Officials plan to build a pipeline to siphon water from Lake Powell to Utah’s Sand Hollow Reservoir despite the coming water cuts in downstream states
Jul 16, 2021
By Sam Metz, The Associated Press / Report for America
CARSON CITY, Nev. — Farmers, environmentalists and small-town business owners gathered at the Hoover Dam on Thursday to call for a moratorium on pipelines and dams along the Colorado River that they said jeopardizes the 40 million people who rely on it as a water source.
They’re pushing for the moratoriums as parts of the U.S. West are gripped by historic drought and hotter temperatures and dry vegetation provide fuel for wildfires sweeping the region. Federal officials expect to make the first-ever water shortage declaration in the Colorado River basin next month, prompting cuts in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.https://omny.fm/shows/the-colorado-sun/playlists/podcast/embed?style=artwork&image=1&share=1&download=1&description=1&subscribe=1&playlistimages=1&playlistshare=1&foreground=000000&background=ffffff&highlight=fcd232
“We’re here to say, ‘Damn the status quo,’” said Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network.
“No more business as usual. Why? Because we’re failing: It’s plain and simple. We shouldn’t be seeing that bathtub ring growing like it is,” he added, gesturing toward the white band that wraps the perimeter of Lake Mead, marking former water levels.
Hot temperatures and less snowpack have decreased the amount of water that flows from the Rocky Mountains down through the arid deserts of the Southwest into the Gulf of California.
Scientists attribute the extreme conditions to a combination of natural weather patterns and human-caused climate change, which has made the West warmer and drier in the past 30 years.
Almost a century after seven U.S. states divvied up the river, Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two manmade reservoirs that store river water — are shrinking faster than expected, spreading panic throughout a region that relies on the river to sustain 40 million people and a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry.
Nevada does not use its full allocation of river water and stands to be less affected by the cuts tied to the federal water shortage declaration than Arizona, where farmers will have to rely more heavily on groundwater and leave fields unplanted.
Officials in both states acknowledge the record lows are part of an ongoing downward spiral for the river but assure water users that they’ve spent years preparing and have enough water to accommodate expected population growth and supply farmers.
But those speaking at Hoover Dam on Thursday blasted water officials and said agreements reached in 2007 and 2019 weren’t fulfilling their purpose to maintain the river. They said proponents of projects to facilitate more water consumption weren’t being realistic about action needed to ensure the Colorado River continues to supply water and hydropower to the region’s cities and farms.
The Colorado River is drying up faster than federal officials can keep track. Mandatory water cuts are looming.
Utah Rivers Council Executive Director Zach Frankel said state and federal officials should abandon plans to build a pipeline to siphon water from Lake Powell to the Sand Hollow Reservoir in southern Utah. He said it was important to ensure federal infrastructure dollars weren’t spent on projects that enable more wasteful water use and pointed out that Utah’s Washington County — which would benefit from the diversion — uses more water per capita than Las Vegas and Phoenix.
“It is simply madness that as the Colorado River reaches its lowest levels in recorded history that we will be proposing a new water diversion upstream. While the lower basin is going to diet and cutting its water use, we should not let the upper basin go to an all-you-can-eat buffet,” he said.
The Imperial Irrigation District, which oversees water in parts of Southern California and has water rights to roughly 20% of the Colorado River — more than Nevada and Arizona combined — withdrew from the most recent set of negotiations. JB Hamby, the vice president of the district’s board, said it was important that water management policies made in the future ensured that rural farming communities — which use the majority of the region’s water — wouldn’t bear the brunt of the drought so that cities can keep growing.
“This suburban ‘manifest destiny’ threatens the current and future sustainability of this river and communities that depend on it. We must champion and protect the diverse benefits of irrigated farmland for the West, the nation and the world — for food production and security, the environment, wildlife preservation, recreation and tourism and efficient water management.”
The Navajo have inhabited a very inhospitable environment for a long time. Today’s Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the United States. Here a family of Navajo riding across the Canyon de Chelly near the turn of the 20th century.
Plummeting reservoir levels at Mead and Powell solidify Arizona cutbacks next year and near-future threats to all the Compact states, from Colorado to California
Jul 13, 2021
A blunt new report based on June runoff conditions from the Colorado River into Lake Powell and Lake Mead shows the reservoirs fast deteriorating toward “dead pool” status, where stored water is so low it can’t spin the massive hydroelectric power generators buried in the dams, and large swaths of Arizona farmland going fallow.
