World Resources Institute: World’s 18 Most Water-Stressed Rivers #ColoradoRiver

March 20, 2014

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From the World Resources Institute (Andrew Maddocks/Paul Reig):

The world’s 100 most-populated river basins are indispensable resources for billions of people, companies, farms, and ecosystems. But many of these river basins are also increasingly at risk. As water demand from irrigated agriculture, industrialization, and domestic users explodes, major rivers on several continents are becoming so depleted that they sometimes fail to reach their ocean destinations. Add climate change, nutrient and chemical pollution, and physical alterations like dams and other infrastructure development to the mix and it’s clear that many communities rely on water resources that face an increasingly risky future.

WRI’s Aqueduct project recently evaluated, mapped, and scored stresses on water supplies in the 100 river basins with the highest populations, 100 largest river basins, and 180 nations. We found that 18 river basins— flowing through countries with a collective $US 27 trillion in GDP —face “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress. This means that more than 80 percent of the water naturally available to agricultural, domestic, and industrial users is withdrawn annually—leaving businesses, farms, and communities vulnerable to scarcity…

Decision-makers in many of world’s water-stressed basins have attempted to put management plans in place—with mixed results. The United States’ Colorado River is a prime example of a plan that, while well-intentioned, may ultimately be unsustainable. Starting in Colorado and running 1,400 miles to the Gulf of California, the Colorado River is the 14th most stressed among the world’s most populated river basins, and the sixth most stressed if ranked by size. More than 30 million people depend on it for water. The seven states receiving its water comprised 19 percent of the United States’ total GDP in 2010.

Because of its naturally arid setting—and due to its large and growing number of users and resulting high level of baseline water stress—the Colorado has become one of the most physically and legally managed rivers in the world. It is also under serious duress, exacerbated by a decades-long drought. This imbalance between supply and demand means that the river often runs dry before it reaches the Pacific Ocean—posing significant problems for wildlife, ecosystems, and communities that depend on it.

The Colorado River is an example of a basin where natural water stress is already severe. The complex web of infrastructure and governance structures around the river was, in a sense, created to ensure predictable, steady water supplies in a stressed region. On the other hand, that same development has driven increasing demands for limited supplies. Aqueduct’s country and river basin rankings deliberately do not include the effects of such extensive management, instead focusing on objective measures of underlying hydrological conditions. But the overall picture is clear: Even the most-established, iron-clad management systems start to crumble under increasing scarcity and stress…

What Is Water Stress?

Water stress is the ratio of total water withdrawals to available renewable supply in an area. In high-stress areas, 40 percent or more of the available supply is withdrawn every year. In extremely high-stress areas, that number goes up to 80 percent or higher. A higher percentage means more water users are competing for limited supplies. See the high and extremely high-stress areas highlighted in red and dark red on the maps.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.


Pipeline from the Missouri River to supplement #ColoradoRiver Basin supplies?

November 12, 2013

From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

“We created the largest artificial watershed in the world,” says Pat Mulroy, the powerful head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, a wholesaler that supplies Las Vegas.

Water from the Colorado River is piped across deserts, channeled through mountains, and — after being treated in local sewage plants — winds up in rivers that flow to the southern ends of the country:

  • Some of New Mexico’s share goes into the Rio Grande, eventually flowing south and east through Texas and into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • What Denver returns to nature flows into the South Platte, a tributary of the Missouri River.
  • The coastal cities of Southern California dump a good bit of their diversion into the Pacific Ocean.

None of these water bodies is the logical end of the line for the Colorado River, whose natural terminus is a delta at the northern crook of the Gulf of California. A delta that is, ironically, all dried up…

The river’s web, if some have their way, could become even larger. John Kaufman, the man who proposed the Missouri River pipeline, wants to see the artificial boundaries expand. Kaufman is the general manager of Leavenworth Water, which serves 50,000 people in a town that welcomed Lewis and Clark in 1804 during the duo’s westward exploration.

The identity of the pipeline’s proponent, who was anonymous during the Bureau of Reclamation study and is for the first time being named in the media, is important because of where he lives — outside of the natural Colorado River Basin, or in the extended web.

In Kaufman’s vision, Kansas becomes a hydrological keystone for the West, facilitating water transfers that could affect at least 10 states and Mexico.

“We’d hopscotch water across Kansas and sell it to communities in the state,” Kaufman told me during a phone interview last month, explaining the benefit to his home territory. Construction of the pipeline would also supply jobs to Leavenworth, where the intake facilities would be located. At least one groundwater district in western Kansas is advocating for a similar concept, a Missouri River pipeline to the High Plains to compensate for declines in the Ogallala Aquifer, an essential source for irrigation. Kaufman has presented his idea to state and local officials several times this year.

