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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
[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.
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.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Opponents of a proposed nuclear power plant near Green River, Utah, are considering whether to appeal to the state’s high court after the state Court of Appeals upheld a district judge’s ruling approving the plant’s water supply.
A three-judge panel ruled last week in favor of Blue Castle Holdings, the project developer, and two water districts that are seeking changes to existing water rights so Blue Castle can withdraw 53,600 acre-feet a year from the Green River for cooling and steam production at the proposed plant.
The conservation group HEAL Utah challenged the state water engineer’s approval of the proposal, but that approval has now been upheld twice in court.
“In sum, HEAL Utah has not shown that the district court erred in concluding the change applications were filed in good faith and are not speculative or for monopoly of the water,” the appeals court ruled.
HEAL Utah’s challenge had been based partly on concerns about environmental impacts to the watershed, including to endangered fish.
Blue Castle CEO Aaron Tilton said in a news release, “We recognize our responsibility for strong environmental stewardship throughout the lifetime of the project, which includes working diligently to assure protection of the Green River environment and endangered species. Our project has been scrutinized at many levels, including the state engineer, the district court and now the appeals court. We have fully complied and satisfied all the requirements of the law. We can assure the public the high level of scrutiny that has been applied to the process is welcomed.”
Matt Pacenza, HEAL Utah’s executive director, said Monday that despite the setback, “we don’t think the project is moving forward in any legitimately or significant way.”
He said Blue Castle hasn’t attracted interest from utilities for the power it would supply, nor, as far as HEAL Utah can tell, from investors. He said the company hadn’t met with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission since 2011…
The appeals court said in its written ruling, “Despite the relatively early stage of the Project, the Applicants offered considerable evidence that the Project is feasible, including a detailed business plan, purchase contracts for land, lease agreements for the Districts’ water rights, and evidence that shows it has had discussions with eighteen utilities expressing an interest in the plant’s power.”
It added that while the project “is a risky venture” and hasn’t yet been licensed through the NRC, “the Applicants presented evidence that the Project is both physically and economically feasible.”
Blue Castle says it has begun the contractor selection process for some $8 billion worth of construction work with an expected start date of 2020.
It projects that construction would require some 2,500 workers over some six or seven years, and the plant would employ about 1,000 people permanently. The 2,200-megawatt plant would increase Utah electricity generation by about 30 percent, the company says.
Eric Kuhn paints a big picture of changing realities in the Southwest
rom his office in Glenwood Springs overlooking the Colorado River, Eric Kuhn has become one of the West’s most prominent thinkers about the intersection of water, climate change, and allocations for farms, factories and cities, including ski towns.
He joined the Colorado River Water Conservation District as an engineer after working in the private sector as a nuclear engineer. He has been manager of the water district since 1996. The district encompasses all of the Colorado River drainage in Colorado upstream from Fruita. As such, the district is a primary source of water not just for the bulk of Colorado ski towns and Front Range cities but also downstream farms and cities, including Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
Mountain Town News collaborated with Kuhn on a reader-friendly Q&A to probe the growing evidence that warming temperatures have started upsetting the apple cart of Colorado River operations.
Was it a good snow year in the upper Colorado River Basin? It varied, of course, but generally it was average to a little above average in the Gunnison, Yampa, Green and other basins of the upper Colorado River.
Does that mean the reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin are filling? We’ve been hearing a lot about declining levels of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two giant reservoirs on the Colorado River. Water runoff is a more complicated story than snowpack. This year, for example, the runoff reached about 94 percent of average. So, average or above-average snowpack but below-average runoff.
The best way to understand snowmelt is to study the inflow into Lake Powell. You can call this reservoir the savings account for the Upper Colorado River Basin. It is this savings account that allows the upper division states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico to consistently meet water supply obligations to the Lower Basin at Lake Mead as spelled out by the Colorado River Compact of 1922. The lower division states are California, Nevada, and Arizona.
There is no such thing as an average snow year—nowhere, no place. Snowpack varies wildly from year to year. That said, in an average water year, about 10.7 million acre-feet flows into Powell. Three-fourths of that occurs during April through July.
