Following an executive session, the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) Board of Directors voted to take action on some water rights issues, as well as a potential contract offering.
The SJWCD board entered one executive session to discuss two separate items. One item dealt with legal advice pertaining to questions involving water rights, district contracts and strategic plan preparation…
Upon returning from extensive executive session and calling the meeting back into public session, Porco noted that no decisions were made in the executive session.
However, Porco then asked for a motion to file a statement of opposition in a water case involving Bootjack Ranch.
That motion was approved unanimously by the SJWCD board. According to Kane in an email to The SUN, in December of 2018, the SJWCD authorized its legal counsel to file a statement of opposition in a water rights case filed by Bootjack Ranch LLC.
According to Kane, Bootjack Ranch is now requesting several new water rights, as well as a plan for augmentation.
This plan involves what Kane referred to as “release water,” which is stored in a pond to replace depletions from its other water rights.
“To have adequate time to evaluate the potential for those water rights and the plan for augmentation and to have standing to protect its water rights from injury, the Board authorized its counsel to file a statement of opposition by the February 28 deadline so that it can be a party to the case,” Kane explained.
“I think it’s needed so that we can protect our water rights,” Pfister said at the meeting.
Also following the executive session, Porco called for a motion to offer a contract to Lewis “and authorize Mr. Pfister to begin ne- gotiations with her.”
That motion was also unanimously approved by the SJWCD board.
Regarding future negotiations with Lewis, Kane explained that SJWCD authorized Pfister to propose a contract that was similar to the original one that had her assisting the SJWCD with its strategic planning.
Another item that required a motion following the executive session pertained to SJWCD’s legal counsel to withdraw a statement of opposition for the Lovato case.
“I move that we authorize legal counsel to file our withdrawal of our statement of opposition in the Lovato case,” Pfister said.
That motion also carried unanimously.
The Lovato case is a case that was filed in the Rio Grande Basin in 2010, Kane explained in the follow- up email.
“The application originally involved use of a water right for a transbasin diversion from a stream tributary to the San Juan River, known as the Treasure Pass Ditch,” Kane wrote.
Initially, the SJWCD filed a statement of opposition in order to gain standing to protect its water rights from injury, Kane further explained.
“In September, the applicant decided to withdraw the claim involving the Treasure Pass Ditch. With that claim removed, the Board decided that it had no further interest in the case, so it authorized its counsel to file a notice of withdrawal so that SJWCD will no longer be a party to that case,” Kane added.
The notice of withdrawal will be filed sometime this week, Kane noted.
A major player in the drought contingency plan on Thursday yanked its scheduled ratification of its part of the deal, potentially upending any chance of the state meeting the March 4 deadline set by the Bureau of Reclamation.
Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, said he had called for a special meeting of the tribal council to consider and approve the necessary agreements to provide up to 500,000 acre feet of water between now and 2026. That was designed to help make up for the water that the state will no longer be able to draw from Lake Mead, much of that earmarked for Pinal County farmers.
But Lewis said he learned that House Speaker Rusty Bowers has his own hearing set for Tuesday on legislation that would affect the tribe’s rights to water from the Gila River. As a result, Lewis said he and the council have decided they won’t consider ratification.
“This step may very well prevent us from being in a position to approve the Arizona DCP implementation plan in time to meet the very real deadline established by the Bureau of Reclamation, or in fact ever,” Lewis said.
And the tribal governor made it clear who he thinks will be to blame if the whole deal falls apart.
“While Speaker Bowers’ action may have placed the future of DCP in serious jeopardy, it will not shake our determination to protect our water settlement,” Lewis wrote.
Bowers declined to comment on the latest development.
But an aide to the speaker said that, at this point, Bowers intends to pursue his legislation, even with the threat.
That echoes the comments Bowers made last month to Capitol Media Services when the tribe first said he has to drop his legislation.
“I’m not going to back down,” he said at the time.
And he lashed out at the tribe for trying to link the issues.
“This is just showing their mentality to everybody who gets in their way,” Bowers said. “It’s all ‘Our way or no way.’ ”
Gov. Doug Ducey, who has made approval of the DCP a key goal, sidestepped questions about the new hurdle, with press aide Patrick Ptak saying only that his boss is focused on working with other states to get Congress to approve necessary changes in federal law.
The legislation that threatens to blow up the deal, HB 2476, concerns at what point people who had one time had the right to divert water from the river lose those rights. As the law now reads, those rights were forfeited if the water was not used for at least five years.
Bowers wants to repeal all that. That, in turn, would affect ongoing lawsuits about who gets to claim water from the upper Gila River, water that the tribe says belongs to it because the prior users forfeited their rights.
MARICOPA — In satellite images, the farm fields in central Arizona stand out like an emerald green quilt draped across the desert landscape.
Seeing it from the ground level, the fields of alfalfa, corn and wheat are interspersed with the furrows of freshly plowed fields. After the cotton harvest, stray fluffy bolls lie scattered on the ground like patches of snow.
A large share of the water that flows to these fields comes from the Colorado River, and the supply of water is about to decrease dramatically.
