Upper Colorado River Commission ending participation in the System Conservation Pilot Program

The Upper Colorado River Commission, at its meeting this afternoon (Wed. June 20, 2018) in Santa Fe, voted to end its participation in the Colorado River System Conservation Pilot Program, in which water users, mostly farmers, were compensated for conservation measures in an effort to create “system water”.

“System water” is a tricky concept, and therein lay the problem. Saved water simply stays in the system, flowing down rivers until either a user downstream takes it out themselves, or until it makes its way unmeasured and unaccounted for into Lake Powell, at the bottom of the Upper Basin. This is great! Leaving water in rivers, eventually getting it to Lake Powell, is a good thing! But not having an accounting system to track who put it there makes its use in long term management of the Upper Basin’s obligations under the Colorado River Compact problematic, removing the big incentive for people to do it in the first place. “Any water that is currently conserved,” the UCRC resolution explained, “is subject to use by downstream water users or release from existing system storage prior to being needed in response to emergency drought conditions, thereby defeating the intended purposes of Demand Management.”

(l-r) Felicity Hannay, Amy Haas, Don Ostler, and Karen Kwon at the June 20, 2018 meeting of the Upper Colorado River Commission. It was Ostler’s last meeting as UCRC executive director. Haas takes over the position July 1.

“It does not,” said the UCRC’s resolution approved this afternoon, “provide a means for the Upper Division States to account, store, and release conserved water in a way which will help assure full compliance with the Colorado River Compact in times of drought.”

This highlights a thorny but common water management dilemma – whose water is conserved water. Bruce Lankford has dubbed this problem the “paracommons” (I wrote about it here, in a blog post that was a rough draft for the explanation of this issue in my book). Here’s Lankford:

In a scarce world, society is increasingly interested in the efficiency of resource use; how to get more from less. Yet if you ‘save’ a resource, what does that mean and who gets the ‘saved’ resource? In other words who gets the gain of an efficiency gain?

The problem the Upper Basin states – Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico – are trying to avoid is a “call” on their Colorado River Compact obligation to deliver 75 million acre feet of water past Lee Ferry every ten years (lawyer fine print alert: maybe it’s really 82.5 million acre feet every ten years if you include water for Mexico and whatever you do don’t call it an “obligation to deliver” because Upper Basin lawyers will wag their fingers and explain that it’s really an obligation not to deplete). If Lake Powell drops too low too fast, this could be a problem, so some sort of planned, staged conservation effort ahead of time might help forestall the risk. But without some way to earmark and account for the water, the Upper Basin states have been leery of expanding the effort.

Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell, who took the lead at this afternoon’s meeting explaining the decision, drew a distinction between “system water” and “state water”. What the Upper Basin states are looking for, he explained, is some way of tagging the water saved as it builds up in Lake Powell, so that if a Compact call were ever to come, it would be clear who had contributed what to meeting the Upper Basin’s obligations.

In the Lower Colorado River Basin, new rules negotiated in 2007 created a category of conserved water called “intentionally created surplus” (ICS) – big water agencies, especially the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, could conserve water and leave the savings in Lake Mead, earmarked with Met’s name on it in the Colorado River accounting system for future Met use. This was a big deal at the time, removing the conservation disincentive created by the problem that without such an accounting system, conserved water simply reverted to other users as “system water”.

The Upper Basin states would like something similar, and there was apparently some progress at this week’s meetings in Santa Fe on that front. Creating some sort of an ICS-like water bank in Lake Powell (or somewhere else in the Upper Basin reservoirs) would take approval of all seven states and, likely, formal authorization by Congress. There appears at this point to be general agreement on the concept among the Lower Basin states (Nevada, Arizona, California), but with a lot of details to work out. But it sounded like there was a green light coming out of the closed-door Santa Fe meetings of Basin States principals, which is an optimistic note in an otherwise somewhat tense time in Colorado River water management.

It’s important to remember the word “Pilot” in the program’s name. This effort, begun four years ago, was an experiment to understand how much it might cost, how to manage a pretty complex effort, how to account for the savings, and what the institutional structure around it would need to be to accomplish the goal of heading down this path to reduce Upper Basin water use. It’s that last point that is important. In coming to terms with the on-the-ground, practical difference between “system water” and “state water”, we’ve learned a great deal that is useful in figuring out where to go next with this stuff.

In the meantime, Upper Basin System Conservation is on the shelf.

“We’re in uncharted territory”

Luke Runyon had a piece over the weekend about the latest Bureau of Reclamation 24-month study, the increasingly bleak monthly modeling run that shows Colorado River reservoir levels dipping and diving in a way that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Jeff Kightlinger described thus:

“We’re in uncharted territory for the system,” says Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the water wholesaler for the greater Los Angeles area, which relies on the Colorado River for a portion of its supplies.

“Everything is new, and it is all bleak. None of it is positive,” Kightlinger says.

