The Colorado River Water Conservation District board of directors approved a request to partially fund the permitting costs for a dam and reservoir project in northwest Colorado.
The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District asked the River District for $3 million over three years for federal and state permit work for the construction of the Wolf Creek Reservoir. But the conservancy district did not get the full amount it asked for. At staff’s recommendation, the River District committed to $330,000 — one year of initial funding from the Community Funding Partnership. River District staff encouraged Rio Blanco to apply for more project funding in coming years.
Amy Moyer, River District director of strategic partnerships, said the district did not have the funding to provide the full $3 million over three years.
“We felt like ($330,000) was a good amount to help Rio Blanco hire a contractor they will need to start the permitting process,” she said.
In January, Rio Blanco secured a water right for a 66,720-acre-foot reservoir between Rangely and Meeker. The conservancy district is proposing an off-channel reservoir with a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long, with water that will be pumped into the Wolf Creek drainage from the White River.
Rio Blanco said it will use the funds for the National Environmental Policy Act permitting process, which will be administered by the Bureau of Land Management, using a third-party contractor. Rio Blanco estimates the permitting will take three to five years at a cost of $6 to $10 million.
In its application, Rangely-based Rio Blanco said that the River District’s support of the permit phase is essential for the eventual development of the project.
“The project provides a desperately needed new storage reservoir for the White River basin,” the application reads. “The White River basin currently does not have adequate storage to meet the current water needs during drought conditions or any additional future water needs within the basin.”
No River District directors voted against the funding. Rio Blanco County representative Alden Vanden Brink abstained from voting because he is the general manager of the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District.
“I support this concept,” said Gunnison County representative Kathleen Curry. “Investing in a permitting process is wise right now.”
Moffat County representative Tom Gray wondered if funding this request would mean the River District has a moral obligation to approve future funding requests for the Wolf Creek project. But River District General Manager Andy Mueller encouraged board members to look at it as a one-time request because the future of the overall project is still uncertain.
“It is possible that this applicant could have the whole permitting process blow up on them,” Mueller said. “Something beyond our control may occur. … Think of it on an application-at-a-time basis.”
The Wolf Creek project will also need permits from the State Historical Preservation Office, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and a consultation under the Endangered Species Act.
Rio Blanco has budgeted a minimum of $250,000 per year to contribute to the permitting process. Since planning first began in 2013, Rio Blanco and its funding partners, including the Colorado Water Conservation Board, have spent $2.1 million on the project. The project has the support of Rio Blanco and Moffat counties and the Town of Rangely, but so far these governments have not made funding commitments. Rio Blanco estimates the total cost to build the reservoir at $142 million.
Securing the water right for the project took longer than Rio Blanco expected because for five years, Colorado’s top engineers at the Department of Water Resources argued the project was speculative because Rio Blanco could not prove a need for the water. The water right that was eventually granted after years of back-and-forth in water court gave Rio Blanco the amount of water it was seeking, but does not allow the district all the water uses it initially wanted.
The decree granted Rio Blanco a water right for municipal use for the town of Rangely; augmentation within its boundaries; mitigation of environmental impacts; hydroelectric power; and in-reservoir use for recreation, piscatorial and wildlife habitat. The conservancy district will not be able to use the water for irrigation, endangered fish or augmentation in the event of a compact call.
Vanden Brink said there is a sense of urgency to build the Wolf Creek project. He said he is thrilled at the River District’s grant.
“We think it’s a great partnership with the River District,” he said. “It’s critical that this thing gets done.”
The River District’s Community Funding Partnership was established last year when voters passed ballot measure 7A, increasing the River District’s mill levy. Eighty-six percent of the revenue from the tax hike goes toward funding water projects in five categories: productive agriculture; infrastructure; healthy rivers; watershed health and water quality; and conservation and efficiency.
Colorado West Slope water officials turned up the volume on the call for action around water and climate change, calling it a “train wreck.”
At the Colorado River District’s Annual Water Seminar Oct. 1, Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based district, described climate change as a train wreck that needs to be stopped.
“For a decade or more, we have seen the train wreck slowly moving this way. It has picked up speed pretty significantly in the last couple of years, and the question is how do we avert the train wreck,” Mueller said.
He pointed to changes already underway as a result of the warming climate, and those that will be necessary. Uses of the Yampa River as it flows through Steamboat Springs have been curtailed for eight of the last 14 years because of high temperatures and low flows, he said. There have been fish kills in the Colorado River and other impacts to outdoor recreation. Ski areas face a shorter operating season and those in lower elevations may not survive. Agriculture users may need to remove marginal land from irrigation and take stock of their least productive crops.
“I think at every level our folks who are paying attention to the science and the hydrology, there is an increasing sense of urgency in the Colorado River Basin, and it’s shared by folks on the ground today, from ranchers in the Yampa River Valley to farmers in the Uncompaghre Valley to major urban providers like Denver Water. We all recognize there is something very different going on than there was 10 years ago in the Colorado River.”
“Climate change is barreling through the doors of America,” said Michael Connor, the second-highest ranking official in the Interior Department during the Obama administration and now a Washington D.C.-based attorney.
Brad Udall, a senior scientist and scholar at Colorado State University, said he began working on climate change in 2003. “I mostly got a lot of dirty looks,” he said. That has changed. “I have decided that misery loves company.”
Udall stressed the importance of inflows into Lake Powell from Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah, the states that comprise the Upper Colorado River Basin. Those inflows have averaged 8.4 million-acre feet since 2000.
Each year 500,000 acre-feet is lost to evaporation, leaving 7.9 million-acre-feet for release from Lake Powell. That’s less water than is needed to comply with the requirements of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Unless flows improve, said Udall, the Upper Basin states may have to forego use of some of their own Colorado River supplies to ensure Arizona, California and Nevada, the Lower Basin states, receive their legal share.
How did we get to this point? Several researchers in the last five years have fingered rising temperatures as a crucial factor in creating what Udall and his collaborator, the University of Michigan’s Jonathan Overpeck, in a famous 2017 paper, called “hot drought.” They said temperatures alone explained at least a third of the lesser river flows.
