Beyond the “Drought Contingency Plan” on the Colorado River

Brad Udall, Doug Kenney, and I wrote a thing about the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan and what comes next:

The plan is historic: It acknowledges that southwestern states need to make deep water use reductions – including a large share from agriculture, which uses over 70% of the supply – to prevent Colorado River reservoirs from declining to critically low levels.

But it also has serious shortcomings. It runs for less than a decade, through 2026. And its name – “Drought Contingency Plan” – suggests a response to a temporary problem.

As scholars who have spent years researching water issues in the West, we know the Colorado River’s problems are anything but temporary. Its waters have already been over-allocated, based on a century of false optimism about available supply. In other words, states have been allowed to take out more than nature puts back in.

Key bit:

An effective long-term plan should solve the overuse problem in the Lower Basin, while preparing for extended and unprecedented low flows. It should revisit a number of long-standing assumptions about how the river is managed, including the Upper Basin’s so-called “delivery obligation” to the Lower Basin, which leaves the upper states – Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico – bearing the burden of climate change, while the Lower Basin states remain free to overuse. And it will have to address the reality that there is not enough water for users in the Upper Basin to continue exporting ever more water to growing cities like St. George, Utah, and Colorado’s Front Range.

Big thanks to Jennifer Weeks and the folks at The Conversation for hosting and helping.

Upper Colorado River Basin water use: well below our compact allocation, not going up


  1. Folks in the Upper Colorado River Basin are only using ~60 percent of their Colorado River Compact allocation
  2. Use has been basically flat since 1990. It is not going up.

Upper Colorado River Basin use

A couple of weeks ago I got an email, with an attached spreadsheet, from my co-author Eric Kuhn.  It was his distillation of data from the US Bureau of Reclamation’s Consumptive Uses and Losses Reports:

There are just no real trends in UB CU since 1988. A slight downward trend in over UB CU primarily because CRSP has been going down. No trend in UB exports or in-basin ag use.

Two days later, he sent an updated version, taking the main part of the dataset back to 1971.

Those who have worked with Eric will no doubt recognize two important characteristics – brevity, and data. (Re brevity: by “CRSP” here, he means evaporation from the Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs). After three years collaborating with Eric on a book about Colorado River data – what did we know, and when did we know it, about how much water the river has? – I’ve come to treasure Eric’s spreadsheets.

This latest one landed in my inbox as I was focused on a Lower Basin scouting trip, visiting the farms and water districts of the California deserts that use a big share of the Colorado River’s water. Folks in the Colorado River management community, myself included, tend to focus a huge share of our attention on the Lower Basin, where overuse has led to emptying reservoirs.

Eric’s spreadsheet, and our discussions surrounding the data it contains, pulled my focus  back upstream, to an important and under-discussed piece of the Colorado River story. While the Lower Basin is unquestionably overusing water, the Upper Basin is underusing.

Overuse is an attention-getter. Underuse, not so much.

As we negotiate a complex future under the strains of population growth and a climate-change-shrunk river, we need to keep this bit of data close to hand.


New Mexico’s shrinking Gila River diversion proposal shrinks some more

The 1946 Bureau of Reclamation report projecting future development of the Colorado River – “A Natural Menace Becomes a National Resources” was its subtitle – included a picture of Hoover Dam with the caption: “World’s highest dam only partly harnesses the wild Colorado River.” The report laid out a staggeringly ambitious plan for the rest of the harnessing, which included a southeastern most dot in the upper reaches of the Gila River in New Mexico: “Hooker Reservoir”. (giant pdf of the report)

More than seven decades later, Hooker Reservoir has not yet been built, nor will it likely ever be built. But the struggle over ever-more modest diversions from the Gila in New Mexico continues. At each phase of the debate, high costs have collided with the little water to be yielded by projects. As Laura Paskus reports, we’ve had another such collision:

At a meeting in Silver City on July 2, members of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity voted to scale back development plans on the Gila River and one of its tributaries in southwestern New Mexico.

