‘Borrowing from the future’: What an Emerging Megadrought Means for the Southwest

PHOENIX – It’s the early 1990s, and Park Williams stands in the middle of Folsom Lake, at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills in Northern California. He’s not walking on water; severe drought has exposed the lakebed.

“I remember being very impressed by the incredible variability of water in the West and how it’s very rare that we actually have just enough water,” said Williams, who went on to become a climate scientist at Columbia University. “It’s often the case there’s either too much or too little.”

Williams is the lead author on a report out this month in the journal Science detailing the extent of drought conditions in the American West.

The report found the period from 2000 through 2018 to be the driest 19-year span since the late 1500s, and the second driest since 800. In simpler terms, it’s an emerging megadrought, which is a drought that typically lasts decades.

“Drought conditions during the 2000s have actually been on average as severe as the driest on 20-year periods of the worst megadroughts of the last millennium,” Williams said in an interview with Cronkite News. “The cause is a combination of natural climate variability and human caused climate change.”

What sets this emerging megadrought apart from others, such as those recorded in the 1200s and 1500s, is that human activity is increasing the severity. Although past megadroughts had natural causes, the report found this natural phenomenon has been made worse by humans.

Nancy Selover, Arizona’s state climatologist since 2007, said there’s more to learn about the impact people have had on this recent drought, although she does classify Arizona as being in a megadrought now.

“I’m sure we’re contributing a little bit. I’m not sure how much we’re contributing,” Selover said. “It’s model output. And models are designed not to predict what’s going to happen, they’re designed for us to understand them and learn how the system works.”

It’s important to understand the difference between deserts and droughts, said Kathy Jacobs, the director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona.

“I think making a distinction between sort of living in a desert where it’s hot and dry, and understanding that we could be entering into decades long shortage situations that really throw all of our water supply projections for a loop is a really important distinction,” Jacobs said.

To make that distinction, Williams and his team employed methods first used in 1937 by researchers at the University of Arizona, who discovered the width of the annual growth rings in tree trunks corresponded to moisture availabilities, or soil moisture.

“Our measurement of drought is really a combination of tree ring records that come up to 1900,” Williams said. “And then that, stitched together with our climate derived estimates of soil moisture, brings us up to 2018.”

He said a megadrought isn’t a multidecade period in which every year is dry, but instead an extended period when the occasional wet years don’t come close to making up for the predominance of dry years.

If the concept of an emerging megadrought seems abstract, there’s a reason. Williams said people might not feel the immediate impact of water sources depleting due to groundwater pumping in California, Arizona and other states.

“We’ve been pulling out groundwater at a far faster rate than it actually gets replenished, and that has allowed us to get through this drought,” Williams said. “We’re basically borrowing from the future.”

Selover said it’s a future that’s likely to include more people in the Southwest.

“We now have more people here, so drought is a more significant issue than it ever was before,” she said. “We need to be very, very careful about how we deal with our water and how we deal with our temperature. Because those things going forward are going to be decreasing water and increasing temperature.”

The Colorado River is one example of decreasing water resources. Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico depend on the river for water, but the amount of water each state is promised has been consistently overallocated.

“Each state is actually guaranteed more acre feet of water out of the Colorado River every year than actually flows in the Colorado River in an average year,” Williams said. “We’ve had an unsustainable relationship with the Colorado River for the last century, independent of climate change.”

Jacobs said it’s a relationship that hasn’t been properly addressed, especially considering the cultural significance the Colorado has to many people in the Southwest.

“It’s really important to recognize both, tribal, and environmental uses of water in both the main stem (of the river) and the tributaries,” Jacobs said. “Letting the river actually be a river and flow is something that’s valued by some people. Whereas now, we have essentially dried the entire river out so it does not reach the sea.”

Williams suggests that water in the 1,450-mile-long Colorado be reallocated as one way to improve the river’s condition. That’s difficult when the demands for water are so high.

Last year, after years of negotiations, President Donald Trump approved the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan which outlines how much water the seven Colorado River Basin states can take from the river if reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead drop to critical levels. Despite the plan, Williams said the river still is in danger of drying up.

“The fact that the normal average year is actually getting drier and is projected to keep getting drier in the Colorado River means that we’re probably going to have to revise how much each state is allocated on the Colorado River substantially,” Williams said.

Beyond that, Jacobs stresses the need to elect representatives to the Arizona Legislature who care about the environment and to reach out to current legislators so they know how important tighter water regulations are to Arizonans and the state’s economy.

“Most of the people who come here for tourism are coming because they want to see the beautiful parts of the state,” Jacobs said. “Many of those beautiful parts are connected to rivers and water supplies. There are billions of dollars generated by the state’s economy by people who are here for ecotourism, and we could easily build that into a much more profitable path.”

At the end of the day, the spirit of continued water conservation efforts can be traced back to that image of a young Park Williams on Folsom Lake. The lesson learned, he said, is how precious water is.

“The stakes for humans are higher than they’ve ever been before,” Williams said. “And as we change the climate, one of the things that is most predictable is that the distribution of water is going to change. Trying to figure that out before it really becomes a crisis, I think, is one of the most valuable things we can do.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Groundwater Aquifers Can Expect A Boost From March Rains

March rain has left Salt River Project reservoirs as full as they’ve been in a decade. The company is discharging water to make room for the runoff, providing a boost to the underlying aquifers.

The utility says the Salt and Verde river systems are at a combined 94% of capacity, almost 20 points higher than last year. Theodore Roosevelt Lake holds about two-thirds of SRP’s stored water and is over 90 percent full.

The utility is sending discharge from the reservoirs, called “spillage,” down the Salt River.

“When these rivers flow, they basically have a direct link to the regional aquifer,” said SRP’s Charlie Ester. “And a flowing river in the desert southwest is the number one way to get water into the regional aquifer.”

A higher aquifer helps just about any user who taps into groundwater.

“We’re helping out the aquifer, but no one in particular can lay claim to it,” Ester said.

As of March 22, Phoenix has seen 1.94 inches of rain in March, according to preliminary data from the National Weather Service. The normal accumulation for that month is less than half that.

While it is possible the rain could reduce the strain on the Central Arizona Project, which supplies Colorado River water to users in Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima Counties, the system does not expect a change in orders this year.

“We did observe a reduction in customer orders in March, as compared to the original Annual Operating Plan schedule,” said Central Arizona Project spokesperson DeEtte Person. “We also adjusted our operations at Waddell Pump Generating Plant to accommodate additional runoff into Lake Pleasant from the Agua Fria River watershed. However, as temperatures increase, we anticipate that demand will pick up, resulting in customers likely still taking delivery of their full water order by the end of the year.”

Any period of wet weather does not mean the area is out of a long-term drought.

Ester said that droughts have wet years and wet periods have dry years, although he is wondering if things are starting to change.

“Three of the last four years now have been wet,” he said. “Maybe the [drought] that we’ve been in since 1996 is beginning to end, and we might be in the process of transitioning to the next wet cycle.”

