On the brink of a major deal to reduce Colorado River water use

A sweeping deal to reduce Lower Colorado River Basin water use will get its most detailed public airing to date at tomorrow’s (Nov. 7, 2016) meeting of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Water Planning and Stewardship Committee.

If the deal goes through – and there are hurdles yet to clear – Arizona, California, and Nevada would all agree to further cuts in their use of Colorado River water. It would be the third major agreement among the states and the federal government in the last two decades, deals that have repeatedly sidestepped the risk of litigation over unsettled legal questions about who is entitled to how much of the river’s increasingly scarce water.

Under the deal Nevada and Arizona would take deeper cuts than those already locked in by a 2007 multi-state agreement. In addition, California (which has senior water rights and therefore the strongest bargaining position) would also agree to join in the reductions. Arizona, which pumps Colorado River water uphill from Lake Havasu to the farms and cities of the Phoenix-Tucson region, would take by far the biggest cuts. But having California join in the reductions is a huge breakthrough in finding a workable solution to the Colorado River’s problems.

The deal’s been talked about for some time, so much of what’s in the MWD staff presentations is not new. But Monday’s public meeting begins the next step in the process, as the many agencies involved begin the process of formally approving the deal, so it’s worth digging down into the details at this point.

Why is this needed? Because water use has been consistently greater than water supply since the turn of the century. Lake Mead, which stores water for a vast region of the Southwestern United States, has dropped more than 140 feet since the late 1990s, and is now at its lowest levels since it was first filled in the 1930s.

It is not yet at critical levels, and modeling done in 2007 suggested that the risk of the supply/use imbalance pushing Lake Mead to critical levels was relatively low. But in the last decade, things have just gotten worse and worse. From the staff presentation to be delivered to Met board members tomorrow:



Elevation 1,020 is in the zone where things get really bad, a threshold beyond which it is difficult to maintain the basic structure and function of the communities depending on Colorado River water in Nevada, Arizona, and California. In 2007, the federal study used to support the interim shortage guidelines negotiated by the states suggested a bit more than a one in ten chance of reaching 1,020 by year 2026. By the summer of 2015, the modeling put that at something like one in five. But a “stress test” modeling run, using data that more closely matches the recent drought and the impact of climate change, puts the risk now at more than 40 percent absent action to slow Mead’s decline by reducing water use ahead of trouble.

That action, to slow Mead’s decline, makes up the most important piece of the deal.

The 2007 shortage sharing guidelines took the first steps in that direction, with Nevada and Arizona agreeing to specified cuts as Mead dropped. Those first cuts would kick in when Mead begins a year below elevation 1,075 feet above sea level, which hasn’t happened yet.

As outlined in this table being presented to Met board members tomorrow, the new agreement includes deeper cuts, sooner:

One of the tricks here is that agreement at the state level to reduce the amount of water taken from the Colorado River must then be sorted out at more local levels, among the various water users with claims on the Colorado River. California appears to have a deal among those using Colorado River water to apportion the cuts as follows:

That would mean, for example, that the Imperial Irrigation District would have to absorb 60 percent of the 200,000 acre foot cut that happens if/when Lake Mead drops to elevation 1,045, or 120,000 acre feet of water.

But here’s where the deal gets tricky. The amount of water not taken (by IID or whomever) would get its own line item in the Lake Mead accounting system, sort of like a piggy bank. Here are the rules for managing that water and in some cases getting it back out of the piggy bank:

What this means, in essence, is that if it gets wet again, users will be able to get their conserved DCP water back out of Lake Mead. And in the meantime, they have the option of using some of it on a short term basis.

There is some urgency to get this thing done. Folks in the current administration have made it clear that they want to have a deal in place before Jan. 20. Even with if Hillary Clinton wins next Tuesday’s election and we have relative continuity, a new administration would want to take a fresh look at a deal this important, which would mean significant delay. A change in party would mean even more uncertainty and likely delay.

With the California part of the deal looking relatively solid, there are two major areas of uncertainty remaining. (Nevada, with essentially one major water user, the Southern Nevada Water Authority serving greater Las Vegas, faces little controversy.)

The first is Arizona. There’s a scramble underway to figure out how shortages there would be allocated, and as near as I can tell no agreement yet on the details. (If you know different, text me, let’s talk!) Arizona faces an additional complication in that any agreement requires ratification by the state legislature. I’m told that could happen in early January if the parties within Arizona can come to agreement.

