It has been called speculative, foolhardy and overly expensive, but Aaron Million’s plan to pump water from the Utah-Wyoming border to Colorado’s Front Range just won’t dry up.
Million, a Fort Collins-based entrepreneur, has pushed different versions of the pipeline for more than a decade, and the number of killed ideas and revisions has earned the project the nickname, the “Zombie Pipeline.”
Now seeking water rights from the Green River in Utah for a new version of his plan, Million thinks he has fashioned a winning proposal to feed Colorado’s thirsty, growing population.
While Million’s proposal has drawn criticism from environmental groups and government agencies, some Front Range water suppliers have expressed interest in water from the pipeline.
The Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, based in Greeley and serving Weld, Adams and Morgan counties, has re-affirmed its interest in the project, which it first expressed in 2009.
And the state of Colorado has taken a neutral stance.
Million, under the banner of a new business, Water Horse Resources LLC, is now proposing a project that would divert 55,000 acre-feet of water each year from the Green River in eastern Utah, below Flaming Gorge Reservoir near Brown’s Park and above Dinosaur National Monument. (See application and map, and click to zoom in on map).
An acre foot of water is roughly equivalent to a foot of water covering an entire football field, and enough to satisfy two small families’ yearly demands.
With 55,000 acre feet, the project, if it ever comes to fruition, could serve 110,000 families each year. It could also satisfy more than 10,000 acres of flood-irrigated farmland.
The water, up to 76 cubic feet per second, would travel in a pipeline that heads northeast out of Utah, cuts across a corner of Colorado, traverses 500 miles through Wyoming and over a low point in the Continental Divide, and then drops back into Colorado.
Because the pipeline would ultimately descend about 3,800 vertical feet, the water could power turbines that would generate about 70 megawatt hours of power per year.
For the project’s second phase, Million hopes to build pumped-storage facilities, which could fill with water during the day when energy is in low demand and release water through a turbine when demand is high, generating an additional 500 to 1,000 Mwh of power annually.
Front Range interest
The project’s opponents have pointed out problems for endangered fish, recreation and water availability. To bolster their claims many have pointed out that Million has yet to reveal a buyer for his water, and say that’s evidence that there is no interest in Green River water in Colorado.
But Million claims to have a buyer on the Front Range interested in purchasing the entire water supply, and other Front Range water providers have expressed their willingness to consider water from the pipeline.
For his water rights application, Million presented 17 letters of interest to Utah’s state engineer. Most of these letters were from a different pipeline application in 2010, but there was one from January from the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, or CCWCD.
The CCWCD serves about 550 farmers, but because the district is short of water, it is able to make only about half of its deliveries.
In November, voters passed a $48.7 million bond issue for the district to buy new supplies, and the CCWCD said it would consider water from a Flaming Gorge pipeline.
“I think it’s false that there is no interest for additional water supplies,” said Randy Ray, the district’s executive director, in a recent interview. “Our board is supportive of any methods to bring water to our area. We will evaluate just about everything.”
According to Million’s testimony before the State of Utah’s Division of Water Rights on Nov. 11 the CCWCD has joined his project’s advisory board.
“They have a huge demand-supply imbalance on the South Platte in Colorado they are looking at,” Million said.
Birth of a concept
One night in 2003, Million stumbled across an old map in the library at Colorado State University, where he was a graduate student in resource economics.
He focused on the northwest corner of the state where the Green River comes down from Wyoming into Utah and then comes in and out of Colorado in a sweeping oxbow before traveling down to meet the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park.
Free from the clutter of roads, this 1920s map made the thick, blue squiggle so obvious that it suddenly gave Million an idea to bring that water to the Front Range.
“I thought that surely someone had thought about that,” Million said.
The project became his master’s thesis and, later, a proposal for a real project. The original concept looked at importing nearly 250,000 acre-feet of water from a point of diversion in Wyoming.
He filed applications for different versions of his concept under the companies Million Conservation Resource Group Inc. and Wyco Power and Water Inc. Both applications were dismissed by government agencies for a lack of information earlier this decade.
The new plan scales back the amount of water to be drawn from the river and includes an emphasis on hydropower along with water delivery.
The company has not released a detailed cost estimate to the public, but Million says estimates range from $860 million to $1.1 billion. He also says private consultants have put the project’s ultimate value at more than $30 billion.
With these new pieces in place, Million believes this project has a better chance, but he’s facing opposition on many fronts, permit challenges and a daunting environmental-impact study.
Interest in the water?
Million’s latest filing for water rights in Utah, in January, drew 28 protest letters, from environmental groups, concerned citizens and water districts, as well as from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of the Interior.
A Nov. 7 hearing on the proposal in Utah led to a headline in the Salt Lake City Tribune that said, “Environmentalists, feds, and Utahns agree: Don’t send Green River water to Colorado.”
Many of the presentations against the water project cast doubt on whether there was even any water in the Colorado River system left to take.
“If you’re going to develop more water, you are going to threaten current uses,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs, which opposes the project. “This might be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Still, the most common concern was that Million had not released a signed contract that showed someone would buy the project’s water.
At the project’s water-rights hearing at the Utah state engineer’s office in November, several groups pointed to fields on Million’s application where the purpose and place of use were left as “TBD,” or to be determined.
“That just smacks of speculation,” said Ariel Calmes, a staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates, which is also opposing the project.
“This is a water grab,” Calmes said. “It’s not a reasonably thought-out plan to get water resources to benefit a specific community.”
But while Million and his team have struggled against public backlash and weathered claims that there was no interest in Green River water, other water entities in Colorado have quietly picked up his idea.
In 2006, just as Million was getting his initial idea off the ground, the South Metro Water Supply Authority — a group of water suppliers south of Denver — launched studies for an almost identical project, and another group near Colorado Springs released a study into a Flaming Gorge pipeline in 2013.
The governor’s water advisers also took note of Million’s plan, and Colorado’s 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative included a Flaming Gorge pipeline as one of four possibilities for new water supplies for the state.