Under Arizona’s plan for coping with drought, farmers who’ve received Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project Canal for more than three decades now expect to see their allotment slashed more than 60 percent, from 275,000 acre-feet to 105,000 acre-feet per year for the first three years of a shortage. After that, their supply of Colorado River water will be cut off and they plan to rely solely on pumping groundwater from wells.
The plan to shut off deliveries of surface water to farms in Pinal County shows how the demands of agriculture are starting to collide like never before with water scarcity and climate change in the Southwest. The strategy of turning to groundwater pumping will test the limits of Arizona’s regulatory system for its desert aquifers, which targets some areas for pumping restrictions and leaves others with looser rules or no regulation at all.
In Pinal County, which falls under these groundwater rules, the return to a total reliance on wells reflects a major turning point and raises the possibility that this part of Arizona could again sink into a pattern of falling groundwater levels — just as it did decades ago, before the arrival of Colorado River water…
With the imported supply of water now about to go away, the farmers in the area are bracing for changes that they see approaching much more rapidly than they had anticipated. A first-ever shortage on the Colorado River could be declared starting next year. When the flow of water through the CAP canal decreases, no other group of people will feel the direct effects as acutely as the growers and laborers who run the farms in Pinal County…
“As I lose water, I will fallow land,” Thelander said as he drove his pickup past fields of cotton and alfalfa. “We’re going to have to lay off employees.”
Drought plan maps out new future
The Colorado River irrigates more than 5 million acres of farmlands and supplies about 40 million people in cities from Denver to Los Angeles.
Nineteen years of drought and chronic overuse, combined with the worsening effects of climate change, have pushed the levels of the river’s reservoirs lower and lower. Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, now sits just 40 percent full and approaching a shortage.
Under the proposed Drought Contingency Plan for the river’s lower basin, Arizona would join with California and Nevada to take less water out of Lake Mead in an effort to prevent it from falling to disastrously low levels.
During the Legislature’s discussions of Arizona’s piece of the drought deal, the plan to provide state funding to Pinal irrigation districts prompted debate. There also was debate about how the agriculture economy will be affected.
The Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, which represents cities that supply water to more than half the state’s population, said in a Jan. 7 economic analysis that Pinal County agriculture represented about 0.2 percent of Arizona’s economy in 2016, and that about 11 percent of the county’s agriculture industry is at risk due to the water cutbacks under the Drought Contingency Plan.
While growers will have to shrink their crop irrigation by one-third on average, the association said, much of the county’s farming economy is based on dairies and beef production. It said feed for the cattle can be brought from outside Pinal County.
The county produces much of Arizona’s milk, and a large portion of the milk comes from Shamrock Farms. The dairy has about 12,000 cows…
Crop choices, groundwater use scrutinized
Given all the stresses on water supplies in the desert Southwest, the farmers in Pinal have faced questions about their choices of crops, their irrigation methods and their plan to rely on more groundwater pumping. Critics have asked whether it makes sense to continue growing thirsty crops like alfalfa and cotton in the desert. They’ve also called for more investment in using water more efficiently on the farms.
Sandy Bahr, who leads the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, criticized the plan to use taxpayers’ money for new wells and other water infrastructure. She said this goes against decades of water policy in Arizona aimed at reducing the pressures on groundwater supplies, from the construction of the Central Arizona Project canal starting in the 1970s to the passage of the state’s landmark Groundwater Management Act in 1980.
“After decades of trying to limit groundwater pumping, we see kind of this test of the Groundwater Management Act,” Bahr said. She said the plan approved by the Legislature will now promote more groundwater pumping and over-exploitation of aquifers.
If that’s going to be allowed, she asked, then shouldn’t the landowners in Pinal “have to pay for it themselves?”
Bahr said she’s concerned that the plan doesn’t involve looking at how different types of crops could help in using less water.
“Instead, almost every facet of what the Legislature passed is tied to getting water to these Pinal County interests,” she said.
Some conservationists and lawmakers have also raised questions about how efficiently water is being used on Pinal’s farms, and what steps could be taken to promote the installation of more water-saving irrigation systems.
Researchers who’ve looked at ways of improving irrigation methods have found big potential for saving water on farms, which use more than 70 percent of the water supply across the Colorado River basin. When researchers with the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based water think tank, examined water use along the Colorado River in a 2013 study, they found that irrigating alfalfa more efficiently (through a practice known as “regulated deficit irrigation”) could save nearly 1 million acre-feet of water per year.
They also estimated that replacing about 10 percent of the alfalfa with cotton or wheat across the river basin could save about 250,000 acre-feet per year. That’s nearly half of the total water cutbacks that Arizona will have to face under the first year of a shortage.
Thelander said people often ask him about his choices of crops.
“I always get the question: Why don’t you farm crops that are more water-efficient?” he said. “We spend a tremendous amount of money on water. And if I could make money farming low-water use crops, I would do that. There’s already a big carrot there for us to do that.”
One example is barley, which he said is one of the lowest water-use crops that can be grown in the area.
