#ColoradoRiver: “Shortages are going to be a way of life” — Bill Hasencamp #COriver

Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam December 2015 via Greg Hobbs.
Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam December 2015 via Greg Hobbs.

From The Los Angeles Times (William Yardley):

reckoning arrives every August for the Colorado River and the 40 million people across the West who depend on it.

After water managers measure annual inflows and outflows and do their best to estimate future precipitation in places as far-flung as northwestern Wyoming and southwestern New Mexico, they make a pronouncement that once was arcane but has become increasingly prominent — and ominous.

Technically, what they announce is the projected elevation of Lake Mead, the Colorado River’s largest reservoir, on Jan. 1 for each of the next two years.

Psychologically, in a region already parched by years of drought and staring into a hotter, drier, climate-changed future, they are forecasting anxiety.

Under current policy, if the projected elevation falls below 1,075 feet on Jan. 1, states in the southern part of the basin face a “shortage.” That would prompt mandatory cuts in water use that could force farmers to fallow fields and require cities and tribes to reduce use.

In the eight decades since the Hoover Dam was completed and Lake Mead was first filled, that has never happened.

Then, last month, it did.

For a while. Sort of. Maybe.

On Aug. 16, the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees the basin, projected that Lake Mead would fall below the 1,075 threshhold — not next year, but in 2018. It released a report predicting it would reach the 2018 shortage by a narrow margin — the lake would fall to 1.074.31 feet on Dec. 31, 2017 — but it would be a shortage nonetheless.

Yet the following week, another bureau report came out that shed more light on that forecast. Instead of just projecting an elevation level, it stated the specific probability that the lake would hit that level. The chance, the agency said, was 48%.

Or, as Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the Lower Colorado region of the bureau, put it: “It’s kind of a flip of the coin.”

So, by that math, maybe there will be a shortage in 2018 and maybe there will not be. Maybe the Southwest will finally confront the very real limits of its water supply. Or maybe it will not.

Except the story does not end there.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s projection does not take into account some major conservation measures that states in the lower part of the river basin are undertaking — measures that water managers say have already helped avoid a shortage in 2017.

In Arizona alone, water officials say that, by next summer, their conservation work could be effective enough to lift the projected elevation of Lake Mead for 2018 by more than 2 feet, enough to fend off a shortage for another year.

And then there is the “drought contingency plan,” which is being developed by Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California and the Bureau of Reclamation to voluntarily reduce water use even further — before a shortage could be declared for 2018, but also in the event one is declared after that. The plan, which would need legislative approval in Arizona and the support of water managers in other states, could be in place by early 2017.

State and local water managers say they are working together so that, well, they can keep working together. If they do not, they fear, the federal government will intervene and they will lose control…

While forecasting the level of Lake Mead might seem like fuzzy math, the general arc of things is not in dispute. The same report that showed a 48% chance of a shortage in 2018 shows the chance of shortage at 60% in 2019, 60% in 2020 and 56% in 2021.

Few water managers hold out great hope that the snowpack, the single most important source of precipitation for the basin, will suddenly rise dramatically, year over year. Experts have established that there is a structural deficit on the river — more demand than supply. Most people close to the process think the region will slowly, sometimes painfully, shift water resources away from certain kinds of agriculture, which uses the vast majority of the supply, and toward urban populations.

So when you look at it that way, the fuzzy math at Lake Mead is not really fuzzy at all.

“Basically, what the models say is that, in the future, most years will be shortage years,” said Bill Hasencamp, the manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “Shortages are going to be a way of life.”

Colorado Water Congress’s 2016 Summer Conference recap

Photo by @BBerwyn via @COIndependent
Photo by @BBerwyn via @COIndependent

From The Colorado Independent (Marianne Goodland):

Coloradans are more concerned about water quality than about water supplies, and their awareness of the state’s looming water shortage has fallen sharply in the past three years.

Those findings are from a statewide survey on consumer attitudes about water by pollster Floyd Ciruli. The survey was commissioned by the Colorado Water Congress and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and conducted in June with 712 respondents. Ciruli discussed the results with the General Assembly’s interim water resources review committee, which met at the Water Congress’s summer conference last week.

Ciruli compared Coloradans’ current viewpoints about water to the results of a 2013 survey. Given the state’s rampant growth and looming water shortage, the results didn’t look encouraging.

Coloradans are less concerned about whether the state will have an adequate water supply than they were three years ago. In 2013, 62 percent said they expected an eventual water shortage in the state. This year, only 53 percent shared that view. The percentage of Coloradans who think the state needs to store more water is also down from 59 percent three years ago to 50 percent this year.