Average snowpack but below-average runoff? That poses an obvious question. But first, would you explain this savings account more? The 1922 compact requires the upper division states to not deplete the flows downstream to Lake Mead below a certain volume. Powell most often releases 8.23 to 9 million acre-feet, as required by the 2007 interim agreement among the seven basin states and the federal government, a side agreement to the compact. But ordinarily, because of evaporation, that means the effective demand on Powell is 8.6 to 9.4 million acre-feet.
What this means is that in any year with an 85 percent of average runoff, Lake Powell just about breaks even. In other words, water levels are not gaining but neither are they declining.
For local supply reservoirs in most of Colorado, we can get by with an 85 percent or better inflow year without too many concerns.
So nothing to worry about in the upper basin?We’re meeting our obligations, end of story? We are OK for now and probably for the immediate future, but if the current conditions transition into a drought over the next several years, as happened after the 1998 El Niño event, we could be in serious trouble because unlike in 1998-99 when system reservoirs were plumb full, today they’re only about half full.
How much of the water in Lake Powell and Lake Mead comes from upstream of Grand Junction (or Moab)? And how much of that originates as snow in places like Steamboat Springs, the Eagle Valley, and the San Juan Mountains? Most of the run-off in the upper basin originates from about 20 percent of the land: those watersheds above about 9,000 feet in elevation, where snowpack accumulates and sticks through the snow season.
The Green River drainage contributes 36 percent of the flow into Lake Powell, the Colorado mainstream 36 percent, the San Juan 24 percent, and the others 4 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. This is the long-term average.
We’ve heard a lot about drought in the 21st century. Are we still in drought? Colorado as a whole is definitely not in a drought. From the entire Colorado River Basin perspective, it depends on the period one looks at. From 1906 through 2015, the mean annual flow at Lee’s Ferry (between Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon was 14.8 million acre-feet (maf). From 1930 forward, it’s been less, 13.9 maf, according to the National Flow Data Base kept by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (available on its website)
For the period of 2000 though 2015, the mean natural flow was 12.4 maf. That’s well below average. During the first part of the century, from 2000 through 2004, it was even less, just 9.4 maf.
Bottom line here: Nearly all the water in the Colorado River comes from upstream of the Grand Canyon, and the average in the 21st century has lagged below the longer-term averages of the 20th century.
Why are Lake Powell and Lake Mead continuing to decline? The recent declines in Mead have been caused by annual demand levels that exceed supply. By the end of 2016, I expect that total storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead will be close to what it was at the end of 2005. Keep in mind that the major decline in runoff and hence storage was from 2000 through 2004.
That’s scary. Some decent snow years in the Rocky Mountains, where most of the Colorado River water comes from, but yet the storage in Mead is declining. Why the decline in Lake Powell?Lake Powell has actually gained a little bit of storage since 2013 and is well above the low point it reached in the winter of 2005. But because of obligations to deliver a little extra water to Lake Mead and because of OK-but-not-great inflows of 90 to 95 percent, the storage is not going up as rapidly as the snowfall in the Rocky Mountains suggests it should.
People talk about a “structural deficit.” What do they mean by that? The structural deficit is the difference between inflow to Lake Mead and demands at Lake Mead when Lake Powell is delivering a “normal” 8.23 maf/year. The math works this way: 8.23 maf from Powell plus native inflow between Powell and Mead of about 700,000 acre feet gives a total inflow of about 9 maf. Demands are 7.5 maf for the three Lower Basin states plus 1.5 maf for Mexico plus about 1.2 maf of evaporation and system losses for a total of 10.2 maf. Thus, the structural deficit is about 1.2 maf. Evaporation varies based on Lake Mead levels. When Lake Mead is fuller, evaporation plus system losses can be as high as 1.5-1.6 maf.
In a recent paper, you cited evidence that warming regional temperatures have turned above-average or abundant precipitation into just average runoff, kind of a reverse alchemy. How can this happen, turning more into less? Temperature is a major variable in the hydrologic cycle. As temperatures go up, evaporation goes up, crops and native vegetation consume more water (transpiration), and the runoff occurs earlier, which exposes native vegetation earlier. The net result is lower stream flows for the same precipitation levels. Brad Udall suggests that about one-half of the reduction in flows we’ve seen since 2000 in the Colorado may be due to temperature alone.
