70 Ranch project update

Photo credit: 70ranch.com

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Urban water broker builds $22 million reservoir to boost development and agricultural land

The desire to expand housing, commerce and other development around metro Denver and on arid high plains once deemed inhospitable has driven an innovative urban water broker to build a $22 million reservoir on a ranch 70 miles east of the city along the South Platte River.

Water siphoned from the river through a pipeline this summer has filled about a third of this 5,500-acre-foot — or 1.8-billion-gallon — 70 Ranch Reservoir. It’s the latest new storage in an expanding network of reservoirs that United Water and Sanitation District president and ranch owner Bob Lembke is installing to meet rising demands from Front Range suburbs hooked on dwindling groundwater.

Bob Lembke. Photo credit: United Water

The reservoir that Lembke built near his private 13,000-acre 70 Ranch, purchased in 2003, took three years to complete, the largest synthetically lined reservoir west of the Mississippi River. It reflects growing impatience with constraints that could limit development along Colorado’s booming Front Range.

Others in northeastern Colorado also are planning, and seeking funds, to build much larger reservoirs that, like this one, would capture South Platte water otherwise bound for Nebraska. Lembke has been able to avoid red tape — and has left critics asking questions — by working with wealthy water-poor suburbs, building on land he owns and using former gravel pits off the main channel of the river.

“We’d like to try to enhance the economic development. I’m a native. I grew up in Arapahoe County. As a native Coloradan, jobs for my kids, and eventually my grandkids, are important,” Lembke said in a recent interview in his headquarters suite at the Denver Tech Center.

“If you look at Denver, they’ve done a wonderful job planning for their water. But outside of the Denver service area? There’s a lot of challenges in how to get water and economic growth in these areas not served,” Lembke said…

“We have tens of thousands of acre-feet of water that, without storage, will leave the state — to no economic value here in Colorado. We can accommodate a great deal of quality growth. … I am a problem solver. I like to tackle difficult problems. Providing water increases the value of land that otherwise did not have water,” he said…

“Whether on the South Platte River, the Colorado River or the Yampa River, we’re not in favor of converting agricultural water use to municipal use,” said Andy Mueller, manager of the Colorado River District, which represents western Colorado communities.

The new 70 Ranch Reservoir northeast of Denver “brings up questions,” Mueller said. “Is it water to support new growth? Or is it water to support the existing population that is dependent on groundwater?”

The hedge fund investors purchasing land and water rights in western Colorado typically seek double-digit returns, Mueller said. “They believe there’s monetary value there for their investors. We’d say that’s speculation. How do we make sure there is not emerging speculation by outside investors who may not have community values? How do we help farmers and ranchers stay in business?”

Colorado leaders for decades have declined to regulate population growth and development. But the growing private interests in water, perhaps reviving the role private financiers played developing water systems in the 19th and early 20th centuries, has piqued concerns.

“Because traditionally in the West we have the mind-set that water is the property of the people, we are concerned when water is being controlled and distributed by a private corporation that may have very different interests from the collective group of people who are affected by the use of that water,” said Anne Castle, formerly the top federal water official in the Obama administration, now a senior fellow at the University of Colorado Law School’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment.

For an urban water broker to buy agricultural land and install a reservoir “is all perfectly legal and allowable,” Castle said. “But it does make us nervous because we tend to think governmental entities will have some accountability to the people to recognize the different kinds of values people put on water. We just don’t have that assurance with a private corporation.”

Lembke in his role as president of United Water and Sanitation also serves as president of the Weld Adams Water Development Authority, which owns and operates the 70 Ranch Reservoir. He pointed out that these so-called special-use districts are governmental groups…

SIEP Project location map via United Water and Sanitation

Denver-based water attorney David Robbins called Lembke “a very smart man. He is an entrepreneur. He is filling a niche.”

The 70 Ranch site also is used for experiments in drip irrigation, aimed at using water more efficiently to grow plants where otherwise vegetation might not survive…

Lembke now is installing other reservoirs — including two that he would own privately — as part of a network that when completed would store about 30,000 acre-feet for supplying water to suburbs, agriculture, industry and other development along Colorado’s Front Range.

