The Santa Fe-based organization [Wild Earth Guardians] filed notice that it wants the New Mexico Court of Appeals to review a district judge’s refusal to force the Office of the State Engineer to prove that the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is entitled to water it uses under permit.
“The appeal looks to compel the State Engineer to require the District actually prove it has used the large quantity of water it claimed upon receiving its permits from the State in 1925,” WildEarth Guardians said in a news release. “Despite the clear mandate under its permits, the District has long avoided confirming its use with the hope of continuing to control and divert the entire flow over the river in perpetuity.”
The district’s diversion of water from the Rio Grande for hundreds of farmers has been a source of contention, especially in dry years when the riverbed has gone mostly dry below the Albuquerque area, threatening the survival of species such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow…
“The days of water abundance are gone,” Jen Pelz of WildEarth Guardians said in a statement. “The reality of these times demands that the basic limitations on water use are met. Our litigation seeks just that, to enforce key provisions of state water law to safeguard and conserve water for our rivers.”
In late August, as reservoirs levels declined across the American Southwest, Erin Light issued something common in most river basins of Colorado but which had never been done on the Yampa River. She issued a “call.”
When a call is issued, those with newer or younger water rights must cease their diversions from the river and its tributaries until the older or more senior rights are satisfied. This system is called prior appropriation. Eighteen states in the West use aspects of prior appropriation to sort out who gets how much water and when.
Light, as the division engineer for Colorado Division of Water Resources, administers the labyrinth of water rights in the Yampa River Valley. Water goes to ranches, a power plant, and other purposes, each occupying a specific place in the pecking order as determined by volumes, locations and, above all, date of adjudication. That’s the way it works when a river is under administration. Some Colorado rivers have been under administration since the late 1800s.
Until this summer, the Yampa was different. Those with legally adjudicated water rights took what they thought was theirs. Calls had been placed on tributaries, but not the river itself.
Then in late August, Light announced that those with water rights on the rivers’ main stem awarded since 1951 would have to cease diversions until those older, or seniors, had been satisfied. By mid-September, as irrigators slowed their demands and cooler temperatures eased losses from evaporation and transpiration, Light edged the call back to those rights junior to 1960. Last week, she suspended the call altogether.
Droughts hit the Yampa and many other river basins in Colorado hard this year. But this drought may best be viewed as part of an extended 21st century drought caused more by temperature increases than precipitation declines. It’s part of a clear trend of a warming and more erratic climate.
Ted Kowalski says the water call on the Yampa should be understood within the context of these hotter, drier times in the American Southwest. A former Colorado water official who is now senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River Initiative, Kowalski calls the Yampa River the first domino to fall.
Lower streamflows in all the rivers of the Colorado River Basin that produce declining reservoir levels represent the additional dominoes.
This is starkly demonstrated, says Kowalski, by the fact that reservoir storage in the Colorado River Basin has reached its lowest level since the late 1960s. That’s when the newly created Glen Canyon Dam was starting to create Lake Powell.
“All of this underscores the importance of developing and adopting and agreeing to drought contingency plans so that we can effectively manage if and when there is less water in the system,” says Kowalski. The work begins, he says, with conservation.
Conserving water in the 20th century
Far into the 20th century, conservation had a different connotation in the West. Managing water in the Colorado River Basin meant building dams and creating reservoirs, all with the intent of ensuring none of the water was “wasted” by flowing into the ocean.
Nearly all this major hydraulic engineering was done on the tab of the federal government. Downstream, first Powell and then Mead, the second largest and largest reservoirs in the nation, respectively, provide most of the storage. If separated by 300 miles and the Grand Canyon National Park, the two reservoirs fundamentally operate in tandem, as a Colorado River Research Group report in August noted. They are “essentially one giant reservoir (bisected by a glorious ditch),” the report said in a nod to the Grand Canyon.
Reservoir levels rise after big snow years, but in the 21st century the more common trend has been decline.
Evidence emerging in recent years suggests the Colorado River’s decline can best be explained by rising temperatures instead of reduced precipitation. In a 2017 paper, Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, and Jonathan Overpeck, the dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability, attributed two-thirds of water declines to temperature rather than precipitation. Not only is more water evaporating, they said, but plants have been transpiring more water.
