For nearly a century, scientists from around the world have studied water and climate in the north end of the Gunnison Valley. In 2021, the high mountain watershed entered a new chapter: a first-of-its-kind project where scientists will trace snow from where it arrives in the atmosphere, to where it melts into the ground.
The research aims to understand water and snow in mountain systems for the first time.
Dozens of instruments were placed in the north end of the valley starting last fall. A state-of-the-art radar is located at the intersection of popular ski trails on Crested Butte Mountain Resort. And rows of tan shipping containers and shiny instruments line the meadows along the East River from Mt. Crested Butte to Gothic.
Rosemary Carroll lives in Mt. Crested Butte and works as an associate research professor in hydrology at the Nevada-based Desert Research Institute. Her work studies the snow and streams that span from Paradise Divide – all the way down to Almont.
“I try to do the whole water budget of the basin,” said Carroll. “Which ties snow all the way down through deep geology.”
Carroll’s work is part of a national science research campaign, the Surface and Atmospheric Integrated Field Laboratory, OR SAIL. Over 150 scientists will spend two years measuring snow and water by using dozens of scientific instruments. The goal is to better understand mountain watersheds, and mountain climates, around the world.
“Why this area why mountain systems,” said Carroll. “It’s because these are the systems that some would call a canary in the coal mine for climate change. One-sixth of the global population receives its water from snow-fed rivers of mountain systems. So it’s not trivial. And the systems are also experiencing a lot of change.”
After years of working in the area’s streams and rivers, Williams said he noticed a glaring hole in his research: understanding how snow falls from the sky.
“And so if you really are interested in designing a scientific experiment, that’s looking at the future of water in the West, you have to understand all the processes that impact the flow of that water from the time it arrives in the atmosphere, to the time it eventually makes its way into bedrock, and then into streamflow,” said Williams.
On a sunny day in January, Williams shuffled through the lift line at Crested Butte Mountain Resort with Dan Feldman to check on the project’s scientific instruments. Feldman is the principal investigator of the SAIL program. His work focuses on atmosphere and weather patterns to determine how and when rain and snow fall in the mountains. To do this, he uses radars that track precipitation.
The pair rode to the top of Red Lady Express to check on an xband radar. The radar is 25-feet-tall and resembles an oversized golf ball because of its white plastic covering. It’s reached by a narrow ladder that can be difficult to navigate in ski boots.
Feldman explained the importance of the xband radar in the larger SAIL program research.
“The x band radar measures precipitation, it also measures what type of precipitation is occurring,” said Feldman. “So not just how much, whether it’s rain or snow, and where it’s occurring all, you know from here to a radius of about 40 kilometers.”
The instruments being used in the SAIL program are on loan from the Department of Energy’s Atmospheric and Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility. The mobile research facility moves around the world to conduct atmospheric and climate research.
Williams says the radar on the mountain, coupled with the one in Gothic, will provide a highly detailed understanding of weather patterns in the mountains. While the group is interested in learning about the East River Valley, the information they collect will tell a bigger story about mountain watersheds.
“We are utilizing this watershed as being one that’s representative of many watersheds within the western United States,” said Williams. “We want our research and our research findings to be broadly representative, or broadly relevant to the future of water in a variety of mountainous systems.”
The SAIL program will continue until next June with support from the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory – and – the data will be available to everyone. As water levels reach historic lows in the Colorado River Basin, understanding how water travels from mountain headwaters to dams below – couldn’t come at a better time. What water managers choose to do with the data is yet to be seen.
KBUT’s Headwaters series was made possible by The Water Desk, an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.
As climate change continues to shrink the nation’s second-largest reservoir, water managers are scrambling to prevent the release of an invasive fish into the Grand Canyon.
Smallmouth bass, a voracious predator and popular game fish, have been introduced into reservoirs throughout the Colorado River basin, including Lake Powell. The looming problem now is that as lake levels drop to historically low levels, the invasive fish are likely to escape beyond Glen Canyon Dam, threatening endangered fish in the canyon, whose populations have rebounded in recent years.
Smallmouth bass are a warm-water-loving species, hanging out in the top part of the water column, which is warmed by the sun. Until recently, the intakes for turbines at Glen Canyon Dam had been lower in the water column, where colder temperatures kept the fish away. But as the lake level falls, the warmer water band containing the smallmouth bass is sinking closer to the intakes, making it more likely that they will pass through the dam to the river below.
Warmer water below the dam also means a more ideal environment for the bass, which thrive in temperatures above 61 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius).
“With the levels we are expecting to get to this coming year, water temperatures are going to be warmer than they’ve been in 52 years in the Grand Canyon,” said Charles Yackulic, a research statistician with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center.
The research center has been modeling the likelihood that smallmouth bass will become established below the dam under different scenarios and providing that information to decision-makers and water managers.
Jack Schmidt, a Colorado River researcher at Utah State University and former director of the research center, co-wrote — along with Yackulic and others — a March 2021 paper that sounded the alarm that future warming is likely to disproportionately benefit nonnative fish species to the detriment of native species. The problem from which all others stem, including the changing fish communities, and the reason Powell is so low in the first place is the climate-change-driven supply-demand imbalance, Schmidt said.
“If we are going to continue to load the atmosphere with carbon such that the atmosphere warms and the runoff in the Colorado River keeps getting lower and if we are going to keep consuming water, … then you can only play this game of staving off the inevitable for so long before it’s game over,” he said.
Threat to humpback chub
Although the trout fishery and other native fish around Lees Ferry would also be hurt by the bass, the biggest risk would be to the fish listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), including the humpback chub.
“The biggest concern for a lot of stakeholders is how it could affect humpback chub and razorback sucker,” Yackulic said. “Over 90% of humpback chub are found in the Grand Canyon reach, and they have been doing really well over the last 10 years.”
So well in fact that in 2021 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service down-listed humpback chub’s status from endangered to threatened, a decision based partly on the thriving populations in the Grand Canyon. The down-listing means the chub still retains some ESA protections, but it is no longer at immediate risk of extinction.
Scientists think that smallmouth bass are responsible for decimating humpback chub populations in the upper basin — for example, near Echo Park, at the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers.
“We are very concerned that if they get into the Grand Canyon, they could have a similar impact on the humpback chub and, through predation and competition, could jeopardize that new listing of being threatened,” said Melissa Trammell, a fisheries biologist with the National Parks Service. “Our efforts to try to restore that species in the canyon would definitely be impacted.”