He has built, or is in the process of building, four reservoirs upriver from the 70 Ranch at high-growth locations along the South Platte: in Milliken (12,000 acre-feet), between Commerce City and Brighton (3,500 acre-feet), east of Lochbuie (4,000 acre-feet) and in Fort Lupton (5,000 acre-feet).

These will supply businesses and housing developers in each booming area “to help them achieve their goals for economic growth and development” using surface water from the river rather than by pumping from over-tapped underground aquifers, Lembke said.

“Everything has got a finite limit,” he said. “But if we use water intelligently, we have the potential for long-term growth in this region.”

70 Randh Reservoir: Partnering with the Platte River Water Development Authority, this facility will be used to store water for the support of 70 Ranch’s cattle and farming operations as well as provide storage for local agricultural and municipal water providers. Photo credit: 70 Ranch

Drought response takes hold along #ColoradoRiver — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel #COriver #aridification @USBR

Bicycling the Colorado National Monument, Grand Valley in the distance via Colorado.com

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Last winter’s big snowpack has helped ease the impacts that long-term drought has had on water storage in the Colorado River watershed, but reservoir storage levels are still low enough that provisions of a new drought contingency plan in Lower Basin states already are kicking in.

Some water officials and conservationists say the triggering of plan components reflects the fact that a single bountiful water year is far from enough for storage to recover from a mostly dry period dating back to 2000, and recently adopted drought planning measures are needed to prepare for the very real possibility that drier years will return. Those measures involve Upper Basin states including Colorado.

The reductions that the Lower Basin drought contingency plan already is requiring show that in its first year, the plan “is already working,” Chuck Cullom, Colorado River programs manager for Arizona’s Central Arizona Project, wrote in a blog on that entity’s website.

The Central Arizona Project is a water provider that will see its supplies reduced by 192,000 acre-feet next year under the plan’s provisions. That is the entire part of the state of Arizona’s Colorado River water allocation that the state instead will leave in Lake Mead under the plan, as a result of projected water levels in that reservoir at the start of next year. Nevada and Mexico also will leave smaller amounts of their allocation in Lake Mead under the plan and a separate agreement involving Mexico.

The actions are required based on a Colorado River Basin report released Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It projects that Lake Mead will begin next year with water at an elevation of 1,089.4 feet. That’s less than a foot under a 1,090-foot threshold set by the Lower Basin drought contingency plan, below which the mandatory austerity measures begin. California will have to start leaving a portion of its allocation in the reservoir should surface levels go below 1,045 feet.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell upstream of it serve as the two largest storage pools in the Colorado River Basin. The Bureau of Reclamation reported that thanks to above-average snowpack, runoff from the Upper Basin into Lake Powell was 145 percent of average from April through July, raising Powell’s elevation by more than 50 feet. But it is projected to remain 81 feet below full as of the start of next year.

The Bureau of Reclamation says that total Colorado River system storage today is at 55% of capacity, up from 49% a year ago…

“One wet year doesn’t change the fact that we have a lot left to do,” said Bart Miller with the Western Resource Advocates conservation group.

He said the big snowpack provides some breathing room in dealing with the longer-term drought. Both Mead and Powell were full in 2000, before the river basin began experiencing a trend of far more dry years than wet ones, he said. The drought contingency planning is an effort to get out ahead of the problem and prevent larger-scale shortages, Miller said…

Drought contingency plans involving the Lower and Upper Basin states and the federal government took effect with their passage by Congress earlier this year. The Upper Basin plan includes provisions to operate reservoirs above Powell as needed to try to keep Powell’s water high enough to continue generating power at Glen Canyon Dam. But another part of the Upper Basin plan involves investigating the use of demand management if needed in the event of a worsening drought, to avoid a forced curtailment of Upper Basin water uses to satisfy water obligations to Lower Basin states under a 1922 compact.

In Colorado, water officials are looking into the possibility of voluntary, compensated, temporary demand management approaches as a means of staving off mandatory, unpaid curtailments under the compact. It’s expected that many demand management approaches would involve Western Slope agricultural operations.

