Headwaters Fall 2015: The Colorado River Basin

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GREAT AMERICAN RIVER Our relationship with the Colorado, redefined

Denver, CO | (303) 455-9589 LREwater.com |


water fluency A professional development course to help you understand water and lead with confidence

In spring of 2016, join us on the northern Front Range for Water Fluency. Come away with tools to navigate the culture, complexity and future of water management and policy issues. Find dates and locations online. Stay tuned for details on an upcoming West Slope offering!


• Elected officials • Professionals interested in water • Community and business leaders LEARN THROUGH:

• Online material • Site visits—guided tours of infrastructure & projects • Group discussions—4 half-day in-person sessions


learn more and register at www.yourwatercolorado.org/waterfluency


Mission in Motion


The Why and How of Interstate Water Sharing CFWE’s popular Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Interstate Compacts has been updated and will be available beginning December 2015. The new edition of this valuable desk reference explores the basic essentials of Colorado’s interstate water sharing agreements. The 2015 Water Leaders class spent two days in in Estes Park learning about flood recovery with speaker Will Birchfield (left), Cheryl Benedict of MORF Consulting (second from right) and CFWE's Kristin Maharg (far right).

Congratulations 2015 Water Leaders! Congratulations to the 2015 Water Leaders class—an ambitious group who graduated from CFWE’s program in September. These talented water professionals have developed their leadership skills and competencies through extensive selfassessment, coaching and peer learning. Through four sessions together in Colorado Springs, Estes Park, Grand Junction and Denver, the training focuses on emotional intelligence, building functional teams, managing conflict and change, professional networking, and much more. Join us in celebrating the accomplishments of the 2015 class (pictured starting second from left, above): Jordan Dimick, Leonard Rice Engineers, Inc. Hillary Hamann, University of Denver Benjamin McConahey, Hydro Venture Partners Sean Cronin, St. Vrain & Left Hand Water Conservancy District Susan Ryan, Ryley Carlock & Applewhite Kevin Niles, Arkansas Groundwater Users Association Kristina Wynne, Bishop-Brogden Associates, Inc. Matt Bond, Denver Water Heather Dutton, Colorado Rio Grande Restoration Foundation Stephanie Scott, Colorado Trout Unlimited Erik Anglund, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation Angie Fowler, SGM Laura Belanger, Western Resource Advocates Tammy Allen, CDPHE Water Quality Control Division David Skuodas, Urban Drainage & Flood Control District Interested in joining the 2016 Water Leaders class? The application period will be open December 1, 2015, through January 15, 2016. Contact kristin@yourwatercolorado.org for more information.





Call CFWE at 303-3774433 or order online at yourwatercolorado.org. Individual copies are available for $10.



See it on IMAX: The Wild Yampa This January 14 at 7 p.m., join CFWE and famed Colorado photographer John Fielder at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science IMAX theater to experience the Yampa, the last free-flowing river in the greater Colorado River system of the American Southwest. Together with author Pat Tierney, Fielder spent two years documenting the Yampa’s 249mile journey through northwestern Colorado for the pair’s recently published book, Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing and Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green. After Fielder puts his stunning photos on the largest screen in Colorado, CFWE will host a panel of experts for a discussion about development pressures on the Yampa and efforts to protect its wildness, followed by a reception and book signing. More details and registration at yourwatercolorado.org or by contacting jayla@yourwatercolorado.org.


Mission in Motion



On Tour with CFWE

Support CFWE on Colorado Gives Day!

CFWE’s educational tours take you out of the office and into the field to explore community water issues and learn from local experts. Last summer, the Vine to Wine tour hoisted 40 friends from CFWE's Water Leaders, Colorado Mesa University's Water Center and Colorado Water Congress' POND onto JR’s Horse Carriages! Throughout the day, we discovered the value of Grand Valley agriculture, irrigation efficiencies on orchards and vineyards, and the role of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program plus made new connections over wine tastings. Join our next journey in early 2016 for an inside look at industrial water use. Learn from innovative communities that are planning for an increase in various industrial activities, such as power generation, marijuana production and food processing, and the relationship between water demands, public policy and economic trends. Plus stay tuned for our annual Climate Workshop in March 2016, Urban Waters Bike Tours in May, and Gunnison Basin Tour in June! More information and registration at www.yourwatercolorado.org.

For one 24-hour period every year, Coloradans far and wide celebrate the power of philanthropy through Colorado Gives Day. This Dec. 8, 2015, we invite you to support water education by participating in Colorado Gives and selecting CFWE as your recipient. Over the past three years, we’ve received more than $22,000 in donations through Colorado Gives–in just three days! A $1 million incentive fund multiplies the power of every gift. So make a date with CFWE and Colorado Gives this December 8!

Pre-schedule your donation today at ColoradoGives.org/CFWE

Give where you live

COLORADO GRAPEVINES NEED WATER TOO! Participants on the July 2015 Vine to Wine tour got an up-close look at vineyard operations along with an overview of agriculture's relationship with endangered species protection in the Grand Junction area.


HEADWATERS Pulse Monthly E-News HEADWATERS Pulse brings you the original water reporting you love, plus information on upcoming statewide events, relevant blog posts, and links to current events and programming. It’s about you, your water, and information that matters. What are you waiting for? Subscribe at yourwatercolorado.org and check your inbox for a monthly issue. 2

Support us on Colorado Gives Day! Tuesday, December 8 online at ColoradoGives.org $1

Million Incentive Fund Presented by

Community First Foundation and FirstBank #COGivesDay

Learn more at ColoradoGivesDay.org



Restoration of the parched Colorado River delta continues. GREEN • 11

Could water-thirsty alfalfa and bluegrass play a lesser role in the future of the American West? VISION • 13

In the quest for resiliency, scenario planning transitions to next steps, while funders promote benefits for rivers and people.


Notes from the Director WATERMARKS • 7

Notes from the Editor



A Defining Moment on the Colorado River Revered and manipulated, cherished and disregarded, the Colorado is a lifeline and an overallocated system exacerbated by drought. It’s also our chance to rise. BY JERD SMITH

22 27 32

Bound by a River As states and nations that share the Colorado River, our futures are inextricably linked, and so must be our solutions. BY JERD SMITH

To Serve and Extend Colorado readies itself for an unknown future, taking proactive steps to shore up contingency plans before all bets are off. BY CAITLIN COLEMAN

Mythbusters Assumptions about the Colorado River, fact-checked. BY NELSON HARVEY

ABOVE: The Little Snake and Yampa rivers join in northwestern Colorado on their journey toward the Colorado River. Photograph by Pete McBride. ABOUT THE COVER: The Colorado River’s sinewy form appears from the depths of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Photograph by Pete McBride. H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015


O U R CO N T R I B U T O R S Jerd Smith is a Boulder-based writer and editor with an interest in conservation issues who has covered the Colorado River Basin since 2002. In reporting for this issue (“A Defining Moment,” page 14, and “Bound by a River,” page 22), she says, “We’re beginning to see some unprecedented acts of cooperation between cities and states. There is still plenty of angst and conflict in this amazing river basin, but there are some profoundly hopeful changes underway as well.” Nelson Harvey is a freelance print and radio journalist based in Denver. He has written for publications that include Modern Farmer and High Country News, and was formerly editor of Edible Aspen Magazine. While examining Colorado River water supply myths (“Mythbusters, page 32), Nelson was daunted by the squeeze population growth and climate change will create in coming decades. Yet he was heartened by the smart and dedicated people working to ensure the river's supply lines up with demand. Find him at NelsonHarvey.com.

Colorado Foundation for Water Education Nicole Seltzer Executive Director Kristin Maharg Director of Programs Jennie Geurts Membership and Administration Coordinator Jayla Poppleton Headwaters Senior Editor and Content Program Manager

Josh Chetwynd is a Denver-based journalist and author. He has worked as a staff reporter for USA Today and U.S. News & World Report, and has written for other publications including The Wall Street Journal. His books include "The Secret History of Balls," named a 2011 NPR best book of the year. In writing about work to return water to the lower part of the Colorado River (“Renewing the Delta,” page 10), he was taken by the commitment shown: "When you listen to subjects talk and act with such dedication, it's inspiring.”

Caitlin Coleman Headwaters Associate Editor and Communications Specialist

Freelance journalist Samantha Tisdel Wright writes and raises two children in a home surrounded by wild meadow grass outside Silverton, Colorado. “I have always secretly fantasized about having a lush, green, manicured lawn, but writing for this issue (“The Future of Grass,” page 11) cured me of that,” she says. Samantha has worked for a variety of Colorado publications and helped found the San Juan Independent, an online publication. More of her work is at samanthatisdelwright.pressfolios.com.


Barton Glasser is an all-purpose photographer based in western Colorado, whose work ranges from editorial to commercial to weddings. This issue allowed Barton to satisfy his scientific curiosity while spending time with Colorado State University researcher Perry Cabot (“Bound by a River,” page 22). When not at work, he can be found tromping through the woods, floating on a river, or sliding down something snowy. His work can be found at www.BartonGlasser.com. Pete McBride is an award-winning photographer, writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Outside. He spent more than four years documenting his backyard river, which resulted in the book “The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict” and a series of short films. He now focuses his lenses and energies on raising awareness about freshwater challenges around the world. Find him at petemcbride.com.

Charles Chamberlin Headwaters Graphic Designer

Gregg Ten Eyck President Justice Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr. Vice President Eric Hecox Secretary Alan Matlosz Treasurer Nick Colglazier Lisa Darling James Eklund Steve Fearn Greg Johnson Scott Lorenz Dan Luecke

1750 Humboldt Suite 200 Denver, CO 80218 303-377-4433 • www.yourwatercolorado.org THE MISSION of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education is to promote increased understanding of water resource issues so Coloradans can make informed decisions. CFWE is a non-advocacy organization committed to providing educational opportunities that consider diverse perspectives and facilitate dialogue in order to advance the conversation. HEADWATERS magazine is published three times each year by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Its goals are to raise awareness of current water issues, and to provide opportunities for engagement and further learning. THANK YOU to all who assisted in the development of this issue. Headwaters’ reputation for balance and accuracy in reporting is achieved through rigorous consultation with experts and anextensive peer review process, helping to make it Colorado’s leading publication on water.

Kevin McBride Trina McGuire-Collier Kate McIntire Reed Morris Lauren Ris Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg Andrew Todd Chris Treese Rep. Ed Vigil Reagan Waskom

Copyright 2015 by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. ISSN: 1546-0584




s you settle in to this magazine, take a moment to reflect on your day. How has water contributed to your mental well-being, productivity and overall happiness? Likely it was a rejuvenating drink of Rocky Mountain water to kickstart the morning. Perhaps a pleasant family saunter around your local waterway gave notice to new riffles or migrating birds. It could have been the joy of the season’s first snowflake gracing your open hands. Being in the physical presence of water deeply influences our health as well as our connection to each other and the natural world, arguably more so than any other element. It provides us with remarkable hope for the future, no matter how staggering the challenges may be. This is why I’ve dedicated the last 10 years of my life to a career in water, communicating its power and potential to my colleagues in Colorado and beyond. It’s why I’m outside enjoying the benefits of being around water as frequently as possible. And it’s why I find gratitude in serving the readers of this trusted publication through riveting stories and mind-blowing facts. You typically hear from executive director Nicole Seltzer on Currents, but I’m honored to act as CFWE’s director while she’s on sabbatical, exploring her own water potential on a surfboard in Mexico. Likewise, this issue of Headwaters is pushing boundaries and, for the first time, examines a topic that extends beyond our home state. The Colorado River is a system on which the people of the West are profoundly dependent—whether you’re a farmer, boater or homeowner—and as you read the ensuing articles, think about your direct experience and relationship with this Great American River. Again, how does she contribute to your professional success, your creativity and expression, your sense of place? The Colorado Foundation for Water Education serves to amplify these impacts by connecting citizens and decision makers to the emotional and intellectual value of water. Lately at CFWE, our brains have been operating on full steam to deliver the mission of balanced and accurate information to diverse audiences across the state. Our summer issue of Headwaters on land use resulted in new relationships and invitations to non-water conferences, such as that of the American Planning Association. We’ve proudly witnessed light-bulb moments and broad smiles while graduating the 2015 classes of Water Leaders and Water Fluency. Our film tour of “The Great Divide” with Havey Productions has increased the understanding and compassion for water among thousands in the general public, from La Junta to Steamboat Springs. Our annual Sustaining Colorado Watersheds conference in October framed our thinking around the concept of resilience at the individual, community and basin levels. All of our work is done with passion and dedication to Colorado’s most essential resource, and none of it would be possible without members and participants like you. We thank you for that commitment to water education. Check out our Headwaters Pulse e-news, Your Water Colorado blog, website and social media for up-to-date reporting and details on when we’ll be in your community next! As always, we welcome your feedback and encourage you to bring us to your water events and happenings as well. With love for water,