‘No low-hanging fruit to prevent this’
The Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program has formed a technical work group subcommittee to address the problem. Several ideas have been floated: installing a bubble curtain that could keep fish away from the dam intakes; electro-fishing and removal of smallmouth bass below the dam; selective withdrawal devices that allow dam operators to pull from different parts of the water column; or releasing colder water from the deeper jet tubes once a week to make the temperatures below the dam inhospitable to the invasive fish. This, however, would mean bypassing the turbines that make hydropower.
Clarence Fullard, acting program manager for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program, said they are considering all options to prevent smallmouth bass from becoming established, but there is still a lot of uncertainty about a way forward.
“There’s really no low-hanging fruit to prevent this,” he said. “The scale of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell make it hard to come up with solutions. We don’t know what we could do operationally.”
One thing that has seen some success on the Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam is something called a flow spike. A carefully timed, short, high-flow release from the reservoir can knock the fish off their nests and wash their eggs downstream. According to Trammel, this tactic has reduced the reproduction of smallmouth bass in that area by about 30%.
“The extra water being released from Flaming Gorge to go down to Powell is actually being reshaped to help endangered fishes in the upper basin,” Trammell said. “We would not have had that experimental flow this year without the DROA.”
For now, members of the technical work group are creating a strategic plan, a draft of which will be released in August. Scientists will continue monitoring in places where the smallmouth bass are likely to try to establish. Each year for the past decade, Yackulic said, monitoring efforts have caught up to three smallmouth bass who made it through the turbines and ended up below the dam.
“The thing about fish is for every one you catch, there’s probably quite a few you don’t catch,” he said.
Still, scientists don’t think the fish have become established enough yet for there to be a reproducing population below the dam. But time is of the essence.
Although the invasive-fish issue may get overshadowed by the crush of bad news surrounding the Colorado River — record-low reservoir levels, shortages, emergency federal actions, potential loss of hydropower — scientists say there is still an urgent need to act on it.
“The long-term cost of trying to control that species maybe doesn’t feel as urgent as losing hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam, but once they are established, it is almost impossible to get rid of them,” Trammell said. “There’s no agency in the world that says, ‘I wish I had waited a little longer to try and control this invasive species.’”
But any operational changes to combat an invasion of smallmouth bass in the Grand Canyon are likely to be just a stopgap measure.
“We should never forget that the fundamental problem is much bigger than how to operate Glen Canyon Dam; it’s about the balance between watershed runoff and consumptive use,” Schmidt said. “And until we get consumptive use matching the available supply, we are always going to be flirting with disaster. We can only hold off these changes for so long before we lose the battle.”
Low snowpack and soaring temperatures made 2020 the third-driest year on record in Colorado. When similar conditions repeated in 2021, tribal farmers in southwest Colorado had to scramble, fallowing thousands of acres of land and laying off workers at the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s farm and ranch outside of Cortez.
“It made me very aware that our farm is in the desert. We have to look at it that way,” says Simon Martinez, general manager for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch Enterprise and the Bow and Arrow Brand non-GMO cornmeal business. The 7,700-acre farm is located on the tribe’s 553,008-acre reservation in southwest Colorado, less than 20 miles from the Four Corners.
When Dolores River flows below McPhee Reservoir were reduced to just 10% of normal in 2021, the tribe was able to operate only eight center pivot sprinklers, compared to its usual capacity of 110 sprinklers. A single center pivot sprinkler system irrigates circles of crops ranging from 32 to 141 acres in area. Lack of water meant fallowed acres, leaving the tribe to use only 500 acres in 2021, compared to 4,500 acres of alfalfa alone grown in 2020.
Without irrigation water, the farm’s ability to grow its mainstay crops of alfalfa and corn was majorly reduced, and without crops to harvest, employment, too, was cut to 50%. Twenty farm workers lost their jobs.
This year the tribe is expecting slightly more water, 20% to 25% of its normal allocation, or roughly 6,000 acre-feet of water, according to Mike Preston, president of the Weenuch-u’ Development Corporation, which oversees the farm’s operations. But some 6,000 acres of its 7,700-acre farm remain fallowed, a situation that requires the tribe to spend millions of dollars to keep weeds in check.
There is also hope in rising wheat prices, which are expected to reach $11.16 a bushel by December, according to Wall Street Journal crop pricing data. Preston said the tribe hopes to plant a late wheat crop this year to capitalize on the world-wide wheat shortages triggered by the war in Ukraine.
Overall, the tribe’s farm and ranch enterprises operate for economic empowerment and employment. And operations are largely successful—before the drought, the farm had been productive and profitable since it began operating in the late 1980s.
For Bow and Arrow Brand, operations didn’t slow, even last year. The cornmeal operation was launched years ago in order to stretch the shelf life of the tribe’s corn. Fresh sweet corn can last about two weeks, but by creating cornmeal, the produce remains profitable for around 18 months. Even during the drought and pandemic, sales continue. Full staff employment has been maintained.
Sustaining everything has been a challenge, but Martinez is up for the challenge, as he must be, he says. “We’re going to do our best to keep employment.”
Some help and funding is available to make up for losses, such as drought impact funding. And Martinez is working to help the farm adapt. He’s spreading the limited amount of water as far as possible through work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to upgrade sprinkler nozzle packages and continued consultations with agronomists on crop selection for increased drought tolerance. But those efforts can only go so far.
Martinez is hopeful that McPhee, the third-largest reservoir in Colorado, which serves the tribe, will see its water levels restored to meet tribal needs.
“We’re kind of teetering on the brink,” says Preston. The Dolores River watershed relies entirely on snowpack. But conditions aren’t looking great—100% of Montezuma county remains in severe or extreme drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Forecasts for the Dolores River Basin, as of June 1, project 45% to 60% of water supply availability this year, according to the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center.
What seems clear to many in the region is that desert-like conditions are likely to continue and that means the Ute Mountain Utes must shift their operating plans to accommodate drier conditions.
“We’ve got to adapt,” Martinez says.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of Headwaters magazine. Additional reporting was contributed by Fresh Water News Editor Jerd Smith.
Rachelle Todea is Diné and a citizen of the Navajo Nation. She is a freelance reporter based in Westminster, Colo., who reports on climate change and Indigenous peoples.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
The Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners has approved one year of funding toward completing a ditch piping project with the aim of keeping more water in Hunter Creek.
Over the past two decades, the Red Mountain Ditch Company has been working to pipe the entirety of its 12-mile ditch system — a $3.8 million cost so far — paid for by the ditch share owners. But to complete the final 3,600 feet, the ditch company is turning to public sources of money because they say the project will have the public benefit of keeping between 0.5 and 1 additional cubic feet per second of water in Hunter Creek.