In one of those small world coincidences, I was on a bike ride yesterday afternoon, wandering downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico, and bumped into (figuratively) Kightlinger. I interrupted his cell phone conversation to say “hi”, and he told me he was on the phone with Pat Mulroy, because of course on a nice warm Santa Fe afternoon one bumps into the Colorado River brain trust, connected.

Not so coincidental, really. Kightlinger and I converged with other Colorado River folks on Santa Fe for an Upper Colorado River Commission meeting this week. A bunch of side meetings are also underway to, in the words of one of the convergents, “try to jump start” the stalled Drought Contingency Plan discussions.

Kightlinger’s right about the “uncharted territory” thing. The DCP is an effort to cobble together a map of the water management terrain ahead as we’re speeding toward – well, speeding toward something that we’re not quite sure what it is but it’s probably really bad.

My main reason for tagging along to the Santa Fe meetings is the chance for some “side meeting” time with Eric Kuhn, my collaborator on a new book that is looking closely at how we got here. In particular, we’re looking at the “charts” (to borrow Kightlinger’s metaphor) that we did make beginning with the 1922 Colorado River Compact – the rules guiding how we would develop the river’s water, and our hydrologic understanding that was used to draw them. The reason this is so “uncharted” is because we (they?) didn’t do a good job at all of contemplating the “what if” scenario of river less than their rosy planning assumptions of a booming Colorado River with surpluses for all.

In fact, the framers did make a roadmap of sorts, with the Colorado River Compact’s long forgotten article III(f):

(f) Further equitable apportionment of the beneficial uses of the waters of the Colorado River System unapportioned by paragraphs (a), (b), and (c) may be made in the manner provided in paragraph (g) at any time after October first, 1963, if and when either Basin shall have reached its total beneficial consumptive use as set out in paragraphs (a) and (b).

So bad were their maps at the time that they actually thought there was not only plenty of water for full development of the farms and cities we now see, but that they would have to reconvene in 1963 to parcel out an additional allocation of more water!

By 1963, there was not only no discussion of a surplus, but active discussion of how to cope with the fact that there wasn’t enough water for even the basic allocations laid out in the compact. And yet, here we are today, 50 years later (and a nearly century after the compact was signed), still with no chart.

In addition to my happy accident of bumping into Kightlinger, I rode past a gauge on the Santa Fe River just downstream from downtown Santa Fe, forlornly waiting for water to measure. It was an omen, a nice literary device to support my hope that the DCP jump starting yields some progress this week.

Good news, or at least news that’s less bad, on the Gila

Not record low flows on the Gila after all

The U.S. Geological Survey took new measurements last week to calibrate the key gauge on the Gila River in New Mexico, and the rating curve has now been adjusted upward. The good news is that 2018 is no longer a record low year. Thursday’s revised flow of 14 cubic feet per second was still the lowest for that date in history, but is well above the all time record low of 9.77 cfs recorded June 22, 2006. And a rise in the river from the remnants of Hurricane Bud has pushed the Gila back to normal levels for this time of year.

The Sandias

Sandias over Albuquerque, June 2018

The remnants of Hurricane Bud blew through central New Mexico today, the first big rain we’ve had since forever. As the rains were clearing out, I hopped on my bicycle to check out the neighborhood flood control channel (as one does) and lucked into one of Albuquerque’s great sunset treats.

It happens when the sun drops below the clouds at sunset and lights up the Sandias, the mountain range that looms over Albuquerque to the east. When I say “loom”, I mean a mile of vertical elevation rising straight out of the city. Lit up with the magic of sunset.

Twenty-eight plus years here, and it never gets old.

Amy Haas to replace retiring Don Ostler as Executive Director of the Upper Colorado River Commission

Amy Haas, deputy director and general counsel of the Upper Colorado River Commission, will replace the retiring Don Ostler as the UCRC’s executive director July 1. Amy, formerly general counsel of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, has been with the commission since last year, and has a long history of working within the interstate Colorado River governance process, including playing a central role in the negotiation of the recently signed U.S.-Mexico agreement known as Minute 323. From the official release:

Felicity Hannay, U.S. Commissioner and Chairman of the Upper Colorado River Commission, is pleased toannounce the selection of Ms. Amy I. Haas to be the new Executive Director of the Commission effective July 1, 2018. Haas replaces Don Ostler, who has been Executive Director since 2004 and will be retiring from full-time service at the end of June. Ms. Haas has been Deputy Director and General Counsel since June, 2017.

“Amy has shown great knowledge of the Commission and its work, and we are very lucky to have someone with her qualifications and experience stepping in behind Don,” said Hannay. “He leaves big shoes to fill, but the Commission believes Amy can jump right in and continue the important work of the Commission in its role with the Upper Division states.” The Upper Colorado River Commission was created by the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact of 1948, and is made up of Commissioners from CO, NM, UT, and WY, along with the federal chairman who is appointed by the President.