H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015








Watch for CFWE’s updated Citizen’s Guide to Interstate Compacts this December. PAGE 1


Subscribe to Headwaters Pulse e-news for monthly updates on CFWE and Colorado water. PAGE 2


Follow the progress of work to restore the Colorado River Delta. PAGE 11


Tour the Colorado River’s hard-working path and major infrastructure. PAGE 18


Explore the operational relationship between Lake Powell and Lake Mead. PAGE 19


Dig in to the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River supply and demand study and track next steps. PAGE 21


Assess the balance of historical and forecasted water use and availability on the Colorado. PAGE 24


Connect with the Agricultural Water Conservation Clearinghouse for the latest in ag conservation practices. PAGE 26


Find out what contingency planning looks like in Colorado and the rest of the upper basin. PAGE 31


Increase your Colorado River savvy by breaking down common myths.


ohn Wesley Powell, legendary onearmed explorer, teacher and geographer, set out to discover the path of the Colorado River in 1869. He lost several boats as well as members of his crew, and nearly starved, but managed to make it all the way from the Green River in Wyoming to the site of today’s Lake Mead. Through various subsequent explorations, he later drew less than optimistic conclusions about the Colorado River’s ability to sustain numerous people or crops in the West, and famously said at an 1883 irrigation conference: "Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land.” Through the industrious work of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and states and water users that share the river, Powell has largely been proven wrong. Likely he could never have imagined the Colorado River supporting 40 million people or irrigating 4 million acres of farmland, in areas extending well beyond the reach of the natural basin itself. Yet his words, uttered more than a century ago, are haunting as we find ourselves, in late 2015, facing unsustainable overdrafts of the river and the question of what to do about it. I got out to enjoy my own experience on the Colorado River this summer. While rafting the family-friendly stretch that crosses the Colorado and Utah border, sharing the oars here and there with one of my sons, I marveled at the long journey the river had ahead, to places far beyond—many states, a nation away. From one town or city or field to the next it continues, gathering the runoff from mountaintops and watersheds into one Great American River—a river that formed iconic western landscapes, a river some call the hardest-working in the West. I sat on its banks and thought of how the very water we watched flowing past canyon walls might be diverted not far downstream to irrigate a farmer’s field or to fill a kitchen sink, only to return again to join the current, nourish an ecosystem, and later fulfill some other duty, all the while setting its course for the sea. And I found it grounding to momentarily dwell, in the midst of all the politics and science and scenario planning, upon the simple but profound nature of the cycle of water that falls and feeds this river, that feeds us, and continues. Always. Flowing. In its continuity, the river forms a connective tissue, binding the many millions of us who rely upon its waters…Mexicans, Americans, Coloradans, Californians, Indian tribes, and everyone else. And in the moment of time we find ourselves, where this whole, complicated, industrious system we’ve predicated upon the Colorado River and its flows is under duress—from climate, growth, drought, demand—we hear echoes of one prevailing sentiment: that our best path forward is the path we take together. It’s a beautiful thing to get to know a river. And in many ways I envy what Powell must have witnessed in journeying upon a river yet untamed. Looking beyond the utility of the Colorado, many have dedicated themselves to also preserving and restoring its values as a river in and of itself, a river yearning to continue its path to the sea, nurturing life and joy and beauty in all forms all along the way. To be solution-oriented today is to find creative mechanisms—in engineering, food production, policy, funding, management, education—that redefine our relationship with the Colorado River and each other. And that is what we decided to focus on in this issue. At the outset of planning, our editorial team set out asking the question, “When it comes to the Colorado, are we really all in this together?” And as it turns out, it seems we truly are.

Jayla Poppleton



H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015



Renewal > Green > Vision



Water is Hope Once the largest estuary in North America, spreading more than two million acres over Mexico’s Sonoran Desert, the Colorado River delta today is a shadow of its former self. Parched from decades of undernourishment, the river here bears resemblance to a tree root, stretching its limbs in want. Many are now paying attention and working hard to shuttle life-giving flows to sections of the delta where on-the-ground restoration work is underway.

H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015


LAGUNA GRANDE is a restoration area at the heart of the Colorado River riparian corridor in Mexico, where residents of nearby Francisco Murguia have been employed in site work and as nature tourism guides.

Renewing the Delta

Two nations, a coalition of NGOs, and the transforming power of water bring life back to the Sonoran Desert. BY JOSH CHETWYND


o the untrained eye, the Colorado River just south of the U.S. border, where water used to run all the way to the Gulf of California, looks today like it has for much of the past 17 years—mostly dry. But for experts, and for the local community, there is new hope for this barren stretch. In March 2014, a consortium of scientists working under a U.S.-Mexico agreement called Minute 319 began monitoring the release of 105,392 acre-feet of water into the arid southern stretch of the Colorado River from the Morelos Dam, which sits on the two countries’ border. More than 18 months later, the event, known as the Pulse Flow, has delivered in many ways. It proved just how well the U.S. and Mexican governments could collaborate on sensitive water issues, supplied


valuable data, and provided meaningful ecologic and recreational benefits, as well as social benefits for those involved. In and of itself Minute 319, which was signed in 2012, is a landmark achievement for the two governments. Since agreeing to their first detailed Colorado River usage accord in a 1944 treaty, the adjacent nations have primarily focused on human water use and ownership issues. So this effort to consider the environment is a significant departure from the majority of past management efforts. No doubt, the Pulse Flow has given scientists a much better understanding of the environmental hurdles currently facing the lower part of the Colorado River. In particular, they were surprised by how quickly the discharged water soaked into the ground. In this vulnerable ecosystem, water must continue to flow in order for indigenous cotton-

wood and willow trees to germinate. In turn, that vegetation helps lure wildlife back to the area. But 90 percent of the Pulse Flow’s water seeped into the earth within the first 40 miles of its release from the dam, according to Karl Flessa, co-chief scientist of the Minute 319 monitoring project and a professor of geoscience at the University of Arizona. One problem was that non-native scrub vegetation called salt cedar had grown in so many places in the dry riverbed, preventing a smooth flow. In locations where workers were able to clear brush and do some land contouring before the Pulse Flow, the transformation was notable. At the 1,200-acre Laguna Grande Restoration Area, located about 50 miles south of the Morelos Dam, there is still running water and more than 100 acres of developing cottonwood and willow forests. There were two key reasons for this success. First, the nonprofit Sonoran Institute spearheaded a year-long project to clear and prepare the area for native plant restoration before the Pulse Flow occurred. This allowed the water, when it arrived, to more effectively nurture the germination of the willows and cottonwoods. Second, a base flow, which is a Minute 319-created set-aside of 52,695 acre-feet of water, can be used as needed at Laguna Grande and elsewhere on the Mexican portion of the river through December 31, 2017. This water, which is sourced from Mexico’s irrigation system as well as the Morelos Dam, provides conservationists with a vital tool to continue surgically aiding parts of Laguna Grande that need additional hydration. Beyond Laguna Grande’s big hit, the emotional and community-building value of this endeavor runs deep. When the project began, no one was sure how far the water would run from the dam. In fact, those involved bet on whether the flow would make it the length of the lower basin all the way to the Gulf of California. Flessa, who has worked on the Colorado River delta since 1992, wagered that it wouldn’t extend that far. Despite the water that ended up seeping into the soil, the flow did reach the ocean. Flessa couldn’t have been more pleased to be wrong. “From a personal as well as a scientific perspective, this is a once-ina-career, once-in-a-lifetime event—to see the river reborn,” Flessa says. “We all got wrapped up with chasing water…it was extraordinary…sends chills down your spine.”



Water is Renewal

Water is Green

Flessa and his colleagues were not the only ones captivated by the flow. Days before the water was released, residents of the town of San Luis Rio Colorado, located 25 miles south the Morelos Dam, cleaned litter from the dry riverbed and held picnics by its banks. When the water arrived, the excitement was palpable. Film footage of the flow depicts families delighting at the water’s return. “The social or human response to the flow was a surprise,” says Francisco Zamora Arroyo, director of the Colorado River Delta Legacy Program at the Sonoran Institute and a member of Minute 319’s environmental working group. “Not only did people at the part of the river near San Luis Rio Colorado come, but also people around other parts came to see and greet the river.” Now the question is whether those working on this project will be able to build on their efforts. Minute 319 is a detailed pact. Beyond allowing for the one-time Pulse Flow and the additional base flow to infuse water into the river’s lower reaches, it also provides for Mexico to store some of the water it’s entitled to under previous agreements in upstream U.S. facilities. The agreement will expire at the end of 2017. Nevertheless, scientists involved with the project are optimistic that a new accord can be struck and that more environmentally targeted flows will occur. In fact, reports Edward Drusina of the International Boundary and Water Commission, planning for Minute “32X” is well underway: “We are looking at providing water where we need it, when we need it, and in the amount needed.” Based on what’s been learned, Flessa and Zamora Arroyo and their colleagues are confident that with additional scouring and tweaks in the water-release design an even longer-lasting legacy can be realized. “I understand the limitations. I understand that we are in a drought. I understand it isn’t easy. I understand there are other uses that have higher priority,” Zamora Arroyo says. “But I’m optimistic that in the next few years we’ll be able to reach out and show the environmental benefits and the social benefits of this work.” n


TAKE THE NEXT STEP For updates and to learn more about restoration work at the delta, visit raisetheriver.org.

ALFALFA HAY, grown on 26 percent of all irrigated lands in the Colorado River Basin, is a thirsty crop, and many are asking whether we should water less grass.

The Future of Grass

What role should alfalfa, hay and bluegrass have in the Colorado River Basin? BY SAMANTHA TISDEL WRIGHT


mericans have always seemed to have a love affair with lawns. The problem is, as we moved west, we also fell in love with the landscapes of Arizona, California and Colorado—and then set about trying to change them. In an effort to make our homes and yards look like Illinois and Indiana, we planted grass and shrubs appropriate for wetter climates. Western farmers and ranchers, too, have always valued grass—from alfalfa to native hay—that can feed hungry livestock through the winter season. This mindset of grassy green abundance, however, has been periodically interrupted by western drought, affecting everyone from 1930s homesteaders to early 21stcentury municipalities forced to implement strict water reductions. Rapid urbanization H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015

has now run up against a record-breakingly dry 16-year period, requiring a paradigm shift. Several of the fastest-growing cities in the nation are in the deserts of the West, and water from the lower Colorado River Basin irrigates some of the most intensively farmed areas of the planet. With seven U.S. states and Mexico dividing up 16.5 million acre-feet of water (the equivalent of 5.4 trillion gallons) and only 75 percent of that in average annual river flows to go around, we have a problem. As water demand outpaces supply in the American Southwest, the water used to irrigate alfalfa, hay and bluegrass turf is receiving public scrutiny, with rural values often pitted against ever-increasing urban thirst. Parched cities are finding ways to compel residents to lose their lawns, while farmers may soon be offered payments to transition away from thirsty crops or 11

otherwise reduce use in order to free up some of their water supplies. A number of cities dependent on water from the basin—from Denver to Los Angeles—have some sort of turf removal plan in place, but Las Vegas has led the pack in this regard. Under the leadership of Patricia Mulroy, former general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Las Vegas region began an aggressive turf removal campaign in 2003, putting more than $200 million on the table to pay residents and businesses to tear out their turf and replace it with less water-thirsty landscapes. The voluntary program is part of a fourpronged approach to water conservation in the Las Vegas region that also incorporates pricing, education and enforcement. It has been stunningly successful, resulting in the removal of more than 170 million square feet of “non-functioning” turf from front yards, golf courses, highway medians and resorts. As a result, Colorado River water consumption in the region has dropped by 30 percent—and per capita water consumption by 40 percent—even while the population has increased by nearly a half-million people. “By our estimation, about half of the grass in Las Vegas has been removed,” says Bronson Mack, SNWA public outreach and media manager. That’s enough for a strip of sod 18 inches wide to wrap more than three-quarters of the way around Earth. Looking around Las Vegas today, it’s obvious that you can still have beautiful, easy-tomaintain and shady landscapes without all that grass. As Mack puts it, “A community may not need wall-to-wall carpeting if an area rug will do.” Turf reductions in the basin’s cities, however, won’t balance the system on their own, not when agriculture and food production uses 70 percent of the Colorado River’s water. According to the Pacific Institute’s 2013 report “Water to Supply the Land,” irrigated pasture and forage crops used primarily to feed livestock cover about two million acres, or 60 percent, of the basin’s irrigated area. Alfalfa alone, a protein-rich and waterintensive grass crop planted extensively from Wyoming to the delta in Mexico, covers more than a quarter of the total irrigated acreage. These flood-irrigated hay 12

meadows and alfalfa fields consume more than five million acre-feet of Colorado River water each year—more than a third of the volume currently stored in Lake Powell. “If we are trying to map out our water future, we really have to get our arms around alfalfa and hay crops, because that is where so much of the water goes,” says John Fleck, an adjunct professor and writer in residence at the University of New Mexico's Water Resources Program. Fleck is at work on an “optimistic book” about the future of the Colorado River, tentatively titled Beyond the Water Wars. Fleck and University of Arizona researcher Robert Glennon have proposed tweaking the system by developing flexible, resilient, market-based policy mechanisms

