6 #ColoradoRiver states submit a plan to cut #water use, but #California says ‘no deal’ — AZCentral.com #COriver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the article on the AZCentral.com website (Brandon Loomis). Click through for the photo gallery, here’s an excerpt:

Late last year, the federal government asked the seven states that share the Colorado River’s water to submit a plan by the end of January to rapidly cut their use of water or face mandatory cuts. Six of them found a consensus proposal andsubmitted their idea on Tuesday. The seventh — California — is an ominous exclusion, given that it is the largest water user on the river and could thwart efforts to preserve the system if it presses its rights in court. Even so, water policy experts found it encouraging that six states could come together to present the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation with a state-driven option, one that fast-forwards through a plan devised 15 years ago…One of the proposal’s authors, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger, said talks with California would continue.

“We absolutely intend to continue to work in good faith with California,” he told The Arizona Republic. “I don’t see the fact that that six states submitted a letter as any sort of declaration of failure.”

[…]

Reclamation officials have said river users must cut between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet to stabilize the system. Officials from the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — believe their plan will save 3.3 million. Each acre-foot contains about 326,000 gallons and is enough to supply two or three households, though roughly 80% of the river’s water is applied on farms…

Entsminger said the “no action” alternative is too risky in an age when a warming and drying climate has drained most of the reservoirs’ capacity.

“You’re just rolling the dice on an extremely high-percentage chance that these reservoirs are going to continue to decline and you could go below minimum-power pool at Lake Powell and dead pool at Lake Mead,” he said.

As the #ColoradoRiver dries up, [6 states and #California] can’t agree on saving #water — The Washington Post #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon Dam, seen here in May 2022, was a major electrical generation but has produced less as volumes in Lake Powell have declined. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

“This is what climate change + an out-dated law of the river looks like: ‘There’s a problem of aridification. But on top of that, there’s a problem with the rules…The rules governing the system are not sustainable.’ — Jonathan Overpack via Twitter

Click the link to read the article on The Washington Post website (Joshua Partlow). Here’s an excerpt:

The river’s biggest water user, California, didn’t join six states in a proposal to cut some 2 million acre feet of usage

For the second time in six months, states that depend on the Colorado River to sustain their farms and cities appear to have failed to reach an agreement on restricting water usage, setting up the prospect that the federal government will make unilateral cuts this year…

“Obviously, it’s not going swimmingly,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the former general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a water provider that is a major player in the talks. “It’s pretty tough right now.”

[…]

The proposal by the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — seeks to protect the major reservoirs in Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling below critical levels, such as when the dams would no longer be able to generate electricity or at “dead pool,” when water would effectively be blocked from flowing out of these lakes. Before above-average snows in recent weeks, the Bureau of Reclamation was projecting that Lake Powell could start to reach such thresholds by this summer.

One of the central tensions of these complicated negotiations is how to balance cuts between farming regions against those in cities, including major population centers. Agriculture uses some 80 percent of the river’s water and also tends to have the most senior rights, some dating back to the 19th century. The way this “priority system” works, residents of Phoenix would lose water before vegetable farmers in Yuma. Those who grow alfalfa in Southern California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys would keep their water before people in parts of Los Angeles.

Kightlinger, along with many other water experts and officials, says cuts of this magnitude and severity have to be shared, rather than doled out according to seniority.

“They can’t follow the priority system. That would be a disaster. That would be: We’re basically going to put all the cuts on the major share of the economy. That just simply can’t be reality,” he said.

Map credit: AGU

As the #ColoradoRiver Shrinks, Washington Prepares to Spread the Pain — The New York Times #COriver #aridification

Water users are urgently trying to keep Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border from dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on The New York Times website (Christopher Flavelle). Here’s an excerpt:

“Think of the Colorado River Basin as a slow-motion disaster,” said Kevin Moran, who directs state and federal water policy advocacy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re really at a moment of reckoning.”

Negotiators say the odds of a voluntary agreement appear slim. It would be the second time in six months that the Colorado River states, which also include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, have missed a deadline for consensus on cuts sought by the Biden administration to avoid a catastrophic failure of the river system. Without a deal, the Interior Department, which manages flows on the river, must impose the cuts. That would break from the century-long tradition of states determining how to share the river’s water. And it would all but ensure that the administration’s increasingly urgent efforts to save the Colorado get caught up in lengthy legal challenges. The crisis over the Colorado River is the latest example of how climate change is overwhelming the foundations of American life — not only physical infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, but also the legal underpinnings that have made those systems work.

A century’s worth of laws, which assign different priorities to Colorado River users based on how long they’ve used the water, is facing off against a competing philosophy that says, as the climate changes, water cuts should be apportioned based on what’s practical. The outcome of that dispute will shape the future of the southwestern United States.

“We’re using more water than nature is going to provide,” said Eric Kuhn, who worked on previous water agreements as general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Someone is going to have to cut back very significantly.”

The rules that determine who gets water from the Colorado River, and how much, were always based, to a degree, on magical thinking…But the premise that the river’s flow would average 17.5 million acre-feet each year turned out to be faulty. Over the past century, the river’s actual flow has averaged less than 15 million acre-feet each year. For decades, that gap was obscured by the fact that some of the river’s users, including Arizona and some Native American tribes, lacked the canals and other infrastructure to employ their full allotment. But as that infrastructure increased, so did the demand on the river. Then, the drought hit. From 2000 through 2022, the river’s annual flow averaged just over 12 million acre-feet; in each of the past three years, the total flow was less than 10 million.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

San Luis Valley counties band together to fight #water exportation — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

SOMETIMES playing defense can be your most effective offense.

Anticipating another eventual push to export water from the San Luis Valley aquifers and the headwaters of the Upper Rio Grande, officials in each of the six counties are drafting an intergovernmental agreement and specific planning regulations they hope will legally block any water exportation project.

Through an intergovernmental agreement, the counties would look to establish a “Joint Planning Area” to protect the Valley’s water resources and then adopt specific 1041 planning regulations that address protecting the Valley’s water resources from exportation.

EARLIER COVERAGE: The Water Archives

“This might be our best opportunity to stop water exportation,” said Saguache County Commissioner Tom McCracken, who chairs the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments board. “I’m feeling really excited about it.”

It’s through the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments that county officials and city officials have been meeting to draft the intergovernmental agreement and eventually establish 1041 regulations specifically around water exportation proposals. Any proposal that would aim to take water out of the Valley, such as the Renewable Water Resources plan, would have to satisfy all the regulations in applying for the required county permits.

The city of Alamosa and the city of Monte Vista are expressing interest in being part of the water resources intergovernmental agreement as well.

In a speech last April where he addressed the RWR plan, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser encouraged the use of 1041 regulations so that communities have a “seat at the table in shaping the water projects that impact them.”

“Broadly speaking, a local government can use its 1041 powers to limit the negative impacts associated with the development of certain ‘areas’ or ‘activities of state interest.’ Such areas or activities might be related to everything from water infrastructure to buy-and-dry projects. Overall, these powers are intended to allow local governments to protect our lands, their value, and their use,” Weiser said.

CONVERSATIONS among county commissioners began in earnest early last summer following interest by Douglas County in the Renewable Water Resources proposal to pump 20,000 acre-feet every year out of the Valley to the Front Range bedroom community.

A visit by Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon last year to talk to RWR supporters in the San Luis Valley heightened concerns among county commissioners. Following Laydon’s visit, local county commissioners began conversations on how to counter both Douglas County’s interest and the ongoing efforts by Renewable Water Resources to export water from the Valley.

“I do still see a need and I feel good about the movement that’s been made,” said Alamosa County Commissioner Vern Heersink, who has been involved in the discussions from the beginning.

“I didn’t think we would have this much of a voice,” Heersink said, “and so it’s exciting to be working together with the other counties on a common goal.”

As headwater counties in the Upper Rio Grande Basin, there’s strength in numbers when it comes to battling water projects with smaller counties banding together to counter efforts by a large suburban county like Douglas County.

The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments offers a template to the approach in how that region battled the Two Forks project in the 1990s.

“The only way a region like the San Luis Valley can be successful and have a real say in the water world is if it bands together,” said attorney Barbara Green. Her law firm, Sullivan Green Seavy, is advising the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments in the drafting of the intergovernmental agreement. The agreement itself has no regulatory effect but simply forms the “Joint Planning Area,” Green explained to commissioners at a meeting last week in Alamosa.

It’s the 1041 regulations that provide the teeth.

THE strategy could also provide a checkmate to Douglas County’s own interest to get into the business of being a water provider, which it currently is not.

At a recent Douglas County Commissioner work session, Laydon raised the idea of creating a volunteer water commission, similar to a county planning commission, to help Douglas County plan forward on securing water for its future needs.

“We know that the state does not have a concrete water plan. I think that’s to come,” Laydon said. “In the west and certainly in Douglas County we know that water is a top priority issue, a scarce resource that we need to have some long-range, thoughtful planning around.

“I think we’re overdue in Douglas County to really activate a water commission and have a comprehensive plan much like we do in transportation and our comprehensive master plan in land use.”

Bill Owens, former Republican governor of Colorado and RWR pitchman, has been courting Douglas County to buy into Renewable Water Resources. Attorneys hired by Douglas County have outlined the significant legal and logistical hurdles to the RWR proposal.

Having each of the San Luis Valley’s six counties adopt specific planning regulations around water exportation and enter into intergovernmental agreements adds another layer of local regulation around water projects.

The effort is not so Valley counties can meddle in each other’s business, said Heersink, but a specific response to any plans for water exportation.

“We want to prevent a diversion that takes the water out of the Valley,” he said.

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

Human actions created the #SaltonSea, #California’s largest lake – here’s how to save it from collapse, protecting wild birds and human health — The Conversation

Exposed lakebed at the Salton Sea on Dec. 29, 2022. RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Robert Glennon, University of Arizona and Brent Haddad, University of California, Santa Cruz

The Salton Sea spreads across a remote valley in California’s lower Colorado Desert, 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the Mexican border. For birds migrating along the Pacific coast, it’s an avian Grand Central Station. In midwinter tens of thousands of snow geese, ducks, pelicans, gulls and other species forage on and around the lake. Hundreds of other species nest there year-round or use it as a rest stop during spring and fall migration.

At the dawn of the 20th century, this massive oasis didn’t even exist. It was created in 1905 when Colorado River floodwaters breached an irrigation canal under construction in Southern California and flowed into a basin that had flooded in the past. In earlier years, the sea covered roughly 40 square miles more than its current size of 343 square miles (890 square kilometers).

Since then, agricultural runoff from newly formed nearby irrigation districts has sustained it. By midcentury, the sea was considered a regional amenity and stocked with popular sport fish.

Now, however, this resource is in trouble. Wasteful irrigation practices that maintained the sea have been reduced, and excess water is now being transferred to thirsty coastal cities instead. The sea’s volume has declined to roughly 4.6 million acre-feet, losing nearly 3 million acre-feet since the mid-2000s. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons – the amount of water required to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot).

As water evaporates from its surface, its salinity has spiked: The sea is now almost twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean.

Map of California with inset showing location of Salton Sea
The Salton Sea is a large inland lake in southeastern California fed by Colorado River irrigation water from farms in the Imperial Valley. Legislative Analysts’s Office, state of California, CC BY-ND

In November 2022, the federal government pledged US$250 million for environmental restoration and dust suppression at the Salton Sea. It’s a historic contribution, but experts agree that other critical steps are needed.

We just completed more than a year of service to the California Salton Sea Management Program’s Independent Review Panel, which was charged with evaluating proposals to import water to the sea. In our view, the panel’s recommendations represent the best path forward. They also reflect the complexity of managing water in the increasingly dry U.S. Southwest, where other water bodies, such as Utah’s Great Salt Lake, share the same general challenges of net water loss.

An ecosystem on the brink

There’s no question that the Salton Sea desperately needs a fix. Rising salinity threatens worms, crustaceans and other organisms that make up the base of the sea’s food web and has killed off many of its fish species. Without intervention, the sea’s entire ecosystem could collapse.

The sea’s declining water levels also threaten human health. Nearby residents, who are mostly low-income people of color, already experience high rates of respiratory illness. A recent study found that dust mobilized by wind blowing across the playa triggers lung inflammation.

Without government intervention, the sea would reach a lower equilibrium size by 2045 that matches smaller inflows with evaporation losses. Even greater areas of playa would be exposed, potentially generating even more airborne dust. https://www.youtube.com/embed/KOcB0A3K_bw?wmode=transparent&start=13 Land managers and local residents explain how the Salton Sea’s decline is affecting people and wildlife.

Many bad options

The state review panel analyzed strategies for adding water to the Salton Sea as a long-term restoration strategy. Most of the proposals envisioned pulling water from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, 125 miles to the south, desalinating it and moving it north by canal.

These schemes called for building immense desalination plants along the Sea of Cortez, up to 10 times bigger than California’s Claude “Bud” Lewis plant in Carlsbad – the largest such facility in the United States.

The proposals could not overcome three significant problems. First, they were projected to cost many tens of billions of dollars and take more than 20 years to complete. Second, they threatened to inflict nasty environmental consequences on the Sea of Cortez, dumping huge quantities of brine into sensitive and protected marine ecosystems and turning pristine beaches into industrial zones. Third, Mexico would derive little benefit from building a huge desalination plant in a remote area, other than some jobs from building and running the plant. https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/juxtapose/latest/embed/index.html?uid=1c70a2bc-9035-11ed-b5bd-6595d9b17862 These satellite photos show how the Salton Sea shrank between 1984 and 2015, exposing dry playa around its edges (move slider to compare years).

Focus on salinity, not size

Ultimately, the panel concluded that expanding the Salton Sea to its former size was less important than controlling its salinity. The panel made four recommendations that center on building a desalination plant at the Salton Sea to the treat water that’s already there.

This plant would remove 200 million gallons of high-salinity water daily from the Salton Sea and produce 100 million gallons per day of desalinated water, which would be returned to the Salton Sea. In short order, this exchange would begin to significantly lower its overall salinity.

A desalination plant using reverse osmosis generates a brine stream equal to approximately half the volume of the treated seawater. Accordingly, the panel called for California to negotiate a voluntary paid transfer program in which the state would pay farmers to transfer enough water to the Salton Sea to replace the volume of brine removed at the desalination plant. The net effect would keep the sea from becoming even smaller and hasten the process of lowering salinity.

The desalination plant would generate an immense quantity of salt, which would require careful disposal. The panel recommended drying out the brine in evaporation ponds and transferring dried salts from the ponds to landfills or industrial uses.

Finally, the panel called for California to step up support for an aggressive program to stabilize the exposed playa. Techniques could include planting vegetation on the playa and plowing long rows of furrows to reduce dust mobilization during wind storms. The estimated total cost for this plan is $63 billion, compared with $95 billion-$148 billion for various proposals to desalinate and import water from the Sea of Cortez.

Since 2020, the state has conducted pilot projects to reduce dust blowing off the playa, with promising early results. The federal government’s $250 million pledge will enable this work to move more quickly.

Stabilizing the playa is essential to address significant public health concerns associated with windborne dust, although more must be done regionally to fully address air quality problems.

Looking forward, not backward

This approach will not satisfy critics who want to restore the Salton Sea to its maximum volume. These advocates recall the mid-20th century when the sea was a tourism draw and would like to reconnect the few small towns that once bordered the sea, which are now separated by extensive playa. Expanding the sea to its original size also would address concerns about playa-sourced air pollution.

In our view, however, the panel’s recommendations offer a genuine opportunity to solve the main problems: blowing dust and increasing salinity. This solution is more likely to actually be implemented than an enormous binational desalination project. It would happen more quickly, at about half the cost of the binational importation options.

We believe that the sooner California officials accept the reality of a smaller Salton Sea, the sooner the state can move ahead, focusing on air quality improvement and ecological restoration.