Whatever goes on in the Central Arizona watershed, however, does not allow conclusions to be drawn about the entire Colorado River basin. That’s partly because the Upper Colorado River basin is much more susceptible to the impacts of climate change.

“We get most of our runoff during the winter when the sun angle is very low, so there’s very little transpiration and evaporation,” Ester said. “What water we get is available to runoff. In the Upper Colorado, their runoff season is in the middle part of the summer. Plants are growing. The sun angle is high. They suffer a lot more losses during runoff because of that than we do.”

As Southwest Water Managers Grapple with Climate Change, Can a ‘Grand Bargain’ Work?

BOULDER, Colo. – Water managers on the Colorado River are facing a unique moment. With a temporary fix to the river’s scarcity problem recently completed, talk is turning toward future agreements to better manage the water source for 40 million people across the Southwest.

Climate change, growing populations and fragile rural economies are top of mind. Some within the vast basin see a window of opportunity to argue for big, bold actions to find balance in the watershed. Others say the best path forward is to take small, incremental steps toward lofty goals, a method Colorado River managers say has worked well for them for decades.

That tension was on full display at a June gathering of water agency leaders, environmentalists, scientists and federal bureaucrats in Boulder, where they reflected on the recently signed Colorado River drought contingency plans and began to envision what might be included in a long-term solution.

(The conference at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center was sponsored in part by the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program, and Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River District, used the opportunity to shop around a concept they call the “grand bargain,” which they say would address the basin’s fundamental imbalance between supply and demand.

In their new book “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” Fleck and Kuhn say scientists always have warned against promising too much water to too many people but were sidelined by politicians looking to grow crops and cities. That led to inflated figures in the Colorado River Compact of 1922 that plague water managers today. The original sin was putting more water on paper than existed in the real world.

That problem has been made clear by a 20-year drought that pushed the river’s biggest reservoirs – Lakes Mead and Powell – to their lowest collective volume since Powell filled in 1980. Studies show that climate change already is sapping the Colorado’s flow, accelerating evaporation and shrinking the snowpack that feeds it.

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, has been dropping for years, and if it dips too low, it could trigger a mandatory delivery cuts in the Lower Colorado River Basin. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The 1922 compact, which is considered the cornerstone of the “Law of the River,” split the Colorado River Basin into two legal and geographic entities: Upper (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) and Lower (California, Arizona and Nevada). The compact promised each basin 7.5 million acre feet of water each year, to be split among the states of each basin. A later agreement promised Mexico 1.5 million acre feet of water from the river, without specifying which basin was responsible for delivering it.

To get the compact signed, leaders in both basins agreed to measure the river’s flow at a place just downstream of where Glen Canyon Dam sits today and use it as a point of reference. If the amount of water measured at that point ever dipped below the contracted amount in subsequent years, the Lower Basin could call for its water, shutting off users in the Upper Basin if need be.

That hypothetical move is called a Compact Call, and if it happened, water managers worry it would set off a cascade of events across the Upper Basin, forcing cities, farmers and industry alike to cut some or all of their use. It would also likely throw all the Colorado River states into a prolonged fight before the Supreme Court.

Fleck and Kuhn say the grand bargain would rebalance some of the compact’s bad math. In it, the Lower Basin would agree to abandon that longstanding right to demand water from the Upper Basin if it runs short.

In exchange, the Upper Basin would agree to a cap on future water development. For more than a decade, the Upper Basin has used about 4.5 million acre-feet of water annually, well below its compact cap of 7.5 million. But a slate of projects in the Upper Basin represent an attempt to tap into that unused entitlement.

Capping the Upper Basin’s usage and removing the Lower Basin’s ability to call for water would make the whole system more resilient, Fleck said.

“Then both sides are giving up a cherished right and (agreeing to) a compromise that has the potential to then bring some stability and balance in the long run and remove a lot of the risk of really catastrophic conflict,” he said.

The threat of a compact call from the Lower Basin and the visions of big new reservoirs in the Upper Basin are driving all kinds of self-serving behavior, Fleck said.

But for the bargain to work, water managers throughout the basin need to convince themselves and their state’s leaders of one thing: There is no more additional water to be had in the Colorado River basin.

“Managing to the amount of water we actually have may sound intuitive and logical, but we’ve never actually done it on this river,” John Entsminger, general manger of Southern Nevada Water Authority, said at the Boulder conference.

Within the next year and a half, he and other water managers will sit down to figure out life beyond 2026. That’s the deadline to come up with a new set of guidelines to manage the Colorado River, last agreed to in 2007. Entsminger listed his top priorities in those negotiations, including a discussion of limiting new Upper Basin uses. Without addressing that, he said, it would be hard to get a comprehensive deal done.

“For us to be successful we’ve all got to lose,” Entsminger said. “The future of this river is less water and we’re all going to have to get by with less.”

But tinkering too much with the river’s legal underpinnings doesn’t sit well with Pat Tyrrell, former Wyoming state engineer and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

“What you cannot do is cap at our existing level of development without saying to essentially the four Upper Basin states, ‘We’re going to let you die on the vine,’” Tyrrell said. “We have to have room to develop.

“You can’t go to Utah and say, ‘You can’t have any more kids.’”

Tyrrell suggested Lower Basin states “go to the ocean,” meaning making bigger investments in desalination to provide additional freshwater, before lecturing Upper Basin states that they need to cut back.

“If we try to open or amend the compact, I think the results will be horrible,” Tyrrell said.

That’s a familiar refrain from a state well below its current entitlement to Colorado River basin water, with plans to tap more.

But Eric Kuhn, one of the grand bargain’s proponents, said the Upper Basin has been using roughly the same amount of water for years, while population continued to grow.

“One of the myths that we have to break is that economic prosperity requires a higher consumptive use,” Kuhn said.

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Busting the myth of population growth or booming economies requiring greater volumes of water will be key to getting a deal done that adequately addresses climate change, Kuhn said, “so we can sell some of the ideas that will be necessary, to live with what we got, not what we thought we had 100 years ago on the river.”

The tension between the incremental, conservative approach of risk-averse water managers and the alarm-bell-ringing of climate scientists and environmentalists will certainly play into the renegotiation of the 2007 guidelines.

“Everyone knows climate change is a big deal, but the efforts and the steps that we’re taking are incremental steps that aren’t getting us where we need to get fast enough,” said Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director for the conservation group WildEarth Guardians.

The incremental approach works when you have many parties trying to come up with a solution and unwilling to give up too much in a compromise, she said. The revolutionary approach requires an acknowledgement that real danger exists.

“I think the Colorado River is in deep danger,” Pelz said.

Water managers conceive of the Colorado River as existing to deliver water to people, Pelz said. What’s often lost in lofty discussions about law and policy is that the river is integral to how ecosystems function in the Southwest.

