An initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder

Home Blog Page 2

What to watch on the Colorado River in 2024

2023’s above average snowpack gave a boost to Lake Powell’s dwindling water levels, and provided water managers more time to contemplate long-term policy changes. Photo: Alexander Heilner/The Water Desk with aerial support from LightHawk

After years of dry conditions throughout the West, 2023 gave the region’s water managers the greatest gift of all: a hefty snowpack. 

This year’s winter snow eventually melted and boosted the Colorado River’s beleaguered reservoirs. The Hail Mary winter storms came just in time. Without the savior snows, the river’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Powell, was on a glide path toward losing the ability to produce hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam, not to mention the harm to the long-term ecological health of the river and its main tributaries.

But the more nightmarish scenarios of quiet turbines, empty reservoirs, and dry river beds were put on hold this past year, as more snow also means more time. When wet weather returned to the basin, the river’s top negotiators quickly turned their attention away from the short-term emergency in front of them, and toward a more long-term set of solutions. Talk of not “squandering” the gift of time became a standard talking point of decision-makers along the river that supplies more than 40 million people across seven U.S. states, 30 tribal nations and communities in northern Mexico. 

One snowy year does not make for a lasting fix for the Colorado River’s fundamental gap between water supply and demand. A new year means new uncertainties over the river’s future. And as it looks now, 2024 promises to be more consequential than the last. 

Here at The Water Desk, these are the top things we’re paying attention to in 2024:

1. Reimagining how we manage the Colorado River

The snowy respite in 2023 gave both federal and state-level water managers the brain space to think long-term. A set of 2007 guidelines for the river’s management expire in 2026. In October, the federal Bureau of Reclamation released its preliminary report on what should be included in the talks to renegotiate them. They’ve given the various users — states, tribes, environmental and recreation groups — until March 2024 to submit their preferred plans for analysis and eventual inclusion in a draft set of guidelines later this year.   

The current guidelines have quite a few detractors across the river’s Upper and Lower Basins. And what should or shouldn’t be in the new rules has contributed to significant tension among river negotiators.   

The various state leaders recently got the chance to publicly posture at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference, held annually in December in Las Vegas. All seven state-level negotiators, including representatives from California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, sat beside each other on stage and made clear there was still distance between their positions on the big-picture problems plaguing the river and how to deal with them. The Arizona Republic’s Brandon Loomis has this excellent recap of what went down.

Leaders from California water agencies and districts signed funding agreements with federal officials at the 2023 Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas. Photo: Luke Runyon/The Water Desk

The panel’s biggest news was a public commitment from the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada to address what’s known as the structural deficit. This is the well-documented supply and demand gap that would exist even without climate change sapping snowpack and runoff. The deficit is estimated to be between 1.2 and 1.5 million acre-feet annually, and it has contributed greatly to the dwindling water levels at Lakes Mead and Powell. Who has to take the necessary cuts to account for that amount of water has always been an open question. Now, we have an answer: the Lower Basin states. 

“That makes sense. That’s our responsibility,” said J.B. Hamby, California’s river negotiator, at the Vegas gathering. “This is a historic thing coming. It’s on our shoulders to be able to resolve it.”

But in a basin that in recent months has grown increasingly reliant on injections of federal cash to incentivize temporary conservation deals, how state leaders plan to find the funds and the political will to permanently deal with the structural deficit will be something to watch. Any commitments made by those state-level negotiators will need to be sold to a broad range of constituents, who at this point will expect to be handsomely compensated for a permanent cut to their supplies, as POLITICO’s Annie Snider explained in this November piece.

An additional layer of basinwide tension can be summed up in one word: equity. It’s thrown around a lot in discussions of the Colorado River and the economic and social sacrifices needed to bring it onto a more sustainable path. Who should bear the greatest burden of the eventual cutbacks is still unclear. Upper Basin leaders, from Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, often point the finger toward the Lower Basin. 

“We’re not interested in striking a deal that allows the continuation of depleting the storage and dragging the system into crisis,” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s top river negotiator. Mitchell made clear she felt users in her state were already feeling pain, while those downstream of the large reservoirs have mostly been made whole, even in the driest of years. But with Lower Basin users willing to take on big, intractable issues like the structural deficit, moving forward it will likely be more difficult for Upper Basin leaders to continue to cast all the blame downstream. 

One more idea from the Las Vegas conference that’s still largely conceptual, but is gaining some interest from those in power, is to use annual measures of basic hydrology — like snowpack levels and streamflows — to determine how much water ends up being delivered to the basin’s varied users. It sounds simple: only use what nature provides. 

But that idea flies in the face of the river’s foundational governing document, the Colorado River Compact, which put fixed volumes of water use on paper, regardless of whether it was a dry or wet year. For now, the idea seems to be more of a talking point than a specific policy proposal, and we will see if proponents can turn it into something Lower Basin users can get behind. 

2. Tribal inclusion in policymaking

In recent years, the Colorado River’s 30 federally recognized tribes have grown their influence in the basin’s political landscape. Calls for a more formal tribal role in basinwide negotiations are being amplified by the tribes themselves, and by both state and federal leaders, such as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. 

2023 presented some significant tribal successes. The Gila River Indian Community became a key player in negotiations over the Lower Basin’s conservation plan to secure federal dollars last spring. Federal officials promised the tribe $150 million over three years to leave water they were legally entitled to in Lake Mead. 

The Gila River Indian Reservation established its historic right to Gila River water. Since most of the Gila River is dry, the tribe uses Central Arizona Project water and groundwater sent through elaborate canals to service the reservation. Photo: Ted Wood/The Water Desk

But in the long-term, deciding what that tribal role, or tribal seat at the negotiating table, could be and should be is unsettled. In June, at a Colorado River symposium at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Getches-Wilkinson Center, Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis called for leaders from all 30 sovereign tribes to be included in talks between federal and state officials. That idea received immediate pushback from state leaders on the feasibility of expanding the table by 30 seats. 

Creating a single representative seat for all of the tribes is another option. But that, too, presents challenges. Is it fair or feasible to reduce the varied economies, cultures, geographies and spiritual practices of 30 sovereign nations into a single seat? 

While basinwide tribal inclusion still happens in an ad hoc rather than institutional way, a draft agreement to formalize a governing relationship among six tribes and the four Upper Basin states has taken shape. The Upper Colorado River Commission has started inviting representatives from six Upper Basin tribes to participate in regular meetings. Commissioners could formalize the new agreement this February, as The Colorado Sun’s Shannon Mullane recently reported.

There appears to be broad agreement that more formally including tribes in the river’s complex, multi-layered decision-making processes is the most just path to take. Deciding what type of basinwide governance structure will make tribal inclusion more than a talking point could make some progress in 2024 as the basin’s leaders say they finally have the brain space to take on longer-term issues, as KUNC’s Alex Hager reported in his piece from the Las Vegas conference

3. Winter snowpack can make or break

Snowpack in the southern Rockies entered 2024 with a weak start. There is still a lot of winter left to go, but beginning a new year with a significant snowpack deficit always brings a certain amount of hand-wringing from skiers and water managers alike.  

Upper Basin snowpack stands at just 64% of the long-term median. The snowiest months are still to come, but it’s much harder to get to an above-average snowpack after a slow start. 

2023 was a stark example of what a wet winter can do. The sense of urgency among the river’s policymakers diminished as the snow piled high. Headlines turned from documenting record lows at the big Colorado River reservoirs, to cheering modest gains in water levels. 

A heavy snowpack across the Colorado River basin in 2023 came after years of meager runoff and resulted in modest gains to water levels at the river’s two largest reservoirs. Photo: Luke Runyon/The Water Desk

The past year’s heavy snows and subsequent rushing rivers came after three successive meager runoff seasons. The gains were significant, but not a total game-changer. As scientists often note, it takes multiple consecutive years of wet conditions to allow large reservoirs like Lakes Mead and Powell to fully recover. 

The return of El Niño tipped the scales toward a warmer and wetter winter in the Colorado River basin’s headwaters states. So far, we’ve just been getting the warm, not the wet. No matter how you look at it, we’re having a dry start to winter, as my Water Desk colleague Mitch Tobin lays out in his latest Snow News post

In 2023, Lower Colorado River leaders said their deal to conserve up to 3 million acre-feet between now and 2026 was enough to bring needed stability to the river’s reservoirs. But that same point was used to justify agreements like the Drought Contingency Plans in 2019 and the 500+ Plan in 2021, which did not provide the long-term stability and certainty that water managers crave. 

Scientists, such as Colorado State University’s Brad Udall, say we haven’t been imaginative enough in envisioning just how bad things could get along the river. Another series of dry winters, the likes of which we’ve seen in the past 25 years, is plausible. 

2023 brought a reprieve. How the winter of 2024 will play out is still unclear. Its outcome will undoubtedly have ripple effects, and either amplify or ease the existing tensions playing out across the basin. 

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.

Billions in federal assistance after New Mexico’s largest wildfire. But little money to repair streams.

The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire will affect the Gallinas River for years to come. Photo © Brett Walton/Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue | November 16, 2023

LAS VEGAS, New Mexico – Patrick Gutierrez and Nick Maurer, who work for Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance, scramble up Canyon del Rancho, an ephemeral stream in the mountains of northern New Mexico. It’s just before noon in late August, a day after the area’s biggest rain from the summer monsoon.

Packed with soft, pliable mud, the stream bed is blanketed with evidence of the deluge. Pine needles cling to tree branches, hip high, like clothes pins. Grasses in the channel bend to the ground, pointing downstream in the direction of the flow.

Water Desk Grantee Publication

This story was supported by the Water Desk’s grants program.

Learn more about our grants for journalists

Read more grantee stories »

Gutierrez and Maurer are inspecting the stability of water-calming structures they installed in recent weeks in this section of Canyon del Rancho, part of the Gallinas River watershed. The drainage was damaged last year in the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire, the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. The question for the moment: Had the gusher dislodged them? 

Both men are relieved by what they see. “It’s still there,” Gutierrez says, pointing at a stack of logs strung across the channel. These log mats are designed to blunt the destructive power of large volumes of water moving at high speed. In a post-fire landscape — one shorn of trees and with deep-cut stream channels — water moves in a torrent after a rainstorm. Without vegetation, streams become “peaky,” meaning a lot of water arrives at once. Those surges carry debilitating force.

Maurer, eyeing a baffle just upstream, marvels at the power of the stream flow that the weekend cloudburst unleashed. “I’m surprised that thing held, with that much water coming down,” he says.

The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire burned 341,735 acres of public and private land in the mountains above Las Vegas. The fire and the subsequent floods chewed through the Gallinas River watershed, which is the city’s drinking water source. The fire so injured the lands and creeks that feed the Gallinas River that Las Vegas needs $140 million in new facilities to treat water that is now heavy with sediment.

Turbid water from the Gallinas and other streams in the 530-square-mile burn scar also clogged and damaged the canals of local irrigation collectives called acequias. Some farmers have gone two seasons without irrigation water, according to Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. “That way of life has been completely disrupted by the disasters,” she said.

The city and the field — both depend on high-quality water. Yet the on-the-ground work to rehabilitate the streams that provide that high-quality water has been neglected and under-funded in the post-fire recovery, according to interviews with people involved in the response. The forests are being reseeded and mulched, which will help hold soil in place. Dead trees are being removed. 

But there’s a profound disconnect in the resources available to calm the erosive power of streams. Money and labor do not match the overwhelming need for repair. 

The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire began on April 6, 2022, due to a colossal government agency miscalculation. The U.S. Forest Service was setting small fires that day below the craggy eastern face of Hermit’s Peak. The intention was to thin an overgrown forest and reduce the risk of catastrophic fire in an area that hadn’t burned in more than a century.

That was not the outcome. Dry tinder and shifting winds propelled the prescribed fire beyond its containment lines. Three weeks later a dormant fire in nearby Calf Canyon reawakened. The combined inferno burned for more than four months until it was put out in late August.

Owing to the federal government’s responsibility in starting the fire, Congress last year passed the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act, which provides $3.95 billion to compensate property owners for fire damage and to construct a new water treatment plant to handle higher sediment levels and recycle drinking water. 

With a full-time staff of four and two part-time, Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance, or HPWA, is one of several small organizations trying to make the watershed whole again. Lea Knutson, HPWA’s founder and executive director, sees the billions going to compensate property owners and laments that more is not available for streams. “There’s so much money out there,” Knutson said. “It’s not that easy to get. I mean, every week I hear of another source, and try to go for that source. And there’s always some obstacle for either a nonprofit getting it, or it going into river restoration.” 

Damage to the forest and watershed was immediately apparent and worsened by the heavy rains of the Southwest’s summer monsoon. Downpours scoured bare hillslopes and turned rivers black. Fast-moving water flexed its might. Creeks cut through their beds like buzz saws. Knutson said the worst were incised four to five feet.

The streams carried debris that blocked some 90 acequias, according to Garcia. The acequias, at risk of repeated floods coming down the mountains, are still being dug out and rebuilt.

“It’s going to be a lifetime of work to heal these watersheds,” she reflected. She added: “Watershed restoration is so important. Our future depends on it.”

The Gallinas River, which arises from the slopes near Hermit’s Peak, is a focal point of the recovery. The river is the drinking water source for 17,000 people in and around Las Vegas. In the summer of 2022 the river was so overloaded with sediment that the treatment plant couldn’t function. At one point, the city had just 21 days of water in storage that met drinking water standards and could be delivered to residents. A concerted conservation campaign kept the city from running dry until sediment levels in the river diminished.

“The watershed is our water system,” Maria Gilvarry, director of the Las Vegas Utility Department, said. “So the more of the watershed that burns, the more that impacts our ability to treat and provide water.”

Patrick Gutierrez of Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance explains the organization’s work to restore streams that were damaged following the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire. Photo © Brett Walton/Circle of Blue

Barriers to restoration

Landowners, if they apply for a claim under the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act, can use the FEMA-administered funds to cover the cost of repairs to streams and forests on their property. Such piecemeal action, however, is less effective than a holistic watershed plan, said Reid Whittlesey, stream restoration director for Rio Grande Return, another nonprofit working in the burn scar.

FEMA also oversees an aid program to rehabilitate public infrastructure assets like roads and bridges after a disaster. But where does this leave streams? Garcia said they are the “glaring omission” in the fire recovery system. “It’s hard to do that collective work, when [streams] are not part of public infrastructure,” she said.

