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What a Difference a Year Makes on the Colorado

Water returns to Boulder Harbor on Lake Mead. But how long will it remain? (Photo: John Fleck)

By John Fleck

There’s five feet of snow now at Bison Lake, on Colorado’s west slope north of Glenwood Springs. Melted and measured by the folks who run the federal SNOTEL network, that translates to 15.6 inches of “snow water equivalent”, the metric that matters once spring and summer warmth start its trip down into the Colorado River.

The water nerds pronounce SWE as “swee”, a word that sounds vaguely like a ski move, but it’s really the most important number in western water right now, the measure of water supply for the year to come, sitting in the relatively small patch of high country that feeds the entire Colorado River Basin. Last year at this time, the SWE values at Bison Lake were nearly twice as high, and the bounty just kept building. This year things aren’t looking so good.

In December, I paid a visit to Boulder Harbor on the west shore of Lake Mead to see the results for myself. Boulder Harbor is one of those places where the dropping reservoir is made tangible. Two years ago, its boat ramp was closed, its shrinking harbor abandoned to an epic flock of American coots feasting on the critters left in the muck and an osprey that entertained me with a spectacular dive to pick off a stranded fish. Now, thanks to last year’s big snowpack, the water’s back, and boaters have displaced my osprey and coots.

But things appear to be headed back in the other direction. On its face, the effect is clear. After rising with last year’s big snowpack, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the Colorado River’s two largest reservoirs, are forecast to drop a collective 42 feet in surface elevation over the next year, according to the latest forecast from the US Bureau of Reclamation.

But the while those results are in some sense obvious – reservoirs go up in a wet year and down in a dry one – there’s a subtler problem buried in the Bureau of Reclamation’s data. (Read more)

Last modified Fri, 3 Aug, 2012 at 12:36

What Seven States Can Agree to Do: Deal-Making on the Colorado River

The Central Arizona Project carries Colorado River water to Phoenix. (Photo: John Fleck)

By John Fleck

As western water leaders converged on Las Vegas in  December 2001, Southern California’s inability to contain its voracious appetite seemed finally to be bumping up against reality - there is only so much water in the Colorado River.

Shared among seven states and Mexico via a shifting, uncertain set of bargains, the river was running up against the era of limits.

For years, California had been living large off the surplus of others. It slurped Colorado River leftovers other states weren’t using, pumping it 250 miles to rapidly growing coastal cities. But as the rest of the southwest grew and began taking its rightful share of the Colorado, California faced an urgent deadline. It had to come up with a plan to cut its use or see a large share of its water supply simply cut off on Jan. 1, 2003.

Testifying at a Dec. 10 House field hearing, Larry Anderson, head of Utah’s Division of Water Resources, was blunt. If California did not tame its appetites, the other states dependent on the Colorado River expected the federal government to step in and enforce the “Law of the River”, the maze of laws that govern distribution of the river’s water. “Appropriate enforcement is critical to protecting our rights,” Anderson said. 1

In response, Southern California Congresswoman Grace Napolitano's question to the federal government’s top water official sounded more like a plea. If California is making a good faith effort, she asked, could the Golden State have more time? Coming from a representative of the region’s largest state and economic powerhouse, the plea also contained a hint of a threat: “California cannot afford the immediate reduction by that amount of water,” she said. “Our economy reaches out to the neighboring states so that if we suffer, so do the rest of the states around us.”

Sitting at the witness table, Interior Department’s assistant secretary Bennett Raley responded with what, in the coded language of western water law, amounted to an ultimatum. His boss, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, was ready to cut California’s share. If the state missed the deadline, “the Secretary will have to use all means at her disposal to ensure that she is in compliance with the Law of the River.” 2

 

Carving a course

The Colorado River carves a defining course through North American geography and history. Winter snow falling in the Rockies, mostly in Colorado and Wyoming, feeds it. The Colorado and its longest tributary, the Green, spend much of their lives in the deep, arid canyon country of the arid interior western United States.

