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State officials looking for engagement on updated water plan

Raymond Langstaff, a rancher and president of the Bookcliff Conservation District, irrigates a parcel north of Rifle. The 2023 Water Plan update says agriculture could experience an even bigger water supply gap in the future. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM
Raymond Langstaff, a rancher and president of the Bookcliff Conservation District, irrigates a parcel north of Rifle. The 2023 Water Plan update says agriculture could experience an even bigger water supply gap in the future. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

By Heather Sackett

State officials are hoping dire climate predictions and water shortages will convince Coloradans to get involved in planning how to share a dwindling resource.

Colorado Water Conservation Board staff released the second iteration of the Colorado Water Plan on Thursday, which is now open for public comment. The first version of the plan was implemented in 2015.

Words from the late water expert and former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs set the tone on page 1 of the document: The 21st century is no longer about developing a resource, it is now an era of limits and learning how to share a developed resource.

“I think we get to educate and engage and inspire and be an example and I think that’s the benefit,” said CWCB Executive Director Becky Mitchell. “I think when we are given the opportunity to lead, Coloradans do that.”

The updated plan lays out four interconnected areas for action: vibrant communities, robust agriculture, thriving watersheds and resilient planning. Although municipal and industry does not currently experience a gap, the plan predicts a 230,000 to 740,000 acre-foot shortfall for cities and industries by 2050. According to the plan, about 20% of agriculture diversion demand is currently not met statewide, and that gap could grow to a 3.5 million acre-foot shortfall by 2050 under the “hot growth” scenario that would see temperatures rise 4.2 degrees Fahrenheit.

Meeting these supply-demand gaps will require hundreds of water projects throughout Colorado’s eight river basins, and carries a price tag of $20 billion. These projects, many of which have benefits to more than one water-use sector, are laid out in each roundtable’s Basin Implementation Plan.

Boaters float the Yampa River. According to the updated state Water Plan, summer recreation flow needs may not be met in the future due to lower peak flows, fueled by climate change.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM
Boaters float the Yampa River. According to the updated state Water Plan, summer recreation flow needs may not be met in the future due to lower peak flows, fueled by climate change.CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Backdrop of climate change

The 239-page document is set against the backdrop of climate change, which plays a bigger role in this water plan than in the 2015 version. The first water plan did not include projections of future climate change in its analyses. Three of the five planning scenarios now include assumptions of hotter conditions in the years to come.

According to the plan, Colorado has had three of the top five driest years on record since 2000 and has experienced a 2 degree Fahrenheit increase in average temperature. The state may see an additional 2.5 to 5 degree warming by 2050. Most projections show a decline in spring snowpack and more frequent heat waves, drought and wildfire, all of which have implications for water.

Environmental and recreation water needs could see the worst impacts since those uses generally have the most junior water rights.

“Peak runoff may shift as much as one month earlier, which could lead to drier conditions in summer months and impact storage, irrigation and streamflow,” the plan reads. “Decreased peak flows across the basin create risks for riparian/wetland plants and fish habitat. Instream flows and recreational in-channel diversions may not be met if June-August flows decrease due to climate change.”

The pie chart shows how much water each sector uses in Colorado, as well as how much water originating here leaves the state.
CREDIT: COURTESY COLORADO WATER PLAN
The pie chart shows how much water each sector uses in Colorado, as well as how much water originating here leaves the state.CREDIT: COURTESY COLORADO WATER PLAN

Old tensions and trends

The new plan addressed a tension from the first plan: Front Range water providers would like the ability to develop new transmountain diversions in the future, while Western Slope stakeholders say not to look to the Colorado River basin for more water for thirsty cities. Colorado’s Front Range currently takes about 500,000 acre-feet of water a year from the headwaters of the Colorado River basin across the Continental Divide.

The plan stopped short of a detailed analysis of transmountain diversions because of ongoing litigation and permitting processes, but promised that state staff would facilitate discussions about transmountain diversions before the next update to the plan.

“Our promise to West Slope folks was when we could get past those legal barriers, we would take an honest look at trying to have a better conversation,” said Russ Sands, senior program manager for the CWCB’s water supply planning section. “I think we owe it to our stakeholders to try and focus on analysis.”

The plan says Colorado will continue the slow but steady transformation of moving water from agriculture — by far the largest water user — to cities, with nearly 14,000 acres of irrigated land expected to be urbanized, one-third of that in the Grand Valley. Stakeholders estimate the loss of irrigated land to “buy-and-dry” to be even greater at 33,000 to 76,000 acres, which is three times higher than the 2015 Water Plan estimate.

But this could be eased by innovative and flexible agreements between water users that allow the temporary transfer of water from one use to another. Formerly known as Alternative Transfer Methods, state officials have rebranded them Collaborative Water Sharing Agreements, which allow water sharing, but prevent the permanent removal of water from the land.

The Crystal River wends its way downstream along the flanks of Mount Sopris to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River near Carbondale. State officials have released an update to the 2015 Water Plan, which includes hotter and drier future planning scenarios.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM
The Crystal River wends its way downstream along the flanks of Mount Sopris to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River near Carbondale. State officials have released an update to the 2015 Water Plan, which includes hotter and drier future planning scenarios.CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Equity and engagement

State officials have also made an effort to be more inclusive this time around and in March 2021 convened a Water Equity Task Force to help shape a guiding set of principles around equity, diversity and inclusion to inform the water plan. Abby Burk, the western rivers regional program manager with Audubon Rockies, was an equity task force member.

“People are engaging and leaning into the space other than just the water right owners,” she said. “We are all supported by water every single day. How do we expand this decision-making to include more voices? How do we open our arms and encourage more people to come into this space?”

The 2015 Water Plan racked up more than 30,000 comments and state officials are hoping Coloradans become even more involved this time around. The plan lays out three levels of engagement citizens can take and encourages Coloradans to promote water conservation, join water-focused stakeholder groups and coordinate with local leaders to advance water policy.

And there is a small bright spot that shows the potential for change when citizens get engaged: The plan says that Coloradans have reduced their per-person water use from 172 to 164 gallons a day, a 5% reduction in demand since 2008, mainly due to conservation efforts.

Sands said the tough conditions can open people’s minds and make them more willing to come to the table to talk.

“I think we are actually going to see more collaboration than ever,” he said.