The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board recommended the county grant nearly $48,000 toward the project in April and county commissioners approved the request on Tuesday.
“I think this is the first time when I’ve been on the board that I’ve seen this type of project and I really think it’s valuable,” said commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury. “It’s a conservation-first type of program and to me this is the way I think the treatment of ditches should head in the future around the Western Slope.”
Red Mountain Ditch, whose horizontal scar across Red Mountain features prominently in the view from across the valley, has senior water rights that date to 1889. It irrigates about 380 acres of grass pasture on Red Mountain and in the exclusive Starwood subdivision with water from Hunter Creek.
More water in Hunter Creek
Jim Auster, who has managed the ditch since 1983, said before the capital improvement project, the high-maintenance, open ditch lost water to seepage and evaporation and had problems with blow outs and beaver activity that caused flooding. Now that the majority of the ditch is piped underground, he said it’s easier to get water during low-flow times of year and the company has reduced the amount it diverts from Hunter Creek by up to 6 cfs.
Auster said before the piping project, the ditch used to divert about 14 cfs on average; now it takes about 8 to 9 cfs. Numbers from the Colorado Division of Water Resources indicate the ditch has in fact diverted less in recent years.
“Technologically, we are progressive,” Auster said. “I don’t know of any other ditch company that is doing 100% piping like we are. It’s certainly the future. Open ditches are obsolete.”
Recent ditch inventories conducted by conservation districts across the Western Slope hint at widespread problems, disrepair and inefficiencies with irrigation infrastructure. Environmental groups often back irrigation efficiency projects because they could result in reducing the amount irrigators need to divert, thereby leaving more water in the river to the benefit of the environment.
But repairs and upgrades are often expensive. And most projects don’t put a number on how much water will be left in the stream. In most cases, paying irrigators for their extra water is the only way to ensure an environmental benefit.
Aaron Derwingson, water projects director for The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program, has worked on efficiency projects with irrigators. He said it can be hard to quantify a project’s environmental benefits and success often depends on the willingness of the irrigators.
“I think the challenge with our team that we run into is we are never going to have enough money to buy the water to really make a difference for a lot of streams and where does that leave us?” Derwingson said. “That’s why some of these efficiency projects can be great because it’s a one-time investment and you get continued benefit.”
How to protect the water
McNicholas Kury brought up an unanswered question in Tuesday’s discussion: how to legally protect the water the piping project leaves in Hunter Creek. Under Colorado water law, another water user could pick up that water and put it to beneficial use, canceling out any environmental benefit to the stream. And as stream flows continue to dwindle due to climate change, an environmental benefit may be short-lived, especially if the water is not legally protected.
“I have some concern about the water that is going into Hunter Creek,” McNicholas Kury said. “That is fantastic; I don’t want others to pick it up along the way.”
McNicholas-Kury suggested the Red Mountain Ditch Company look into an agreement with the non-profit Colorado Water Trust, which helps water rights holders lease their water rights for the purpose of boosting environmental streamflows.
In addition to finishing the piping, Auster said $25,000 of the grant money will go toward installing remote monitoring and headgate controls, which will allow him to be more precise and reduce the amount of excess water that is run through the system.
Auster said the total cost of the project for the final 3,600 feet of piping is $680,000, and the ditch company is also applying for grants from the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the National Resources Conservation Service. The ditch company may return to the county in 2023 and 2024 to request additional funding.
Board of County Commissioners Chair Patti Clapper and Vice-Chair Francie Jacober questioned whether the residents of one of Aspen’s wealthiest subdivisions couldn’t pay for their own ditch piping project, but in the end, backed the grant request.
“The best interest of this community is keeping water in our rivers and that is a benefit to everyone,” Clapper said.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is supported by Pitkin County’s Health Community Fund. Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the May 28 edition of The Aspen Times.
The water in Lake Powell, one of the nation’s largest reservoirs, has fallen so low amid the Western drought that federal officials are resorting to emergency measures to avoid shutting down hydroelectric power at the Glen Canyon Dam.
The Arizona dam, which provides electricity to seven states, isn’t the only U.S. hydropower plant in trouble.
In the Northeast, a different kind of climate change problem has affected hydropower dams – too much rainfall all at once.
The United States has over 2,100 operational hydroelectric dams, with locations in nearly every state. They play essential roles in their regional power grids. But most were built in the past century under a different climate than they face today.
As global temperatures rise and the climate continues to change, competition for water will increase, and the way hydropower supply is managed within regions and across the power grid in the U.S. will have to evolve. Westudy the nation’s hydropower production at a systems level as engineers. Here are three key things to understand about one of the nation’s oldest sources of renewable energy in a changing climate.
Because it can quickly be turned on and off, hydroelectric power can help control minute-to-minute supply and demand changes. It can also help power grids quickly bounce back when blackouts occur. Hydropower makes up about 40% of U.S. electric grid facilities that can be started without an additional power supply during a blackout, in part because the fuel needed to generate power is simply the water held in the reservoir behind the turbine.
In addition, it can also serve as a giant battery for the grid. The U.S. has over 40 pumped hydropower plants, which pump water uphill into a reservoir and later send it through turbines to generate electricity as needed.
So, while hydroelectricity represents a small portion of generation, these dams are integral to keeping the U.S. power supply flowing.
Climate change affects hydropower in different ways in different regions
In areas where melting snow affects the river flow, hydropower potential is expected to increase in winter, when more snow falls as rain, but then decrease in summer when less snowpack is left to become meltwater. This pattern is expected to occur in much of the western U.S., along with worsening multiyear droughts that could decrease some hydropower production, depending on the how much storage capacity the reservoir has.
The Northeast has a different challenge. There, extreme precipitation that can cause flooding is expected to increase. More rain can increase power generation potential, and there are discussions about retrofitting more existing dams to produce hydropower. But since many dams there are also used for flood control, the opportunity to produce extra energy from that increasing rainfall could be lost if water is released through an overflow channel.
The effect these changes have on the nation’s power grid will depend on how each part of the grid is managed.
Agencies known as balancing authorities manage their region’s electricity supply and demand in real time.
The largest balancing authority in terms of hydroelectric generation is the Bonneville Power Administration in the Northwest. It coordinates around 83,000 megawatt-hours of electricity annually across 59 dams, primarily in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The Grand Coulee Dam complex alone can produce enough power for 1.8 million homes.
