The Colorado River at the end of water year 2022: a status report

I don’t see how this ends well.

Most of the major players – the ones that matter, anyway, by which I mean Arizona, California, and the federal government – appear boxed in by constraints they can’t seem to overcome, while the water in the Colorado River’s big reservoirs is circling the drains.

Arizona’s giving up a lot of water right now, and it’s hard to see how they solve their in-state politics and give up more without California coming up with substantial cuts of its own. Meanwhile California’s internal politics have so far constrained it from coming up with meaningful contributions. This may change soon, but the numbers being discussed may not be enough to move the needle as far as it needs to move. And the federal government seems torn between tough immediate actions and placing responsibility on the states to come up with a plan to save themselves.

Last week’s Water Education Foundation Colorado River symposium in Santa Fe was striking.

It’s an invitation-only event, and I’m not sure what the ground rules are, so I’ll treat it as a sort of “Chatham House Rules” thing.

I will say this. I moderated a panel. Harsh words were exchanged. I was kind of an asshole as I tried to get people to say the quiet parts out loud. But right now, we need to be saying the quiet parts out loud, because the water is circling the drains.

the status of the reservoirs

Boulder Harbor, Lake Mead, Oct. 18, 2010

obligatory cracked mud photo (Mead is, like, 40 feet lower right now than when I took this)

Lake Mead will end water year 2022 next Friday with a surface elevation ~1,044 feet above sea level, down 1.8 million acre feet from a year ago.

Lake Powell will end the year at somewhere around elevation ~3,529, down 1.5 million acre feet from a year ago.

Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which must now be in the end-of-water-year mix because of the way Reclamation and the states have begun moving water around like pawns on the Upper Basin chess board, will end the year at elevation 6,013, down 300,000 acre feet from last year.

Absent action by water users to use less, next year’s not-all-that-farfetched possibilities (by which I mean the Bureau of Reclamation’s latest “minimum probable” forecast) has Powell dropping below minimum power by the end of 2023 – and staying there. Absent downstream action by water users to use less water, Mead drops to 1,016 by the of water year 2023.

If the federal government holds water back in Powell to prevent the need to use the dam’s bypass tubes, that drops Mead even farther.

For those not steeped in the numbers, this is cracked-mud, five-alarm fire bad.

2022 Water Use

Use Allocation percent
California 4.445 4.4 101%
Arizona 2.056 2.8 73%
Nevada 0.236 0.3 79%
Mexico 1.45 1.5 97%

Source: USBR, Lower Colorado River Basin water use forecast, retrieved 9/25/2022

Californians are touchy about these numbers, specifically the observation that they’re taking more than their full allocation this year, even as the reservoirs are tanking. They point out that in recent years they have used significantly less than their allocated 4.4 million acre feet, banking unused water in Lake Mead as a hedge against drought. Which they’re suffering now, massively. Which is true, and fair to point out.

So, for completeness sake, here are the three Lower Basin states’ annual take on Lake Mead going back a decade.

Arizona California Nevada
2013 2,778,867 4,475,789 223,563
2014 2,774,661 4,620,756 224,616
2015 2,604,732 4,493,918 222,729
2016 2,612,833 4,381,101 238,326
2017 2,509,503 4,026,515 243,425
2018 2,632,260 4,265,525 244,103
2019 2,491,707 3,840,686 233,996
2020 2,470,776 4,059,911 255,568
2021 2,425,736 4,404,727 242,168
2022 2,056,118 4,445,255 235,851
average 2,535,719 4,301,418 236,435
percent of total allocation 90.6% 97.8% 78.8%

Source: USBR decree accounting reports

I point this out as a native Californian, and with love for my California friends. The laws and policies we have developed allow – even encourage! – this. The doctrine of prior appropriation was designed to remove water from our rivers for “beneficial use”, emptying them in the process. California played a masterful game over the 20th century to ensure the priority of its water rights and the federal largesse needed to put the water to use.