“There’s a huge blind spot around what the environment needs,” Pelz said. “Who’s going to provide that vision for the environment? It’s not going to be the water managers. That’s not their constituency.”

Luke Runyon reports for KUNC, based in Greeley, Colorado. Bret Jaspers reports for KJZZ in Phoenix. KUNC assistant news director Erin O’Toole contributed to this report.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Utah Presses Forward on Lake Powell Pipeline Despite Strains on Colorado River

ST. GEORGE, Utah – The drive behind an enormous water project in southwestern Utah, the Lake Powell Pipeline, shows no signs of slowing even after the seven Colorado River Basin states signed a new agreement this spring that could force cutbacks and more conservation.

Despite the shrinking of the overtapped Colorado, four Upper Basin states – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico – are pushing forward with planned dams, reservoir expansions and pipelines that would allow them to capture what they were promised under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That agreement, which has been amended and added to for decades, reserves 7.5 million acre-feet for the Upper Basin and 7.5 million acre-feet for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California.

Residents of Upper Basin states contend that Arizona, California and Nevada have been using “their” water for nearly a century.

President Donald Trump signed the basin-wide drought contingency plan in April, just weeks after Utah declared in a news release that the river, which serves 40 million people in the Southwest, is “a reliable source of water.”

“What they need to do, the lower states, is use their right that’s allocated to them and we will use our right that’s allocated to us,” said Mike Styler, who retired recently after 14 years as director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

If completed, the 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline would draw about 86,000 acre-feet a year from the lake, which straddles the Utah-Arizona line. That’s enough water to support nearly 100,000 households in Utah’s burgeoning Kane and Washington counties.

Gary Turner, who grows turf on 114 acres in Washington City, said the project is needed to ensure the area’s continued growth.

“We absolutely have to have it,” he said as he prepared to harvest 42 pallets of sod for local customers. “I don’t know of any other option.”

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The houses and apartments that have sprouted up around Turner’s farm are evidence of a years-long population boom in southwestern Utah. The St. George area was the third-fastest growing in the nation last year, according to Census Bureau data released in April. Past data showed the area as the fastest growing in 2017 and the fifth-fastest growing from 2010 to 2018.

Pipeline proponents expect that growth will continue, from about 171,000 residents now to about 509,000 by 2065. That’s why they insist the $1.1 billion pipeline is necessary.

Turner irrigates his manicured green grass with water from the Virgin River, now the area’s sole source. He said pioneer-era water rights provide what he needs to maintain his turf farm, so he doesn’t need the pipeline to stay in business. But more water will be needed for the people expected to move to southwestern Utah and the lawns they’ll want, Turner said.

“We grow houses better than we can grow any other commodity,” he said.

The state has spent more than $30 million on its application to build the pipeline, which, according to LPP Utah, would include five pumping stations and six hydroelectric facilities to serve the project. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is reviewing the pipeline’s environmental impacts. The Washington County Water Conservancy District, a project partner, estimates that the license could be finalized in two years, construction would begin a few years later and the pipeline would be operating by about 2030.

But pipeline critics call the project too risky, too pricey and unnecessary. They contend that too much Colorado River water has already been promised to too many people; in addition, climatologists predict the vast basin will continue to get drier and warmer in the decades ahead.

“We are way beyond the budget of what the Colorado River can deliver, and when you just look at how much water is in the river and how much everyone else wants to take out, it’s just not there,” said Nick Schou, conservation director for the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council.

Schou said the Lower Basin states are facing cuts of as much as 500,000 acre-feet at the same time the Upper Basin states are planning nine projects that will draw about 400,000 acre-feet.

“Not only are we overusing the water, but there’s going to be a lot less to go around in the future,” Schou said.

Instead of a pipeline, opponents insist the smartest and cheapest solution is conservation.

Lisa Rutherford of Ivins, Utah, has been tracking the Lake Powell Pipeline for Conserve Southwest Utah. She and partner Paul Van Dam are among the project critics who say that conservation – not a billion-dollar pipeline – is the better answer to southwestern Utah’s water needs. (Photo by Judy Fahys/KUER News)

“We don’t think there will be the water,” said Lisa Rutherford, who tracks the pipeline proposal for the nonprofit Conserve Southwest Utah. “We do not think that we need the water.”

Rutherford said she’s worried that pipeline proponents will hinder sorely needed conservation efforts, which already are stymied by low prices for water in the St. George area.

A survey last summer by KUER compared what customers pay in other Western cities for 28,000 gallons of water, the average used by St. George residential customers in July. It was $111 in Las Vegas; $144 in Denver and $235 in Tucson. In St. George, however, the bill was $61.

The project’s overall cost is another big concern for critics. Proponents estimate the pipeline’s cost between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion. Critics say the price tag will probably be $3.2 billion or higher. And water users would be saddled with the cost because federal subsidies for big water projects, which once were plentiful, have evaporated.

Rutherford’s partner, former state Attorney General Paul Van Dam, said the roots of the controversy go beyond facts and figures. He said many Utah residents are convinced that Nevada, Arizona and California have been allowed to take precious resources that belong to Utah.

“That’s just absolutely almost part of the DNA of people out here,” Van Dam said. “And it’s just like treason if you don’t fight for the water that is your water.”

This story is the last part of “The Final Straw,” a series produced by the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, KUER and Wyoming Public Radio.

Ranchers Want Dams to Protect Against Drought, But Could They Worsen Climate Change?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 2 of a three-part series.

BIG PINEY, Wyo. – It’s late May in Wyoming. Snow fell the night before, and more is on the way. That’s why it’s good that rancher Chad Espenscheid is behind the wheel. The roads are sloppy and Middle Piney Creek is running high.

All this water is nerve-wracking for ranchers in western Wyoming, who depend on irrigation to feed their livestock.

“It’s been a cold, long winter,” Espenscheid said. “The cows and calves are really needing some sunshine about now. We got quite a bit of sickness going on around the (Green River) Valley.”

Rancher and Water Engineer Chad Espenscheid stands at an overlook of his property on Middle Piney Creek as a snowstorm brews behind him. (Melodie Edwards/Wyoming Public Radio)

That sickness could mean he’ll lose a lot of newborn calves.

Many aspects of ranching are stressful, and one of the big ones is water. That’s why Espenscheid is pleased the state is fixing the Middle Piney Dam, which has fallen into disrepair where the creek flows into the Green River, a major tributary of the Colorado River.

“It would give Middle Piney Creek a little more of a steady flow instead of it all coming out in one shot and everybody really having to hustle around and capture it all at one time,” he said, adding that he could use that water to irrigate his hayfields to feed those calves.

Not only is Espenscheid a rancher, he’s also a water engineer who participates in an experimental conservation program that pays ranchers to only irrigate when they have to. So in late summer, after he’s hayed his fields, he turns off the spigot. But fixing Middle Piney Dam will store a modest 4,200 acre-feet of water that would have wound up in the Colorado, Espenscheid said.

He’s not sure what to think about how that will affect Lower Basin states that also rely on the Colorado River.

