#Colorado, #Wyoming Move Forward with #ColoradoRiver Diversions — Public News Service #COriver

Fontenelle Reservoir and Dam, at Green River. Kemmerer, WY - USA March 12, 2016. Photo credit ruimc77 via Flickr.
Fontenelle Reservoir and Dam, at Green River. Kemmerer, WY – USA March 12, 2016. Photo credit ruimc77 via Flickr.

From The Public News Service:

Wyoming has moved one step closer to getting more water for ranching, agriculture and industrial development.

The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources has advanced a bill that would allow the state to take an additional 125,000 acre-feet of water from the Green River at the Fontenelle Dam…

State officials say expanding the Fontenelle is necessary for farmers and ranchers who need a reliable water supply to keep crops and livestock healthy.

They feel the measure would also be an economic incentive for new businesses to grow and create jobs in southwestern Wyoming…

[Gary Wockner] notes Wyoming isn’t the only state trying to get more water from a shrinking source.

He points to a proposal by Denver Water to expand the Gross Dam that would remove an additional 5 billion gallons annually from the Colorado.

While upper-basin states may technically have rights to the water, Wockner says the challenges of a changing climate and 16 years of drought can’t be ignored.

The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

#ColoradoRiver District annual seminar recap — @ColoradoWater #COriver

Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013
Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013

From the Colorado River District (Martha Moore):

Our ever-popular, one-day annual water seminar was attended by nearly 200, and, for the first time, broadcast live via our Facebook page. For those that participated – thank you!

Special gratitude goes to our excellent speakers. Your contributions are greatly appreciated.

For those unable to attend in person or via live feed, or those wanting to relive the awesome experience – please visit our seminar webpage to access the presentations or view the footage of the entire seminar.

Next year’s event is scheduled for Friday, September 15, 2017 at Two Rivers Convention Center, Grand Junction, Colorado. Mark your calendar and plan on joining us.

#ColoradoRiver: Bridging science and policy for better water strategies — @ASU #COriver

From Arizona State University (Click through for the photos):

Keeping an arid region supplied requires balancing many interests; ASU’s experts are connecting research with decision makers

Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series examining the work that ASU is doing in the realm of water as a resource in the arid West. Today’s focus in on the intersection of law, policy and academia.

It’s 118 at Lake Mead on a July afternoon, but the thermometer on the boat’s depth finder says the lake is a cool 67 degrees. Naturally, you jump in. It tastes earthy and mossy, if mossy can be a taste, and ultimately it’s what 30 million people survive on.

This is the stuff and place thousands of professionals are focused on. Law, economics, policy and science all underlie this bluish-green water. Some could argue that it begins with the river’s watershed in the Rockies of western Wyoming, but it’s here, where the water wizards of the Bureau of Reclamation determine their annual prognostication, that the West makes its stand.

Taking action

The Kyl Center for Water Policy, named after former Sen. Jon Kyl, a distinguished water lawyer, was created about a year and a half ago at Arizona State University to work on water-policy analysis and research. Sarah Porter, a Harvard-educated attorney and former state director of the Audubon Society, was hired as the inaugural director.

She became intrigued with water when she introduced an initiative to protect riparian habitat for bird migration.

“It got me more and more interested in water policy,” she said.

On a Friday morning in August, as the first meeting of the Governor’s Water Augmentation Council convenes down at the Arizona Capitol, a monsoon rain pounds outside.

“It’s raining outside; that’s awesome,” someone says.

Gov. Doug Ducey created the council last October. All of Arizona sits around the table: cattle growers, cotton farmers, cities, wine growers, utilities, tribal nations and communities, home builders, businessmen, attorneys and water professionals. Porter is there representing the Kyl Center.

They’ve been tasked with finding ways to augment water supplies. The state has been divvied into 22 areas. They are to look at each area, learn what the demand and supply imbalances are in each one, and come up with a solution to close that gap.

Today, they’re talking about the communications plan and what they want to do in the current fiscal year.

The message they want to get out is that Arizona is a “water success story” — in other words, we’re not California.

It’s a message with two competing goals: We need to conserve water, but we’re well-supplied. It’s safe to move here and do business.

“That bathtub ring (at Lake Mead) is not something only people in the Southwest pay attention to,” said Doug MacEachern, the state water department communications administrator.

They’re looking for a balance between rah-rah and everything’s awful.

“We need to tell people it’s going to cost more,” said Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, the giant canal that shunts water from the Colorado River into central and southern Arizona. “It’s going to take more than new showerheads or toilets.”

“Their costs are going to go up, and that’s real,” said Bas Aja, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association.

They create a subcommittee to look into funding for augmentation by using reclaimed and low-quality water. If there’s a shortage declaration on the Colorado in 2018, it’s likely that agriculture will need to make up the shortfall with reclaimed water. Porter volunteers to sit on the subcommittee. This is the rubber hitting the road.

They create another subcommittee to look into a partnership with Mexico on building a desalination plant on the Sea of Cortez.

They know people are aware of the value of water. That message is going to be amped up now.