Loss of snow may further exacerbate warming. A 2020 paper by P.C.D. Milly and K.A. Dunne in Science found a 9.3% loss in Colorado River flows with each one degree Centigrade in warming. A key finding, said Udall, was that as shiny, reflective snow recedes, the amount of absorbed radiation rises.
A decade ago, there was no clear signal whether a warming climate would affect precipitation on the Western Slope. A picture is starting to emerge, with Southwestern Colorado now at significant risk of precipitation — and runoff — declines, he said.
The San Juan River near Bluff, Utah, had 30% less water in 2000-2019 as compared to 1906-1999. The Colorado River at Glenwood Springs had a 6% decline.
Soil moisture also matters. If the soil remains dry from the previous year, it sops up more of the potential runoff. In 2020, the snowpack was 100% of average but the runoff was 50%. That soil-moisture deficit played into this year’s even worse runoff, 30% of average from a snowpack that was 90% of average.
Dr. Gigi Richard, director of the Four Corners Water Center at Ft. Lewis College in Durango, was asked whether she detects more acceptance of climate change as impacting water.
“Yes,” she answered. “In Western Colorado, it’s really hard to deny that from day to day, year to year, that we are feeling the impacts of climate change.”
Connor, the former Interior official, pointed out that tribes in the Colorado River Basin have reserve rights, making them superior to the terms of the Colorado River Compact. Because of the sheer volume of those rights, especially in Arizona, many see them as crucial in whatever new Colorado River operating agreements are negotiated going forward.
“You need to be able to provide the tribes value for their rights,” if tribes are asked to give up use of those water rights, Connor said.
Muller warned of the need for adaptation and offered a conciliatory approach, saying water interests would need to unite to find solutions.
The River District, he noted, sought and obtained a tax increase from voters in an election that was supported by both the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce and the Environmental Defense Fund. “When,” he asked, “is the last time you saw those two groups on the same page?”Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
Communities that rely on the Colorado River are facing a water crisis. Lake Mead, the river’s largest reservoir, has fallen to levels not seen since it was created by the construction of the Hoover Dam roughly a century ago. Arizona and Nevada are facing their first-ever mandated water cuts, while water is being released from other reservoirs to keep the Colorado River’s hydropower plants running.
If even the mighty Colorado and its reservoirs are not immune to the heat and drought worsened by climate change, where will the West get its water?
What many people don’t realize is how old – and how vulnerable – much of that water is.
Most water stored underground has been there for decades, and much of it has sat for hundreds, thousands or even millions of years. Older groundwater tends to reside deep underground, where it is less easily affected by surface conditions such as drought and pollution.
As shallower wells dry out under the pressure of urban development, population growth and climate change, old groundwater is becoming increasingly important.
Drinking ancient groundwater
If you bit into a piece of bread that was 1,000 years old, you’d probably notice.
Water that has been underground for a thousand years can taste different, too. It leaches natural chemicals from the surrounding rock, changing its mineral content. Some natural contaminants linked to groundwater age – like mood-boosting lithium – can have positive effects. Other contaminants, like iron and manganese, can be troublesome.
Older groundwater is also sometimes too salty to drink without expensive treatment. This problem can be worse near the coasts: Overpumping creates space that can draw seawater into aquifers and contaminate drinking supplies.
Ancient groundwater can take thousands of years to replenish naturally. And, as California saw during its 2011-2017 drought, natural underground storage spaces compress as they empty, so they can’t refill to their previous capacity. This compaction in turn causes the land above to crack, buckle and sink.
Let’s imagine a rainstorm over central California 15,000 years ago. As the storm rolls over what’s now San Francisco, most of the rain falls into the Pacific Ocean, where it will eventually evaporate back into the atmosphere. However, some rain also falls into rivers and lakes and over dry land. As that rain seeps through layers of soil, it enters slowly trickling “flowpaths” of underground water.
Some of these paths lead deeper and deeper, where water collects in crevices within the bedrock hundreds of meters underground. The water gathered in these underground reserves is in a sense cut off from the active water cycle – at least on timescales relevant to human life.
In 2014, midway through their worst drought in modern memory, California became the last western state to pass a law requiring local groundwater sustainability plans. Groundwater may be resilient to heat waves and climate change, but if you use it all, you’re in trouble.
First, it’s expensive: Large agricultural companies and lithium mining firms tend to be the sort of investors who can afford to drill deep enough, while small rural communities can’t.
Second, once you pump ancient groundwater, aquifers need time to refill. Flowpaths may be disrupted, choking off a natural water supply to springs, wetlands and rivers. Meanwhile, the change in pressure underground can destabilize the earth, causing land to sink and even leading to earthquakes.
Third is contamination: While deep, mineral-rich ancient groundwater is often cleaner and safer to drink than younger, shallower groundwater, overpumping can change that. As water-strapped regions rely more heavily on deep groundwater, overpumping lowers the water table and draws down polluted modern water that can mix with the older water. This mixing causes the water quality to deteriorate, leading to demand for ever-deeper wells.
Reading climate history in ancient groundwater
There are other reasons to care about ancient groundwater. Like actual fossils, extremely old “fossil groundwater” can teach us about the past.
Envision our prehistoric rainstorm again: 15,000 years ago, the climate was quite different from today. Chemicals that dissolved in ancient groundwater are detectable today, opening windows into a past world. Certain dissolved chemicals act as clocks, telling scientists the groundwater’s age. For example, we know how fast dissolved carbon-14 and krypton-18 decay, so we can measure them to calculate when the water last interacted with air.
Younger groundwater that disappeared underground after the 1950s has a unique, man-made chemical signature: high levels of tritium from atomic bomb testing.
Other dissolved chemicals behave like tiny thermometers. Noble gases like argon and xenon, for instance, dissolve more in cold water than in warm water, along a precisely known temperature curve. Once groundwater is isolated from air, dissolved noble gases don’t do much. As a result, they preserve information about environmental conditions at the time the water first seeped into the subsurface.
