Here’s a guest column from Jim Spehar that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
It’ll be hard to avoid the overwhelming desire for a tall glass of cool, refreshing water in the coming week while we’re flirting with record 100-degree plus temperatures here in the Grand Valley. In a broader sense, the daily blast of heat past the century mark will put another exclamation point on water issues along the Colorado River.
The first one came a few days ago. The water level at Lake Mead near Las Vegas hit its lowest level since filling in the 1930s. The Bureau of Reclamation expects the decline will continue until November, causing ripples upriver as agreements linking Mead and Lake Powell water levels come into play sooner than expected. Other recent alarms include massive drought-induced wildfires, resulting post-fire runoffs impacting water supplies, shorter irrigating seasons … the litany goes on and on while the Colorado River Basin is expected to post its second-driest year in more than a century of recorded history.
Before you complain about those fountains and golf courses in Sin City, consider what that desert community has done to alleviate its water use. Millions of dollars, as much as $3/square foot, is paid to residents to replace grass with xeriscaping. Building codes prohibit front lawns for new houses. A new state law will prohibit Colorado River water from being used to irrigate “non-functional turf” such as grass in office parks, at the entrances to subdivisions and in strips between sidewalks and streets.
That latest restriction, according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, will save about 10% of the region’s Colorado River allocation, that 30,000 acre feet equal to the amount normally used by 60,000 homes. The Central Arizona Project is taking 30% less water from the Colorado River than in previous years. Further downriver, farmers in California and along the border in Arizona are being paid nearly handsomely to fallow cropland by cities clamoring for municipal water.
Here in Colorado, there are rumblings of what may become necessary steps for some communities in the not too distant future.
In Fountain, south of Colorado Springs, developers have applied for nearly 30,000 new water taps in the last year. The city currently serves 9,000 taps. According to Colorado Public Radio, Fountain is telling developers they need to support their applications with the millions of dollars necessary to obtain new water rights and storage and delivery infrastructure. Utilities Director Dan Blankenship is telling those developers “We can’t give you something we don’t have.”
Which spotlights the elephant (perhaps more appropriately the whale) in the room as water shortages are discussed — carrying capacity. It’s a question that’s been avoided for years but ultimately can’t be ignored. Is there a hard limit to how many of us can live, work, recreate in any one place along the Colorado River?
Of course there is. We just don’t want to acknowledge that, at least so far, though we live in an arid West where more than 40 million people in seven states and two countries depend, at least in part, on the Colorado River and its tributaries.
Twenty-five years ago, I worked for Gov. Roy Romer on his Smart Growth Initiative. One of his ideas was that developers wishing to build in the then-emerging area around Castle Rock ought to prove there was a 300-year supply of guaranteed water for their projects. That, of course, didn’t fly. Nor did a later 100-year proposed guarantee. But setting requirements like that, or such as Fountain is talking about, seems inevitable.
I’m both amused and frightened at suggestions the flawed 1922 Colorado River Compact needs to be renegotiated, hoping to keep more of “our water” in the Upper Basin. That’d take congressional action. Count the number of members from California, Arizona and Nevada and compare that total to those from Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. Shouldn’t reopening the Compact be the option of last resort?
“Water, water, water…. There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” — Edward Abbey, “Desert Solitaire”
Jim Spehar represented western Colorado communities for eight years on the Board of Directors of the Colorado Water Congress. Comments always welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the impending closure of coal mines and power plants in northwest Colorado, Craig officials and river enthusiasts are hoping a long-overlooked natural resource just south of town can help create economic resilience.
The city has applied for a $1.8 million grant from the federal Economic Development Agency for the Yampa River Corridor Project, which will refurbish boat ramps, add parking areas and a whitewater park, in an effort to develop the Yampa River as a source of outdoor recreation and local pride. The project is part of a multi-pronged approach to help rural Moffat County transition from an extraction-based economy to one that includes outdoor and river recreation as one of its main pillars.
“(River use) has definitely grown in the last couple of years,” said Jennifer Holloway, executive director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce. “Awareness that the river could be part of our future has grown. It had just not been on our radar as a town. We had the coal mines, we had the power plants. People tubed the river and fished in it sometimes, but it was not looked at as an economic asset until the last few years.”
An August 2020 preliminary engineering report by Glenwood Springs-based consultant SGM laid out the project components. The first phase of the proposed project would include improvements to Loudy Simpson Park on the west end of town, including a boat ramp, parking, a picnic area and vault toilet. The park is often a take-out point for tubers and boaters who float from Pebble Beach, just a few miles upstream. The project would also create better waves, pool drops with a fish passage, two access points and a portage trail at what’s known as the Diversion Park, as well as improve the city’s diversion structure.
The total project cost is roughly $2.7 million. A second project phase, which is still conceptual, would include bank stabilization and a trail connecting the river to downtown Craig.
Project proponents see the river as one of the town’s most under-utilized amenities and say it can add to the quality of life in the town of about 9,000.
Josh Veenstra is the owner of Good Vibes River Gear in Craig. The company rents paddle boards, rafts and tubes, runs shuttles on the Little Yampa Canyon and sells hand-sewn, mesh bags and drying racks, which are popular among the boating community. This is the fourth season for his company and Veenstra said the momentum is unbelievable.
“What it’s going to do is give Craig a sense of identity,” he said.
Transitioning from coal
Two of the region’s biggest employers and energy providers, Tri State Generation and Transmission and Xcel Energy, announced in 2020 that they would be closing their coal-fired plants and mines. Tri-State, whose plant is supplied by two local mines, Trapper and Colowyo, plans to close all three of Craig’s units by 2030. Xcel, whose plant is located in nearby Hayden, plans to close both its units by the end of 2028.
According to Holloway, the closures represent about 800 lost jobs.
“All of our restaurants survive off the power plant workers, all of our retail, all the rest of our businesses,” she said. “Most of our small businesses downtown are run by women whose husbands work in the mine. So I think we are going to see a mass changeover of people leaving.”
Holloway is focusing on ag-tourism, the arts and outdoor recreation as industries that can help replace lost jobs. Although she recognizes that tourism jobs generally don’t pay the high wages of extraction industries, outdoor recreation has been identified as an industry with a large potential for growth and is identified as a priority in Moffat County’s Vision 2025 Transition Plan.
In addition, the pandemic has shown that many white-collar workers can work remotely from anywhere that has internet. It has also increased interest in outdoor recreation. Project supporters say improving the river corridor could help attract a new demographic interested in the outdoors but who don’t want to pay the premiums of a resort community, like nearby Steamboat Springs.
“Entrepreneurs in the rec industry would be a great fit,” Holloway said. “A warehouse here would be so much cheaper than Steamboat. If we could get some of those entrepreneurs, that would attract those that have a remote job or business elsewhere but that want the rural outdoor lifestyle.”
Recreation water right
Although city officials are moving forward with plans to build the whitewater park, they are — for now at least — forgoing a step that could help protect their newly built asset and keep water in the river.
Many communities in Colorado with whitewater parks, including Glenwood Springs, Basalt, Durango, Silverthorne and Vail, have a water right associated with the man-made waves, known as a recreational in-channel diversion or RICD. This type of water right ties an amount of water necessary for a reasonable recreational experience to the river features.
A RICD can help make sure there is enough water in the river for boating, but it also has the potential to limit future upstream water development. Under Colorado water law, known as the prior appropriation system, older water rights have first use of the river and therefore, a RICD does not affect existing senior water rights.
“It’s something that we have had some discussion about and we are looking closely at; it can be kind of political,” said Craig City Manager Peter Brixius. “I have not personally heard from folks, but I know people are opposed to it.”
Brixius said the conversation about a RICD is on hiatus at least until the fall.
Without a water right, which would secure the whitewater park’s place in line, future upstream water development could jeopardize having enough water for the park.
Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said that while he can’t speak specifically for Craig, it makes sense for a municipality to protect its place in the prior appropriation system with a water right.
“If there may be some risk in the future that somebody is going to develop some water upstream that would either reduce or eliminate entirely the benefit of this expenditure, then yeah, you go to water court and try to protect this investment you have made,” he said. “Even if you don’t see anything on the horizon that is going to impact you, who knows what’s going to happen in 20 years.”
Looking to the future
The city expects to find out if it got the EDA grant in early fall. The project has also received funding from Moffat County, Friends of the Yampa, Trapper Mine, Northwest Colorado Parrotheads, the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable, Resources Legacy Fund and the Yampa River Fund.
City officials are hoping the Yampa River Corridor Project will attract visitors, contribute to marketing efforts to rebrand northwest Colorado and build morale around the area’s economic future. For river gear shop owner Veenstra, that future can’t come fast enough. He hopes to hold swift water rescue courses and do environmental education using the new river corridor area.
“Craig is one of the coolest little towns,” he said. “The closure of the power plant, everybody says it’s going to be the downfall of Craig. It’s the best thing that could ever happen to us because it made people snap out of it and go, ‘oh, we need to do something different.’ That’s why the whitewater park is getting built. It was a blessing in disguise.”
According to the recent U.S. census, Utah was the fastest-growing state in the nation between 2010 and 2020, increasing its population at a blisteringly fast rate of 18.4%. And in its southwest corner, Washington County, with its stunning vistas, National Park access, recreation opportunities and warm, sunny climate led the state in that trend, attracting nearly 50,000 new residents over the last decade, a 36% increase over its 2010 population.
Those 50,000 new people are just the beginning of a growth pattern projected by the Gardner Institute to flood Washington County with 321,000 additional residents over the next 45 years, to reach a local population of 509,000 by 2065. That number of people — 80% of the current population of Las Vegas — will require a lot of water in this desert landscape, more than is locally available at our current rate of use.
The WCWCD, along with the Utah Division of Water Resources, saw this problem coming as early as the 1990s, and started making plans to import Colorado River water from Lake Powell via a buried pipeline that would stretch 140 miles through rocky desert terrain, crossing some tribal lands and sensitive habitats. The project has inched its way forward over the decades since, finally advancing its federally-required Environmental Impact Statement through the public review process during the Trump administration, which identified the pipeline as one of its infrastructure priorities…
What is most important to today’s Utahns?
Despite these sentiments about Utah’s cultural values driving water infrastructure decisions, there has never been a widespread, unbiased attempt to poll existing Washington County locals on their thoughts about the pros and cons of the Lake Powell Pipeline project and whether they are willing to bear its approximately $2 billion cost. So The Spectrum & Daily News, with funding from The Water Desk, designed and commissioned a survey to do just that.
Survey data were collected by the Utah-based market research firm Dynata, hired based on their reputation and reasonable cost quote. Employees of this company randomly selected residents of Washington County to contact for a phone survey and received responses from 400 of them. Respondents represented a balanced range of ages, gender, household income levels and length of time they had lived in Washington County. The results presented below have been weighted slightly by Dynata to best reflect the actual demographic makeup of the county.
Knowledge is lacking
Of the 400 people surveyed, nearly a quarter (22%) said they had never heard of the Lake Powell Pipeline, despite the fact that this is a decades-old project that will have major financial and lifestyle implications for all Washington County residents. 35% felt they “knew a little about it” and 12% felt they “knew a lot about it.” Only 52% of those surveyed said they felt they knew enough about the project to have an opinion on it.
Support is high
Support for the project outweighed opposition to it, with 59% expressing some level of support for it and 35% expressing some level of opposition to it. A majority held relatively mild views on the project, but 35% of all respondents were “very supportive” and 19% were “very opposed.”
But few want to pay
This high level of support, though, did not carry through to a willingness to help fund the project, which has been estimated to cost anywhere between $1.1 and $2.4 billion, to be initially bankrolled by the state and then repaid over 50 years by Washington County residents. In fact, some already-implemented increases in impact fees, property taxes and water rates are currently being put towards project expenses. The WCWCD estimates that the state has already spent around $40 million on planning costs and feasibility studies.
Only 40% of survey respondents answered yes to the question of whether, “knowing what you do about the project, and that the pipeline is proposed as a way to address potential water shortages in the future, are you willing to help fund it, either through increased water rates, higher taxes, or higher fees charged for new water hookups.” 44% answered no to that question and 15% declined to answer.
Among that 40% of people willing to help fund the project, just 8% said they would pay anything more than $50 per month in fees for it, though some estimates suggest the actual cost may be much higher than this. 22% of those who initially answered both that they supported the project and would be willing to help fund it then said that they would not be willing to contribute anything or refused to answer a question about specific amounts.
Overall, then, 50% of all surveyed residents indicated at some point — either in response to the initial funding question or when asked about specific amounts — that they would not be willing to contribute financially to the project at all, despite the fact that some fees are already being collected county-wide to support it. An additional 18% of all those surveyed said that they were unsure about contributing or refused to answer the question. Less than 1% were willing to pay amounts in the highest tier.
Instead, they show a willingness to conserve
In 2011, the Utah Division of Water Resources submitted a 256-page study to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission detailing how their water needs assessment justified pursuing the Lake Powell Pipeline project. In it, they outline how much water conservation they determined was “feasible for this area based on local conditions, development types, cost and public acceptance.” Conservation options that were considered but not deemed feasible to adopt included turf removal and some appliance rebates.
Survey results, however, indicate perhaps an increased willingness over the past decade to voluntarily adopt stricter water conservation measures.
When asked if they would be “willing to adopt any conservation practices in your own home or accept fewer amenities in your community if it would help avoid construction of the project,” 63% of survey respondents said they would, including 48% of those who had expressed support for the project. Only 26% said they would not be willing to conserve more water and 11% said they didn’t know.
Specific measures respondents said they would be willing to adopt included high levels of support for conservation measures previously ruled out by state and local officials as conflicting with Utah’s traditional cultural values:
75% of people who were amenable to conserving more water said they would reduce the size of their lawn.
88% were willing to take shorter showers.
75% were in favor of requiring desert-friendly landscaping in new housing developments.
67% thought we should stop building water features in parks and public places.
83% would support scaling back lawns in public places or on golf courses.
78% would be willing to update their home appliances.
76% supported increasing water rates/accelerating a tiered pricing structure.
Overall, results of our independent survey indicate that Washington County residents generally support the idea of the Lake Powell Pipeline project despite feeling that they don’t know much about it. But few want to contribute to it financially and instead they expressed a greater willingness to adopt new water conservation practices than has previously been recognized.
Click here to read the report. Here’s the forward:
Colorado River Basin Native American Tribal Leaders
This is a timely and much needed report.
Clean water is fundamental to life, but many of our people have never had an opportunity to experience this basic and essential service, one that is taken for granted in most American communities. Many of our family members, our elders, and our children have lost their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic because clean and safe water was not available. The necessity and the urgency of having access to safe water sources has been starkly demonstrated during this trying time.
Helping to provide clean water to us, throughout Indian Country, benefits everyone, and its absence correspondingly jeopardizes the health of the entire United States of America. As the pandemic has made clear, any hot spot for the virus inevitably and inexorably spreads to other areas, both neighboring and far flung. With our homes in Indian Country many times more likely than homes in white communities to lack indoor plumbing, our nation’s resources must be quickly focused on addressing this inequity for the protection of all.
The United States government has long promised all Native American Tribes a “permanent homeland,” a “livable reservation,” and a home “conducive to the health and prosperity of the Indians.” But these promises are broken when we do not have clean water to drink, to cook with, and to wash as required to avoid the spread of this deadly disease. Both the Tribes and the United States envisioned our homelands as places where our people can thrive, as they had done from time immemorial. It is long past time to make that vision a reality. Access to safe and clean water must be made available now. Promises made must be kept and access provided to this most basic of human needs—clean water.
Tó éí iiná até [Water is Life],
Jonathan Nez | President, Navajo Nation
Paatuwaqatsi [Water is Life],
Timothy Nuvangyaoma | Chairman, Hopi Tribe
Payy new aakut [Water is Life],
Manuel Heart | Chairman, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Ten Tribes Partnership
Xa ‘iipayk [Water is Life],
Jordan D. Joaquin | President, Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
Colorado Springs is one of the fastest growing regions in the state. Homes are getting more expensive and harder to buy. The boom is expanding into nearby cities — and the pressure is building…
There are currently fewer than 9,000 taps, or connections, to Fountain’s water supply. Over the last year, Blankenship said developers have applied for nearly 30,000 new taps to the city’s water system.
[Dan] Blankenship is telling developers, Fountain is tapped out…
To support that many new taps, the city would need to buy additional rights to use more water. They would also need a place to store that water, and the city would need to treat it and find a way to get it to homes.
That’s getting harder to make happen in a state like Colorado, where most of the people live on the Front Range but most of the water is on the Western Slope.
Where the city of Fountain gets its water from
Fountain gets most of its water from the Pueblo Reservoir, which is filled with water that would otherwise end up in the Colorado River. The reservoir project was built in the 1970s. It’s unlikely the city would be able to build something similar today, Blankenship said. It’s a lot tougher to do that now, just because of the environmental concerns…
Smith said it’s becoming more common for developers to have to secure water rights and pay for additional water infrastructure if they want to build a big project.
But he said the situation in Fountain is unusual…
Fountain hasn’t finalized any plans yet, but they say developers are going to need to help pay the millions of dollars to buy those new water rights, reservoirs, and pipes needed to support that kind of growth. Blankenship, Fountain’s utility director, said instead of the city paying for that upfront, he wants to shift that cost to developers…
No matter how a developer might have to secure water for a new project, the cost will get rolled into the price of a new home, said Kevin Walker, with the housing and building association in Colorado Springs…
Kevin Reidy, a senior water conservation specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said other water utilities are also worried about how to keep up with growth. Fountain is just the first to talk so openly about the issue…
A big part of Reidy’s job is to get water and land planners to work together, which he said have been too siloed. Reidy helps host training events to get water and land people in the same room to talk about these issues.
“I think we’re kind of hitting that point where people are kind of saying, ‘Okay wow, we’ve got to do things differently,’” Reidy said.
For Fountain, that means telling developers this town doesn’t have the water you need. If you want to build here, you’ll have to bring your own.
Citizen groups Save the Poudre and No Pipe Dream are suing to stop the city of Fort Collins from processing an application for Northern Integrated Supply Project infrastructure in city limits.
The two groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the city and the Northern Integrated Supply Project Water Activity Enterprise over Northern Water’s SPAR (site plan advisory review) application for the controversial Poudre River reservoir project. The complaint argues that SPAR is the wrong way for the city to review NISP infrastructure and seeks to terminate the SPAR application. It also seeks to cancel the Fort Collins Planning and Zoning Board review of the application set for June 30…
At the heart of the dispute is whether NISP, which seeks to divert flows from the Poudre and South Platte rivers for two new reservoirs, is an appropriate fit for the SPAR process. SPAR is a type of development review intended for “improvements to parcels owned or operated by public entities,” according to the city’s land use code.