“But if we farm barley, we lose a tremendous amount of money,” Thelander said. “We’re always looking for lower water-use crops that we can make a profit on.”
How Pinal got Colorado River water
In the 1930s, growers in Pinal County dug wells and began irrigating farms with groundwater. The farms expanded through the 1950s and kept relying on wells.
The agriculture investors in the ’50s and ’60s included the actor John Wayne, who bought land to grow cotton and raise cattle, and also invested in building a feedlot.
When construction began on the CAP Canal in 1973, the project promised to help sustain the farms in central Arizona while allowing them to draw less from the aquifers.
After decades of heavy pumping in Pinal County, the water tables had fallen dramatically. The ground sank in places as the aquifers were depleted. The overpumping and the sinking ground left lasting symptoms: In several areas around the region, gaping fissures opened up in the earth.
In 1985, construction began on a canal system that would run from the main CAP canal to the fields in Pinal’s Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District. The district paid for the nearly $100 million canal system, issuing bonds and financing 80 percent of the cost with zero-interest loans from the federal government.
The first water deliveries flowed to farms in 1987, and the system was finished in 1989. It included the 56-mile Santa Rosa Canal, as well as the 17-mile East Main Canal and 130 miles of lateral canals. Through these arteries, the farms gained access to Colorado River water.
Brian Betcher helped design the project while working for a consulting firm in the early 1980s, and in 1988 he joined the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District as its engineer.
Under Arizona’s groundwater law, the farmlands were within the Pinal “active management area” and the regulatory system required that the irrigated areas not expand with the arrival of imported water.
“For every acre-foot of Colorado River water that was received, we had to reduce groundwater pumping by the same amount,” said Betcher, who is now the district’s general manager.
In 1989, the district assumed control of all the farms’ wells, acquiring them from the landowners with 40-year leases. The district has since delivered growers a mix of groundwater and Colorado River water.
While one of the reasons for building the CAP Canal was to help wean agriculture from groundwater, it was also to supply cities. And the Pinal farmers knew they were at the bottom of the list in the priority system.
As they began to irrigate with Colorado River water, Betcher said, the farmers were aware that the suburbs would continue to expand into farming areas and would have the highest priority for water.
“It was well-known that there would be a decreasing supply over time,” Betcher said. “It was pretty well understood that over time, the higher priority users, which were cities and industry, would grow into their allocations. And that would leave less water for agriculture.”
The irrigation districts’ initial contracts stipulated deliveries of Colorado River water through 2042. The way the system worked throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Orme said, the districts were able to use the available water that remained after cities and Native American tribes had taken their allotments.
The contracts didn’t list specific quantities of water but rather percentages dividing what was left among the irrigation districts. So, exactly how much water would be available for agriculture in any year was never certain.
In the early 2000s, efforts to settle several water disputes were underway in Arizona. Among those issues: Leaders of the Gila River Indian Community were seeking to settle their longstanding water-rights claims; Arizona officials were in a dispute with the federal government over the repayment costs for the construction of the CAP canal; and the Pinal irrigation districts were in a disagreement with CAP officials over how much they were being charged for water.
When the parties reached the landmark 2004 settlement, the farmers agreed to take a step down in the water priority system. Some of the water that they had been using went to tribes and cities. In exchange, the farmers would get water for about a third of the price that CAP had proposed to charge.
At the time, Lake Mead was nearly full and the farmers felt confident they’d have an assured supply of water until 2030. Their group of water users, who took water from what was called the Agricultural Pool, faced a schedule of decreasing water deliveries between 2017 and 2030.
But the growers and their irrigation districts saw the deal as beneficial because, as Orme put it, “an affordable 25-year water supply is better than a 40-year unaffordable water supply.”
As Colorado River water has continued to flow to farms, it has allowed groundwater levels to stabilize and recover somewhat. In some areas, Betcher said, the water table has risen significantly.
Over the years, the city of Maricopa has grown and replaced some of the farmland in Pinal. Around Casa Grande, new subdivisions have also sprung up.
Even after losing some farmlands to development, the Maricopa-Stanfield district still has about 60,000 irrigated acres.
This year, the district plans to deliver 43 percent of its water from the CAP canal and get the remaining 57 percent from groundwater pumping. Even before the drought deal, the area has been gradually relying more on wells. Betcher said the district has a program to rehabilitate old wells and has added to its groundwater pumping capacity during the past decade.
Of the $50 million sought by irrigation districts in central Arizona, about $15 million would go to Betcher’s district. The money will go toward drilling new wells and building pipelines to carry the groundwater to the canal system.
Betcher said wells in the district are pumping water from 500-600 feet underground.
When the new wells go online, they will likely pump down the water table again. Just how quickly the aquifer may decline isn’t clear. Together with another irrigation district, Maricopa-Stanfield is paying a consultant to prepare a study evaluating the groundwater supply…
The farmers still could return to their current schedule of water deliveries, Orme said, under a scenario in which heavy snow and rain ends the 19-year drought and sends Lake Mead rebounding.