“This is the kind of drought we will have to deal with in the future,” Overpeck said at a water conference in Santa Fe during April.
Doug Monger testifies to the warmer weather. A native of the Yampa Valley, he remembers 45-below temperatures, once in the 1980s for two days straight. Down the valley in Maybell, the temperature in that same cold spell hit 61 below. (It had also hit that same low in 1979.)
“I always prayed for climate change and global warming,” he jokes.
Now, he’s getting that warming. “We never had 90 degrees, and now it’s nothing to have 90-plus days for five or six days in a row.”
That heat has been taking a toll on the snow. About three-quarters of the precipitation in the Colorado River Basin originates as snow. Colorado itself provides 70 percent of the water in the river.
In the Yampa Basin, most of the snow collects in an elevation band of between 8,000 to 10,000 feet. The river originates on the flanks of the Flattops Wilderness Area as the Bear River, gurgles playfully along at the foot of the Gore Range and then, drawing more water from the usually snow-laden Park Range, hooks westward at Steamboat Springs for a 100-mile journey to Dinosaur National Monument.
Beyond Dinosaur, the Yampa’s water eventually flows into the Utah desert and Lake Powell.
The Park Range has a reputation as the snowiest place in Colorado. A gauge at 10,285-foot Buffalo Pass, located northeast of Steamboat Springs, reported 80 inches of water contained in the much deeper snowpack by early May on a recent, snow year.
When spring arrives in years such as that, the Yampa gushes through Steamboat Springs well into summer. Flows needed for commercial tubing during summer represent one measure of winter’s legacy. Tubers are not allowed to use the river until flows drop below 700 cubic feet per second. That commonly isn’t possible until after the Fourth of July.
This year, snowpack was better than in Southwest Colorado. Still, it came weeks early and was altogether modest in its surge. Tubing season in Steamboat began June 11. Commercial tubing season ended a month later, when it is usually starting. City and state wildlife officials asked all tubers and others river users to stay out. The river was dropping to 85 cfs, considered a critical threshold, and warming as it did, hitting 75 degrees, reported the Steamboat Pilot at the time.
“If the river’s getting above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the aquatic life is severely stressed, and this is the time of year when they’re feeding, and they’re getting ready for winter,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, the city water resources manager for Steamboat Springs.
No relief came with summer, hot and dry. Clouds produced just a few drops.
Water infrastructure in 21st century
Light, the water engineer on the Yampa since 2006, tells a complicated story of why the first call was made this year and not during prior years. Water rights always get complicated. The immediate repercussion will be that investments will necessarily be made in the devices that assure flows. In the Yampa River it was a point of pride that there was no call, unlike places like the South Platte Basin. But almost everybody agrees it was inevitable.
That inevitably stems in large part to trends in hydrology. In 20th century hydrologic records, three drought years stand out: 1935, 1955, and 1977. Now, in this still young century, there have been three more: 2002, 2012 and 2018.
“When you look at temperatures that were 5 to 10 degrees above average every day, that has to raise eyebrows about what the climate is saying,” she says.
Changes in the Yampa River Basin have not been well documented, but anecdotally at least comport with statewide trends reported in a 2015 report to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. That report, “Climate Change in Colorado,” says statewide average temperatures had increased 2 degrees F during the previous 30 years, with daily minimum temperatures warming more than maximum temperatures. Timing of snowmelt and peak runoff had shifted earlier in spring by one to four weeks. Snowpack as measured by April readings had been mainly below-average since 2000.
Anecdotal evidence of this abounds around Steamboat. Local ranchers long measured a winter’s severity by how deep it accumulated on their barbed wire fences. The 20th century produced many three-wire winters, enough snow to hit the top strand. Three-wire winters seldom come anymore. Last winter snow failed to reach the bottom wire. In some places, the was no snow at all on the ground, says Ken Brenner, who grew up on a ranch south of Steamboat Springs and is now president of the Upper Yampa River Water Conservancy District Board of Directors.
