“One thing we know when it comes to water, Arizonans are very innovative” — Kathryn Sorensen

The Central Arizona Aqueduct delivers water from the Colorado River to underground aquifers in southern Arizona. UT researcher Bridget Scanlon recommends more water storage projects like the aqueduct to help protect against variability in the river’s water supply. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

From The Arizona Daily Star (Tony Davis):

The total stored is nearly 3.6 million acre-feet of water in 28 sites across Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties. That’s well over two years worth of CAP deliveries. They’ve stored another 600,000 acre-feet for Nevada.

The total tab has topped $330 million for the state and the Central Arizona Project to design and build storage basins and recharge water in them by artificial means.

But all that work has left a key detail unsettled: how to withdraw the bank’s water when needed.

No wells or other infrastructure exists to pump the water from recharge sites where nearly 25 percent of the water-bank water is stored, including one of the system’s largest recharge facilities. While water is also banked in some of the cotton, alfalfa and grain fields served by CAP water, and they do have infrastructure to get the water out, many of these facilities are far from urban and tribal users…

Tucson is better primed than most cities for water-bank recovery. The water bank has put more than two years worth of the city’s water needs into city-owned recharge basins in the Avra Valley, many miles west and northwest of the city limits.

City wells to pump that water out are already in place. But that’s mainly because Tucson Water’s original delivery of CAP water in the 1990s was so problematic that it had to switch to something more innovative and farsighted like recharging its supply. The city first delivered corrosive CAP water that rotted out many homeowners’ pipes. That fiasco led to a citizen-backed initiative requiring the city to recharge CAP water rather than run it through a treatment plant.

But in general, many major questions about water-bank recovery remain unanswered. They include: How, when and where will the water be recovered? Who will recover it? How will this be done legally, meeting contractual obligations? How much will it cost?

The water-bank water is stored mainly for the benefit of Tucson and Phoenix and their suburbs, and tribes such as the Gila River Indian Community and the White Mountain Apache Tribe. (The Tohono O’odham Tribe near Tucson is not in line for water-bank water.) Water users along the Colorado River also have a claim to some of the bank’s water.

There is a recovery plan, done in 2014, but to many city water agencies, it’s longer on concepts than details: “It’s a plan to plan,” says Kathryn Sorensen, the city of Phoenix’s water service director. She is secretary for the Arizona Water Banking Authority’s governing commission, and one of many municipal water officials who has pushed hard for a more thorough plan…

The 2014 plan reflects the longstanding, conventional wisdom that CAP cutbacks to cities and tribes wouldn’t start until the mid-2030s at the earliest.

Today, the outlook for Lake Mead and the river in general is worse. Shortages cutting off agricultural water are expected in the early 2020s. Urban shortages are considered possible by the mid-2020s and maybe even 2022, under the worst-case, least-likely scenario.

So water officials are now grappling with the nitty-gritty details of putting together a more complete recovery plan, perhaps by the end of 2018.

The effort is being led by a committee representing various water utilities and other interests, and shepherded by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which runs CAP, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Arizona Water Banking Authority, which manages the water bank.

Wally Wilson, water service manager for the suburban Metro Water district, said that the big questions about recovery weren’t addressed before, “to the chagrin of many.”


“One thing we know when it comes to water, Arizonans are very innovative,” Sorensen said. “There are a lot of difficulties and a lot of uncertainties. But I know we’ll get there.”

How #Colorado’s water law affects you and our rivers — @AmericanRivers

Prior appropriation example via Oregon.gov

From American Rivers (Fay Augustyn):

In Episode 12 of We Are Rivers, we discuss the complicated nature of water law in the West. Listen in to learn more about how water law affects you and the rivers you love.

Water in the West is inherently complicated. A complex web of laws, compacts, and a little thing called “prior appropriation” dictates how and when people and entities are allowed to use water in the West, such as cities and towns, farms and ranches, and industry. This ability is what we call “owning a water right,” and explains much of how the West has been settled over the last century, and how many of the economic forces that affect our daily lives are driven by these water rights. Listen in to learn more about how water law affects you and the rivers you love.