SPAR, compared to the more commonly used development review process, puts the city’s P&Z board in an advisory position rather than giving Fort Collins City Council the final say on a proposal. The governing board of a SPAR applicant can override P&Z’s vote and proceed with the development over the city’s wishes.
The P&Z board must review a SPAR application within 60 days of the city accepting it. The city deemed Northern Water’s SPAR application complete on May 21.
The city directed Northern Water to submit a SPAR application for components of NISP within city limits: the Poudre intake diversion structure, a river diversion that would be located in Homestead Natural Area northwest of Mulberry Street and Lemay Avenue, and a 3.4-mile length of pipeline running from the river diversion to the southeast, passing through Fort Collins and unincorporated Larimer County land as well as three city natural areas (Williams, Kingfisher Point and Riverbend Ponds)…
The complaint also argues that Northern Water doesn’t meet the state’s legal guidelines for an entity that can overrule a municipal body’s decision on a development. The state gives that authority only to “the city council of a city … the board of trustees of a town, or any other body, by whatever name known, given authority to adopt ordinances for a specific municipality,” the complaint states…
City attorney Carrie Daggett said the city is still reviewing the complaint and declined further comment. Northern Water spokesman Jeff Stahla affirmed that the water district will continue to pursue SPAR review for NISP as city staff directed…
Fort Collins’ review of NISP is not the last step for the project. The project is awaiting a crucial record of decision from the Army Corps of Engineers that’s expected to come this year. An affirming record of decision would likely trigger another legal appeal.
Two additional lawsuits filed by Save the Poudre, No Pipe Dream and Save Rural NoCo related to Larimer County’s approval of NISP infrastructure are also working their way through the courts.
Lake Mead has declined to its lowest level since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s following the construction of Hoover Dam, marking a new milestone for the water-starved Colorado River in a downward spiral that shows no sign of letting up…
The lake’s rapid decline has been outpacing projections from just a few months ago. Its surface reached a new low Wednesday night when it dipped past the elevation of 1,071.6 feet, a record set in 2016. But unlike that year, when inflows helped push the lake levels back up, the watershed is now so parched and depleted that Mead is projected to continue dropping next year and into 2023.
Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, now stands at just 36% of full capacity.
In the past month, Mead has already fallen below the official threshold of a shortage, which the federal government is expected to declare in August. That will trigger major cuts in water allotments for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico next year. And even bigger water reductions could be forced upon the Southwest if the reservoir continues to drop, which government estimates show is likely…
The reservoir’s continuing decline, [Felicia] Marcus said, should ring “alarm bells” across the West that the days of business-as-usual approaches are over and that “we need to accelerate everything we can to use less water.”
That includes speeding up efforts that cities and water agencies are already undertaking in parts of the Southwest, such as investing in recycling wastewater, capturing stormwater or cleaning up polluted groundwater, Marcus said. And it also includes promoting conservation and more efficient water use in a variety of ways, she said, from investing in water-saving technologies on farms to offering homeowners cash rebates to removing grass and replacing it with drought-tolerant landscaping.
With shortage measures set to take effect next year, Arizona is in line for the biggest water cutbacks.
That will shrink the amount flowing through the Central Arizona Project Canal to farmlands in Pinal County that produce alfalfa, cotton, wheat and other crops. Farmers in Pinal plan to pump more groundwater from newly drilled wells, but they’ll still be short with the loss of Colorado River water and are planning to leave some farmlands dry and unplanted over the next couple of years.
In a first-level shortage, the water supplies of Arizona’s cities will be spared from cutbacks. But that could change over the next two years if Lake Mead continues to decline.
In the Las Vegas area, people are already conserving enough each year that their water supplier will be able to contribute its portion of the reductions from its unused allocation. But that hasn’t stopped Nevada’s leaders from pushing for more water-savings by getting rid of grass on medians and outside businesses and subdivisions, as required under a newly enacted law that bans “non-functional turf” in the Las Vegas area…
The watershed has been ravaged by one of the driest 22-year periods in centuries. Scientists describe the past two decades as a megadrought worsened by climate change, and say the Colorado River Basin is undergoing “aridification” that will complicate water management for generations to come.
In 2000, Lake Mead was nearly full and its surface was lapping at the spillway gates of the Hoover Dam. Since then, the reservoir has fallen nearly 143 feet. And it’s now at the lowest levels since 1937.
Two years ago, representatives of the seven states that depend on the Colorado River met at Hoover Dam to sign a set of agreements called the Drought Contingency Plan, which laid out measures to take less water and share in reductions during a shortage to reduce the risks of Lake Mead falling to critically low levels.
But the declines have continued and the drought has intensified over the past year, with much of the watershed baking through the driest 12 months in 126 years of records. The river and its tributaries have dwindled, shrinking the flow into Lake Powell at the Utah-Arizona border, and in turn driving the receding water levels at Lake Mead…
Arizona’s plan for managing the shortages involves deliveries of “mitigation” water to help temporarily lessen the blow for some farmers and other entities, as well as payments for those that contribute water. The state and CAP approved more than $100 million for these payments, with much of the funds going to the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community for water they contributed…
Over the past year, the declines in water levels have accelerated, outpacing previous estimates due to extremely parched conditions across the watershed in the Rocky Mountains, where much of the river’s flow originates as melting snow. Hotter temperatures have made the whole watershed “thirstier,” as climate researchers put it, eroding the flow of the river as vegetation draws more water and as more moisture evaporates off the landscape…
In just 12 months, the [Lake Mead’s] level has dropped nearly 20 vertical feet…
Officials from Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico have been talking about other ways they might work together on long-term projects to shore up water supplies. One idea they’re studying would be for Arizona to work with Mexico to build a desalination plant on the shore of the Sea of Cortez and trade some of the drinking water that’s produced for a portion of Mexico’s Colorado River water.
Officials from Las Vegas’ Southern Nevada Water Authority have offered to invest in a water recycling project in Southern California, which would enable the agency to use some of the Metropolitan Water District’s Colorado River water in exchange. Arizona water officials are also considering joining the other agencies and taking part in the project.
When representatives of the seven states signed the Drought Contingency Plan on a terrace overlooking Hoover Dam in 2019, some of them described the deal as a “bridge” solution to temporarily lessen the risks of a damaging crash and buy time through 2026, by which time new rules for sharing shortages would be negotiated and adopted.
The agreement establishes a series of progressively larger water cutbacks if Lake Mead continues to drop below lower trigger points in the coming years.
If the reservoir drops about 26 more feet to below elevation 1,045 feet, California would start to take cuts.
And if the water level falls below 1,025 feet, which is a scenario the deal aims to avoid, the largest reductions would take effect for all three states and Mexico.
Increasingly, some researchers are voicing concerns that even the major cuts contemplated in the deal might not be enough. Some have suggested that with extremely dry conditions persisting in the watershed, the region’s water managers might need to take bigger steps before 2026 to prevent Mead’s levels from continuing to plummet.
“We really have seen this coming all along on some level,” said Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University. “And we in some ways aren’t ready for it, despite all the things we’ve done to make us feel good that we were ready for it.”
Udall said the network of people who work on Colorado River issues have made great strides in collaborating on adaptation strategies, including through the 2019 deal. But he said he’s not convinced that adequate measures are in place to quickly scale up the more aggressive steps if the contemplated cuts turn out to be insufficient — other than the possibility that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland could convene the states’ representatives and determine what steps to take, which is also included as a sort of backstop measure in the deal.
“This thing could spiral out of control pretty quickly,” Udall said, if more years of severe drought desiccate the region as they did in the early 2000s.
He said he also worries about the fact that some of the water in Lake Mead is reserved for specific water users based on prior conservation, which has been encouraged under the deal and previous agreements.
Concerns about that banked water also have been voiced by others, including Margaret Garcia, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who focuses on water infrastructure and management. She said this system of banking water, technically called “intentionally created surplus,” poses concerns because it means some water in Mead is already spoken for beyond established allocations, and this stored water can still be withdrawn unless the reservoir hits critical lows.
As Garcia put it, “a savings account full with IOUs is not the same as a full savings account.” And Lake Mead’s account is far from full.
The heart of the issue, Udall said, may be developing new ways of quickly adapting to a river that’s yielding less water as the West grows hotter and drier.
“We may need to take this next big step, which is how do you permanently reduce demands?” Udall said.
Lake Mead’s water level this week is projected to match its lowest point since the reservoir was formed in the 1930s, federal officials said Tuesday.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Patti Aaron said projections show Lake Mead’s water level reaching an elevation of 1,071.61 feet on Thursday, matching the record low set on July 1, 2016.
And the lake level decline isn’t projected to stop there.
“We expect it to keep declining until November,” Aaron said.
Lake Mead is barreling toward its first federally declared water shortage, a product of a decades-long drought that has left the Colorado River parched. About 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water comes from Lake Mead…
Under a shortage, Nevada would have its annual 300,000 acre-foot allocation of water from the river slashed by 13,000 feet. That reduction would come in addition to an 8,000 acre-foot contribution Nevada agreed to in 2019 in the event Lake Mead’s water level dropped below 1,090 feet, as it has…
This year, the Colorado River Basin is projected to experience its second-driest year in more than a century of record keeping. The driest year on record was 2002…
The declining lake level has also reduced the Hoover Dam’s power generation capacity.
According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the dam’s power plant is capable of producing about 2,080 megawatts. Aaron said the current capacity is 1,567 megawatts, enough to power about 350,000 homes…
Each foot in elevation that the lake level decreases, Aaron said, the dam loses about 6 megawatts of capacity. The lowest water level that allows the dam to continue generating power is 950 feet.
“But we are not in danger of hitting that point,” Aaron said…
Even if the state’s allocation is cut, Southern Nevada wouldn’t immediately feel the squeeze. Last year, the region used 256,000 acre feet, and the Southern Nevada Water Authority has about eight years worth of water at that rate of usage stored in Arizona, California, Lake Mead and Las Vegas’ local aquifer.
City takes same legal action it did against Larimer County
The city of Thornton formally went to court against the Weld County Board of Commissioners after the board denied the city’s application to build a water pipeline through the county.
The board’s decision, “exceeds its jurisdiction and/or is contrary to law, misinterprets and misapplies its criteria, and was arbitrary and capricious because its findings lack competent evidence to support the BOCC’s denial,” read the complaint filed June 2 in Weld County District Court.
As Thornton nears its deadline to construct a pipeline from a reservoir near Fort Collins, the quickest and most direct way for the city to get approval for a Weld County pipeline is through the courts, rather than submitting a whole new application. The city asks in the complaint for a district court judge to intervene and overturn the board’s decision.
Thornton started the process for the Weld County section of the Thornton Water Project in 2015. In 2018, the city formally submitted its application to build a pipeline through 34 miles of unincorporated county land. The city then went before the county’s planning commission twice and the board of commissioners four times. That fourth meeting, May 5, is when the board unanimously voted to deny the application…
The city is engaged in a separate legal battle — currently in the Colorado Court of Appeals — with the Larimer County Board of Commissioners, who denied a similar application from Thornton in 2019. The complaint Thornton filed in Weld County is the same kind that it filed in Larimer…
In both the Larimer and Weld County cases, Thornton argued the boards of commissioners didn’t have the jurisdiction to deny the city’s application because it has owned the WSSC rights for decades. What’s different about Thornton’s argument against Weld County is that it’s simpler, according to legal filings.
Weld County staff, the planning commission and the board initially told Thornton to not construct the pipeline in the right-of-way, or literally underneath county roads. Instead, they suggested planning to build on privately owned land next to the road. However, the planning commission and board later asked the city to consider areas for the pipeline in the right-of-way. Thornton did that and over time, submitted several amended applications.
The board asked also Thornton to obtain more construction easements from private landowners before the board reached a decision. So, by the May 5 board meeting, Thornton obtained easements for 95% of the total stretch of the pipeline.
Thornton described itself in the complaint as a good partner to Weld County, despite larger changes along the way. Still, the board denied the application. The city also argued that the board didn’t “orally find or conclude” that Thornton failed to meet five of eight criteria that the board is supposed to consult in its decision-making.
The city added in the complaint that the board still hasn’t issued Thornton a written denial…
The main reason for Thornton’s haste is rapid growth. The City council won’t approve applications related to large developments, such as Parterre, without the assurance of water from Larimer County.
With drought and climate change continuing to dry the American West, the state of Colorado is moving to declare one of its last, mostly free-flowing rivers, the Yampa, over-appropriated.
The action, initiated in March, is emblematic of the water situation across Colorado and the West: growing demand, shrinking supplies.
“It’s a sign of the times, that is, it’s happening in the context of lower flows and increased demand — and we’re seeing that all over the West,” said Anne Castle, senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School. “The majority of the problem in the Yampa is created by a decrease in flows, although there has been some increase in demand.”
According to a recent analysis by the state, the Yampa’s flows have dropped roughly 25 percent over the past 100 years, from 1.5 million acre-feet to 1.12 million acre-feet annually, a change attributed to sustained drought and climate change.
“The combination of continued adjudication of new water rights and the potential for a hotter, drier climate will likely cause the trend of declining streamflows to continue,” wrote Erin Light, the top water regulator in the region, in her report detailing why she’s recommending the over-appropriation designation.
The river is important not just because of its key role in Northwestern Colorado, but also because it is one of the largest tributaries to the drought-stressed seven-state Colorado River system.
Kevin Rein, the state engineer and Colorado Division of Water Resources director, is still considering Light’s March 17 recommendation, which encompasses the Yampa River and all of its tributaries upstream of its confluence with the Little Snake River to the town of Steamboat Springs. If approved, the designation will affect 2,321 total square miles, which includes 148 miles of the Yampa itself.
At a virtual meeting in March, some Yampa-area stakeholders expressed concerns about the quick pace of the process and the lack of in-person conversations. They also asked for more information and more time to understand the implications and potential ripple effects of the designation.
Before he makes his decision, Rein said he wants to be able to meet in person with the basin’s residents, something the COVID-19 pandemic has so far prevented. He said he did not yet have an anticipated timeline.
“I’m not confident that people understand some of the nuances, and so I want people to be believers in why we’re doing this,” Rein said. “I want to be out there meeting with people in person, answering all the hard questions before we make a decision that sets things in motion.”
The state uses the over-appropriation designation when it has determined that there’s not enough water in a stream system, some or all of the time, for all of the people and organizations who hold water rights in the system.
Over-appropriation is the norm in Colorado — other portions of the Yampa system are already designated as over-appropriated, as are the majority of other stream systems in the state.
Still, the recommendation to designate this new section of the basin as over-appropriated is a major change to the status quo in this region, where water has historically been so abundant and demand so low that a majority of water users never measured what they took from the stream.
To more accurately glean the full water picture in the Yampa Basin, the state ordered water users there to install measuring devices in September 2019. Though installation was initially slow-going, the state and several local community groups have been working with water users in the intervening months, which has brought the proportion of water users with measuring devices up to 58 percent as of April 2021, according to state officials.
“It’s normal for people to want to be able to continue the water use they’ve enjoyed in the past, but the hydrology is changing,” Castle said. “The overall balance of the system is different and that means that the way we do business in terms of administering water has to change as well. It’s quite understandable that people may not be welcoming this kind of additional state regulatory overlay that they are used to doing without.”
For divvying up the state’s water, Colorado uses a “first in time, first in right” system known as prior appropriation. This means that the people or organizations with the oldest decreed water rights, known as senior water rights, get priority over later-decreed, or junior, water rights.
When there isn’t enough water to satisfy those senior water rights, the state can stop or slow the flow for junior water rights, a measure known as a call or a curtailment.
This temporary action, taken to ensure that senior water rights holders can get all of the water they’re legally entitled to, is becoming more and more common in the Yampa River Basin. State officials have implemented calls in two of the last three years — in 2018 and 2020.
There would likely have been additional calls in the basin, but the community avoided them by sharing water, getting by with less, and releasing stored water from reservoirs into the river and allowing it to remain there rather than diverting it for irrigation or drinking water, according to Light.
“We have many stream systems where water rights are not fully met but owners opt to not request our office to place a call,” Light wrote in her recommendation. “While their cooperative approach to ‘make do’ with water they have and/or share it among their neighbors is admirable, it is yet one more indicator that, more and more frequently, the water supply of the Yampa River Basin cannot support the … demand.”
Groundwater vs. surface water
The overarching goal of the over-appropriation designation is to protect the rights of senior water rights holders moving forward, Light said.
If the designation is applied, people will still be able to obtain new surface water rights, for instance to take water from streams and rivers for approved uses like irrigation, but they should be aware that there may not be enough water available to satisfy those rights, Light said.
The over-appropriation designation would also affect groundwater rights, or water pumped up from below ground. More specifically, the designation will affect residents’ ability to drill new wells and bring into compliance existing wells with unpermitted uses.
Under the designation, landowners who want permission to drill a new well would need to meet stricter criteria and might need to be prepared to replenish that well water to the river, a process known as augmentation.
The reason for the distinction between surface and groundwater? Groundwater diversions like wells have a delayed impact on rivers and streams, whereas surface water diversions like ditches have a more immediate impact.
When water is in short supply, state officials can simply stop the flow to junior ditches to ensure there’s enough water for senior water rights holders. They can’t do that as easily with wells, which is where plans for augmentation come into play.
For some landowners in the proposed over-appropriation region, creating an augmentation plan will be a difficult process, one requiring lawyers, court filings and engineers. For others, it will be as simple as reaching out to a nearby reservoir manager and paying for stored water to meet the augmentation needs.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, for example, has a blanket augmentation plan that covers some of the proposed over-appropriation area. Landowners within the plan’s boundaries can apply to the district for augmentation water, which costs from $212.54 to $248 per acre-foot, according to district spokesperson Holly Kirkpatrick.
Meanwhile, augmentation is less straightforward for water users who live outside of those bounds.
“The community really has a choice of whether to continue with the status quo where people have to have their individual augmentation plans … or come together and implement some sort of blanket augmentation plan to remove that barrier to water development,” said Hunter Causey, senior water resources engineer for the Colorado River District, during the 2021 Yampa Valley State of the River meeting in May.
Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Here’s an excerpt from the Spring 2021 issue of Headwaters Magazine (Caitlin Coleman):
INTO THE MODERN STORAGE ERA
Most Coloradans rely on some form of water storage in order to live. Water is collected when available and later released when and where it’s needed. Water storage is a necessity, providing year-round access to water that would otherwise come in a rush each spring as snow melts into runoff and flows hurriedly out of state.
“If we were to leave it up to the natural systems, we would be dry for a big part of the year,” says Lauren Ris, deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. (Ris also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.)
The Ancestral Puebloans, who once inhabited the Four Corners region, knew this and relied on water storage like Morefield Reservoir, which anthropologists indicate was used between 750-1100 A.D. and is still evidenced by mounds in Mesa Verde National Park.