The public’s diminished interest in adequate water supplies could not come at a worse time. After a two-year planning effort, Colorado water leaders are preparing for the state’s water future – a future with less water and more people. A 2010 estimate says the state will be short 326 billion gallons of water annually by the year 2050, when the state’s population is expected to nearly double from 5.4 million to 10.3 million residents. About 100,000 people are moving to Colorado every year.

Every conversation about water should start with conservation, Gov. John Hickenlooper likes to say. But what the survey shows about public interest indicates most people aren’t yet listening.
More than half of Coloradans surveyed believe their water suppliers are doing a good job encouraging water conservation, but there’s room for improvement, the survey found. More Coloradans believe that conservation alone will solve Colorado’s water shortage than three years ago, although it’s a small group – 14 percent this year compared to 10 percent in 2013.
Most Coloradans, however, believe it will take a combination of water storage and conservation to solve the shortage, although fewer believe that now than in 2013.

The survey also gauged what people know about the Colorado Water Plan – the state’s first blueprint for water planning. The 540-page plan reports that Colorado will be short one-million acre-feet of water annually by 2050. It calls for conservation measures that would help close that gap by 400,000 acre-feet, a goal primarily tasked to water utilities and other water providers…

The state plan also calls for gleaning another 400,000 acre-feet in water storage, either by improving existing dams and reservoirs or building new ones. Several projects are already under way. They include an expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County, which would triple its existing capacity of 41,000 acre-feet, and the Northern Integrated Supply Project, which would capture another 40,000 acre-feet of water that currently flows downstream to Nebraska, exceeding what’s required under a multi-state contract.

The state water plan was was ordered by Hickenlooper under an executive order in 2013, with a two-year window for completion. But the plan has been criticized for being less of a plan than a snapshot of where Colorado stood on water supplies last year, and more of a compendium of ideas than specific solutions to Colorado’s water woes in an era of growth, drought and climate change.

Some water experts claim that the plan, completed last November, is already gathering dust and isn’t moving fast enough.

Dennis Saffell, a real estate broker in Summit and Grand counties, penned an editorial in June that took the General Assembly to task for failing to address key recommendations in the plan, such as conservation and funding for healthy rivers.

“With so much at stake, it is essential that the plan be implemented to build on the momentum and interest generated during its development,” Saffell wrote. He was among the 30,000 Coloradans who submitted comments on the water plan during its two-year development. “The only difficulty now is lack of engagement — letting the plan just sit — and unfortunately that’s what is occurring,” he wrote.

The legislature did pass a bill this year to put $5 million annually into implementation of the plan, although the bill wasn’t specific about just what that $5 million would be spent on. That’s left to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which developed the plan in conjunction with nine state-directed water groups that focus on a variety of water issue.

The Ciruli survey found that very few of those polled are aware of the state water plan. Of those who were, only 4 percent knew a lot about the plan. Another 15 percent said they’d heard of it. For the rest, the plan is a mystery.

Coloradans strongly support keeping the state’s water in Colorado, the survey found. Eighty-nine percent agreed that the state should hang onto all the water it’s legally entitled to. Most respondents also were supportive of improving water conservation and building more storage, so long as it doesn’t impact the environment.

Those surveyed also responded favorably to the idea of a ballot measure in 2018 that would fund small and large storage, reuse projects and conservation programs. Coloradans were most supportive of funding long-term planning, improving water conservation programs, enhancing river habitat and developing “new water supplies,” and somewhat less enthusiastic about building new water storage…

Ciruli countered that, for most people, storage is a commonly-understood term. It’s even used in polling for environmentally-oriented groups, he noted…

Western Slope residents are concerned that the Colorado is already diverting more water than it could supply. The issue is radically different for the South Platte, which has been sending a million acre-feet of water to Nebraska each year for some time.

Respondents ranked conservation, water quality and water pollution as the top three water issues facing the state. Ciruli said the pollution issue has received greater attention in the past year due to the Gold King Mine spill in the Animas River near Durango, as well as national attention to the lead contamination in the Flint, Michigan drinking water supply. Water storage dropped from being the second most important issue in 2013 to fourth in this year’s survey.

There was tremendous support for conservation and considerable support for reuse, Ciruli said, “but the lynchpin is that respondents favored the state making a commitment to infrastructure,” in this case, water infrastructure.