“I don’t know, I’m just Wyoming through and true, so I’m kind of worried about Wyoming, I guess, to be honest,” Espenscheid said. “So I think we’ve got to take care of our own sustainability and make sure we have opportunities for growth.”

It’s not just the Middle Piney Reservoir that’s being expanded, though. Jason Mead with Wyoming’s Water Development Office adds up the acre-feet of water storage the state wants to build on the Green River watershed.

“Four thousand for Middle Piney, 10,000 for West Fork; that’s 14,000,” Mead said. “Another 8 (thousand) at New Fork, so that’s 22,000, another 9 (thousand) between Meek’s Cabin, that’s 31,000.”

All told, he figures Wyoming could add about 50,000 acre-feet with five new or expanded reservoirs, including Big Sandy, West Fork, Meek’s Cabin and Stateline. And then there are the 80,000 acre-feet that the Fontanelle Reservoir on the Green River eventually could add, once drought lowers the water level enough to finish the foundation.

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At 130,000 acre-feet total, that would be enough water to supply a city of a million people – but Wyoming’s entire population is half that.

“Every one of these projects we’re talking about,” Mead said, “really are for irrigation shortages and trying to handle the drought situations that everybody has faced over the years and trying to take water when we have good years and carry it over into years that are drier,” Mead said.

And those drier years are expected to worsen. Long-range forecasts predict heavy snowpacks will melt and flood earlier and earlier, leaving ranchers with less water in the summer.

“If we can’t keep those businesses afloat, eventually they’re going to have to sell,” Mead said. “Do they get developed in the future? We don’t know, but if we keep them in ranching, we know we’re going to maintain that open space.”

Although more dams could help ranchers survive coming droughts, some scientists say building more dams, particularly those meant to control flooding, might actually worsen climate change.

“They want the water drained out so in the event of a flood they have storage capacity,” University of Wyoming soil scientist Jay Norton said. “That can cause very low flows downstream that dry up those floodplain wetlands,” which store huge amounts of organic carbon.

“There’s estimates that if we could raise soil organic carbon by about 0.4 percent per year, that we would completely offset human-derived emissions of greenhouse gases,” Norton said.

Think of all the plants along streams in the otherwise arid Mountain West. Wetlands on undammed waterways can cover as little as 2% of the landscape but hold 15% to 30% of the carbon. But if reservoirs hold all the water, those riparian areas will dry up and lose the ability to hold carbon.

According to Norton, however, more dams in the Upper Basin – if managed correctly – could create more wetlands and store more carbon.

“Conceivably, it could have a positive effect on downstream wetlands, if water tables are maintained relatively high,” he said. “Irrigation itself expands wetlands.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the only effect dams have on climate. One study shows that decomposing organic matter behind dams as water levels drop can produce large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s even more potent than carbon dioxide.

But Espenscheid, the rancher and water engineer, said the positives of building dams outweigh the negatives.

“Most ranchers, they’re ranchers because they love their ranch and they love the outdoors and they love the wildlife and everything about it,” he said. “So if you can find a win-win solution, then everybody’s happy.”

The question is: With all the Upper Basin states investing in more dams, what will the cumulative effect be?

This story is part of “The Final Straw,” a series produced by the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, KUER and Wyoming Public Radio.

On Stressed Colorado River, States Test How Many More Diversions Watershed Can Bear

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 1 of a three-part series.

COAL CREEK CANYON, Colo. – The Colorado River is short on water, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at a slate of proposed water projects in the river’s Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

The river and its tributaries provide water for 40 million people in the Southwest. For the past 20 years or so, demand for water has outstripped the supply, causing its largest reservoirs to decline.

In the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, you can pinpoint when the lines crossed somewhere near 2002. It’s a well-documented and widely accepted imbalance.

That harsh reality – the river’s water is promised to too many people – has prompted all sorts of activity and agreements within the seven Western states that rely on it. That activity includes controversial efforts in some Upper Basin states to tap every available drop before things get worse.

‘There’s Nothing That We Get From This’

Tyson Long drives his black pickup truck in the foothills outside Boulder. The narrow dirt road twists and turns through pine forest, past houses with yard signs that read: “Stop Gross Reservoir Expansion.”

We stop at an intersection, near an electrical provider and across the road from a community center. It’s an almost 180-degree turn from the main highway onto the road to Gross Dam.

The utility that owns the reservoir, Denver Water, wants to increase the height of the dam by 131 feet and fill it with water from the headwaters of the Colorado River via the Moffat Tunnel through the Continental Divide.

Imagine a tractor trailer hauling dam-building materials making this turn, Long said.

April Lewandowski and Tyson Long live in Coal Creek Canyon, a community near Golden, Colorado, that would see increased truck traffic and noise as part of the Gross Reservoir expansion. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

“If they truck all of this material up our canyon,” Long said, “people in our community are going to get killed by those trucks. Period. There’s a lot of other issues here, but the safety thing should really be a serious priority.”

Long and his wife, April Lewandowski, live near the reservoir in a sparsely populated community called Coal Creek Canyon. Like many of her neighbors, Lewandowski commutes to her job on the state’s densely populated Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Her daily commute on the canyon’s two-lane highway is the same as a haul route for trucks that would be needed to raise the dam.

Long pulls up to a small parking area that overlooks the dam. It’s a deep wall of concrete, stretched between the tree-lined canyon walls of South Boulder Creek.

“I mean, you look at how the land splays out, you can see why they want to (build it),” Long said. “It’s so much wider all the way around.”

If the expansion goes through, the place where we’re standing will be submerged in water. Raising the crest of Gross Dam to 471 feet would make it the tallest in Colorado.

Long and Lewandowski are concerned about the safety of neighbors who commute down the canyon each day and would have to compete for road space with enormous trucks. They wonder what effect the five years or more of construction could have on the value of their home. They want to know how they can keep a water agency of appointed officials accountable for promises made.

“We don’t vote for them or fund them,” Lewandowski said. “There’s no way that we can have a voice. There’s nothing that we get from this. We don’t get the water from it. We’ve never been told we were going to get a better road or a wider road.”

‘This is a Project That’s Needed Today’

Denver Water began to seriously consider expansion of Gross Reservoir after the dry winter of 2002 and exceptional drought conditions took hold across the Mountain West. In the midst of those historic dry conditions, a portion of its service area nearly ran out of water, said the utility’s CEO, Jim Lochhead.

“This is a project that’s needed today to deal with that imbalance and that vulnerability and to give us more drought resiliency,” Lochhead said.

Jim Lochhead is the CEO of Denver Water, which has been trying to expand Gross Reservoir since 2003. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Since then, Denver Water has filed federal permits to start construction and negotiated an agreement with local governments and environmental groups on Colorado’s Western Slope to mitigate some effects of the additional water being taken from the headwaters.

Before leaving office, former Colorado Democratic governor (and current presidential hopeful) John Hickenlooper threw his weight behind the project, giving it an endorsement and suggesting other water agencies in the West take notice how Denver Water approached the process.

