escalante Valley Partners filed an application with the state Division of Water Rights for more than 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year for export. The water, more than 44 million gallons a day, would come from 115 wells drilled between 1,000 and 5,000 feet deep in Beryl-Enterprise, a basin where the state has restricted use of shallow groundwater due to over-extraction.

    In the same area, the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District is championing the $260 million Pine Valley Water Supply project, currently being reviewed by the Bureau of Land Management for a right-of-way permit. If approved, the district would construct 66 miles of pipeline to access groundwater in neighboring Beaver County.

    The most expensive water project in southwest Utah is a proposed 140-mile pipeline to Lake Powell. Critics contend that Lake Powell and the Colorado River that flows into it cannot handle any more diversions. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Powell and is reviewing the pipeline application, is already taking emergency action to augment the shrinking reservoir, holding back more water than usual and releasing extra supplies from reservoirs higher in the watershed.

    Zach Renstrom is the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, the pipeline project’s chief beneficiary. The basic logic of today’s water manager is not so different from an investment adviser: manage risk through a portfolio of investments. Critics assert that Washington County residents, though use has declined from its very high early 2000s peak, still consume more water than almost any community in the U.S. and that water conservation practices should be sufficient. But Renstrom defends the need for another water source — even a very expensive one, with an overall price tag of about $2 billion — because Washington County’s single source right now is the Virgin River.

    “Especially as someone who looks at climate change very seriously and believes in climate change and knows we need to account for that, to make sure the next generation has the tools that it needs to deal with those issues, I think we need to build these large water infrastructure projects,” Renstrom told Circle of Blue.

    Utah officials are also pursuing a project in the state’s northern reaches to send water from the Bear River, the main tributary of the shrinking Great Salt Lake, to communities some 90 miles distant along the Wasatch Front. The state does not anticipate needing the project for several decades.

    Map of the Mississippi River Basin. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47308146

    Those projects are miniscule compared to calls to divert eastern rivers like the Mississippi. An undertaking like that — which has legal, technical, environmental, and economic hurdles so enormous as to be implausible today, water experts say — echo even more grandiose and farfetched schemes that were proposed in the 1960s: engineering fantasies like the North American Water and Power Alliance, a continental-scale replumbing of North America’s watersheds, which never advanced much farther than the Parsons Company’s drafting board.

    Few of these projects have secured all required permits and fewer still have broken ground. But it is often the case that designs that look appealing in sketches fold when they collide with real world obstacles.

    One of the biggest obstacles is supply, says Denise Fort, a professor emerita at the University of New Mexico. Do these areas hold enough water to support more diversions?

    Nearly a decade ago, Fort co-authored a report with the Natural Resources Defense Council on the proliferation of pipeline proposals in the western states. In reviewing that report today, Fort told Circle of Blue that the findings still hold true.

    “Many of the pipeline projects under consideration today are dramatically different from those constructed in the past, in terms of sustainability of water supplies, available alternatives, costs, environmental impacts and energy use,” the report concluded. “The communities and agencies that are considering these projects would be well served by a careful analysis of the implications of these important choices.”

    Construction of the Monument Valley waterline extension, which was funded by The Indian Health Service and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The pipeline provided 128 homes with water. Another water project, the Western Navajo Pipeline, has been on hold for at least 10 years.
    Photo credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

    Fort said that, in many cases, pursuit of these pipelines is an attempt to continue a water-consuming lifestyle in a region that can no longer support the burden of that demand. Scientists expect the flow of the Colorado River to decline by 9 percent with each degree Celsius that the planet warms.

    “We know what the future is, it’s coming,” Fort said. “And so we can’t continue to act as though it’s just a cyclical thing, and the water will reappear. We know that it will not.”

    Fort believes that instead of sticking more straws into a shrinking pool, municipalities should seriously consider reallocating water from agriculture, which uses the lion’s share of the region’s supply. Instead of growing alfalfa for export, that water could be directed to cities. This approach is not without controversy and requires careful crafting — rural communities, in some cases, have resisted “buy and dry,” preferring leases that do not permanently sever water from land.

    But such a move is what El Paso is banking on. The largest city in West Texas has spent $220 million since 2016 to purchase 70,000 acres of ranch land about 90 miles east, in Dell City. Crucially, the land comes with water rights. Today, El Paso leases the land for farming. But in several decades the city plans to pipe the water beneath those fields to its residents.

    At the foundation of these debates about pipelines are competing views of the American West.

    One school of thought is that water follows growth. “I think it’s much cheaper to take the water to the people than move people to the water. You disrupt a lot less lives that way,” Todd Adams, deputy director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, told the Utah Water Summit last October.

    Great Basin wetland. Photo credit: The Great Basin Water Network

    The other view is one of conservation and restraint, championed by people like Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a group that advocates against transferring water out of its natural basin.

    “There is a suburban Manifest Destiny mindset throughout the region that I think is antithetical as it relates to the amount of resources that are available,” Roerink told Circle of Blue.

    Looking at the history of pipeline projects and water transfers in the West, Roerink worries about unintended financial and environmental consequences if the current contenders move ahead. In the arid Great Basin, which covers much of Nevada and Utah, he is particularly attuned to dry soils if groundwater-dependent basins are depleted. It’s not an unheard of risk. To offset environmental damage in the Owens Valley from its aqueduct, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has spent $2.5 billion in ratepayer funds to suppress dust storms.

    Many of the biggest projects were built in an era of minimal environmental review and major government subsidy. Those conditions have changed, one of many reasons why mega-projects like diverting the Mississippi River westward are implausible, even fanciful.

    Of the pipeline projects currently under construction, most are not fanciful. Most are like the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System — smaller in scale and federally supported.

    Congress authorized the 140-mile project in 2009 and is contributing 75 percent of the cost. The rest is coming from local partners, which include four communities in Curry and Roosevelt counties.

    The project received $177.4 million from the federal government this year and $30 million from the state government. If funding in future years comes in as expected, construction should be completed in six to eight years, Orlando Ortega, the administrator of the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority, told Circle of Blue.