One problem is scale. The resources for stream recovery do not match the need. Dollars are required but pennies are being offered. Few grant programs are directed at stream restoration. A go-to funding source is the New Mexico Environment Department, but it is limited. The department’s Section 319 grant program receives about $2.3 million annually from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that can be used for watershed restoration activities statewide. The state-run River Stewardship Program offers an equivalent amount for water quality and habitat protection. It will see a boost starting next year with an annual allocation from the new Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund.

The federal Natural Resources Conservation operates the Emergency Watershed Protection program, but Elias Gnann, the state conservation engineer, said it is focused on protecting life and property, not necessarily stream restoration. That program has paid out $125 million in the burn scar area for seeding, mulching, sediment and debris removal, and flood protection. A second NRCS program — Watershed and Flood Operations — might consider stream restoration, Gnann said. But it is in the early planning stages of what could be a 10-year process.

Knutson offers an example of the funding mismatch. Earlier this year, HPWA reconnected a three-quarter mile segment of the Gallinas River to its floodplain, a move that will calm the river during high flows and allow it to spread out, reducing its velocity. That project cost about $500,000, she said. Using it as a baseline, Knutson did a back-of-the-envelope calculation for FEMA to estimate stream restoration costs across the entire burn scar. The total: more than $1 billion.

Other groups acknowledge that their projects can reach only so far.

“In a post-fire recovery scenario these days the fires are so enormous, that the scale that we’re able to treat is completely a drop in the bucket,” said Whittlesey of Rio Grande Return. The organization is working with a three-year, $500,000 grant from the New Mexico Environment Department.

Even if more dollars were available, the contracts might need to be reworked, said Shantini Ramakrishnan of the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute. Watershed recovery takes a decade or more, yet most grants extend only a couple years. The risk is that the work starts and stops. “We don’t fund long-term recovery very well,” she said.

Changing this funding structure to account for the long-tail of post-fire damage is one of the recommendations of the federal Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, a group of more than 50 national and regional fire experts tasked by Congress to recommend policy solutions to the wildfire crisis. The commission also suggested expanding existing forest programs to make watershed restoration an eligible category for funding.

Then there is the matter of labor. Everyone interviewed for this article said that New Mexico lacks stream restoration contractors. Only a handful work in the state, and they are booked.

“There are capacity issues at every level,” said Alan Klatt of the New Mexico Environment Department. 

Several local programs are attempting to address the labor deficit. The New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute is collaborating with Luna Community College on a restoration training center. Knutson of HPWA draws workers from New Mexico Highlands University and the Youth Conservation Corps and is seeking an economic development grant for worker training.

Once all those variables fall into place — funding, labor, contracts — restoration workers still need access to streams. In many cases in the burn scar, that means private lands.

Isaac Leyba stands in front of Beaver Creek, which runs along his property. “In all the years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen anything like the flooding last year,” he said. Monsoon rains in the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon burn scar sent torrents of water through the creeks. Photo © Brett Walton/Circle of Blue

Recruiting landowners

Canyon del Rancho, one of HPWA’s restoration sites, connects with Beaver Creek at the property of Isaac Leyba. Just a mile downstream, Beaver Creek meets the Gallinas River, which then flows to Las Vegas.

Leyba, a playful soul, has lived at this intersection of forest and stream for 30 years. He likes to pan for gold. “I’ve found a few specks,” he said, pulling a Native-brand cigarette from a carton in his shirt pocket and lighting it.

Restoring streams in the burn scar means HPWA has to work with hundreds of landowners like Leyba. Some 57 percent of the fire burned on private lands.

As the climate warms, especially in a drying region, enabling streams and floodplains to hold water in the high country is a net benefit to the river system as a whole, explained Whittlesey. Peaky hydrographs need to be flattened. “In the desert southwest, we need to retain as much water as possible on the landscape,” he said.

HPWA’s work with ephemeral streams is low-tech and conducted by hand. Most materials used in its projects — rocks, logs, dirt — are found on or near the site. HPWA and like-minded stream restoration outfits such as Rio Grande Return take their inspiration from beavers. Three principles prevail: slow the water down, spread it out, let it sink into the ground. Rills shouldn’t erode to become gullies. Streams should connect to floodplains. They work high in the watershed, starting from the foundational creeks that give rise to the larger rivers.

Gutierrez and Maurer know many of the people who live in the Gallinas watershed. Cultivating those relationships is a huge part of the job, they said. Without working on private lands, stream restoration in the burn scar would be patchwork and incomplete.

Leyba, for one, welcomes the ecological interventions. He watched the fire remake the watershed. Trout disappeared from the creek, he said. After every rain a fresh plug of sediment fills the channels. A three-foot diameter culvert at the end of Canyon del Rancho that was clear before the fire is now half-buried with fine-grain deposits.

“Water, you cannot stop it,” Leyba said. “It’s going to continue.”

Leyba thanked Gutierrez and Maurer for their help with the channel modifications. “These guys worked their tails off,” he said gratefully. “I hope people recognize what they did.”

The western sky took on a bruised color, darkening over the mountains above. Thunder echoed in the narrow valley. A monsoon storm was building.

Gutierrez started his vehicle and Maurer rode shotgun. They drove back toward Las Vegas, away from the clouds.

“I wonder if Lori got her hot tub yet,” Maurer mused as they passed a cluster of homes.

In the high country thunder snapped again. Within an hour the rain began.

Read the first story in this two-part series: New Mexico’s largest fire wrecked this city’s water source

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.

Colorado River crisis — How did the nation’s two largest reservoirs nearly go dry?

Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison, Colorado, shows it’s falling water level this fall. After many years of drought Blue Mesa was full earlier this year with the melting snowwater of a deep winter snowpack. Blue Mesa is 51 feet higher than it was at this time a year ago and is 73% of capacity. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

By Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News | Nov 20, 2023

During the drought-choked summer of 2021, Colorado’s largest reservoir, Blue Mesa, was low, its shoreline exposed and dusty like a dirty white collar.

The massive inflows from the Gunnison River, a major Colorado River tributary on which it relied, had shrunk to just 32% of average, the lowest on record.

Still, thousands of boaters and anglers came to the lake near Gunnison, as they always had, more intent than ever on using its cool water to escape the heat.

Then, in August of that year, the lake receded even more when Blue Mesa’s federal owner, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, issued an emergency order to release millions of gallons of water from Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa to rescue Lake Powell, their massive sister lake to the south.

Eric Loken was shocked. He and his family have operated Blue Mesa’s two marinas, Elk Creek and Lake Fork, for decades. Their 2021 season would end three weeks early.

But the truly hard times lay ahead. The next summer, Reclamation closed the two marinas for the entire season, unsure of how much more water would have to be released in 2022 to try to stabilize the crisis-plagued Colorado River System.

For Loken, it would mean his family would lose $650,000 in income in 2022, and the more than two dozen workers they employed each summer would lose their jobs.

“That was 25 to 30 workers and their families, who relied on those incomes,” Loken said. “My family was not the only one affected by this.”

Eric Loken, photographed at Blue Mesa Reservoir on Novenber 11, 2023. Loken’s family owns and operates the Elk Creek Marrina on Blue Mesa Reservoir. In 2022 the marrina was forced to close because of low water levels . Elk Creek Marrina is the largest marrina on Blue Mesa Reservoir and served thousands of campers, boaters, campers and anglers. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

What went wrong? Just how did lakes Mead and Powell, the nation’s two largest storage vessels, almost go dry?

Experts cite a number of failures, including complicated operating systems, competing government agencies running water models tilted by political posturing, rigid guidelines that delayed decisions that could have saved water and, of course, climate change and a megadrought thought to be the worst in more than 1,200 years.

Some blame Arizona in particular for its stubborn refusal to consider deep water cuts until they were ordered by the federal government.

“It’s a story of water management on auto pilot with no emergency off switch,” said Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University’s climate center who is an expert on the Colorado River. “Think about gas stations. Oftentimes you’ll see a big red button that has an ‘emergency off’ on it. A gas station, because of the risk of fire, needs that button. Our water management system doesn’t have that.”

A system divided

The seven-state Colorado River Basin is divided into two regions that are governed and operated separately. Mexico is also part of the basin, as are 30 Native American tribal communities.

The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. States operate their systems themselves with help from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and oversight of the Upper Colorado River Commission.

The Lower Basin is made up of Arizona, California and Nevada. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates this system.

Management of the Colorado River as it moves through seven states, more than 30 Native American communities and Mexico is divided between the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin, which are governed and operated separately.

The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. States operate their systems themselves with help from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and oversight of the Upper Colorado River Commission. The Lower Basin is made up of Arizona, California and Nevada. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates this system. (Charles Chamberlin, Fresh Water News)

Lakes Powell and Mead are the largest reservoirs in the basin and in the United States. Already ailing in 2020 with just 46% of their normal supplies, by July 2022 they had plummeted to 27% full, according to Reclamation.

Critical to the Southwest, both reservoirs act as liquid savings accounts, storing water to make sure the Upper Basin can deliver water to Lake Powell to meet its legal obligations, while Mead delivers water to cities from Las Vegas, to Phoenix and Los Angeles, as well as tribal communities and farms.

Few believed Mead, built in the 1930s, and Powell, which began to fill in the 1960s just as the American West began a 50-year growth spurt, would face a future where they were in seeming freefall.

For those outside the federal and state water agencies responsible for keeping the giant system afloat, the spectacle of the reservoirs’ near-collapse filled them with dismay.

Blue Mesa Dam on the Gunnison River photographed on November 14, 2023.  (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Ken Brenner, a member of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District in Steamboat Springs and often a sharp critic of state and federal water agencies, said the near-disaster reaffirmed his belief that the army of agencies and water users looking after the river were not fail-proof.

The drawdown that took the system to 27% of its capacity in the summer of 2022, “was the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever seen,” Brenner said.

And painful.

The Bureau of Reclamation is one of the largest producers of hydropower in the U.S., bolstered by giant turbines at the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams, as well as electricity generated at other reservoirs including Flaming Gorge on the Utah-Wyoming border, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and Navajo, on the Colorado-New Mexico border.

At the height of the crisis in 2022, turbines at Powell, for instance, generated nearly 50% less electricity than they would have otherwise, forcing costs to soar more than 30%, according to the Western Area Power Administration. The agency sells and distributes electricity to utilities across the West, including Colorado’s Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.

The environment suffered as well. As releases from the lakes dwindled, water that was normally cool warmed up, harming threatened and endangered fish that the U.S. government had spent decades and millions of dollars trying to protect, according to Jack Schmidt, a professor at Utah State University and a noted researcher on the river.

Farm fields went dry everywhere. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado saw its water supply slashed to just 10% of normal in 2021. In the Lower Basin, when water cutbacks were finally ordered, farmers and ranchers were among the first to see their water supplies cut, forcing them to leave crops in the ground and walk away from their fields.

What is now known to be the worst drought in more than 1,200 years seemed like more of a garden-variety Western dry spell when it began in 2000. But by 2005, Powell and Mead had lost half of their water supply.

In response, the states and the federal government, along with dozens of water agencies wrote a set of operating guidelines designed as an emergency backup system to help protect the two reservoirs against drought and integrate their operations.

The 2007 interim operating guidelines, as the rules are known, set up a system of benchmarks and tiers in each reservoir tied to each pool’s water level. It was designed so that during both droughts and recovery periods, the water amounts stored in each reservoir would be more balanced, explained Eric Kuhn, former manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and a scholar who has studied the river extensively.

But those tiers would prove highly damaging, experts said. Instead of balancing the reservoirs’ contents, they resulted in the dangerous drawdown of both, in effect almost breaking the powerful river system that serves 40 million people, more than 1 million acres of farmland, and one of the nation’s largest agricultural economies in California.

(Charles Chamberlin, Fresh Water News)

Sunken boats

Chuck Cullom spent decades as a water manager in Arizona overseeing use on the Colorado River. In January 2022, though, he became manager of the Upper Colorado River Commission in Salt Lake City, the body charged with helping the states run the Upper Basin.

In December of that year, back in the Lower Basin for the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas, Cullom rose at dawn and drove out to Lake Mead. What he saw was heartbreaking.

“That morning I had gotten up early to prepare for a talk. But I realized that I hadn’t actually seen what we [the water agencies] collectively had done to the system … the bathtub rings, the dewatering, the finding of bodies and sunken boats in the lake, the ghosts emerging. I hadn’t seen it, so I got up in the dark and drove out there. It was stunningly low.”

As the conference convened that morning, a visibly distressed Cullom returned to the city and delivered his talk, chastising the hundreds of water managers in the room. “We used almost all of the storage in the system, bringing us to the precipice of a water crisis for 40 million people,” he recalled saying later. “We did not have a backup plan.”

Like others, Cullom says the 2007 guidelines set the stage for the unraveling of a system no one thought could fail.

“Because the rules were put in place when Lake Powell and Lake Mead had substantial amounts of storage, we figured if we were wrong we would use the bank accounts as a buffer. They would insulate the system from crisis,” he said. “What happened is that it was much drier than anticipated and we used almost all of the storage in the system.”

In the year 2000 the system was in fact nearly full. But after plunging in the early 2000s, the lakes struggled to refill. For the next 15 years, communities in the Lower Basin continued to grow and use more water, but good water years were scarce, pushing the lakes down, year after year with few reprieves.

Elk Creek Marrina on Blue Mesa Reservoir photographed on November 13, 2023. In 2022 the marina was forced to close because of low water levels. Elk Creek Marina is the largest marina on Blue Mesa Reservoir and served thousands of campers, boaters, campers and anglers. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Then in 2020, the drought suddenly deepened, setting off alarms as river flows into the system plummeted. The liquid buffer everyone thought existed in 2007 was long gone.

In 2021, Reclamation ordered emergency releases from the Upper Basin reservoirs for the first time in history, trying to protect hydropower generation at Lake Powell. And in another historic first, it would order cutbacks in water use in the Lower Basin. But there was little relief.

By the summer of 2022, the two giant reservoirs were just 27% full, according to Reclamation, the lowest level ever recorded since they began filling.

Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Lower Basin and Upper Basin each are entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet of water. But the Upper Basin has never fully used its share, and as a result, tries to keep its options open to use it in the future, Kuhn said, regardless of whether it is needed or if it is available as the river system dries out.

“The Upper Basin has always overstated demands because there has been this religious fervor that we are going to use more water [in the future],” Kuhn said.

