Pick your #ColoradoRiver metaphor — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

The river is in deep doo-doo, and worse may very well come. So why such a sluggish reaction?

On a day in late May when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. It was my first visit.

Turning off the paved highway, I drove about 10 miles around the toe of Sleeping Ute Mountain, past a few irrigation ditches, one carrying water, and a lot of fields and center-pivot sprinklers. I knew the runoff the San Juan Mountains, the source of water for the 7,700-acre farming operations by the Utes, was bad. I didn’t realize just how bad it was.

Unlike many tribal rights in the Colorado River Basin, the water rights of the two Ute tribes in Colorado were negotiated in 1986. The agreement resulted in delivery of water to Towaoc, where I ate at the casino restaurant twice on that trip. Before, potable water had to be trucked in.

Mike Preston, filling in for a Ute leader at the Colorado Water Center conference this week, remembers a time before that delivery of water. “There were stock tanks sitting in people’s yards, and a water truck would back up and fill those tanks, and people would go out with buckets to get their potable water.”

The Utes got other infrastructure, too, including water from the Dolores River stored in the new McPhee Reservoir that allows the Utes to create a profitable farm enterprise. But to get the use of McPhee water, the Utes conceded the seniority of their water rights. It worked well for a lot of years, but now in a warmer, drier climate, it leaves the Utes in a hard, dry place: They got 10% of their full allocation in 2021 and 40% this year.

They have been forced to adapt. Instead of planting alfalfa, they planted corn and other crops that use less water and can be fed to cattle. They culled cattle from their herd of 650. The tribe – as are others in Colorado – is exploring the viability of kernza, a new perennial grain created at The Land Institute in Kansas.

Still, some adaptation is impossible. The agricultural enterprise has laid off about half of its employees. And last year, despite securing all available government grants created to allow farmers to make it through hard times, the operation lost $2 million.

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

Listening to that story related by Preston in a video feed to the conference on the campus of Colorado State University, I wondered whether this was a metaphor for what faces the 40 million people who, in one way or another, depend upon water from the Colorado River.

During this same conference, “Living with the Colorado River Compact: Past, Present and Future,” I heard allusions to hospital emergency wards and over-drafted bank accounts. The latter came from Jim Lochhead, who had several decades of Colorado River experience before arriving at Denver Water as chief executive in 2010.

“No wonder Lakes Powell and Mead are in the condition that they are in today,” he said after accounting the over-drafting of the two big reservoirs, now down to 24% and 26% of storage respectively. “The bank account has been drawn down,” he said, “and we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit.”

By now, the 21st century story of the Colorado River has become familiar in its broadest outlines, part of the national narrative of despair. The pivoting reality came on hard in 2002, when the Colorado River carried just 4.5 million acre-feet of water.

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

To put that into perspective, as Eric Kuhn, co-author of “Science Be Dammed,” did at this conference, those who framed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 assumed 20.5 million acre-feet as they went about apportioning the river’s flows. In the 21st century, the river has averaged 13 million acre-feet.

Alarm has been sounded but…

Now, scientists are warning that river managers should plan for no more than 11 million acre-feet, a reflection of the new hotter, and in some places, drier climate. Some think that figure is overly optimistic.

The seven basin states – particularly the thirsty states of California and Arizona – have cinched their belts with various agreements. But they have not responded in ways proportionate to the risk they now face. There is a very real danger of the reservoirs dropping to just puddles of dead pool, too little to be released downstream. Imagine the Grand Canyon without water. Imagine no water below Hoover Dam. Do these images leave you dumbstruck?

A public official on the Western Slope recently confided to me that he and others had grown weary of what they called “drought, dust and dystopia” stories. That troubled me, leaving me to wonder how my own stories are being received.

At the conference this week on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, I heard something of the same self-doubt.

“With all due respect to my fellow panelists, I live in an area where some of the topics that are mentioned, we’re not uniformly and broadly received,” said Perry Cabot, the lead researcher at Colorado’s State University’s Western Colorado Research Center near Grand Junction. “I think as researchers, we tend to believe that just more educating is going to change the dynamics of the narrative.”

Other panelists agreed with Cabot’s observation that new narratives, not just information, would better convey the gravity of the situation.

“I think the scientific community has gotten its head handed to itself,” said Brad Udall, who has dome some of the pioneering research that shows that “aridification” – as much or more than drought itself – is driving the reduced flows. Drought ends, but aridification resulting from atmospheric greenhouse gases? Not any time soon.

That has gone against the grain of water managers. A decade ago, there was still skepticism about climate change, and water always has been variable. Surely, good winters would return in the mountains of Colorado and other upper basin states that produce 90% of the river’s flows. Colorado alone is responsible for 60%.

After all, every batter goes through slumps, every best-selling author can tell of rejection slips.

By now, however, a clear trend has become evident. Even in good snow years, the runoff lags.

Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, described various outcomes of a river with continued declines in flows. Photo/Allen Best

At the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for refilling the glass that is now far less than half-full in the coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.

Even so-so precipitation has been coming up as something worse. For example, the snowpack in the Gunnison River watershed last year was 87% of average, but the runoff was only 64%.

Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last year has been among the six warmest in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuizen, a water resources engineer for the River District. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to apportion demand to match supply. After all, there’s money in the bank, and for probably a year more, enough water in the reservoirs to generate electricity.

At water meetings, an element of collegiality has remained, at least until recently. Testiness has crept in, an element of what Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based River District, calls finger-pointing.

Colorado water officials, Mueller included, are doing some of that themselves.

They point out that Colorado and the other upper-basin states get nicked for 1.2 million acre-feet in evaporative losses in their delivery of water to Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas. California, Arizona, and Nevada do not. “It’s like running two sets of books,” said Mueller.

Mueller was negotiating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the day of the conference in Fort Collins. His stand-in, Dave Kanzer, explained that the Law of the River —the Colorado River Compact and other agreements – don’t necessarily apply anymore. It is “based on long-term stable water supply, and we no longer have that,” he said.

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

Renegotiate the compact?

The Colorado River Compact assumed too much water and also used precise numbers when ratios would have been better, Mueller has observed. Instead, those who gathered in Santa Fe in November 1922 apportioned

7.5 million acre-feet to each of the two basins, upper and lower. In practice, the lower-basin states have been using twice as much water as Colorado and other upper-basin states.

Colorado’s average annual consumption from the Colorado River and its tributaries is 2.5 million acre-feet. In terms of the compact, what mattes entirely is when the diversion began, before or after the compact.

About 1.6 million-acre feet- mostly older agriculture rights – are pre-compact, but 900,000 acre-feet came later. This includes water for Western Slopes cities and the nearly all of the 500,000 acre-feet diverted across the Continental Divide to cities along the Front Range and farms in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys. This water is most imperiled.

Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District, said he does not believe it’s practical to attempt to amend or renegotiate the Colorado River Compact.

“But within a few years, maybe after we have figured out how to get out of the current crisis, we’re going to essentially ignore all of the provisions of the compact except perhaps article one, which defines the purpose and the signatures page.”

Lochhead has much the same opinion about the much-disputed element of the compact about the obligations of Colorado and other upper basin states to deliver water. It really won’t matter, he said. The real problem is that the basin states need to align demand with supply that, during the last few years, has been close to 11 million acre-feet. (Keep in mind, the compact assumed more than 20 million acre-feet).

“We’re literally in a situation of triage,” said Lochhead. “Something needs to be done in the very near term to lay a foundation for actions that can be taken in the medium and longer term to manage the river to a sustainable condition.”

The feds need to step up

Lochhead outlined three possibly overlapping alternatives.

First: involuntary regulations and restrictions. The federal government – although it has been using it with restraint – does indeed have authority to regulate use of water that enters into Mead. The U.S. Supreme Court has characterized its power as such. The Bureau of Reclamation must be seen as delivering a coherent threat.

“That gives the U.S. government enormous authority over what happens in the lower basin,” Lochhead said. This is unlikely to happen until after the November election, he said, but it absolutely must happen.

Voluntary agreements must also occur. The Bureau of Reclamation imposed an August 2022 deadline for agreements. If the deadline had been a hard one, the states would have failed. Lochhead said it came down to finger pointing. Arizona and California “stared across the river at each other, seeing who’s going to blink first.”

The federal government has now put $4 billion on the table – through the Inflation Reduction Act —to “grease” the skids in terms of voluntary agreements. (Think, perhaps voluntary retirement of water rights). “They’re going to have to buy down demands in the lower basin,” said Lochhead, conjecturing on deals involving the Imperial Irrigation District, the giant ag producer just north of the border with Mexico.

We will need to sort through what grasses we want and can afford, both in residential settings and in pubic areas, such as Colorado Mesa University, above. That will extend to grasses grown to feed livestock. Top, the Colorado River at Silt, Colo. on Sept. 17. Photo/Allen Best

Lochhead also described the need for reductions in water use in the municipal sectors. Denver Water and several other water agencies in Colorado – but also in Nevada and California and Arizona—announced an agreement in August in which they will try to pare their consumption. For example, Denver wants to end irrigation of medians along roads and highways and crimp the amount of water used for turf. But Denver and other cities need to continue to have trees, said Lochhead.

More cities will join this pact to reduce water use for residential consumption in coming weeks and months, Lochhead said.

But he said Colorado may need state legislation to ensure that real-estate developers can’t create landscaping in the future that requires lots of water, offsetting these gains.

That brings me back to the Ute Mountain Ute lands that I visited in May. By virtue of their 1986 agreement, reality has smacked them hard. There is pain, but there is also adjustment. They have had to adjust.

Something of the same thing must occur in the broader Colorado River Basin. So far, it’s easier to postpone action. But another so-so year – or worse? While the states are trying to make the cuts necessary for  a river that is delivering 12 million acre-feet per year, Mueller warns that the plans must contemplate a 9 million acre-foot river, as some scientists have said may come to pass.

But in Grand Junction, one of the scientists pointed out to me that it’s just possible the river may deliver 7 million acre-feet – and that could be next year and the year after.

Then, we may need a new metaphor, something worse than an empty bank account.

Coalition offers help to parched #ColoradoRiver — @COWaterTrust #COriver #aridification

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust (Dana Dallavalle Hatlelid):

Responding to drought and summer long low-flow conditions on the Colorado River, a coalition of groups and funders led by Colorado Water Trust is restoring water to the river. Colorado Water Trust deliveries began 9/25/22 and continue at a 150 cfs (cubic feet per second) rate. That rate will drop to 100 cfs over the weekend and continue through 10/20/22, most likely tapering to 50 cfs on 10/11. Division of Water Resources confirmed they will administer Colorado Water Trust’s water to the 15-Mile Reach based on average monthly flows being below the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s 810 cfs target. Total water restored will be 4500 acre-feet (1.46 billion gallons). The hard work and generosity of our partners enabled us to provide the needed water supply just in time to keep the river flowing at healthier levels in designated critical habitat, including the 15-Mile Reach just east of Grand Junction.

Philanthropic and funding partners include Western Colorado Community Foundation, Lyda Hill Philanthropies, Intel Corporation, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Nite Ize, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Fryingpan River downstream of Ruedi Reservoir. Photo credit Greg Hobbs

Colorado Water Trust and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program have arranged for a release of water from Ruedi Reservoir to the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork, and Colorado rivers. The water will be designated for improving flow conditions for endangered fish in the 15-Mile Reach. The flows will support four species of endangered and threatened fish, including the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, bonytail, and razorback sucker, as well as indirectly supporting agricultural water deliveries and the regional recreational economy.

“The corporations and individuals that stepped up to allow us to make these large additions to the Colorado’s flow are the community-minded heroes of this drought year. In the future, ever more creative ways will have to be found to share the water that Nature gives us, with each other and with Nature itself,” says Andy Schultheiss, Executive Director of Colorado Water Trust. “As we continue to experience the impacts of a changing climate, we will have to find ways to adapt to the new paradigm.”

Colorado River in Grand Junction. Photo credit: Allen Best

Between 2019 and 2021, Colorado Water Trust delivered over 6028 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River (nearly 2 billion gallons). In a typical year, Colorado Water Trust works closely with Grand Valley Water Users Association and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District to identify when there is available capacity in the Grand Valley Power Plant for hydropower generation. This year, thanks to partial support from Colorado Water Trust, the Grand Valley Power Plant is undergoing much needed reconstruction. Until the new plant is complete, Colorado Water Trust will designate the water released for endangered fish protection and not hydropower generation at the Power Plant. Colorado Water Trust also works closely with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program to determine when the 15-Mile Reach needs supplemental water most to support the fish.

Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Water Users Association have been collaborating with the Colorado Water Trust and their contributing partners for the last several years. Our partnership helps those of us in the Grand Valley and 2200 other water diverters maintain the Endangered Species Act compliance. We look forward to our continued collaboration with the Colorado Water Trust,” says Mark Harris of Grand Valley Water Users Association.

“Intel commends the Colorado Water Trust for their important work to support the health of the Colorado River,” says Fawn Bergen, Intel’s Corporate Sustainability Manager. ”Intel’s support for this project brings us closer to our goal of reaching net positive water by 2030, and we are proud to help sustain this vital habitat; a healthy river supports healthy communities.”

We are extremely grateful to the Colorado Water Trust for providing releases to support endangered fish during another challenging water year. These releases will improve habitat in the 15-Mile Reach during an especially stressful time of year,” says David Graf, Instream Flow Coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. “The Recovery Program has shown that collaborative conservation can enhance populations of endangered fish while also meeting water user needs. These efforts by the Colorado Water Trust, Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, and Grand Valley Water Users demonstrate that with creative thinking and hard work, partnerships can find solutions that support humans and the environment.”

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

The Roaring Fork Conservancy also helps to inform Colorado Water Trust of conditions on the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork Rivers so that releases will complement flows on the stream sections between Ruedi Reservoir and the Colorado River. This year, the water released from Ruedi Reservoir will serve a few purposes before it supports the health of endangered, native fish in the Colorado River in the 15-Mile Reach. The water will bring flows in the Fryingpan River closer to their average, and will cool water temperatures on the Roaring Fork River.

ABOUT COLORADO WATER TRUST: Colorado Water Trust is a statewide nonprofit organization that works collaboratively with partners all across Colorado on restoring flow to Colorado’s rivers in need using solutions that benefit both the people we work with and our rivers. Since 2001, we’ve restored 16.8 billion gallons of water to 588 miles of Colorado’s rivers and streams.

Reclamation awards construction contract for initial segment of Arkansas Valley Conduit: #Boone Reach Contract 1 connects six miles of pipeline to the eastern end of #Pueblo Water’s system #ArkansasRiver

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

From email from Reclamation (Elizabeth Smith):

The Bureau of Reclamation awarded the inaugural contract of the Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC) to WCA Construction LLC, for $42,988,099.79. This contract funds construction of the first Boone Reach trunk line section, a 6-mile stretch of pipeline that extends from the eastern end of Pueblo Water’s system toward Boone, Colorado.

The AVC project will use Pueblo Water’s existing infrastructure to treat and deliver AVC water from Pueblo Reservoir to a connection point east of the City of Pueblo along U.S. Highway 50. The water will be either Fryingpan-Arkansas Project water or from participants’ water portfolios, not from Pueblo Water’s resources. Work under this contract will begin in spring of 2023. This section is expected to be completed in 2024.

“Now more than ever, people in the Arkansas River Valley understand the immense value of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project and the Arkansas Valley Conduit,” said Jeff Rieker, Eastern Colorado Area Manager. “We look forward to the day when these residents can open the faucet and know that their drinking water is safe and healthy.” As the AVC project moves forward, under existing agreements, Reclamation will construct the trunkline, a treatment plant and water tanks while the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District will coordinate with communities to fund and build AVC delivery pipelines. Eventually, the AVC will connect 39 water systems along the 130-mile route to Lamar, Colorado.

The AVC is a major infrastructure project that, upon completion, will provide reliable municipal and industrial water to 39 communities in Southeastern Colorado. The pipelines will bring water from Pueblo Reservoir to Bent, Crowley, Kiowa, Otero, Prowers, and Pueblo counties. It is projected to serve up to 50,000 people in the future (equivalent to 7,500 acre-feet per year).

