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

SAN LUIS RIO COLORADO, Mexico — From inside a small airplane, tracing the Colorado River along the Arizona-California border, it’s easy to see how it happened.

As the river bends and weaves through the American Southwest, its contents are slowly drained. Concrete canals send water to millions of people in Phoenix and Tucson, Los Angeles and San Diego. Farms, ribbons of green contrasted against the desert’s shades of brown, line the waterway.

Further downstream, near Yuma, Arizona, the river splits into threads, like a frayed piece of yarn.

A massive multi-state plumbing system sends its water to irrigate the hundreds of thousands of farm acres in southern California and Arizona, hubs for winter vegetables, alfalfa, cotton and cattle.

When it hits the final dam, located on the U.S.-Mexico border, every drop has been claimed and put to use. In a typical year, what’s left of the river’s flow — promised to Mexico in a 75-year-old treaty — is sent to farm fields in the Mexicali Valley, and then on to the Mexican cities of Tijuana, Mexicali and Tecate.

Imperial Dam near Yuma, Arizona, diverts the majority of the Colorado River’s flow to irrigate crops in California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

All this reliance on an overallocated river has left its final hundred miles as the ultimate collateral damage. Since the early 1960s, when Glen Canyon Dam impounded the river near Page, Arizona, it has rarely reached the Pacific Ocean. The thread is frayed beyond recognition, leaving no water for the river itself.

“About 90 percent of the water is retained on the U.S. side and it’s used and diverted,” said Karl Flessa, a researcher at the University of Arizona. He studies the Colorado River Delta.

“In effect, one of the things we’ve done historically — not meaning to especially — what we’ve done is export some of the environmental consequences of water diversions,” Flessa said. “We’ve exported them to Mexico.”

The Colorado River’s inability to complete its journey from the Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez has become one of its defining characteristics. Its historic delta, a haven for birds and mammals in the Sonoran desert, is a husk of its former self.

From the air, in a flight arranged by non-profit group LightHawk, the Colorado River Delta transitions from a jigsaw of farms to a staggering sprawl of muddy salt flats. (LightHawk receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.) The river’s historic channel in most parts through Mexico is nothing more than a sandy bed, scattered with saltcedar.

Where the river used to meet the ocean, tidal pools and drainages carve the sand and soil into organic patterns, like the cross-section of a lung.

Within the last twelve years, both the U.S. and Mexico have acknowledged the delta’s problems, signing agreements to commit both water and funding to restoring it to some semblance of its former self.

The splashiest of those efforts took place five years ago this spring, and left a lasting imprint on those who witnessed it.

In spring of 2014, Morelos Dam at the U.S.-Mexico border released water through the Colorado River’s main channel as part of the pulse flow. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The Pulse Flow

Around 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning in March 2014, water began spilling through Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border. The release was a culmination of years of negotiation between the U.S., Mexico and environmental organizations.

It was known as the pulse flow — flujo pulso in Spanish.

“You think of it as this wall of water that’s going to come down, but really it was this creeping tongue of water across the sand,” said Jennifer Pitt, who worked for the Environmental Defense Fund at the time, and now directs the Colorado River program for the National Audubon Society. Both groups receive Walton Family Foundation funding. Pitt was a key negotiator to make the pulse flow possible.

She spoke while standing in the sandy riverbed below a bridge that leads into the border city of San Luis Rio Colorado. The bridge is at a nexus. The riverbed forms the border of the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California. Metal barriers form the border between the U.S. and Mexico here too.

It took a few days after the dam opened for the water to arrive at the bridge, where Pitt and her colleagues gathered to wait. About 70 people in garden chairs sat in anticipation. A community clean-up a few days prior left the riverbed scrubbed of trash and debris.

For many young people, it was the first time they had ever seen water flowing in this stretch of the Colorado River. For older residents, it had been decades since they saw this much water here.

“They started getting up just one by one, people coming over to the water and getting down on their hands and knees and just touching it,” she said. “It was like the arrival. The great arrival of the river.”

A spontaneous festival started, complete with music, food vendors, horses and boats.

Writers gather at La Libreria in downtown San Luis Rio Colorado for a poetry reading. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

“I’ve spent 20 years thinking about how we can restore the Colorado River from where it dries out to where it reaches the sea,” Pitt said, “And in all of that thinking have never imagined that this site could bring so many people in as a magnet for people to enjoy something.”

Within weeks the flow was soaked up by depleted soils, though it did eventually reach the Pacific Ocean. From where Pitt and I are standing at the bridge in early December 2018, you’d never know the West’s mightiest river was supposed to flow here.

The pulse flow was about 105,000 acre-feet of water, enough to turn the channel again into a river for a few weeks. One acre-foot generally provides enough water for two average American households for a year. Historically more than 12 million acre-feet flowed into the delta each year.

The agreement that allowed for the pulse flow — called Minute 319 — also provided for about 57,000 acre-feet of water to be delivered to specific restoration sites after the pulse flow.

Combined, that amount of water led to a green up along the river corridor, and sustained more than 275,000 new trees, according to a December 2018 report from the International Boundary and Water Commission.

The pulse flow’s biggest effects were short-lived. Both the green up and increases in certain species dropped again after the water stopped flowing.

A study from U.S. Geological Survey scientists confirmed that. It found that the amount of water in the pulse flow was too small to change the channel in a significant way, or scrub the riverbed, which would’ve happened during a more natural spring flood when flows would be much higher.

Because of the delta’s low water table, a lot of water seeped into the ground before it could do any good on the surface to help establish new wildlife habitat in expanded restoration areas. It was an experiment, said University of Arizona researcher Karl Flessa. Scientists experiment all the time, chart the results and move on.

Does he think the delta will ever see another pulse flow on the scale and magnitude of the one seen in 2014?

“Probably not,” he said. “Because you can get the water to do more restoration work by delivering it in smaller doses as it were, and delivering it to the right places where the vegetation can really take advantage of it.

“I think restoration, like any other activity with water, we’re really obliged as a society to be as water efficient as possible.”