But understand, please, why everyone else in the basin is glaring at you: you have a larger allocation than everyone else, and you’ve been reducing your use less than everyone else. The law gives your water use priority over others in the basin, but that doesn’t make it feel any fairer to the rest of us as everyone is being asked to cut back to save the shrinking river on which we all depend.

Boxed in

So where do we go now?

Despite the failure of the basin states to come up with a plan to reduce water use in 2023, and the unwillingness or inability of the federal government to impose one, the mass balance problem has not changed. The “protection volumes” – the amount of cutbacks needed next year and every year thereafter for the foreseeable future – are still huge. If the 2023 water year is similar to the last three, water users need to cut 2 million acre feet just to hold the reservoirs where they are and protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell from dropping to critically low elevations, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s modeling.

Never mind about refilling.

According to a piece by Jake Bittle at Grist, California is working on a deal among the water users that would cut something – it’s not entirely clear what, Bittle references a range of 350,000 to 500,000 acre feet. This is super interesting in part because of the context – this is California going it alone. Yay for voluntary cuts! But it’s hard to see how the largest user on the system agreeing to cuts of that size gets us anywhere close to 2 million acre feet. But given the water politics within California, it’s also hard to see how California cuts more, at least voluntarily. Imperial Irrigation District is rightly demanding action on the Salton Sea, which has been shrinking as a result of past Imperial cutbacks. (Less irrigation means less percolation and runoff into the Sea. Bad air quality, bad mojo, as the Sea shrinks.) Getting Imperial farmers (and others, but Imperial’s the big player) to accept cutbacks voluntarily will have a big price tag. Forcing the cuts will almost certainly lead to litigation.

That leaves Arizona in a box. They’ve already cut nearly 800,000 acre feet this year, which is huge. There’s more water to be had in Yuma – again, for a price – but it’s hard to see Arizona coughing up more water absent California cutting more deeply. Where’s the fairness in that?

All the rest of us – Nevada, and the states of the Upper Basin – can do is look on in horror. I’ve been critical of the Upper Basin states for not agreeing to kick in some water, and I still think we’re going to have to do that sooner or later. But we’re only using ~4 million acre feet a year, on average, of our 7.5 million acre foot allocation. At this point, any savings we can muster are small relative to the use by California and Arizona. And given the Lower Basin states’ inability to come up with a plan, anything we do add to the system right now will just drain out the bottom in continued overuse.

Which leaves the federal hammer.

According to a press release last week, which (oddly?) came from the Department of Interior rather than the Bureau of Reclamation, Interior is preparing for the possibility that it may need to reduce releases from Glen Canyon Damn in 2023. (See Kuhn, Fleck, and Schmidt on this question.) This echoes something Reclamation said in August.

That would have the effect of further dropping Mead as Reclamation’s engineers scramble to protect Glen Canyon Dam.

Interior is also:

Preparing to take action to make additional reductions in 2023, as needed, through an administrative process to evaluate and adjust triggering elevations and/or increase reduction volumes identified in the 2007 Interim Guidelines Record of Decision.

I do not know what that means. I do not know if it is different from what Reclamation said in August, that the agency will:

Take administrative actions needed to further define reservoir operations at Lake Mead, including shortage operations at elevations below 1,025 feet to reduce the risk of Lake Mead declining to critically low elevations.

Folks in the federal government are frankly boxed in as well – between Lower Basin users unwilling or unable to cut use enough on their own to save themselves, with constraints imposed by a sincere attempt to be more inclusive of Tribal interests than the federal government has ever been, with the crazy problems of the Salton Sea hovering over any attept to rein in the basin’s largest water user, with the international challenge of including Mexico in the coming decisions, and with a crucial mid-term election looming.

So far, those constraints have prevented the federal government from getting specific about the threats – at least in public.

It’s hard to look at all these constraints, the boxed-in-ness – on Arizona, on California, on the federal government – and not see dead pool looming.

Absent a big snowpack, I don’t see how this ends well.

14 Comments

  1. At this point I have near zero faith in lower basin users coming up with something that will work. The feds need to line up the oxen and get to the goring. Said goring needs to include a bit extra to increase the elevations in both reservoirs as hope is not a good strategy here.