Kuhn, as well as Udall, say the Upper Basin must take some of the blame for the crisis, because water managers insisted on inflating the amount of future water they would need when the 2007 guidelines and models were being developed. Under these inflated demands, during actual low flow periods (like 2000-2022) the operating guidelines suggested that Powell would have to release just 7.5 million acre-feet of water most years. Instead, as the lakes’ supplies dropped, Powell in several years had to release 9 million acre-feet of water — water that could have been kept in the reservoir had the Upper Basin not inflated its demands in the early 2000s.

The political pressure on water agencies to keep pushing to preserve future water supplies played a major role in inflating the demand forecasts used in the 2007 operating models, Kuhn and Udall said.

“I think the Upper Basin shot themselves in the foot,” Udall said, “because they didn’t really understand what would happen.”

Some, including Cullom, dispute the notion that flawed modeling is to blame. They say the crisis is the result of the tiered system, which they say was too rigid, and a failure to respond fast enough to climate and the drought.

In fact, the tiered system did little to stop the overuse in the Lower Basin until it was almost too late.

Among the issues that led to this were contracts. In the Lower Basin, the Reclamation has contracts with each of its water users, from Las Vegas, to Phoenix, to Los Angeles, which have rights to the river. They are entitled to whatever water those contracts, also based on the 1922 Colorado River Compact, say they can have. And so, even if the entire basin is in megadrought, those water users get their supplies—that is until Lake Mead gets desperately low and the federal government steps in, as it did for the first time in history in 2021.

In the Upper Basin, there are no contracts, only Mother Nature. And there are no huge storage ponds like Powell and Mead that Upper Basin users can tap in a dry year. And so water users must largely rely on whatever the snowpack delivers each year, minus what they must send to others downstream and what little they have in reservoirs, such as Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa and Navajo. In the Upper Basin, those pools combined can store 6.4 million acre-feet of water, enough to serve roughly 13 million households for one year. But that number is dwarfed by the more than 50 million acre-feet that Powell and Mead hold when full.

Decisions delayed

From her desk in Phoenix, Vineetha Kartha, Colorado River programs manager with the Central Arizona Project, said water managers could have kept more water in the reservoirs if the tiered system had been more flexible. As they watched the lake levels drop, rather than waiting for the next trigger level to be reached to order cutbacks, they could have acted sooner, making politically unpopular decisions about reducing water use that would have kept the lakes fuller, longer.

And early on, as the tiered system was being developed in the early 2000s, negotiators could have insisted that the tiers be set higher, keeping more water in both lakes longer, according to Terry Fulp, the former regional director of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado River Region who also helped negotiate the 2007 guidelines. But that would have meant the Lower Basin states would have had to agree to cut back water use sooner and the cuts would have been deeper, Fulp said.

Instead negotiators agreed to a more conservative approach, in which the tiers would kick in when the lakes were lower and water cuts would come later.

“We looked at different alternatives,” Fulp said. “If we could have delivered less out of Lake Mead, it would have held Mead higher. But the Lower Basin, Arizona in particular, would not agree to that.”

Brenda Burman was commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation from 2017 to 2020. Now she is the general manager of the Central Arizona Project, the state’s largest user of Colorado River Water. She acknowledges that overuse in the Lower Basin, as well as the wild cards the drought and climate change delivered, drove the crisis.

“The Lower Basin does have a math problem,” she said, referring to the overuse. “But I think what we’ve seen from the last 23 years is that this problem is bigger than that.”

The untidy work of getting more water back into Powell and Mead and finding ways to cut water use permanently is underway. Reclamation is developing two plans to save the river. One is a three-year operating plan that it hopes will keep the system stable in the near term. The second is a long-term plan that will be put into action in 2027, after the 2007 guidelines expire at the end of 2026.

This year, a once-in-a-generation snowpack in the Upper Basin states combined with snow and rain in the Lower Basin have allowed the lakes to recover a bit. But Mead and Powell are still just 35% full.

At the same time, water use in the Lower Basin, thanks to the wet year and cutbacks ordered by the federal government as spelled out in the 2007 guidelines and a special 2019 drought contingency plan, is dramatically lower, with the three states using just 5.8 million acre-feet of their 7.5 million acre-feet allotment.

Biologists for Colorado Parks and Wildlife net Kokanee salmon out of a trap in Blue Mesa Reservoir on November 13, 2023. Blue Mesa has a population of Kokanee that migrate from the reservoir back up the Gunnison River to the hatchery near Almont, Colorado, where they were spawned. Drought has decimated the Kokanee population during the past few years by lowering the lakes’s water levels and forcing the Kokanee to be in the same habitat with the predatory Lake Trout. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But will the water users of the Colorado River Basin succeed in reinventing their complicated river system, cutting use dramatically so that it matches annual supplies?

That’s unclear.

“We need to have a system that provides for uses based on actual hydrology so that the amount of water available for use, particularly in the Lower Basin, is a function of actual water availability,” said Anne Castle, a Colorado River scholar at the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado and the federal appointee to the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Speaking as a scholar, Castle said it is clear that the demands of 40 million people and the region’s agricultural users will have to be adjusted down to match the river’s actual supply.

Is she hopeful? “Yes,” she said. “I think we’re seeing a lot more discussion of moving toward an operating system that is based on actual availability.”

Blue Mesa, unlike Powell and Mead, refilled this year, something for which Eric Loken is grateful. But he remains worried.

“This has been a wake-up call,” he said. “I am hopeful they will make changes downstream. But right now there is too much waste and silliness throughout the system that needs to be cleaned up.”

This Fresh Water News story was produced as part of a collaboration between the Colorado Sun and Water Education Colorado and will also appear at Fresh Water News was launched in 2018 as an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at

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

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.

Colorado squeezing water from urban landscapes

Meredith Slater and her husband, Jake Hyman, replaced the Kentucky bluegrass in their southeast Denver home because, she said, they wanted to provide a home for bees and other pollinators and to save water. Photo: Allen Best

By Allen Best, Aspen Journalism | November 9, 2023

This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is the first of a five-part series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.

Like weekly haircuts for men, a regularly mowed lawn of Kentucky bluegrass was long a prerequisite for civic respectability in Colorado’s towns and cities. That expectation has begun shifting.

A growing cultural norm blesses a broader range of respectable landscapes, which require not much more water than what occurs naturally across most of Colorado. Denver, for example, averages 15.6 inches annually.

Native grasses, most prominently buffalo and blue grama, need half to one-third as much of the supplemental water a year required to keep Kentucky bluegrass — a species native to Europe — bright green. In metro Denver, for example,  Westminster and Broomfield estimate that these cool-season grasses require 24 to 29 inches of supplemental water annually in addition to the 15 to 16 inches of average precipitation.  Other water-wise landscape choices can also ratchet down water requirements by at least half.

Many homeowners have the additional goal of installing shrubs, flowers and other plants that attract pollinators.

The shift can be traced back to at least 1981, when Denver Water coined the term “xeriscape” to reflect landscaping choices that use less water. The drive to cut excessive water use for landscapes picked up significantly during and after the searing drought of 2002. When that drought ended, many consumers retained their new, more judicious habits of irrigation.

Now, say water providers and others, the pace of transition has accelerated, deepened and broadened. If still far from universal, Coloradans have started developing a new aesthetic around urban landscapes. What is required to be a responsible homeowner and property manager is being redefined. 

With Colorado River water woes still unresolved and depletion of aquifers in the Denver Basin and elsewhere continuing, Big Pivots in collaboration with Aspen Journalism set out to understand water devoted to urban landscapes in Colorado. This is the first of five stories about this giant and probably long-term shift in how we use water in urban landscapes.

Nobody argues that this shift alone will solve Colorado’s water challenges. Water devoted to lawns and other urban landscapes constitutes just 3% to 4% of Colorado’s total water consumption. Nonetheless, that use is being questioned as never before.

Western Slope residents have long objected to dewatering of rivers and streams for lawns along the Front Range. Now, water utilities on both sides of the Continental Divide see more-judicious use of water as being the most cost-effective strategy in serving larger populations in a hotter and possibly drier climate. And many homeowners have decided that by replacing imported varieties of turf with native plants, they can be part of the solution to declining populations of pollinating insects. 

Colorado legislators have passed several laws in recent years to curb standard turf-growing practices. In January, they will be asked to approve a bill that would require local governments and homeowners associations to ban the installation, the planting or the placement of new nonfunctional turf, artificial turf or invasive plant species in commercial, institutional or industrial properties. The bill takes aim at purely aesthetic non-functional turf along roads and in medians.  Residential homes would be exempted from the prohibition.

Nonfunctional turf generally means grass intended to be seen but rarely, if ever, touched by human feet. For example, the Flatirons Mall in Broomfield, a hospital in Fort Collins and a warehouse complex in Aurora have broad swathes of green grass surrounding them. Another example is along the drive-up lane to an ATM at a bank on East Colfax Avenue in Denver. Cosmetic or aesthetic turf is universal.

The bill has the backing of both Denver and Aurora. They argue that replacing existing turf, a costly task, is negated if the saved water is then used for new development that hews to the old habits of landscape. Aurora, in particular, has made clear that voluntary approaches have had only marginal success.

Colorado Springs, although equally committed to reducing water use, believes that a harder but better approach will be more effective in the long term. The Colorado Municipal League, representing 270 of the state’s 272 towns and cities, has concerns. At issue is a familiar one in Colorado: state mandate vs. local prerogative.

Voluntary approaches, though, have been impressive. For example, thoughtful design can be found in abundance at Centerra, a commercial and housing complex in Loveland. There’s still bluegrass, but it tends to be minimized.

In Boulder, Resource Central began offering water-conservation services to Front Range communities during the severe drought of 2002. The nonprofit reports a rapid uptick in its lawn replacement and other programs. It now has relationships with 47 water providers who help support the nonprofit’s Garden In A Box and other programs.

“This is the first year that we have seen more than 10,000 people participating in our various water-conservation programs, which tells us that this is rapidly becoming the new norm in Colorado,” said Resource Central CEO Neal Lurie, referring to lower-water landscapes. “What happens is one person makes a change in their yard and their neighbors come over and ask, ‘What are you doing?’”

It is that neighbor-to-neighbor conversation that is driving the urban landscape changes evident to anyone moving about most Colorado towns and cities.

Growing awareness of water scarcity also drives these altered sensibilities as well as new government regulations limiting outdoor water use. Declined flows in the Colorado River figure prominently in the thinking of many individuals but also public officials.

Aurora adopted bold restrictions on water use for outdoor landscapes in 2022. No use of Kentucky bluegrass or other so-called cool-weather varieties that use higher volumes of water will be allowed at new golf courses. The same applies to new front yards, although 500 square feet or 45% of backyards, whichever is less, will be permitted. The regulations also take aim at water for road medians and curbside landscapes. Fountains, waterfalls and other ornamental water features will also be banned in new development.

Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman — whose city has the state’s third-highest population, at 400,000 — cites worries about potential diminishment of water imported from the Colorado River basin as one of several reasons for taking action. “The longer you wait, the more dramatic your decisions have to be,” he said. “I think we’re on the right path.” 

At least 38 utilities and other water providers have instituted turf-replacement programs, offering incentives that in some places can reach $3 per square foot of turf removed. That’s almost double the number of jurisdictions of just a few years ago. Like Aurora, many local governments have also adopted limitations on outdoor landscaping. Broomfield adopted regulations in late August.

Centerra, a business and residential complex in Loveland, blends traditional and new landscaping in ways that lessen water requirements and heighten visual interest. Photo: Allen Best

Doing their small parts

In southeast Denver, Meredith Slater took a break on an August morning to explain why she and her husband, Jake Hyman, earlier this year had replaced the lawn of their brick home with plants native to Colorado and nearby areas. The yellow, red and orange flowers were thick with bees and other pollinators.

“Over the last few years, I’ve come to recognize that native bees, birds and insects don’t have a place to call home in much of Denver because of all the grass and nonnatives,” Slater said as her husband used a tiller to rip out  the remaining Kentucky bluegrass on the other half of the front yard. “That was part of the impetus for this.”

Slater works for a global organization called ActionAid. It operates in 40 countries, many of them in Africa and Asia, to assist farmers faced with the challenges of a warming climate. That work has made her particularly attentive to the challenge of protecting adequate water for agriculture. In Denver, she sees water devoted to lush green lawns as wasteful. 

“I’m just trying to do my little part with my front yard,” she said.

Her thought was echoed by dozens of homeowners from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins to Durango who were interviewed for this series of stories. “We’re not going to save the world, but we’re doing what we can,” said a Denver homeowner.

Colorado gets 83% of its water from rivers, streams and other surface sources, while the other 17% comes from groundwater, according to the 2023 Colorado Water Plan. Agriculture uses about 90% of Colorado’s water, towns and cities 7%, and industry 3%.

Within urban areas, outdoor irrigation consumes roughly 50% of water. 

Why would cities want to cut outdoor use? Motivations vary.

For most jurisdictions, conserving water through reduced outdoor use represents the cheapest way to serve larger populations. Colorado Springs Utilities, for example, serves a population of 500,000 but has expectations of serving 800,000 at buildout.

Population growth along the Front Range during the past century has been primarily satisfied by transmountain diversions. Half of the water for Front Range cities comes from the Western Slope. In theory, Colorado has undeveloped water in the Colorado River. New transmountain diversions, though, can be very expensive and problematic. Aurora and Colorado Springs, for example, completed their Homestake diversion project in 1967. Since the early 1980s, they have been seeking additional diversions from Homestake Creek, an Eagle River tributary. Conservation has been more easily accomplished.

Easier in most cases than transmountain diversions — but still difficult — has been converting agriculture water to municipal use. That’s true even in the South Platte River Basin. As The New York Times reported in a September story, the Denver suburb of Thornton began acquiring water rights near Fort Collins in 1985. Construction of a 72-mile pipeline to bring that water to Thornton residents and businesses has barely started.

At Interlochen, a business park in Broomfield, an expanse of grass lies behind a fence at a corporate headquarters. Photo: Allen Best

A pipeline almost to Nebraska

Several of Denver’s south-metro-area cities have been unsustainably drafting the Denver Basin aquifers. Parker gets nearly 60% of its water from the aquifers; Castle Rock attributes “most” of its water from the aquifers. 

Parker Water and Sanitation District, working with farmers in the Sterling area, plans to pump water roughly 125 miles across eastern Colorado. It estimates the cost at $800 million. Castle Rock may participate in that project and also has a project called Box Elder that would draw water from 60 miles away in northeastern Colorado.