Good snow years means so-so water years in the Colorado River? Wow, that seems to have a lot of so-what! What do you think are the most important so-whats? For water supply purposes, it’s more than a so-what. If temperatures continue their upward trajectory (with year to year variability, of course), we may be in for a new normal. That normal may not have a ground floor.
I like statistics. Does one statistic leap to mind that illustrates what’s going on in the Colorado River Basin? Yes, the number is 1.2 million acre-feet, the amount that the Lower Basin (and Mexico) must reduce their demands if they are to stabilize levels in Lake Mead—at least for the moment. If temperatures continue to warm, they may have to reduce their demands even more.
Why do California, Arizona and Nevada have to cut back—and we in the headwaters area don’t. The 1922 Colorado River Compact gave the upper basin states 7.5 million acre-feet, and the lower-basin states 8.5 maf. It was always assumed that California, in particular, but also Arizona would develop more rapidly, and they did, while the upper-basin states would be slower to put their allocated water to use. But, by the 1970s California was using far more than its 4.4 million acre-foot allocation. Since then, they have been reducing their diversions, but they remain above their allocation.
What are the implications for the headwaters in Colorado and Wyoming? We could continue to see good snow years and decent regional water supply conditions, but due to increasing regional temperatures and system-wide demands that exceed supplies, the Colorado as a whole may continue to be in crisis. There is an old saying that water flows uphill toward money. My biggest concern is that the continuing supply deficit may trigger efforts that will impact our quality of life, especially upper basin agriculture, which may be seen as the “low-hanging fruit.”
In your recent paper, you issue a warning. What is that warning—and is more than just one exclamation mark justified? My warning is that often, but not always, after we’ve had big El Niño years, in the next year, or two (or even three), we end up with drought in Colorado. 1997-98 and 1957-58 are good examples.
In Colorado, we need to quit talking about continuing drought and acknowledge that conditions in much of the state since the fall of 2013 have been wet (the Southwest and Rio Grande have not been as lucky). This means we need to be prepared for the NEXT drought. As (Colorado Water Conservation Board director) James Eklund says “wishing for the drought to end is not a successful strategy.”
For the basin as a whole, we need to be prepared to survive another 2000-2004 period. The difference is that in 1999 reservoirs were full to the brim. Now, they’re at levels of 40 to 50 percent of capacity.
It sounds like we will really need to rethink our use of water from Colorado and Wyoming to Arizona and California. Who’s in charge of this Plan B? The good news is that many entities are actively engaged in seeking solutions. The State of Colorado has just issued a water plan, for the first time ever. The lower division states appear to be on track to implement significant additional water savings if Mead levels continue to decline. Nobody is really in charge. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior has a significant role because of her authority over the operation of the major projects, but the states, affected water users, environmental groups, and the Native American tribes are all at the table.
The river system, with its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, has been stressed by drought since 2000. The most recent national climate assessment for the Southwest forecasts that the country’s hottest and driest region can only expect more of the same.
“This may be what the start of a water war looks like,” suggested a recent story in the Los Angeles Time.
The story by ace writer William Yardley focuses on negotiations between the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada to voluntarily reduce withdrawals from Lake Mead in order to forestall the mandatory, more drastic cutbacks that most likely would come with a federal declaration.
Yardley calls the approach “tinkering.”
But Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and one of the senior water managers on the river, says, “I like to describe this as another incremental step.”
The question is, can incremental steps preserve the governance of the river pretty much as is, defined by the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and modified by numerous laws and court decisions since?
“I don’t think a water war is inevitable,” Buschatzke tells Yardley.
The upper basin states generally and Colorado particularly are not as in dire shape as the lower basin states. As we’ve said before, Colorado has almost been in a bubble the past couple of years – average to above average snowpack, strong runoffs, filled reservoirs. But if water runs short for 25 million people in the lower basin, many of whom are in Southern California, no one can expect to remain untouched.
Yardley seems to admire the Arizona approach.
“But for Buschatzke,” he writes, “who has spent decades efficiently providing water for a desert population – Arizona uses less water now than it did 60 years ago even though the population has soared from 1.1 million to 6.7 million – the big fix is actually in the accumulation of all the little fixes he and others are constantly making. A federal grant for new technology that will better measure water use. Paying a farmer to fallow a field. Saying nice things about your colleagues across the state line and the fine folks in Washington. Keeping things collegial. Sharing. Saving. Preserving the process – and the peace.”