The update to the Colorado Water Plan is open for public comment until September 30 and CWCB staff will also hold four online listening sessions. The plan is scheduled to be finalized by the CWCB in January 2023.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Recent drop in Lake Powell’s storage shows how much space sediment is taking up

Glen Canyon Dam photo
Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Ariz., forms Lake Powell. Bureau data on the reservoir’s water-storage volume showed a loss of 443,000 acre-feet between June 30 and July 1. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

By Laurine Lassalle

The Bureau of Reclamation last week revised its data on the amount of water stored in Lake Powell, with a new, lower tally taking into account a 4% drop in the reservoir’s total available capacity between 1986 and 2018 due to sedimentation.

Bureau data on the reservoir’s water-storage volume showed a loss of 443,000 acre-feet between June 30 and July 1 — a 6% drop in storage from 6.87 million acre-feet (which is 28.28% of live storage based on 1986 data) to 6.43 million (26.46% of full).  

The cause was a recalculation of water stored based on a Bureau of Reclamation and U.S.Geological Survey study released in March — the first such analysis in more than 30 years — about Lake Powell’s loss of storage capacity due to the amount of sediment that the Colorado River and other tributaries deposit into the reservoir. The study was based on data about sediment in the lake collected in 2017 and 2018.

“After inputting the new data on July 1, 2022, storage values at the current elevation were updated, resulting in a decrease of 443,000 acre-feet,“ bureau officials wrote in an email. 

The Bureau of Reclamation has performed two prior sediment surveys: pre-impoundment (before the construction of the dam — up to 1963) and in 1986. 

Storage capacity figures prior to the release of the report in March had been based on 1986 data, Casey Root, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Utah Water Science Center, said in an email.

The new data will be included in the upcoming July 24-Month Study, scheduled to be released in mid-July, which forecasts the reservoir’s volume and surface elevation, and in any subsequent operational projections.

Water storage at Lake Powell, May-July 2022 graph

Slackwater delta

“Like most reservoirs, Lake Powell loses storage capacity as a result of sedimentation from its source rivers,” said Root, who worked on the most recent USGS and Bureau of Reclamation study.

The paper explained that Lake Powell has continuously trapped sediment — including silt, sand and mud — from the Colorado and San Juan rivers since the Glen Canyon Dam impounded the rivers in 1963. The meeting of the free-flowing rivers carrying sediment with the slack water of the reservoir creates a delta, where the sediment falls to the lake’s bottom.

Root explained that the delta regions are located at the furthest extents of Lake Powell and that these areas typically contain the most sediment.

“Sediment isn’t deposited uniformly across the reservoir but rather far from the dam,” he said. “Over time, these deposits can laterally build toward the dam.”

Since it began filling in 1963, the reservoir has lost on average about 33,270 acre-feet in storage capacity each year, according to the study.  

“Lake Powell is unique in that it is a long, narrow, steep-walled canyon, so the deltas have historically been about 150 miles away from Glen Canyon Dam,” Root said. “Simply being far away from the deltas can help buffer the dam and its operations against sedimentation.”

Due to this sedimentation, Lake Powell’s storage capacity at full pool decreased by 6.79% from 1963 to 2018, or a 1.83 million acre-foot loss.

Between 1986 and 2018, it dropped by 4%, which represents a loss of 1.05 million acre-feet in 32 years.

Animation showing the sedimentation process in Lake Powell.
This animation shows the sedimentation process in Lake Powell.

Sedimentation and the limits on useful life

While sedimentation is shrinking Lake Powell’s storage capacity, the 2022 study shows that storage loss has remained stable since 1963. 

From 1963 to 1986, Lake Powell had lost on average 33,390 acre-feet in storage capacity each year; from 1986 through 2018, 33,180 acre-feet per year was lost, according to the report. 

“As a first-order approximation, the average annual storage loss in Lake Powell indicates the remaining volume at full pool will be filled in approximately 750 years. However, the reservoir fills laterally, from the deltas toward Glen Canyon Dam, and would likely cease to be useful sooner,” the study pointed out. 

Several other variables — including sedimentation rates and climate sensitivity among others — need to be taken into consideration to better evaluate the remaining useful life of the reservoir. 

Researchers are currently working on the July 24-Month Study, which should offer further insights on the reservoir’s future operations when it gets published later this month. Lake Powell dropped to its lowest level since filling prior to this spring’s runoff, which has been increasing reservoir levels since late April. At its lowest point, Lake Powell’s surface elevation at the Glen Canyon Dam dropped to 3,522.24 feet above sea level on April 22, just 32 feet above the minimum level required to generate hydropower. Water volume at the reservoir on that day was listed as being at 23.68% of full pool. 

This story ran in the Vail DailyThe Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent Steamboat Pilot & Today and Craig Press.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

What are PFAS, and why is the EPA warning about them in drinking water? An environmental health scientist explains

PFAS, often used in water-resistant gear, also find their way into drinking water and human bodies. CasarsaGuru via Getty Images
PFAS, often used in water-resistant gear, also find their way into drinking water and human bodies. CasarsaGuru via Getty Images

By Kathryn Crawford

“PFAS? What’s PFAS?”

You may be hearing that term in the news as the federal government considers new rules and guidelines for the chemicals. Even if the acronym is new to you, you’re probably already familiar with what PFAS do. That’s because they’re found in everything from nonstick cookware to carpets to ski wax.

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are a large group of human-made chemicals – currently estimated to be around 9,000 individual chemical compounds – that are used widely in consumer products and industry. They can make products resistant to water, grease and stains and protect against fire.

Waterproof outdoor apparel and cosmetics, stain-resistant upholstery and carpets, food packaging that is designed to prevent liquid or grease from leaking through, and certain firefighting equipment often contain PFAS. In fact, one recent study found that most products labeled stain- or water-resistant contained PFAS, and another study found that this is even true among products labeled as “nontoxic” or “green.” PFAS are also found in unexpected places like high-performance ski and snowboard waxes, floor waxes and medical devices.

At first glance, PFAS sound pretty useful, so you might be wondering “what’s the big deal?”

The short answer is that PFAS are harmful to human health and the environment.

Some of the very same chemical properties that make PFAS attractive in products also mean these chemicals will persist in the environment for generations. Because of the widespread use of PFAS, these chemicals are now present in water, soil and living organisms and can be found across almost every part of the planet, including Arctic glaciersmarine mammals, remote communities living on subsistence diets, and in 98% of the American public.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued new warnings about their risk in drinking water even at very low levels.

Health risks from PFAS exposure

Once people are exposed to PFAS, the chemicals remain in their bodies for a long time – months to years, depending on the specific compound – and they can accumulate over time.

Research consistently demonstrates that PFAS are associated with a variety of adverse health effects. A recent review by a panel of experts looking at research on PFAS toxicity concluded with a high degree of certainty that PFAS contribute to thyroid disease, elevated cholesterol, liver damage and kidney and testicular cancer.