Lessened demand from landscaping means less need for costly new infrastructure. It also makes water utilities more resilient in the face of drought. Landscapes can sparkle with little water. Actually, they can be even brighter at times. After all, the “perfect” lawn is a monotone, unblemished by yellow dandelions or anything else. 

Still other water providers have been motivated simply by a desire to leave water in streams and rivers. That’s the case in Vail, which is landlocked with no expectations of significant expansion. There, the town has been replacing water-consumptive Kentucky bluegrass in town parks since 2019 with less-thirsty native species. This year’s projects also include removal of grass from an on-ramp to Interstate 70.

Vail’s motivation is simple: to preserve flows in Gore Creek and protect the aquatic environment, said Todd Oppenheimer, the town’s capital projects manager. 

Boulder has a robust portfolio of water rights and self-imposed growth limitations. Unlike neighboring jurisdictions along the Front Range, It has no practical considerations driving landscape changes. But for 20 years, it has been participating in Resource Central’s water-saving programs. This year, the city provided each customer $500 that can be applied toward either turf removal or Garden In A Box programs.

Turf removal reflects community values, said Laurel Olsen, Boulder’s utilities engagement and outreach senior program manager. “We have decided as a community that wise use of our resources is a high priority.”

In theory, this should result in Boulder’s leaving more water in creeks. The city, however, does not have a tabulation of that.

Colorado’s state government has also been delivering nudges. State legislators in 2022 directed the state’s leading water agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to develop a statewide program that would use financial incentives to encourage the voluntary replacement of irrigated turf with water-wise landscaping. That law allocated $2 million for the programs. Through early September, funding had been awarded to 25 jurisdictions with 13 others considered “eligible.” A deadline to apply for a second round of grants was in late August.

In February, Gov. Jared Polis appointed 21 members to a new Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force. He asked them to identify practical ways to advance outdoor water-conservation through state policy and local initiatives. Members must report their findings in January.

Several of the major water providers in the Colorado River basin have also agreed to reduce water for urban landscapes.

In August 2022, water providers from Denver, Aurora and Pueblo, along with those from Los Angeles and other southwestern cities, announced a memorandum of understanding. The MOU commits participating water utilities to “reduce the quantity of nonfunctional turf grass by 30% through replacement with drought- and climate-resilient landscaping, while maintaining vital urban landscapes and tree canopies that benefit our communities, wildlife and the environment.”

The MOU does not specify water savings, only the reduction in turf. 

A mix of xeriscape and Kentucky bluegrass turf at upscale Greeley house. Photo: Allen Best

Shifting attitudes 

Driven, at least in part, by the Colorado River troubles, public perceptions have been shifting rapidly. 

Denver Water has conducted surveys since 2016 that ask respondents how scarce they think water is now, and how scarce they think it will be in 10 years. Survey results show a sharp uptick in concern.

“Two-thirds of people think water is scarce now, and 90% of people think water is going to become more scarce in the future,” said Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning for Denver Water. 

Fisher sees a link to the “innumerable Colorado River stories” that have been published and broadcast in recent years. “We’re attaching that to climate change. And I think from what I read, it’s a lot of people asking, ‘What can I do? I now understand there’s this problem in the Colorado River. What can I do to help that?’ And I think we’re starting to show them a way that they can help.”

Denver Water in 1981 coined the term “xeriscape,” combining the Greek prefix “xero,” which means dry, with landscape. Water conservation advocates now rarely use it. They say too many people take it to mean zero-landscape, and for many, that means rocks and cactus. Yards of gravel are anathema to landscape architects. Not only are gravel yards boring, but they contribute to the heat-island effect of urban areas.

Colorado Springs-based landscape architect Carla Anderson said she constantly stresses the alternatives to turf grasses imported from other parts of the world to Colorado’s semi-arid climate.

“I have been advocating for years – not saying that grass is bad but to put it in places that make sense. A little bit of turf can go an awful long way in creating a feeling of an oasis,” she said. “The good thing is we’re getting some wonderful options to bluegrass.”

In her work, she sees a generational shift. Older people, generally 70-plus, tend to insist on bluegrass lawns because they see it as a status symbol. “If you have this big, sweeping front lawn, you have made it,” she said.

Younger generations, even including those in their 60s, have a broader perspective. They are less likely to assign status to a lawn. 

But conversions to water-wise landscapes do take time and energy. “That is a stumbling block for a lot of lower-income people,” said Anderson.

Riding on a bus in Colorado Springs, her attention was directed toward a weedy front yard. “What would you call that?” she was asked. “An unkempt yard.”

Colorado Springs officials estimate that 30% of homes in the city are unkempt. The challenge they see is to ease the conversion to low-water yards. They hope to help foster native grasses, which use little water and, once installed, demand less maintenance.

The process of changing attitudes will take time, said Anderson. “It won’t happen overnight. We have this long affair with the bluegrass lawn in all corners of our country, and so the process of changing people’s perception of what is right and looks good, what is aesthetically pleasing, is a significant process. It is just going to take time. Unfortunately, we don’t have that much time. We need to crack down and save water in a hurry.” 

Gravel spread across lawns, such as this one in Denver, may seem like an easy replacement for turf, but landscape architects roll their eyes, as do others. Also, gravel yards contribute to the heat-island effect of urban areas. Photo: Allen Best

A new word

As the word “xeriscape” falls out of favor, it is being replaced with new words: water-wise, water-efficient and Coloradoscape.

“There is no agreement yet” on which should be the commonly accepted phrase, said Lindsay Rogers of Western Resource Advocates, a group that has devoted substantial resources to the shift.

“We want climate-appropriate landscapes in Colorado that are verdant and beautiful and use native plants but also use less water than Kentucky bluegrass,” she said.

Westminster is unusual among Front Range cities in its small reliance on the Colorado River. The city’s water utility located midway between Denver and Boulder serves 135,000 people. Most of the water comes from Clear Creek. And it has no expectations of rapid growth, unlike Aurora, which envisions a near doubling of population in the next 50 years. 

More than 80% of Westminster residents live in single-family homes and have above-average affluence. Converting lawns into water-efficient landscapes, which saves both time and money in the long term, has high up-front costs that rebates by utilities only partially cover.

From his perspective as Westminster’s senior water resource analyst, Drew Beckwith sees a broad social transformation beginning.

“We are in the midst of seeing this social change in how people view a green lawn along the Front Range of Colorado,” he said. 

Beckwith perceives a challenge to prevailing notions. Bright-green lawns require not only regular irrigation in most years, but frequent fertilization. They must be mowed regularly, at least to conform to cultural expectations.

“My customers are saying, ’I don’t want to do that anymore,’ and I don’t think it’s only because of the cost of water,” Beckwith said. “I think there is a new social idea, that a green-grass lawn is not a very responsible thing to do in a water-short and dry area like Colorado.”

Westminster, like dozens of other municipalities along the Front Range, has been paying homeowners to replace thirsty turf. The city shares the costs of landscape transformation with homeowners by providing a rebate on physical turf removal, providing new plants to take its place, or a mix of the two. From 11,000 square feet, when the program began in 2020, the program expanded last year to 107,000 square feet in 191 separate projects. On average, customers paid $560 for each project, and the city paid $650. 

“We have taken out 4 acres of turf grass in residential properties in Westminster over the last three years,” Beckwith said. That’s enough water for 20 single-family homes.

In these numbers, Beckwith sees just the earliest stage of a transformation.

“You will have the bleeding edge of folks who pick it up because they are super trend-setters. They were doing this over a decade ago,” he said. “I think we are past the bleeding edge, and we are now into the early adopters. These are normal people who are saying, ’Yeah, this is probably something we should do.’”

Beckwith expects to see, during the next three to five years, many more of the early adopters wanting to replace their turf.

”And then we are going to be in the meat of that general population that is going to start changing their landscapes,” he said. “Beyond will be some people who will never want to change. And that’s OK.”

After planting buffalo grass in their yard in Colorado Springs, Don and Jill Brown rarely need to mow it and give it little water. Once established, it outcompetes weeds. Photo: Allen Best

Nothing to the contrary

By Beckwith’s classification, Don and Jill Brown would be classified as being on the bleeding edge. They live in a red-brick house in Colorado Springs with a large lot. He’s a counselor, of marriages among other things, and she is an author.

In 2017, they decided to do something with a weedy 30-foot-by-80-foot section of their large lot. But instead of Kentucky bluegrass, said Don Brown, they wanted vegetation more natural to Colorado. They chose blue grama.

The grass can go brown in a drought but does not die. “In a dry year, we might water it once or twice. This year, not at all,” he said.

It grows to be about knee-high, but that’s it. Once established, it leaves no room for weeds. He rarely mows.

“We really love it,” he said. “We like the look of it. We like the low maintenance. And we especially like the sense of being responsible stewards of this property.”

A native grass, blue grama evolved in the context of Colorado’s arid environment, the nation’s seventh driest, with an average 18.1 inches of precipitation annually. Colorado Springs gets a little less: 15 to 16 inches.

“In this fairly arid state, we learned that if you use native plants, you will do a lot better,” Don Brown said.

As for the aesthetics, it hasn’t provoked any contrary comments from passersby. “It looks like a meadow,” he said.

This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at and at

Scientists use simple cameras to answer complex questions about forests and the snowpack

A snowtography installation near Red Mountain Pass, Colorado, will use inexpensive cameras to measure the snow depth at dozens of locations to learn more about how land management affects the snowpack. Photo: Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk

RED MOUNTAIN PASS, COLORADO – On a sunny day in September, with the leaves starting to turn more than two miles above sea level, scientists and volunteers hauled metal stakes, tall measuring sticks and simple trail cameras into Colorado’s high country to seek answers to pressing questions about forests and the snowpack. 

Surrounding them were bald peaks, some exceeding 13,000 feet, that would soon be buried in the seasonal accumulation of snow. The snowpack serves as the foundation of the state’s water supply and a critical water source for tens of millions of people in 18 other states and Mexico, plus millions of acres of crops.

Jake Kurzweil, a hydrologist and associate director of water programs at the Durango, Colorado-based Mountain Studies Institute, hauls gear to the snowtography site on September 8, 2023. Photo: Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk

Despite the snowpack’s importance in Colorado and elsewhere, scientists still struggle to accurately measure how much snow is out there–and how much water it contains–as climate change threatens to further diminish the frozen reservoir that so many rely on.  

In a region with complex weather and roller-coaster topography, each storm dumps a unique pattern of precipitation, favoring some mountains over others, and leaving behind vastly different snow totals due to such factors as elevation and the wind’s direction. 

But even in an area as small as a single backyard, how the snow accumulates on the ground–and how long it sticks around–can vary tremendously depending on the presence of trees, shade and other features, posing challenges for traditional monitoring approaches.  

“Snow distribution is very heterogeneous, so that means it’s very different within small spatial scales,” said Jake Kurzweil, a hydrologist and associate director of water programs at the Durango, Colorado-based Mountain Studies Institute

Kurzweil was in a sunny clearing next to a stand of conifers, taking a break as his colleagues arranged stakes and pounded them into the ground of the heavily shaded forest, the sound of clanking metal mixing with the incessant barking of a squirrel. 

“If we just move 20 meters to our south here,” he said, “we’re actually going to have quite a  different snowpack than where we’re standing right here.”

Drone-captured image from above the snowtography site in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Researchers have deliberately chosen places where conditions change markedly over short distances so they can understand how this variability affects the snowpack. Photo: Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk

This corner of the rugged San Juan Mountains features a diversity of conditions even without human influences. But in Colorado and around the West, land managers are making their own mark on forests by pursuing projects that remove trees before a wildfire strikes, improve wildlife habitat and support scenic or recreational goals, all of which can affect the way snow accumulates and dissipates.

To understand how such treatments influence the snowpack, and to inform land-management decisions, researchers are looking to “snowtography,” an emerging approach that relies on automated trail cameras snapping repeated photos of the snow’s depth across a series of points on a straight line known as a transect. 

“Snowtography is not a new technology but rather a novel application of fairly simple components,” according to a 2021 handbook produced by The Nature Conservancy, Western Water Assessment and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. The free publication explains how anyone can build and install their own snowtography equipment using materials from a hardware store and inexpensive cameras. (The handbook was funded by the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports The Water Desk.)

Haley Farwell, a graduate student at Northern Arizona University, attaches a camera to a tree as Lenka Doskocil, a research associate at the Mountain Studies Institute, and Taite Stotts, a student at Northern Arizona University, stabilize the ladder. Photo: Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk

As Kurzweil and others set up the stakes for the measuring sticks along the transects, Haley Farwell, a graduate student at Northern Arizona University, scaled a ladder to gingerly fasten cameras to the trunks of trees with screw-in mounts and carefully adjust the angle of the lenses so they targeted the stakes. 

“I have a climbing background, so it’s not so bad for me,” said Farwell, whose master’s thesis will use data from the site to study the connection between forests and the snowpack. 

Farwell adjusts the camera so it can photograph nearby snow stakes. “I have a climbing background, so it’s not so bad for me,” she said. Photo: Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk

Parker Randles, a sophomore at Fort Lewis College in Durango who is working toward his Snow & Avalanche Studies Certificate, had another demanding job: using a post driver to jam the stakes into the ground, which was sometimes unforgiving due to buried rocks. 

“There were some rough spots, but overall it went pretty smooth,” said Randles, a ski patroller who said he was interested in the project because “snow is super cool to me.”

Even if a transect is short enough for someone to throw a snowball from one end to the other, the depth of the snow along that line will be anything but uniform. In fact, the researchers have deliberately chosen sites where conditions change markedly over short distances so they can understand how this variability affects the snowpack.

“Our goals are, one, to improve our understanding of forest dynamics and snowpack, and that’ll help us improve our hydrologic modeling, which will help us improve our water forecasting,” Kurzweil said. “But really the primary goal is to understand and work with forest managers and land managers and the Forest Service to say, ‘Hey, if you’re going to do forest treatments, can we optimize the treatments to accumulate and retain snow?’”

Kurzweil and Parker Randles, a Fort Lewis College sophomore who is working toward his Snow & Avalanche Studies Certificate, drive a stake into the ground that will hold a measuring stick. Photo: Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk

The collaborative effort is meant to complement the existing network of more than 900 automated SNOTEL sites that are scattered across the West and run by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. These monitoring stations employ a “snow pillow” filled with antifreeze liquid that can calculate the weight and water content of the snow above. They also measure snow depth and climatic conditions, but the SNOTEL stations can only beam data on a single point, giving a useful yet very limited glimpse at snow conditions.

