Next Steps on the Colorado River

If we have learned anything from the current crisis on the Colorado River, it is that we have to know what we’ll do next if the current thing we’re doing isn’t enough.

That’s a bloggy shorthand for a deep argument that Eric Kuhn, Jack Schmidt, and I made in comments we submitted this week in response to the U.S. Department of Interior’s request for input on the development of new river operating guidelines.

As we begin discussing what replaces the soon-to-expire Colorado River operating guidelines, we argue that there are important lessons to be learned from a careful examination of the way the current guidelines have failed us.

The Failure of the 2007 Guidelines and Drought Contingency Plan(s)

In its Final Environmental Impact Statement in support of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, Interior identified the purpose and need of these Guidelines as an effort to provide “predictability” – “a greater degree of certainty to United States’ Colorado River water users and managers …, thereby allowing water users … to know when, and by how much, water deliveries will be reduced in drought and other low reservoir conditions.”

“Predictability”? “Certainty”? Crisis of 2022 says “nope”.

We’re trying to use language here – “purpose and need”, the National Environmental Policy Act terms of art – that burrows into the heads of the hard-working feds who will be reading it (we wave – you know who you are).

The failure, which Eric, Jack, and I talked about here in an argument developed while we were working on these comments, was a set of operating rules keyed on reservoir elevations in a way that managed to hold them steady, but never refilled them. That left us vulnerable to the crash that we’re now seeing.

Our immodest suggestion

New operating rules must be keyed to the actual flows of the river, not simply the levels of the reservoirs:  “[S]tream flow should be used as a component in triggering different operating regimes, not solely reservoir elevation levels.” This was the great failing of the ’07 guidelines. We need to fix it.

In some sense this seems obvious, because hydrology is now imposing this constraint on us – “long-term average consumptive uses and losses will not exceed the average natural water supply provided by the watershed”.

We recognize that there are multiple devils in the details of this recommendation including the duration of years during which balance is sought and the mechanisms by which reductions in use must be implemented to maintain a balance. Nevertheless, there is no alternative to balancing the system. We estimate that the natural supply for the period 2000-2022, including inflows within Grand Canyon, has been 12.8 maf/yr, and there is no alternative but to at least reduce basinwide water use to that value. Should watershed runoff decline even further, then basin-wide use must be further reduced.

And if or when it gets wetter again?

[I]f relatively wetter periods return, consumptive uses must remain low to recover reservoir storage.

And all of this must be done in a way that recognizes who’s been left out of past discussions like this:

We are fully cognizant of the conflict between full development of currently unused or unquantified Tribal water rights and the need to reduce overall water uses in the Basin. We believe, however, that an appropriate balance of water supplies and uses cannot ignore the unquestioned right of Tribal nations to the water necessary to fulfill the purposes of their reservations.

And this (we wave again – you know who you are):

We recognize that these goals are broad, extending beyond what some in the basin are advocating – a narrow reconsideration of reservoir operations. We are sympathetic to the burden that the breadth of analysis we are advocating will place on the dedicated and hard-working staff at Reclamation and the Department of the Interior during the next years. But anything less than an expansive view of the task at hand will fall far short of what is needed at this moment in history.

There’s lots more in the way of specifics. We encourage those interested in river management to give it a look.


  1. “We believe, however, that an appropriate balance of water supplies and uses cannot ignore the unquestioned right of Tribal nations to the water necessary to fulfill the purposes of their reservations.”

    In Arizona, cities lease water from Tribal nations. This is how they are going to try to end around the system when they lose their CAP water. Any changes to water allocation must put their needs first and those leases on par with the priority those cities are at. Otherwise it is a big loophole that will be exploited to the fullest.

  2. John,

    Do I understand you correctly to say basinwide supply averaged 12+ maf over the past two decades so basinwide consumptive use should be no more than this? Not just UB plus main Colorado River. How about Mexico?