Robert Glennon, Regents Professor Emeritus and Morris K. Udall Professor of Law & Public Policy Emeritus, University of Arizona and Brent Haddad, Professor of Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Important Things Ahead for #Colorado #Water Policy in 2023: Audubon supports proactive water #resilience strategies for 2023 #Colorado legislation #COleg

Click the link to read the article on the Audubon website (Abby Burk):

Water is our most precious natural resource and life-sustaining force for Coloradans, birds, and other wildlife. On January 9, Colorado lawmakers headed to the Capitol to start the 120-day legislative session. As a centerpiece of the session, water will connect and unite lawmakers and constituents with ripple effects for years to come.

At a critical time for water, leadership from all three legislative chambers have commented on the importance of Colorado’s water to the sustainability and vitality of our state. “(Water) is the conversation, it will be the centerpiece of our agenda this year, if for no other reason than that Colorado has to be seen as a leader in this space,” said Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie. “The conversation around water is going to be a big one,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg.

On January 17, 2023, Governor Jared Polis, in the State of the State address, remarked: “Water is life in Colorado and the west, it’s as simple as that. But we’re at a crossroads. Increased demand, chronic and extreme drought, conflicts with other states, and devastating climate events are threatening this critical life source— and we’ve all seen the impacts. Wildfires have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres and devastated entire communities. Farmers and ranchers across the state fear that Colorado won’t have the water resources to sustain the next generation of agricultural jobs… When Colorado is 150, I want our state to have the water resources necessary for our farms, communities, and industries to thrive, and the tools in place to protect our state’s waterways and defend our rights.” 

Clearly, water is a legislative priority. Big water ideas are in the wind, but proponents need to share concepts broadly. Our decisions about water influence all areas of life for people and nature. We’re doing a better job of including and valuing a diversity of input in water decisions, but we need to do more. A diversity of water stakeholders must support legislative proposals that support multiple beneficial uses.

Audubon Rockies is busy working with lawmakers, agencies, and partners to prioritize healthy, functioning, and resilient watersheds and river systems for people and birds—the natural systems that we all depend upon. There are already seven bills on our water watch list, plus several draft bills. Here are three water priority areas for Audubon in the 2023 Colorado legislative session. Please make sure you’re signed up to hear about opportunities to engage with them.

Funds provided by grants and landowners near Kremmling, Colorado, have facilitated improvements such as this back stabilization project. (Source: Paul Bruchez)

Stream Health 

Colorado’s ability to thrive depends upon the health and function of our natural stream systems. Healthy, functioning stream systems provide critical habitat to most of Colorado’s wildlife; improve wildfire resilience, drought mitigation, flood safety, water quality, forest health, riparian and aquatic habitat; and provide many other ecological benefits that are beneficial to all Coloradans.

Stream restoration practices have been successfully implemented across Colorado for more than 30 years by federal, state, and local agencies, conservation organizations, water providers, and private landowners. The projects are usually designed to address the environmental, public safety, infrastructure, and economic impacts of degraded river corridor conditions. However, recently there has been increased uncertainty about stream restoration practices in regards to water rights issues. Project proponents need a clear path to initiating and completing a stream restoration project. 

Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is on track to introduce proposed 2023 legislation to provide clarity and certainty on where stream restoration projects may take place based on the historical footprint (the presence of a stream and its riparian corridor’s location before disturbance occurred) without being subject to water rights administration. Without a legislative solution, Colorado could miss out on the critical benefits of healthy functioning river corridors and the significant funding currently available for watershed restoration work through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act.

This stream restoration legislation is a top priority for Audubon. We have partnered with DNR to host a water legislator webinar series on this bill. 

Join me on February 2, 8-8:45 AM for a bill orientation webinar with DNR leadership, bill sponsors, and leading experts. Register here.

Climate stripes through 2022. Credit: Ed Hawkins

Climate Resiliency 

Despite near-term optimism from a snowy December and January, climate change and unprecedented drought conditions in recent years are threatening Colorado’s ability to satisfy water users, environmental needs, and potentially interstate obligations. We need more flexible ways to manage and deliver water to support the Colorado we love. The Colorado River Basin has been in an extended drought going on 24 years. There are real consequences for people, birds, and every other living thing that depends on rivers in this region. Colorado needs tools and resources to proactively respond to drought conditions and maximize the benefits to the state, its water users, and river systems from once-in-a-generation competitive federal funds that have recently been made available to address the Colorado River Basin drought. Audubon will be watching this session for legislation to support that will provide new innovative solutions to the water threats we face.

Water Funding & Projects 

Governor Polis’ proposed budget request includes a historic $25.2 million to advance the state’s Water Plan implementation and expansion of staff and funding to capture competitive federal funds. These much-needed proposals should be well-received by lawmakers, given that water security, drought, and fire are on everyone’s mind for this legislative session. We must ensure that these funds are invested wisely in water projects and water resources management strategies. The strategies must be equitable and fair for vulnerable communities and improve the health of Colorado’s watersheds for people and nature. Funding and water projects that support our river ecosystems are intrinsically related to our public health, economy, and the Coloradan ways of life.

Colorado Rivers. Credit: Geology.com

Deadline on new #ColoradoRiver #water cuts looms — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

Water users are urgently trying to keep Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border from dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

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

Another deadline to establish new cutbacks in water use in the seven-state Colorado River Basin is quickly approaching on January 31, 2023, as states continue their talks, as ordered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

In addition to the cutbacks, several other key decisions also lie ahead in the coming weeks, including how a $125 million, broad-based water conservation pilot program would operate, whether a permanent water conservation program known as demand management could work among the Upper Basin states, and how the third-year of an emergency drought plan, known as the Drought Response Operations Agreement, will function this spring and summer.

All are tied to reducing short-term and long-term demands on the drought-strapped river as part of a five-point plan put forward by the Upper Basin states last summer. In releasing that plan, the Upper Basin recognized its effectiveness would hinge on additional actions to reduce use in the Lower Basin.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation late last year had given the seven basin states until Jan. 31 to come up with a new agreement on water reductions, after an August deadline had passed.

Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said talks were continuing but that more work and specific plans from California, Arizona and Nevada would be necessary to reach an agreement and take action.

“The basin states, the federal government, and the tribes have been working collaboratively and tirelessly to find potential points of consensus on short-term actions to protect lakes Powell and Mead,” Mitchell said Monday at a meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board in Aurora.

“I continue to believe strongly that the Lower Basin states must take action to reduce their demands out of Lake Mead.

“We are moving forward on our commitments, but it is important to recognize that those commitments and that work alone mean nothing if the Lower Basin use continues as it has been,” she said. She also stressed the importance of considering what must occur in the Lower Basin before Colorado moves forward with widespread participation in the System Conservation Pilot Program.

Map credit: AGU

The basin is divided into two regions. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin covers Arizona, California and Nevada.

Last summer U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered the states to figure out how to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet by August, but no agreements have been reached. Now the states, along with tribal leaders and the feds are aiming to agree to cuts by Jan. 31. If no consensus is reached next week, it leaves the possibility that the federal government will decide how to make the cuts in the coming weeks.

As lakes Powell and Mead have dwindled, all seven states have had to get by with less water and federal forecasts indicate that is likely to be the case for several more years.

West snowpack basin-filled map January 27, 2023 via the NRCS.

Since December, the water forecast has improved slightly thanks to heavy mountain snows in Utah and Colorado, according to Michelle Garrison, a water resources specialist at the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“Snowpack and runoff in all of western Colorado and Utah is quite a bit above average … but from here on, it could get really dry just like it did last year. So folks need to be prepared to plan for a continued wet or a sudden drop to really dry or anything in between as they’re looking forward,” Garrison told the board.

Now 23 years into a megadrought widely believed to be the worst in 1,800 years, the highly developed river system is on the brink of collapse, with lakes Powell and Mead falling dangerously close to dead pool, a water level so low that, if it is reached, Powell won’t be able to produce hydropower and Mead won’t be able to serve the millions of people in the Lower Basin who rely on the river.

Colorado River headwaters tributary in Rocky Mountain National Park photo via Greg Hobbs.

The river begins in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains, high in Rocky Mountain National Park. It gathers water from major tributaries in Colorado, such as the Yampa and Gunnison rivers, and throughout the Upper Basin, accumulating some 90% of the streamflow that it will provide throughout the seven-state river system thanks to the runoff from the Upper Basin’s deep mountain snows.

But since 2002, those mountain snowpacks have been shrinking, crushed by warming temperatures and fewer snow days.

Beginning in July of 2021, the U.S. Department of the Interior ordered, for the first time, emergency releases from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs. But that has done little to restore levels, although the releases are credited with providing some protection to the power supply.

While Lower Basin states have been forced to begin cutting back water use under a special set of operating guidelines and drought plans approved respectively in 2007 and 2019, negotiations in recent months have failed to achieve the federally ordered cutbacks. Upper Basin states are considering new programs and actions to further cut Upper Basin water use, but are hoping for additional Lower Basin commitments before taking additional water use reductions of their own.

West Drought Monitor map January 24, 2023.

At the same time, the drought has continued, and this winter could be dry once again, particularly in the Lower Basin. In response, last week, the federal government announced it would expedite negotiations on a new set of operating guidelines designed to protect lakes Powell and Mead to help restore the river.

Under the terms of the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the river’s supplies are divided equally between the Upper and Lower basins. But because the Upper Basin states have smaller and fewer reservoirs than the Lower Basin, users here have had to cut back their water use as the drought has continued. At the same time, Lower Basin users have been able to rely on stored supplies in Powell and Mead, at least until now.

Looking ahead, Jessica Brody, who represents the Metro Basin on the CWCB Board of Directors, said she would like to see more time taken before critical Upper Basin decisions are made, including participation in the $125 million System Conservation Pilot Program, which is accepting applications through Feb. 1.

“I’m a little bit concerned about the Feb. 1 deadline when we don’t yet know whether the Lower Basin will be able to come to the table in terms of reducing the demands in the Lower Basin,” Brody said.

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.

Importing water to #NewMexico? Challenges are stunning — The Albuquerque Journal #MissouriRiver #RioGrande

Lake Sakakawea location map. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77572471

Click the link to read the guest column on The Albuquerque Journal website (Bruce Thomson). Here’s an excerpt:

Probably the most feasible option for bringing water from the Mississippi River basin would be to transfer water from Lake Sakakawea, a huge lake on the Missouri River in North Dakota, to the middle Rio Grande. The distance from Lake Sakakawea to the middle Rio Grande is approximately 1,000 miles. More importantly, it’s located at an elevation of 1,800 feet above sea level which greatly reduces pumping requirements.

A recent study done by the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources suggests that water supply in the middle Rio Grande will decrease by about 30% over the next 50 years. That deficiency is approximately 300,000 acre-feet per year…Transferring 300,000 acre-feet of water from the Missouri River during six months of high flow each year, requires a flow of 830 cubic feet per second, similar to today’s flow in the Rio Grande at Albuquerque. This is far too much water for a pipe – it requires a canal 25 feet wide and eight feet deep. To pump this water, 650,000 horsepower or 500 megawatts of power will be needed. This is roughly half the power generated by a single unit at a nuclear power plant…

Transporting water from North Dakota to New Mexico would involve a canal that passes through or near seven states; North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Bringing water from Louisiana to the Colorado River will require passing through or near Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Each of these states face serious water shortages. It is inconceivable to imagine that each of them won’t demand a proportionate share of water passing over or near their lands.

We must recognize that multistate interbasin transfers quickly become impractical when factoring in the water demands for all participants. The volumes of water in the Missouri River, Atchafalaya River and other North American rivers are large, but they are nowhere near sufficient to meet the demands of the arid West. We simply need to learn to live with what we’ve got, accept the fact that future shortages are inevitable, and then manage this most precious resource wisely and equitably.

Bruce Thomson, Ph.D., P.E., is a research professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering and in the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico.

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

U.S. Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper Urge Reclamation to Allocate Additional Funding for the Arkansas Valley Conduit #ArkansasRiver

Arkansas Valley Conduit map via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Chris Woodka) June 2021.

Click the link to read the article on Senator Bennet’s website:

Today [January 23, 2023], Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper urged the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to consider allocating additional funding from the recent omnibus funding bill for Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23) or the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) for the Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC).

The AVC is a planned 130-mile water-delivery system from the Pueblo Reservoir to communities in Bent, Crowley, Kiowa, Otero, Prowers, and Pueblo counties. The Conduit is the final phase of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which Congress authorized in 1962.

“[T]he Conduit has been one of Colorado’s top priorities for nearly six decades,” wrote the senators. “Continuing to invest in this project will allow the project’s stakeholders to plan for more effective construction and delivery of clean drinking water throughout Southeast Colorado.”

In the letter, the senators highlight the $60 million allocated for the construction of the AVC from the BIL last fall, and ask BOR to allocate additional funds, which could be immediately applied to help advance different components of the AVC.

“For years, this project languished due to insufficient funding and a prohibitive cost-share agreement,” continued the senators. “Congressional appropriations over the past decade coupled with BOR’s recent $60 million award will finally enable the construction of this long-promised project. More investment, from the FY23 omnibus or future BIL awards, would accelerate the construction timeline and improve planning efficiency.”

Bennet and Hickenlooper have consistently advocated for increased funding for the AVC. The FY23 omnibus spending bill, which was signed into law in December, included $10.1 million for the Conduit after Bennet and Hickenlooper urged the Senate Appropriations Committee to continue to fund the project last May. In October, the senators visited Pueblo to celebrate the announcement of $60 million in BIL funds for the Conduit. The senators and U.S. Representative Ken Buck (R-Colo.) urged the OMB and BOR in July to allocate these funds. In March, Bennet and Hickenlooper secured $12 million for the Conduit from the FY22 omnibus bill. Prior to FY22, Bennet helped secure more than $70 million for the AVC. Bennet and Hickenlooper will continue working in Washington to ensure Colorado has the resources needed to complete this vital project for the region.

In 2009, Congress passed legislation Bennet worked on with former U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) to authorize a federal cost share for the construction of the Arkansas Valley Conduit. In 2013, Bennet and his colleagues sent a letter to the BOR to quickly approve the Conduit’s Environmental Impact Study (EIS) in order to expedite the project’s pre-construction process. In 2014, following Bennet and Udall’s efforts to urge the BOR to quickly approve the Conduit’s EIS, the Record of Decision was signed in February. Bennet joined the groundbreaking for the project in October 2020.

The text of the letter is available HERE and below.

#ColoradoRiver District considers criteria for water conservation program: Contracts approved only if no new projects take water to Front Range — @AspenJournalism

A herd of elk feast on a sprinkler-irrigated meadow in the Starwood subdivision. The area is irrigated with water from Hunter Creek via Red Mountain Ditch. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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

A Western Slope water conservation district has released a draft of the rules it plans to use to guide a program paying water users to cut back.

The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District Board of Directors discussed the policy at its quarterly meeting this week. In December, the Upper Colorado River Commission unveiled details of a rebooted water conservation program, which originally ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid water users to use less Colorado River water.

Along with state officials, it will be up to the River District to approve or deny applications for the restarted program within its 15-county boundary, with the aim of preventing speculation and permanent damage to the Western Slope’s agricultural communities.

“While we didn’t come up with the idea of system conservation and certainly didn’t ever endorse the idea that $125 million should be made available for this particular system conservation program, we recognize that we need to act to protect our communities and our water supply here,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the River District.

According to the River District’s criteria, an applicant must prove saving water will not injure other water users. In a given year, no more than 30% of the land owned by a single person or entity can be dried up and no more than 30% of the irrigated land in any sub-basin can be dried up.

The policy says that Front Range water providers — which in total take about 500,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water each year across the Continental Divide to growing cities and for agriculture — must also contribute their fair share of water. The River District will only approve contracts so long as there are no new transmountain diversion projects or expansion of an existing TMD project — at all.

“We are not going to ask our water users to cut back when what that means is essentially making room for new transbasin diversions,” Mueller said.

The policy also recommends that if the farm operator is not the owner of the land, that 40% of the federal payments go to the operator.

“Should all the funds go to landowners and not the farm operators, we may see families leave the area or be forced to switch professions,” Mueller said. “That’s a real potential negative of a program like this.”