The bridge at San Luis Rio Colorado played host to a spontaneous party in spring 2014 when the Colorado River again flowed here during the pulse flow. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

“A Part of You has Come Back”

Perhaps the pulse flow’s greatest lasting effect, Jennifer Pitt said, is its ability to unlock people’s imaginations.

Those who live nearby could see water in the channel and that lingered in their memory, even after the flow was finished. Soon after, conservation groups started harnessing that imagination to get communities to buy into the idea that the delta can be partially restored.

Crisoforo Arcos experienced the flow from his small community of Miguel Aleman, which sits along the Colorado River’s main channel near San Luis Rio Colorado. He’s in work clothes, with a silver mustache when he chats at a river restoration site where Arcos works. At 63 years old, he remembers fishing in the river as a boy in the early 1960s.

Until the pulse flow brought the river back, Arcos could only tell stories of what it used to look like.

“There was the time here everyone in the community, the people of San Luis Rio Colorado, came to the river to enjoy themselves,” Arcos said through a translator. “But it was a very low level of water, very very little. This was years ago and since then we haven’t seen any water.”

The pulse flow also inspired art. That was on display one night in late 2018 at La Liberia, a bookstore in downtown San Luis. One by one, writers stood at the front of the room and read their work. Much of it focused on the writer’s relationship to the river.

After the event, local architect Nancy Saldana stood outside on the sidewalk. She was born in San Luis, and considers herself a community activist. In the yellow glow of the street lights, she recalled the pulse flow.

“The day it arrived was something like you feel that a part of you has come back,” she said through a translator. “I think it’s like when you lose something, in your gut, something inside you. That for us is the water.”

Those eight weeks of water were a spectacle in her hometown, Saldana said. There are ongoing talks and a master plan in place for the city to create a riverfront park. But the city is still working on finding enough water to run through the channel on a regular basis. As more time passes, there’s a chance that those who witnessed the pulse flow will begin to forget how they felt.

“Our parents always have the memory of the river with water,” Saldana said. “But new people, people who’ve never been in contact with the water, like kids and people who weren’t there, there is a risk that they don’t feel this connection, that they don’t feel the connection with this river if they’ve never lived it.

“I don’t believe that if there hadn’t been the pulse flow, I don’t think we would have felt as much hope.”

Hope, she said, in the radical idea that rivers can — and should — have water.

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.

Congress OKs Drought Contingency Plan, Capping Years of Colorado River Debate

WASHINGTON – Two weeks after water officials told Congress there was “urgent” need to approve the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, the House and Senate both passed a plan Monday and sent it to the president’s desk.

If signed by President Donald Trump as expected, it would be the culmination of years of negotiations between seven states in the Colorado River basin on how much each state can draw from the river if Lake Powell and Lake Mead drop to crisis levels.

The votes came in rapid succession Monday evening, with little debate and each chamber approving the measure by acclimation.

“This immediate action is essential to preserving the water supply for millions of people in the American Southwest,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said on the House floor before the vote.

House and Senate versions of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act are identical: Both require that the Interior secretary authorize the water allocation agreement hammered out by the seven basin states. That deal is designed to prevent a potential water crisis and settle disputes over who gives up water if the river reaches a crisis level.

For Arizona, that means that once Lake Mead levels fell below a certain point, the state would lose access to 192,000 acre-feet a year that it can now pull from the river. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land that is one foot deep, or 325,853 gallons.

The plan’s backers note one primary goal is to prevent those drops in reservoir levels from ever happening by requiring states to cede less water but at an earlier point.

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, praised her fellow lawmakers for acting quickly to pass the legislation.

“We just introduced this legislation last Tuesday,” she said on the Senate floor Monday. “But by acting so quickly, the lower basin states will be able to immediately begin saving hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water.”

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Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, who last month urged Senate and House committees to move swiftly on the agreement, welcomed Monday’s votes.

“The last few weeks have been one of the most extraordinary periods in the history of ADWR and was a remarkable chapter in the long story of securing Arizona’s water supplies,” Buschatzke said in a statement.

“I’m grateful that Congress has approved the bipartisan Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act, which will enable the seven Colorado River Basin States to keep Lake Mead from falling to critically low levels,” his statement said.

Like others, Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, welcomed passage of the bill. But he also said on the House floor that he “wanted to add a little caveat that we understand the work isn?t done.”

“This legislation does not lay out every last step that those of us in Arizona must do,” Schweikert said. “We are going to have to step up and meet our obligations, and I think that’s important we understand there is much work left to be done.?

Grijalva echoed Schweikert and said “the job is not done, there is much to do,” noting that the current plan would only last until 2026, when it will have to be renegotiated.

“It is not an infinite resource, water, it is a finite resource and we need to treat it that way,” Grijalva said.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the state’s should be recognized for hammering out the deal that Congress only had to approve.

“This is a totally unique bill,” Bishop said. “What we have done is let the seven affected states get together and work out a solution and bring it to us, and we in Congress didn’t screw it up too bad.”

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Colorado River Water Managers Ask Congress for Drought Plan Approval

PHOENIX – Water leaders from the seven states that make up the Colorado River basin are one step closer to finalizing a drought contingency plan. Representatives from Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona met in Phoenix Tuesday to sign a letter to Congress asking for federal approval of the plan.

Recent heavy snows in the southern Rockies have relieved some short-term pressure on the region’s water supplies. If dry conditions in the southwest return in the next six years, the plan would force Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico to cut back the amount each takes from the over-allocated river system.

If snowpack remains high the next few years the plans might never be used.

“Today is a very important day in the history of the Colorado River,” said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman, who for more than a year has pressured state water managers to agree on voluntary cutbacks. “Today the seven basin states have come to an agreement and signed together a letter to Congress memorializing that agreement. The intrastate drought contingency plans are done. They are complete.”

In the letter, water leaders from throughout the basin say they want to execute the drought contingency plan no later than April 22, 2019.

In declaring the plans done, Burman also decided to rescind her call to Colorado River basin state governors for input to craft a federal plan should the states fail to coalesce.

The plan has been cobbled together through a series of agreements over the last five months among the states that make up the Colorado River watershed. Nevada first approved its portion of the plan in November 2018. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico followed suit in December. Starting Jan. 31, 2019 California and Arizona failed to meet a series of federal deadlines while the two states attempted to calm warring intrastate factions.