The enormous, life-sustaining buckets of water in the drought-stricken West are emptying so fast that the Bureau of Reclamation added a new monthly report – on top of three already scheduled this year – to keep up with the dam
The bureau said the loss of water is accelerating, confirming projections that massive water restrictions will begin in 2022 for the three Lower Basin states in the seven-state Colorado River Compact. Conservation groups believe Arizona will lose more than 500,000 acre-feet of water usually delivered by the Colorado in 2022 through voluntary and mandatory cuts, forcing significant reductions to irrigated farming in the desert state. Some, but not all, of Arizona’s share will be replaced in trades using water already “banked” in the reservoirs.
The bureau’s report for June, added on to previously scheduled reservoir updates for January, April and August, paints a dire picture. As snowpack runoff disappeared into dry ground instead of hitting the reservoirs, engineers calculated a 79% chance Lake Powell will fall below its minimum target water height of 3,525 feet above sea level next year.
That minimum provides only a 35-foot cushion for the minimum water level of 3,490 feet needed to spill water into the electric turbines. The bureau said there is now a 5% chance Lake Powell falls below the minimum needed to generate any power in 2023, and a 17% chance in 2024 — the odds are going up with each new report.
Lake Mead, which feeds the three Lower Basin compact states of Nevada, California and Arizona, is in even worse shape. The compact requires declaration of restriction-triggering “shortage condition” if Mead hits 1,075 feet or lower. Mead is falling now, and the bureau affirmed the shortage declaration will happen in August. Las Vegas, a short drive from Mead and Hoover Dam, hit 117 degrees on July 10, and longtime local users are alarmed at how fast the pool is evaporating into desert skies.
Mead is also in great danger of hitting “critical” elevations of 1,025 feet, a sort of emergency-stop minimum, and the minimum pool for generating power at 1,000 feet, the bureau’s new report said. The chances of draining past the minimum by 2025 are now 58%, and the chances of falling below a power pool that year are 21%.
Weather plus climate change
Long-term climate change is being exacerbated by a short-term drought lasting more than 20 years in the West, scientist and water engineers say. Even with a future snowpack bonanza – not currently in the forecast – the compact reservoirs will remain in deep trouble, said John Berggren, water policy analyst for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates.
The Colorado River basin’s latest snowpack was just about 100% of normal, Berggren noted, but delivered only 50% of normal runoff into the river and the giant reservoirs. Water is soaking into parched ground or evaporating entirely before it can contribute to stream flows.
“It’s startling how with each new projection, you had thought it can’t possibly get worse,” Berggren said. “Even just a year or two ago, most people would have thought these projections are pretty far away from ever happening.”
Major water cutbacks for the Lower Basin states are now an unavoidable reality, Berggren said. “This just shows that we no longer have the luxury of thinking it’s a decade down the road.”
“The June five-year projections for the Colorado River System reaffirm this is a serious situation,” Wayne Pullan, Upper Colorado Basin regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation, said in a statement about the latest river modeling. “We are actively engaged with the Colorado River Basin states and other partners to respond to changing conditions to avoid critical elevations at Lake Powell.”
The original compact between Upper Basin states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – and the Lower Basin was negotiated in 1922. It was given real teeth in 2019 with a Drought Contingency Plan that first penalizes Lower Basin states if levels and inflows into Powell and Mead fall below trigger points.
Upper Basin states face future cutbacks in water use as well if they can’t deliver agreed-upon amounts of water to the basin separation point at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, just above the Grand Canyon. Colorado water engineers, agricultural interests and utilities are in ongoing discussions and experiments on how best to leave more in the Colorado should those downstream treaty calls eventually come.
Mexico is also part of the historic compact. Some states are negotiating with Mexico to build ocean water desalinization plants near the Pacific Ocean, so that Mexico could use that water and the states could keep more river water.
Colorado tries to refill the Yampa
Colorado water managers, meanwhile, are working quickly to mitigate some of the intense near-term impacts of recent drought, including along the severely depleted Yampa River in northwest Colorado, which is a tributary of the Colorado River.
On July 8, the Colorado Water Trust bought 1,000 acre-feet of water in Stagecoach Reservoir, with an option to buy 1,000 more, for releases over the rest of the summer into the Yampa to keep fish alive and keep the river basin healthier in hot temperatures. The Water Trust has made similar purchases in other years, but will likely have to release the water far earlier than usual this season in order to prevent high water temperatures and stagnant flow that stress fish and hurt their spawning chances.
After spending about $46,000 on the July purchase, the trust has spent just under $500,000 to buy water from Stagecoach’s reserve since 2012. In announcing the deal, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District noted the late-May stream flow into Stagecoach was at less than 10 cubic feet per second, when it should have been more than 100 cfs. The district said it has separately released more than 1,500 acre-feet of its own water from Stagecoach so far this year in order to support river health.
