Colorado River Lower Basin water users leaving nearly 500,000 acre feet in Lake Mead this year

I’m happy (nay enthusiastic!) to point out the way Lake Mead keeps dropping, but it’s worth nothing this as well: Colorado River water use in Arizona, Nevada, and California this year is currently forecast at 7.006 million acre feet (source: pdf), well below the three states’ nominal legal entitlement of 7.5 million acre feet.

The current forecast:

  • Arizona: 92 percent of its 2.8 maf entitlement
  • California: 95 percent of its 4.4 maf entitlement
  • Nevada: 84 percent of its 300,000 acre foot entitlement

This is important. The problem we face in the Colorado River Basin is that there’s less actual wet water in the system than there is legal entitlement to water. As long as people keep taking their full legal entitlement, the system keeps pushing toward a crash. These numbers reflect a conscious effort by Lower Basin water users and system managers to grapple with that reality.

In combination with a release of extra water this year from Lake Powell, upstream, the Lower Basin demand management underway now is enough to hold Lake Mead to a forecast drop of 1.6 feet in 2016 (source: pdf). That’s still a drop, but nothing like the 7 to 14 foot annual drop we’ve seen in the last few years. Not enough, but headed in the right direction.

Shoshone hydro plant, the most fascinating water right in the West

Shoshone power plant, Glenwood Canyon, Colorado River

Shoshone power plant, Glenwood Canyon, Colorado River

On what is apparently Colorado River Day (who decides such things?) I made a little pilgrimage this afternoon to see the Shoshone hydro plant, just up river from the little town of Glenwood Springs on Colorado’s west slope.

Shoshone has a unique place in the water management of the Colorado River Basin because of western water law’s “doctrine of prior appropriation”, which says that the earliest water users have first dibs on the water in times of scarcity.

Because Shoshone was built in the first decade of the 20th century, its water right predates much upstream water use, including transmountain diversions that take water from the west slope and ship it across the continental divide for use in Colorado’s populous front range communities of the Denver corridor.

As water gets low in the summer months, those upstream users have to shut down their diversions to ensure that there is enough water in the Colorado River for Shoshone to keep generating power. But here’s the cool thing, which makes Shoshone so interesting – it’s not a consumptive water right. Shoshone “uses” the water to generate electricity, then passes it along downstream. It’s not used up.

Which means that recreational and environmental values downstream of the plant are actually enhanced by Shoshone’s “use” of water, keeping more water in the Colorado River. From an analysis by Joe Reiter, Lauren Ris, and Doug Kenney:

One of the major beneficiaries of this arrangement is the environment.  The Colorado River is home to four endangered fish species: Humpback Chub, Pikeminnow, Razorback Sucker, and Bonytail…. The Shoshone water right helps meet the flow targets needed to maintain native fish habitat set by the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a coalition of federal, state and private organizations within Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. It also, inadvertently, supports a successful rafting industry in Glenwood Springs. Approximately one dozen rafting outfitters operate on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon accounting for 72,000 trips a year and $2 million in direct revenue. Individuals make 50,000 private trips per year on the same stretch of river.

The rafters were out in force when I stopped by this afternoon, literally putting in immediately downstream from the Shoshone outfall:

rafters at Shoshone

rafters at Shoshone

Happy Colorado River Day.

All hydrology is local, Glenwood Springs edition

Confluence of Colorado and Roaring Fork, Glenwood Springs

Confluence of Colorado and Roaring Fork, Glenwood Springs

Eric Kuhn, General Manager of the Colorado River District, took me for a walk along his river yesterday evening, pointing out the muddy flow of the Colorado, coming in from the left, at its confluence with the Roaring Fork River – the clear water coming in under the railroad bridge.

This is on the state of Colorado’s west slope, near the headwaters of the Colorado River in the Rocky Mountains. The muddy look is from rains they’ve had in recent days in the Eagle River watershed. Eric said they can tell where the storms have been by the color of the runoff.