“A community may not need wall-to-wall carpeting if an area rug will do.” BRONSON MACK SNWA public outreach and media manager

that would allow ranchers and farmers to continue to thrive with less water while being compensated for the water they give up. For example, Glennon suggests in his book Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It that alfalfa farmers in the lower basin should be able to idle their land during the hottest summer months— when their crops use four times as much water but get a dramatically lower yield— and then turn around and sell or lease the water savings to other thirsty farmers or desperate cities, without jeopardizing their own water rights when they return to farming in the fall. “These are issues of equity and justice in our communities,” Fleck says. “It seems like there are opportunities here, but building the right institutions and getting the markets right is really hard.” The future of grass, whether turf or forage, will likely also be shaped by technology and best management practices. Converting to ditch piping and subsurface irrigation to reduce evaporative losses, or implementing

regulated deficit irrigation, where crops are intentionally grown using less water than they would normally consume, are both practices that may ultimately be subsidized by municipalities that would benefit from the water savings. But flood irrigation in the upper basin still makes sense under certain circumstances, says John McClow, a member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. For instance, in some areas along the Gunnison River, a tributary to the Colorado, flood irrigation contributes to a stable groundwater table that ultimately reduces infiltration of irrigation water. One long-term study conducted by the Western Landowners Alliance showed that flooding high mountain hay meadows actually creates a big sponge in river valleys, holding the water on the land, improving soil health, recharging aquifers, and contributing to a healthy riparian environment. And while revenues from hay production may be small in the context of state GDP, McClow points out that, at least in rural Colorado, ranching is a relatively large contributor to the local economy, both directly and indirectly through the view corridors and social fabric it provides. Although flood irrigation in the Gunnison Valley drains into the river, providing flows to downstream users in the Colorado River system, it’s a very different story in central Arizona, where farmers use Colorado River water to flood irrigate crops in Maricopa County, where return flows do not reach the river. In the end, forces of both politics and nature will likely combine to determine the future of grass in the Colorado River Basin. “But it’s not a catastrophe,” Glennon says. “That’s the beauty of the crisis we are in. We still have choices to make between one path and another path. We are not bound inexorably, like lemmings, to jump off the cliff.” n

floo-uhnt water fact

Growing alfalfa in Colorado requires 10 to 25 percent more water than grass hay and 36 to 106 percent more than sorghum and other feed crops grown for livestock. Source: Colorado State University Extension


Water is Vision

Walton Fortunes Benefit the Colorado BY JAYLA POPPLETON

O THE "BATHTUB RING" at Lake Powell testifies to declines in Colorado River flows.

From Analysis to Action BY CAITLIN COLEMAN



arring timely action, demand for Colorado River water will outstrip supply. That came as no surprise when published as a major finding in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, but confirmed the need to address shortfalls on the Colorado. “We looked at a wide range of future outcomes and found that imbalances between supply and demand are going to impact every resource that the basin serves...they're all vulnerable to some degree absent future action,” says Carly Jerla, who managed the study for Reclamation. The study was precipitated by the 2009 SECURE Water Act, which charged Reclamation with mitigating the risks of climate change in the nation’s major river basins, and the establishment of the agency’s WaterSMART initiative in 2010. Now, Reclamation and myriad stakeholder partners are focused on “Moving Forward,” a project to continue the 2012 study’s work of identifying solutions for the Colorado’s supply imbalance. Individual workgroups are tackling municipal and industrial water, agricultural water, and environmental and recreational flows. By the end of 2015, Moving Forward will begin identifying pilot projects to test. The timeline to launch, complete and assess pilots isn’t set. Taylor Hawes, who directs The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program,

supports Reclamation’s approach and leading role: “They have that grasp of the whole system in terms of how they manage it and what opportunities there are and what solutions might look like, so I think it’s critical that they’re involved. But the solutions need to come ultimately from the stakeholders, as well as the power and industry sectors.” While acknowledging the positive steps, some say the foundations for Moving Forward are inadequate. For instance, the 2012 study focused on a possible 9 percent decline in average Colorado River runoff by 2060 due to climate change, while other research shows reductions could reach 45 percent. The entire range needs to be considered, says Tim Barnett with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “It’s not going to cut it.” In October 2015, Barnett and 22 other scholars submitted a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, asking that the National Academy of Sciences review activities related to Moving Forward and stating that the options so far presented and scenarios considered “fail to provide a clear picture of how water security will be realized in the 21st century.” Hawes agrees good information will enable the best possible preparation for what’s ahead. “But in the meantime,” she says, “we need to be working on solutions that give us maximum flexibility to adapt in times of shortages and drought.” n H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015

f all the philanthropic activities the Walton family applies its fortune to these days, the Colorado River sees a minute share, but that doesn’t make it insignificant. Since 2009, the Walton Family Foundation has invested more than $3.5 billion in its education and environmental programs, and the Colorado River Basin received more than $73 million of those funds as part of the foundation’s freshwater conservation initiative. You might wonder what compels the Waltons (the board is composed of the children and grandchildren of Sam and Helen Walton, founders of the Wal-Mart empire) to invest in this great Western River. The answer, says Margaret Bowman, deputy director of the foundation’s Environment Focus Area, is relatively simple. “We think there’s enough water to go around if it’s managed properly, and we think that’s a great opportunity.” By supporting research and on-theground efforts to manage for robust streamflows and riparian areas along the Colorado and its tributaries, the foundation hopes to set a tone for broad protection of river-centric values. Recent projects enabled by Walton family funds include a National Young Farmers “Resilient” report looking at farming practices that save water and support of several non-governmental organizations that worked to provide water for the 2014 pulse flow to the Colorado River delta. The goal remains finding solutions that are good for the environment and the economy. “This is not just a philosophy,” says Bowman, “but it is also pragmatic. We believe those are the solutions that are going to be accepted in the current political environment and also the ones that are going to stand the test of time. And they’re the solutions that are going to provide benefit for a multitude of interests.” n 13

A Defining Moment on the Colorado River


IME on the ancient Colorado River has stretched out for the people along its banks in spans so long it may as well have been infinite. From Colorado to Mexico, to everyone from the tribes who reared their children in its mountain strongholds and fragile deserts to the modern city dwellers who have captured its vital flows in massive reservoirs and pipelines, the river's troubled future has always seemed decades, if not centuries, away. But time is speeding up in ways few modern-day water planners ever imagined. As a 16-year drought widely believed to be among the worst in 1,200 years shows little sign of easing, Lake Powell and Lake Mead— filled nearly to the brim in 2000—are now collectively less than half full and continue to fall, jeopardizing their ability to provide water to cities and farms, as well as to generate power, fund care for endangered fish, and support recreation economies worth billions of dollars each year. Trouble is no longer decades or centuries away. Now, it could be perhaps a year or two away. "It's come sooner than anyone anticipated and more significantly than anyone anticipated," says Jim Lochhead, manager of Denver Water, the largest municipal water

utility in Colorado. Even from the eastern side of the Continental Divide, opposite where the river begins its westward journey, the agency relies on the Colorado River for half its drinking water. "We are entering uncharted territory." No longer do states and water users talk exclusively about how much water they’re legally entitled to take. Now, they increasingly discuss ways to balance what they need with what the river provides, and they’ve begun to move forward with experiments designed to chisel away at decades of overuse in order to live on a water diet designed not by the courts or state legislatures, but by the river’s own highly variable flows.

───⌛─── DROUGHT in the basin has materialized at different times and varying levels of severity since 2000. Often these periods of reduced precipitation and streamflows seemed short-term. The states managed by imposing mandatory water restrictions and tapping deep into reservoir storage. But by 2005 it was clear the dry periods were becoming increasingly severe and longer in duration. Water levels in Powell and Mead were dropping alarmingly. Conflict between





A partially frozen Colorado River, pictured in January 2009, cuts through Castle Valley, Utah. H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015



THE CENTRAL ARIZONA PROJECT (above) captures and moves Colorado River water over 336 miles to serve an area containing 80 percent of the state’s population, including Phoenix and Tucson. MIGRANT WORKERS HARVEST lettuce grown with Colorado River water near Yuma, Arizona (right). Fields like this one, irrigated by water diverted from the Colorado, account for up to two-thirds of the fresh produce found in grocery stores across the nation during winter months.

is likely to give Arizona some breathing room. But if shortages don’t hit in 2017, most expect they will arrive shortly thereafter. California, meanwhile, which gets nearly 60 percent of the lower basin’s share of the river, is facing its most serious modern drought. Last winter, the Sierra Nevada mountains delivered just 5 percent of their annual average snowpack. The water California gets annually from the Colorado River has been an invaluable water supply as the state scrambles to implement emergency conservation measures and to revise its laws and water management regime. Facing its own problems, California has thus far taken the position (grounded in the Congressional system set up in 1968) that it is enough for it to live within its legally allotted share of 4.4 million acre-feet per year. This it has managed to do for the last decade, after reducing its use of Colorado River water by 15 percent. Under various legal agreements, Congressional statutes and a U.S. Supreme Court decree, Arizona and Nevada will have to absorb the first lower basin shortages before California will have to cut back again. Yet that doesn’t mean California isn’t invested in bolstering the strength of the Colorado River

system, averting lower basin shortages, and ultimately increasing the amount of water stored in Lake Mead, says Tanya Trujillo, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California. For the upper basin states, in addition to localized water reductions already experienced as a result of the ongoing historic drought, they face the very real prospect of not being able to eventually utilize the full share they expect, if river flows continue to diminish and they must keep meeting legal obligations to the lower basin.

───⌛─── THE QUESTION of who gets how much water from the river is governed by the 1922 Colorado River Compact and 1948 Upper Colorado River Compact and a related set of laws, decrees and an international treaty collectively referred to as the “Law of the River.” It is within the bones of the original compact where part of the problem lies. The negotiators of the 1922 compact assumed the river could reliably deliver more than 17 million acre-feet of water each year, as measured at a point on the river 10 miles



the basin’s two U.S. halves—its lower and its upper basin states—came sharply into focus, causing the U.S. Department of the Interior to warn the states to come up with a new way to manage shrinking supplies and to balance storage between the two major reservoirs lest the federal government step in to do it for them. It would take two years for all seven states to agree to a new management regime for Powell and Mead, a regime that said the upper basin states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico could reduce their annual release from Lake Powell if it dropped below a certain elevation in order to better share the risk of diminishing supplies. The agreement also said that the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada would implement staged reductions in Arizona’s and Nevada’s water withdrawals if Lake Mead falls below a series of defined tipping points. In 2007, when what became known as the Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations was finally adopted, planners remained optimistic that those tipping points might not be reached until closer to 2026, when the guidelines are set to expire, if at all. But the persistent drought combined with over-allocation of the river has drained the reservoirs faster than anyone predicted. Flows across the basin in 2012 and 2013 were the lowest two-year period ever observed, raising particular alarm for the Central Arizona Project, which is subject to the greatest risk of water availability reductions in the lower basin under the unique priority system established by Congress nearly 50 years ago. Shuttling the vast majority of Arizona’s share of the river to farmers and cities in the state, the project delivers water to a region containing 80 percent of the state’s population through a 336-mile-long system of aqueducts, tunnels and pipelines. It is also expected to be the hardest-hit under the 2007 Interim Guidelines: The agency predicts a 55 percent probability that starting in 2017 its farmers will lose slightly more than half of the surface water they use to irrigate, and will have to replace those supplies with water that for years the state has cached underground for such a time as this. If the drought continues, its cities could face shortages in the very near future. This year, heavy spring precipitation in the Colorado and Wyoming mountains meant that Lake Powell released a small surge of water, roughly 9 million acre-feet, up from the 8.23 million acre-feet it has released during “normal” years, dating back to 1970. And that


downstream of Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam known as Lee Ferry, provided both Lake Mead and Lake Powell were constructed to store water in abundant years and even out low-flow water years. Gauge records from 1902, for example, showed there was only 9 million acre-feet available in the Colorado River that year, making storage necessary to implement the compact. Rejecting some calls for a time-limited allocation, say for 50 years, the compact’s framers divided, in perpetuity, 15 million acre-feet equally between the upper and lower basin states, giving 7.5 million acrefeet to Arizona, California and Nevada, and 7.5 million acre-feet to the four smaller, less-developed upper basin states—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Another 1 million acre-feet was allocated to the lower basin, including flows from tributaries that enter the river below Lee Ferry. The idea was to ensure that the lower basin states, which then and now have the most senior water rights on the river, could not take unlimited amounts from the river simply because they were growing faster than the other states. Skeptical of the deal even back then, Ari-

zona would take more than 20 years to ratify the 1922 compact. The 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act further divided the lower basin’s share of mainstem water: California gets 4.4 million acre-feet, Arizona 2.8 million acrefeet, and Nevada 300,000 acre-feet. But under the Colorado River Basin Project Act of 1968, which authorized construction of the Central Arizona Project, among others, Congress required Arizona to subordinate the priority of the CAP water supply to California in times of shortage. As a result, CAP has a lower priority than senior water users in Arizona, California and Nevada. The upper basin’s share, though intended to be equal to that of the lower basin when established, was allotted with the provision that the upper basin states cannot cause the river’s flow to fall below 75 million acrefeet at the Lee Ferry gauge over any 10-year period, or 7.5 million acre-feet on average each year. Given the uncertainty over how much water the upper basin states would actually have left among them, they agreed in the 1948 Upper Colorado Basin Compact to divide their share on a percentage basis, with Arizona receiving 50,000 acre-feet and Colorado receiving 51.75 percent, Utah H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015