Stain-resistant fabrics and carpets often contain PFAS. Deagreez via Getty Images
Stain-resistant fabrics and carpets often contain PFAS. Deagreez via Getty Images

Further, they concluded with a high degree of certainty that PFAS also affect babies exposed in utero by increasing their likelihood of being born at a lower birth weight and responding less effectively to vaccines, while impairing women’s mammary gland development, which may adversely impact a mom’s ability to breastfeed.

The review also found evidence that PFAS may contribute to a number of other disorders, though further research is needed to confirm existing findings: inflammatory bowel disease, reduced fertility, breast cancer and an increased likelihood of miscarriage and developing high blood pressure and preeclampsia during pregnancy. Additionally, current research suggests that babies exposed prenatally are at higher risk of experiencing obesity, early-onset puberty and reduced fertility later in life.

Collectively, this is a formidable list of diseases and disorders.

Who’s regulating PFAS?

PFAS chemicals have been around since the late 1930s, when a DuPont scientist created one by accident during a lab experiment. DuPont called it Teflon, which eventually became a household name for its use on nonstick pans.

Decades later, in 1998, Scotchgard maker 3M notified the Environmental Protection Agency that a PFAS chemical was showing up in human blood samples. At the time, 3M said low levels of the manufactured chemical had been detected in people’s blood as early as the 1970s.

Despite the lengthy list of serious health risks linked to PFAS and a tremendous amount of federal investment in PFAS-related research in recent years, PFAS haven’t been regulated at the federal level in the United States.

The EPA has issued advisories and health-based guidelines for two PFAS compounds – PFOA and PFOS – in drinking water, though these guidelines are not legally enforceable standards. And the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has a toxicological profile for PFAS.

Federal rules could be coming. Congress is considering legislation to ban PFAS in some food packaging. The EPA has a road map for PFAS regulations it is considering, including regulations involving drinking water. The Biden administration has said it also expects to list PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law, a move that worries utilities and businesses that use PFAS-containing products or processes because of the expense of cleanup.

Compiled by Safer States, 2022
Map: The Conversation/CC-BY-ND  Source: Safer States  Get the data  Download image
Source: Safer States  Get the data  Download image

States, meanwhile, have been taking their own actions to protect residents against the risk of PFAS exposure.

At least 21 states have laws targeting PFAS in various uses, such as in food packaging and carpets. But relying on state laws places burdens on state agencies responsible for enforcing them and creates a patchwork of regulations which, in turn, place burdens on business and consumers to navigate regulatory nuances across state lines.

Compiled by Safer States, 2022
Map: The Conversation/CC-BY-ND  Source: Safer States  Get the data  Download image
Source: Safer States  Get the data  Download image

So, what can you do about PFAS?

Based on current scientific understanding, most people are exposed to PFAS primarily through their diet, though drinking water and airborne exposures may be significant among some people, especially if they live near known PFAS-related industries or contamination.

The best ways to protect yourself and your family from risks associated with PFAS are to educate yourself about potential sources of exposures.

Products labeled as water- or stain-resistant have a good chance of containing PFAS. Check the ingredients on products you buy and watch for chemical names containing “fluor-.” Specific trade names, such as Teflon and Gore-Tex, are also likely to contain PFAS.

Check whether there are sources of contamination near you, such as in drinking water or PFAS-related industries in the area. Some states don’t test or report PFAS contamination, so the absence of readily available information does not necessarily mean the region is free of PFAS problems.

For additional information about PFAS, check out the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease RegistryEPA and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention websites or contact your state or local public health department.

If you believe you have been exposed to PFAS and are concerned about your health, contact your health care provider. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has a succinct report to help health care professionals understand the clinical implications of PFAS exposure.

Kathryn Crawford is Assistant Professor of Environmental Health at Middlebury.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Blue Mesa is threatened by a two-decade-long drought and downstream obligations

Blue Mesa Reservoir September 2021. Maltarich/KBUT
Blue Mesa Reservoir September 2021. Maltarich/KBUT

By Stephanie Maltarich

Listen now!

The reservoir provides recreation like boating and fishing, powers thousands of homes through hydroelectricity and stores water for Lake Powell and other downstream users.  The reservoir is critically low, and it’s possible water levels may be lowered even further in 2022.

Blue Mesa Reservoir once resembled a deep and healthy lake. But a 22-year drought, coupled with obligations to release water to downstream users, has left the reservoir 69-feet below the normal high watermark. Experts say it will take a lot more than one snowy winter to refill the reservoir. 

The Gunnison River flows for about 25 miles before it becomes Blue Mesa Reservoir; which stores water, creates power and provides recreation opportunities like fishing and boating. 

Blue Mesa Power Plant supervisor Eric Langley. Maltarich/KBUT
Blue Mesa Power Plant supervisor Eric Langley. Maltarich/KBUT

Erik Knight, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation, says the reservoir has seen better days. 

“Blue Mesa has reached some of its lowest levels on record last year with those emergency releases last year for the drought response operation,” said Knight. 

The emergency releases last fall from Blue Mesa dramatically reduced its levels, but kept Lake Powell’s hydroelectric power plant generating. This spring, the reservoir sits at about one-third of what’s called “full pool”, or full capacity. And, it’s estimated that it won’t fill more than halfway by summer’s end. 

Knight explains the reservoir is one piece of The Aspinall Unit. The series of dams are named after Wayne Aspinall, a Colorado congressional representative who worked on western land and water issues. 

“The Aspinall Unit is comprised of three dams and reservoirs,” said Knight. “We’ve got Blue Mesa Reservoir, that’s the largest one and the furthest upstream and stores the most amount of water.”

Just downstream from Blue Mesa are the other two dams: Morrow Point and Crystal. While storing water is the main function, the reservoirs in the Aspinall Unit also contribute to the grid that supplies power for about 40 million people. 

The Blue Mesa Power Plant started generating electricity in 1967. Eric Langley is the plant supervisor. 

Basically these units are ran remotely, out of Page, Arizona,” said Langley. “We’re just basically here doing the maintenance on and making sure that they’re gonna run day to day.”

In the basement of the facility, Langley explained how the facility turns water to power. First, it flows through the dam into the facility through large pressurized pipes called penstocks. Then water spins through turbines creating a magnetic field that puts power onto the grid. 

“That’s in a nutshell, there’s a lot more to that, obviously,” Langley said. 