John F. Kennedy at Commemoration of Fryingpan Arkansas Project in Pueblo, circa 1962.

The AVC was authorized in the original Fryingpan-Arkansas Project legislation in 1962 (Public Law 87-590). The AVC would not increase Fry-Ark Project water diversions from the Western Slope of Colorado; rather, it was intended to improve drinking water quality.

Currently, many people in the areas that will be served by the AVC rely on groundwater supplies that may be contaminated by naturally occurring radionuclides, such as radium and uranium, or use shallow wells that contain harmful microorganisms and pollutants. Alternatives for these communities consist of expensive options such as reverse-osmosis, ion exchange, filtration, and bottled water. 

This contract continues many years of hard work by Reclamation, Southeastern, Pueblo Water and other project partners to improve the lives of residents and provide opportunities for economic development and job creation.

If you have any questions or need more information, please contact Anna Perea, Public Affairs Specialist at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Eastern Colorado Area Office, at (970) 290-1185 or aperea@usbr.gov. If you are deaf, hard of hearing or have a speech disability, please dial 7-1-1 to access telecommunications relay services.

Map of the Arkansas River drainage basin. Created using USGS National Map and NASA SRTM data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79039596

Register Now for Fall Symposium Set for November 15, 2022 –@Northern_Water

Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water

From email from Northern Water:

Registration has opened for Northern Water’s Fall Symposium, set for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15, at the Embassy Suites in Loveland.

Northeastern Colorado water users will hear from multiple speakers about challenges facing the Colorado River and the intricacies of land use and water planning in times of water scarcity. A theme throughout the Symposium will highlight change and how best to adapt.

Additional presentations at the event will include a look ahead at reinvesting in our forests and protecting our source watersheds, as well as offer brief updates on the Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project and the Northern Integrated Supply Project. 

Registration is now open on our website. Spaces fill quickly for this event, so we encourage you to register no later than Nov. 1. This symposium is a great opportunity to invite your co-workers and industry professionals to learn more about the latest water challenges in our region. Doors will open at 8 a.m. for check-in and to allow attendees to network.  

If you have any questions, please email events@northernwater.org.

Who’s really using up the water in the American West? — Vox

Hint: water scarcity in the Western US has more to do with our diets than our lawns. Subscribe and turn on notifications 🔔 so you don’t miss any videos: http://goo.gl/0bsAjO The Western United States is currently battling the most severe drought in thousands of years. A mix of bad water management policies and manmade climate change has created a situation where water supplies in Western reservoirs are so low, states are being forced to cut their water use. It’s not hard to find media coverage that focuses on the excesses of residential water use: long showers, swimming pools, lawn watering, at-home car washes. Or in the business sector, like irrigating golf courses or pumping water into hotel fountains in Las Vegas. But when a team of researchers looked at water use in the West, they uncovered a very different story about where most Western water goes. Their findings may hold the solution to dwindling water supplies in the West.

Check out the video above to learn more, and take a look at the study that this story is centered on: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/32306…

Lead study author Brian Richter wrote this post on common misconceptions about water scarcity: https://www.sustainablewaters.org/hey…

For Vox coverage on water management policies on the Colorado River, which we weren’t able to cover in this story: https://www.vox.com/2022/9/23/2335709…

For coverage on just how bad the current drought is: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/14/cl…

For more coverage of the rotational fallowing program in the Palo Verde district in California: https://www.latimes.com/environment/s…

Check out Our World in Data for data on meat and dairy production and consumption across the world: https://ourworldindata.org/meat-produ…

Cheerful delusions about the #ColoradoRiver — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification #overdrawn22

Sunset on the Colorado River at Silt September 2022. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

We really would rather be getting news about another Super Bowl triumph or the end of the 55-year drought in Denver Nuggets championships. But the Colorado River is rapidly nearing total disfunction. It is the story du jour.

Rivers and streams on Colorado’s Western Slope chattered excitedly with runoff during mid-September after several days of rain, softening landscapes that had turned sullen after another hot summer.

The water was a blink of good news for a Colorado River that needs something more. It needs a long, sloppy kiss of wetness.

Hard, difficult decisions have almost entirely lagged what has been needed during the last 20 years of declining reservoir levels and rapidly rising temperatures. Hope has lingered stubbornly. After all, every batter has slumps. And maybe next winter and spring it will snow hard and long in Colorado, source of 60% of the river’s water, instead of getting unseemly warm come April and May, as has mostly been the case.

This glass half-full hopefulness has left the two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell, at roughly 25% of capacity. To prevent worse, the smaller savings accounts near the headwaters – Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, Blue Mesa in Colorado, and Flaming Gorge on the Utah-Wyoming border – have been pilfered. Little remains to be tapped.

Even threats from the Bureau of Reclamation this year failed to spur definitive action. “We can’t keep doing this,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, a major water policy agency for the Western Slope.

Difference from average temperature in the top 300 meters (~984 feet) of the tropical Pacific between June 7 and August 1, 2022. A deep pool of cooler-than-average water (blue) spread eastward and will continue rising to the surface in coming months, feeding the current La Niña. Animation by NOAA Climate.gov, based on data from NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

Recently at the River District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for recovery this coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.

Even so-so precipitation comes up as something less. Yampa River Valley snowpack last winter was 84% of average; runoff lagged at 76%. The Gunnison River watershed figures were even worse; snowpack of 87% yielding runoff of 64%.

Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last 12 months have been among the six warmest years in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuisen, a water rights engineer. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to agree on cuts that would match demand with supply.

It’s tempting to accuse the states of being caught up in century-old thinking. After all, they nominally operate under provisions of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. They have taken steps but they insufficiently acknowledge the shifting hydrologic reality. Instead of delivering an average 20.5 million acre-feet, as the compact assumed, the river has delivered 13 million acre-feet in the 21st century. In the last few years, it’s been worse yet, about 12 million acre-feet.

How low can it go? Mueller talked about learning to live within 9 million acre-feet, as some climate scientists have warned may be necessary. Climate scientists have built up some credibility as their forecasts have been, if anything, a tad conservative.

A scientist I talked with in Grand Junction suggested potential for an even starker future. What if the river delivers just 7 million acre-feet a year for the next two or three years?

One of my acquaintances, a county official on the Western Slope, recently confided weariness with the now familiar narrative of “drought, dust, and dystopia” on the Colorado River. Understood. We all want to see the Broncos and Avs win. More instructive may be the Denver Nuggets, who are now in a 55-year championship drought.

We will need to sort through what grasses we want and can afford, both in residential settings and in pubic areas, such as Colorado Mesa University, above. That will extend to grasses grown to feed livestock. Top, the Colorado River at Silt, Colo. on Sept. 17. Photo/Allen Best

Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water, likens the situation on the Colorado River to a bank account that has been drawn down. “And we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit,” he said this week at the Colorado Water Center conference in Fort Collins.

What is needed? From a perspective in Colorado, Lochhead argues for a stronger, more assertive federal role. Lochhead was for many years a lawyer based in Glenwood Springs who represented Colorado in river issues.

Map credit: AGU

Everybody that depends upon Colorado River water from northeastern Colorado to Los Angeles and San Diego will have a role, he says. Denver for example, wants to crowd out grass from medians and incentivize turf removal.

Lower-basin states use about twice as much as the upper basin states, and there the cuts must be more radical. Lochhead wants to see the federal government, through the Bureau of Reclamation, more assertively force the lower-basin states to make those hard decisions. Federal authority over water entering Lake Mead has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, he points out, and he suggests the agency may use that power after the November election.

The broad theme will be reducing water used for low-value grasses. That takes in suburban lawns but also the water-greedy grasses grown for livestock, including corn and alfalfa. Hard choices, but they must be made. What more warning do we need?

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

Federal Water Tap — Circle of Blue

Mapa de los Estados Unidos de Méjico, by John Distrunell, the 1847 map used during the negotiations of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Public domain.

Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website:

At a conference in Santa Fe, federal officials outlined steps they are taking to respond to critically low reservoirs in the Colorado River basin.

The Interior Department is preparing now in case next year is another hydrological dud.

Officials are setting up the paperwork for releasing even less water from Lake Powell than anticipated. According to operating guidelines, 7 million acre-feet will flow out of the reservoir in 2023. If water levels recede to the point that hydropower generation is endangered, Interior could throttle back those releases, as it did this year.

Interior is also studying structural modifications that would allow for the release water from Powell when the reservoir is low, a move that environmental groups in the basin have called for.

The #ColoradoRiver at the end of #water year 2022: a status report — InkStain #COriver #aridification

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

I don’t see how this ends well.

Most of the major players – the ones that matter, anyway, by which I mean Arizona, California, and the federal government – appear boxed in by constraints they can’t seem to overcome, while the water in the Colorado River’s big reservoirs is circling the drains.

Arizona’s giving up a lot of water right now, and it’s hard to see how they solve their in-state politics and give up more without California coming up with substantial cuts of its own. Meanwhile California’s internal politics have so far constrained it from coming up with meaningful contributions. This may change soon, but the numbers being discussed may not be enough to move the needle as far as it needs to move. And the federal government seems torn between tough immediate actions and placing responsibility on the states to come up with a plan to save themselves.

Last week’s Water Education Foundation Colorado River symposium in Santa Fe was striking.

It’s an invitation-only event, and I’m not sure what the ground rules are, so I’ll treat it as a sort of “Chatham House Rules” thing.

I will say this. I moderated a panel. Harsh words were exchanged. I was kind of an asshole as I tried to get people to say the quiet parts out loud. But right now, we need to be saying the quiet parts out loud, because the water is circling the drains.

obligatory cracked mud photo (Mead is, like, 40 feet lower right now than when I took this). Credi: John Fleck

THE STATUS OF THE RESERVOIRS

Lake Mead will end water year 2022 next Friday [September 30, 2022] with a surface elevation ~1,044 feet above sea level, down 1.8 million acre feet from a year ago.

Lake Powell will end the year at somewhere around elevation ~3,529, down 1.5 million acre feet from a year ago.

Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which must now be in the end-of-water-year mix because of the way Reclamation and the states have begun moving water around like pawns on the Upper Basin chess board, will end the year at elevation 6,013, down 300,000 acre feet from last year.

Credit: USBR

Absent action by water users to use less, next year’s not-all-that-farfetched possibilities (by which I mean the Bureau of Reclamation’s latest “minimum probable” forecast) has Powell dropping below minimum power by the end of 2023 – and staying there. Absent downstream action by water users to use less water, Mead drops to 1,016 by the of water year 2023.

Credit: USBR

If the federal government holds water back in Powell to prevent the need to use the dam’s bypass tubes, that drops Mead even farther.

For those not steeped in the numbers, this is cracked-mud, five-alarm fire bad.

2022 Water Use

Source: USBR, Lower Colorado River Basin water use forecast, retrieved 9/25/2022

Californians are touchy about these numbers, specifically the observation that they’re taking more than their full allocation this year, even as the reservoirs are tanking. They point out that in recent years they have used significantly less than their allocated 4.4 million acre feet, banking unused water in Lake Mead as a hedge against drought. Which they’re suffering now, massively. Which is true, and fair to point out.

So, for completeness sake, here are the three Lower Basin states’ annual take on Lake Mead going back a decade.

I point this out as a native Californian, and with love for my California friends. The laws and policies we have developed allow – even encourage! – this. The doctrine of prior appropriation was designed to remove water from our rivers for “beneficial use”, emptying them in the process. California played a masterful game over the 20th century to ensure the priority of its water rights and the federal largesse needed to put the water to use.

But understand, please, why everyone else in the basin is glaring at you: you have a larger allocation than everyone else, and you’ve been reducing your use less than everyone else. The law gives your water use priority over others in the basin, but that doesn’t make it feel any fairer to the rest of us as everyone is being asked to cut back to save the shrinking river on which we all depend.

BOXED IN

So where do we go now?

Despite the failure of the basin states to come up with a plan to reduce water use in 2023, and the unwillingness or inability of the federal government to impose one, the mass balance problem has not changed. The “protection volumes” – the amount of cutbacks needed next year and every year thereafter for the foreseeable future – are still huge. If the 2023 water year is similar to the last three, water users need to cut 2 million acre feet just to hold the reservoirs where they are and protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell from dropping to critically low elevations, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s modeling.

Never mind about refilling.

According to a piece by Jake Bittle at Grist, California is working on a deal among the water users that would cut something – it’s not entirely clear what, Bittle references a range of 350,000 to 500,000 acre feet. This is super interesting in part because of the context – this is California going it alone. Yay for voluntary cuts! But it’s hard to see how the largest user on the system agreeing to cuts of that size gets us anywhere close to 2 million acre feet. But given the water politics within California, it’s also hard to see how California cuts more, at least voluntarily. Imperial Irrigation District is rightly demanding action on the Salton Sea, which has been shrinking as a result of past Imperial cutbacks. (Less irrigation means less percolation and runoff into the Sea. Bad air quality, bad mojo, as the Sea shrinks.) Getting Imperial farmers (and others, but Imperial’s the big player) to accept cutbacks voluntarily will have a big price tag. Forcing the cuts will almost certainly lead to litigation.

That leaves Arizona in a box. They’ve already cut nearly 800,000 acre feet this year, which is huge. There’s more water to be had in Yuma – again, for a price – but it’s hard to see Arizona coughing up more water absent California cutting more deeply. Where’s the fairness in that?

All the rest of us – Nevada, and the states of the Upper Basin – can do is look on in horror. I’ve been critical of the Upper Basin states for not agreeing to kick in some water, and I still think we’re going to have to do that sooner or later. But we’re only using ~4 million acre feet a year, on average, of our 7.5 million acre foot allocation. At this point, any savings we can muster are small relative to the use by California and Arizona. And given the Lower Basin states’ inability to come up with a plan, anything we do add to the system right now will just drain out the bottom in continued overuse.

Which leaves the federal hammer.

According to a press release last week, which (oddly?) came from the Department of Interior rather than the Bureau of Reclamation, Interior is preparing for the possibility that it may need to reduce releases from Glen Canyon Damn in 2023. (See Kuhn, Fleck, and Schmidt on this question.) This echoes something Reclamation said in August.

That would have the effect of further dropping Mead as Reclamation’s engineers scramble to protect Glen Canyon Dam.

Interior is also:

“Preparing to take action to make additional reductions in 2023, as needed, through an administrative process to evaluate and adjust triggering elevations and/or increase reduction volumes identified in the 2007 Interim Guidelines Record of Decision.”

I do not know what that means. I do not know if it is different from what Reclamation said in August, that the agency will:

“Take administrative actions needed to further define reservoir operations at Lake Mead, including shortage operations at elevations below 1,025 feet to reduce the risk of Lake Mead declining to critically low elevations.”

Folks in the federal government are frankly boxed in as well – between Lower Basin users unwilling or unable to cut use enough on their own to save themselves, with constraints imposed by a sincere attempt to be more inclusive of Tribal interests than the federal government has ever been, with the crazy problems of the Salton Sea hovering over any attept to rein in the basin’s largest water user, with the international challenge of including Mexico in the coming decisions, and with a crucial mid-term election looming.

So far, those constraints have prevented the federal government from getting specific about the threats – at least in public.

It’s hard to look at all these constraints, the boxed-in-ness – on Arizona, on California, on the federal government – and not see dead pool looming.

Absent a big snowpack, I don’t see how this ends well.

Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water, in April 2019, standing in a snowpit dug to gauge the snow’s temperature, depth,

The #Wyoming State Engineer to present options for #ColoradoRiver Basin #water crisis September 27, 2022 #COriver #aridification

Pine Street, Pinedale, Wyoming – Looking East. By Tarabholmes – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=110540227

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Distin Bleizeffer):

The state’s top water authority will outline Wyoming’s role in the ongoing Colorado River Basin water crisis, including voluntary conservation and efficiency programs, at a public meeting [September 27, 2022] in Pinedale.

Though Wyoming declined to commit specific volumes to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s call for 2023 water savings, the state’s water users in the Green River drainage — a tributary of the Colorado River — will likely be called upon to voluntarily curb water consumption in coming years, according to the State Engineer’s Office.

Wyoming Drought Monitor map September 20, 2022.

