The river is in deep doo-doo, and worse may very well come. So why such a sluggish reaction?
by Allen Best
On a day in late May when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. It was my first visit.
Turning off the paved highway, I drove about 10 miles around the toe of Sleeping Ute Mountain, past a few irrigation ditches, one carrying water, and a lot of fields and center-pivot sprinklers. I knew the runoff the San Juan Mountains, the source of water for the 7,700-acre farming operations by the Utes, was bad. I didn’t realize just how bad it was.
Unlike many tribal rights in the Colorado River Basin, the water rights of the two Ute tribes in Colorado were negotiated in 1986. The agreement resulted in delivery of water to Towaoc, where I ate at the casino restaurant twice on that trip. Before, potable water had to be trucked in.
Mike Preston, filling in for a Ute leader at the Colorado Water Center conference this week, remembers a time before that delivery of water. “There were stock tanks sitting in people’s yards, and a water truck would back up and fill those tanks, and people would go out with buckets to get their potable water.”
The Utes got other infrastructure, too, including water from the Dolores River stored in the new McPhee Reservoir that allows the Utes to create a profitable farm enterprise. But to get the use of McPhee water, the Utes conceded the seniority of their water rights. It worked well for a lot of years, but now in a warmer, drier climate, it leaves the Utes in a hard, dry place: They got 10% of their full allocation in 2021 and 40% this year.
They have been forced to adapt. Instead of planting alfalfa, they planted corn and other crops that use less water and can be fed to cattle. They culled cattle from their herd of 650. The tribe – as are others in Colorado – is exploring the viability of kernza, a new perennial grain created at The Land Institute in Kansas.
Still, some adaptation is impossible. The agricultural enterprise has laid off about half of its employees. And last year, despite securing all available government grants created to allow farmers to make it through hard times, the operation lost $2 million.
Listening to that story related by Preston in a video feed to the conference on the campus of Colorado State University, I wondered whether this was a metaphor for what faces the 40 million people who, in one way or another, depend upon water from the Colorado River.
During this same conference, “Living with the Colorado River Compact: Past, Present and Future,” I heard allusions to hospital emergency wards and over-drafted bank accounts. The latter came from Jim Lochhead, who had several decades of Colorado River experience before arriving at Denver Water as chief executive in 2010.
“No wonder Lakes Powell and Mead are in the condition that they are in today,” he said after accounting the over-drafting of the two big reservoirs, now down to 24% and 26% of storage respectively. “The bank account has been drawn down,” he said, “and we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit.”
By now, the 21st century story of the Colorado River has become familiar in its broadest outlines, part of the national narrative of despair. The pivoting reality came on hard in 2002, when the Colorado River carried just 4.5 million acre-feet of water.
To put that into perspective, as Eric Kuhn, co-author of “Science Be Dammed,” did at this conference, those who framed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 assumed 20.5 million acre-feet as they went about apportioning the river’s flows. In the 21st century, the river has averaged 13 million acre-feet.
Alarm has been sounded but…
Now, scientists are warning that river managers should plan for no more than 11 million acre-feet, a reflection of the new hotter, and in some places, drier climate. Some think that figure is overly optimistic.
The seven basin states – particularly the thirsty states of California and Arizona – have cinched their belts with various agreements. But they have not responded in ways proportionate to the risk they now face. There is a very real danger of the reservoirs dropping to just puddles of dead pool, too little to be released downstream. Imagine the Grand Canyon without water. Imagine no water below Hoover Dam. Do these images leave you dumbstruck?
A public official on the Western Slope recently confided to me that he and others had grown weary of what they called “drought, dust and dystopia” stories. That troubled me, leaving me to wonder how my own stories are being received.
At the conference this week on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, I heard something of the same self-doubt.
“With all due respect to my fellow panelists, I live in an area where some of the topics that are mentioned, we’re not uniformly and broadly received,” said Perry Cabot, the lead researcher at Colorado’s State University’s Western Colorado Research Center near Grand Junction. “I think as researchers, we tend to believe that just more educating is going to change the dynamics of the narrative.”
Other panelists agreed with Cabot’s observation that new narratives, not just information, would better convey the gravity of the situation.
“I think the scientific community has gotten its head handed to itself,” said Brad Udall, who has dome some of the pioneering research that shows that “aridification” – as much or more than drought itself – is driving the reduced flows. Drought ends, but aridification resulting from atmospheric greenhouse gases? Not any time soon.
That has gone against the grain of water managers. A decade ago, there was still skepticism about climate change, and water always has been variable. Surely, good winters would return in the mountains of
Colorado and other upper basin states that produce 90% of the river’s flows. Colorado alone is responsible for 60%.
After all, every batter goes through slumps, every best-selling author can tell of rejection slips.
By now, however, a clear trend has become evident. Even in good snow years, the runoff lags.
At the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for refilling the glass that is now far less than half-full in the coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.