The second is the question of Mexico. Diplomats from both countries are in the midst of delicate negotiation over the final terms of an agreement that they also hope to have done before the Obama administration leaves office. This will determine the extent to which Mexico also shares in shortages as Lake Mead drops. It’s not at all clear to me where this stands, other than that a lot of work remains between now and Jan. 20.

By tradition, big deals like this are nailed down and publicly signed and sealed and speeched upon by the Secretary of the Interior at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas, which this year begins Dec. 14. Here’s what to watch for: If Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is there for the usual Friday federal session, we’ve got a deal. If Deputy Secretary Mike Connor is on the agenda to speak in her stead, be nervous.

We’re already in a Colorado River “shortage”, we just don’t call it that

As Bruce Finley notes in today’s Denver Post, we are on the brink of the first shortage declaration on the Colorado River:

The next president could be faced with ordering a first-ever reduction in water siphoned from the river by 333,000 acre feet next August, a report by the Colorado River Future Project contends. That’s an amount equivalent to the water used in 666,0000 homes.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials on Tuesday confirmed the finding. Federal models show a 48 percent chance that, without cuts, lower basin states Arizona, California and Nevada would face shortages starting in 2018.

What Finley is describing is the formal shortage declaration procedure. If next summer’s forecast calls for Lake Mead to drop below elevation 1,075 feet above sea level at the end of 2018, the federal government will declare a shortage, reducing deliveries of water to Arizona and Nevada.

2016 Lower Basin water use

2016 Lower Basin water use

But in order to try to avoid mandatory cutbacks – a “shortage” declaration – we’re already seeing water users in Arizona and Nevada voluntarily cutting back. My rough estimate, based on munging together a couple of US Bureau of Reclamation datasets*, is that US Lower Basin water use this year will be about 7.267 million acre feet, the lowest it’s been since 2005. In other words, in order to avoid being forced to use less water, a number of the big water agencies are voluntarily using less water.

The current forecasts for the end of 2017 are close enough to the magic 1,075 line that a continuation of this year’s voluntary conservation efforts could very easily prevent a mandatory “shortage” declaration again next year.

* a note on methods: Based on the keen observations of Tony Davis about the USBR’s methodology for forecasting water use, I’ve done some supplemental calculations here to come up with my own revised estimate of how much water will be used this year. It’s based on the official USBR forecast, combined with estimates from the agency’s 24-month study which capture anticipated diversions by the Metropolitan Water District and the Central Arizona Project that don’t show up in the official forecast until later. It’s still not “right” (danger, journalist doing math!) but close enough. Here’s the data graphed back a while:

Lower Colorado River Basin water use

Lower Colorado River Basin water use

In fond memory of Kelly Redmond

Every fall semester, I have our UNM Water Resources Program students read Kelly Redmond’s 2002 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society paper on the definitions of drought. It’s a classic in a very particular and important way.

Kelly Redmond

Kelly Redmond

Based at the Desert Research Center in Reno, Kelly carried the title of “Regional Climatologist” for the western United States, and it was a title that he lived. For decades as a newspaper reporter, I’d do the ritual of calling Kelly only to get his standard voicemail detailing his travel schedule for the week. He spent as much time on the road traveling the West talking to people as he did in his office.

The grueling travel schedule was purposeful. No scientist I know more fully lived his life at the interface between his science and the people who needed to use it. As a result, Kelly was the most skilled and gifted science communicator I know – because in significant part he spent his time listening to the people who needed to use his science, understanding what they needed.

His 2002 BAMS paper is a classic because it is informed by the deep understanding that came from those years of listening. His knowledge of the science, as an active researcher on western climate issues, was unsurpassed. But it was a science always informed by what the community needed of it.

Kelly died yesterday at his home in Reno. The outpouring of love the last 24 hours has been amazing. He was enormously generous with his time and intellect. He will be deeply missed, but the enterprise we are all engaged in is immeasurably richer for his contributions.

The unexpected history of Las Vegas and Hoover Dam

Folks in Nevada today are celebrating the 80th anniversary of Hoover Dam’s sort-of-semi-official power production.

Hoover Dam is such a dominant feature on the history of the west in the 20th century that it’s fun to contemplate what people thought about it before it happened. One of my fascinating side trips when I was researching my book was spent reading contemporary accounts from the vantage point of a nascent Las Vegas, a desert city built around some springs that was one of a hundred minor rail stops in the West until the 1920s:

The accident of Las Vegas’s geography, just miles away from the deep canyons of the Colorado River, was about to change that. The untouchable water was within reach, but the Las Vegas of the 1920s could not begin to grasp its implications.