The river and its tributaries pass through seven U.S. states – Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California – before making a short run between the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California to the Gulf of California. (Read more)

Last modified Fri, 3 Aug, 2012 at 12:43

Is There More Water to Be Moved From the Colorado Basin?

Photo: Wyoming's Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River, by Carfull...Holding onto Summer via Flickr

By John Fleck

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Water and Power in April 2010, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Jennifer Pitt warned of the dynamic among the states of the Upper Colorado River Basin:

There appears to be a race among the states to develop the next big use of water, because for water users who don’t get their straw into the system first, their risk of curtailment increases.

Last modified Wed, 28 Sep, 2011 at 10:57

Bonus Water on the Colorado River

Lee's Ferry, the dividing line between the Upper and Lower Colorado River basins. (Photo: Lissa Heineman)

By John Fleck

It is telling that when Los Angeles Times reporter Bettina Boxall went looking for a way to explain the implications of this year’s bountiful Colorado River Basin snowpack, she ended up at one of Lake Powell’s boat ramps:

The sudden rush of water into the lake has meant seven-day workweeks for the National Park Service and concessionaire crews that manage the boating facilities. Again and again they have reeled in floating docks and marina utility lines that were extended as the reservoir shrank. Dive teams were called in to move anchors.

At the Hite marina on the lake's northern end, where boating facilities had been stranded on the dry lake bed for years, workers used a backhoe and trucks to free them from layers of muck and silt as the water rose.

This is not a criticism of Boxall, one of the best reporters on the Western water beat. Such is water management on the Colorado River that, in the wake of the worst drought in a century of record-keeping, from 2000 to 2010, everyone in the seven western U.S. states and Mexico that depends on the Colorado River continued to get their full allotment. As the lakes receded, journalists (myself among them) turned to the recreational boating business in our search for a visible manifestation of drought. Marina operators engaged in the ritual they call “chasing water”, moving their floating docks farther and farther out into the lakes as the reservoirs shrank. Reporters followed along.

Last modified Wed, 7 Sep, 2011 at 14:51

How Far Can We Bend the Law of the River?


Photograph by John Fleck

With this post we welcome John Fleck, a reporter with 20 years of experience with the Albuquerque Journal  covering science and environmental issues. In the past decade, he has made aridity, climate change, drought and the resulting water policy questions a central topic of his newspaper work. As Albuquerque and Santa Fe, northern New Mexico's two largest metro areas, have shifted in recent years to using water imported from the Colorado River Basin, his journalism has emphasized the relationship between New Mexico's water and broader regional waterscience, politics and policy questions. He is the author of "A Tree Rings' Tale," a book for young people about climate, science, water and the West, and is working on "Moving Water", a book about Colorado River water policy in the 21st century.

– John McChesney, Rural West Program Director

By John Fleck

The Law of the River – the stack of compacts, statutes, court decisions and operating rules governing the division of the Colorado River’s precious water – once had a sacred aura. “It was tantamount to having been written on tablets,” in the worlds of Las Vegas water manager Pat Mulroy.

No more. If we learned anything at the University of Colorado’s Navigating the Future of the Colorado River Basin conference June 8 - 10, it was that:

Last modified Mon, 27 Jun, 2011 at 9:02

Nevada Water Maven: “I Would Not Declare the Drought Over on the Colorado River”

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

Pat MulroyPat Mulroy heads up the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies water to the Las Vegas Valley. Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River. Nevertheless, Mulroy supervises one of the smallest straws sucking water from the Colorado. By way of comparison, Nevada is allocated 300,000 acre feet of water from the Colorado, while California can suck up 4.4 MILLION acre feet. But don’t let appearances fool you. Mulroy is one of the strongest voices for seven-state, basin-wide agreements on how the precious flow of the Colorado should be apportioned, especially in times of shortage.  Her grasp of the demands on the river, from its headwaters to its trickle into the Sea of Cortez, is formidable. Witness the sweep of this description, where she ties the Colorado system into the Bay-Delta system of California. For those of you who are not water wonks, Metropolitan refers to the Metropolitan Water District, which serves 26 cities and water agencies in southern California.