“I flood.” UNM’s Basia Irland and the voice of a river

Remarkable piece by UNM water professor emeritus Basia Irland:

I flood. That is what I — and all my cousins — do from time to time. It is part of our rhythm. In their hubris, humans build cities and towns right on our banks, then get upset with us when our waters rise and destroy some of their property. They try to control us by building dams and straightening our courses so that we no longer flow naturally, aiding the hydrologic cycle, creating meanders, spreading silt, and sustaining entire ecosystems of aquatic life, plants, and animals.

Urban water, urban birds

Black-necked stilt, Gilbert Water Ranch

Black-necked stilt, Gilbert Water Ranch

When I’m in Phoenix, I always try to squeeze out some time to go birding at the Gilbert Water Ranch, a constructed wetland where practical water management has been turned into a lovely urban amenity.

A fascinating new project by Arizona State University graduate student Riley Burnette (pdf) attempts to quantify the role that the greater Phoenix metro area’s urban water plays as water bird habitat.

Yes, Phoenix is apparently a water bird hot spot!

Cities within the arid Southwest often act as a mesic relief to the dry surrounding habitats, offering similar resources as the natural riparian strips waterbirds have traditionally been shown to use. In desert cities, waterbirds have the potential to use the 6 large amount of aquatic resources provided by the reallocation and distribution of water. In Phoenix, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has been conducting a waterbird census since 2006 and determined that numerous urban water-bodies attract a proportionally higher diversity and abundance of waterbirds than anywhere else in Arizona.

This is often accidental, but Burnette argues that this presents management opportunities:

Urban riparian areas are often a direct interface between humans and nature, and can catalyze socioeconomic and ecological revitalization of cities…. A combination of aquatic features can provide a number of ecosystems services, including 65 increased biodiversity, and a better understanding of the system will allow for managers to direct decisions for desired outcomes.

One of the implications here is that water conservation, often an unquestioned goal (by me!), has implications for urban ecosystems:

It is interesting to consider some of the potential outcomes if the “leakiness” of stormdrains are improved or the amount of public water is reduced…. As water conservation becomes increasingly important…, there must be awareness that water is a multi-faceted resource with the potential to optimize habitat and support biodiversity in addition to providing public services….

The shrinking of the American lawn

According to this piece by Andrew McGill of CityLab/The Atlantic, the average American yard has shrunk by 26 percent since the 1970s, as homes get larger while lots get smaller:

The shrinking lawn is actually an economic compromise. Americans want bigger houses, but since every additional square foot balloons the cost, homebuilders are keeping prices affordable by cutting off lawn acreage.

The happy side effect is a reduction in new homes’ consumptive use of water.

My book is now a thing that exists in the physical world

There was a weird moment this afternoon when I was writing something and needed to dig out a reference from my book. (I do this a lot. It’s all there, the book has a lot of footnotes.) For a split second I started to follow the usual path on my hard drive to the final page proofs…. Click…. Pause….

a box of books that came in the mail

a box of books came in the mail

Walk into living room, grab book off table, thumb through it. Yes, there it is, page 6, in the introduction.

I’ve been walking by the stack of books all weekend, reaching out and touching them, sometimes opening one up and reading a page.

During the flurry of attention around the release of Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates at one point described the moment of terror when he was in the midst of the hard part of writing, when he realized the risk of abject public failure. To write a book is a deeply arrogant, deeply public act: “Please pay a substantial sum of money for what I have to say and spend hours reading it.” To fail at this is to fail in a very public way. I’m no Ta-Nehisi Coates, so my terror was of a different scale entirely, but it was no less real.

So I pick it up and I read a page and I’m pretty happy, and also relieved. It came out OK.

Water is for Fighting Over and Other Myths about Water in the West is available for pre-order, on the bookshelves at your favorite local bookstore Sept. 1.

Elwha Dam Removal – a reminder that changing water management systems is hard

The removal of two dams on the Elwha River, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, has been rightly celebrated as a major achievement – returning a river and its fish to their old channel. But there is much to learn, also, about how difficult it is to change the course of a water system when society has come to depend on the old ways.

In this case, it is the community of Port Angeles, at the Elwha’s mouth. To make the project work required construction of a big new water treatment facility. But as Lynda Mapes reports, the new water treatment facility kinda doesn’t work:

It was the most expensive single part of the $325 million Elwha dam-removal project: a $79 million water-facilities project designed and built for the National Park Service that has never worked as originally planned.