The Colorado River Basin spans nearly the length of Arizona, but its impact is felt across the Southwest. (Graphic courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation)

In Phoenix, water officials attempted to provide closure to the drought contingency plan process, while acknowledging big hurdles remain, including projected climate impacts to snowpack and the river’s structural deficit where more water exists on paper in the form of water rights than in the system itself.

“This is definitely a euphoric high point that we’re in right now, but there are miles and miles to go before we sleep,” said Upper Colorado River Commission member James Eklund. He signed the letter on behalf of the state of Colorado.

The euphoria isn’t shared by all users in the southwestern watershed. The plan now moves forward without the support of the single largest user of the river’s water. The Imperial Irrigation District (IID) in southern California said it would only sign on to the drought plan when it received $200 million in federal funds to mitigate public health and environmental problems brought on by the shrinking Salton Sea.

“By forging ahead, what they are saying is that the only acceptable way to check the boxes marked ‘IID’ and ‘Salton Sea’ is to erase them,” said IID board president Erik Ortega in a written statement. “What they’re also saying is that getting the [drought contingency plan] done is more important than getting it right.”

IID officials have criticized the federal government, and Burman herself, for pushing for the plan’s completion.

In mid-March another California water agency, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, voted to shoulder the state’s burden under the drought contingency plan, bypassing IID, and undercutting the agency’s demands for Salton Sea mitigation funds. IID’s opposition to the plan could make Congressional approval more difficult.

“Through this drought contingency plan we have tried to have zero impacts to the Salton Sea,” said Peter Nelson, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California. “We think that goal has been achieved, with or without the Imperial Irrigation District.”

The drought contingency plan overlays a set of 2007 guidelines that govern how the river’s reservoirs are managed. Those guidelines weren’t able to keep up as dry conditions and chronic overuse in the basin caused reservoirs to drop to critical levels. The plan is meant to provide temporary stability while water managers negotiate a new set of operating guidelines which go into effect in 2026.

The river’s two largest reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell, have dropped over the last 19 years. After the record-breaking hot and dry conditions in 2018, the two reservoirs are currently at their lowest combined level since they were filled decades ago. The reservoirs are part of a river system that provides drinking and irrigation water for about 40 million people.

While moving through Arizona, the plan was criticized for being a small incremental step, rather than taking a more substantive look at the state’s future water demands and practices. The water managers who negotiated the drought contingency plan acknowledge it’s a temporary patch, and will help adjust to climate change, but not solve the region’s water scarcity conundrum.

“If we were aliens visiting Earth from another system years from now would we run it this way? Probably not,” said Eklund, of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “But there are history and legacy, pieces of law and policy, politics in this basin that have guided us to where we are and what we have to do. And I think given the hand we’ve been dealt this is a pretty outstanding moment.”

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.

Pair of Lawsuits Challenges Need for More Colorado River Water

DENVER – Two lawsuits making their way through the federal court system are challenging two significant water projects in Colorado designed to divert more water from the Colorado, Fraser and Williams Fork river basins in Grand County.

The projects — Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Windy Gap Firming project and Denver Water’s Moffat Collection System Project — would provide a combined firm yield of 48,000 acre-feet of water for the sprawling Front Range.

But environmental groups say government agencies violated the law in the environmental permitting processes of both projects.

“Our biggest claim is that [the agencies] claim they looked at reasonable alternatives [to the projects],” said Gary Wockner, the director of Save the Colorado, the lead plaintiff on both cases. “But they didn’t look at conservation or efficiency. Water providers are trying to go to big water projects first and not the cheaper option of conservation.”

Both Northern and Denver Water say they factored in conservation efforts when they calculated water demand and that even aggressive conservation efforts won´t be enough to meet water demand in the future.

“There are only a few answers for water supply in the future and Windy Gap Firming is one of those options,” said Brad Wind, the general manager of Northern Water. “Without that project, I can’t fathom where we will end up.”

But some water experts say that the state’s use of population growth as one of the major drivers of water demand was flawed.

“As population goes up, water demand continues to go down and it’s been that way for decades,” said Mark Squillace, a water law expert at the University of Colorado Law School.

A detail of a map from Denver Water that shows the headwaters of the Fraser, Williams Fork and Colorado rivers, and associated tunnels, as well as the location of Gross Reservoir. (Graphic courtesy Denver Water)

Decoupled Demand

The phenomenon of increasing populations with declining water use is known as “decoupling,” and it has been happening in nearly every part of Colorado since the 1990s.

Higher efficiency appliances, utility-driven conservation programs and greater citizen awareness of water shortages have all driven the change.

But water managers say the state’s growing urban areas are reaching the point of “demand hardening,” where the additional water that can be conserved will not outweigh the amount needed in the future.

“We have been hearing those kind of stories for a long time and it never happens,” Squillace said. “There are a lot of things that we could still do on the conservation end that would be a lot cheaper [than new infrastructure] and a lot more consistent with the environment that we live in.”

While they differ, the pair of lawsuits being spearheaded by Save the Colorado could both hinge on demand and conservation estimates, and the assumption that additional conservation won’t be sufficient in the future.

Both lawsuits were filed in federal district court and are now awaiting action by a judge to move forward.

The Windy Gap Firming case was filed in October of 2017 against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Moffat Collection System case was filed in December against the Army Corps, the U.S. Interior Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

An aerial view of Windy Gap Reservoir, near Granby. The reservoir is on the main stem of the Colorado River, below where the Fraser River flows into the Colorado. Water from Windy Gap is pumped up to Lake Granby and Grand Lake, and then sent to the northern Front Range through the Adams Tunnel.

The Projects

Both the Windy Gap and Moffat projects were conceived decades ago to address projected water shortages on Colorado’s Front Range and to add resilience to both Northern and Denver Water’s supplies.

Now estimated to cost about $600 million, the Windy Gap project will include a new 90,000 acre-foot reservoir in western Larimer county called Chimney Hollow Reservoir.

The reservoir is designed to store water from the Colorado and Fraser rivers transported from the Western Slope through the existing infrastructure of the Colorado-Big Thompson project.