That same report found that the South Platte Basin, which includes all of northeastern Colorado, would need as much as 330,000 acre-feet more water to meet demand projections by 2050.
While the state has not come out firmly in support of Million’s project, the Colorado Water Conservation Board said in a July 7 letter that it did not oppose the Utah application. The letter indicated that the Colorado state engineer would need to weigh in on the proposal if the Utah water rights were secured.
Million is quick to swat away arguments that his project is speculative, noting that water demand in Colorado has only grown since he first conceived of the pipeline. He also claims an entity with “large ranching and municipal interests” has already agreed to take all the water at a specific price.
He also said he is in preliminary conversations about a power-purchase agreement for the renewable energy that the pipeline would generate.
Due to continuing negotiations and a nondisclosure agreement, Million said he would not reveal either of the two interested parties at this time.
But scrutiny of Million’s latest plan is increasing.
On the water horse
On Dec. 10, the Utah state engineer’s office requested additional information from Million to evaluate his application.
The request asked Million to prove that water was available in the Colorado River system and that water taken from his pipeline would come from Colorado, not Utah’s, share of the river.
The requests also sought further proof of feasibility, but did not request additional proof of demand or a contract for the purchase of the pipeline’s water.
Water Horse Resources has until Feb. 8 to supply the new information.
Million is confident that his project, this time around, will move forward. He says the protests and the noise from the public don’t get to him anymore.
“You saddle the horse,” he said, “You do what you think is right and you move on with it.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Greeley Tribune on coverage of regional water issues. The Tribune published a version of this story on Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018.
Click here to read the report. Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aaron):
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman announced today the release of the Colorado River Basin Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study that was conducted collaboratively with the member tribes of the Ten Tribes Partnership.
The study documents how Partnership Tribes currently use their water, projects how future water development could occur and describes the potential effects of future tribal water development on the Colorado River System. The study also identifies challenges related to the use of tribal water and explores opportunities that provide a wide range of benefits to both Partnership Tribes and other water users.
“We face a prolonged drought that represents one of the driest 20-year periods on the Colorado River in the last 1,200 years,” said Commissioner Burman. “This study is an important step forward that furthers our understanding of the challenges facing the Colorado River Basin and the actions we can take to collaboratively address them.”
While not all federally-recognized tribes in the basin are members of the Ten Tribes Partnership, the Partnership Tribes have reserved water rights, including unresolved claims, to potentially divert nearly 2.8 million acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River and its tributaries. In many cases, these rights are senior to other uses.
The study is the outcome of a commitment between Reclamation and the Partnership Tribes to engage in a joint study to build on the scientific foundation of the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, published by Reclamation in 2012.
“Reclamation recognized the need for additional analyses and work following the 2012 Colorado River Basin Study,” said Reclamation Lower Colorado Regional Director Terry Fulp. “Working together, the Ten Tribes Partnership and Reclamation have produced a valuable reference that is the first of its kind in the Colorado River Basin.”
The study highlights tribal observations and concerns, including lack of water security, incomplete distribution systems and regulatory and economic challenges to developing water systems in geographically diverse areas.
“In light of the importance of tribal water rights in the Colorado River Basin, the Partnership and Reclamation collaborated to contribute crucial tribal-specific information to the discussions regarding Colorado River management,” said Lorelei Cloud, Chairman of the Ten Tribes Partnership. “Without the hard work and dedication of Reclamation, tribal leaders, and tribal staff, this critical project would not have been possible.”
The Ten Tribes Partnership was formed in 1992 by ten federally recognized tribes with federal Indian reserved water rights in the Colorado River or its tributaries. Five member tribes are located in the Upper Basin (Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Jicarilla Apache Nation and Navajo Nation) and five are in the Lower Basin (Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, Colorado River Indian Tribes, Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, Quechan Indian Tribe and Cocopah Indian Tribe).
As early as 2020, hydrologists forecast that the level of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, could drop low enough to trigger the first water shortages in its downstream states of Arizona, Nevada and California.
The three states in the river’s Lower Basin have long feared shortages. But the continued decline of Lake Mead reflects a reality they can no longer ignore: Demand for the river’s water, which supports 40 million people from Wyoming to California, has long outpaced the supply. On top of that, the supply is shrinking, as the spring snowmelt that once filled reservoirs becomes less reliable, and historically high temperatures evaporate the water that remains. Booming populations, drought and climate change will continue to compound the imbalance. The river’s flow has declined by nearly 20 percent in the last 15 years alone, and it could plummet another 55 percent before 2100, according to climate scientist Brad Udall at the Colorado Water Institute.
Now, to stave off catastrophic shortages and win-or-die legal battles that could leave some communities high and dry, the seven states in the river’s Upper and Lower basins are close to finalizing a deal to prepare for a much drier future. The so-called Drought Contingency Plans would distribute the pain of the coming cutbacks between the Upper Basin states, where most of the water originates, and the Lower Basin ones, which use more than half of the river’s water, sustaining cities and agriculture in the nation’s most arid landscapes.
At the moment, scarcity isn’t as much of an issue in the Upper Basin, which still has plenty of water but lacks an adequate system for storing it. That has historically encouraged Upper Basin water users to use as much of their share as possible and send as little water as necessary on to Lake Powell.
Lake Powell sits just upstream of Lake Mead. Its main function is to ensure that the Upper Basin can meet its annual obligation to deliver water to the Lower Basin. Just how much the Upper Basin states have to send to Lake Mead, though, depends on Lake Powell’s water level. That matters because if the Upper Basin keeps using its entire allotment, and the overall supply keeps shrinking, Lake Powell could drop to levels that will deliver yet another hit to the Lower Basin’s already fragile supply.
For the Lower Basin states, then, the drought-planning process is an exercise in self-protection. It’s intended to show that they’re starting to address their overuse — and convince the Upper Basin states to help protect them from catastrophic loss.