The water then flows through Morrow Point and Crystal before joining the Colorado River near Grand Junction. Three similar reservoirs in Wyoming, Utah and Arizona create the entire Colorado River Storage Project

Inside the Blue Mesa Power Plant. Maltarich/KBUT
Inside the Blue Mesa Power Plant. Maltarich/KBUT

At the opposite end of Blue Mesa, Nicky Gibney, the aquatic ecologist for Curecanti National Recreation Area and Black Canyon National Park, explained how Blue Mesa’s landscape has changed over the years. 

“We call this over here ‘sometimes island’ because right now we’re standing on a peninsula,” said Gibney. “When the water is at full pool, that is actually an island over there, and it seems very far away from being an island right now.” 

The park manages activities in and around the reservoir, and keeping the waters accessible to visitors is one of the park’s top priorities. But Gibney said it’s becoming more difficult with low water levels.

“I think we are struggling with how to do that because everything is just unknown right now and that’s a new territory for all of us,” said Gibney. 

In mid-May, the park announced the marina would not open for the first time ever

The Colorado River Compact is a federal agreement between seven western states that defines how water in the Colorado River Basin is divided. Obligations in the compact to release water downstream is one reason for Blue Mesa’s low levels. 

But the biggest culprit is the two-decade-long drought. 

Nicky Gibney, aquatic ecologist for Curecanti National Recreation Area and Black Canyon National Park. Maltarich/KBUT.
Nicky Gibney, aquatic ecologist for Curecanti National Recreation Area and Black Canyon National Park. Maltarich/KBUT.

Eric Kuhn is the former director of the Colorado River District. He is also the author of “Science Be Dammed”. Kuhn said when the compact was written in 1922, the river was unusually wet – and today it’s unusually dry. 

“And climate change has had a big, big impact on the river,” said Kuhn. “So this equitable division that they came up with 100 years ago didn’t consider the impacts of climate change.”

Kuhn says the compact can’t just be re-written or revised. But it may be re-interpreted to reflect modern water supply challenges, like drought and climate change, which are felt at every step along the nearly 1,500-mile river. 

KBUT’s Headwaters series was made possible by The Water Desk, an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Crystal River rancher, Water Trust again try to boost flows

Crystal River rancher Bill Fales stands at the headgate for the Helms Ditch photo
Crystal River rancher Bill Fales stands at the headgate for the Helms Ditch, with Mount Sopris in the background. As part of an agreement with the Colorado Water Trust, Fales could be paid to reduce his diversions from the ditch when the river is low. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

By Heather Sackett

A Crystal River Valley rancher and a nonprofit organization are teaming up for the second time to try to leave more water in a parched stream.

Cold Mountain Ranch owners Bill Fales and Marj Perry have inked a six-year deal with the Colorado Water Trust to voluntarily retime their irrigation practices to leave water in the Crystal River during the late summer and early fall, when the river often needs it the most. In addition to a $5,000 signing bonus, the ranchers will be paid $250 a day up to 20 days, for each cubic foot per second they don’t divert, for a maximum payment of $30,000.

The water would come from reducing diversions from the Helms Ditch and could result in up to an additional 6 cfs in the river. The agreement would become active in the months of August and September any time streamflows dip below 40 cfs and once becoming active, will extend through October. The agreement will lift if streamflows rise above 55 cfs.

The goal of the program is to use voluntary, market-based approaches to encourage agricultural water users — who often own the biggest and most senior water rights — to put water back into Colorado’s rivers during critical times.

The program has the hallmarks of demand management, a much-discussed concept over the past few years at the state level: it’s temporaryvoluntary and compensated. Other pilot programs that focus on agricultural water conservation usually involve full or split-season fallowing of fields, but with this agreement Fales still intends to get his usual two cuttings of hay.

“The idea is to find something that is a flexible way for water rights owners to use their water in years where it makes sense for something different than strictly agricultural practices,” said Alyson Meyer-Gould, director of policy with the Colorado Water Trust. “It’s another way to use their water portfolio.”

Streamflows will be measured by a gauge at the Thomas Road Bridge, which is operated by the Roaring Fork Conservancy. The Helms Ditch is located just upstream of the bridge.

According to the Conservancy’s 2016 Crystal River Management Plan, the river below the Thomas Road Bridge often suffers from low flows and high temperatures, especially in drought years, due to the many agricultural diversions. The Crystal River also has a 1975 state instream flow right of 100 cfs on this stretch, intended to preserve the environment to a reasonable degree, but it is often not met during the late irrigation season.

Fales has often been a prominent spokesman for causes that combine agricultural and environmental interests, like preventing oil and gas development in the Thompson Divide area near Carbondale where he grazes cattle.

“Obviously we are like everybody else — we hate to see the river dry,” Fales said. “Also Marj and I are fairly convinced that if there’s going to be problems and controversies over water, we’d rather be trying to find solutions ourselves than have one imposed on us by somebody else.”

Helms Ditch photo
The Helms Ditch, which takes 6 cfs from the Crystal River and has a water right that dates to 1903, irrigates land on Cold Mountain Ranch. Ranch owners Bill Fales and Marj Perry inked a deal with the Colorado Water Trust that would pay them to reduce diversions from the Helms Ditch when the river needs water. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Second agreement

This is the second attempt at the voluntary non-diversion agreement. The timing and conditions during the original three-year agreement, signed in 2018, never worked out. 2018 saw flows that were so low that turning off the Helms Ditch would not have made a difference; 2019’s big snowpack meant flows never dipped low enough to trigger the agreement until October, which was not a month included in the original deal; and in the drought year of 2020 Cold Mountain Ranch could not spare any water.

“Three years is not exactly a huge data sample, so we are still optimistic we can get the project to work,” Meyer Gould said.

This time around, the Water Trust is offering Fales and Perry more money to encourage them to retime the irrigation: $250 for each cfs, compared to $175 last time, plus the $5,000 signing bonus, when there was no such incentive attached to the 2018 agreement.

“It’s considerable time and effort on their part,” Meyer Gould said. “We wanted to show appreciation for the thought and effort that has gone into it on the part of Cold Mountain Ranch.”

Pitkin County also had to approve the agreement because it is the co-owner of a conservation easement on the property, which limits development, preserves open space and keeps the water rights tied to the land.

During negotiations for the original agreement, Pitkin County Attorney John Ely voiced concerns about abandonment: If Fales produced the same amount of hay using less water than he historically had, could the unused portion of his water right be subject to Colorado’s “use-it-or-lose-it” principle?

But Cold Mountain Ranch’s water rights are protected. Senate Bill 19, signed in 2013, provides abandonment protection if the water rights are enrolled in an approved conservation program, such as the agreement with the Water Trust.

Also, instead of reducing his total annual water use like with most agriculture conservation programs, Fales will simply shift the timing of his diversions to align with the Crystal’s needs. Ely said his concerns have been worked out.