But even with the snowpack in the river’s upper basin about average so far this winter, a shortage still looks likely. And federal water managers have been pressing for the states to finish the Drought Contingency Plan. It’s unclear whether that will happen before a March 4 deadline set by the federal Bureau of Reclamation.
FromYale 360 (Jim Robbins). Here’s an excerpt click through for the photos and to read the whole article:
The Colorado River has been dammed, diverted, and slowed by reservoirs, strangling the life out of a once-thriving ecosystem. But in the U.S. and Mexico, efforts are underway to revive sections of the river and restore vital riparian habitat for native plants, fish, and wildlife. Fifth in a series.
From the air, the last gasp of the Colorado River is sudden and dramatic. The pale green river flows smack into the Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border, and virtually all of it is immediately diverted into a large irrigation canal that waters a mosaic of hundreds of fields — alfalfa, asparagus, lettuce, and other vegetables, their vivid green color clashing against the sere desert. The slender thread of water that remains in the Colorado’s channel continues to flow south, but is soon swallowed up by a sea of sand, far short of its delta, which lies 100 miles farther on.
The Colorado River once surged through the delta during high flows, carrying so much water at times that shallow draft steamboats chugged hundreds of miles up the river into the U.S. with loads of freight. The water in the delta nourished a vast fertile landscape, a fitting end to a river known as the Nile of North America.
“The river was everywhere and nowhere,” the naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote during a 1922 canoe trip to the delta, describing the waterway as it ebbed, flowed, braided, and stalled into pools, nourishing a rich and diverse ecosystem of “a hundred green lagoons,” a “milk and honey wilderness” with thick stands of cottonwoods and willows that provided habitat for hundreds of species of birds. The delta’s marshes, mudflats, and white sand beaches were home to clapper rails, bitterns, mallards, teal, and clouds of egrets.
Bobcats, puma, deer, and wild boar wandered the delta’s forests. Leopold was searching for the jaguar that roamed there, but didn’t see any…
As a natural river, before it was dammed, the Colorado was a massive, dynamic waterway. It flowed from elevations above 14,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, then dropped to sea level, which meant that it moved at high water with tremendous force, liquid sandpaper carving out red rock canyons. It flooded the desert plains, carving new channels and braids with every inundation. When it receded, it left behind a mosaic of fecund marshes, wetlands, and ponds.
In its natural state, the Colorado had more extreme flows than any river in the U.S., ranging from lows of 2,500 cubic feet per second in the winter to 100,000 cubic feet per second in the summer. In 1884, an all-time historical peak flow reached 384,000 cubic feet per second in Arizona.
But extreme flows are too capricious to support a civilization, so over the past century or so humans have built a network of expensive dams and reservoirs, pipelines, canals, flumes, and aqueducts to tame and divert the flow. Yet these projects also strangled the life out of a once-thriving ecosystem. By design, the river will never again function as a free-flowing stream.
Now, however, experts and environmentalists are rethinking this technological marvel of a river, and looking at ways a natural Colorado can flourish — to some degree, and in some places — with the permission of the engineers. One of those places is in the delta.
The water that flowed in the once-lush delta has been replaced by sand, and the cottonwoods and willows have surrendered their turf to widespread invasive salt cedar and arrowweed. Without the river and its load of nutrients, marine productivity in the Gulf of California — where the Colorado River once ended — has fallen by up to 95 percent. But despite the dismal forecast for the future of water on the Colorado, some conservationists are hoping to return at least a portion of the delta to its former glory.
“We are trying to restore a network of sites that creates a functional ecosystem,” said Francisco Zamora, who manages the project for the Sonoran Institute. “We’ve acquired water rights, but use them for habitat instead of cotton or wheat.”
The delta is one of a disconnected series of restoration projects that government agencies, local groups, and environmental organizations are undertaking along the Colorado. Numerous efforts are focused on tributaries to the main stem of the river, seeking to enhance resiliency by increasing the flow of water and protecting and restoring riparian habitat for fish and other wildlife.
For example, a coalition of groups — including state agencies, nonprofits, and the Arizona cities of Buckeye and Agua Fria — have been removing invasive salt cedar, planting native species, and building levees to reclaim a 17-mile stretch of the Gila River. Invasive salt cedars are a region-wide problem on the lower Colorado, with a single tree sucking up 300 gallons a day. The invasive forest on this stretch of the river uses enough water to serve 200,000 households.
In the upper basin, meanwhile, a number of groups and local landowners are working to restore a 15-mile-long floodplain with globally significant biodiversity on a narrow section of the Yampa River, another Colorado tributary. Called Morgan Bottom, the section has been damaged by deforestation and poor agricultural practices, threatening bald eagles and greater sand hill cranes, as well as a rare riparian forest of narrowleaf cottonwood and red osier dogwood.
But there are limits to how natural the Colorado River can become, especially along the river’s main stem. “We should not kid ourselves that we are making it natural again,” said John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program and the author of a book about the restoration of the Colorado. “We are creating an intensively managed system to mimic some nature because we value it.”