“Critically, that one location was almost never in the forest. So we had information about snow conditions in open clearings, and not just any open clearings, but usually SNOTELs were located in positions on the landscape where snow persisted for the longest,” said Joel Biederman, a leader in the snowtography effort at the Southwest Watershed Research Center, part of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. “Trees have all these effects, and the way that they’re arranged geometrically are what we would call the 3D forest structure. It matters.”

In addition to gathering images from the cameras, scientists will learn about changes in soil moisture and collect data on “snow water equivalent,” the key measure of how much water lies within the snowpack.

“We’re really accountants for water, if you will,” Kurzweil said. “By having these different data points, it really allows us to quantify how much of that snow is going into the ground, how deep into the ground is it going, versus how much is going into the sky versus how much might be running off.”

Kurzweil and Randles hold measuring sticks that the cameras will repeatedly photograph to learn more about how the snowpack behaves. “We’re really accountants for water, if you will,” Kurzweil said. Photo: Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk

Researchers also want to understand what happens to snow at lower elevations as warming temperatures due to climate change threaten to decrease snow cover.

“Historically, a lot of good snow science has been done, but it’s been concentrated disproportionately in places that are cold, high-elevation, get lots of snowfall and have what we would call a stable seasonal snowpack,” Biederman said. “There’s an increasing prevalence as winters are warming of ephemeral snowpacks in places that used to have stable snowpack at kind of moderate elevations or lower latitudes, like here in Arizona.” 

Across the West, scientists are employing and exploring a variety of technologies to improve the accuracy of snowpack monitoring, including shooting lasers out of planes and using satellites to aid in measurement. But even with a much clearer picture of how much snow is on the ground on April 1, a key date for the Southwest’s seasonal water supply, researchers and water managers still face challenges in predicting spring and summer streamflows, particularly in a place like Colorado where April and May can feature major snowstorms and highly variable weather. 

“Even if we have perfect snow information and we could absolutely 100% quantify the snow at any time, we will still have runoff forecast uncertainty from the weather component alone. We don’t know on April 1st how the rest of spring is going to play out,” said Jeff Lukas, an independent climate researcher formerly at the University of Colorado Boulder who isn’t involved in the Colorado snowtography project.

While SNOTEL has limitations, it’s still the “essential backbone of snowpack monitoring and will remain so,” Lukas said. The Rio Grande Basin has been the “classic example in which SNOTEL has not worked as well” in predicting subsequent streamflows, Lukas said, possibly because the monitoring sites don’t capture the variability in the landscape. “Because of where they are and where they aren’t,” he said, “you can get a misleading picture in more years than in other basins where SNOTEL tends to work pretty reliably, at least at peak (snowpack).”

Scientists will examine how the snow depth changes at numerous points along a straight line known as a transect. They’ll also learn about changes in soil moisture and collect data on “snow water equivalent,” the key measure of how much water lies within the snowpack. Photo: Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk

The nearly $250,000 in funding supporting the two new snowtography sites in Colorado, each with dozens of sampling locations, is comparable to the cost of building, permitting and installing a single new SNOTEL station, but the snowtography funding also covers two years of monitoring and scientific research.

Funding for the project comes from the Southwest Water Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, Town of Silverton, Northern Arizona University, Colorado Water Conservation Board and San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership.

Other partners in the Colorado project include the Mountain Studies Institute, Fort Lewis College, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Dolores Water Conservancy District, Dolores Watershed Resilient Forest Collaborative, Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies and Western Water Assessment.

Researchers also have installed snowtography equipment in other Western states, including Arizona and Wyoming. 

“Things are growing rapidly. We now have 15 snowtography stations averaging about 40 or 50 measurement locations. So daily snow depth at 40 or 50 points times 15,” said Biederman. “It’s our goal to get to where we’re actually informing management, but we’re not there yet.”

Drone-captured image above Red Mountain Pass, which is more than two miles above sea level. Researchers also want to understand what happens to snow at lower elevations as climate change threatens to further diminish the snowpack. Photo: Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk

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 Rio Grande isn’t just a border – it’s a river in crisis

The Rio Grande, viewed from the Zaragoza International Bridge between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Vianey Rueda, CC BY-ND

By Vianey Rueda, University of Michigan and Drew Gronewold, University of Michigan

The Rio Grande is one of the longest rivers in North America, running some 1,900 miles (3,060 kilometers) from the Colorado Rockies southeast to the Gulf of Mexico. It provides fresh water for seven U.S. and Mexican states, and forms the border between Texas and Mexico, where it is known as the Río Bravo del Norte.

The river’s English and Spanish names mean, respectively, “large” and “rough.” But viewed from the Zaragoza International Bridge, which connects the cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, what was once mighty is now a dry riverbed, lined ominously with barbed wire.

Map of the Rio Grande basin, from southwest Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Rio Grande is one of the largest rivers in the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico. Because of drought and overuse, sections of the river frequently run dry. Kmusser/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

In the U.S., people often think of the Rio Grande mainly as a political border that features in negotiations over immigration, narcotics smuggling and trade. But there’s another crisis on the river that receives far less attention. The river is in decline, suffering from overuse, drought and contentious water rights negotiations.

Urban and rural border communities with poor infrastructure, known in Spanish as colonias, are particularly vulnerable to the water crisis. Farmers and cities in southern Texas and northern Mexico are also affected. As researchers who study hydrology and transboundary water management, we believe managing this important resource requires closer cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico.

A hidden water crisis

For nearly 80 years, the U.S. and Mexico have managed and distributed water from the Colorado River and the Lower Rio Grande – from Fort Quitman, Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico – under the 1944 Water Treaty, signed by presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Manuel Avila Camacho. The Colorado River was the central focus of treaty negotiations because officials believed the Colorado basin would have more economic activity and population growth, so it would need more water. In fact, however, the Rio Grande basin has also seen significant growth.

For the Rio Grande, the treaty allocates specific shares of water to the U.S. and Mexico from both the river’s main stem and its tributaries in Texas and Mexico. Delivery of water from six Mexican tributaries has become the source of contention. One-third of this flow is allocated to the U.S., and must total some 76 million cubic feet (2.2 million cubic meters) over each five-year period.

The treaty allows Mexico to roll any accrued deficits at the end of a five-year cycle over to the next cycle. Deficits can only be rolled over once, and they must be made up along with the required deliveries for the following five-year period.

Farmers as far north as Colorado rely on water from the Rio Grande for irrigation.

These five-year periods, called cycles, are numbered. Cycles 25 (1992-1997) and 26 (1997-2002) were the first time that two consecutive cycles ended in deficit. Like the Colorado River, the Rio Grande has become over-allocated: The 1944 treaty promises users more water than there is in the river. The main causes are persistent drought and increased water demand on both sides of the border.

Much of this demand was generated by the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement, which eliminated most border tariffs between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. From 1993 through 2007, agricultural imports and exports between the U.S. and Mexico quadrupled, and there was extensive expansion of maquiladoras – assembly plants along the border. This growth increased water demand.

Ultimately, Mexico delivered more than the required amount for Cycle 27 (2002-2007), plus its incurred deficit from cycles 25 and 26, by transferring water from its reservoirs. This outcome appeased Texas users but left Mexico vulnerable. Since then, Mexico has continued to struggle to meet its treaty responsibilities and has experienced chronic water shortages.

In 2020, a confrontation erupted in the state of Chihuahua between the Mexican National Guard and farmers who believed delivery to Texas of water from the Rio Conchos – one of the six tributaries regulated under the 1944 treaty – threatened their survival. In 2022, people lined up at water distribution sites in the Mexican city of Monterrey, where the population had doubled since 1990. As of 2023, halfway through Cycle 36, Mexico has only delivered some 25% of its targeted amount.

Border politics overshadow water shortages

As climate change makes the Southwest hotter and drier, scientists predict that water shortages on the Rio Grande will intensify. In this context, the 1944 treaty pits humanitarian needs for water in the U.S. against those in Mexico.

It also pits the needs of different sectors against one another. Agriculture is the dominant water consumer in the region, followed by residential use. When there is a drought, however, the treaty prioritizes residential water use over agriculture.

The Rio Grande is affected by nearly the same hydroclimate conditions as the Colorado River, which flows mainly through the southwest U.S. but ends in Mexico. However, drought and water shortages in the Colorado River basin receive much more public attention than the same problems on the Rio Grande. U.S. media outlets cover the Rio Grande almost exclusively when it figures in stories about immigration and river crossings, such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s 2023 decision to install floating barriers in the river at widely used crossing points.

The compact that governs use of Colorado River water has widely recognized flaws: The agreement is 100 years old, allocates more rights to water than the river holds, and completely excludes Native American tribes. However, negotiations over the Colorado between compact states and the U.S. and Mexico are much more focused than decision-making about Rio Grande water, which has to compete with many other bilateral issues.

Dry, cracked mud with mountains in the background
Dry, cracked mud along the banks of the Rio Grande at Big Bend National Park in Texas, March 25, 2011. In the spring and early summer of 2022, up to 75 miles of the river went dry in the park. AP Photo/Mike Graczyk

Adapting to the future

As we see it, the 1944 water treaty is inadequate to solve the complex social, economic, hydrological and political challenges that exist today in the Rio Grande basin. We believe it needs revision to reflect modern conditions.

This can be done through the minute process, which permits Mexico and the U.S. to adopt legally binding amendments without having to renegotiate the entire agreement. The two countries have already used this process to update the treaty as it pertains to the Colorado River in 2012 and again in 2017.

These steps allowed the U.S. to adjust its deliveries of Colorado River water to Mexico based on water levels in Lake Mead, the Colorado’s largest reservoir, in ways that proportionally distributed drought impacts between the two countries. In the Rio Grande basin, Mexico does not have similar flexibility.

The U.S. also has the ability to proportionally reduce deliveries under a separate 1906 agreement that outlines water delivery from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. In 2013, for example, Mexico received only 6% of the water it was due under the 1906 Convention.

Enabling Mexico to proportionally reduce Rio Grande deliveries according to drought conditions would distribute drought and climate change impacts more fairly between both countries. As we see it, this kind of cooperation would deliver human, ecological and political benefits in a complex and contentious region.

Vianey Rueda, PhD Student in Resource Ecology Management, University of Michigan and Drew Gronewold, Associate Professor of Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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.

High and Dry

Exposed microbialite reefs create beautiful patterns at the surface of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Credit: Photograph courtesy of the Utah Geological Survey

By Wynne Parry, bioGraphic | August 20, 2023

True to its name, the Great Salt Lake contains a great deal of salt. In the lake’s northern arm, salinity is so high that crystals spontaneously form on the surface, then sink into water tinted pink by salt-loving microbes. South of the 20-mile-long railroad causeway that divides the lake, influxes of fresh water lead to more prosaic hues of brown and green. Even there, though, the Great Salt Lake can be more than five times saltier than the ocean.

Salinity this high prevents water from freezing, corrodes and pummels boats, and increases buoyancy—perfect for people who want to float, but resistant to anyone who attempts to dive in. Should you try, and happen to open your mouth, the taste of the water reportedly calls to mind the burn of a salt lick.

A considerable snowpack and runoff this year has once again submerged the microbialite reefs left high and dry by recent drought conditions. But scientists are worried that this year's runoff is an anomaly and that drought and high water demand will continue to threaten this ecosystem. Photograph by Kayla Smith, Utah Geological Survey

A considerable snowpack and runoff this year has once again submerged the microbialite reefs left high and dry by recent drought conditions. But scientists are worried that this year’s runoff is an anomaly and that drought and high water demand will continue to threaten this ecosystem. Credit: Photograph courtesy of the Utah Geological Survey

Most living things can’t handle this salinity. There are no fish, no mollusks, not even any plants in the main body of the lake, which covered 2,300 square miles of northern Utah’s high desert in the 1980s. But paradoxically, the Great Salt Lake teems with life. Two tiny animals, brine shrimp and brine flies, thrive in its waters in enormous numbers. They in turn feed as many as 12 million migrating birds, including eared grebes (Podiceps nigricollis), red-necked phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus), and American avocets (Recurvirostra americana).

Living in the Salt Lake Valley in the 1980s, my family had a strong connection to Utah’s wild and sometimes strange places. I grew up visiting the lake once or twice a year—more than most people I knew. With its swarms of brine flies, quicksand-like mud, and sulfurous odor, the Great Salt Lake doesn’t make for a conventional day trip. While other kids my age vacationed at Lake Powell much farther south, my family explored the shore of our local saline lake and waded in its briny waters.

Scientists survey exposed microbialite reefs at the edge of a shrinking Great Salt Lake. Photograph by Kayla Smith, Utah Geological Survey

Scientists survey exposed microbialite reefs at the edge of a shrinking Great Salt Lake. Credit: Photograph courtesy of the Utah Geological Survey

Over the past couple of years, however, average Utahns, as well as people elsewhere in the country and the world, have paid more attention to the Great Salt Lake. In 2021 and again in 2022, the lake’s level plunged to record-breaking lows, making headlines and raising the apocalyptic specter of a barren future lakebed, largely devoid of wildlife. In this dire scenario, winds traveling across the dry expanse will loft increasing amounts of toxic dust into nearby communities, and industries that depend on the lake will suffer, including the brine shrimp fishery, which supplies tens of millions of pounds of dormant brine shrimp eggs to fish and shrimp farms around the world.

From my current home on the East Coast, I followed news of the lake’s retraction. And with a mixture of curiosity and worry, I visited again in October 2022. At the lake’s southern edge, I looked out over a muddy, vacant marina and a vast, smooth beach. Further out, beyond a channel dredged to let boats pass, was something I had never seen over decades of visits: An exposed reef. It protruded above the mirrored water like a scab over a wound, its grey mass stretching across the horizon.

Although the reef was now high and dry, it had formed underwater, built by communities of microbes over potentially thousands of years. Here and at other sites across the lake, salt-tolerant, single-celled organisms draw calcium carbonate from the lake water and deposit it in ridges, mounds and other shapes. Like coral colonies, these structures—known as microbialites—can grow to form massive reefs. And like corals, they support entire communities of living things.

Microbialites aren’t unique to the Great Salt Lake. Researchers have documented microbes hard at work building similar structures in the protected waters of Shark Bay, Australia, in Alchichica crater lake in Mexico, and around the vent of a geothermal spring in India, to name just a few places. All of these modern microbialites belong to a primordial lineage; scientists have found fossilized ancestors that date back roughly 3 billion years.