    Ogallala Aquifer. Credit: Big Pivots

    The project is a federal priority because the partner communities are all served by groundwater from the depleting Ogallala aquifer. At some point, the water will run out. The pipeline is designed to bring surface water from the state-owned Ute Lake.

    Like all western water supply projects, there are questions about the long-term availability of Ute Lake as the region dries.

    “We are very sensitive to drought conditions, and would certainly be cutting back on our reservation, if needed,” Ortega said.

    Brett Walton

    Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies.

    #Water utilities see collaboration as the key to water supply, future: “Urgency lubricates collaboration” — The #Loveland Reporter-Herald

    Click the link to read the article on the Loveland Reporter-Herald website (Ken Amundson). Here’s an excerpt:

    Utility directors from Greeley and Boulder, along with the general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, talked about regional water collaboration during a panel discussion at the annual BizWest Confluence — Colorado Water Summit Thursday…

    Brad Wind, the Northern Water general manager, said that a Google search for links to discussions about collaboration renders millions of results. “But the thing that is missing (in those search results) is the element of ‘urgency,’” Wind said. Urgency drives many entities to the table to collaborate…

    As moderator [Kristin] Todd said simply, “Urgency lubricates collaboration.”

    […]

    First water through the Adams Tunnel. Photo credit Northern Water.

    The very creation of the Colorado-Big Thompson water project that Northern Water operates came as a result of an urgent need to supply farmers with water, especially in the August and September time frame when crops needed more water in order to produce a harvestable yield. It still took 10 years for the first water to move through the Alva Adams tunnel from the Western Slope to Front Range users.

    Whooping crane adult and chick. Credit: USGS (public domain)

    Endangered species, also, resulted in water interests quickly coming together to assure stream flows in Nebraska while also maintaining water availability in Colorado.

    Population is the urgent factor now. “The population (of this region) has grown 67% in my time at Northern Water,” Wind said.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: 490 cfs in Black Canyon #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #aridification

    Black Canyon July 2020. Photo credit: Cari Bischoff

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased from 1450 cfs to 1500 cfs on Wednesday, July 20th. Releases are being increased to maintain flows above the baseflow target on the lower Gunnison River. The forecasted April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir is 67% of average.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently very near to the baseflow target of 900 cfs. River flows are expected to drop below the baseflow target without this additional increase in release from the Aspinall Unit.

    Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 900 cfs for June, July and August.

    Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1030 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 440 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1030 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 490 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    Guest column #Water Talks: The crisis of the #ColoradoRiver system — The Ark Valley Voice

    Glen Canyon Dam creates water storage on the Colorado River in Lake Powell, which is just 27% full in June 2022. Bureau data on the reservoir’s water-storage volume showed a loss of 443,000 acre-feet. Credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

    Click the link to read the column on the Ark Valley Voice website (Terry Scanga):

    It should be obvious to anyone; trying to fill a bathtub with the drain wide open is foolish. This is precisely what the operators of the Colorado River System (Lake Powell and Lake Mead) have been attempting to do for the past 20 years. They have disregarded the increased withdrawals to the Lower Basin states (California, Arizona, and Nevada) and the ubiquitous arid nature of the Southwest.

    The Colorado River system and the Colorado Compact Administration were set up with a series of reservoirs recognizing the aridity of the region and the unpredictable amount of annual precipitation. With reservoirs, when water is more abundant the excess can be stored for later use when the inevitably drier periods arrive. In recent years, instead of reserving excess flows in the reservoirs, this excess was released to the lower basin states with the resultant excess draw-down of the vital storage system.

    Most of the water supply for the Colorado River System is supplied by the Upper Basin States, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico. As planned, these states have continuously supplied the required 75-million-acre feet in 10 years, or an average of 7.5 million per year.

    The amount of water that each of these states uses each year is completely dependent upon precipitation and in Colorado is allocated strictly by the prior appropriation system without the benefit of a storage system to draw upon for leaner years except for water saved under the prior appropriation system. As such Colorado’s prior appropriation system automatically operates as a forced reduction in water use—a built-in “conservation brake”.

    In contrast, the Lower Basin States, California, Arizona, and Nevada receive their Colorado River supply from reservoirs and have the luxury of taking any excess deliveries in wetter years or drawing previously saved water from storage in drier years.

    The prudent regime would be to reserve the excess amounts in storage for use during drier periods. Instead of this exercise of prudence, the Lower Basin states have continuously gambled those wetter periods would arrive and replenish the reservoirs.

    In the chart below, we clearly see how Colorado and the Upper Basin states have reduced their use during drought while the Lower Basin states have increased their use during the same period.

    The primary purpose of Lake Powell and Lake Mead is for hydro-power production and secondarily for drinking and irrigation. The falling levels of these reservoirs spell disaster for power production and now the Bureau of Reclamation is sounding the alarm.

    Unfortunately, unless drastic measures are taken that significantly reduce the annual draw by the Lower Basin States for the foreseeable future, all Colorado River reservoirs will be jeopardized. Blue Mesa and Flaming Gorge have already been lowered to rescue the Lower Basin reservoirs. The present crisis is more about having allowed the Lower Basin to over appropriate water from the system than the impact of the drier period of the past 20 years.

    In Colorado, the Arkansas Basin and the entire Eastern portion of Colorado depend on a significant portion of its water from Colorado River system imports. In the Arkansas, about 15 percent of all river flows are derived from this system.

    In drier periods these flows have always been reduced since they are regulated by the prior appropriation system. However, further reductions could come if the Lower Basin is not forced to comply with the Compact. It is possible that political forces could reduce the amount of water exported to the Eastern portion of Colorado — and that includes the Arkansas Basin.

    By: Ralph “Terry” Scanga, General Manager. Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District

    Graphic via Holly McClelland/High Country News.