Because of the Colorado’s extensive infrastructure, serious disruption of the river’s ecology is inevitable.
Indeed, some of the remaining naturalness on the Colorado is, paradoxically, because of the human-made system. “The geography of the Colorado gives it hope because L.A. and southern California, which everybody loves to hate, guarantee that a lot of water stays in the system through the Grand Canyon,” says Jack Schmidt, a professor at Utah State University and a member of the Colorado River Research Group. “The best friend endangered fish ever had in the Colorado River Basin is that giant sucking sound” of California withdrawing water.
Widespread protection efforts are focused on native fish in the Colorado. The river once was home to an unusual number of endemic fish. But dams, irrigation, and the introduction of bullhead, carp, and catfish did them in. While the upper basin still has 14 native fish species, the lower basin, according to one study, “has the dubious distinction of being among the few major rivers of the world with an entirely introduced fish fauna.”
The Colorado pike minnow — something of a misnomer for a fish that historically grew to 6 feet in length and weighed up to 80 pounds — once swam through the entire system from Wyoming to Mexico. It is now listed as endangered, with two distinct populations remaining in the upper Colorado and the Green River.
The humpback chub lived in various canyon sections, and though once seriously endangered, it has fared better in recent years through transplantation efforts, growing from 2,000 to 3,000 fish to 11,000. Officials say it may soon be taken off the endangered list.
Razorback suckers, once common, are now rare. The bonytail, a type of chub that is one of North America’s most endangered fish, no longer exists in the wild. A handful of these fish exist in hatcheries, and attempts are underway to restock them in the river throughout the basin.
Because of the Colorado’s extensive infrastructure, serious disruption of the river’s ecology is inevitable. Dams trap most of the river’s sediment in reservoirs, which means there is no material to rebuild beaches, sandbars, and important fish habitat downstream.
Dams also deprive the river downstream of nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, and stratify water temperatures. The native fish in the Colorado adapted to a wide range of temperatures, from cold to very warm. They also evolved to tolerate high flood flows along with extremely dry periods. Now, the water is cold in the summer for miles below the dams, and the humpback chub and other fish that had adapted to a range of water temperatures and flows suffer.
Something called hydro-peaking also has had serious impacts on the food web. Dams generate power according to demand. As people come home from work and switch on the stove, air conditioning, and lights, demand soars and dams release more water to produce power. “Prior to the construction of dams, there were almost no major daily changes in river levels,” said David Lytle, a professor of integrative biology at Oregon State University. When fluctuations in water levels occur, they “can interrupt the egg-laying practices of some species. It’s a serious problem.”
Insects lay their eggs just below the water level, and if levels drop rapidly it can dry them out. A recent study found that below the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, there was a complete absence of stoneflies, mayflies, and other species — insects that are vital food for fish, bats, birds, and other creatures.
Because of the ecological effects of the Glen Canyon Dam, the Grand Canyon stretch of the Colorado is one of the least productive sections of river in the world. The Colorado here will always be highly unnatural, a novel, human-created ecosystem with some natural elements.
Today, there is a large and growing backlash against dams in America and elsewhere as the immense damages they have inflicted on rivers become manifest. Few dams, though, are as reviled as the Glen Canyon, which was built in 1963 and took 17 years to fill Lake Powell.
Before the Glen Canyon was dammed, those who saw it say it was not unlike the Grand Canyon, with towering walls of red, tan, and ochre. Early Native American sites were plentiful. Environmental activist Edward Abbey decried the dam, and in his novel the Monkey Wrench Gang fantasized about using houseboats packed with explosives to blow it up. In 1981, members of Earth First!, a radical environmental group with a connection to Abbey, rolled a black plastic “crack” down the face of the dam to symbolize its demise.
Removing the dam was part of the reason the Glen Canyon Institute was formed, but activists have now dropped that idea, says Rich Ingebretsen, a Salt Lake City physician who founded the group. Today, he advocates draining Lake Powell to fill Lake Mead, which is downstream and where the need for water is by far the greatest. The “Fill Mead First” campaign would restore a free-running Colorado River to what was once Lake Powell.
“You’d get much of Glen Canyon back,” said Ingebretsen. “A free-flowing river through the Grand Canyon means you’d restore the river — riparian zones, animals that belong there, a beautiful canyon with arches and bridges and waterfalls. Much of that would come back very quickly.” There would also be increased water in the river, he says, because so much of the Colorado is now lost from Lake Powell; scientists estimate that the lake loses three times Nevada’s allotment of water because of evaporation. As levels in Lake Mead drop due to prolonged drought, a growing number of people are taking this idea more seriously.
Paradoxically, two of the Colorado River’s most important wetlands for wildlife are the product of runoff from irrigated farm fields — and are now at risk from a changing climate and agreements to reduce water use.
In the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico, the 40,000-acre La Cienega de Santa Clara wetland was inadvertently created in the 1970s when U.S. officials built a canal to dispose of salty wastewater from agricultural fields in Arizona. As the water began spilling into the desert, myriad forms of life began to appear. Now its cattail-studded marshes and mudflats are considered one of the most important wetlands in North America, home to 280 species of birds — including the endangered Ridgeways rail — on what was once hard-baked desert.