Much of this area shares a similar climate and will experience climate change in much the same way in the future. That means that a regional drought or snowless year could hit many of the Bonneville Power Administration’s hydropower producers at the same time. Researchers have found that this region’s climate impacts on hydropower present both a risk and opportunity for grid operators by increasing summer management challenges but also lowering winter electricity shortfalls.
In the Midwest, it’s a different story. The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, has 176 hydropower plants across an area 50% larger than that of Bonneville, from northern Minnesota to Louisiana.
Since its hydropower plants are more likely to experience different climates and regional effects at different times, MISO and similarly broad operators have the capability to balance out hydropower deficits in one area with generation in other areas.
Understanding these regional climate effects is increasingly essential for power supply planning and protecting grid security as balancing authorities work together to keep the lights on.
More change is coming
Climate change is not the only factor that will affect hydropower’s future. Competing demands already influence whether water is allocated for electricity generation or other uses such as irrigation and drinking.
Laws and water allocation also shift over time and change how water is managed through reservoirs, affecting hydroelectricity. The increase in renewable energy and the potential to use some dams and reservoirs for energy storage might also change the equation.
The importance of hydropower across the U.S. power grid means most dams are likely here to stay, but climate change will change how these plants are used and managed.
This article was updated May 18, 2022, to clarify that Bonneville Power Administration coordinates power from 59 dams.
In White Mesa, Utah, at America’s last uranium mill, a pool of toxic waste is emitting dangerous amounts of radon to the surrounding communities, among them the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. This isn’t news: In November 2021, High Country Newsreported on the improperly stored waste and its impacts on the community, and in December — thanks to EcoFlight’s aerial photography and a proactive tribal government — the Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice to Energy Fuels Resources, ordering it to address the issue. Five months later, however, the improper storage practices persist.
In March, follow-up aerial shots from EcoFlight revealed a noticeable difference between the photograph taken in August 2021; the tailings cells, which consist of radioactive waste typically submerged in liquid from the uranium processing, have since decreased even further, increasing the amount of exposed toxic compounds. The visual evidence arrived two months after EPA representatives visited the site on Jan. 13. At the time, it was estimated that 60% of Cell 4B was uncovered. In a March letter from the EPA, the agency reported that Energy Fuels’ explanation of this decline is due to water conservation practices and extracting vanadium from the liquid, a rare earth mineral, for profit.
While efforts are currently underway to hold the mill accountable, Scott Clow, the Ute Mountain’s Environmental Programs director, says that the company wants to be in business until it is no longer profitable.
“There is a lot of uncertainty. We do know that when, eventually, the owners of that mill find it is no longer profitable to operate, and they will close it, they will be required to spend what they have set aside in a bond to do as much as they can for reclaiming it safely,” Clow said. “And then it’ll be the responsibility of the Department of Energy under their legacy program — and our tax dollars — to pay for it.”
Complicating matters is the possibility that the Biden administration’s Department of Energy will establish a strategic uranium reserve, which would increase the domestic stockpile of uranium — but at a cost. Uranium mines would be able to begin operating and funnel ore to the White Mesa mill for processing. According to Amber Reimondo, the energy policy director at the Grand Canyon Trust, it doesn’t immediately pose problems for White Mesa residents, but might present long-term ecological and community health problems. Reimondo doesn’t believe it makes sense for uranium mines in the U.S. to begin extraction when the quality of the uranium here is lower, and it’s more expensive than it would be coming from countries like Australia or Canada.
“We did a lot of work at the beginning of the Biden administration trying to help decision-makers understand the implications of something like that,” Reimondo told HCN. “Especially because so (many) of the uranium deposits in the United States are either on or near tribal lands.”
This would further compound the concerns of local residents — concerns that are echoed throughout the Southwest. The Pinyon Plain Mine, located near the Havasupai Tribe and close to the Grand Canyon, is also owned by Energy Fuels. The Pinyon Mine recently received approval from Arizona for an aquifer permit. Carletta Tilousi, who served on the Havasupai Tribe’s council in Arizona, told HCN that if the strategic uranium reserve is established, the Pinyon Plain Mine would resume operations.
“If the uranium from Pinyon Plain mine goes (to White Mesa) and contaminates people, we feel responsible — Havasupai people feel responsible — because if we don’t stop it from our end, then it’s going to contaminate other human lives,” Tilousi said. “And that’s something that the Havasupai elders would always stress, that we can’t just sit back and not say anything on this end in the cycle of uranium process.”
Tilousi added that Havasupai communities have previously experienced negative impacts from the mine, including onsite water contamination and destruction of the nearby sacred mountain Red Butte.
In an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in late March, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., voiced his support for prioritizing domestic mineral supply chains to curb U.S. reliance on Russian minerals, including uranium. “They don’t understand that human life, water and animal life is so important here,” Tilousi said.
Meanwhile, Clow’s department has secured a small grant from the EPA that will enable the tribe to find a qualified candidate to design an epidemiological study of the direct and indirect health effects the White Mesa Mill has had on local residents, as well as its environmental impacts on the land. The study will look at the impacts of living in close proximity to the mine; for example, it will calculate the economic cost to community members who have to purchase bottled water because the local water supply is undrinkable. It will also examine how Native residents are affected when they are forced to cease traditional activities, such as picking plants for medicine.
Ultimately, the community will end up having to bear the costs of far-off industries, both nationally and globally, whether the nuclear waste comes from countries like Japan and Estonia or from nuclear power plants on the East Coast. “The initial mass and impact on the environment and public health are here,” in the West, Clow said. “And then the end impact is here” — also in the West.
Read the label on your lawn fertilizer bag and help save your favorite lake or reservoir from those smelly, pea-green algae blooms that shut down summer watering spots for weeks at a time.
That’s the message from water quality officials and city water utilities this year as the summer lawn and recreation season gears up.
Algae blooms, long common in the Eastern United States, are becoming more frequent in Colorado lakes and reservoirs as a 20-year mega-drought reduces water levels, 90-plus degree days occur more often, raising water temperatures, and growing numbers of homeowners add phosphorous-laced lawn fertilizers to their grass.
Blue-green algae produces toxins that can harm people and pets, and can also create odors and tastes that degrade water quality.
The problem surfaced at Aurora’s Quincy Reservoir in 2020. Since then the city has taken the lead on trying new treatment methods, such as installing aeration devices that inject oxygen into the water. It has also spent millions on other treatments such as hydrogen peroxide and alum, which kill certain types of toxin-producing algae and, with alum, weigh the phosphorous down so that it falls to the bottom of the lake and becomes encased in silt and mud.