Cash donors to buy the Stagecoach water include the Yampa River Fund, the Yampa Valley Community Foundation and the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, among others. Tri-State operates coal-fired electricity generating units down the Yampa to the west of Stagecoach.
Heard on Morning Edition
The Colorado River is tapped out.
Another dry year has left the watershed that supplies 40 million people in the Southwest parched. A prolonged 21-year warming and drying trend is pushing the nation’s two largest reservoirs to record lows. For the first time, a shortage will be declared by the federal government.
The 1,450-mile long waterway acts as a drinking water supply, a hydroelectric power generator, and an irrigator of desert crop fields across seven western states and two in Mexico. Scientists are increasingly certain that the only way forward is to rein in demands on the river’s water to match its decline.
With the river’s infrastructure able to cushion against some of the immediate effects, what manifests is a slow-moving crisis. Water managers, farmers, and city leaders clearly see the coming challenges but haven’t yet been forced to drastically change their uses.
Extremely dry conditions like the region is experiencing in 2021 make clear that the Colorado River is currently unable to meet all the demands communities in the Western U.S. have placed on it, and it’s up to its biggest users to decide who has to rely on it less.
A dry year in the headwaters
The Colorado River starts on Colorado’s Western Slope, where father and son Wayne and Brackett Pollard run cattle. Up on a sagebrush-covered hillside, under a shade tree, the two men look down into the river’s valley near the town of Rifle. Their cattle graze on both sides, including on hay fields irrigated by the river’s water.
“Typically, this would be high water and it hasn’t really come up at all,” Brackett Pollard said in mid-June. Being a farmer or rancher in the West comes with a list of superlatives this year. He listed them off: driest, hottest, lowest, worst.
“Last year was considerably dry, maybe the driest we’d seen. And now we’re looking even drier,” Brackett said.
“Our springs are starting to dry up, up on the mountain and everywhere,” Wayne added.
The river’s entirety, from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park to the U.S.-Mexico border, experienced its driest 12-month period on record from May 2020 to April 2021. Record low levels of soil moisture diminished this past spring’s runoff, locking in water supply shortfalls until at least next winter when all hopes will be for a heavy blanket of snow.
Nearly all of the Upper Colorado River basin is experiencing severe drought or worse. Fishing and recreation closures on some tributaries, like the Dolores, Animas and Yampa Rivers, have started rolling out early as water supplies dwindle.
This dry spell comes with the usual lack of rain and snow, and the relentless sun, Brackett said. But this summer a hot wind has also arrived, functioning like a giant hair dryer pointed right at his pastures.
“It’s just like sucking the moisture out even more so,” Brackett said.
The availability of water limits food for cattle. The Pollards grow hay to supplement their livestock, and rely on grazing permits on public land. This summer, with viable ground more limited due to drought, they decided to put cattle on irrigated land that would normally be used to grow hay for later in the season. That’s a loss in income they’ll have to absorb.
The choice for many ranchers is stark: find more expensive feed or sell the herd.
“I would rather fight it down market any day as I would a drought,” Wayne said. “I don’t like fighting drought. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Livestock sale barns across the West are busy, as ranchers look to offload hungry cattle they’re unable to feed without incurring even steeper costs. The Pollards plan to sell about half of their cows by this fall, and suspect they won’t be the only ones doing so.
“You’re looking at a serious loss of equity in rural America, in the rural West,” Brackett said.
“I think it takes a mental toll,” he added. “There have certainly been times where you just can’t believe how hot and how dry it is. And then on top of that it hasn’t rained in a month. And then you start to pile the wind on and you feel like you can’t get a break.”
Lake Powell to hit historic low
About 250 miles downstream from the Pollards’ property, the Colorado River becomes a massive reservoir, Lake Powell.
The reservoir fills Glen Canyon, a maze of red rock on the Colorado Plateau. A lack of snowpack and warming temperatures in the Rocky Mountains upstream and relentless demands from agriculture and cities downstream are pushing the reservoir toward its lowest point since it was built in the 1960s.
Sheri Facinelli and her husband Randy Redford vacation at the recreation hot spot each year. A stark white bathtub ring marking the reservoir’s previous level looms high above the boats that rip across its surface.
The record low level means Glen Canyon Dam is already generating less hydroelectric power, and it forces boaters to be more aware of their surroundings. Geologic features long kept underwater are emerging as it declines to a new historic low.
“Places where you’ve boated for 20 years and gone flying over, all of a sudden there’s big islands and rocks,” Facinelli said as she veered the boat into a narrow, winding side canyon.
“Plus as the canyons get narrower, then you’ve got to worry about traffic more. It’s more nerve wracking,” she said.