Meanwhile, in California, the Salton Sea was once a shallow inland lake whose levels routinely fluctuated. In 1905, an effort to increase Colorado River flow into the Imperial Valley led farmers to allow too much river water into their irrigation canal, overwhelming their system; for two years the water poured into the 35-mile-long, 15-mile-wide Salton Sea and expanded it.
But as less water becomes available to agriculture and rising temperatures cause more water to evaporate, scientists are concerned that these wetlands will dry and shrink faster than they already have. A 2003 agreement, for example, allows agricultural water in the Imperial Valley to be sent to San Diego for municipal uses. That could cause water levels in the Salton Sea to drop by more than 40 percent, dramatically reducing bird habitat and increasing toxic dust because wetlands would dry out. Local, state, and federal officials have devised a plan — still not fully funded — to restore 15,000 acres of wetlands, at a cost of more than $700 million.
The largest project to restore some semblance of nature to the Colorado River, though, is in the delta. An unusual agreement in 2012 between the U.S. and Mexico, called Minute 319, mandated that the two countries would provide water and funding to revive sections of the delta and release a one-time pulse of 105,000 acre-feet to again connect the river to the delta temporarily. Scientists would then study the effects.
In 2014, for the first time in decades, the river flowed again in Mexico — for eight weeks. San Luis Rio Colorado — once a Colorado River town, but now a dusty desert settlement — became a river town for two months, to the delight of locals, many of whom had never seen the river. The pulse offered a glimpse of what reclamation efforts might look like. “It gave us an idea of how the river behaves, and the best sites for restoration,” said Zamora.
Minute 319 and its 2017 replacement, Minute 323, have funded the restoration of sections of the river. A group of nonprofits — including the National Audubon Society, the Sonoran Institute, The Nature Conservancy, and a Mexican group called Pronatura Noroeste — is working on a project called Raise the River to revive a significant swath of the delta.
In 2008, the group secured rights to 1,200 acres along the desiccated river channel. Since then, local residents have torn out acres of salt cedar and planted irrigated fields of cottonwood, willow, and other endemic species — more than 200,000 trees in all. A small supply of water mandated by the treaty, along with excess water that flows off of irrigated fields, have been dedicated to the restoration.
On a recent visit, I joined Zamora and botanist Celia Alvarado on a short boat ride to Laguna Grande, a 6-mile section of restored river and estuary. We skimmed across still water the color of weak tea, minnows darting away from our paddles. Thick groves of cottonwoods and willows lined the river. Zamora remarked that bobcats and beaver lived there now, along with blue grosbeaks and yellow-billed cuckoos. “Impacting the target species is key,” he said.
And what about the jaguar? I asked. It has not returned, he said. Will it come back?
“Yes,” said Zamora, smiling. “Someday. If they allow me to introduce them.”
Since 1981, the Southwestern Water Conservation District has coordinated the Annual Water Seminar to bring together individuals who are passionate about water resources to hear expert speakers from around the state and region. Mark your calendars for this year’s event: Friday, April 5 in Durango…
Excited? You can reserve your seat early. Registration includes catered breakfast and lunch. Click the button below or call 970-247-1302.
FromThe Summit Daily (Deepan Dutta) via The Sky-Hi News:
Amid the worst drought in the recorded history of the Colorado River Basin, the federal government is giving Colorado and six other states just one more month to finalize drought contingency plans to rein in water use. If all seven basin states do not comply by March 4, the feds will intervene and create its own scheme to adjust water usage across the West.
Jan. 31 was the original deadline for the Upper and Lower Basin states to submit their completed drought contingency plans before the Department of the Interior uses its authority to draw up plans at the federal level.
The Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico have already submitted their plans, as well as the country of Mexico. The Lower Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — have yet to finalize their plans.
There is good reason for the urgency. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which collectively distribute the Colorado River’s water to 40 million people across the West, are at the lowest levels they’ve been since Lake Powell was first filled in the ’60s. The drought has been continuous since 2000, with warming temperatures and shorter winters leaving less and less snow melting at the river’s source. The feds wanted the drought contingency plans to be in place by this summer to slow down water loss and avoid reaching critically low reservoir levels next summer…
Coming up with drought contingency plans is time consuming and requires a lot of negotiating among thousands of water rights holders. A particular hangup exists with Arizona, which is the only state that needs state legislature approval before the plans can be officially submitted.
Arizona has been struggling to get the many ranchers, farmers, American Indian tribes and other stakeholders who rely on water in one of the driest parts of the country to agree to cutbacks in the case of a water emergency. After a lot of log rolling, and just six hours before the Jan. 31 deadline, Arizona’s Gov. Doug Ducey signed a drought contingency plan that the state believed to be sufficient.