But the biggest issue, by far, says Sherry Scaggiari, an environmental services manager at Aurora Water, is the increasing amount of phosphorous that finds its way from lawns into stormwater, and then into streams and lakes.
“We are trying to get people to use less phosphorous on the grass. You need nitrates, but you don’t need phosphorous,” Scaggiari said.
At Barr Lake State Park near Brighton the problem has triggered several efforts to clean up Barr and Milton Reservoir, which are owned by a private irrigation company. Steve Lundt, a scientist who sits on the board of the Barr-Milton Watershed Association, has been monitoring the watershed for some 20 years.
“People always ask, ‘Why is there so much phosphorous in these reservoirs?’ Well, there are 2.5 million people living in the watershed. That is half the population of the state.”
Fixing Barr and Milton is a major undertaking. Treatments such as alum work best in water bodies, such as natural lakes, where water supplies aren’t released annually for irrigation. Much of the Barr-Milton system is used to irrigate farm lands on the Eastern Plains as well as to supply municipal drinking water. It drains and fills every eight months, roughly.
“We would be adding alum almost continuously,” Lundt said, an expensive process that also expands the park’s carbon footprint because the alum has to be mined.
Aurora, however, hopes it only needs to treat Quincy once every 10 years or so, according to Greg Baker, spokesperson for Aurora Water. But if phosphorous levels continue to rise, it may have to be done more frequently.
Lundt is also using a method known as bio-remediation to remove some 8,700 carp, or roughly half of the local carp population, from Barr Lake since 2014. The invasive species is known for stirring up the sediment, releasing phosphorous into the water and creating a situation ripe for algae growth.
This month the association plans to hold a fishing competition with a $2,000 prize for the angler who removes the most carp.
And Aurora and Barr-Milton are looking at extensive planting programs along waterways leading to their reservoirs that will use plants, such as cattails, that are effective at removing phosphorous from water.
Still, water officials say, the best tool, and perhaps most cost-effective, is to begin slashing the use of phosphorous-based lawn fertilizers.
The Barr-Milton Watershed Association has been leading a campaign, called the P-Free Lawn Fertilizer campaign, to encourage consumers to omit phosphorous from lawn care for several years. And Water ’22, a year-long campaign to educate Coloradans on water issues, is also highlighting the issue. [Water ’22 is being led by Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News].
Lundt said some 12 states have already outlawed phosphorous-enriched fertilizers’ use by homeowners unless they can prove their soils are short of phosphorous.
Major fertilizer makers, such as Scott, have removed phosphorous altogether.
“Fertilizer companies are on board, it’s a matter of just changing the culture of how we fertilize our lawns,” Lundt said.
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
Throughout history, important cities around the world have flourished along river banks. But rivers can also be destructive forces. They routinely flood, and on rare occasions, they can abruptly shift pathways.
These “channel-jumping” events, which are called avulsions, have caused some of the deadliest floods in human history. Avulsions on China’s Yellow River killed over 6 million people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Similar events have been linked to the decline of Mesopotamian civilization along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria.
In a newly published study, I worked with colleagues to map the global distribution of avulsions on river fans and deltas. We used satellite images of over 100 rivers from 1973 to the present, providing a half-century of bird’s-eye views of global river evolution.
We discovered 113 river avulsion events in temperate, tropical and dry climates. Of these events, 33 were on alluvial fans. These land forms develop when rivers flow out of mountains or canyons onto an open plain or into the ocean and spread out, depositing dirt and gravel in a triangle-shaped area.
The other 80 events occurred on river deltas – fertile, low-lying regions where slower-moving rivers branch into many channels that empty into lakes or the ocean, creating networks of wetlands. We used this novel data set to answer a simple question: What determines where avulsions happen?
Water seeks the lowest path
Avulsions occur because of sediment deposition. Over time, rivers deposit sediment at the avulsion site, choking up the river with sediment. Water always flows downhill, so as its current course becomes increasingly blocked, it eventually jumps to a new location.
Much like earthquakes, river avulsions happen periodically in the same places. They disperse sediment and water across the rivers’ flood plains, producing these formations’ characteristic triangular shape.
One recent example occurred in 2008, when the Kosi River in India shifted its course by over 60 miles (100 kilometers) in a matter of days, displacing over 3 million people.
In the U.S., the Mississippi River has changed course many times over the past 7,000 years. Today, a multi-dam control structure in central Louisiana keeps it from jumping its banks and joining with the Atchafalaya River, but scientists have warned that a mega-flood could overwhelm these barriers, causing widespread economic damage across southern Louisiana.
A river may not change course more than once over many decades, or even centuries. Scientists’ understanding of where these events occur is poor, and rests largely on a handful of detailed observations on large deltas, plus laboratory and computer models.
Three kinds of avulsions
Our global database revealed three distinct types of avulsions. First, the 33 avulsions on alluvial fans occurred when the rivers exited canyons. Once the rivers no longer flowed through confined valleys, they were able to spill over to one side or another toward the lowest ground.
The 80 avulsions that happened on deltas were influenced by forces in their backwaters. A river’s backwater is the zone where the speed of the current is affected by the presence of the ocean or lake at the river’s end. In this zone, the river current either slows down or speeds up in response to changing flood conditions. Scientists can estimate the backwater length from the size and slope of the river.
For example, the Mississippi River has a backwater length of nearly 300 miles (480 kilometers), which means that the speed of its flow is affected by the Gulf of Mexico all the way to a point north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Steeper rivers can have a backwater length scale as short as 0.6 miles (1 kilometer).
When a river is flowing normally, it slows down in its backwater stretch and drops sediment onto the riverbed. However, when floods occur, the larger volume of faster-moving water erodes the riverbed.
This effect starts at the river’s mouth and moves upstream, in the opposite direction from the water’s flow, erasing some of the sedimentation that has built up prior to the flood. Ultimately, this interplay between sedimentation and erosion causes the river to choke up with sediment at a location that roughly coincides with the backwater length.
Our database showed that 50 of the 80 avulsion events that occurred on deltas happened approximately at the backwater length. For example, the Catatumbo River in South America changed course in 1982 about 6.5 miles (10.5 kilometers) inland from the point where it flows into Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo – close to its backwater length, which is 8.5 miles (13.7 kilometers).
Some rivers can change course far upstream
However, we also discovered a new class of avulsions on deltas that did not reflect either valley confinement or the backwater length. These rivers changed course far upstream from the point where they were affected by the lakes or oceans at their mouths.
These deltas were either on steep tropical islands like Madagascar and Papua New Guinea or in desert environments such as Eritrea. In these places, rivers carry exceptionally large quantities of sediment during floods.