Pokrandt said the milestone of the Lower Basin drought contingency provisions kicking in “certainly highlights the need” to determine if a demand management program is feasible. The Colorado Water Conservation Board recently created nine workgroups that have begun exploring the feasibility of such an approach, and entities including the river district and Grand Valley Water Users Association also are investigating the concept, Pokrandt said.

@MWDH2O: Metropolitan statement on #ColoradoRiver reservoir conditions #COriver #DCP #aridification

Here’s the release from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (Rebecca Kimitch/Maritza Fairfield):

Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, issues the following statement on the Bureau of Reclamation’s latest 24-month study on Colorado River system reservoir conditions:

“We’re certainly grateful that nature provided some relief to the critical conditions in the Colorado River Basin. But the Southwest wouldn’t be in this encouraging position without also the successful collaboration of the Colorado River Basin states to develop the Drought Contingency Plan. The DCP wasn’t just about sharing the pain of potential water cutbacks; one of its primary benefits was to incentivize storage in Lake Mead. It creates new storage opportunities for California, Arizona and Nevada and increases the flexibility to access stored water.

“Today is evidence the DCP is working as we hoped. By the end of the year, the Lower Basin states and Mexico together anticipate storing an additional 700,000 acre-feet of conserved water in Lake Mead in 2019 – a record amount that will boost the lake’s elevation by nearly
9 feet. Metropolitan alone will store 400,000 acre-feet this year, bringing our total stored in the lake to nearly 1 million acre-feet, another record.

“While all that storage helps keep Lake Mead out of shortage, it also helps prepare Southern California for our state’s next drought. Being able to store water when it is available for use in times when it is not is the key to ensuring the region has reliable water in the future. We got some reprieve from drought conditions on the Colorado River this year, but Lake Mead is still less than half full. And climate change is likely to lead to drier conditions in our future. As we begin work to resolve the water supply imbalance on the river, we’re pleased the DCP helped address the immediate concerns.”

All American Canal Construction circa. 1938 via the Imperial Irrigation District

@USBR Announces 2020 #ColoradoRiver Operating Conditions #LakeMead #LakePowell #COriver #DCP #aridification

Lake Mead December 2017. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

From Grist (Nathanael Johnson):

For the first time in history, low water levels on the Colorado River have forced Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico to cut back the amount of water they use. It’s the latest example of climate change affecting daily life, but also an encouraging sign that people can handle a world with less: These orderly cutbacks are only happening because seven U.S. states and Mexico had agreed to abide by conservation rules when flows subside, rather than fight for the last drops.

“It is a new era of limits,” said Kevin Moran, who directs the Environmental Defense Fund’s Colorado River efforts…

A Bureau of Reclamation study of Colorado River levels, released Thursday, triggered the cutbacks. The Rocky Mountains finally turned white with heavy snow last winter, but despite a galloping spring runoff, drought persists and bathtub-ringed reservoirs in the Grand Canyon are low. In its study, the Bureau highlighted the unique circumstances: “This 20-year period is also one of the driest in the 1,200-year paleo record.”

Rising temperatures brought on by rising carbon emissions are partly to blame. “Approximately one‐third of the [Colorado River] flow loss is due to high temperatures now common in the basin, a result of human caused climate change,” wrote scientists Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck in a study published in 2017 that anticipated water will only become scarcer in the future.

But these water-use reductions are also an example of people binding themselves to rules to deal with scarce resources, rather than going to court, or war. The cutbacks come from an agreement hammered out by the Southwestern states and Mexico to impose limits on themselves.

“It’s not necessarily well known or talked about, but this collaboration between the states and Mexico is one of the most successful cross-border water management stories in the world,” Moran said.

From the Associated Press (Felicia Fonseca) via The Las Vegas Sun:

Arizona and Nevada are faced with the first-ever cuts to their Colorado River water supply in 2020.

But the cuts aren’t expected to be overly burdensome for either state because they’ve been conserving and storing water for years…

Arizona will leave 7% of its allocation in Lake Mead under a drought plan approved earlier this year by several states that rely on the river. Nevada will leave 3%.

