Drought-Stricken Colorado River Basin Could See Additional 20% Drop in Water Flow by 2050

Yves here. In parts of the West, water rights have long been hotly contested. Potable water is the natural resource that is projected to come into serious shortage first. That makes management of resources like the Colorado River of critical importance, yet the bodies responsible for its stewardship are late to come to grips with the impact of perma-droughts

By Jan Ellen Spiegel. Originally published at Yale Climate Connections

Colorado is no stranger to drought. The current one is closing in on 20 years, and a rainy or snowy season here and there won’t change the trajectory.

This is what climate change has brought.

“Aridification” is what Bradley Udall formally calls the situation in the western U.S. But perhaps more accurately, he calls it hot drought – heat-induced lack of water due to climate change. That was the core of research released in 2017 by Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center, and Jonathan Overpeck at the University of Michigan.

Their revelation was that the heat from climate change was propelling drought. “Previous comparable droughts were caused by a lack of precipitation, not high temperatures,” the study said. And all the factors at play were having compounding effects on each other that made the situation even worse. Those impacts were being felt most acutely on the biggest water system in the West – the Colorado River Basin.

Without a dramatic and fast reversal in greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change, Udall and Overpeck said, the additional loss of flow in the basin could be more than 20% by mid-century and 35% at the century’s end – worse than currently assumed.

“I always say climate change is water change,” says Udall, whose father was Arizona congressman Morris (Mo) Udall, an iconic environmental activist. “It means too much water, not enough water, water at the wrong time. It means reduced water quality. You get all of these things together as the earth warms up.”

In Colorado it’s all pretty much coming true. The drought is the second worst 20-year period in the past 1,200 years, according to Udall. This summer/fall alone had some of the hottest spells on record and the worst wildfire season ever. On the other hand, 2013 brought catastrophic floods to the Front Range. “I got 17 inches of water in my house here in four days. It’s all part of the same change,” Udall says.

It’s forced Colorado to start facing the reality that its perpetual struggle for water can no longer be written off as cyclical weather that will all balance-out over short periods of time. It’s climate change at work, and it requires long-term planning and likely fundamental changes to the paradigm of how the state gets, uses, and preserves its water.

The state and individual municipalities are beginning to address their new reality with policies that range from the obvious – conservation, just using less water, to the more innovative – considering using beaver dams to restore mountain wetlands and generally remediating the landscape to better handle water.

But all those actions and more must face the political reality of the longstanding way water-sharing is handled in the basin. It pits state against state, rural against urban, agriculture against, well, everyone.

The Colorado River Compact

The Colorado River Basin provides water to a massive swath of the Rocky Mountain and western states. The Compact that rules it dates to 1922, with California, Nevada and Arizona – the lower basin states – essentially getting first dibs on water that flows from upper basin states – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah – with secondary access to the water, so they generally absorb the brunt of water losses.

Colorado is a headwaters state – where the river flows down from the continental divide. It relies on whatever falls out of the sky: It does not have the luxury of access to whatever water may flow in farther downstream.

A process to re-evaluate aspects of the Compact is underway with a 2026 deadline. No one expects the basic structure to change, though other contingencies are likely to be layered on, as has happened a number of times in the intervening years.

River levels are off some 20% since the Compact was initiated, compounding the water crunch while the region’s population has grown dramatically, especially in Colorado. That combination of factors have many water experts and administrators convinced any new strategy has to do more than divvy-up the water differently.

That’s because it’s climate change and not cyclical weather causing the problems, Udall says emphatically: “Yup. Yup. Yup.” He notes that scientists already see impacts they hadn’t expected to see until 2050.

“I think some of the predictions about reduced flows in the Colorado River based on global warming are so dire it’s difficult to wrap your brain around them. We have no operating rules for that kind of reduction in supply,” says Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources at the University of Colorado. “Even with these discussions that will be taking place over the next five years for the Colorado River system, I’m not sure that they will be able to get to an agreement about what would happen if flow is reduced by 50%.”