Even so-so precipitation has been coming up as something worse. For example, the snowpack in the Gunnison River watershed last year was 87% of average, but the runoff was only 64%.
Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last year has been among the six warmest in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuizen, a water resources engineer for the River District. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to apportion demand to match supply. After all, there’s money in the bank, and for probably a year more, enough water in the reservoirs to generate electricity.
At water meetings, an element of collegiality has remained, at least until recently. Testiness has crept in, an element of what Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based River District, calls finger-pointing.
Colorado water officials, Mueller included, are doing some of that themselves.
They point out that Colorado and the other upper-basin states get nicked for 1.2 million acre-feet in evaporative losses in their delivery of water to Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas. California, Arizona, and Nevada do not. “It’s like running two sets of books,” said Mueller.
Mueller was negotiating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the day of the conference in Fort Collins. His stand-in, Dave Kanzer, explained that the Law of the River —the Colorado River Compact and other agreements – don’t necessarily apply anymore. It is “based on long-term stable water supply, and we no longer have that,” he said.
Renegotiate the compact?
The Colorado River Compact assumed too much water and also used precise numbers when ratios would have been better, Mueller has observed. Instead, those who gathered in Santa Fe in November 1922 apportioned
7.5 million acre-feet to each of the two basins, upper and lower. In practice, the lower-basin states have been using twice as much water as Colorado and other upper-basin states.
Colorado’s average annual consumption from the Colorado River and its tributaries is 2.5 million acre-feet. In terms of the compact, what mattes entirely is when the diversion began, before or after the compact.
About 1.6 million-acre feet- mostly older agriculture rights – are pre-compact, but 900,000 acre-feet came later. This includes water for Western Slopes cities and the nearly all of the 500,000 acre-feet diverted across the Continental Divide to cities along the Front Range and farms in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys. This water is most imperiled.
Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District, said he does not believe it’s practical to attempt to amend or renegotiate the Colorado River Compact.
“But within a few years, maybe after we have figured out how to get out of the current crisis, we’re going to essentially ignore all of the provisions of the compact except perhaps article one, which defines the purpose and the signatures page.”
Lochhead has much the same opinion about the much-disputed element of the compact about the obligations of Colorado and other upper basin states to deliver water. It really won’t matter, he said. The real problem is that the basin states need to align demand with supply that, during the last few years, has been close to 11 million acre-feet. (Keep in mind, the compact assumed more than 20 million acre-feet).
“We’re literally in a situation of triage,” said Lochhead. “Something needs to be done in the very near term to lay a foundation for actions that can be taken in the medium and longer term to manage the river to a sustainable condition.”
The feds need to step up
Lochhead outlined three possibly overlapping alternatives.
First: involuntary regulations and restrictions. The federal government – although it has been using it with restraint – does indeed have authority to regulate use of water that enters into Mead. The U.S. Supreme Court has characterized its power as such. The Bureau of Reclamation must be seen as delivering a coherent threat.
“That gives the U.S. government enormous authority over what happens in the lower basin,” Lochhead said. This is unlikely to happen until after the November election, he said, but it absolutely must happen.
Voluntary agreements must also occur. The Bureau of Reclamation imposed an August 2022 deadline for agreements. If the deadline had been a hard one, the states would have failed. Lochhead said it came down to finger pointing. Arizona and California “stared across the river at each other, seeing who’s going to blink first.”
The federal government has now put $4 billion on the table – through the Inflation Reduction Act —to “grease” the skids in terms of voluntary agreements. (Think, perhaps voluntary retirement of water rights). “They’re going to have to buy down demands in the lower basin,” said Lochhead, conjecturing on deals involving the Imperial Irrigation District, the giant ag producer just north of the border with Mexico.
Lochhead also described the need for reductions in water use in the municipal sectors. Denver Water and several other water agencies in Colorado – but also in Nevada and California and Arizona—announced an agreement in August in which they will try to pare their consumption. For example, Denver wants to end irrigation of medians along roads and highways and crimp the amount of water used for turf. But Denver and other cities need to continue to have trees, said Lochhead.
More cities will join this pact to reduce water use for residential consumption in coming weeks and months, Lochhead said.
But he said Colorado may need state legislation to ensure that real-estate developers can’t create landscaping in the future that requires lots of water, offsetting these gains.
That brings me back to the Ute Mountain Ute lands that I visited in May. By virtue of their 1986 agreement, reality has smacked them hard. There is pain, but there is also adjustment. They have had to adjust.
Something of the same thing must occur in the broader Colorado River Basin. So far, it’s easier to postpone action. But another so-so year – or worse? While the states are trying to make the cuts necessary for a river that is delivering 12 million acre-feet per year, Mueller warns that the plans must contemplate a 9 million acre-foot river, as some scientists have said may come to pass.
But in Grand Junction, one of the scientists pointed out to me that it’s just possible the river may deliver 7 million acre-feet – and that could be next year and the year after.
Then, we may need a new metaphor, something worse than an empty bank account.
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