Once the water flows past Kansas, “it’s a horse trade,” Kaufman said. Water delivered to the Front Range would be earmarked for the South Platte River Basin, which includes Denver. (The South Platte, remember, is part of the Missouri River Basin.) A pipeline would close the circle, sending South Platte water, via the Missouri, back uphill. Of course a few drops of the Colorado would be in the pipe, too.

“It’s a reuse project, really,” said Kaufman, who serves on Kansas governor Sam Brownback’s Missouri River advisory committee…

Then there are the swaps. Front Range cities get roughly 72 percent of their supplies from the Colorado River, according to a 2009 study commissioned by the Front Range Water Council. If water from the Missouri were imported, then some of the trans-Rocky diversions could remain within the Colorado River Basin.

Kaufman’s idea — he calls it the Eisenhower Pipeline, in honor of the sponsor of the interstate highway system, which got its start in Kansas — was included in the Bureau of Reclamation’s final report, but top federal officials distanced themselves from the project, once word leaked a few days before the report’s official release last December.

“In my view, [water import] solutions are impractical and not feasible,” said Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior at the time. The study actually gave the pipeline high marks for technical feasibility, but the $US 8.6 billion price tag and the high energy costs pushed the pipeline to the bottom of the pile. Conservation was the big winner, deemed to be significantly cheaper and able to deliver more water.

Kaufman knows the scheme is expensive, which is why he says that he needs financial buy-in from the states in the Colorado’s Lower Basin and cooperative agreements among all the Basin states in order to shuffle water supplies.

“It’s not about providing water to the Front Range,” he said. “It’s about providing water to the West.”

More Missouri River Basin coverage here and here.


Kansas and the Corps of Engineers are taking another look at the Kansas Aqueduct

October 26, 2013
Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

The new analysis, to be started this year and completed in 2015, will reassess the Kansas Aqueduct, one of four projects evaluated 31 years ago to provide water to high plains farms in Kansas and reduce the draw on the Ogallala aquifer, the region’s primary source of water for irrigation. None of the water transport projects that were evaluated in the 1982 study were built.

But one project, the Kansas Aqueduct, which would draw water from a turn in the Missouri River about 145 kilometers (90 miles) upstream of Kansas City, and drop it into a reservoir roughly 600 kilometers (375 miles) away in western Kansas, attracted significant attention.

The cost of the new $US 300,000 study will be shared equally by the state and the federal government, said Mark Rude, executive director of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District. Rude added that the region’s strong farm economy and the urgency of extending the Ogallala’s life as a source of water to agriculture make this a useful period to reconsider the Kansas Aqueduct.

“The Kansas Aqueduct Project must be pursued while production income, property values and the economic system are in place to support the project,” Rude wrote in a June letter to state water officials…

Because of high plains geology and climate, water percolates into the aquifer each year in inches; but in order to sustain a thriving grain-and-cattle industry, water is pumped out in feet.

The farmers and cattlemen in Rude’s district in southwest Kansas know this fact all too well. Rude told Circle of Blue that current rates of groundwater extraction – mining, really – are about nine percent sustainable. In other words, the amount of water pumped out of that part of the aquifer would have to be cut by 90 percent to find a balance. Such a reduction would decimate the region’s towns.

Over the years, all that water has created a more prosperous life on the plains than the early pioneers could ever have imagined. The economic structure, formidable for the time being, collapses without water.

“Everything we need is here already,” Rude says, talking about the grain elevators, equipment dealers and related agricultural infrastructure in western Kansas. “But new investment needs water-confidence. How do we provide that when we are cutting water use? It’s ideal to have both cuts and new supplies and manage the aquifer more like a reservoir.”

Farmers in northwest Kansas, in Sheridan County, have agreed to self-imposed restrictions on the amount of water they draw from the Ogallala. It is an experiment that has yet to catch on elsewhere in the state.

Economics are foremost in Rude’s mind because the aqueduct would be a whopper of a project, at least double the estimated $US 3.6 billion price tag three decades ago, and comparable in scale to massive water diversions like the 540-kilometer (360-mile) Central Arizona Project that was approved before the Carter administration and built mostly with federal money.

Rude scoffs at the suggestion that a Kansas aqueduct is a relic of a by-gone age. “I’m comfortable if you say it’s a Roman project in the 21st century,” he said, recalling the channels that satiated Caesar’s capital more than two millennia ago. “The aquifer is a question that has to be dealt with.”