The critical climate change impacts seem to act in a loop: heat causes more evaporation of surface water. The resulting lower water level means water will warm more easily, and in turn evaporates more readily.

Global warming is also changing the dynamics of snowpacks. They melt faster and earlier and don’t regularly continue to slowly dissipate, creating a gradual runoff that is more beneficial and sustaining to the water supply. Udall notes that on April 1, 2020, there was 100% of normal snowpack above Lake Powell, which with Lake Mead are the two enormous reservoirs in the system. In a normal year that would provide 90-110% of runoff. But it provided only 52% in 2020 as a result of dry warm weather through fall.

Sustainable water supplies are also threatened as weather events occur more often as extremes: major rains in a short period of time sandwiched by extended dry periods. Torrential rains that follow a long drought may help the soil, but runoff may never make it to the water supply.

Wildfires, in recent years larger and longer, complicate matters by dumping ash and crud into water bodies, which results in less water and contamination that can render unusable what water there is. And if difficult climate conditions keep trees from growing back after fires, the resulting ecosystem changes could further damage water supplies.

Big Ideas in Place

“This is not your average variability,” says Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which covers most of the water used by the state. “Cooperative management of water resources can really help in these hot dry summers,” he says.

Mueller says the district tried releasing additional water from a reservoir that also creates hydropower. The extra water helps cool the river it flows into – slowing evaporation and allowing fishing and other activities often stopped when the water gets too warm and low to resume. That same water was also used for other hydropower plants downstream. Some then continued to other river areas. And some was diverted for crop irrigation, important given that farming and ranching are the biggest consumers of water in the state.

Basic conservation – just using less water – is always the first step, but even Colorado Water Conservation Board senior climate specialist Megan Holcomb admits: “We’re definitely beyond that conversation.”

The Board is considering systems that employ the technique of demand management: finding ways to use minimal water to allow for storage for dry years. So far, the thinking involves a voluntary program.

Already in place is an online tool called the Future Avoided Cost Explorer or FACE: Hazards. It helps quantify impacts of drought and wildfires on sectors of the Colorado economy.

“We know these hazards are going to continue to impact our economy, but we have no numbers to even say how much we should invest now so that we don’t have financial impacts in the future,” Holcomb says.

Castle talks about ideas such as consideration of water footprints on new developments and re-developments; integrating land use planning with water planning including things such as landscaping codes; and use of technology at various levels of water monitoring.

In Search of More Equitable Sharing of Water

She notes also a drought contingency plan adopted in 2019 by the Compact states calling for reductions in deliveries to the lower basin. It’s pointed in the right direction, she says. “At the same time pretty much everyone involved in those discussions and that agreement also agreed that it was not sufficient,” Castle says.

Many experts have called for more equitable sharing of water reductions. But ideas on what is fair differ from state-to-state and also among different groups within a region where some interests are pitted against agriculture, which accounts for 80% of the water usage in the basin.

“I think people look at that huge volume of water being used in irrigated agriculture as a place where there’s flexibility. And when you get to the politics of working through that in an equitable way, it gets really complicated,” says Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society.

The suggestions have included crop switching or alternative transfer mechanisms that call on farmers to periodically grow less water-intensive crops, or pay them not to grow, as a way to make water available for municipal use or storage.

“From a pure economic perspective, it may seem like you pay them and they’re whole,” Udall says. “There are actually a lot of things where they don’t get whole. They potentially lose a market that they’ve established over years and a great relationship with a buyer. And if that goes away for a year, that buyer may not come back.”

In the end, experts say people in the Southwest should definitely not count on more precipitation arriving to bail them out. “I would disabuse people of the idea that you’re going to get more water,” Udall says. “I think it’s pretty clear you’re going to have less water.” So for folks who think building more reservoirs is a solution, Udall says: “It’s not at all clear to me that that works.”

But less conventional strategies just might.

Beaver Dams to the Rescue?