    Public can inform future management of the #ColoradoRiver — #Arizona Public Radio #COriver #aridification

    Water levels in Lake Mead have dropped to historic lows over the past year, triggering a shortage declaration on the Colorado River. Some of the frameworks that govern how the river is managed are set to expire in 2026. As states and stakeholders negotiate the next management framework, tribal nations want to make sure they have a seat at the table. Photo by Jeffrey Hayes / Flickr

    Click the link to read the article on the Arizona Public Radio website (Melissa Sevigny). Here’s an excerpt:

    Several key pieces of the rules that govern the Colorado River Basin are set to expire in 2026, including guidelines for dealing with drought and water shortage. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has asked for the public’s input on what should come next. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke about the opportunity to shape the Southwest’s future with University of New Mexico water policy expert John Fleck.

    Who is at the table for these negotiations?

    That’s actually such a great question, because it’s not entirely clear. The states—the appointed representatives that each governor appoints on behalf of each of the seven Colorado River Basin states—and then representations of the federal government …. But, there is a strong desire, on the part of a lot of people, and I count myself among those groups, to recognize the fact that tribal communities are sovereign nations [within] the basin that have been traditionally excluded from these processes…and then as a practical matter, major water users within the states also participate either formally at the negotiating table, or if you can imagine a metaphorical meeting room, standing round the back whispering in the ears of the people sitting at the table.

    What questions should we be asking about what comes next?

    Someone, somewhere is going to be using less water than they are now, a lot less water…But the question is, how do we apportion those cutbacks? Do the states in the Lowe Basin which have been using by far the most water, and arguably overusing, like folks in Arizona, do they have to cutback more deeply?…Do the states in the Upper Basin agree, we need to share the pain and cut back as well?…So there’s really a lot of tension. And then the most interesting tension is broad and spans the entire basin, which is, to what extent are the cutbacks going to be felt in agricultural irrigation communities?…There’s no way around there’s going to be less irrigated agriculture going forward as a result of climate change and drought and the reality that we’ve pretty much drained the reservoirs as far as we can, but the question of how you apportion those cuts and who takes bigger cuts, and who gets compensated for giving up water, perhaps, those are the kinds of questions that are going to be on the table…

    Comments can be submitted until September 1 by emailing CRB-info@usbr.gov. More information can be found in the Federal Register.

    Tribes Call for Inclusion on the #ColoradoRiver — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification #Water22

    Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Kalen Goodluck):

    They’re seeking opportunity, fairness, and a voice in decision making after a century of exclusion

    Mid-morning in early September 2020, leaders from eight tribal nations met with Arizona state legislators, water engineers and policy experts via Zoom. One by one, each recounted their tribe’s history and efforts to secure water for their citizens. Half of the tribes in Arizona have unresolved claims to water. Of the 30 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations in the U.S. segment of Colorado River Basin, the vast majority, 22, are in Arizona.

    Meeting that day was the Arizona Governor’s Water Augmentation, Innovation and Conservation Council, a committee of state legislators and water policy experts convened to plan for Arizona’s share of diminishing resources in the Colorado River Basin.

    Not quite a year later, in August 2021, federal officials issued the first-ever shortage declaration on the river, resulting in substantial cuts to Arizona’s share of Colorado River water. The state has been working with some of the tribes with resolved, adjudicated water rights to help make up for low water levels.

    On that September morning in 2020, two things had become clear: First, tribes like the Navajo Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and Yavapai-Apache Nation have found a couple of conditions in Arizona’s policy toward negotiating Indian water settlements unacceptable, thus their water rights remain unsettled. And second, tribal nations had been collaborative partners to surrounding communities and were, and continue to be, positioned to play an increasingly pivotal role throughout the basin as more tribal water rights are settled and basin-wide water supplies continue to decline.

    Tribes have played a pivotal role in leasing water to support other water users and states as they cope with water shortage, for example. But with so many tribes who still have unsettled water rights and Colorado River flows declining, big questions remain for the 40 million people spread throughout the basin in seven U.S. States and Mexico—many of those questions center around the tribes.

    Ticking Clock

    Everyone in the basin can hear the clock, ominously dripping time like a leaky faucet. Drip: There is less water than ever before with the basin ensnared in a 22-year megadrought, the worst in the past 1,200 years, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Drop: Without swift action to conserve water under the growing pressure of demand, the basin may be hurtling toward a water crisis. Drip: The basin’s existing water shortage management framework is set to expire in 2026 so negotiations to craft the next framework are underway; will tribal nations be included in those negotiations? Drop: How will water shortages affect the tribal nations in the Colorado River Basin and what role will those tribes play as all water users cope with shortage?

    Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin/Water Education Colorado

    Generally, the Colorado River Basin’s tribes have some of the senior-most water rights on the river, based on federally “reserved” water rights with priority dates aligned with the dates reservations were established, some as early as 1865.

    But even today, 12 of the basin’s tribes (most in Arizona) have unresolved water rights claims, and eight of those 12 have unquantified rights—meaning the amount of water they have a right to is not yet determined. Simply securing those water rights remains a time-consuming and arduous endeavor, in costly settlement negotiations amidst a scrum of other water users staking claims.

    The water held by the basin tribes who have legally quantified water rights amounts to no small sum: 22 tribal nations retain 3.2 million acre-feet of water, or an estimated 22% to 26% of all annual water supplies in the basin, according to a 2021 brief from the Water and Tribes Initiative. This amount will likely increase over the years once more tribal water claims are resolved.

    Even for tribes with settled or adjudicated water rights, some can’t access the full extent of that water because of lack of infrastructure or funding, or both. In total, just under half, or 1.5 million-acre-feet, of settled or adjudicated tribal rights have not yet been put to use by the tribes.

    When adding together that unused water and unquantified water, and considering that tribes plan to fully develop and use their water, other water users in the basin wonder how it will look to integrate expanded tribal water use with existing water uses as water supplies continue to dwindle.

    Lack of Representation

    In one blinding instant, a flashbulb floods the adobe-walled room, illuminating a row of stoic men: seven state water commissioners standing behind then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover who sat at a desk. In front of them lies the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the formative agreement to carve up flows of the Colorado River. Within the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, N.M., these men divided the river into an upper and lower basin, apportioning the rights to consume 15 million acre-feet of water—their estimation of average annual river flow at the time—between the seven U.S. basin states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming of the upper basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada of the lower basin, with the opportunity for lower basin states to develop an additional 1 million acre-feet from tributaries below Lee Ferry, Ariz.