The most complex legal case in American history

The way Arizona water law works is called prior appropriation. The first person to take water out of a river and put it to beneficial use gets a priority date.

If you dig a ditch and divert water out of the river in 1890 and use 10 acre-feet to grow cotton, you have a right, dated 1890, to grow cotton using 10 acre-feet a year. Somebody comes along 10 years later, digs another ditch downstream of you to grow corn with 10 acre-feet — they have a 1900 date. If there’s only 2 acre-feet in the whole river, legally speaking, you, with the 1890 date, gets 2 acre-feet and the person downstream of you gets nothing. That’s the way water law works.

The Little Colorado River and the Gila River are the two rivers that basically make up all of the surface-water rights in the state that aren’t the Colorado. Who has claims on them? Every kind of water user you can think of: big cities, small towns, large utilities, Native American tribes, little farms, big farms, cattle ranches, mines.

And they’re all suing each other.

It’s a giant court case that has been technically going on for 40 years, but actually goes back to territorial days. A class-action lawsuit usually involves thousands of people against a small group of defendants. This involves thousands of people fighting each other.

“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that it’s the most complex case in American history,” said Rhett Larson, the water attorney with the Kyl Center for Water Policy. “Yeah, it’s a complete mess.”

A water market could improve Arizona’s water management. If a clearinghouse or escrow was set up, people could buy and sell water through that escrow for nature or cities or mining.

“Once we have effectively priced water in a market, then maybe we’re reaching efficient water allocation,” Larson said. “Right now, we can’t do that because nobody knows who owns what.”

Until the legal cases, collectively called the general stream adjudication, is resolved, Arizona can’t have an effective water market because people can’t buy and sell water until who owns what has been resolved. The Kyl Center works on the general stream adjudication every day. Ideally, the courts will ultimately make a decree. But not everyone is in a hurry to see the case cleared.

“So a lot of the work that’s happening behind the scenes is to find ways, if not necessarily to resolve it, to at least allow small people who want to settle out of it and don’t want to pay their lawyers for decades, just to be able to settle out, take some water and leave — and for the others to at least have a faster, smoother process,” Larson said. “But there’s a lot of skepticism of that too, because if you’re going to get ground up into hamburger in the end — do you really want it ground up faster?”

The center has a group of stakeholders who meet several times a month to negotiate. Larson said the work is promising. “We’ve made a lot of progress in the last 18 months,” he said. The Kyl Center acts as a mediator to avoid litigation.

Before worrying about conserving water, people need to worry about understanding water, Larson said.

“Imagine a resource as important as water, to not know who owns it,” he said. “A lot of these assured water-supply designations are based on assumptions on who owns what water that might not be true when the adjudication is decided.

“So people are like, ‘Oh yeah, we have a hundred years of assured water supply!’ And you always feel like going, ‘You don’t know for sure that you own that water until the court says you do.’ … But I don’t know, I still hope that there’s something that will sort of stoke the fire in people’s willingness to resolve the stream adjudication.”

Diamonds and water

When economist Adam Smith wrote “The Wealth of Nations,” he wrote about the water-diamond paradox. Here’s a little tiny, shiny rock that people will pay out the nose for, but it does nothing. And over here is a substance that’s everything, but nobody wants to pay for.

It’s something Larson wonders about.

“I think it’s probably for a lot of reasons, partially because it falls for free out of the sky and people think, ‘Why should I pay for that?’ ” he said. “It’s partially because people think of water as a human right, as a fundamental right. I mean, how can you charge me for something that I absolutely need in order to live? And because, you know, in this country we tend to take it for granted. You turn on your taps and clean water comes out all the time, and you just assume this is a part of your life and it doesn’t cost much money.

“For some reason we will pay quadruple the amount of its price for movie popcorn, but the idea that you would pay full value for your water is just crazy!”

As the canal manager and the cattleman said at the water council meeting, pricing is on a lot of minds.

“We need to price water in a sane way to communicate to people this is a high-value commodity,” said Pat Gober, a research professor in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning who studies water resources management, decision-making under uncertainty and urban climate adaptation.

Water is super-cheap in Arizona. SRP charges $90 a year for irrigation. If you look at a Phoenix water bill closely, most of it goes to sewage fees, garbage fees and some taxes. Very little of it is actually water.

The city of Phoenix Water Services Department spends $175 million annually on operations and management. Of that, $24 million is spent on actual water. The capital improvements budget is $130 million.

“The cost is in the infrastructure,” water services director Kathryn Sorensen said. A section of the redwood water pipes that used to supply the city in the 1920s sits in the lobby outside her office in City Hall, as if to underscore the point. Phoenix has 7,000 miles of water lines spread across 540 square miles. (Now multiply that around the West.)

“As those water lines age, they’re going to have to be replaced if we’re going to continue to have reliable water supplies,” she said. “The cost of that is enormous. We estimate, very roughly, that the replacement cost of the city of Phoenix utility — if you were just to go out and build it starting from scratch — is about $15 billion; $11 billion of that is in pipelines. It’s the cost of the infrastructure that’s going to matter in the future. It’s an enormous cost. And our infrastructure is aging.”