The public is conscious about water and concerned about it, Ciruli said, but they want local providers to do something about it. “There’s momentum, but the public would be ill-served and not happy if the plan just goes on the shelf” and doesn’t address the problems, such as storage or maintaining agriculture, for example.

“People are ready” for the state to move on with implementing the water plan, he said.

#ColoradoRiver: Lake Mead back above 1,075 — John Fleck #COriver

waterisforfightingoverandothermythsaboutwaterinthewestjohnfleckcover

From InkStain (John Fleck):

Apparently in celebration of this week’s official release date for my book Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West, Lake Mead overnight crept above the magic elevation level of 1,075 feet above sea level. That’s number attached in policy and, more importantly, the public mind to the notion of shortage on the Colorado River. At this point the elevation milestone is merely symbolic. The shortage policy, with mandatory cutbacks, only kicks in if the reservoir is below 1,075 on Jan. 1 of any given year. Mead typically rises between August and the end of the year, so there will be no shortage declaration at the end of the year.

Don’t get too excited about rising above 1,075. We’re still on track to set another one of those “lowest elevation since Lake Mead was filled” records yet again this month. The end-of-August record low is 1,078.31 which we set last year. And as Brett Walton noted this morning in Circle of Blue’s Federal Water Tap, there’s a greater than 50 percent chance of a below-1,075 shortage declaration in 2018.

As a science-policy communicator, I’m fascinated with the way “1,075” has become such a useful shorthand for a complex set of issues. The origin of its importance lies in the 2007 “Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead”. The rules are complicated: every year in August, the Bureau of Reclamation runs its Colorado River Simulation System (CRSS) model, a dynamic simulation that takes current reservoir levels, projected demands and forecasts for the coming months, and estimates the elevation of Lake Mead the following Jan. 1. That estimate (and an accompanying one for Lake Powell, the big reservoir upstream) triggers a number of policy responses. If there’s a bunch of extra water in Lake Powell, we enter one of a couple of operating regimes under which what I’ve come to call “bonus water” can be released from Powell to prop up Lake Mead, a process intended to “equalize” the levels between the two reservoirs.

#ColoradoRiver: “Killing the #Colorado” spotlights new solutions — American Rivers #COriver

killingthecoloradotrailerscreenshot

From American Rivers (Sinjin Eberle):

I have noticed a lot of chatter lately about the situation at Lake Mead. Dramatic overuse, prolonged drought, and the effects of increased temperatures have led to a historically low volume of water stored in the largest reservoir on the Colorado River. One of the most critical components of water in the west is less than 40% full. Yet while some people scramble for a quick fix or point fingers, others see the long game and note the optimism that working together for smart, sustainable solutions can bring. There is hope, there is a roadmap, and together we have the knowledge, skill, and foresight to make it happen.

Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam December 2015 via Greg Hobbs.
Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam December 2015 via Greg Hobbs.

The Discovery Channel recently produced a new documentary, Killing the Colorado, a made-for-TV version of the lengthy ProPublica series of the same name. The show is excellent, comprehensive, and features a number of voices that you may not expect to be featured in a film about the environment. Imperial valley agricultural producers, water managers, a red-state Senator and a blue-state Governor – all identifying problems facing the basin, and most putting forth an optimistic view that a human-caused predicament can be solved with human-inspired ingenuity.

One quote in particular is poignant – there is a scene with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper in his office flipping through a binder full of historic water compacts. Upon his observance of the generations of water agreements, he remarks “The thing you realize when you go through these [water] compacts, is that everyone is in this together.” Given the situation facing Lake Mead, a growing chorus of voices around Lake Powell, the birth of the Colorado Water Plan, and a recognition that heathy rivers support healthy agriculture and sustainable economies, we truly are all rowing the same boat together in the Colorado Basin.

Lake Powell via Aspen Journalism
Lake Powell via Aspen Journalism

But, how can Lake Mead affect Colorado from a thousand miles downstream? Well, due to the Colorado River Compact of 1922, headwaters states like Colorado must send a certain amount of water to the Southwestern states of Arizona, Nevada, and California – it’s the law of the river, and the law of the land. And since when the Compact was developed, California was a fast growing destination, it has priority and can “call” for water if needed. For years, California has had the luxury to get much of the surplus of water that Colorado and Wyoming have sent downstream to be stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. But now with prolonged drought, a fast-growing population across the entire Southwest, and a substantial agricultural economy (especially in the Imperial Valley), the era of surplus water is over. As such, Lake Mead is directly connected to Colorado, whether we like it or not, and that connection is the Colorado River.

