Solving the Colorado River Basin’s Math Problem: Adapting to Change
Balancing water supply and demand has never been a simple equation when it comes to the Colorado River. Serving as the “lifeline of the Southwest,” the Colorado River provides water to 35 million people and more than 4 million acres of farmland in a region encompassing some 246,000 square miles. The 1922 Colorado River Compact that divided the water among the seven Western states was straightforward in its allocation formula, apportioning 7.5 million acre-feet to each basin. But in the 89 years since the Compact was signed, a subsequent treaty to provide water to the Republic of Mexico, Indian water rights settlements, and operational changes for the environment have all challenged notions of how much water is reliably available to “develop” for urban growth and agricultural uses.
As the decades passed, annual runoff data as well as information about ancient droughts gleaned from tree ring records began to complicate the seemingly straightforward question: how much water is available from the Colorado River? The river’s long-term average annual flow at Lee Ferry is now considered to be 14.7 million acre-feet; at one time, average annual flow was considered to be 16 million acre-feet. The tremendous disparity between high and low flows and the severity of the drought that began in 2000 further complicates the answer. And that gap is expected to increase because of climate change (see page 9).
“This math problem was recognized in the ’60s. We did some things about it. We built a system. We knew the value of storage and that’s how it’s been able to be sustainable up to date, so the question, really, is what about the future,” said Terry Fulp, acting regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation’s (Reclamation) Lower Colorado Region. Fulp has been the lead federal researcher of the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study. “We’re trying to assess the future water supplies that might be coming toward us on this Basin as well as assessing future demands. … And maybe most importantly, start looking at and developing ideas about what options and strategies we should consider in order to ensure [the system’s] sustainability.”
The Colorado River Basin has a rich history of conflict over issues related to water supply and demand – witness the Supreme Court decision included in the Law of the River (see page 8) and the ongoing litigation over California’s Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA). But compacts and agreements are other major components of the Law of the River and over the past 10 to 15 years several hard-fought agreements among water agencies, the Colorado River states, the federal government, Mexico and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been completed. These compromises feature a common thread – adapting to change and solving the Colorado River’s math problem.
“I think we’ve seen an extraordinary amount of adaptation over the last 15 years,” said Bob Snow, attorney-advisor at the Office of the Solicitor in the Department of the Interior. Speaking at the Water Education Foundation’s September 2011 Colorado River Symposium in Santa Fe, Snow noted that there are valid criticisms about the rate of change, amount of progress and inclusivity of all Basin interests, but said “at a fundamental basis, I think we’ve seen an amazing amount of consensus-based negotiation.”
Snow said he would group the adaptations into four important areas: operational agreements designed to firm up water allocations and store water; Indian water rights settlements; environmental/fish recovery plans in the Upper and Lower basins; and an emerging era of innovation and adaptation in the United States’ cooperative relationship with Mexico.
“Twenty-five years ago if you had a group of Colorado River people sitting in a room, 99 percent of them would have said that the things that Bob Snow just listed couldn’t be done,” said former Reclamation Commissioner Bob Johnson, who helped develop the Lower Basin’s surplus and shortage criteria. “I think that’s a real clear indication that in fact change does occur when it has to – events occur and we react to those events.”
Four years ago the Colorado River Basin was facing the eighth year of the worst eight drought years in more than a century of record-keeping. That same year then-Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne signed the 2007 federal Record of Decision (ROD) for Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, establishing rules for when a shortage would be declared in the Lower Basin and criteria managing the two reservoirs. The seven Colorado River Basin states, in turn, inked agreements designed to help meet new water demands while protecting water rights. Reservoir operating decisions under the Guidelines are to remain in effect through 2026.
“There isn’t any question that the Seven Basin States Agreement avoided some very serious conflict at the time,” said Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “The key to the agreement was that it needed to provide some tangible physical benefits to both the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin and I think that was the tenet on which everyone invested in and went into the agreement. It’s important to understand that everyone gave something in the agreement.”
Mother Nature gave Colorado River Basin stakeholders a respite in the most recent water year (Oct. 1, 2010 to Sept. 30, 2011) as near-record snowpack generated more than 16.7 million acre-feet of Colorado River runoff flowing into Lake Powell. As a result, Powell released additional water to Lake Mead – causing the latter to rise by 30 feet in a single year. It was the most significant so-called “equalization” release under the 2007 agreement. Mead’s resulting higher reservoir elevation (1125 as of Nov. 30) has delayed fears of an eminent shortage declaration in the Lower Basin. In late 2010 there was concern a shortage could be declared as early as 2012. Today, the earliest projected shortage would not occur until 2016 – with only a 1 percent chance at that. Still, key agency representatives say it is imperative that the states stay at the table to address any concerns.