  2. Sobering analysis. I don’t see how this ends well either, but the Upper Basin can’t be given a pass just because they haven’t used their full allocation yet. A successful path forward must include sacrifice from everyone. The Upper Basin could lead by putting forward meaningful proposals, but has chosen to abdicate and wait for action from Lower Basin.

  3. WHAT ABOUT THE DCPs that everyone put together. Do they count for anything or are they just so much BS. Some SCOTUS decisions rest upon the DCPs. That can really put one in a box.

    I have been to so many meetings in my career and it is my experience that no one wants to ask the really tough questions even if they no what they are. Everyone’s career and funding source depends on going-along-to-get- along.

  4. Good and thoughtful commentary as always. Thanks for pushing the discussion.

    Some other quiet things that continue to go unsaid:

    1. Colorado diverts more water out of the basin to the eastern slope (Platte & Arkansas Rivers) than the the Metropolitan Water District (LA) uses. That remains un-discussed. I’m assuming because with any discussion or judicial ruling, would suggest reverting back to pre-1922 beneficial use water rights, as they justify the Colorado trans-basin water diversions. BUT it also brings up the the other large beneficial water use rights owned by California. And no one, outside of California, wants to talk about pre-1922 water rights. (Article 8)

    2. Also no one wants to go to the courts for a solution, because they would have to rule based on existing, and pre-1922, water rights law, also per article 8. And if that happens, lots of the basin states lose out to Colorado and California. See point #1. So the courts are a nuclear option benefitting only California.

    3. Another quiet thing that does not get mentioned is the 1922 compact took water rights from one state (California) and gave them to the other basin states. Trying to force a new solution will require some firm Federal action, to avoid the judicial solution. I don’t see a state led compromise that trumps the current scenario

    4. Politics and Federal intervention will likely be based on Economic impacts and population. That is just the facts of political life. California, Arizona, and maybe Colorado, would win the political war over water.

    So other basin states can look to California all they want, but Colorado has the first card to play, with their trans- basin diversions. Then the federal government has the next card to play in this hand of water poker. My guess is that economic impact, and population, will loom large in any federal decisions. Those issues play well for California and Arizona.

    As someone who was raised and educated near the headwaters of the Colorado River (Larimer County) and now lives near the end of the the same river (San Diego & Imperial County) the law of the river has been a life long fascination. We all are looking for a solution that satisfies everyone. Hope will be needed.
    For the originalists among us, always good to refer to the source of our current situation: https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/pao/pdfiles/crcompct.pdf

  5. Without going back and reversing the agreement that allowed water to be transferred away from eventual drainage into the Salton Sea I don’t see how that situation improves in the short term other than hoping for more hurricane remnants or atmospheric rivers – which isn’t much of a plan…

    The short term does look somewhat improved from all the monsoon rains and there was actually some increase this past week in Lake Powell from those but mainly because they’ve stepped down releases to Lake Mead. What Lake Mead does with that reduced inflow remains to be seen.

    What makes sense to me is that reality trumps the rights – if there isn’t water to be delivered then what?

    CA gets a larger share, AZ gets jr. rights share (sorry but that’s what y’all did to yourselves to begin with – if you want more senior rights you’ll have to pony up the $), NV gets what they should get as they were in there ahead of AZ.

    Upper Basin can still get a lot of use out of conservation and it would help them all to give them some funds to improve that from the Lower Basin and the feds.

    Everyone else in the SW could also gain a lot from more conservation and reuse along with stormwater capture and other projects, keep doing those things.

    So how I see it is that you allocate the river flow to each basin as half and half with each half also allocating to Mexico their share (not sure what that is). From that total you remove evaporation and transportation losses and then 20% for combined environmental flows and rebuilding the levels of the two primary reservoirs. The rest is allowed to be used. Each year this is adjusted based upon actual Lake Powell and Lake Mead levels and the inflow. Other basin resources are included in calculations (so withholding water in Flaming George is counted as Lake Powell or Upper Basin amounts).

