The severe risks of an extended drought in the Colorado River Basin—a shutdown of hydropower generation, functionally empty lakes and restrictions on water use—are forcing the basin’s seven states to consider unprecedented changes in how they manage a scarce resource.
Still in the earliest stages of negotiation, two remedies have emerged, both of which seek to fortify Lake Powell, the nation’s second largest reservoir, and preserve its capacity to generate electricity and supply water to the 40 million people who live in the watershed.
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One strategy is an operational revision: release more water from upper-basin reservoirs during drought emergencies. The other option would cut demand: ask—or perhaps pay—farmers to stop growing crops in order to save water. Both approaches are technically and legally feasible, according to those involved in the discussions and outside experts.
“We’ve never had to do this before because we never planned for this degree of low water storage,” Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, an administrative body, told Circle of Blue. “We want to plan for extreme hydrology the likes of which we have never seen.”
In these parched times, the Colorado River conundrum is a problem common to water officials from Austin to Sacramento.
Several exceptionally dry years in some of the nation’s largest economies and fastest-growing regions have prompted responses never before taken, as water managers dole out smaller sips from an emptying drinking glass.
Rice farmers on the Texas Gulf Coast, for instance, will receive no irrigation water for the third consecutive year and the third time ever. Reservoirs upstream near Austin are so low that water rights may need to be recalculated based on the new hydrology.
Across the American West, farmers are tapping underground water sources at unsustainable rates to offset the lack of water in rivers and lakes.
Meanwhile in the iconic Colorado River, flows have been above average in only three of the last 14 years. If the rest of the decade follows a similar hydrological trajectory, “dramatic problems emerge rather quickly,” said John McClow, Colorado’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission.
McClow told Circle of Blue that the basin states used computer simulations last June to replicate the 2001 to 2007 river flows, a rather dry period, from 2014 until the end of the decade. By 2017, the modeling showed a 20 percent chance of both Lake Powell and Lake Mead dropping too low to generate electricity. Lake Mead would also fall below the first water supply pipe for Las Vegas. (The gambling mecca does not like those odds. It will complete a $817 million back-up intake by next spring.)
“There’s a significant chance we would be in dire straits pretty fast,” McClow said, referring to a continuation of current drought conditions. “Nothing in our toolbox could respond to those circumstances that quickly.”
Forging New Tools
An interstate agreement nearly a century ago divided the Colorado River for legal purposes into an upper basin and a lower basin. The two basins operate somewhat independently, and each is holding its own drought discussions.
The four states of the upper basin—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—have been most forthcoming about their emergency plans.
The upper basin wants to prevent a call on the river, a circumstance in which the four states are unable to meet their legal obligations to send water downstream to Arizona, California and Nevada. A call has never happened.
The upper basin also wants to keep Lake Powell’s surface elevation from dropping below 3,490 feet, the point at which hydropower generation from Glen Canyon Dam, which forms the reservoir, would probably stop. Lake Powell has never tested that limit, a theoretical threshold. Today, Powell’s surface elevation is 3,574 feet, having fallen 60 feet in two years.
Glen Canyon provides as many as 5.8 million people with a portion of their electricity. Revenue from electricity sales helps pay to operate the dams. It also underwrites measures to reduce salt in the Colorado River and revive fish habitat.
To keep Powell from draining, one option is to release more water from reservoirs located higher in the basin: Flaming Gorge, in Wyoming; Navajo, in New Mexico; and a Colorado cluster known as the Aspinall Unit.
These Rocky Mountain reservoirs evaporate less water than Powell, located in Utah’s arid canyon country, said Malcolm Wilson, chief of the Bureau of Reclamation’s water resources group, which operates the reservoirs. But that does not preclude a shift in operations.
“There’s nothing to say we couldn’t release more water than we have to sustain Powell,” Wilson told Circle of Blue, stating that the interests of the upper basin and Reclamation align, both wanting to keep the dam’s cash register ringing.
McClow noted that recreation and environmental constraints would need to be respected. Each of the higher-elevation reservoirs has an endangered species in its watershed, he said.
Along with the reservoir shuffle, upper basin negotiators are debating what a farmland fallowing program would look like. More questions (Who pays for it? Which lands are targeted?) than answers exist now, McClow said.
Doug Kenney, a water policy expert at the University of Colorado’s Natural Resources Law Center, said he saw no obvious legal problems with the two options.
“As long as they don’t try to be too picky about who owns that water, then I think it’s entirely realistic,” Kenney told Circle of Blue. “If they want to be picky, then all sorts of legal issues and potential problems come forward.”
Kenney said that ascribing ownership to the water begins to resemble the selling or transfer of water rights across state lines, a bête noire for the basin. Better, he said, if the water is not earmarked and simply flows downstream.