Sorensen is an economist by training.

“I’m intellectually fascinated with the idea and the questions around resource allocation: Who gets what? Of course the most valuable resource here in Arizona is water,” said the Phoenix native. “It’s a very natural fit for me. I knew at a very early age that this is exactly what I wanted to do. I’m one of those of people blessed to have their calling as a career.”

Phoenix has tiered water rates. The more you use, the more you pay. There is also seasonal pricing; water costs more in summer.

“That’s really one of the ways you’re going to get conservation,” Sorensen said.

She knows the cost of water will go up.

“Of course,” she said. “The cost of everything increases over time. When you talk about water, it absolutely will become more expensive, particularly Colorado River water.

“The impact of that in terms of the end customer will kind of vary. Different cities have different supply portfolios. A city that is more dependent on Colorado River water and a city that is more dependent on Salt and Verde water might expect a different mix on the impact of those costs.”

Agriculture, which uses 67 percent of the water in Arizona, according to the Department of Water Resources, began to pay more in the mid-1990s, when Grady Gammage Jr. served on the board of the Central Arizona Project.

“Historically, water has been free to farmers,” Gammage said. “What they pay for is the delivery cost. In California, the Imperial Irrigation District is still delivering water to farmers at something like $6 an acre-foot. When I was at CAP, we started charging $30 an acre-foot. The questions were could farmers afford it or not?

“The farmers’ view at that point was they had long-term rights to water; they owned the water. It was just getting delivered through the canal. But the contracts they had signed for that delivery required them to pay for the canal at the fully loaded cost of it, and they couldn’t afford that. So we re-cut a deal where they don’t have long-term rights to water anymore. Water is in a kind of limited spot market every year.”

He once sat with a bunch of farmers who told him, “We have to be assured we’ll have water every year, and that the price will never vary.”

“I said, ‘Are you ensured that the price of seed will never vary every year? Or that the price of insecticide will never vary every year? Or gasoline or diesel fuel?’ ‘Well, no, but that’s different. Water is different.’ No, it’s not. It’s a commodity, like those other commodities,” Gammage said.

“So what the CAP does now is it tries to price agricultural water at the cost of getting it here, but on a sort of rolling average so the farmers know three or four years in advance how much water there is going to be, and what it’s going to cost, and that can be adjusted. That was hugely revolutionary. They all thought that would destroy agriculture in Arizona, and it’s worked out pretty well. The price had gone up fairly dramatically over time.”

There’s a trade-off between how much you pay for water and how much you pay for food, said John Sabo, a professor in the ASU School of Life Sciences. We eat a lot of stuff because it’s cheap and available. We eat baby greens in the dead of summer because water is cheap.

“That’s what farms are sitting on: this resource that’s only going to go up in value over time,” Sabo said. “It’s going to force them to become more efficient.”

Farms may sell expensive water to cities and use that increased revenue to install things like drip irrigation or switch from low-value crops like alfalfa to high-value crops such as strawberries. We’re not going to get to the point where lettuce is $15 a head, though.

“No, because people won’t eat it if it’s that expensive,” Sabo said. “Remember when avocados were $4 each? We only had guacamole during the Super Bowl. … I think it’s more that we’ll be focused on eating seasonal things that are cheap, but not all year round.”

It’s not like farmers are acting like drunken sailors. In central Arizona, farmers are required by state law to use water-conservation practices like lining canals, laser-leveling fields and other best management practices. Farmers are legally required to be at least 80 percent efficient, according to the Department of Water Resources.

“Agriculture has become more efficient,” Porter said. “We can grow a lot more food with the same amount of water we used 30 years ago.”

Good news

“We really have a lot of water (in Phoenix),” Porter said.

Water usage in the city has fallen 30 percent in 20 years.

“We serve 400,000 more people than we did 20 years ago, with the same water,” Sorensen said. “Tremendously successful.”

Las Vegas pays residents to rip out lawns. Tucson has paid out $1.7 million on rebates for rain-harvesting systems. Not all those programs work. A lot of systems have been installed in Tucson, but there’s no decline in demand. In fact, they may be using twice the water they used before. Phoenix hasn’t paid for anything like that, but it’s hitting comparable demand reduction to cities in the region.

“I’m a big fan of the way the city of Phoenix has dealt with landscape issues, which is primarily about education, not about discouraging landscaping through rate adjustments or about paying people to tear out grass,” Gammage said.

What’s causing the drop in demand? Less turf, fewer pools being built, and more efficient appliances. One positive effect of the Great Recession Sabo pointed out was people couldn’t afford to buy new homes, so they remodeled. Remodels almost always involve kitchens and bathrooms, and new appliances are built to be water-efficient. Sorensen expects water use to continue to drop.

“We’re very proud of the way our residents have really embraced a desert lifestyle,” she said. “That’s what it is. Phoenix focuses on the long game when it comes to conservation. We’ve been doing it full-force since the mid-80s, decades before other communities figured out this was important.