Years later, upon settlement by non-native populations including land grant recipients, homesteaders and miners, reservoir construction proved vital to sustain a larger population. Dams were rapidly constructed in the late 1800s through 1910, primarily for agricultural water needs. In the early 1900s some 290 dams were built in Colorado, the most dams erected in a single decade.
The 1930s through 1970s brought a boom of reservoir construction to meet the demands of the state’s growing municipal water needs. Toward the end of this municipal era, the 1960s saw the greatest water storage volume constructed in any decade, with more than 1.8 million acre-feet, including two of the state’s largest water bodies: Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison and Denver Water’s Dillon Reservoir.
The rapid construction of big storage projects in Colorado and the West slowed starting in the 1970s as environmental laws and community concern about environmental impacts grew stronger and project permits became more difficult to obtain. The 1980s Two Forks dam and reservoir project debate and subsequent veto, where local community groups raised enough opposition to stop a planned 615-foot dam southwest of Denver, was a turning point. Two Forks marked the very end of the era in which big reservoirs were the primary answer to Colorado’s water supply, and the start to substantial community involvement.
The past 10 years have brought the fewest new dams and least amount of new storage volume in 120 years. Yet the call for storage from stakeholders across the state continues. Through the 2015 statewide water planning process, basin roundtables — stakeholder groups who have been working together on a regional, river-basin-wide scale to develop water priorities, assessments and goals — developed Basin Implementation Plans. All of the eight plans identified the need for new, restored or better-maintained storage.
This year and next, Arizona and California intend to draw on water they banked in the big reservoir, even as water levels drop.
A complex and arcane water banking program in the lower Colorado River basin, adopted in 2007 and later amended, was designed to incentivize water conservation, prevent waste, and boost storage in a waning Lake Mead.
The program has already proved its worth, lifting Lake Mead dozens of feet higher than it otherwise would have been and nurturing collaboration among states that will need to work together to surmount daunting challenges of water availability. In the next two years, the program will be tested in another way, becoming a small but important source of water for Arizona and California even as the lake continues to fall to levels that haven’t been witnessed in several generations.
Water managers in the basin view the program, called intentionally created surplus or ICS, as a flexible tool for adapting to a drying climate. It is a tool that they will soon call upon. Bill Hasencamp from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a large regional wholesaler, told Circle of Blue that the district intends to draw between 100,000 and 150,000 acre-feet from its savings this year.
Arizona officials, meanwhile, plan to use 69,100 acre-feet of ICS credits to reduce mandatory cutbacks that will be required in 2022 if Mead declines as projected. The state already used this maneuver to deal with a cutback last year, albeit in a smaller amount. Instead of taking a big cut in one year, ICS allows Arizona to “smooth the reduction,” as Chuck Cullom of the Central Arizona Project put it. CAP delivers the bulk of Arizona’s Colorado River allocation and is first in line in the state when cutbacks are required.
These amounts are small but significant, especially in these times. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, or the amount of water that will flood an acre of land to a depth of one foot. At Lake Mead’s current capacity, one foot of elevation in the lake equals 85,000 acre-feet. These ICS uses, at the high end, amount to two and a half feet of elevation in Lake Mead.
At the same time that water users plan to tap their savings, scholars in the basin are calling for more analysis of the ICS program, especially as Lake Mead’s decline accelerates. They would like to check how the system responds to ICS use under a range of water supply scenarios.
Ever since the mid-2000s, the last time that water supplies in Colorado River reservoirs reached critically low levels, the biggest water users in Arizona, California, and Nevada have been stashing water in Lake Mead, in preparation for another emergency to come — and in an attempt to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the region’s water storage system.
With the federal government now projecting that Lake Mead will drop precipitously in the next two years — perhaps to levels not seen since the Great Depression, when the country’s largest reservoir was first filled — that emergency has arrived.
“While Colorado River water users have invested billions of dollars to reduce consumption and increase resiliency, the situation we face today is real and urgent,” John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on May 25…
Because of record-high temperatures and a drying climate, the basin is also dangerously parched. Thirsty soils gulp melting snow before it reaches streams. Lake Mead, which is just 36 percent full, is in poor health. So is Lake Powell, located upstream and only 34 percent full.
ICS was conceived during negotiations between the seven states that led to a milestone agreement in 2007 that transformed how the basin operates. At the time, Lake Powell had experienced the driest five-year period in the region in a century and there were unresolved questions about delivering water under such conditions. The 2007 Interim Guidelines, which expire at the end of 2025, were a landmark document that secured three substantial changes.
First, the guidelines developed a formula for determining how much water is released from Lake Powell into Lake Mead. The releases are designed to keep the reservoirs roughly in balance.
The guidelines also set Lake Mead elevations at which lower basin states would be required to reduce their withdrawals. The first of these shortage tiers — at 1,075 feet above sea level — is expected to be breached next year. (Mead is currently at 1,073 feet, but for shortage determinations, it is the projected level in the following January that matters. Right now that projection is 1,066 feet.)
The third change was establishing intentionally created surplus, or ICS. The program allows big water users in the lower basin to open a savings account in the lake. To bank water in their account, they must take an action that reduces water consumption. That banked water is credited to the user that created it. ICS is not conservation in the household sense of simply using less. It is not taking a shorter shower or only watering the lawn once a week. ICS is instead more comparable to a personal savings account. Water banked now becomes an asset that can be withdrawn later, subject to certain conditions…
With a bit of linguistic maneuvering, the rules were written so that agencies like Met could create “surplus” by investing in conservation. Say, for example, that Met paid to line a canal with concrete so water would not seep into the soil, or paid farmers to fallow their fields. The Bureau of Reclamation, playing the oversight role in the lower basin, checks that the lining kept water in the canal and the alfalfa fields were not irrigated. That amount of water — the difference between what would have been delivered without the intervention and what was actually delivered — would then be credited to Met in the form of ICS, minus a small percentage that is the lake’s share.
A few years later these rules were altered to bring Mexico into the program. U.S. entities can pay a counterpart in Mexico for conservation and reap the ICS asset. The rules were changed again in 2019, in an agreement called the Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP, that welcomed certain tribal nations into the fold. Banked water is now subjected to a one-time tax of 10 percent, a cut that is credited to the storage system as a whole.
Only six entities have created ICS, according to Jeremy Dodds, who is responsible for ICS accounting and verification at the Bureau of Reclamation. Those six are some of the largest water users in the basin: Met, Gila River Indian Community, Colorado River Indian Tribes, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Imperial Irrigation District, and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which manages CAP. Within the four categories of ICS, there are limits on the ICS each water user can create, the amount they can take out in a year, and the total amount stored.
The brewing battle over the century-old Klamath Project is an early window into the water shortfalls that are likely to spread across the West as a widespread drought, associated with a warming climate, parches watersheds throughout the region…
In Nevada, water levels have dropped so drastically in Lake Mead that officials are preparing for a serious shortage that could prompt major reductions in Colorado River water deliveries next year. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has placed 41 counties under a state of emergency.
While drought consumed much of the West last year, setting the stage for an extensive wildfire season, the conditions this spring are far worse than a year ago. More than half of the West faces “extreme” drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, including wide areas of California and Oregon. Scientists have said the region may be going through the worst drought period in centuries.
Here in Oregon, conservationists, Native American tribes, government agencies and irrigators are squaring off, and local leaders fear that generations of tensions could escalate in volatile new ways.
“There are folks on both sides that would really like to throw down and take things in an ugly direction,” said Clayton Dumont, a member of the Klamath Tribal Council. “I hope it doesn’t happen, but it’s a possibility.”
Some landowners have openly talked about breaching the fence surrounding the dam property and forcing open the irrigation gates. Already, they have purchased property adjacent to the head gates and staged protests there. Ammon Bundy, who led an armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016, said he was ready to bring in allies to help keep the gates open, saying that people need to be prepared to use force to protect their rights even if law enforcement arrives to stop them.
“Who cares if there is violence? At least something will be worked out,” Mr. Bundy said in an interview, ridiculing those not prepared to fight for the nation’s food supply. “‘Oh, we don’t want violence, we’ll just starve to death.’ Heaven forbid we talk about violence.”
The region has a deep history rooted in violence and racial division. In 1846, U.S. War Department surveyors, led by John C. Frémont and Kit Carson, slaughtered more than a dozen Native Americans on the shores of Klamath Lake. The Klamath Tribes eventually signed a treaty surrendering some 20 million acres of their historic lands in exchange for a reservation along Upper Klamath Lake and the perpetual right to hunt and fish.
For the United States, the Klamath Project became a keystone for settling and developing the region. Homestead opportunities for veterans after the two world wars helped to stimulate the economy and to build a new kind of community.
In 1954, Congress moved to terminate recognition of the Klamath Tribes, which held lucrative timberlands, and authorized the sale of tribal lands.
And the government’s guarantee to the Klamath Tribes that they would at least be able to continue fishing ran into trouble decades ago, when populations of native sucker fish — known to the tribes as C’waam and Koptu — along with coho salmon farther downriver slipped into a perilous decline, prompting mandatory protections under the Endangered Species Act.
During a drought in 2001, the federal Bureau of Reclamation initially planned for the first time to fully cut off water for farmers over the summer. That order spurred an uprising of farmers and ranchers who used saws, torches and crowbars to breach the facilities and open the canal head gates.
U.S. Marshals eventually stepped in to protect the gates, and the Bureau of Reclamation later released some water to help farmers…
Now some in the basin are worried that the unresolved divisions are poised to erupt again…
This year shows how critical the shortage is already: Even with farmers cut out of the water supply, fish are suffering…
Lake levels fell below the minimum thresholds set by federal scientists, prompting litigation and spurring fears that algae blooms this summer could devastate the imperiled fish populations above the dam; tribal researchers say insufficient flushing downstream from the dam has allowed parasites to flourish.
Already this year, juvenile salmon are turning up dead with parasitic infections. Michael Belchik, a senior water policy analyst at the Yurok Tribe, said the die-off could end up being the worst on record…
Also cut off from water supplies this year are several wildlife refuges that are home to 25 at-risk species of birds and fish…
But on Thursday night, about 100 people gathered under a large tent next to the head gates on property bought recently by two farmers, Dan Nielsen and Grant Knoll, who say they have a legal entitlement to the water behind the gates in Upper Klamath Lake under state water law. They contend that the federal government’s shut-off is a violation of state and federal law and the U.S. Constitution.
Tribes and irrigators have each notched victories in court over water rights, and the legal cases are continuing.
At the event, organized by local activists in Mr. Bundy’s network, speakers talked about the need to take back their rights. Some floated unfounded conspiracy theories, linking the water crisis to George Soros, Bill Gates or the United Nations. A Betsy Ross flag flew above the tent while a poster inside featured a quote about freedom attributed to LaVoy Finicum, who was killed by federal agents during the standoff that Mr. Bundy led in 2016. Mr. Bundy faced federal charges for his role in the standoff but was acquitted by a jury…
Facing a similar standoff two decades ago, in 2001, the federal government relented with a limited delivery of water to farmers, but there was no sign that agencies, facing an already depleted lake, would budge this time. An initial plan to provide a small water allocation to farmers was canceled when conditions worsened.
Water levels at Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir in the country, fell to 3,559.95 feet above sea level on Monday, down from an average of 3,604.09 at this time (May 26) last year, according to the Lake Powell Water Database.
Lake Powell is at 34.2% of full pool (24,322,000 acre-feet) and 140.8 feet below full pool (3,700) as of Wednesday morning.
The primary factors influencing Lake Powell – as well as Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country – are inflows into Lake Powell, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
Upper Basin hydrology accounts for about 92% of the total streamflow in the basin. Inflow into Lake Powell is also affected by Upper Basin water use and the operation of reservoirs above Lake Powell…
The Colorado River, Tooh Bikooh Dinék’ehjígo, originates on the Colorado western slope. Over 25 significant tributaries join it. The Green River in Utah is the largest by both length and discharge.
Tooh Bikooh flows to the Gulf of California. It provides water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of land, and is the lifeblood for at least 22 federally recognized tribes, seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas, and 11 national parks, according to Reclamation.
In August 2020, a 24-month study projected the Jan. 1, 2021, Lake Powell elevation below the 2021 Equalization Elevation of 3,659 feet and above 3,575 feet. The lake level was 3,582.06 feet that day, according to the Lake Powell Water Database.
With an 8.23-million-acre-foot release from Lake Powell in the water year 2021, an April 2021 24-month study projects the end-of-water-year elevation here below 3,575 feet. Lake Powell will continue to release 8.23 million acre-feet through the remainder of the water year.
The Bureau of Reclamation will release its subsequent major study in August…
The current water level at Mead is 1,074.84, which is 154.16 feet below the full pool of 1,229 feet, as of Wednesday morning.
Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico are making contributions to Mead in a collaborative effort to maintain water levels and avoid severe shortage conditions at least through 2022.
But a first-ever official shortage declaration from the Department of the Interior is almost certain later this year…
Because Tooh Bikooh is over-allocated – and because drought and climate change are likely to worsen as the region gets hotter and drier — the seven Colorado River Basin states in 2019 agreed on a plan to manage the river by voluntarily cutting their water use to prevent the federal government from imposing mandatory water restrictions on the supply.
As part of the Lower Basin’s drought contingency plan, the CAP would see its water supply cut by about one-third in 2022 because of its junior water rights in the river’s water. And farms in central Arizona would experience those water cuts.
Reclamation’s projections continue to show a very high likelihood of Tier 1 reductions in 2022 and in 2023, as well as an increased risk of Tier 2 conditions in the future, according to the CAP.
As the Colorado River Basin enters yet another year of drought, global companies are worsening the water crisis.
DRIVING INTO SOUTHERN California’s Palo Verde Valley from the Arizona border, fields of vibrant green appear out of the desert like a mirage. Near the town of Blythe, water from the Colorado River turns the dry earth into verdant farmland, much of it to grow a single crop — alfalfa, a type of plant used mainly to feed dairy cows.
For decades, a significant portion of alfalfa grown here and elsewhere in the western United States — as much as 17 percent in 2017 — has been loaded onto trucks, driven hundreds of miles to ports on the west coast, and shipped around the world, mainly to China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. A little over five years ago, one company decided it made more sense to own the land, and the water that came with it, outright.
The company, a Saudi Arabian dairy firm called Almarai, purchased 1,790 acres in the Palo Verde Valley to secure a supply of alfalfa for its dairy cows. Soon after, Saudi Arabia began phasing out domestic alfalfa production to preserve its water supplies, which were dwindling after years of overuse for agriculture. The purchase made headlines as critics including local politicians and environmentalists questioned whether it was fair for a foreign entity to use up valuable groundwater resources for products that wouldn’t ultimately benefit Americans.
But the company is far from alone. Foreign corporations are increasingly purchasing land in the U.S.; in the Southwest, thanks to longstanding laws on water rights, these purchases often come with unlimited access to the valuable water underneath the soil. Combined with nearly year-round sunshine, this has made the area a magnet for companies looking to grow water-intensive crops and raise livestock. Over the last 20 years, foreign companies have purchased more than 250,000 acres of land in six Southwestern states to raise cattle and pigs, as well as to grow everything from almonds to alfalfa, according to an analysis of purchase data that Undark obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
On its face, foreign ownership of farmland hasn’t proved significantly different from American ownership for large-scale production of crops like alfalfa. Domestic farmers have long shipped food overseas, and companies like Almarai, as well as independent researchers, have suggested the outsized focus on foreign companies may be xenophobic. American farmers and companies also control millions of acres overseas, mainly in Africa, Asia, and South America. But with their implications for food and water security — that ultimately, the U.S. is not in control of its own farmland — the purchases are drawing attention to the larger trend of industrial agriculture in the U.S. and the problems that come with it.
Corporate farms, researchers and policymakers warn, drain aquifers and threaten access to water for drinking and future crop production. The export of crops and the water used to grow them, known as virtual water, has been accelerating for decades, despite concerns that in drought-stricken areas such as the Southwest, this system is unsustainable in the long term. Although virtual water itself is not inherently problematic — and can even reduce water usage in some cases — its extraction from water-stressed communities is sounding the alarm as water crises become more urgent. Even as the Colorado River Basin enters its 21st year of sustained drought and climate change threatens to further exacerbate water scarcity, virtual water trading is expected to triple globally by 2100, with a large share moving from the U.S. to other countries.
“It’s basically exporting water in the form of alfalfa to countries that are water scarce,” said Alida Cantor, an assistant professor at Portland State University in Oregon who researches water management and sustainability. “But it’s exporting it from a region that is also water scarce.”
Norwood Public Works Director Lippert has said the water situation is questionable this year, as many people already know. On Monday, he told The Norwood Post that it didn’t look good.
“We are in extreme drought, and it’s serious,” he said. “It could change in a heartbeat, but today it’s pretty serious. It’s going to affect a lot of people in a lot of ways, from ag to those who want to move here.”
At the town board meeting two weeks ago, Lippert gave an update on the raw water status. Last Monday, the raw water system was turned on, and tap holders who have rights to water lawns and gardens are now able to do so. Raw water is projected to run for 30 days at this point, though Lippert said that may change depending on the weather.
Monsoons, which typically bring summer rains to the Wright’s Mesa area, could help the situation, though the last few years the monsoon season has not produced much precipitation, which is disappointing for raw water customers (and of course those who work as farmers and ranchers.)…
And, Norwood’s first water education day is June 5 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Organized by town trustee Candy Meehan, the event aims to educate the locals about the water situation currently, but also teach the history too.
Many water organizations will come together, including Farmers Water, the Norwood Water Commission, the Lone Cone Ditch Company and others.
Meehan hopes the water day is informative for the public, but also helps with being proactive, rather than reactive, regarding the water issue in Norwood.
Blue Mesa [Reservoir] is at about 345,000 acre feet and sits at 42% full, based on May data, which predict the reservoir will only hit just above 50-percent full — “not very good,” as Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Erik Knight put it.
“We’re lower than we were at any time in 2020. In 2018, we were below 250,000 acre feet by the end. We’re not projecting to go that low yet, but we’re heading in that direction, that’s for sure,” Knight said Friday.
“The reservoir is pretty low. Runoff hasn’t really kicked into gear, although I think that is starting now,” he added.
Although the Uncompahgre River is a bit bouncier and swelling with some snowmelt, Montrose County and the western side of the state remain locked in drought.
Conditions in the county range from extreme drought to exceptional — the two worst levels — according to US Drought Monitor data.
So far, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, which serves about 3,500 shareholders, has been able to fill its contracts at 70%. The association’s storage “account” at Taylor Park Reservoir — which with Blue Mesa and other reservoirs is part of the BuRec-managed Aspinall Unit — is full, UVWUA manager Steve Anderson said. (Taylor itself is not expected to fill at 100%, but UVWUA anticipates it will receive the full amount to which it is entitled from the reservoir.)