Light says the Snotel automated snowpack measuring sites fail to tell the full story. The stations maintained by the federal government’s Natural Resources Conservation Service record snow and water content at 8,000 to 10,000 feet. Some years, they report robust snow that cannot be seen in snow depths on the valley floor. This leaves locals wondering how this snowpack could be anywhere near normal. The rising levels for snowpack argue for a different monitoring system, says Light, one that captures dynamics of the low-elevation snowpack.
Water infrastructure for 21st century climate
Climate change models predict sharply increased temperatures in coming decades, Models also predict greater variability of precipitation, more extremes of both wet and dry. That could provide an argument for more reservoirs. The Yampa River has just 2 percent of Colorado’s reservoir capacity, but the river provides a much larger percentage of the state’s overall flows. The Gunnison River, with about the same runoff on average, has three giant federal dams, part of the same Congressional authorization in 1956 that created Lake Powell.
The Yampa, White, and Green Basin Roundtable, a decision-making body created by the Colorado Legislature, agree that instead of giant reservoirs, the basin could benefit from smaller reservoirs, discretely located, such as on tributaries, to serve specific needs, reports Light, the state’s liaison to the roundtable.
Monger does see the need for storage on the Yampa River. It could help Colorado manage its water so as to ensure it can meet its commitments to other states in the Colorado River Basin. “Let’s keep it in my backyard rather than sending it down to Lake Powell and have it be subject to the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Interior,” says Monger, a Routt County commissioner as well as a delegate to the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Higher elevation storage, he says, will reduce evaporative losses from Lake Powell, about six and a half feet a year off the surface.
About 90 percent of the Yampa’s total annual flows go downstream out of Colorado, ultimately to Lake Powell. That reservoir provides Colorado and other upper-basin states in the Colorado River Basin the ability to meet requirements for delivery of 8.3 million acre-feet annually to Arizona, California, and Nevada at Lake Mead.
That obligation of 7.5 million acre-feet plus the upper basin’s share for Mexico was derived by negotiators who met at a resort near Santa Fe in 1922. Disregarding contrary evidence, they assumed at least 16.5 million acre-feet average annual flows in the river and probably more. That rarely has been the case. In the hotter, drier 21st century, flows have been just 12.4 million acre-feet, say Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
“When you build reservoirs, you have to have some water. You have to have a little bit of money in the bank. We can’t bankrupt the system. We have to find ways to cut back before we bankrupt the system.”
In Vail on Wednesday, Kuhn took his vision of difficulty for the Colorado River a step further. As long as greenhouse gas emissions go untamed, he said, “there is no bottom” to how hot and how dry the Colorado River Basin could become.
It’s not that the past hasn’t also been drier. Kuhn looks to the past to warn against even more difficult times on the Yampa River and in the Colorado River Basin altogether. The evidence comes from examinations of batches of trees at eight different sites in the Colorado River Basin above Lee Ferry, located just above the Grand Canyon and below Lake Powell.
Dendrochronologists can estimate precipitation by the growth of tree rings. Using that technique, they have charted wet and dry periods since 1434.
“A number of folks claim that the current 19-year period of 2000-2018 is the driest 19 year period on the Colorado River. That’s nonsense,” says Kuhn, pointing to the graph. In the past there have been droughts both longer and deeper. (Above, see estimated river flows at Lee Ferry, at the top end of the Grand Canyon, from 1434 to 2018. For underlying data, see http://treeflow.org).
Those droughts occurred without the rising temperatures of today. “If these past 19-year droughts were to happen with today’s temperatures,” he adds, “things could be much worse.”
This article was published in the Oct. 4 issue of Mountain Town News, a weekly e-magazine. To subscribe, see options in the red boxes in the top-right corner of the http://mountaintownnews.net webpage.
The documents, which were released Tuesday, lay out a framework for cuts in water deliveries to prop up the levels of the river’s two biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
The documents included proposed drought-contingency plans for the Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — as well as the Lower Basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California.
The details of how much water each state would leave in Lake Mead have been negotiated over the past couple of years, and the proposed numbers haven’t changed since the outlines of an agreement were circulated earlier this year.
Negotiations are still underway in Arizona to determine how cities, farming districts and tribes could share in the cutbacks to spread around the impacts of the deal.
Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society, expressed optimism about the states reaching the agreements.
“This news puts us closer than we’ve ever been to a more secure water future for the Colorado River,” Pitt said in a statement. “Arizona is the last piece of the puzzle before the Drought Contingency Plan is a done deal.”
Pitt noted that once the Lower Basin states sign an agreement, it will trigger parallel efforts by Mexico under a deal signed last year for the country to also store more water in Lake Mead.
“More water in Lake Mead means reduced risk of severe water shortage declarations,” Pitt said. Plus, she said, having a deal in place would allow for more of a focus on efforts to direct some water toward environmental purposes, including habitat restoration efforts in the dry Colorado River Delta and the shrinking Salton Sea.
The agreements are tentative and must be approved by multiple states and agencies as well as the U.S. government. But they are seen as a milestone in the effort to preserve the river, which supports 40 million people and 6,300 square miles (16,300 square kilometers) of farmland in the U.S. and Mexico.
“I think it’s a critical step,” said Pat Mulroy, former manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves Las Vegas and other cities, and now a senior fellow at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas law school.
The agreements create a collection of drought contingency plans designed to manage and minimize the effects of declining flows in the Colorado and its tributaries. Some plans were made public Tuesday. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages major reservoirs across the West, is expected to release others Wednesday.
A nearly two-decade-long drought has drained the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, to alarmingly low levels. The Bureau of Reclamation says the chances of a shortfall in Lake Mead are 57 percent by 2020. If that happens, mandatory cutbacks would hit Arizona, Nevada and Mexico first.
The reservoir never has fallen low enough to trigger a shortage.
California agreed to soften the blow by voluntarily reducing its Colorado River use by about 6 percent if conditions are bad enough, said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a wholesaler serving 19 million people.
Kightlinger said California wanted to avoid having Congress or the U.S. Department of Interior step in and dictate a solution. “We wanted to control our own destiny and not leave things up to a political process,” he said.
Even with the plans in place, the impacts will be painful for some.
“We’ve been letting farms know they are undoubtedly going to have to change their irrigation practices,” said Paul Orme, an attorney who represents four Arizona irrigation districts in that state’s internal discussions on drought planning. “Irrigate less land with less water.”
Orme said farmers in the districts fear they will be affected disproportionately under the plan…
The two major components of the plans cover the Upper Basin, where most of the water originates as Rocky Mountain snowfall, and the Lower Basin, which consumes more of the water because it has more people and farms.
Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are in the Upper Basin. Arizona, California and Nevada are in the Lower Basin.
It will likely be next year before all seven states and the U.S. government approve the plans, said Karen Kwon, Colorado’s assistant attorney general. Mexico agreed last year to participate in drought planning…
Water managers have warned for months that a shortage could have catastrophic effects on agriculture and the economy of the Southwest. But the states were always expected to reach agreements on drought plans because of their history of cooperating on Colorado River issues.
“This is the way things should be done,” said Ted Kowalski, who heads the Colorado River Program for the Walton Family Foundation, which has funded river restoration projects in the U.S. and Mexico.
“It’s a much preferred method of solving water management decisions than litigation or politics,” he said…
The drought plans rolled out this week are a first step, but the states must find ways to put water back into the river, said Mulroy, the former southern Nevada utility chief.
Desalinizing seawater and recycling wastewater are possibilities, she said.
“As important as the drought contingency plan is, it’s a tourniquet, it’s a Band-Aid, it is not the be-all and end-all that would solve the structural deficit that exists in the river,” Mulroy said.
The most interesting bit now seems to be the halting progress toward a new set of rules that allows the states of the Upper Colorado River Basin – Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico – to create a conservation storage pool in Lake Powell. One of the sticking points in planning for water reductions up here (in the Upper Basin) is that if we conserve water and prop up Lake Powell in the process, under the current rules, we risk simply increasing the release to Lake Mead. We risk losing a chunk of the water we conserve.
The idea under DCP would be to create a separate accounting category in Powell for conserved water that’s “invisible” (the word people have been using) to the Powell->Mead water sharing rules. The details here are hairy, in terms of ensuring that conservation is really happening and accounting for it in a way that’s transparent and agreeable to the states of the Lower Basin.