  3. Douglas Blatchford: Interesting comments you submitted concerning the Salton Sea. I’ll send you mine via email. FYI, the Fatal Flaw Report is not the last word on the subject of ocean water importation proposals from the independent review panel; their final Feasibility Report is expected at/near the end of September. Also, the publicly available proposals are not the most recent ones, some of which include aspects similar to what you suggest. Finally, there are fatal flaws with “in-basin” plans that the Pacific Institute hasn’t considered, and which I’ve detailed in my work.

  4. Jenny Ross: Just read your comments to USBR and concur; we must be soul mates or something to that effect. I forgot to add in the basin wide tax which is a great idea and really necessary should the infrastructure funds not cover necessary costs, and as a funding source that would extend above and beyond varioius administrations and a four-year election cycle. Glad to see critical thought performed on the Fatal Flaw Study, although not a criticism, the effort at Santa Cruz did not address structural deficits on the Colorado River. The Mintue 319 pulse flows were also a success and should be integrated somehow into negotiations with Mexico as part of an over arching solution to very complex problems.

    Aslo–really liked the background piece regarding the formation and bifurcation of the Salton Trough/Gulf of California. There is an interesting study peformed connecting flooding of the Salton Trough with seismic activitiy on the southern San Andreas. Lets hope that man made changes to the sea dont have an unintended consequence, such as accidentally loading the fault, which would rupture north out of Bombay Beach then through San Gorgonio Pass, San Bernardino, then through Cajon Pass etc

  5. Any import of yet more salt water into the Salton Sea will not be a solution but just a stop-gap attempt which makes things much worse and then later have to be remedied again for a much larger cost.

    If you’re going to do something do it right even if it takes more to get it done.

    I’ve learned that lesson in life.

    What could be done is to build infrastructure for both Mexico and the Salton Sea which would provide the entire area with a reliable fresh and clean water source and also a way to return the excess salts in any waters in that region back to the Ocean.

    If done right it provides fresh water for the lower Colorado River Delta restoration efforts.

    When you consider the state of the water flowing into the Salton Sea cleaning up that water before it gets to the sea should also be a priority and I was glad to see recent funds going towards helping to fix the pollution coming in from Mexico. The losses of all of those nutrients should be tallied up as fertilizer as when done properly human waste recycling should not be a hazard or a waste at all. Keep the industrial pollutants and metals out of the system and that helps keep the whole cycle cleaner.

    Yes, I know it’s a big lift and a long term project but it actually works to regenerate the Salton Sea and the Colorado River Delta and it provides in the end an improved habitat for all sorts of wildlife and recreational uses that are currently avoided because the water reeks so bad. Add yet more salt to that and it starts turning into yet another Dead Sea. No fish, no wildlife and a vast even more toxic wasteland.

  6. Songbird: Really like the idea of infrastructure on both sides of the border, including Mexico; one criticism of the earlier pipeline propoosals was lack of engagement with Mexico. The effort that Arizona is spearheading through IBWC and amendment of the 1944 Treaty (MInute) process is a good example, where desalinization would occur on the Sonoroan coast of the Gulf of California. Ideally an agreement should be struck with the NGO’s, Tribes, States, United States and Mexico regarding an equitable solution that dents the structural deficit in the context of environmental justice.

    The Pacific Institute has voiced concern in the past regarding the overall feasiblity of sea to sea pipeline, rightfully citing how long such projects could take (decades). As we dont have decades on the river I suggest POTUS should appoint a National Water Czar that would include a subdirectorate for the Colorado River, and invoke the Defense Production Act with powers to accelerate the project, direct State and Interior to engage with Mexico, however works best. Surely water insecurity in the American Southwest and Northern Mexico is a national security problem, therefore invoking DPA would be appropriate.