“I expect our account at Taylor to refill,” Anderson added. “We are storing second-fill water in Taylor right now and my expectation is for us to wind up the season with a full reservoir at Taylor. That means a lot to us, but that’s 100,000 acre feet and we need 600,000 acre feet to run the project. But that’s a good start.”
The storage account at Ridgway Reservoir is close to full, Anderson also said — of 21,000 acre feet of association water, a bit more than 300 acre feet have been used…
The water picture for the Grand Mesa and North Fork is worse than it is for Montrose, he said, and also pointed to the south, to the Dolores River.
McPhee Reservoir, which the river feeds, is well below average and, the Cortez Journal reported Wednesday, irrigators with contracts for its water have been told to expect between 5 and 10% of their ordinary fulfillments.
“The Dolores is just horrible,” Anderson said. Only one-sixth of the water would ordinarily be delivered from McPhee is coming to users, he said. “That’s pretty sad. We’re fortunate in that respect, that we’re not in those kind of dire straits.”
[Lake] Powell’s levels are within a whisker or two of being too low to sustain hydropower generation. If Powell drops below 3,490 feet elevation, that’s the danger zone, Anderson said in January. As of May 14, Powell was projected to end the water year at 3,543 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, although the agency also noted “significant uncertainty” at the time…
Flaming Gorge has enough storage right now that it can bail out Powell in an absolute emergency, as it could release 2 million acre feet, Anderson said…
Back at home, the Aspinall Unit also has drought contingency plans that kick in as needed to maintain baseflows and satisfy the requirements of legal records of decision.
In dry years, flow targets are dropped and that helps keep Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs in the unit from running dry, Knight said.
On Tuesday, the water level in Lake Mead — the largest US reservoir, and fed by the Colorado River — fell below the elevation of 1,075 feet. It has hit that mark only a handful of times since the Hoover Dam was finished in the 1930s, but it always recovered shortly after. It may not this time, at least not any time soon.
In addition to dwindling snowpack, which provides most of the river’s water supply, experts say dry, thirsty soils across the basin are soaking up meltwater, meaning that less makes it into the river system…
Climate change is also taking a toll on the river’s water supply. A study by US Geological Survey scientists published in 2020 found that the Colorado River’s flow has declined by about 20% over the last century, and over half of that decline can be attributed to warming temperatures across the basin.
Who would the shortage affect?
With the level of Lake Mead dipping below 1,075 feet on Tuesday and forecast to drop further, it is nearly certain that the Bureau of Reclamation will declare a Tier 1 shortage later this summer.
If a Tier 1 shortage is declared, Colorado River water deliveries would be reduced for Arizona and Nevada as soon as next year, based on the terms of the 2019 drought contingency plan signed by the lower Colorado River basin states.
The looming water cuts will have the greatest impact in Arizona.
As part of the lower basin’s drought contingency plan, the Central Arizona Project would see its water supply slashed by about one third in 2022 due to its junior rights to the river’s water.
While Arizona’s main population centers will be spared, the effects of those water cuts will be felt most acutely on farms in central Arizona, due to their lower priority status in a complex tier system used to determine who loses water first in the event of a shortage.
California’s water deliveries would not be impacted in a Tier 1 shortage, according to the drought contingency plan.
What happens if Lake Mead sinks further?
In the event of a Tier 2 shortage — which the USBR projects could happen as soon as late 2022 — the cuts would impact some cities and tribes in Arizona that receive water from the Central Arizona Project canal.
“I’m definitely concerned that the raw projections continue to go downward and that we are heading towards potentially a Tier 2 [shortage] in 2023,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
FromThe Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:
Irrigators tied to McPhee Reservoir contracts will receive just 5% to 10% of their normal supply, said Ken Curtis, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
The shortages affect full-service users in the water district in Montezuma and Dolores counties, the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch and the downstream fishery.
The water district said no supplemental irrigation supplies will be available to the senior water-rights holders.
Alfalfa farmers are consolidating acreage to try to produce one small crop…
“Financial impacts will be hard on all agriculture producers,” said Dolores Water Conservancy District board president Bruce Smart, in a news release. “The recovery for producers, the Ute Mountain Tribe and the district will take years.”
The tribe’s Farm and Ranch Enterprise reports it will limit employment and cut back on buying farm supplies.
The 7,600-acre farm will only receive 10% of its normal water supply, tribal officials said.
The tribe will limit operations to growing corn for its Bow and Arrow Brand cornmeal mill, and to protect high-value alfalfa fields, said Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart…
The tribe intends to work closely with the Dolores Water Conservancy District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to protect the continued viability of the Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise.
Heart notes that the tribe’s participation in the Dolores Project is a result of the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act. He said the tribe will exercise the settlement rights “in the fullest to protect our Farm and Ranch Enterprise.”
The economic impact of the irrigation water shortage will be widespread, as farmers expect a significant decrease in revenue that will trickle through the local economy, water officials said.
If next year’s supply doesn’t improve “multigenerational farm families may face bankruptcy,” said Curtis.
Unirrigated alfalfa fields will dominate the landscape this summer. Farmers noted that with some rain, the fallow fields can produce enough forage for cattle grazing. Ranchers have been contacting farmers to take advantage of the option, Deremo said.
Curtailed supply for Dove Creek
The town of Dove Creek depends on McPhee Reservoir water for its domestic water supply. The water is delivered via the Dove Creek Canal and into town reservoirs and a water treatment facility. But because of a shortened irrigation season, the canal will not run all summer, as it does during more normal water years.
The water district is working closely with Dove Creek officials to keep the town’s water reservoirs adequately stocked for the winter months, Curtis said.
During normal water years, the Dove Creek Canal runs to the first week in October, allowing Dove Creek to store 100 acre-feet that lasts them until May 1 the next year. This year, the canal is expected to shut off for irrigators before the end of June.
The other large irrigation supplier in the area, Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., also faces shortages. Customers will receive only half their normal allocation. The irrigation company has the most senior water rights on the Dolores River, and therefore the impact of the water shortage is somewhat less…
Montezuma Valley Irrigation has storage rights in McPhee Reservoir, and owns Narraguinnep and Groundhog reservoirs.
Runoff low in Dolores River
Poor winter snowpack the past two years and no monsoonal rain for the past three years have hurt reservoir levels and depleted soil moisture.
The winter snowpack failed to deliver at historical average, peaking at only 83% of normal snowpack on April 1, then dropping to 25% after another dry, windy and warm spring. Recent rains and snowfall on the high peaks were helpful, but not enough to significantly improve water supply.
As dry conditions continue, 2021 is shaping up to be the fourth-lowest recorded runoff in the Dolores River, after 1977, 2002 and 2018.
Fish will suffer
As part of the McPhee Reservoir project, the downstream fishery is allocated 32,000 acre-feet of water during normal water years for timed releases downstream to benefit sport and native fish.
This year, the fish pool will receive 5,000 acre-feet of its normal allocation.
The Dolores River below McPhee dam will see flows of 10 cubic feet per second for a few months, then it will drop to a trickle of 5 cfs for eight months until spring.
The river below the dam faces significant trout and native fish population losses, said Jim White, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife…
Flannel mouth sucker
Blue head sucker
The low flows will also affect native fish in the lower reaches of the Dolores River – the flannelmouth sucker, the bluehead sucker and the roundtail chub. The fish, listed by CPW as species of concern, have adapted to warm water, but they still need pools and flowing water to survive.
FromColorado Public Radio (Kate Perdoni) via KSUT Public Radio:
In the small Colorado village of San Francisco and its surrounding villages, the original acequias are still operational and are often maintained and used by descendants of the first settlers of present-day Colorado.
“We’re a land and water based people. I am a Chicana, I am a child of the corn. My parents were farmers,” said Junita Martinez, a parciante (water-rights holder) and irrigator on the San Francisco Acequia. Her husband, José, was born in San Francisco. José’s lineage goes back to the initial settlers of the community.
In this village, named after Saint Francis – the patron saint of animals and ecology – water is life.
“It gives us what we need to live. It grows our crops,” said Martinez.
The property’s main aceqiua, an offshoot of San Francisco Creek, begins in San Francisco canyon about four miles from their home, Martinez explained. Springs made of snow melt eventually pool into the small beginnings of the creek. This same stream widens further down the mountain, then diverts into ditches that reach into each field. An elegant system of hand, and now machine-dug waterways, feeds the whole landscape…
At over 8,000 feet in elevation, each of the nine local canyons provide a water source to surrounding Rio Culebra Watershed communities. Today, over 240 families irrigate more than 24,000 acres here, many using traditional acequia irrigation practices. These families grow traditional crops like corn, peas, potatoes, and beans adapted to the high altitude, dry climate, and short growing season…
Acequias require maintenance, community support and input, and increased education to maintain protections with changing times – and a changing climate. An acequia comisión is voted in by landowners each year, including a President, Treasurer, and Secretary. These elected officials work closely with the Mayordomo, or ditch rider, to keep track of water rights holders, schedule and facilitate water use, and decide how to divvy water in times of drought. Regardless of acreage, each landowner receives one vote.
“We get people from bigger cities, and they buy a huge ranch, and then they’re a little bit miffed and upset because their vote is only one vote – just like the gentleman with his little two acres,” Martinez said. “But it’s effective, and it’s survived almost 200 years. I think it’s worth saving.”
Historically, the community has ways of dealing with drought and water scarcity that envelope into part of the local tradition. When a year brings less snow, the community takes action.
“We have a very long tradition that works,” said Martinez. “We’re communal in the fact that the water has to be shared. If there’s not enough water, than our Mayordomo and our Comisión have to figure out who gets water.”
In times of drought, water might be limited to certain days per week, with each landowner receiving fewer turns.
Declining levels at the second-largest reservoir in the U.S. have spurred officials in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico to search for ways to prop it up.
Lake Powell on the Colorado River is dropping rapidly amid one of the southwestern watershed’s driest years on record. It’s currently forecast to be at 29% of capacity by the end of September — the lowest level since the reservoir first started filling in 1963. Its sister reservoir downstream on the Colorado River, Lake Mead, is also approaching a record low this year.
The amount of water flowing to Lake Powell since October has been less than what the river delivered during the same period in 2002, the driest year on record. Total reservoir storage in the Colorado River basin is projected to be at 39% of capacity by the end of September.
Federal projections for the reservoir are prompting water officials to begin strategizing ways to keep Lake Powell from declining to a level where hydroelectric power generation is not possible. In a statement, the Upper Colorado River Commission announced it will begin developing a drought response operations plan, a measure outlined in a 2019 agreement. Earlier this year the reservoir’s declining level triggered monthly calls among the Upper Basin states and mandated a wider range of modeling.
Opinion: The latest forecast suggests for the first time that Lake Mead could fall into a Tier 2 shortage by 2023, thrusting even deeper water cuts on Arizona.
Lake Mead’s water levels are heading the wrong way and going there alarmingly fast.
If the forecast holds, it’s now likely that we will fall into a more severe Tier 2 shortage by 2023, spreading painful cuts to even more water users in Arizona.
That nugget of bad news comes from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s 24-month study, which is updated each month to predict reservoir conditions for the next two years. In April, the projection was that Lake Mead – the reservoir that provides nearly 40% of Arizona’s water – would most certainly be in a Tier 1 shortage in 2022 but would miss the Tier 2 cutoff for 2023 by three-tenths of a foot.
The good news (if you can call it that) is that the predictions didn’t change nearly as rapidly from April to May as they did from March to April. Projected lake levels for December 2022 dropped last month by about 5 feet, thanks to horribly anemic and earlier-than-expected runoff.
It’s also worth noting that if we didn’t have the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) in place to conserve water, we would already be in this shape. That agreement didn’t solve our problems, but it has bought us time and certainty as deeper cuts play out – which is exactly what it was intended to do.
That said, we’re still hot and dry, with more than half of the Colorado River basin now in extreme drought, the most severe category. Unless that trajectory changes, the forecast is probably not going to get much better.
And, even worse, we’re getting down into the V-shaped part of Lake Mead, meaning it takes a loss of less water to drop lake levels than it once did. Losing smaller volumes of water can have bigger impacts.
Which is why there’s also a 1 in 4 chance that we could fall into a Tier 3 shortage by 2025 – the worst-case scenario spelled out under DCP and one that would much more heavily impact metro Phoenix cities.
How a Tier 2 shortage could play out
But a Tier 2 shortage in 2023 wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Technically, there are two levels of Tier 2 shortage for Arizona – a Tier 2a that’s triggered at 1,050 feet of elevation on Lake Mead and a Tier 2b that would occur at 1,045 feet.
It’s a small variance in elevation, but it would increase required cuts statewide, from 592,000 to 640,000 acre-feet, and decimate Central Arizona Project’s Non-Indian Agriculture (NIA) pool, which despite its name mostly supplies tribes and cities.
Luckily, Arizona’s DCP implementation plan includes water to temporarily mitigate the impact of those cuts. But the amount replenished in 2023 would fall from 75% to 50% in a Tier 2b shortage. That will still be painful, particularly for metro Phoenix cities that use NIA water to serve a few existing customers.
The May projection is already within about 3 feet of reaching a Tier 2b shortage. And let me underline that – we’re talking about the most probable projection. Not the best or worst case, but the most likely.
We’ve planned for this, but it’ll still hurt
We’re also less than 20 feet from triggering what might be called the doomsday provision within DCP.
If the lake is projected to fall below 1,030 feet any time within two years, Arizona, California and Nevada must reconvene to decide what additional steps they will take to keep Mead from falling below 1,020 feet – an elevation that many consider the crash point. The next milestone below that is “dead pool,” where no water leaves the lake.
And that provision is triggered by any part of the forecast – not just the maximum or most probable scenario, but the minimum probable scenario, too.
It’s anyone’s guess what will happen then.
But, hey, at least we’ve got plans in place to handle Tier 2 and 3 shortages. And, in even better timing, Arizona has just completed a multiyear effort to flesh out how cities and other users can begin withdrawing the millions of acre-feet of water they have stored underground.
Explaining the benefits and pitfalls of that effort is for another blog on another day, but for now, let’s just say it’s a good thing we have water stored for a (non)rainy day.
Because the outlook for Arizona’s major renewable water source is parched and bleak – and growing more so every day.
Possible reservoir a key element of [water] providers’ long-term plans
The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority — separate entities that share offices — is looking at a possible plan to create a reservoir on the lake site just south of Minturn. The plan, if it comes to pass, could take 10 years to complete, at a still-unknown cost.
The water providers currently have a purchase contract for the lake site with the Battle North LLC, which owns the property, and has for some time envisioned housing near the site.
During the contract period — about 12 months — the district and authority will conduct feasibility studies for the lake.
District Director of Engineering and Water Resources Jason Cowles said that work will include soils testing and other evaluation. If the evaluation provides the right answers, the water providers will buy the site and get to work.
The current idea is to roughly triple the size of the old lake by digging down about 30 feet from the current empty lake bottom. That would keep the size of the new dam reasonable. The old dam was breached in the early 1990s for safety reasons. In addition, digging that much material would provide plenty of clean fill dirt to use for other purposes, including capping tailings from the Eagle Mine.
A near-perfect site
Eagle River Water & Sanitation District General Manager Linn Brooks said if the evaluation bears fruit, Bolts Lake is a nearly-perfect site for a reservoir.
The site is on private land, is the right size and is off the main channel of the Eagle River, Brooks said, adding that the environmental impacts would be minimal…
The upper valley’s water providers have long been looking for more water storage within the Eagle River basin. The providers get most of their water from streamflows…
Since the Bolts Lake reservoir wouldn’t take water directly from the river, Brooks said the reservoir would still keep streamflows whole. And, like the providers’ other reservoirs, the water would be used to augment streamflows in the river, which helps river health.
In an email, Tim McGuire of Battle North wrote that the company is excited to work with the water providers on the project.
Northern Colorado is getting its biggest new reservoir in about 70 years, at the cost of diminished Colorado River flows.
Construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir will begin in August southwest of Loveland, just west of Carter Lake. An April legal settlement between project proponent Northern Water and environmental advocacy groups cleared the way for the project, which began the permitting process in 2003.
The 90,000-acre-foot reservoir is the main component of the Windy Gap Firming Project, a plan to increase the reliability of Colorado River water rights in the Windy Gap Project. The project’s 12 participants include Platte River Power Authority, Loveland, Broomfield, Longmont and Greeley. Construction is expected to take until August 2025, after which it will take about three years to fill the reservoir.
The reservoir’s water will come from the Colorado River, decreasing flows below Lake Granby by an annual average of 15%. Most diversions will take place in May and June.
The 18-year journey toward construction demonstrates the extensive maneuvering required to build new reservoirs in Colorado as rivers become increasingly stressed from climate change and heavy diversions as growing Front Range communities seek to shore up their water supplies. Northern Water won approval from key government agencies and some advocacy groups with a suite of mitigation measures and spending commitments for areas impacted by the project.
Northern Water spokesman Jeff Stahla described Chimney Hollow as “in the right place at the right time.” The reservoir site has a few qualities that have helped Northern Water avoid some common setbacks for new water project construction: It’s near existing Colorado Big Thompson Project infrastructure, so Northern Water won’t have to build much new infrastructure for water deliveries, and there are no homes or businesses at the site, which Northern has owned since the 1990s.
“The one assumption you have to make is that water storage is part of the future way that we’re going to provide water,” Stahla said, and he thinks it is. “If you get past the ‘Do we need storage’ question, this ends up being an incredible site that will meet lots of needs, including the ancillary needs of recreation, into the future.”
Northern Water Engineering Director Jeff Drager acknowledged the new reservoir’s impact on Colorado River flows, but he said the project’s targeted mitigation efforts still offer a major value and are a key reason why it crossed the regulatory finish line.
One of the most significant mitigation measures, known as the Colorado River connectivity channel, will involve shrinking the existing Windy Gap Reservoir in Grand County to about half its current size and building a new channel around it. The Windy Gap dam currently blocks the Colorado River, preventing movement of fish, silt and sediment.
The connectivity channel will allow the river below the reservoir to act more like “a stream without a reservoir on it” when Northern Water’s water rights aren’t in priority, Drager said. The mitigation measures will also open up a mile of stream to public fishing in an area where private landowners possess most of the land adjacent to riverbanks…
During wetter years, Lake Granby can overflow and the water that would’ve been delivered to Windy Gap users flows downstream. During drier years, Northern Water is often unable to divert the full extent of its water right because it is a junior right, meaning more senior water users get access to water first. During the 23-year period between 1985 and 2008, for example, no Windy Gap water was delivered for seven of those years.