SEO officials will provide information about ongoing drought conditions, Wyoming’s rights and obligations under the Colorado River Compact and options to “prepare ourselves to not only mitigate impacts to our water users, but to potentially help offset negative impacts to the rest of the system,” Wyoming senior assistant attorney general for the SEO’s water division Chris Brown said.

The meeting will be from 2-5 p.m. Tuesday at the Sublette County Public Library.

Why it matters:

Two decades of drought exacerbated by human-caused climate change has sapped the Colorado River Basin water system that serves some 40 million people across the West and in Mexico. The two largest reservoirs in the system, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, shrank to historic lows this summer, threatening hydroelectric power production.

This “teacup” diagram displays reservoir storage levels as of Sept. 21, 2022. (Bureau of Reclamation)

There’s simply not enough water in the system to fulfill the water allotments divvied among stakeholders by the 1922 Colorado River Compact, and the situation is expected to get worse, according to federal officials.

“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency,” Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said in a prepared statement. “In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced.”

Among other strategies, Wyoming plans to resume participation in the federal System Conservation Program, which pays water users to curb consumption, according to the Wyoming State Engineer’s office. Congress recently re-appropriated funding for the program, while the Inflation Reduction Act includes some $4 billion for efforts to modernize Colorado River Basin infrastructure and water management practices. Another $8.3 billion from the bipartisan Infrastructure law is available to address water and drought challenges throughout the U.S.

View below Flaming Gorge Dam from the Green River, eastern Utah. Photo credit: USGS

History

To help make up for shrinking water levels in Lake Powell, the Bureau of Reclamation tapped Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border for an extra 125,000 acre-feet of water in 2021 and an extra 500,000 acre feet this year. Water levels at the reservoir are expected to drop by 15 feet total this fall.

As one of three “upper basin” states, Wyoming’s plays an integral role in supplying water to the Colorado River system. Agriculture accounts for most of Wyoming’s water use in the system. However, Wyoming’s total water contribution mostly depends on seasonal climate and precipitation, Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart contends.

Those conditions have become more erratic, especially as average temperatures at Wyoming’s highest elevations — where seasonal snowpack serves as a “water bank” — warm at an alarming rate.

Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com

It is time for the federal government to further reduce Glen Canyon Dam releases — InkStain #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A 2022-23 forecast fraught with risk for the Colorado River Basin

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

With most forecasts pointing toward another below-average winter of precipitation in the Rocky Mountains in 2022/2023 and with total basin-wide reservoir storage now less than 20 maf (less than 17 months of supply at the rate water has been consumed in the basin since 2000), it is time for the federal government to announce immediate, major reductions in Lake Powell releases for the coming water year (October 1, 2022, to September 30, 2023).

The importance of this leadership by Interior is pressing, because discussions among the basin states to cut their 2023 consumptive uses are at a stalemate and the Bureau of Reclamation is struggling to move the negotiation process along. An announcement by Interior, made no later than the 2022 Colorado River Water Users meeting in December, should set the annual release from Lake Powell for Water Year (WY) 2023 at approximately 5.5 million acre-feet (maf), 20% less than the 7.0 maf releases in water year 2022 and more than 30% less than the long-term release of 8.23 maf. Reductions in monthly releases to accomplish this objective ought to begin in January 2023.

In a news release Thursday, and in conversations at the Water Education Foundation’s Colorado River symposium this week in Santa Fe, officials with the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation suggested this option is already on the table. And Lower Basin water managers, doing the math for themselves, are already bracing for the possibility. A formal announcement, soon, would thus come as no surprise.

With last year’s decision to only release 7.0 million acre-feet in WY2022 (the water year that ends on September 30), the Secretary of the Interior has already determined that she can and will take actions to protect power generation and the structural integrity of Glen Canyon Dam. We believe it is now time to take bold action and further reduce Lake Powell releases for the following reasons:

First – The winter forecast justifies an immediate reduction in releases. It is now clear that we’re headed for a La Nina three-peat at least through most of the winter. While there is still a lot of uncertainty, too many forecasts are pointing to a warm, dry winter for most of the Colorado River’s watershed, especially the Rocky Mountains. This warm and dry winter outlook means it’s time to focus on the likelihood that inflows to Powell will probably be similar to Reclamation’s present minimum probable forecast made in its 24-month study.

Second – The projections of the current 24-month study’s minimum probable forecast justify a drastic reduction in releases. Given the dry and warm winter forecasts, basing 2023 reservoir operations on the minimum probable forecast should be considered responsible water-supply management. Based on the latest projections made by Reclamation, storage in Lake Powell would drop to elevation 3469’, only ~2.7 maf of storage above the dead pool, and well below the 3490’ elevation below which hydroelectricity cannot be generated. Keeping the storage level above 3525 ft may not be possible, but an infusion of 2 maf of storage into Lake Powell through a combination of Drought Operations (DROA) deliveries from Flaming Gorge reservoir and reduced releases to Lake Mead would increase the probability of maintaining Lake Powell slightly above 3510 ft, a 20-ft (1 maf) cushion above minimum power pool elevation.  Recognizing recent cautions from Jim Prairie (the UC Region’s lead modeler) that there may only be two years of DROA releases left in Flaming Gorge, a 500,000 af delivery combined with a 1.5-maf reduction in releases from Glen Canyon Dam would be a wise strategy that would leave Reclamation with the flexibility to make one more Flaming Gorge DROA delivery in 2024, if necessary.

Third – A 5.5-maf release would create clear markers to evaluate the impacts of the additional Lower Basin cuts on storage in Lake Mead and show what is necessary to preserve power generation at both Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams. Such an action would show the urgent need for additional system cuts to preserve both Lake Mead and total system storage. A reduction in the annual release by 1.5 maf would drive Lake Mead below elevation 1000 ft, but releases of only 5.5 maf would also be likely to keep Lake Powell above minimum power pool. At the end of WY2023, Lake Mead active storage would fall to 3.7 maf (~elevation 988 ft). Assuming a resumption of 7 maf-Glen Canyon Dam releases in WY2024, Lake Mead storage would drop to elevation ~965-970 ft in July 2024, close to its minimum power elevation of 950’.  Under this scenario, both reservoirs would have only about a 20 ft cushion over minimum power pool elevation, but power generation at both dams would be preserved, albeit at a minimal level.

There are obvious tradeoffs between the reduction of Lake Powell releases to our suggested 5.5 maf and the imposition of additional reductions in Lower Basin consumptive uses. Reduction of Lake Powell releases to 6.0 million acre-feet in WY2023 would be the largest release that ought to be considered for the coming year, because such a release would only increase storage about 20 ft. Reducing releases to 5.5 maf or even 5 maf would be much wiser, but even these radical policies may only be enough to “tread water.” Recovering system storage is likely to take several more years of reduced releases from Lake Powell that might include additional years when annual releases are as low as 5 maf.

Fourth – If the forecast of a dry winter proves to be in error and more precipitation comes in late winter 2023, Reclamation can increase the annual release during the spring.  Reclamation has the flexibility to increase annual releases back to 7.0 maf/year (or more under the possible, but unlikely, event of a big year).  Ideally, if the Lower Basin has a plan in place to cut an additional 1.5-2.0 maf of its uses, the benefits of such an increase in Powell releases later in the water year could also be redirected to recovering storage in Lake Mead.

Fifth – A 5.5-maf release in WY2023 could leave the Upper Basin with a future compact deficit that would force resolution of the long-standing dispute over the Upper Basin’s 1944 Treaty obligation to Mexico. The ten-year flow at Lee Ferry for 2013-2022 will be about 85.5 maf, but under our proposed scenario of a 5.5 maf release in WY2023 and a continuation of the Millennium Drought, the ten-year total release would be less than 82.5 maf by 2025 or 2026. Further, as the 9-maf years from 2015-19 fade into the past, the running ten-year tally could stay well below 82.5 maf through the end of the decade.

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead has labeled this 82.5 maf metric as the basin’s first hydrologic “compact tripwire.” This observation is based on the Lower Division States’ view that under the 1922 Compact, the Upper Division States have an annual obligation to contribute 50% of the 1944 Treaty delivery to Mexico every year (normally 750,000 af, but a little less when Mexico takes a shortage) plus the 75 maf non-depletion obligation. The Upper Division States, of course, disagree, taking the position that the 750,000 af release for Mexico is a “luxury”, not a requirement under the 1922 Compact. Their view is that their Lee Ferry obligation is no more than 75 maf every ten years.

The Upper Division States’ position, however, puts their post-Compact uses at considerable risk!  If the basins are unable to reach a compromise and turn to litigation instead and the Supreme Court rules in favor of Arizona, Nevada, and California or even finds a middle ground, it’s quite likely that the Upper Division States could end up owing a lot of water or money or both. The Upper Division states would be wise to consider resolving their Mexican Treaty obligation as a part of the post-2026 guidelines negotiations.  Having an effective Upper Basin demand management program (or functional alternative) in place will almost certainly be a part of any negotiated settlement.

Summary If the WY 2023 runoff turns out to be below average, as many forecasts now suggest, maintaining Lake Powell storage elevation above minimum power pool with a reasonable cushion will require a combination of (1) another DROA release from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and (2) a significant reduction of the WY 2023 Lake Powell release to well below 7 maf. At this point, using the most probable 24-month forecast which uses an optimistically wet (1991-2020) hydrologic baseline and totally ignores the available winter forecasts, simply obfuscates reality, and creates obstacles to finding the needed cuts. Using the minimum probable forecast to set the 2023 annual release sooner than later would add both clarity and urgency to the stalled task at hand – finding the necessary additional cuts needed to stabilize and recover the system. Using the minimum probable forecast is a “no regrets approach.”  If the forecast improves, an upward adjustment of annual releases is an easy and welcome fix. The opposite, a downward adjustment made in spring 2023, would create more havoc.

There are associated issues that Reclamation ought to begin to consider immediately.  What would be the impact to the Grand Canyon ecosystem of a 5.5-maf annual release?  How should monthly flows be distributed under such a low annual release? How should the present invasion of smallmouth bass in Grand Canyon be managed under very low annual releases? What might be the impact on commercial river running in Grand Canyon in 2023? How should the ever-increasing temperatures of Powell releases be managed?  These are all questions that need to be addressed in fall 2022 so that our recommendations can be implemented in January 2023.

We’ve suggested the 5.5 maf figure based on the September 24-month study. By November or December, the minimum probable forecast may dictate a different release number.

Whatever that number is, Reclamation should consider letting the basin know as soon as reasonably possible.

– Jack Schmidt is Janet Quinney Lawson Chair in Colorado River Studies, Center for Colorado River Studies, Watershed Sciences Department, Utah State University

– John Fleck is Writer in Residence at the Utton Transboundary Resources Center, University of New Mexico School of Law; Professor of Practice in Water Policy and Governance in UNM’s Department of Economics; and former director of UNM’s Water Resources Program.

– Eric Kuhn is retired general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District based in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and spent 37 years on the Engineering Committee of the Upper Colorado River Commission. Kuhn is the co-author, with Fleck, of the book Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.

Alfalfaphobia? In which I play the role of Colorado River Tsar–and defend the vilified crop — @Land_Desk

Golf course at Page, Arizona, with Glen Canyon Dam and the diminished Lake Powell in the background. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

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

In recent weeks I’ve written a piece or two about alfalfa. My thesis: As the biggest single water user in the Colorado River Basin, the crop must play an equally large role in contributing to the cuts necessary to keep the river from drying out. I know, it doesn’t seem like a hot-button topic. I mean, it’s just hay, after all.

Just hay? Yeah, well, you’ve obviously never heard the famous Mark Twain quote that he never said: Whiskey is for drinking and hay is for rolling in! Oh no, that was Benjamin Franklin who said that, or maybe Abe Lincoln. Anyway. Water may be for drinking, but hay is clearly for fighting over, or so it seems from the reactions to my journalistic foraging.

I’ve been lambasted—and praised—for being an alfalfa basher and for vilifying the crop. Alfalfa farmers have sent me semi-defensive e-mails listing the attributes of alfalfa. The Family Farm Alliance put out an op-ed decrying alfalfa-focused “crop-shaming” (which probably wasn’t directed toward me, but still). One guy pilloried me for saying an outright ban on alfalfa wasn’t the answer. Another sent me cautionary examples of what happens when you “buy and dry” a place. I have not been accused of alfalfaphobia, yet, but if I get canceled, that most likely will be the reason.

But I’ve got no beef with alfalfa. And, as I’ve said before, my calls for alfalfa to step up to the water-consumption-cutting plate have nothing to do with the economic, societal, or nutritional value of alfalfa. In fact, I value alfalfa much more highly than golf courses, swimming pools, fountains, lawns, urban growth, or crops grown for, say, ethanol production.

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

Just to remind you all of what we’re up against: The Colorado River’s collective users have consumed more water—between 13 million and 14 million acre-feet per year—than is actually in the river—averaging around 12.4 million acre-feet and falling—for the last two decades or so. They’ve been able to do this by draining the savings accounts known as Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Now the time of reckoning has come: Drain the reservoirs any further and they’ll no longer be able to produce hydropower and the dams’ structural integrity could be compromised. At least 2 million acre-feet must be cut to stop the deficit spending, and more than that to start building back some savings—if the river doesn’t continue dropping. But Colorado River water officials warn that the river’s flow could end up averaging just 9 million acre-feet in coming decades, a scary thought, indeed.

In other words, we—the folks who rely on the Colorado River Basin—finally must acknowledge that we live in a desert, and we finally are being forced to live within our means. And with this in mind, I wrote that alfalfa is a “good place to start” when looking for places to cut water use. I didn’t really mean that, though. Farming less alfalfa (or just irrigating it less) must be a big piece of a solution to Colorado River woes, but it’s probably not the place to start cutting.

If I were the Supreme Water Tsar here’s what I’d do before fallowing alfalfa:

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

– Scrap plans for the Lake Powell PipelineAaron Million’s pipeline and other additional diversions. These folks want to suck more water out of a diminishing system while everyone else is frantically looking for ways to use less water. It’s insane. Utah thinks it has the right to do this because it isn’t using its full allocation from the Colorado River Compact. That doesn’t work. Not only was the Compact based on flawed—and fabricated—numbers, but it has been rendered obsolete by climate change. The only new uses of Colorado River water should be to honor tribal water rights, including those that have not yet been quantified or settled.

Sunrise Denver skyline from Sloan’s Lake September 2, 2022.

– Mandate 10% or greater cuts in overall water use for all urban areas. Las Vegas (of all places) shows that this is not only possible, but can be done without much pain. It had its water use limited by its relatively puny allocation from the Colorado River and managed, through water recycling, conservation, banning ornamental lawns, plugging leaks in the city plumbing system, and so forth, to lessen overall water consumption even while it added population.

Photo credit: VisitTucson.com

– Cities can cut waste with what I call progressive water rates and Tucson calls “increasing block rates.” The idea is the same: As consumption increases, so does the per-unit rate. Under my system, every household would get its first 8,000 gallons per month free (this is a little more than the average two-person household in Tucson uses, which is still a bit excessive, in my opinion). The second 8,000 gallons would cost $50; the third $100; the fourth $200; and so on. This would incentivize conservation—a thrifty family might never pay a water bill—and penalize gluttony. Kim Kardashian’s monthly water bill would add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, as it should.

– Seems to go without saying, but: No more new cities in the desert.

– Avoid “buy & dry” water transfers that take water from agriculture to enable cities to grow.

– Allow only dryland golf (and parks and fields and lawns). Sure, you can have your golf course or lawn in the desert, but you can’t irrigate it. Maybe you play on the dirt, maybe on gravel, maybe on artificial turf, but we can’t afford to continue wasting water (and dumping pesticides and fertilizers) to turn the desert green. It takes about 3 million gallons of water per acre to keep grass alive in the desert—about twice what alfalfa uses. And yes, I know that many golf courses use groundwater or recycled water and so aren’t taking it directly from the Colorado River system. But that’s irrelevant. If that water wasn’t used on a golf course it could go to something far more valuable (and yes, I am crop shaming).