When the rivers flood, they erode their beds starting at their mouths and working backward far upriver, similar to large rivers like the Mississippi. However, the combination of long typical flood durations and exceptionally high sediment loads during floods enables the erosion to progress far upstream. As a result, these rivers can change course well above the backwater zone where avulsions happen in large coastal rivers.
More water, more sediment
Our description of these three types of avulsions provides the first framework for predicting where rivers will change course on fans and deltas worldwide. These findings have crucial implications, especially for river deltas, which are home to some 340 million people around the world.
Most deltas are only a few feet above sea level, and some are very densely populated, such as the Mekong and Ganges-Brahmaputra deltas. Our results show that avulsion sites on deltas can move from their historic locations to new areas. Rapid sea level rise can move avulsion sites inland on deltas, exposing new communities to catastrophic flood risks.
We also found that rivers in our second group – those where avulsions occur in the backwater zone – can shift into the third group, where avulsions happen significantly farther upstream. We find that this can happen if the typical duration of flooding on a river or the river’s sediment supply changes.
Climate change is already increasing flooding in many parts of the world and washing more sediments into rivers. Land use changes, such as converting forests to farmlands, also are increasing sediment loads. In my view, it is imperative to understand how such changes can affect dynamic, volatile river systems – and the people who live around them – well into the future.
In August 2021, federal officials issued the first-ever shortage declaration on the Colorado River, resulting in substantial cuts to Arizona’s share of Colorado River water and giving more power than ever before to the 30 Native Tribes, including two in Colorado, who control roughly 25% of the water in the seven-state river basin.
Everyone in the basin sees the confluence of unfortunate events that have brought the Colorado River crisis to a head. There is less water than ever before with the basin ensnared in a 22-year megadrought, the worst in the past 1,200 years, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Guidelines approved in 2007 to help manage shortages are set to expire in 2026 so negotiations to craft the next guidelines are underway and tribal nations are pushing hard to finally be included in those negotiations.
But even today, 12 of the basin’s tribes (most in Arizona) have unresolved water rights claims, and eight of those 12 have unquantified rights—meaning the amount of water they have a right to is not yet determined. Simply securing those water rights remains a time-consuming and arduous endeavor, in costly settlement negotiations amidst a scrum of other water users staking claims.
The water held by the basin tribes who have legally quantified water rights amounts to no small sum: 22 tribal nations retain 3.2 million acre-feet of water, or an estimated 22% to 26% of all annual water supplies in the basin, according to a 2021 brief from the Water and Tribes Initiative. This amount will likely increase over the years once more tribal water claims are resolved.
Even for tribes with settled or adjudicated water rights, some can’t access the full extent of that water because of lack of infrastructure or funding, or both. In total, just under half, or 1.5 million-acre-feet, of settled or adjudicated tribal rights have not yet been put to use by the tribes.
When adding together that unused water and unquantified water, and considering that tribes plan to fully develop and use their water, other water users in the basin wonder how it will look to integrate expanded tribal water use with existing water uses as water supplies continue to dwindle.
Lack of representation
The 1922 Colorado River Compact, the formative agreement to carve up flows of the Colorado River, divided the river into an upper and lower basin, apportioning the rights to consume 15 million acre-feet of water—their estimation of average annual river flow at the time—between the seven U.S. basin states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming of the upper basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada of the lower basin, with the opportunity for lower basin states to develop an additional 1 million acre-feet from tributaries below Lee Ferry, Ariz. No plans were made for apportioning any share of water to Native American tribes.
Since the beginning of U.S. tribal water law, sovereign tribal nations have been excluded from cornerstone water management decisions despite having senior title to water. Native American water rights were first officially recognized in 1908, over a decade before the Colorado River Compact was signed, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Winters v. United States decision. The court found that when the federal government “reserved” territories known as reservations, it had to “reserve” sufficient water to fulfill the purposes of the reservations.
But having the right to reserved water didn’t mean that the tribes had access to actual “wet” water or the legal representation to quantify their water rights.
When the 1922 compact was signed, tribes were surviving a multitude of disastrous living conditions and forced assimilation produced by federal Indian policy, established after U.S. violent colonial expansion. Indigenous peoples weren’t recognized as U.S. citizens until 1924, tribal governance wasn’t federally recognized until 1934, and Native Americans couldn’t vote in every state until the 1960s. “We were surviving here on government rations in 1922 when the Law of the River was created,” says Vigil.
Tribes gained some ground when, in 1963, tribal water policy and Colorado River policy intersected in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Arizona v. California decision. Lengthy litigation led up to the decision, with Arizona filing suit in the U.S. Supreme Court to determine how much Colorado River water it could use. To answer that question, the U.S. found it had to assess what reserved water rights were needed for some of the tribes in the lower basin. A special master for the case determined the future needs of each reservation by assessing the amount of practicably irrigable acres and reserving water to irrigate that land rather than considering the reservations’ populations. In his proposed decree, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, the special master entered a quantified water right for five reservations on the mainstem of the Colorado River, granting 905,496 acre-feet of water for 135,636 irrigable acres.
As federal tribal water policy evolved, so too did Colorado River policy. After the 1922 compact, a series of layered agreements—including Arizona v. California and other court decisions, congressional acts, legal settlements, treaties and compacts—known collectively as the “Law of the River” have come to govern the way water is managed and divided throughout the basin.
In 2007, in response to years of drought, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior adopted the Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Interim Guidelines outline a method to balance the amount of water available between the upper and lower basins. In 2019, upper and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) were developed as additional frameworks to address water shortages and water-saving rules.
Most of these guidelines were crafted without tribal input.
Vigil, who is also water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation from New Mexico, joined the Water and Tribes Initiative in 2017 to facilitate tribal discussions, protect water rights, and unify tribal interests within the Colorado River Basin. Their tribal leader forums helped spur a coalition of tribes to call for inclusion in water framework negotiations.
When new guidelines are developed to govern river management beyond 2026, how will they affect existing tribal water rights or unresolved water claims? “Those are questions that are not yet clear to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and probably other tribes,” says Leland Begay, water attorney for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has adjudicated water rights in Colorado but has not yet resolved its water rights in New Mexico and Utah.
Water that sickened
During the hot summers of his childhood, Lyndreth Wall of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe would take refuge on Ute Mountain in southwestern Colorado, herding livestock at his grandparents’ sheep camp. They spoke only Ute to him, which he picked up fast, at least conversationally. In those days, the 1970s, the water on Ute Mountain was delicious. “The tribe took care of the water there,” Wall says. But his home tap water in Towaoc tasted like metal. It was “disgusting,” he says, and could make you sick. In White Mesa, their western tribal community in Utah, the water was worse—contaminated by radioactive waste.