    The compact ushered in a new era of water management for the Colorado River Basin. But now, 100 years later, when facilitator of the Water and Tribes Initiative, Daryl Vigil, peers at this photograph of Hoover and the state water commissioners, he sees an “all monochromatic photo of older white gentlemen” who made no plan for apportioning any share of water to Native American tribes.

    Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. Members of the Colorado River Commission stood together at the signing of the Colorado River Compact on November 24, 1922. The signing took place at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover presiding (seated). (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

    Since the beginning of U.S. tribal water law, sovereign tribal nations in the basin have been excluded from cornerstone water management decisions despite having senior title to water. Native American water rights were first officially recognized in 1908, over a decade before the Colorado River Compact was signed, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Winters v. United States decision. The court found that when the federal government “reserved” territories known as reservations, it too had “reserved” sufficient water to fulfill the purposes of the reservations—these water rights are considered established at the date when the reservation was created, making them senior to all uses that came later. But having the right to reserved water didn’t mean that the tribes had access to actual “wet” water or the legal representation to quantify their water rights.

    When the 1922 compact was signed, tribes were surviving a multitude of disastrous living conditions and forced assimilation produced by federal Indian policy, established after U.S. violent colonial expansion. Indigenous peoples weren’t recognized as U.S. citizens until 1924, tribal governance wasn’t federally recognized until 1934, and Native Americans couldn’t vote in every state until the 1960s. “We were surviving here on government rations in 1922 when the Law of the River was created,” says Vigil.

    A 1928 survey entitled “The Problem of Indian Administration” found that 26 Western Native American reservations and their economic bases were crumbling under management of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), asserting that colonialism largely destroyed their ability to hunt, gather and fish.

    The report recommended educating tribes to effectively use their land and water rights, saying that administrators “should be given the duty of seeing that the Indians secure their rightful share of water.” This recommendation was not enough. Assigning concrete legal title to tribal water succumbed to federal delay—a defining feature of water rights disputes for all tribal nations.

    Tribes gained some ground when, in 1963, tribal water policy and Colorado River policy intersected in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Arizona v. California decision. Lengthy litigation led up to the decision, with Arizona filing suit in the U.S. Supreme Court to determine how much Colorado River water it could use. To answer that question, the U.S. found it had to assess what reserved water rights were needed for some of the tribes in the lower basin. A special master for the case determined the future needs of each reservation by assessing the amount of practicably irrigable acres and reserving water to irrigate that land rather than considering the reservations’ populations. In his proposed decree, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, the special master entered a quantified water right for five reservations on the mainstem of the Colorado River, granting 905,496 acre-feet of water for 135,636 irrigable acres.

    After the case established the standard of quantifying the tribal reserved water right as looking at the amount of water required to irrigate the irrigable acreage on the tribal land, the push to quantify more tribal water rights ensued. But Supreme Court rulings “grew more negative,” according to a presentation from DOI. In 1989, DOI adopted the policy to resolve Indian water disputes through settlement rather than litigation, creating the Secretary’s Indian Water Rights Office. To reach agreement, Indigenous nations must negotiate their rights within a massive tangle of other users staking claims to water within the state where their reservation is located, which can take decades. Once all parties concur, Congress must approve the agreement by passing legislation to fund any tribal water infrastructure projects.

    As federal tribal water policy evolved, so too did Colorado River policy. After the 1922 compact, a series of layered agreements—including Arizona v. California and other court decisions, congressional acts, legal settlements, treaties and compacts—known collectively as the “Law of the River” have come to govern the way water is managed and divided throughout the basin.

    The latest layers of the Law of the River have been implemented since 2000, in response to years of drought. In 2007, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior adopted the Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Interim Guidelines outline a method to balance the amount of water available between the upper and lower basins. In 2019, upper and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) were developed as additional frameworks to address water shortages and water-saving rules.

    The upper basin continues to “equalize” the contents of Lake Powell and Lake Mead per the 2007 guidelines, and continues to pursue water augmentation activities such as cloud seeding. It is also exploring the possibility of developing a demand management program in which water saved or not used in the upper basin could be stored in Powell as a 500,000 acre-foot drought pool, though the Colorado Water Conservation Board put a “hard pause” on Colorado’s demand management investigation in March 2022. For the lower basin, the DCP, a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan with Mexico, and the 2007 guidelines lay out cuts in water deliveries from the Colorado River, triggered by projections of Lake Mead storage elevations. The interim guidelines already outlined cuts but the DCP added additional delivery reductions for the lower basin states and Mexico to absorb. The greatest cuts to lower basin water use will come from Arizona and California but the entire lower basin, including Mexico, will share in scarcity.

    When these guidelines and plans were crafted, all but the Lower Basin DCP received little to no tribal input. These plans will expire in 2026, and negotiations for the next phase of shortage-sharing agreements are just beginning.

    Native American Timeline. Credit: Water Education Colorado

    Vigil, who is also water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation from New Mexico, joined the Water and Tribes Initiative in 2017 to facilitate tribal discussions, protect water rights, and unify tribal interests within the Colorado River Basin. Their tribal leader forums helped spur a coalition of the tribes in the basin to call for inclusion in water framework negotiations.

    When new guidelines are developed to govern river management beyond 2026, how will they affect existing tribal water rights or unresolved water claims? “Those are questions that are not yet clear to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and probably other tribes,” says Leland Begay, water attorney for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has adjudicated water rights in Colorado but has not yet resolved its water rights in New Mexico and Utah.

    Settled Water Rights for the Colorado Ute Tribes

    During the hot summers of his childhood, Lyndreth Wall of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe would take refuge on Ute Mountain in southwestern Colorado, herding livestock at his grandparents’ sheep camp. They spoke only Ute to him, which he picked up fast, at least conversationally. In those days, the 1970s, the water on Ute Mountain was delicious. “The tribe took care of the water there,” Wall says. But his home tap water in Towaoc tasted like metal. It was “disgusting,” he says, and could make you sick. In White Mesa, their western tribal community in Utah, the water was worse—contaminated by radioactive waste.