The Lower Basin has been trying to hash out a plan to reduce water use for a few years now. Arizona and California have yet to fully resolve major internal conflicts over how much water to conserve and where to do it. But once they do, the three Lower Basin states will sign a joint agreement to begin leaving more water in Lake Mead. The long-term goal here is to correct the reservoir’s so-called “structural deficit.” To halt its decline, in other words, the Lower Basin states need to stop taking out more water than flows in each year. For their part, the Upper Basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah — have already finalized a collective agreement to keep Lake Powell above the critical levels that would trigger smaller annual releases to Lake Mead.
Once both basins’ agreements are final, all seven states need to ratify the entire package. They have until Jan. 31 to iron out the final details and bring the package to the U.S. Congress for a final vote. Should they fail, the federal government has threatened to step in and impose its own plan.
As negotiations enter their final stages, here’s an overview of the dynamics in each state — and the questions that still need to be resolved.
Wyoming has more water than it needs.
A few things to know: Wyoming is the least-populated state in the country, and its water use is unlikely to rise dramatically anytime soon. In the drought agreements, the state agrees to keep more water than it has in the past in the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Wyoming’s largest reservoir. That water can then be used to help regulate the level of Lake Powell.
Colorado farmers are weary of sacrificing water to prop up Lake Powell.
A few things to know: Colorado claims the largest share of the Upper Basin’s total allocation of Colorado River water — about 60 percent. Despite growth in Denver and on the rural Western Slope, water use in Colorado is actually trending downward. That’s partly because of the success of conservation efforts, which Colorado has pledged to continue. Releases from its largest reservoirs, Blue Mesa and Navajo Lake, will help keep Lake Powell filled when necessary. The sticking point comes from agricultural interests on the Western Slope, who say they will oppose a final agreement that forces them to use less water in order to boost Lake Powell. They believe such contributions should be voluntary, and that Colorado should stipulate this.
Utah has plans to grow, and it wants more water to do it.
A few things to know: Conservation efforts in Utah pale in comparison to Colorado, Nevada and California, where booming populations have proactively curbed water use. But Utah would rather just expand its water use to support its growing population. Washington County, in the southwest corner — home to St. George, the state’s fastest growing metro area — is driving plans to begin taking all the Colorado River water Utah is entitled to. It hasn’t done this yet because it hasn’t needed to, nor does it have the infrastructure to move all that water to places like Washington County. The state is now trying to build a massive pipeline from Lake Powell to southern Utah, where lush lawns and golf courses are multiplying in the red rock landscape. State officials say the project is necessary, but they haven’t figured out how to fund it. And if the Colorado River gets low enough in the future, there might not be water to fill it.
How exactly New Mexico will contribute to the drought plan is a mystery.
A few things to know: The Colorado River does not flow through New Mexico, but some of its main tributaries do. Even though the state is a relatively small player in the basin, the Colorado has been crucial to its development: Sixty percent of the water used by New Mexico cities and industries, as well as 15 percent of the water used for farming, comes from the Colorado River Basin. New Mexico has signed onto the drought contingency agreement, but state water managers are strangely silent about what exactly the state has agreed to do to reduce its water use, as required by the Upper Basin agreement.
Arizona is holding up the basin-wide plan because it can’t agree on how and where to cut its water use.
A few things to know: Arizona, the major holdout in the planning process, has struggled to resolve internal political disagreements over exactly how — and how much — it should conserve. The state has the basin’s most junior water rights, making the stakes of the drought plan especially high here. Technically, when water is scarce, more senior rights holders can take all their water before delivering any to junior users, and so Arizona is being asked to make deeper sacrifices than Nevada or California to keep Lake Mead from plummeting. That’s forcing cities, tribes and agricultural communities to compete for water and make extremely difficult decisions. Large agricultural economies in central Arizona, in particular, stand to lose. Arizona does now have the basic outlines of a plan in place, which by state law must be approved by the Legislature. Officials hope to deliver a plan to the Legislature by the end of the year.
Nevada has offered a generous contribution to Lake Mead — but only in the event of a shortage.
A few things to know: Nevada is frequently touted as one of the West’s biggest water conservation success stories. Indeed, after the punishing 2002 drought, water managers instituted aggressive policies to reduce water use, such as offering residents money to convert grassy lawns to less thirsty desert xeriscaping. The Las Vegas Valley reduced its water consumption by 36 percent between 2002 and 2017, despite adding 660,000 new residents. Nevada has volunteered to forgo about 10 percent of its Colorado River allocation when Lake Mead’s levels drop below 1,045 feet, triggering a shortage declaration that would reduce water deliveries to Nevada, Arizona and California.
In California, a battle is brewing between Imperial Valley agriculture and the coastal cities.
A few things to know: California has the largest entitlement to Colorado River water. One outstanding issue in the current negotiations is California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which gets 3 million acre-feet of water a year, most of which goes to farms. That’s nearly 70 percent of California’s share of the river, and more than the entire states of Nevada and Arizona get. Because it’s the single largest water user in the basin, the Imperial Irrigation District needs to help the state make sure it doesn’t take more water than it should under the Drought Contingency Plan. But growers are concerned that potential restrictions could violate their historical water rights and limit their future use.
Paige Blankenbuehler is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at email@example.com or submit a letter to the editor.
Arizona has worked over the course of several years with the other States in the Colorado River Basin and the United States to develop an interstate Drought Contingency Plan to protect Colorado River supplies. Within Arizona, stakeholders have been working to develop an Implementation Plan, a series of agreements that will govern the way that certain terms of the DCP will be implemented within Arizona once the DCP is effective.
The Implementation Plan is nearly in place. However, we’re not yet able to say it’s “done.”
Last week, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman announced a deadline of January 31, 2019, for the states to complete their work on the DCP.
“To date, (the Department of) Interior has been very supportive and extremely patient with the pace of progress on the DCP,” said the Commissioner at the annual meetings of the Colorado River Water Users Association. “But delay increases the risk for us all.”
“I am here today to tell you all that we will act if needed to protect this basin.”