Geologists began studying Utah’s microbialites during various dry periods in the 20th century before the lake rose and submerged them again. In recent years, as the shrinking lake has exposed progressively more barren reefs, researchers have been studying microbialites and the organisms they support to learn what an ongoing drought and demand for water might mean for this spare yet vibrant ecosystem.

The falling water level of The Great Salt Lake has reveal many stunning patterns and countless insights, but scientists are worried about losing the microbialite reefs that help sustain this vital ecosystem should the region’s drought and rising water demand continue. Credit: Photograph courtesy of the Utah Geological Survey

The remnant of a much larger, ancient body of water known as Lake Bonneville, the Great Salt Lake receives much of its water as snowmelt from the nearby mountains. The water from most freshwater lakes eventually escapes via outlet streams to rivers and then flows to the ocean. But the Great Salt Lake, like other saline lakes around the world, is locked in its basin. With no outlet to carry minerals away, those that arrive in mountain runoff concentrate in the lake water.

The level of the Great Salt Lake typically fluctuates over the course of the year, reaching a low point in October before rebounding with spring snowmelt. But since the 19th century, homes, farms, and industries have drawn enough water from the lake’s tributaries to drive a long-term decline. The drought that’s gripped the Southwest for the past 20 years has exacerbated the situation. In fall of 2021, the lake dropped to a record low of 4,190.4 feet above sea level. When I visited in fall of 2022, it had fallen even further, to less than 4188.8 feet. Overall, it had lost more than half of its historical surface area and nearly three-quarters of its water, according to a report released in early January.

While in Utah, I accompanied a group of scientists to the lake. Much-needed snow and rain had fallen a few days earlier, and now, a porous layer of clouds blocked the sun. In groups of two, we ferried across the glassy water on a paddleboard until everyone stood atop the reef I had seen from shore. Then we fanned out across “the graveyard,” as one student described the skeletal mounds of dried microbialites beneath our feet. Further out, the exposed reef sank to meet the water, the mounds giving way to small, nearly swamped ridges that eventually faded into reflected sky.

Scientists use paddle boards to move from one exposed microbialite reef to another in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Credit: Photograph courtesy of the Utah Geological Survey

Michael Vanden Berg, a geologist and microbialite scientist with the Utah Geological Survey, gauged the history of one of the grey structures by kicking it. “I can tell you this has never been exposed before,” he said. “It’s still spongy.”

Parts of this reef likely surfaced around 1963, when the lake reached what was then its record low. Exposure to Utah’s intense sun and dry air would have hardened these tall mounds, rendering them more rocklike. In 2021, as the lake dropped below its previous record, it exposed new microbialites, including the one Vanden Berg kicked. That mound had almost certainly been growing undisturbed underwater long before Mormon settlers began recording lake levels in the mid-19th century.

When reefs are submerged, the living microbes that built them coat their surface. But marooned above the water, the organisms die within about two weeks, Vanden Burg told me. This reef was already thoroughly desiccated, the heat and sun leaving behind only stony remains. Yet at the foot of the mounds and nearly covering the low ridges, I saw remnants of the reef’s living skin; it was dark and knobby, with a rusty hue.

Scientists discuss the state of exposed microbialite reefs in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Credit: Photograph courtesy of the Utah Geological Survey

This layer might look like unremarkable crud, but it contains hundreds of species of bacteria, archaea, fungi, and silica-shelled algae called diatoms. The members of the mat include Navicula, a diatom shaped like a boat viewed from below, and Euhalothece, a kind of cyanobacteria—the group of organisms that invented photosynthesis. Euhalothece and other photosynthetic microbes turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into food for other living things in the lake. Not only does photosynthesis aerate water with the oxygen it produces as a byproduct, it also changes the water chemistry in such a way that granules of the mineral calcium carbonate can form. Those granules, plus other bits of debris, adhere to the sticky goo that Euhalothece secretes. In this way, the stony structure beneath the mat accumulates and grows over millennia.

Rob Baskin, a hydrologist who’s since retired from the U.S. Geological Survey, is among the few people who have seen this underwater ecosystem firsthand. Nearly two decades ago, Baskin began mapping the contours of the lake bottom. His sonar revealed unexpected rough patches. He had read about microbialites in research published in 1938 and suspected they might be responsible. Putting on his SCUBA gear with extra weight to counteract the lake’s increased buoyancy, he dove down for a look.

Underwater, he found mounds like those I had stood on, but instead of barren and gray, they were a dark, dense green and bore dozens of pale, wormy brine fly larvae. Tiny brine shrimp swam nearby. Gas bubbles, presumably oxygen, clung to the living reef.

“It was just”—he paused and exhaled sharply—an “ecstasy of motion.”

Scientists wade among partially submerged microbialites at the edge of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Credit: Photograph courtesy of the Utah Geological Survey

Eleven years after Baskin’s dive, when I visited the lake, he suspected that the swarm of life he encountered had gone still. Researchers estimate that in the summer of 2022, receding water left up to half of the microbialites in the lake’s southern arm to dry out, with consequences that will likely reverberate up the food chain.

Brine fly larvae rely on the microbialites for shelter and also eat their microbes. Brine shrimp, meanwhile, feed primarily on microbes in the water, but they too munch those that form the microbialite’s living skin. The flies and shrimp, in turn, nourish resident wildlife like the California gull (Larus californicus), as well as the roughly 330 species of migrating birds that stop here.

The receding lake’s ever more concentrated salt content has already pushed salt-tolerant organisms closer to their limits. All the microbialite-building communities in the northern half of the lake, for example, are dead. And scientists have suspected that the increase in salinity and the desiccation of microbialites are squeezing brine flies. During the summer, brine flies typically rise in clouds around the feet of anyone walking along the shore. Second only to the lake’s distinctive smell, the flies are perhaps the thing Utahns most love to hate about the lake—until recently.

A group of gulls lifts off over The Great Salt Lake in Utah. Photograph by Jason Finn / Shutterstock

A group of gulls lifts off over The Great Salt Lake in Utah. Credit: Photograph by Jason Finn / Shutterstock
A California gull, feasts on brine flies at the edge of Mono Lake in California, another key stopover for migrating birds. Photograph by Farjana.rahman / Shutterstock

A California gull, feasts on brine flies at the edge of Mono Lake in California, another key stopover for migrating birds. Credit: Photograph by Farjana.rahman / Shutterstock
Brine flies gather in abundance at the edge of and on the surface of the Great Salt Lake, providing much needed food for migrating birds. Photograph by Floris van Breugel

Brine flies gather in abundance at the edge of and on the surface of the Great Salt Lake, providing much needed food for migrating birds. Credit: Photograph by Floris van Breugel

“We haven’t seen flies in any number for months,” biologist and Great Salt Lake Institute director Bonnie Baxter told me when I met with her in October of 2022. “This summer has just been eerie.”

To get a better handle on the flies’ fate, Baxter had invited David Herbst, a self-described “salt lake junkie” and freshwater ecologist and physiologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara, to join the expedition. Standing with Vanden Berg, Baxter, and other scientists atop a partially submerged reef, Herbst swept his foot through the water. Like caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies, brine fly larvae anchor themselves to microbialites to form pupae. “There should be hundreds of pupae floating to the surface,” he explained. “There’s none, or at least very, very few, and those that are [here] are not looking viable.” The few that did rise resembled elongated grains of dark rice; many appeared too small to produce adults.

The loss of brine flies will inevitably impact the birds that eat them, says John Luft, the Great Salt Lake ecosystem program manager at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. When Luft’s group and the National Audubon Society examined data on 37 bird species collected over 21 years, they saw a significant decline in only one, the redhead duck (Aythya americana). But preliminary data suggest bigger declines may be on the horizon, and Luft and others worry that the relatively stable bird populations in the Great Salt Lake region may conceal the impact of lost water and food, here and elsewhere.

“We often hear that, oh, the birds can just go somewhere else. But really, when all the saline wetlands and lakes of the West are experiencing this problem… I fear that certain species are going to see declines.”
— Heidi Hoven, Audubon

The Great Salt Lake belongs to a network of saline water bodies across the western U.S. that provide critical habitat for millions of migrating shore and water birds, including 90 percent of Wilson’s phalaropes (Phalaropus tricolor) and 99 percent of the North American population of eared grebes. Overconsumption of water and protracted drought are also shrinking the smaller lakes in the network, potentially forcing some birds to reroute to the Great Salt Lake and thus masking local changes. Thanks to its size, the Great Salt Lake “is kind of the last place available,” Luft told me. Overall, populations of migrating shorebirds, which depend on these salty oases, have dropped nearly 70 percent since 1973, according to Audubon.

“We often hear that, oh, the birds can just go somewhere else,” said Heidi Hoven, a conservation specialist at an Audubon sanctuary on the lake’s southern shore. “But really, when all the saline wetlands and lakes of the West are experiencing this problem of drying up, I really fear that certain species are going to see declines in their populations.”

An American avocet forages near Swan Lake Refuge in Lemmon Valley. Nevada. Photograph by Diane McAllister

An American avocet forages near Swan Lake Refuge in Lemmon Valley. Nevada. Credit: Photograph by Diane McAllister

Although people have lived in what’s now northern Utah for thousands of years, human demand for the region’s scarce water didn’t become significant until around 1847, when Mormon pioneers began diverting it for farming. Today, agriculture remains the largest user, removing 1.3 million acre-feet annually that would have flowed into the lake. In contrast, homes, businesses, and industries use just 381,000 acre-feet. Altogether, human uses of tributary water account for a decline of roughly 12 feet in the Great Salt Lake’s level, according to David Tarboton, a hydrologist at the Utah Water Research Laboratory. Natural variability in weather explains the loss of another four feet, while warming caused by climate change appears responsible for a drop of more than one foot.

The effects extend beyond biodiversity and into the region’s human communities. Already, winds sweeping across patches of the empty lakebed pick up dust, some of which contains carcinogenic arsenic, and loft it all over northern Utah. Researchers don’t yet know the degree to which the dust affects human health, but it poses one more risk in a region already beset with air quality problems. As the protective crust covering the empty lakebed breaks down, these dust plumes will likely worsen.

The drying also threatens industries. By one calculation, the lake contributes nearly $2.5 billion to Utah’s economy through its brine shrimp fishery, mineral extraction, recreation (the lake is a destination for bird watchers, among others), and through evaporation, which provides moisture that forms clouds and falls as snow on the famous ski resorts in nearby mountains.

Tiny brine shrimp like these serve as a critical food source for migrating birds and other creatures. Photograph by Jan Hamrsky

Tiny brine shrimp like these serve as a critical food source for migrating birds and other creatures. Credit: Photograph by Jan Hamrsky

Leaders in this desert state have long known they need to better manage its water, including that bound for the Great Salt Lake. But their efforts have recently taken on new urgency.

During the state legislature’s 2022 session, elected officials approved an unprecedented set of measures to support water conservation and related infrastructure. Appropriations made that spring and during the 2023 session have funded efforts to help farmers grow their crops with less water. That money will support tracking the amount of water used for lawns and gardens, as well, and establish a commissioner’s office to coordinate efforts to protect the lake. Legislators also tweaked water law to allow farmers to conserve water without fear of losing their water rights, changes that give them the option of leasing water that they save to a new trust created to acquire water for the Great Salt Lake.

Even if successful, changes like these probably won’t deliver a significant amount of water to the lake for some time. Meanwhile other measures, including one that would have set a target lake level, failed, much to the frustration of environmental advocates.

In a stroke of luck, though, plenty of rain and snow made this past winter one of the wettest on record. Six months after my October visit, the lake level had risen about three feet. Tarboton expects it to rise more this year, but even so, it will likely be three feet shy of the low end of its optimal range.

“What happens after that depends on what we do in terms of conservation,” Tarboton told me, “and what happens with the climate in future years.”

Microbialites, some submerged and growing in the The Great Salt Lakes for millennia, dry out in the early spring sunshine, victims of recent drought and growing water demand in the region. Credit: Photograph courtesy of the Utah Geological Survey

On March 11, 2023, I visited the marina again. Snow covered the mountains and still mottled the lower elevations, and the influx of spring melt had submerged much—but not all—of the reef I had walked on in the fall. The tallest mounds remained clustered above the surface like an archipelago, breaking up ripples driven by a soft wind.

I wondered about the microbialites that had again disappeared beneath the water. History suggests—and researchers’ experiments confirm—that microbial mats can return even after prolonged exposure to air. In the years following the parched summer of 1963, which temporarily exposed some microbialites, those that submerged again “redeveloped a really nice, thick microbial mat,” Vanden Berg had told me. Like all desert creatures, the microbes in the Great Salt Lake have some built-in resilience to drought.

But ensuring the long-term health of the ecosystem they support requires water, and a lot of it. One wet season, even an exceptional one, isn’t enough without other, more drastic changes in how people consume water—and how much fossil fuel we burn. Still, looking out over the gently moving water, a silvery mirror to the sky’s rich blue and cottony white, I found it hard to imagine an end to the Great Salt Lake, or to the flurry of life hidden beneath its surface.

Wynne Parry is a freelance writer whose work focuses on science and the natural world. A former Utahn, she has traded that state’s desert and mountains for the streams and woods of Pennsylvania. You can find more of her work at

Tree stump on ice in Antelope Island at dawn. Credit: Photography by kojihirano / Shutterstock

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.

What is a strong El Niño? Meteorologists anticipate a big impact in winter 2023, but the forecasts don’t all agree

By Aaron Levine, University of Washington

Winter is still weeks away, but meteorologists are already talking about a snowy winter ahead in the southern Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. They anticipate more storms in the U.S. South and Northeast, and warmer, drier conditions across the already dry Pacific Northwest and the upper Midwest.

One phrase comes up repeatedly with these projections: a strong El Niño is coming.

It sounds ominous. But what does that actually mean? We asked Aaron Levine, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington whose research focuses on El Niño.

NOAA explains in animations how El Niño forms.

What is a strong El Niño?

During a normal year, the warmest sea surface temperatures are in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean, in what’s known as the Indo-Western Pacific warm pool.

But every few years, the trade winds that blow from east to west weaken, allowing that warm water to slosh eastward and pile up along the equator. The warm water causes the air above it to warm and rise, fueling precipitation in the central Pacific and shifting atmospheric circulation patterns across the basin.

This pattern is known as El Niño, and it can affect weather around the world.