Killing the Colorado does a fantastic job over nearly an hour-and-a-half of highlighting a variety of colorful characters who have recognized that shortage and a lack of water will change everything in the future – that future is now. But while both the show and the written article are excellent at highlighting the situation, they don’t delve deeply into what I think is most important – that real solutions do exist, and we know how to implement them, it simply takes our collective will to get them moving. Solutions like urban and agricultural conservation and efficiency, like reuse and recycling, like innovative water banking and flexible management practices, like continuing the shift towards renewable energy (solar and wind don’t devour cooling water like natural gas and coal plants require). But while these efforts all seem daunting and out of an individual’s control, there are actions that each of us can take every day that together, make a huge difference. Like buying and installing your own rain barrel for your outside plants and flowers, like supporting your local farmer at the farmer’s market – small things that have a great impact, especially when we all do them together.

Solutions do exist, and as Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said “The drought over the past couple of years has awakened all of us to the future we have if we don’t do better planning. There are many things that are out of our control…Planning is so important. Conserving. Recharging. Water banking. Water markets. These are all important things that have to take place.

Let’s get started!

The Yampa River flows through the Carpenter Ranch. Photo courtesy of John Fielder from his new book, “Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green.” -- via The Mountain Town News
The Yampa River flows through the Carpenter Ranch. Photo courtesy of John Fielder from his new book, “Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green.” — via The Mountain Town News

#ColoradoRiver: Lake Mead on the way to a shortage declaration in 2018? #COriver

Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam December 2015 via Greg Hobbs.
Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam December 2015 via Greg Hobbs.

From the Associated Press via The Denver Post:

A federal report shows the surface level of the lake behind Hoover Dam is expected to remain high enough this year to avoid a shortage declaration in 2017. But it’ll still be a mere 4 feet above a 1,075-foot elevation action point.

For 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projects the lake level could fall short — by less than 1 foot.

That would trigger cuts in water deliveries that an official said would most affect Arizona farmers.

Chuck Cullom, Colorado River programs chief for the Central Arizona Project, said cities and tribes wouldn’t immediately be affected.

But his agency, based in Phoenix, would enact plans to drain underground storage supplies and cut irrigation allocations by half.

“It’s good to know we won’t be in shortage in 2017,” Cullom said. “We’re hopeful we can again avoid shortage in 2018.”

Las Vegas, which draws 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead, might not feel much effect of a shortage declaration because conservation and reuse programs have in recent years cut the amount of water the area consumes by about 25 percent, Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman Bronson Mack said.

Still, conservationists said such a close call should be a wake-up to water-users.

“The good news is that we missed the trigger level. The bad news is that we missed it so narrowly and we remain dangerously close to automatic cuts,” said Nicole Gonzalez Patterson, Arizona director of the organization Protect the Flows.

“This is the loudest of wake-up signals for the region’s water managers,” she said…

Public water managers in Nevada, California and Arizona said they’ve been working together for years to avoid a shortage declaration.

They cite swaps and storage programs that have propped up the lake level, by at least temporarily reducing the amount of water drawn for use elsewhere.

John Entsminger, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, pointed to one program that lets water agencies in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Denver and Phoenix pay water rights holders to conserve and reduce their water use.

Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Rose Davis said part of the reason that the lake level will be 4 feet above shortage this year is because agencies been working since 2014 to keep water in it.

“The partners have all been tested and no one’s had it easy,” she said. “But they’re keeping to their agreements and continuing to talk.”

[…]

A shortage declaration would cut 11.4 percent of Arizona’s promised 2.8 million acre-feet, and 4.3 percent of Nevada’s allotted 300,000 acre-feet…

Even if a shortage is declared, drought-stricken California will be able to draw its full 4.4 million acre-foot allocation of Colorado River water…

William Hasencamp, Colorado River resources chief for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said he thinks that in the end a shortage declaration is inevitable.

“It’s not ‘if,’ but ‘when,’” said Hasencamp, whose agency serves nearly 19 million customers from Los Angeles to San Diego. “The fact that we’re not in shortage now is a testament to what we’ve been doing.”

Colorado River Basin, USBR May 2015
Colorado River Basin, USBR May 2015

#ColoradoRiver: Lake Mead still shrinking, but lower consumption offers glimmer of hope — Las Vegas Review-Journal

lakemeadesince200002292016capviaallenbest

From The Las Vegas Review-Journal (@RefriedBrean):

The reservoir that supplies 90 percent of the Las Vegas Valley’s drinking water bottomed out at 1,071.61 feet above sea level on July 1, its lowest level since May 1937, when the lake was filling for the first time behind a newly completed Hoover Dam.

