Get Big Pivots

Net-zero buildings, a revised Colorado River Compact and other thoughts


by Allen Best

 So I’m off to Glen Canyon, to prowl in the innards of that concrete beast, which looks ever more like the hydraulic equivalent of a mastodon since the waters of Lake Powell keep dipping, dipping, dipping – now sitting at 3,527.7 feet above elevation.

Powell is a tad over 25% full.

My mission has to do with the loss of hydroelectric generation. I began thinking about this six or seven years ago, and now it seems we’re on the cusp, although as many have lately noted, the hydro generation has already dropped off significantly. Powell is 37 feet above that minimum power pool level.  The Bureau of Reclamation earlier in May announced it will release less water to the lower basin states from Powell, to keep water levels up. It’s getting harder and harder to make the hydraulic empire of the American Southwest work as designed.

Now comes what one Colorado River expert describes as a “huge” declaration. Bruce Babbitt, the governor of Arizona from 1978 to 1987 and secretary of Interior during the Clinton presidency, says it’s time for a more substantial rethinking of the Colorado River Compact, single most important agreement governing the Colorado River.

“While I once thought that these aridification scenarios were kind of abstract and way out in the future, I don’t think that anymore,” Babbitt said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Ian James.

“It’s absolutely urgent that we start thinking now, while there’s time, about how we adjust the compact, the regulations, the necessary reductions, in the most careful way so that we limit the damage, which can really be extreme.”

Climate change models had predicted a warming Southwest. The resulting aridification – as opposed to the more ephemeral drought – has been well documented in the 21st century. This winter provides yet another example of at least modestly good snows followed by a runoff substantially below average. As the dry winds blow and the temperatures warm, the moisture gets sucked up, instead of going downstream.

I mused about this after a Thanksgiving trip to Santa Fe that included a side trip to the Bishop’s Lodge, site of the 1922 crafting of the Colorado River Compact among the seven basin states. Their assumptions were badly misaligned with hydrologic reality, as became increasingly evident in the 20th century.

See: Visiting Bishop’s Lodge and the Colorado River Compact

Still, the conventional wisdom has been that the compact was difficult to achieve during a time of assumed plenty. Why would anybody want to open it up now? There was just too much risk, too much potential for inviting paralyzing acrimony.

Instead, in a new era of cooperative, water managers in the 21st century has created end-around agreements. The most recent iteration of end-around is the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. It is being followed by another such plan, to be ready by 2026, requiring harder decisions, more compromises, greater recognition of the water supplies that are little more than half of that were assumed 100 years ago.

More will be needed, said Babbitt.

“We can no longer just kind of muddle along. We really have to think big, because we’re going to have to create a new regulatory framework. And it doesn’t mean that we have to start over from scratch,” Babbitt told the LA Times.

“The Colorado River Compact has worked for 100 years. But there is now a future scenario in which the fixed delivery obligation — from the Upper Basin states at Lees Ferry to California, Arizona and Nevada — simply doesn’t work.”

In this, Babbitt alludes to a clause in the compact, Article III(d), which requires Colorado and other upper-basin states to not cause the river to flow less than 75 million acre-feet over the course of every 10 years. But what if the river is only producing 9 million acre-feet?

Does that mean Denver can’t divert water? Or the Colorado Big-Thompson? Even in Fort Morgan, people drink Colorado River water.

We’re in for a rude reckoning still in Colorado, regardless of how this shakes out on the Colorado River Compact. New landscaping I see in Arvada, where 72% of water comes from the Colorado River Basin, fails to recognize this future. Hurrah for the mayor of Aurora, Mike Coffman, who said it’s time to ban new turf golf courses – just as Las Vegas has decided.

But the language of the compact might be interpreted to say that the Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will absorb nearly all the reality of climate change. Babbitt is saying no, it shouldn’t be.

This interview reverses what Babbitt said in an op-ed published in the Arizona Republic in July 2021. “We have not reached that point,” he said of reconsidering the compact.

Babbitt may have been responding to a paper written by Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, and several others, including Jack Fleck, a New Mexico-based writer and co-author with Kuhn of a book called “Science be Dammed.”

See my March 2020 review here.

“Our basic argument is that climate change has undermined the basic purpose of the compact – an ‘equitable division’ of the use of the waters of the river between the two (upper and lower) basins,” Kuhn explained to me by e-mail.