    For young Wall, his neighbors, family and livestock, the journey to procure drinkable water would be a 30- to 120-mile round trip excursion from Towaoc to Cortez or Mancos, even Durango, Colo. Wall remembers his parents packing buckets in their family pickup—the Wall’s buckets mixed with those of neighbors. This supply would last a few days before they would need more.

    Today, more Ute Mountain Ute tribal members have water for drinking and irrigation thanks to the 1986 Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Final Settlement Agreement, followed two years later by a federal settlement act, and by amendments in 2000, all of which they share with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. The settlement places the Colorado Ute tribes among the four tribes in the upper Colorado River Basin that have completed water rights settlements, which also means that the State of Colorado is no longer negotiating any tribal settlement agreements.

    For the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the settlement meant access to Dolores Project water, an entitlement to Animas-La Plata Project water, and rights to over 27,000 acre-feet of water from rivers that flow near or through their reservation. Most years, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe can access their 25,100 acre-foot water storage allocation from the Dolores Project’s McPhee Reservoir in southwestern Colorado. Water from McPhee began to flow to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in 1994 delivering clean drinking water to the tribe for the first time in their history and supporting the development of a hotel, travel center and casino, which provide vital tribal employment and income. The tribe’s new irrigation water from the Dolores Project, up to 23,300 acre-feet per year, supported the development of the highly productive 7,700-acre Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise and Bow and Arrow corn mill.

    For the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the settlement wasn’t quite as momentous. “We have seven sources of water, seven rivers, that run to the tribe, so the tribe had been accessing those waters pre-settlement,” says Kathy Rall, head of the water resources division for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Before the settlement, the tribe didn’t have quantified rights to that water, Rall says. “Those rights were hammered out and solidified through the settlement,” she says. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe also received an allocation of Animas-La Plata Project water—but the infrastructure was never built for either tribe to access that water.

    “Ever since [the Animas-La Plata Project] was constructed, we’ve never used a drop of it, yet we have a certain percentage, not only to us, but also our sister tribe, the Southern Ute,” says Wall, who is now a tribal councilman for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The project allocated more than 60,000 acre-feet per year of municipal and industrial water to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, but a series of obstacles has made this water inaccessible.

    Lake Nighthorse and Durango March 2016 photo via Greg Hobbs.

    The settlement authorized the construction of Lake Nighthorse, just south of Durango, to store Animas-La Plata water for tribal water uses. The project was envisioned to bring water for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses to the tribes and non-tribal water users. But environmental and fiscal concerns resulted in the project being downsized.

    A lawsuit halted the construction of Lake Nighthorse’s Ridges Basin Dam in 1992. Groups including the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and the Taxpayers for the Animas River argued the dam’s cost was an undue burden for taxpayers and that its construction would threaten the Colorado pikeminnow fish population, which was federally listed as endangered at the time. Christine Arbogast, lobbyist for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and neighboring water districts and municipalities, remembers a meeting where an environmental advocate said that with the amount of funding required to build the reservoir project, they could supply the tribe with bottled water for life. “That was the kind of mentality on the side of the environmental community,” says Arbogast.

    As project proponents tried to advance Lake Nighthorse, part of the permitting requirement was to propose alternatives to the project. To address the endangered fish issues, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved an alternative that would allow for reservoir construction but with certain requirements, including a new San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program. The recovery program would go on to manage the river to recover the endangered Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker while allowing water development to continue.

    To carry out the Animas-La Plata Project, a 2000 settlement amendment restricted the water in Lake Nighthorse to municipal and industrial use, excluding irrigation. Now referred to as “Animas-La Plata Lite” there was no longer any plan to construct the irrigation canals that would have connected Lake Nighthorse to the tribes and even neighboring water districts and municipalities that were counting on these water supplies throughout the negotiations. The tribes scrapped their plans to expand farmlands as a result. “It was heartbreaking to every single one of them, including the tribes, when we had to make the decision to shelve the irrigation component in order to get this settlement,” Arbogast says.

    Some positive outcomes resulted from the settlement, including quantified and adjudicated water rights for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, access to Dolores Project water for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and funding for both tribes, Rall says. But ongoing lack of access to water stored in Lake Nighthorse and the inability to use that water, if accessed, for irrigation, was “disastrous” she says.

    When the project was downsized to the “lite” version “we just kind of said, ‘OK, we’re going to get what we get,’” Rall says. “The tribe went, ‘If we don’t settle now, who knows what we’ll end up with.’”

    The settlement means that the tribes’ water allocations are protected, which “does offer the tribes a measure of security in their water rights,” says Amy Ostdiek, head of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Interstate and Federal Section. “But there are still critical needs in terms of infrastructure and access to clean drinking water.”

    As the settlement stipulates, the moment the tribes begin to use water from Lake Nighthorse, they will each inherit an annual bill of around $800,000 in operations and maintenance costs for the dam and pumping facilities that the federal government is currently footing. At the moment, there is still no infrastructure to deliver the water to the tribes, and the tribes are not prepared to take on those costs, so they haven’t used any of their water. This may change due to the $2.5 billion earmarked in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for completion of authorized Indian water rights settlements. Both Colorado Ute tribes are pursuing that funding, with full support from the State of Colorado, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), but whether they will receive it remains to be seen. Information sessions on the bill between tribal nations and DOI are ongoing.

    “We’re trying to find alternatives and ways that we can utilize our water in [Lake] Nighthorse. We want it and it seems like we’re having a water war,” says Wall. “What’s rightfully ours is ours by God. We need to continue to save it for the future of our tribe.”

    Water or Land, Not Both

    Settling and quantifying tribal water rights claims isn’t just beneficial to tribal nations. The state in which a reservation is located and other water users there benefit from the certainty of knowing how much water is allocated to the tribes so they can make plans to live within and stretch their own share or to work together to send water where it’s most needed.

    But Arizona is home, at least partially, to 11 of the 12 tribal nations in the basin who still have unresolved claims to Colorado River water—resulting in uncertainty for the state and the tribes. Many tribal leaders are frustrated by the state’s unprecedented condition for tribes to secure their water rights: In exchange, tribal nations must surrender their right to freely enter fee lands into trust, an essential administrative program of the Bureau of Indian Affairs that lets tribes recover their ancestral homelands. Instead, tribes would need congressional approval to have the Interior Secretary take lands into trust.