Beaver dams are a water management technique that has worked in nature for eons – at least for beavers. Sometimes for people? Not so much.

But the thinking is they could help slow water loss from high-elevation wetlands. That includes the real deals built by beavers or human-constructed beaver dam alternatives.

“We think there’s a possible synergy there that helps to improve water supply for water users and helps to improve habitat conditions for species – birds in particular – that depend on that kind of wetlands being around,” Pitt says.

The goal would be to protect remaining ones, help establish new ones, and do the same for high-elevation meadows.

A lot of research is still needed, Pitt says. “There’s all kinds of instrumentation that has to go into place to understand the groundwater, the surface water, evaporation, the water balance, what it does to your river downstream,” she says. There are water law considerations. And then the inevitable pilot projects.

Overall, she says, this type of holistic approach to water through natural ecosystem restoration could become a component of water-sharing agreements as have already been done with Mexico. In exchange for getting river areas restored to better flow, Mexico agreed to a sharing agreement it might not otherwise have.

More People, Less Water, and a touch of Johnny Appleseed

More people and less water has forced Denver Water to work with uncertainties not previously considered. “Variability is the name of the game in Colorado,” says lead climate scientist Laurna Kaatz. “And that variability’s going to increase over time. That makes it incredibly challenging to continuously provide high-quality drinking water when you’re not sure what’s coming around the corner.”

The situation calls for adaptive capacity, she says, to provide technical and legal flexibility to adjust for changing circumstances.

Kaatz pointed to the One Water project that pairs water with usage. For instance, treated wastewater could be used to water a golf course, saving the purest water for drinking.

Another project is called From Forests to Faucets, which works on watersheds as natural infrastructure to optimize water flow. It has already proved successful at keeping a wildfire in 2018 from encroaching on a reservoir. In April, Denver Water plans to expand its Airborne Snow Observatory, which uses technology developed by NASA to track snow availability, but now it can be deployed above an altitude of 8,000 feet.

Together the efforts seem to be working – since the 2002 drought, Denver Water has maintained a 22% per-person reduction in water usage from pre-drought levels.

Steamboat Springs is opting for tree-planting. The idea is that trees will help cool down the Yampa River, which is part of the Colorado River Basin. Hot, dry seasons had been pushing stream temperatures so high that part of the river wound up on EPA’s impaired waterbody list.

“That was a call to action,” says Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat Springs’ water resources manager.

The timing also dovetailed with the 2015 release of a Colorado Water Plan that included goals for stream management. Steamboat Springs did a streamflow management plan – released in 2018. In it was the idea of shading the Yampa.

“What we learned was that flow alone cannot overcome the thermal load for the solar radiation, as strength of that radiation increases over time,” she says. “The more that we can prepare the river for that, the better it will buffer against the impacts of climate change.”

They joined forces with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council’s ReTree program that began in 2010 as a reforestation effort to counteract trees killed by pine beetle infestations. It morphed into a three-year Yampa River restoration.

“That work also increases resilience to future changes,” says Michelle Stewart, the council’s executive director. “We’re really learning the important role soil moisture plays in resilience.”

ReTree planted 200 narrow leaf cottonwoods in 2019 and another 350 this past October. This coming October, its plans are for 450 cottonwoods and 150 mountain alders. All were raised at the Colorado State Forest Nursery from Yampa Valley clippings. “We’re using local trees that are already kind of adapting to big swings in temperature and probably have a little bit more of that hardiness that we need and drought readiness,” she says.

It’s too early to know how the shading is working but there are plans for citizen help to monitor that and to implement a soil moisture monitoring network in the Yampa Basin.

“This is a Johnny Appleseed project,” says Romero-Heaney. “We plant today and hopefully my children will get to enjoy it.”

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40 comments

  1. PlutoniumKun

    The other side of this coin of course is demand. A huge proportion of water demand in that region is for agriculture, specifically growing thirsty crops in naturally arid areas. Until there is a fundamental rethink of how we grown and distribute food, we will continue to over stress water systems and we are building up to a potential catastrophe. If we don’t change our agriculture systems, nature will do it for us. And we will not like the results.