So, what needs to happen for Arizonans to officially say “the plan is done?” And further. . . then what?
Arizona’s participation in the interstate DCP requires a resolution by the Arizona State Legislature authorizing the Director of ADWR to sign the necessary interstate agreements. To facilitate a smooth legislative process, some additional discussion regarding the Implementation Plan is needed. To that end, ADWR and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (the CAP) are in the process of outlining agreements necessary to turn the Implementation Plan into action. With about six weeks to go, the timing is tight, but all agree it’s “doable.”
Several interstate agreements must be signed to effectuate the DCP. Those agreements include:
Lower Basin DCP
Parties in Arizona, California and Nevada will sign the LBDCP agreement, which includes a document known as the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Operations. In combination with guidelines adopted in 2007, the LBDCP agreement will control operations in the Lower Basin.
Upper Basin DCP
The Upper Colorado River Commission, which includes representatives of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, has approved the Upper Basin documents – the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement and the Upper Basin Demand Management Storage Agreement. This means that, as a group, the Upper Basin states are prepared to sign the DCP.
The “Companion Agreement”
A Companion Agreement will bind the Upper Basin and Lower Basin agreements together.
Federal legislation will be required authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to sign the interstate DCP agreements as well.
The AZDCP Steering Committee will meet again to discuss the AZDCP Implementation Framework at a meeting to be held from 1 to 3 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 8, at CAP headquarters, 23636 N. 7th St., Phoenix.
Native American tribal leaders attended the Colorado River Water Users Association conference and spoke on opportunities and challenges for tribal communities.
“The Colorado River Indian Tribe was blessed with senior water rights on the river so what our purpose is in this is to offer whatever help or assistance we can to the state of Arizona because we all live together in this area,” said Keith Moses, vice chairman for the tribe in La Paz County in western Arizona. “Everything that we do affects each one of us be it our tribe or those around us.”
Moses said his community is working with people including farmers in the Yuma area to mitigate any impact of water cutbacks.
During a session at a Caesar’s Palace ballroom, leaders from the Jicarilla Apache and Navajo nations and the Cocopah and Fort Mojave Indian tribes applauded the long awaited release of a tribal water report.
“The tribal study has come to fruition and it will be a resource to learn about the tribes’ diversity, tribal water rights and what we plan to do in order to be a good community partner and help with the drought contingency plan when that comes into play,” said Rosa Long, a councilwoman for the Cocopah.
The Ten Tribes Partnership, which took part in the Las Vegas conference, was formed in 1992 by 10 federally recognized tribes with federal Indian reserved water rights in the Colorado River or its tributaries. Among these tribes are the Ute Indian Tribe and the Quechan Indian Tribe in southwestern Arizona.
A final deal will require federal legislation and approval by Arizona’s legislature before it can be put in action.
Arizona has six weeks to finalize its plan to deal with looming shortages on the Colorado River. Otherwise, the federal government will step in.
At a major water conference in Las Vegas last week, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told the Colorado Basin states that they needed to get it together by January 31…
Last year, the Bureau of Reclamation pushed states to finish their plans by the end of the month and spell out how they will deal with cuts to their supply of Colorado River water. The Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming have already done so.
Of the Lower Basin states, only Nevada has settled on a plan. Arizona and California have not…
If they don’t finalize their plans by the end of January, the Department of Interior will ask states to recommend actions that it could take before August 2019. That is the soonest Interior would declare a shortage that would lead to cuts in states’ supply of Colorado River water.
“If Arizona doesn’t act, it seems to me that the other six states, or the Lower Basin, will sit down with the Secretary and put together a secretarial order of administering cuts to Arizona,” said former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, who served as Secretary of the Interior under President Bill Clinton. “That’s never a good idea.”
Here are some of the key issues that Arizona has to figure out, or else:
Number one: Who will sign for Arizona?
The board of the Central Arizona Project, which operates the 336-mile canal bringing water from Lake Mead to Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties in central Arizona, has insisted it should be able to co-sign. It has an elected, 15-member board representing those three counties, and it has set aside $60 million to help pay for the Drought Contingency Plan.
Not so fast, says the Arizona Department of Water Resources, which represents the state and is currently the signing designee.
This turf war, which goes back decades, won’t be resolved in the next six weeks. But the CAP board, the Department of Water Resources, and the Bureau of Reclamation have been working on an agreement that will satisfy CAP’s demands…
Number two: Where will the money come from to help Pinal County farmers?
If a shortage is declared on the Colorado River, Arizona will lose at least 512,000 acre-feet of the 2.8 million acre-feet of water it takes from the river each year. One of the groups that stands to lose the most water, and first, is farmers in Pinal County.
As drought negotiations lurched through the fall, the question loomed of how to compensate farmers for the water they would lose. For several different reasons, no one could agree.
But the plan that was proposed November 29 offered a solution that most Arizona water negotiators could get behind. In a best-case scenario, for the first two years of the Drought Contingency Plan, farmers would receive water that CAP had stored in Lake Mead. That water would be phased out starting in 2022, to be replaced by groundwater…
Number three: The legal stuff
Water might be fluid, but in Arizona, moving it from one place to another is not simply a matter of putting it in a pipe and letting it flow. A ridiculously complex legal framework governs what water can go where and for what and to whom.
For example, Arizona takes surface water directly from the Colorado River. Much of that is used immediately, but some of it is stored below ground. Not all users are legally allowed to store water underground. Those who do can receive credits to withdraw the same amount of water in the future.
This system is so complex that not even the state’s own drought negotiators are clear on how all of this will be worked out. What is clear, however, is that Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan will require some legislative changes, because part of the way the plan would compensate farmers and other users, including cities and tribes, is through an exchange of credits.
Pinal County agricultural districts were hoping that some cities could be persuaded to store some of their water in Pinal County, Orme said. But those cities wanted to be sure they could store water in the Pinal area and still receive credit in their own areas.
Arizona’s Water Banking Authority, which holds credits in all areas, could facilitate that exchange, but “that requires some legislation,” Orme said.