Mexico also gives up 3% under a separate accord.

The states and Mexico can recover the water if Lake Mead rises to a certain level.

Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam, shows the effects of nearly two decades of drought. (Image: Bureau of Reclamation)

From The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):

The decision to implement those cuts came on Thursday after federal water managers released a study that serves as a key benchmark for Southwest states. That forecast predicted that Lake Mead would start 2020 at 1089.4 feet above sea level, below the 1090-foot trigger for the cuts.

By forgoing water in dry years, the states store more water in Lake Mead, a reservoir that has decreased over the past two decades because of overuse, drought and climate change. If the reservoir drops further, states would be required to take more cuts to their allotment. When reservoir levels rise, the states are allowed to access the stored water for future use.

In practice, the cuts will have no effect on Nevada’s short-term water security or water management. The Southern Nevada Water Authority is expected to voluntarily conserve about nine times more water this year than the required cuts under the drought plan in 2020. Since 2003, Nevada has used less water than what the state is allowed to take under the river’s interstate compact.

In 2017, the state used about 80 percent of its allotment, largely in part because of indoor water recycling and conservation programs that incentivize removing grass. This year the water authority is on track to use even less. That means Nevada is likely to leave substantially more water in the reservoir this year — as much as 75,000 acre-feet — than what is required by the cuts — about 8,000 acre-feet — next year. (An acre-foot is an agricultural term for the amount of water that can fill an acre to a depth of one foot. Nevada’s allocation is 300,000 acre-feet).

Bronson Mack, a water authority spokesman, said that the agency has cut its Colorado River water use by 25 percent since 2002, even as Las Vegas’ population has grown by 40 percent…

But the cuts are still significant, said John Fleck, a University of New Mexico professor who has a forthcoming book, “Science Be Dammed,” that looks at the history, politics and hydrology of the river. They mark the first time the states have been required to use less than their allocation…

It is also a recognition of a future where there is expected to be less — not more — water to go around. Even though above-average levels of snow fell across much of the West this year, the long-term trend in the Colorado River is toward declining streamflow. Research has found that high temperatures have made runoff less efficient. Scientists say that climate change could further reduce the river’s flow and make managing it more difficult, even as demands grow.

Heavy precipitation made a difference this year. When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released its 2019 forecast last year, the study predicted an official shortage in 2020. Water users avoided that declaration, although the federal water agency warned that they are not out of the clear.

Changes in the northeastern reaches of Lake Powell are documented in this series of natural-color images taken by the Landsat series of satellites between 1999 and 2017. The Colorado River flows in from the east around Mile Crag Bend and is swallowed by the lake. At the west end of Narrow Canyon, the Dirty Devil River joins the lake from the north. (At normal water levels, both rivers are essentially part of the reservoir.) At the beginning of the series in 1999, water levels in Lake Powell were relatively high, and the water was a clear, dark blue. The sediment-filled Colorado River appeared green-brown. To see the complete series go to: earthobservatory.nasa.gov/WorldOfChange/LakePowell. Photos via NASA

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

“This is a big deal for everybody on the Colorado River system,” said Jim Pokrandt, the head of community affairs for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water District.

The study won’t have much of an impact on Colorado, where the Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan has water users hammering out the details of “demand management.” Those details include asking for temporary, voluntary and compensated curtailment of water rights to build a bank of Colorado water in Lake Powell before mandatory cuts are imposed by the federal government.

Pokrandt said the dawning of mandatory cuts in the Lower Basin increases the urgency of demand-management talks in Colorado. Without a demand-management plan encouraging water users to volunteer their water rights in Colorado, the state could see mandatory cuts, where “nobody gets paid,” he said.

“The news from the Lower Basin is a reminder that 2019’s snowpack cannot give us a false sense of security,” Pokrandt said, recalling that Colorado’s super-snowy 2011 was followed by an exceptionally dry 2012. “This is a reminder of the importance of what the Upper Basin states have to do for their own Drought Contingency Plan.”

[…]

hat’s called demand management. Across Colorado, water districts and water users are studying whether demand management will work.