An animation shows how warm water builds up along the equator off South America. The box where temperatures are measured is south of Hawaii.
The box shows the Niño 3.4 region as El Niño begins to develop in the tropical Pacific, from January to June 2023. NOAA

A strong El Niño, in the most basic definition, occurs once the average sea surface temperature in the equatorial Pacific is at least 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) warmer than normal. It’s measured in an imaginary box along the equator, roughly south of Hawaii, known as the Nino 3.4 Index.

But El Niño is a coupled ocean-atmosphere phenomenon, and the atmosphere also plays a crucial role.

What has been surprising about this year’s El Niño – and still is – is that the atmosphere hasn’t responded as much as we would have expected based on the rising sea surface temperatures.

Is that why El Niño didn’t affect the 2023 hurricane season the way forecasts expected?

The 2023 Atlantic hurricane season is a good example. Forecasters often use El Niño as a predictor of wind shear, which can tear apart Atlantic hurricanes. But with the atmosphere not responding to the warmer water right away, the impact on Atlantic hurricanes was lessened and it turned out to be a busy season.

The atmosphere is what transmits El Niño’s impact. Heat from the warm ocean water causes the air above it to warm and rise, which fuels precipitation. That air sinks again over cooler water.

The rising and sinking creates giant loops in the atmosphere called the Walker Circulation. When the warm pool’s water shifts eastward, that also shifts where the rising and sinking motions happen. The atmosphere reacts to this change like ripples in a pond when you throw a stone in. These ripples affect the jet stream, which steers weather patterns in the U.S.

This year, in comparison with other large El Niño events – such as 1982-83, 1997-98 and 2015-16 – we’re not seeing the same change in where the precipitation is happening. It’s taking much longer to develop, and it’s not as strong.

Part of that, presumably, is related to the whole tropics being very, very warm. But this is still an emerging field of research.

How El Niño will change with global warming is a big and open question. El Niño only happens every few years, and there’s a fair amount of variability between events, so just getting a baseline is tough.

What does a strong El Niño typically mean for US weather?

During a typical El Niño winter, the U.S. South and Southwest are cooler and wetter, and the Northwest is warmer and drier. The upper Midwest tends to be drier, while the Northeast tends to be a little wetter.

The likelihood and the intensity generally scale with the strength of the El Niño event.

El Niño has traditionally been good for the mountain snowpack in California, which the state relies for a large percentage of its water. But it is often not so good for the Pacific Northwest snowpack.

Two maps showing wetter, cooler weather in the Southeast and drier warmer air in the north during El Nino.
The jet stream takes a very different path in a typical El Niño vs. La Niña winter weather pattern. But these patterns have a great deal of variability. Not every El Niño or La Niña year is the same. NOAA

The jet stream plays a role in that shift. When the polar jet stream is either displaced very far northward or southward, storms that would normally move through Washington or British Columbia are steered to California and Oregon instead.

What do the forecasts show for 2023?

Whether forecasters think a strong El Niño will develop depends on whose forecast model they trust.

This past spring, the dynamical forecast models were already very confident about the potential for a strong El Niño developing. These are big models that solve basic physics equations, starting with current oceanic and atmospheric conditions.

However, statistical models, which use statistical predictors of El Niño calculated from historical observations, were less certain.

Even in the most recent forecast model outlook, the dynamical forecast models were predicting a stronger El Niño than the statistical models were.

If you go by just a sea surface temperature-based El Niño index, the forecast is for a fairly strong El Niño.

But the indices that incorporate the atmosphere are not responding in the same way. We’ve seen atmospheric anomalies – as measured by cloud height monitored by satellites or sea-level pressure at monitoring stations – on and off in the Pacific since May and June, but not in a very robust fashion. Even in September, they were nowhere near as large as they were in 1982, in terms of overall magnitude.

We’ll see if the atmosphere catches up by wintertime, when El Niño peaks.

How long do El Niños last?

Often during El Niño events – particularly strong El Niño events – the sea surface temperature anomalies collapse really quickly during the Northern Hemisphere spring. Almost all end in April or May.

One reason is that El Niño sows the seeds of its own demise. When El Niño happens, it uses up that warm water and the warm water volume shrinks. Eventually, it has eroded its fuel.

The surface can stay warm for a while, but once the heat from the subsurface is gone and the trade winds return, the El Niño event collapses. At the end of past El Niño events, the sea surface anomaly dropped very fast and we saw conditions typically switch to La Niña – El Niño’s cooler opposite.

Aaron Levine, Atmospheric Research Scientist, CICOES, University of Washington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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.

Drops of Hope Along the Colorado River

Navajo Nation hydrologist Crystal Tulley-Cordova
Navajo Nation hydrologist Crystal Tulley-Cordova: “I didn’t grow up thinking that water comes out of the tap.”

By Morgan Sjogren, Photos by Mylo Fowler

Sierra Magazine | May 30, 2023

“It snowed again!” exclaimed Crystal Tulley-Cordova during a phone call on a frigid January morning. After years of drought, it felt like a relief. “This is the most snow the Navajo Nation has seen in a long time,” she said. Only months before—in summer 2022—the nation had been in severe drought. Now it was facing a different emergency, as a lack of local tribal resources to clear roads of snow had left many people without access to food, medical services, and water.

Tulley-Cordova, 40, grew up in the remote community of Tohlakai, New Mexico. She and her family were “water haulers”: They had to drive to fill a tank on a trailer at a “watering point,” which was a livestock well. “I didn’t grow up thinking that water comes out of the tap,” she said. “When you are a water hauler, you have an understanding that the water is coming from somewhere. The water that I grew up on was essentially unregulated livestock water.”

Water Desk Grantee Publication

This story was supported by the Water Desk’s grants program.

Learn more about our grants for journalists

Read more grantee stories »

Navajo Nation hydrologist Crystal Tulley-Cordova: “I didn’t grow up thinking that water comes out of the tap.”

Like Tulley-Cordova’s family, up to 40 percent of families in the Navajo Nation lack piped water. And like their watering point, many other tribal water sources are feared to be polluted by salinity (from drought and oil production) and the toxic legacy of uranium mining. Even so, Tulley-Cordova’s grandmothers taught her a lesson that would shape her life: that water is connected to the land it comes from and that every drop is unique. 

Tulley-Cordova went on to study climate change and its effects on hydrology at the University of Utah. Her PhD dissertation focused on the science behind her grandmothers’ traditional wisdom: pinpointing the stable isotopes that give every drop of water a signature, a thumbprint of its origin, be it from snow, rain, lakes, streams, springs, or groundwater. Now, as one of the Navajo Nation’s principal hydrologists, Tulley-Cordova is responsible for the water security of 173,000 Diné (as the Navajo call themselves) as they struggle to adapt to a 23-year drought, the Southwest’s worst in more than 1,000 years. The significant snowfall last winter provided only a glimmer of relief. “Drought and above-average precipitation and flooding concurrently exist,” she said. “People don’t realize this. It would take a decade-long string of above-average winter precipitation to reverse this situation.” 

The Navajo Nation spans the borders of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, a semiarid region that gets between five and 25 inches of rain a year. The tribe’s water is mostly sourced from 20 aquifers—a finite and dwindling underground supply with a diminishing annual snowpack to recharge it. Additional water is drawn from springs, creeks, and the San Juan River.

But almost no water is drawn from the Colorado River. Although it passes through ancestral Diné lands, the river remains largely untapped by the tribe 174 years after the United States stole its land. (Only the Diné community of LeChee gets its water from Lake Powell.) Now, with water levels hitting record lows and more parties than ever sticking straws in the river, the Navajo Nation is facing off against the Department of the Interior in a Supreme Court case that legal experts say could shape the future of water use—and treaty rights—in the West. 

WATER INEQUALITY IN THE UNITED STATES goes hand in hand with the dark legacy of colonization, systematic racism, and efforts to wipe out Indigenous cultures. For the Diné, it began with a treaty signed with the US government in 1849 that placed the nomadic tribe “forever” under the “exclusive jurisdiction and protection” of the United States, which included the promise of establishing a reservation. Instead, starting in 1863, the US cavalry forced 10,000 Diné to walk 400 miles from their homelands to a concentration camp at Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico, where they were detained for five years in an effort to eradicate their culture and language. In these “fearing times,” alkaline water caused crops to fail, water and firewood were scarce, and thousands of Diné died of dysentery, exposure, and starvation. 

Water inequality in the United States goes hand in hand with the dark legacy of colonization, systematic racism, and efforts to wipe out Indigenous cultures.

When the Diné were released in 1868, they signed another treaty with the United States, Naal Tsoos Sani (“the Old Paper”), which formed the Navajo Nation and guaranteed enough water to sustain it. That promise was bolstered by the Winters Doctrine, after a 1908 Supreme Court ruling on tribal water rights. The doctrine established that the Navajo Nation has rights to the water that is necessary to fulfill the purpose of the reservation that the United States established for them, and that the United States has a federal trust responsibility to protect those rights.

Despite the doctrine, the Diné have struggled to regain access to their water. In 2003, the Navajo Nation sued, claiming that the US had breached that trust duty. Eighteen years later, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit finally sided with the Diné. According to circuit judge Ronald Gould, federal agencies “have an irreversible and dramatically important trust duty requiring them to ensure adequate water for the health and safety of the Navajo Nation’s inhabitants in their permanent home reservation.” To the disappointment of many Diné, President Joe Biden’s Interior Department appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which heard the case in March.

Both sides of Interior v. Navajo Nation insist that understandings of the 1868 treaty at that point in time must be considered. The government contends that the main stem of the Colorado River should not qualify for the breach-of-trust claim because the Diné had not established that such trust duties existed. An amicus brief filed by the Diné Hataałii Association, an organization of over 200 Diné medicine men and women, argues that the case must consider how traditional Diné law interpreted the original treaty, which was drawn up while the Diné were under the duress of captivity and desperate to return home. The brief argues that the US has an affirmative duty to assess the Navajo Nation’s water needs and develop a plan to meet them, in keeping with Diné traditional obligations: Tó dóó dził diyinii nahat’á yił hadeidiilaa (“Water and the sacred mountains embody planning”) and Nitsáhákees éí nahat’á bitsé silá (“Thinking is the foundation of planning”).

Diné water-law expert Heather Tanana
Diné water-law expert Heather Tanana: “For the Supreme Court to take up this case is a little scary. No one can guess the outcome.”

During oral arguments, the US tried to avoid what the Supreme Court watchers at SCOTUSblog called “the default interpretative rules of Indian treaty construction, which strongly favor the Nation.” Instead, the US argued that the 1908 Winters Doctrine had granted the Diné a property right to water but that it wasn’t the government’s obligation to enforce it. Justice Neil Gorsuch, one of the court’s conservatives who is historically sympathetic to the protection of treaty rights, asked, “Could I bring a good breach-of-contract claim for someone who promised me a permanent home, the right to conduct agriculture and raise animals if it turns out it’s the Sahara Desert?” 

The representative for the Interior Department expressed concern that a Navajo Nation victory in the case had the potential to limit the water available to other users in the drought-stressed Colorado River Basin, and that it would open up opportunities for other tribes to confront the federal government with similar cases. While a decision in favor of the Navajo Nation would not instantly resolve the tribe’s water woes, it would bolster the nation’s legal efforts, which have been at a standstill for decades. A decision in the case is expected this summer. 

Diné water-law expert Heather Tanana, 40, is intimately familiar with the stakes of the case. When she was in middle school, her father, who worked for the Indian Health Service, accepted a job at IHS headquarters and moved the family from the Navajo Nation to the Washington, DC, area. “I saw the real disparity in education and infrastructure like roads and buildings,” she said. “It was my first time sensing not everyone is subjected to poor economic conditions like unreliable water.”

Until the Navajo Nation’s water is quantified, Arizona is making management decisions on water that is legally not theirs.

That unreliability affects the quality of life in Diné communities beyond the availability of drinking water. It limits agriculture, contributes to food insecurity, and delays the construction of essential infrastructure like hospitals. Seeing the effects of federal laws and policies on tribes, Tanana decided to follow her father in service to Native people by pursuing a law degree. But it was her family’s experiences during the pandemic that spurred her focus on water. “When COVID hit, my parents were living in Monument Valley, where high incidence rates were connected to lack of water,” she said. “This is directly correlated to the necessity of hauling water from community source points and thus not being able to take all the recommended CDC precautions.” (At one point in 2020, the Navajo Nation had the highest rate of COVID infection in the United States.)

The Navajo Nation spent $5 million in pandemic relief funds to increase watering points, waive water fees, and distribute disinfectant tablets. But the lack of safe piped water continues to be a health barrier for Diné communities. To address it, Tanana helped launch an initiative with several other tribal members and water experts called Tribal Clean Water, which pushes the federal government to address universal access to clean water for all tribes in the Colorado River Basin. 

That objective is, of course, based on the government’s treaty and trust responsibilities as mandated by the Winters Doctrine, and Tanana was initially hopeful when the Ninth Circuit Court upheld it. “The government knew when they established these tribal lands that they didn’t have water and that they needed water to survive.” 

That’s why she finds the Interior Department’s position that it has no obligation to provide the water so deeply worrisome. “For the Supreme Court to take up this case is a little scary, just because of everything else they’ve been doing in other cases,” Tanana said. “No one can guess the outcome with high certainty because they have shown they are willing to displace established precedent.”

Map by Anna Riling/Four Corners Mapping and GIS; Background photo: Mylo Fowler
Map by Anna Riling/Four Corners Mapping and GIS; Background photo: Mylo Fowler

THE UNITED STATES HAS GROWN and prospered by stealing not only Indigenous people’s lands but also their water. While the water rights of the Navajo Nation and 11 other tribes to the Colorado River remain unresolved, the river’s water continues to sustain and develop major southwestern cities. Or, rather, it did before the drought. In the past two years, Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir in the United States, which harnesses the Colorado behind Glen Canyon Dam, has hit record lows. On a winter walk around Powell’s rim, which spans the Arizona-Utah border, former Navajo Nation water commissioner Leo Manheimer, 67, stopped to look down at the growing “bathtub ring,” the thick coating of white sediment on orange sandstone that marks the falling water level. “As for the lake, there is no middle,” he said. “It should be full and thriving, or it should be no more.” 

During Manheimer’s childhood in Shonto Canyon, Arizona, his family didn’t have a car. Instead of hauling water, they collected it from nearby potholes and built earthen dams to capture rainwater for their farm. When he tended his family’s sheep in the surrounding canyons, he never carried water with him. “I knew where all the springs and potholes were,” he said. Manheimer fears that such knowledge will be lost in the shift from traditional lifestyles to a more consumer-driven economy, and with it wisdom about how to adapt to climate change and drought.