Another needed law change has to do with a statutory definition called WaterBUD, which is shorthand for “Water that cannot reasonably Be Used Directly.” It essentially prohibits users from taking Colorado River water and storing it underground in order to obtain credits if the water could have been used right away. The mitigation plan put forward in November would require a partial repeal of WaterBUD.
Otondo said she would love to see the legislature vote on the Drought Contingency Plan at the beginning of session, in mid-January. “But I just don’t see the language being there and all the details hashed out.” She hoped things would be clearer after Christmas.
With the water level in Lake Mead hovering near a point that would trigger a first-ever official shortage on the Colorado River, representatives of California, Arizona and Nevada are trying to wrap up a plan to prevent the water situation from spiraling into a major crisis.
The plan is formally called the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan. But at an annual Colorado River conference this week, many water managers stressed that it’s merely a stopgap plan to get the region through the next several years until 2026.
It might also rightly be called a temporary rejiggering of the rules, a quick fix to stave off a reckoning, or an initial step toward planning for a future with less water.
Looming over the negotiations is a long-term issue that is intensifying the strains on the river: climate change.
Some of the water wonks at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference called the proposed drought plan a temporary “bridge” solution, or a first step toward larger efforts to address the river’s pattern of over-allocation and adapt to climate change in the seven states that depend on the river.
“It will be a short-term solution to stave off the immediate impacts of the problems that we’re seeing,” said Cynthia Campbell, a water adviser for Phoenix. “Lake levels are going down just too fast.”
The idea is simply to stop the free-fall, she said, and provide a short window of time to begin to plan bigger steps…
The river has long been overused to supply farmlands and cities across the West. And during the past few decades, rising global temperatures have added to the strains.
The higher temperatures have shrunk the average snowpack in the mountains, reduced the flow of streams, and increased the amount of water that evaporates off the landscape.
Since 2000, the amount of water flowing in the Colorado River has dropped 19 percent below the average of the past century. Scientific research has found that about half the trend of decreasing runoff from 2000-2014 in the Upper Colorado River Basin was the result of unprecedented warming.
At this week’s meetings in Las Vegas, managers of water agencies said there is widespread recognition that the Colorado River system needs long-term adjustments to adapt as rising temperatures increasingly sap the river’s flow and lead to longer, more intense droughts…
Even with the reservoir’s dire situation hanging over the negotiations, finishing a drought plan has proven difficult.
Pressing for Arizona and California to sign on to the proposed three-state drought agreement, federal Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman has given the states a deadline of Jan. 31.
She announced the deadline on Thursday, saying if the states fail to meet that deadline, the federal government will get involved and step in to prevent the reservoirs from falling to critically low levels.
Arizona’s top water officials say they’re optimistic they will be able to finish nailing down the details of agreements in the state to take a plan to the Legislature for approval in January.
This set of agreements would enable the state to join the larger three-state pact by spreading around the impacts of the water cutbacks, providing “mitigation” water to farmers in central Arizona, and paying compensation to other entities that would contribute water.
A few details remain to be worked out, including proposed funding to help farmers in Pinal County who face some of the biggest cutbacks in water deliveries.
Paul Orme, a lawyer who represents four agricultural irrigation districts in the area, said the growers are seeking $15 million to $20 million in funding from the state Legislature and the Central Arizona Project, as well as matching funds from the federal government.
That money would help drill between 40 and 50 new wells and pay for pumps and other infrastructure to help the farmers start to use more groundwater to partially replace the Colorado River water they’re going to lose…
Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society, said a great deal is at stake in the talks on the Drought Contingency Plan, because if the collaborative approach fails, decisions on how the river is managed could start to be made in more disruptive ways by the courts or federal officials.
“The most worrisome future is we don’t have the framework, we don’t have the collaboration, and the hydrology continues to tank, and it seems like the problems multiply,” Pitt said. “The Drought Contingency Plan is the key to avoiding really catastrophic problems for people and wildlife and birds in the Colorado River Basin.”
The Upper Colorado River Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to execute three agreements designed to bolster Lake Powell’s and Lake Mead’s water levels, which have been falling due to persistent drought and encroaching aridification in the Colorado River system.
The members of the commission, established in 1948 to help administer the Colorado River Compact, include representatives from the “upper basin” states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, as well as a federal representative.
The three agreements — and a set of companion agreements still being worked out in the “lower basin” states of California, Arizona and Nevada — are contingent upon federal legislation, which the involved parties hope to obtain during the current “lame duck” session of Congress.
Before the vote, James Eklund, who represents Colorado on the commission, said the set of “drought contingency planning” agreements were “historic” in their importance.
Asked after the meeting to put that into context, Eklund said, “I think we’re going to look back at this moment and realize that this was the opportunity we had to stand some tools up to keep the river system from crashing, or at least mitigate the impacts of it crashing.”
The first agreement OK’d by the commission allows the upper basin states to coordinate with the Bureau of Reclamation on releasing water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs to send downstream to Lake Powell, currently 43 percent full and at a surface elevation of 3,585 feet above sea level.
If Lake Powell, a huge reservoir formed by Glen Canyon Dam, falls to an elevation of 3,525 feet, then the “coordinated reservoir operations” agreement will kick in and water will be released from the three big upstream reservoirs to ensure that Lake Powell does not fall to 3,490 feet, which is the “minimum power pool” level when the dam’s hydropower generation ceases.
It’s also the level at which it becomes harder to release enough water from the dam to meet the upper-basin states’ obligations, under the terms of the Colorado Compact, to annually deliver more than 8 million acre-feet of water to the lower-basin states.
The second agreement approved Wednesday sets up a program where water can be stored in Lake Powell without the water being subject to a 2007 agreement that seeks to equalize the water levels of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which today is 38 percent full. Under the terms of the compact, Lake Mead is considered to be in the lower basin.