We recently interviewed Mulroy about the 11 year drought on the Colorado, about whether the huge snowpack this year means the crisis is over, and about what should be done going forward. You can read the interview here, but I think it’s more interesting to listen to her, so we are providing audio as well. First, though, a note about Lake Mead water levels, since they come up over and over again in this discussion. Mead is full at 1229 feet, it has averaged 1173 feet, its drought level is 1125, and its critical shortage level is 1025. 


Interview with Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority
Duration: 20 minutes (download as podcast)

Read on for transcript and more audio clips » 

Last modified Mon, 4 Jul, 2011 at 8:00

Rethinking the Colorado River: A Provocative Speech

As part of our Rural West Initiative, we are examining the crisis on the Colorado River, with a close eye on its impact on rural communities, and the past, present, and future of agriculture in the Colorado River Basin.

We join the conversation on the Colorado River crisis by posting a provocative speech given by Doug Kenney at the December, 2010 meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA) in Las Vegas. He recently authored a report for the Western Water Policy Program entitled, Rethinking the Future of the Colorado River. He called his speech at CRWUA a "Reader’s Digest" version of that report.

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 6:09

“The Sky is Not Falling…Yet,” Concludes a New Study of Colorado River Problems

 

The Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at the University of Montana has just issued its report, “Thinking Like a River Basin.” The report was commissioned by Carpe Diem West, a group dedicated to studying climate change and water in the West.

The report is based on interviews with 29 Colorado River experts and stakeholders who were promised anonymity in exchange for their views. The need for anonymity suggests the sensitivity of the subject; apparently, real candor about hot button river issues can only be obtained by insulating the interviewees from their respective constituencies.

The report is an excellent primer on the issues confronting the 30 million people using Colorado River water amidst the uncertainties created by climate change and growing populations.

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 5:56

The Crisis on the Colorado River

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

With Lake Mead at 39 percent capacity and Lake Powell at around 59 percent after an 11-year drought, there’s no question that there is a crisis on the Colorado River, and, experts predict, climate change will make things worse. With 30 million people dependent on the river, the outcome of disputes on distribution of Colorado River water is critical for the West. Researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography say Lake Powell has a 50 percent chance of becoming unusable by 2021. Some experts say that within the next 15 years, the Central Arizona Project, which supplies Phoenix and Tucson and the agricultural lands between them, may become the testing ground to see what happens when the water runs low. Is the 1922 Compact still the best law of the river?

“We need more and better and different conversations now, rather than waiting for litigation and empty reservoirs later.”  

Doug Kenney, Director of the Western Water Policy Program & Senior Research Associate, Natural Resources Law Center, University of Colorado.

We join the conversation on the Colorado River crisis by posting a provocative speech given by Doug Kenney at the December, 2010 meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA) in Las Vegas. He recently authored a report for the Western Water Policy Program entitled, Rethinking the Future of the Colorado River. He called his speech at CRWUA a "Reader’s Digest" version of that report.

Download the full text of the report: http://www.rlch.org/archive/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/CRGI-Interim-Report.pdf

Last modified Wed, 8 Feb, 2012 at 14:15

Colorado River Crisis: Do Farmers Have the Water To Solve It?

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

In discussions about water shortages in California’s Sacramento Delta or on the Colorado River, you’ll often hear that farmers can slake the thirst caused by ballooning urban growth. Agriculture sucks up 70 to 80 percent of water in those basins. Farmers have more water than they need, some water wonks say, and can make good money selling it to thirsty urban areas. For example, California’s Imperial Valley farmers send 280 thousand acre feet of Colorado River water each year to San Diego.

What you don’t often hear in these discussions is any concern about what happens to agriculture and rural life as these transfers become more common. Bruce Finley of the Denver Post took a look at that issue here: http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_17598524. His piece focuses on the Front Range in Colorado where “about 400,000 acres in Colorado dried up between 2000 and 2005, according to U.S. Geological Survey data...

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 7:12