23 percent, Wyoming 14 percent and New Mexico 11.25 percent of the remaining available water.Mexico in 1944 was allocated an annual 1.5 million acre-feet of the river’s flows by treaty with the United States. In the decades after the 1922 compact was written, it became clear that the river was rarely able to generate more than 16 million acre-feet in any given year. Fastforward to 2015, and the river has produced an average over each of the past 16 years of just 12.4 million acre-feet at Lee Ferry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s natural flow database. This compares to a long-term historical natural flow of 16.4 million acre-feet. The situation has been buffered using the water stored in higher-flow years, largely in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. But neither has been full since 2000. Releases from Powell continue to routinely exceed inflows, and although the upper basin has so far been able to release the full amount required every year, the lower basin continues to withdraw far more each year than what is delivered to Lake Mead, causing that downstream reservoir to drop precipitously. Several steps have been taken to help the 17

THE COLORADO RIVER BASIN The Colorado River, sometimes referred to as the Southwest’s “American Nile,” covers more than 1,450 miles on its sinuous journey toward the sea. Arising in the Colorado and Wyoming Rocky Mountains, its flows provide water for four million acres of farmland, seven National Wildlife Refuges, and 11 National Parks, while serving the needs of 40 million people, including 28 native tribes. Seventeen major dams back up its waters in pursuit of this service, contributing to a $26 billion recreation economy dependent not only on flatwater reservoirs, but also vigorous streamflows. Management efforts across the basin must span an international boundary, as well as the jurisdictions of seven U.S. states, which are in turn pooled into an “upper” and “lower” basin for the purposes of administration under the Colorado River Compact, established in 1922.

Gree n Ri ver



Fontenelle Reservoir FONTENELLE DAM

Great Salt Lake Flaming Gorge Reservoir

Salt Lake City




Yampa River White River


n Ri


Lake Granby



St. George

Lake Powell



Farmington San Ju

San Diego Tijuana

Lake Havasu City







er Gila Riv

Gulf of California


lt R

















Sante Fe






er Riv

Salton Sea

o rad



olo le C



an Riv er


Lake Mojave

Lake Havasu





Los Angeles


Colorado Springs Gunnison River

Lee Ferry

Lake Mead

Las Vegas


oR Co lo





Fort Collins Boulder

Grand Junction





M E XICO floo-uhnt water fact


Tributaries in the lower basin account for about 10 percent of the water supply along the last 688 miles of the lower Colorado. Source: Colorado River Water Users Association


POWELL AND MEAD: THE RELATIONSHIP The 2007 seven-state agreement formally known as the Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead established tiered storage levels at Mead that could trigger shortage declarations for the lower basin. The guidelines also outlined a method for determining annual releases from both reservoirs, meant to evenly distribute available storage, as well as the risk of shortage, between the upper and lower basin states. Here’s how it works:


LAKE MEAD Area: 247.1 square miles Full Pool: 25.9 million acre-feet (maf)

Area: 254.1 square miles Full Pool: 24.3 million acre-feet (maf)

Elevation: 1,220 feet

Elevation: 3,700 feet



Flood Control Surplus 25.9 maf / 1,220 ft Release more than 7.5 maf

Equalization Tier 24.3 maf / 3,700 ft Equalize, avoid spills or release 8.23 maf

Domestic Surplus 22.9 maf / 1,200 ft Release more than 7.5 maf

Upper Elevation Balancing Tier 15.5–19.3 maf / 3,636–3,666 ft Release 8.23 maf, or if Mead falls below Level 4 balance contents with a minimum/maximum release of 7 and 9 maf

Normal Condition 15.9 maf / 1,145 ft Release 7.5 maf


Mid-Elevation Release Tier 9.5 maf / 3,575 ft Release 7.48 maf, or if Lake Mead falls below Level 6 release 8.23 maf

Shortage Condition 9.4 maf / 1,075 ft Release 7.167 maf

Lower Elevation Balancing Tier 5.9 maf / 3,525 ft Balance contents with a minimum/maximum release of 7 and 9.5 maf

Shortage Condition 7.5 maf / 1,050 ft Release 7.083 maf Shortage Condition 5.8 maf / 1,025 ft Release 7.0 maf Further measures may be taken



Dead Pool Storage 1.9 maf 3,370 ft In storage October 2015 12.32 maf 3,605.87 ft

Dead Pool Storage 2.5 maf 895 ft In storage October 2015 9.9 maf 1,078.67 ft

Dead pool is the level at which it is no longer possible to drain the reservoir by gravity through the dam's lowest outlet. This level is even lower than minimum power pool, when the dam's hydropower features can no longer be operated.

Natural Flow of Colorado RIver at Lee Ferry below Glen Canyon Dam 25 million acre-feet 20


15 10 5 1906 1910










states cope with rising anxiety over the declines in these massive storage pools, most notably the Interim Guidelines finalized in 2007. And it is those guidelines that dictate the shortages the lower basin states may soon begin to absorb, if the surface elevation of Lake Mead threatens to fall below 1,075 feet above sea level at the outset of 2017. While Mead already dropped below 1,075 feet in June 2015 and continues to hover precariously low, it recovered some elevation before August, when Reclamation uses projections for first-of-the-year levels to make a shortage determination. As a result, no shortages will be implemented for 2016, and the states can catch their breath.


IN ADDITION to the existing over-allocation of the river, another “new,” major demand is likely to come from Indian tribes, some of which have established the right to divert significant quantities of water but have not yet developed the infrastructure to use it, and others whose water rights are promised but have yet to be formally quantified. The latter is the case for 12 of the 28 tribes in the Colorado River Basin. In 1908, in a precedent-setting case creating what is known as the Winters Doctrine, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the establishment of Indian reservations implicitly and concurrently created tribal rights to river water necessary to support the reservation, predating the rights of settlers who arrived later. In many cases, however, tribes without water engineering records or adequate resources to pay for court cases and water projects have not yet been able to fully claim or develop their share of the river. The situation improved in 1963 when the U.S. Supreme Court, as part of the Arizona vs. California decision, set guidelines for future quantification efforts. In 2014, Dan Cordalis, a tribal water right expert with the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice in Denver, wrote “What we do know is that the 16 tribes in the basin that have quantified their rights have established the right to divert nearly 2.9 million acre-feet of water annually from the Colorado River system. It appears, therefore, the remaining tribal claims leave a significant ‘cloud’ over the certainty of existing non-Indian water rights and uses.” It is important to note that these reserved water rights don’t require that the tribes had an actual need at the time of the reservation’s establishment, but

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015


floo-uhnt water fact


Water released through Hoover Dam, one of the nation's largest hydroelectric facilities, generates an average of 4.2 billion kilowatt hours of power each year, enough to serve 1.3 million people. Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

flowing below amounts targeted for healthy streams, stood at 38 percent when viewed 25 to 45 years out. On certain tributaries, that risk grew to 52 percent. The risks could be reduced if new management regimes are implemented—or supplies augmented. In contrast, the risk that the availability of water taken out of the river for people and farms will be impaired is just 7 percent in the upper basin and 19 percent in the lower basin. Under various scenarios modeled by Reclamation, the vulnerability of water deliveries to cities and farmers could be reduced to as little as 2 to 5 percent, depending on which solutions are used. But for the river itself, risks to environmental flows would only be improved slightly, down to about 30 percent on average basinwide, regardless of which options are chosen to improve flows in the river, including reuse, desalination plants, better watershed management, and, perhaps most crucially, the use of water banks in the upper basin. Under current law, the Endangered Species Act is the most powerful federal law protecting the ecological interests of the river. In addition, some stream segments flowing through national forests have legal flows that have been established and protected by the U.S. Forest Service. Several states also require some instream flows be protected in certain stream reaches. But Pitt says there are many places “where rivers may be imperiled that won’t be protected by the ESA. We need to work more on developing tools and agreements to protect those places, not just to avoid species extinctions, but to ensure we have healthy rivers to support nature and people.”

Another significant concern in the upper basin is that hydropower production at Powell could fall dramatically as reservoir levels decline. Glen Canyon Dam currently produces enough hydropower to supply 320,000 homes with electricity, providing an average of $150 million in wholesale power revenues each year. The concern isn’t just about how to replace the power itself, which is substantial, but also how to make up the revenue that would be lost. That money helps fund not only the operations and maintenance of Powell and other major upstream reservoirs, but also the basin’s salinity control program, the upper basin’s recovery programs for several endangered fish species, and the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program. Without these programs, and the cooperative management they support to provide things like targeted flow releases to critical river reaches, invasive species removal, and hatchery-bred fish stocking, the federal government could be forced to consider shutting off water users, as it did in the Klamath River Basin more than a decade ago.

───⌛─── TIME IS RUNNING OUT. For Arizona and Nevada, shortages are coming quickly. The lower basin states are rapidly approaching a crisis point, not necessarily because of drought or climate change, but because they already overuse the river by 1.2 million acrefeet a year, even under average conditions, according to Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Division of Water Resources. The situation is referred to politely as “the structural deficit,” a collection of overdrafts



are instead based upon future uses of the reserved water. A Reclamation study now underway in cooperation with the Ten Tribes Partnership, a coalition of tribes with Colorado River water rights, is working to determine how much water may be associated with those rights. Yet efforts to quantify the tribes’ rights are much farther along than are efforts to quantify how much water the river needs to maintain its ecologic attributes in the face of the growing supply and demand imbalance. Add to that imbalance climate change and its potential impacts, which, as understood to date, could shrink the river’s flows by anywhere from 5 to 35 percent by the end of the century, and you have a significantly vulnerable system. “The Colorado River is being used—precariously—beyond available supply,” says Jennifer Pitt, director of the Colorado River Project at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’ve been able to fudge on this for a while because of the water we had in storage. But as climate change continues to manifest itself, impacts to the river itself will grow.” In a vulnerability analysis published in 2012, Reclamation estimated the risk that ecological flows in the river basin will be impaired, or

LAKE MEAD (above) was created by Hoover Dam in 1935 on the border of Arizona and Nevada and serves as the main storage bank of the lower basin. Over the past decade, Mead's water level has dropped an average of 12 feet every year, and as of October 2015, it was less than 40 percent full.


ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENSE FUND’S Jennifer Pitt (left) helped negotiate the agreement that led to the 2014 pulse flow to the delta and was there to welcome the first water as it arrived from Morelos Dam.

and system losses due to evaporation, treaty-required deliveries, and contracted water uses at Lake Mead and downstream. This imbalance between water delivered into Mead and water going out has resulted in the reservoir falling at a rate of 12 feet per year or more, even when there is a “normal” release upstream from Powell. The real shortages that Arizona could face as early as 2017 can be handled, Buschatzke says, by cutting water deliveries to farmers and halting the underground storage program Arizona has used for decades to protect itself against this moment in time. It has roughly 9 million acre-feet of water stored underground, much of it Colorado River water. If water use doesn’t start decreasing, however, the situation becomes dire quickly and water managers up and down the basin are well aware that if Lake Mead drops

below elevation 1,075 feet, the pain of the shortages will soon become everyone’s pain, starting first in the lower basin. “It is the responsibility of all lower basin states and water users, and the United States, to take action to close the structural deficit….immediate action is needed,” said the Central Arizona Project’s “State of the River” report late last year. Lake Mead reached 1,078 feet in midOctober, which marked the beginning of the 2016 water year, just three feet above the 1,075-foot mark that triggers the first set of reductions under the 2007 Interim Guidelines. With no relief in sight, water planners say there is little question that this is a defining moment on the river. Jocelyn Gibbon, a Phoenix-based water attorney and natural resources consultant who tracks Colorado River management issues, says she believes people will look back H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015

on this time period “and either be grateful we made the choices we did, or they will look back and say we let everything crash.” From his office in downtown Denver, some 100 miles from the Colorado River’s headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, Denver Water's Jim Lochhead is tracking the speed at which the river’s health and its wet water supplies are declining. Dillon Reservoir, Denver Water’s largest storage pool, has water rights so junior— dating back only to the 1950s—that it would be one of the first hit if the lower basin runs short of water and exercises its right to call for more. If that happens, 1.2 million people on Colorado’s Front Range could face water shortages, though how Colorado would administer curtailments under such circumstances is yet to be determined. Lochhead calls this a scenario that has a “low probability of happening and a high consequence if it does.” As a 30-year veteran of Colorado River management and a participant in most of the recent major negotiations that have occurred over its use, he says he doesn’t know if things could have been done differently to bring the river back into balance. But there is one point he is quite clear on: “I never thought I would live long enough to have to deal with it.” n TAKE THE NEXT STEP Read the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study and track next steps, including an emerging pilot program, here: www.usbr.gov/lc/region/programs/ crbstudy.html. 21

Bound by a River The quest to find solutions on the Colorado River may require that each state and nation, water user and conservation group stand together for the benefit of all. So, are we in this together?


n a hot summer evening in July 2015, Perry Cabot is driving on a country highway outside Montrose. He’s just finished another day of fieldwork and is heading back to his office in Grand Junction, on Colorado’s sparsely populated Western Slope. Cabot is an engineer and a scientist. Working for the Colorado Water Institute and Colorado State University Extension, his quest over the next several years is to enumerate a very important set of trends. If he succeeds, he will contribute critical information to the discussion among a growing cadre of people in the Colorado River Basin, including farmers, environmentalists, engineers, hydrologists, plant and fish experts, policy makers and politicians. All are helping lead the way into a 21st-century world where the river delivers its own budget and everyone, from the farmers outside Montrose to the city folk in Los Angeles, is able to live with what it has to offer. That means doing more with less, and Cabot is all about that. He and hundreds of experts across the nine states (two in Mexico) that make up the basin know that the days when the river could be overused are over. His challenge is to establish the numbers that show how much water can be conserved in any given farm field, while maintaining a positive economic yield for farmers. Though some changes to state water law would likely be required first, the conBY JERD SMITH


served water could in theory be transferred somewhere else in the river basin to help make up a system-wide shortfall expected to reach millions of acre-feet per year by 2060, while at the same time creating ecologic benefits in vulnerable river stretches and providing increased security against interstate compact-induced shortages. Farmers who succeed at maintaining healthy harvests with less water—through practices such as deficit irrigation or partialseason irrigation—could eventually be paid handsomely for their efforts by water utilities and others who hold more junior water rights and face greater risk in times of shortage. But first the science and engineering must be done. “It’s a careful balancing act,” Cabot says. Studies such as those Cabot is conducting are among an array of efforts across the basin to find new tools for managing a river in perpetual overdraft. While states have shown an increasingly cooperative stance, questions remain about their commitments to sharing the numerous risks and uncertainties that exist. “It’s getting harder,” says Jennifer Gimbel, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for water and science. “Mother Nature gave us a break this year, but we still have the effects of a long-term drought to deal with. We have to step back and see if there are other ways to deal with the risks.” In the past, water crises prompted policy makers and politicians to look to the courts to examine and enforce the set of legal agreements that constitute the “Law of the

River,” including the rules of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, in order to resolve conflicts and solve problems. While some still believe the courts could help lead the river into the 21st century, those who manage its supplies every day have instead turned to negotiated agreements to address tough issues outside of court. There has always been conflict on the river—between the United States and Mexico, between the lower basin and upper basin states of the U.S., and also within basins— but there is growing agreement that the futures of each state and nation that shares the river are inextricably linked. Even as attempts are made to re-balance risk, along with who shoulders the brunt of it, many agree that engaging the courts would only introduce greater risk: the risk of a ruling even less desirable than the constructs of the current system. For one, court actions rarely involve consensus building and could threaten to unravel years of more diplomatic problem solving. Additionally, the process to challenge the laws at the U.S. Supreme Court would take years and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars that could be better spent elsewhere, says Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Glenwood Springs, Colorado-based Colorado River Water Conservation District. “I don’t see amending the compact or suing under the compact as being possible. And I really don’t see what it would accomplish. The issue is that there is less water and courts can’t make water.” Despite these ongoing tensions, users of the river—driven by the unyielding nature


of the drought and the specter of climate change—are learning new ways of operating storage and diversion systems and altering use patterns to, in essence, create more water via collaboration.

A Re-Calibration of Risk Sharing



very major user on the river understands who faces the most risk right now. Because of agreements forged in the late 1960s when Arizona campaigned to build its Central Arizona Project, which delivers more than half of its Colorado River apportionment, it has a subordinated water right. Under the Law of the River, Central Arizona Project water users could practically go dry before California’s share of lower basin water would be affected. Though Nevada also is at high risk, it takes a much smaller amount of water out of the river—just 300,000 acre-feet or 4 percent of the lower basin’s annual share. To reduce its risk, Las Vegas, the primary user of Nevada’s Colorado River water, has moved the fastest, by some accounts, to drastically reduce water use and to build $1.5 billion worth of new diversion structures at Lake Mead that will allow it to pump water out

even if the lake drops below the 1,000-foot elevation critical for its existing intake pipes. Even if Lake Mead falls again next year to 1,075 feet above sea level, where Nevada would have to give up 20,000 acre-feet of water under the 2007 Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, Las Vegas could absorb the hit, says John Entsminger, manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. As Las Vegas’ water provider, the authority says its customers only used about 225,000 acre-feet this year, 30 percent less than a decade ago. “Our community is positioned to absorb these reductions without having to take any drastic measures such as water rationing,” Entsminger says. In the upper basin, risk seems farther away, but just as potent, as it affects decisions currently being made about the way states will provide water for growing communities and industries. The four upper basin states currently use roughly 60 percent of their 7.5 million acre-foot annual Colorado River Compact-allotted share, which would seemingly leave them plenty of room to grow. But as the Colorado River’s flows trend downward, they risk being unable to H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015

PERRY CABOT MEASURES the effect of reduced irrigation on farm fields on Colorado’s Western Slope. The 2015 irrigation season was the first under Cabot’s three-year research grant, the findings of which could guide the establishment of water banks.

meet the terms of the compact, which in the absence of cooperative agreements obligates them to ensure the lower basin receives its full allotment by releasing water from their upstream reservoirs—and, if it came to it, foregoing their own uses. For everyone, the hunt is on, not just for new technologies and money to pay for conservation, but for ways to ensure that risks are shared and that no one state or city faces draconian water rationing or even a shutoff. “We can’t have anybody taking all of the risk,” says Gimbel. “Risk sharing and cooperation is the only way to get through these challenges. California could sit back and say, ‘we’re the senior water right on the river and therefore we don’t have to take any losses.’ And while they—and everyone—could simply rest on their legal rights, that’s not the approach we’ve used to tackle problems on the Colorado.” Among the major consensus-based 23

agreements that have been crafted are the Interim Guidelines of 2007. These dictated that Lake Powell and Lake Mead, until then managed for the most part independently of one another for the benefit of the upper and lower basin states respectively, would be managed jointly. The 2007 guidelines also established an “Intentionally Created Surplus” program, where lower basin states could shore up credits in Lake Mead of up to 2.1 million acre-feet of water through implementing practices such as lining canals, fallowing and desalination. This was also one of the first times Arizona and Nevada agreed to share shortages. Then, in 2012 the United States and Mexico reached a five-year agreement known as Minute 319. Here, Mexico agreed to take a reduction in its water deliveries at the same critical Lake Mead elevations that would trigger Arizona and Nevada to cut back. In exchange, Mexico gained the right to store water in U.S. facilities, as well as the right to share in any surpluses, plus money toward conservation programs. As a result of the agreement, Mexico and a coalition of major conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund, among others, gained the ability to arrange for a pulse flow for the Colorado River delta at the Gulf of California, which has not received consistent flows since the 1960s. Despite some wet years in the 1980s, the delta has remained one of the most at-risk ecosystems on the river. Both Mexico and the United States provided water for the flow, and the NGOs, including the Mexican conservation group Pronatura Noroeste, contributed one-third of the water. Out of international necessity, the federal government has been the lead negotiator in

most of the critical talks with Mexico. It is also helping guide the next round of talks that river users hope will lead to an extension of Minute 319, or another successor agreement, to continue the critical work of sharing shortages while ensuring badly needed environmental water supplies. Minute 319 is currently set to expire in 2017. How much more the federal government can or is willing to do to help modernize river management isn’t clear. And states differ in their views of what the federal government should be doing. But few question that it was then-U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s public threat to intervene that helped drive the creation of the Interim Guidelines in 2007. And the federal government in the past five years has proven willing to add cash to the pot to help move important conservation programs forward. The $3 million it has pledged to a multi-jurisdictional agreement to pilot test marketbased conservation programs in the basin was the largest contribution among the participants, which include some of the most powerful entities on the river. Together, the five parties to the agreement—the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Central Arizona Project, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Denver Water and the U.S Bureau of Reclamation—agreed to ante up $11 million to evaluate ways to stabilize the system so that no one will have to be involuntarily rationed. Though most believe it will take much more than $11 million to fix the overdraft on the Colorado River—for perspective, the Australian government has authorized several billion dollars to implement water-saving programs in the Murray-Darling Basin, a river that shares many similarities with the Colorado—the investment toward reducing

Historical Use and Projected Water Supply for the Colorado River 25 MILLION ACRE-FEET (Based on 10-Year Running Average)









0 ’19














’58 ’63

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study


consumption is considered an important step that could lead to a scaled-up approach.

Risk Reduction via Conservation and Water “Banking”


t’s no wonder city utilities are paying in to such a program. In Arizona, Nevada, California and Colorado, cities have some of the most junior water rights. As a result, under the current system of laws crafted decades ago, they are most at risk of losing access to water in a depleted system. At the same time, cities have the most money and political clout of any entity on the river, meaning that, ultimately, a political fix to ensure they get the water they need would likely be found should such shortages occur. In that respect, some experts contend, urbanites have less to worry about than any of the river’s other users. “It is the river itself—its ecosystems and its critters—that are most at risk,” says Kuhn. “They have the least political power. Next are the farmers. They have the most senior rights, but less political power and money. And the least at risk in the long term are the municipalities, because they have [politically powerful] voters and the money.” But that doesn’t mean the cities aren’t concerned. Denver Water’s largest storage vessel, Dillon Reservoir, sits in the middle of resort country in Colorado’s mountains. It has water rights that date back only to the 1950s. These rights are so junior that the utility could have to forego use of nearly all of its Colorado River supplies if necessary to ensure the lower basin states receive their legally allotted supplies during a systemwide water shortage. Similarly, Phoenix, Las Vegas and the water supply entities constituting the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California could face cut-offs. Though these powerful entities don’t agree on everything, they have signed on to several collaborative conservation efforts that show early promise in reducing agricultural consumptive water use. They see this as a way to secure additional municipal water while balancing demand with the river’s available flows. In Arizona, for instance, the Central Arizona Project is looking to pay farmers to forego use of some Colorado River water and use the cash to install new superefficient irrigation systems. To help farmers cope in the interim, however, they’re tapping water that for years has been stored


COLORADO RIVER FLOWS through the Grand Canyon (left), which ferry more than 25,000 boaters each year, are dictated by releases from Glen Canyon Dam. Those releases are managed under the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program, established in 1997.


underground from past Colorado River diversions. And California over the past two decades has facilitated large-scale cooperative agreements between agricultural and municipal users in order to shave water use by nearly 20 percent and stay within its apportionment. States are also contemplating increased establishment of water markets. The concept allows people to sell or lease water rights freely in a market where price is dictated by demand and the infrastructure exists to move the water easily. In the past, these have proven unpopular in the Colorado River Basin due to political constraints. In the upper basin, for instance, water managers have historically feared that if they agree to sell their water once, it could harm their future right to the water. Advocates say water markets could help create more realistic pricing that reflects how much water actually costs, and will help distribute it to those who need it most—or are most willing to pay. Such markets would be more likely to operate on an intrastate level. However, interstate markets are already operating in the lower basin, with a large deal inked in September 2015 between the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern Cali-

floo-uhnt water fact

fornia, which lost roughly half of its water supplies this year when the Sierra Nevada mountains saw almost no snow. Under the deal, the California district will pay $44.4 million to SNWA for the Las Vegas’ water provider to release 150,000 acrefeet of water it has stored in Lake Mead. That amounts to half of Nevada’s annual Colorado River share, but just 10 percent of the supplies the state has stored away, including through the Intentionally Created Surplus program in Mead. Under the agreement, SNWA maintains the option to pay California back and reclaim that water down the road, if needed. A mechanism sometimes used to facilitate water marketing within a region is called a water bank. These structures can be physical, administrative or legal—or all three—but in concept they allow water to be saved by a water user in a stream system and then used for another purpose. To work well, water banks must be located in regions where water can be transferred between participants. The water’s physical movement must be easily tracked. Ideally, they would be established on streams that need higher environmental flows—conservation groups assert this is key to optimizing such efforts—but also where reservoirs exist that can hold “banked” water until it