The concentrations of noble gases in fossil groundwater have provided some of our most reliable estimates of temperature on land during the last ice age. Such findings provide insight into modern climates, including how sensitive Earth’s average temperature is to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These methods support a recent study that found 3.4 degrees Celsius of warming with each doubling of carbon dioxide.
Groundwater’s past and future
People in some regions, like New England, have been drinking ancient groundwater for years with little danger of exhausting usable supplies. Regular rainfall and varied water sources – including surface water in lakes, rivers and snowpack – provide alternatives to groundwater and also refill aquifers with new water. If aquifers can keep up with the demand, the water can be used sustainably.
Out West, though, over a century of unmanaged and exorbitant water use means that some of the places most dependent on groundwater – arid regions vulnerable to drought – have squandered the ancient water resources that once existed underground.
As the planet warms, ancient groundwater is becoming increasingly important – whether flowing from your kitchen tap, irrigating food crops, or offering warnings about Earth’s past that can help us prepare for an uncertain future.
Colorado communities from Greeley to Durango have identified $20.3 billion in water projects that will help ensure residents have adequate water, that agricultural supplies are protected, and that rivers and streams can continue to support fish and wildlife as population growth, chronic drought and climate change threaten future water supplies.
According to the 2015 Colorado Water Plan, the state faces a gap between expected demand and existing water supply of as much as 560,000 acre-feet per year for cities and industry by 2050.
Colorado is home to eight major river basins, each of which is governed by a public roundtable. A ninth basin roundtable represents the Denver metro area.
These entities are charged with evaluating each region’s water needs and projects that would help meet those needs. Funding for those projects will likely come from several sources including local governments and water utilities, and state and federal funding.
Known as basin implementation plans (BIPs), the working documents summarizing those projects and needs were submitted to the state earlier this month and are open for public comment through Nov. 15. These plans are updated versions of the originals that were initially developed by the roundtables in 2015 to inform the Colorado Water Plan.
Since 2015, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), which is responsible for implementing the water plan, has spent some $500 million in grants and loans helping fund water projects across the state, according to Russ Sands, head of water supply planning at the CWCB.
The plans are a key part of Colorado’s larger statewide effort to ensure it has adequate water supplies. The Colorado Water Plan is the primary document that guides state water policy and it relies on the planning efforts of the local roundtables.
“The basin roundtables represent a grassroots initiative that allow access to state planning,” Sands said.
The South Platte and Metro basin roundtables, which submitted a combined plan, have the most costly project list at $9.8 billion. This figure includes costs of projects that are planned, currently being implemented, or recently completed.
The South Platte Basin is home to the largest population centers and covers metro Denver, Fort Collins, Boulder, Greeley and Sterling, among dozens of other communities.
The next largest project list comes from the Colorado River Basin on the West Slope. It has identified $4.1 billion in water projects that will help it ensure its residents’ future needs are addressed.
The roundtables, made up of water professionals, citizens and local elected representatives, receive funding to operate from the CWCB. They also help fund projects each deem important to meeting a local need, whether it is improving an irrigation company’s diversion structure, building a new reservoir, funding a stream restoration project, or building a new kayak park.
The plans are “important because the process was to identify gaps in what a basin needs for irrigated agriculture, municipal and industrial, and environmental and recreational needs,” said Jason Turner, who chairs the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. “We have a robust mix of all sorts of projects and it allows people who, say, live on the Roaring Fork [a tributary] to understand some of the bigger Colorado River issues as well.”
Barbara Biggs is chair of the Metro Roundtable. She said the project list for the combined South Platte and Metro roundtables represents one of the most detailed assessments of water needs on the Front Range.
“Just creating the project database is a huge step in the right direction because it will allow us to track and measure our success,” she said.
The basin plans are scheduled to be finalized at the end of January 2022 and will be incorporated into an update of the 2015 Colorado Water Plan next year.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
May 14, 2021 — Editor’s note: This story is part of a collaboration, Tapped Out: Power, justice and water in the West, in which eight Institute for Nonprofit News newsrooms — California Health Report and High Country News; SJV Water and the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism; Circle of Blue; Columbia Insight; Ensia; and New Mexico In Depth — spent more than three months reporting on water issues in the Western U.S. The result documents serious concerns including contamination, excessive groundwater pumping and environmental inequity — as well as solutions to the problems. It was made possible by a grant from The Water Desk, with support from Ensia and INN’s Amplify News Project.
A riverbed that has been parched since the end of the 19th century — a portion of the historic lifeblood of the Gila River Indian Community — is now coursing again with water, luring things like cattails and birds back to its shores.
“You add water and stuff just immediately starts coming back naturally. Birds have returned and it’s just such a different experience,” says Jason Hauter, an attorney and a Community member. “It’s amazing how much has returned.”
The revival of this small segment of the 649-mile (1045-kilometer) Gila River, which has served the tribes that make up the Gila River Indian Community — the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and the Pee-Posh (Maricopa) — for roughly 2,000 years, was an added benefit of a grassroots infrastructure overhaul, known as “managed aquifer recharge,” or MAR, which aimed to restore the local groundwater basin. The MAR project has not only secured a water supply for local agriculture, but it has also generated a stable source of income and strengthened the Community’s ties to tradition.
“The land started to heal itself, reinvigorate itself,” says Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, who recently began his third term as leader of the Gila River Indian Community.
Hauter credits Lewis and his colleagues for ensuring that Community members have long-term access to their own resources while helping solve broader water supply problems in the region through innovative partnerships and exchanges with neighbors.
“They are very thoughtful about future generations, but they also recognize they live in this larger community and that you have to collaborate,” Hauter says. “Encouraging your neighbors to have good water practices, but also helping your neighbors, is good water policy.”
A Particularly Longstanding Claim to Water Rights
The ins and outs of water management and usage in the U.S. West are complex. In a region where every drop is important, questions about water — such as who gets what, how it’s moved from one place to another, and who pays for it — are vital to communities’ capacity to survive and thrive. These decisions are often based on century-plus-old legal doctrines that don’t always fit neatly into a modern, warming world — or address longstanding disregard for Native American tribal nations’ rights.