The restarted System Conservation Pilot Program — which the River District is referring to as just the System Conservation Program, dropping the “pilot” since it’s no longer new — will pay water users a starting price of $150 per acre-foot of saved water. It will be funded with $125 million of federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act. The deadline to submit applications is Feb. 1 and the UCRC expects to award contracts in March to begin conserving water during the 2023 irrigation season.

The goal of the SCP is to reduce Colorado River water use in the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) to lessen the impacts of long-term drought and depleted reservoirs. The program is one arm of the UCRC’s 5-Point Plan, released in July, which is aimed at protecting critical elevations at the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Fueled by a two-decade drought and climate change, the reservoirs have fallen to historically low levels, threatening the ability to make hydro-electric power at the dams. Upper basin water managers have called on the lower basin (California, Arizona and Nevada) to bear the brunt of the cuts needed to sustain the system, given that the lower basin regularly uses its full annual appropriation of Colorado River water, while the upper basin uses far less overall.

River District board members will provide feedback on the policy and could approve a final draft at a meeting in two weeks.

The original SCPP saved about 47,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of about $8.6 million over four years. UCRC officials have repeatedly said they cannot put a number on how much water they expect to be conserved in the new iteration of the program.

The UCRC held a webinar on Wednesday [January 15, 2022] to provide additional information to applicants and walk through the review process and timeline. According to UCRC Executive Director Chuck Cullom, the webinar had more than 120 participants.

Cullom said the UCRC, which has just three employees, will be looking to contractors and state leaders to get the program up and running.

“In order to engage in something as regionally diverse as system conservation requires a team,” he said. “So we are engaging with a consultant who will provide technical and administrative support work as well as the leadership and work from each of the four states.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.

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

Stacy Standley: 15 steps #Aspen needs to take to preserve the #ColoradoRiver Basin — Aspen Times #COriver #aridification

Waterfalls along Yule Creek. CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY JOHN ARMSTRONG

Click the link to read the guest column on the Aspen Times website (Stacy Standley). Here’s an excerpt:

Now is the time to take a giant step into the future with revolutionary ideas that transcend the parochial local interests of the Roaring Fork River Valley by recognizing that climate/weather change, along with population growth, has erased the boundaries of the Colorado River Basin…Aspen is now the pivotal headwaters of the Colorado River Basin, which has become a small, compacted irrigation canal instead of a great river system and has shrunk many hundreds of miles into but a few feet…

1. There should be 100% metering and billing of every drop of water: 7% of the Aspen distribution is unmetered and/or unbilled and unmetered, and this should be eliminated. 

2. You can not distribute or control what you do not measure: Metering and billing should be by constant recorded, instantaneous, wifi-linked electronic services on all distribution points and reported to every customer and the Water Department on a instantaneous daily basis, with auto shutoffs for an aberration of usage by 1% or more. 

3. All wastewater and storm water must be a fully-integrated part of the treated water-supply system by municipal recycling and/or irrigation and municipal water usage.

4. Downstream water flows that exceed minimum stream flow must be acquired and piped back into the upstream Aspen intake.

5. Aspen and Pitkin County must negotiate with Twin Lakes Canal and Reservoir Co. and the Fry-Ark project to create water savings for their service area and water that can be allowed to stay in the Roaring Fork River Valley.

6. Salvation Ditch, Red Mountain Ditch, and all other local irrigation systems should become a part of the Aspen water conservation and re-use ethic.

 7. 100% of all leaks and water waste must be ended immediately.

8. Every tree, plant, and natural out-of-house improvement must be identified and the water usage calculated by Lysimeter and/or other instantaneous soil moisture storage measurement system and then a local research and development lab created to test, grow, and install water conserving plants and systems for out-of-house water management and control.

9. All local streets should be coated with bright reflective surfaces to maintain a cooler urban-heat island and, thus, improve out-of-house water usage.

10. Aspen should create its own bottled (no plastic) water supply for individual use from a high-quality spring and distribute at least 2 gallons per person per day inside of the city service area for drinking water usage at cost to increase the Aspen water supply.

11. Aspen should divert into vertically oriented pipeline coils (24 to 48 inch) in all area streams to capture water runoff that exceeds minimum stream flows and keep the vertical-coiled pipelines at or above the city base elevation for instantaneous “pipeline coil reservoir storage.”

12. Every new or remodeled home and business must have installed an on-site water-storage tank for at least three months of driest in-house water usage.

13. Aspen should participate individually and/or with other Colorado River Basin water users in regional ocean, salt flats, and poor quality oil field wastewater/produced water (i.e., Rangely Field and Utah Basin) purification desalination and urban wastewater recycling for earning water-use credits.

14. Aspen should negotiate with Colorado River Basin Native American tribes to create constructive water savings and water-credit system for the benefit of reservation and also Aspen water usage.

15. Aspen should negotiate to replace Colorado River Basin hydroelectric-power generation with renewable energy to earn water storage credits for regional reservoir.

“We are not going to be afraid to litigate” to protect #Colorado’s water rights: Attorney General Phil Weiser said era of lower basin states over-consuming #ColoradoRiver “is over” — The #Denver Post #COriver #aridification

Lees Ferry streamgage and cableway on the Colorado River, Arizona. The point where the upper and lower Colorado River basins divide the river. (Public domain.)

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

Colorado’s attorney general is seeking to reinforce his office’s water-focused legal team so it could be prepared for upcoming fights over the Colorado River. Attorney General Phil Weiser, who was just re-elected to a second term, said his office needs to be prepared for litigation or negotiation with other stakeholders to defend Colorado’s water rights. He’s not asking for an overhaul of the office — his ask to the Joint Budget Committee is for two new positions, and water and natural resources make up an overall small percentage of his office’s total budget — but he noted that “the challenges with water are heating up.”

“The era of the lower basin states taking as much water as they wanted — up to 10 million acre-feet when they’re only entitled 7.5 — is over,” Weiser said recently…

Ideas on bolstering the water supply — or at least not drinking too deep from it — vary. Weiser said his focus is on protecting the state’s share. Lawmakers have said water will be a “centerpiece” of this legislative session. House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon, has also singled out lower basin states for overusing their allotment. Weiser noted the strain on the reservoirs and the pressure that puts on water users up and down the river. Navigating the legal rapids will require negotiation or litigation, he said.

“We’ve got to be prepared for either way,” Weiser told reporters after his investiture ceremony Thursday. “We are not going to be afraid to litigate and protect our rights, and as we can find collaborative solutions, we’ll work hard to do that.”

[…]

If lawmakers approve the request this spring for more water specialists, it would bring the department’s total staff working on interstate water issues to 11, including eight attorneys, according to budget documents. The internal team has already won legal victories against other states and the federal government, as well as saved the state money on outside experts, according to the proposal.

#Water supply and growth: New annexation rule passes in #ColoradoSprings — KOAA #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Colorado Springs with the Front Range in background. Photo credit Wikipedia.

Click the link to read the article on the KOAA website (Bill Folsom), Here’s an excerpt:

The ongoing drought in the west motivated a request from Colorado Springs Utilities for an update to city ordinances on annexing new developments into the city. With five in favor and four against, City Council approved the change saying for any development annexations to be considered, the city’s water supply has to be at 130% of what is needed for existing residents. Mayor John Suthers supported the change saying tough decisions are being forced by the current water crisis along the Colorado River Basin.

“Our citizens are asking a simple question, ‘Can you ensure we’ll have enough water?’ This ordinance acts in the public interest and answers that question loud and clear,” said Suthers…

Many developers from the community spoke against the change saying it will make large developments outside the city almost impossible.

Suthers Tweeted, “If we do nothing to maintain a buffer between our water supply and our water usage, and the city suffers a major curtailment of our Colorado River water, further drought will put us in an untenable situation, and we will be responsible for a failure of public policy.”

Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) recommended the 130% number following an in-depth review of the organization’s capacity and ability to provide water to the city’s citizens.  Utilities maintain that the city’s 30% margin buffer allows CSU to consistently provide water year in and year out.

Imperial Irrigation District (IID) Vice President and Division 2 Director JB Hamby will serve as Chairman of the #ColoradoRiver Board of #California #COriver #aridification

The All-American Canal conveys water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley in Southern California. The Imperial Irrigation District is the largest user of Colorado River water. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Imperial Valley Irrigation District website:

Imperial Irrigation District Vice President and Division 2 Director JB Hamby will serve as Chairman of the Colorado River Board of California following his unanimous election during Wednesday’s meeting held in Ontario, California.

Imperial Irrigation District Vice President and Division 2 Director JB Hamby will serve as Chairman of the Colorado River Board of California following his unanimous election during Wednesday’s meeting held in Ontario, California.

Hamby has served on the Colorado River Board since April of 2021 and is IID’s fourth member to serve as its chairman. IID’s Executive Superintendent, President, and Division 1 Director Evan T. Hewes served as the board’s first chairman from 1938 to 1947, followed by the district’s Executive Officer Munson J. Dowd from 1962 to 1965, and last by Division 3 Director Lloyd Allen from 2002 to 2006.

As chairman, Hamby serves ex-officio as the Colorado River Commissioner for the State of California. The commissioner is responsible for conferring with representatives of the seven Colorado River basin states and United States on the use of Colorado River water and safeguarding the rights and interests of the state, its agencies, and citizens, pursuant to the federal Boulder Canyon Project Act and the California Water Code.

“This is a historic time of reckoning on the Colorado River where growing demand over the decades exceeds a shrinking supply due to chronic drought and aridification,” Hamby said. “Protecting California’s stake on the Colorado River is vital to our future in Southern California. I look forward to working closely with the board’s member agencies — both agricultural and urban — to develop solutions that respect the Law of the River for the benefit of all Californians.”

The Colorado River Board is composed of representatives of the Coachella Valley Water District, Imperial Irrigation District, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Palo Verde Irrigation District, San Diego County Water Authority, and the state directors of Water Resources and Fish and Wildlife.

California’s Colorado River contractors have proposed to conserve up to an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead each year, beginning in 2023 through 2026. The water, which would otherwise be consumed by California’s communities and farms, would leave up to 1.6 million acre-feet of water behind Hoover Dam at Lake Mead as part of a seven state and federal effort to stabilize the rapidly declining Colorado River system.

California has the largest entitlement to Colorado River water of the seven basin states which serves drinking water to over 19 million people in Southern California and irrigates over 600,000 acres of highly productive agricultural lands that produce fruits, vegetables, and other crops that are a core part of the national and global food supply.

Key Milestones Hit at Chimney Hollow Reservoir in 2022 — @Northern_Water #ColoradoRiver #COriver #SouthPlatteRiver

Inlet/Outlet Tunnel (left), Bald Mountain Interconnect (center) and Main Dam (right). Credit: Northern Water

From the Chimney Hollow “E-Newsletter” from Northern Water:

Chimney Hollow Reservoir construction crews made significant progress in 2022. Work started in August 2021 and is scheduled to continue until August 2025. Here are some highlights from this year’s work. 

Main Dam Foundation Prep: In November 2022, crews completed the main dam rock excavation, which marked a huge milestone in reservoir construction after 15 months of work on this component. 

Hydraulic Asphalt Core: Chimney Hollow construction crews began the asphalt placement in October 2022. For the next two years, the asphalt will be placed in 9-inch increments per lift until the dam reaches a height of about 350 feet. Rockfill and filter/drain construction occur concurrently to complete the embankment construction at any given elevation. 

Bald Mountain Interconnect: One of the most time-sensitive aspects of the Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project was the Bald Mountain Interconnect. A shutdown of the Colorado-Big Thompson (C-BT) Project occurred from mid-September through mid-December as crews cut into existing infrastructure to tie in a 126-inch diameter section of steel pipe with a 72-inch diameter steel offtake (known as a wye) to add the ability to deliver water into Chimney Hollow Reservoir from the C-BT Project.  

Larimer County and Saddle Dam Access Roads: On Nov. 15, the Larimer County and saddle dam access roads were completed. When the reservoir opens to the public, the Larimer County access road will be the entry road to Chimney Hollow’s future public recreation and open space facilities. The saddle dam road is not a public road and extends to the saddle dam for Northern Water maintenance access.  

Downstream Tunnel and Valve Chamber: The downstream tunnel portal and excavation of the 26-foot diameter downstream portion of the tunnel, which runs 667 feet to the center of the main dam was completed in October 2022. A 30-foot diameter valve chamber was also excavated to provide room for mechanical equipment installation and maintenance. A 72-inch diameter steel conduit will be placed inside the tunnel to bring water in and out of Chimney Hollow Reservoir. 

Northern Water’s Joe Donnelly and Jeff Drager explain in this video how the new 90,000 acre-foot Chimney Hollow Reservoir, located southwest of Loveland, will be filled with water once construction is completed in 2025.

Decoupling consumption from population on the Colorado River: Southwestern cities shrink their water footprint even as they grow — @Land_Desk

Wahweap Marina on Lake Powell at low water. Jonathan P. Thompson photo

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

When we think about the Colorado River water shortage, it’s natural to blame it on the burgeoning population in desert cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Too many people are sucking up too much water to keep their lawns green and their swimming pools full. And as more people move to these cities, their overall water consumption increases proportionally, putting more and more strain on the Colorado River system. 

This pattern held true for eight decades after the 1922 signing of the Colorado River Compact: The number of people relying on the river’s waters shot up from less than 1 million to nearly 40 million, and overall water consumption climbed consistently as well, peaking at just under 20 billion cubic meters in 2000.

Suffice it to say, the population has increased a bit in the last century and some. Though it has also decreased in some places: Morenci, Arizona, is now down to 1,500 people; Jerome, Arizona’s population is less than 500; Silverton, Colo., has also shrunk considerably to around 600 year rounders. Source: USGS, 1916.

But then, according to a new study in the Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management by Brian Richter, the pattern was broken. Even as the population of the region continued to shoot up, consumption of Colorado River water actually dropped and then plateaued. That is to say, water use and population growth were decoupled.  

Although the finding is counterintuitive, it won’t come as a surprise to those who have been paying close attention to the Colorado River. The crisis that has manifested over the past 20 years is rooted not in a constantly growing population, but in an already overtaxed river diminished by the most severe drought to hit the region in the last 1,800 years.

From Decoupling Urban Water Use from Population Growth in the Colorado River Basin, by Brian D. Richter. Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, Feb. 2023.

Richter’s study not only confirms that, but it also shows how, when faced with hard limits, we can reduce consumption and work toward more sustainable systems without compromising quality of life. 

Richter evaluated water use by 28 municipal utilities that collectively serve about 23 million people. More than half of them had reduced per capita water use enough to decrease total water deliveries by 18%, even as their populations grew by 24%. Albuquerque, Fort Collins, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Diego followed the trend. Perhaps the most impressive was the least expected: The Las Vegas metro area added nearly 1 million residents between 2000 and 2020, yet total water deliveries dropped by more than 40 million cubic meters, or 10%, during that same time. In other words, the land of conspicuous overconsumption cut per capita water consumption in half. 

While larger cities have been able to cut consumption while growing, mid-sized communities have guzzled and grown at the same time. Figures from Richter.

So does this mean that Las Vegans are suffering from perpetual dehydration? Have the golf courses turned to sand? Have the Bellagio fountains gone dry? Nope, (at least not yet). I’d bet most Las Vegans don’t even notice the difference in their own collective water use, though they might have sensed the gradual disappearance of ornamental turf around the city. Same goes for the other cities with big savings. 

That’s because they are realizing these consumption cuts not by rationing water, but by implementing system-wide efficiencies and incentives. New ornamental turf is banned in many of these places, for example, but folks are paid to remove the existing stuff. Same goes for switching to more efficient appliances. Most Las Vegas golf courses are irrigated with treated wastewater and a high-tech, vigilant leak detection and repair program saves hundreds of millions of gallons of water per year. The oil and gas industry ought to hire the Las Vegas leak police to deal with their methane problem. 