The water eligible under the agreement to be stored in Lake Powell, which would not be subject to being sent down to Lake Mead, must come from “conserved consumptive use,” or water that otherwise would have been mainly used in the growing of crops — such as alfalfa and hay — in the upper basin.
Such a water-use-reduction effort is called a “demand management” program, and the details of programs in each of the upper-basin states still need to be worked out. But the second agreement approved Wednesday will create a way for the upper basin to securely store such “conserved” water in Lake Powell.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, which manages water-supply planning in the state, recently adopted a policy saying it is committed to setting up a demand-management program that is “voluntary, temporary and compensated,” although there are fears, especially on the Western Slope, that such a program could become mandatory, long-term and uncompensated.
The second agreement approved Wednesday allows for as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water to be stored in a demand-management pool in Lake Powell. By comparison, Ruedi Reservoir, above Basalt, holds 100,000 acre-feet of water.
The third agreement is a “companion agreement” to a set of agreements that are still being negotiated in the lower basin that provide for water entities in California, Arizona and Nevada to reduce their water use and store the water in Lake Mead in an effort to keep operational that reservoir, formed by Hoover Dam.
Patrick Tyrrell, who represents Wyoming on the upper-basin commission, echoed Eklund’s sentiments about the nature of the drought-management agreements, saying before the vote that “it is necessary and important to get this done at this time.”
Tyrrell said the upper-basin states were going to keep urging the lower-basin states, especially Arizona, to come to terms on their draft agreements, as it was important for all the entities that depend on the river.
Not ‘done done’
The approval of the three agreements happened in Las Vegas, the location of the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association, where it is customary for water managers from both the upper basin and lower basin to meet for three days in mid-December in the conference center at Caesar’s Palace.
There has been intense pressure for months on the lower-basin states to approve their set of “drought-contingency planning” documents during the conference, as the upper-basin states did Wednesday, but there are still complicated issues to be worked out among water entities in Arizona.
Terry Fulp, the regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation in the lower Colorado River region, on Wednesday told the ballroom full of water managers from the upper basin that the lower-basin entities were making progress and were closer than ever to reaching consensus.
He also said he’s learned to distinguish between agreements that are “done” and those that are “done done,” or truly finalized.
“We’re definitely not ‘done done,’” Fulp said of the lower basin. “And we’re probably not ‘done,’ but we’ve come a long way.”
He also said that over the past three months, the process has managed to step over any number of stumbling blocks that could have set back the entire process.
“It’s within our power to keep ourselves on the trajectory that this basin has been on for two decades,” Fulp said, referring to the overall Colorado River basin. “And that trajectory is one of collaboration and problem solving and doing it together, and not waiting until the secretary of the Interior, or someone, has to come in and solve it for us.”
Fulp’s boss, Brenda Burman, is the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, which is part of the Interior Department.
If the upper- and lower-basin states can’t find a way to keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead functioning, it’s up to Burman to intervene.
On Thursday, Burman spoke to the attendees at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting and set a Jan. 31 deadline for parties in Arizona and California to approve the proposed drought contingency agreements.
“It is high time to wrap up these efforts,” she said.
If the parties have not do so by then, Burman said Reclamation will publish a notice in the federal register and give the parties 30 days to submit proposals to the Secretary of the Interior on what next steps he should take to avoid a crisis in the basin.
“We will act, if needed, to protect this basin,” Burman said.
The possibility of direct federal intervention on the Colorado River system is something that many water managers in the seven basin states want to avoid.
Burman said the combined level of storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell is at 46 percent, the lowest combined level since 1966, when Lake Powell was filling for the first time.
“It is time for us to pay attention,” Burman said. “We are quickly running out of time.”
She praised the upper basin states for reaching agreement, and she challenged the entities involved in California and Arizona to “step up, compromise and contribute.”
She also said just getting close to an agreement was not the point.
“Close isn’t done, and we are not done,” she said. “Only done will protect this basin.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Post Independent published a version of this story on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2018. This version was updated on Thursday to include Commissioner Burman’s comments.
Federal Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman set a firm deadline for Western states to finish a set of Colorado River drought agreements, telling Arizona and California they need to sign on by Jan. 31.
If states fail to meet that deadline, Burman said, the federal government will get involved and step in to prevent reservoirs from falling to critically low levels.
“We are quickly running out of time,” Burman told water managers from across the West at an annual Colorado River conference. “Today’s level of risk is unacceptable and the chance for a crisis is far too high.”
She pointed out that Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two main reservoirs, are together at their lowest level since Glen Canyon Dam was built and Powell was filled in 1966.
“To put it in more personal terms, these are the lowest reservoir levels in my lifetime,” Burman said. “We are teetering on the brink of a shortage today, and we see real risk of rapid declines in reservoir elevations, particularly at Lake Mead, in the very near future.”
Burman’s remarks met resistance in Arizona, where legislative leaders cautioned against rushing into action and said they wanted time to study the final version of the agreement…
“Close isn’t done, and we are not done. Only done will protect this basin,” Burman said. “It is high time to wrap up these efforts.”
She said based on current trends, the level of Lake Mead, which now stands at an elevation of 1,079 feet, is projected to fall about 30 feet, below 1,050 feet, by the summer of 2020 — a level that would put the biggest reservoir in the country deep into a shortage.
“It is time for us to pay attention,” Burman said. She said she’s encouraged by recent progress in the negotiations, and Arizona has made “remarkable progress” in developing the outline of an agreement for the state to participate in the larger three-state deal with California and Nevada.
She warned, though, that the Interior Department can’t wait much longer for the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP, until it takes action.
Commissioner Brenda Burman said she would take unspecified actions to protect Lakes Mead and Powell and the river itself if the states don’t approve drought contingency plans by the end of January. Acknowledging that both states are close to approving plans, she emphasized, “almost is not done.”
While it’s unclear what she would ultimately do, officials of the basin states have long speculated that Reclamation would order specific cuts in river supplies to individual states to keep the reservoirs from crashing.