Western U.S. states adhere to legal doctrines called “prior appropriation” — sometimes referred to as “first in time, first in right” — linked to the mid-19th century Gold Rush and the Homestead Act, through which miners and farmers were able to claim and divert water sources for “beneficial use” — defined by activities such as irrigation, industry, power production and domestic use. A 1908 Supreme Court case ruled that the federal decision to establish Native American reservations inherently meant there would be sufficient water for those reservations. The priority date for water rights on these reservations therefore had to match the date of establishment, meaning that many tribal nations’ water rights took precedence over those of most existing users. During the past few decades, these nations have largely opted for settlements with the relevant federal, state and private bodies, rather than entering extensive and costly litigation to recover their water rights.
These settlements allow tribal nations to take part in the competitive markets that have long ruled water in the West. These markets involve things like selling water rights, getting money for helping mitigate drought and accruing “credit” from the Arizona Water Banking Authority by storing water in underground basins administered by the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
One such pivotal settlement came in 2004: To resolve tribal water rights claims, Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlement Act, which allocates a set amount of water each year to the Gila River Indian Community, drawing that water budget from a variety of sources in Arizona. The Community had a particularly longstanding claim to water rights due to its two-millennia history of farming, curtailed when miners and white settlers began diverting water following the Civil War. The governor’s late father, Rodney Lewis, devoted his career as Gila River Tribal Attorney to fighting for a just water settlement.
“It was the theft of our water, so this was a generational historic struggle to regain our water,” Lewis says. “We were and we still are historically agriculturalists, farmers. Our lineage, our ancestors were the Huhugam. And the Huhugam civilization had pretty much cultivated the modern-day Phoenix area in central Arizona.”
“They were master builders,” he adds, referring to complex water systems and canals that he says rivaled those of the Nile Valley.
As more and more nations regain control of their water resources, they are securing a critical provision for the long-term financial prosperity of their people and protection of their lands.
Mutually Beneficial Partnerships
As often occurs in tribal water rights settlements, the 2004 agreement served to restore the Gila River Indian Community’s claims to the river and its tributaries without displacing the descendants “of those who committed the original sin,” says Hauter, a partner at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which currently serves as outside counsel for the Community.
Toward that end, Hauter says, “really, what’s provided is an alternative supply.”
That alternative supply comes from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), an infrastructural behemoth that conveys about 1.5 million acre-feet (1.85 billion cubic meters; one acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons) of water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona each year. Serving as the single largest renewable water supply for the state of Arizona, the 336-mile (540-kilometer) system was authorized by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, soon after which construction by the Bureau of Reclamation began. Three years later, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District — a multi-county water district — formed to repay the federal government for the project’s costs and oversee regional water supply.
Through the 2004 settlement, the Gila River Indian Community has the single largest CAP entitlement — bigger than that of the city of Phoenix — at 311,800 acre-feet (385 million cubic meters), Hauter explains. Finding mutual benefit in helping quench the thirst of the surrounding region, the Community entered into various water exchanges and leases that delivered about 60,000 acre-feet (74 million cubic meters) to Phoenix and other municipalities annually and left about 250,000-acre-feet (308 million cubic meters) for its own purposes, according to Hauter.
But this sudden surplus from the CAP actually posed a problem.
Pumping water from the project, Community members understood, would eventually become prohibitive due to water transport and associated electricity costs. The Lower Colorado River Basin Development Fund, managed by the U.S. Department of Interior, covers the Fixed OM&R (operation, maintenance and replacement) for certain Arizona tribes with settlements, but funding is only projected to last until 2045, Hauter explains.
The Community was using only about 50,000 acre-feet (62 million cubic meters) for irrigation purposes, leaving about 200,000-acre-feet (247 million cubic meters) unused, Hauter says. Because any unused CAP water can be remarketed by the state, Arizonans began counting on the Community to not use its full share.
With the legal guidance of Hauter and his team, the Community launched a strategic venture to store, share and sell much more of its CAP water in 2010.
The first such partnership occurred with former water supply rival the Salt River Project, the name of the utilities responsible for providing most of Phoenix’s water and power. Had the Community decided to enter litigation to recover its water rights, rather than settling, the Salt River Project could have faced enormous supply losses.
But the former rivals instead became partners, after identifying that the Salt River Project’s underground storage facility (USF), the Granite Reef Underground Storage Project, was an ideal place to store a portion of the CAP allocation the Gila River Indian Community was not currently using. The partnership has enabled the Salt River Project to withdraw water from storage — while maintaining a “safe yield,” or making sure any water that is taken from aquifers is replenished. In return, the Community has gained long-term storage credit, Hauter explains. Such storage credit enables the holder to bank CAP water and, when necessary, recover the water for future use.
The Community also stores water in groundwater savings facilities (GSF), including one operated by the Salt River Project and another south of the Gila River operated by the Maricopa Stanfield Drainage District. While a USF physically stores water in the aquifer through direct recharge, a GSF is an “indirect” recharge facility that uses CAP water instead of pumping local groundwater.
In what Hauter described as an “in lieu” agreement, the Community provides the operators of these GSF facilities with a renewable water supply — another portion of its CAP allocation — and so reduces the Salt River Project and Maricopa District’s need to extract groundwater. In return, the Community gets storage credit for the water that can remain in the ground.
“Everything We Needed Was at the River”
While these external collaborations bolstered the resilience of the Community, as well as that of the arid surrounding region, Gila River residents only really saw the revival of their long-lost local waterway when Community leaders launched a homegrown storage initiative. Recognizing the value in keeping some unused CAP resources at home, they chose to establish a network of managed aquifer recharge (MAR) sites. This type of underground storage allows for the free flow of water from a naturally permeable area, such as a streambed, into an aquifer, as opposed to “constructed recharge” sites that involve injecting water into percolation basins by means of a constructed device.