“Nobody knows if it will be feasible,” said Pokrandt, whose 15-county district spans the Western Slope, noting that the Colorado Water Conservation Board just launched its Demand Management Workshop to educate the state’s water users on the idea of temporarily suspending water rights for cash in order to build a bank of Colorado water in Lake Powell. “Determining feasibility will be a long process.”

Lake Powell will enter 2020 in the “Intentionally Created Surplus Condition,” which allows for the release of the usual 8.23 million acre-feet of water in 2020 to fill Lake Mead. It also means the Upper Basin states will increase their own banked storage in the reservoir, enabling them to better weather low-snow years with a protected cache of extra water.

Total storage in both reservoirs is 55% of capacity, compared with 49% at this time last year.

The bathtub ring in Lake Powell in October 2014. Today, the reservoir is under 40 percent full and water managers in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico are working on demand management programs that would reduce water use and send more water to the big reservoir that sits on the mainstem of the Colorado River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

@USBR Announces 2020 #ColoradoRiver Operating Conditions: #LakeMead operations = Normal or ICS Surplus Condition in Calendar Year 2020, #LakePowell operations = Upper Elevation Balancing Tier in Water Year 2020 #DCP #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead. Photo credit: Bureaus of Reclamation

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aron/Marlon Duke):

The Bureau of Reclamation today released its Colorado River Basin August 2019 24-Month Study, which sets the annual operations for Lake Mead and Lake Powell in 2020. Based on projections in the 24-Month Study, Lake Mead will operate in the Normal or ICS Surplus Condition in Calendar Year 2020 and Lake Powell will operate in the Upper Elevation Balancing Tier in Water Year 2020 (October 1, 2019 through September 30, 2020).

The Upper Basin experienced above average snowpack, and runoff was 145% of average this past spring, raising Lake Powell’s elevation by more than 50 feet since early April. Total Colorado River system storage today is 55% of capacity, up from 49% at this time last year. In addition, critical drought contingency plans adopted by the seven Basin States, federal government and Mexico earlier this year are now in place to reduce risks to the system.

“While we appreciate this year’s above average snowpack, one good year doesn’t mean the drought is over. We must remain vigilant,” said Commissioner Brenda Burman. “I applaud everyone who came together this year to get the drought contingency plans done. The additional actions under the contingency plans will help ensure the reliability of the Colorado River system for the 40 million people dependent upon it.”

The August 2019 24-Month Study projects Lake Mead’s January 1, 2020, elevation to be 1,089.4 feet, about 14 feet above the Lower Basin shortage determination trigger of 1,075 feet. Lake Powell’s January 1, 2020, elevation is projected to be 3,618.6 feet — 81 feet below full. Because Lake Mead is projected to begin the year below the drought contingency plans threshold of 1,090 feet, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will make water savings contributions to Lake Mead in 2020.

Despite the above average 2019 snowpack, the Colorado River Basin continues to experience its worst 20-year drought on record, dating back to 2000. This 20-year period is also one of the driest in the 1,200-year paleo record. The August 2019 24-Month Study can be found at https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g4000/24mo.pdf

DCP’s Tier Zero Begins a New Era from the Central Arizona Project (Chuck Cullom):

Today, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued its August 24-Month Study Report, a two-year outlook projecting water supply and operating conditions in the Lower Colorado River Basin..

The August Report defines, among other things, the operating conditions for Lake Mead for 2020, and includes the recently enacted Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). At the end of 2019, the projected Lake Mead elevation – the measuring stick for whether there is a shortage declaration on the river for 2020 – is just shy of 1090’. And, for the first time, the Lower Colorado River Basin will formally implement reductions outlined in the DCP at the new Tier Zero beginning January 2020.

What does this mean?

In short, it shows that in its first year, DCP is already working.