The states have their own legal allocations to water supplies from the river due to the 1922 Colorado River compact, which all basin states have signed. But given federal control over management of the entire river basin, state water officials have long feared such federal intervention if they couldn’t come up with their own drought plans to adapt to river flows that have steadily declined since 2000.
Burman’s statement and a subsequent talk she gave Thursday at a Colorado River conference in Las Vegas focused on the ailing reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell. They store drinking water and generate electric power for the basin states. Mead stores water for the Central Arizona Project that is Tucson’s main source of drinking water.
Burman noted that Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada have all adopted drought contingency plans although Arizona and California have not.
“This is not the (Reclamation) department’s preferred course of action, but action must be taken to protect the basin,” said Burman, who received a University of Arizona law degree and worked in the past for Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and for the Phoenix-based Salt River Project.
Reaction to Burman’s warning was very favorable from many Arizona water officials, experts and activists.
“Right on Commissioner Burman! That’s what she should be doing — keeping the pressure on,” said former Arizona Department of Water Resources director Kathy Ferris.
This isn’t the first time the feds have threatened a takeover of river management to prod the states into action on drought plans. But Burman’s threat is more specific and more imminent than those made during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
Looming in the background of her comments was Lake Mead. As nearly two decades of drought and overuse has strained water supplies, the country’s largest reservoir — impounded by the Hoover Dam about 30 minutes outside of Las Vegas — has dropped to nearly 38 percent of its capacity. That means less water stored for users at farms and cities across the arid Southwest.
“We are teetering on the brink of a shortage today,” said Burman, after offering a sobering hydrologic assessment. “It is time for us to pay attention. We are quickly running out of time.”
Even before Jan. 31, Lake Mead will feel the effects of not having a drought plan in physical and concrete ways. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California plans to begin taking stored water out of the reservoir starting in January, said its general manager, Jeff Kightlinger.
The district, a wholesale water provider for Southern California cities, currently stores surplus water in Mead to keep reservoir elevations above a shortage level. With a drought plan in place, it would not be able to access that water in times of shortage. Because of uncertainty with the drought plan, Kightlinger said his staff is planning to begin removing the water in early January. That would further lower the reservoir level, making a shortage at Lake Mead even more likely.
“That’s not what we want to do,” he said, noting that the district needed to protect access to its water but that it could put the water back in the reservoir when a drought plan is agreed to.
“This is not something we do lightly,” he said. “But I don’t want to jeopardize my constituents.”
During a panel Thursday, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger applauded the commissioner for “laying down the gauntlet” to get a drought plan completed.
“I think the states need it,” Entsminger said. “I think this is the appropriate juncture to have it.”
But Entsminger said the Drought Contingency Plan was still the preferred approach. When Lake Mead slips into shortage, that plan would require the states to take additional cuts in their river allocations, which were set forth in the Colorado River Compact of 1922. Because of conservation, the water authority has long argued that it would be able to weather the cuts in its supply.
The idea is that by taking voluntary cuts, the states can avoid even more severe cuts in the future or cuts that might be required by the federal government if it took unilateral action.
The water authority approved the drought plan in November, as have most large-scale users in California (with stipulations to see the final approvals). The primary holdout is Arizona, where cuts in the drought plan would be the most significant for agriculture and some developers.
Arizona negotiators Tom Buschatzke, the head of the state’s Department of Water Resources, and Ted Cooke, the general manager of the Central Arizona Project, said they are close to a deal. But echoing the theme of the Colorado River conference, they both said close is not done.
Unlike in Nevada and California, where state negotiators like Entsminger can sign on behalf of the state, any Arizona drought plan must receive approval from state legislators, making an already complex problem of water law an even more complex problem involving state politics.
In a joint interview after the morning panel, Buschatzke and Cooke said they are working to execute side agreements with stakeholders to ensure that there is enough political support among cities, tribes and agricultural interests to convince the Legislature to pass a resolution…
Kathryn Sorensen, the director of Phoenix Water, said that what Arizona is going through is a challenging discussion of how to lose less water in a basin where that is a reality amid drought and climate change. There is more water on paper than there is actual water to go around.
“Central Arizona is looking at losing potentially half of its [Colorado River] water supply through the [drought plan],” she said. “Every single drop of water is accounted for and being used. So of course, those are really difficult conversations. So we have to come up with a way to make those reductions in a collaborative manner because everyone holds veto power over everybody else in some fashion. And plus, you want to look at the equity of the proposition as well.”
In Arizona, agricultural interests have pushed for the state and federal government to provide funding to offset the water they would lose under the drought plan. Under the plan, farmers would receive water for three years and then be required to switch to groundwater. The state and federal government plan to commit funding to help farmers make that transition to wells…
What concerns Entsminger and others is the forecast that federal water managers are likely to declare a Lake Mead shortage as early as 2020. Such a declaration would be unprecedented, and water managers have stressed that they want to be prepared before a shortage, not after.
“I don’t think responsible water managers can go into Water Year 2020 without a plan,” he said…
James Eklund, the negotiator for Colorado, said the approval was a big deal for the states. But he noted that a full drought plan would not be complete until the Lower Basin states signed on. Even though the short-term plan to use less water across the Colorado River is attempting to address drought, Eklund said that it is, in some ways, also addressing climate change.
For nearly 20 years, the Colorado River Basin has faced a drought that has challenged the assumptions that the watershed would be able to provide the amount of water that states are legally allowed to take from it. Studies have linked warm temperatures with reduced streamflow in the river and have predicted that climate change to continue drawing down future supplies.
“It is inextricably linked with climate,” Eklund said. “There is an existential question on this river about how we deal with climate. It’s not so much climate itself. It’s how we respond — if we respond. And the Drought Contingency Plan is an answer, but it is unlikely to be a panacea, a silver bullet that fixes this for all time. But we have to do what we can when we can.”
Officials from the federal government and seven states are meeting in Las Vegas this week to discuss the future of the Colorado River. The original plan was for the states to unveil an unprecedented set of drought contingency plans to adapt to continually dropping Colorado River levels. But due to protracted negotiations within California and Arizona, that isn’t happening.