In order to implement these plans, the Gila River Indian Community came to an agreement with Arizona to acquire state regulatory permits for the MAR projects, despite the fact that tribal nations have sovereign control over water management. As a result of this decision, the Community has been able to market long-term storage credits in a sort of environmentally friendly banking system that allows more groundwater to stay in the ground.
“They realized they could get multiple benefits from deciding to have their project permitted per the Arizona regulations,” says Sharon Megdal, director of The University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center.
“They voluntarily chose to abide by the regulations for storage and recovery and therefore come under the whole credit accrual and accounting system,” she continues, stressing that not only can credits be used to recover water when needed in the future, but they can also be purchased by outside entities, which creates a revenue stream for the Community. “That’s really exciting.”
Three MAR facilities are already operating on the reservation today: MAR-5, the Olberg Dam underground storage facility, permitted in 2018; MAR-1B, the Cholla Mountain underground storage facility, permitted in 2020; and MAR-6B, a western and downstream expansion of MAR-5, which came online a few months ago. Construction of MAR-8, located downstream from MAR-5, will be complete in a few years, according to Hauter.
Hauter adds that it was only while planning the initial MAR-5 site that Community members envisioned the riparian restoration program that served “to recreate the river,” allowing cattails and other plants to blossom and enabling community members to create baskets and traditional medicines. Although the idea of restoring the river was secondary to the storage plans, Hauter says that its flow is intrinsic to the Community’s culture.
“The tangible benefit for most members is really having the river back to some degree,” Hauter adds. “It wasn’t something the settlement intended to accomplish, but the settlement gave the Community the tools to make it happen.”
Lewis and his father, who had already retired at the time, used those tools to see the first MAR site to fruition. The Lewises and their colleagues understood the benefit in adopting innovative methods for accumulating water at their future storage site.
“He truly saw the MAR-5 as a living testament to our historic tie to the Gila River,” the governor says, adding that his father considered the facility an opportunity to “return the flow of the river.”
With the revived river flow, the riparian habitat quickly began blossoming, including 50 documented species of birds within the first year of MAR-5’s operations, Lewis says. An interpretive trail now weaves through the once arid wetland, providing educational signposts and offering sacred cultural spaces for spiritual practice, Lewis explains. Elders are now taking advantage of the plants and silt available to engage in traditional basket weaving, medicine making and pottery, he adds.https://www.youtube.com/embed/z52k5NB02cM?feature=oembed
“They still remember the river sometimes flowing and the smell of the water,” Lewis says.
In recent years, before the opening of the MAR-5 site, the channel filled with water only in particularly wet seasons involving floods or heavy snowpack upstream, according to Lewis.
“Everything we needed was at the river,” he adds. “That was our lifeblood.”
Continuing to Plan For a Drought-Ridden Future
In conjunction with the opening of the MAR facilities, the Community cemented a pivotal agreement in 2019 with the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD), a groundwater replenishment entity operated by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. Through this agreement, CAGRD leases 18,185 acre-feet (22 million cubic meters) of the Community’s CAP water and stores the majority of that water in the MAR sites, while receiving long-term storage credits in return from the Arizona Water Banking Authority. Only if the MAR facilities are full is CAGRD allowed to store the leased water elsewhere, Hauter explains.
Alongside the MAR projects, the Community has also been rehabilitating existing wells and building new ones in order to create a backup supply for agricultural use when Gila River flow is minimal. Well water is less expensive than CAP water, since wells can recharge naturally during storms — so much so that such events collectively add at least 100,000 acre-feet (123 million cubic meters) to the Community’s annual water supply, according to Hauter. The Community took additional steps to reroute its CAP supplies after the federal government and the seven Colorado River Basin States implemented their drought contingency plans, meant to elevate water levels in Lake Mead, in 2020. As part of that regional effort, Hauter explains, the Community is providing a total of at least 200,000 acre-feet (247 million cubic meters) of water to be stored in Lake Mead from 2020 to 2026, when the drought contingency plans expire. For its contribution, the Community gets money through the Arizona Water Bank and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Only through the Community’s creative collaborations and homegrown projects has so much of its CAP entitlement been able to help replenish Lake Mead, Hauter says. Today, the Community has reduced its CAP water usage for irrigation to 15,000 acre-feet (19 million cubic meters) per year, while its CAP water storage capacity in the MAR projects is up to about 40,000 acre-feet (49 million cubic meters) per year. After construction of MAR-8 is complete, total CAP water use for storage and irrigation will reach about 75,000 acre-feet (93 million cubic meters), Hauter says.
As the Community’s leaders continue to plan for a drought-ridden future, they are evaluating whether it will be necessary to use more of its CAP allocation for their own needs. At the moment, much of the reservation’s agriculture involves water-intensive crops like alfalfa, feed corn and cotton. An overhaul of the farming infrastructure, according to Hauter, would require “changing attitudes about how food is grown” and incorporating more efficient technologies, as well as encouraging farming among younger people.
Overall, Hauter says, “it’s an exciting future for the Community, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the next 20 or so years.”
Lewis is confident that the Community’s agricultural tradition will remain strong, particularly due to the younger generation’s concerns for social justice, equity and environmental issues.
“We want to provide opportunities for our community members to reengage in any way in our agricultural heritage,” he says. “We’ve always been innovators, going back to the Huhugam with their amazing engineering.”
In addition to the commercial company Gila River Farms, which is owned by the tribe and employs Community members, Lewis says that local family farms continue to thrive. Lewis also says that “there’s a big push” for young people to obtain degrees in agro-business, hydrology, water engineering and other relevant fields that will provide them with a livelihood while working for their Community — a place that has become even more special to them during the pandemic year.
“It’s a public health emergency that we’ve been going through,” Lewis adds. “But at the same time, I think this is an opportunity where you see a lot [of] our younger generation that are wanting to learn who it is to be from the Gila River Indian Community.”