One of the reasons Las Vegas and other cities were able to make such big gains is because there was so much waste in the system to begin with. Many of the low-hanging fruit have been plucked, but some still remain: Las Vegas’ top residential water users — ultra-wealthy mansion owners — still use tens of thousands of gallons of water per day; water pricing structures are not adequately progressive; and Nevada’s accounting system for Colorado River use disincentivizes indoor water conservation. 1.

Source: Decoupling Urban Water Use from Population Growth in the Colorado River Basin.
  • 1.3 million gallons: Daily water use by the Venetian Casino Resort in Las Vegas, the metro’s largest commercial user. 
  • 35,646 gallons: Daily water use by Trophy Hills Residence, LLC, the Las Vegas mansion owned by the late Sheldon Adelson. 
  • 25,682 gallons: Daily water use by Via Tivoli LLC, the 75,000 square foot Henderson, Nevada, mansion owned by EBay founder Pierre Omidyar. 
  • 112 gallons: Average total daily per capita water use in Las Vegas (includes residential, commercial, industrial).
  • 30 million gallons: Daily water loss to evaporation at Lake Powell in July. 

So even Las Vegas still has ample room for cuts. Meanwhile, some cities remain ridiculously wasteful — we’re looking at you, Farmington and St. George and Scottsdale. The good news is that if these smaller cities follow the larger metros’ lead, they could realize significant cuts. The bad news is that it still won’t be nearly enough to save the Colorado River system on which so many of us depend. 

And even if population and water consumption have been partially decoupled, they aren’t completely divorced. Las Vegas and Phoenix and L.A. eventually will hit a limit of per capita cuts, at which point a growing population will again cause overall consumption to increase. Thing is, there is no extra water in the system to sustain it, and the old practice of cities “buying and drying” farms and transferring the water rights to new housing development is untenable. Any agricultural water saved through efficiency or fallowing or crop-changes must go back to the river, not to new subdivisions. 

For the last century, the Southwestern Growth Machine — fueled by greed, cheap and dirty power, and the mirage of abundant water — has churned away relentlessly. Now it’s time to shut it down and to practice not only water consumption-control, but also growth control — decoupling or not.

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

Living With Less: Farmers in #Arizona are no longer in a “what if” scenario. A shrinking #ColoradoRiver is transforming life in the West. The solutions will take all of us — @AmericanRivers #COriver #aridification

BKW Farms is a model for what sustainable water consumption and conservation can look like in the heart of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert | Photo: Sinjin Eberle

Click the link to read the post on the American Rivers blog (Katy Neusteter):

Brian Wong has a lot on his shoulders. A third-generation farmer, Wong grows crops — including nearly extinct heritage grains like white Sonora wheat — on 4,500 acres in the heart of the parched Sonoran Desert, about 25 minutes northwest of Tucson, Arizona. Bakeries, restaurants, breweries, and flour mills as far away as Minnesota and Florida rely on his grain to sustain their own businesses. 

Wong’s BKW Farms is among the 80 percent of the state’s agricultural producers that rely on the Colorado River to irrigate their crops. And with the Colorado at precariously low levels, his family business faces its largest challenge in nearly 85 years. “We have a great understanding of and place great importance on water,” Wong says. “Water is something you need in almost every aspect of agriculture. Everything we grow is irrigated. We need to have a water source to put on the crops so we can continue growing food.” 

The Central Arizona Aqueduct delivers water from the Colorado River. Photo credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

All of the water irrigating Wong’s farm arrives via the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a 336-mile canal system that shuttles Colorado River water to customers throughout the state. Altogether, the Colorado irrigates 5 million acres of farm and ranch land across seven Southwestern states and Mexico. It supplies 40 million people with drinking water and supports a $1.4 trillion economy. 

But climate change, extreme drought, and explosive population growth are taking an enormous toll on the river. The Colorado and its two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, dwindled to calamitously low levels in 2022, forcing the U.S. Department of the Interior to declare, for the first time in history, a Tier 1 Water Shortage. The declaration triggered deep cuts in the volume of Colorado River water delivered to Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico. Arizona agriculture took the biggest hit because CAP is on par to get 30 percent less water from the shrinking river. Even deeper restrictions will go into effect in 2023, with cities and Tribes shouldering more of the brunt.  

Alongside farmers like Wong, American Rivers is urgently working together with partners at utilities, municipalities, and conservation groups to fix the massive imbalance between demand and a shrinking Colorado River. 

Colorado River, AZ | Photo by Fred Phillips

From working with ranchers to restore habitat in the river’s headwaters, to encouraging municipalities to use less and eliminate unnecessary uses of valuable Colorado River water, to working on new guidelines for long-term management of the river, American Rivers is involved in decisions that span 1,700 miles of the Colorado River, from its headwaters in Colorado to its delta in Mexico.  

“The hard truth is, there just isn’t enough water to go around for everyone,” Wong says. 

We have to learn to live with a smaller Colorado River. Wong says the way forward is by partnering with advocates like American Rivers, who work with policymakers and stakeholders to elevate stories and shape water-management strategies into the future.  

The bottom line is that “I” doesn’t work. We all rely on rivers, and water, and their continued existence. Our future demands that we invest boldly and immediately in strategies that will work — and that will build for all of us the kind of future we want for our children.

 Aspinall Unit operations update: Coordination meeting January 19, 2023

Part of the memorial to Wayne Aspinall in Palisade. Aspinall, a Democrat, is a legend in the water sector, and is the namesake of the annual award given by the Colorado Water Congress. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The next coordination meeting for the operation of the Aspinall Unit is scheduled for Thursday, January 19th, 2023 at 1:00 pm

As of now, the meeting is planned to be held in person as well as virtually. 

The meeting is planned to be held at the Western Colorado Area Office in Grand Junction, CO. Even if the in-person meeting needs to be cancelled, the meeting will still be held via webinar.

Information for connecting to the meeting virtually will be emailed out prior to the meeting, along with the agenda and handouts.

Can the West save the #ColoradoRiver before it’s too late? Here are 8 possible solutions — The #Denver Post #COriver #aridification

A coiled distillation membrane system for desalinating hypersaline brine. Rolling the system into a coil demonstrated the possibility of adopting a common space-saving, water-filtration format. (Photo by Kuichang Zuo/Rice University)

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

Desalination

The gist: The Pacific Ocean has more than enough water to supplement whatever the Colorado River has lost. But, as it is, ocean water is not safe to drink, nor can it be used on crops. Running ocean water through a desalination plant can filter out its dangerously high salt content, bacteria and other impurities to make it safe for use…

The recently opened PUR Water facility in Oceanside turns blackwater into potable water, or toilet to tap as it was once called, by pumping it into the ground then filtering it through a warehouse full of white filtration tubes. The colored pipes represent the different types of water at different stages. his facility in Oceanside, California turns recycled water into potable water by running it through filtration tubes. TED WOOD

Reuse and recycling

The gist: Collect water that’s already been used and use it again

This proposed pipeline divert water from the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and up to the Glen Canyon Dam. Credit: Don Siefkes

Importing water

The gist: If the Colorado River is losing water so fast, why not take water from the places that have it and transport it into the basin that needs it, likely with a system of pipes?

[…]

Cloud-seeding graphic via Science Matters

Cloud seeding

The gist: By spraying a chemical compound — typically silver iodide — into certain types of clouds, seeders can agitate super-chilled water particles inside, causing them to freeze and fall to the ground as snow…

The downtown Denver skyline from Arvada. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Managing growth

The gist: The more people, industries and businesses that call the American West their home, the more water those communities will need. Cities and states can encourage current residents to use less water, especially with aspects like water-dependent lawns. And they can require new homes and businesses to ensure they have a water supply before building…

Photo of Crowley County by Jennifer Goodland

Agriculture

The gist: State and federal officials could use huge chunks of now-available money to “buy and dry” farmland, farmers could periodically let their fields lay fallow or they can switch to less water-consumptive crops. Likely, the basin needs a combination of all of these combined with efficiency improvements throughout the industry to save water from the irrigating process…

Wildlife biologist Bill Vetter and Western Rivers Regional Program Manager with Audubon Rockies Abby Burk walk along an irrigation ditch in Grand County. An avian monitoring program aims to learn more about how birds use irrigated agriculture. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Demand management

The gist: Pay people not to use water or to use less. Or hike the price of water to encourage less use…

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

Native American tribes

The gist: By legally cementing the water rights for the tribes depending on the Colorado River, state and federal governments could begin to lease, buy or otherwise compensate the tribes for their water. In addition, this would give the tribes better access to their own water, which they need to drink, farm and develop their communities.

‘The brink of disaster’: 2023 is a critical year for the #ColoradoRiver as reservoirs sink toward ‘dead pool’ — CNN #COriver #aridification

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Click the link to read the article on the CNN website (Ella Nilsen and Rachel Ramirez). Here’s an excerpt:

The cuts that are needed are on an unprecedented scale, and officials will be fighting an uphill battle against a deep, multi-year drought to get them done. State officials tried drastic measures to cut their usage this year, but the river’s continued decline was an alarming reality check…Experts told CNN that even with a good winter and spring runoff season, water managers still need to plan for the worst-case scenario.

“You can’t live with no water in the reservoirs hoping for good years; you need to refill the system,” Eric Kuhn, former manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, told CNN. “People realize that you can’t live on the brink of disaster.”

[…]

Anxiety is growing in the West as reservoir levels plummet. Negotiations between the states on voluntary water cuts have been tense and closely watched, particularly between the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. Those talks have stalled amid disagreement on how much water each state should sacrifice and how much money farmers, tribal nations and cities should be paid to reduce their water consumption. State negotiators are themselves waiting for the feds to decide how it will dole out $4 billion in drought relief money, which the Biden administration fronted from the Inflation Reduction Act to essentially pay people to not use water.

“I would not say it has put anything on hold,” Buschatzke told CNN.

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

Bring new water to the #ColoradoRiver, and a national infrastructure bank to finance it — Don Siefkes and Alphecca Muttardy #COriver #aridification

Two egrets on the limbs of a cypress in the Atchafalaya flood basin. By Team New Orleans, US Army Corps of Engineers – Flickr: Atch Egrets-2-LL, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12729536

“One of the big problems with bringing water from somewhere else is a false sense of security. When we live long distances from our water, we may not understand the limits of that supply or ecosystem- so conservation is less likely” — Abby Burk

Reprinted with permisssion from Don Siefkes:

Mike Wade, “Imperial Valley can’t sustain another water cut,” Dec. 14, is absolutely right. However, if we can’t get new water to the Colorado River, and even though conservation is important, no amount of conservation is going to fix this problem.

Here’s one solution to avoid the looming disaster. The National Infrastructure Bank (NIB) set out in House Resolution 3339 would provide $5 trillion in low-cost loans for a broad range of public infrastructure projects – including massive water systems – without the need for increasing taxes or any deficit budget spending. This bill is modeled on the successful Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) started by President Herbert Hoover and used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to build Hoover Dam and bring water and electricity to the Southwest.

Credit: Dan Swenson

The NIB is prepared to invest up to $400 billion to bring new water to the Colorado River and the Southwest. One possibility would be to divert water from the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and up to the Glen Canyon Dam.

In this proposal, no water would be taken from the main channel of the Mississippi. As of Dec. 19, 1.43 million gals/sec of Atchafalaya River water was simply going into the Gulf of Mexico without producing electricity or supporting commercial shipping. Taking just 100,000 gals/sec (7%) of this water would fill Lakes Powell and Mead to 50% capacity in one year and 9 months. The project would save on construction costs by using an existing facility – the Old River Control Complex just south of Vidalia, Louisiana, where the Army Corps of Engineers diverts 30% of the downflow of the Mississippi to prevent flooding in New Orleans.

This undertaking would build a 1,400 mile series of pipelines, open channels, tunnels and pumping stations (similar to the California, Los Angeles, Colorado River Aqueducts and the Central Arizona Project). It could be built in a year, along interstate highway rights-of-way, using huge earth-moving machines like those employed in Holland for their canal systems.

There is historical precedent for building systems like this project with deliberate, urgent, speed. In less than a year between 1942 and 1943, the RFC financed and built two pipelines of similar length, 1,200 and 1,400 miles, to carry crude oil from Texas oil fields to the East Coast. These pipelines rescued the entire East Coast industrial oil refining system and won World War II for the Allies.

This proposed pipeline divert water from the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and up to the Glen Canyon Dam. Credit: Don Siefkes

Such a water aqueduct system might cost on the order of $14 billion-23 billion, a small amount for a $5 trillion bank and also small compared to cutting off water supplies to farmers in the Southwest who produce $39 billion worth of our annual food supply. Without new water in the Colorado, food prices will skyrocket more than they already have, and we will all needlessly suffer. It is also unthinkable to allow water levels in Lakes Mead and Powell to fall to the point where the dams can no longer generate electricity or provide drinking water.

We don’t think anything about pumping crude oil and gasoline through 190,000 miles of U.S. pipelines from areas that have oil and gasoline to areas that don’t. We certainly can do the same with water.

All U.S. senators and representatives, regardless of party, should get behind HR 3339 and vote for the National Infrastructure Bank.

Alphecca Muttardy is a Macroeconomist with the Coalition for a National Infrastructure Bank (NIBCoalition.com), and 25 year veteran of the International Monetary Fund. Don Siefkes is an MIT-trained chemical engineer who represents the Coalition for the NIB in the San Francisco Bay AreaTheir emails are, respectively, amuttardy@gmail.com and donsiefkes@aol.com.

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

#Nevada calls on #Utah and Upper Colorado Basin states to slash #water use by 500,000 acre-feet: Drastic measures are needed to rescue #LakePowell — The Salt Lake Tribune #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Water users are urgently trying to keep Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border from dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on The Salt Lake Tribune website (Brian Maffly). Here’s an excerpt:

Nevada water managers have submitted a plan for cutting diversions by 500,000 acre-feet in a last-ditch effort to shore up flows on the Colorado River before low water levels cause critical problems at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams. But the Silver State’s plan targets cuts in Utah and the river’s other Upper Basin states, not in Nevada, whose leaders contend it already is doing what it can to reduce reliance on the depleted river system that provides water to 40 million in the West.

“It is well past time to prohibit the inefficient delivery, application, or use of water within all sectors and by all users; there simply is no water in the Colorado River System left to waste and each industrial, municipal, and agricultural user should be held to the highest industry standards in handling, using, and disposing of water,” states a Dec. 20 letter the Colorado River Commission of Nevada sent to the Interior Department. “It is critical that Reclamation pursue all options that will help reduce consumptive uses in the Basin and provide water supply reliability.”

[,,,]

One option Nevada offers is for Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming to accept substantial cuts in the amount of river they tap to ensure enough water reaches Lake Powell to keep Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower turbines spinning and Lake Powell functioning as a reservoir…The proposal comes in the form of Nevada’s official comments to the supplemental environmental impact statement the Bureau of Reclamation is preparing for proposed changes to the operations of the drought-depleted reservoirs. One of three Lower Basin states, Nevada called on the Upper Basin states to reduce their withdrawals by a combined 500,000 acre-feet if Lake Powell’s level is projected to drop below 3,550 feet above sea level at the start of the coming calendar year…Today, the lake’s level is already far below than that, at 3,525.7 feet, just 35 feet above the point at which Glen Canyon Dam’s turbines would be damaged if water passes through the penstocks.

Lake Powell key elevations. Credit: Reclamation

“The reason [The Upper Colorado River Commision’s] five-point plan doesn’t have any specific numbers is because we don’t know what’s ahead of us. We don’t know whether the runoff is going to be 7 million acre-feet or 20 million acre-feet,” Shawcroft said. “The real challenge is the hydrology. But we know for a fact that that we’re not going to be able to continue operating the river like we always have. The majority of the water gets used in the lower basin states, but does that mean that Upper [Basin] states are off the hook? I don’t think they are.”