“I know it sounds strange, but we don’t want our customers reacting to hydrologic events. We don’t want them reacting to the water levels in Lake Mead or the fact it’s been a 15-year drought, or any of those things. We want them to save water and use water efficiently because it will always be hot and dry here. That’s the mentality we need them to embrace. This is not a condition. This is not something to react to. This is how to live every day. That strategy has been successful in Phoenix.”

In-home efficiency is becoming about as good as it gets, Gammage thinks. And tearing out irrigated tall trees and lush lawns would be a terrible mistake.

“I think we need to be much more discriminating about the appropriate uses of water in the urban environment in the desert,” he said. “There are parts of metropolitan Phoenix where retaining the historic landscape — lush grass and trees — is important because it’s the heritage of Phoenix. … In the newer subdivisions we shouldn’t have grass in the front yards, where it isn’t used.”

But in making decisions like that, whether in Phoenix or in other arid cities, there’s a dilemma, Gammage said: “You wind up allowing the lush landscape to be preserved for the affluent people, and the lower-income people don’t get it.”

He’s a fan of Tempe Town Lake. It’s an amenity, a gathering place, and a place for recreation that is open to everyone.

“It’s a good use of water,” he said, adding that it “creates ambience and gathering space in the urban fabric.”

Phoenix has a huge amount of give when it comes to water supplies, said Porter, the director of the Kyl Center. The Salt River reservoirs are at half capacity, and not every SRP city uses all their supplies. We’re far from living on a knife’s edge, she said.

“We talk about a supply gap, and we worry about where we’re going to get water, but we actually — if we stopped growing, and didn’t have any more demand, we wouldn’t have a water problem. Even with all the scary threats to our water supply out there, we wouldn’t be having conversations about a water-supply problem,” said Porter, who added that the issues are sustaining growth.

Bull in a china shop

One of the challenges is getting two of the main players — scientists and those making decisions in government — talking to each other.

“I think, for some reason, and I don’t think it’s either side’s fault, policymakers and scientists aren’t communicating at all,” Porter said. “In a lot of disciplines there’s an expectation when they publish a paper in a scholarly magazine, someone at the legislature is going to pick it up and read it and act on it. Of course it’s absurd to think that if you think about how busy elected officials are and the demands on their attention.”

There isn’t the beginning of the communication needed, she said, but “there are places at ASU where there are much more deliberate efforts to make those communications happen.”

That place is the Decision Center for a Desert City. A research unit of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, the center conducts climate, water and decision research, and develops tools to bridge the boundary between scientists and decision makers. The 12-year-old center has worked hard to become an example of how academia can work with policymakers.

Dave White is the director and principal investigator of the center.

“This is a problem that we have faced and hopefully overcome to a large degree,” White said. “When university researchers conduct research independent of collaboration with policymakers, they often miss critical inputs or critical perspective into the research, that if they were aware of these perspectives they could vastly improve the relevance of the research.”

For example, if a scientist talked to a policymaker before embarking on a study, they could set a geographic scope to a political decision-making unit. A study about the Phoenix Active Management Area instead of “greater Phoenix” “could potentially increase the relevance of the study,” White said. (Active Management Areas are five places identified by the state as being heavily reliant on groundwater.)

Research also needs to meet the timing of policymaking. Agencies have deadlines and deliverables, just like the private sector does.

All of which raises the question: Exactly what do public water officials want to know from academia? Where does the rubber hit the road? These six titles are a random recent sampling of what policymakers want to know, from papers written for the Decision Center for a Desert City.

  • neighborhood microclimates and vulnerability to heat stress
  • regional relationships between surface temperature, vegetation and human settlement in a rapidly urbanizing ecosystem
  • determinants of small-area water consumption for the city of Phoenix
  • residents’ yard choices and rationales in a desert city: Social priorities, ecological impacts, and decision trade-offs
  • the impact of the Phoenix urban heat island on residential water use analysis of drought determinants for the Colorado River Basin
  • ‘We listen’

    Kelli Larson, an associate professor in the School of Sustainability, said she saw some of the dread policymakers have of scientists early in the center’s history.

    “There’s this new water center opening, and some of the language was to improve water resource decision-making, which, as a decision maker, you might be sitting there thinking, ‘We’ve been working on these issues for 10, 20, 30 years, and now there’s this new center, and they’re going to improve our decisions?’” Larson said. “It may burn relationships.”

    The majority of the center’s “clients” tend to be technical staff at various agencies: water providers, planners, utility managers. Larson thinks about what they need and the policy implications. The center is proactive; it goes to decision makers, so they don’t have to navigate ASU to find the right people. Center staff — some of whom are former policymakers themselves — ask them what they’re working on, what their concerns are, what questions they have.

    “It takes time to build those relationships, to build trust,” Larson said. “We’ve been quite successful with that. Part of why we’ve been successful at that is because we listen. I see the planners and the decision makers as experts in their own right. They’re not scientists per se, they’re not researchers, they’re not academics, but oftentimes they do do their own form of research, and they have their own knowledge base. There’s a lot they can offer to our understanding and insights, including informing our research agendas.