A federal appeals court has rebuked the U.S. government for failing to properly consider the interest of Native American nations in developing allocation guidelines for the Colorado River Basin’s waters and ordered it to prioritize obligations assumed when it signed a treaty with the Navajo Nation in 1868. The April 28 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals may boost Native American negotiating clout as the basin’s states ponder how to address impacts of ongoing drought in the region.
Coming 18 years after the Navajo Nation (Naabeehó Bináhásdzo) first sued the Department of Interior in an effort to assure that its interests are protected by the federal government in any move to reallocate Colorado River waters, the decision opens the door to a possible federal district court decision directing the Biden administration or a successor about how to fulfill trust and treaty responsibilities owed to the Navajo Nation.
“We hold that the Nation has successfully identified specific treaty, statutory, and regulatory provisions that, taken together, anchor its breach of trust claim,” wrote Judge Ronald Gould of Seattle in the court’s majority opinion. Among the reasons the court relied upon to support that conclusion are the Treaty of Bosque Redondo, under which the Navajos surrendered a significant portion of their historical territory in exchange for a promise of a “permanent homeland,” a long-standing doctrine of water law based on a 1908 Supreme Court decision and the Department of Interior’s “pervasive control” over the river.
The decision does not mean that the Navajo Nation will be given a specified amount of water. “They’re not seeking a quantification of tribal water rights,” said Mark Squillace, the Raphael J. Moses Professor of Natural Resources Law at the University of Colorado Law School. “What the tribes seem to be claiming is that the federal government has basically dropped the ball in terms of its responsibility to protect the tribe and the tribe’s interest in clean water. It is still the case, I believe, that quite a number of people on the reservation don’t have access to clean drinking water. They don’t have water that is piped into their homes.”
Squillace said that situation is ironic because the tribe has paper water rights. “Here’s this nation that has Winters rights … that would almost certainly guarantee them enough water, certainly for their domestic purposes but for other purposes as well, and yet they basically have to truck water to their home in order to have access to clean drinking water,” he said…
According to a 1976 ruling by the Supreme Court, Winters v. United States means that the federal government must assure Native American reservations of “appurtenant water then unappropriated to the extent needed to accomplish the purpose of the reservation.” Although Native American water rights are guaranteed by federal law, their extent must be determined in state courts under a 1952 statute known as the McCarran Amendment. While the Navajo Nation has some of its water rights under that doctrine quantified as a result of settlements with New Mexico and Utah, the tribe has not reached agreement with Arizona on exactly how much Colorado River water it is entitled to use…
Instead, the decision largely relies on the 1868 Treaty. “Water was not explicitly mentioned,” said research professor Heather Tanana of the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. But “the treaty itself says it should receive a liberal construction at all times and in places. No community can survive without water.”
The array of statutes, regulations and cases that govern allocation and use of the Colorado River itself also do not provide the Nation with any specific amount of usable water…
Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez acknowledged that point in a statement released after the 9th Circuit’s decision was issued. “Water resources are becoming a greater concern for the southwest portion of the United States,” he said. “Over 150 years after the signing of the Treaty of 1868 between the Navajo people and the United States, we are still having to fight for water allocations.”
The Navajo Nation is larger than ten U.S. states and Puerto Rico and covers an expanse of 71,000 square kilometers that stretches across northeastern Arizona and parts of New Mexico and Utah.
Binational Water Conservation Making the Colorado River More Sustainable for People and Birds
**Este artículo se puede encontrar en español**
The Colorado River is flowing again in its delta. This is a big deal for a river that has not flowed through its delta in most years since the 1960s, resulting in an ecosystem that is severely desiccated and devastated.
Thanks to commitments from the United States and Mexico in the Colorado River binational agreement—Minute 323 – 35,000 acre-feet of water (11.4 billion gallons) dedicated to create environmental benefits will be delivered to the river from May 1 to October 11. The expectation is that this will create and support habitat for birds like the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, and Vermilion Flycatcher, and give life to the many plants and animals in this ribbon oasis of green in the midst of the Sonoran Desert.
The last time the two governments cooperated to put water for the environment into the Colorado River was in 2014, when they released a “pulse flow” of water from Morelos Dam (the furthest downstream dam on the Colorado River, located at the U.S. – Mexico border). For eight glorious weeks, the Colorado River was conjured back to life in its final 100 miles. Birds took notice (bird abundance increased 20% from the previous year, and species diversity increased 42%) and local communities celebrated with a spontaneous river fiesta that went on for weeks.
This time, the water will flow for more than five months. Thanks to lessons learned from scientists who studied the 2014 pulse flow, the water will be less likely to infiltrate into the ground, and more likely to fill the river channel providing environmental benefits all the way down to the Gulf of California. System operators are using Mexico’s canal system to bypass Morelos Dam and the driest parts of the channel, delivering the water into the river some 45 river-miles downstream. There it will fill the river where the channel is already wet, maximizing water use efficiency. The scientists’ design optimizes the location and timing of flow to support the hundreds of species of birds that use the delta, and the floodplain habitats they rely on.
Audubon and its partners in Raise the River—the non-governmental organization (NGO) coalition working to restore the Colorado River Delta—are excited to see this sophisticated approach to environmental water delivery. Scientists will study the flow again this year in order to add to our understanding of how to best use the limited supply of water available for the environment.
The agreement that made these flows possible—Minute 323—lasts through 2026. The agreement also commits more than $30 million for water conservation infrastructure in the Mexicali Valley. The water savings will improve local resilience to global warming, increase the water supply stored in Lake Mead, make additional water available to water users in the United States, and create additional water supply for the environment (the coalition of NGOs will also contribute from a local water trust). Minute 323 also ensures that the United States and Mexico conserve Colorado River water and share in shortages when supplies are low. In the context of a drought on the Colorado River that has persisted since 2000, and the expectation of climate change exacerbating drought conditions, these provisions create water supply reliability for both people and nature.
This spring, water for the Colorado River Delta creates a renewed sense of hope. Over the next few months we have the opportunity to see what a small volume of water can do to revive the remnant ecosystem, to nurture its birds, and gift local communities with the return of their river. We can be reassured that, at least in parts of the delta, the Colorado River lives again. In an extraordinarily dry year, deliberate management of water to sustain the environment is the kind of management we will need throughout the Colorado River Basin to ensure that persistent drought and long term impacts of climate change do not lead to the end of river ecosystems in the arid West.
As our climate changes, rising temperatures and drought conditions have intensified across the Colorado River Basin. This overstretched river system is also seeing rapid growth in the population that relies on it. Overuse has impacted agricultural water availability, native fish and many birds and plants that rely on streamside habitat and the river itself.
Problems like these can seem daunting from a bird’s eye view. Solutions must come from within the communities themselves—and through many innovative, thoughtful collaborations along the way.
That’s where the Maybell diversion comes in. Located on the lower Yampa River, a tributary to the Colorado River, the Maybell diversion provides water for 18 agricultural producers in northwest Colorado. The diversion structure, built in 1896, channels water through a broken, antiquated headgate into the Maybell Ditch, an 18-mile canal that flows roughly in line with the river and irrigates hay pasture and ranchlands.
The Maybell Diversion
The Maybell reach of the Yampa is home to abundant wildlife, including four endangered fish species, whose free movement depends on healthy river flows. While boaters enjoy paddling through Juniper Canyon, the reach of river with the Maybell diversion is known for hazardous conditions at high and low flows. Landslides and large boulders block the river, creating challenges for inexperienced boaters. Drought conditions exacerbate low flows and create awkward conditions for passage of boats and fish alike.
“Maybell is the largest diversion on the Yampa and it was a high priority for the community to address the need for infrastructure improvements,” explains Diana Lane, director of Colorado’s Sustainable Food and Water program at TNC.
In partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, The Nature Conservancy is working to rehabilitate the diversion and modernize the headgate, ensuring that the diversion provides water to the users who need it. At the same time, TNC is coordinating with the recreation community to ensure safe passage of watercraft through the new diversion. As a result of this project, we hope that the Yampa will see increased ecological connectivity and resilience to climate change and that the irrigators will have improved control of their irrigation system.
Upgrading the Ditch, Headgate and Diversion
The three parts of the project—lining the ditch, replacing the headgate and rehabilitating the diversion—will improve efficiency, water flow and habitat for native fish. Ditch lining, completed in November of 2020, repaired a section that was previously unstable, erosive and leaky.
The next two steps occur together. Replacing the headgate with a new, remotely operated one will allow more flexibility for adjusting flows based on irrigators’ needs and local flow conditions. For example, when supplemental water is released from Elkhead Reservoir upstream for the benefit of endangered fish, the new headgate can be adjusted to ensure the water stays in the critical habitat reach. At the same time, diversion rehabilitation will repair the damage that’s been done by historic erosion and improve passage for boats and fish.
“This is an exemplary multi-benefit project with agricultural, environmental and recreational elements that were brought to our attention by the community,” notes Jennifer Wellman, TNC’s project manager. “Working directly with the water users, we have an opportunity to rectify the diversion while paying attention to what the river needs. Drought conditions highlight that everyone benefits from flows in the river.”
Through our partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, these projects create a better future for the diversion. Partnerships like these are crucial to cementing a better future for the Yampa River.
This project is supported by strong local partnerships with Friends of the Yampa, the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, Moffat County and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program and potential grants from other agencies help support the multi-benefit project overall. The mosaic of public and private funds contribute to much-needed improvements to the Yampa River that mesh with community-driven solutions to drought and river protection. By modernizing the Maybell diversion and ditch operations, the Yampa River will see improved flows and function for years to come.
One Piece of a Larger Puzzle
The success of this project is tied to the larger story of the Colorado River Basin. As rivers throughout the basin are being stretched to a breaking point, the 30 native fish species that are found nowhere else in the world face an increasingly uncertain future. These waters also feed habitat that supports an amazing array of the West’s wildlife.
“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve. I think if we all work together, we can come to a solution. If we don’t do that, then the next generation might not have the water they need,” says Camblin, of the Maybell Irrigation District.
As work continues on the Maybell Ditch, it represents a win for agriculture, recreation and the environment that the economy relies on, and for the fish that have called this river home for thousands of years.
From the Community Agriculture Alliance (Andy Baur) via The Craig Daily Press:
The Yampa River Fund steering committee recently awarded $200,000 to six projects during its 2021 grant cycle. As designed, the YRF funded projects that enhance river flows, restore riparian and instream habitat, and improve infrastructure for a healthier river. One of the projects, permitting for the Maybell Diversion Restoration Project, is an excellent example of how the YRF supports multibenefit projects that help water users while benefiting river health and recreation as well. When completed, the Maybell Diversion Project will result in significant positive impact to the Maybell agricultural community, endangered and native fish habitat, and recreation interests. What makes the Maybell project a great fit for the YRF is it stands to create a positive impact in all river users, the economy and the environment for decades to come.
The project is moving forward through a partnership between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Maybell Irrigation District (MID). The goal is to reconstruct the historic Maybell diversion and modernize the headgates in the lower Yampa River. TNC, MID, Friends of the Yampa and other partners are committed to increasing water users’ control of irrigation water while improving aquatic habitat by removing impediments to flow as well as facilitating boat and fish passage at the Maybell diversion. Safer and reliable water infrastructure will bring increased economic benefits to the communities in the lower Yampa basin. In addition, this project supports recovery of four endangered fish while meeting agricultural irrigation needs and increasing ecological connectivity, water security and resilience to climate change.
Located in the designated critical habitat reach of the Yampa, downstream of Juniper Canyon, the MID currently withdraws water through two broken and antiquated headgates into the Maybell Ditch. Built in 1896, the ditch is approximately 18 miles long and is one of the largest diverters on the Yampa River. Though the diversion infrastructure historically served the users well, it is impacted by critically low flows during times of drought and water scarcity.
Stakeholders and community members view the project as critical to remedying chronic low-flow and obstacles to boat and fish passage in the lower Yampa. The project received funding in 2019 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable to finalize engineering designs, specifications and permitting for construction to begin in 2022. TNC and partners are in the process of fundraising and working with the Maybell community to schedule construction and develop a path forward.
Created by Imgur user Fejetlenfej , a geographer and GIS analyst with a ‘lifelong passion for beautiful maps,’ it highlights the massive expanse of river basins across the country – in particular, those which feed the Mississippi River, in pink.
The Arizona Legislature on Tuesday made a formal request asking Congress to fund a study to determine the feasibility of pipelining Mississippi River floodwater to the Colorado River.
House Concurrent Memorial 2004 passed the Arizona Senate by a 23-7 vote and the Arizona House by a 54-6 margin. A memorial is not a law, but a legislative measure containing a request or proposal, asking other parties outside the Arizona Legislature’s jurisdiction to take action. HCMs have no official standing or effect, but serve as a public record of the request presented for consideration.
The memorial was introduced by Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma. Rep. Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, is among co-sponsors.
It asks that “the United States Congress fund a technological and feasibility study of developing a diversion dam and pipeline to harvest floodwater from the Mississippi River to replenish the Colorado River and prevent flood damage along the Mississippi River.”
It also states that “If shown to be feasible, the United States Congress implement the diversion dam and pipeline as a partial solution to the water supply shortage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead and the flood damage that occurs along the Mississippi River.”
Lake Powell and Lake Mead are the two major reservoirs on the Colorado River. Both are at historically low levels and likely will trigger a Tier 1 water emergency in Arizona later this year or in 2022.
The memorial notes the low water levels of both reservoirs and the “historic flooding in 2011 and 2019 along the Mississippi River” that caused 11 deaths and more than $9.5 billion in damage.
It asks that the request be sent to the President of the U.S. Senate, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the governors of states on the Mississippi River — Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin — as well as Arizona’s 11 members of Congress.
“Arizona has long been at the forefront among Western states in supporting the development and implementation of pioneering, well-reasoned water management policies,” Dunn said, a line straight out of the HCM he crafted. “Arizona and the other six Colorado Basin states are in the 20th year of severe drought and experiencing a severe water shortage. Water levels are at critical levels, jeopardizing the water delivery and power generation. A new water source could help augment Colorado River supplies.
“One promising possibility involves piping water that is harvested from Mississippi River floodwaters. Diverting this water, which is otherwise lost into the Gulf of Mexico, would also help prevent the loss of human life and billions in economic damages when such flooding occurs. This concept is already being proven in Denver, where floodwater is being successfully harvested from the Missouri River to help alleviate its water shortage.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Two local irrigation districts are looking to replace the aging Grand Valley Power hydroelectric plant by the Colorado River near Palisade with a new, adjacent plant after deciding against trying to keep the old plant running.
The Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Water Users Association expect to spend some $10 million, not counting cash spending and in-kind contributions to date, on what is to be called the Vinelands Power Plant. It will replace a plant that dates to the early 1930s.
The existing plant is owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation but administered by the two local irrigation entities, with Orchard Mesa Irrigation overseeing day-to-day operations and Grand Valley Water Users diverting water for it. The local entities hold a lease of power privilege contract granted by Bureau of Reclamation to operate and maintain the existing plant, and will be negotiating a new lease with the agency for the new plant.
Those negotiations take place in public, and are scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. on Monday in a virtual meeting on a Microsoft Teams platform. Information on joining the meeting may be obtained by contacting Justyn Liff at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-248-0625.
A 30-minute public comment session will follow a scheduled two hours of negotiations, and negotiations will continue on another day if needed, said Ryan Christianson, water management chief for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office.
Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, said the hope is to begin construction on the new plant this fall and to have it operating within a year or so afterward.
The irrigation entities had been proceeding on parallel tracks, both pursuing continued operation of the existing plant and considering the possibility of replacing it…
Only one of the current plant’s two turbines is being used now. Harris said if the plant were rehabilitated, it could produce up to about 3.5 megawatts of power, compared to close to 5 megawatts for the new one.
Power from the plant had been sold to Xcel Energy, but starting this year, it is being sold to Holy Cross Energy, based in Glenwood Springs.
Harris said the new plant will be owned 51% by irrigators and 49% by Idaho-based Sorenson Engineering, which will build it. Harris said the company has built several power plants for the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association.
The Palisade plant will be built on land owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and by Orchard Mesa Irrigation. The project also makes use of fairly senior federal water rights and a federal canal to supply the plant, which are also reasons why the lease with the Bureau of Reclamation is required.
For the plant’s owners, the project will produce revenues from selling power to Holy Cross. Harris said irrigators also benefit because water that supplies the plant also improves the ability to get irrigation water into a canal at the upstream “roller dam” diversion point at times when the Colorado River is running low.
However, the dam has broader benefits as well. Harris said the Bureau of Reclamation holds a water right for the plant of 400 cubic feet per second in the summer and 800 cfs in the winter. That water helps bolster flows immediately downstream in what’s known as the 15-mile reach, an area of critical importance for four endangered fish because water levels can fall so low between where irrigation diversions occur for Grand Valley uses and the Gunnison River meets the Colorado River downstream.
Keeping a power plant operating protects the federal water rights and helps in ensuring compliance with Endangered Species Act requirements to protect the fish, which Harris said benefits not just local irrigators but numerous other water diverters on the Colorado River in the state, including diverters of water to the Eastern Slope.
The plant’s benefit to the fish has helped in securing a lot of partner funding for the new plant, from sources such as the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Water Trust.
Last week, Utah State University hosted a webinar for natural resource professionals to discuss a drought reporting network called “Condition Monitoring Observer Reports.” Through a mobile app, Utah citizens can document drought impacts and submit their observations to a database used by state and university drought researchers and scientists. The data can help give scientists a more qualitative, detailed understanding of on-the-ground conditions and impacts of drought. Are farmers’ crops, or ranchers’ grazing areas, being affected? Are recreation areas changing? Photographs showing a location in a wet year and later in a dry year can give helpful comparative references.
Details like these, giving a fuller picture of what it means to be in a condition of drought, are increasingly important to scientists, policy-makers, and citizens of the Southwest as we grapple with the ongoing dry conditions. On March 17, Utah Governor Spencer Cox declared Utah to be in a state of emergency due to drought; 90% of the state is considered to be in “extreme” drought, and the entire state is in at least “moderate” drought. All of Grand County is in the “extreme” category, and some of the county is in the even more severe “exceptional” drought category.
An extreme demonstration of the drought is the current level of Lake Powell, which is nearing historic lows. At the beginning of the 2021 water year, the lake was at 48% of capacity, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. In an April 15 update, the bureau reported that the lake had dipped even further to just 36% of capacity at the end of March.
The lake’s current shoreline looks very different than in higher water years; one family of visitors even discovered a shipwrecked boat, now completely emerged from the receded water. Receding waters have stranded boat ramps and drained marinas, however, the low lake levels could have much graver consequences than altered recreation experiences.
The lake level at the end of March, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, was about 3,567 above sea level. If the level drops to 3,525 feet above sea level, normal hydropower production and water releases from the lake are at risk.