“It’s not a classic situation where you have a dry-up of an ag property,” Ely said. “It really does protect his operations.”

As demands for water increase across the Colorado River basin and climate change shrinks the amount available, Fales recognizes something’s got to give. And with agricultural users at the center of water issues, they should participate in finding creative solutions.

“It’s not going to be simple,” Fales said. “But we would rather be at the table than on the plate.”

This story ran in The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Advocacy and science work together to improve water quality in Coal Creek

Ashley Bembenek tests Ph levels in Coal Creek. Maltarich/KBUT.
Ashley Bembenek tests Ph levels in Coal Creek. Maltarich/KBUT.

By Stephanie Maltarich

Listen here.

Following a legacy of mining, local organizations keep tabs on water quality. Maintaining healthy waters in Crested Butte is critical as a headwaters source of the Colorado River.  

The streams, creeks and rivers that run from jagged mountains into Crested Butte’s watersheds are iconic. At a glance, the water in creeks and streams around the area are clear and pristine. But the legacy of mining tells a different story. 

About two decades ago, High Country Conservation Advocates, an environmental nonprofit in Crested Butte, noticed that although the streams and creeks flowing into town looked relatively healthy, they were carrying an excess of heavy metals downstream. Since then, the local nonprofit has made protecting water central to their work. 

Tools used for testing water quality along Coal Creek. Maltarich/KBUT.
Tools used for testing water quality along Coal Creek. Maltarich/KBUT. 

Julie Nania has spent nearly a decade with the organization advocating for clean water as the water program director. She explained the water in the valley used to look different. 

“For a long time, Coal Creek ran Fanta orange,” Nania said. 

Coal Creek, which provides drinking water for the town, was stained from mining runoff containing iron. Other metals like silver, lead, zinc and copper also ended up in waterways. The tainted water could be traced back to the flanks of Mt. Emmons, just west of town. 

And with the passage of the Clean Water Act, we did get a mine water treatment plant up there,” said Nania. “But we still had some of these historic water quality issues in the valley.”

The Clean Water Act  passed in 1972, and one of its goals was to keep pollutants, like mine waste, out of rivers. In mountain basins with mineral-rich rocks, it’s normal for some metals to wash downstream during spring snowmelt or summer rainstorms — but the water in Coal Creek was clearly toxic. 

The Keystone and Standard mines were the two biggest culprits in polluting Coal Creek. Today, Mt. Emmons Mining Company owns the Keystone Mine and operates the water treatment facility up Kebler Pass. Because the mine operated for nearly 100 years, the company is responsible for testing and treating water. 

Calling attention to the Standard Mine’s impact on water led to its designation as a Superfund Site in 2005. Declaring the site an environmental disaster helped get the necessary resources to clean up the site. It helped start a water monitoring program and a new nonprofit: The Coal Creek Watershed Coalition.

On a chilly April morning, staff and volunteers spread out along Kebler Pass for a water sampling day. Ashley Bembenek is the executive director and she’s also a water and soil scientist who isn’t afraid to slip on waders and stand in cold rivers in the name of clean water. 

“So this is where the town’s water system begins,” said Bembenek. “And it’s just upstream of the Keystone Mine discharge. And that’s incredibly critical to the safety of our drinking water and to manage the treatment costs.”

The nonprofit holds water sampling days five times a year. Each group spreads out to different sections of Coal Creek with a flow meter, water quality probes and water quality testing kits. While walking up Kebler Pass, Bembenek points out the water treatment plant above and Coal Creek below. 

We carefully walk down a short and steep hill to Coal Creek where Bembenek sets up her instruments on a level platform she carefully digs out in the snow. She’s here to test for three things. First, she wades into the creek to measure streamflow. Then she pops sensors into the water to measure things like temperature and ph levels. 

“So today’s water is a frigid 0.9 degrees celsius, flowing just above freezing, the ph today is 7.03 which is, nearly neutral, no concern whatsoever,” said Bembenek. 

Last, she tests for water quality by squirting water through small filters into squishy plastic bottles. She’ll send these samples to a lab in Steamboat Springs to test for 30 different metals. 

A river’s health depends on who or what uses it. Human life, irrigation and aquatic life are all examples of users. Bembenek says the water sampled in Coal Creek is tested for the most sensitive of users – fish and insects. 

Ashley Bembenek clears snow along Coal Creek. Maltarich/KBUT.
Ashley Bembenek clears snow along Coal Creek. Maltarich/KBUT. 

“So the standard to protect aquatic life is 10 times more sensitive than the standard to protect human life,” said Bembenek. “So what makes the Clean Water Act so cool, is that by picking the most sensitive use, you protect all of the other uses.”

Bembenek said while the water in Coal Creek is plenty safe for humans to drink following treatment, a few metals remain too high for fish and insects during spring and summer runoff. 

The organization will monitor Coal Creek four more times in 2022 to keep tabs on water quality in and around Crested Butte. And, the coalition is embarking on a new initiative, the gossan restoration project, where they will plant trees and restore native vegetation. The project, ten years in the making, will further decrease metals flowing into Coal Creek. 

Healthy water flowing from the mountains is essential for the roughly 40 million people who depend on water in the Colorado River Basin. Julia Nania says it’s an important responsibility. 

“So in terms of being a headwaters community, usually that means we get to start off with some of the best quality waters, there are some exceptions to that,” said Nania. “Sometimes historic mining tends to be one of the issues we face in this basin  But we also are, you know, kind of the first stewards of those water resources.” 

Nania says High Country Conservation Associates will continue to use science to inform their work to make sure the Gunnison Valley gets the highest quality water the basin deserves.

KBUT’s Headwaters series was made possible by The Water Desk, an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

A water strategy for the parched West: Have cities pay farmers to install more efficient water systems

Low-tech irrigation on a cattle ranch near Whitewater, Colo., June 30, 2021. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images
Low-tech irrigation on a cattle ranch near Whitewater, Colo., June 30, 2021. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

By Robert Glennon

“Are you going to run out of water?” is the first question people ask when they find out I’m from Arizona. The answer is that some people already haveothers soon may and it’s going to get much worse without dramatic changes.

Unsustainable water practices, drought and climate change are causing this crisis across the U.S. Southwest. States are drawing less water from the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people. But levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the river’s two largest reservoirs, have dropped so low so quickly that there is a serious risk of one or both soon hitting “dead pool,” a level when no water flows out of the dams.