    “When I first got here, I felt like we were outsiders trying to enter the water community, and now I feel like we’re a part of the water community,” she said. “That feels really good to see that unfold over 10 years.”

    And people in government agree that it’s successful.

    “They haven’t been (overbearing),” Sorenson said. “That’s exactly the reason we’ve been able to build such good relationships.”

    Boundary organization

    “One of the things we do really well that a lot of universities are getting into, but we’re on the leading edge of, I’d say, is integrating people into the decision-making process from the beginning,” Sabo said. “We’re very good at understanding the institutional context and the decision-making context of water resources and doing the planning and interface with the science that allows people to contribute to that process.”

    The Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC) calls itself a boundary organization. It is a link between scientists and water-resource practitioners. The goal is to have a space — both physical and intellectual — that creates an institutional connection between the university and its partners.

    “We don’t operate in consultancy mode,” White said. “We involve the partners we work with in the design of the studies. The partners are involved in constructing the framing of the problem, they’re involved in constructing the research questions themselves, in designing and carrying out the research studies, and then interpreting and utilizing the results.”

    Sorensen and Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources — the state’s two most influential water leaders — sit on DCDC’s advisory board. They, along with the National Science Foundation, which has invested $18 million in the center, evaluate the center every two years. White sits on the mayor’s water advisory board.

    Science should fill in the gaps and provide evidence for alternatives. It’s a fine line to walk, White said.

    “If you just throw your hands up in the air and say, ‘This is ridiculous!’ that’s not going to get you very far,” he said. “If you want to have policy-relevant work, then you need to understand how did the system converge this way. … It’s not up to us to make those decisions. It’s up to us to help to diagnose what the consequences of different decisions are.”

    Water Sim and the Decision Theater

    Because water problems tend to be extremely complex, that makes it difficult for non-water professionals and elected officials to understand them. DCDC has created two opportunities to make them visual.

    Water Sim is a software program that models system dynamics. You can fiddle around with various scenarios to see how an El Nino or a thin snowpack will affect water. It’s a systems model; it takes a lot of data usually collected separately — like water supply, demand, climate, population and policy data — and puts it together. Users can change one variable and see how it affects the rest.

    ASU’s Decision Theater provides meeting rooms with large-format ultra-high-definition displays and on-site computer systems, tools and personnel that can provide specialized geographic information systems, systems modeling, business intelligence, and 3-D spatial modeling and simulation, among other capabilities.

    With water problems, the importance of visualization really ratchets up.

    “A picture is worth 1,000 words, right?” Sorensen said. “One of the things that’s been really constructive is to work with DCDC on the Decision Theater. You can bring in policymakers and elected officials and instead of having to sit there and lecture them for three hours on the background of a problem and why it matters and why they should care about it, the Decision Theater helps them visualize it. You can tell the story much easier in a way that makes sense and in a way that’s compelling to them.”

    What policymakers say

    Water is immensely complex, even if it’s your field, even if you have a PhD. If you really take a look at water problems, what you’ll find is they’re wicked problems. They’re extremely complex. The low-hanging fruit has already been picked.

    “The solutions that are left to us to face the challenges of a changing climate and global uncertainty are few and far between, difficult to achieve, and they tend to be incremental in nature,” Sorensen said. “And yet ahead of us are enormous risks. As a policymaker, someone who has to actually make sure 1.5 million people in the middle of the desert have water, finding your way through that path is extremely difficult. You have to make decisions at different times with relatively little information and huge amounts of uncertainty.

    “That’s kind of ASU’s focus: How do you make good decisions in such an uncertain world with such wicked problems ahead of you? It has been a really useful and collaborative partnership. We’ve been thrilled to have been involved with it. … Water wonks are always a little bit nervous when academics forge their way into policy arenas, but I would say for the most part it’s been tremendously successful. It’s been a benefit to us, and hopefully to ASU as well.”

    And many people across many fields at ASU are working to make that happen.

    “A place like the Global Institute of Sustainability and DCDC help to serve as a glue for all of us, so that our efforts are bigger than just one professor’s efforts,” said hydrologist Enrique Vivoni said. “I think we’re starting to make inroads in increasing our reputation, and attracting great students and doing interesting projects and generating a niche that we can become world leaders in.”

    #ColoradoRiver: “The only way to support the current population is by storing water in years of plenty” — @ASU #COriver

    Low water levels of Lake Mead are seen near the Hoover Dam on the Nevada and Arizona border, April 11, 2015. Photo: Reuters

    From Arizona State University:

    Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series examining the work that ASU is doing in the realm of water as a resource in the arid West. We’ll explore solutions, but first we look at the current situation and how we got here.

    Atop Hoover Dam on a 115-degree July afternoon, tourists line up to suck cold water from fountains and crowd into the air-conditioned cafe and visitors’ center.