Now the park service is ready to hand the plant off to the city of Port Angeles, but the city doesn’t want it, saying it doesn’t work and will cost too much to operate.

The city says it won’t take over the facilities — which include screens, pumps, a water intake, a water-treatment plant and other components — without $16 million in repairs first. The city also wants money to cover higher than anticipated operating costs for 20 years, for a total of $41 million.

The deal here is complicated, but the bottom line is that when you make major changes in a water system, there are winners and losers, the losers generally need to be compensated, and figuring out how to get the compensation right is hard.

Why water management in the Upper Colorado River Basin is so different from the Lower

Mancos Valley irrigation

Mancos Valley irrigation

CORTEZ, CO – The Spring Creek Extension Ditch Company got the OK this week from Colorado’s Southwest Basin Roundtable for a $29,000 grant to replace a 75-year-old siphon on the Spring Creek Ditch, where it crosses the Pine Valley Canal.

The ditch company has been delivering water to farmers southeast of Durango since 1901. There are currently 64 shareholders using its water, irrigating 5,435 acres. The siphon is at risk of failure, and the ditch company’s managers were asking the Roundtable for money to fund a share of the cost of replacement with a new pipe. The Roundtable, created to provide local input to and control over a portion of the state’s water spending, said yes. The ditch users themselves are covering part of the cost, and they’re asking the Colorado Water Conservation Board for the rest.

Upper Colorado River Basin agriculture, Montezuma County, Colorado

Upper Colorado River Basin agriculture, Montezuma County, Colorado

This is bottom up water management, governance at the retail level, and it says a lot about how the Colorado River Basin’s large scale issues cascade down to the local level – or perhaps how actions at the local level accumulate and filter up to the basin scale.

I was at the meeting for bigger picture stuff – a progress report on a study of Upper Basin risk as Lake Powell drops (I am working on this project with folks from the Colorado River District and Basin Roundtables from around the state). After our item, I stuck around to listen to the rest of the agenda, as one does. We New Mexicans are endlessly fascinated by the water management ways of our neighbors to the north. What is this wizardry you call “Roundtables” and “priority enforcement”?

In the Lower Colorado River Basin, where I’ve spent most of my time over the last few years working on a book, water management is a fundamentally distributive task. Water is released from Lake Mead in bulk and then distributed outward at a relatively small number of diversion points, tightly measured and well understood. You have a relatively small number of big water districts, allowing a relatively centralized decision structure. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but at least the places where action is needed are relatively few.

The Upper Basin is completely different. Water starts in snowpack, trickling down a zillion creeks, gathering in streams and rivers with scads of much smaller diversions grabbing shares of water as it heads down toward the Green and the Colorado and the San Juan, the major tributary rivers that join to form what in the Upper Basin they call collectively the “Big River”. It is a fundamentally decentralized system.

Mancos River watershed

Mancos River watershed

Consider the Mancos River watershed, the next watershed to the east of Cortez. Lissa and I wandered its back roads today looking at farms (as one does) – five acres here, ten acres there, much of it hay and pasture. It’s lovely, green in July, the transitional geography between the Rockies and the deserts of the Colorado Plateau. If you’ve ever been to Mesa Verde, Mancos is the river valley that marks the eastern and southern edge of the park. In the 1990s (the most recent data I could easily find, an assessment done by Peter Stacey of the University of New Mexico), about 12,000 acres were being irrigated with water from some 46 separate diversions in the Mancos watershed, between its headwaters in the La Plata Mountains (a southern bit of the Rockies) and its junction with the San Juan just across the border in New Mexico. That’s 46 diversions in a tiny watershed, and pretty much every tributary in the Upper Colorado River Basin starts out this way – lots of diversion points each taking a relatively small share of the river. Compare that with Imperial County in California, where more than 450,000 acres are being irrigated with three diversions (maybe four if you count the two that serve Bard?).

As we enter into a basin wide discussion about the need to take less water from the Colorado River system – because there is less water in it than we planned for those many years ago – the nature of the conversation is very different if you have a relatively few large diversion points, or a staggering number of small ones.