On June 14, 2022, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton warned Congress that the seven Colorado River Basin States – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – need to reduce their diversions from the Colorado River by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet in 2022. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land, about the size of a football field, with a foot of water – roughly 325,000 gallons. If the states don’t come up with a plan by August 2022, Touton may do it for them.

To achieve Touton’s objective, states need to focus on the region’s biggest water user: agriculture. Farmers consume 80% of the water used in the Colorado River Basin. As a longtime analyst of western water policy, I believe that solving this crisis will require a major intervention to help farmers use less water.

John Oliver, host of HBO’s ‘Last Week Tonight,’ delves into the West’s water crisis.

Lawns in the desert

It’s not an exaggeration to call the Southwest’s water shortage a crisis. Declining river levels are compromising electricity generation from hydropower, which affects the power supply for millions of people. Farmers are fallowing fields and using less water on their crops. This, in turn, imperils food production already under global strain from the war in Ukraine. Drought conditions could wipe out endangered species, especially salmon.

There is something profoundly unsettling about the lush green landscape in Southern California, a desert transformed by the power of water. The average annual rainfall at Los Angeles International Airport from 1944 to 2020 was 11.72 inches (30 centimeters). That’s not much more than Tucson, Arizona, gets in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.

Now, however, western states are imposing unprecedented restrictions on water use. On June 1, 2022, the Metropolitan Water District, wholesaler to 20 million Southern Californians, urgently called for a 35% reduction in water use. In response, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power is limiting residents to watering their lawns twice a week, for eight minutes per session. Other providers allow just one weekly watering.

The California Water Resources Control Board has ordered many farmers and San Francisco Bay-area cities to stop diverting water from the San Joaquin River system. Golf course operators are under substantial pressure to reduce water use.

Focus on irrigation

Still, agriculture uses far more water than lawns and golf courses. In 2017, U.S. farmers irrigated about 58 million acres (23 million hectares) of cropland, almost two-thirds of it in the West.

In recent decades western farmers have significantly changed their irrigation practices. Many have switched from flood systems, which literally flood fields, to pressurized systems. Typically these are center pivots that apply water from sprinklers connected to a large arm that slowly moves around a core, creating those large, usually green circles that airplane passengers can see across the West. This shift reduces water losses from evaporation, percolation into the soil and runoff.

In 2012, U.S. farmers used pressurized systems on 72% of their fields, up from 37% in 1984. That still leaves 28%, or 20 million acres (8 million hectares), that are flood irrigated.

And center-pivot systems are not as efficient as drip or microirrigation, which delivers water directly to plants’ root zone through hoses embedded in the soil. Drip irrigation delivers water slowly, reducing runoff and evaporation. Microirrigation systems use 20% to 50% less water than conventional sprinkler systems.

A center-pivot irrigation system in Arizona. USGS
A center-pivot irrigation system in Arizona. USGS

But drip systems are quite expensive, costing upwards of US$2,000 per acre. They are not cost-effective for farmers who grow low-value crops, such as alfalfa, and are prohibitively expensive for small farmers.

Most farms that irrigate are small operations with fewer than 50 acres (20 hectares) and less than $150,000 in annual revenues. But large-scale farms, with annual revenues over $1 million, use about 60% of irrigated water.

Bigger farms have the necessary capital to invest in sprinkler systems, but not necessarily enough to invest in highly efficient subsurface drip or microirrigation. Existing U.S. Department of Agriculture programs offer modest incentives, usually a maximum of $100 per acre – not enough to justify switching for most farmers.

Balancing rural and urban needs

Helping farmers switch to high-efficiency irrigation systems would benefit the entire Southwest. I propose a two-pronged approach.

First, Congress would provide funding to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer farmers more generous financial incentives to switch to microirrigation systems. The 2021 infrastructure bill contains $8.3 billion to assist western states in adapting to drought and climate change. I believe that this financial aid, with support from the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the USDA, could persuade millions of American farmers to make the move.

Microirrigation on a fruit and nut farm in Yuba City, Calif.

Second, to augment the federal program, state, municipal and local interests, including government agencies and private businesses, would create funds to underwrite the entire cost of converting farms to microirrigation. As I envision it, cities could offer to absorb 100% of the purchase and installation costs of microsystems in exchange for a percentage of the water that farmers would save by making the switch.

A program that’s cost-free to farmers would be far more attractive than existing federal programs. In my view, locally financed programs managed in collaboration with farm communities could reallocate a lot of water in a short time frame. This could be done through either a formal water rights transfer or short- or medium-term leases with farmers retaining water rights.

In the past, farmers have been rightly suspicious when city representatives arrived with proposals to buy agricultural water. All too often, such transfers have triggered economic death spirals for rural communities. But it need not be so.

Because farmers consume about 80% of western water, while residential, commercial and industrial use is less than 10%, I believe reducing agricultural consumption by a few percentage points would solve the municipal and industrial need for water. If farmers achieve this reduction thanks to increased efficiencies from microirrigation systems – paid for by cities – the farmers could grow as much product as they do now, with slightly less water.

Making this shift could raise economic and technical challenges. For example, most farms would probably fallow or reduce production of low-value crops, such as alfalfa, which could affect animal feed prices. And one disadvantage of drip irrigation systems is that gophers love to gnaw on the plastic tubes, so farmers would need an animal control program.

Nonetheless, I see voluntary, compensated water transfers as a strategy that would protect the long-term viability of rural communities and keep the taps flowing in western cities. Limits on watering lawns won’t solve the West’s water crisis.

Robert Glennon is Regents Professor Emeritus and Morris K. Udall Professor of Law & Public Policy Emeritus, University of Arizona

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Water Desk offers support for coverage of Colorado River Basin

The Central Arizona Project crosses the Sonoran Desert just north of Bouse, Arizona. Photo by Ted Wood/The Water Desk

The Water Desk is now accepting applications for grants of $2,500 to $10,000 to support media outlets and individual journalists covering water issues related to the Colorado River Basin.

The deadline for applications for the 2022 grants is Wednesday, September 21, 2022, at 11:59 pm Pacific.

This grantmaking program is only open to journalists (freelance and staff) and media outlets.

The Water Desk is interested in supporting a wide variety of media and journalistic approaches: newspapers, magazines, websites, video, television, radio, podcasts and other channels.

The Water Desk will support journalism that focuses on water issues involving the seven states of the Colorado River Basin—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—as well as the borderlands of Northwest Mexico.

Proposals related to areas that lie outside of the hydrologic boundaries of the Colorado River Basin’s watershed must have a strong connection to the basin and its water resources.

Because water is intertwined with so many issues, we are open to proposals covering a broad spectrum of topics: climate change, biodiversity, pollution, public health, environmental justice, food, agriculture, drinking water, economics, recreation and more. We are especially interested in stories that explore inequities in our water systems.