    Reply
    1. Wyoming

      An example to highlight your point. I live in the mountains of central AZ. In my area we are in a rapid growth mode due to our nice sunny climate, low taxes and the work from home shift due to covid. The last year we had rain/snow totals which matched or exceeded historical average was….1998! Not a typo. At my house in 2020 we had less than 4 inches of what was once a normal 18 inches. Climate being an average of the last 30 years of data it is pretty clear what climate change means here.

      So demand is skyrocketing and supplies are dwindling. While residential uses are the main driver here as there is very little agriculture use within 50 miles of us in any direction what there is is still very harmful. In the valley near us where it is possible to pump ground water and irrigate fields for growing hay for cattle the water levels are dropping at an average of 1 foot a year. Over the last 30 years the water levels have dropped sufficiently that the trees in what used to be creek beds can no longer get their roots deep enough to reach the water – and for miles and miles most of the trees have died. Following forest fires it is normal for new trees to sprout and regrow the forests. But not here anymore as there is insufficient rain/snow fall to support the baby trees until they can reach moist subsoil and I can go on a hike here and walk through 15 year old burn areas which are almost entirely devoid of trees. So we get nice thick highly flammable brush…..joy.

      I give it no more than 20 years here before our demand/supply issues reach lifestyle changing crisis levels. btw we are not tied into the Colorado River supply issues as we are not part of that drainage nor connected into the canals which move its water.

      Reply
      1. Mike Mc

        Attended ASU in the mid 1970s (well, sort of) and spent a fair amount of time in Mogollon Rim area near Heber. Friend’s pop had a cabin and a group of us from ASU went often to cross-country ski.

        Grew up in Las Vegas in the 1960s, the Vegas metro seems to have taken a much more aggressive approach to water conservation than most of Arizona. Southern Nevada is VERY arid so they really don’t have much choice, and they’re tied to the Colorado River basin.

        Lean on your local elected reps to get in front of this ASAP. That’s a gorgeous part of the state and it’s not surprising that the PMC/money people are busy gentrifying the bleep out of it (they’ve already ruined Prescott, Sedona and Flagstaff). You might not have 20 years!

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      2. Mason

        I’m sorry that’s the case. It just screams Cadillac Dessert.

        I took a permaculture course near Asheville, NC. Instructor moved from Colorado over to here since she figured the water situation would grow critical. She recommended Cadillac Dessert.

        BTW, isn’t there a silly law in some of the western states against catching rain? Might just be a rumor.

        Reply
  2. Wukchumni

    I watch water probably more than most and have a baseline in my head that goes way back, part of it related to skiing (Not much of a winter here as of yet, supposed to be 73 degrees in a few days in the foothills-that ain’t right) and another part hiking & backpacking, and the most important part, water for our use.

    With outdoor activities I could figure out where I could go and when. In big years you’re a prisoner of sorts in the summer such as 2019 when the snowy canvas in the High Sierra started @ 8k in July, not allowing you to have easy access, whereas last summer I could go wherever I felt like as the result of an iffy winter.

    Las Vegas was gonna go TILT on account of water woes on the Colorado, but add in a pandemic for good measure and it’s dead to me.

    It will be the first abandoned city of size in the west, quite befitting really as Nevada’s history is replete with boom & bust tales, this being just another one albeit a whopper in the scheme of things.

    The claim is that epochs have a 80 year lifespan, and seeing as casino gambling was legalized in 1931 in the Silver State, the timing is close.

    The bigger question to me really, is how do 20 million in the SoCalist movement make it through the Big Dry. They’re all hundreds of miles away from water if not further, and if you asked an Angeleno where their water comes from, most would point to the faucet.