Ostler, the river commission’s executive director, said that the upper basin would like to have a plan finalized by the end of the year. “We hope it will sit on the shelf,” he said, wishing for wetter days ahead.
Lower Basin Plays Its Options Close to the Vest
The threat of shrinking reservoirs is also on the minds of water managers in Arizona, California and Nevada, the three lower basins states that rely on Lake Mead, Powell’s bigger and older brother. The three states signed a water-shortage agreement in 2007.
If the surface elevation of Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, drops below 1,075 feet, water restrictions for Arizona and Nevada kick in. (California, a political behemoth, negotiated itself no cut.) Bureau of Reclamation forecasts anticipate a first-ever shortage as soon as 2016.
If the lake continues to wither, the shallowest water intake for Las Vegas will suck in only air. Eventually the decline will halt hydropower generation at Hoover Dam, one of the largest power stations in the West.
All of which are reasons for water managers in the lower basin to worry. But none of the representatives that Circle of Blue contacted offered many details about their drought planning.
“We’re certainly having discussions about existing drought and contingency planning for an ongoing sustained drought,” said Colby Pellegrino, who handles Colorado River issues for Southern Nevada Water Authority, the state’s largest water utility. “But we’re not to a point where we can say what those options will be.”
Tanya Trujillo, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, also demurred and declined to comment.
Pellegrino did say that the lower basin states are using hydrology models used in the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin study, a comprehensive supply and demand assessment published in Dec. 2012.
That study assessed water use through 2060, but the current drought discussions take a narrower view. Pellegrino said the lower basin interests are looking at options through 2026, the year that the shortage sharing agreement expires.
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With a mega-drought potentially looming over the Southwest U.S. that could reduce flows in the Colorado River up to 45 percent, on July 16 a U.S. Senate Subcommittee will discuss and consider the Colorado River Basin Study (CRBS). Initiated by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), the hearing will offer testimony that mirrors the makeup of the “work groups” in the Department of Interior’s “Next Steps” process of the CRBS which was released in November 2012 by former Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar. In May, the Department of Interior announced the “Next Steps” and convened the work groups–the testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee will discuss municipal water conservation, agricultural water conservation and maintaining healthy flows in the Colorado River.
The hearing comes on the heels of a scientific paper published in June in the American Meteorological Society that discussed the wide predictions in variability of flows in the Colorado River basin due to a potential mega-drought. Such a mega-drought has occurred in the past and could last decades and reduce flows in the river by as much as 45 percent according to the paper. The CRBS also indicated that, due to population growth and climate change, demand for water in the Colorado River basin–which currently serves 35 million people–has already outstripped supply with the imbalance increasing dramatically over the next few decades.
Further yet, on July 10, the Bureau of Reclamation released their most recent 24-month study of Colorado River operations which predicted a slightly greater than 50 percent chance that the amount of water flowing out of Lake Powell in 2014 would be at its lowest point since the reservoir was constructed. The study also indicated that the inflow into Lake Powell in June 2013 was just 35 percent of average.
“Congress needs to take this issue seriously now,” said Gary Wockner of the Save The Colorado River Campaign. “We need to make sure the Colorado River Basin Study is used to combat this imbalance and potential mega-drought–we can hope and pray for rain, but we need to plan for a worst-case scenario that supplies water and protects the river in the 21st Century.”
Throughout the CRBS process, environmental groups have championed water conservation as a key strategy to help address the imbalance of supply and demand in the basin. Environmental groups believe that increased municipal and agricultural water conservation could supply up to 2 million new acre feet of water. In addition, water reuse and recycling in Southwest U.S. cities could create another new million acre feet, for a total of 3 million acre feet created through conservation, reuse and recycling.
“If you’re in an oil crisis, you don’t build more gas-guzzling hummers,” said Wockner. “The Southwest U.S. is entering a potential severe water crisis and we can’t build dams and pipelines to fix it–we need to develop a new economy in water conservation and river protection that meets this challenge.”
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The Bureau of Reclamation today received a proposed set of common-sense solutions to solve the imbalance between supply and demand for water in the Colorado River Basin, where the Bureau projects river flow will decrease by an average of about nine percent over the next 50 years due to climate change. The proposal by Environmental Defense Fund—which includes ideas by other conservation groups and stakeholders—was in response to the Feb. 1 deadline for public input of “options and strategies” for a study to define and solve future imbalances in water supply and demand in the basin through 2060.