“A Total Win-Win”
While the MAR projects and the larger water exchange deals serve to safeguard the Community’s water supplies, Hauter says he’s uncertain as to whether neighboring tribal nations could replicate this model. Other tribes, he explains, might have different agricultural interests or economic concerns, as well as varying geological and hydrological conditions.
In Megdal’s opinion, at least one aspect of the Community’s strategy could be replicable regardless of geography: the strategic accrual and marketing of long-term storage credits in permitted recharge facilities. The Gila River Indian Community has diversified its portfolio of storage credit and sales through “multiple vehicles,” she explains, including its MAR projects, the Salt River Project partnership, and its transfer of credits to CAGRD.
“They are able to meet their objectives including having riparian benefits and river benefits and sell the credits — because the credits are then recovered elsewhere. … For them, it’s like a total win-win,” Megdal says, adding that she considers the Community’s achievements to be “a bellwether project.”
Already, she says, the Tucson-region Tohono O’odham Nation has begun selling some credits to CAGRD. Acknowledging that the two cases involve varying geological and legislative circumstances, Megdal stresses that the Gila River Indian Community has demonstrated the benefits of the storage and credit accrual system.
“These long-term storage credits are the most marketable part of the water system,” Megdal says. “It’s an emerging market, and the Gila River Indian Community has emerged as a key leader in that market.”
“I see this example of a tribal nation entering voluntarily into an intergovernmental agreement with the state so that all the parties can develop these mutually beneficial exchanges or marketing transactions in a voluntary way,” she adds. “It’s really a notable innovation.”
Editor’s note: This story is also part of a four-part series — “Hotter, Drier, Smarter: Managing Western Water in a Changing Climate” — about innovative approaches to water management in the U.S. West and Western tribal nations. The series is supported by a grant from the Water Desk at the University of Colorado Boulder and is included in our nearly year-long reporting project, “Troubled Waters,” which is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. You can find the other stories in the series, along with more drinking water reporting, here.
About one-third of Navajo Nation residents lack running water in their homes and water pollution remains a serious issue in the region. We talk to Kaitlin Harris of DigDeep’s Navajo Water Project about solutions to these pressing problems.
Water challenges on the Navajo Nation As in many indigenous communities, infrastructure in the Navajo Nation has long been underfunded. A four decade legacy of uranium mining has left a lot of pollution as well. The Nation’s dispersed population also makes it more difficult to provide water service. Starts at 4:18
New climate data that shows a north/south split in streamflow declines in the Colorado River basin could have implications for water managers as they navigate how to address water shortages.
This month, Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, presented data that shows when comparing records from the past 20 years to those from most of the 20th century, rivers in the southern half of the upper Colorado River basin have lost a larger percentage of flows than rivers in the northern part of the basin.
For example, flows on the San Juan River near Bluff, Utah, have declined by 30% and flows on the Dolores River near Cisco, Utah, have declined by 21%. Flows on the Yampa River near Maybell and the Colorado River near Glenwood Springs have each lost just 6% of flows.
“We do think it’s going to dry more in the south and less in the north and we should at some point see a gradient, and sure enough, that has popped up at some of these gauges,” Udall said.
Udall presented his findings at the University of Colorado Getches-Wilkinson Center’s 41st annual Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources, which was simulcast as part of the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s annual seminar on Oct. 1.
Udall analyzed the Bureau of Reclamation’s natural flow data, which is an estimate of the flow that would have been observed at a stream gauge if there were no reservoirs or diversions present. Then he compared 1906-99 data to 2000-19 data to see how much the flows have declined.
Udall said the data was just an initial look; more research needs to be done, and there is at least one outlier that bucks the trend: The White River, which flows through the northwest corner of Colorado, has experienced a 19% decline in flows at the Watson gauge, which is just over the state line in Utah.
“Are the natural flows conveying accurately what’s going on? I just don’t know,” Udall said. “When you begin to do science, you come up with these results that bear more digging.”
A 2017 paper co-authored by Udall and Jonathan Overpeck found that an average of one-third of the Colorado River’s flow loss could be attributed to warming temperatures. Higher temperatures may even cancel out any increases in precipitation.
“The hotter it is, the thirstier the air is for water, so it’s going to pull more moisture out of the soil or the crops or the reservoir or whatever the case may be,” CSU climatologist Russ Schumacher said. “As the snow starts to melt, it has to go back into recharging the soil. That’s the first place it goes, and not as much ends up in the rivers.”
Schumacher said the north/south flow-loss differential is consistent with what climate predictions have shown.
“The interior Southwest of the United States is a place that is especially vulnerable because it’s a dry place to begin with,” he said. “Adding more heat into the system, you get more evapotranspiration and everything else, and we are seeing rivers decline there.”
The dividing line between drier and wetter is somewhere near the middle latitude of Colorado and bisects the state into northern and southern halves. Also, it is roughly where the main stem of the Colorado River flows through the state. But as the impacts of climate change worsen, high pressure over the deserts of the Southwest could creep northward and expand the more intense streamflow losses already happening in the southwestern part of the state to the northern half of Colorado.
“The difficulty with climate change is that it’s changing,” Udall said. “This is a moving target throughout the 21st century, and every time you think you have it figured out, something else is going to happen.”
Equity in demand management
The north/south difference in flow declines could have implications for how Colorado water managers develop a potential water-savings plan. State officials are currently investigating a program known as demand management that would pay water users to cut back and send the saved water to a special storage pool in Lake Powell. The water would be an insurance policy against a Colorado River Compact call.
A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada), as required by a nearly century-old binding agreement. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid a compact-call scenario, which could result in mandatory water cutbacks.
A major topic of demand-management discussions has been proportionality and how to design a program that ensures that no particular river basin experiences more negative economic or environmental impacts than another. Another question is: If there is a compact call, how would state engineers administer it so that already water-short basins aren’t forced to cut back even more?
“(The north/south flow-loss differential) would be an interesting input into that, especially in the area of equity,” Udall said. “If the upper part of the (Colorado River) main stem is actually not suffering very much but the San Juan is really suffering, what does that mean for who should help contribute to the shortfall?”
Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said he has noticed a warming trend in southwest Colorado and that irrigators have seen an increasing number of shortages over the past 20 years. He has been monitoring the demand-management discussions and questions surrounding proportionality.
“This year, we were substantially worse than the rest of Colorado,” Curtis said. “You overlay the question, if this is a real pattern, how does this play into equitability? You can’t really get blood out of a turnip. There wasn’t any water to demand manage this year.”
State officials say they are striving to avoid disproportionate impacts on certain basins or water users as they continue their investigation into a demand-management program. Colorado Water Conservation Board Deputy Section Chief Amy Ostdiek said climate change and drought factor into everything the organization does.
“Talking about the southwest corner of the state, just what we are seeing on the ground is that it has been heavily impacted by drought and that has a number of implications,” she said. “In terms of demand management, there are going to be issues and concerns that are specific to each area of the state, for sure.”
But regardless of how the flow loss breaks down among the different tributaries of the upper basin, the overall streamflow trend is downward. According to Udall’s data, the Colorado River at the all-important Lee Ferry — just downstream from Lake Powell near the Arizona-Utah border, which is the dividing line between the upper and lower basins and the point at which upper-basin water deliveries to the lower basin are measured — has lost 17% of its flow. Despite a near-average snowpack, 2021 saw the second-worst unregulated inflow into Lake Powell, at 31% of average. This summer federal officials began emergency releases from upper-basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell to maintain the ability to make hydroelectric power.
Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the River District and co-author of “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” said it is this bigger picture that should have upper-basin water managers worried, especially when it comes to plans for future water projects.
“We are thinking it, but we aren’t saying it out loud: There’s no more water,” Kuhn said. “There’s just not a lot of water for development. It’s an obvious conclusion right now. It’s the elephant in the room in the upper basin.”
The Water Desk is excited to be partnering with photojournalist Ted Wood to expand our free multimedia library of water-related imagery.
Our library has thousands of photos of key locations in the Colorado River Basin and beyond. We also offer aerial videos, some of them captured with drones and others filmed during flights with our partner LightHawk.
The imagery in our library is available for editorial and non-commercial use under a free Creative Commons license. See this page to learn how journalists, media outlets and non-profits can license the content.
Because so many media outlets, especially smaller and non-profit news organizations, have little to no money to pay for photos or videos, we want to provide a free resource to strengthen their water coverage.
At the same time, we recognize that many larger outlets do have the ability to pay for photos, so we’re encouraging them to hire photojournalists and asking them to donate to The Water Desk if they use free content from our library. We’ll devote all those donations to supporting photojournalists covering water issues.
These two reservoirs—parts of the Colorado River Storage Project—have been partially drawn down to prop up Lake Powell and preserve hydropower generation at Glen Canyon Dam.
Because so many media outlets, especially smaller and non-profit news organizations, have little to no money to pay for photos or videos, we want to provide a free resource to strengthen their water coverage.
Our library also has photos and videos of Navajo Lake, the third reservoir in the system that will help fill Lake Powell. I was able to visit there in April and August.
We’ve got a lot more content than just dams and reservoirs. For example, Ted’s photos of the Santa Cruz River illustrate a restoration project near my former home in Tucson.
We’re excited to roll out more of Ted’s images in the weeks and months ahead. Be sure to follow us on Twitter and Instagram to learn when we publish new content. And check out our interactive map for an overview of the multimedia library and to search by location.
If you’re a journalist working on a Western water story and need help finding a photo or video, please contact me at email@example.com. We’d also welcome any feedback on the library.
I want to thank Ted for contributing such great content and also give a shout-out to our consultant, Geoff McGhee, who helped us create a system for organizing and sharing photos and videos.
We hope this imagery offers a valuable asset for the field and helps enrich your understanding of Western water issues.
These strategies conceal a more fundamental problem: the unchecked growth of water consumption. The Southwest is in an “anthropogenic drought” created by the combination of natural water variability, climate change and human activities that continuously widen the water supply-demand gap.
In the long run, this can lead to “water bankruptcy,” meaning water demand invariably exceeds the supply. Trying to manage this by cranking up water supply is destined to fail.
More than 7,000 miles away, Iran is grappling with water problems that are similar to the U.S. Southwest’s but more severe. One of the driest years in the past five decades, on the back of several decades of mismanaged water resources, brought warnings of water conflicts between Iranian provinces this year.
Asenvironmentalengineers and scientists – one of us is also a former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment – we’ve closely studied the water challenges in both drought-prone regions. We believe past mistakes in the U.S. and Iran offer important lessons for future plans in the U.S. Southwest and other regions increasingly experiencing drought and water shortages.
Groundwater pumping: A temporary fix with consequences
Iran offers a case study in what can go wrong with that approach, as our research shows. The country nearly doubled its groundwater extraction points between 2002 and 2015 in an attempt to support a growing agricultural industry, which drained aquifers to depletion. As its water tables drastically declined, the groundwater’s salinity increased in aquifers to levels that may no longer be readily suitable for agriculture.
In Iran, multiple interbasin water transfer projects doubled the flow of the Zayandeh Rud, a river in the arid central part of the country. The inflow of water supported unsustainable growth, creating demand without enough water to support it. In dry years now, no one has enough water. Many people in Khuzestan – the region supplying water to central Iran – lost their livelihood as their farms dried out, wetlands vanished, and livestock died of thirst. People in central Iran also lost crops to the drought as incoming water was cut. Both regions saw protests turn violent this year.
Another project, the California Aqueduct, was constructed in the 1960s to transfer water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Northern California to the Central Valley and southern parts of the state to support agriculture and some urban demand. This also did not close the water demand-supply gap, and it pushed economically and culturally important native fish species and ecological systems in the delta to the point of collapse.
Looking ahead in light of looming water bankruptcy
As the continued influx of population into the U.S. Southwest raises water demand in the face of shrinking water supply, we have to wonder whether the Southwest is heading toward water bankruptcy.
While there is no easy solution, a number of actions are possible.