For young Wall, his neighbors, family and livestock, the journey to procure drinkable water would be a 30- to 120-mile round trip excursion from Towaoc to Cortez or Mancos, even Durango, Colo. Wall remembers his parents packing buckets in their family pickup—the Wall’s buckets mixed with those of neighbors. This supply would last a few days before they would need more.
Today, more Ute Mountain Ute tribal members have water for drinking and irrigation thanks to the 1986 Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Final Settlement Agreement, followed two years later by a federal settlement act, and by amendments in 2000, all of which they share with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. The settlement places the Colorado Ute tribes among the four tribes in the upper Colorado River Basin that have completed water rights settlements, which also means that the State of Colorado is no longer negotiating any tribal settlement agreements.
For the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the settlement meant access to Dolores Project water, an entitlement to Animas-La Plata Project water, and rights to over 27,000 acre-feet of water from rivers that flow near or through their reservation. Most years, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe can access their 25,100 acre-foot water storage allocation from the Dolores Project’s McPhee Reservoir in southwestern Colorado. Water from McPhee began to flow to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in 1994 delivering clean drinking water to the tribe for the first time in their history and supporting the development of a hotel, travel center and casino, which provide vital tribal employment and income. The tribe’s new irrigation water from the Dolores Project, up to 23,300 acre-feet per year, supported the development of the highly productive 7,700-acre Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise and Bow and Arrow corn mill.
For the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the settlement wasn’t quite as momentous. “We have seven sources of water, seven rivers, that run to the tribe, so the tribe had been accessing those waters pre-settlement,” says Kathy Rall, head of the water resources division for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Before the settlement, the tribe didn’t have quantified rights to that water, Rall says. “Those rights were hammered out and solidified through the settlement,” she says. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe also received an allocation of Animas-La Plata Project water—but the infrastructure was never built for either tribe to access that water.
“Ever since [the Animas-La Plata Project] was constructed, we’ve never used a drop of it, yet we have a certain percentage, not only to us, but also our sister tribe, the Southern Ute,” says Wall, who is now a tribal councilman for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The project allocated more than 60,000 acre-feet per year of municipal and industrial water to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, but a series of obstacles has made this water inaccessible.
The settlement authorized the construction of Lake Nighthorse, just south of Durango, to store Animas-La Plata water for tribal water uses. The project was envisioned to bring water for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses to the tribes and non-tribal water users. But environmental and fiscal concerns resulted in the project being downsized.
A lawsuit halted the construction of Lake Nighthorse’s Ridges Basin Dam in 1992. Groups including the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and the Taxpayers for the Animas River argued the dam’s cost was an undue burden for taxpayers and that its construction would threaten the Colorado pikeminnow fish population, which was federally listed as endangered at the time. Christine Arbogast, lobbyist for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and neighboring water districts and municipalities, remembers a meeting where an environmental advocate said that with the amount of funding required to build the reservoir project, they could supply the tribe with bottled water for life. “That was the kind of mentality on the side of the environmental community,” says Arbogast.
To carry out the Animas-La Plata Project, a 2000 settlement amendment restricted the water in Lake Nighthorse to municipal and industrial use, excluding irrigation. Now referred to as “Animas-La Plata Lite” there was no longer any plan to construct the irrigation canals that would have connected Lake Nighthorse to the tribes and even neighboring water districts and municipalities that were counting on these water supplies throughout the negotiations. The tribes scrapped their plans to expand farmlands as a result. “It was heartbreaking to every single one of them, including the tribes, when we had to make the decision to shelve the irrigation component in order to get this settlement,” Arbogast says.
Some positive outcomes resulted from the settlement, including quantified and adjudicated water rights for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, access to Dolores Project water for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and funding for both tribes, Rall says. But ongoing lack of access to water stored in Lake Nighthorse and the inability to use that water, if accessed, for irrigation, was “disastrous” she says.
When the project was downsized to the “lite” version “we just kind of said, ‘OK, we’re going to get what we get,’” Rall says. “The tribe went, ‘If we don’t settle now, who knows what we’ll end up with.’”
The settlement is a step forward, says Amy Ostdiek, who oversees Colorado River issues for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.“But there are still critical needs in terms of infrastructure and access to clean drinking water.”
As the settlement stipulates, the moment the tribes begin to use water from Lake Nighthorse, they will each inherit an annual bill of around $800,000 in operations and maintenance costs for the dam and pumping facilities that the federal government is currently footing. At the moment, there is still no infrastructure to deliver the water to the tribes, and the tribes are not prepared to take on those costs, so they haven’t used any of their water. This may change due to the $2.5 billion earmarked in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for completion of authorized Indian water rights settlements. Both Colorado Ute tribes are pursuing that funding, with full support from the State of Colorado, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), but whether they will receive it remains to be seen. Information sessions on the bill between tribal nations and the U.S. Department of Interior are ongoing.
Ours by God
“We’re trying to find alternatives and ways that we can utilize our water in [Lake] Nighthorse. We want it and it seems like we’re having a water war,” says Wall. “What’s rightfully ours is ours by God. We need to continue to save it for the future of our tribe.”
As Colorado River water supply diminishes, and as more tribes settle their water rights, those tribal water rights could comprise a larger percentage of available senior Colorado River water resources. Take the Colorado River Indian Tribes, consisting of four tribes, the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo, with a reservation along the Colorado River at the border between Arizona and California. These tribes hold rights to more than 700,000 acre-feet of mainstem Colorado River water, with more than 660,000 acre-feet of that water in Arizona. These are the most senior water rights in the lower basin, making them the most secure in times of shortage.
In January 2022 the Jicarilla Apache Nation, New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and The Nature Conservancy announced a new deal to lease up to 20,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Jicarilla Apache Nation to the stream commission to support threatened, endangered and vulnerable fish and to increase water security for New Mexico. The tribal nation subcontracts some of its other water to users outside the reservation, providing a valuable source of income.
The Colorado Ute tribes and the State of Colorado are wondering whether a similar agreement or lease deal could put their unused Animas-La Plata Project water to work, says Peter Ortego, general counsel for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. (Ortego also serves on the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.) “The tribes have been eager to see solutions to these problems and the state has been helpful in working with us to find a consumptive use for that water,” says Ortego.