By returning treated wastewater from Las Vegas to Lake Mead, Nevada was able to divert an extra 133,500 acre-feet of Colorado River water in 2013, while keeping its consumptive use 25 percent below its apportionment. Source: "The Bathtub Ring," University of Calfornia 2015 H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015

is needed. And like financial institutions, water banks would need to generate some kind of revenue to cover the cost of operations and accounting. Successful water banking programs will also rely on new science and new farming methods to make water available, and then to transfer and store it in ways that adhere to the states’ and river’s existing laws. In Colorado, The Nature Conservancy and four water agencies that have sometimes battled one another have contributed $300,000 to fund Cabot’s work for two years. It’s only a start. He needs three to five years of crop data to ensure the numbers he is deriving are reliable. This year, while increased spring precipitation in parts of the upper basin gave a positive boost to inflows at Lake Powell, it was a difficult year to test the impacts of reduced irrigation, says Cabot. “Typically, I would compare a field irrigated with the full amount of water used historically next to a field that we’ve applied less water to. This year, there was a lot of water in the early summer, so the differences are somewhat muted.” After several more growing seasons, Cabot and his partners hope to show how much water the upper basin states can save and store in their reservoirs, such as Flaming Gorge in Wyoming and Utah or Blue Mesa in Colorado, to operate as an insurance plan for Lake Powell—a primary aim of their work. That stored water could be moved down to Powell when it looks as if the reservoir’s levels are going to drop precariously low, compromising its ability to time releases to the lower basin, generate power, and support environmental and recreational needs in the Grand Canyon below. If such efforts were unable to forestall a compact shortage, the bank would then serve as a sort of augmentation plan where users with pre-compact water rights would be paid to interrupt their use while those with junior water rights—mostly municipal and industrial users—would pay the bank to continue diverting. Similarly, in the lower basin, water that is saved via new conservation initiatives among crop growers and others can be left in Lake Mead to forestall a shortage 25

Testing the Water for Market-Induced Savings


olorado River water users, faced with a growing water supply imbalance, have launched an $11 million, multistate, multi-jurisdictional pilot project to experiment with irrigation projects, aggressive conservation efforts and temporary water transfers that stretch available water. Since 2000, year after year, with some exceptions, levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead have dropped. These massive storage ponds, once able to hold four years worth of water for 40 million people, are now less than half full, and the downward trend shows no signs of easing. The specter of disaster is real enough and close enough that four powerful water users and the federal government were able to reach an agreement in record time in mid-2014. Their innovative effort, called the Colorado River System Conservation Program, seeks to develop voluntary, marketbased measures based on modeling developed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. "The modeling shows it can be done," says Jim Lochhead, general manager of Denver Water, the largest utility in Colorado and a funder of the program. The working group, which includes Denver Water, the Upper Colorado River Commission, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is evaluating options to dramatically reduce water use. They need to persuade farmers, city utilities and large industrial users to voluntarily cut back in exchange for cash. The saved water would be used to help refill Powell and Mead. But much of the work lies in developing precise and credible ways to measure how much water can be freed up through projects like deficit irrigation, and how conserved

determination and bank surpluses for drier years ahead.

The Colorado, Re-Imagined


omewhere in the system, users must find a way to reduce use by at least 600,000 to 1.2 million acre-feet— and soon. That level of savings is doable, according the Bureau of Reclamation, but would only be a start. It would help offset the structural deficit in the lower basin, but still wouldn’t provide more water for environmental restoration or to act as a cushion for growth in the upper basin or against further climate change. Reclamation’s 2015 “Moving Forward” report, a follow-up to the agency’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, stated that utilities basin-wide are planning 1.1 million acre-feet per year of water conservation and reuse by 2030. At the same time, they’ll face increased de-


water can be moved through the system without being inadvertently diverted by other users. In some cases, legislatures will have to amend existing laws or write new laws to allow water to be managed differently. Despite the challenges, each party has agreed to contribute cash to pay the growers, for instance, who conserve or give up their water so that it remains in the system. Non-federal entities will contribute up to $2 million each, while the Bureau of Reclamation will contribute $3 million. Pilot programs in the lower basin are managed by Reclamation, while the pilot programs in the upper basin are managed by the Upper Colorado River Commission. Applications for individual projects have been approved based on cost-effectiveness per acre-foot of water saved, ease of verification, and geographic diversity. Each state and agency will continue to select the conservation measures most appropriate for its region and water users. At least $2.75 million of the funding will be used for pilot projects in the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The first effort, in Colorado’s Yampa River Basin, began in July 2015. It entails splitting the hay irrigation season so that two hay cuttings instead of three are harvested. The experiment, on the historic Carpenter Ranch, means growers will get paid for the loss of crops and the water will be kept in the system. Lochhead and others believe this innovative approach will be an important proving ground for even more aggressive efforts to keep water in the river and its reservoirs. "It's not agriculture. It's not urban. It's not environmental. It's all the sectors in the basin working together.”

mands from growing populations. Agricultural conservation efforts, already estimated to have “saved” 1 million acrefeet over recent decades, are trickier both to calculate and to sustain. Not only are producers wary of losing productive acreage and seeing rural economies decline, but past conservation efforts haven’t necessarily translated into more water in the system; rather, they’ve translated to increased yields using the same amount of water. And this is why Cabot’s work to evaluate the potential of deficit and partial-season irrigation is critical, because the goal is to reduce actual consumptive use on farms and ranches across the Southwest without harming producers and rural communities. That will require ensuring mutual benefits— and sufficient payouts—to justly compensate farmers for their efforts. Given the diversity of the basin’s states and their varying geographies, economies and laws, each will need to choose those


methods that prove most effective, as well as economically and politically feasible. Those concerned about the river’s own health say the states must continue to adopt modern management methods and regulations to protect flows and to better reflect the 21st-century values, such as river recreation and healthy ecosystems, that the people of the basin embrace. From his perspective in the lower basin, Southern Nevada’s Entsminger believes a more collaborative era is emerging and gaining traction. “The Colorado River has continually redefined itself. This is not a new dialogue, but rather one that has evolved— and continues to progress—over time.” n TAKE THE NEXT STEP Keep apprised of agricultural conservation advances and programs by connecting with the Colorado River Basin Agricultural Water Conservation Clearinghouse: crbawcc.colostate.edu.


TO SERVE AND EXTEND Through administrative wrangling, risk assessment and contingency planning, Colorado is working to avoid the day—or brace for its arrival—when Colorado River water comes up short.



H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015



ast winter, Colorado was in the news for uttering fighting words. Headlines like “Concerns over Colorado decision to keep all its river water” ran along the TV screen. At the time, an Associated Press story used a quote from Colorado Water Conservation Board director James Eklund making it sound like Colorado was flexing its muscle to prevent Colorado River water from flowing down to drought-stricken California. That aggressive, Coloradocentric stance was never Eklund’s intention. The Southwest is tightly bound together by the vital blue cord of the Colorado River, which links the seven states and Mexico. “We’re joined at the hip,” Eklund says. In addition to his position with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Eklund serves as Colorado’s commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission. The commission, created by the 1948 Upper Colorado River Compact, consists of five commissioners, one from each of the four Upper Colorado River Division states and one appointed by the federal government. It coordinates among the Upper Division states and works with the Lower Division on concerns that involve all river users, including ways to cope with drought and low reservoir levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. “This is kind of one of those ‘we all hang together or we all hang separately’ deals,” says Eklund. For most states in the Colorado River Basin, the river is so essential that to “hang separately” is not an option. “If we’re not cooperating, the negative effects could just propagate like waves and we’d all be in a difficult position,” says Eric Millis, Utah’s Upper Colorado River commissioner and director of Utah’s Division of Water Resources. In Utah, about 20 percent of the state’s water comes from the Colorado River, while Coloradans are even more dependent: According to the Colorado Division of Water Resources, two-thirds of all water diverted in Colorado is pulled from the Colorado River and its many tributaries, which flow

PRECEDING PAGE: A lone fish swims through the turbid waters of the Grand Canyon. The native humpback chub is an endangered species targeted for recovery efforts here, guided by an adaptive management program and overseen by the USGS Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center.


west from the Continental Divide that cuts through the middle of the state. The Colorado is crucial even on the state’s Eastern Slope, where transbasin diversions transport more than a half million acre-feet of Colorado River water every year across the Continental Divide to supplement native flows on the South Platte and Arkansas rivers, supporting both urban and agricultural users. As Colorado leans vulnerably on the Colorado River, some hold out hope that the river might still provide an increment of additional water for future thirsty citizens and crops. If additional water were developed, that would shift the stakes even higher. Faced with downstream pressures and the threat of system-wide shortage, Colorado’s interest in protecting its share of Colorado River water is peaking. The Upper Division’s Water s overdevelopment, climate change and drought threaten the future of the Colorado River, the Upper Division states risk being unable to meet their flow requirements at Lee Ferry, in which case the Lower Division could “call” for its missing water or pin a compact violation on the Upper Division. Although a compact curtailment isn’t an urgent threat, says Don Ostler, executive director for the Upper Colorado River Commission, avoiding one allows the upper basin states, including Colorado, to continue using water as they have, maintaining a greater degree of control over their share of the river. If flows at Lee Ferry approach levels that would violate the compact, the Upper Colorado River Commission would manage the process, where each state within the Upper Division would likely have to curtail some or all of the water developed after the compact was signed. But, if Colorado or any other Upper Division state had used more than its apportionment during the 10-year period leading up to the violation, the 1948 Compact requires that state to “repay” water before other states in the Upper Division would have to make cuts. When the upper basin states negotiated the 1948 Upper Colorado River Compact to split the upper basin’s Colorado River Compact apportionment among themselves, Colorado, as the state that produces the

largest portion of the river’s flow, received the largest chunk: 51.75 percent of the water available to the Upper Division, or as stated by the compact, 51.75 percent of “the consumptive use per annum.” Utah got 23 percent, Wyoming 14 percent, and New Mexico 11.25 percent. This is each state’s cut after the upper portion of Arizona receives an annual allotment of 50,000 acre-feet. Since then, the upper basin states have stayed within their apportionments, or have at least come close. According to the Bureau of Reclamation’s provisional data for 2011 and 2012, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming all used less water than their allocated percentages. But has Colorado been overusing its share of upper basin water? “That depends on who you talk to,” Ostler says. The same Reclamation data show that during those lower-flow years, Colorado was responsible for nearly 57 percent of the upper basin’s consumptive uses and losses from reservoir evaporation—potentially about 5 percent more than Colorado’s allocated share of the Upper Division’s water. But if the river’s flow is as high as was expected by the framers of the Colorado River Compact in 1922, Colorado is entitled to use 51.75 percent of the upper basin’s minimum apportionment of 7.5 million acre-feet annually (after Arizona gets its 50,000 acre-feet)—that’s 3.8 million acrefeet of water, and Colorado has only been using 2.5 to 2.8 million acre-feet per year. Still, we rarely observe such high flows and meanwhile must continue to meet requirements to the lower basin. While some continue to interpret the 1922 and 1948 compacts to say Colorado can legally use 51.75 percent of 7.5 million acre-feet, others believe Colorado can use 51.75 percent of 6.2 million acre-feet— that’s the number Utah uses for planning— developed by Reclamation’s hydrologic determination in 2007. Some see Colorado’s apportionment as 51.75 percent of the river’s total flow after the lower basin’s flow requirements are met. Still others believe it’s 51.75 percent of the upper basin’s actual consumptive use. “When people are saying Colorado is using over their compact apportionment, they’re making assumptions of what the available amount of water for use in the upper basin is,” Ostler says. “You may hear various views as to how much



WESTWARD BOUND, the Colorado River gathers the Blue River (right) near Kremmling, Colorado, before winding another 1,415 miles through six downstream states and Mexico. Nearly a dozen nearby reservoirs, collectively referred to as the Great Lakes, store water mostly for irrigating hay meadows. Many have rights established prior to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, making them highly coveted by those who would risk curtailment in times of shortage.