The vote took place following completion of a preliminary draft environmental impact statement (PDEIS) about the group’s plans in the Cliff-Gila Valley, on the San Francisco River and in Virden, a town in Hidalgo County near the Arizona border.

Click through for an excellent overview of the saga to date.


How Parker Dam might have been the Colorado River’s first

Parker Dam, Colorado River. June 22, 2019. By John Fleck

If you want to dam rivers, as we were inclined across much of the 20th century, the location of the current Parker Dam on the Lower Colorado River makes sense – a narrow gap just downstream from the confluence of the Colorado and Bill Williams rivers on the Arizona-California border.

I paid a visit last month on my Lower Colorado River trip to Parker Dam, which was built in the 1930s, in tandem with Hoover Dam, to create a stable surface for the pumping plant that supplies water Los Angeles, and later for the Central Arizona Project.

In one of the lesser-known bits of Colorado River history (where “lesser known” means “Fleck just learned this”), this almost became the very first dam on the Colorado River.

The proposal came in 1902 from Arthur Powell Davis, who later became head of the Reclamation Service (as the Bureau of Reclamation was then known). Davis was appointed the service’s Assistant Chief Engineer at its 1902 formation, fresh off of a tour of duty working on what would become the Panama Canal. The story of Davis’s first Colorado River Dam scheme is told by historian Donald Pisani:

He proposed four dams along the lower Colorado, the first at the mouth of the Williams River above Parker, Arizona. This “high dam” would capture enough water to irrigate 400,000 acres and generate electricity besides. And as it filled with silt, thousands of acres behind the dam, particularly flood plains, alkali flats, and other low-lying areas, would gradually be reclaimed or “produced”. After the silt destroyed the reservoir’s storage capacity, water could be released from the dam’s lower outlets, exposing the new farmland. Meanwhile, the Reclamation Service would have constructed another dam farther upstream. Eventually, Davis hoped that 1,200,000 acres could be reclaimed or created along the river.

Using a dam to “create” farmland. What a world it was back in 1902.

Updated to correct Davis’s work prior to joining Reclamation.


The hydrograph of the All-American Canal

With little water storage to speak of in the Imperial Valley, the flow of the All-American Canal west from Imperial Dam integrates, in close to real time, the collective decisions of a thousand farmers growing crops on half a million acres.

A “hydrograph” is a commonly used tool for looking at the flow of water past a measurement gauge over time. You put time on the “x” axis and flow on the “y” axis, to help visualize its ups and downs. There aren’t many natural hydrographs left to look at in the western United States, but I’m fascinated with human-intermediated ones.

I’ve written before about the “institutional hydrograph” on my Rio Grande, where we have an annual bump in flow as water is moved to meet end-of-year compact delivery obligations. On the All-American Canal, you can see – what – an “agronomic hydrograph”?

All-American Canal flows

I spent my holiday afternoon cleaning up some data visualization code I use to help me think about USGS gauge data. (On github here.) One of the gauges I tried it out on was the flow down the All-American Canal from Imperial Dam. The double peak is fascinating – heaviest water use in April, then a drop, then another peak in late July and early August.

It’s an agronomic hydrograph, driven in part by cropping patterns (the Imperial Irrigation District publishes wonderful data here summing up the collective behavior of the valley’s farmers) and partly the weather. August, I’m told, is really hot down there.

Farming the desert. El Centro, California, June 2019, by John Fleck

New USBR modeling shows substantial reduction in Mead, Powell risk over the next five years

The unusually wet winter (with an assist from new Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan water reduction rules) has substantially reduced the near-term scare-the-crap-out-of-me risks on the Colorado River for the next few years, according to new Bureau of Reclamation modeling.

Modeling done in January showed significant risk – a nearly one in three chance – of Lake Mead dropping below elevation 1,025 by 2024, a level that would place the reservoir’s long term ability to make deliveries at risk. That has dropped to a one-in-30 chance, according to the new USBR modeling.