But despite the political heft behind the project, it faces considerable headwinds.

Environmentalists are suing, arguing the expansion would harm endangered fish. Local activists say the additional water will spur unsustainable population growth along the Front Range. In recent months, the utility has sparred with Boulder County officials over whether it was exempt from a certain land use permit.

Building a 131-foot dam addition does come with baggage, Lochhead said. But he argued his agency has done its part to address some of the concerns, such as reducing the number of daily tractor-trailer trips up Coal Creek Canyon and planning upgrades to the intersection where trucks where turn onto Gross Dam Road.

“It is a major construction project. I don’t want to gloss over that. It will have impacts to the local community,” he said.

Denver Water staff members are doing more outreach in the canyon as well, Lochhead said.

“We are committed to the project and seeing it through. We’re also committed despite the opposition to working with the local community in doing this the right way,” he said.

‘There Really Isn’t Unused or Excess Water Out There’

The latest scuffle with Boulder County has brought the Gross Dam expansion squarely back into public view. At a county commissioner’s meeting in March, residents criticized Denver Water on all fronts, from specific concerns about the construction itself, to broader concerns about water scarcity in the Colorado River basin.

“No one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Gee, I hope there will be a seven-year dam construction project in my backyard,’” Anna McDermott, who lives near the shore of Gross Reservoir, said at the hearing.

Gross Reservoir is a key piece of Denver Water’s delivery system. A proposal to expand the dam has galvanized opponents. (Photo by Nick Cote for KUNC/LightHawk)

“This project represents an effort by Denver Water … to actually grab water while they can, before federal legislation and management of the Colorado River Basin is imposed,” McDermott said.

What McDermott is referring to is a stark disconnect in the Colorado River watershed. States downstream on the river – Arizona, Nevada and California – signed a new agreement in May called the Drought Contingency Plan that keeps them from becoming more reliant on the Colorado River. It requires cutbacks to water deliveries should levels in Lake Mead, the river’s largest reservoir, continue to drop.

No such agreement was made upstream in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. Those states wound up agreeing to study the feasibility of a program that would compensate farmers to stop irrigating their cropland if reservoirs dropped, with no solid way to pay for it. They also agreed to better coordinate releases from their biggest reservoirs to aid an ailing Lake Powell. While they figure out how to develop those two concepts, the Upper Basin states keep inching along on their development projects to divert more from the river.

The 1922 Colorado River Compact, the river’s foundational governing document, gives Upper Basin states the legal cover to continue developing projects like the Gross Reservoir expansion. In the compact, each basin is allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of the river’s water.

Over the decades, the rapidly growing and intensely farmed Lower Basin has used much more than that. The less-populated Upper Basin has never reached its full allotment. Those states have been using roughly 4.5 million acre-feet for the past 13 years, with the rest flowing downstream for the Lower Basin to use as it sees fit.

The Gross Reservoir expansion and other proposed water projects are an attempt to even the score, even if they add some additional pressure to the overallocated resource, said Doug Kenney, an expert on Colorado River policy at the University of Colorado Boulder. (Some of Kenney’s work has received funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

“There really isn’t unused or excess water out there, and so every new water project we build is undercutting the reliability of every other water project we’ve already built,” Kenney said.

The additional water to fill Gross Reservoir – if the expansion goes through – will have to come from somewhere.

“They might have in the back of their mind this thought that this is something that will make up for elsewhere in the basin through another mechanism,” Kenney said. “And if that happens, then it all looks very reasonable. But if it doesn’t happen, then this doesn’t look very reasonable.”

Water managers are able to look at the entire Colorado River watershed and recognize its fundamental supply and demand imbalance, Kenney said, and still find ways to siphon off new supplies in smaller pockets. It’s one of the conundrums of Colorado River governance. No one agency or commission exists to consider and manage the system as a whole.

Conservation programs tend to be less expensive than huge new projects, Kenney said. But additional water supplies stored in reservoirs give more security and reliability. It’s why water leaders push for them, even when the economics don’t make sense.

“I used to think the limiting factor would be the economic cost to these projects, but currently there is little evidence to suggest that’s what stops these things,” Kenney said. “It’s politics and it’s how well-mobilized the political opponents are to these projects.”

This story is part of “The Final Straw,” a series produced by the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, KUER and Wyoming Public Radio. KUNC’s Colorado River coverage is supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Southern Arizona Farmers Again Ask for $20 Million for Water Infrastructure

PHOENIX – Farmers in Pinal County are again pushing for an extra $20 million in the state budget for wells and other groundwater infrastructure. This would be in addition to the $9 million in general fund dollars and $5 million from Central Arizona Project taxpayers they received as part of the Drought Contingency Plan earlier this year.

Climate change and overuse have sapped the Colorado River’s two main reservoirs. That spurred water leaders from the seven Colorado River basin states to negotiate a plan for cutbacks in order to reduce the risk of dangerously low levels. That deal, the DCP, was finalized earlier this year and signed into law by President Trump in April.

Irrigation districts in Pinal County are facing the brunt of water reductions due to their place near the back of the line for Colorado River water delivered by the Central Arizona Project canal system. The districts exchanged higher priority water rights for debt relief and cheaper water prices as part of a deal from the early 2000s.

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The DCP plans for a faster transition to groundwater for Pinal farming, moving irrigation districts to almost complete reliance on groundwater by 2025 or 2026, depending on river conditions. Farmers would also fallow 30 to 40 percent of their farmland. A healthy snowpack in 2019 may have put off significant CAP cutbacks for next year, but they are expected in future years.

The current budget request is due to uncertainty over U.S. Department of Agriculture funding.  Federal programs may provide the $20 million, but the Pinal farmers want the state to allocate the money now and get federal reimbursement later. They argue the infrastructure work needs to begin soon, long before any USDA program makes its decision.

“If we don’t have the money now, money from the feds later would be a day late and a dollar short,” said Tiffany Shedd, a farmer and lawyer from Eloy.

Shedd and others argue farming is vital to the larger economy. Environmental groups say tax dollars shouldn’t facilitate groundwater pumping, and Arizona should move away from water-intensive crops like alfalfa and cotton.

Rep. David Cook (R-District 8), whose district includes much of Pinal County, said he had the support of budget negotiators.

“I have faith in the Governor’s Office and the leadership in the House and Senate to put together a budget that includes this money,” he said. Cook did not say he would withhold his vote from the budget if the money isn’t included, a strategy other state lawmakers have employed this year. Republicans hold slim majorities in both the House and Senate.

“I don’t withhold my vote, I never have,” said Rep. T.J. Shope (R-District 8), Cook’s seatmate and a member of House leadership. “I believe that the leadership that I’m a part of, obviously, in the House, is also supportive of it.”