While the Basin experienced a stellar snowpack year and subsequent phenomenal run-off, because Lake Mead is projected to end 2019 below elevation 1090’, the Lower Basin States (Arizona, California and Nevada) will be in a DCP Tier Zero shortage condition next year. Under Tier Zero, Arizona’s Colorado River supplies will be reduced by 192,000 acre-feet; Nevada’s will be reduced by 8,000 acre-feet; and California takes no reductions. In addition, Mexico will reduce its water use by 41,000 acre-feet, due to Minute 323, an agreement under the 1944 Treaty for water users in both countries. [ed. emphasis mine] Because of Arizona’s Colorado River priority system and agreements amongst water users, the Central Arizona Project (CAP) will take 100% of Arizona’s reductions under Tier Zero. CAP’s supplies will be reduced by 192,000 acre-feet, representing 12% of its normal annual Colorado River water supply. For CAP customers, this means eliminating the water that would have been available for underground storage, banking and replenishment. Water going toward CAP agricultural uses will be reduced by about 15%.

The Tier Zero reduction to CAP, while significant, is largely equivalent to the amount of Colorado River water CAP has been leaving voluntarily in Lake Mead since 2015 as part of our Lake Mead Conservation Program. In essence, CAP and its water users have been planning and preparing for Tier Zero reductions for the past five years. The difference is that those previous contributions were voluntary – now, under DCP, these contributions are mandatory.

Through the DCP, Arizona continues to prepare for a drier future. This year, CAP, along with the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes, is contributing and storing 236,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead. Next year, even with the Tier Zero reductions, these same water users, along with the Mohave Valley Irrigation and Drainage District, will continue to conserve and store additional water in Lake Mead. These efforts are part of Arizona’s plan to implement DCP developed collaboratively by the Arizona water community and legislative leaders. The plan balances the impacts of DCP amongst water users and provides additional protection to the Colorado River system, giving us a road map to follow for the next several years.

Tier zero cuts. Graphic credit: Central Arizona Project

From Arizona Central (Ian James):

Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will be required to take less water from the Colorado River for the first time next year under a set of agreements that aim to keep enough water in Lake Mead to reduce the risk of a crash.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation activated the mandatory reductions in water deliveries on Thursday when it released projections showing that as of Jan. 1, the level of Lake Mead will sit just below a threshold that triggers the cuts.

Arizona and Nevada agreed to leave a portion of their water allotments in the reservoir under a landmark deal with California called the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which the states’ representatives signed at Hoover Dam in May.

California agreed to contribute water at a lower trigger point if the reservoir continues to fall. And Mexico agreed under a separate accord to start contributing to help prop up Lake Mead, which is now 39 percent full…

Reservoirs were approaching levels last year that would have triggered a shortage and required deeper cuts, but heavy snow across much of the Rocky Mountains this winter boosted runoff and raised reservoir levels. The river’s reservoirs are now at 55% of total capacity, up from 49% at the same time last year.

But Lake Mead is still projected to be just below the threshold of 1,090 feet above sea level at the beginning of next year. That will put the reservoir in a zone called “Tier Zero,” at which the first cuts take effect.

“While we appreciate this year’s above-average snowpack, one good year doesn’t mean the drought is over. We must remain vigilant,” federal Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said in a statement. She applauded the seven states that depend on the river for coming together to finish the set of drought-contingency plans. Burman said the actions laid out under those agreements “will help ensure the reliability of the Colorado River system for the 40 million people dependent upon it.”

Arizona will see a cut of 192,000 acre-feet in water deliveries next year, or 6.9% of its total allotment of 2.8 million acre-feet. Nevada’s share will be reduced by 8,000 acre-feet, while Mexico’s will take 41,000 acre-feet less. That water will remain in Lake Mead, and will only be recovered once the reservoir rises above an elevation of 1,100 feet.

The cuts under the Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP, represent 12% of the total water supply for the Central Arizona Project, which delivers water by canal to Phoenix, Tucson and other areas. Chuck Cullom, manager of Colorado River programs for CAP, said this reduction will mean “eliminating the water that would have been available for underground storage, banking and replenishment,” and cutting CAP deliveries to agriculture by about 15%.

Should Rivers Have Same Legal Rights As Humans? A Growing Number Of Voices Say Yes — National Public Radio

Satellite imagery of a toxic algal bloom on Lake Erie in 2011. The image is gorgeous, but microcystis aeruginosa, the green algae pictured here, is toxic to mammals.
NASA Earth Observatory via Popular Science.