“Our proposed solutions don’t include expensive new infrastructure and diversions that threaten the health of the Colorado River and the recreation and tourism economy of the region,” said Dan Grossman, Rocky Mountain regional director for Environmental Defense Fund and a former vice chairman of the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee in the Colorado Senate. “Instead, we are focusing on common-sense ideas—including water banks, water re-use and municipal and agricultural efficiency—to solve the imbalance between supply and demand, while protecting the healthy flows of the river.”
Water banks are institutional mechanisms that can be set up in one state, or by multiple states, to use existing storage in a more flexible manner—particularly during drought—by holding “deposits” of water leased or purchased from existing users. For example, they hold the potential to be a cost-effective way of preventing the chaotic effects of a “call” on the river under the Colorado River Compact. The compact stipulates that when river flows are insufficient to satisfy the Lower Basin states’ water entitlement on the river, the lower basin can place a call on the river water, forcing upper basin states to stop diverting water until the lower basin’s water entitlement is satisfied.
“Managing the Colorado River in a hotter and drier west requires bold and innovative thinking,” added Grossman. “We can’t continue to adhere to the dogmas of the 19th and 20th centuries and expect to solve this impending crisis.”
The Colorado River Basin is one of the most critical sources of water in the western U.S. and Mexico, providing water to 30 million people in seven states—Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. The Colorado River Basin Water Supply & Demand Study—due to be completed in June by the Bureau of Reclamation and agencies from the seven basin states—is focusing on the needs of basin resources that are dependent upon a healthy river system. They include:
- Water for municipal, industrial, and agricultural use
- Hydroelectric power generation
- Fish and wildlife and their habitats
- Water quality including salinity
- Flow and water-dependent ecological systems
- Flood control, all under a range of conditions that could occur over the next 50 years.
“As we begin forging a new path forward for managing the Colorado River in the age of limits, we need to think about the impacts of our actions on future generations in the west,” concluded Grossman. “Current demands from residential development and agriculture are overtaxing a river that is diminishing because of a changing climate. We need flexible, market-driven solutions that will protect the river and the ecosystems and western economies it supports.”
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Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org), a leading national nonprofit organization, creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships
As members of a task force assembled Jan. 12 to consider the viability of a proposed pipeline to ship 80 billion gallons of water each year from the West Slope's Green River to the Front Range, West Slope businesses announced that they are putting together an effort to stop the pipeline. The coalition, known as Protect the Flows, is a group of more than 250 businesses in the seven Colorado River basin states who directly depend on the river and its tributaries for their livelihood.
They plan to present their amassed business opposition of the project to Gov. John Hickenlooper and have already secured resolutions from local governments on the West Slope. The coalition is concerned about the negative impact to the region's recreation industry that would result from draining so much water from the area, and is also alarmed by the up to $9 billion price tag of the project that is estimated by the state, the risk of a potential Colorado River compact call, and future West Slope development.
"We depend on anglers, rafters, birders and hikers coming to our communities to fuel our economy,” said Lisa Jenkins, executive director, Grand Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. “This massive siphoning of water will decrease flows in the Green River by 20–25 percent, and cripple the annual $10 billion recreation-based economies that communities like Grand Lake depend on for our survival. Gov. Hickenlooper and The Colorado Water Conservation Board should be taking note of this rather than providing $72,000 in funding for a Flaming Gorge task force.”
Outdoor recreation supports 107,000 jobs in Colorado, according to a 2006 economic impact report from the Outdoor Industry Association. The Green River, a tributary of the Colorado River, feeds a watershed that is a pillar of the region's recreation economy. A recent economic report by conservation group Western Resource Advocates reveals that in addition to producing the most expensive water in Colorado’s history (up to 10 times more than any existing project), the region from where the proposed Flaming Gorge pipeline would take the water will suffer a multi-million dollar economic hit to its recreation economy.
Thus far, the City of Grand Junction, City of Fruita, Mesa County, and Montrose County in Colorado have all passed resolutions opposing the proposed pipeline. Among the concerns expressed by local officials is the exorbitant cost of building a 560-mile pipeline that extends from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Southwest Wyoming over the Continental Divide to the Front Range of Colorado. The state of Colorado estimates the construction cost alone to be somewhere between $7 to $9 billion.
“There are plenty of folks in the state, myself amongst them, who are asking why the state is expending scarce dollar resources on a water proposal that’s by and large looked upon by much of the water community on both sides of the mountains as somewhat of a pipe dream,” said Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca in a Dec. 21 article in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
The task force convening to consider the pipeline, known formally as the Basin Roundtable Project Exploration Committee, is funded by a state grant issued by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The group is scheduled to meet through the rest of the year. Protect the Flows plans to spend the year reminding Gov. Hickenlooper and state officials that public resources would be better spent on more affordable solutions that support recreation industry jobs, such as improving water conservation efforts, water reuse and recycling, and better land-use planning and growth management.
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