Funding for these grants comes from the Walton Family Foundation. As a journalistic initiative, The Water Desk maintains a policy of strict editorial independence from our funders, as well as from the University of Colorado Boulder. Funders of The Water Desk have no right to review nor influence stories or other journalistic content that is produced with the support of these grants.

Our grantmaking page has more details about the program. You can apply on this page.

See a list of prior grantees on this page and view their work here

Questions? Please contact Water Desk Director Mitch Tobin at mitchtobin@colorado.edu.

60 days and counting: Colorado River cutbacks achievable, experts say, as long as farm interests are on board

Glen Canyon Dam creates water storage on the Colorado River in Lake Powell, which is just 27% full. Credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Glen Canyon Dam creates water storage on the Colorado River in Lake Powell, which is just 27% full. Credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

By Jerd Smith

Colorado River Basin states will succeed in complying with an emergency federal order that came just last week to slash water use by millions of acre-feet, experts said, but it will take time plus major deals with farm interests and tribal communities, and will likely require that the basin, whose flows and operational structure were divided by the 1922 Colorado River Compact, be united and managed as one entity.

“The world has shifted under our feet this week,” said Doug Kenney, former director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We are all being asked to innovate at a pace and scale that I don’t think we were thinking of. Sometimes a big threat from the federal government is what you need.”

The states have 60 days to come up with a water reduction plan.

Kenney’s comments came June 17 at the Getches-Wilkinson Law Conference on Natural Resources at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Kenney was referring to a June 14 emergency request from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, telling the seven states that comprise the Colorado River Basin that they will need to find 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water use reductions in the next 18 months to stave off a potential collapse in the Colorado River system.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, in comparison, use roughly 3.5 million acre-feet (maf) annually.

Lake Powell, which can store roughly 26 maf of water when full, and its sister reservoir, Lake Mead, with 29.4 maf of storage, are two of the largest reservoirs in the United States.

A 20-year megadrought, considered to be the worst in 1,200 years, including two back-to-back intense drought periods during 2020 and 2021, has left each of the reservoirs well below their former levels, with Lake Mead just 24% full, and Lake Powell down to about 27% of capacity.

Touton’s order came just six weeks after the federal government and the states approved two other major agreements, one to hold 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell that would normally have been released to Lake Mead for Arizona, California and Nevada, and another releasing 500,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming state line to further boost levels in Lake Powell.

Under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin is made up of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin comprises Arizona, California and Nevada and Mexico.

Colorado River Basin: Credit: Chas Chamberlin
Colorado River Basin: Credit: Chas Chamberlin

Each basin was given the rights to 7.5 million acre-feet of water, with an additional 1.5 million acre-feet of water for Mexico. But the river has generated much less than that for decades, and since the megadrought began in the early 2000s, the river’s flows have declined and stored water supplies in Powell and Mead have shrunk as well.

How the new reduction orders will affect supplies in Colorado and other Upper Basin states, who have never used their full entitlements to the river’s flows, isn’t clear yet.

To find ways to cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water will require intense negotiations, and maybe even legal action, according to Bill Hasencamp, who manages Colorado River supplies for the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million people in Los Angeles, San Diego and elsewhere.

Under the terms of the 1922 compact and subsequent agreements, California was entitled to use 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River Water, but because supplies were abundant and the river generated millions of acre-feet of extra water every year, California routinely used more than its share. That changed in 2003, when the federal government ordered it to cut back.

With last week’s announcement, Hasencamp said, “It feels like I am going through 2003 again. The lessons are still applicable today. Having a federal threat is a pretty good motivator.”

Despite the enormity of the challenge, Hasencamp said he was optimistic that the states would reach a deal, just as they did 20 years ago.

“It’s going to be painful,” Hasencamp said. “Some people will lose their jobs. These are such tough decisions that there could be fallout…but we have some pretty smart people in the basin. Let them be creative.”

Twenty years ago, California was able to reduce its use by arranging intermittent land fallowing deals with major agricultural irrigators, such as the Imperial Irrigation District. It also made deals with Arizona and Utah to stabilize its water supplies.

Now, Hasencamp said, California is down to using just 4.2 million acre-feet of Colorado River water annually, below its formal allocation.

Some 30 tribes in the seven-state basin control millions of acre-feet of water, or an estimated 22% to 26% of the basin’s annual water supplies, some of which has never been diverted or stored due to a lack funding, pipelines and reservoirs.

Tribal concerns will have to be addressed to reach a deal, said Lorelei Cloud, a council member with the Southern Ute Tribe in southwestern Colorado.

Even now, she said, “Tribes are not compensated for their water that is in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Everybody is depending on tribes not to use their water. But the federal government needs to fulfill its trust responsibilities to the tribes.”

James Eklund, a water attorney and former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said that the federal government and the states will have to relax or eliminate the divisions between the upper and lower basins, because they sharply limit flexibility in managing the drought-strapped river system.

“We are in a crisis and we have an opportunity to reexamine [the 1922 compact]. Even five years ago, I would have said that is too much. That’s going too far.

“But a whole-basin approach is much more appropriate than continuing this fiction of an artificially bifurcated basin,” Eklund said.

Colorado officials have said repeatedly that they have always had to live with cutbacks as a result of lower flows that naturally occur in the system when you’re up high in the headwaters and don’t have substantial water storage to fall back on.

They also point to the two emergency releases from Flaming Gorge in 2021 and 2022, and releases from Colorado’s federally owned Blue Mesa Reservoir, as evidence of their having already given plenty of water to help stabilize the system.

And though Lower Basin states have already begun implementing cutbacks involving hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water, this new ask is much larger and must be answered quickly, experts said.

Because farm interests control roughly 80% of the river’s water supplies, farmers are going to be asked to fallow land and to put a price on how much that will cost other water users and federal government.

Peter Nichols is a Colorado water attorney who helped craft a large-scale farm fallowing program in the Lower Arkansas Valley that was modeled after work that California’s Metropolitan District did in the early 2000s. Rather than buying farm land and drying it up, what’s known as the Super Ditch project allows farmers to lease their water when it is convenient and in times of drought.

The Super Ditch took years in water court and three trips to the Colorado legislature to finally implement, but it serves as an example of what can be done through the seven-state basin to achieve the federally mandated cutbacks, Nichols said.

“Irrigators are going to be willing to do this,” Nichols said. “But they’re going to be interested in three things: price, price and price.”

“They are also interested in flexibility,” Nichols said. “They don’t want to be tied in forever. If the price of onions goes through the roof, they will want out. They will want to be able to grow onions.”