water is being used. The [Upper Colorado River] Commission has not made any determination that Colorado is in overuse of their compact apportionment.” All interpretations are equally valid, for now. Ultimately, if there was ever a violation of the compact and litigation between states ensued, the U.S. Supreme Court would decide if the current flow obligation outlined in the compact needs to be revised to re-balance the risk that each basin shoulders. And if a water shortage materializes, is the upper basin actually dividing up 7.5 million acre-feet or a lesser amount based on availability? “The question is ‘who bears the brunt of climate change?’” Eklund says. If streamflows continued to drop and the upper basin maintained compact compliance by meeting the non-depletion requirement at Lee Ferry, the Upper Division states would have access to significantly reduced supplies. If that non-depletion requirement wasn’t addressed, the Lower Division states could face the disadvantage, at least until the Supreme Court or the states decided if the impact of climate change should be shared. “The court would need to evaluate whether the equality we were trying to achieve in

the 1922 compact is arguably undermined if the lower basin gets to keep its full allocation and we [Colorado] get 51.75 percent of only some very small fraction of the river,” Eklund says. Ultimately, when viewing its apportionment, Colorado shares the commitment of other states to finding collaborative solutions outside of the courtroom, especially considering the risk of having narrower limitations imposed in response to a litigated compact violation. Still, for Colorado to stay within its share—a percentage volume that’s based on a moving target—is a tricky proposition. Without knowing with certainty what the Upper Division’s total water consumption will be for the year, or the next 10 years, and without being legally compelled, Colorado isn’t yet taking any measures to make sure it’s sending the right quantity downstream, whatever that quantity may be; it tracks water diversions and consumptive uses for in-state administrative purposes and to assess how much water might still be available to develop. But if the time comes when the Lower Division isn’t receiving its flows, Colorado could have to repay any overages, and it’s hard to H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015

say how that would go. There aren’t rules yet that detail how water would be administered during a call on the Colorado River, nor rules to stave off such a call. That’s a sharp contrast to nearly every other river in Colorado, where, due to over-appropriation, compacts are already an integral factor guiding water administration, at least seasonally. Preparing for the Worst Case


ulemaking in the context of Colorado’s extensive prior appropriation system would be one way of readying to protect Colorado’s share of Colorado River water in the event of shortage—but this administrative step hasn’t been prioritized because curtailment has not yet been an imminent threat. In the absence of such rules, and without knowing how much water will be available in the future, Colorado is playing a risky game when it makes new water management and development decisions, says Kevin McBride, a member of Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee and general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. “It’s like we’re going to Las Vegas and we all have to play this one 29

hand, and we don’t even really know what the rules are.” It’s also complicated, explains Colorado State Engineer Dick Wolfe, who would be responsible for making the rules, because Colorado has so many tributaries—like the Animas, the Dolores, the La Plata, the White, and the Green—that leave the state before reaching the Colorado River’s mainstem. For intrastate purposes, those tributaries have always been administered separately, but when you start administering rights on the Animas River in relation to rights on the Green, for example, you’re exploring new territory. Besides, that’s just one way to look at it. New rules for a compact call on the Colorado could be entirely different than administering water by applying the existing prior appropriation system across the basins. It may also be possible for the State Engineer’s rulemaking to prioritize critical water uses— for example, municipal use might take priority over agricultural diversions or environmental flows—or to consider a completely different framework with legislative approval. Such a decision would be a departure from strict prior appropriation, applying the “domestic clause” in the Colorado Constitution, which says that in times of shortage, domestic water use has preference over all other uses, and agricultural water use has preference over manufacturing. McBride suggests that each of Colorado’s Colorado River tributary basins should send a certain negotiated amount of water downstream to meet compact obligations before prior appropriation is administered across basins. From where McBride sits in the state’s relatively sparsely populated northwestern corner, it’s worrisome that the region’s future development and water use might be precluded by larger and more rapidly growing parts of the state. He invokes the 1922 compact’s spirit of equity: Favoring the state’s faster-growing basins is just what the compact attempted to avoid, but on a larger scale. Any rules that might be established are still years out. First, the state is completing a couple of studies to inform its decision making. The first phase of the Colorado River Water Availability Study was completed for the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2012—it generated a lot of useful data but didn’t prescribe solutions. The study’s second phase is now underway, looking at possible scenarios and discussing solutions to support development and implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan, says Ted 30

Kowalski, chief of the CWCB’s interstate and federal section. The CWCB is also working on a Colorado River Compact Compliance Study with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and the Colorado Division of Water Resources to identify issues associated with administering water rights in the Colorado Basin under the terms of the compact—perhaps laying the groundwork for the State Engineer’s rulemaking by evaluating possible approaches to intrastate administration of water rights in the event of Colorado River curtailment. Kowalski expects the compliance study to wrap up in another year or two. Rulemaking in the wake of the studies’ completion, which would have to undergo a public comment process, could take at least another five years. The Risk of Developing More


n the midst of these plans for shortage and compact violations, Colorado’s population continues to skyrocket, and some argue that there is water left to develop in the Colorado River that could help quench a growing thirst. It’s not clear how much water might be available. Colorado River Water Availability Study estimates range from zero to around 800,000 acrefeet depending on the hydrological, climatic and legal future, though the higher estimates assume a return to abnormally wet conditions on the Colorado, says Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, a regional water agency dedicated to optimizing Colorado’s share of the Colorado River through both protection mechanisms and carefully managed development. To take advantage of what water remains, many advocate for new reservoirs to capture and store streamflows locally, both for delivery to residents and to restore flows in dry rivers late in the season. Others suggest diverting captured flows through another transbasin diversion across the Continental Divide to Colorado’s urban corridor where most of the state’s growth will occur. Such a plan could be both risky and contentious. “With the amount [of water] we’re using today, the system is draining itself,” Kuhn says, pointing to reservoir levels that continue to fall lower. “What would happen if we were using more? It’s a little like a family budget. We’re spending too much to think it would be okay if we were to spend a lot more.” A new transbasin diversion, says Kuhn,

would also increase Colorado’s risk of violating the compact. “If we build more [transbasin diversions] and divert more, we’ll undermine the security of post-compact rights. It’s a community loss,” he says. Risky or not, the possibility is on the table, and water experts around the state have negotiated what they call a conceptual framework, which lays a path forward for difficult discussions such as evaluating what the state would do in the case of curtailment or determining which water, if any, could be developed. The framework, though incorporated in the new state water plan, isn’t legally binding, and the next step is to actually have those discussions. “Let’s have studies and buy-in from all corners of the state and have that conversation,” Kuhn says. Those conversations and planning aren’t limited to in-state interests—if Colorado develops more water from the Colorado River, it could affect all Upper Division and downstream states. “All of the states are interested in what each other is planning,” Millis says. “But we understand that each state has water yet to develop in the river system. We would support each other in developing [each state’s] own apportionments of the river.” While Colorado finalizes its state water plan, Utah, the second biggest user in the Upper Division, is making plans to build a pipeline, settle Native American water rights, and construct other projects to use what it estimates to be its remaining apportionment of around 369,000 acre-feet of water. The Lake Powell Pipeline should be complete and delivering water within the next 10 years, Millis says. Although the risk of an uncertain hydrologic future is very real in Utah, Millis says the state is confident that water will be available for the planned pipeline. Besides, all risks are weighed against each other. “One of the risks you consider is, what’s the risk of doing nothing?” Millis says. Looking at the lack of water supply in southwestern Utah’s St. George area, for instance, Utah would be limiting the region’s future economic and population growth if it didn’t develop the pipeline to deliver additional water.

floo-uhnt water fact

To ensure ongoing water use, Colorado has partnered to provide more than $23 million since 1989 toward the recovery of four native, endangered fish species in the Colorado River. Source: Colorado Parks and Wildlife


THE NATION’S SECOND-LARGEST RESERVOIR AFTER MEAD, Lake Powell can store up to 24.3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water for release to the lower basin. Powell reached capacity in 1980, after filling for 17 years, but in October 2015 was just 51 percent full.

System-Wide Connections



hile uncertainty and the possibility of new water development or a transbasin diversion brings with it risks of compact violation, the physical threat, more immediate than a compliance breach, is drought and low reservoir levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead—threats that reach beyond the protections of the Colorado River Compact. In many ways, Colorado’s ability to fully use its apportionment of the Colorado River depends on water availability throughout the entire basin. Eklund lists what he calls a “parade of horribles” that could manifest if water levels in the reservoirs fall too low: not enough water to release for power generation and consequent loss of power revenues that are needed to fund endangered fish recovery and salinity control programs, and, most critically, not enough water to reach major metropolitan areas that depend on it. For example, if there wasn’t enough water for Las Vegas or another downstream city to serve its residents, the Upper Division may be inclined or forced to send water downstream, if possible, to prevent a human safety crisis, potentially dipping into Colorado’s water. The Upper Colorado River Commission and the Bureau of Reclamation have been developing a contingency plan to avoid curtailment and reduce the chances of Powell dropping below critical levels. The lower

basin has only one option, which it’s working toward: to use less water out of Lake Mead. The upper basin has more tools in its toolbox. First, the commission is working to better account for upper basin water and to calculate a more accurate and timely estimate of consumptive uses in the upper basin. “If we need to react to compact conditions and low water conditions, we need quicker access to how much water is being used in the recent past,” Ostler says. He’s leading a study, which he hopes to complete in the next year, to identify the methods that upper basin states, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other experts are using to estimate and account for water use. Ultimately he wants to see each of the states and Reclamation using a consistent methodology. “If and when we have to use that information for a compact issue, the amount of use and procedures will not be a question,” Ostler says. The commission has also been working with all upper basin states on local projects like cloud seeding and invasive plant removal that have been shown to boost the system’s water supply, as well as studying the operation of the federal Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell, including Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo. Those reservoirs are primarily system-wide storage reservoirs, like smaller extensions of Lake Powell. When Powell is low, some of those reservoirs higher in the system could still be holding H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015

enough water to reduce the risk of compact issues. “If we got into a really catastrophic situation, we could send floods of water down from those reservoirs,” Eklund says, explaining that the commission has worked to be able to make small strategic releases without causing problems for the people or environment that depend on the system below them. Exactly how much water would be needed, and by when, is still being studied. “We’re moving on all fronts to make sure we’re as knowledgeable as we can be about the reservoirs and make sure we know what we can influence,” Eklund says. The next piece is managing and reducing the entire basin’s demand by encouraging the states to use less water. Demand management has been successfully practiced in all the basin states to increase crop yields or support growing urban populations using the same amount of water or even slightly less. However, much remains to be achieved when it comes to reducing actual consumption at a significant scale, as well as determining how water use reductions in the upper basin could “move the needle” by actually appearing in Lake Powell. “Should we face a drought like this or a worse drought in the future, it’s much better to be developing these kinds of tools when we’re not in the throes of crisis,” Kowalski says. “Which we’re doing and we’re proud we’re doing, so we’re ready should a crisis hit.” Gov. Jerry Brown of California took demand management into his own hands in spring 2015, ordering cities and towns across California to cut water use by 25 percent as part of a set of mandatory drought restrictions, the first in the state’s history. “It’s a different world,” Brown said. “We have to act differently.” And so they have, regularly exceeding the 25 percent goal for the first couple of months. There are no laws that lay out the rules for such an order in Colorado, but anything could happen. “If your [water] system that you depend on got 5 percent of average snowpack, all bets are off,” Eklund says. “California ended its [2015] water year at only 5 percent of average. If it can happen in California, I think we’re pretty damn naive if we think it can’t happen in Colorado.” n TAKE THE NEXT STEP Learn more about contingency planning in Colorado and other states to avoid water shortages by visiting the Colorado River District’s FAQ page at http://goo. gl/0bRYuL. 31

MYTHBUSTERS It flows, but does it hold water? BY NELSON HARVEY


o make conventional wisdom, take a grain of truth, lard it with a few misconceptions and throw in a preconceived notion or two. The result is the kind of simplistic belief that abounds in discussions of the Colorado River Basin, undergirding the idea that there is a silver-bullet solution for our water supply woes, that simply tearing up lawns, outlasting drought or building a pipeline will resolve our water problems. These notions, while easily bandied about at the dinner table, are hardly strong enough to inform a water policy, and close examination proves them false, or at least incomplete. With that in mind, we’ve set out to debunk six common myths about the Colorado River. Flowing through all of them is the most insidious myth of all: that the looming water shortages have any single cause, or any single solution.