Prior appropriation is the backbone of our water law system. Perhaps you’ve heard of “first in time, first in right,” – this phrase refers to the water law system. Prior appropriation allows individuals or entities who first apply water for a beneficial use to be entitled to that appropriation into the future (and has priority over subsequent users). Holding a water right doesn’t actually imply ownership over the water (water in Colorado is “owned” by the people) but is instead the right to use the people’s water for a beneficial use like agriculture, municipal water, and now more recently, in benefit of the environment as in-stream flows.

Even if the term “water rights” leaves you scratching your head, and you call a western state your home, you still are impacted by them. There’s a fairly high chance that you use water connected to a water right, (unless you have your own well or diversion). Water running through pipes in cities and towns across the West are likely municipal water obtained through a water right held by city or town. Your community has to have a water right themselves to divert and distribute the water that ends up in your home. Agriculture, industry, and even our rivers and streams all depend on the legal structure managing our water.

Join us in this month’s episode of We Are Rivers as we navigate through the complicated nature of water law in the West, including prior appropriation, instream flow rights, and the history of water law.

In a warming world , the fight for water can push nations apart — or bring them together — The Texas Observer #RioGrande #ActOnClimate

Map of the Rio Grande watershed. Graphic credit: WikiMedia

Here’s the introduction to a nine-part series about cross-border river administration from The Texas Observer:

The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is one of the fastest-growing places in the United States. Already hot and arid, and growing hotter, the booming, heavily Latino region depends almost entirely on the shriveling Rio Grande for water. Considered one of the most endangered rivers in North America, the Rio Grande provides drinking and irrigation water to 6 million people and 2 million acres of farmland on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. Droughts and heat waves in the Valley are becoming more intense, exacerbating water scarcity.

Despite opinion surveys showing that Valley residents are deeply concerned about how climate change is affecting them, local and state officials are paying little heed to their constituents. According to a 2013 federal study (pdf), even before accounting for climate change the region is expected to run a “staggering” water supply shortage of almost 600,000 acre-feet in 2060. At the same time, some Texas border cities have been at the forefront of water conservation, and the US and Mexico have found ways to cooperate on protecting the Rio Grande.

This nine-part collaboration between the Texas Observer and Quartz explores the complexities of border water in search of answers for how people can work together in a hotter, drier world.

#Kansas, #Colorado reach agreement on Republican River

More than 9,000 Landsat images provide vegetation health metrics for the Republican River Basin. Credit: David Hyndman

From the Kansas Department of Agriculture via The High Plains Journal:

The Governors and Attorneys General of Kansas and Colorado announced that they recently reached a settlement of claims regarding Colorado’s past use of water under the Republican River Compact. The Compact allocates the waters of the basins between the states of Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.

“This settlement is an investment in the basin to ensure a better future for Kansas water users.” said Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer. “Kansas and Colorado are committed to continuing to make the Compact work for the benefit of the citizens of our states, and this settlement recognizes the ties that bind our states together and is an important step for the economic development of the region.”

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt also expressed his approval. “The Kansas water team at the Department of Agriculture and our legal team at the Attorney General’s office have done an outstanding job of resolving years of past disputes without litigation,” Schmidt said. “This settlement going forward promises a more cooperative approach to what really matters—the best possible management of the water resources in the basin’s South Fork on both sides of the state line.”

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper agreed that “This settlement provides funds that could be used in the Republican River Basin within Kansas and Colorado and creates additional opportunities for cooperative water management between the States.”

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman also expressed her approval, saying the agreement “avoids the costs and uncertainty of litigation and furthers the principles of the Compact, including removing controversy and fostering interstate cooperation.”

The agreement resolves the existing controversies between the two states regarding Colorado’s past use of water under the Republican River Compact and allows them to continue to work collaboratively through the compact as part of an overall ongoing effort which also involves the state of Nebraska.

The settlement was signed by the governors and attorneys general of both states. A copy of the settlement is available at http://agriculture.ks.gov/RRCA.

#Colorado agrees to $2 million payment to #Kansas to benefit the South Fork of the Republican River

South Fork of the Republican River

From the Associated Press via KOAA.com:

Colorado has agreed to pay Kansas $2 million in a settlement resolving claims regarding Colorado’s past use of water under the Republican River Compact.

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer said in a news release Friday that the settlement is an investment in the basin to ensure a better future for Kansas water users…

Under the provisions of the settlement , Kansas agreed to pursue “a good faith effort” to spend the money Colorado paid for the benefit of the South Fork of the Republican River Basin within Kansas.