Much of Manheimer’s traditional knowledge about the region was gleaned from Diné medicine man Buck Navajo, who was born in 1919 and lived to be 103. Among the massive changes to the landscape that Navajo witnessed was the completion of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. The Colorado River backed up for 186 miles, flooding Glen Canyon, its tributaries, and many cultural sites of deep significance to form Lake Powell. When Navajo crossed the river to hunt and gather herbs, Manheimer said, “an offering was made at the river, thanking the gods and the deities for success and safe travels.” All that changed after the lake came up. “The lake affected grazing, farming, and the gathering of sumac, a plant harvested to make baskets and water jugs.”

According to Buck Navajo’s teachings, the construction of Glen Canyon Dam caused direct environmental and cultural harm. Manheimer said, “[He] talked a lot about the balance of life and how things need to be in sync, in terms of seasons, with animal and human life. There must be balance in weather, and that balance is dependent on the two major rivers, the San Juan and the Colorado. The birthplace of moisture is at the confluence of these two rivers. He taught that this balance was interrupted when Lake Powell flooded the confluence. The lake is receding because the confluence is teaching us all a lesson through the extreme drought.”

APART FROM the Interior v. Navajo Nation ruling, the fate of the Colorado River lies with the seven states that depend on its water—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming—the signatories to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which governs the distribution of its waters. Unfortunately, this “law of the river” was drawn up during an abnormally wet period in the Southwest and neglected then-available scientific data pointing to the region’s past prolonged droughts; it over-allocated the water in the river even at its highest flows.

Also ignored by the 1922 compact were the Indigenous peoples who have been stewards of these waters for millennia. In 1963, tribal water rights for reservations adjacent to the Colorado River in Arizona, California, and Nevada were reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in Arizona v. California, but the court blocked the Navajo Nation from intervening, citing the federal government’s role as the trustee of the tribe’s water. While the case defined and recognized tribal water rights as senior to states’ rights, the Navajo Nation wasn’t among the four Arizona tribes whose water rights were quantified as a result of the decision.

In recent years, water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead have dropped so low that they risk falling below the minimum level to spin the Glen Canyon Dam’s antiquated turbines to generate hydropower. If levels fall below that, the reservoirs will hit “dead pool,” meaning that no excess water could escape through the dam’s outlets, drastically reducing the water supply for people in Southern California, Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico as well as tribal nations. LeChee and the city of Page, Arizona, have already successfully pressed the Bureau of Reclamation to construct a new outtake tube in the dam, allowing water to be drawn from 100 feet below the current dead pool level. 

Last winter’s significant precipitation and snowpack may stave off a worst-case scenario, but to move either reservoir out of long-term danger would require many such winters. Even in recent years with close-to-average snowpack, runoff has been weakened by higher average temperatures and dry soils sucking up the moisture. According to Seth Arens, a climate research scientist for Western Water Assessment, the highest Colorado River runoff years were 1983 to 1986—which happened to be one of the wettest four-year periods in the past 1,200 years. He estimates that even with a similar sustained period of record precipitation, the reservoirs would both still be 7 million acre-feet below capacity. (An acre-foot is enough to supply two or three US homes for one year.) It is unlikely, he said, that Powell and Mead will ever fill completely again. 

To prepare for a more arid future while maintaining these two major reservoirs, the Biden administration pressured the Colorado River Basin states to come up with a plan to cut water usage by 15 to 30 percent on top of water reductions made in 2007 and thereafter, but they failed to agree. The Interior Department stepped in with a Solomonic alternative: to spread the cuts evenly among Arizona, Nevada, and California. Finally the states agreed to collectively cut their water use by 3 million acre-feet over the next three years. In exchange, the states will receive $1.2 billion from the Biden administration as part of the Inflation Reduction Act. The deal will only be temporary, and the states will reconvene in 2026 to make bigger and more lasting changes to how they use the Colorado River.

But from the Navajo Nation’s perspective, until its share of the river is determined—likely to fall somewhere between 2 million and 5 million acre-feet a year—other entities will be using their water. “It’s almost an incentive for tribes’ water rights to not be resolved,” Tanana said. “A lot of the tribes tend to have senior water rights that would get priority if they were able to utilize them.” 

This is in part why Interior v. Navajo Nation carries so much weight. “Many people have talked about the need for certainty in the Colorado River Basin and settling outstanding water rights,” Tanana said. “This case has the potential to add to the chaos and confusion.” Until the Navajo Nation’s water is quantified, the entire state of Arizona is making management decisions on water that is legally not theirs. 

That will change, however. Negotiations over the future management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, slated to take place in 2026, are beginning to ramp up, and this time, all 30 of the region’s tribes have been invited to participate. Tulley-Cordova looks forward to the negotiations and to sharing her research and knowledge: “We can’t wait for people to create that seat at the table. We have to propose solutions, propose opportunities that we’re willing to participate in to meet our needs.” Tanana is confident that the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives will be part of the long-term solutions for the changing climate and water conditions. “The Navajo Nation, like many [Colorado River Basin] tribes, has traditional teachings about balance,” she said. “For Navajo, the concept of Hózhó means that we must be in balance with ourselves, with our community members, and with the environment. When something gets out of balance, bad things happen.”

The Navajo Nation needs more than paper rights to Colorado River water. It also needs what are known as “wet rights”—settlements that require states or the federal government to provide tangible access to water through the necessary funding and infrastructure. The 2022 Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement, for example, solidified the Diné’s right to water from aquifers, the San Juan River, and Lake Powell and also granted $210 million in federal funding and $8 million from the State of Utah for drinking-water infrastructure. A 2009 agreement with New Mexico allots the Navajo Nation water from the San Juan River and Cutter Reservoir; some water supports Diné agriculture, while the remainder will eventually be piped 300 miles to the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation and the Jicarilla Apache Nation via the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project. 

Every day as Tulley-Cordova drives to work, she passes the pipeline construction. In February, the Interior Department announced that it would use $580 million, mostly from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to fulfill water rights settlements with 12 tribes. Included is $137 million for the Navajo-Gallup pipeline and $39 million for drinking-water infrastructure. 

Money is essential to water security in the Navajo Nation, but Tulley-Cordova maintains a Diné perspective on the Colorado River: “How do you place a value on something that’s so special to you, that you want to pass on for generations?” 

IN SEPTEMBER 2022, Tulley-Cordova joined three other Diné scientists on a 280-mile field study of the Grand Canyon between Lees Ferry and Lake Mead, looking especially at non-runoff contributions to the river. “Sometimes people only attribute flows in the Colorado River to precipitation events, like snowmelt runoff,” she said. “But there is a major contribution from groundwater, including springs.”

It was Tulley-Cordova’s first float through the Grand Canyon. She said the journey made her reflect on how the water propelling her downriver—much of it sourced from the Navajo Nation—united landscapes, people, and wildlife, upstream and downstream, across the Southwest. The problems facing the Colorado River go beyond human consumption. If water levels fall below dead pool in Lake Powell, it would sever the Grand Canyon and all its wildlife from their primary water source. Rafting down the river, she said, “may not be a possibility of the future.” 

An important stop during the Grand Canyon trip was at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers. According to Diné stories and teachings, it is more than just the geographic uniting of two waterways. It is a sacred place, home to Diné deities, a place for prayers and offerings. “I felt a spiritual connection that has extended for millennia in the region,” Tulley-Cordova recalled, “to know where we are in our land as Navajo people—to fully understand the significance of where we are as a people.” 

At the confluence, Tulley-Cordova saw monsoonal runoff form ephemeral waterfalls and transform beaches with rockfall. The Little Colorado’s typically turquoise waters ran a muddy brown—river sediment temporarily churned up by a storm. “I knew that meant it was raining somewhere upstream on the Navajo Nation,” she said. “That water was coming down to meet us at the confluence.”

Update: On June 22, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against the Navajo Nation, striking down the Navajo claims that the federal government has an obligation to help the Navajo access Colorado River water rights.

Morgan Sjogren is a writer based mostly in the wilds of the Colorado Plateau. She is the author of Path of Light: A Walk Through Colliding Legacies of Glen Canyon. 

Mylo Fowler is a photographer who grew up in the Navajo Nation.  

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.

What Arizona and other drought-ridden states can learn from Israel’s pioneering water strategy

Suburban development in Maricopa County, Arizona, with lakes, lush golf courses and water-guzzling lawns. Wild Horizon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

By Gabriel Eckstein, Texas A&M University; Clive Lipchin, Tel Aviv University, and Sharon B. Megdal, University of Arizona

Arizona is one of the fastest-growing states in the U.S., with an economy that offers many opportunities for workers and businesses. But it faces a daunting challenge: a water crisis that could seriously constrain its economic growth and vitality.

A recent report that projected a roughly 4% shortfall in groundwater supplies in the Phoenix area over the next 100 years prompted the state to curtail new approval of groundwater-dependent residential development in some of the region’s fast-growing suburbs. Moreover, negotiations continue over dwindling supplies from the Colorado River, which historically supplied more than a third of the state’s water.

Map of the full Colorado River watershed.
The Colorado River’s watershed extends across seven U.S. states and into Mexico. Use of river water is governed by a compact negotiated in 1922. Center for Colorado River Studies, CC BY-ND

As a partial solution, the Arizona Water Infrastructure Finance Authority is exploring a proposal to import desalinated water from Mexico. Conceptualized by IDE, an Israeli company with extensive experience in the desalination sector, this mega-engineering project calls for building a plant in Mexico and piping the water about 200 miles and uphill more than 2,000 feet to Arizona.

Ultimately, the project is slated to cost more than US$5 billion and provide fresh water at nearly 10 times the cost of water Arizona currently draws from the Colorado River, not including long-term energy and maintenance costs.

Is this a wise investment? It is hard to say, since details are still forthcoming. It is also unclear how the proposal fits with Arizona’s plans for investing in its water supplies – because, unlike some states, Arizona has no state water plan.

As researchers who focus on water law, policy and management, we recommend engineered projects like this one be considered as part of a broader water management portfolio that responds holistically to imbalances in supply and demand. And such decisions should address known and potential consequences and costs down the road. Israel’s approach to desalination offers insights that Arizona would do well to consider.

A 20-year drought in the Colorado River basin poses critical questions for Arizona’s water future.

Lands and waters at risk

Around the world, water engineering projects have caused large-scale ecological damage that governments now are spending heavily to repair. Draining and straightening the Florida Everglades in the 1950s and ′60s, which seriously harmed water quality and wildlife, is one well-known example.

Maps showing historic, current and planned water flows in south Florida
State and federal agencies are spending billions of dollars to restore the Everglades, reversing water control projects from 1948-1963 that channelized and drained these enormous wetlands. US Army Corps of Engineers/Florida Museum

Israel’s Hula wetlands is another. In the 1950s, Israeli water managers viewed the wetlands north of the Sea of Galilee as a malaria-infested swamp that, if drained, would eradicate mosquitoes and open up the area for farming. The project was an unmitigated failure that led to dust storms, land degradation and the loss of many unique animals and plants.

Arizona is in crisis now due to a combination of water management gaps and climatic changes. Groundwater withdrawals, which in much of rural Arizona remain unregulated, include unchecked pumping by foreign agricultural interests that ship their crops overseas. Moreover, with the Colorado River now in its 23rd year of drought, Arizona is being forced to reduce its dependence on the river and seek new water sources.

The desalination plant that Arizona is considering would be built in Puerto Peñasco, a Mexican resort town on the northern edge of the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. Highly saline brine left over from the desalination process would be released into the gulf.

Because this inlet has an elongated, baylike geography, salt could concentrate in its upper region, harming endangered aquatic species such as the totoaba fish and the vaquita porpoise, the world’s most endangered marine mammal.

The pipeline that would carry desalinated water to Arizona would cross through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a fragile desert ecosystem and UNESCO biosphere reserve that has already been damaged by construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall. To run the facility, IDE proposes to build a power plant in Arizona and lay transmission lines across the same fragile desert.

Map showing location of proposed plant and pipeline route.
The proposed desalination plant in Mexico would pipe fresh water 200 miles to Arizona. Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona/ENR Southwest, CC BY-ND

No single solution

Israel has adapted to water scarcity and has learned from its disastrous venture in the Hula wetlands. Today the country has a water sector master plan that is regularly updated and draws on water recycling and reuse, as well as a significant desalination program.

Israel also has implemented extensive water conservation, efficiency and recycling programs, as well as a broad economic review of desalination. Together, these sources now meet most of the nation’s water needs, and Israel has become a leader in both water technology and policy innovation.

Water rights and laws in Arizona differ from those of Israel, and Arizona isn’t as close to seawater. Nonetheless, in our view Israel’s approach is relevant as Arizona works to close its water demand-supply gap.

A worker in a hard hat surrounded by valves, adjusting one.
A worker at the Sorek seawater desalination plant south of Tel Aviv, Israel, which provides 20% of the nation’s municipal water. Gil Cohen Magen/Xinhua via Getty Images

Steps Arizona can take now

In our view, Arizona would do well to follow Israel’s lead. A logical first step would be making conservation programs, which are required in some parts of Arizona, mandatory statewide.

Irrigated agriculture uses more than 70% of Arizona’s water supply, and most of the state’s irrigated lands use flood irrigation – pumping or bringing water into fields and letting it flow over the ground. Greater use of drip irrigation, which delivers water to plant roots through plastic pipes, and other water-saving techniques and technologies would reduce agricultural water use.

Arizona households, which sometimes use as much as 70% of residential water for lawns and landscaping, also have a conservation role to play. And the mining sector’s groundwater use presently is largely exempt from state regulations and withdrawal restrictions.

A proactive and holistic water management approach should apply to all sectors of the economy, including industry. Arizona also should continue to expand programs for agricultural, municipal and industrial wastewater reuse.

Desalination need not be off the table. But, as in Israel, we see it as part of a multifaceted and integrated series of solutions. By exploring the economic, technical and environmental feasibility of alternative solutions, Arizona could develop a water portfolio that would be far more likely than massive investments in seawater desalination to achieve the sustainable and secure water future that the state seeks.

Gabriel Eckstein, Professor of Law, Texas A&M University; Clive Lipchin, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies, Tel Aviv University, and Sharon B. Megdal, Professor of Environmental Science and Director, Water Resources Research Center, University of Arizona

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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.

Recent stories