The 2019 Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, agreed upon by the states who rely on the Colorado River for water, dictates that if reservoir levels reach critical lows, Upper Basin states will need to initiate drastic conservation measures to increase those water levels.
Water conservation has been a concern locally, with the Moab City Council holding discussions in recent months about Moab Valley water resources. The Glen Canyon aquifer provides most of Moab’s drinking water, and scientific studies in recent years have raised concerns about “safe yield” levels, or how much water per year it is safe to draw from the aquifer while still allowing it to recharge. Marc Stilson, regional engineer for the Utah Division of Water Rights, gave a presentation at the May 4 Grand County Commission meeting, updating elected officials on the division’s recent work. A six-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey, to which the state Division of Water Rights contributed, attempted to determine how much groundwater is in the valley.
A network of streams, lakes and marshes in Florida is suing a developer and the state to try to stop a housing development from destroying them.
The novel lawsuit was filed on Monday in Orange county on behalf of the waterways under a “rights of nature” law passed in November. It is the largest US municipality to adopt such a law to date.
The listed plaintiffs are Wilde Cypress Branch, Boggy Branch, Crosby Island Marsh, Lake Hart and Lake Mary Jane.
Laws protecting the rights of nature are growing throughout the world, from Ecuador to Uganda, and have been upheld in courts in India, Colombia and Bangladesh. But this is the first time anyone has tried to enforce them in the US.
The Orange county law secures the rights of its waterways to exist, to flow, to be protected against pollution and to maintain a healthy ecosystem. It also recognizes the authority of citizens to file enforcement actions on their behalf.
The suit, filed in the ninth judicial circuit court of Florida, claims a proposed 1,900-acre housing development by Beachline South Residential LLC would destroy more than 63 acres of wetlands and 33 acres of streams by filling and polluting them, as well as 18 acres of wetlands where stormwater detention ponds are being built.
In addition to seeking to protect the waterways’ intrinsic rights, the suit claims the development would disrupt the area’s hydrology and violate the human right to clean water because of pollution runoff from new roads and buildings.
Chuck O’Neal, president of campaign group Speak Up Wekiva who will be representing the wetlands in court, told the Guardian he looks forward to giving them a voice. “Our waterways and the wildlife they support have been systematically destroyed by poorly planned suburban sprawl. They have suffered in silence and without representation, until now.”
The housing development, known as the “Meridian Parks Remainder Project”, needs a development permit from the city of Orlando and a dredge-and-fill permit from the Florida department of environmental protection to proceed. The suit seeks to block these from being issued.
O’Neal said he hopes the court “reaches beyond current conventional thinking” in considering the case. “This is how the evolution of rights has occurred in western law since the signing of the Magna Carta through the abolition of slavery, through women’s suffrage and through court decisions such as Brown vs the Board of Education and most recently the acceptance of marriage equality.”
Thomas Linzey, senior legal counsel at the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights who helped secure Orange county’s rights of nature law last year, said: “Given the rampant development that’s occurred in Florida over the past 30 years, and the power struggle between the state government and local government over these issues, there are multiple grounds for a court to hold that the development cannot proceed as proposed.”
State work group trying to balance risks from investors, negative impacts to agriculture
Melting snow and flowing irrigation ditches mean spring has finally arrived at the base of Grand Mesa in western Colorado.
Harts Basin Ranch, a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge, in Delta County, is coming back to life with the return of water.
Twelve hundred of the ranch’s acres are irrigated with water from Alfalfa Ditch, diverted from Surface Creek, which flows down the south slopes of the Grand Mesa. The ranch has the No. 1 priority water right — meaning the oldest, which comes with the ability to use the creek’s water first — dating to 1881.
What makes the ranch unique among its Grand Mesa-area neighbors is its owner. Conscience Bay Company, a Boulder-based private real estate investment firm, bought the property in 2017.
That fact alone has brought its owners scrutiny from neighbors and Western Slope water managers. Conscience Bay and its president, Eli Feldman, have been accused of water speculation — which means buying up the ranch just for its senior water rights and hoarding them for a future profit.
That is an accusation Feldman denies.
“Any time you come into a place that you’re not from, people are curious at best and skeptical and concerned at worst,” he said.
The ranch raises organic beef using regenerative techniques that operators say are better for soil health. Conscience Bay holds grazing permits on tracts of public land in western Colorado and Utah where the cattle feast on grass before being sent to California to be finished, slaughtered and sold under the brand name SunFed Ranch.
To the charges that he’s doing something untoward by investing in the ranch’s land and abundant water rights, Feldman said he’s just like any other major water user in the state putting it to beneficial use. The ranch is using the water to irrigate, he said.
“We’re growing grass and feeding it to cows and trying to improve the ground, improve the soil health and make a business out of it,” Feldman said.
Speculation work group
The conversation around water speculation has been heating up in Colorado in recent months. At the direction of state lawmakers, a work group has been meeting regularly to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation law. The topic frequently comes up at meetings of Western Slope water managers: the Colorado River Water Conservation District, basin roundtables and boards of county commissioners.
Investments such as Feldman’s have been of interest to the work group, which consists of water managers and users from around the state and is chaired by Kevin Rein, state engineer and head of the Division of Water Resources.
“I think it’s a valid concern because they do see unusual parties, large parties that, again, aren’t the typical parties, purchasing those water rights, and so that’s the concern,” Rein said. “Are they speculating or are they purchasing just so they can flip it, as people say, in a few years for more money?”
Under Colorado law, a water-rights holder must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning continuing to use the water for what it was decreed in order to hang onto it. But Colorado also treats the right to use water as a private-property right. People can buy and sell water rights, change what the water is allowed to be used for and, if given a court’s blessing, move the water from agricultural use to growing cities.
This system, used widely in the western United States, creates an opening for investors who see water as an increasingly valuable commodity in a water-short future, driven by climate change. A private-equity fund, Water Asset Management, is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which provides water for farmers in the intensely irrigated valley, a short drive from Harts Basin Ranch. The purchases of the New York City-based company have raised suspicions among water managers and prompted the formation of the speculation work group.
Similar concerns have cropped up in agricultural communities throughout the West. A water transfer in Arizona from agricultural lands on the Colorado River to a rapidly expanding Phoenix exurb recently stirred up controversy. In Nevada, Water Asset Management is trying to market water held in an underground aquifer.
Colorado’s current anti-speculation doctrine is based on case law that says those seeking a water right must have a vested interest in the lands to be served by the water and must have a specific plan to put the water to beneficial use.
The work group has identified the following risks from speculators: investors’ obtaining a monopoly over a local water market; large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands; less water availability for other water users; and violation of Colorado’s values to see a vital public resource traded as a commodity.
Potential risks and solutions
The potential solutions to these risks are many, according to a draft document. The work group is exploring several of these, including creating a process to determine the intent of the purchaser; taxing profits from the sale of water rights at varying rates to encourage beneficial use and to discourage profiteering; imposing time limits on turnover of ownership to discourage short-term “flipping”; encouraging local governments to police investments through their 1041 powers; and creating a public-review process for water transfers that exceed some threshold.
The group has not coalesced around any of these potential solutions, but state officials said they are zeroing in on using the water court process to evaluate transfers as a way of spotting speculation.
The work group is supposed to submit a report, along with any recommendations from members, to state officials by August. But so far, the group has had a difficult time making sense of the thorny questions raised by these issues. Even trying to define what speculation is (and isn’t) and who is considered a speculator has been a struggle.
“It’s one thing to point at something and say, ‘Oh, that’s probably speculative.’ Another to actually put the legal definition on it,” said Alex Funk, agricultural water-resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Funk is also a member of the work group.
Discussions so far about reining in speculation have focused on the intent of the buyer. Can the state determine whether someone who is purchasing water rights intends to grow hay or build a residential subdivision? Or are they solely focused on the water rights’ future value? And how do you tell the difference?
“Do we want to protect against certain types of intent?” Rein said. “And then how do we determine that?”
Predetermining a water-right purchaser’s intent could prove to be a difficult task, akin to stopping a crime before it’s actually committed. Funk invoked the 2002 film “Minority Report,” in which a police detective (played by Tom Cruise), with the help of three psychics, tracks down would-be murderers and arrests them before any gun goes off.
“There aren’t speculation police running the state and breaking up these investments, right?” Funk said.
Financial water speculation
A draft report by the work group attempts to define two different types of speculation.
The first is traditional water speculation, which involves obtaining a water right without any plan or intent to put that water to beneficial use. The intent is to obtain a desirable priority date and then sell the water right to others who have a beneficial use.
This type of speculation has been addressed before in Colorado water law in what is known as the High Plains case. In 2005, the Colorado Supreme Court determined that a water-investment company was speculating because its plan for using the water was too expansive and nebulous, and the plan did not identify either the structures through which the water would be diverted or the specific locations where the water would be used.
The second type of speculation — and, because of WAM’s dealings in the Grand Valley, the one on which the work group is more focused — is financial water speculation. The work group defines this as the purchase and use of water rights with the primary purpose of profiting from increased value of the water in a short period of time. Financial water speculation may run counter to Colorado’s prior-appropriation doctrine because the primary intent is profit rather than beneficial use.
The concerns over speculation tap into a deep-seated anxiety that is prevalent in Western farm towns: the transfer of water from agriculture to cities. There are real examples of agricultural water being sold to cities, sometimes derisively described as “buy and dry,” and some rural communities have suffered economically as a result.
In some ways, the work group’s discussion of how to prevent speculation is really a broader discussion of how to prevent water transfers away from agriculture. The group has identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators. Part of Funk’s job is to head up a program of “alternative transfer methods,” which allow cities to temporarily buy or lease water from agriculture, but without the severe economic impacts.
“I think the issue with speculation is that what on paper might seem a very sort of small, isolated issue, as soon as you start sort of unpacking it a little bit, it’s essentially all the problems that Western water and rural communities are facing in, like, one issue,” Funk said. “So, as soon as you start unraveling it, you start running into other forces at play that are really beyond the state’s control or any one individual producer’s control.”
Impacts to ag
The work group is walking a fine line to come up with ways to deter speculation while not harming traditional agriculture producers in the process. In a big-picture sense, irrigators may worry about the impact to their community and way of life if all their neighbors sell to hedge funds. But when it’s their turn to receive a check for their water rights, they don’t want regulators doing anything that would make the process harder or devalue the ranch they have put their lives into, including restricting whom they can sell to.
It’s an oft-repeated adage that a rancher’s land and water rights are their 401(k) or their child’s college fund, and some say any new rules aimed at speculators should not make it more difficult for traditional ag producers to cash out if and when they want.
So far, the investment firms active in western Colorado have continued to lease their land back to farmers, or farm it themselves.
Carlyle Currier, a rancher in Molina and president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, has a seat on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and his family has ranched in the Grand Mesa area for more than a century. Currier said until the investors attempt to sell it off, they’re not doing anything illegal.
“If the government can tell (someone) they can’t buy a farm and farm it, well, then they could tell me that, too. And I don’t want them telling me that,” Currier said.
The speculation discussion is also set against the backdrop of a potential demand-management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently studying. A demand-management program would pay irrigators on a temporary, voluntary basis to fallow fields and leave more water in the river. This water would be sent to Lake Powell to fill a 500,000-acre-foot pool that could be used to help the upper-basin states avoid a protracted legal battle with states downstream on the Colorado River.
Some say the exploration of demand management — including pay-to-fallow pilot projects in the Grand Valley — could have opened the door for investors who want to take advantage of the program to make easy money. Where there are opportunities, there are opportunists.
“Here in Mesa County, we’ve been watching a Wall Street investment firm buying up agricultural properties all with pre-compact water rights,” Steve Aquafresca, Mesa County’s Colorado River District representative, said at a board meeting last month. “I think it could be safely said that these actions probably would not have occurred if the state were not discussing the possibility of a demand-management program and if one particular major irrigation-water provider was not showing some willingness to entertain a demand-management program.”
Suspicion of outsiders
For all the concern about water speculation, there’s scant proof that it’s happening on a large scale on the Western Slope. Even WAM is not speculating, according to the current definition, as long as they keep the land in agricultural production.
“It does seem like there’s a lot of speculation about speculation,” Feldman of investment firm Conscience Bay said.
Instead, he said, old-fashioned suspicion of outsiders is at the heart of the issue.
“There’s people that view us as outsiders and we are not from here,” he said. “We know that. We know that damn well. And that’s not news to us.”
And there’s some evidence that he’s right. The Colorado River District, which protects Western Slope water interests, is developing a policy statement about water speculation. A draft of the policy says the district “recognizes the importance of locally owned agricultural lands and waters” and will work “to protect our state’s water resources from out-of-state special interests.”
And although these ideas didn’t get much traction, the work group has also floated two more potential solutions targeting outsiders: restricting the ability of out-of-state entities to participate in Colorado water court proceedings and prohibiting out-of-state entities from holding water rights.
“Is speculation just another word for investment (but it has) a negative connotation to it because it’s somebody that’s not from here?” Feldman said. “OK, well, do you not want to have investment in rural Colorado? Is that what we’re after? That’s where it would go if you put up enough barriers and hoops.”
Feldman says he is not the enemy. His operation isn’t the mom-and-pop homestead ranch of the Old West. It’s the investor-owned, employee-operated, risk-taking ranch of the New West. Harts Basin Ranch is looking for innovative ways to adapt to water scarcity and is participating in a program with environmental group Trout Unlimited to study consumptive use and how agriculture can stay productive while using less water. The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River reporting.
Feldman sees the heated discussion about speculation as a symptom of how Western communities are choosing to grapple with increasing water scarcity under climate change. There are those who explore new ways of running an old business and there are those who want to protect the status quo.
“At its core you see a real friction or conflict between a group of people that’s trying to make water policy more flexible to adapt to a changing climate,” Feldman said, “and those that are trying to impose more rigidity and prevent any change from occurring.”
This story was part of a collaboration between KUNC in Colorado and Aspen Journalism. Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues. KUNC’s Colorado River reporting project is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.
On Friday, April 23 — the day after Earth Day — a quarter or more of Colorado’s streams, rivers, and wetlands lost critical protections as the Navigable Waters Protection (NWP) Rule went into effect in the state following a year of legal efforts to prevent it.
Until this week, Colorado remained the only state to successfully avoid application of the Trump administration rule, which last year rolled back key protections in the Clean Water Act — the bedrock environmental law protecting our drinking water from pollution. A judicial stay issued as a result of a legal challenge by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has kept the state’s waterways protected until now. The appeals court recently lifted the stay, so the NWP Rule will take effect in Colorado Friday, April 23.
The NWP Rule will impact the protections of critical sources of drinking water and leaves at least 25% of Colorado’s streams and 22% of wetlands vulnerable to pollution. The rule hits “ephemeral” streams, those that flow seasonally, particularly hard, curtailing critical safeguards for waterways that respond primarily to precipitation events — which make up 68% of waters in Colorado. It also threatens the safety and reliability of clean drinking water, which 94% of Westerners say is essential. Below maps developed by Water for Colorado Coalition partner’s Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy illustrate the extent to which this policy will threaten Colorado’s water.
“In a state known for its work to conserve the natural resources that are vital to so many Coloradans’ well-being and livelihoods, it is shocking that this rollback is drifting by so quietly,” said Josh Kuhn, Water Advocate for Conservation Colorado, a Water for Colorado Coalition partner. “Colorado serves a vital national role as a headwaters state, and we need our lawmakers to take action now protecting our rivers, streams, and wetlands from irreversible harm.”
It is now up to the legislature to prevent this dangerous rule from taking effect and removing safeguards for water sources. Colorado needs state policies protecting clean drinking water and our waterways more broadly regardless of who is in the White House. While policy changes in the new federal administration could reestablish protections, that will take years — by then, the damage done to our waters will be irreparable. If Colorado leadership doesn’t step in, streams and wetlands could be filled with construction debris, subject to polluted runoff from nearby development sites or obliterated by bulldozers.
“We need immediate legislative action to ensure our water is treated as the precious natural resource it is,” said Melinda Kassen, Sr. Counsel, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The Colorado Legislature has prioritized critical funding for the Colorado Water Plan — but if they don’t protect our streams and wetlands from pollution, what are we funding? Our streams, rivers, and wetlands need safeguards from activities that would release pollutants into them. Without this, unregulated construction may impair sources of drinking water and the streams and wetlands that support hunting and angling in Colorado.”
The Water for Colorado Coalition has environment, legal, and policy experts available to discuss the implications of this rule’s implementation, and the need for immediate state action.
About the Water for Colorado Coalition
The Water for Colorado coalition is a group of nine organizations dedicated to ensuring our rivers support everyone who depends on them, working toward resilience to climate change, planning for sustained and more severe droughts, and enabling every individual in Colorado to have a voice and the opportunity to take action to advocate for sustainable conservation-based solutions for our state’s water future. The community of organizations that make up the Water for Colorado Coalition represent diverse perspectives and share a commitment to protecting Colorado’s water future to secure a reliable water supply for the state and for future generations.
From email from the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association (Phil Brink):
Topics and Presenters:
1) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding for ditch and irrigation companies: For the first time, ditch and irrigation companies can now apply for USDA-NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding. What types of improvements are eligible for funding, and what are the payment rates and eligibility requirements?
2) Mountain Meadow Deficit Irrigation (early) Results: During the summer of 2021, irrigated meadows in the Kremmling area were deficit irrigated to learn more about the effects of deficit irrigation on forage production, soils, and the amount of water that could be conserved.
Presenter: Dr. Perry Cabot, Irrigation and Water Resources Leader, CSU Western Colorado Research Center, Fruita, CO.
3) How to Secure your Water Right and Navigate Division of Water Resources (DWR) Records for Information: Water rights are valuable. You will learn how to access information about your water rights via the DWR HydroBase online resource AND the steps needed to help secure your water rights.
Presenters: John Rodgers, P.E., Colorado DWR HydroBase Coordinator and
The vast majority of those cuts will fall upon Pinal County farmers who have taken CAP instead of pumped groundwater for 35 years. CAP is the principal drinking water source for Tucson, but the first round of cuts will have no impacts on the city’s CAP supplies.
At a virtual briefing Thursday, the heads of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project said they’ve known for many years that shortages will be coming and that they’ve stepped up with detailed plans for it.
They stressed the large amount of negotiation and other work that went into the drought plan. They discussed in detail how a large number of water providers, tribes and other entities offered both water supplies and money to provide relief to farmers and others whose water supplies will be cut.
Central Arizona farmers, due to lose 320,000 feet of CAP water in 2022, will get about 105,000 of that back in water supplies from other sources. They’ll also get money from a wide variety of sources to drill wells for another 70,000 acre- feet.
A group of Phoenix-area cities and several tribes, including the Tohono O’Odham west of Tucson, stand to lose 60 percent of a separate CAP pool called Non-Indian Agricultural water, because it used to belong to farmers. They’ll get 75 percent of that back through mitigation approved under the drought plan.