However, the Bureau of Reclamation was not satisfied. The next day, the bureau proclaimed that Arizona, California and Nevada had not submitted complete plans, as agreements had not been reached with all the key water rights holders. In other words, the feds were not convinced that the drought contingency plans were sufficient to ensure water levels staying above critical.
The bureau gave the states until March 4 to finalize their plans. If they’re not finalized by then, the feds would request comment from the governor of each state on how they wish to manage their water, with a public comment period.
The feds saw Arizona’s late effort to pass a plan as promising, and is still optimistic that the plans can be finalized by the deadline, avoiding federal intervention. However, the situation is grave enough that March 4 may very well be the last day the basin states can control their own destiny when it comes to water management.
“This departmental action was not our preferred approach,” the Bureau of Reclamation said in a statement. “However, any further delay elevates existing risks in the basin to unacceptable levels. It is our hope that the basin states will promptly complete the (plans), and if they are successful, we anticipate terminating (plans for federal intervention.)”
On the surface, things have seemed to be looking up in recent weeks for the future of Lake Mead.
The Western storms of the last month have fostered the impression of a respite, at least temporarily, from the region’s long drought. Earlier this month, Arizona legislators passed a sheaf of crucial measures signaling their willingness to cooperate in an interstate drought contingency plan, staving off federal intervention.
Yet these are stopgaps. The giant reservoir on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, which provides water chiefly to residents in California and farmers there and in Arizona, is suffering from a long-term and possibly irreversible decline in capacity.
Lake Mead’s enemies are both natural and man-made. Climate change has placed the Colorado River basin in a long-term drought. Meanwhile, human demands for water from the Colorado have far outstripped what it can provide.
“We’re in the 19th year of a drought,” observes Robert Glennon, an expert on water policy at the University of Arizona, “and it’s pretty obvious that climate change is having a devastating impact.” That places a premium on interstate cooperation to address the drought’s consequences — chiefly how to apportion what is certain to be a diminishing supply of Colorado water.
The regional director of the Upper Colorado River Basin for the Bureau of Reclamation told water managers and users last week to expect below-average runoff this year, despite encouraging snowfall this winter.
Brent Rhees — who oversees the federal reservoirs in the upper basin for the Bureau of Reclamation, including Lake Powell, Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa — said that although this winter’s snowfall, or “snow water equivalent,” in the upper basin above Lake Powell was now above average (109 percent on Feb. 7) the parched ground left in the wake of a hot, dry 2018 likely would soak up a lot of the resultant moisture in the spring.
As such, this year’s runoff is not expected to reach the average level, although storms in February and March could push it up to the 80 percent range.
“What we’re suffering from is last year’s dry year,” Rhees told the members of the Colorado Water Congress on Feb. 1. “And so, the runoff that is forecast is not that great. Last year, you all remember, it was the third-lowest on record inflow into Lake Powell. So, it’s not looking really good.”
Since Rhees’ remarks, it has been snowing a lot in Colorado, and the snowpack in the Roaring Fork River basin was at 115 percent of average on Feb. 6. But, again, Rhees was looking at future runoff over a thirsty landscape.
The inflow into Lake Powell during water year 2018 (Oct. 1 to Sept. 30) totaled about 4.5 million acre-feet, or MAF, while about 9 MAF was released from Glen Canyon Dam to run down the Colorado River and into Lake Mead, Rhees said.
“So, the math is pretty simple, isn’t it?” Rhees said. “More went out than came in. And so, we saw a significant drop in reservoir elevation.”
As of Jan. 1, the Bureau of Reclamation forecast that 6.98 MAF, or 64 percent of average, would most likely flow into Lake Powell, but releases from Lake Powell are expected to be about 8.6 MAF.
“We’re going to release a little bit more than comes in, likely this year,” Rhees said.
That means Lake Powell is expected to continue to shrink in 2019.
On Feb. 3, the elevation of the reservoir, as measured against the upstream face of Glen Canyon Dam, was 3,575 feet above sea level, or 39 percent full, and held 9.6 MAF.
The first ongoing effort to bolster water levels in Lake Powell is weather modification in the form of cloud seeding.
Rhees said the federal government’s position on funding cloud seeding has moved from funding only research to funding active operations, too.
“That’s good news from my perspective,” he said.
The second effort is “drought-response operations,” which will begin if Lake Powell drops to the triggering elevation of 3,525 feet, or 35 feet above minimum power pool (which it is not yet forecasted to do in either 2019 or 2020).
But should the reservoir hit 3,525 feet, the drought-response operations will entail releasing up to 2 MAF of water from federal reservoirs in the upper basin, primarily from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River, which can hold 3.7 MAF; Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison River, which can hold 829,500 acre-feet; and Navajo Reservoir on the San Juan River, which can hold 1.69 MAF.
Rhees said Flaming Gorge is “the one that can have the biggest impact, (but) all (federal) reservoirs can participate in propping up that minimum power pool of 3,490 (feet).”
He also said the releases from the reservoirs would be “indiscernible” to river users and the water would not come down the river in a big wave of water, as some might imagine.
“You won’t know, if you are on the river, that it’s even happening,” he said.