Tribes’ Role in Drought Contingency Plan Marks Turning Point for Inclusion

SACATON – Sprouting through the cracked floor of the Sonoran Desert, tepary beans thrive in the dry heat and carry with it centuries of resilience from the indigenous Pima people of southern Arizona.

“We have our water. It’s our life. It’s our livelihood, and it’s our culture,” said Ramona Button, owner of Ramona Farms.

Ramona Button and her husband, Terry, have been farming traditional native foods on the Gila River Indian Community for more than 40 years, including the tepary bean, a staple of native dishes for centuries.

“And we’re experts in dealing with drought,” Terry Button said.

With more than 4,000 acres under cultivation, the Buttons have had to draw their nearly 20,000 acre feet of water needed every year from a variety of sources. They get water from the San Carlos Irrigation Project, ground wells and the Colorado River hundreds of miles away.

“Commingle all these water resources to ensure us to have enough water to keep this agricultural industry thriving here,” Terry Button said.

From crop selection to leveling the fields, Terry Button says the first line of defense against drought starts by conserving water on the farm. (Photo by Oskar Agredano/Cronkite News)

But after nearly two decades of drought in Arizona and waning water levels in the Colorado River Basin, the seven states that make up the basin, including Arizona, California and Nevada, have had to negotiate potential cuts to the water to make sure there’s enough water in Lake Powell, which straddles the Utah-Arizona line, and in Lake Mead, to supply water throughout the Southwest.

The Drought Contingency Plan, also known as the DCP, is a multistate agreement that includes Arizona. The plan aims to keep water levels in those reservoirs above critical lows, and should reservoirs dip below certain levels, state including Arizona will have to cut back on the amount each takes from the Colorado River system.

After months of negotiations on the state level, Sen. Martha McSally, a Republican, and Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat, introduced DCP legislation in the House and Senate, which Congress sent to President Trump to sign last week. Trump signed the Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act on April 16, 2019.

“This is about the livelihood and the safety of 40 million Americans,” McSally said on the Senate floor. “The Colorado River DCP Authorization Act puts sound water policy over partisan politics.”

However, before even getting to Capitol Hill, Arizona’s tribes played a critical role in the negotiation of the DCP.

“Without the community’s participation, we don’t see how the DCP can be done,” Stephen Roe Lewis, Gila River Indian Community governor, said in March before Arizona had agreed to the plan.

“We call ourselves the people of the river, O’otham. We have that generational knowledge that goes back centuries if not a millennium,” Lewis said.

Like the resilient tepary bean they harvest, the Button’s have learned to adapt, despite water challenges in the past. (Photo by Oskar Agredano/Cronkite News)

If cuts are made due to drought, the Gila River Indian Community would keep a portion of their water in Lake Mead for compensation. But other tribes are contributing to the drought plan.

Chairman Dennis Patch of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, CRIT, said the community plans to provide 50,000 acre-feet of water every year from 2020 through 2022.

“The benefit for us is that we would be getting some income off it,” Patch said. “The benefit for Arizona and its users is that it would get more water.”

Water is power, and in the Colorado River Basin, tribes hold a significant amount of water claims.

Ten tribes, including the Colorado River Indian Tribes, have rights to more than 2.8 million acre-feet of water yearly from the Colorado River, according to the Tribal Water Study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Native American communities in the basin.

But only half of that water is currently being used, the study said.

-Video by Lillian Donahue/Cronkite News

Daryl Vigil, water administrator at Jicarilla Apache Nation, who worked on the study, said it’s relatively new for local and federal lawmakers to include tribes in national water policy conversations.

“That conversation and that opportunity wasn’t available before,” Vigil said. “But now with the conclusion of this DCP and the inclusion of tribes in that dialogue, I think that sets the stage for that to happen.”

Despite facing drought, the Buttons at Ramona Farms said they are more optimistic now than decades before when water was diverted away from the Gila River Indian Community as the population grew outside the reservation.

“The hardest part was when the water was diverted to other areas up east of us. That was a part of what we called our drought also,” Ramona Button said.

The Gila River Indian Community regained its water claims in a 2004 settlement.

As the Buttons walk through their barley fields, they know none of it could be possible without the work of those who came before them, and the water that gives the desert around them life.

“Right now, we’re enjoying the opportunity and the responsibility to maintain this tradition,” Terry Button said. “To utilize the resources of the communities agricultural land, it’s water, and the people.”

In Colorado River’s Final Hundred Miles, Small Signs of Life Return

LAGUNA GRANDE, BAJA CALIFORNIA, Mexico — It’s mid-morning in the Sonoran desert and already the temperature is rising.

Karen Schlatter suggests we find some shade, a relatively easy task at Laguna Grande, a restoration site along the Colorado River’s historic channel in Mexico. It’s managed by the Sonoran Institute, where Schlatter is associate director of the binational environmental group’s Colorado River Delta program.

We head over to a stand of 30-foot cottonwood trees within the intensely managed site. Walking through the canopy, away from the direct sun, the temperature drops quickly.

“This forest here is probably five years old,” Schlatter said. “Trees and habitat can establish really quickly in the Colorado River Delta when you give it the adequate conditions: water, sunlight and not very high soil salinity.”

A stand of trees are reflected in a pool of water at Laguna Grande, a restoration site in the Colorado River delta, managed by the Sonoran Institute. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Zig-zagging around us, among the trees, is a sprawling network of irrigation ditches. It’s almost laid out like a farm. Instead of the food crops grown all around this site, Schlatter’s team grows trees and willows, prime habitat for birds, coyotes, frogs and other wildlife. The whole site only receives water a couple times a year.

Midway through our walk, we come across a dusty trail leading from the woods down to a pool of water in the Colorado River’s channel.

“Yeah, so this is a beaver trail,” Schlatter explained. “We had beavers arrive to the site, I think five years ago. Two years ago we had an entire beaver family and there were little baby beavers running everywhere and everyone was freaking out.”

Karen Schlatter helps manage Colorado River restoration work for the binational environmental group, the Sonoran Institute. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

This place is an attempt to give a glimpse at what the Colorado River Delta used to be when the river emptied into the Pacific Ocean — a healthy mix of cottonwood forests, vast lagoons and thriving estuaries.

But for the last 50 years, the delta has become a husk of its former self.

Since then, growing cities and farms in the Southwest have claimed more and more water promised to them under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, leaving its delta in northern Mexico dry. The delta’s problem isn’t one caused by drought and aridity. It’s the byproduct of a river promised to too many people, collateral damage in the effort to make the desert Southwest capable of supporting millions of acres of crops and burgeoning cities.

Within the last 15 years, though, the countries that rely on the river — the U.S. and Mexico — have begun committing both funding and water to restore portions of the dried-out delta and bring some life back to the Colorado River’s final hundred miles.

“A Scarce Resource”

The water arrives at Laguna Grande the same way it arrives at farms in Mexico’s Mexicali Valley. It comes here via a network of irrigation canals that criss-cross the valley, delivering the Colorado River’s water. A concrete-lined canal passes right by the restoration site.