The US Supreme court decides in favor of Oklahoma in Tarrant v. Herrmann

June 13, 2013

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From the Texas Tribune (Kate Galbraith):

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday issued a unanimous ruling for Oklahoma over a North Texas water district in a case over delivery of water from the Red River.

The case, Tarrant Regional Water District v. Herrmann, Rudolf J. et al, pitted fast-growing North Texas against the state of Oklahoma. The Tarrant Regional Water District, which serves Fort Worth and other North Texas communities, wanted to buy water from Oklahoma reservoirs, but Oklahoma passed laws that effectively meant it wouldn’t sell.

The Tarrant district sued six years ago and has spent $6 million on the lawsuit, according to water district spokesman Chad Lorance. On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The Compact does not pre-empt the Oklahoma water statutes,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the Supreme Court opinion. She was referring to the 1980 Red River Compact, which stipulates that signatory states — which include Texas and Oklahoma — get an “equitable” share of water. The Tarrant district wants water flowing south out of Oklahoma, but they say that by the time the water reaches Texas it is essentially unusable, so they want to tap the reservoirs further upstream. Oklahoma state lawmakers have declined their request.

The decision could have implications for other parts of the country. For example, legal experts have been interested in whether Oklahoma’s efforts to stop or discourage out-of-state water sales would be trumped by a multi-state compact.

Click here to read the decision written by Justice Sotomayor (Hat tip to Ms. Galbraith).

More Tarrant v. Herrmann coverage here. More water law coverage here and here.


Lawsuit over Red River Compact and Oklahoma water law could impact river compacts across the U.S.

April 22, 2013

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From NPR (Joe Wertz):

The [U.S. Supreme Court] will hear oral arguments [Tuesday] in the case of Tarrant Regional Water District v. Herrmann, et al. The case pits Oklahoma against Texas over rights to water from the river that forms part of the border between them. Depending on how the court decides, it could impact interstate water-sharing agreements across the country…

The future looks bright for this part of Texas, but it also looks dry. Drought has hit Texas particularly hard over the past couple of years. Water officials say the north Texas region’s growth is outpacing the water supply nearby.

“All of the locations — watershed locations — close by have been tapped for us,” says Linda Christie, government relations director for the Tarrant Regional Water District. The district is the water authority for an 11-county stretch of north Texas that includes Ft.Worth. “So now we’re going to have to go 200, 300 miles. And most of it would be water that is being pumped uphill.”

The Red River, less than 75 miles from Fort Worth, seems like an ideal solution to the Tarrant Water District’s problem. Fed by the Rocky Mountain snow pack, the river runs southeast on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Texas and Oklahoma already have a formal agreement on how to share water from the Red River. In 1980, Congress ratified the Red River Compact, giving the two states — along with Arkansas and Louisiana — an equitable apportionment of water from the river and its tributaries.

But what’s “equitable” is arguable. And that’s what the Supreme Court case is all about.

The Red River lies entirely within the state of Oklahoma. Texas argues that it can’t get its share of the Red River watershed from the Texas side of the river, so it needs to reach across the river into southeastern Oklahoma to get it…

Texas has tried to buy Oklahoma water from the state, its cities and towns, and its Native American tribes. But Oklahoma lawmakers have blocked those efforts with a string of laws restricting out-of-state water exports.

The view in Texas is that Oklahoma isn’t even using its full allocation of Red River water. Oklahomans respond that Texas hasn’t gotten serious enough about conservation.

In 2007 — citing the compact — the Tarrant District sought permission from Oklahoma regulators to tap the Kiamichi River, a Red River tributary located entirely within Oklahoma. Oklahoma said no, arguing that the compact does not supersede the state’s own authority over a water resource within its borders. The dispute has been in court ever since.

The lower courts have agreed with Oklahoma so far. But Christie says the Tarrant Water District is encouraged by the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case. And the Obama administration has sided with Texas, too. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the U.S. solicitor general worried about the impact to North Texas’ population growth, and argued that the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals improperly assumed Oklahoma’s laws preempt the Red River Compact’s authority.

State and local policymakers and water authorities throughout the country are closely watching the outcome of the case, says Stephen Draper, a water expert who helped write guidelines for interstate water sharing for the American Society of Civil Engineers. Here’s why: The Red River Compact contains a lot of the same boilerplate language used in other state-to-state water sharing agreements.

If Oklahoma’s protectionist water laws are upheld, Draper says other states could be inspired to pass similar laws of their own.

More water law coverage here.