    Reply
    1. Susan the other

      In the 30s they didn’t know we were headed for a 1000-year drought. So the Colorado Compact allowed California primarily and also Arizona to live precariously. Just a matter of time as it turned out. Now, of course, Udall is not happy about the prospect of upstream states damming up their rivers – but that might happen anyway. For instance, in Utah the watershed for the Uintahs (very high range running east-west along Wyoming’s southern border) is the Green River. It contributes to the Colorado on its way through southern Utah – and if push came to shove Utah could dam up the Green for farms and ranches and worry about the lawsuits later. Just witness the spat going on currently over the Nile. In the 30s California had 4 million inhabitants; now it has 40 million. So yes, population is probably a bigger factor than cattle and overworked farms. California, however, does have its own water supply; I don’t think Arizona does. It’s like Las Vegas. Funny, Las Vegas (the meadows) used to be an oasis, if you take its name seriously. Maybe just a watering hole. The west might want to actually limit land use/development by the rational expectation of limited water. I didn’t notice it included in the approaches discussed above.

      Reply
    2. George

      I couldn’t agree more with your take on Vegas. It is almost if the plan here is to accelerate water usage by over building maximum water use venues throughout southern Nevada. In Henderson I am in view of one neighbors quarter acre swimming pool, another hockey stadium being built on top of a park and some of the largest apartment complexes being built I have ever seen. It’s like conservation not.

      Pool building, local nursery, and yes ice hockey advertising on TV 24/7. I read somewhere there is going to be water use restrictions starting in 2025; not today but in another three years! They even built a third intake at the bottom of Lake Mead apparently to successfully empty the lake. It now stands at 144 feet below full pool. So the plan here is there isn’t any, just unbridled growth with accelerated disregard for the emptying of said reservoir Lake Mead. This after we set a record 240 days last year with no measurable rainfall.

      Reply
      1. Wukchumni

        We’ve been kayaking the Colorado for decades, putting in just below Hoover Dam, and after a few days on the river, beat a path to Valley of Fire state park, driving along the west side of in theory Lake Mead, except there isn’t much of it, with boat launching ramps marooned as if they were on the Aral Sea.

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      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        Years ago I remember reading something, and I can’t remember where. But this is what it was.

        The grand theorizers and planners of South West development and infrastructure buildouts decided decades ago that the only way to secure water into the far future would be to overbuild and overpopulate so hugely that the SouthWest would end up containing a vast tax-base and voter-base which NOBODY could deny. And the SouthWest would use that tax base and voter base to extort water from the rest of the country. Extort water from the Mississippi, from Oregon and Washington, from Canada ( NAWAPA), from the Great Lakes, from anybody and everybody. That was the plan, so I read.

        I am sure that is still the hope and the dream. The rest of the country will have to hold the line against the SouthWest and permit zero water from beyond the Southwest to reach the Southwest. The SouthWest will have to de-develop and de-populate back to its water-base.

        That said, I hope Las Vegas in particular can be saved. Las Vegas is America’s Temple City of the Fun Gods.

        Reply
  3. Dave_in_Austin

    Owners of the Colorodo River basin have had legally enforceable property right to the water for almost a century. Taking public property and slowly turning it into semi-private property with minimal payment may be bad policy but it is also our national sport- on the political right we have ranchers who control public range land and on the political left we have over-the-air TV channel owners who assert some sort of permanent right to occupy spectrum without any rental payments at all because they filed an application to use it in 1923 for radio and 1950 for TV.

    Now we have California- meaning the LA and SF areas, which due largely to open immigration have gone from a population of seven million in 1940 to forty million in 2020- demand “flexibility” and “negotiations” which translates into “Give me your property because we have an unanticipated emergency”. Sorry; if you want the huge population you should have to build desalinization plants like Israel- and pay for them.

    Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      From my autographed copy of Major Campaign Speeches of Adlai E. Stevenson 1952 (you can purchase a used copy online for a few bucks sans signature)

      Los Angeles September 11th, 1952 speech: The American Future

      “It might not be many years, for example, before you people of Los Angeles can get your drinking water from the sea. Already our scientists have made great progress in turning salt-water into fresh.”