Annual water conference ends as new cuts loom over #ColoradoRiver users — KJZZ #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Colorado Water Conservation Board Executive Director and commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission Becky Mitchell, center, speaks on a panel with representatives of each of the seven basin states at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas Thursday. The UCRC released additional details of a water conservation program at the CRWUA2022 Conference. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the KJZZ websits (Ron Dungan). Here’s an excerpt:

Colorado River Basin states recently gathered in Las Vegas for their annual water users convention. The states are trying to figure out how to get by with less water. The conference focused on a variety of topics, such as new technology, conservation and funding that will guide water users into the next century. But federal water managers say that new conservation measures need to be put in place or they will impose cuts.

“Cities versus agriculture” — The latest “The Runoff” newsletter is hot off the presses from @AspenJournalism #ColordoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Fountains shoot water from the Colorado River into the air outside of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas Friday. The resort hosts the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the latest edition of The Runoff newsletter from the Aspen Journalism website:

Cities versus agriculture

Some water managers at CRWUA acknowledged a truth that is widely known but rarely stated so candidly: As the Colorado River crisis deepens, water to cities will not be cut off in favor of continuing to grow hay in the desert, no matter what the law of the river — which grants the most powerful water rights to the mostly agricultural users who got here first — says. 

“If the literal enforcement of the law is that 27 million Americans don’t have water, those laws will not be enforced,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. 

The wisdom of building mega-cities in arid regions aside, the fact is that Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and L.A. exist now and rely on the Colorado River. And denying people water at their taps would be a public health catastrophe and moral failure. 

“People migrate toward opportunity and you can’t stop it only at great moral cost,” said Kathryn Sorenson, a professor at Arizona State University and former director of Phoenix Water Services. “The cities have an obligation to provide water to the people who arrived.”

A river out of time — NRS #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

“We pray for the rains to come, for the snow to fall, for moisture in the earth. Not just for the Hopi, but for everybody. For every living thing that’s out there.” – Dennis Hopper, Hopi Elder

The Green and Colorado river systems form the backbone of the American West. Once spanning a 1,450-mile journey from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California, today, none of the sediment-rich water reaches the Pacific Ocean. Instead, its water lies stymied in reservoirs and siphoned off to feed and nurture 40 million people from Salt Lake to Los Angeles.

One hundred and fifty years after John Wesley Powell’s historic descent of the Green and Colorado rivers, an unlikely crew of scientists, artists, educators, and river lovers repeated his journey on a trip that was simultaneously a celebration of modern river life and a critical look at how we interpret the Colorado River’s history and use its waters.

As the demand we place on the water of the Colorado continues to exceed its supply, we are forced to face uncomfortable truths about decisions made in our past. And we are reminded that the way we think about water—and all those dependent upon it—needs to shift if we want things to change for our future.

“Water is a life force for all of us. It has a spiritual and physical being to it that deserves respect. It’s not something that you take for granted.” – Lyle Balenquah, Hopi archaeologist

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

A #Water War Is Brewing Over the Dwindling #ColoradoRiver — ProPublica #COriver #aridification

Known for its breathtaking scenery, the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area is a fine example of the spectacular canyon country of Colorado’s Uncompahgre Plateau. Red-rock canyons and sandstone bluffs hold geological and paleontological resources spanning 600 million years, as well as many cultural and historic sites. The Ute Tribes today consider these pinyon-juniper–covered lands an important connection to their ancestral past. The Escalante, Cottonwood, Little Dominguez and Big Dominguez Creeks cascade through sandstone canyon walls that drain the eastern Uncompahgre Plateau. Unaweep Canyon on the northern boundary of the NCA contains globally significant geological resources. Nearly 30 miles (48 km) of the Gunnison River flow through the Dominguez-Escalante NCA, supporting fish, wildlife and recreational resources. The Old Spanish National Historic Trail, a 19th Century land trade route, also passes through it. A variety of wildlife call the area home, including desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, golden eagle, turkey, elk, mountain lion, black bear, and the collared lizard. There are 115 miles (185 km) of streams and rivers in the NCA, and there is habitat suitable for 52 protected species of animals and plants. By Bob Wick; Bureau of Land Management – Dominguez-Escalante NCA, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42092807

by Abrahm Lustgarten

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Series: Killing the Colorado

The Water Crisis in the West

On a crisp day this fall I drove southeast from Grand Junction, Colorado, into the Uncompahgre Valley, a rich basin of row crops and hayfields. A snow line hung like a bowl cut around the upper cliffs of the Grand Mesa, while in the valley some farmers were taking their last deliveries of water, sowing winter wheat and onions. I turned south at the farm town of Delta onto Route 348, a shoulder-less two-lane road lined with irrigation ditches and dent corn still hanging crisp on their browned stalks. The road crossed the Uncompahgre River, and it was thin, nearly dry.

The Uncompahgre Valley, stretching 34 miles from Delta through the town of Montrose, is, and always has been, an arid place. Most of the water comes from the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, which courses out of the peaks of the Elk Range through the cavernous and sun-starved depths of the Black Canyon, one rocky and inaccessible valley to the east. In 1903, the federal government backed a plan hatched by Uncompahgre farmers to breach the ridge with an enormous tunnel and then in the 1960s to build one of Colorado’s largest reservoirs above the Black Canyon called Blue Mesa. Now that tunnel feeds a neural system of water: 782 miles worth of successively smaller canals and then dirt ditches, laterals and drains that turn 83,000 Western Colorado acres into farmland. Today, the farm association in this valley is one of the largest single users of Colorado River water outside of California.

I came to this place because the Colorado River system is in a state of collapse. It is a collapse hastened by climate change but also a crisis of management. In 1922, the seven states in the river basin signed a compact splitting the Colorado equally between its upper and lower halves; later, they promised additional water to Mexico, too. Near the middle, they put Lake Powell, a reserve for the northern states, and Lake Mead, a storage node for the south. Over time, as an overheating environment has collided with overuse, the lower half — primarily Arizona and California — has taken its water as if everything were normal, straining both the logic and the legal interpretations of the compact. They have also drawn extra releases from Lake Powell, effectively borrowing straight out of whatever meager reserves the Upper Basin has managed to save there.

This much has become a matter of great, vitriolic dispute. What is undeniable is that the river flows as a much-diminished version of its historical might. When the original compact gave each half the rights to 7.5 million acre-feet of water, the river is estimated to have flowed with as much as 18 million acre-feet each year. Over the 20th century, it averaged closer to 15. Over the past two decades, the flow has dropped to a little more than 12. In recent years, it has trickled at times with as little as 8.5. All the while the Lower Basin deliveries have remained roughly the same. And those reservoirs? They are fast becoming obsolete. Now the states must finally face the consequential question of which regions will make their sacrifice first. There are few places that reveal how difficult it will be to arrive at an answer than the Western Slope of Colorado.

In Montrose, I found the manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, Steve Pope, in his office atop the squeaky stairs of the same Foursquare that the group had built at the turn of the last century. Pope, bald, with a trimmed white beard, sat amid stacks of plat maps and paper diagrams of the canals, surrounded by LCD screens with spreadsheets marking volumes of water and their destinations. On the wall, a historic map showed the farms, wedged between the Uncompahgre River and where it joins the Gunnison in Delta, before descending to their confluence with the Colorado in Grand Junction. “I’m sorry for the mess,” he said, plowing loose papers aside.

Colorado Rivers. Credit: Geology.com

What Pope wanted to impress upon me most despite the enormousness of the infrastructure all around the valley was that in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River system, there are no mammoth dams that can simply be opened to meter out a steady release of water. Here, only natural precipitation and temperature dictate how much is available. Conservation isn’t a management decision, he said. It was forced upon them by the hydrological conditions of the moment. The average amount of water flowing in the system has dropped by nearly 20%. The snowpack melts and evaporates faster than it used to, and the rainfall is unpredictable. In fact, the Colorado River District, an influential water conservancy for the western part of the state, had described its negotiating position with the Lower Basin states by claiming Colorado has already conserved about 28% of its water by making do with the recent conditions brought by drought.

You get what you get, Pope tells me, and for 15 of the past 20 years, unlike the farmers in California and Arizona, the people in this valley have gotten less than what they are due. “We don’t have that luxury of just making a phone call and having water show up,” he said, not veiling his contempt for the Lower Basin states’ reliance on lakes Mead and Powell. “We’ve not been insulated from this climate change by having a big reservoir above our heads.”

He didn’t have to point further back than the previous winter. In 2021, the rain and snow fell heavily across the Rocky Mountains and the plateau of the Grand Mesa, almost as if it were normal times. Precipitation was 80% of average — not bad in the midst of an epochal drought. But little made it into the Colorado River. Instead, soils parched by the lack of rain and rising temperatures soaked up every ounce of moisture. By the time water reached the rivers around Montrose and then the gauges above Lake Powell, the flow was less than 30% of normal. The Upper Basin states used just 3.5 million acre-feet last year, less than half their legal right under the 1922 compact. The Lower Basin states took nearly their full amount, 7 million acre-feet.

Colorado River Basin Plumbing. Credit: Lester Doré/Mary Moran via Dustin Mulvaney and Twitter

All of this matters now not just because the river, an unwieldy network of human-controlled plumbing, is approaching a threshold where it could become inoperable, but because much of the recent legal basis for the system is about to dissolve. In 2026, the Interim Guidelines the states rely on, a Drought Contingency Plan and agreements with Mexico will all expire. At the very least, this will require new agreements. It also demands a new way of thinking that matches the reality of the heating climate and the scale of human need. But before that can happen, the states will need to restore something that has become even more scarce than the water: trust.

The northern states see California and Arizona reveling in profligate use, made possible by the anachronistic rules of the compact that effectively promise them water when others have none. It’s enabled by the mechanistic controls at the Hoover Dam, which releases the same steady flow no matter how little snow falls across the Rocky Mountains. California flood-irrigates alfalfa crops destined for cattle markets in the Middle East, while Arizona takes water it does not need and pumps it underground to build up its own reserves. In 2018, an Arizona water agency admitted it was gaming the timing of its orders to avoid rations from the river (though it characterized the moves as smart use of the rules). In 2021, in a sign of the growing wariness, at least one Colorado water official alleged California was repeating the scheme. California water officials say this is a misunderstanding. Yet to this day, because California holds the most senior legal rights on the river, the state has avoided having a single gallon of reductions imposed on it.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

By this spring, Lake Powell shrank to 24% of its capacity, its lowest levels since the reservoir filled in the 1960s. Cathedral-like sandstone canyons were resurrected, and sunlight reached the silt-clogged floors for the first time in generations. The Glen Canyon Dam itself towered more than 150 feet above the waterline. The water was just a few dozen feet above the last intake pipe that feeds the hydropower generators. If it dropped much lower, the system would no longer be able to produce the power it distributes across six states. After that, it would approach the point where no water at all could flow into the Grand Canyon and further downstream. All the savings that the Upper Basin states had banked there were as good as gone.

In Western Colorado, meanwhile, people have been suffering. South of the Uncompahgre Valley, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe subsists off agriculture, but over the past 12 months it has seen its water deliveries cut by 90%; the tribe laid off half of its farmworkers. McPhee Reservoir, near the town of Cortez, has teetered on failure, and other communities in Southwestern Colorado that also depend on it have been rationed to 10% of their normal water.

Across the Upper Basin, the small reservoirs that provide the region’s only buffer against bad years are also emptying out. Flaming Gorge, on the Wyoming-Utah border, is the largest, and it is 68% full. The second largest, Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, is at 50% of its capacity. Blue Mesa Reservoir, on the Gunnison, is just 34% full. Each represents savings accounts that have been slowly pilfered to supplement Lake Powell as it declines, preserving the federal government’s ability to generate power there and obscuring the scope of the losses. Last summer, facing the latest emergency at the Glen Canyon Dam, the Department of Interior ordered huge releases from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and other Upper Basin reservoirs. At Blue Mesa, the water levels dropped 8 feet in a matter of days, and boaters there were given a little more than a week to get their equipment off the water. Soon after, the reservoir’s marinas, which are vital to that part of Colorado’s summer economy, closed. They did not reopen in 2022.

South Canal. Photo credit: Delta-Montrose Electric Association via The Mountain Town News

As the Blue Mesa Reservoir was being emptied last fall, Steve Pope kept the Gunnison Tunnel open at its full capacity, diverting as much water as he possibly could. He says this was legal, well within his water rights and normal practice, and the state’s chief engineer agrees. Pope’s water is accounted for out of another reservoir higher in the system. But in the twin takings, it’s hard not to see the bare-knuckled competition between urgent needs. Over the past few years, as water has become scarcer and conservation more important, Uncompahgre Valley water diversions from the Gunnison River have remained steady and at times even increased. The growing season has gotten longer and the alternative sources, including the Uncompahgre River, less reliable. And Pope leans more than ever on the Gunnison to maintain his 3,500 shareholders’ supply. “Oh, we are taking it,” he told me, “and there’s still just not enough.”

On June 14, Camille Touton, the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Department of Interior division that runs Western water infrastructure, testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and delivered a stunning ultimatum: Western states had 60 days to figure out how to conserve as much as 4 million acre-feet of “additional” water from the Colorado River or the federal government would, acting unilaterally, do it for them. The West’s system of water rights, which guarantees the greatest amount of water to the settlers who arrived in the West and claimed it first, has been a sacrosanct pillar of law and states’ rights both — and so her statement came as a shock.

Would the department impose restrictions “without regard to river priority?” Mark Kelly,, the Democratic senator from Arizona, asked her.

“Yes,” Touton responded.

For Colorado, this was tantamount to a declaration of war. “The feds have no ability to restrict our state decree and privately owned ditches,” the general manager of the Colorado River District, Andy Mueller, told me. “They can’t go after that.” Mueller watches over much of the state.Pope faces different stakes. His system depends on the tunnel, a federal project, and his water rights are technically leased from the Bureau of Reclamation, too. Touton’s threat raised the possibility that she could shut the Uncompahgre Valley’s water off. Even if it was legal, the demands seemed fundamentally unfair to Pope. “The first steps need to come in the Lower Basin,” he insisted.

Each state retreated to its corners, where they remain. The 60-day deadline came and went, with no commitments toward any specific reductions in water use and no consequences. The Bureau of Reclamation has since set a new deadline: Jan. 31. Touton, who has publicly said little since her testimony to Congress, declined to be interviewed for this story. In October, California finally offered a plan to surrender roughly 9% of the water it used, albeit with expensive conditions. Some Colorado officials dismissed the gesture as a non-starter. Ever since, Colorado has become more defiant, enacting policies that seem aimed at defending the water the state already has — perhaps even its right to use more.

For one, Colorado has long had to contend with the inefficiencies that come with a “use it or lose it” culture. State water law threatens to confiscate water rights that don’t get utilized, so landowners have long maximized the water they put on their fields just to prove up their long-term standing in the system. This same reflexive instinct is now evident among policymakers and water managers across the state, as they seek to establish the baseline for where negotiated cuts might begin. Would cuts be imposed by the federal government based on Pope’s full allocation of water or on the lesser amount with which he’s been forced to make do? Would the proportion be adjusted down in a year with no snow? “We don’t have a starting point,” he told me. And so the higher the use now, the more affordable the conservation later.

Colorado and other Upper Basin states have also long hid behind the complexity of accurately accounting for their water among infinite tributaries and interconnected soils. [ed. emphasis mine] The state’s ranchers like to say their water is recycled five times over, because water poured over fields in one place invariably seeps underground down to the next. In the Uncompahgre Valley, it can take months for the land at its tail to dry out after ditches that flood the head of the valley are turned off. The measure of what’s been consumed and what has transpired from plants or been absorbed by soils is frustratingly elusive. That, too, leaves the final number open to argument and interpretation.

All the while, the Upper Basin states are all attempting to store more water within their boundaries. Colorado has at least 10 new dams and reservoirs either being built or planned. Across the Upper Basin, an additional 15 projects are being considered, including Utah’s audacious $2.4 billion plan to run a new pipeline from Lake Powell, which would allow it to transport something closer to its full legal right to Colorado River water to its growing southern cities. Some of these projects are aimed at securing existing water and making its timing more predictable. But they are also part of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s vision to expand the Upper Basin states’ Colorado River usage to 5.4 million acre-feet a year by 2060.