    Transpose both those actions to the 30 million people who depend upon that blue-green water behind the dam. That’s water for a jogger in Santa Monica. Water for an oleander hedge in Phoenix. Water for a shower to wash away a night in Vegas. It’s a comforting sight on a scorching day, all that water.

    What’s disconcerting is the white bathtub ring about 200 feet above the surface.

    Talk to the experts, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: That ring is never going away again. Between climate change and an ongoing drought, the ring is a stark reminder of another iteration of that hated 21st-century term: the “new normal.”

    “I think people have come to the recognition that the infrastructure which has served us so well over the last 100 years is not going to do the same job in the next 100 years,” ASU research professor Pat Gober said.

    That bathtub ring has been growing for years. There’s a number every water professional in the Colorado River Basin knows: 1,075.

    When the water in Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam drops below 1,075 feet, it will automatically trigger a round of mandatory water-use cuts to each state. Agriculture will take the first hit. Subsequent cuts tied to lake levels become more draconian. The ring is a visible symbol of how precariously Westerners live.

    And we do live precariously. Anyone whose air-conditioning has broken during a Phoenix summer or whose car battery has died on the freeway can tell you, it gets unbearable in a hurry. The ancient Hohokam people took off from what is now south-central Arizona during an epic drought in the Medieval Ages.

    But 30 million people aren’t going to just pick up and leave. If this is the “new normal,” we’re going to have to figure out a way to survive here.

    There’s no magic bullet. It’s going to take a range of strategies from experts in law, policy, science, and technology. Some of those strategies are already in place. Some won’t exist for another 10 or 20 years.

    That’s what this story is about. It’s about how a wide range of scientists at Arizona State University are putting their broad and diverse expertise toward solving the problem of how people in the arid West will continue to live sustainably, in a place where people basically have no business living at all.

    “We’re realizing that water as a resource is in many realms, and an institution of this breadth is what’s needed to address these problems and provide solutions and study the phenomenon from multiple angles,” said hydrologist Enrique Vivoni

    This story is about nuance. Conserve! (But keep your lawn and pool.) Worry about levels in Lake Mead! (But don’t worry about every fluctuation or weather event.) Water people know they’re sending mixed messages. They’re mixed on purpose. They have to be.

    “Everything about water is complicated,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU. “I love that about water.”

    Where to begin?

    “It’s such a big issue,” said Karen Smith. “It’s so fundamental.”

    Smith, a faculty associate in the School of Sustainability, teaches a course on water use. She’s a veteran water warrior: strategic planner for the Salt River Project, the quasi-governmental agency charged with administering the flows from the Salt and Verde Rivers, one of Phoenix’s main water sources; water-quality director at the state Department of Environmental Quality; deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources.

    “One of the real problems I think we have when we start to talk about it is where to start,” she said. “Where do you start? Do you start with the science? Do you start with the policy, with sort of the politics to go with the economics of it? It’s crazy. There’s so much to it, and part of the challenge we’ve had in Arizona is knowing where to begin.”

    What’s going on

    “We’re all watching the lake levels in Mead,” said Pat Gober. “That’s the visual emblem of water infrastructure that’s worked for us in the past.”

    Gober, a research professor in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, has won international prizes for her water research. She studies water resources management, decision making under uncertainty and urban climate adaptation.

    “We’re going to fall below (the 1,075 line) soon, and then we’re going to have to figure out a new plan for the future, because the amount of Colorado River water we assumed we were going to get, we’re not going to get,” she said. “It’s a brave new world for us, I think, and that’s the symbol of it.”

    Water and climate people talk about a “new normal” because they don’t believe that those lake levels will return to what they were 50 years ago.

    “That means we have to change the economy and the culture,” Gober said. “It’s going to be some kind of radical change.”

    While changing the economics of water is a relatively simple proposition (more on that later), changing culture is another story.

    Across the West, each city dependent on the Colorado River has its own unique challenges, but overarching all is the urgent need for survival in a dry place, whether that’s Denver, Las Vegas, San Diego or Phoenix.

    The Arizona capital is a river city.

    “We’ve taken the water out of the river and spread it across the landscape,” said ASU professor Nancy Grimm, who studies desert streams and how water works in urban ecosystems.

    “We call it riparianization of the city, because you’ve turned this what was a single riparian strip along the river into this big blob that’s all green, and when you fly into Phoenix you see that,” she said. “A lot of what we see in terms of the ecology of the city, the kinds of things that we’ve been studying in people’s yards, the vegetation that’s here, the kinds of birds that you see, the soil properties, all of these kinds of things are related to that fact. And if you think about it in historical terms, that water was spread across the landscape initially to create farmlands. Farmland has converted to housing.”

    At the turn of the previous century, Arizona had a desolate national reputation because of the desert and violence. It was the wild West, after all. Early boosters of Phoenix created marketing materials around 1910 exhorting people to move to Arizona. Promotional pamphlets usually depicted orange groves and canals. Almost never was a cactus shown. (The same applies to ASU during the same time, where campus was touted as a lush oasis with a huge fountain in front of Old Main.)