Windy Gap Reservoir, built in 1985, is created by a low river-wide dam across the main stem of the Colorado River, just downstream from where the Fraser River flows in.

The reservoir is relatively small, holding 445-acre feet, but it’s well situated to gather water from the Fraser, pump it up to Lake Granby and Grand Lake, and then send it through the Adams Tunnel under the Continental Divide.

With the Moffat project, Denver Water plans to spend an estimated $464 million in order to expand Gross Reservoir in Boulder County, by raising the height of the dam by 131 feet, in order to store an additional 77,000 acre-feet of water.

Gross Reservoir is a part of the utility’s existing northern collection system and is filled with water from the headwaters of the Fraser and Williams Fork river basins. The water is moved through a pipeline in the Moffat Tunnel, which runs east through the mountains from the base of the Winter Park ski area.

The upper South Platte River, above its confluence with the North Fork of the South Platte, and the location of the proposed Two Forks dam and reservoir. (Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)

The Fork Not Taken

The plans to expand Gross Reservoir started in 1990 after the EPA rejected Denver Water’s plan to build Two Forks Reservoir on the South Platte River.

The EPA’s rejection of Two Forks signaled the end of an era of large dams and forced groups planning large water infrastructure projects to give more consideration to the environmental impacts of their plans.

Following this rebuke, Denver Water turned to the environmental groups that had opposed their project and solicited advice.

Throughout the 1990s, the utility implemented water conservation and recycling programs and started making plans to expand an existing reservoir instead of building a new dam.

“We embarked on the path that the environmental groups suggested. We implemented a conservation program and reduced our demands,” said Jim Lochhead, the CEO and manager of Denver Water. “But you can’t get to zero. We continue to be committed to conservation, but at the end of the day we still need more water.”

In partnership with environmental groups like Western Resource Advocates and Trout Unlimited, Denver Water has agreed to spend $20 million on environmental improvements in watersheds on the Western Slope as part of the Gross Reservoir expansion.

Denver Water has also agreed to a monitoring program that will require them to mitigate any unforeseen environmental problems caused by the project, a compromise between environmental groups and the largest water utility in the state.

“In some sense this project was the development of an alternative from a number of groups,” said Bart Miller, the director of the Healthy Rivers Program at Western Resource Advocates. “In some respect you are putting this in context next to what could happen or could have happened.”

Concerned with having their own projects fail, as Two Forks did, other water managers emulated Denver Water’s strategy.

When Northern Water started planning for the Windy Gap Firming project it also reached out to environmental groups, and ended up committing $23 million to mitigate problems caused by past projects and to make other improvements in the upper Colorado River watershed.

Even though there will be impacts from taking more water from the river, Northern Water says that these “environmental enhancements” will leave the river better off than it would be without the project.

And environmental groups working on the project agree.

“There is a lot of damage on the river that will continue to go on without an intervention,” said Mely Whiting, legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “This is probably the best shot.”

Gross Reservoir in the mountains to the southwest of Boulder. Denver Water hopes to increase the height of the dam 131 feet, to a new height of 471 feet, to store three times as much water, which it says will help it meet increasing demands and to better weather severe droughts. (Photo courtesy Denver Water)

The Lawsuits

While some environmental groups have seen compromise as the best step forward, Save the Colorado and the other plaintiffs in the two lawsuits take a harder stance.

Save the Colorado, in particular, is against any new dams or diversions.

“The river has already been drained enough,” Wockner said. “The mitigation, in our mind, is not consequential.”

Colorado and the six other states that use Colorado River water are now negotiating a plan to better manage Lake Powell and Lake Mead in response to drought and acidification.

Last week, an engineer from Northern Water told the city council of Loveland that it may have to take a ten percent cut in the water it draws from the headwaters of the Colorado River, sending the water instead to Lake Powell, where water is held before being moved through the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead for use in California, Arizona and Nevada.

And Northern’s statement did not go unnoticed by the plaintiffs in the Windy Gap and Moffat lawsuits.

“The old guard in water have the default setting that we need to build more reservoirs and we need to find more ways to bring water from the western slope,” said Kevin Lynch, the lawyer representing the environmental groups in the Windy Gap Firming case. “The argument my clients are hoping to make with this case is that that may have made sense in the past but it doesn’t now. We are definitely trying to buck the status quo and change the historical way of doing things.”

Lynch and his team are arguing that the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corp of Engineers — the two government agencies being sued in the Windy Gap Firming case — failed to update and independently verify the water demand data used to justify the project.

To back up this allegation, the plaintiffs petitioned the court to include a statistics report in the administrative record.

The report, which looks at water use statistics in communities with stakes in Windy Gap Firming water, showed that their demand projections made back when the agencies conducted their environmental assessments were between 9 and 97 percent higher than the actual water use rates in those areas.

The lawyers in the Moffat Project lawsuit also found that Denver Water used old data from 2002 to project their demands future demands.

The complaint filed by the plaintiffs says that the Army Corps and the Department of the Interior — which are the two agencies being sued in the Moffat case along with the Fish and Wildlife Service — ignored more recent data that was available when they conducted their assessments.

“If they were to use today’s data they would no way be able to justify that they need the water,” said Bill Eubanks, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Moffat Project case. “Here we are talking about almost two decades. Two decades where we have seen the most transformative uses of water in a century.”

Both legal teams say that even if the data did reveal a demand for more water, the agencies failed to analyze the alternatives to two large infrastructure projects, including conservation.

Specifically, Wockner and Eubanks both spoke about how a “cash for grass” program — where the government pays people to dry up their lawns — was never analyzed as an alternative. Looking at similar programs in California, they say the same amount of water could be saved, but for less money than either of the two infrastructure projects.

To this claim both Northern Water and Denver Water say that additional conservation measures are already planned for the future, but that they are not enough.

“The state has done a lot of studies for need for water on the Front Range,” said Jeff Drager, Northern Water’s director of engineering and the project manager for the WIndy Gap firming project. “We agree that there can be more conservation, but it won’t be enough to meet our participants needs.”