But the fact that we seem to be getting something of this sort, or at least an agreement on the general outline of how it might work, is a big deal.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Officials on Tuesday released draft agreements that include a drought contingency plan for Upper Colorado River Basin states, including Colorado and another such plan for Lower Basin states.
They come as the Colorado River Basin is in a drought dating back nearly two decades, including one of the driest years on record in the 2018 water year, which ended Sept. 30.
For Upper Basin states, the agreements they are seeking to reach are intended to assure water levels don’t fall too low in Lake Powell. Low levels in the reservoir would threaten hydropower production and raise the threat of a curtailment of Upper Basin water use to avoid reducing flows to the Lower Basin below levels allowed under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
The agreements involving the Upper Basin focus on operating the Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs in a way to help shore up water levels in Powell, and on addressing the need for a place to store any water conserved through demand-management efforts. Crucially, such water would be released from Lake Powell downstream only for interstate compact compliance, and couldn’t just be released to meet the terms of an existing agreement that coordinates operations between Powell and Lake Mead in the Lower Basin.
In a webinar by state water officials Tuesday, James Eklund, Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said doing nothing would mean there would be no way to protect conserved water, and Upper Basin officials have been working hard to get Lower Basin agreements on the matter.
“Here we are. We have a suite of agreements they have indeed agreed to, and we are on this path to getting this win for the Upper Colorado River Basin and state of Colorado,” he said.
The drought contingency plan negotiations altogether include seven basin states and involve other entities including the Department of Interior. Officials hope to finalize the agreements early next year and also plan to pursue companion federal legislation that will be required.
The negotiations also have produced a draft agreement among Lower Basin states aimed at boosting water levels in Lake Mead, including through additional voluntary water conservation…
The work to finalize the agreements has led to some tensions within Colorado. The Western Slope’s Colorado River District has been concerned that by reaching an interstate agreement on storage, Colorado could be facilitating creation of a demand management program in the state that lacks the criteria the river district thinks it should contain.
The river district wants any such program to be voluntary, compensated and temporary, with the impacts not disproportionately burdening any part of the state. Some Front Range water interests have raised the prospect of it possibly including mandatory curtailment of uses.
Last week, the Colorado Water Conservation Board directed its staff to work on developing a draft policy guiding development of any demand management program in the state.
Becky Mitchell, director of the CWCB, told the roughly 250 participants in Tuesday’s webinar that all state efforts at this point are geared toward assessing the capability of a temporary, voluntary, compensated program.
“We plan to continue to work with stakeholders on how such a program could be operated,” she said.
That work involves an ongoing, extensive outreach effort, including at an Oct. 23 workshop in Grand Junction hosted by the Grand Valley Water Users Association, she said.
Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller hopes the Colorado Water Conservation Board will adopt a demand management program policy in November with the criteria the Western Slope has been seeking. If it doesn’t, the river district may have to oppose the interstate drought contingency planning documents and associated legislation, he said.
Speaking at a water forum in Grand Junction in September, Mueller voiced concerns that the state appeared to be headed toward finalizing interstate drought contingency documents within a matter of weeks, without having released them for public review. He’s been glad to see instead that the process is moving more slowly, with the opportunity to provide comment…
Mueller said the river district is reviewing the documents released Tuesday and will be submitting comments on them, but they contained no surprises based on an initial reading of them.
Meanwhile, Mueller said the river district understands a time may come when drought conditions become so horrendous the state might need to consider looking at mandatory, uncompensated curtailment of water uses in Colorado to avoid curtailment under the interstate compact.
“But it should only happen after that concept has been subject to very clear public discussion and very informed public discussion,” he said.
Here’s the release from The Rocky Mountain Collegian (Julia Trowbridge):
With the “Arid West” experiencing climate change and a growing population, it’s time to look at water rights. Colorado State University professors are joining up with researchers across universities and disciplines in Colorado, Nevada and Arizona to do just that.
In partnership with the University of Nevada Reno, Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the Desert Research Institute, CSU researchers received a $4.9 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture in order to create an economic model of how water rights should be allocated in the long term.