    “We just believe that the congressional process is a more equitable forum for the discussion of those lands into trust,” says Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. He cites the importance of hearing from local communities that could be impacted when the tribes bring additional ancestral homelands into trust and ensuring “politically elected leaders get to make the decision.”

    That stipulation is a nonstarter for many tribes, and puts them in a precarious position, weighing their right to re-acquire their ancestral homelands against securing water for their people.

    “That’s something we will never agree to,” Yavapai-Apache Nation Chairman Jon Huey told the Governor’s Water Augmentation Innovation and Conservation Council during that September 2020 meeting. The Yavapai-Apache Nation plans to bring land into trust, re-acquiring its homeland to build housing for the growing tribal population.

    Already, leaders from the Navajo Nation, Tonto Apache Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nation, and Pascua Yaqui Tribe in southern Arizona have worked for decades with the state and other water districts to reach a settlement. For example, the Navajo Nation has been in recurring negotiations since 1993.

    Tribes also object to a condition proposed by Arizona officials that they waive their right to object to future off-reservation groundwater pumping.

    Despite hearing from leaders like Huey, the state has not changed its position. Buschatzke says these conditions are just part of the “give and take” nature of settlements. “Some things you give more of, some things you give less of,” he says. “And the whole package has to fit together for both sides at the end of the day in a way that they can live with it and in a way that they believe, hopefully, that they’re better off with the package than they are without the package.”

    DOI remains dedicated to facilitating settlement discussions and is aware of the tribal concerns toward Arizona’s anti-fee-to-trust policy. “We are working from the federal perspective closely with tribal partners and with non-federal entities like the State of Arizona to bring these issues to conclusion and resolution,” says Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at DOI, who has been part of these tribal settlement discussions.

    Working Together in Shortage

    Water levels in Lake Mead have dropped to historic lows over the past year, triggering a shortage declaration on the Colorado River. Some of the frameworks that govern how the river is managed are set to expire in 2026. As states and stakeholders negotiate the next management framework, tribal nations want to make sure they have a seat at the table. Photo by Jeffrey Hayes / Flickr

    Despite some of the barriers to settlement, Buschatzke concedes that settlements provide certainty for tribes and other water users, as well as a way to work collaboratively. And now more than ever, the need to collaborate with tribes has hit harder than in the past.

    September 21, 1923, 9:00 a.m. — Colorado River at Lees Ferry. From right bank on line with Klohr’s house and gage house. Old “Dugway” or inclined gage shows to left of gage house. Gage height 11.05′, discharge 27,000 cfs. Lens 16, time =1/25, camera supported. Photo by G.C. Stevens of the USGS.
    Source: 1921-1937 Surface Water Records File, Colorado R. @ Lees Ferry, Laguna Niguel Federal Records Center, Accession No. 57-78-0006, Box 2 of 2 , Location No. MB053635.

    The upper basin states are subject to fluctuations in hydrology, which determine the amount of Colorado River water available for their use. While the 1922 compact allocated the consumptive use of 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to each the upper and lower basins, the upper basin regularly uses less Colorado River water than agreed to—about 4 million acre-feet per year since 1990. That’s, in part, because the upper basin hasn’t fully developed reservoirs to store extra water in times of plenty and to use its full allocation. Per the compact, upper basin states cannot deplete the river at Lee Ferry, the dividing point between the upper and lower basins, below a certain amount. That non-depletion requirement means the upper basin will likely shoulder the burden of declining flows into the future, and may have to continue to use less water.

    Lower basin states rely on supplies stored in Lake Mead, the basin’s largest reservoir, which reached a historic low of just 35% of capacity in August 2021. As Mead’s water level has receded, the lower basin has begun to take cuts to the amount of water it’s drawing from the reservoir, as outlined in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. The first big cuts are coming from Arizona—this year it will take 18% less Colorado River water, coming almost entirely from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), slashing its CAP water use by about 30%. The CAP pipes Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, and to irrigators and tribal nations in central and southern Arizona. Agricultural water users will be the first to feel these water reductions, with CAP agricultural water deliveries, mostly in Pinal County, reduced by 65%.

    If Lake Mead levels continue to fall, deliveries to lower basin states will continue to be reduced, eventually affecting all lower basin states and Mexico. In February 2022 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projected that the reservoir level could likely drop by another 30 feet or so over the next two years, reaching new shortage tiers and triggering more cuts to lower basin states.

    Tribes play a critical role in all of this: As Colorado River water supply diminishes, and as more tribes settle their water rights, those tribal water rights could comprise a larger percentage of available senior Colorado River water resources. Take the Colorado River Indian Tribes, consisting of four tribes, the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo, with a reservation along the Colorado River at the border between Arizona and California. These tribes hold rights to more than 700,000 acre-feet of mainstem Colorado River water, with more than 660,000 acre-feet of that water in Arizona. These are the most senior water rights in the lower basin, making them the most secure in times of shortage.

    Starting in 2016, the Colorado River Indian Tribes entered a short-term pilot project with Reclamation, in which they were compensated for fallowing more than 1,500 acres of farmland so that water could be left in Lake Mead. Those pilot project numbers were upped in 2018. The following year, in 2019, the tribes worked with the State of Arizona on a much larger agreement, as part of the Drought Contingency Plan, committing to fallow farmland and forego water deliveries to the tune of 150,000 acre-feet over three years to help maintain levels in Lake Mead. In exchange for this contribution of water, the tribes are paid $38 million. Now, the tribes are looking to be able to lease their water—something that wasn’t authorized in the Arizona v. California opinion that established their water rights. A bill introduced to the U.S. Senate in December 2021 could allow the tribes to lease part of their water allocation to individuals, businesses, municipalities, governments and others for off-reservation uses to provide additional drought relief and protect natural habitats in Arizona.

    Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores greets Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, at the Colorado River Water Users Association December 2021 conference. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation / Flickr

    A January 2022 agreement on the Colorado River in New Mexico does just that. The Jicarilla Apache Nation, New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and The Nature Conservancy announced a new deal to lease up to 20,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Jicarilla Apache Nation to the stream commission to support threatened, endangered and vulnerable fish and to increase water security for New Mexico. The tribal nation subcontracts some of its other water to users outside the reservation, providing a valuable source of income.

    The Colorado Ute tribes and the State of Colorado are wondering whether a similar agreement or lease deal could put their unused Animas-La Plata Project water to work, says Peter Ortego, general counsel for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. (Ortego also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.) “The tribes have been eager to see solutions to these problems and the state has been helpful in working with us to find a consumptive use for that water,” says Ortego.

    Talks are preliminary and confidential, and the tribes’ settlement legislation is somewhat narrow, Ortego says, specifying that the tribes water can be leased but must be used for municipal or industrial needs within Colorado. Because Lake Nighthorse is in the southwest corner of the state, so close to the border with New Mexico, that doesn’t leave room for a lot of Colorado users to step in and lease water. However, some nearby communities are running short on water and could benefit from the supplies stored in Lake Nighthorse, if an agreement is reached. “I think we’re starting to understand now that if we can all work together to utilize that water, it will be best for the entire region,” Ortego says. “The ultimate goal is to basically keep water in Colorado to help Colorado meet its other obligations.”

    More of this water sharing and leasing work could be coming. “We are very open to more discussions with tribes about what additional opportunities may exist,” says Trujillo, who has met with tribes on their ability to contribute water and receive compensation. “I think there is a lot of interest from several different angles to try to do more of that.”

    Tribes Unifying in Negotiations

    When he became water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, Vigil began to see how excluded tribal nations were from river management decisions.

    From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

    No tribes were invited to provide input to the 2007 Interim Guidelines, which dictate reservoir operations in the event of water shortages. The guidelines were negotiated by representatives from each basin state, federal agencies, and with Mexico through the International Boundary and Water Commission—tribal water use was the responsibility of the state that the tribe resided in, so the tribes were treated as stakeholders within the states, not as sovereigns themselves. In 2012, when Reclamation completed the basin-wide Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, tribes called attention to the fact that there was no meaningful inquiry into tribal water. It was only after pressure on Reclamation that the agency funded the Colorado River Basin Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study, which, in 2018 assessed water supplies for a coalition of 10 tribal nations in the upper and lower basins that had previously come together in 1992 to push for more tribal voices in basin water management. The study was not comprehensive of all basin tribes but gave a stronger sense of tribal water supplies. In developing the 2019 DCP, which outlined water-saving plans between the seven U.S. basin states and Mexico, Reclamation consulted with only a few lower basin tribes.

    At this Ten Tribes Partnership Meeting in 2018, Southern Ute Indian Tribe councilwoman Lorelei Cloud approved publication of the Tribal Water Study. Photo courtesy of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe

    This neglect from state and federal agencies prompted the creation of the Water and Tribes Initiative in 2017. Aiming to support tribes and give them a stronger voice in water management discussions in the region, various leaders formed the initiative, including tribal representatives, policy experts, researchers, conservation groups, state and federal officials and others, co-convened by Vigil and Matt McKinney, co-chair of the University of Montana’s Natural Resources Conflict Resolution Program. “Why wouldn’t you include 30 [tribal] sovereigns who own 25% of the volume of the Colorado River?” says Vigil. “Why wouldn’t you include 30 tribal sovereigns who have been here for millennia?”

    As water managers begin to plan, negotiate and draft the next river management framework that will be implemented as the Interim Guidelines and DCP expire in 2026, many tribes are actively trying to gain a seat at the negotiating table. Twenty of the basin tribes have formed an ad hoc group for all 30 of the tribes in the basin called the Colorado River Basin Tribal Coalition. As the most substantive negotiations in developing the next river management framework are likely to unfold over the next two years, the coalition is calling to work together with federal agencies and states as soon as possible. While the next set of guidelines will not affect the status of settled tribal water entitlements, many tribes are concerned that they could affect unresolved water claims, which could still take decades to settle, and their ability to plan for their future.

    Rebecca Mitchell, director of the CWCB, has been meeting with the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian Tribes to develop a sovereign-to-sovereign framework, a process for tribes and the State of Colorado to engage on equal ground throughout water management negotiations.

    “The scope of the interim guidelines will be limited to operations of the major reservoirs, so it is important to recognize that we cannot resolve all of the issues in the basin throughout that negotiation process,” Mitchell wrote in a statement via email. “Still, it will be imperative to include tribal nations in the process.”

    That relationship between the Colorado Ute tribes and state has been great, says Rall with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. “[Mitchell] is trying to lead the way for other states to do the same, hoping that other states will enter into sovereign-to-sovereign agreements with their tribes to have a seat at the table.”

    For Leland Begay with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, early involvement in Reclamation’s next framework for managing water shortage is going to be critical for tribes to determine their future—to participate in decisions they were excluded from in years past. “In the past, there’s been a lot of shortcomings on behalf of the Bureau of Reclamation in engaging with tribes at an early stage,” says Begay. “This is an opportunity for Reclamation to meaningfully engage with tribes on how the interim guidelines impact tribes and their water rights and their land.”

    It’s difficult not to view the Colorado River Compact in a global colonial context. When the compact was signed in 1922, European colonial powers were still carving up African territories, exploiting resources like copper or rubber. The U.S. empire carved up the Colorado River, splitting it among seven states, dispossessing tribes from their natural relationship with the river, with no plan to deliver them water. While the historical Law of the River can’t be removed from this context, its next era could be one where federal, state and local agencies work collaboratively with tribal nations.

    Vigil has a gentle, impassioned cadence when he speaks. The river, he says, has given him a calling, a voice. Tribal nations in the basin are in a much better position today to advocate for their water interests, but it took years—a whole century really—to reach this point. It’s left him wondering: Where are we headed if we don’t start to build a collaborative framework that includes tribes?