      Reply
    2. Wukchumni

      p.s.

      All the water that passes by me is spoken for aside from what we take for our personal use, but the delivery system is broken.

      Efforts to repair a long stretch of the Friant-Kern Canal got a major boost in the $900 billion COVID-19 relief package passed Monday night.

      The congressional package includes $206 million for canal repairs that are expected to begin in early 2021.

      The bill is on President Donald Trump’s desk, and he is expected to sign it this week.

      “Speaking on behalf of our members and the more than 15,000 farms and dozens of communities who rely on the Friant-Kern Canal, I want to extend deep gratitude and appreciation to our representatives in Congress, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Rep. Devin Nunes, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Jim Costa and Rep. TJ Cox for their work to advocate for and advance the needs of the Friant Division,” said Friant Water Authority Chairman Chris Tantau. “This funding will keep FWA on schedule to award a construction contract and begin implementing the project early next year.”

      Earlier this year, the Department of the Interior requested $71 million in project funding authorized under the Water Infrastructure Investments for the Nation Act of 2016. But, earlier this month, that request was increased to$206 million.

      Total Cost to Fix Canal is $500 Million

      The estimated cost to repair the canal’s middle reach in southern Tulare County is $500 million. Farmers there who caused the canal to sag by overpumping groundwater have tentatively agreed to contribute $125 million to $200 million toward the repair bill.

      The 33-mile long sag has reduced the canal’s carrying capacity by more than 60%, hydrologists say.

      https://gvwire.com/2020/12/22/congress-kicks-in-206-million-to-fix-leaky-friant-kern-canal/

      Reply
      1. Wukchumni

        More p.s.

        Last year’s snowpack was a little over 50% of an average winter in the High Sierra, and this year is dire so far and should it turn into another dud, perhaps 666 million fruit & nut trees will be watered almost exclusively with H20 from deep in the bowels of the earth, only compounding subsidence issues which did a number on the Friant-Kern Canal as a result of the 5 year drought where damned near every tree in the CVBB was nourished in such a fashion.

        Add in the idea that a bill was passed in late 2014 regarding the monitoring of well water, set to be put in place in 2020, which led to a bizarre thing in that all of the sudden there were new orchards everywhere* in the midst of the drought, orchardists grandfathering in baums to beat the new aegis.

        * my personal favorite was the area surrounding the Visalia Dump, all of the sudden tens of thousands of new hires in the ground.

        Reply
        1. divadab

          A friend’s grandfather homesteaded near Bakersfield in the 1890’s. He says when you dug through the hardpan, artesian water sprang (springed?) forth. Now the water table map is a deep depression, 200 feet down. In the 1890’s, the San Jouaquin river was navigable as far as Bakersfield – now it is a drain.

          Omens are not good.

          Reply
      2. alexis soule

        when I lived in N CA & worked in construction… and was interested in environmental issues– (to the chagrin of my union)… I remember hearing that “an enormous” (sorry, unable to specify) amount of water could be saved by simply COVERING the central valley canal, which brings water N to S…. that a great deal simply evaporated, which makes sense. I have not heard that they’ve ever done that. And of course, making it infeasible to grow extremely water-consuming crops, via whatever sticks and carrots necessary.
        (And thanks for allowing comments again. I’ve always been mostly delighted by the quality & intelligence of most of the comments on NC, vs. most comments, most sites.)

        Reply
      3. Mason

        If I remember it correctly from Cadillac Dessert, ranchers might of gotten land grants or very, very cheap land 100+ years ago. Then the army corps of engineers or bureau of reclamation started damming like maniacs and building canals.

        On paper, the taxing from farms could help repay the cost of projects. Instead that never really did happen. So at the onset between land and infrastructure, it’s always been a publicly subsidized project.

        They can’t even maintain it, that’s how bad it is. Well be bailing these operations out until ecosystem collapse.