Still the framework is out there and is workable, he said.

“[California’s] Metropolitan proved you can do this. But you can’t do it quickly. Reclamation has drawn a couple of lines in the sand and it has changed what we have to do and the amount of time we have to do it in,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article failed to note that the four Upper Basin states combined use roughly 3.5 million acre feet of water annually.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Race is on for Colorado River basin states to conserve before feds take action

This photo from December 2021 shows one of the intake towers at Hoover Dam. Federal officials said basin states must conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet to protect reservoir levels in 2023. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM
This photo from December 2021 shows one of the intake towers at Hoover Dam. Federal officials said basin states must conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet to protect reservoir levels in 2023. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

By Heather Sackett

As water experts gathered this week for an annual conference in Boulder, it was with the sobering knowledge that despite everything they have done so far, it is still not enough to keep the Colorado River system from crashing.

Federal officials this week made the earth-shaking announcement that the seven basin states must quickly conserve an enormous amount of water and threatened unilateral action if they do not. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, testifying at a U.S. Senate hearing on drought on Tuesday, said an additional 2 to 4 million acre-feet of conservation was needed just to protect critical reservoir levels in 2023.

Department of Interior Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo reiterated this position in a talk at Thursday’s Conference on Natural Resources at the University of Colorado Law School. She said the federal government has the responsibility and authority to take action to protect the system and the infrastructure if the states can’t reach an agreement on their own.

“We are facing the growing reality that water supplies for agriculture, fisheries, ecosystems, industry and cities are no longer stable due to climate change,” Trujillo said. “Our collective goal is to be able to very quickly identify and implement strategies that will stabilize and rebuild the system so we don’t find ourselves constantly on the brink of a crisis.”

Houseboats on Lake Powell on Dec. 13, 2021, near Wahweap Marina, where the quarter-mile-long boat ramp is unusable due to low water levels. Federal officials have threatened unilateral actions to prop up levels in the nation’s largest reservoirs and protect the Colorado River System. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM
Houseboats on Lake Powell on Dec. 13, 2021, near Wahweap Marina, where the quarter-mile-long boat ramp is unusable due to low water levels. Federal officials have threatened unilateral actions to prop up levels in the nation’s largest reservoirs and protect the Colorado River System. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Worsening conditions

Over the past year, water managers have implemented measures to keep water levels from falling below critical thresholds for hydropower production in the nation’s two largest reservoirs, including a plan for holding back water in Lake Powell, emergency releases from upstream reservoirs, and a much-celebrated plan to save 500,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead.

The actions taken in the 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan will add about 1 million acre-feet, or 16 feet of elevation, to Lake Powell.

But these actions are not enough.

“It’s buying us a bit more time, but not much,” said James Prairie, the upper Colorado basin research and modeling chief for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Prairie kicked off the conference by sharing numbers from the Bureau’s June 24-month study, which predicted that 2022 will be another anemic year for spring runoff into Powell at just 55% of average. Total Colorado River system storage stands at about 35% full; last year at this time it was about 42% full. In March, Lake Powell dipped below a critical threshold of 3,525 feet, just 35 feet above the minimum level needed to generate hydropower for millions of people in the southwest.

The announcement of what one water expert dubbed the “2-to-4-million-acre-foot challenge” overshadowed many of the conference’s planned topics and left some presenters scrambling to change their talks or at least their tone. Debating the finer points of the Colorado River Compact, which divided the waters between the upper and lower basin states and marks its 100th anniversary this year, all of a sudden took a backseat.

“Everything has changed beneath our feet with Commissioner Touton’s announcement Tuesday,” said author and conference moderator John Fleck.

Touton gave the states until Aug. 16 to figure out a path to conservation before Reclamation would take unilateral action to protect the system. That’s when Reclamation’s August 24-month study comes out, which lays out a plan for how the agency will operate its reservoirs in the coming year.

Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Ariz., forms Lake Powell. It’s still unclear how Colorado would participate in a federally mandated plan to conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet water to protect the Colorado River system.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM
Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Ariz., forms Lake Powell. It’s still unclear how Colorado would participate in a federally mandated plan to conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet water to protect the Colorado River system.CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Upper basin contribution

Federal officials made it clear that conserving the 2 to 4 million acre-feet is the responsibility of all seven basin states: Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Nevada, California and Arizona. But they were not prescriptive about how to do it or how the shortages should be shared; that’s for the states to figure out among themselves.

“Do we have any specific recipe in mind? The short answer is no, we don’t have a formula already pre-baked and pre-worked,” Trujillo said. “We are likely going to be in a situation of doing things we have never done before.”

How Colorado will conserve is unclear, especially since the state’s exploration of a demand management program that would have paid water users to cut back has been shelved for now. The program proved a hard sell, especially for some agricultural water users who questioned why Colorado should send water to prop up Lake Powell and fix a problem that is caused by what they say is over-use in California, Nevada and Arizona.

The compact divided the flows of the Colorado River equally between the upper and lower basin at 7.5 million acre-feet each. But the upper basin has never come close to using its full allocation, while the lower basin, by some estimates, uses more than 8.5 million acre-feet. Meanwhile, climate change and a two-decade-long drought have diminished river flows basin-wide in the 20th century by about 20%; scientists say about one-third of that loss can be attributed to warmer temperatures.

Chuck Cullom, the executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said that while all seven states share the resource of the Colorado River and have an obligation to contribute to conservation, most of the water savings should come from the lower basin.

“Everyone needs to participate, but the vast majority of the effort needs to come from the lower basin because that’s where the preponderance of the uses are,” he said.

Upper basin water managers point to the emergency releases of 161,000 acre-feet last year from Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs as a way they have responded to the crisis. But that decision was made unilaterally by Reclamation and is not the same as conservation.

Colorado’s commissioner to the UCRC and head of the Colorado Water Conservation Board Rebecca Mitchell did not give specific examples of where Colorado could increase its water conservation, but said the state will continue to work with other basin states, the federal governments and tribal nations to find solutions.

“Colorado water users are on the front lines of climate change,” Mitchell said in an emailed statement. “We are continuing to work closely with our federal and state partners across the basin to address water shortages.”

Fleck ended Thursday’s session by striking an emotional tone that captured the mood in the room. We are at a moment of reckoning and realizing the West of the future will look much different than it does now, he said.

“We are in a moment of grieving,” he said. “The tools we developed were not enough.”

This story ran in the June 17 edition of the Vail Daily, the June 21 edition of The Aspen Times, the Craig Press, the Steamboat Springs Pilot & Today, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and the Aurora Sentinel.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

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