“Action of 7 States Means Millions to Las Vegas,” the Las Vegas Age proclaimed on November 25, 1922, as it formally announced completion of the Colorado River Compact. The millions would come from building a dam that, thanks to “the Hand of Destiny,” would surely be built at the ideal dam sites in the canyons southeast of town. The Age
also trumpeted the importance of cheap power, which would help Las Vegas compete with big industrializing cities back East. If any thought was being given to the water supply a new dam might provide, the newspapers of the day did not mention it.

As I’ve written and spoken about many times, you can always begin to understand a city by considering its water – London falling at the point in the Thames estuary where it was first practical to land a boat headed upriver, for example, or New York as a port at the mouth of the Hudson. For Las Vegas it is clearly the Colorado, but in ways strange.

The leaders of Las Vegas imagined electricity to power factories and industry. Modern Las Vegas has made rather different uses of that power. They didn’t seem to think much at the time about the water at all.

Do US native communities’ water rights extend to groundwater?

In the 1908 case, Winters v. United States, the court ruled Indian tribes are entitled to sufficient water supplies for their reservations. But the Supreme Court has never specified whether those so-called “Winters rights” apply to groundwater in addition to surface water.Ian James writes about a fascinating case now making its way through the California courts:

Lawyers for the Coachella Valley’s largest water districts and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians presented their arguments to a federal appeals court in a water rights case that could set a precedent for tribes across the country.

The case hinges on the question of whether the Agua Caliente tribe holds a federally granted “reserved right” to groundwater beneath its reservation in Palm Springs and surrounding areas.

This case connects two really interesting gaps in US water law.

The first is the connection, or lack thereof, between groundwater and surface water. The law varies from state to state, but in many places the two types of water are treated separately under the law, even though they are clearly connected hydrologically. (Abrahm Lustgarten explains the disconnect here.)

The second gap is our inability to live up to the legal promises made when native communities were relegated to “reservations”. The word here needs to be considered carefully. The US Supreme Court in 1908 ruled that when the land was set aside for those native communities – the word is “reserved” – along with that land was the implicit legal right to use the land. Because without water, land in the arid West is substantially less useful. As James explains:

In the 1908 case, Winters v. United States, the court ruled Indian tribes are entitled to sufficient water supplies for their reservations. But the Supreme Court has never specified whether those so-called “Winters rights” apply to groundwater in addition to surface water.

The case in question here involves the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians near Palm Springs. The implications stretch across Indian Country.

Webinar tomorrow with Sharon Megdal, Jay Lund, and me

The  folks at the Security and Sustainability Forum are doing a webinar tomorrow around some of the issues in my book, about water governance, resilience, and sustainability. I am especially jazzed about the company – Sharon Megdal from the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center and Jay Lund from the University of California Davis Center for Watershed Science will be joining us.

It’s free, info on connecting is here.

In Indian Country, where pickle buckets count as water infrastructure

plumbing in Indian Country

plumbing in Indian Country

Kirk Yazzie, his wife and three children, ages 2 to 9, live in a one-room house in Thoreau that uses a solar-powered water pump that draws water from a cistern to a tap inside their home.Before the demonstration project started two months ago, Yazzie said he hauled water from St. Bonaventure’s well across town.

“I used to haul water in a car with five-gallon pickle buckets,” Yazzie said. The indoor tap, he said, “is a lot better than the buckets.”

That’s from Olivier Uyttebrouck’s story in this morning’s Albuquerque Journal about efforts to bring indoor plumbing to homes in the Navajo homelands of western New Mexico.

In the United States as a whole, 2 percent of homes lack what the U.S. Census Bureau Counts as “complete plumbing facilities“:

  • Hot and cold running water
  • A flush toilet
  • A bathtub or shower

On the Navajo Nation, that number is 38 percent.

Elephant Butte Reservoir and climate change

Elephant Butte Reservoir

Elephant Butte Reservoir

temperatures, Northern New Mexico mountains

temperatures, Northern New Mexico mountains

Elephant Butte, one of the first big dams built by the then-Reclamation Service (now Bureau of Reclamation), is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

As the graph above shows, its reservoir ended the 2016 water year Sept. 30 at less than 7 percent full. The reservoir’s ups and downs through history show the great variability in New Mexico’s climate. But in recent years, New Mexico State University’s Phil King told Mónica Ortiz Uribe of public radio’s Fronteras Desk, something more seems to be going on as climate changes pushes up temperatures in the northern mountains that feed snowpack to the Rio Grande:

What’s become less reliable though, is the water supply behind the dam. Currently Elephant Butte Reservoir is less than 7 percent full.