The pipeline, at the base of the Winter Park ski area, that moves water as part of the existing Moffat Collection System Project. The portal of the railroad tunnel is behind the pipeline, in this view. (Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)

Looking forward

Due to a long backlog in the court, both lawsuits are unlikely to see their day in court any time soon. According to both lawyers, it could be months or years until the cases are decided. The court’s slow pace could impact the construction of both projects.

Citing the lawsuit, Northern Water delayed bonds to build the project back in August.

Executives at Northern say they are using the time to hammer out the last of the details of the project’s design, but that if the project is delayed it may cause costs to rise or endanger the water supplies of the project’s participants.

Denver Water is still waiting on several permits before they can begin planning construction and is less concerned about a delay. Both Lochhead and Wind say they believe that the projects will go forward once the lawsuits are resolved.

“We feel confident that our permitting processes are on solid ground,” Wind said. “I don’t think there is anyone in this organization at all that has thought this lawsuit would be effective.”

While both Northern Water and Denver Water are confident that their projects will move forward, the plaintiffs in the cases are hoping for an upset that could topple the entire water system in Colorado.

“If we win this case, using this particularly egregious example of inaccurate water demand projections, we think we can set a precedent that would force the state to look at more recent data for different types of projects,” Eubanks said.

This article was originally published by Aspen Journalism on March 9, 2019. Aspen Journalism is an independent nonprofit news organization. See for more.

What Is Happening With the Colorado River Drought Plans?

GREELEY, Colo. – The seven states that rely on the Colorado River for water haven’t been able to finish a series of agreements that would keep its biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, from dropping to levels not seen since they were filled decades ago.

Five states — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nevada — are done. So is Mexico. But California and Arizona failed to meet a Jan. 31 federal government deadline to wrap up negotiations and sign a final agreement.

The Colorado River is stressed. Simply put, the vast, highly managed system of reservoirs, rivers and streams has a fundamental imbalance between supply and demands, a gap that’s growing in size due to long term warming and drying trends in the Southwest.

The Drought Contingency Plan, made up of agreements between the river’s Upper and Lower basins, is designed to rein in water use and — at least for six years — prevent the whole system from crashing.

An irrigation canal near Poston, Arizona, carries water from the Colorado River to alfalfa fields. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Without the plans in place, Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman said she’ll be forced to take matters into her own hands. Burman has issued a new March 4 deadline for states to finish the plans, or she’ll begin collecting comments from the state’s governors on how to solve the region’s water-scarcity conundrum.

“We’re at a point where two roads are diverging in the woods,” Burman told reporters Feb. 1. “And we need to decide which path we’re going to follow.”

The first path is the one the seven states are on now, where the parties are working collaboratively to finish the plans and put them into action themselves. Some language in the plans would then need approval by Congress and the president.

The other path, Burman said, involves invoking the federal government’s “broad authority” to manage water distribution in the river’s Lower Basin (Arizona, California, Nevada and northern Mexico). But as tensions rise in some of the areas where the plans remain unfinished, some users are ready to challenge that federal authority.

Let’s go through a few points to understand where the drought plans stand now:

1. Arizona Did and Didn’t Meet the Deadline

Hours ahead of the Bureau of Reclamation’s deadline of midnight Jan. 31, a group of Arizona lawmakers and water users gathered in the Capitol to watch Gov. Doug Ducey sign a resolution giving the state’s top water official the ability to sign onto the Drought Contingency Plan.

The signing was a celebration, a culmination of months of discussion in the state that laid bare hard truths about Arizona’s water past, present and future.

Earlier in the day, as the Legislature prepared to vote on the measure, House Speaker Rusty Bowers talked about just how hard it’s been.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of people who’ve worked on these two bills that we have before us,” said Bowers, a Republican from Mesa. “All kinds of associations and groups have focused their attention on this. And we hope that this, as has been declared, this first step, will be beneficial to all of us.”

Negotiations brought in some groups that hadn’t been included in the past, such as the Colorado River Indian Tribes, who live in western Arizona.

“This was our first run at (the Drought Contingency Plan) and we were very confused,” tribal Chairman Dennis Patch said. “And we’re a lot smarter now. We hope to continue to work with the state on all water issues that come up.”

Dennis Patch is chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, whose land straddles the Arizona-California line. Patch was involved in negotiating Arizona’s portion of the Drought Contingency Plan. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

But while Arizona was celebrating its milestone, the federal government crashed the party, saying the state hadn’t done enough for the deal to be considered “done.” Leading up to the deadline, the federal government had been vague on what “done” actually meant. That led to claims that the goalposts for completion had been moved at the last minute.

Commissioner Burman said additional agreements among the state, individual water districts and tribes were left incomplete. The federal hammer would remain poised until those groups signed on.

“We met the deadline and the federal government is NOT in charge of our water,” Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said in an email to reporters. “It’s time for others to do the same.”

2. River’s Biggest User Calls the Deadline ‘Coercion’

California’s Imperial Irrigation District, the single largest user of Colorado River water, hasn’t been shy about its concerns over the declining Salton Sea in drought negotiations.

Since early 2018, the district’s board has said it won’t sign a broader deal until more resources are provided to manage the Salton Sea’s expanding shoreline and its spiking salinity levels. A 15-year-old agreement led to a transfer of water from the district to growing cities in Southern California. That and increasing irrigation efficiency have led to the decline of the lake, which relies mainly on farm runoff, causing environmental and public health problems as it shrinks.

California, too, was singled out by Burman for failure to meet her Jan. 31 deadline, a fact that ruffled feathers at IID.

“No federal coercion was needed to reach this point of near completion,” district board member James Hanks said at a Feb. 5 special meeting. “And we don’t need it now.”

Hanks said Burman has “dodged questions” about Salton Sea mitigation funds, and about Reclamation’s role in addressing the lake’s growing list of problems. He also challenged whether the federal government truly has authority to meddle in Colorado River allocations and entitlements.

Although the Drought Contingency Plans focus their attention on preserving water levels in Lakes Mead and Powell, Hanks said the Salton Sea is part of the broader Colorado River system, too, and its future should be included in the negotiations.

“Are the golf courses of Phoenix, the fountains of Las Vegas more important than the public-health crisis at the Salton Sea?” Hanks asked.