At Lake Powell, the risk of reaching elevation 3,525, a danger point beyond which power generation and the Upper Basin’s ability to meet Colorado River Compact delivery obligations are at risk, has dropped from a one in four chance by 2024 to a one in 25 chance. The chance of dropping below Powell’s minimum power pool – the point at which the reservoir is too low to generate electricity – has dropped from one in six to essentially zero.

reduced risk of shortfalls at Lake Powell and Lake Mead

Details of the modeling results, presented today to basin water managers, suggest the bulk of the risk reduction is the result of the wet winter, which has pumped up runoff and reservoir storage. But the new Drought Contingency Plan, under which water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin have agreed to leave water in Lake Mead if and when it drops below critical thresholds, also played a role.

As I write this (Monday evening, July 1), you can find the old model results here. The new ones aren’t posted yet, but by tomorrow (July 2) the new ones should be posted at the same link.



Delph Carpenter’s Preferred Compact

By Eric Kuhn

Delphus Carpenter. Picture courtesy Colorado State University library

Colorado attorney Delph Carpenter (1877-1951) is given credit as the driving force behind the 1922 Colorado River Compact, a much-deserved accolade. Had the compact negotiators actually listened to him, however, both basins would be better off today. Before the compact negotiators settled on the deal we are now trying to live with, Carpenter proposed a far simpler arrangement that, in retrospect, might have been better. Had they listened to him and adopted his idea, the Upper Basin today would not be facing the daunting task of implementing demand management to maintain critical storage levels in order to meet its downstream obligations and the Lower Basin would have more water and fewer shortages.

The 1922 compact as it was signed in November 1922 was not the compact Carpenter wanted when the negotiations began in the previous January. He was a fierce advocate for state sovereignty over all the waters that originate or flow through a state, but Carpenter knew he might be on the wrong side of the United States Supreme Court on the matter. He was Colorado’s lead attorney in Wyoming v. Colorado, a case involving the Laramie River, a small and relatively unknown stream that flows north out of the mountains west of Ft. Collins into Wyoming where it eventually joins the North Platte River near Wheatland.

In the early 1900s, A Colorado developer proposed a project that would divert water from the Laramie River Basin into the adjacent South Platte River Basin. In 1911, Wyoming went to the U. S. Supreme Court to protect water rights that had already been perfected in the Wheatland area. As the Colorado River negotiations began, the case had been through two oral arguments, but had not yet been formally decided. Carpenter feared that since both Colorado and Wyoming were prior appropriation states, the court would apply the doctrine to the Laramie on an interstate basis, undermining his cherished state sovereignty and, on the Colorado River, giving the advantage to faster growing lower river states.
The Laramie case loomed as representatives of the seven Colorado River Basin states came together to negotiate what would become the Colorado River Compact.

After joining Utah commissioner R. E. Caldwell during the sixth Compact Commission meeting to block a proposal to apportion water to individual states based on the amount of irrigable acreage within each state, during the seventh meeting, Carpenter made his move. Carpenter’s proposal was relatively simple. He suggested that the lower river states should allow the upper river states to develop and use water within the basin unimpeded by the states of the lower river –“the construction of any and all reservoirs or other works upon the lower river shall in no manner arrest or interfere with the subsequent development …of the upper states or the use of water therein….”

In return, Carpenter said, the upper river states would do the same- “give you absolute free unbridled rights, all objections withdrawn…” The upper river states would not litigate or oppose in Congress, any development in the lower river. Carpenter made the case that due to the canyon and mountainous topography, climate (limited growing season), and because of return flows, water use within the upper part of the basin would have little impact on the supply of water to the lower river- “the areas which may be irrigated and the consumption …. so limited by nature, that the states of origin will never be able to beneficially use even an equitable portion of the waters …. of each.” When pressed by Commission Chairman Herbert Hoover, Carpenter acknowledged that because exports out of the basin were fully consumptive the upper river would agree to limit the amount water moved across the continental divide. In Silver Fox of the Rockies, historian Daniel Tyler suggests that Carpenter and his fellow upper river commissioners would have accepted a limit of 500,000 – 600,000 acre-feet per year, about 25% less than the current exports.