The water is either purchased from farmers within the valley by a trust, or water dedicated to restoration by the U.S. and Mexico. Under an agreement called Minute 323, 210,000 acre-feet of water will flow to sites like Laguna Grande until 2026. A portion of that water is made available by making irrigation upgrades within the Mexicali Valley, and the U.S. committed $31.5 million to fund those upgrades.

“Both countries have an interest in restoring the Colorado River Delta,” Schlatter said. “Particularly Mexico is interested in restoring the habitat and some of that economic value that was lost. And the U.S., because this is a binational river, also has an interest in helping Mexico do that.”

A previous agreement, called Minute 319, allowed for a pulse flow through some of the restoration sites and some water for so-called base flows, or water that would be delivered more deliberately to the restoration areas.

Water from the Colorado River irrigates farm fields in the Mexicali valley, creating patches of green in the Sonoran Desert. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC/LightHawk)

Under Minute 323, $9 million is set aside for restoration work, split equally among the U.S., Mexico and a set of environmental organizations that work in both countries. Another $9 million is committed to an ecological monitoring program. Karl Flessa at the University of Arizona is part of that team of scientists gathering data and observations from the delta.

“These are parks,” Fless said. “Think of them as little green parks scattered along the course of the river.”

So far, Flessa’s group of scientists have found a dramatic increase in the number and species of birds coming here. Other wildlife are making a comeback. Flessa says the early results are promising.

A report published in December 2018 by the International Boundary and Water Commission found the “abundance and diversity of birds in the riparian corridor increased 20% and 42% after the 2014 pulse flow.” That burst of bird activity did diminish after 2014, but remained higher in the managed restoration areas.

“The river is dried up below Morelos Dam (at the U.S.-Mexico border),” Flessa said. “And restoring some of that flow below the dam even to small park-like restoration areas, that’s restoring a little bit of environmental justice.”

“It is for Wildlife and for People”

A few miles upstream of Laguna Grande, whitewater gushes out of an irrigation canal into another restoration site, El Chausse.

Adrian Salcedo of Restauremos el Colorado manages water at Chausse. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Adrian Salcedo manages the flow of water for Restauremos El Colorado, a Mexican environmental group. It receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

“This site is very complex, maybe more than other sites because of the water management,” Salcedo said through a translator.

Chausse is meant to replicate a bend in the Colorado River. Teams here ripped out invasive species like saltcedar, and planted native vegetation. Instead of Laguna Grande’s bare, dry furrows, the site is more “natural-looking” with water flowing through multiple channels. Achieving that look and feel, with grassy marshes, takes a lot more resources.

“We have the water rights to make this place possible now,” Salcedo said. “But thinking about the future it could be complicated to restore this kind of habitat at this level, because water could be more scarce.”

The restoration sites also employ local workers needed to manage the flow of water, plant native trees and host visitors. They’ve become regular stops for groups of school children.

“It is for wildlife and for people,” Salcedo said. “In the beginning the plan was to just restore the river, the riparian vegetation and then when you get that back, the wildlife will start to come. Birds, mammals, polecats, coyotes.

“Then when the people see that, they want to come to the area and help.”

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Like the entire Colorado River basin, climate change will put these restoration sites to the test, turning up the heat, increasing evaporation and diminishing water supplies.

“People are always asking, ‘Are you taking climate change into account?’” said the National Audubon Society’s Jennifer Pitt. “And we are in that we know that water will continue to be scarce and scarcer. And so we’re trying to use it to greatest effect.”

(The National Audubon Society receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

For example, Pitt said, in the latest U.S.-Mexico Colorado River agreements both countries spelled out how to handle shortages, and ensured restoration efforts wouldn’t be sidelined if supplies became more scarce.

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Part 2: As the Colorado River Basin Dries, Can an Accidental Oasis Survive?

Before leaving the site, we head down to a marsh, where tall grasses have taken root in a shallow pool. A secretive marsh bird called a sora has captured the attention of some of the site’s staff.

Alejandra Calvo, of environmental group Pronatura Noroeste, pulls out her phone to mimic the bird’s call. (The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

The tiny, spindly-legged sora weaves through the reeds and calls back, making a “kerwee” sound from its corn kernel-colored beak. It walks like it’s late for a midday appointment.
Disappointed to find only a group of gawking humans and not a mate, the bird eventually heads back into the grass.

“Nobody intentionally dried out the Colorado River Delta, but it happened,” Pitt said. “When we had our eyes open to look at it and say, ‘Oh that’s terrible, what have we done?’ it took a kind of high level sovereign-to-sovereign agreement to start doing something about it.”

This story is part of a series on the Colorado River delta, and part of an ongoing project covering the Colorado River watershed, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Special thanks for help in making this series possible to Alejandra Calvo-Fonseca, Will Worthington, Jim Afinowich, Esther Duke, Christine Steele and Esther Honig.

As the Colorado River Basin Dries, Can an Accidental Oasis Survive?

CIÉNEGA DE SANTA CLARA, Mexico — Juan Butrón-Méndez navigates a small metal motorboat through a maze of tall reeds here in the Mexican state of Sonora. It’s nearing sunset, and the sky is turning shades of light blue and purple.

The air smells of wet earth, an unfamiliar scent in the desert.

Butrón-Méndez lives nearby and works for the conservation group Pronatura Noroeste as a bird monitor. (Pronatura’s work receives financial support from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

He cuts the motor in an open stretch of water he calls the “scary lagoon,” ringed by tall grasses that rise from the thigh-high water. Without the boat’s droning hum, coastal birds appear over the reeds, and come in for a water landing.

Tall grasses rise from the shallow water at the Cienega de Santa Clara in Sonora, Mexico. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

American coots, with their white bills and dark grey feathers, cackle as they swim. They’re interspersed among broad-winged, yellow-beaked pelicans. Other birds, just silhouettes, dart along the surface, skimming for insects before dark. There’s no sign of them tonight, but several species of threatened or endangered marsh birds — like the Ridgway’s rail — call this place home too.

Butrón-Méndez has explored this wetland since its creation, watching over the course of decades as the shape-shifting oasis was born.

“Water started to flow to this place in the 1970s. I would walk around here without having to worry about getting wet,” Butrón-Méndez said though a translator. “If there wasn’t water, it’s a dry place.”

He’s been called the Ciénega’s patron saint, able to rattle off its history and the names of the birds, fish and mammals that live here.

The wetland is fed by a concrete canal that removes drainage water from American farms across the border in Arizona. The canal is called the MODE — Main Outlet Drain Extension. The salty runoff inadvertently created this oasis in the middle of the Sonoran desert, a perfect stopover for migratory birds on their journey along the Pacific coast.

“For the birds that migrate from the United States to the south, this is a place of rest, a place for nutrients, to give them strength to continue flying to wherever they’re going,” he said.