Surfing in the desert? Hell no! This thing was proposed for the Coachella Valley—home to over 100 golf courses, oodles of swimming pools, and lakeside housing developments—where water use is as high as 475 gallons per capita per day, one of the highest anywhere. It’s time to cut Coachella off. Oh, and Lake Las Vegas? Yeah, no.

The Las Vegas Wash(Opens another site in new window) is the primary channel through which the Las Vegas Valley’s excess water returns to Lake Mead. Contributing approximately 2 percent of the water in Lake Mead, the water flowing through the Wash consists of urban runoff, shallow groundwater, storm water and releases from the valley’s four water reclamation facilities. Photo credit: Southern Nevada Water Authority

– More water recycling. I know, it sounds gross, especially when you label it “toilet to tap.” Thing is, we do it already, all of the time. Las Vegas treats its wastewater, dumps it back into Lake Mead, then sucks it back out to use as drinking water. Durango treats all of its sewage and wastewater, dumps it into the Animas River, and downstream users such as Aztec and Farmington then pull it out of the river, treat it and drink it.

The San Juan Generating Station in mid-June of this year. The two middle units (#2 and #3) were shut down in 2017 to help the plant comply with air pollution limits. Unit #1 shut down today and #4 will shut down on Sept. 30 of this year. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

– Ditch fossil fuels. Most thermal power plants, i.e. those fired by coal or natural gas, guzzle massive amounts of water for steam generation and cooling. The San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico consumes about 5.8 billion gallons per year. Altogether, the daily consumptive water use of power plants in Colorado River Basin states is about 145 million gallons, which amounts to about 162,000 acre-feet per year. Extracting natural gas also uses huge amounts of water: A single hydraulic fracturing job consumes and sullies millions of gallons of fresh water. In fact, a new study found that installing rooftop solar on a single California household could avoid enough fossil fuel generation to save some 53,000 gallons of water. (I’ll be doing an energy-water nexus Data Dump soon!).

– Monitor, regulate, and limit groundwater pumping in Arizona (and anywhere else it’s not regulated). Irrigation water in some of the driest parts of Arizona come from groundwater wells that are not monitored or regulated or counted against Colorado River allocations. The Fondomonte Farms alfalfa fields in La Paz County, for example, are irrigated with groundwater. The alfalfa is then shipped to Saudi Arabia where it feeds dairy cows. Groundwater and surface water are connected. It’s time to stop ignoring that fact.

In March 2021, Electrek reported that scientists published a feasibility study about the benefits of erecting solar panels over canals. That study is about to become a reality when a pilot project breaks ground in California. Photo credit: Electrek

– Cover the canals with solar panels, which will not only generate electricity without using more water, but will also reduce evaporation from the canals. The Central Arizona Project, alone, loses about 16,000 acre-feet—or 5.2 billion gallons—per year to evaporation.

Agriculture is the main economic venture on CRIT’s reservation, where a range of crops like alfalfa, cotton and sorghum thrive in the rich soil along the banks of the Colorado River. (Source: CRIT)

– Grow less cotton in the desert. Cotton uses about 75% as much water as alfalfa, which makes it among the thirstiest crops out there. Arizona farmers harvested over 127,000 acres of cotton last year, and regularly exports between $100 million and $200 million worth each year, mostly to China, India, and Vietnam, where it’s made into clothing and shipped right back to the U.S.

Add all of those cuts up and, well, you probably still don’t get the 2 million or 4 million or even 6 million acre-feet of cuts that are necessary. That’s the catch: All the cities, golf courses, power plants, and desert surfing lagoons combined don’t add up to more than a few million acre-feet of water use. So even drying them all up wouldn’t get us to where we need to be.

That leaves us with agriculture in general—which accounts for 70% to 80% of the consumptive use of Colorado River water—and alfalfa and other hay crops, specifically, which together drink up the largest portion of the agricultural sector’s share. There are a number of reasons so much alfalfa is growing in the West. For one thing, there’s demand for it: dairy cattle eat it, beef cattle eat it, rabbits eat it, horses eat it, sometimes even people eat it.

One of my cousins grows alfalfa in southwestern Colorado, and he sent me a list of other virtues of the leafy legume:

– Alfalfa root nodules fix nitrogen from the air and deep roots bring up minerals, adding fertility to the root zone of grasses and other crops.

– It is a perennial crop, especially in the west. With decent care and good luck, a stand will be very productive for 5 good years. Most people in Southwestern Colorado keep theirs for 10 years. I am now re-planting 20 acres after 25 years of haying and grazing. I rotated through triticale and sorghum-sudan grass cover crops. 

– I have the largest acreage of alfalfa under certified organic management in the county. My customers can use their manure in their garden without fear of persistent herbicides.

– Alfalfa is an excellent crop to rotate with potatoes and barley in sustainable fashion. The Rockey brothers of Center, Colorado, are masters at that.

– Alfalfa is drought tolerant. If irrigation is not available, it will come back luxuriantly if and when the water returns. Experienced growers of alfalfa-orchard grass mixtures that have had limited irrigation the last few years have noticed the grass dying out.

– The issue with drought and Alfalfa longevity is in an open winter. Root crowns dry out, split, and become infected when the ground is bare and desiccated.

– I am considering planting sainfoin, it may have a better reputation among your readers. (Editor’s note: sainfoin is an alfalfa-like crop with a fancier name).

I suspect that cutting off water to every alfalfa field in the Colorado River Basin would achieve the necessary cuts on its own—if it were even possible on a logistical or political level. But it would also wreak economic havoc, rip up the cultural fabric of rural areas, cause beef and dairy prices to skyrocket, and possibly lead to another dust bowl. Just as the cuts to overall water consumption must target the biggest consumers, so too should the effort to save water by fallowing alfalfa focus on the biggest alfalfa fields, such as those in southern California and Arizona.

Crop map of the Imperial and Palo Verde Irrigation Districts in southern California. The districts are the first and fifth largest single water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin. Pink = alfalfa. Source: Aaron Smith, Cropland Data Layer

And even then, “buying and drying” can have unintended consequences, as my friend pointed out. He suggested I check out Crowley County, in eastern Colorado, to see how the practice can play out. Back in the 1970s, Crowley County had 50,000 acres of irrigated crops. But in the ensuing decades the burgeoning metro areas on the Front Range, in need of water to irrigate vast monoculture crops of McMansions, went to the farmers and bought out their water rights. Now only a couple thousand acres in the county are irrigated, and it shows: Thousands of acres of former fields are invasive-weed-choked dust patches. With the ag economy in shambles, the county courted prisons to employ folks who didn’t up and leave.

So, yes, alfalfa needs to play a big role in averting the desiccation of the Colorado River system. And no, saying that is not vilifying alfalfa or crop-shaming or anything of the sort. It’s simple math. But perhaps before we fallow thousands of acres of alfalfa fields we should have a viable replacement in place—an agricultural just transition of sorts that goes beyond merely paying folks not to grow things. Maybe the hay can be replaced by less-thirsty crops, such as corn or beans or grapes or even solar panels. Maybe new industries can be established to fill the economic void. Maybe less-thirsty varieties of alfalfa can be developed.

I’m just glad I’m not the water tsar and I sure as heck don’t envy the folks that have to make the decisions about where and how to make these cuts. It’s not easy. I’m okay to just try to illuminate the topics in the best way I can. And maybe it’s working. I received a note from a Washington, D.C., PR person the other day saying how interesting she found one of my recent articles on alfalfa. Then she added: “I didn’t even know we still farmed alfalfa.”

Yampa River. Photo credit: Yampa River Integrated Water Management Plan website

Reclamation will spend billions to boost #drought-stricken #ColoradoRiver system — KUNC #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River flows through fields of crops in Southern California. New water conservation plans from the Bureau of Reclamation could use money from the Inflation Reduction act to pay farmers and ranchers to temporarily pause some water use, an effort to boost levels in the nation’s largest reservoirs. Photo credit: Ted Wood/The Water Desk

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

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced new measures in response to the ongoing dry conditions, unveiling plans to use a chunk of the $4 billion it received as part of the recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act. That money will be used for what the agency refers to as “short-term conservation,” to remove water-intensive grass in cities and suburbs, and to upgrade aging canals. A detailed breakdown of that spending has not yet been released. Multiple sources close to the situation told KUNC that the bulk of Reclamation’s $4 billion will go to projects in the Colorado River basin, with the majority going to “system conservation.” That could include buying water from the agriculture sector to boost water levels in the nation’s largest reservoirs. That funding will likely be doled out as part of a voluntary program in which farmers and ranchers can make a pitch to the federal government, offering to pause growing in exchange for payments of $300 to $400 per acre-foot of water, sources told KUNC. Those payments are expected to be temporary, mainly focused in the river’s Lower Basin states, and may someday give way to more permanent, higher-value federal payments in exchange for water…

Reclamation previously tested system conservation efforts in a pilot program that ran from 2014 to 2019, but has not implemented similar water buybacks at large scale since. Earlier this year, states in the river’s Upper Basin urged the federal government to revive system conservation work.

“I personally have a hard time believing that we’re going to see a massive change in reservoir levels as a result of system conservation by itself,” Koebele said. “This might be sort of a program that helps states establish their own programs for longer term system conservation. That said, we’re in such a dire situation that almost anything in the short term can help.”

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

Kimery Wiltshire, president of Confluence West, a group of water leaders around the region, said she was struck by the words “seek” and “encourage” that Reclamation used in regards to water conservation, adding that voluntary measures would not do much, especially if payouts to growers are relatively low. By comparison, a group of farmers near Yuma, Arizona recently proposed a water conservation plan in which they would be paid about $1500 per acre-foot of water saved, according to Axios.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think that what they’re proposing is going to get us to where we so desperately need to go, very quickly,” Wiltshire said. “Frankly, what Interior really can’t do a whole heck of a lot about is getting to the underlying causes. We don’t have the demand management that we need. We’re consuming too much water. We need to go to significantly less thirsty crops than what we’re growing right now.”

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

#YampaRiver Rendezvous recap — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Coyote Gulch on the Yampa River Core Trail August 24, 2022.

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Suzie Romig). Here’s an excerpt:

…after years of drought conditions in Colorado, any lingering optimism for a return to previous patterns of rain showers most afternoons in the High Country is not a realistic outlook. Water managers now need to use the most conservative, lower water flow predictions to manage shrinking water resources effectively, said Andy Rossi, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District…

The annual volume of water in the Yampa River Basin was 1.5 million-acre-feet in the early 1900s but now is 1.12 million-acre-feet, Rossi noted. Rossi compared the two consecutive years from 2011 and 2012 as one example of water projection difficulties. During the wetter 2011 at the Fifth Street river gauging station in downtown Steamboat, the flow on June 7 was 4,780 cubic feet per second compared to 305 CFS on the same date in 2012. Last week, at the same gauging station, the natural river flow contributed only half of the flow because approximately 50% of the flow was from storage releases from Stagecoach Reservoir, he said…

Although precipitation levels in the Yampa River Basin historically include highly variable ups and downs, data shows an “incredibly sharp recent decrease in precipitation” that led to five of the lowest water inflows into Stagecoach Reservoir during the past 10 years, Rossi said. From 2010 to 2021, the annual precipitation in Routt County dropped by 5.26 inches, he said…

Community members were urged to learn more about local water issues and to review the final version of the Yampa Integrated Water Management Plan that was released earlier this month available online at the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable website at YampaWhiteGreen.com

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

How to Negotiate for Peace, Resilience, and Environment on the #ColoradoRiver: Audubon’s letter to address historically low water supplies #COriver #aridification

Colorado River near Moab, Utah. Photo: Mitch Tobin/WaterDesk.org

Click the link to read the article on the Audubon website (Jennifer Pitt):

Audubon is deeply concerned about current Colorado River conditions, a crisis in the making for birds and people. Current government modeling shows the potential within the next 24 months, there could be a “day zero” scenario where reservoir water supplies fall so much that major dams are unable to reliably release water. This puts communities and wildlife at risk. We recently responded to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (USBR) request for comments on their upcoming process to establish new rules for Colorado River management (“pre-scoping for post-2026 Colorado River Reservoir Operational Strategies for Lake Powell and Lake Mead Under Historically Low Reservoir Conditions”), making the case for good governance that will increase Colorado River Basin resilience to climate change with improved outcomes for people and nature.

The Colorado River is legendary for supporting the growth of the American West, to the point where today it supplies 40 million people and underpins an economy exceeding $1 trillion. However, thirty sovereign Tribes that have been in the basin since time immemorial have not been included in management discussions, and in many cases do not have access to their Colorado River water rights.

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

The river and its tributaries are also the foundation of life in the region, essential in supporting more than 70 percent of all wildlife. The riparian forest that lines the waterways of the Colorado River Basin provides critical habitat for birds, including 400 species along the Lower Colorado River alone. Scores of dams and diversions have altered river flows, resulting in invasive shrubs that have replaced native trees and diminished habitat value. With less native habitat available, at least six breeding bird species that rely on the Colorado River Basin, including the Bell’s Vireo, Summer Tanager, Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow Warbler, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, and Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, have experienced significant population declines.

Immediate water conservation is needed to prevent the near-term crisis, but the conditions driving the crisis are not expected to abate, pointing to the need for structural changes in Colorado River management. To achieve structural changes in such a complex and high stakes setting will require USBR and all Colorado River stakeholders—the Tribes, states, local governments, water users, and environmental and recreational interests—to view the basin as a whole and work collaboratively to define solutions. Here’s what Audubon wants to see (for a more complete discussion, see our letter):

– Transparency

– Inclusivity

– Prioritization of Mexico’s role in Colorado River management

– A broad purpose and need for the federal rulemaking, to ensure it serves the full range of stakeholders, not just water rights holders

– Sound science

– Honest evaluation and communication about available reservoir water supplies

– Decision-making that anticipates uncertain future conditions

– Management that avoids crises

– Priority given to water supply reliability

– Evaluation of the difference between water shortages and voluntary, compensated reductions in water use

– Increased flexibility in Colorado River management

– Priority given to environmental water needs and environmental justice

– Consideration for how management options will interact with other responses to conditions on the Colorado River

Downloadable Resources

 nas_2026_guidelines_pre-scoping_comments.pdf

One of the two Twin Otter aircraft used by the Airborne Snow Observatory mission to study snowpack in the Western U.S. Credit: NASA

Interior Department Announces Next Steps to Address #Drought Crisis Gripping the #ColoradoRiver Basin #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead. Photo credit: U.S. Department of Interior

Click the link to read the release on the Department of Interior website. (release below):

As the worsening drought crisis continues to impact communities across the West, senior leaders from the Department of the Interior are outlining new and urgent actions to improve and protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System.  

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton are attending the Colorado River Symposium in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this week to highlight steps the Department is taking and propose new actions to prevent the System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. 

“The prolonged drought afflicting the West is one of the most significant challenges facing our country. As a 35th generation New Mexican, I have seen firsthand how climate change is exacerbating the drought crisis and putting pressure on the communities who live across Western landscapes,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “We must work together to make the tough choices necessary to chart a sustainable future for the Colorado River System on which more than 40 million people depend. As we move forward, we will do so with key guiding principles, including collaboration, equity and transparency. I am committed to bringing every resource to bear to help manage the drought crisis and provide a sustainable water system for families, businesses and our vast and fragile ecosystems.”  

The actions being discussed this week build on those announced in August 2022 as part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s release of the Colorado River Basin August 2022 24-Month Study, which sets the annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2023. Those previously announced actions specified that Lake Powell will operate in the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier in water year 2023 and Lake Mead will operate in its first-ever Level 2a Shortage Condition in calendar year 2023 requiring reduced allocations and water savings contributions for the Lower Basin States and Mexico.  

The Department is focused on the need for continued collaboration and partnerships across the Upper and Lower Basins, with Tribes, and with the country of Mexico. The agency’s approach will continue to seek consensus support and will be based on a continued commitment to engage with diverse stakeholders to ensure all communities that rely on the Colorado River will provide contributions toward the solutions. The Department is also preparing for administrative actions necessary to ensure that the Colorado River System can sustainably deliver vital water supplies, power and other services. 