Commissioners from the lower river rejected Carpenter’s proposal countering that without an overall limit on upper river use, they would not have the certainty necessary to finance their proposed projects. In June 1922, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Wyoming and applied the concept of prior appropriation to the Laramie River as a whole, confirming Carpenter’s fears. The decision forced him to change tactics. When the commissioners reconvened in Santa Fe in November 1922, building on a proposal by the Reclamation Service’s Arthur Powell Davis (now Bureau of Reclamation) to create a compact among the two basins, Carpenter made a new proposal which became the framework for the compact that was ultimately approved. Carpenter proposed the basins be divided at Lee Ferry (a mile downstream of Lee’s Ferry), the Upper Basin would, in Carpenter’s words, “guarantee” a 10 year-flow at Lee Ferry (the negotiated number ended up at 75 million acre-feet), and each basin would share any future treaty obligation to Mexico.

Today with the specter of climate change reducing the water available from the river, perhaps the key concepts and messages from Carpenter’s preferred compact deserve a second look. As Carpenter suggested, consumptive uses in the Upper Basin have been self-limiting. After a building spurt triggered by federal funding made available under the 1956 Colorado River Storage Project Act that lasted from the late 1950s through the mid-80s, the total consumptive use of water in the Upper Basin from 1988-2017 has been flat or even slightly declining.

Upper Basin water use

The reasons are not difficult to understand. The last big federally subsidized irrigation projects were completed in the late 1980s and early 90s. As were the last big transmountain diversion projects. In-basin municipal growth has been strong, but since much of it is occurring on lands that were previously under irrigation, the net impact of residential growth on water consumption is small. The energy sector, once projected to be a major user of the Upper Basin’s share of water, is now more likely to accelerate the decline in total Upper Basin use. Natural gas and oil production consumptively uses very little Colorado River water. And, more importantly, the basin’s aging and uncompetitive thermal power plants, which at one time were consuming over 170,000 acre-feet per year, are being rapidly decommissioned. Within a decade, total use by thermal power will likely be less than 50,000 acre-feet per year (if not zero).

In theory, new export projects out of the Upper Basin to meet the needs of the booming Colorado Front Range and Wasatch Front could be a driver for new consumptive uses, but reality suggest otherwise. There are currently only three export projects in the planning or permitting process; Denver Water’s Moffat System Expansion project, Northern Water’s Windy Gap Firming project, and the State of Utah’s Lake Powell Pipeline. The net additional consumptive of the first two projects is small, no more than about 20,000 acre-feet per year. The Lake Powell Pipeline will divert about 80,000 acre-feet per year to the St. George area, but it may not really be an export project. The water it diverts will be used in the Lower Basin. Like overall Upper Basin consumptive uses, since 1988 the trend for exports has been flat or slightly declining.

Upper Colorado River Basin Exports

The Lower Basin’s total mainstem use is also on a recent downward trend primarily because of the conservation measures implemented to preserve storage in Lake Mead and less evaporation due to reduced storage levels. There are insufficient data on Lower Basin tributary uses to make any trend conclusions. Despite this progress, when reservoir evaporation and tributary uses are included, the Lower Basin is consuming, on average, more than ten million acre-feet per year.
The current situation on the river raises the basic question of equity between the two basins that Carpenter recognized a century ago. The Lower Basin is using more than its 8.5 million acre-feet apportionment under the 1922 compact. The Upper Basin is using far less than its 7.5 million acre-feet, about 4.3 million acre-feet per year. Yet, with fixed obligations to the Lower Basin and Mexico under the 1922 compact, the Upper Basin still bears the brunt of the climate change risk. To avoid what could otherwise be inevitable future conflict, basin water leaders should carefully consider the wisdom of Delph Carpenter’s preferred compact and devise an approach that gives each basin the flexibility to live with the water they currently have and stay out of each other’s business.