The third effort to add more water to the river system is “demand management,” or a purposeful reduction in the amount of water diverted from rivers and put to a consumptive use, such as growing a crop or a lawn.
Voluntary demand-management programs are now being investigated in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, and the water saved by irrigators fallowing fields — for money — is to be stored in a new regulatory pool of up to 500,000 acre-feet in Lake Powell.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published this story on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2018.
Colorado officials and regional water managers are poised to start working together on a plan to reduce water use in Colorado, mainly by paying willing irrigators to fallow hayfields, in order to bolster falling water levels in Lake Powell and guard against a compact call on the Colorado River system.
After a series of meetings held last week by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and by Western Slope and Front Range water interests, state officials are now set to begin investigating the feasibility of a “demand management” program that’s “voluntary, temporary and compensated,” and water users and managers throughout Colorado will be asked to help shape the new program.
“Demand management, reduction in consumptive use, is an incredibly threatening concept to Western water users, and certainly to West Slope water users,” Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, told a ballroom full of water professionals Friday during the last day of a three-day Colorado Water Congress meeting here. “Our agricultural community is concerned that what this is really about is taking water from ag and bringing it into urban areas.”
Nonetheless, Mueller said, “this is a time where we have to work collaboratively, with both our urban friends and our rural friends, to figure how we do this together, and how we recognize the values that are important to each of us.”
Mueller also told the Water Congress audience that “the River District is committed to proactively engaging and working with the CWCB and the Front Range to figure out how we can stand up a program that truly protects all of us in this situation. To not do so, to not engage proactively in that conversation, would be irresponsible of every one of us in this room.”
He also laid out the Western Slope’s vision for the program, which centered on sustaining rural communities.
“We want, from a West Slope perspective, our agriculture and our industries and our cities that are going to participate in these programs to have the opportunity to use the water when they need it, and to monetize their assets into a program when they can figure out ways not to use it,” Mueller said.
Demand management is based on the idea that if water that otherwise would be used to grow hay, or turf in suburban settings, can instead be left in the river system to flow into Lake Powell, and into a new regulatory pool of water within the big reservoir, it will help boost water levels in the reservoir, allow for continued hydropower production at Glen Canyon Dam and help the upper-basin states meet their obligations to deliver a minimum amount of water to the lower-basin states under the terms of the Colorado River compact.
A recently concluded four-year test program called the System Conservation Pilot Program paid irrigators in the Upper Colorado River Basin an average of about $200 per acre-foot of conserved consumptive use of water.
Jim Lochhead, CEO and manager of Denver Water, was sharing the stage with Mueller on Friday during a panel discussion, after they together had met Thursday with other Front Range water providers in a behind-the-scenes meeting.
Lochhead said the Front Range and the Western Slope are united in their desire to avoid violating the terms of the compact.
“No one wants the result of a situation where we haven’t come together collectively to arrive at a solution,” Lochhead said.
And, he stressed, “Colorado needs to do our part to make sure that the demand-management piece is done in a way that protects all water users in Colorado, East Slope and West Slope.”
“From Denver Water’s perspective, we’re prepared to engage productively, as I’ve indicated many times in the past,” Lochhead said. “We’re prepared to contribute our share of water into a solution that would be collectively agreed to within Colorado and the other upper-basin states, if it is necessary, for our own mutual benefit and survival.”
The state’s emerging demand-management program is tied to the ongoing effort to approve “drought-contingency planning,” or DCP, agreements in the seven states in the Colorado River Basin: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, California, Arizona and Nevada.
Arizona’s governor on Thursday signed a required piece of state legislation in order to meet a federally imposed deadline, but there are still other DCP agreements that need to be finalized by a new working deadline, March 4. Federal legislation also is required to implement the regional agreements designed to keep both Lake Powell and Lake Mead operating as designed.
On Tuesday during a regular public meeting held in Westminster, the directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board indicated they were in support of a staff proposal to form seven different work groups in 2019 to study demand management.
Brent Newman, the CWCB’s interstate, federal and water information section chief, and point person on Colorado River issues, told the agency’s board of directors that the state is not yet starting up a demand-management program; it is only studying the feasibility of doing so.
He also said the state is not studying how a curtailment, or mandatory cutback in water use, would be administered by the state if the Colorado River Compact were to be violated.
Karen Kwon, a first assistant attorney general of Colorado, echoed that stance in her remarks to the CWCB directors Tuesday.
“We are not talking about how we would administer a curtailment,” Kwon said.
Newman and Kwon are proposing that the CWCB set up work groups, staffed by hand-picked experts, to explore a “plethora of issues” raised by demand management, including policy; monitoring and verification; water administration; the environment; economics; funding; and education and outreach.
The staff also proposed to set up a quarterly series of workshops for water users, managers and stakeholders, as well as engaging the state’s basin roundtables, which meet regularly in each of the state’s major river basins, on the issues raised by demand management.
A detailed work plan for the proposed process is to be presented by CWCB staff to the agency’s directors in March.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other newspapers owned by Swift Communications. The Times published this story Feb. 4.