    While he talked, Vigil would occasionally chuckle or laugh in disbelief, especially about the history of tribal water rights. “I think [the laughter] is a, you know, it’s a Native thing. It’s like a way to deal with the absurdity and like the massive amount of grief that comes with having to acknowledge this and where we’re at. Like every single time.”

    Kalen Goodluck is a Diné, Mandan, Hidatsa and Tsimshian journalist and photographer based in Albuquerque, N.M. His work has appeared in High Country News, The New York Times, Popular Science, National Geographic – Travel, NBC News and more.

    North American Indian regional losses 1850 thru 1890.

    42nd Annual #Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources 2026 May Be Too Late: Hard Conversations About Really Complicated Issues Conference Recording Now Available — Getches-Wilkinson Center @CUBoulderGWC #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck.

    From email from the Getches-Wilkinson Center:

    This year marked the 42nd Annual Conference on Natural Resources at Colorado Law. Over its rich history, the conference has addressed many different natural resource issues. In more recent years, the Center’s summer conference has explored the major issues in water law and policy in the West.

    There is no debate – demands for water across the Colorado River Basin exceed the shrinking supply. Chronic drought, record heat, increasing winds and aridity, as well as rampant wildfires are diminishing the Basin’s overall health and resilience.The historically low levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell have invited unprecedented federal action and raise the specter of a looming energy crisis. To ensure a sustainable future, these harsh realities will require inclusive collaborations and innovative actions. The return of the GWC Summer Conference brought together a broad array of expertise and diverse perspectives from across the region to candidly discuss these complex challenges. Throughout this conference we examined potential options to advance sustainable water management, expand basin-wide conservation in every sector, and strengthen watershed resilience.

    Conference Sessions:

    Thursday, June 16: Where We Currently Stand in the Colorado River Basin

    The Science: What Does the Climate Science Suggest for the Short- and Long-Term?

    The Status, Scope and Timeline of Ongoing Negotiations for the 2026 Guidelines.

    Institutional Uncertainty: 100 Years Later, What We Still Don’t Know About the Compact.

    The Good (13 MAF/year), the Bad (11 MAF/year), and the Ugly (9 MAF/year). How does the Law of the River work (or not) along this continuum?

    Friday, June 17: Building Pathways to a Sustainable Future for All

    Crafting a Rural-Tribal-Urban Social Compact in a Warming World.

    Water Resiliency Across the System.

    Next Generation Voices.

    42nd Annual Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources
    Thursday, June 16 and Friday, June 17, 2022
    Wolf Law Building, Wittemyer Courtroom

    Conference Recording, Program, and CLE Accreditation

    How this tribe survives in #Colorado’s worst #drought region with as little as 10% of its hard-won water supply — The #Denver Post #DoloresRiver #SanJuanRiver #COriver #aridification

    South of Hesperus August 2019 Sleeping Ute Mountain in the distance. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

    Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Bruce Finley). Here’s an excerpt:

    “A lot of reckoning” as Colorado low water flows imperil farming and ranching

    The Utes are surviving, for now, by relying on a unique asset: a mill built in 2014 where tribal crews de-husk, grind and package all the corn they can harvest: “Native American Grown whole grain Non-GMO.” Sales nationwide to whiskey distilleries, health-oriented grocery stores and others help make ends meet — even as less water is available. Dry times led reservoir operators to cut the Utes’ water to 10% of their allotment last year and 25% this year. Only 13 of the tribe’s 110 center pivot irrigation sprinklers can run…

    Mcphee Reservoir

    The agricultural economy of far southwestern Colorado once encompassed more than 75,000 irrigated acres, including 7,700 acres on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. It relies on the huge McPhee Reservoir completed in 1986, one of the largest and last that the federal government built to enable settlement in the arid Southwest. The reservoir is less than half full. Snowpack in the high San Juan Mountains has been shrinking — recent federal research has found these mountains will be dry before 2080 — and the cumulative impacts are such that runoff toward the reservoir disappears more quickly into parched terrain. The snow melts earlier, complicating planting, and unusually high winds and heavy dust accelerate water depletion.

    Towaoc-Highline Canal via Ten Tribes Partnership/USBR Tribal Water Study

    By tribal leaders’ own reckoning and multiple historical assessments, the Utes have been dealt repeated bad hands, forced in the 19th Century onto some of North America’s harshest land – high desert southwest of Cortez — with limited access to water.

    For thousands of years, Utes migrated in sync with nature’s seasons across valleys and deserts that became Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. A tribal website video celebrates Utes’ role as stewards of the mountains. European settlers displaced them and disrupted nomadic lifestyles. A 1908 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said water on reservations had to fulfill the purpose of the reservations, which included agriculture. Yet, access to sufficient water remains difficult. Ute Mountain Utes lacked domestic drinking water in Towaoc, the tribal capital, until the late 1980s. Tribal members had been hauling snow down from Sleeping Ute Mountain on their backs and melting it.

    San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

    #Water worries mount in #ColoradoRiver Basin as new #conservation plan due date draws near — The #Montrose Press #COriver #aridification

    Blue Mesa Reservoir is the largest storage facility in Colorado in the Upper Colorado River system. Prolonged drought and downriver demand is shrinking the reservoir. Credit: Tom Wood, Water Desk

    Click the link to read the article on The Montrose Press website (Katharhynn Heidelberg). Here’s an excerpt:

    Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June 14 remarks to the U.S. Senate said the ongoing drought has put the Colorado River Basin at “the tipping point.” According to published reports, she also called on the basin states to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre feet over the next 18 months and told the states to come up with a plan to do so in the next 60 days…

    State Rep. Marc Catlin, a Colorado River District board member, is alarmed by the timeline — 60 days from Touton’s request is in mid-August.

    “Historically, we haven’t been able to decide the shape of the table in 60 days,” Catlin said of talks between the basin states. “I really think what we’re looking at is more of what the water plan will be in water year 2023.”

    […]

    BuRec is attempting, under drought response actions announced May 3, to boost storage in Powell by about 1 million af by next April. Flaming Gorge Reservoir will release 500,000 af, as called for by the drought contingency plan. Additionally, BuRec is reducing Glen Canyon Dam’s annual release volume from 7.48 million af to 7 million af.