But there’s a problem. As the Colorado River basin heats up and dries out like climate projections predict, Butrón-Méndez is concerned people will stop thinking of the water that flows to the wetland as waste, find a way to use it and, in turn, harm the Ciénega.

“The biggest threat that has me thinking, at times,” he said, “although you won’t believe it, I’m thinking that one day when we least expect it the United States will say, ‘No more water for the wetlands of Santa Clara.’”

Juan Butrón-Méndez works for Pronatura Noroeste, a Mexican environmental group, and monitors birds at the Cienega de Santa Clara. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Geographical, topographical and political boundaries shape the Colorado River’s delta. The U.S-Mexico border bisects the delta, and its fate is controlled by governments, water agencies, farm groups and conservationists on both sides.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at the Ciénega de Santa Clara, one of the delta’s few wetlands, sustained by a water source with an uncertain future.

Wasted Water

The Ciénega was born in 1977 when the U.S. began draining salty agricultural runoff to the Santa Clara slough, near the Gulf of California. Years prior, the U.S. agreed not to send degraded water to Mexico, a near-constant tension between the two countries since they signed their first Colorado River treaty in 1944.

In a 1973 agreement called the “Permanent and Definitive Solution to the International Problem of the Salinity of the Colorado River,” President Richard Nixon’s administration agreed to a limit on how salty water would be at when delivered at the U.S.-Mexico border.

To keep the river from becoming loaded with salt, someone had to devise a way to keep the farm runoff from ending up in it. That’s how the MODE canal came to be. After irrigating lettuce fields and date palms in salty soil near Yuma, Arizona, the concrete-lined MODE would take the leftover water across the border close to the Pacific Ocean to dispose of it.

No one meant to create a haven for birds and other wildlife in the dried-out Colorado River delta in the process. But by sending about 100,000 acre-feet of water annually out into the desert, that’s what happened.

The “Permanent and Definitive Solution” also called for the creation of a treatment facility along the Colorado River that could clean up water from farms along the Gila River in southern Arizona, within the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District. Completed in 1992, the Yuma Desalting Plant became that treatment facility dreamed up in the 1970s.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Yuma Desalting Plant has never been fully operational since it was built in the early 1990s. Filled with obsolete desalination technology, it would require costly upgrades before it could be fired up. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Since it was finished the plant has only run a handful of times, and never at full capacity. It remains in “ready reserve” status and costs upwards of $2 million each year to maintain.

“The Yuma Desalting Plant is nothing but a tool in the toolbox,” said Mike Norris, who manages the plant for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “It’s a costly tool to operate.”

During prolonged dry spells though, costly tools become more reasonable. The plant could treat the salty wastewater, send it to Mexico for use on farms and cities to meet treaty obligations, and allow the U.S. to conserve more water on its side of the border, possibly reducing the risk of a shortage declaration in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin.

Water agencies in the state of Arizona, which would be hit hardest with cutbacks in a shortage, have been particularly keen to look at what operation of the desalting plant might look like.

“If we continue in the drought situation, as Lake Mead drops, the plant could be considered as one of the tools to take out of the toolbox to help conserve water in Lake Mead,” Norris said.
But it’s not like you can flip a switch and turn this facility on right away.

“There’s a lot of controversy of what that all that looks like,” Norris said. “The big concern is if we ever operate this plant at 100 percent, we’d be directing most of the water into the plant and then what would be going to the Ciénega would be the concentrate water, the higher saline water.”

A small replica of the Yuma Desalting Plant lights up and illustrates how salty runoff from Arizona farms would be treated. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The Ciénega wouldn’t dry up completely if the plant were to begin operating. Instead, it would receive a greatly diminished amount of water, and what it did receive would be highly saline. The super salty water would likely kill the Ciénega’s cattails and reduce the wetland’s size. It could also see sharp spikes in concentrations of selenium, making it inhospitable to fish and birds.

The wetland does have some protections. The Mexican government has designated the Ciénega as a Biosphere Reserve in the Colorado River Delta. It’s also been recognized for having “great ecological significance” by the Ramsar convention, an intergovernmental treaty on the value of wetlands. If the U.S. were to run the Yuma Desalting Plant it would likely trigger a reconsultation of previous agreements between the two countries.

Because it has sat idle for so long, the Yuma Desalting Plant needs millions of dollars in improvements before it could be fired up, including replacement of aluminum pipes and construction of a chlorine containment facility.

Funds to make those updates aren’t secure.

“We have not been able to get the necessary funds to run the plant at full capacity,” said Maria Ramirez, who oversaw the Yuma Area Office for Reclamation for years. She recently retired.
“I don’t know that it will ever run at full capacity,” she said.

Eyes have turned toward the plant this year as states that rely on the Colorado River are finalizing drought contingency plans. Under the Lower Basin’s plan, the federal government committed to conserve 100,000 acre-feet of water a year, roughly the same amount of water currently being sent to the Ciénega.

“Reclamation is looking at all cost-effective means of meeting this commitment,” said Reclamation spokeswoman Patti Aaron in an email.

Alejandra Calvo-Fonseca and Juan Butrón-Méndez of Pronatura Noroeste navigate a small boat through the reeds at the Cienega de Santa Clara. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The Delta’s Past Life

Driving to the Ciénega, it’s hard to imagine what the Colorado River Delta looked like when the river still flowed here. It’s bordered by miles and miles of crusty salt flats. The roads that lead to the wetland become impassable on the rare occasion it rains. They lie on top of layers of sediment — the Grand Canyon’s innards — left here as the Colorado River emptied into the ocean over millions of years.

But sitting on a boat inside the Ciénega, you can picture the delta in a past life, full of the green lagoons conservation writer Aldo Leopold described in his 1949 “A Sand County Almanac.” He explored the Colorado River Delta by canoe with his brother in 1922, nearly a decade before construction began on Hoover Dam.

The picture Leopold painted of the Colorado River Delta is a sensory experience. Gambel quails whistle. Raccoons munch. Jaguars sneak. Waters radiate an emerald green.

“When a troop of egrets settled on a far green willow,” Leopold wrote, “they looked like a premature snowstorm.”

Colorado River Delta Series

Part 1: Five Years Later, Effects Of Colorado River Pulse Flow Still Linger

Juan Butrón-Méndez said the only way to prevent the Ciénega from being harmed is for more people to know about it. One big threat, he said, is simply ignorance about its existence. If no one knows about the wetland’s value, they wouldn’t be upset if it disappeared, his thinking goes.

During our interview, he extends a standing invitation to visit anytime and get lost among the cattails.

Still, he knows about the outside pressures that weigh on the Ciénega — like climate change, growing populations, and tension between the U.S. and Mexico over immigration and trade — leaving its fate uncertain.

“The two countries, we’re neighbors right? The United States and Mexico,” Butrón-Méndez said. “Well, we need to have an agreement between the two countries, right, that (removing the water) wouldn’t happen. Because it would be a disaster.”

This story is part of a series on the Colorado River delta, and part of an ongoing project covering the Colorado River watershed, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.