“I’m surprised (and pleased) how quickly a revered figure like Governor/Secretary Babbitt has come to the conclusion as well. My optimistic view remains that we’re looking at a collective interpretation of the compact that if climate change, not Upper Basin depletions, is the reason that the upper basins can’t meet the 75 million acre-feet every 10 years, there is no compact violation. The chance of a formal amendment to the compact ratified by seven state legislatures and Congress is still very remote.”

I’ll be closely watching where this conversation goes. It would be a huge pivot for the Southwest.


Construction on this net-zero housing project in Pueblo has been moving very slowly, with this house under construction in late April being only the second. But now comes a plan for 5,000 units in Fort Collins. Pueblo photo April 2022/Allen Best

Beneficial electrification

Building decarbonization may be just as difficult a pivot. I have attended several meetings on this topic in the last two weeks as a hidden member in the Zoom audience. These included two meetings about Colorado’s clean-heat  planning. I’ll summarize it this way: It’s very, very complicated, the many and varied issues regarding the accounting as Colorado tries to cleanse methane from wells to homes and even from abandoned coal mines, such as one in Pitkin County.

Easier to follow was the PUC’s May 13 information meeting about beneficial electrification. In a way, this meeting looked at the same elephant from a different direction, most precisely that of buildings, most of which depend upon methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas.

The lineup of speakers was impressive. I had expected much from Bryan Hannegan from Holy Cross Energy. He exceeded my expectations, delivering a spellbinding 20-minute overview of efforts by one of the nation’s most inventive utilities to reinvent the energy used by buildings — and, oh, by the way, electricity altogether. I knew a lot already about Holy Cross, but was enrichened.

That same afternoon included a disclosure from Gene Meyers, who has been a noteworthy figure in Colorado in the decarbonization of buildings. He mentioned the involvement of his company, Thrive Home Builders, in a new project being planned for farm fields around the Budweiser plant north of Fort Collins.  It’s for 5,000 units.

Should we be impressed? The simple number impresses me. Thrive has a history of success. This is unlike a project on the northern outskirts of Pueblo that I have been monitoring for several years. North Vista Highlands has received considerable publicity for the no-natural-gas vow of a project developer, but the construction pace does not impress. Last year, it started getting streets. Streets had been paved when I visited in late April and one house was more or less finished and a wall was being erected at a second house. That was it on a spring morning.

Slo-mo by Colorado standards.

See also: Colorado on cusp of market transformation in buildings.

Montava, the 1,000-acre project in Fort Collins, looks to have energy. In his remarks to the PUC, Myers said the master developer plans a net-zero community of 5,000 units with construction starting this fall.

The Montava website lists Thrive Home Builders, Wonderland Homes, and McStain Neighborhoods as its “special home builders.”

Look for more on this and other aspects of this energy transition in buildings in coming issues of Big Pivots. I’m just skimming the surface here.

Also, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm will be at NREL’s Flatirons Campus on Wednesday morning (May 25) to announce a “major new initiative to fully decarbonizing DOE National Laboratories.”


Planning for climate extremes

Finally, I draw your attention to a PUC information meeting this Wednesday (May 25) from 1 to 4 called “Investigation into Climate Change & Extreme Weather Impact.”

This comes just after a late spring snowstorm that left more than 40,000 Xcel Energy customers without electricity. That had Cathy, my companion and first-order editor, and I talking about resilience in such events as well as the heat waves such as occurred last summer in the Pacific Northwest. How well would we survive heat of 116 degrees? In Portland. it literally basked people to death.

Even my house, with its R-56 insulation in the attic and full-house fan, would become uninhabitable in such heat, I surmised.

The PUC commissioners and staff this past year began probing weather extremes, asking for modeling about how Xcel Energy, for example, would be able to accommodate electrical demand if the temperature reached XXX degrees or even XXX degrees in the summer of 2030.

That’s why what Holy Cross Energy is doing is so interesting, beginning the layout of Tesla Powerwall batteries in homes (with a long waiting list of members wanting theirs, too). Home batteries will be part of our future very soon, helping deliver power in spring snowstorms or the oven-like temperatures of June and July.

To bring this full circle, we may not have hydropower from the Colorado River dams when this heat wave arrives as it did last summer in the Pacific Northwest.

I sound fatalistic, but the climate models have, if anything, been cautious and conservative.


Allen Best
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