It is fair to say few people in the state are trying hard to send more of their water downstream. In our conversation, Mueller would not offer any specific conservation savings Colorado might make. The state’s chief engineer and director of its Division of Water Resources, Kevin Rein, who oversees water rights, made a similar sentiment clear to the Colorado River District board last July. “There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve,” Rein said. “It’s a public resource. It’s a property right. It’s part of our economy.”

In November, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis proposed the creation of a new state task force that would help him capture every drop of water it can before it crosses the state line. It would direct money and staff to make Colorado’s water governance more sophisticated, defensive and influential.

I called Polis’ chief water confidante, Rebecca Mitchell, who is also the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. If the mood was set by the idea that California was taking too much from the river, Mitchell thought that it had shifted now to a more personal grievance — they are taking from us.

On a day in late May [2022] when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Last month, Mitchell flew to California for a tour of its large irrigation districts. She stood beside a wide canal brimming with more water than ever flows through the Uncompahgre River, and the executive of the farming company beside her explained that he uses whatever he wants because he holds the highest priority rights to the water. She thought about the Ute Mountain Ute communities and the ranchers of Cortez: “It was like: ‘Wouldn’t we love to be able to count on something? Wouldn’t we love to be feel so entitled that no matter what, we get what we get?’” she told me.

What if Touton followed through, curtailing Colorado’s water? I asked. Mitchell’s voice steadied, and then she essentially leveled a threat. “We would be very responsive. I’m not saying that in a positive way,” she said. “I think everybody that’s about to go through pain wants others to feel pain also.”

Here’s the terrible truth: There is no such thing as a return to normal on the Colorado River, or to anything that resembles the volumes of water its users are accustomed to taking from it. With each degree Celsius of warming to come, modelers estimate that the river’s flow will decrease further, by an additional 9%. At current rates of global warming, the basin is likely to sustain at least an additional 18% drop in its water supplies over the next several decades, if not far more. Pain, as Mitchell puts it, is inevitable.

The thing about 4 million acre-feet of cuts is that it’s merely the amount already gone, an adjustment that should have been made 20 years ago. Colorado’s argument makes sense on paper and perhaps through the lens of fairness. But the motivation behind the decades of delay was to protect against the very argument that is unfolding now — that the reductions should be split equally, and that they may one day be imposed against the Upper Basin’s will. It was to preserve the northern states’ inalienable birthright to growth, the promise made to them 100 years ago. At some point, though, circumstances change, and a century-old promise, unfulfilled, might no longer be worth much at all. Meanwhile, the politics of holding out are colliding with climate change in a terrifying crash, because while the parties fight, the supply continues to dwindle.

Average combined storage assuming drought conditions continue Average end-of-year combined Lake Powell and Lake Mead storage is shown, assuming hydrologic conditions of the Millennium Drought continue. Results show combined reservoir contents using a range of Upper Basin consumptive use limits (colored ribbons) along with a range of Lower Basin maximum consumptive use reductions (line styles) triggered when the combined storage falls below 15 million acre-feet (MAF). The status quo lines use the 2016 Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) projections and existing elevation-based shortage triggers. All water use and shortage values are annual volumes (MAF/year).

Recently, Brad Udall, a leading and longtime analyst of the Colorado River and now a senior water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, teamed with colleagues to game out what they thought it would take to bring the river and the twin reservoirs of Mead and Powell into balance. Their findings, published in July in the journal Science, show that stability could be within reach but will require sacrifice.

If the Upper Basin states limited their claim to 4 million acre-feet, or 53% of their due under the original compact, and the Lower Basin states and Mexico increased their maximum emergency cuts by an additional 45%, the two big reservoirs will stay at roughly their current levels for the next several decades. If the basins could commit to massive reductions below even 2021 levels for the Upper Basin and to more than doubling the most ambitious conservation goals for the south, the reservoirs could once again begin to grow, providing the emergency buffer and the promise of economic stability for 40 million Americans that was originally intended. Still, by 2060, they would only be approximately 45% full.

Any of the scenarios involve cuts that would slice to the bone. Plus, there’s still the enormous challenge of how to incorporate Native tribes, which also hold huge water rights but continue to be largely left out of negotiations. What to do next? Israel provides one compelling example. After decades of fighting over the meager trickles of the Jordan River and the oversubscription of a pipeline from the Sea of Galilee, Israel went back to the drawing board on its irrigated crops. It made drip irrigation standard, built desalination plants to supply water for its industry and cities, and reused that water again and again; today, 86% of the country’s municipal wastewater is recycled, and Israel and its farmers have an adequate supply. That would cost a lot across the scale and reach of a region like the Western United States. But to save the infrastructure and culture that produces 80% of this country’s winter vegetables and is a hub of the nation’s food system for 333 million people? It might be worth it.

A different course was charted by Australia, which recoiled against a devastating millennium drought that ended 13 years ago. It jettisoned its coveted system of water rights, breaking free of history and prior appropriation similar to the system of first-come-first-served the American West relies on. That left it with a large pool of free water and political room to invent a new method of allocating it that better matched the needs in a modern, more populous and more urban Australia and better matched the reality of the environment.

In America, too, prior appropriation, as legally and culturally revered as it is, may have become more cumbersome and obstructive than it needs to be. Western water rights, according to Newsha Ajami, a leading expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the former director of the urban water policy program at Stanford University, were set up by people measuring with sticks and buckets, long before anyone had ever even considered climate change. Today, they largely serve powerful legacy interests and, because they must be used to be maintained, tend to dissuade conservation. “It’s kind of very archaic,” she said. “The water rights system would be the first thing I would just dismantle or revisit in a very different way.”

This is probably not going to happen, Ajami said. “It could be seen as political suicide.” But that doesn’t make it the wrong solution. In fact, what’s best for the Colorado, for the Western United States, for the whole country might be a combination of what Israel and Australia mapped out. Deploy the full extent of the technology that is available to eliminate waste and maximize efficiency. Prioritize which crops and uses are “beneficial” in a way that attaches the true value of the resource to the societal benefit produced from using it. Grow California and Arizona’s crops in the wintertime but not in the summer heat. And rewrite the system of water allocation as equitably as possible so that it ensures the modern population of the West has the resources it needs while the nation’s growers produce what they can.

What would that look like in Colorado? It might turn the system upside down. Lawsuits could fly. The biggest, wealthiest ranches with the oldest water rights stand to lose a lot. The Lower and Upper Basin states, though, could all divide the water in the river proportionately, each taking a percentage of what flowed. The users would, if not benefit, at least equally and predictably share the misery. Pope’s irrigation district and the smallholder farmers who depend on it would likely get something closer to what they need and, combined with new irrigation equipment subsidized by the government, could produce what they want. It wouldn’t be pretty. But something there would survive.

The alternative is worse. The water goes away or gets bought up or both. The land of Western Colorado dries up, and the economies around it shrivel. Montrose, with little left to offer, boards up its windows, consolidates its schools as people move away, and the few who remain have less. Until one day, there is nothing left at all.

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

‘It is going to take real cuts to everyone’: Leaders meet to decide the future of the #ColoradoRiver — KUNC #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Interior celebrates the 200th anniversary of diplomatic relations between 🇲🇽 and 🇺🇸 at @CRWUA_water to honor the crucial role of the U.S. International Boundary Waters Commission and Comisión Internacional de Límites y Aguas entre México y Estados Unidos – Sección Mexicana in ensuring the equitable and sustainable use of the Colorado River for the benefit of us all. Photo credit: Tanya Trujillo’s Twitter Feed

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

The most powerful policymakers in the arid Southwest spent three days in Las Vegas, reviewing the grim state of a river that supplies 40 million people from Wyoming to Mexico. Federal and state authorities emphasized the need for collaboration to avert catastrophe, but have been reticent to make sacrifices during negotiations over plans that would reduce demand for water. This year marked the 76th meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association and the event’s first ever sold-out attendance. Journalists, scientists, farmers and city officials packed the conference center at Caesar’s Palace to watch water managers hash out the river’s future in the public eye.

“There’s no substitute for being face-to-face,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies Las Vegas. “It’s a lot easier to talk a little smack, call some people some names, when you’re not looking them in the eye.” […]

The current guidelines for the river are set to expire in 2026, and states are largely focused on coming up with new ones before that deadline. A century-old agreement governs how water is allocated across the arid Southwest, Meanwhile, some experts suggest that agreement, the Colorado River Compact, should be replaced to meet the modern demands of a region with sprawling fields of crops and booming urban populations.

“I think there is some heavy optimism that hopefully everyone will come to something that we can all agree on,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s top water policy agency. “But it is going to take real cuts to everyone.”

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

What will it take to stabilize the #ColoradoRiver? A continuation of the current 23-year-long #drought will require difficult decisions to prevent further decline — Science Magazine #COriver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the article on the Science Magazine website (KEVIN G. WHEELER , BRAD UDALLJIAN WANGERIC KUHN[…], AND JOHN C. SCHMIDT). Here’s an excerpt:

Municipalities of Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, and Tijuana rely heavily on the river for their water supplies. About 70% of the water is used to irrigate nearly 5.7 million acres (2.3 million hectares) of agriculture. The basin is home to 30 recognized Native American Tribes that hold senior legal rights to divert substantially more water than they currently use. Between 2000 and 2021, the average annual energy generation from the two major dams was 7.6 terawatt-hours (TWh)/year, enough to serve 2.5 million people. The river’s landscapes and ecosystems provide critical habitat for federally protected species and support an extensive recreation-based economy. Today, the entire flow is diverted along its 1400-mile course. In its lower reaches, only 10% of the natural flow reaches Mexico; rarely does the river flow to the Gulf of California…

Current reservoir storage levels could, however, be stabilized if consumptive uses decrease under different scenarios (see fig. S1). If the Upper Basin commits to limit water uses to 4.5 MAF/year (60% of their 7.5 MAF/year allocation, approximately 0.8 MAF/year higher than recent use), then the Lower Basin and Mexico must commit to more than doubling their current maximum reductions in existing use to 3.0 MAF/year (see the figure and fig. S1). In this scenario, the Lower Basin and Mexico receive 66.7% of their allocation, nearly matching the Upper Basin percentage. If the Upper Basin limits their depletions to 4.0 MAF/year (53.3% of their allocation, 0.3 MAF/year higher than recent use), then the Lower Basin and Mexico would need to decrease uses by approximately 2.0 MAF/year to stabilize the reservoirs (see the figure and fig. S1), assuring 77.8% of their allocation. This is close to recently proposed maximum Lower Basin and Mexico commitments to reduce existing use, which would not be invoked until Lake Mead declines further by 3 MAF. Delaying these reductions until then would result in greater loss of storage and stabilization occurring at lower levels than shown in the figure…

Our results show that although current policies are inadequate to stabilize the Colorado River if the Millennium Drought continues, various consumptive use strategies can stabilize the system. However, these measures must be applied swiftly. Although these concessions by both basins may seem unthinkable at present, they will be necessary if recent conditions persist.

Average combined storage assuming drought conditions continue Average end-of-year combined Lake Powell and Lake Mead storage is shown, assuming hydrologic conditions of the Millennium Drought continue. Results show combined reservoir contents using a range of Upper Basin consumptive use limits (colored ribbons) along with a range of Lower Basin maximum consumptive use reductions (line styles) triggered when the combined storage falls below 15 million acre-feet (MAF). The status quo lines use the 2016 Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) projections and existing elevation-based shortage triggers. All water use and shortage values are annual volumes (MAF/year).

#Water managers across #drought-stricken West agree on one thing: ‘This is going to be painful’ — The #Nevada Current #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Hoover Dam’s intake towers protrude from the surface of Lake Mead near Las Vegas, where water levels have dropped to record lows amid a 22-year drought. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on The Nevada Current website (Jennifer Solis):

Water authorities in the Western U.S. don’t have a crystal ball, but rapidly receding reservoirs uncovering sunken boats and other debris lost in their depths decades ago give a clear view of the hard choices ahead.

If western states do not agree on a plan to safeguard the Colorado River — the source of the region’s vitality — there won’t be enough water for anyone.

Water managers, researchers, agricultural producers and others from across the drought-stricken river basin met in Las Vegas last week for the Colorado River Water Users Association annual convention to face hard truths about the state of the river and historically-low levels of its biggest reservoirs.

Two decades of drought and poor planning have caused the river’s biggest reservoirs — Lakes Mead and Powell — to drop to their lowest collective volume since they were filled.  [ed. emphasis mine]

“Time is not on our side. Hydrology is not on our side. That’s the frightening reality,” said Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The hydrology “is going to force us to do something because we will have no other choices. Every day that passes this problem gets harder and harder to solve.”

Water storage in Lakes Mead and Powell is at a fraction of what it was two decades ago, and could drop below what’s needed to generate power as soon as next year, said water experts.

To put it in perspective, this winter both reservoirs were about a quarter full. In December 1999, Lake Powell was at 88% capacity, and Lake Mead was at 96% capacity, according to analysts.  

Lower basin states faced their first-ever federally declared water shortage, which directs how much states can draw from the Colorado River in 2021. Deeper cuts were subsequently declared this year.

Water experts say more water cuts for lower basin states – including Nevada – are likely in 2024 due to even lower water levels.

Even further restricting water allocation “doesn’t mean the lakes won’t go lower than that,” said Ted Cooke, the general manager for the Central Arizona Project.

If nothing is done, there is a real possibility water levels in both reservoirs will drop so low in the next two years that water will no longer flow downstream to the 40 million people in the West who rely on the Colorado River.

Colorado Water Conservation Board Executive Director and commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission Becky Mitchell, center, speaks on a panel with representatives of each of the seven basin states at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas Thursday. The UCRC released additional details of a water conservation program this week. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Faulty numbers and an over-allocated river

At the center of discussions last week was one of the most important legal documents governing how the river’s waters are shared: the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which allocated 7.5 million acre-feet for each basin, based on a faulty model that assumed the river system could supply 15 million acre-feet annually.

Today, officials acknowledge only 12.4 million acre-feet flows from the river each year, meaning western states will have to agree on massive cuts to their water supply for the sake of the river — a politically perilous decision.

Despite clear evidence of diminishing water supplies over the past century, not much has changed in terms of how states allocate and use water.

But those in charge are starting to understand that western states are getting to a tipping point that will force them to adjust their attitudes and change their consumption habits.

In June, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton issued an ultimatum to states: Develop a plan to save 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water by next year — roughly one-fifth of the water currently allocated to states—or the federal government will step in.

During a panel discussion at last week’s convention in Las Vegas, representatives for the seven western states who rely on the Colorado River said reaching a compromise will be their collective priority for the next six months.

They agree that the longer it takes to stabilize the river and conserve the water needed to keep the river functional, the more likely reservoir levels will continue to plummet, leaving states with fewer and fewer options.

Water managers also agree that about 75% of future water cuts will need to come from lower basin states — including Nevada — to reach reductions large enough to protect critical elevations in the reservoirs.

Lower basin states — Nevada, Arizona, and California — use nearly all their 7.5 million acre-feet Colorado River allocation compared to the 4.5 million acres-feet used by the upper basin states, said water managers.

“Yes, the lower basin will have to take the lion’s share of the reductions,” said John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “I’m a big believer in the law, I’m a big believer in food security, but I’m an even bigger believer in math.”

Nevada uses only a small share of the river’s water and has made great strides in conservation, but Arizona and California are still far from a deal. Both states will need to make painful reductions and incur massive expenses to stabilize their water use, say water experts.

Just last week, all of Southern California was declared to be in a drought emergency by the Metropolitan Water District, the main water supplier for Los Angeles county.

Lower basin states argue that upper basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico — also need to make a firm commitment to lower their water use.

Officials for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned that aridification, the long-term shift to a drier climate, means even less snow runoff is making it to the river each year.

“It’s really hard to come up with solutions” based on who has priority water rights, said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. If cities in lower-basin states “wipe out every drop of their water, it’s still not going to stabilize the system,” said Buschatzke.