IID is seeking to secure a federal match of $200 million in farm-bill funds for projects at the Salton Sea. Those funds have not yet been allocated. In December, IID board members said they’d support the Drought Contingency Plan if three conditions were met, one being that the board would be able to vote on a full package of agreements when they were done. That hasn’t happened yet.

Exposed shoreline at the fast-declining Salton Sea has contributed to the Imperial Valley’s high rates of adult and childhood asthma. Funds to mitigate the lake’s condition has thrown a wrench into the completion of broader agreements on the Colorado River. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Water managers seem to agree that states need to use less water from the river. But when it comes down to who actually uses less, that’s when the tension starts to rise.

“This is where the rubber meets the road, or where the raft meets the river, I don’t know what the metaphor is,” said John Berggren, a policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder, Colorado, environmental group.

“That’s where you get into the issues and get into the real wickedness of the problems because you’re dealing with people’s livelihoods, you’re dealing with people’s values, you’re dealing with long-term, fundamental changes to winners and losers.”

Western Resource Advocates receives funding for some of its work from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

3. Once the Plans Are Done, Harder Negotiations Begin

If they’re finished, these deals are scheduled to expire in 2026.

Some have criticized the Drought Contingency Plans for not going far enough to solve the region’s water problems.

Even the name of “Drought Contingency Plan” seems to suggest we’re dealing with a temporary dry period, rather than an overall shift in climate.

John McClow is general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and an alternate commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

“Most of the policymakers in the West are persuaded that we have aridification rather than drought,” McClow said. “Many folks now are saying, ‘This is what we can expect. It’s not going to get better.’”

For now, that shift is in the attitude of leaders, and it isn’t taking center stage in water policy. The current plans have been crafted as a response to shortcomings in river guidelines agreed to in 2007, when water leaders were grappling with the first few years of a dry period that has lasted two decades.

Climate change and over-allocation are thorny issues that will come up almost immediately once Drought Contingency Plans are finished.

The 2007 guidelines are set to expire in 2026, and water managers are required to begin negotiating that new agreement next year. McClow said as soon as water managers wrap up these Drought Contingency Plans, they immediately have to take on a new set of even harder negotiations, and the current process to keep the reservoirs from crashing will likely make that renegotiation only marginally easier.

“It’s going to be hard no matter what,” McClow said. “Both basins have ideas about things that need to be fixed and they’re not compatible in some cases. It’s going to be a difficult negotiation.”

Those talks are supposed to render a long-term solution. But the weather in the near term adds a degree of uncertainty, too. Many streams in the basin are projected to have less than average flows throughout this spring and summer, a symptom of an ongoing drought hangover from 2018.

And that could end up adding even more pressure to the river and the people in charge of managing it.

Even so, the process in Arizona has some water managers hopeful about the next round of talks there.

“Over the last five to 10 years what I’ve noticed as a positive is, those tribalistic instincts seem to be going away,” said Shane Leonard, general manager of the Roosevelt Water Conservation District in central Arizona. “They’re definitely still there. But they’re not as hard as they used to be.”

Luke Runyon reports for KUNC, based in Greeley, Colorado. Bret Jaspers reports for KJZZ in Phoenix.

Arizona Lawmakers Agree on Drought Contingency Plan

ELOY – Arizona lawmakers beat a midnight deadline set by the federal government by just a few hours Thursday, agreeing on a plan to balance drought and water supplies in the Colorado River Basin.

The goal is to keep water levels in Lake Mead from plummeting so low there wouldn’t be enough water for the millions of people throughout the Southwest who depend on it. For Arizona, that could mean losing about a seventh of the state’s annual water allotment to the Central Arizona Project, which provides much of the state’s water.

The Colorado River Basin spans nearly the length of Arizona, but its impact is felt across the Southwest. See a larger version of the map here. (Graphic courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation)

Although Arizona has signed off on the drought contingency plan, California’s Imperial Irrigation District may delay the basin-wide deal. According to the Desert Sun, the district wants $200 million to restore the Salton Sea.

Water managers expect Mead’s levels to drop low enough that by May of this year, there would be a shortage declaration and reduced water allocations. The plan Arizona approved will mitigate those cuts.

Arizona was the last of the three Lower Basin states to approve a Drought Contingency Plan, and it’s the only state that required legislative action to put the plan in place. If Arizona had missed the midnight deadline, the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water and power in the West, said it would impose its own drought plan on the entire Colorado River Basin.

The plan is a stop gap approach to manage water shortages and will be in place until 2026. Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, which make up the Upper Basin, signed their drought contingency plan in December.

“Lake Mead is essentially overallocated,” said Sarah Porter, who directs the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “There is more water going out of Lake Mead than coming in.”

What the Drought Plan Would Do

According to Porter, part of the plan sets a schedule of voluntary cuts that users agree to take to keep lake levels sustainable. The plan also designates rules on when users can take water out of the reservoir.

The plan, which had bipartisan support, aims to keep lake levels high enough to try and avoid a catastrophic shortage in Arizona.

“Arizona has a really hard task because we would take the largest cuts of any of the users, and we need to have our legislature approve singing on to DCP,” Porter said.

What’s Behind the Plan?

The 19-year drought has forced Southwestern states to orchestrate a plan for more sustainable water usage from the Colorado River.

If the lake levels dip too low, Arizona consumers could also see higher water rates.

This isn’t the first time Arizona has experienced hard policy reform to ensure there’s a water supply.

The lower basin agreed to a plan similar to the DCP in 2007, though the cuts weren’t nearly as dramatic as those Arizona faces now.

“We’re looking at significant decreases in Colorado River deliveries,” Porter said.

The Bureau of Reclamation will declare an official shortage and water cutoffs if Lake Mead’s water level drops below 1,075 feet above sea level. That hasn’t happened yet, but water managers predict it could occur as early as May. At 1,050 feet, stricter cutoffs would be imposed.

Who Would Suffer the Most?

Arizona has sealed a bittersweet arrangement that addresses how water users would share the pain of a water shortage, Porter said.

Pinal County farmers will be among the first users to take a cut if there’s a drought declaration.