Though the surface of the lake has ticked back up by about 2 feet since then, it remains 5 feet lower than it was at this time last year and 43 feet lower than it was in early August 2012.

But the news isn’t all bad.

The amount of water being drawn from the Colorado River for use in Nevada, Arizona and California is on track to hit its lowest level in more than 20 years, a sign that conservation efforts and temporary cuts by river users are having an effect, at least on the demand side of the ledger…

If the current federal projection holds, the three lower basin states will combine this year to consume less than 7 million acre-feet of Colorado River water for the first time since 1992…

That’s a “symbolically important milestone,” said author and long-time environmental journalist John Fleck, because the region’s population has grown by roughly 7 million people since the last time consumption was this low…

Even with reduced consumption, there will still be more water taken out of the river this year than there is flowing into it.

As a result, the record low set on July 1 is unlikely to stand for long. Federal forecasters expect Lake Mead to start 2017 about 6 feet higher than it is now, then dip downward again into record territory in April, before bottoming out next June or July at about 1,063 feet above sea level…

Though Lake Mead’s decline is expected to continue for the next two years at least, forecasters say the reservoir is likely to contain just enough water on Jan. 1, 2017, and Jan. 1, 2018, to avoid a first-ever federal shortage declaration that would trigger mandatory water reductions for Nevada and Arizona…

Mack said the voluntary cuts and conservation gains made already by cities, farms and water agencies in Nevada, Arizona and California are at least partially responsible for keeping Lake Mead just out of shortage territory. And more cooperative cuts are coming.

By the end of the year, officials in Nevada, Arizona and California hope to finalize a landmark deal outlining a series of voluntary water reductions designed to prop up Lake Mead and stave off deeper, mandatory cuts for Arizona and Nevada.

Arizona would shoulder most of the voluntary reductions, but the tentative deal marks the first time California has agreed to share the pain if the drought worsens.

As it stands now, California is not required to take any cuts to its 4.4 million acre-foot share of the Colorado, which is the largest annual allotment among the seven states that share the river.

New #ColoradoRiver book recasts ‘wasteful’ Las Vegas as a monument to smart water use #COriver — The Las Vegas Review-Journal

waterisforfightingoverandothermythsaboutwaterinthewestjohnfleckcover

From The Las Vegas Review-Journal (@RefriedBrean):

[John Fleck] spent a quarter century writing about environmental issues for the Albuquerque Journal. He now serves as director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program.

In a phone interview Thursday, he said the Las Vegas Valley still uses more water per capita than other Southwestern cities, but the community has made tremendous strides in both conservation and governance that have allowed it to keep growing without out-growing its limited water supply.

Despite a reputation for waste and excess, Las Vegas actually represents the way forward for everyone who depends on the Colorado River, Fleck said. The only way we’re going to save the river and ourselves is by celebrating our successes, acknowledging our shortcomings and working together on solutions, he said.

“I hope the people of Las Vegas get that they should feel proud of how much they have done but recognize that they probably need to do more,” he said.

As for those fountains at the Bellagio, Fleck notes in his book that they are fed not by the river but with brackish groundwater pulled from a well once used to irrigate the golf course at the Dunes. The attraction consumes about 12 million gallons of water a year, roughly the same amount used to irrigate 8 acres of alfalfa in California’s Imperial Valley.

“Imperial County’s farmers get ten times the water Las Vegas gets. Las Vegas makes ten times the money Imperial County farming does,” Fleck writes.

And his view on Vegas isn’t the only counter-intuitive take in “Water is for Fighting Over.”

Most books about the Colorado River offer a pessimistic view, including the seminal work on the subject, Marc Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert.”

Fleck jokes that his book is more like “Volvo Desert.” The future river he envisions is sturdy, reliable and built to survive a crash.

stopcollaborateandlistenbusinessblog

I finished up John’s book last week. I recommend it to everyone involved in water.

Agreements between affected parties have proven over time to produce better results than litigation, even when some are forced to the table.

John makes this point by a telling of the history of the Colorado River Basin.

He was inspired to write the book after witnessing the pulse flow down the Colorado River Delta in 2014.

You can score a copy here.

Young girl enjoying the river restored temporarily by the pulse flow March 2014 via National Geographic
Young girl enjoying the river restored temporarily by the pulse flow March 2014 via National Geographic