From National Public Radio (Ashley Westerman):

In early July, Bangladesh became the first country to grant all of its rivers the same legal status as humans. From now on, its rivers will be treated as living entities in a court of law. The landmark ruling by the Bangladeshi Supreme Court is meant to protect the world’s largest delta from further degradation from pollution, illegal dredging and human intrusion…

Following the ruling, anyone accused of harming the rivers can be taken to court by the new, government-appointed National River Conservation Commission. They may be tried and delivered a verdict as if they had harmed their own mother, Matin says.

“The river is now considered by law, by code, a living entity, so you’ll have to face the consequence by law if you do anything that kills the river,” [Mohammad Abdul Matin] says.

What is environmental personhood?

Bangladesh follows a handful of countries that have subscribed to an idea known as environmental personhood. It was first highlighted in essays by University of Southern California law professor Christopher D. Stone, collected into a 1974 book titled Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Stone argued that if an environmental entity is given “legal personality,” it cannot be owned and has the right to appear in court.

Traditionally, nature has been subject to a Western-conceived legal regime of property-based ownership, says Monti Aguirre with the environmental group International Rivers.

“That means … an owner has the right to modify their features, their natural features, or to destroy them all at will,” Aguirre says.

The idea of environmental personhood turns that paradigm on its head by recognizing that nature has rights and that those rights should be enforced by a court of law. It’s a philosophical idea, says Aguirre, with indigenous communities leading the charge…

In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to enshrine the legal rights of nature in its constitution. Bolivia passed a similar law in 2011. Meanwhile, New Zealand in 2017 became the first country to grant a specific river legal rights, followed by the Indian state of Uttarakhand. This year, the city of Toledo, Ohio, passed what is known as the Lake Erie Bill of Rights to protect its shores, making it one of several U.S. communities to have passed legislation recognizing the rights of nature

In a 2018 study co-authored with Julia Talbot-Jones, O’Donnell shows that the onus of enforcement will fall on whoever is deemed the guardian of the waterway. And that can be anyone from a court-appointed body to the government itself — which may have chosen not to participate in environmentally friendly practices in the past — to nongovernmental organizations.

In Ecuador, says O’Donnell, the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature and others sued a construction company trying to build a road across the Vilcabamba River and initially won in court.

But when the construction company didn’t comply with the court’s ruling, “the NGO could not afford to run a second case,” says O’Donnell.

What’s more, the trans-boundary nature of rivers makes enforcement inherently difficult. This issue has come up in India, where the high court in Uttarakhand state in 2017 recognized the Ganges and Yamuna rivers as legal persons because of their “sacred and revered” status. The court named the state government as their guardians.

Soon after, the state government appealed to the Indian Supreme Court, arguing “that their responsibilities as guardians of the rivers were unclear because the rivers extended well beyond the border of Uttarakhand,” says O’Donnell…

he struggle to achieve this paradigm shift is also taking place on the shores of Lake Erie, in Toledo, Ohio. Earlier this year, the city passed an ordinance that would allow the its citizens to sue on behalf of the lake, arguing that it had gotten so polluted, there was no choice.

The ordinance’s constitutionality was immediately challenged by a farm in a federal lawsuit. The farm argued the ordinance made it vulnerable “to massive liability” when it fertilizes its fields “because it can never guarantee that all runoff will be prevented from entering the Lake Erie watershed.” Then the state of Ohio joined that lawsuit, arguing it — not the citizens of Toledo — has the “legal responsibility” for environmental regulatory programs.

“What’s interesting is the state of Ohio intervening on behalf of the polluter, not on behalf of the people who passed the law,” says Tish O’Dell, the Ohio community organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

The lawsuit is ongoing, though O’Dell predicts the ordinance will ultimately be overturned.

“But what I would say to people is it doesn’t matter what happens in the courts in Toledo with this case, because the genie has been let out of the bottle. And as hard as they want to try to put it back in, the people shouldn’t let them,” O’Dell says. “I mean, we have to change our environmental protection in this country and across the world, because obviously what we’re doing isn’t working.”