    In years of surplus 1/3rd of the surplus goes towards improving the levels of the reservoirs, 1/10th goes towards an environmental pulse flow and some goes to the Salton Sea via IID. Mexico gets a credit for any clean water they release through their rivers into the Salton Sea (so they can get more water via their fare share).

    In really bad years everyone takes a hit. This has been a bad few years. CA should take some kind of hit even if it is one season in 2023.

    Come back next year and see what has happened. Everyone pee in the lakes to give them a boost and don’t water the lawns as much, cover the pools if you have them. No pool should be without protection (somehow this could be a good public service campaign and humor – yes, we do need humor this time of the process 🙂 ).

  6. A few thoughts:

    1. Although Arizona should be commended for their plan to conserve 800 KAF next year, it’s worth noting that 600 KAF of that is part of “baseline”, i.e. cuts required under the Guidelines and DCP, and doesn’t move the needle on the Commissioner’s 2-4 MAF goal, which is on top of existing commitments. As far as volumes that count towards the Commissioner’s target, there’s little to nothing on the table right now from any state.

    2. The calculus for the past 15+ years has been that, in order to incentivize ICS banking, it needed to be possible to withdraw those water savings in times of need (within reason). Given that millions of people across Southern California are receiving only the water necessary for human health and safety, now is that time of need. ICS boosted Lake Mead by millions of acre-feet over the last decade. If we decide to crucify users for taking delivery of ICS (following the rules that were agreed to by many of the exact same people who are still in the room today), there’s going to be a lot less interest in banking ICS in the future. It would be foolish to target MWD for taking 45,000 AF of ICS if that discourages hundreds of thousands of AF from being banked in the future.

    3. From 2011-2020, the Upper Basin used 4.4 MAF per year, on average. Why is cutting California’s 4.4 MAF of water use considered an essential piece of the solution, while the Upper Basin’s 4.4 MAF is apparently too insignificant to bother reducing? It seems to be valid for the Upper Basin to say “we shouldn’t have to take any cuts, because on paper, we should be able to use 7.5 MAF”, but not for California to say “fine, we’ll do [350,000-500,000 AF] even though on paper, we should be able to use 4.4 MAF”. Are states clinging desperately to what they “should” get, or are they stepping up to do the right thing? Or maybe that expectation applies only to some of the states (i.e. “not me”).

  7. The situation is dire and many on the river have no other source of water. Here’s some thoughts for discussion:
    1) Augmentation: I’m hoping the BOR and states begin to analyze other augmentation and off-stream sources on/off the river and act accordingly. If someone can “weather the storm” by switching to local groundwater, then they should be forced off the river. This is the situation for AZ farmers cut off from CAP. If states can force desal of the ocean or brackish groundwater, then they should. Ocean environmentalists need to calm down, get kicked out of power, or become part of the solution. The environmental argument seemed to fall on deaf ears at the Salton Sea, which will not survive above OR below deadpool, so let’s get real.

    2) PPRs: Based on Article 8, PPR rights are senior to the Compact. So, I don’t understand how urban, junior right holders in all states have any ability to squeeze rural, senior right holders. Most the seniors have PPRs that cover a large portion of their entitlements, so it will get messy if the BOR and states start to take unilateral action for health and safety ahead of the 4 million in PPRs on the river. Also, it’s important to keep in mind CA holds 3 million and AZ 1 million in PPRs. Many PPRs are with native American tribes, but there is an unwillingness to treat all PPR holders the same. Zero PPRs in Mexico or Nevada, but I’m sure some water will flow south to Mexico and to the Bellagio fountain.

    3) Payment: AZ farmers developed a plan to Save the River. CAP/MWD/BOR said it’s too expensive. Other districts have set the price with agricultural fallowing, QSA, and other transfers. Maybe the juniors aren’t thirsty enough yet to pay for water? Of course, the juniors don’t want to pay for impacts if senior right holders give up a century of secure water, which is what rural communities will be facing without water. The situation is already playing out in Central California and water is actively trading for $1000-2000 per acre foot to keep trees alive. How much to keep beach cities, casinos and chip plants alive?