Colorado also agreed to pursue an effort to spend an additional $2 million by 2027 in the basin within Colorado.

Stanford study reveals the changing scope of Native American groundwater rights – and opportunities for better freshwater management

Aqua Caliente Reservation in 1928. Photo credit Wikipedia.

From Stanford University (Josie Garthwaite):

Stanford researchers map out groundwater at stake in the wake of a court decision that bolsters Native American rights to the precious resource across an increasingly arid West.

California’s Coachella Valley may be ground zero for a new chapter in water rights for Native American tribes, according to a new Stanford study published in the journal Science.

Local water agencies have pumped so much water from aquifers to supply homes, farmland and resorts in the Coachella Valley that the land is sinking. The Agua Caliente Indian Reservation, created in 1876, runs in a checkerboard pattern in the area of Palm Springs. (Image credit: Tim Roberts Photography / Shutterstock)

Better known for lush golf courses, glittering pools, a popular music festival and temperatures topping 120 degrees, this inland desert is also home to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which has fought since 2013 for federal courts to affirm its right to groundwater beneath its reservation. Lower courts ruled in the tribe’s favor, and in late 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal.

Observers immediately recognized that the decision could set a powerful precedent for tribal groundwater claims, which have suffered murky legal status for more than 100 years. But how much groundwater is at stake as tribes assert this newly bolstered right – and where these claims may clash with nontribal users in an increasingly arid West – remained uncharted until now.

Sizing up water rights

The study reveals that court decrees and settlements have resolved or proposed rights for tribes in western states to use more than 10.5 million acre-feet of surface water and groundwater annually. To put that in perspective, this would be nearly enough water to irrigate all of the alfalfa, almond and rice fields in California for a year. “It’s a major volume,” said lead author Philip Womble, a PhD student in environment and resources in the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth).

Most unresolved Native American claims to groundwater exist in areas where there’s reason to believe major aquifers could yield significant amounts of groundwater, including in some places where nontribal wells already dot the landscape and increased pumping by tribes might disrupt their production. (Image credit: Philip Womble)

Before the Agua Caliente ruling, the study shows, tribal rights exclusively for groundwater made up a small portion – 4 percent – of all tribal freshwater rights in 17 western states. Now, more tribes will likely seek to resolve their rights to control and use water from the aquifers beneath their land, according to Womble and his co-authors, who include Water in the West executive director and Woods Institute of the Environment professor Leon Szeptycki, as well as Water in the West non-resident fellows Debra Perrone and Rebecca Nelson.

This shift comes at a time when questions of who owns the aquifer and how they can use the water holds increasing urgency, as western states face the likely prospect of demand outstripping the supply of legally available freshwater in most western watersheds by 2030.

“Indigenous communities in several countries have struggled to gain rights to their natural resources,” said study co-author Steven Gorelick, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford Earth and director of the Global Freshwater Initiative. Almost half of all homes on Native American land lack adequate access to drinking water or waste disposal facilities, compared to less than 1 percent for U.S. homes overall. The Agua Caliente ruling, Gorelick said, “is a very important step forward in restoring balance to those injured Native American tribes.”

Competing for a precious resource

In the Coachella Valley, the Agua Caliente tribe has for decades purchased water from local agencies, which have pumped so much water from the region’s aquifers that the land is sinking. Now, as the next phase of Agua Caliente’s lawsuit unfolds in federal court, the tribe is seeking to have judges put a number on its groundwater rights, establishing how much water it can pump from the Coachella Valley aquifer – potentially before most other users are entitled to a single drop.

Before the Agua Caliente ruling in late 2017, tribal rights exclusively for groundwater made up a just 4 percent of all tribal freshwater rights in 17 western states. (Image credit: Philip Womble)

Today, the study shows, fewer than 60 tribes in the western U.S. have this level of legal certainty around their rights to fresh water from any source – whether from lakes and rivers on the surface, or from aquifers underground. Many more tribes have unresolved rights: According to the study, as many as 236 tribes in the western U.S. have lands with groundwater rights that have not been finally quantified in court or in settlements. In all, the research suggests, tribes control at least some water from so many aquifers across the West that any plan to sustainably manage water in the region would be incomplete without considering their role.