This topic has come up due to changes in population growth and climate change, especially in sustaining and increasing agricultural productivity, according to the research proposal.
The research centers around the concept of water rights. Water rights refer to a business’s right to irrigate water. Dale Manning, an agricultural and resource economics professor at CSU, said the longer the business has had the water right, the more secure the business’s water supply claim is. This is important because people with more secure rights get priority access to water resources.
“What happens is, if you’re a senior water right and can’t get the water you’ve historically used, you can tell all the people who are more junior to you, who started diverting water after you, to stop diverting,” Manning said.
The research project focuses on the water basins that the researchers are around: the South Platte river basin, the Verde River basin and the Walker river basin. Although the economic models are being designed around these basins, the research team wants these models to be tailored to any area that relies on surface water, Manning said.
Agriculture diverts the most water in the west, and it diverts anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of the water supply each year, said Christopher Goemans, an agricultural and resource economics professor at CSU. With the expansion of population, agricultural, municipal and industrial areas are forced to compete for the water resources available.
“Any institution that we come up with is tricky because you want to have reliability built into the system so that if I’m a city or a group of cities … I know what my rights are to certain amounts of water,” Goemans said. “But at the same time, we also want fluidity, no pun intended, in the system because as conditions change, whether on the demand or the supply, we want the system to be adaptable to those conditions.”
The demand for water changes in relation to population changes in an area. Manning said through potential options like conservation and reservoirs, the research team is looking into how in the future the amount of water needed can be best maintained.
“Having those different options is actually good, we aren’t limited to one thing to adapt,” Goemans said. “It’s not only building infrastructure, it’s not only telling people to use less, but it’s a combination of all that.”
The side of demand not only involves economic thought, but also social sciences and hydrology engineers. This is where the importance of interdisciplinary work comes in, Manning said.
“You can’t really do this without doing interdisciplinary work,” Manning said. “We don’t model hydrology, but somebody on this project will, and that’ll help us create the supply side of our economic model.”
The research group aims to make a long-lasting impact on how water resources are allocated in the future. With the increased uncertainty of the supply of water, they want to create a reliable yet fluid system for the balance between agricultural, municipal and industrial water needs.
“It’s not just academics and it’s not just one state,” Goemans said. “There’s this huge outreach component. We’re working with local water authorities and each of the states to try to make sure (the research) is as useful for them as possible.”
Collegian reporter Julia Trowbridge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @chapin_jules.
Click here to go to the The Water Information Program website to view the presentations:
Thanks to an engaged audience and expert speakers, the 2018 Water 101 – 201 Seminar was a success! Thanks to all who attended. This years seminar took place in Nucla, CO on September 18 – 19, 2018. Our presenters have generously provided their presentations for review on the WIP website.
Friend of Coyote Gulch, Greg Hobbs, made the trek to Nucla and kindly provided the photo record below.
Water 101-102 Southwestern Colorado September 17-19, 2018
Dolores and San Miguel Rivers, Paradox Valley at Bedrock, Hanging Flume, Dallas Divide, Ute Indian Museum Montrose, Blue Mesa Reservoir
Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):
As temperatures in Albuquerque climb to triple digits, the Rio Grande’s flows continue to recede leaving vast islands and sandy channels where the mighty river once roamed. The contrast between conditions this year and last year is stark.
In 2017, the April forecast for the Rio Grande at the Otowi Gauge was 128 percent of average; this year it is 20. The U.S. Drought Monitor’s maps by Brian Fuchs show New Mexico going from only about a quarter of the state in abnormally or moderately dry conditions in June of 2017 to the majority of the state in extreme or exceptional drought this year.
These conditions are driving the early low flows in the Basin, but are not the sole cause of the crisis as seems to be the nationwide narrative.
“Climate change is exposing cracks in western water policy and is shining a spotlight on the unsustainable allocation of water from our rivers and streams,” said Jen Pelz, Rio Grande Waterkeeper and Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “The emerging disaster on the Rio Grande this year comes from archaic water policies, lack of accountability by the states, and water managers acting like its business as usual despite the dire stream flow conditions.”