    “We made the urban environment attractive to people who were coming here,” Gober said. “We created an oasis culture, not a desert culture. This isn’t a desert city. It uses water from all across the West, dammed up in those big dams to make our city look like Chicago and Philadelphia and northern California. Maybe it was a good thing to do 100 years ago, but it’s not going to work for us.”

    The ability of the region to grow is a function of the ability to capture and use large amounts of water. The future of arid cities is dependent on our use of water. Gober points out we use water to make the place make sense for us.

    To a certain extent, that will have to change out of necessity.

    “We’ve totally transformed this landscape, but the work that (ASU) has done looking at the future in terms of climate change, in terms of population is suggesting that we can’t keep doing that,” Grimm said.

    The only way to support the current population is by storing water in years of plenty to use in times of shortage. The way we’ve been doing that is by using a massive infrastructure of canals, dams and lakes. The heroic engineering marvels of the 20th century, like Hoover and Glen Canyon dams and the Central Arizona Project canal, gave Westerners stability and the ability to change the landscape.

    But now the rains aren’t showing up. Far more people live in the West now than did in the 1930s, when Hoover was built. And the wild cards of drought and climate change hover over it all.

    All of the allocations of Colorado River water that Arizona thought it was going to get have to be rethought. State water managers don’t use historical data sets to predict rainfall and snowpack because they’re not representative of what’s happening now. Arizona’s Department of Water Resources uses rainfall records going back to 1988 — what the agency director calls a stress test period — plus models that incorporate climate change.

    The problem

    If you check the Bureau of Reclamation’s website, Lake Mead is often slightly below 1,075 feet. Why isn’t everyone freaking out over this?

    The lake fluctuates a lot because of rain, evaporation and a host of other factors, according to Porter, of the Kyl Center for Water Policy.

    Mead’s diminishing levels aren’t due to drought: It’s over-allocation, which doesn’t account for loss. About 1.2 million acre-feet are lost every year because of evaporation, seepage into porous surfaces, and so on.

    “The lake level will be going down every year no matter what because of this structural deficit, as it’s called,” Porter said.

    An acre-foot is the measurement water wonks use. They don’t talk about gallons. An acre-foot is one acre covered by water a foot deep. (It’s about 326,000 gallons, if you must know.) Most water managers call an acre-foot enough water for a suburban family for a year.

    According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the lake’s surface drops 12 feet per year. When Hoover was built, no one thought about this.

    “At the time there was so much water, and we didn’t have nearly the demands we have now,” Porter said .

    A 2011 study of the Colorado River Basin by the Bureau of Reclamation (motto: “Managing Water in the West”) predicted a 3 million acre-foot gap in 2040.

    “Too many straws in it,” said John Sabo. Sabo, a professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, has loved to fish since he was a boy. He earned a degree in stream ecology, studied hydrology, and eventually ended up studying water, because everything in Arizona revolves around water.

    The Bureau of Reclamation makes its determination for the coming year on Oct. 1, the beginning of the water year. (Like finance, the calendar and taxes, there is a water year.)

    An August report by the bureau headed off a shortage declaration by predicting lake levels will be 4 feet above the trigger point at the end of the year. (They also predicted a shortage to be declared in 2018.)

    “Levels are not declining as quickly,” Porter said. Conservation “efforts are paying off.”

    This wasn’t a huge surprise to anyone in water management. The Colorado River is not a natural system, Smith, from the School of Sustainability, pointed out. No one wants the shortage declaration and the mandatory cuts that will accompany it, so an enormous amount of shuffling happens to prevent that.

    “It’s a highly plumbed river,” Smith said. “And so they manage it. So they’ll look at Mead, and they’ll look at Powell and they’ll say, ‘You know, let’s take a little bit more from Powell now and bring it down to Mead because it looks like they’ll be some better inflows into Powell. … So we’ll see what the bureau does when it gets close to 1,075.”

    It’s an enormous system to manage. There are two countries, upper- and lower-basin states, treaties, regulatory backgrounds, judicial backgrounds and legal precedents. The whole mess is collectively called the Law of the River.

    It’s a delicately balanced system. At a recent water meeting at the state Capitol, one panelist described it as a Rubik’s Cube, with each square representing a different stakeholder. Turn the cube once, and the whole system goes out of whack.

    Water managers aren’t expecting a rosy future.

    “Climate change is already a huge challenge for us,” said Kathryn Sorenson, water services director for the city of Phoenix. “We can expect that the flows of our local rivers, the Salt and Verde, will diminish and become more variable or potentially turbid. We can expect that we will enter into shortage on the Colorado River and probably stay in shortage for quite some time.”

    Climate change, drought, or both?

    This is Arizona’s 16th year in a drought. Is this year 16 of a 16-year drought, or year 16 of a 30-year drought? NASA’s most recent research suggests the latter might be the case, with an 80 percent chance to see a 30-year drought by the middle to end of this century.