“Long term, those Pinal County farmers are looking at needing to have other supplies of water,” Porter said. “The DCP has included provision for those farmers to be able to develop or redevelop infrastructure to pump groundwater out and they can use groundwater for their operations.”

Brian Rhodes, who farms 15,000 acres of land near Eloy, believes that will be devastating for the agriculture industry.

“Without some type of mitigation proposal, the alternative is Pinal County farmland no longer becomes viable for a large percentage,” Rhodes said. “That is detrimental for not only the farmers like myself, but you’ve got so many industries that are being supported by the farming operation.”

Pinal County ranks in the top 2 percent nationwide in the total value of agricultural sales, according to a study from the University of Arizona’s Agriculture and Resource Economy.

Rhodes says regardless of the Legislature’s decision Thursday, agriculture still will be forced to increase sustainability efforts.

“Even under the mitigation and other proposals that are on the table, we’re still looking at a lot less available water going forward,” Rhodes said. “The drought is something that’s out of anyone’s control. We’re going to all have to adjust to a new frontier as far as water availability and from what we’ve been used to.”

The plan provides farmers with more water than they would receive if lawmakers had been unable to reach a decision, said Dave Roberts, chief water resources executive for Salt River Project.

“I wouldn’t say they’re in good shape, but they’ll be better off than they would have been,” he said.

Cronkite News reporter Lillian Donahue contributed to this story.

Drought Hangover: ‘OK’ Snowpack in Colorado Won’t Be Enough to Replenish Reservoirs

GREELEY, Colo. – After one of the hottest and driest years on record, the Colorado River and its tributaries across the Southwest are likely headed for another year of low water.

That’s according to an analysis by the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Jeff Lukas, the researcher who authored the briefing, urged water managers throughout the Colorado River watershed to brace themselves for diminished streams and a decreasing likelihood of filling reservoirs left depleted by nearly two decades of drought. The analysis relies on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, among other agencies.

That dire prognosis comes even as much of the Southern Rocky Mountains have seen a regular cycle of snowstorms this winter.

“The snowpack conditions for Colorado and much of the Intermountain West don’t look too bad,” Lukas said. “They range from ‘meh’ to ‘OK.’”

Snowpack that feeds the Colorado River ranges from 75 percent to 105 percent of normal. Snowpack in the entire Upper Basin – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – is sitting at about 90 percent of normal for this time of year.

So with an “OK” snowpack in the Upper Basin, which supplies most of the water in the Colorado system, we should be in good shape, right?

Not necessarily. If you’re just looking at snowpack to gauge how well a winter is going, Lukas said, you’re doing it wrong.

The record hot and dry conditions during 2018 further sapped the ground of its moisture. Leading into this winter, “that puts us in a deep hole,” Lukas said.

Put another way, across the Southwest, we’re living in a drought hangover. And it’s going to take a lot more snow to pull us out of it.

Lake Powell, the first major reservoir the Colorado hits on its 1,450-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico, is projected to see 64 percent of its average inflow, according to the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. That translates to a one-year deficit of more than 5 million acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is enough water to supply roughly one to two households for a year.

“That’s not as bad as what happened last year, but it’s pretty close,” Lukas said. “That’s going to just drain the big reservoirs – Powell and Mead – even further.”

The less-than-hopeful projections come as water managers and users throughout the river’s 246,000-square-mile watershed, particularly in Arizona, attempt to curb use and mitigate reductions in the face of declining reservoirs. Levels are dropping due to an ongoing aridification within the basin, a product of climate change, and chronic overallocation of resources.

Drought contingency plans, which the seven Colorado River Basin states have been hammering out for years, have a federally imposed deadline for approval of Jan. 31, and another dry winter will put even more pressure on their negotiations.

“This certainly imparts more urgency to that mission to get those plans in place knowing that we’re likely to have a below-par if not well below-par year in the Upper Colorado,” Lukas said.

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.

4 Obstacles Facing Arizona as It Finishes a Drought Plan

PHOENIX – On the first day of the 2019 legislative session, water led Gov. Doug Ducey’s State of the State address. More specifically, he wants a drought plan finished — one that keeps the Colorado River system at healthy levels.

Drought and over-allocation means Lake Mead is at risk of dropping really low. Taken to the extreme, power generation there could stop. Water could be stuck in the lake.

The Drought Contingency Plan is an attempt to stave that off.

There are lots of reasons to get the deal done. Despite significant progress, a few obstacles remain.

Doug Ducey

Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey at his 2019 State of the State address on Jan. 15, 2019.

1. Time.

Stakeholders have been working on a deal for months, and off-and-on for years. But Arizona’s work on a Drought Contingency Plan — legislatively speaking — must now happen at lightning speed. Gov. Ducey referenced the federally-imposed deadline of Jan. 31.

“Doing so will require compromise,” Ducey said in his address on Monday. “No one stakeholder is going to get everything they want. Everyone is going to have to give.”

There’s already been a lot of giving through both public and private negotiations that formally started over the summer. Still, other states in the Colorado River basin have approved the larger plan, and aside from a few California water districts, Arizona is the holdout everyone’s watching as it writes an internal deal.

If Arizona misses the deadline, the Reclamation Commissioner has said she will ask the other basin states for their recommendations on what kind of cutback regime to impose.

2. Stakeholders Aren’t Done.

The public and private negotiating process outside the Legislature still isn’t finished.

Last week, home builders asked for water in the current proposal in case a related deal with the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) fell through. GRIC Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis insists as long as the drought plan happens, so will that related deal. It would provide hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water for groundwater replenishment over 25 years, enabling more development.

“I went back to my council and we clarified that. In fact, I signed a letter. I sent that to the Arizona Department of Water Resources and CAWCD [on Monday] afternoon,” Lewis said after the State of the State speech.

The Central Arizona Water Conservation District runs the Central Arizona Project canal system.

So if the Gila River Indian Community says that separate deal is absolutely happening, is that enough for House Speaker Rusty Bowers?

“I don’t answer questions like that,” Bowers said with a laugh after Ducey’s speech. “I want to make sure it’s all good, all the way. And it’s getting there. We’re gonna get there.”