#ClimateChange could threaten Carbondale’s water supply — @AspenJournalism

The Ella Ditch, in the Crystal River Valley, placed a call for the first time ever during the drought-stricken summer of 2018. That meant the Town of Carbondale had to borrow water from the East Mesa Ditch under an emergency water supply plan.

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

A new climate study and a first-ever call on a tributary of the Crystal River offer a glimpse of the future for Carbondale’s water supply.

A Vulnerability, Consequences and Adaptation Planning Scenario report by the Western Water Assessment found a strong upward trend in local temperatures over the past 40 years, which could threaten local water supplies.

“This report sort of drove the message home that (climate change) is here and it’s no longer a conceptual discussion — it’s a pragmatic discussion,” Carbondale Mayor Dan Richardson said. “It was sobering from that perspective.”

According to the report, the average temperature since 2000 has been 2.2 degrees warmer than the 20th-century average. Water year 2018 was more than 4 degrees higher than the 20th-century average and was the warmest recorded in the past 120 years.

Warmer temperatures are bad news for the watershed because they have an overall drying effect, even if precipitation remains constant. According to the report, Roaring Fork River streamflows since 2000 have been about 13% lower than the 20th-century average, due, in part, to warmer temperatures. By 2050, a typical year in the Roaring Fork Valley is projected to be warmer than the hottest years of the 20th century, which means mild drought conditions even during years with average precipitation.

“Just the warming temperatures alone are enough to tell us drought will be a concern in the future and drought conditions are likely to persist for longer,” said WWA managing director Benét Duncan. “What does that mean for the water supply?”

The Town of Carbondale treats water at its facility on Nettle Creek, a tributary of the Crystal River. The town nearly had to shut the plant down during the summer of 2018 because of a senior call on the downstream Ella Ditch. Photo credit: Town of Carbondale

Drought illustrates vulnerability

The summer of 2018’s historic drought illustrated a vulnerability in Carbondale’s water supply that surprised local officials. Senior water-rights holder Ella Ditch, which serves agriculture lands south of Carbondale, placed a call for the first time Aug. 8.

This meant that because there wasn’t enough water in the Crystal for Ella Ditch to divert the amount to which it was legally entitled, junior water-rights holders, including Carbondale, had to reduce their water use — threatening the domestic water supply to roughly 40 homes on the Nettle Creek pipeline.

“We had a situation last summer where we were inches away from having to shut down our water-treatment plant at Nettle Creek because there was a more senior call on the river,” Richardson said. “When you look at the water rights we have on paper, most municipalities feel confident their water portfolio is resilient and can stand the test of time, but that was paper water. And when it comes to wet water, we were pretty vulnerable.”

Carbondale applied for and received an emergency substitute water-supply plan from the state engineer. The emergency plan allowed for a temporary change in water right — from agricultural use to municipal use — so that another irrigation ditch could provide water to the town.

The East Mesa Ditch Co., whose water right is senior to Ella Ditch’s, agreed to loan the town 1 cubic foot per second of water from Sept. 7 to Dec. 7 under the agreement. However, Carbondale had to borrow the water only until Sept. 28, when the call was lifted on Ella Ditch. East Mesa Ditch is located upstream from Ella Ditch. Both are used to irrigate lands farther downstream on the east side of the Crystal River.

The town didn’t pay East Mesa Ditch for the water but paid the company about $5,000 in legal and engineering fees to draw up the water loan agreement, according to Town Manager Jay Harrington.

A wake-up call

Although Carbondale has other sources it can turn to for municipal use, including wells on the Roaring Fork, the summer of 2018 and the VCAPS report were a wake-up call.

“Nettle Creek is a pretty senior right, and we didn’t anticipate it to be called like it was,” Harrington said.

Potential solutions to another Ella Creek call outlined in the report include moving away from Crystal water sources to Roaring Fork sources and providing upstream pumps to the homes on the Nettle Creek pipeline.

“I think (the report) gives one of the clearest pictures of where we are heading and what we need to look at as a municipality as the climate changes,” Harrington said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post-Independent on coverage of water and rivers.