Three main flaws in water policy and enforcement are driving the situation this year. First, the Rio Grande Compact—an agreement between Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas that sought in 1938 to equitably allocate the waters of the Rio Grande between the states–is operating in dry years to magnify the climate changed induced flow declines. When flows are above average (128 percent), like in 2017, Colorado’s delivery obligations to downstream states roughly mimic the flows at the index gauge.
However, when flows cease to reach a threshold of about 4,000 cubic feet per second, the delivery obligation of Colorado ceases entirely meaning Colorado water users can take every last drop and be entirely within the terms of the compact.
The Rio Grande Compact, like other western water agreements, is based on data from an unrepresentative wet period in the historical record; therefore, the allocation system is far from equitable.
Second, the State of New Mexico provides no leadership or accountability to ensure water users in the state are only using what they need. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, for example, requested a permit in 1925 to irrigate over 100,000 acres in the Middle Rio Grande valley from Cochiti Dam to Elephant Butte Dam. The District, however, has not (90 years later) ever proven that it has irrigated the acreage contemplated in the permit, nor that it needs the water it has claimed. This is a fundamental requirement under the New Mexico Constitution that is being blatantly disregarded.
Finally, the District—the entity that delivers water to farmers in the Middle Rio Grande—just last week finally limited its diversions to the more senior users. Despite anticipated flows of 20 percent of average, the District provided water to the most junior users—those that do not have any claim to water—from March 1 to June 12 (104 days).
“These institutional agreements and policies not only threaten the health of the river, but also put the most senior users’ ability to irrigate to the end of the season at risk,” added Pelz. “The wild west days are over and climate change is exposing these flawed choices. It’s time to find a new sustainable path forward.”
WildEarth Guardians works to protect and restore the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West. Our Rio Grande: America’s Great River campaign seeks to provide the Rio Grande with a right to its own water and to reform western water policy for a sustainable future for this icon.
From the New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):
The Rio Grande Compact, which divides water among Colorado, New Mexico and Texas was signed in 1938. And New Mexico’s water laws today are still based on codes that the territorial legislature passed in 1907.
But as the climate changes and warmer temperatures affect the state’s rivers, reservoirs and aquifers, the same tactics and strategies that may have helped New Mexicans weather dry times over the past century won’t keep working. And perhaps no place in the state offers such a stark reminder of that fact than the reservoir behind this dam. After a dry winter and hardly any snowmelt this spring, Elephant Butte Reservoir is at three percent capacity, storing 58,906 acre feet of water as of September 24.
Historically, people tend to listen to what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear: What they need to hear is that our laws do not reflect hydrology and our hydrology is changing for the worse, and if we do not manage it, it will manage itself,” says Phil King, an expert on hydrology and the relationship between surface and ground water in southern New Mexico. “I would much rather correct the system ourselves through management than let nature do it’s cold, hard reality fix,” adds King, a professor of civil engineering at New Mexico State University and a consultant to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, or EBID.
Stopping the ‘death spiral’
EBID serves about 8,000 farmers in the Rincon and Mesilla valleys in southern New Mexico, from Arrey to the border town of Santa Teresa. If you’ve eaten chile from Hatch or pecans from Mesilla, fed alfalfa to your horses or poured milk from a New Mexico dairy into your coffee, you’ve consumed water that EBID’s farmers divert from the Rio Grande and Elephant Butte or pump from the aquifer.
For roughly a century, EBID farmers have supplemented irrigation water with groundwater. Without it, they would not have survived the drought of the 1950s. But they pumped during the wet years, too, including throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. Then, beginning around 2003, about four years into the Southwest’s current drought period, pumping ramped up even more.
That’s a problem, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, where river water recharges the groundwater, and pumping water from the aquifer makes it even thirstier for river water.
With both the surface water and the groundwater strained, the system suffers a double-whammy, King says. That causes a positive feedback or what King calls a “death spiral.”
Even though scientists, engineers, hydrologists and farmers know the two are intertwined within the same system, in New Mexico, groundwater and surface water are managed separately. King calls that “hydrological folly.”
“We’ve got some major rethinking to do with New Mexico water law: Status quo is not an option,” he says. “I think what people need to understand is we are facing conditions that mankind has not faced here before.”
And the only way to reverse that death spiral is to use less water.