By Simon Romero
- July 13, 2021
LEDOUX, N.M. — Nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the remote village of Ledoux has for more than a century relied on a network of irrigation ditches to water its crops. The outpost’s acequias, as New Mexico’s fabled canals are known, are replenished annually by snowmelt and rains. But with the Southwest locked in an unrelenting drought, they have begun to run dry.
“I never thought I’d witness such a crash in our water sources,” said Harold Trujillo, 71, a farmer in Ledoux who has seen his production of hay collapse to about 300 bales a year from 6,000. “I look at the mountains around us and ask: ‘Where’s the snow? Where are the rains?’”
Acequias — pronounced ah-SEH-kee-ahs — borrow their name from the Arabic term for water conduit, al-sāqiya. They are celebrated in song, books and verse, and they have endured in the state for centuries. Spanish colonists in New Mexico began digging the canals in the 1600s, building on water harvesting techniques honed by the Pueblo Indians.
Even then, the acequia reflected the blending of cultural traditions. Muslims introduced acequias in Spain after invading the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century, using gravity to manage irrigation flows. Acequias eventually spread around the Spanish-speaking world.
Making subsistence farming feasible in arid lands, New Mexico’s communally managed acequias persisted through uprisings, epidemics and wars of territorial conquest, preserving a form of small-scale democratic governance that took root before the United States existed as a country.
But in a sign of how climate change has begun to upend farming traditions across the Southwest, the megadrought afflicting New Mexico and neighboring states may amount to the acequias’s biggest challenge yet.
The difficulties confronting farmers in Ledoux — pronounced locally as Leh-DOOKS — exemplify those also facing hundreds of acequias around New Mexico, and a smaller number in southern Colorado and Texas.
Climate researchers say that the water shortages vexing the acequias are not surprising after years of warming temperatures, and that the depleted reservoirs and the spread of colossal wildfires around the West are a clear indication of the crisis.
Making matters worse, the monsoon rains that once regularly soaked northern New Mexico failed to materialize last summer. And the snowpack over the winter disappointed once again. Parts of New Mexico, including the area around Ledoux, have received some rain in recent weeks, with more in the forecast this week, but the precipitation has done little to improve abnormally dry conditions.Climate Fwd A new administration, an ongoing climate emergency — and a ton of news. Our newsletter will help you stay on top of it. Get it.
More than 77 percent of New Mexico is in severe drought, limiting pasture yields and stunting irrigated crops, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Thomas Swetnam, a scientist who studies tree rings to interpret changes in climate, said the drought this century in the Southwest had been so severe and prolonged that its few rivals in the last millennium include a multidecade stretch of an extraordinary drought in the late 16th century.
“This is probably the second-worst drought in 1,200 years,” said Mr. Swetnam, a professor emeritus of dendrochronology at the University of Arizona who now lives in New Mexico, where he operates the Jemez Mountains Tree-Ring Lab.
Some acequias, notably those along the Rio Grande, are still delivering water to farmers in a show of resilience. But many acequias with other water sources, like lakes or small tributaries, are taking a direct hit.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the mountain lake that villagers have relied upon since the 19th century to sustain the town’s acequias was filled with relatively plentiful snowfall and rainfall. But two decades ago, exceptionally arid weather became the norm, drying up some of Ledoux’s ditches.
“There’s no better way of raising tension in a village than to have its acequias go dry,” said Mr. Trujillo, the farmer. He said that bickering over acequia flows had intensified as farmers vied for increasingly scarce irrigation water.
The drought, Mr. Trujillo said, had also escalated a decades-long exodus from Ledoux to larger towns and cities. Ruins of adobe homes are scattered around the village’s old Catholic church, giving parts of Ledoux the feel of a ghost town.
Paula Garcia, who was raised on a ranch in northern New Mexico, said she had seen the drying trend grow worse over her lifetime. Mora, the town where she lives, was once a thriving farming outpost.
Now, she said, “the Mora River is chronically dry.” That means there is sometimes enough precipitation for one of the acequias around her home to flow with water; the other two are drying out.
“It’s the same in one community after another,” said Ms. Garcia, 49,executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, a nonprofit group aiming to protect the 700 or so acequias in the state.
Ms. Garcia says she regularly receives calls from farmers alarmed about acequias running low or even completely dry. Sometimes it is the mayordomo, or ditch boss, who calls. Other times it is one of the parciantes, the individual irrigators.
In the village of Hernandez, Ms. Garcia said farmers were dealing with critical water shortages on the Rio Chama, a tributary of the Rio Grande. Farmers in the communities of Cañon, Jemez Springs, Nambé and Santa Cruz, all in northern New Mexico, face similar conditions.
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