In response to questions Thursday, Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke and Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said they see no reason to plan for additional cuts beyond what the drought plan envisions before that plan expires in 2026.
There’s no need to limit population growth to hold down demands for the state’s limited and shrinking water supplies, despite calls for that from some environmentalists, Cooke and Buschatzke also said Thursday…
The cuts are necessary because Lake Mead is forecast to fall to 1,067 feet by the end of 2021. Under the 2019 drought plan, CAP will takes that first major cut in deliveries if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation predicts in August that Mead will fall below 1,075 feet in December.
At Thursday’s briefing, Dan Bunk, a Bureau of Reclamation official, laid out a series of grim statistics showing the decline in river flows and reservoir levels.
Today, Lake Mead is at 38 percent of its total capacity and Lake Powell is at 35 percent of capacity, said Bunk, of the bureau’s Lower Colorado River office in Boulder City, Nevada.
Lake Mead has dropped 15 to 16 feet since a year ago and Powell has dropped 35 feet in the same period, he said…
Snowpack levels peaked this year at 89 percent of median levels. Soil moisture is at near record low levels in the river’s Upper Basin, he said…
This year is on pace to be the river’s third or fourth driest runoff season in modern-day records, he said. The 22 years of drought the basin has had since 2000 represents the driest period on record even when looking at longer-term, tree ring and other paleo records dating back 1,000 years, he said.
Because of these forecasts, and because of continued bleak forecasts for the river in 2023, water researchers Kathryn Sorensen at Arizona State University and John Fleck at the University of New Mexico have said Arizona should start looking now at how to use less water or find alternative sources. Arizona and the other river basin states are gearing up for what’s looming as extremely complex, contentious negotiations for new guidelines for the river system starting in 2026.
A panel of judges yesterday revived a critical bid from the Navajo Nation to force the federal government to meet its treaty obligations and address the tribe’s well-documented water woes.
The decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could have far-reaching implications as the federal government, states and tribes begin renegotiating Colorado River water allocations while the waterway’s basin suffers through a relentless drought.
The Navajo Nation sued federal regulators in 2003, arguing that the government’s operations guidelines for the Colorado River didn’t consider the tribe’s water rights or the amount needed to meet the government’s treaty obligations to the reservation.
A federal district court dismissed the claim, but the 9th Circuit disagreed. The appeals court found that the Navajo Nation has major water problems, and Judge Ronald Gould raised questions about whether the government is fulfilling its treaty with the tribe.
“Water is essential to life on earth,” Gould wrote. He later added: “[I]n the specific case of the Navajo Nation, news report have indicated that the Nation’s shortage of water have in part caused exacerbation of the risks from COVID-19.”
Despite being filed nearly 20 years ago, the case is in many ways still in its early phases. At issue before the 9th Circuit was the lower court’s dismissal of the tribe’s “breach of trust” claim.
Gould and the 9th Circuit found that the tribe had sufficiently brought that charge, and it should be considered. The 9th Circuit sent the case back to the lower bench.
“[T]he district court,” Gould wrote, “only had to consider whether the Nation needs water to fulfill the promise of establishing a Navajo Reservation as a homeland for the Nation’s people.”
The case is likely to send shock waves through the seven-state Colorado River Basin.
Those states, the Interior Department and the 30 federally recognized tribes within the basin are about to begin negotiating new operations guidelines for the Colorado River that will determine each state’s allocations.
The negotiations are expected to be contentious because there is less water to go around, due to drought and climate change. Arizona, for example, said yesterday that it is prepared to lose about a fifth of the water it receives from the river in the coming year because a shortage is expected to be declared.
I heard about this at yesterday’s AWRA Colorado Section Annual Symposium. Click through for the resources.
The Colorado River provides water to more than 40 million people in two countries, seven states, and 29 Indian tribes. The demand for water currently exceeds available supply in any given year and is complicated by chronic drought and the uncertainty of impacts from climate change.
The 29 federally recognized tribes in the basin depend on the waters of the Colorado River and its tributaries for a variety of purposes, including cultural and religious activities, domestic, irrigation, commercial, municipal and industrial, power generation, recreation, instream flows, wildlife, and habitat restoration.
These tribes hold legal rights to a significant amount of water, many of which are the most senior in the basin. Combined, the tribes hold rights to roughly 20 percent (or 2.9 million-acre feet) of the water in the Colorado River basin. With the oldest water rights in the basin, the tribes are in a position to play a significant role in balancing water demand and supply and otherwise shaping the future of the region.
Since 2017, the Center has been working with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy, Walton Family Foundation, Ten Tribes Partnership, and many other individuals and groups to enhance tribal capacity and advance sustainable water management in the basin through collaborative decision-making.
The Initiative is guided by a broad-based Leadership Team (see a list of members and their bios below). It is not a decision-making body; does not speak on behalf of tribes, tribal associations, or any other organization or group; and is not an advocate for any particular interest or outcome. It seeks to enhance the capacity of tribes and to advance sustainable water management through collaborative decision-making.
Bidtah Becker, Navajo Nation
Leland Begay, Ute Mountain Ute
Lorelei Cloud, Southern Ute Tribe
Maria Dadgar, Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (Jay Tomkus, alternate)
Jason John, Navajo Nation
Nora McDowell, Fort Mojave Indian Tribe
Margaret Vick, Colorado River Indian Tribes
Jay Weiner, Quechan Tribe
Anne Castle, Getches-Wilkinson Center, University of Colorado
Peter Culp, Culp & Kelly (Mary Kelly, alternate)
Becky Mitchell, Colorado Water Conservation Board
Colby Pellegrino, Southern Nevada Water Authority
Jason Robison, University of Wyoming, College of Law
Tanya Trujillo, Colorado River Sustainability Initiative
Garrit Voggesser, National Wildlife Federation
John Weisheit, Living Rivers
Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):
Coalition stays the course in fight to halt construction of tallest dam in Colorado history
A coalition of conservation groups filed a notice of appeal today in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals seeking to halt Denver Water’s proposed expansion of Gross Dam in Boulder County and to protect sustainable flows in the Colorado River. The appeal challenges the dismissal by the lower court and asks the appeals court to order review of the merits of the case to ensure the health of the Colorado River, its native and imperiled species, and communities across Colorado that will be negatively impacted by the project…
The conservation coalition, including Save The Colorado, The Environmental Group, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers, Waterkeeper Alliance, and the Sierra Club, originally filed suit on December 19, 2018, in the federal district court of Colorado. The groups’ litigation sought to halt Denver Water’s expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County and prevent an additional diversion of water from the Colorado River through its Moffat Collection System due to violations of federal environmental laws including the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The project would triple the storage capacity of Gross Reservoir and the dam would become the tallest dam in the history of Colorado.
On March 31, 2021, the district court dismissed the coalition’s case finding that it was not before the proper court because the Federal Power Act provides the federal court of appeals with sole authority over hydropower licensing by the Federal Regulatory Commission.
“Given the climate, water and biodiversity crises upon us, we need to be restoring river ecosystems, not destroying them,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “This battle against the powerful water institution is not over and we will continue to fight for water and climate justice by working to reform this broken system of laws and policies.”
“The Sierra Club opposes the Gross Reservoir expansion because of the massive environmental damage it would cause,” said Rebecca Dickson, Chair of the Sierra Club-Indian Peaks Group. “If this project proceeds, hundreds of thousands of trees will be chopped down, countless habitats destroyed, and yet another waterway will be diverted from its natural course to the Front Range. On top of this, immeasurable amounts of greenhouse gasses will be released into the atmosphere during the construction and transportation process.”
“Denver Water’s plan to build the tallest dam in Colorado history will hurt the 40 million people in seven states and two countries who depend on the Colorado River for their water supply,” said Daniel E. Estrin, general counsel and advocacy director at Waterkeeper Alliance. “The basin is slowly dying a proverbial ‘death by a thousand cuts’ as its communities and ecosystems face a water crisis driven by unsustainable demand, prolonged drought, and runaway climate change. We stand with our fellow conservation groups in continuing to oppose this misguided and reckless water grab.”
“The expansion of Gross Dam is a shortsighted response to a long-term problem,” said Beverly Kurtz the President of The Environmental Group. “Denver Water should lead the way in finding sustainable solutions to the challenge of water scarcity, rather than destroying pristine areas of western Boulder County and further threatening the Colorado River with an antiquated dam proposal. Recent data confirm that predicted shortages of water in the Colorado River Basin due to climate change are happening even sooner than expected. Building a bigger dam does not increase the amount of water available. The District Court needs to hear the merits of our case rather than establishing a dangerous precedent by deferring authority to FERC and the federal court of appeals.”
“The year of decision, to not divert more water from the Colorado River, came and went about twenty years ago,” said John Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers in Moab, Utah. “We know this is true because the development of contingency planning agreements to avoid water shortages began in 2014 and the urgency to resolve this threat still remains. Yet the contradictions and absurdities to also develop a suite of diversion projects in the Colorado River Basin also remains. If the basin’s water managers will not even adapt to the hydrology they accept, how could they possibly adapt to the hydrology of the future? Our lawsuit is an appeal to accept the truth that the Colorado River has nothing left to give.”
Some Colorado River tribulations today remind me of a folk story: A young man went to visit his fiancée and found the family trembling and weeping. They pointed to the ceiling where an axe was embedded in a rafter.
“That could fall,” the father quavered. “It could kill someone!”
Puzzled, the young man climbed onto a chair, and pulled the axe out of the rafter. Everyone fell all over themselves thanking him. But he quickly broke off the engagement, concerned that such inanity might be inheritable.
This resembles ongoing ditherings over the 1922 Colorado River Compact, a 99-year-old agreement among the seven states through which the Colorado River meanders, on how the consumptive use of the river’s water should be divided to give each state a fair share. The agreement was necessary to get federal participation (money) to build dams to control the erratic river.
The best they were able to do, given the sketchy information they had about each state’s future development and also about the flow of the river, was to divide the river into two “basins” around the natural divide of the Colorado River canyons: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico in the Upper Basin; and California, Arizona and Nevada in the Lower Basin. Each basin would get to consume 7.5 million acre-feet of the river’s water.
This placed a responsibility on the Upper Basin states to “not cause the flow of the river at Lees Ferry (the measuring point in the canyons) to be depleted” below the Lower Basin’s share.
A generous reading of that lawyerly clause in the Compact would say the upper states should just be careful that their water development doesn’t dip into the lower states’ allocation.
A less generous reading would say that if for any reason the flow at Lees Ferry fell below the average of 7.5 million acre feet – whether it were due to over-appropriation by the upper states, or to a natural cause like a 20-year headwaters drought – the lower states would place a call on the upper states, which would have to cut back their own uses and send their water downriver, whether they “caused” the shortage or not.
To maintain that flow in a drought, the upper states would bear the full pain of the drought for the whole river.
Guess which interpretation the upper states chose for their own 1948 compact? Never mind that a Compact call from California (for its share of water) is nowhere mentioned in the 1922 Compact. The axe was planted in the rafter.
They might better have asked how the 1922 Compact creators themselves envisioned the unknown future. The transcripts of the 27 Compact meetings show that the seven state commissioners and their federal chairman Herbert Hoover were concerned, as late as their twenty-first meeting, that they did not really know enough then about the river’s flows to make a permanent equitable division of the waters.
Hoover summarized their concern, and their intent: “We make now, for lack of a better word, a temporary equitable division,” leaving the further apportionment of the river’s use “to the hands of those men who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information.” They even included in the Compact (Article VI) instructions for reconvening to consider “claims or controversy… over the meaning or performance of any of the terms of this compact.”
By the drought years of the 1930s, it was already obvious that the 7.5 million acre-feet Compact allocations were unrealistic. That would have been a logical time for the upper states to pull the axe out of the rafter, before the river was so fully developed.
But they didn’t, and as the Compact began to take on the aura of something carved in stone on a holy mountain, the fear of the “Compact call” gradually descended into expensive paranoia.
The vastly expensive 24 million acre-feet of storage in Powell Reservoir just upstream from Lees Ferry was created to fulfill the upper Basin’s self-assumed “delivery obligation,” come hell or low water.
But now, hellish low water has come to Powell, and Upper states are developing expensive “demand management” programs whereby someone yet unspecified would pay ranchers to fallow fields so their water can be “banked” in Powell against the dreaded “Compact call.”
The seven states are now – finally – initiating negotiations on a more reality-based governance of the Colorado River. Let’s hope they have the good sense to pull that axe out of the rafters before negotiating fair water use under it.
George Sibley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively discussion about Western issues. He has written extensively about the Colorado River.
The water level of Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, has dropped more than 130 feet since the beginning of 2000, when the lake’s surface lapped at the spillway gates on Hoover Dam.
Twenty-one years later, with the Colorado River consistently yielding less water as the climate has grown warmer and drier, the reservoir near Las Vegas sits at just 39% of capacity. And it’s approaching the threshold of a shortage for the first time since it was filled in the 1930s.
The latest projections from the federal government show the reservoir will soon fall 7 more feet to cross the trigger point for a shortage in 2022, forcing the largest mandatory water cutbacks yet in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
The river’s reservoirs are shrinking as the Southwest endures an especially severe bout of dryness within a two-decade drought intensified by climate change, one of the driest periods in centuries that shows no sign of letting up.
With a meager snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and the watershed extremely parched, this month’s estimates from the federal Bureau of Reclamation show Lake Mead could continue to decline through next year and into 2023, putting the Southwest on the brink of more severe shortages and larger water cuts.
“What really is starting to emerge is this really long pattern, that we’re in a megadrought in a lot of the western U.S.,” said Laura Condon, an assistant professor of hydrology and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona. “It’s kind of like a cumulative impact, that we’ve just been getting hotter and drier and hotter and drier.”
Many scientists describe the past two decades in the Colorado River Basin as a megadrought that’s being worsened by higher temperatures with climate change. While the Southwest has always cycled through wet and dry periods, some scientists suggest the word “drought” is no longer entirely adequate and that the Colorado River watershed is undergoing “aridification” driven by human-caused warming — a long-term trend of more intense dry spells that’s here for good and will complicate water management for generations to come.
Both Lake Mead and the upstream reservoir Lake Powell are dropping. Taken together, the country’s two largest reservoirs now hold the smallest quantity of water since 1965, when Powell was still filling behind the newly built Glen Canyon Dam.
The Colorado River has long been overallocated to supply farmlands and growing cities from Denver to Phoenix to Los Angeles. And the growing strains on the river suggest that Lake Mead, its sides coated with a whitish “bathtub ring” of minerals along its retreating shorelines, will continue to present challenges as the Southwest adapts to a shrinking source of water.
“There will still be ups and downs and we will have wetter and drier years going forward but overall warmer temperatures mean we should expect a drier basin with less water,” Condon said. “Warmer temperatures increase the amount of water plants use and decrease snowpack. Even if we get exactly the same quantity of precipitation, a warmer basin will produce less streamflow from that precipitation.”
Representatives of the seven states that depend on the river met at Hoover Dam in 2019 and signed a set of agreements, called the Drought Contingency Plan, laying out steps to reduce the risks of a damaging crash. Arizona and Nevada agreed to take the first cuts to help prop up Lake Mead, while California agreed to participate at lower shortage levels if the reservoir continues to drop.
The states’ water officials described the deal as a “bridge” agreement to temporarily lessen the risks and buy some time through 2026, by which time new rules for sharing shortages must be negotiated and adopted.
Under the deal, Arizona and Nevada have left some water in Lake Mead in 2020 and 2021. Those reductions are set to increase next year under the “Tier 1” shortage, which the federal government is expected to declare in August.
Arizona is in line for the largest cuts, which will reduce the Central Arizona Project’s water supply by nearly a third and shrink the amount flowing through the CAP Canal to farmlands in Pinal County. Nevada is also taking less water, and Mexico is contributing under a separate deal by leaving some of its supplies in Lake Mead.
“We have a plan to deal with these shortages,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “We’ve known this was possible for a long time and have planned for it.”
He and other officials say the Drought Contingency Plan never guaranteed the region would escape a shortage, but that it has reduced the odds of Mead falling to critical lows and has pushed back the possibility of more severe shortages and larger cuts. Buschatzke said voluntary conservation measures by the states and Mexico since 2014, plus the initial mandatory cuts over the past two years, have left about 40 feet of conserved water in Lake Mead.
“We would already be in a Tier 2 shortage had that water not stayed in the lake,” Buschatzke said during a panel discussion hosted by the Arizona Capitol Times. “It’s what we can do to slow the reduction in Lake Mead and minimize the depth and length of the shortages.”
A warmer watershed, a shrinking river
Scientists have found that the Colorado River is sensitive to rising temperatures as the planet heats up with the burning of fossil fuels. In one study, scientists determined that about half the trend of decreasing runoff in the river’s Upper Basin since 2000 was the result of unprecedented warming.
In other research, scientists estimated the river could lose roughly one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise. They projected that for each additional 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F) of warming, the river’s average flow is likely to drop by about 9%.
The past year has been especially harsh. Ultradry conditions intensified across much of the West, with extreme heat adding to the dryness throughout the Colorado River watershed. According to the National Weather Service, the past 12 months were the driest on record in Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, and the fourth-driest in Colorado, where much of the river’s flow originates.
Lake Powell now stands just 36% full.
The reservoir typically gets a boost in the spring and summer as the river swells with runoff from melting snow. But this winter, the snowpack peaked at 88% of the long-term median and has since dropped to 71% of the median. The dry soils in the watershed are soaking up some of the melting snow like a sponge, leaving less water running into the Colorado and its tributaries.
The amount of water that will flow into Powell from April through July is now estimated at just 38% of average.
Water researchers Eric Kuhn and John Fleck said their analysis of the latest federal numbers points to some alarming possibilities. The two — who coauthored the book “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River” — wrote in separate blog posts that a careful reading of the data in the 24-month study, which only goes out to March 2023, shows the projections point to bigger troubles at Mead and Powell later that year.
Fleck wrote that the “most likely” scenario would put the level of Mead at an elevation around 1,035 feet at the end of September 2023, which would trigger larger cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, as well as California’s participation in reductions.
“I’m talking about the midpoint in a range of possible outcomes,” Fleck wrote. “A run of wet weather could make things substantially better. But a run of dry weather could make them worse.”
Kuhn wrote that the assumptions in the government study “do not fully capture the climate-change driven aridification of the Colorado River Basin.” He said the projections suggest Lake Powell could drop in 2023 to “a level that is troublingly close to the elevation at which Glen Canyon Dam could no longer generate hydropower.”
Across the West, snow has traditionally stored a vital portion of the water, gradually melting and releasing runoff in the spring and summer. But that’s changing with higher temperatures. Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, found in a study last year that the western U.S. has experienced longer and more intense “snow droughts” in the second half of the period from 1980 to 2018.