First, recognize that water shortages cannot be mitigated only by increasing water supply – it’s also important to manage water demand.
Cities can save water by curbing outdoor water losses and excess water use, such as on ornamental lawns. Californians successfully reduced their water demand by more than 20% between 2015 and 2017 in response to severe drought conditions. Replanting urban landscapes with native drought-tolerant vegetation can help conserve water.
There are also emerging technological solutions that could boost water resources in some regions, including fog water collection, which uses sheets of mesh to capture moisture from fog, and desalination plants that turn seawater and saline groundwater into drinking water. One new desalination plant planned for Huntington Beach, California, is awaiting final approval. Environmental consequences of these measures, however, should be carefully considered.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The city of Steamboat Springs is exploring a way to help it stay in compliance with state regulations and also cool down chronically high temperatures in an impaired stretch of the Yampa River.
A program called water-quality trading could allow the city to meet the requirements of its wastewater-treatment facility’s discharge permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by cooling other areas of the river by planting trees.
The Yampa River flows through downtown Steamboat, where several parks and the Core Trail have been built along its banks. The river, a vital and cherished amenity for the Steamboat community, is popular with tubers and anglers. According to a 2017 survey of citizens, 75% of respondents ranked the management and health of the Yampa as essential or very important.
But low flows and high temperatures, made worse in recent years by climate change, have impacted the public’s ability to use one of their favorite amenities. In July, the city closed the river to commercial use because of high temperatures — over 75 degrees. The city also recommended a voluntary closure for noncommercial users of the river.
The entire 57-mile segment of the Yampa from above the confluence with Oak Creek to above the confluence with Elkhead Creek often has temperatures that are too high during the summer months, and in 2016 the segment was designated as impaired for temperature under the Clean Water Act. For July, August, September and November, stream temperatures exceed state standards for a cold-water fishery.
Because the river is classified as impaired, city officials expect that when CDPHE issues a future discharge permit for the city’s wastewater-treatment plant, it will include more-stringent water temperature standards. The wastewater-treatment plant may not be able to meet these standards unless it cools the effluent before releasing it back into the river. The city’s current discharge permit expires at the end of the year.
According to CDPHE Marketing and Communications Specialist Eric Garcia, Steamboat’s next permit will likely not have temperature limits, but will have temperature monitoring requirements. The soonest the city would have temperature limits for the wastewater treatment plan is Jan. 1, 2027.
“These monitoring requirements are included so that we have a full understanding of the temperature issues in the Yampa River and at the plant before we set any temperature limits,” Garcia said in an email.
But just cooling the effluent won’t fix the temperature problems on the entire 57-mile stretch. The wastewater-treatment facility is not the cause of the high temperatures — an engineering study could not pinpoint an exact cause, and the plant is 12 miles downstream from the start of the impaired section — and city officials see an opportunity to improve the health of the Yampa on a holistic, watershed level. Instead of just cooling the water at the plant, the city hopes to use a program of cooling whole stretches of the river by planting more trees.
“Of course, building a cooling tower will help us meet our permit limit, but it won’t help solve the stream-temperature problem,” said Michelle Carr, water distribution and collection manager for the city. “It would go against what we are trying to achieve in the watershed entirely.”
Steamboat has been working with The Freshwater Trust, an Oregon-based group, to explore what a water-quality trading program could look like. The Freshwater Trust assessed 119 miles of local streams and found 794 acres where riparian plantings could work at a potential program cost of $1.5 million.
According to David Primozich, vice president at The Freshwater Trust, the vast majority of heat in the river comes from the sun, so providing shade is an effective way to keep stream temperatures from rising. Over the decades, development and agriculture operations along the Yampa have removed riverbank vegetation, especially narrowleaf cottonwoods. Replanting these big, shady trees, which can top at least 60 feet at maturity, can help.
Using a modeling tool called the Shade-a-lator, The Freshwater Trust can determine the potential reduction in solar loading as a result of revegetation projects. By quantifying the benefits of restoring a river’s ecosystem, a water-quality trading program can create a path for the city to comply with temperature regulations.
“We found a way to convert the outcomes we know the environment needs into units that people can buy because they have to as a result of regulatory compliance,” Primozich said. “(The city) doesn’t want to spend money on things that don’t help the environment. They want a clean and healthy river.”
A June report from Englewood-based Jacobs Engineering looked at the causes of temperature exceedances in the Yampa and potential technologies that could help reduce high temperatures. The study could not pinpoint an exact cause of high temperatures, but a lack of riparian shading, nearby hot springs and Lake Catamount — an upstream, shallow reservoir — may be contributing factors.
“It’s probably a combination of these things, but if there’s one issue, we can’t point to it,” Carr said. “One of the reservoirs, Catamount, is small and shallow, so that acts as a bathtub that warms in the sun.”
The report presented five options for reducing temperatures at the city’s wastewater-treatment plant: passive cooling ponds/wetlands; cooling towers; pretreating warm water released from Old Town Hot Springs; water-quality trading using riparian shading; and a hybrid of water-quality trading with a cooling pond. City officials prefer the hybrid option because although riparian shading can help cool river temperatures in the summer, the temperature standards are also exceeded in November, when the leaves have fallen off the trees. A cooling pond could be a solution for that month.
City officials are also hoping that they could get credit for previous and current river restoration work as part of a future water-quality trading program. The city’s parks and recreation department, along with Diggin’ It Riverworks, began a restoration project on the Yampa behind the Flour Mill on Sept. 22. The project aims to improve river access, aquatic habitat, bank stabilization and recreational opportunities. Crews will also plant additional vegetation and trees to help cool river temperatures.
The city has submitted the alternatives analysis outlined in the engineering report and its preference to develop a water-quality trading program to CDPHE, which is currently reviewing the analysis. In Colorado, water-quality trading programs have traditionally been focused on pollutants. If Steamboat develops a program specifically to address temperature, it would be the first of its kind in the state.
“We know the city of Steamboat is not the only community having issues,” Carr said. “With climate change, there is no better time to start working toward a solution than now.”