You can’t address the Colorado River Basin’s problems without addressing the Salton Sea

Red Hill Bay boat ramp, Salton Sea, Imperial County, California. June 2019

RED HILL BAY – I couldn’t resist the “abandoned boat ramp” trope when I visited the Salton Sea this week. No amount of channel dredging is going to get you to the Sea at this point. And all that recently exposed shoreline between the old boat ramp where I was standing when I took the picture and the Sea off in the distance represents a source of dangerous dust.

Conserve water on the farms of the Imperial Valley, and you reduce tail water flowing to the Salton Sea, which shrinks when evaporation is greater than inflows. When the wind whips up from the south, this place can be unbearable. We cannot address the Colorado River’s problems without addressing that dust.

Colorado River water flows down an Imperial Irrigation District canal

Imperial is a remarkable place, half a million acres of desert with a lattice of irrigation canals draped across it that has turned it into some of the most productive farmland in the United States. More than 40 miles from north to south at its longest, and nearly 30 miles east to west at its widest, it is a bustle of farming, even in the heat of summer.

The cultural and institutional nature of that lattice of irrigation canals makes Imperial one of the most water-aware communities you’ll find anywhere. Lots of communities are deeply connected to the Colorado River, but Imperial has a unique self-awareness about its relationship with the river that is fascinating.

My trip to the Lower Colorado this week coincided with Tuesday’s meeting of the Imperial Irrigation District Board of Directors, which as a longtime student of local government I found fascinating.

Folks from around the valley gathered for the ceremonial handing out of checks from the irrigation district to help fund local community pools. Dippy Duck, the district’s canal safety mascot, was on hand.

Dippy Duck and friends

I’m told Dippy is a big deal here.

The deputy general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority gave a presentation about a study his agency is launching to consider the feasibility of connecting a pipe from San Diego to Imperial’s system to move conserved farm water to the coastal city. (Wait, what? Ry Rivard has done the heavy lifting on this one. I don’t have much to add other.)

But to me, the most fascinating discussion involved 25 acres of currently unfarmed, unirrigated land that an Imperial farmer wants to turn into an olive orchard.

The farmer had filed a “petition for inclusion”, which would have brought the land within the district’s Imperial Unit boundary, making it eligible for water from the district’s Westside Main Canal. This was 25 acres in a district that’s half a million acres large. But however small the acreage, the discussion captured the tension between two important but seemingly irreconcilable positions: the importance of using water to irrigate land to support the community’s economy versus the reality, as the IID staff report on the issue noted, of “the ongoing 19-year drought on the Colorado River.”

Young Reservoir, Imperial Irrigation District

Tina Shields and Mike Pacheco, the Imperial Irrigation District’s water managers, gave me a great tour of the district yesterday. In addition to Red Hill Bay to talk about a proposed restoration site there (more on that in a moment) we stopped by Young Reservoir. On the scale of the Colorado River, Young is tiny – less than 50 acres of surface area, a 275 acre foot capacity. But in terms of institutions and policy, it is huge. In 1989, IID and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the nation’s large municipal water wholesaler, signed an agreement through which Met paid for efficiency improvements in IID’s system in return for the saved water. A newly built interceptor catches tail water flowing out the ends of 11 laterals (about 31,000 acres worth of farmland) and pumps it to Young, from which it can be returned to IID’s Vail Canal and used by farmers. Had it not been caught, it would have simply flowed into the Salton Sea.

But that’s the thing, right? It would have flowed into the Salton Sea. Enough conservation efforts like this (and there have been many, and there could be many more) and we reduce inflows to the Sea to leave places like Red Hill Bay stranded, and the many thousands of acres of newly surfaced shoreline vulnerable to the desert winds. Out at Red Hill Bay, we’re about to see a few hundred acres of habitat restoration, which will cover a significant area of dust source. But it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the work that needs to be done.

Imperial Irrigation District is the largest water user in the Colorado River Basin. Any effort to roll back Colorado River water use to live with hydrologic reality will be very difficult without Imperial’s help.

We have to deal with the Salton Sea problem.