“We as seven states are joined at the hip and we all have to move together. In the past we have shown success in reacting to issues in the Basin,” said Jerry Zimmerman, former executive director of the Colorado River Board of California. “What I’m encouraging everyone to do now is get out ahead of the curve. We need to use the Basin Study to determine the [water] needs of each state within the Basin while allowing the Upper Basin states to develop their Compact allocations without hitting operational triggers. I believe we can avoid operational triggers if we’re out in front. What we need to do is continue the cooperation that we’ve had in the past few years, look forward into the future, and let’s do some real planning to address the needs of each of the states so we avoid the triggers.”
The issues facing the Colorado River Basin are daunting when one considers water supply/use/demand, projected population growth, the needs of the environment and climate change. The past decade has seen unprecedented efforts to find a way to work with the federal government, the Republic of Mexico and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to find a way to live within the realities of the river’s math.
This issue of Western Water explores the historic nature of some of the key agreements in recent years, future challenges, and what leading state representatives identify as potential “worst-case scenarios.” Much of the content for this issue of Western Water came from the in-depth panel discussions at the Symposium. The Foundation will publish the full proceedings of the Symposium in 2012. For more details about the climate change panel presentation included at the Symposium, please refer to the Winter 2011-2012 issue of River Report.
Click here to purchase a copy of the entire article.
Public TV Documentary on the Klamath
I just got back from some long days of finishing a public television documentary on the water controversies in the Klamath River Basin, a stunning area between California and Oregon. We at the Water Education Foundation have been covering the issues related to federal water allocations there for farms, fisheries and tribes since the late 1990s.
You may remember that in 2001 the area stakeholders made national news when the federal government made major cuts in water for irrigation deliveries instead releasing the water for fishery flows to benefit endangered native suckers and coho salmon. The cutoff affected about 85 percent of Klamath Project acreage. Farmers formed a “bucket brigade” and illegally passed buckets of water to an irrigation canal to protest the water cutoff. The following year, the Secretary of the Interior reduced the minimum flows required in the Klamath River. A major fish-die off caused by disease killed tens of thousands of migrating salmon in the Lower Klamath River. Finger pointing was happening on all sides as the two events incorporated feelings of fish vs. farmers and tribes vs. farmers.
Now 10 years later and after hundreds of stakeholder meetings, two agreements have been signed by most of the major interest groups. The film documents the journey of the stakeholders who agreed to the agreements and the stakeholders who did not sign the agreements, and explains the contents of those agreements.
It was 14 degrees at the Klamath River when program Host Frances Fisher, the well-known and talented movie actress, stepped in front of the camera to film her “stand ups” for the one-hour public television documentary. Fortunately the sun was out and the film looks great and Frances – who is very interested in these issues – did a wonderful job. With Frances for two days of hectic filming in the Basin in December were Emmy award-winning public TV producer Stephanie Locher, videographer John Davis and crew, myself and Foundation Tour Director Rebecca Scott.
Look for the program this Spring on your local public television station. And to learn more about the Klamath issues, contact the Foundation for our definitive poster map of the area and our detailed Layperson’s Guide to the Klamath River.
In the News
It was the snow survey that almost wasn’t – there wasn’t much snow to survey. On Jan. 3, Frank Gehrke, the chief snow surveyor for the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), found a small, 4-inch-deep patch of snow off Highway 50 near Echo Summit. After measuring its water content – a mere 0.14 inch – Gehrke told the San Francisco Chronicle that “it was the lowest January measurement ever.”
Overall, the manual and electronic readings recorded the snowpack’s statewide water content at 19 percent of the Jan. 3 average, DWR said in a press release. Despite this, DWR water managers said they were “cautiously optimistic” about this year’s water supply, in part because of carryover storage.
But the potential for drought remains a concern for California and many other parts of the Southwest as a dry December became a dry January. Based on rainfall and soil moisture, the National Drought Mitigation Center has determined that Northern California is experiencing “moderate drought” conditions. The early January U.S. Drought Monitor classified most of Arizona as “abnormally dry” with some parts of the state considered to be in “extreme drought.” Parts of Nevada, Oregon and Colorado are showing moderate drought conditions. In Colorado, only some of the ski slopes at the world-renowned Vail resort were open as of early January. “For the first time in 30 years, a lack of snow has not allowed us to pen the back bowls in Vail as of Jan. 6,” Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz told the Colorado Independent.
The dry winter is being blamed, in part, on the weather phenomenon known as La Niña, which features cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean at the equator. La Niña often features drier than normal conditions in the Southwest in late summer through the subsequent winter as storms are driven north of California. Yet the wetter-than-average 2011 water year (the water year runs from Sept. 30 until Oct. 1) occurred during a La Niña. The difference? A negative arctic oscillation that pushed cold storms into Northern California despite the La Niña. “Last year, it was a superhighway of storms down the spine of the Sierra, and we couldn’t shovel fast enough,” Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, told The Sacramento Bee. “But this year, essentially, the fence is up … and the jet stream has really stayed out of California.”
Punxsutawney Phil does not live in California, but even if he did, he wouldn’t be ready to predict drought just yet. February and March are typically the wettest months of the year.