    Droughts are part of natural variability in a desert region, but there is research that suggests they are becoming worse and more frequent because of climate change. Weather patterns in the Pacific that affect the West are changing, but researchers don’t know why.

    “(Climate change and drought) are working together, unfortunately,” said state climatologist Nancy Selover, a research professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “I wish I could say 43 percent is this and 43 percent is that, but I can’t do that. It’s a fairly complex system.”

    The water series

    Part 1: The current situation and how we got here.

    Part 2, coming Thursday: Science and research.

    Part 3, coming Friday: Law, policy, challenges — and some good news.

    Delph Carpenter's 1922 Colorado River Basin map with Lake Mead and Lake Powell
    Delph Carpenter’s 1922 Colorado River Basin map with Lake Mead and Lake Powell

    Conservation Prevents #ColoradoRiver Shortage Declaration — Circle of Blue #COriver

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

    From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

    A resolute effort in Arizona, California, and Nevada to reduce Colorado River water use is slowing the decline of Lake Mead and delaying mandatory restrictions on water withdrawals from the drying basin.

    The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees lake levels, forecasts that Arizona, California, and Nevada will draw less than 7 million acre-feet from the river this year, some 500,000 acre-feet less than they are permitted to consume and the lowest since 1992. (An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, enough water to flood an acre of land with one foot of water.) At Lake Mead’s current water level, 500,000 acre-feet equals slightly more than six feet in elevation — just enough water to tip the lake into shortage levels, if it had been used.

    The savings have been building. Four major conservation programs since 2014 have added roughly 10 feet of water to Lake Mead since 2014, according to Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Office. These programs, collaborations between federal, state, and local agencies, pay farmers not to grow crops, line earthen canals with concrete to prevent leaks, remove grass from golf courses, or install more efficient irrigation equipment. The savings are banked in Lake Mead.

    “These programs are working,” Davis told Circle of Blue. “These partnerships are working. They are making a difference.”

    The August analysis of the basin’s hydrology, an assessment carried out every month by the Bureau of Reclamation, concluded that the water level in Lake Mead will be above 1,075 feet in elevation next January. Those dates are important because the August study determines how much water the Bureau will release from Lake Powell into Lake Mead the following year and whether there will be a shortage in the three lower basin states. A shortage, which has never been declared, happens when the August study shows that Lake Mead will be below 1,075 feet in January. That will not happen next year. The lake’s forecasted water level in January is 1,080 feet.

    The benefits of conservation spread beyond next year. The risk of a shortage in the near-term will go down. The last time the Bureau ran the numbers, in April, the results showed a 56 percent chance of shortage for 2018. The updated calculations, which will be published next week, will show “greatly reduced odds,” Davis said.

    Water managers in the basin say that conservation gains can be maintained and extended. “All of the programs are long-term, reaching out several decades,” Tanya Trujillo, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, told Circle of Blue.

    More Challenges Still To Come
    Even with the conservation success, hard decisions are close at hand. One, the basin must come to terms with the “structural deficit.” This is the term water managers use to describe a basic imbalance: in a year with average water releases from Lake Powell, the water level at Lake Mead will drop by roughly 12 feet because demand exceeds supply. James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, called the structural deficit “a root discussion over the last several years” among all seven basin states.

    Two, the risk calculations will change as the four states in the upper basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — pull more water out of the basin.

    Three, water managers and politicians alike must figure out what to do about the Salton Sea, a festering sore in the basin’s politics. The sea — in fact, a lake — was created in 1905 when the Colorado River burst through a dike and filled a desert depression that had no ocean outlet. In later years, the Salton, now California’s largest lake, swelled with farm drainage and grew saltier from evaporation.

    The Salton has been shrinking since 2003, when a historic agreement between Imperial Irrigation District and state, federal, and tribal agencies resulted in a large transfer of water from farm to city, which reduced farm runoff. As part of the agreement, Imperial delivered water to prop up the lake, which is also an important habitat for birds migrating along the Pacific flyway. But those deliveries will cease at the end of 2017, after which the lake will go into a tailspin, shrinking rapidly and becoming several times saltier than the ocean. Pesticides, salts, and toxic dust on the seabed poses an immediate health threat to the people of the Coachella Valley, Imperial County, and Mexicali, a border city of 1 million people. A solution to the Salton Sea problem is inevitably tied to Colorado River issues upstream.

    “Being one of the largest users on the river, it’s in our best interest to look out for and promote the health and welfare of the system as a whole,” Marion Champion, spokeswoman for Imperial Irrigation District, told Circle of Blue. “That said, we will need some reassurances from the state of California that it will live up to its restoration promises for the Salton Sea.”

    Imperial has the largest allocation of Colorado River water — 3.1 million acre-feet, more than one-fifth of the river’s average annual runoff — of any user in the basin. Champion said that she expects Imperial to be a part of a basin-wide drought plan, but only if the Salton Sea is addressed, with either money or water, or both.

    “That participation is contingent on a state led restoration plan and implementation commitment to ensure our community’s public health is protected,” she said.

    #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.