Executing on Efforts Already Underway 

During the Symposium, which brings leaders together from across the Basin, the Department leaders are outlining steps that Reclamation is taking to facilitate ongoing efforts to conserve water and protect the System. The severity of this moment requires action now as we chart a more sustainable, resilient and equitable future for the Basin.  

Department efforts include:

  • Ensuring that the Lower Basin states continue to work on developing voluntary measures and agreements to conserve water and finalizing those agreements as soon as possible. They also highlighted the need for ongoing collaboration with the Upper Basin states to develop additional conservation agreements and operational adjustments. 
  • Working with the Upper Basin states to support their five-point plan, including:   
    • development of their demand management plans   
    • reauthorization of System Conservation 
    • investment in improved monitoring and reporting infrastructure 
    • encouragement of strict water management and administration  
    • and development of a 2023 Drought Response Operations plan  
  • Making unprecedented investments in drought resilience and water management from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act and existing programs like WaterSMART as quickly and efficiently as possible.  

As we move forward with implementing ongoing efforts, the Department will focus on the strategic investments needed to improve the efficiency of water delivery systems that result in conservation and, ultimately, in reduced demands on the Colorado River’s shrinking supplies. 

Taking Action to Protect the System 

Department leaders will continue to affirm that action must be taken now to reduce water consumption across the Basin in light of critically low water supplies and dire hydrological projections. As the agency moves forward, it will continue to do so by utilizing the best available science, data and technology. 

These actions include: 

  • Initiating an administrative process to address operational realities under the current 2007 Interim Guidelines while we continue to develop alternatives for sustainable and equitable operations under the new guidelines.  
  • Moving forward with administrative actions needed to authorize a reduction of Glen Canyon Dam releases below seven million acre-feet per year, if needed, to protect critical infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam. 
  • Preparing to manage elevations in Lake Powell by implementing emergency drought operations. 
  • Preparing to take action to make additional reductions in 2023, as needed, through an administrative process to evaluate and adjust triggering elevations and/or increase reduction volumes identified in the 2007 Interim Guidelines Record of Decision.  
  • Accelerating ongoing maintenance actions and studies of the bypass tubes at Glen Canyon Dam to analyze the feasibility of possible modifications to increase water delivery capacity during low reservoir levels. 
  • Ensuring that water use determinations for the Lower Basin satisfy appropriate beneficial use standards during this time of historically low reservoirs, including taking into consideration fundamental human health and safety requirements. 
  • Assessing how to account for and allocate system losses due to evaporation, seepage, and other losses.  

Additionally, as the process for developing new guidelines for Colorado River System operations is underway, Department leaders emphasized the need to develop clear alternatives that can sustain the System and work to provide reliable, sustainable and equitable water and power supplies in the coming decades.  

Implementing President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act 

Department leaders outlined the framework under consideration for the funds as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $4 billion in funding specifically for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas experiencing similar levels of drought. 

The Department will establish, among other funding mechanisms, a two-step process to solicit short-term conservation contributions and longer-term durable system efficiency projects.  

Longer-term projects could include initiatives such as canal lining, re-regulating reservoirs, ornamental and non-functional turf removal, salinity projects and other infrastructure or “on the ground” activities. Projects could also be related to aquatic ecosystem restoration and impacts mitigation, crop water efficiency, rotational fallowing, and marginal land idling.   

The Bureau of Reclamation will hold listening sessions on September 30, 2022, to hear directly from states, Tribes, water managers, farmers, irrigators and other stakeholders about implementation of this historic funding from the Inflation Reduction Act. 

Reclamation awards $73 million construction contract for continued progress on the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project’s San Juan Lateral

What the Tsé Da’azkání Pumping Plant and Tó Ałts’íísí Pumping Plant will look like during construction. Credit: USBR

Click the link to read the release on the Reclamation website:

The Bureau of Reclamation today announced the award of a $73,056,845 contract to Archer Western Construction of Phoenix, Arizona, to convey reliable drinking water to Navajo communities and the city of Gallup in northwest New Mexico. This award marks significant progress toward the completion of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project.

These areas currently rely on a rapidly depleting groundwater supply of poor quality to meet the demands of more than 43 Navajo chapters, the southwest area of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, and the city of Gallup. The NGWSP consists of two main pipeline systems: the San Juan Lateral and the Cutter Lateral. This contract award is for the Tsé Da’azkání Pumping Plant and Tó Ałts’íísí Pumping Plant on the San Juan Lateral. These drinking water pumping plants are two of 13 water transmission pumping plants on the San Juan Lateral.

“This is a significant milestone for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project and illustrates the Department of the Interior’s commitment to Tribal and rural communities,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo. “We are excited to leverage the resources in President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to make further investments that ensure that clean, safe drinking water is a right in Tribal communities.”

Both plants will be located in the Navajo Sanostee Chapter in New Mexico’s San Juan County and will operate in concert with the other pumping plants on the San Juan Lateral, pumping San Juan River water that has been treated to Safe Drinking Water Act requirements at the San Juan Lateral Water Treatment Plant to the north and delivering to downstream communities to the south. Each plant will have four equally sized pump and motor units with a combined capacity of approximately 51.5 cubic feet per second, or 23,100 gallons per minute. Work under this contract will begin this fall with groundbreaking in early 2023 and completion expected by the fall of 2025.

“Reclamation is pleased to begin construction on the Tsé Da’azkání and Tó Ałts’íísí pumping plants,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “With the Cutter Lateral delivering water to Navajo homes and construction of the San Juan Lateral now more than 50% finished, this construction contract continues our progress toward meeting the United States’ obligation to the Navajo Nation under the nation’s water rights settlement agreement on the San Juan River Basin in New Mexico, where over a third of households still haul drinking water to their homes. That importance has been underscored by our pandemic experience. A good water supply is essential to public health and safety.”

The Tsé Da’azkání and Tó Ałts’íísí pumping plants will further the progress of the NGWSP. When the full project is completed, it will include approximately 300 miles of pipeline, two water treatment plants, 19 pumping plants and multiple water storage tanks. Construction on the Cutter Lateral is complete and water deliveries are currently being made to eight Navajo communities and soon to the southwestern portion of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, serving 6,000 people or 1,500 households.

This contract continues many years of hard work by Reclamation, the Navajo Nation and other project partners constructing the NGWSP to improve the lives of residents and provide opportunities for economic development and job creation.

Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project

Aspinall Unit operations update (September 24, 2022): 340 cfs in Black Canyon #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Black Canyon July 2020. Photo credit: Cari Bischoff

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1350 cfs to 1250 cfs on Saturday, September 24th. Releases are being decreased due to the cooler and wetter conditions that have decreased demand at the Gunnison Tunnel. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 68% of average. 

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future. 

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September. 

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 340 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will still be near 340 cfs.  Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review. 

Environmental Commitments Reach Beyond Chimney Hollow Reservoir — @Northern_Water

Credit: Northern Water

Click the link to read the article on the Northern Water website:

Before dirt was moved at Chimney Hollow Reservoir in 2021, Northern Water implemented several environmental improvements nearby as part of our commitment to offset any environmental impacts of the new reservoir. A section of the Little Thompson River in Berthoud, and a second section north of Lyons, both decimated by the 2013 flood, received compensatory mitigation including the repair of natural channels and replanted vegetation. An area in west Loveland along the Big Thompson River, also impacted by the flood, had a diversion structure removed, the natural channel restored, and cottonwood and willow trees replanted. 

The Big Thompson Watershed Coalition, Windy Gap Firming Project participants, AloTerra Restoration Services, ERO Monitoring and the Northern Water Municipal Subdistrict identified sites, completed restoration at each, and began the monitoring and reporting phase which are required as part a permit granted under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Water resource projects that result in impacts to Waters of the United States, such as Chimney Hollow Reservoir, are required to obtain such a permit before altering or impacting a project site. While a steadfast objective of the Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project is to minimize environmental impacts, some are unavoidable. To compensate for this, Section 404 allows project participants to identify and enhance other areas in need of restoration.  

These improvements have already had positive impacts on water flows, ecological health and fisheries and we expect the Army Corps of Engineers will sign off soon that the restoration projects were successfully completed. 

Navajo Dam operations update (September 22, 2022): Bumping down to 500 cfs #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Map credit: USBR

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to wet weather and increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 650 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs for today at 12:00 PM.

Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).  The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area.  The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. 

Wolf Creek reservoir project to have additional public engagement: BLM overseeing process — @AspenJournalism #WhiteRiver

A view looking down the Wolf Creek valley toward the White River. The proposed off-channel dam would stretch between the dirt hillside on the right, across the flat mouth of the valley, to the hillside on the left. CREDIT: BRENT GARDNER-SMITH/ASPEN JOURNALISM

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

U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials have decided to increase the opportunities for members of the public to weigh in on a controversial reservoir project in northwest Colorado with an additional round of public engagement. 

Members of the BLM’s Northwest Resource Advisory Council last week expressed support for early public engagement on the Wolf Creek reservoir project between Meeker and Rangely in Rio Blanco County. This will be an extra opportunity for interested people to get involved, in addition to the scoping, public comment and protest periods of the normal National Environmental Policy Act permitting process.

Some pointed out that the Wolf Creek project is sure to get lots of scrutiny and, perhaps, national attention, especially with the current spotlight on the declining reservoirs of the Colorado River system. RAC member Jeff Comstock, who represents the Moffat County Natural Resources Department, said he is very much in support of additional public sessions.

“Moffat, myself, most of your collaborators … have always been requesting public involvement prior to Notice of Intent,” Comstock told BLM staffers at the Thursday meeting in Glenwood Springs. “I am a big supporter of having those meetings.”

The project applicant, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, is proposing an off-channel reservoir with a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long, with water that will be pumped from the White River. In January 2021, the district secured a water right for 66,720 acre-feet, which can be used for municipal purposes in the downstream town of Rangely, for mitigation of environmental impacts, for recreation, for fish and for wildlife habitat. 

The BLM is overseeing the NEPA process because the federal agency would need to amend its resource management plan and grant a right of way to build Wolf Creek reservoir since the project site is on BLM land. The formal NEPA process is on a tight timeline, and once the BLM issues the Notice of Intent, it has two years to enter a Record of Decision on whether to allow the right of way. The additional public engagement may delay the start of this timeline, but it is unclear by how long. 

This map shows the location of the proposed Wolf Creek reservoir in northwest Colorado. The BLM is moving forward with an additional early public engagement process, prior to the NEPA permitting process, on the Wolf Creek Reservoir project.

Grave concerns

[Two] people who oppose and have concerns about the reservoir project spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. Matt Rice, Southwest regional director at environmental group American Rivers, encouraged BLM staff to focus on as much public participation as possible.

“We have grave concerns about this project,” Rice said. “As everybody is aware, the Colorado River is in crisis. … This project is going to be extremely controversial.” 

[…]

Deirdre Macnab, whose 4M Ranch is adjacent to the reservoir site, also spoke and gave her reasons for opposing the project. She said a new reservoir in the proposed location would lead to water loss through evaporation.

“Now is not the time to facilitate new reservoirs in hot, dry, desert areas,” she told RAC members. “Consider the ramifications of this proposal for future generations and just say no.”

Securing the water right for the project took longer than the conservancy district expected because for five years, Colorado’s top engineers at the Department of Water Resources argued the project was speculative because Rio Blanco could not prove a need for the water. The water right was eventually granted after years of back and forth in water court, and the decree came after an 11th-hour negotiation right before the case was scheduled to go to trial. The water right gave Rio Blanco the amount of water it was seeking, but it does not allow the district all the water uses that it initially wanted, including for irrigation or Colorado River Compact compliance.

The project has received $330,000 from the Colorado River Water Conservation District and $4 million from Rio Blanco County to fund the permitting phase. 

What the additional public engagement will look like remains unclear. BLM staff will now refer the project to their Collaborative Action and Dispute Resolution Program to figure out the best strategy. 

“One thing we want to avoid is just doing what we typically do for scoping twice,” said Heather Sauls, BLM project manager and planning and environment coordinator. “Whether we would have public meetings or workshops to talk about focused topics, I don’t know the answers to that yet.”

Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District General Manager Alden Vanden Brink was unavailable for comment. 

The BLM plans to create a webpage about the project. Those who want to join the mailing list and get alerts about future public-engagement opportunities can email BLM_CO_Reservoir@blm.gov

This story ran in the Sept. 21 edition of The Aspen Times and the Summit Daily.

White River Basin. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69281367

Tribal breakthrough? Four states, six tribes announce first formal talks on #ColoradoRiver negotiating authority — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification #overdrawn22

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

Colorado and three other Upper Colorado River Basin states have, for the first time in history, embarked on a series of formal meetings to find a way to negotiate jointly with some of the largest owners of Colorado River water rights: tribal communities.

The states, which include New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, began meeting with six tribes several weeks ago, according to Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission.

The tribes are the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Utah, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Paiute Tribe in Utah, as well as Colorado’s Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, based in Towaoc, and Southern Ute Indian Tribe, whose lands lie in and around Ignacio.

“We have four Upper Basin states and the six Upper Basin tribes, 10 sovereigns, in the room together saying that the table that is set is not the table that works for all, and we are going to create our own table. They are really focused on solutions and being part of the burden and part of the success,” Mitchell said.

The six tribes are among 30 tribal communities in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, which, combined, have paper water rights to roughly 25% to 30% of the river’s flows, more than 3.2 million acre-feet of water.

Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin/Water Education Colorado

The news came Sept. 16 at the Colorado River District’s Annual Seminar in Grand Junction. The river district represents 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope and is responsible for policy and managing the river within those boundaries.

For more than 100 years, modern water management in the American West has been conducted by the federal and state governments, without formal tribal leaders.

Under Western water law, water has to be measured, its historical use rates certified, and it has to be diverted so that it can be put to beneficial use. Tribal water rights are treated differently. Tribes’ water rights date back to the time when the reservations were created, based on a law that was applied retroactively – many reservations were established before the law existed and so the amount of water they received was never quantified or adjudicated. For this reason, many tribes have had to settle their water rights within the state or states where their reservation lies— some of those negotiations remain unsettled. Many tribes have never measured their water use and, even among those tribes with quantified water rights, many have never had the money to build the dams, pipelines and reservoirs that allow them to put the resource to use.

Roughly 60% of the water the tribes legally possess has never been developed or integrated into the region’s hierarchy of water rights, though they are often some of the oldest, according to tribal estimates.

Daryl Vigil, Jicarilla Apache Nation Water Administrator, said tribal leaders want the federal government to create a new framework to right past wrongs and establish a process for tribes to participate in critical river negotiations.

For too long, he said, “The policy-making process has been left up to the seven basin states and the federal government. We want to speak on behalf of our own water. We’ve heard a whole lot about scarcity and pain,” he told the Grand Junction audience of roughly 400 people. “And we know a whole lot about that. We’re asking, we’re demanding participation because it is a basic human right.”

During the past five years, as the Colorado River has sunk deeper into crisis, the tribes have begun working together and asserting their right to negotiate with federal, state and local water agencies to determine how their water will be used, how badly needed tribal water systems can be built, and how tribes can be fairly compensated for the water that has long been used by others.

Despite increased public pressure to recognize the tribes’ water rights and to include them in critical negotiations and decision-making processes, they continue to be shut out, including in the most recent talks over how to achieve the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of cuts that U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered back in June in order to keep lakes Mead and Powell operating.

Another set of critical talks set to begin in the near future still has no mechanism for including the tribes. These are talks that will determine how to operate the river well into the future, after the current framework for river operations, known as the 2007 Interim Guidelines, expires at the end of 2026. Tribes were not included in the talks leading up to the 2007 agreement either.

Lorelei Cloud, a member of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, said traditional water users in the Colorado River Basin won’t survive unless tribal waters are legally recognized, developed and put to use by tribes and other users in the basin.

“We are a sovereign government. We should be considered just as a state would be. If you think that we shouldn’t be involved, then don’t include our 30% allocation for anyone else’s use … We need to be included in every one of these conversations. My reservation was established in 1868. We are first in time first in line. You cannot discount us,” she said.