“Obviously it would be nicer to celebrate the 100th anniversary with the water spilling over the spillway,” said Robert Fabian, a fourth generation farmer in the Mesilla Valley of southern New Mexico.

Fabian rotates his crops year to year growing onions, cotton, chile and alfalfa.

“Most of my family came from Texas to partake in that Garden of Eden that was being created out here in the desert,” he said.

In the last century, that Garden of Eden has gone through both wet and dry cycles. The latest dry spell has hung on for 14 years, only now climate change is amplifying the effects of drought.

“I am quite concerned that this is not just one of the same old mood swings but a permanent shift toward a more arid climate,” said Phil King, a civil engineer and consultant for Elephant Butte Irrigation District.


  • Elephant Butte elevation from USBR
  • Temperatures from NCDC

The message from the Colorado Delta pulse flow: a little water can go a long way

There’s an important point I try to make when I’m out in public talking about the 2014 Colorado River Delta environmental pulse flow: the amount of water used and the size of the landscape that got wet, compared to the once-vast delta, is tiny.

beaver dam at Laguna CILA site, March 27, 2014, by John Fleck

beaver dam at Laguna CILA site, March 27, 2014, by John Fleck

I get excited about the pulse flow, when water managers on both sides of the US-Mexico border in the spring of 2014 released water from Morelos Dam into the usually-dry delta. For those of us who were there, it was a life-changing experience. But at a bit more than 100,000 acre feet of water, it was less than 1 percent of the water that once flowed every year into the delta before we diverted the Colorado River’s water upstream for our farms and cities.

But in modern environmental habitat creation/restoration efforts, what happened then and in the two years since illustrates something that’s increasingly coming to dominate institutional discussions of returning water to the environment in the West’s arid landscape. Absent abandoning all those farms and cities – which we’re not going to do – we’re not going to return the rivers to the way they were. But the delta pulse flow experiment shows that even a small amount of water – “in the right spot and at the right time”, in the words of the University of Arizona’s Karl Flessa, one of the leaders of the pulse flow science team – can yield big results.

That’s the key message found in the International Boundary and Water Commission’s latest follow-up report, completed earlier this year and just now posted publicly (pdf). If you don’t want to wade through the full technical details, Mari Jensen at the University of Arizona wrote a nice summary of the findings:

Birdlife responded to the post-flood burgeoning of vegetation, and bird diversity is still higher than before, the monitoring team reports. Migratory waterbirds, nesting waterbirds and nesting riparian birds all increased in abundance.

Colorado River delta pulse flow map, courtesy IBWC

Colorado River delta pulse flow map, courtesy IBWC

One of the important things I think we seem to be learning in this experiment is that it may be more efficient, in terms of environmental benefit per unit water used, to move the water through irrigation systems and deliver it to targeted spots in the flood plain that way rather than running it straight down the river channel. One of the most important habitat restoration areas is the Laguna Grande restoration site, near the bottom in the map on the right. You can get more water there if you run it through the irrigation canals rather than down the main river channel.

The flow down the main channel was too small to do much of the natural “scouring” that a real flowing river does. That scouring is essential for preparing habitat for the germination of riparian vegetation. So if you only have a little bit of water to work with, manual human scouring with heavy equipment to prepare habitat for the water’s arrival is going to be important. Key lesson.

These features of the experiment – delivery of water through the irrigation system and manual preparation of the land for the water’s arrival – lead to all sorts of interesting questions about what counts as “natural”, which is a conversation we need to have. But if your goal is measurable habitat improvement, birds and such, that seems to be the best way to do it.

I spent a bunch of time on the pulse flow in my new book, Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West, because it was a storyteller’s dream:

Scientific data is scant, but locals say beavers were nearly completely gone from the region during the dry times that came with the closure of Glen Canyon Dam and the diversion of the river’s entire flow. But on the few occasions that the delta flooded, the beavers would reappear, perhaps following the flow down from refuges upstream.

And so it was again, in the spring of 2014. A small flow of excess agricultural water flowed past willows through a human-built environmental restoration site. As soon as the water arrived, delivered through irrigation canals in an early phase of the river restoration efforts, beavers materialized out of the ecological mists, damming the little channel. They had found their way back.

I’ve worried that, in the excitement of my personal experience of it, I was overselling the pulse flow. But the data show benefits lingering, and they also show this central lesson – if we think carefully about how to deploy a bit of our scarce water for the environment, a little bit can go a long way.

Update: Audubon also has a nice writeup on the results.