        Reply
        1. Wukchumni

          I remember reading Cadillac Desert on a long train ride from London to Glasgow in the late 80’s, amazed that somebody could take such a dry subject and make me devour every word, pleading for another helping.

          Reply
    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      What percent of the water used in California goes to irrigated agriculture versus what percent of the water used in California goes directly to human day-to-day physical needs and uses in the greater Bay Area and in the greater L A area?

      Reply
  4. unhappyCakeEater

    in my local, when a developer submits to planning board for new housing, industrial park, etc. they have to obtain a Will-Serve letter. A will serve-assures safety and health authorities that the water provider can supply enough flow for human use and firefighting. I have never heard of a case where a will-serve was not issued for lack of supply.

    There is no attempt whatsoever to reconcile expected demand with available supply.

    Reply
  5. JWP

    https://www.hcn.org/articles/colorado-river-six-states-threaten-lawsuits-if-feds-fast-track-the-lake-powell-pipeline

    It seems southern Utah is far off from acknowledging the reality of supply in trying to grow the area with Lake Powell’s water. It is not even an easily habitable place for a society, for it will have to be abandoned for water and heat related stress before it can develop into a meaningful community.

    The article also shows the complete lack of utility from the federal government on the topic. Basically has become whatever stakeholder has the administrations ear (the wealthiest) is able to get the project rushed through. and of course the consequences come in precedent:

    “A rushed Final Environmental Impact Statement could establish protocols for moving water from the upper basin to the lower basin without basin-wide agreement on details like the accounting of the diversion, use of the water and other operational issues under the Law of the River.”

    After my yearly re-read of Mark Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, the land grants, prior appropriation, and overdevelopment, lined up the region for failure from the start. It seems moves like those from the City of Denver are merely slowing the inevitable. And his book is a must read for a comprehensive history of the West’s water development and water wars.

    Reply
  6. bryan

    I moved from Colorado in 2016 in part because it was to heartbreaking to watch the animals come down out of the mountains scavenging for food because there was no rain/food. In addition, 80° days in the winter we’re causing plants to bloom and then it would freeze and kill the blooms leaving no fruit for the following season.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Some years before 2016 I was attending an Acres USA conference. I talked informally a little bit with someone who had closed out his organic farm operation in Colorado and was setting up in Kentucky because he expected that Colorado would become too water short for him to farm in once the mismatch between Colorado water and Colorado development and population became too big to hide from.

      Reply
  7. Nce

    This article references people (Jenifer Pitts and Anne Castle) who have received funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which has considerable influence on Colorado River policymaking: https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060166213 and https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060178099 . The WFF’s priorities are pushed through people who don’t identify how the WFF has influenced their water management and policy prescriptions (namely as cheerleaders for water markets) like the current director of the Water Resources Management graduate program at the University of New Mexico, John Fleck, who co-authored an academic paper with Castle (https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3483654). They had to disclose their funders for that, but Fleck was completely silent about the WFF in his 2016 book about Co. R. management (https://www.amazon.com/Water-Fighting-Over-Other-Myths/dp/1610916794), which I consider to be journalistic malpractice. I took 80-something pages to challenge his book in my professional project, so I won’t go into more depth here, but I can’t refer anyone to view it online because he doesn’t publically post them anymore, apparently… I graduated in the Spring of 2020 and the postings stop in 2018. In short, that department should be renamed as Neoliberal Water Management, just to give potential students a head’s up that I didn’t get.

    Reply
      1. Nce

        I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about it. The bottom line is that beneficial use and related restrictions on prior appropriation rights were intended to prevent water speculation, but even these weak restrictions are contested by those who advocate for “water sharing” agreements. (Doublespeak for water markets, like “water equity” as mentioned this article means fairness to senior ag rights-holders, not households who don’t have access to affordable, safe, and reliable access to drinking water.) Expanding the legal definition of beneficial use may be one way to work around seniority-based water rights to more equitably allocate water if there’s enough political will to do it… This Stanford Law School policy paper is regarded as naive by many water management professionals, but I think it’s more prescient every day: https://law.stanford.edu/publications/california-water-governance-for-the-21st-century/

        Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      The Internet Archive project has tried to save an awful lot of digital site-stuff. If someone were to offer the specific URL at which this/these papers once used to be found, a perfectly preserved image of all that material might well be findable on the “Wayback Machine” Internet Archive.