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

Native land loss 1776 to 1930. Credit: Alvin Chang/Ranjani Chakraborty

New Poll Shows Americans Strongly Support Clean Water Act on 50th Anniversary — Walton Family Foundation

Kayakers on the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. Photo: Erik Drost (CC BY 2.0)

Click the link to read the release on the Walton Family Foundation website (Mark Shields):

The Walton Family Foundation, in collaboration with Morning Consult, released new polling today showing that at least seven-in-ten adults nationally have a favorable opinion of the Clean Water Act (CWA). This comes with the Supreme Court set to hear oral arguments in October about whether certain waters can be protected under the Clean Water Act in the case of Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The poll, released as UN Climate Week gets underway, shows Americans strongly prefer that the federal government maintains water standards. The EPA is the top choice of Americans to set standards to protect the rivers, lakes and streams that provide drinking water from pollution — and 68% think it is very important the EPA has the authority to protect clean water through the Clean Water Act.

“Clean water and the Clean Water Act continue to unite Americans,” said Moira Mcdonald, Environment Program Director of the Walton Family Foundation. “We all believe that water is vital to every aspect of our lives — from our health to the economy to our ecosystems–and that we must continue to have strong laws that protect this vital resource. Americans do not want to roll back clean water standards, because they want to trust that drinking water is safe.”

Key findings from the poll include:

95% of Americans say that protecting the water in our nation’s lakes, streams and rivers is important. Further, 79% want to strengthen or maintain current standards, while just 8% want to relax them.

88% agree that it is important that the EPA has the authority laid out in the Clean Water Act – such as restricting pollution entering our waters and limiting the destruction or physical damage to lakes, rivers, wetlands, streams and other waterways.

– After a brief description of Sackett v. the Environmental Protection Agency, 75% of adults are supportive of protecting more waters and wetlands under the Clean Water Act.

89% of adults would be concerned if polluters no longer had to meet water requirements before adding waste into streams or wetlands and 88% would be concerned if the permit requirement to make a permanent physical change to a water body was removed in some cases. 

Adults want more safety standards for water releases from factories and industrial processes (69%), municipal drinking water (68%) and drinking water in their community (67%).

Polling Methodology:

This poll was conducted between August 26th – 27th, 2022 among a sample of 2,210 Adults. The interviews were conducted online and the data were weighted to approximate a target sample of Adults based on gender, age, race, educational attainment, and region. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Romancing the River: The #ColoradoRiver Compact at 100 — Sibley’s Rivers #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon Dam just upstream from Lee’s Ferry where the Upper Basin ends and the Lower Basin begins. Photo credit: Simon Morris Creative Commons

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

We’ve been exploring the Colorado River Compact here – which, like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ‘wonderful one-hoss shay’ has now lived almost ‘one hundred years to the day’ – the commissioners signed off on it November 24, 1922.  The century mark is a good place to pause and pull back for a larger perspective on something like a multi-state agreement and see what it has and hasn’t actually accomplished – but without losing sight of the romantic vision of conquest that drove the Compact’s formation, back in the early decades of the Anthropocene Epoch when reorganizing the prehuman world was still fun.

In the last post here, we looked at the ‘major purposes’ cited in the first article of the Compact: the first listed purpose, ‘to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System’ in order ‘to remove causes of present and future controversies’ (fourth purpose); and the final listed purpose, ‘to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin.’

That fifth purpose, to facilitate the expeditious development of the Basin, was the main reason the seven state representatives had convened with a federal representative: they all wanted to get about the development of the river’s waters, the desire to take on Frederick Dellenbaugh’s ‘veritable dragon’ supported by rational reasons such as flood control and storage. In order to achieve that expeditious development, however, it was necessary to achieve the Compact’s first stated purpose: an equitable division and apportionment of the development and the water required – or cutting to the chase for most of the seven states: making sure that fast-growing Southern California did not get most of the water for its racehorse development.

After failed efforts to make specific seven-state divisions of the use of the River’s water, the expedient solution they settled on was to divide the river in two, around the mostly uninhabited canyon region: an Upper Basin including the four states above the canyons (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming), and a Lower Basin of the states below the canyons (Arizona, California and Nevada). It was their clear intent that each basin would get half of the river’s water for consumptive use, with the states in each basin working out an equitable division among themselves of their half, in their own good time. 

Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS via Environment360

It may have worked out better, had they stopped there – a 50-50 division of whatever water the river produced, with each basin responsible for half of whatever water might eventually by allotted to Mexico where the river ended. But California insisted on a specific quantification of the two shares because they were already using a substantial amount and didn’t want to over-appropriate. After much discussion and good and bad advice, the commissioners settled on 15 million acre-feet (maf) as a reasonable average flow, between the Bureau of Reclamation’s optimistic 16.5 maf and the less optimistic 13 maf of USGS scientists studying the river.

The commissioners have been chided – castigated – for settling on the 15 maf quantity, which was shown to be overly optimistic within a couple of decades. But they could have countered the criticism by asking why, if their numbers were so bad, had the states not reassembled to correct them? 

Frequently in their meetings, there was either frustration or resignation at how little they knew about the river and its flow history. Chairman Hoover summarized that oft-expressed concern in their 21st meeting: ‘[W]e make now, for lack of a better word, a temporary equitable division, reserving a certain portion of the flow of the river to the hands of those men who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information; that they can make a further division of the river at such a time, and in the meantime, we shall take such means at this moment to protect the rights of either basin as will assure the continued development of the river.’ (Italics added) In other words – we can work out the details down the road when we know more; meanwhile, let’s build dams and canals. They built into the Compact, in Articles III, VI, and IX, procedures for those ‘possessed of a far greater fund of information’ to reconsider the Compact to better fit the emerging reality of the River and its flows. 

I should note that the commissioners, Anthropocene romantics, actually believed that future generations would reassemble to address the distribution of surplus flows. They anticipated a larger river in the future – if not provided by nature, then by the engineers who would bring in more water from larger rivers that had a surplus. This is the ‘romance of the Colorado River’ – the romance of the Anthropocene. 

California’s commissioner McClure accepted the lower 7.5 maf/year figure because it moved along the process leading to stymying the veritable dragon with a big dam for storage of the river’s annual flood. But Arizona’s commissioner, W.S. Norviel, was not happy with any aspect of the two-basin division since it left Arizona competing with California for a diminished quantity of water, a mere half of the river, for which the bigger state already had plans in the process. He was essentially – on orders from economic forces in the state he represented – in a defensive posture, protecting Arizona’s right and capacity to become another California with no interference from the Upper Basin states. Most of the commissioners were patient with Norviel, but frustration was occasionally vented, as when the New Mexico commissioner observed that ‘we are absolutely and utterly up in the air because none of us knows what it is Mr. Norviel really wants.’

Arizona Rivers Map via Geology.com.

What it came down to – what satisfied Mr. Norviel enough to reluctantly sign the Compact – was the concession by the Upper States that Arizona’s tributaries to the Colorado River mainstem would not be counted as part of the Lower Basin’s 7.5 maf/year. This is obscurely codified in the Compact as the mysterious statement in Article 3(b): ‘In addition to the [7.5 maf] apportionment, the Lower Basin is hereby given the right to increase its beneficial consumptive use of such waters by one million acre-feet per annum’ (with no additional responsibility for that accruing to the Upper Basin).

No rationale for this ‘gift’ is to be found in the minutes of the meetings, but it would be naive to think that everything of importance happened in the formal transcribed meetings. Bishop’s Lodge had a comped bar and restaurant, and there were undoubtedly informal meetings, over breakfast and lunch and well into the evenings, and in hotel-room Basin caucuses, as well as phone exchanges with interested parties back home.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

Upper Basin depletions today also include two-thirds of a million ace-feet in out-of-basin diversions to the South Platte, Arkansas, and Rio Grande rivers and the Salt Lake region. Such diversions could conceivably be a black hole into which another million or two acre-feet could be poured, but users in the natural Upper Basin are organized enough now to put very expensive conditions on future out-of-basin diversions – as Denver Water and Northern Water have learned, on ‘firming projects’ for two relatively small diversions into the South Platte for which they already had conditional rights.  The Upper Basin states assumed the worst – an unconditional delivery obligation – and have been almost obsessively diligent about keeping the ten-year running average well above 75 maf. Even today, through two decades of aridification, the ten-year average remains in the 85-90 maf range, although the long-term trend in the running average is downward, bringing closer the day when that big question must be answered…

The mysterious or obfuscatory passages of the Compact to one side, however – a larger question, for me at least, is whether the division of the Colorado River into two basins was a good idea for the long term. 

As Utah’s commissioner Caldwell observed in the next to last meeting, ‘I think for a practical matter we are almost making two rivers out of one in the Colorado River, to meet a practical situation.’ The ‘practical situation’ was the need for an interstate agreement on the consumptive use of the River’s water ‘to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin,’ and the two-basin concept achieved that. 

But the effect over the century has been ‘almost making two rivers out of one,’ rather than developing one river with two basins. The Upper Colorado River is a ‘natural’ river, accumulating its flows from many mountain tributaries that almost all start with snowmelt above 8,000 feet in elevation and gradually conjoin to funnel into the canyon region. The Lower Colorado River is practically a reverse of that, with a single source emerging from the canyon reservoirs and gradually being diverted into canals and smaller ditches and pipes until it has been literally all spread out in southwestern desert destinations.

The clear intent of the Compact commissioners was that these two rivers would be created equal (‘to remove causes of present and future controversies’), but they failed to deliver that in the language of the Compact. Despite some wiggle room provided by the ten-year running average, the Upper Basin was clearly going to bear most of the burden of nature’s extremes like drought, while the Lower Basin was assured under the Compact of a relatively consistent flow of water from storage regardless of what happened in the Upper Basin.

The separation into ‘two rivers’ was enhanced with the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and Powell Reservoir just above Lees Ferry the basin division point; there was no further need for the Lower River to be concerned at all with the occasional dry spell in the Upper River; their portion plus the Upper River’s share of Mexico’s portion (8.23 maf/year) was always there – plus the unused Upper River ‘surplus’ which the Bureau kept sending them, enabling all manner of bad habits in the Lower River.

The problem with ‘making two rivers from’ the Colorado River is a failure to take into account the basic nature of a ‘desert river.’ Around 85 percent of the water for the entire Colorado River Basin originates in the Upper River above 8,000 feet elevation. And around 65 percent of that water is consumed by the Lower River (whose water ‘originates’ in the bubbling ‘spring’ of spent water from Glen Canyon Dam’s power turbines). Yet the Lower River is charged with no responsibility for maintaining and improving the source of its water. The back-and-forth fussing and complaining today between the two basins is evidence of a two-river split, in which the problems of flow lie mostly in the Upper River, and means for addressing those problems ($$$) are mostly untapped in the Lower River’s users.

The Compact commissioners undoubtedly did the best they could with the knowledge they had – and the romantic vision they tried to carry forward in more rational terms: they were primarily out to get about the task of unleashing the Industrial Revolution on Frederick Dellenbaugh’s ‘veritable dragon.’ But their own words in the transcriptions, as well as the ‘reform’ clauses in the Compact itself, indicate that they intended for the Compact to be a ‘living document,’ changing as we learned more about the river. 

Why have the Compact’s critics not delved into the document’s weak points and unforeseeable challenges? Some elements of the so-called ‘Law of the River’ – which we’ll explore soon – have attempted to either chip away at the challenges, or to circumvent them. But the tasks of correcting the arithmetic and addressing the two-river questions can no longer be kicked down the road – like Holmes’ one-hoss shay, the Compact could fall apart at a hundred years to a day.

Republished with permission.

Douglas County again meets about San Luis Valley water project: Commissioner says more information to come — The Douglas County News Press

The sandhill cranes are back in the San Luis Valley (2020) on their spring migration. Photo credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife

Click the link to read the article on the Douglas County News Press website (Elliot Wenzler). Here’s an excerpt:

Four months after announcing they wouldn’t use federal COVID-19 funds on the proposal from Renewable Water Resources, or RWR, the commissioners heard a legal update on the project from the county’s outside counsel, Steve Leonhardt, Sept. 13. Leonhardt, who recently met with RWR, provided advice and a piece of “work product” for commissioners to review…

In May, Laydon made the decisive vote not to use a portion of the county’s $68 million in American Rescue Plan Act money on the proposal. However, he said he was still interested in continuing to look at the project.  Since then, the county has continued to pay Leonhardt to talk with RWR…

Commissioner George Teal, a longtime supporter of the plan, said during the Sept. 13 meeting that Leonhardt’s advice reflects the current legal and political setting and that things could change in the decades it would take for the project to come to fruition…

Opponents of the plan have come from across the political spectrum, including Rep. Lauren Boebert, Gov. Jared Polis, Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa and both U.S. senators. 

Supermoon over the San Luis Valley August 11, 2022. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the “Monday Briefing” on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

Speaking of the November election, Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon is up for re-election in a race against Democratic challenger Kari Solberg. Should he win – and expectations are that he will in a county that trends toward local Republicans – expect Douglas County to make another full-court press on a deal with Renewable Water Resources. A renewed push, despite clear public opposition including from Douglas County residents, relies on Laydon being re-elected to the three-member board of commissioners, since it is a split public body with Commissioner Lora Thomas staunchly opposed to the idea of exporting water from the San Luis Valley and Commissioner George Teal a key ally of RWR. Laydon needs to win re-election for RWR to move forward. Upcoming campaign finance reports will show how big a bet RWR’s Bill Owens, Sean Tonner and other water exportation enthusiasts have placed behind him.

Part II

You’ll recall Douglas County decided not to use its federal COVID relief money to invest in RWR, but rather told its staff and water attorneys it has hired to negotiate and to continue working with RWR on the proposal. The deal was never dead – Douglas County simply took it off its public agenda while staff and attorneys worked on the plan with RWR’s Bill Owens and Sean Tonner. Earlier this month, on Sept. 13, Steve Leonhardt, the lead water attorney hired by Douglas County, met in executive session with the three commissioners to update them on his ongoing talks with Owens and RWR. Once November passes, and should Laydon win, expect Douglas County to again make its case for why its way of life in the suburbs of metro-Denver is more critical to the future of Colorado than the agriculture and environmental assets of the San Luis Valley and the health of the Upper Rio Grande Basin.

A #ColoradoRiver veteran moves upstream and plunges into the #drought-stressed river’s mounting woes — Water Education Foundation #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Foundation website (Nick Cahill):

Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission. (Source: Upper Colorado River Commission)

Western Water Q&A: Chuck Cullom, a longtime Arizona water manager, brings a dual-basin perspective as top staffer at the Upper Colorado River Commission

With 25 years of experience working on the Colorado River, Chuck Cullom is used to responding to myriad challenges that arise on the vital lifeline that seven states, more than two dozen tribes and the country of Mexico depend on for water. But this summer problems on the drought-stressed river are piling up at a dizzying pace: Reservoirs plummeting to record low levels, whether Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam can continue to release water and produce hydropower, unprecedented water cuts and predatory smallmouth bass threatening native fish species in the Grand Canyon. 

“Holy buckets, Batman!,” said Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “I mean, it’s just on and on and on.”

Cullom is keeping tabs on the river’s rapidly growing list of issues while guiding the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in talks with other water users on how to save a river system that is crashing under the weight of drought and climate change. Demand continues to greatly outstrip supply and now state officials, water users and tribes are hurrying to craft a new drought plan and avoid intervention from the federal government.

The Upper Basin has proposed a plan built around paying users to reduce water consumption. Though it doesn’t include mandatory cuts for water users, Cullom and the commission have made it a focal point of their negotiations with the Lower Basin.

Cullom spent the last two decades viewing issues on the river through a Lower Basin lens, managing drought strategies and mitigation plans for the Central Arizona Project. Now, in his first year at the commission, Cullom has the chance to use his dual-basin perspective to help the seven states and 30 federally recognized tribes hash out ways to divide the river, which continues to shrink swiftly.  

In an interview with Western Water, Cullom explains the importance of communicating effectively on the river, why the Upper Basin’s five-point plan doesn’t require mandatory water cuts or offer potential savings amounts and the push to make the Lower Basin responsible for evaporation losses at Lake Mead.

WESTERN WATER: How has your previous experience in the Lower Basin prepared you for your current position as you switch your focus to the significant challenges facing the Upper Basin?