  7. Many thanks to Fleck, Kuhn, and Schmidt for their comments. In their deeply-informed comments, they include that, “The largest consumptive use in the Colorado River Basin is agricultural irrigation, accounting for 70 to 80 percent of the total use by most estimates.” Stated accurately and calmly but that is beyond shocking. In most of the Colorado River watershed states, that gigantic farm water use generates only one or two percent of the labor force and the overall economy. Why in the world is it acceptable to grow hay and corn and other water-demanding crops in an arid region while consuming that much water? Fundamental reductions should be the goal, not meeting all current water “needs.” For example, the recent federal “Inflation Reduction Act” has many measures that are calculated, in combination with previous measures, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 40 percent below 2005 levels in 2030. If that is possible for a problem as tough as greenhouse gas emissions, surely a comparable goal should be considered for the biggest water user in the watershed.

    “As Colorado River Dries, the U.S. Teeters on the Brink of Larger Water Crisis”
    “The megadrought gripping the western states is only part of the problem. Alternative sources of water are also imperiled, and the nation’s food along with it.”
    Here is an amazing discussion from a scientist who has studied the region with comments on ground water and the changes coming for agriculture.

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  10. Paatrick Hunter: Here are some thoughts — and thank you for posting this.

    The Bureau and the Federal government have been wearing rosy colored glasses way too long, and yes, what is about to transpire truly will be a sh*t show. I dont consider myself a radical thinker, rather, someone with a healthy sense of risk. The problem I see now is its really too late for Reclamation and the Colorado River users to respond to the on-going drought and climate crisis, as the Federal system really doesn’t have the flexibility, or the ways and means to provide meaningful leadership given the processes required for major change on the system. Too their credit, the folks at Reclamation are the hardest working and brightest folks I have ever met, however, leadership is politicized and subject to federal election cycles, and therefore unable to respond in a time frame that is now necessary to sustain the Colorado River system.

    Here’s what I think needs to be done with leadership, given the circumstances on the river:

    -Create a National Water Czar

    To manage the Colorado River Basin’s long-term water supply, various entities will require strong
    leadership at the Federal level; therefore, I suggest establishing a National Water Czar or
    equivalent that has authority to work across agencies at the Executive level, controlling both
    resources and funding. Maximizing the water storage capacity of the Colorado River Basin
    immediately is a challenging assignment that must coordinate the multi-agency, multi-Bureau,
    efforts. This does not mean added bureacracy or reorganization of the Federal government, rather the ability to work across administrations in an effecient manner leaving the Federal system as is.

    • Invoke the Defense Production Act

    Another Federal authority that could be utilized is the Defense Production Act (DPA). Water
    insecurity on the Colorado River translates to a major national security challenge for the United
    States, given the economies of the Basin States and Tribes, especially the defense industries in
    southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico, among many other locations. Invoking DPA would give
    the president of the United States broad emergency powers that could be delegated to the Secretary
    of the Interior, above and beyond powers granted through existing authorities.

    • Streamline permitting

    Specific authority should be provided to the National Water Czar or Reclamation to expedite
    environmental permitting of water projects that enhance water supply and reduce water demand, with
    the intent to comply with the intent of environmental protections yet reduce the
    risk of third-party obstruction through environmental lawsuits.

    Regarding groudnwater:

    A basin wide groundwater strategy should be implemented and integrated into water conservation and
    water operation efforts. This strategy should include an integrated water resource approach where
    surface water and groundwater are managed together. The overall basin groundwater management scope
    should include the transboundary aquifers on both sides of the US- Mexican international

    Aridification and drought is causing agricultural users and municipalities to mine groundwater. For
    example, groundwater withdraws, and depletion is occurring in Pinal County, Arizona, as a direct
    result of Colorado River drought contingency plan and shortage criteria implementation..

    Possible ag solutions, of many:

    N-DRIP® is a proprietary, Israeli technology which has recently completed a pilot study in
    Arizona, in conjunction with the Central Arizona Project, University of Arizona, and the Colorado
    River Indian Tribes. The N-DRIP pilot study focused on:

    • “Cost-effective, innovative, adaptable, accessible irrigation efficiency water conservation
    • Sustaining agriculture
    • Conserving Colorado River water to benefit the Colorado River system and provide resiliency to
    CAP’s water supply”

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