    4) Power pool: My last question is regarding the BOR desire to hold power pool elevations in Powell, Mohave, and Mead. Nowhere in the compact is power given a right over delivery for beneficial use. It seems like the power pool argument in is a crutch to hold back more water in all power producing reservoirs. Of course people would suffer more with higher power costs, but power users should be paying more for the right to take water away from others. Electricity is portable, water is not. I would suggest a falling water charge to generate system water and keep elevations above power pool. Power conservation along with water conservation need to be a real issue.

  8. Pingback: The #ColoradoRiver at the end of #water year 2022: a status report — InkStain #COriver #aridification – Coyote Gulch

  9. The losses associated with the storage and delivery of Colorado River water, also known in the Lower Basin as the “structural deficit” are not shortage, but a cost of doing business under all modes of operation. The beneficiaries of Colorado River water are the ones who should be paying this annual toll. We now live in the brave new world of climate change. The sooner we acknowledge that fact and the limits it imposes, the better.

  10. A few points:

    1) Evaporation exists and is not being accounted for. The reservoirs are 90+% for the benefit of the Lower Basin states, so the evaporative losses need to be taken off the top from the Lower Basin states. All the lower basin states bear responsibility for this lack of logic, so their allocations should be proportionally reduced. (Not all taken from Arizona).

    2) Cities can do more to reduce use, but ultimately, the total use by cities is less than or equal to the annual shortage. I’m all for outlawing private lawns – it should be done throughout the Colorado water use area- but it will barely move the needle.

    Because cities have far more people generate far more economic benefit with each acre-foot of water, strangling cities with excessive restrictions is going to be a political non-starter. 90% of the solution needs to be cities paying agriculture for water, and compensating rural areas for the economic loss (wages, tax base, etc.)

    3) Some means of setting a real price for water based on market conditions would be helpful – a concept like “cap and trade for Colorado river water.” In California, the crux of the matter right now seems to be that the IID has declared a $2000/acre-foot number, and the cities aren’t convinced that that’s the right number. I’m sure it would be incredibly legally complex, but a market based system with mandated additional payments to rural counties and municipalities (to compensate for negative economic externalities from “buy and dry’ transactions) would resolve the stalemate over what price is “justified.” Perhaps the farmers in the IID would need to be the participants in the market, not the IID, since the IID is such a huge player in the market and could easily distort it.

  11. Pingback: ‘We haven't failed yet:’ With a new water year, Colorado River remains in crisis – The Nevada Independent - Nevada Digital News

  12. Shortly after November 8 I expect DoI to publish its solution to the water crises that are so well covered in this blog. Doing so earlier is committing political suicide in the states affected.

  13. Pingback: #Water Year whiplash for @DenverWater: An erratic 12 months of feast or famine defined the 2022 water-tracking span #BlueRiver #SouthPlatteRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification - Coyote Gulch

  14. I am Johann Georg Blomeyer from Germany and
    my family with a background of 400 years in farming have family ties in the U S A, since 1840.
    My question here is what is the Sourcecode of the problem and how to increase the water by the right means, constant natural means, not something artificial.
    Why not use the method by cloudbuster, once started by Wilhelm Reich, now by Harald Kautz and Madjid Abdellaziz ? Hm, if you consider how Mr. Wilhelm Reich ended with his endevours in the USA, some 100 years ago it is more obvious that less and less water will be available and the water resource comes to a final end.
    Once there had been a contract under the related parties. This contract did not have a charter of adjusting the contract by a forum determined to administer the future details.
    So, my second suggestion is to implement such a forum in the contract and to regulate its administration. One regulation could entail a clause which enables the opinion of international experts, i.e. from the Netherlands to bring constant technical solutions.
    Best regards,
    Dr. Jürgen. Johann Georg Blomeyer
    Cogolludo 1B 5A
    ES-19003 Guadalajara, Spain
    + 34 666494338
    geblomeyer@gmail.com

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