Get Big Pivots

Expert suggests “Law of the River” discussions about realigning demand with supplies are doomed to fall short


by Allen Best

Before Jack Schmidt wrapped up his comments about the Colorado River in a recent webinar sponsored by the Sierra Club, he had David Brower rolling in his grave.

Brower, the leader of the Sierra Club in the 1950s and 1960s, had famously fought efforts to harness the Colorado River, drowning its fabulous canyons in the process.

The environmental community in the ‘50s and ‘60s had “simple, clear fights: stop dams, don’t drown spectacular canyons,” he said.

Brower and other environmentalists won the argument at Echo Park, in Dinosaur National Monument. They won the argument at Marble Canyon. Those who opposed Glen Canyon lost that battle.

“But it was a simple, clear fight,” said Schmidt.

The story has become far messier, the issues more complex. He cited the dilemma about fish.

When Lake Powell was full, water was withdrawn from the cold depths of the reservoir. Rafters at Lees Ferry, just downstream from Glen Canyon Dam and the waters of Powell, soon had ankles that tingled when rigging their boots. The water was cold.

Not now after 22 years of declining water levels in Powell. Water temperature at Lee Ferry reached 70 degrees Fahrenheit in September 2022.

Non-native fish in Powell now get swept through the dam where they swim to the Grand Canyon, threatening the native fish there.

Some environmental groups and the National Park Service have advocated that the best way to keep the water temperatures low and keep these fish out of the Grand Canyon is to preferentially keep Lake Powell higher, said Schmidt, a professor at Utah State University who directs the Center for Colorado River Studies. Others glory in seeing the canyons of the Colorado that few had ever seen.

Higher or lower water levels? Higher is better for downstream native fish. Lower levels allow the magnificence of long-submerged Glen Canyon to emerge.

Different questions, different equations have emerged. He suggested that looking beyond all the federal laws, the story of the Colorado River at this point can be simplified to a few basic questions: “What ecosystem conditions do we want? What values do we have?”

And he also asked his 26 listeners to ponder whether we — including the Sierra Club and other environmental groups — have been looking at the Colorado River in the most useful way.

“Let’s celebrate the fact that we are a nation of laws, but let’s go past that,” he said. Instead of viewing the river through the legal lenses that we have used for the last century, we should look at it in terms of sectors. Among those sectors, agriculture uses by far the most water, and most of that ag water has been devoted to growing forage for animals.

Anne Castle had spoken first in the webinar, and she laid out those laws, agreements, and other legal processes now underway. She also shared the now familiar numbers that help explain why the Colorado River has become a national story.

From 1906, when record-keeping began, until 1999, the Colorado River averaged flows of 15.2 million acre-feet. From 2002 to 2023, the river delivered 12.5 million acre-feet. And within that span, there were other years of yawn-inducting flows, including an average 10.6 million from 2018 to 2022.

“Climate change is the reason,” she said. “It’s hotter, it’s drier. And there are lesser flows.”

These numbers conflict dramatically with what was assumed in the Colorado River Compact of 1922: annual average flows of at least 17.5 million acre-feet.

“You can see we have a problem,” said Castle, a water attorney in Denver for 28 years before serving from 2009 to 2014 as assistant secretary for water and science in the U.S. Department of Interior. There she had responsibility for the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Geological Survey. She is now on the Upper Colorado River Commission and a founding member of the Water Policy Group.

This inequation of supply and demand has many twists. The Colorado River Compact allocated 7.5 million acre-feet to the lower basin states – Arizona, California and Nevada, or those principally below Lee Ferry. A similar amount was awarded the upper basin, with an acknowledgement that something would have to be delivered to Mexico. (It ended up being 1.5 million acre-feet).

The upper-basin delivers nearly all the water in the Colorado River, and Colorado delivers the lion’s share: about 55%.

Now, get into the metaphoric frame of mind. Castle instructed listeners to imagine a checking account. Even though the upper basin was using only 3.5 to 4.5 million acre-feet per year and leaving any excess to flow into Lake Powell, Powell continue to be drawn down to meet demands from the lower basin and from Mexico. The annual deficit during the 21st century varied between 0.6 million acre feet and 3.6 million acre-feet.

“You can only draw your checking account so far,” she said. “You have to live within the means of the river, and that’s what we’re trying to do now.”

Castle then outlined the sequence of responses since the river’s flows plunged to an average 9.5 million acre-feet during 2002-2004 – and the reservoir levels shrank accordingly.

The first response, if a very tepid one, came in 2007. That agreement acknowledged shortages but provided no real response to the imbalance between supply and demand. Another response came in 2019. That was best seen as a temporary fix-it that fell short of the muscular responses needed. By then, many had begun to understand that “drought” was a less useful way to understand what was happening than “aridification.” Yes, drought was at work. That might change. Reduced flows caused by the human-induced warming temperatures — roughly 50% by one study released in 2017 — could not.

Even so, some warned that the 2019 agreement might not be enough should conditions intensify.

For several years, they did. By May 2022 a shelf in the wall of Glen Canyon created with railroad tracks emerged from the water. It had been submerged since shortly after completion of the dam in the 1960s.