These unresolved groundwater claims span large swaths of Arizona, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Utah, and smaller clusters can be found in all other western states except Colorado. Most of them exist in areas where there’s reason to believe major aquifers could yield significant amounts of groundwater, including in some places where nontribal wells already dot the landscape and increased pumping by tribes might disrupt their production.

Ripple effects for laws and markets

“Court disputes usually focus on the specific facts of a given case,” said Womble, who specializes in water policy in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) at Stanford Earth. He is also an attorney. His team has captured a bigger picture that could help inform decisions about groundwater management throughout the U.S. and in other countries that recognize indigenous community water rights, including Australia, Canada, Chile and New Zealand.

“Even though a U.S. court decision clearly isn’t binding in another country,” Womble said, “it could provide a persuasive precedent that courts confronting this issue in other nations might look to.” Historically, he said, courts in Canada and Chile have adopted some terminology and approaches from U.S. water law.

Already, Gorelick added, the study results suggest that the creation of market-based systems for renting water rights could work to indigenous communities’ advantage. “With this ruling,” he said, “Native American tribes with higher priority rights are now in the driver’s seat to potentially benefit from participating in water markets.”

Steven Gorelick is also Stanford’s Cyrus Fisher Tolman Professor and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment. Additional co-authors are from the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Washington Law School and Harvard Law School.

The research was funded by the Switzer Foundation and the Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship.

San Juan (#NM) Water Commission study identifies possible pipeline alternatives from Lake Nighthorse to Farmington

Lake Nighthorse and Durango March 2016 photo via Greg Hobbs.

From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

Building a pipeline from Lake Nighthorse to Farmington could cost between $83 million and $173 million without calculating the cost of acquiring right of way access, a consultant to the San Juan Water Commission told the group today.

Rick Cox, a senior engineer for the engineering firm AECOM who also serves as a consultant for the San Juan Water Commission, targeted that figure while delivering a presentation for the water commission during its monthly meeting here.

The commission spent about $20,000 on a study to look at three alternatives that could help local water users if another mine spill occurred in Colorado and dumped toxic material in the Animas River. Those alternatives included building a small-diameter pipeline from Lake Nighthorse, building a large-diameter pipeline from Lake Nighthorse and building additional storage reservoirs.

The lake is a storage facility located in a recently annexed portion of the city of Durango, Colorado. It stores water from the Animas River for several member entities including the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Southern Ute Tribe, the city of Durango and the San Juan Water Commission.

Building shallow ponds to increase the storage capacity by 50 million gallons at the lake was the least expensive of the three options cited during today’s meeting. Cox said it would cost about $18 million. The additional 50 million gallons of storage would last about 14 days.

The San Juan Water Commission represents Aztec, Bloomfield, Farmington and rural water users in San Juan County. Cox said not all of those water utilities would require additional storage capacity if another mine spill takes place.

He explained that some water utilities, such as the Lower Valley Water Users, already have enough storage capacity. Other water users, such as the city of Bloomfield, could benefit from additional storage capacity, Cox said.

Pipeline could provide water during drought

While the additional water storage capacity would help local water users if another mishap like the Gold King Mine spill of August 2015 occurs, it would not provide much help during drought conditions, Cox said.

A large-diameter pipeline could provide the water users with water for up to 114 days during drought, Cox said.

The commission is considering having a more extensive feasibility study conducted on the three alternatives presented by Cox. San Juan Water Commission executive director Aaron Chavez said that would cost about $250,000…

The San Juan Water Commission has rights to 20,800 acre-feet of water stored in Lake Nighthorse. During a drought, the water commission can call upon the Animas-La Plata Operations, Maintenance and Replacement Association, which oversees Lake Nighthorse operations, to release water for San Juan County water users. Currently, the only way to get that water from Lake Nighthorse to the water users in New Mexico is to release it back into the Animas River. A pipeline would ensure all the water released from Lake Nighthorse reaches water users in San Juan County.

Animas-La Plata Operations, Maintenance and Replacement Association general manager Russ Howard warned commissioners not to rely on Lake Nighthorse. Howard said it could take years to refill the reservoir after water is withdrawn. He warned if there was a multiple-year drought, Lake Nighthorse could only be an option for one year.