The upper basin has committed to looking into the feasibility of cutting back their water use — a move critics say amounts to “planning to make a plan.”

Upper basin states have not released an estimate of how much water they are able or willing to cut. However, the Upper Colorado River Commission says they are slowly taking steps to create a management plan with potential water cuts.

“We live within the means of the river every day,” said Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “What we like to do is under-promise and over-deliver, and make sure if there is a number out there it is a number that can actually be achieved.”

Reservoirs in upper basin states are currently providing what amounts to 19% of their annual water usage to Lake Powell, based on a 2019 drought response agreement.

“Those releases have had significant impacts, huge impacts on the local communities,” Mitchell said. “What you’re asking for is a big ask. We are willing to look at this, but we also need to look at the impacts at the same time.”

Water managers representing the four upper basin states released details of a temporary conservation plan last week.

One critical component of the plan is the reauthorization of the System Conservation Pilot Program, a program that paid water users to reduce their use, with the goal of implementing it by the summer.

It’s unclear how much water the pilot program will successfully conserve as a voluntary and temporary solution. The original program saved about 47,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of about $8.6 million over the four years.

“The System Conservation Pilot Program is called a pilot program for a reason,” said Gene Shawcroft, general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District. “We believe we will learn a lot from that. We believe that it can easily be transitioned into a management plan.”

‘This is going to be painful’

Brandon Gebhart, the top water official in Wyoming, said previous conservation programs that depend on voluntary cuts were not as effective as water managers had hoped, but a recent shift in mentality among water users could make the difference.

Another change that could make the difference is the nearly $4 billion set aside for the Colorado River that would allow the Bureau of Reclamation to pay users to voluntarily forgo water use.

“There are positives. The funding that is coming in provides opportunity. It provides the ability to change,” said Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. 

Still, water managers say the federal government will need to invest even more money into the river.

“If you look at the federal investment in Florida, after one hurricane they got an order of magnitude more federal assistance than the entire Colorado basin is getting in the face of this crisis,” said Entsminger, the Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager.

Western states will need all the assistance they can get to find ways to run their economies with less water, and time is running out.

A recent survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation found that more than 650 farmers in 15 Western states saw a 74% reduction in harvests, and 42% switched crops due to the drought.

It took Western states five years to agree on a short-term five year plan to address the region-wide drought that is set to expire in 2026, said Entsminger.

“We don’t have five months to come up with an operation plan for 2023,” Entsminger said. “It’s time to set aside the talking points and get real.”

Climate change has shrunk the river’s flows roughly 20% in the past two decades, and scientists predict they will shrink nearly 10%  more with each additional degree of temperature rise.

“We have to move quickly and we’re committed to that,” said Mitchell. “We need to accept the situation we’re in and we need to reduce demands. All of us, every sector, every state, every water user. There isn’t any other way.”

“We have to accept that we can not cling to our entitlements or allocations. If they are not there none of it matters,” Mitchell continued. “Folks in the room have to be willing to let us make hard decisions, because this is going to be painful.”

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: info@nevadacurrent.com. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

#ColoradoRiver #conservation program will pay for reduced #water use — Heart of the Rockies Radio #COriver #aridification

Fryingpan-Arkansas Project water from the headwaters of the Colorado River flows into Turquoise Lake in the Arkansas Basin via the Boustead Tunnel (photo by Klambpatten, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turquoise_Reservoir.JPG).

Click the link to read the article on the Heart of the Rockies website (Joe Stone):

As part of a new water conservation program, the Upper Colorado River Commission “is seeking proposals immediately for the voluntary, compensated, and temporary water conservation projects for 2023.”

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are Commission members, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is a partner in the new conservation program, according to a statement issued Wednesday, Dec. 14, at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada.

To be considered for funding, proposals for conservation projects will need to be submitted by Feb. 1, 2023. Details are available here.*

The Commission touts the new program as “a key component of the Upper Division States’ 5-Point Plan to address the impacts of the ongoing drought and depleted (water) storage in the Upper Colorado River Basin.”

The new conservation program is relevant here in the Arkansas River Basin because about 130,000 acre-feet of water per year, up to 23 percent of Arkansas River flows, are imported from the Colorado Basin 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. 

Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Becky Mitchell expressed support for the new program in a statement Wednesday. She emphasized, “The most impactful thing that can be done to manage the Colorado River System is to reduce uses in dry years.”

Mitchell noted that Colorado’s “strict administration of water rights based on hydrology” effectively achieves drought-year water-use reductions. “In 2021, administration impacted water use on over 203,000 acres within the Colorado River Basin in Colorado.”

Mitchell cited preliminary data from the Upper Colorado River Commission showing that the four Upper Basin states used 25% less water in 2021 than in 2020” in response to limited water availability.

“We must continue to live within the means of what the river provides year to year,” Mitchell said, “and we ask others to do the same. This is the only way the system will continue as we know it into the future.”

In requesting that others “live within the means of what the river provides,” Mitchell implicates the three Lower Colorado River Basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada.

The 1922 Colorado River Compact divided Colorado River water between the four Upper Basin states and the three Lower Basin states. 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 (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 maf, and Nevada, 0.3 maf.

The Compact also established a benchmark of 16.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water per year for Colorado River flows. However, data from NOAA 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 meeting of Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee earlier this year, Mitchell shared statistics showing that Upper Basin states have significantly reduced water usage while Lower Basin states have not.

Colorado River Consumptive use graphic credit: Heart of the Rockies Radio

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 in 2021, total water use in the Basin exceeded Colorado River flows by 6.4 maf, dropping water levels in lakes Mead and Powell to record low levels.

* The Upper Colorado River Commission’s Dec. 14 statement notes that full implementation of the water conservation program “is contingent on the passage of pending legislation in Congress” and finalization of an funding agreement between the Commission and the Bureau of Reclamation.

#Utah, other upper basin states, green light plan to pay #ColoradoRiver #water users for #conservation efforts — The Deseret News #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Lake Powell boat ramp at Page, Arizona, December 17, 2021. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on The Deseret News website (Kyle Dunphey). Here’s an excerpt:

Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico revived a program this week aimed at keeping water in the dwindling Colorado River by paying users who take conservation measures. Starting in April 2023, the System Conservation Pilot Program will pay users $150 per acre-foot of water they conserve. The plan is an attempt to keep more high elevation snowmelt flowing to lakes Mead and Powell, the largest reservoirs in the country, which are at historically low levels. The lion’s share of Colorado River water allocated for human consumption goes toward agriculture, and farmers and other users with a claim to the river will soon be able to submit a project proposal, then receive payment for what they conserve. The payments will come from a $125 million chunk of the Inflation Reduction Act, stemming from a $4 billion provision to fight drought in the Colorado River Basin. Participants could be paid more than the $150 per acre-foot rate if they submit a more detailed proposal…

The upper basin’s five-point plan to combat drought

Representatives from Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, which constitute the upper Colorado River Basin, unveiled the program at the annual Colorado River Water User’s Association conference hosted in Las Vegas. The System Conservation Pilot Program is the first step in a five-point plan that the upper basin rolled out this summer in response to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s drastic announcement demanding states conserve at least 2 million acre-feet of water. The upper basin’s plan also includes a drought response plan that would potentially release water from upstream holdings to keep the Glen Canyon Dam operational; consider an “Upper Basin Demand Management program as interstate and intrastate investigations are completed”; use funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law to “accelerate enhanced measurement, monitoring, and reporting infrastructure to improve water management tools”; and “continue strict water management and administration within the available annual water supply.”

Romancing the River: Quo vadimus? — Sibley’s Rivers #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Belleview Mountain East River Headwaters. Photo credit: Ray Schoch via Sibley’s Rivers

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

Enough gallivanting around the Mississippi Basin and its rivers; back to the troubled and troublesome Colorado River, currently experiencing its worst dry spell since around 800 CE. The Colorado Rivers, I should maybe say, since for all practical (human) purposes the river is now managed in a quasi-de jure way as two river basins under the Colorado River Compact and subsequent ‘Law of the River’ actions: an Upper Colorado River and a Lower Colorado River.

Previously here, I’ve been exploring the Colorado River Compact at its centennial, in what is certainly the worst year in its century. Here are some things I came up with in that exploration, that I don’t think are getting enough attention in our efforts to search our own souls and the soul of the river in the desert as we try to figure out where we are going from here:

1. The Colorado River Compact is not the ‘foundation of the Law of the River.’ The foundation of the Law of the River is the appropriation doctrine: the body of law that bases the right to use the water of the river and its basin (groundwater too, now) primarily on the seniority of use. First come, first served, for any economically beneficial use for as long as the use continues. Appropriations law is basically a powerful growth engine.

The Colorado River Compact, and all the subsequent laws, treaties, acts of Congress, and other consensual agreements involving the river thus become efforts to deal with the consequences of applying a powerful growth engine to an erratic and relatively modest river  – and they fall short to the extent that they too cautiously circle around (or just ignore) the problem of a body of law encouraging unlimited demand on a limited resource.  

2. The Compact could not do what its creators set out to do, so they settled for an expedient resolution to facilitate development of the River.  The Compact was created because Euro-Americans wanted to control a rambunctious river whose erratic flows made it hard to use for civilized pursuits. But the growth logic of the foundational Law of the River (the appropriation doctrine) made six of the seven Colorado River states fear the pace of development of the seventh state, California, if the river were controlled; California could conceivably lay claim to most of the river’s water before the other states really got settled. 

The six states thus wanted an ‘overlay’ to the unconstrained law of appropriation that would assure each state of enough water to meet their own future needs at their own pace. Unfortunately, they did not have – could not have had in the 1920s – enough solid information of what their reasonable future needs were. So they settled for an expedient resolution; they divided the river into two basins, above and below the uninhabited canyon region; each basin was given a little less than half the estimated flow of the river to develop, with the upper river basin committed to deliver a fixed amount of water to the lower river basin (75 million acre-feet over any ten-year period).

Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS

3. Mistakes were made. Much has been made of the fact that the Compact commissioners selected an estimated flow of 15 million acre-feet of water to divide between the two basins, well above what has been proven to be a more realistic estimate of an average annual river flow of 13 million acre-feet by E.C. LaRue and some other Geological Survey scientists. It was, however, well below the optimistic 16.8 million acre-feet estimate by the Bureau of Reclamation. 

It was also an ebulliently optimistic time in America – the advent of the Anthropocene, when we thought we were on the verge of freedom from the stodgy limitations of nature. The commissioners acknowledged that they did not have enough information to accurately divide the waters of the river seven ways, and were content to leave that task ‘to the hands of those men who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information.’ We now know that they should have listened to the USGS scientists, but it is easier and kind of superior to tsk-tsk as ex post facto Monday morning quarterbacks, than it is to acknowledge and understand – maybe even regret the loss of – the spirit of the times when the mistake was made.

The Compact commissioners have also been faulted for ‘leaving the Indians out of the Compact.’ That is not entirely accurate; what they said was that ‘Nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indian tribes.’ But what was the obligation of the United States to the Indian tribes?

On the one hand, in 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court had decided, in a case involving an Indian reservation in Montana, that when the federal government reserved public lands for any specific purpose, such as an Indian reservation, that it also implicitly reserved enough water to carry out that purpose. In the case of an Indian reservation, this meant enough water to teach the Indians to be farmers rather than hunter-foragers – meaning irrigation water, in the West.

But on the other hand, when the Compact was created in the early 1920s, the federal government was aggressively pursuing the ‘soft genocide’ of forced assimilation. Between 1900 and 1925, the number of Indian youth essentially kidnapped into ‘Indian Boarding Schools’ swelled from around 20,000 to more than 65,000. The official policy was ‘kill the Indian to save the man.’ The Compact commissioners were all white professionals receiving mixed messages from the government, and might be expected to think, even hope (river gods forgive them), that any Indian water claims might fade away if government policy succeeded – which it didn’t, no thanks to federal Indian policies before or since. And a reserved water obligation for the reservations remains an untransacted and pending commitment.

So yes, the Compact kicked some cans down the road, that it’s now time to pick up and deal with. But no one seems to be saying anything about a much larger and more consequential Compact mistake…

4. Dividing a desert river basin into two river basins is not a good idea. It worked – sort of (Arizona didn’t accept it) – as a temporary fix to break the logjam of not knowing enough to make an equitable seven-way division of the waters. What made the two-basin Compact work at all, sort of, was the fact that, until the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, the river itself, flowing unconstrained past Lees Ferry, kept the water supply (nearly all from the Upper River Basin) united with the growing water demand (mostly in the Lower River Basin). 

But once the big dam near Lees Ferry was in place, the supply-demand distribution became a management problem that gradually succumbed to bad power politics. The Bueau gave the Lower River Basin its Compact allocation and more, regardless of growing water supply problems upriver, and the Upper River Basin developed a large supply of justifiable but unproductive resentment. The Compact, which confused ‘equitable’ with ‘equal’ in its division between two basins, is broken by the dam that turns it into two rivers, one supplying the other in ways both unequal and inequitable. It’s not the ‘structural deficit’ per se, but the refusal to address it, that breaks the Compact.

So – what can we do?How do we muddle forward from where we are now? No one is asking me, but of course I have some thoughts….

First and foremost, we should reunite the two river basins into one squabbling river basin (with transbasin extensions). Drop the expedient Compact solution of two river basins – a mistake perpetrated by subsequent ‘Law of the River’ measures, and finally fatal when the Colorado River Storage Project Act enabled building a wall – literally – between the two river basins. 

This reunion would have to start with a consensual seven-state agreement – a new compact, if you will, to execute the task deemed impossible in 1922: a seven-state division of the river’s use. After a century of development, this has been achieved, de facto, and equitably enough. The lower river basin states get the consumptive use of almost twice as much water as the upper river basin, but they spread it over far more people and quite a bit more (and more productive) ag land. 

This will not be easy, of course – but nothing ever is in the Colorado River region. California and Arizona have gotten so used to using ‘undeveloped upper river basin water’ that they’ve forgotten that that ‘surplus’ hasn’t existed for decades. They think the ‘structural deficit’ is an act of God about which nothing can be done, rather than just the consequence of their growing on borrowed water, a loan now being called in. But the hardest part for the lower river basin will come when the firm numbers for present use apportionments by state all have to be converted into percentages of the diminishing whole river – which the upper river basin states have already been doing, living closer to the vagaries of a desert river. The upper river states will no longer have to fear a call from the lower basin states, so long as they stay within their apportioned percentage of what’s there.

The real reunion of the basins into one river might begin when those in the lower river basin acknowledge that the water supply for the river’s desert lands comes mostly from snowfall in mountains in the river’s headwaters. This suggests that the downriver users of a desert river should accept some responsibility for the maintenance and improvement of the river’s mountain headwaters, their water supply. And those in the upper river basin would need to acknowledge the need for that help, especially if it is financial.

‘Maintenance and improvement’ of the water supply? Can we ‘improve’ the water yield from a river’s headwaters? An undigested fact about the mountain headwaters of the Colorado River Basin is the scientists’ consensual estimate that somewhere around 90 percent of the precipitation that falls over the river basin does not make it into the river. It either returns fairly quickly to the heavens as water vapor, or soaks into the ground to be transpired by trees, grasses and other plants back into the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that as much as a third of the precipitation that falls is lost through sublimation in the high headwaters: snow and ice being vaporized by sun and wind without even turning into water first. 

Some quantity close to another third of the precipitation is transpired through the forests that form a broad band around the headwaters reaches of the river. Contrary to Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot, the forests are not ‘father’ to the rivers that work their way through the forests; the forests are just some of the first major ecosystems that depend on the river’s water for their life. We love and need the forests, and they do provide shade and shelter for the snow that makes it through the trees to the ground – but they also drink a lot of water (more as the ambient temperatures increase), and not always for their own betterment; the density and age of forests we have protected from cleansing fires result in the consumption of a lot of water by big old forest trees not really getting enough to be healthy.