Colorado River Basin: Recent study by the Bureau of Reclamation highlights future supply problems #coriver

March 4, 2013

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Here’s a guest column running in The Denver Post, written by Allen Best, that gives an overview of the current state of the Colorado River. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Tow icebergs from Alaska? Pilfer from a tributary of the Yellowstone River in Wyoming? Or, even sneak water from the Snake, boring a 6-mile tunnel from a reservoir near Jackson Hole to the Green River? While it’s sure to make Idaho’s spud farmers cranky, it would help Tucson, Los Angeles and that parched paradigm of calculated risk, Las Vegas.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and everybody else with a megaphone has carefully branded these ideas as improbable or worse. Only slightly more credible is the idea of a pipeline from the Mississippi River. It could originate near Memphis, traverse 1,040 miles and, if reaching Castle Rock, rise 6,000 feet in elevation. Pumping would require a steady 800 megawatts of electricity, or a little more than what the Comanche 3 power plant in Pueblo produces.

In theory, this 600,000-acre feet of muddy Mississippi would replace diversions from the Colorado River headwaters between Grand Lake and Aspen. Those diversions range between 450,000 and 600,000 acre-feet annually. That would leave the creeks and rivers to the whims of gravity and geography, at least until arriving at Las Vegas and other places with growing thirst.
Cheap water? Not exactly: It would cost $2,400 per acre-foot for this Memphis-flavored sludge, assuming the idea isn’t grounded by protests from barge and riverboat operators. (Sometimes they, too, say they need more water.)

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.


Drought news: Many eyes are on the water in the Missouri River reservoirs #CODrought

December 8, 2012

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From The Winona Daily News (David A. Lieb):

From Montana to West Virginia, officials on both sides have written President Barack Obama urging him to intervene _ or not _ in a long-running dispute over whether water from the Missouri’s upstream reservoirs should be released into the Mississippi River to ease low water levels that have imperiled commercial traffic.

The quarrel pits boaters, fishermen and tourism interests against communities downstream and companies that rely on the Mississippi to do business.

“We are back to the age-old old battle of recreation and irrigation verses navigation,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri.

If the water is held back, downstream states warn that shipping on the Mississippi could come to a near standstill sometime after Christmas along a 180-mile stretch between St. Louis and the southern Illinois town of Cairo. But if the water is released, upstream communities worry that the toll of the drought could be even worse next year for farms and towns that depend on the Missouri.

Obama has not decided whether to enter the dispute, nor has the White House set a timetable to respond. But tensions are rising in this decades-old battle.

From his perch as executive director of the Southeast Missouri Regional Port Authority, Dan Overbey watched this week as workers scrambled to ship out as much grain as possible before the Mississippi gets so low that it is not economically feasible or physically possible to move loaded-down barges…

More than 800 miles to the northwest, Michael Dwyer was also stewing. He’s the executive vice president of the North Dakota Water Users Association.

To Dwyer, the downriver interests are “taking selfishness” to “a level you can’t even comprehend.”

“We suffered the impact of these reservoirs” when they were created decades ago by dams that flooded 500,000 acres of bottomland, Dwyer said. “To have some use of the resource only seems appropriate.”

At the Mississippi River port near Cape Girardeau, Mo., about a million tons of cargo are loaded or unloaded annually, providing about 200 jobs, Overbey said.

The water is also vital in parts of the Dakotas, where the dammed-up Missouri River has spawned a tourism industry centered on boating and fishing…

Over the past three decades, more than a dozen lawsuits have been filed challenging the management of the river, many of which set Missouri and other downstream states against the Dakotas and other upstream states.

The battles started in 1982, when Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska challenged a government contract allowing water to be drawn from the Missouri River in South Dakota to flush coal through a pipeline to power plants in the southeast. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the project, but other lawsuits followed, including an effort by upstream states to reduce the water released from dams in an attempt to boost sport fishing in the reservoirs.

Missouri, meanwhile, sued the Army Corps of Engineers when it held back water because of droughts and shortened the navigation season. Environmental groups also joined the court battles, advocating for spring surges and summer declines in downstream river levels to help threatened species of birds and fish.

So far, no lawsuits have been filed in the current competition for water. But battle lines have been drawn…

The Corps of Engineers, which manages both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, says its guidelines prohibit it from releasing water from the Missouri River reservoirs for the primary purpose of improving navigation on the Mississippi. That position was backed up by a 1990 report from the federal government’s General Accounting Office, though officials from downstream states believe Obama could trump that by declaring an emergency to avoid an “economic calamity.”


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