      Reply
  8. Carolinian

    In a recent book David Attenborough has said that the US should revive a plan to bring water from Canada to the mountain West via the Rocky Mountain Trench. This is one of the ideas bashed some years back in Cadillac Desert but might work? We could be at a point where heroic technological efforts are going to be needed since conservation and population restraint are not enough in evidence.

    Reply
    1. JWP

      Love Sir David, but I’m going to strongly disagree with his thought here.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_Water_and_Power_Alliance

      North American Water and Power Alliance would be the plan. A truly awful plan it was indeed that merits no consideration for its destructiveness. However, it is probably up there for the most awesome engineering plans ever conceived. Reisner rightfully dismissed it. Some of his quotes on the proposal show how insane it was:

      “Every significant river from Anchorage to Vancouver would be dammed for water or power or both”
      “The plan would dry up just about every section of wild river left on the west coast”
      “Prince George BC (pop 150,000) would vanish from the earth entirely”
      “…wilderness and wildlife habitat would be put under water…tens of millions of acres of it”
      “It would cause as much harm as all the dam building we have done in 100 years”
      and my favorite…”NAWAPA is the kind of thing you think of when you’re smoking pot”
      It is also estimated a third of diverted water from such a project would be lost due to evaporation and absorption and eliminate 90% of remaining wild salmon runs.

      It is a more logical idea to slowly incentivize people to move out of the SW than to bring water to them, especially given the rising temperatures.

      Reply
      1. Carolinian

        The book, called A Life on This Planet, is about how the situation has gone downhill during his 95 year old life and what might happen if global warming continues as is. He cites deteriorating access to fresh water as one of the main crises and seems to be saying that this might carry on to the point where drastic action is needed, environmental consequences be damned. Therefore without the book at hand I believe it was less a recommendation and more of a prediction.

        Seems like Reisner said Canada put the nix on the idea regardless. So California will just have to settle for towing icebergs down from Alaska…..

        Reply
    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      No. That would be entirely eco-destructive to every river in Canada and Oregon and Washington which would be trapped and redirected to a water-sucker Southwest and California which does not deserve to have any of it.

      Let them live or die within their own water budget. Let them depopulate down to whatever their shrunken water budget will be in the future.

      Or maybe . . . . dam and destroy every river in South Carolina and send all of THAT water to California.

      Reply
      1. Carolinian

        Instead of our water going there they will likely come here. My town, which barely seemed to change for decades, is booming with new residents.

        And I’m not saying it’s a good idea–just that it is an idea that has been out there.

        Reply
          1. Rod

            That’s correct.
            And we’re not planning on it either, so there…
            As heat rises, SC watches quietly. … Unlike North Carolina, South Carolina’s failure to develop a comprehensive climate plan means the state has no overall effort to cut greenhouse gas pollution, limit sprawl or educate the public on how to adapt to the changing climate.Jan 26, 2020

            South Carolina has no statewide plan to fight climate change …www.thestate.com › environment › article239527278

            Reply
  9. TimmyB

    In California, 80 of water is used for agricultural water uses and the remaining 20% is used for other uses, including households.

    Certainly people need food to eat, so we can’t cut ag water to zero. But we can question the wisdom of having flooded rice paddies in the California desert.

    Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      I never considered the area north of Sacramento as being desert, and not only that, growing rice makes sense as the water that’s needed for it is always plentiful early in the year when its planted and nourished.

      Now cotton, that’s a different boll weevil.

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        If irrigated farming were abolished everywhere on all the drained lands of the former SF Bay area river deltas and marshlands, that land could go back to sucking down and storing up some of our excess skycarbon.

        Reply

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