“unless extraordinary circumstances arise” – tweaking Colorado River Basin rules

Watching the back-and-forth among the U.S. Department of Interior and the seven Colorado River Basin States over Glen Canyon Dam operations over the last few months, I’d been thinking that we’ve dropped into an area where the rules developed in 2007, and tweaked in the years since, no longer apply.

In short, if we use the reservoir operating rules the states and federal government negotiated back in 2007 (tweaked more recently by the ill-named “Drought Contingency Plan”), we drive Lake Powell below the level at which Glen Canyon Dam can generate electricity. Our only choice is to throw out the rules.

But speaking on the sidelines of the Stegner Center Colorado River Compact symposium last month, one of the smartest Colorado River lawyers I know corrected me. Because the rules were written in way that leaves Interior with an escape hatch. It’s Section 7.D of the Interim Guidelines:

The Secretary will base annual determinations regarding the operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead on these Guidelines unless extraordinary circumstances arise. Such circumstances could include operations that are prudent or necessary for safety of dams, public health and safety, other emergency situations, or other unanticipated or unforeseen activities arising from actual operating experience. (emphasis added)

I still think my earlier observation has an element of truth. The decline in reservoir levels has dropped us into an area where the rules that were developed – a complex nested set of “if this, then that” rules where the this’s and that’s refer to elevations in Lake Powell and Lake Mead and annual releases from upstream to downstream – no longer work. By invoking the “extraordinary circumstances” clause – as Assistant Secretary Tanya Trujillo did in her April 8 letter to the states, and as the states did today in their letter written in response – the parties are agreeing to suspend the if-then’s and improvise.

But the ever-clever drafters clearly new bad shit was possible, and they were ready with the “extraordinary circumstances” clause.

I retain my admiration for the collaborative process of the seven states and Reclamation here. Holding everyone together for this rapid-fire reservoir management improvisational octet has been a truly impressive feat.

But given what has transpired, it’s worth looking back to the original purpose and need of the 2007 guidelines. In the supporting documents developed for the ’07 guidelines, Reclamation explained their purpose thus:

This action is proposed in order to provide a greater degree of certainty to United States Colorado River water users and managers of the Colorado River Basin by providing detailed, and objective guidelines for the operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead….

“Greater degree of certainty”? In 2022, 15 years later, not so much.

At this point, no one knows what the fuck happens next.


  1. Maybe that’s why they called them interim. Things are changing too fast to stay locked into any particular set of rules. But can basin politics keep up?

  2. Almost immediately after the 2007 guidelines were implemented, the coordinated operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead fell into the Equalization Tier, as stated on page 51 of the interim guidelines:

    “In Water Years when Lake Powell elevation is projected on January 1 to be at or
    above the elevation stated in the Lake Powell Equalization Elevation Table, an
    amount of water will be released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead at a rate
    greater than 8.23 maf per Water Year to the extent necessary to avoid spills, or
    equalize storage in the two reservoirs, or otherwise to release 8.23 maf from
    Lake Powell. The Secretary shall release at least 8.23 maf per Water Year and
    shall release additional water to the extent that the additional releases will not
    cause Lake Powell content to be below the elevation stated in the Lake Powell
    Equalization Elevation Table or cause Lake Mead content to exceed that of Lake
    Powell; provided, however, if Lake Powell reaches the elevation stated in the
    Lake Powell Equalization Elevation Table for that Water Year and the
    September 30 projected Lake Mead elevation is below elevation 1,105 feet, the
    Secretary shall release additional water from Lake Powell to Lake Mead until
    the first of the following conditions is projected to occur on September 30: (i)
    the reservoirs fully equalize; (ii) Lake Mead reaches elevation 1,105 feet; or (iii)
    Lake Powell reaches 20 feet below the elevation in the Lake Powell
    Equalization Elevation Table for that year. ”

    The probability of this happening was extremely low–at least that what I was told. As such Lake Powell released at least 8.23 maf until Lake Mead rose to 1105 at the end of the water year (wy 2008 if I recall, but I have to verify this). Ops was just getting used to implementing the new rules, not an easy task in a government organization where change management was a critical part of making government work in an internally and externally charged political environment. A such this rule inadvertently “connected” Powell and Mead testing once again trust between the Upper and Lower Basins. For example, by draining Lake Powell to raise Mead to 1105 created a condition where Lower Basin users could pump more from Lake Havasu, thereby lowering Mead faster than Powell could fill Mead, in essence giving the Lower Basin the ability to drain Lake Powell to the detriment of the Upper Basin. Phone calls with Don Ostler and flights to Salt Lake occurred to explain the situation, however, I believe users in Arizona such as CAP were undergoing routine operations by pumping at Mark Wilmer, adjusting levels at Lake Pleasant, and performing other normal operations that managers do to optimize water and power distribution.

    So yes, long winded, but after going through this exercise that was my reaction also: who knows what the f** happens next.

  3. They can’t release a lot of water quickly from Flaming Gorge anyways.

    I’m glad to see recent rains/snows in CA and now getting to UT, CO and AZ. Anything which helps the snowpack and soil moisture levels is sorely needed.

    What next? I’d say pick a reservoir and empty the other so at least you have one of the two capable of generating power. This reduces evaporative losses and gives you the energy. Letting both fall below power pool just makes no sense to me.

  4. @ Doug Blanchford: AZ should have been weened off of Surplus Water years before. They now need to decide how to tap and allocate the water they managed to recharge. Which won’t last long as how hard agriculture will tap groundwater without surface water available. CAP should have banked 50% into the aquifer. And, adapted groundwater regulations in line with sustainable withdrawals. AZ’s pro growth stance will lead to the demise of what they’ve got.

  5. @Greg Heiden: Yes during the 2008 equalization ops between Mead and Powell, it occurred to us that Arizona could pump from Havasu and recharge existing aquifers, subject to its entitlements (2.8 maf total, including CAP and Yuma water users, et al, Yuma with higher priority). This could keep Mead below 1105 and essentially drain Lake Powell until 1105 was reached or the entitlement or other adjusted allocation was reached. However we didn’t see anything nefarious; just the possibility raised hackles across the Lower and Upper Basin, mostly in the Upper Basin. Perception became reality.

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