We can shrug off the impacts to agriculture as municipalities work to acquire the water they need.


ore than 70 percent: That’s how much of the Colorado River agriculture requires every year, making the sector an easy target for cities seeking to slake the thirst of growing populations. Yet if the “buy and dry” of agricultural land intensifies in the face of drought and growth, could it jeopardize food security? According to a 2013 study by the Pacific Institute, a water policy nonprofit, about 15 percent of the nation’s food is grown with Colorado River water. Irrigated pasture, alfalfa and other feed for livestock occupy 60 percent of the basin’s agricultural acreage, while a smaller fraction—around 8 percent—is used to grow vegetables in places like California’s Imperial Valley and Coachella Valley and Yuma, Arizona. Those vegetables fill an important niche, ac-


counting for up to two-thirds of the produce on grocery store shelves every winter, according to the Imperial County Farm Bureau. If buy and dry continues in the basin, the crops likely to be hit first are lowervalue items like pasture and alfalfa, according to Michael Cohen, lead author of the Pacific Institute report. “Winter vegetables are revenue earners, and they provide the bulk of annual revenue for many farmers,” Cohen says, “so we are not likely to see declines in vegetable acreage right away.” Instead, farmers who grow lower-value crops like feed for cattle could be the first to sell out to urban water providers, prompting a drop in U.S. forage crop exports, a rise in meat and milk prices for U.S. consumers, and perhaps even the shakeup of local economies in regions

like Colorado’s Weld County as dairies and feedlots relocate to stay close to affordable feed sources. Yet paying more for milk may not be inevitable to balance water supply and demand in the basin. In fact, agriculture’s current water usage is so vast that some say modest declines— reducing use by 10 percent through steps like deficit irrigation, rotational fallowing and crop selection—could rebalance the basin’s water budget. “The food security discussion often is framed as either keeping the status quo in place or eliminating agriculture entirely and running out of local food,” says Doug Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But no one is really talking about drying up all of agriculture.”


Sufficient reduction in municipal use could solve the imbalances on the Colorado River.



he notion that simply drying up urban lawns and installing water efficient fixtures from Denver to Los Angeles could, on its own, alleviate the water supply gap on the Colorado River ignores a fundamental fact. The municipal and industrial sectors use only about 15 percent of the river’s water, so they lack the leverage to single-handedly rebalance the river’s water budget. “Most people agree that the gap can’t be fully filled by municipal conservation alone,” says Aaron Citron, a member of the Colorado River Project at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Agriculture will need to play a part.” Examining the size of the river’s projected water gap makes plain that addressing it will require aggressive conservation in every economic sphere. By 2060, according to a 2012 study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, demand will likely significantly outstrip supply: Modeling suggests that climate change could reduce the river’s average flow by as much as 9 percent from current levels (many models predict greater declines), even as growing urban centers drive water demand up, yielding a median long-term water supply deficit of 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060. Although cities won’t be able to close that yawning gap on their own, municipal conservation can free up significant water to support population growth. Denver Water customers collectively consume 5 percent less water now than in 1990, even though the utility’s customer base has grown by 30 percent. California’s largest water provider, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, saw its service area grow by 3.5 million people between 1990 and 2008, even as water use dropped by more than 4 percent. And Las Vegas has grown by about 25 percent since the year 2000, at the same time cutting water use by 33 percent.

We’ll be fine once things get back to normal and the drought ends.


n the 15 years since the current drought began, the flow of the Colorado River at Lee Ferry in northern Arizona has declined by a whopping 17 percent. If only precipitation levels returned to normal, the river’s flow would follow, right? Wrong, says Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University. In fact, precipitation in the Colorado River Basin between 2000 and 2010 was down just 4 percent from its historic average, according to the federally funded Southwest Regional Climate Assessment published in 2013. What’s driving the decline in runoff more strongly, Udall suspects, is a basin-wide rise in average temperature linked to climate change. In a 2014 analysis of 16 hydrological models published in the Bulletin of the American Metrological Society, Udall and other researchers established a strong relationship between precipitation and runoff: Cut rain and snow by 1 percent and runoff declines by 2 or 3 percent. Yet the link between temperature and runoff goes even further in explaining why climate change will prevent flows in the Colorado River from returning to “normal” anytime soon. H E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015

The 2014 study suggested that for every 1 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature, runoff declines by about 3.5 percent. That’s partly because plants grow faster and lose more water to evapotranspiration in warmer climes, sucking up more water as a result. If greenhouse gas emissions stay high, much more warming—as much as 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit compared to the 19712000 baseline—is expected by 2050, and the study suggests that could reduce runoff by more than 20 percent. Some warming is already “baked in” to our atmosphere by greenhouse gases emitted in the past and will occur even if we move entirely away from fossil fuels tomorrow. Add the effect of declining precipitation in the event of continued drought, and it’s easy to see that the flow of the Colorado River could drop by as much as a quarter by mid-century, even as population in the basin booms. The takeaway, says Udall, is that regardless of whether the drought persists, climate change has already transformed the flow of the Colorado River: “Heat drives the water cycle, and if you add extra heat, you should expect the water cycle to change.” 33

Missouri Basin or Mississippi Basin water

Columbia Basin, Alaskan or Arctic water

Iceburgs towed to California coast




per acre-foot per year

per acre-foot per year

per acre-foot per year


he 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River often demand more water than it can provide, so what’s to stop them from meeting their needs with water from another river basin, in the same way that cities like Denver and Los Angeles import water from the Colorado River itself? Setting aside philosophical arguments about whether basin residents should live within their hydrological means (and the fervent opposition of people in other basins whose water is targeted) the chief obstacle to options like piping in water from the Mississippi, Missouri or Columbia rivers— or even using tug boats to tow icebergs from the Arctic to southern California—is their astronomical cost. The Bureau of Reclamation’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study examined several water importation options and estimated their likely price tag at between $1,700 and $2,300 per acre-foot per year for water piped from the Missouri or Mississippi rivers, and between $2,700 and $3,400 per acre-foot for water imported from the Columbia River, Alaska or the Arctic via pipelines or tanker ships. Such options could take 15 to 30 years to implement, the study estimated, due to their complexity and dependence on contentious negotiations. Conserving water that’s already in the basin would cost less than half as much and could be deployed more quickly. Still, some, including the Colorado Water Conservation


Board and its pending final draft of Colorado’s Water Plan, question whether conservation alone can fill the water supply gap in Colorado and throughout the basin. John Kaufman, the general manager of the Centennial Water and Sanitation District that serves Colorado’s Highlands Ranch community south of Denver, is among these skeptics and a strong proponent of a pipeline that would bring water from the Missouri River near Leavenworth, Kansas, to Colorado’s Front Range, helping to replenish the declining Ogallala Aquifer along the way. Kaufman speaks on his own behalf when he advocates for the pipeline. As evidence of its potential, he cites a 2015 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that examined the feasibility of building an aqueduct from the Missouri River to western Kansas. The study found that between 900,000 and 3.2 million acre-feet could be moved westward at least 50 percent of the time without harming water users on the Missouri River. How much of that would wind up in Colorado is unclear, though Kaufman contends that a half million acrefeet per year would remain after Kansas’ thirst is quenched. He suggests that the aqueduct’s cost—estimated by the Army Corps to be more than $18 billion—could be shared among water users in Kansas, Colorado, and even states like California, Nevada and Arizona, since a reduction in eastern Colorado’s demand for Colorado River water could free up more for downstream states to use.



We can import solutions (in liquid form) from another river basin.

Groundwater will be our salvation.


magine an underground reservoir containing 13 billion gallons of water—even more than the capacity of Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam. As drought seized the Colorado River Basin between 2000 and 2013, that’s how much groundwater users pumped from aquifers to compensate for declines in surface water supplies, according to a 2014 study in the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters. The study used NASA satellites to measure changes in the Earth’s gravitational pull, which indicate variations in the amount of water present on Earth. They then attempted to isolate the fraction of water present as snow, surface water, soil moisture and groundwater, and then subtracted those first three from the total to determine groundwater loss. Some researchers, including Brad Udall at the Colorado Water Institute, question the precision of this approach, because uncertainty about the amount of water contained in snow or soil could throw off the groundwater loss calculation. Still, even Udall acknowledges that widespread over-pumping of groundwater has occurred during the recent drought. That over-pumping has been spurred by a poor understanding of groundwater reserves, lax regulation, and other factors, and it raises doubts about whether groundwater will be available to dampen the impact of future droughts. “I think the point that gets lost on many people is that we cannot rely on groundwater if this drought continues,” says Stephanie Castle, who led the team behind the 2014 study as a doctoral student at University of California, Irvine and is now a water resources specialist for the southern

California firm Fuscoe Engineering. As Castle points out, groundwater pumping helps mask the fact that demand for surface water in the Colorado River Basin already regularly exceeds supply. If groundwater levels decline sharply—as her study showed they already have—it will place additional pressure on already stretched surface water supplies. “In California we depend on groundwater for about 40 percent of our water supply in a normal year,” she says, “but during drought it’s more like 60 percent. What if we get into the next drought and that 60 percent isn’t there?” Due to a combination of factors, that scenario looks increasingly likely. For one, California didn’t regulate groundwater withdrawals on a statewide basis until 2014, and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed that year doesn’t require local jurisdictions to reach sustainH E A DWAT E R S | FA L L 2015

able groundwater pumping levels until the 2040s. For now, officials in many historically unregulated California groundwater basins lack either a clear understanding of how much water remains or the means to preserve it through regulation. The over-pumping that’s occurred in this regulatory vacuum has already caused wells to dry up in parts of California and Arizona, where groundwater is regulated as though it were separate from surface water. In parts of California’s agriculturally rich Central Valley, the ground has subsided by 30 feet as the water below disappears. Such subsidence can lead to permanent declines in the capacity of aquifers, as they compact and become incapable of holding the water they once did. “People are already running out [of groundwater] in some places,” says Castle, “and that’s really scary to me.” 35

t’s not that desalination is pie-in-the-sky technology. Of the thousands of plants now operating across the globe, most filter brackish groundwater but some treat seawater as well. Israel will soon get half of its water from desalination. California, too, is looking afresh at the technology as it battles its worst drought in 500 years. Sean Bothwell, an attorney for the California Coastkeeper Alliance who helped shape the statewide desalination plan released by California regulators in 2015, estimates that at least 15 to 17 desalination plants are now planned across the state, including one scheduled to open in San Diego in late 2015. Widespread desalination on the California coast is often envisioned as a way of reducing California’s demand for Colorado River water and perhaps even allowing the state to sell some of its water rights on the river to upstream users. Yet two factors—opposition from California utilities and the sheer size of southern California’s water demand—make that solution unlikely to materialize, according to Bothwell. “Southern California’s water demand is just too large to be offset by desalination, and agencies are not willing to pay for desalination to end Colorado River diversions,” he says. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the region’s largest water utility, in 2009 offered subsidies for the San Diego desalination plant, but it did so specifically on the condition that the plant's output not replace Metropolitan's imported water—and later rescinded the offer for other reasons. Theoretically, the plant could still allow other local providers to import less water. Even if it takes pressure off the overtaxed Colorado, desalination can come with a dark side. Open-ocean water intakes like the ones featured in the new San Diego plant kill fish


larvae and other marine life, while the salty brine left over from desalination can damage seafloor habitat if discharged without being diluted first. California’s desalination plan addresses these impacts by requiring less damaging intakes be installed in newer plants and recommending that brine be diluted with treated wastewater prior to release. What it doesn’t address is the fact that desalination, which forces water through membranes small enough to separate dissolved salt, requires vast amounts of energy. A 2013 Pacific Institute study found that generating a million gallons of desalinated water takes as much as 15,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity—nearly 1.5 times the annual use of the average American home—compared to the 8,300 kWh needed to generate that same volume of water through wastewater reuse. Energy is the largest single expense for desalination plant operators, leaving them vulnerable to rising power costs. And generating all that energy contributes to climate change, which has already led to declines in the flow of the Colorado River. The high infrastructure and energy costs of desalination also raise the possibility that plants built today may be too costly to operate in the future, if the drought lifts or cheaper water supplies—like those generated through conservation— become available. That’s what happened in Australia, where four of the six large desalination plants the country built starting in the mid-1990s now stand idle, rendered prohibitively expensive by an easing drought and strong nationwide efficiency measures. Customers are still paying the plants off through surcharges on their water bills, and while the facilities add redundancy to existing water sources, they’re not contributing a drop to the nation’s water supply. n




The coastal areas of the lower basin can tap the vast ocean and desalinate their way into supply, leaving enough water for the rest of us.

Come visit the Conservation Gardens at

Northern Water Gardens are open to public seven days a week. Tours are available by calling 800-369-7246. Northern Water 220 Water Ave. Berthoud, CO


Water: A Zero Sum Game



1750 Humboldt St., Suite 200 Denver, CO 80218

YOURWATERCOLORADO.ORG Publication of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s Headwaters magazine is made possible by the generous support of sponsors and advertisers. We would like to extend our appreciation and thanks to these sponsors for contributing financially to this issue.

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