“The main issue is the snow drought everywhere in the entire West, including Arizona, Utah, California, Colorado,” said Amir AghaKouchak, a professor in UC Irvine’s Department of Earth System Science. “When the snow is below average, it means low-flow situations in summer, drier soil moisture. And drier soil moisture increases the chance of heat waves.”
The upshot, he said, is that “we have to prepare for a different hydrologic cycle, basically.”
Warm and dry in the headwaters
With higher temperatures, more snow has been melting earlier in the year. Scientists recently examined 40 years of data from snow monitoring sites across the western U.S. and Canada and found increasing winter snowmelt at a third of the sites…
With higher temperatures, more snow has been melting earlier in the year. Scientists recently examined 40 years of data from snow monitoring sites across the western U.S. and Canada and found increasing winter snowmelt at a third of the sites.
Other researchers have discovered that the dry periods between rainstorms have grown longer on average across the western United States during the past 45 years. Scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Arizona found this trend throughout the West in their study, but they saw the most extreme changes in the desert Southwest, where rainstorms have been happening much less frequently.
The average dry period between storms in the desert Southwest has gone from 31 days to 48 days, an increase of about 50 percent since the 1970s, the scientists found. Annual precipitation declined by about 3.2 inches in the region over that period, a much larger decline that the West as a whole.
“In the desert Southwest, we were averaging around 10 inches and now we’re averaging around 7 inches,” said Joel Biederman, a hydrologist at USDA’s Southwest Watershed Research Center in Tucson. “That’s much more impactful when you consider that the amount in our region is smaller to begin with.”
Biederman and his colleagues focused on changes that have been measured and didn’t attempt to parse the influences of natural variations and climate change.
A separate analysis of climate data over the past 30 years by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the nation’s “normals,” or averages, have shifted dramatically in a decade, growing wetter in the central and eastern U.S. and drier in the Southwest while climate change has pushed temperatures higher.
Another group of scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory recently looked at how interconnected extremes influenced by climate change — from floods to droughts and heatwaves — are expected to intensify in the future in the Colorado River Basin. They found these sorts of concurrent extreme climatic events “are projected to increase in the future and intensify” in key regions of the watershed.
The 30 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin depend on the Colorado and its tributaries for a variety of purposes, including cultural and religious activities, domestic, irrigation, commercial, municipal and industrial, power generation, recreation, instream flows, wildlife, and habitat restoration. Twenty-two of these tribes have recognized rights to use 3.2 million-acre feet of Colorado River system water annually, or approximately 25 percent of the Basin’s average annual water supply. In addition, 12 of the tribes have unresolved water rights claims, which will likely increase the overall volume of tribal water rights in the Basin. With the oldest water rights in the basin, tribes are poised to play a significant role in balancing water demand and supply and otherwise shaping the future of the region. Join leaders of the Water & Tribes Initiative in a conversation about the role of tribes and other sovereigns and stakeholders in advancing a sustainable vision for the Colorado River.
Tuesday, April 27, 2021
Noon – 1:30 PM (Mountain Time)
(Link provided upon registration confirmation and to the email provided)
Climate stresses are raising the stakes. Rising temperatures require farmers to use more water to grow the same amount of crops. Prolonged and severe droughts decrease available supplies. Wildfires are burning hotter and lasting longer. Fires bake the soil, reducing forests’ ability to hold water, increasing evaporation from barren land and compromising water supplies.
As a longtime observer of interstate water negotiations, I see a basic problem: In some cases, more water rights exist on paper than as wet water – even before factoring in shortages caused by climate change and other stresses. In my view, states should put at least as much effort into reducing water use as they do into litigation, because there are no guaranteed winners in water lawsuits.
Dry times in the West
The situation is most urgent in California and the Southwest, which currently face “extreme or exceptional” drought conditions. California’s reservoirs are half-empty at the end of the rainy season. The Sierra snowpack sits at 60% of normal. In March 2021, federal and state agencies that oversee California’s Central Valley Project and State Water Project – regional water systems that each cover hundreds of miles – issued “remarkably bleak warnings” about cutbacks to farmers’ water allocations.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact allocated 7.5 million acre-feet (one acre-foot is roughly 325,000 gallons) to California, Nevada and Arizona, and another 7.5 million acre-feet to Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. A treaty with Mexico secured that country 1.5 million acre-feet, for a total of 16.5 million acre-feet. However, estimates based on tree ring analysis have determined that the actual yearly flow of the river over the last 1,200 years is roughly 14.6 million acre-feet.
The inevitable train wreck has not yet happened, for two reasons. First, Lakes Mead and Powell – the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado – can hold a combined 56 million acre-feet, roughly four times the river’s annual flow.
Second, the Upper Basin states – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico – have never used their full allotment. Now, however, they want to use more water. Wyoming has several new dams on the drawing board. So does Colorado, which is also planning a new diversion from the headwaters of the Colorado River to Denver and other cities on the Rocky Mountains’ east slope.
Truth be told, that’s not a lot of water, and it would not exceed Utah’s unused allocation from the Colorado River. But the six other Colorado River Basin states have protested as though St. George were asking for their firstborn child.
Utah blinked. Having earlier insisted on an expedited pipeline review, the state asked federal officials on Sept. 24, 2020 to delay a decision. But Utah has not given up: In March 2021, Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill creating a Colorado River Authority of Utah, armed with a US$9 million legal defense fund, to protect Utah’s share of Colorado River water. One observer predicted “huge, huge litigation.”
Before Utah takes the precipitous step of appealing to the Supreme Court under the court’s original jurisdiction over disputes between states, it might explore other solutions. Water conservation and reuse make obvious sense in St. George, where per-person water consumption is among the nation’s highest.
St. George could emulate its neighbor, Las Vegas, which has paid residents up to $3 per square foot to rip out lawns and replace them with native desert landscaping. In April 2021 Las Vegas went further, asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw ornamental grass.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that the Las Vegas metropolitan area has eight square miles of “nonfunctional turf” – grass that no one ever walks on except the person who cuts it. Removing it would reduce the region’s water consumption by 15%.
Water rights litigation is fraught with uncertainty. Just ask Florida, which thought it had a strong case that Georgia’s water diversions from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin were harming its oyster fishery downstream.
That case extended over 20 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ended the final chapter in April 2021. The court used a procedural rule that places the burden on plaintiffs to provide “clear and convincing evidence.” Florida failed to convince the court, and walked away with nothing.
Last week John Fleck took a look at the April 15, 2021 Colorado Basin River Forecast Center’s 24-Month Study. Click here to read the post. Here’s an excerpt:
I’m choosing my words carefully here. The “likely” in this blog’s post’s title means “based on my analysis of the Bureau of Reclamation’s current ‘most probable forecast’ Colorado River water supply model runs.”
The Bureau’s current “most probable” modeling suggests that in both 2022 and 2023, the annual release from Lake Powell will only be 7.48 million acre feet. This is based on a provision in the river’s operating rules that, under certain low storage level conditions, the Upper Basin gets to hang onto water in Powell.
The last time and only time we had a 7.48 release, in 2014, Mead dropped 25 feet in a single year. We’ve never had two consecutive 7.48 releases.
The headline in yesterday’s release of the Bureau of Reclamation’s “24-month study” (pdf here) is that Lake Mead will drop below elevation 1,075 at the start of 2022 (triggering a “Tier 1” shortage) and could drop below 1,050 by the start of 2023 (that’s the trigger for “Tier 2”).
Tier 1 next year, which primarily hits Arizona with some deep forced reductions, was no surprise. That’s been obvious for a while, and Arizona’s water leadership has been softening folks up for months. The increasing risk of Tier 2 in 2023, which would mean deeper cuts in Arizona, is sorta new, but it’s been foreseeable.
The real “holy shit” for me in yesterday’s release was the trail of breadcrumbs in the Bureau’s data, pointed out by my co-author Eric Kuhn, leading to a “most probable” Lake Mead drop to elevation 1,035 by the end of September 2023.
To be clear, the Bureau isn’t saying this yet. The latest 24-month study stops at the end of March 2023. But internally, the Bureau runs the model out farther in order to determine, among other things, how much water is likely to be released from Powell in 2023. And the published numbers clearly show – the Bureau’s “most likely” scenario would call for another 7.48 release.
From there, it’s just arithmetic. Based on my analysis of the publicly available numbers, the “most likely” scenario puts Mead at elevation ~1035 at the end of September 2023. This is my math, but my understanding is that it’s consistent with what the Bureau’s internal calculations show.
Eric Kuhn followed up John’s post with one of his own. Here’s an excerpt:
The release of last week’s Bureau of Reclamation 24-month study felt like very bad news for the Colorado River (See Tony Davis for details.). But a careful reading of the numbers, and an understanding of the process through which they are developed, suggests things are likely even worse than the top-line numbers in the study.
The problem: the assumptions underlying the study do not fully capture the climate-change driven aridification of the Colorado River Basin. Taking climate change into account, it is easy to find evidence lurking in the report to suggest that, in addition to problems for Lake Mead, Lake Powell could drop below elevation 3,525 in 2023, a level that is troublingly close to the elevation at which Glen Canyon Dam could no longer generate hydropower.
The 24-month studies are used to project out two years of monthly inflows, releases, storage levels, and power generation from the system’s large reservoirs in both basins as well as diversions by the large water users on the river below Lake Mead, especially the Central Arizona Project and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Reclamation releases a “most probable” study on a monthly basis as well as “minimum probable” and “maximum probable” studies approximately quarterly. These studies are important because they are used to make critical decisions under the 2007 Interim Guidelines and both the Upper and Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs).
For the first year, Reclamation uses “unregulated” runoff forecasts generated by the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC) model. Unregulated inflow is not the same as natural inflow. The CBRFC does its best to adjust the forecasts for upstream diversions and for the many reservoirs that are not included in the 24-month study model. Inflow forecasts for the second year of the 24-month studies are not based on the CBRFC model. Instead, Reclamation, in consultation with CBRFC, uses statistics from the past and its judgment. Running the 24-month study model then simulates the operation of the upstream reservoirs such as Navajo, Blue Mesa, and Flaming Gorge, turning unregulated inflow to Powell into “regulated” inflow. For example, from the April ‘21 most probable study, the WY 2021 unregulated inflow to Powell is 4.897 MAF, regulated inflow is 4.908 MAF. These numbers are close, but in WY 2020 regulated inflow exceeded unregulated inflow by about 700,000 acre-feet.
The media buzz over the April 24-month study primarily focused on the projected Tier 1 shortage for the Lower Basin in 2022 – an event that is newsworthy, but one that also was totally expected. Perhaps more interesting and alarming is what the 24-month studies suggested for 2023. As pointed out by John in his recent blog, the most probable study shows two years of 7.48 MAF releases from Lake Powell, Lake Mead elevations on the cusp of a Tier 2 shortage in 2023, and by inference, Lake Mead dropping to a level of about 1035’ by the end September 2023, which by implication would trigger a third straight shortage year and California’s possible participation sharing shortages under the Lower Basin DCP.
For Lake Powell, the most alarming results come from the minimum probable study, not the most probable study. Under the minimum probable inflow forecast to Powell, which, in theory, represents an unregulated flow that would be exceeded in 90% of years, by March of 2023 Lake Powell drops well below the 3525’ target that would trigger supplemental releases from the upstream CRSP reservoirs under the Upper Basin DCP. There is also a real possibility that Lake Powell could end up in the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier. If this happens, the April minimum probable study shows that Lake Mead gets more water in the first six months of WY 2023 than under the most probable study.
The term “minimum probable” implies an outcome that is very unlikely to occur, therefore, why should we be that concerned? My answer is that given the abundance of recent science concluding that the Colorado River Basin is not in a classic drought, but rather, it is undergoing aridification where the flows seen in the last two to three decades may be the new abnormal and may continue to decline (see for example Overpeck and Udall, and the latest Utah State Future of the Colorado River white paper White Paper). The April studies show a most probable Powell unregulated inflow for WY 2022 of 9.998 MAF and a minimum probable inflow of 7.208 MAF. For comparison, the mean unregulated annual inflow to Lake Powell over the last ten years, including WY 2021, was only 8.04 MAF and five of the individual years; 2012, 2013, 2018, 2020, and 2021, were well below the 7.208 MAF. The average of those five dry years was 5.08 MAF, over two MAF less than the assumed minimum probable inflow for 2022. If you take the record back to 2000, the results are similar. In 11 of 22 years, unregulated inflow to Lake Powell was less than 7.2 MAF/year.
Based on the last 20-plus years and the recent science, I conclude that both the minimum probable and most probable 24-month study year two unregulated inflows to Lake Powell are overly optimistic. The likelihood that in the next few years Lake Powell storage will fall below the 3525’ target or even the minimum power elevation (3490’) and that Lake Mead storage will approach 1025’, the level that triggers the maximum annual cutbacks under the Interim Guidelines and DCP, about 1.4 MAF, is much greater than what is conveyed by these studies.
Finally, Click here to read Tony Davis’ article at Tucson.com. Here’s an excerpt:
The Central Arizona Project seems almost certain to suffer its first significant shortage in water deliveries next year.
Reservoirs are expected to fall so low by the end of 2021 to warrant cutting nearly two-thirds of the CAP water that Pinal County farmers now get. At that point, CAP deliveries used by the state to store water in the ground for future use by cities and tribes would also be cut. So would CAP water supplies sold to the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, an agency that recharges water into aquifers across the state’s urban centers to compensate for groundwater pumped elsewhere for new development.
The loss for farms has been expected for years. But possible cuts for other water customers now loom sooner than anticipated, as the Colorado River’s situation worsens.
For the first time, a federal agency’s river forecast predicts that at the end of 2022, the Lake Mead reservoir will be at or very near a point where CAP must cut deliveries to other categories of water users.
Those cuts would fall upon Phoenix-area cities and on Arizona tribes, including possibly the Tohono O’Odham whose reservation is south and west of Tucson.
If they happen, the cuts would also start slicing deliveries of relatively small amounts of CAP water to Rosemont Copper and Freeport McMoran Copper in the Tucson area and to Resolution Copper in the Superior area.
Tucson depends on CAP for drinking water, but its supplies wouldn’t yet be affected.
The cuts to farmers will be required if Lake Mead falls below 1,075 feet at the end of this year. The Bureau of Reclamation’s new forecast — announced Thursday for the river — puts the expected level at 1,067 feet by then. The bureau will likely decide in August whether to declare a shortage for 2022.
The additional cuts to tribes and to Phoenix-area cities would be required in 2023, if Lake Mead falls below 1,050 feet. The new forecast is for the lake to be at 1,050.31 feet by December 2022.
Tucson’s CAP supply wouldn’t be cut unless the lake fell below 1,025 feet.
In the past year, Greeley officials purchased about 1,000 acre-feet of water, equivalent to about 1,000 football fields covered in a foot of water. Adam Jokerst, deputy director of water resources for the city, said it’s more water than city had acquired in the past 10 years. Jokerst, who manages the water acquisition program, said the program has about a $9 million budget this year…
What is a water right?
Colorado’s waters are owned by the state and all its citizens, but water rights dictate the right to use the water. Water decrees, issued by water courts, confirm water users’ rights to that water.
Older water decrees were simple, Jokerst said, giving the example of a decree for the city’s senior direct rights, meaning the city has priority to divert water for direct application to beneficial use. Throughout the year, the city can use 12.5 cubic feet per second. That’s about it, he said.
Newer decrees can range from dozens to hundreds of pages, detailing how the water is to be diverted, measured and accounted for.
“Greeley owns a portfolio made up of many different water rights,” Jokerst said. “Some of those water rights are direct diversions from the Poudre River. Some are ownership in irrigation companies.”
Irrigation companies that historically provided irrigation water to farmers can issue shares of stock, basically selling a piece of the water rights held by those companies. The city converts that water from agricultural to municipal use to change the water right, though the city does rent some water rights to agricultural users, maintaining the historic use.
The city also owns water through the Colorado-Big Thompson and Windy Gap projects, as well as water diverted from the Laramie River. With a lot of variability across these different sources, the city’s water experts always plan for the worst case scenario: How much water could we provide to our customers in a drought situation?
Through the current plan, the city can provide about 40,000 acre-feet per year to its customers, well above the roughly 25,000 acre-feet of demand the city sees in a typical year. In a wet year, the city could potentially deliver up to 70,000 acre-feet, to give an idea of the impact of the planned drought.
When the city can, it rents a lot of that water to agricultural partners, renting about 20,000 acre-feet in the past year. In addition to maintaining historic use, this provides a source of revenue and supports Greeley’s agricultural economy, Jokerst said.
Jokerst said he’d consider the city’s “Big Three” sources to be:
Senior direct rights from the Poudre River
Ownership in the Greeley-Loveland Irrigation Company, which feeds the city’s Boyd Lake System
Colorado-Big Thompson (C-BT) and Windy Gap projects
Jen Petrzelka, water resources operations manager, added the direct and C-BT water is available year round, whereas a lot of the ditch directs only come in during irrigation season, which typically starts about now to early May and runs through the end of September or into October.
Accounting for the city’s diverse portfolio
The city must account for its water on a daily basis, submitting a monthly report to the state. Petrzelka said they manage about 10 different spreadsheets for all the city’s water right decrees…
Petrzelka keeps an eye on the city’s water supply to help prevent the need for watering restrictions. In all, the city has four engineers and scientists who manage the various decrees and operations, plus three workers out in the field, according to Jokerst.
The state ensures water users aren’t causing injury to other users’ water rights, with local river commissioners dedicated throughout the state. Jokerst compared the commissioners to a referee in a sports game.
“Any time we change the way we’re operating, whether that be our releases or operating an exchange, we have to get their approval,” Petrzelka said.
When agricultural water rights are changed, Jokerst said, some water is owed back to the river, just as the water historically returned to the river and groundwater after agricultural use.
“A lot of what we do is add water back to the river to compensate for those irrigation rights that we changed,” he said.
In addition to enforcement by river commissioners, everybody watches their neighbors, keeping track of what other users are doing on a day-to-day basis. Part of that monitoring happens in water court, where decisions about decrees are settled…
Greeley has a steady stream of water court cases the city must defend in court, according to Jokerst, as well as cases involving other entities in which the city enters opposition to protect its water rights. As of this past week, the city was involved in 32 water court cases.
“Water court cases are really just a structured negotiation where the applicant and the opposers reach agreement on whatever it is the applicant is trying to do,” Jokerst said. “All the parties involved negotiate an outcome that protects all their water and gets the applicant what they need.”
Petrzelka and Jokerst estimated the city’s water court costs at about $500,000 this year, mostly covering the costs of outside attorneys and engineers. Internal legal counsel also helps guide the department, Jokerst said.