Had 2023 been another bum snow year, the situation would have been dire indeed. Instead, 2023 was a bumper year for snow. Some in Colorado’s Yampa River Basin and its tributary, the Little Snake could remember nothing deeper. There was lots of snow. And, if not quite so much, a lot of runoff into Powell.

Which now leaves the reservoirs back to the levels they were in …. 2021.

Castle used the word “frantic” in describing the efforts to create solutions before the 2023 runoff created breathing room. With that small cushion, the Bureau of Reclamation, as manager for the two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell, issued a plan in March 2024 that was finalized on May 9. In this still-incomplete process, the federal agency adopted a proposal from the lower basin states as its preferred alternative for governing the river until 2026.

What happens then in 2026?

This is the work that some thought needed to be undertaken in 2017. Everybody with an interest has a proposal: the states, the 30 tribes that have 20% to 25% of water rights in the river (but have to a substantial extent not developed them), the major agriculture organizations, the major municipal providers, the environmental groups, and still others.

Castle described the ideas. The most important element of the proposal from the three lower-basin states, she said, is that if the reservoirs are at 23% to 38% full – where they are now and are likely to be under even the more optimistic scenarios – then reductions of 3.9 million acre-feet are to be shared between the upper and lower basins.

Not surprisingly, the upper basin sees the onus for reductions differently. Colorado along with Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico have no big, big reservoirs. They have no big checking accounts. They have smaller reservoirs, Blue Mesa being the largest in Colorado, with 800,000 acre-feet in storage. Powell has more than 25 million acre-feet and Mead more than 30. The upper basin states are limited by what nature delivers in any given year or sequence of years. They live hand to mouth.

The tribes, meanwhile, are very concerned about impacts to their water rights. Castle did note the recent signing of an MOU among the four upper-basin states and the six upper-basin tribes. She called it a “significant milestone in the inclusion of tribal voices.”

Tribes have never really had a seat at the table. They had no representatives in Santa Fe in 1922 when the river was carved up, nor in the 1948 Upper Colorado River Basin Compact. Amazing to many, they have not even had a formal position in river proceedings in the 21st century until the MOU that Castle referenced.

Schmidt called for bigger shift in how we view the Colorado River. “Ann emphasized the nature of all these different proposals,” he said. “The upper basin says we’ll be damned if we’re going to cut a drop because we use less than half of what you guys use downstream. But on the other hand, of the 40 million people who use water from the Colorado River, half are in southern California. When we talk about equity, there’s a lot of different ways to define equity. And one of those ways is by the agreements set a 100 years ago of 7.5 (million acre-feet) used by each basin. But obviously, given the population distribution and the economic importance of the lower basin, you could argue the principle of equity in many different ways. That’s something worth thinking about.”

Topping Schmidt’s values – what he considers most important — is restoring water to the delta of the Colorado River. Not the full amount, because that is clearly impossible, but enough to create a semblance of the ecosystem that disappeared gradually over the last century.

“Ironically, the largest city that sits on the banks of the Colorado Rivers is not in the United States. It’s in Mexico. And that city is San Luis Rio Colorado. The river at that point is bone dry. That tells you all you need to know about the Colorado River. It is fully tapped. Not one drop of water makes it to the sea in most years. So when we talk about a declining supply in a river where nothing gets to the ocean already, then we have a problem.”

Colorado River, San Luis Rio Colorado

Almost no water has flows through the Colorado River Delta since the late 1990s and only sporadically before that after the 1970s. February 2017 photo at San Luis Rio Colorado/Allen Best

Lost at the delta, he said, was the “most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America.”

Where does Schmidt propose to get this water? He didn’t go into details. He only painted with broad brushes what those who know much about the Colorado River Basin already understand: agriculture uses half the water in the basin (higher in some states). And this isn’t necessarily for growing cantaloupes and cabbage — although, of course, the Imperial Valley and Yuma areas provide the great majority of vegetables consumed in the United States and Canada during winter, by some estimates around 90%.

Even during those months, though, much is going to livestock.

“A vast majority of the water in agriculture is used for livestock feed, either in the production of beef, in particular, but also in dairies. This is not what is being negotiated. This is important, I think, for every citizen to understand. I’m going to overstate this, because I’m that kind of guy – we’re trapped in a hundred years of thinking about this in a legal construct and we celebrate that we are a nation of laws. But the flip side is we’re using all this water in agriculture for heaven’s sakes. We’re using all this, a large part of this water for livestock feed. We’re not using this primarily in the big cities. And someday the negotiation about the future of the Colorado River inevitably will have to shift to a discussion about using water by economic sectors, not by using water in an upper or lower basin.”

Schmidt suggested that the legal framework was not the central issue that environmental groups should be talking about.

“We’re not talking about the big issue,” he said. “The big issue is what economic sectors are using water. As Marc Reisner, the author of Cadillac Desert, said long ago, the American West doesn’t have a water supply crisis. The American West has a water allocation crisis, but this is an issue that people won’t touch.”

Writer’s note: I have gone to dozens of water conferences over the years, and this two-hour session was by far the most productive use of time I’ve invested in the Colorado. To see the full two-plus-hour session (and see the PowerPoints that the speakers used), go to this address and then plug in this password. 6.!BFDW* These slides are used courtesy of the speakers. Photos by Allen Best

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