Those forests are almost entirely managed by the U. S. Forest Service, management that must include the long-term health and well-being of the forest itself rather than just short-term commodity production. But are there ways to manage a healthy forest that maximizes the Forest Service’s 1897 organic act charge ‘to secure favorable conditions of water flows,’ as well as (or instead of) the charge ‘to furnish a continuous supply of timber’?We don’t really know, because the Forest Service has not paid as much attention to optimal water management as it has to optimal timber management. We do know, however – for one example – that timber managers favor denser stands to produce tall trees with less branchiness, but that density increases the amount of snow intercepted by trees, which increases snow loss through sublimation. 

To even learn how to maximize water yield from the headwaters’ rocks, ice and forests will require experimentation, trying things out, and it will require creative scientists and lots of boots on the ground that the perpetually under-funded Forest Service cannot afford. If, however, all forty million users of the Colorado River’s water thought of themselves as part of the whole river’s watershed, top to bottom, they might be willing to pony up a pittance for the health and vitality of the headwaters that produces their water. This is already happening to a modest extent; some of the big dogs in the Lower River Basin – the Metropolitan Water District, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Central Arizona Project – are contributing funding to a cloud-seeding project in the river’s headwaters, to increase snowfall from selected storms. That is a beginning.

And the next steps? Well, at some point, we have to descend into the cellar foundation of the Law of the River, and figure out how to adapt the frontier instincts of the appropriations doctrine to a civilization of 40 million. As Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s Director of Water Resources said, just last week at the meeting of the Colorado River Water Users convention: ‘The single biggest roadblock to solving the problem of stabilizing the river is the priority system.’ 

There will be more on this imagined reuniting of the two rivers and their basins. Stay tuned.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

Congratulations to Northern Water — The Buzz @FloydCiruli #NISP #PoudreRiver #SouthPlatteRiver

Click the link to read the post on The Buzz website (Floyd Ciruli):

The NISP project in the North Front Range has just received its critical permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. The project, which will cost $2 billion and take years to complete, will provide water to a host of cities and agricultural water districts in Larimer, Weld, Morgan, and Boulder counties.

The review by Colorado and federal environmental agencies took 20 years and added millions in additional cost to the project in scientific study and mitigation, including sending more water down the Poudre River through Fort Collins to maintain flows above what currently exist. It also adds major recreational opportunities and flatwater fishing.

Ciruli Associates provided public relations and public opinion research to the project managers to assist in the regulatory compliance.

After years of opposition and delay, some adversaries now threaten lawsuits, their success after these long environmental reviews has been limited. Most recently, they filed lawsuits to stop the Windy Gap project on the western slope and Gross Reservoir in Boulder County and failed in both.

Fortunately, the region’s water leadership maintained a steady and determined commitment to achieving the project’s approval.

The Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project hosted a groundbreaking event on Aug. 6, 2021. Photo credit: Northern Water

READ MORE: https://www.northernwater.org/Home/NewsArticle/3d7f713d-6df9-4549-bb87-37629b707b66

Las Vegas water boss urges states to take action to keep lakes from crashing — The Las Vegas Review-Journal #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

John Entsminger at the Colorado River Water Users Association Annual Conference December 15, 2021.

Click the link to read the article on The Las Vegas Review Journal website (Colton Lochhead). Here’s an excerpt:

Southern Nevada’s water boss is calling on other Colorado River basin states to “do the math and face reality” as they work toward finding a way to stabilize the dwindling river that supplies water to 40 million people in the Southwest. Speaking during a panel at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas on Thursday, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger said California and Arizona are going to have to shoulder the brunt of the unprecedented cuts the federal government says are needed next year in order to keep the Lake Mead and Lake Powell from crashing to points that would put hydropower and water delivery operations at risk — a possibility that is far closer than previously thought….

Since 2000, California and Arizona have accounted for nearly 70 percent of the overall water consumed annually along the Colorado River, with the majority of that water going toward agriculture irrigation.

“I’m a big believer in the law, I’m a big believer in food security. But I’m an even bigger believer in math,” Entsminger said. “When you’re cutting 4 million acre feet out of 12, and three-quarters of the use are downstream of Hoover Dam, that’s where the cuts are going to come.”

Without any plan from the states in place, the federal government has started to move forward with a plan to augment prior drought contingency plans, and one of the options it is exploring is unilaterally mandating cuts to states’ water uses in order to protect critical water elevations at the Colorado River’s two major reservoirs. Forecasting from the Bureau of Reclamation that assumes continued dry conditions across the basin show that Lake Powell could fall far enough to jeopardize hydropower production by as early as next summer, while Lake Mead could hit that same point by spring of 2025. A recent analysis by the Southern Nevada Water Authority showed that roughly 1.5 million acre feet is lost along the Colorado River system each year to evaporation and in transit as water flows downstream, losses that at this point are mostly unaccounted for in the allocation of water rights among among the seven states and Mexico that pull from the river.

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said that water lost to evaporation and other system losses do need to be accounted for moving forward, but said the “single biggest” roadblock to stabilizing the river is the priority system itself, where the oldest water rights are first in line.

#ColoradoRiver #water crisis urgent, officials say, as #LakeMead drops — The Las Vegas Review-Journal #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Hoover Dam’s intake towers protrude from the surface of Lake Mead near Las Vegas, where water levels have dropped to record lows amid a 22-year drought. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on The Las Vegas Review-Journal website (Colton Lochhead). Here’s an excerpt:

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June tasked the seven Colorado River basin states to develop a plan to cut water use from the river by as much as 4 million acre-feet starting next year, or about 30 percent of the river’s recent annual flows, in order to prevent that future. One deadline came and went in August with no deal in place. States have continued to work toward finding some form of consensus in recent months, but nothing concrete has emerged…

In an interview Friday, Touton admitted that it is “very much an expedited timeline,” but said she has full confidence that something will be developed between the seven states over the next five to six weeks.

“It is what the river and the communities need and demand for this moment,” she said…

In October, the bureau kicked off the process of modifying the current drought guidelines for the Colorado, and will look at any proposals submitted by the states while also working to develop a plan that would allow the federal government to take unilateral action and mandate cuts if need be. Another deadline of sorts comes Tuesday, the last day for states to submit proposals for how to modify those drought guidelines, but states would have until the end of January to continue working toward coming to an agreement.

This map shows the Colorado River Basin and surrounding areas that use Colorado River Water, with four regions delineated, based on the degree to which flow is regulated and the channel physically manipulated. The dividing line for the upper and lower basin is Lee Ferry near Glen Canyon Dam. CREDIT: CENTER FOR COLORADO RIVER STUDIES

‘Everything all at once, yesterday:’ Takeaways from a #ColoradoRiver gathering — The #Nevada Independent #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022 #ActOnClimate

Bath tub ring seen at Lake Mead Marina on Wednesday , Aug. 17, 2022. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

First off here’s the link to the Colorado River Water Users Association Twitter Fest.

Click the link to read the article on Nevada’s only statewide nonprofit newsroom The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):

“Everything all at once, yesterday.” That’s how a federal water manager described dealing with the Colorado River at a conference of water users in Las Vegas this week. The river faces a crisis fueled by overuse and amplified by climate change — and as Wayne Pullan, the upper Colorado River regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation stated, officials are taking an all-hands approach.

“We joke within the region that we’re going to change our slogan” to the Latin phrase for “everything all at once, yesterday,” Pullan said during a meeting Wednesday.

The conference comes on the precipice of action as federal water managers with the bureau continue to push Colorado River users to cut back and put forward a set of consensus-based policies to start stabilizing the river’s quickly declining storage reservoirs in a matter of months. 

At stake is water used by about 40 million Americans in seven Western states, from Wyoming to California, 30 Native American tribes and Mexico. Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, is  28 percent full. Lake Powell, upstream, is 24 percent full. The low reservoirs give states that tap into the river little room to negotiate, and there are few options left other than significant cuts. 

Earlier this year, the federal government, which operates infrastructure across the watershed, called on the seven states to cut massive amounts of water to stabilize Lake Mead and Lake Powell. In addition, the federal government is seeking comments from the states, tribal nations and the public about new operational policies for managing the reservoirs in the coming years. 

Those comments are due Dec. 20. But the states will have another month — until the end of January — to negotiate a consensus-based solution that federal officials said they will weigh before taking unilateral action. In the absence of a consensus set of policies, David Palumbo, the bureau’s deputy commissioner, said the agency is also preparing a federal alternative. 

He emphasized the effects of climate change reducing the amount of water running off into the river from snowpack, urging water users to think of new tools to address long-term aridification.

“We can’t rely on what we’ve done in the past to be adequate for the future,” he said.

In an interview, John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the state’s negotiator, said Colorado River states, which have had side meetings this week, are “still fairly far away from coming to consensus, but we’re closer than we were on Monday.”

The Las Vegas metro area, which gets about 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, has prepared for low-water levels at Lake Mead for decades, implementing aggressive urban conservation measures, recycling and an intake to get water from the bottom of Lake Mead. 

When asked if Nevada could be facing further cutbacks, Entsminger said past efforts should be considered but he added that the state is “certainly willing to be part of the solution.” What such a solution looks like, even if a framework for cuts is agreed upon, remains an open question.

The monumental task of what comes next: Governance of the Colorado River is diffuse, with power and water distributed differently among states, Native American tribes, irrigation districts and cities. For nearly two decades, the states have worked to cut back on their water use. Over that time, in a series of incremental deals, water users agreed to cut about 1.3 million acre-feet (one acre-foot of water is about enough water to fill a football field to a depth of one foot). 

Now the states need to cut about two to four million acre-feet — and they are being asked to do so in a matter of months, not decades. Much of those cuts will fall on water users downstream of Lake Mead. Of the states drawing on Lake Mead, Arizona and California account for the bulk of that use. The two states are wrestling with how to divide cuts among each other and among water users in each state, given a century of legal agreements about how to share shortages.

Still, they are starting to make some progress toward cuts. The three states that draw on Lake Mead submitted 32 proposals to receive federal compensation for conserving water, according to Rebecca Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But it’s likely that more painful cuts are going to be made, and some users will have to make hard choices. And states above Lake Mead, including Colorado, are also looking at compensated conservation. 

“We have to accept the situation that we are in and we need to reduce demands,” she said. “All of us — every sector, every state, every water user… We have to accept that we cannot cling to our entitlements or allocations. If they are not there, none of that matters. It does not matter.”

People fish on the Colorado River as seen from Willow Beach in Arizona on Thursday, July 7, 2022. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Hydrology is dictating the agenda: For years, a motivator for the states to cut water use was the threat and uncertainty of federal intervention. That is still on the table. But in many ways, the physical hydrology of Lake Mead and Lake Powell are also dictating the timeline for action. With another winter of low runoff — the amount of water moving from snowpack into the river — both reservoirs soon risk falling to trigger elevations that would threaten water and power supplies.

In other words, if the reservoirs continue to drop, the cuts will be physical realities. 

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

“Hydrology will dictate more than policy,” said Chuck Cullom, director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, urging water users to take real action that results in lowering demands. 

“And the alternative to inaction is brutal and entirely obvious,” he added. 

But after years of discussing the issue, the time to act is running out. 

“It took us five years to negotiate a five-year [drought plan],” Entsminger said during a panel Thursday. “And we don’t have five months to come up with an operation plan for 2023 and 2024. So it’s past time. I can look at all six microphones up here and dozens of people across this room, and I can give your well-worn talking points. It’s time to set it aside and get real.”

This is a climate change story: Even without climate change, the Colorado River would likely be facing a shortage. It has long been known that the Colorado River is overallocated — there are more rights to water on paper than there is actual water in the river, at least in many years. 

But climate change has undoubtedly amplified the problem. 

At a meeting on Wednesday, Anne Castle, the U.S. Commissioner at the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the “real enemy” is not another state or economic sector. It is climate change.  [ed. emphasis mine]

Over the last two decades, far less water has entered the river, further worsening the imbalance between water supply and demand. Even in years with near average precipitation, the Colorado River has seen below average runoff, attributed in part to dry conditions and poor soil moisture. 

Like with so many issues related to climate change, addressing the problem is forcing officials to grapple with injustices and inequalities embedded in the systems governing the Colorado River. The founding documents for the river’s governance largely ignore the rights of Native American tribes and the ecosystems that sustain wildlife and plants throughout the Colorado River Basin.

In looking at the climate-caused crisis on the Colorado River and a world with less water to go around, water officials are beginning to grapple with some of these longstanding injustices. 

Native American tribes hold the rights to roughly 20 percent of the Colorado River, but they have been excluded from past decisions about water use. That has started to change. On Thursday, top federal water officials held meetings with tribal leaders from across the Colorado River.

“We all have our own individual issues when it comes to water,” said Timothy Williams, chairman of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, whose reservation extends to Arizona, Nevada and California. 

“I think it’s coming to a head. At some point, there’s decisions that are going to be made,” he said on Thursday. “We just want to make sure that we’re part of the decision-making process.” 

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

Disaster scenarios raise the stakes for #ColoradoRiver negotiations: At #CRWUA2022 conference in Las Vegas, #water managers debate how to make historic cuts — The Washington Post #COriver #aridification

The downstream face of Glen Canyon Dam, which forms Lake Powell, America’s second-largest water reservoir. Water is released from the reservoir through a hydropower generation system at the base of the dam. The Glen Canyon Dam sits above Lake Powell and the Colorado River in Page, Ariz. Federal officials have projected that, as soon as July, water levels in the lake could fall to the point where the hydroelectric plant inside the dam could no longer produce power. Photo by Brian Richter

First off here’s the link to the Colorado River Water Users Association 2022 Conference Twitter Fest.

Click the link to read the article on The Washington Post website (Joshua Partlow). Here’s an excerpt:

Many state water officials fear they are already running out of time.

Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which delivers Colorado River water to central Arizona, said that “there’s a real possibility of an effective dead pool” within the next two years. That means water levels could fall so far that the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams — which created the reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead — would become an obstacle to delivering water to cities and farms in Arizona, California and Mexico.

“We may not be able to get water past either of the two dams in the major reservoirs for certain parts of the year,” Cooke said. “This is on our doorstep.”

The looming crisis has energized this annual gathering of water bureaucrats, the occasional cowboy hat visible among the standing-room-only crowd inside Caesars Palace. It’s the first time the conference has sold out, organizers said, and the specter of mass shortages looms as state water managers, tribes and the federal government meet to hash out how to cut usage on an unprecedented scale…

The states of the Upper Colorado River Basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — say it is difficult to specify how much they can cut because they are less dependent on allocations from reservoirs and more on variable flows of the river. The lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — also consume far more water.

“In the Upper Basin, we can say we’ll take 80 percent, and Mother Nature gives us 30,” said Gene Shawcroft, chair of the Colorado River Authority of Utah. “Those are some of the challenges we’re wrestling with.”

Upper Colorado River basins. (The border of Wyoming and Colorado is mislabeled.) (U.S. BOR)

Federal officials say urgent action needed to protect shrinking #ColoradoRiver reservoirs — The Los Angeles Times #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Water users are urgently trying to keep Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border from dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

First off here’s the link to the Colorado River Water Users Association 2022 Conference Twitter Fest.

Click the link to read the article on The Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:

Speaking at a conference in Las Vegas, federal officials told water managers from the seven states that rely on the river that they will weigh immediate options next year to protect water levels in depleted reservoirs, and that the region must be prepared for the river to permanently yield less water because of climate change.

“The hotter, drier conditions that we face today are not temporary. Climate change is here today and has made it likely that we will continue to see conditions like this, if not worse, in the future,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton.

“The basin is seeing its worst drought in 1,200 years, and there is no relief in sight. And perhaps this is what it will be in the future,” Touton said.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, are now nearly three-fourths empty, and water levels are set to continue dropping. The latest government estimates show there is a risk that Lake Mead could reach “dead pool” levels in 2025, at which point the river would no longer flow past Hoover Dam, cutting off water for California, Arizona and Mexico. That grim scenario has given urgency to the search for solutions, as officials from states, water agencies, tribes and the federal government consider options for water cutbacks on a scale never seen before.