Talks are preliminary and confidential, and the tribes’ settlement legislation is somewhat narrow, Ortego says, specifying that the tribes water can be leased but must be used for municipal or industrial needs within Colorado. Because Lake Nighthorse is in the southwest corner of the state, so close to the border with New Mexico, that doesn’t leave room for a lot of Colorado users to step in and lease water. However, some nearby communities are running short on water and could benefit from the supplies stored in Lake Nighthorse, if an agreement is reached. “I think we’re starting to understand now that if we can all work together to utilize that water, it will be best for the entire region,” Ortego says. “The ultimate goal is to basically keep water in Colorado to help Colorado meet its other obligations.”
Collective tribal clout
Vigil and others want to see tribes collectively bargaining and negotiating the new interim guidelines.
“Why wouldn’t you include 30 [tribal] sovereigns who own 25% of the volume of the Colorado River?” says Vigil. “Why wouldn’t you include 30 tribal sovereigns who have been here for millennia?”
As water managers begin to plan, negotiate and draft the next interim guideline, 20 of the basin tribes have formed an ad hoc group for all 30 of the tribes called the Colorado River Basin Tribal Coalition. As negotiations unfold over the next two years, the coalition is calling to work together with federal agencies and states as soon as possible. While the next set of guidelines will not affect the status of settled tribal water entitlements, many tribes are concerned that they could affect unresolved water claims, which could still take decades to settle, and their ability to plan for their future.
Rebecca Mitchell, director of the CWCB, has been meeting with the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian Tribes to develop a sovereign-to-sovereign framework, a process for tribes and the State of Colorado to engage on equal ground throughout water management negotiations.
“The scope of the interim guidelines will be limited to operations of the major reservoirs, so it is important to recognize that we cannot resolve all of the issues in the basin throughout that negotiation process,” Mitchell wrote in a statement via email. “Still, it will be imperative to include tribal nations in the process.”
For Leland Begay with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, early involvement in negotiating the new guidelines is going to be critical for tribes to determine their future—to participate in decisions they were excluded from in years past. “In the past, there’s been a lot of shortcomings on behalf of the Bureau of Reclamation in engaging with tribes at an early stage,” says Begay. “This is an opportunity for Reclamation to meaningfully engage with tribes on how the interim guidelines impact tribes and their water rights and their land.”
Kalen Goodluck is a Diné, Mandan, Hidatsa and Tsimshian journalist and photographer based in Albuquerque, N.M. His work has appeared in High Country News, The New York Times, Popular Science, National Geographic – Travel, NBC News and more.
Thirty-nine years ago, due to record-breaking snowfall in the Upper Colorado River Basin, Lake Powell rose substantially, catching river managers off-guard. By late June, the reservoir was nearly overflowing, forcing operators — for the first time ever — to rely on the spillways. Instead of giving relief, that precipitated a new crisis, as a phenomenon called cavitation sent shockwaves through the spillways’ innards, tearing through the concrete and then the sandstone, putting the colossal Glen Canyon Dam in peril.
The spillways were repaired, and the dam survived. But now it is threatened yet again, only this time for the opposite reason. In March, Lake Powell’s surface level dropped to within 33 feet of the minimum needed to generate hydropower, for the first time since it was filled in the 1960s. If — or when — it hits that critical point, the Southwest power grid will lose one of its biggest electricity generators, as well as an indispensable backup power source. And, it might even lead to a sort of low-water repeat of the 1983 incident.
When the reservoir is full, Glen Canyon Dam’s eight giant turbines have 1,300 megawatts of capacity, equivalent to a large coal power plant. The dam serves as a “baseload” power source, cranking out a steady stream of juice, which the federal Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) sells at below-market prices to Southwestern utilities, tribal nations and municipalities. It is also valuable as a “load-following” resource, meaning operators can ramp output up quickly to meet a spike in demand or a sudden loss of supply, contributing to grid resilience and helping to smooth fluctuations in wind and solar generation. Glen Canyon Dam was originally constructed primarily to store water during wet times and release it during dry periods. It also provides flood control, acts as a silt catchment basin for Lake Mead, and is a watercraft playground, drawing as many as 4.5 million visitors per year. But its role as a power source has risen to the top of its uses over the years.
Over the last two decades, climate change-induced drought and increasing water demand have depleted Lake Powell substantially: It is now less than one-fourth full. As water levels drop, so, too, does the potential energy of the falling water. That, in turn, lowers the turbines’ generating capacity and power output. In the 1990s, the dam produced as much as 7,000 gigawatt hours per year, enough to power nearly 600,000 homes. Last year, it was down to just 3,000 gigawatt hours.
This chronic decline in generating capacity is about to become more acute. As the reservoir approaches the 3,490-foot minimum power pool, air could get entrained in the turbine-feeding penstocks, wreaking all kinds of havoc. At that point, operators have no choice but to stop sending water through the turbines, killing power generation and depriving the grid of enough electricity annually to power about a quarter of a million Arizona homes. It would also drain between $100 million and $200 million annually from dam electricity sales, a chunk of which goes to fund endangered species recovery, salinity control and water studies on the Colorado River.
That would force WAPA to purchase more expensive power, including electricity generated from natural gas or even coal, to supply its millions of customers. The average utility customer might not even notice the dollar or two this adds to their monthly bill, but it could amount to a substantial price hike for the tribal nations that rely on WAPA for most or all of their power. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority’s yearly power bill could jump by as much as $1.3 million, according to a 2016 consultant’s study, and nine other tribes would also see significant cost increases.
Equally worrisome is how grid operators will fill the generation void left when the dam goes offline. New wind and solar power, paired with batteries or other energy storage, can replace some or all of the baseload power. But any extra generation capacity is going to be in high demand as big coal and nuclear plants retire in the next few years. Meanwhile, solar and wind can’t follow loads like a hydroelectric dam, so utilities are likely to turn to greenhouse gas-emitting natural gas plants instead.
Over the last few months, federal officials have attempted to stave off the power plant’s obsolescence by increasing releases from upstream dams and by sending less water downstream. But that failed to buoy reservoir levels, so now they have embarked on an effort to install turbines river outlet tubes lower on the dam, which would allow hydroelectricity generation to continue below minimum power pool — for a while.
That approach brings its own challenges, however, since the tubes have only been used for short stints and were never intended for long-term use. No one knows what will happen if they become the only release valve for the reservoir’s water. Running the dam at such low levels raises a lot of “operational uncertainties,” Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, told attendees at a seminar last year. She even harkened back to the 1983 spillway tunnel deterioration and the resulting near-disaster. “The engineers use words like cavitation,” she said ominously, “and that gets my attention.”