Colorado River crisis continues
Feds take a pass on draconian cuts--for now
THE NEWS: “Today is a very important day for the Colorado River Basin. We are facing unprecedented challenges.” So said Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the Interior Department, at an Aug. 16 press conference, setting the stage for the federal government to dive in and mandate drastic water use cuts to stem a crisis on the Colorado River. Instead, Interior Department officials merely dipped their toes into the diminishing waters, which is my weak, metaphorical way of saying that they stopped well short of making the draconian cuts, even though the states blew by a deadline to do it themselves.
THE CONTEXT: On Nov. 9, 1922, the seven Colorado River Basin states (without any input from the dozens of tribal nations in the Basin) signed onto the Colorado River Compact, which divvied up the river’s waters between the Lower Basin (Arizona, California, Nevada) and the Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico). At the time the signers believed an average of 16.4 million acre feet (maf) of water flowed through the river naturally each year, giving 15 maf for the states to divide up (the extra would go to Mexico).
The Upper Basin states would allow an average of 7.5 maf per year (75 maf every ten years) to flow to the Lower Basin, theoretically allowing the Upper Basin states collectively to withdraw the same amount. The Upper Basin divided their share up by percentages, with Colorado getting the most (51.75% or 3.9 maf), New Mexico getting the least (11%, or 840,000 acre feet), and the others falling in between. Down south California got 4.4 maf; Arizona 2.8 maf; and Nevada 300,000 acre feet.
Although the 30 tribal nations in the Basin were not included in negotiations, the Compact does specify that the agreement does not affect the substantial tribal water rights recognized by the 1908 Winters v. United States Supreme Court decision. That means the tribes’ share of the water would come from the states’ portions.
Over time it became more and more clear that there wasn’t nearly as much water in the river as folks previously believed. Sure, during good years (the 1980s), there could be as much as 25 million acre feet flowing into Lake Powell. But the next year flows might plummet to 10 maf. At first this wasn’t a problem. The reservoirs, acting like big, murky savings accounts, were doing their job. During good years the river deposited water into the accounts and built up enough savings to get the states through several bad years, when the states could draw down their savings, allowing the Upper Basin States to pull out their allotted amount while still sending 7.5 maf downstream.
But there was a problem—two of them, really. First, the river started shrinking. In 1999 the Colorado River Basin entered the driest 23 year period on record, with the dry years getting dryer and outnumbering the wet years, which weren’t as wet as they once were. Yet the collective users of the water didn’t curb consumption during lean years. Instead, they actually used more water—far more than the skies and the river delivered, thereby depleting the savings accounts known as Lakes Powell and Mead.
Lake Powell now is only 27% full (and dropping), the Basin’s storage system is at 34% of capacity, and both Lake Powell and Lake Mead are in danger of losing hydropower production capacity—which leads to all sorts of other problems—in the next couple of years if conditions don’t improve or the users don’t make substantial cutbacks. Last year a Tier 1 shortage was declared, requiring Arizona to cut its Colorado River withdrawals by just over 500,000 acre feet, and water managers took additional measures to prop up Lake Powell. That wasn’t enough.
That’s why, on June 14, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called on the Colorado River Basin states to come up with 2 to 4 million acre feet in additional cuts within 60 days—or else. The deadline came and went days ago, and the states reportedly are nowhere near the necessary targets. Utah hasn’t even withdrawn its proposal to suck additional water out of the system via the proposed Lake Powell pipeline.
“… the last sixty-two days produced exactly nothing in terms of meaningful collective action to forestall the looming crisis,” wrote the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s John Entsminger in a strongly worded letter to the Interior Department. “The magnitude of the problem is so large that every single water user in every single sector must contribute solutions to this problem regardless of the priority system.” Entsminger essentially begged the feds to step in and turn off some taps. (Read the whole letter by clicking the tweet below).
But if that was the sort of decisive action that some observers expected and hoped for in yesterday’s press conference, they went away disappointed. The Interior Department promised “urgent action” yesterday. But when reporters asked the officials whether or not they were actually mandating cuts, Touton said they were “starting the process” and emphasized the need for a “consensus solution,” but remained vague as to what any of that means.
That’s not to say the feds are doing nothing. They will implement Tier 2a restrictions on the Lower Basin states, meaning Arizona will have to cut withdrawals by an additional 80,000 acre feet (they are already down 512,000 af under Tier 1 cutbacks1) and Nevada by 25,000 acre feet. Of course, that’s not anywhere near the 2 million to 4 million that’s needed. Also, the Bureau of Reclamation will continue to limit releases from Glen Canyon Dam to 7 maf (rather than the previous 7.5 maf) and will probably release more water from upstream reservoirs to shore up Lake Powell's water levels.
Meanwhile, they will continue to work with the states and tribes to come up with a solution. Time’s running out. “Without prompt, responsive actions,” Trujillo said, “the Colorado River will face a future of uncertainty and conflict.”
Among those who will be disappointed in the lack of drastic cuts on the Colorado will be … Powellheadz? Yeah, the Lake Powell fan club (the best description of Powellheadz I could come up with) teamed up with the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a motorized off-road advocacy group, to call on all seven Colorado Basin states to significantly reduce withdrawals beginning next year. The goal? Refill Lake Powell (and Mead) to improve recreation. Seriously.
I guess you could say this is the antithesis to the Drain Lake Powell/Fill Mead First movement. Last week the groups released their policy proposal entitled, “Fill Lake Powell: The path to 3,588.” That number refers to the minimum surface level of the reservoir at which most boat ramps are usable and recreation is prime. That would mean raising the surface of the reservoir about 55 feet from the current level. To get there, the report finds, would require cutting water consumption by about 4 million acre feet per year, beginning ASAP.
Hmmm… Well. Okay. So, the states can’t even seem to come up with 1 million acre feet to cut in order to keep the entire Colorado River system from collapse, but they’re going to come up with 4 million acre feet so that folks can put their motorboats in the lake? Good luck with that!
Monsoon continues to rage across the Southwest:
Arizona’s the biggest loser during shortages thanks to the Colorado River Basin Project Act of 1968. Congress agreed to pay for the Central Arizona Project, which carries water from the Colorado River across the desert to Phoenix and Tucson. In exchange, Arizona agreed to subordinate its water rights to California’s in times of shortage.