CHUCK CULLOM: One of the things that I learned over the course of my experience in the Lower Basin was that while we may want to isolate issues or challenges in one basin or another, we are tied together. So that was very important as I transitioned from Lower Basin to Upper Basin, recognizing that while we may want to isolate the issues between Upper and Lower, they cascade in both directions.

I understood early on that the Lower Basin perspective on how the system operates is different and unique from the Upper Basin. Water uses and management in the Upper Basin reflect and are driven by annual hydrologic circumstances, meaning that the hydrology and inflows that occur influence water management decisions year over year. Whereas the Lower Basin relies principally on storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. When your perspective is so distinct and different, you have to be very careful about what you say and how you say it.

The Colorado River is about 1,400 miles long and flows through seven U.S. states and into Mexico. The Upper Colorado River Basin supplies approximately 90 percent of the water for the entire basin. It originates as rain and snow in the Rocky and Wasatch mountains. Credit USGS.

WW: Can you expound on the difficulty of communicating on such a large river system? 

CULLOM: I had an experience in the early days of the system conservation pilot program in Arizona. The words we were using to describe how we were managing our uses, while useful and appropriate for what we were doing internally to Arizona, was offensive and inappropriate for the Upper Basin because it implied things that weren’t true. And the Upper Basin folks thoughtfully reached out and communicated directly … and then we figured out how we were going to work together. When you experience the world differently because you’re upstream or downstream of Glen Canyon Dam, communication becomes very important.

And it’s the same with tribal engagement. … The Upper Division [Basin] commissioners met with the tribal leaders for the six Upper Basin tribes and had a very thoughtful, frank and open discussion about the importance of working collaboratively on interstate Colorado River issues and what is helpful and unhelpful in that context. And it was a very useful conversation. 

WW: In moving from the Lower Basin to the Upper Basin, has anything involving the Colorado River surprised you? How has your perspective changed?

CULLOM: One thing that surprised me is that the technical capacity in the Upper Basin is on par and in some instances higher than what I anticipated; it exceeds some of the capacity in the Lower Basin. Folks up here are super smart, super talented and lots of modeling expertise is engaged every day.

WW: In June, Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called on the seven Basin states to devise a plan to reduce use of the river to protect Lake Powell and Lake Mead. She also indicated that all users will have to take cuts. Are Upper Basin states preparing to take cuts? And how might these cuts play out?

CULLOM: I don’t think the question is about are we prepared, it’s how effective our actions will be. The magnitude of contributions in the Upper Basin is limited by the tools we have, the hydrologic and geographic circumstances and what happens in the Lower Basin. So, for the five-point plan to be effective, it needs significant actions in the Lower Basin. But we are moving forward with our plan with the expectation that everyone will contribute in a meaningful way.

Lake Powell’s decline is seen in these photos of Glen Canyon Dam taken a decade apart. On the left, the water level in 2010; on the right, the water level in 2021. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

WWWhat is the goal of the Upper Basin’s five-point plan and what has been the response from Reclamation or the Lower Basin?

CULLOM: The plan includes tools that lead to additional conservation in the Upper Basin on top of what is inflicted by hydrology in dry years, plus contributions that have been made through the 2019 Drought Response Operating Agreement.

The one criticism that we’ve received is “why didn’t you quantify your system conservation program?” We didn’t know if we would have funding and support from Reclamation and we didn’t know what the appetite of water users would be to take on even more reductions. So we didn’t think it would be appropriate to speculate on what we might achieve as an aspiration; we’re focused on delivering results rather than projecting what might be. 

Two of the Lower Basin states (California & Arizona) have questions, Nevada is supportive and Reclamation has expressed support and provided resources to help us implement the plan.

WW: The five-point plan talked about reviving work on a demand management plan that was supposed to be part of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). Earlier this year, the Colorado Water Conservation Board halted work on such a plan because, it said, Colorado was much further ahead on investigating the concept than the other Upper Basin states (New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming). Is demand management a viable concept for the Upper Basin and what’s been done?

CULLOM: Colorado’s so-called pause on demand management is not that. The interstate work through the commission is continuing and will be completed in the fall and it will provide a report by the end of the year. I think Colorado was indicating that they had enough information and didn’t need any additional consultants or studies as they complete their own homework.

WW: How can Congress and the federal government help in facilitating a plan to keep the river system from crashing?

CULLOM: Congress has been very helpful. They passed the DCP and they passed the Inflation Reduction Act funding. We’re appreciative and trying to put that funding to very good use.

For the long-term perspective, Commissioner Touton identified tools that she is going to explore and develop and potentially implement in the Lower Basin, including appropriate accounting for evaporation and [transmission] losses. There’s about 1.2 million acre-feet of water that is unaccounted for in the Lower Basin that contributes to the imbalance between supply and demand. And the impact of that imbalance is higher releases from Glen Canyon Dam at a time when Glen Canyon Dam is in jeopardy. We support her efforts to try and bring the Lower Basin system into balance just like the way the Upper Basin accounts for evaporation and transmission losses. We think the secretary has significant authority to do that.

WW: With aridification shrinking the river supply and the disparity in use between the two basins, do you think re-apportioning the river is a serious possibility in the future?

CULLOM: I don’t think it’s warranted or helpful.

WW: In the short term or it’s just a concept that’s just absolutely not in play?

CULLOM: Well, folks can want to talk about it but trying to reconfigure [river apportionments] right now seems like you would create more uncertainty than you’re trying to resolve. In addition, there are the folks who would be most at risk from that conversation in underserved communities and tribes. There are significant tribal water rights that are confirmed but undeveloped.

I think there is significant room for flexibility to adapt to the ongoing drought and for aridification, climate change or whatever you want to call a hotter, drier future. And we need to work within the within the regulatory framework we have because otherwise it becomes a discussion about brute political force rather than what the system needs collectively.

WW: Looking ahead to the renegotiation of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, what are some of the main priorities for the Upper Basin?

CULLOM: We absolutely need a new set of rules. Extending rules that are under stress is not, I don’t believe, a viable option. A significant goal for the next set of rules is to bring the Colorado River uses into balance. By uses I mean including evaporation and losses. We need to bring the system depletions into balance with the available supply every year and rebuild the resiliency in the system by replacing the depleted storage. I think that’s the framework that the Upper Basin is seeking to explore.

Reach Writer Nick Cahill at ncahill@watereducation.org, and Editor Doug Beeman at dbeeman@watereducation.org

The #ColoradoRiver is drying up — but basin states have ‘no plan’ on how to cut water use — #Colorado Public Radio #COriver #aridification #overdrawn22

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

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Public Radio website (Rachel Estabrook and Michael Elizabeth Sakas). Here’s an excerpt:

Water leaders, agricultural producers, environmentalists and others from across the drought-stricken river basin met Friday for the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar to discuss the historic-low levels in the river’s biggest reservoirs — and the need to cut back usage from Wyoming to California. While the problems the basin faces were apparent in the day-long discussions about the state of the river, solutions were not. The event’s host, Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller, told attendees that scientists now recommend that water managers plan for the river to provide just 9 million acre-feet of water annually. That’s a reduction of about a quarter from the amount used in 2021 by U.S. states, Native American tribes and Mexico. In an interview, Mueller said the Friday seminar was held to educate attendees on the seriousness of the Colorado River situation. Still unanswered is what the states and tribes represented in the room will do to drastically curtail use. 

While the representatives for the governments agreed that solutions need to be collaborative, no one offered to be the first to make big cuts. However, representatives from nearly every state stressed that they have already cut back on the amount of water they’re legally allowed to use.

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

“I think the honest answer is right now there is no plan,” J.B. Hamby of the Imperial Irrigation District in California said in response to a question from the audience about how significant cutbacks would be achieved. 

The Imperial district’s farms use millions of acre-feet of water a year to produce massive portions of the national food system. Hamby said water managers along the Colorado River have been distracted by incremental “dumpster fires,” and are not adequately focusing on the need for a new long-term plan that accounts for reduced water in the river.

The theme [of the seminar “Overdrawn”] refers to the emergency status of the Colorado River and its biggest reservoirs: Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Mead, on the border of Nevada and Arizona, has dropped so low that there’s fear that turbines at Hoover Dam won’t have enough water to keep spinning and generating hydroelectric power for millions of people…

Throughout the seminar sessions Friday, upper-basin managers said lower-basin states need to take the lead in the water savings. Asked why the upper basin wouldn’t put out a plan first to get the entire river system closer to a solution, Mueller with the Colorado River Water Conservation District said in the interview with CPR News that the state of Colorado is working on specific conservation plans but doesn’t intend to release them until the lower-basin states act…Meanwhile, lower-basin water managers attending the Friday conference stressed the water savings they have made in the past and asked that states like Colorado stop waiting for the lower-basin to act.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

Click the link to read “Cutting river usage: Is first move up to Lower Basin?” on the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website (Dennis Webb). Here’s an excerpt:

Andy Mueller, general manager of western Colorado’s Colorado River District, said at the annual water seminar that his entity puts on that everyone in the basin needs to come to the table with solutions for reducing usage. But before that can occur, he said the federal Bureau of Reclamation needs to address the fact that the way river water is currently divvied up between Upper and Lower Basin states doesn’t account for evaporation and transit loss in the Lower Basin that amounts to 1.2 million acre-feet a year.

“The key here is getting the accounting fixed and then recognizing that we all have an obligation to participate (in conservation measures) as well,” Mueller said.

He warned that alternatively the river district may consider pursuing litigation to make that fix happen.

Friday’s event at Colorado Mesa University comes as the Colorado River Compact that divvies up river water between the Upper and Lower basins turns 100 years old this year. Drought and a warming climate have reduced precipitation and streamflows in the basin during the last 20 or so years that the compact has been in effect. While it allocated 7.5 million acre-feet a year to each of the basins, the watershed doesn’t produce that volume of water. Water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at less than a quarter of what they can hold, which is threatening their ability to produce hydroelectric power and raising the prospect of them reaching “deadpool” and being no longer functional.

While overall demand on the Colorado River trended upward from 1970 to the late 1990s, it plateaued when the region entered the current megadrought. Although this data only goes to 2010, the plateau has pretty much held. But at over 14 MAF per year, demand is significantly higher than what the river has supplied most years. Note that more water is lost to reservoir evaporation than is sent to Mexico. Source: USBR Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study.

The Lower Basin has been using more water than allocated to it under the 1922 compact, and the Upper Basin, far less than its share. In addition, Mueller said, evaporation of water in federal Upper Basin reservoirs such as Powell, Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa gets attributed to the usage by the Upper Basin, which he said makes sense. But evaporation and transit losses aren’t calculated into Lower Basin usage, which Mueller, an attorney, said is “probably illegal in the context of the river.” He said the Bureau of Reclamation needs to fix that, but doesn’t want to because of the pain it would cause in the Lower Basin and the potential for resulting litigation…

Mueller then added, “I just want to be clear, from my perspective and the river district’s, there very well may be litigation if they don’t fix this problem, from us, because if their threat is to come after our federal projects in the Upper Basin we will defend those projects.”

Already, the Bureau of Reclamation has been making some water releases from Upper Basin federal reservoirs such as Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa to try to shore up levels in Lake Powell.

Colorado River Compact Symposium September 26, 2022: Living with the #ColoradoRiver Compact: Past, present and future — #Colorado State University

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

Click here to register:

Join us for the Symposium of the Year!

The Colorado River supplies have significantly been reduced over the last two decades and is the subject of many news articles. This symposium is to inform attendees interested in learning more about the Colorado River and the Colorado River Compact.

The agenda of the symposium is now available; click here!

The event will take place in the Lory Center Ballroom, on the second floor.

Attendance is free and lunch will be provided. Make sure to register as spots are limited!

The Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors and the #Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District (PSSGID) Board of Directors joint work session recap — The Pagosa Springs Sun

Pagosa Springs. Photo credit: Colorado.com

Click the link to read the article on the Pagosa Springs Sun website (Josh Pike). Here’s an excerpt:

Pagosa Springs Town Manager Andrea Phillips began the meeting by providing an update on the pumps the PSSGID recently purchased for the pipeline running from downtown to the PAWSD Vista wastewater treatment plant. She added that the project has experienced additional costs since its installation in 2015, including spending on odor-control devices, an underground storage vault to store overflow waste and the new pumps, which had cost PSSGID approximately $800,000. Utilities Supervisor Lucian Brewster also provided an update on the pumps, indicating that the system has been fully switched over to the new pumps and the pumps have been running well.

Phillips added that she anticipates that the PSSGID will have to perform an additional $500,000 in pretreatment screening upgrades to ensure the new pumps continue to perform effectively throughout their lifetimes. She also stated that the PSSGID is working on an emergency liner for one of the previously used lagoons by Yamaguchi Park to provide additional wastewater storage, an addition that would likely cost another $100,000…

PAWSD District Manager Justin Ramsey then gave an update on PAWSD’s efforts to acquire a delay on a state-mandated upgrade to the Vista wastewater plant that was originally mandated to be completed by 2025 and would cost approximately $20 million. He indicated that PAWSD is hop- ing to get the deadline for the implementation of certain nutrient- filtering upgrades delayed to at least 2027, although the delay had already been requested and rejected once by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE)…

The group then moved on to discuss the possibility of construct- ing a joint sewer plant for the PSS- GID and PAWSD, which Ramsey suggested could be a solution to PAWSD’s difficulties in upgrading the Vista plant.

As the #ColoradoRiver Dwindles, Inflation Reduction Act Steps In — Sierra Club Magazine #COriver #aridification

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

Click the link to read the article on the Sierra Club Magazine website (Jeremy Miller). Here’s an excerpt:

This summer in the southwestern United States has been defined by climate chaos. At one point, more than 75 million people were under an extreme heat advisories, and temperature records were broken in cities throughout the region. As the climate warms, these kinds of events will become more common, straining states’ ability to care for the most vulnerable. The warmer temperatures have also intensified the drought—the most severe dry spell in nearly 1,300 years—and strained the Colorado River, which supplies 40 million residents in the West with drinking water, to the breaking point. That’s why a group of western Democrat senators including Colorado’s Michael Bennet, Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto, and Arizona’s Mark Kelly secured $4 billion in funding as part of the Inflation Reduction Act to deal with persistent drought.

The funds will be directed to the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that operates and maintains hundreds of dams and reservoirs across the country, including Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Inflation Reduction Act stipulates that the $4 billion can be spent in one of three ways: to pay water users to reduce consumption; to fund conservation projects that reduce demand in the upper and lower basins of the Colorado River; and restorations of ecosystems and habitat directly harmed by drought. The bill also allocates $220 million to tribal nations (who collectively hold rights to 2.9 million acre-feet of Colorado River water) to fund climate resilience and adaptation programs.

In addition to funding for the Colorado River Basin, the Biden bill allocates another $8.3 billion “to address water and drought challenges and invest in our nation’s western water and power infrastructure, while rebuilding our existing projects to withstand a changing hydrology,” according to a Department of the Interior press release…

Robert Glennon, emeritus professor of law at the University of Arizona, says that there are solutions available that can save the Colorado River from ecological and hydrological collapse. While residential water scofflaws and “lawn cops” in Las Vegas and Los Angeles draw headlines, the biggest and most conspicuous user of the river water by far is agriculture, which accounts for roughly 80 percent of use. In Pinal County, near Phoenix, for example, water is delivered at great expense across the desert to irrigate tens of thousands of acres of water-intensive crops such as cotton and alfalfa (a large portion of the latter is shipped overseas to feed livestock). Efforts to update infrastructure such as improving canals and replacing antiquated flood irrigation systems with modern drip irrigation could reap potentially large savings, says Glennon. But these projects are also very expensive and, therefore, subsidies and grants will be necessary to aid in the transition. “Farmers tend to be land rich and cash poor, so the bureau could play a major role in helping farmers modernize their infrastructure,” Glennon said.

#Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch Partner to Bolster Flows in #CrystalRiver #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Helms Ditch Headgate. Photo credit: Colorado Water Trust

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust (Alyson Meyer Gould, Bill Fales and Marj Perry):

On the 13th of September, 2022, Cold Mountain Ranch, with compensation from Colorado Water Trust, is boosting streamflows in the Crystal River, which is suffering from low flows during this hot and dry summer. This is the first year of implementation in a second pilot program with Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch to add flow to the River during dry years. The agreement compensates the Cold Mountain Ranch owners, Bill Fales and Marj Perry, for leaving their irrigation water in the Crystal River when it needs it most.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

The Crystal River drops out of the Elk Mountains near Marble and flows north to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale. The river supports a number of traditional ranching operations as well as towns, recreationalists, and fish populations. Cold Mountain Ranch relies on the Crystal River to irrigate grass meadows that support its cow-calf operation. Under the agreement, the Water Trust monitors flows in the river. When flows fall to 40 cubic feet per second (cfs) in August and September, the ranch may voluntarily decide to cease diversion from the Crystal River in August through October. Colorado Water Trust determines the amount of water left in the natural stream and then pays the ranch $250 per cfs per day for up to 20 days each year. Once streamflows reach 55 cfs in the River (based on a 3-day rolling average), payments cease, but should flow again drop below 55 cfs, diversions can stop again and compensation resume. The pilot agreement can restore up to 6 cfs in the Crystal River.

In 2018, Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch signed a similar three-year pilot agreement that ended in 2020. Unfortunately, within this initial three-year period, Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch were unable to run the project. In 2018, the Crystal River’s flows were too low to implement the agreement – there was not enough water available to result in significant benefits instream. In 2019, the river was high enough to avoid triggering the agreement during the timeframe of the agreement. Although it flirted with the low flow trigger in the late fall, the timing was out of range for the agreement. And in 2020, because of dry and hot conditions and impacts to their hay crop, Colorado Water Trust’s partners at Cold Mountain Ranch needed to use as much water as possible to maximize their late season production and keep their ranching operation sustainable.

Colorado Water Trust and Cold Mountain Ranch’s initial three-year pilot agreement was the first crack at a highly customized, market-based solution that works for agriculture and rivers on the Crystal River, and offered lessons for the renewal and re-tooling of that initial agreement. In this new contract, the partners tried to account for drier years and changing climatic conditions, as well as the economic needs of the Ranch. The changes include a $5,000 signing bonus to support agricultural operations, additional payment and flexibility for coordination, and extending potential coordination into October.

“Although we certainly wish conditions were wetter, we are excited for a chance to run the program. On one hand it enables an active, family-owned ranching operation to use its water rights portfolio in a new and flexible way. On the other hand, it keeps water in the river when it is most in need. It checks the boxes for the definition of a win-win solution,” Alyson Meyer Gould, Staff Attorney, Colorado Water Trust.

The legal and technical framework created by Colorado Water Trust and informed by local interests and support from Lotic Hydrological, has the potential, if successful, to have far-reaching implications. In the end, it brings environmental benefits to the river without affecting enrolled ranches’ long-term sustainability. Thus, the project will support both people and the environment.

The Water Trust would like to thank Cold Mountain Ranch, Public Counsel of the Rockies, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, Lotic Hydrological, WestWater Research, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Pitkin County, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, the Aspen Skiing Company Environment Foundation, Catena Foundation, and the stakeholders of the Crystal River Management Plan for making this project possible.

The #ColoradoRiver Is Dying. Can Its Aquatic Dinosaurs Be Saved? — Mother Jones Magazine #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Mother Jones website (Stephanie Mencimer). Click through and read the whole article, here’s an excerpt:

Found nowhere else in the world, the native razorback has occupied the waterways of the Colorado River basin for at least 3 million years, one reason why Olsen says they’re known as the “dinosaurs” of the Colorado. Known as “detritivores,” the bottom-feeding fish were once an important part of the river’s food chain because they nosh on dead plant and animal matter that might otherwise build up and cause disease while returning essential nutrients to the ecosystem. The fish have adapted to the harsh monsoon-to-drought cycles of the desert rivers that flood with melted mountain snowpack in the spring and are parched in the late summer. Razorback suckers can grow up to three feet long, 80 pounds, and live for 50 or 60 years. But such geriatric monster fish are rare in the wild today.

The native fish have not fared so well over the past century since humans began trying to make the western desert bloom by damming the Colorado and its tributaries, a watershed that was once one of the most biologically diverse in North America. “They’re a bellwether for the health of the entire river ecosystem, from Wyoming to the Gulf of California,” says Taylor McKinnon, senior public lands advocate at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity…

The US Fish and Wildlife Service first listed the razorback as endangered in 1991, and the species would be extinct in the Upper Basin but for the hatchery program, which was established in 1996 as part of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and is funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The program has been successful enough that last year, FWS proposed downlisting the razorback from “endangered” to merely “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. But the extreme mega-drought of the past two years makes that proposal seem wildly optimistic…

Meanwhile, the biggest ongoing threat to the Colorado’s endangered fish is other, nonnative fish. Only 12 fish are native to the Upper Colorado River Basin, Breen says. But now more than 50 species compete in the rivers. Many that were intentionally introduced to promote sport fishing are highly predatory in a way the razorback and others have not evolved to survive…The recovery program spends more than $2 million a year trying to eliminate the non-native fish from the Green River and elsewhere in the system—a move that is not always popular with local anglers who like to fish for the bass. “For the record: I love smallmouth bass,” says Breen. “I grew up fishing for smallmouth bass in the Midwest. But that’s where they’re supposed to be. Bass are very predacious, and they’re not supposed to be in that river.”

#Nevada again looks to deep #conservation as the #ColoradoRiver’s reservoirs dwindle — The Nevada Independent

The Las Vegas Wash(Opens another site in new window) is the primary channel through which the Las Vegas Valley’s excess water returns to Lake Mead. Contributing approximately 2 percent of the water in Lake Mead, the water flowing through the Wash consists of urban runoff, shallow groundwater, storm water and releases from the valley’s four water reclamation facilities. Photo credit: Southern Nevada Water Authority

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

Only a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip, in the Mojave Desert, is an unlikely scene: A county park with walking trails and thick vegetation that surround a vibrant rush of flowing water. 

Known as the Las Vegas Wash, the water running through this channel is a crucial part of how Nevada has managed to keep its net Colorado River use below its allocation, despite booming population growth and two decades of persistent drought, worsened by a changing climate. 

Every time a shower or a faucet is turned on in Las Vegas, the water flowing down the drain is treated at wastewater plants and recycled. The treated water is discharged into the wash, which flows into Lake Mead, a declining Colorado River reservoir held back by the Hoover Dam. Once there, the water can be used for a second time, effectively increasing Nevada’s overall supply. 

“It allows Las Vegas to exist in its present form,” said John Hiatt, a conservationist who sits on a coordination committee for the wash. “[Without it], we’d be half our size and really struggling.”

When the Colorado River Compact was negotiated in the early 1900s, only about 5,000 people lived in Clark County, home to Las Vegas. Few envisioned the massive growth that has turned the desert into a sprawling paved landscape of nearly 2.3 million people — and growing. Today, about 74 percent of all Nevadans live in Clark County, making it the state’s economic center.

The laws governing the Colorado River give Nevada the smallest cut of water: 1.8 percent, or just 300,000 acre-feet (an acre foot is the amount of water needed to fill an acre to a depth of one foot). The small share has meant Nevada has long had to live on a tight water budget and rely on conservation measures that are only now being considered by other Western states. 

Nevada has one main Colorado River user: Las Vegas. It accounts for more than 90 percent of the state’s diversions, with additional water going to the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, whose rights were recognized in a case known as Arizona v. California, and other water users in Nevada.

For decades, Las Vegas has relied on wastewater recycling and removing water-guzzling grass to stretch and conserve its small Colorado River share. But even with proactive management, Las Vegas, like other cities, faces challenges and uncertainties when it comes to future growth. 

“We still have some room with the water resources we have today,” said Assemblyman Howard Watts, a Democrat who has worked on water issues for years, including in the Legislature. “But eventually we’re going to reach a point where we’re going to go past that limit and that’s when we really have to consider what a sustainable path is for Southern Nevada moving forward.”

Many of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s future planning scenarios are premised on an ability to collaborate with other states to augment Las Vegas’s current supply. Yet negotiations over the Colorado River have become increasingly difficult for the seven states that rely on the shrinking river and its reservoirs, including Lake Mead, which has fallen to critically low levels. 

Nevada, even though it has a small slice of the Colorado River, has a huge stake in those talks. Las Vegas is reliant on the Colorado River. It’s the source of about 90 percent of the city’s water supply. The remainder comes from a local groundwater aquifer, which was historically overused.

Any other water in Nevada is far away. For years, Las Vegas had looked to import rural eastern Nevada groundwater hundreds of miles away as a potential supply. But local water managers shelved the controversial plan in 2020 amid legal challenges and concerns about environmental impacts. While it still owns ranches in eastern Nevada, the water authority has said its focus is on supplementing its supply through collaborations, including a recycling project in California. 

How Southern Nevada has managed to grow, thus far, on such a tight supply has everything to do with the Las Vegas Wash, which empties into Lake Mead. Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, described the natural stream as something of “a silent miracle,” helping Nevada operate one of the largest water reuse programs in the nation. 

Through the Las Vegas Wash, recycled water flows back to Lake Mead. Each drop of water that is returned allows Nevada to divert an equivalent amount of water, while keeping its overall use within its 300,000 acre-foot allotment. Last year, Nevada diverted more than 480,000 acre-feet from Lake Mead, but it returned about half of that water for an overall use below its allotment. 

Because nearly all indoor water in Southern Nevada is treated and returned to the wash, it has allowed Las Vegas to focus its conservation efforts on aggressive turf removal. This, combined with water recycling, has meant that Nevada has under-used its Colorado River apportionment. 

This year, the state is currently forecast to use about 240,000 acre-feet of water, or 20 percent less than its 300,000 acre-foot allocation. Nevada, as a result, can easily absorb an 8 percent cut to its water supply next year without any significant changes to municipal water deliveries.

As for future growth, Pellegrino said “it depends on how we grow.”

“The future of our growth has to have the smallest water footprint possible,” she added.

Las Vegas is preparing for the realities of a shrinking river by incentivizing and requiring greater degrees of conservation — with a target goal of decreasing per capita water use from about 110 gallons per capita per day to 86 gallons per capita per day by 2035. The water authority’s plan includes a transition from evaporative cooling, pool size limits and prohibiting decorative turf. 

Still, with only 1.8 percent of the Colorado River, Las Vegas cannot fix the problem on its own. In a recent letter, water authority General Manager John Entsminger called for swift cuts aimed at stabilizing the Colorado River’s reservoirs while longer-term agreements can be negotiated. The water authority has also pushed other states to consider climate change in long-term planning.

Hiatt, on the Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee, came to Southern Nevada in the 1970s, when the population of Clark County was about 350,000 people. He said he is concerned about what a future might look like as climate change continues altering the river’s flows. If conserved water is only re-dedicated to new growth, he worries “we’re going to be in the same position of pushing against our allotment — and our allotment may be significantly lower than it is now.”

“It’s hard to believe anyone is going to come out with more water,” he added.

Reprinted with permission

Arizona Department of #Water Resources Director and Central #Arizona Project General Manager give grim assessment of #ColoradoRiver conditions #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon Dam. Photo credit: USBR

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

Buschatzke and Cooke named Environmental Leaders of the Year

Wednesday’s [September 14, 2022] online presentation of the Arizona Capitol Times’ “Morning Scoop on Water Issues in Arizona” served up an hour-long assessment of how the State’s water supply is faring during the current, epic drought conditions.

Some of the news, like that from Leslie Meyers, the newly appointed Associate General Manager & Chief Water Resources Executive for Salt River Project, included refreshing good news. The in-state SRP water supply is in good shape, she reported.

But, as anticipated, most of the Morning Scoop discussion focused on the strained Colorado River system. The Morning Scoop panelists – including ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke – could report very little that could be considered upbeat.

ADWR Director Buschatzke reported that declines in the system will continue because “we are still using more water than is going into Lake Mead.”

The Director noted, however, that “we have done many good things” in recent years, including the Drought Contingency Plan of 2019the 500+ Plan of 2021 and other conservation measures. “And while they have not stabilized the system, we would have been in much worse shape if we had not done those things.” [ed. emphasis mine]

The situation on the Colorado River system, nevertheless, is dire.

Credit: USBR

“We’re heading into, essentially, a crisis period.”

Without the 2-4 million acre-feet of needed conservation identified by Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June, “we could see as early as 2024 Lake Mead and Lake Powell falling to elevations in which the ability to move water past (Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam) could be compromised.”

Buschatzke made his online comments with an image of the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon behind him.

“If you think about the background of my picture, the Grand Canyon, if you can’t move water past Glen Canyon Dam, you would have no water in the Grand Canyon. Think about what that would mean.”

Credi: USBR

CAP General Manager Cooke gave an assessment of the current capacity of the two big reservoirs – both at a quarter of their capacity with just 13 million acre-feet of storage – a small fraction of the 50 million acre-feet of total capacity.

“We’re about a year away from not being able to move water past those two dams,” said Cooke.

Terry Goddard, chairman of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, welcomed the nearly 300 viewers in front of a virtual background photo of Lake Mead’s notorious “bathtub ring” – a reminder of the crisis enveloping the Colorado River system.

The ring, he noted, “is a grim reminder of how far that lake has fallen in a very short time.”

Credit: USBR

Goddard registered disappointment that the Department of the Interior in mid-August failed to announce actions to protect the river system from potentially catastrophic storage declines in its primary reservoirs. He recalled that, in June, the Bureau of Reclamation had vowed that if the Colorado River States failed to agree to voluntarily conserve between 2-4 million acre-feet, in addition to the already planned cuts, the federal government would act to protect the system.

Goddard observed that when the states failed to find agreement, “something much bigger was supposed to happen” in addition to the announcement of the planned cutbacks. “But it didn’t,” he said. “They blinked.”

Also on the panel, was Joe Gysel, President of the private water-provider, EPCOR USA.

Arizona Capitol Times “Morning Scoop on Water Issues in Arizona” can be found below: 

This is a follow-up to our May Morning Scoop about Water issues in Arizona. In this session we will explore what has changed in the past few months, the current outlook and then dive into some solutions that are being examined. Credit: Arizona Capitol Times

Earlier in September, the Capitol Times announced the recipients of its annual “Leaders of the Year in Public Policy.”

Among those leaders were ADWR Director Buschatzke and CAP General Manager Ted Cooke, who both were cited for their work in environmental matters.

Each year, the Capitol Times recognizes leaders who have contributed to the growth of our state.

According to the Cap Times, “These are the people and groups that hunker down each day to find ways to improve the quality of life of Arizona’s citizens.”

The awardees will be recognized at an awards luncheon at noon. on Sept. 27 at the Phoenix Art Museum. They will also be profiled in a special edition of the Arizona Capitol Times.

Aspinall Unit operations update (September 15, 2022): Turning down releases to 1350 cfs #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Blue Mesa Reservoir

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1450 cfs to 1350 cfs on Thursday, September 15th. Releases are being decreased due to the cooler and wetter conditions that have caused the river to rise above the baseflow target on the lower Gunnison River. The actual April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir came in at 68% of average. 

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 cfs. River flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future. 

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 890 cfs for September. 

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 440 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 340 cfs.  Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review. 

Left Out to Dry: Wildlife Threatened by #ColoradoRiver Basin #Water Crisis — The Revelator #COriver #aridification

The drought’s ‘bathtub ring’ of Lake Mead at the inlet for Hoover Dam, May 2022. Photo: Don Barrett (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Click the link to read the article on The Revelator website (Tara Lohan):

Lost in much of the coverage of the region’s water woes is the ecological crisis caused by prolonged drought, climate warming and development.

In the Colorado River basin, our past has come back to haunt us.

We’re not just talking about the dead bodies emerging from the drying shoreline of Lake Mead. The river’s water crisis has caused the nation’s two biggest reservoirs to sink to historic lows.

It’s a problem of our own making — in more ways than one.

The Colorado River Compact, signed a century ago, overallocated the river’s water. Experts have long warned that nature can’t continue to deliver the water that the government has promised to farms, cities and towns.

A drying West, warmed by climate change, has now made that shortage impossible to ignore.