Instead, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned everyone that if all drought contingency plans are not submitted by January 31, 2019, the federal government will prepare to potentially mandate cuts in 2020. How might this affect Nevada, how are we preparing for prolonged drought becoming permanent “aridification”, and how might we have to change to ensure we’re never left high and dry?
At last year’s Colorado River Water Users’ Association (CRWUA) annual conference, newly confirmed U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman encouraged all seven Colorado River states (Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California) to present their drought contingency plans (DCP’s, or comprehensive agreements that include voluntary water cuts) by December 2018. Federal and state officials then prepared to present all seven states’ DCP’s here in Las Vegas this week.
That’s not happening. Though California may be close to finalizing their own DCP, Arizona stakeholders continue to debate what exactly will constitute their DCP, from Phoenix’s City Council at a stalemate over a water rate hike to pay for infrastructure improvements to the Arizona Legislature preparing to debate the overall DCP when they convene next month. The Arizona officials who spoke at the conference claimed all sides have made considerable progress in nearing a final agreement, a sentiment that Burman herself also expressed today.
In June, High Country News’ Emily Benson wrote about how the word “drought” is no longer the most accurate way to describe the Southwest’s ongoing dry spell. Instead she used the word “aridification”, and Esquire‘s Charlie Pierce followed suit this week as he described the tension that’s led into this year’s CRWUA Conference. Due to that (not-so-little) thing called climate change, this frightening terminology is becoming less of a far-off “worst-case scenario” and more of a clear and present danger that must be solved right here and now.
So how does this aridification affect our already very arid expanse of Southern Nevada? According to Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) General Manager John Entsminger, it’s something they’ve already been preparing for: “Anyone who has lived in Southern Nevada has seen Lake Mead declining. The drought contingency plan […] makes sure more water stays at Lake Mead, but it also gives users flexibility to make sure our supplies are sufficient.”
Unlike Arizona, Nevada has already approved its DCP, as Nevada only needed the SNWA board’s approval and the Nevada Colorado River Commission‘s approval. So what exactly does this DCP entail? According to Entsminger, “For Nevada, that contingency plan requires us to leave more water at the lake at certain levels. It also gives us more tools to bring water into the lake, and take it out when we need it.”
And how exactly will Nevada make this work? For Entsminger, this is why it’s made sense to “stay water smart”. As he put it, “Our community has done a fantastic job with conservation. As a result, we have extra water to leave at the lake. This deal will allow us to leave water in the lake for future use.”
“When you live in the driest state in the union, everything is on the table […] But again, if we can take care of the conservation, we’re not going to need to worry about new sources of water for decades to come.” – John Entsminger, SNWA
So what else can we do? For Entsminger, removing more ornamental lawn grass and reaching the goals set by the conservation standards we already have on the books will make a huge difference: “I believe that removing the 5,000 acres of nonfunctional turf [grass] from the valley and enforcing the rules we have on the books will guarantee us a safe and reliable water supply for the next 50 years.”
To a gilded Caesars Palace conference room of more than 1,000 attendees of the annual Colorado River conference, the message from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman was simple: Finish these deals before the federal government is forced to step in.
“We are teetering on the brink of shortage today,” Burman said. “And we see real risk of rapid declines in reservoir elevations.”
“We all know it is high time to wrap up these efforts,” Burman added.
Out of the seven U.S. states that pull water from the river, Arizona has struggled the most to figure out which water users would see cutbacks first, by how much and under what conditions. The debate has pitted farmers against the cities, home builders and tribes who rely on deliveries of Colorado River water from a 336-mile canal.
Completion of the plans became more urgent after the record hot and dry conditions within the Colorado River Basin this past year, Burman said. Portions of Colorado and Arizona experienced their record hottest and driest summer during 2018. Snowpack this winter is hovering around average levels.
A final deal will require federal legislation and approval by the Arizona Legislature before it can be put into action.
From the Associated Press (Ken Ritter) via The Denver Post:
Burman identified California and Arizona as the holdouts.
“Close isn’t ‘done,’ ” she told a standing-room crowd at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference at a Las Vegas Strip resort. “Only ‘done’ will protect this basin.”
The river that carries winter snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico is plumbed with dams to generate hydropower and meter water releases. It provides drinking water to 40 million people and cities including Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas. It irrigates crops in wide areas once deemed as reclaimed desert in the U.S. and Mexico.
The keys to contingency plans are voluntary agreements to use less water than users are allocated from the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell behind the Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah state line and Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam just east of Las Vegas…
Indian tribes also are involved, and Burman on Thursday announced publication of a report called the Colorado River Basin Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study . It charts water claims and use by tribes that hold rights to divert almost 20 percent of the water in the river.
A drought-shortage declaration next year would cut 11.4 percent of Arizona’s usual river water allocation beginning in 2020, and 4.3 percent of Nevada’s share. That amount of water, combined, would serve more than 625,000 homes. California would voluntarily reduce its Colorado River use by about 6 percent…
In California, the largest municipal suppliers have signed on, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California serving some 19 million people.
However, the sprawling Imperial Irrigation District, which holds some of the largest and oldest rights to river water, has so far granted only tentative approval. James Hanks, board president, said in an interview the district wants to be last to sign so it can see what others agree to.
It also wants government help to save the Salton Sea, a briny shallow desert lake east of Palm Springs, California, that is fed primarily by agricultural irrigation runoff. Dusty hot winds blowing across exposed former shorelines are blamed for asthma by area residents who also complain of sometimes brackish smells…
“Everyone thinks their own water use is justified and no one else’s is,” observed Kathryn Sorensen, Phoenix city water services director.
Keith Moses, vice chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribal Council in Arizona, offered what he saw as a key to complex water questions.
“To me, the best way of conserving water is not to use it,” he said before adding that he knew that would mean limiting growth so as not to continue to drain the Colorado River.
“Realistically,” he added, “looking at it, that’s not going to happen.”