At Glenwood Springs, the fourth driest Colorado River flows in a half century

A typical John Fleck morning these days involves a cup of coffee (or two) and a curlup in the comfy chair as dawn creeps over my backyard while I wander the western United States looking at USGS stream gauges.

Today’s gauge-of-the-day is my friend and colleague Eric Kuhn’s, at Glenwood Springs, Colorado. It’s just downstream from the junction with the Roaring Fork. Flows of ~3,600 cubic feet per second on June 13 were the fourth lowest since gauging at that spot began in 1967.

Important to understand what this is telling us. This is the measure for the main stem of the Colorado as it flows out of the mountains over the divide from Denver. It is not what in overall basin management we think of as the “Colorado River” as a whole, which the water managers in the state of Colorado charmingly call the “big river”. At this point the “Colorado” is just one of three big tributaries – the Green, the Colorado, and the San Juan. To understand the overall health of the “big river” system, you need to look at all three. More on that tomorrow.

Colorado River at Glenwood Springs

The driest years, in order:

  1. 2012: 2,230 cfs
  2. 2002: 2,280 cfs
  3. 1977: 2,870 cfs

Median flow for this point in the year is ~9,600.*

* There’s a slight discrepancy between the numbers reported on the USGS web site when you click on the link above, versus the numbers I’m getting downloading the USGS data and doing my own analysis directly. Dunno. YMMV.

** Code here.


Circa 1983, an early view of climate change and western water

From New York Times reporter Philip Shabecoff’s October 1983 piece examining some of the more significant findings in a new National Academies report on the implications of climate change:

Paul E. Waggoner, a member of the assessment committee, said in an interview that ”people in California will be drinking their water,” instead of using it for irrigated farming.

The report was entitled “Changing climate : report of the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee / Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Resources, National Research Council.” Here’s the chapter by Waggoner and Roger Revelle on the implications of climate change for the Colorado River and western water.

Central New Mexico water agency cutting back some of its irrigators

Reservoir levels dropped over the weekend past a critical trigger point, causing the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District to curtail water deliveries this week to about 5,000 acres of farmland in central New Mexico.

Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District water in Albuquerque’s North Valley, June 2018

With El Vado Reservoir on the Rio Chama just 26 percent full, the decision to cut deliveries to the MRGCD’s “water bank” irrigators was inevitable. These are farmers who had sold off their senior water rights, mostly to cities, but are stilled allowed to irrigate for a higher fee and subject to the availability of a pool of “surplus” water.

That “surplus” (I put scare quotes around this because there’s a serious policy argument about whether such a surplus really exists, and whether the “water bank” is a good idea) doesn’t exist in this very dry year.

The acreage here – 5,000 acres – is interesting. Water bank acreage had been running at about 2,000 acres per year in recent years. The jump is likely not an actual increase in irrigated acres, but rather appears to be people who had already sold off their priority rights (pre-1907 rights, the senior rights in the valley) and were just irrigating anyway. The District has been cracking down on that, so many of those people are now paying up and joining the water bank. Which means that, in a dry year, there is now a mechanism to cut them off.

Drought, climate change – we know more than we used to

Ben Cook, Justin Mankis, and Kevin Anchukaitis have an extremely helpful review paper in Current Climate Change Reports (ungated, thanks) sorting out what we do and don’t know about the impact of climate change on droughts.

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report was cautious in its assessment of our knowledge of drought, reporting only “low confidence” in then-current assessments of the detection and attribution of a climate change impact on drought:

In the years since the AR5 was published, however, there have been steady advancements in our understanding of drought dynamics and the associated physical processes. These insights have been generated through further development of the paleoclimate record, new analyses of recent and historical drought events, and the widespread use and interrogation of climate models.
Those following the Colorado River Basin will be unsurprised by the results here:
Focusing on Colorado River streamflow, Woodhouse et al. [109] compared this most recent drought period (2000–2012) against similar magnitude droughts in the 1950s (1950–1956) and 1960s (1959–1969). They found that while both the 1950s and 1960s droughts were linked to significant precipitation deficits, precipitation in the basin was near normal in the 2000s and this latest drought was likely driven by the much warmer temperatures. Udall et al. [110] subsequently concluded that historical warming of 0.9?C has reduced Colorado River flow by 2.7–9%, which would account for roughly one third of flow losses during the 2000–2014 drought in the basin. McCabe et al. [111] found similar effects of warming on streamflow in the Upper Colorado River Basin, attributing reductions in streamflow of 7% over the last three decades to increased evapotranspiration and snowmelt from warming in the spring and summer (April–September).
Tons more on specific global droughts of note, including Australia and California. (Read the paper!) Here’s the key conclusion:
Our knowledge of climate change and drought has advanced considerably since the publication of the AR5. This expanded body of knowledge includes numerous studies
that more confidently attribute recent droughts to climate change and paleoclimate analyses that highlight the unusual severity of recent droughts in the long-term context of the Common Era. These findings represent a marked shift from the much more conservative statements regarding drought and climate change in the AR5, which were appropriate for the time given the state of the science.