Bowers, a Republican from Mesa, is a key figure because he decides which bills hit the House floor to get voted on. He traveled the state last year as part of roving public meetings on water and has been looking out for Pinal County agriculture and development.

“Now with this last big area in central Arizona,” he said, referring to farmland in Pinal County, “we want to make sure that if and when growth takes those and when they sell, that there’s sufficient water to not just do them, and thank you very much, but also whatever takes their place.”

3. Water Policy Is Oh-So Complicated.

Bowers said the Legislature will have informational meetings with lawmakers, then put bills in committee and go concept by concept.

State Senator Lisa Otondo, a Democrat from Yuma and part of the Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee, wants to see the bills.

“We need to see the language, and then also continue to, with staff of course and stakeholders, walk many other members on both sides of the aisle through the legislation. And have them have a better understanding,” she said.

4. The Partial Federal Government Shutdown.

That’s right — the border wall clash is affecting Colorado River planning. Last week, the local office of the Bureau of Reclamation said its legal counsel has been on furlough. And the federal Department of Agriculture is needed as well, according to Pinal County Republican House member T.J. Shope.

Shope said the government needs to reopen “so that way, we can begin restarting negotiations with the USDA about drawing down federal funds to help out” with groundwater infrastructure in Pinal County.

That information might not come by the Jan. 31 deadline.

Shutdown, additional water requests could disrupt Arizona drought plan

PHOENIX – The partial federal government shutdown is affecting Arizona’s painstaking work on an internal drought plan, although not enough to delay a federal deadline set for the end of this month.

The Bureau of Reclamation remains open, Phoenix-area manager Leslie Meyers said, noting that the bureau’s funding was appropriated in September. The legal counsel for her office, however, is part of the Department of Interior, specifically the Office of the Field Solicitor. They are furloughed. The shutdown began Dec. 22.

“Right now, not having them at work is very difficult for us,” Meyers told reporters Tuesday, Jan. 8. “It’s hard to move forward.”

Interior department lawyers have been working with Arizona’s two biggest water agencies, the Central Arizona Project and the Arizona Department of Water Resources, to hammer out the various agreements required to finalize the state’s plan to deal with expected drought in the Colorado River Basin, which supplies millions of people Arizona and six other Western states. Arizona is the only basin state that requires legislative approval for the drought contingency plan, known as the DPC, to be implemented.

The Steering Committee for the Arizona Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, made of key water stakeholders in the state, met Tuesday for the first time since Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman set a Jan. 31 deadline for parties to have passed the DPC.

The broad DCP covers the entire Colorado River Basin and is an effort to prop up Lakes Mead and Powell, the major reservoirs for the river system. Arizona and a few California water agencies are the last holdouts amid intrastate negotiations.

If the shutdown does not end soon, Meyers guessed Burman would try to get some of the Department of Interior attorneys declared essential to get them back to work (albeit with no pay).

The deadline, however, is still firm.

“The deadline really was a work-back from dates that are hard-wired into agreements and other things,” Meyers said. For example, the DCP’s “shortage designations,” which would mandate any cuts to deliveries from Lake Mead in 2020, will be set according to an August hydrology report.

The Jan. 31 deadline also provides time for the Bureau of Reclamation to decide on a separate course of action if Arizona and the California entities do not approve the DCP.

However, the ongoing shutdown is not the only unresolved issue.

At Tuesday’s steering-committee meeting, the temperature in the room seemed to jump a few degrees during a discussion of so-called mitigation water for home builders. Mitigation has largely focused on providing farmers in Pinal County with water to ease them off Colorado River water and onto groundwater. Higher-priority water users also are getting mitigated because they also face cuts under the DCP.

Home builders are likely to get access to water through a separate but related deal between the Gila River Indian Community and the CAP’s groundwater replenishment arm, known as the CAGRD. The Tribal Council has approved it, pending state approval of the drought contingency plan.

That isn’t enough certainty for Spencer Kamps of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona. His group, along with the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, wants the Arizona DCP to include 7,000 acre-feet of mitigation water for development for the first three years of a shortage declaration (21,000 acre-feet total). If the DCP passes and the Gila River tribe’s deal with CAGRD deal is executed, the provision would be removed.

Kamps’ concern is that Arizona’s internal DCP, whatever its current form, may get changed by the Legislature, making it unsatisfactory to the tribe.

“What condition is DCP in when it goes through?” Kamps asked. “Ultimately, nobody knows what that’s going to be. We hope it’s the deal that ultimately passes here. But if that’s modified in any way, then that creates uncertainty. We’re just trying to address it.”

Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community said the CAGRD deal is ready to go if and when Gov. Ducey signs the package securing the state’s drought plan.

“The council will not revisit the issue unless Governor Ducey does not sign the DCP legislation,” Lewis said. He also promised to ask his Tribal Council for permission to send a letter clarifying that fact.

A group representing big developers, however, disagreed with the homebuilders’ request for mitigation water.

“At this point, I don’t know where we’re going to come up with 21,000 acre-feet of water,” said Cheryl Lombard, CEO of Valley Partnership. “I just don’t see the need for it. In fact, we’re one of the only entities, if not the only entity, getting new water out of this entire discussion.”

Other issues also remain unresolved. The legislative session starts next week.

The 1922 agreement that governs the Colorado River is flawed. Why not fix it?

GREELEY, Colo. – Colorado River water managers have plenty to argue about, including how they should deal with lower water levels caused in part by higher temperatures, long-term drought and increasing population.

But there’s one thing on which nearly everyone who relies on the river can agree. The foundational document that divvies up the water – the Colorado River Compact, first signed nearly 100 years ago – is not easily altered. And the word renegotiation is bound to cause political ripples.

The late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., learned that lesson the hard way.

In summer 2008, McCain was the Republican nominee facing President Barack Obama. Colorado was considered a swing state.

Water scarcity issues are always top of mind for Western politicians. That’s why when reporter Charles Ashby, then with the Pueblo Chieftain, now with the Grand Junction Sentinel, got McCain on the phone and asked him why Colorado voters should trust an Arizonan when it comes to water.

“I thought that was relevant because he’s downstream on the Colorado River,” Ashby said, “and Arizona and Nevada and California are big water users.”

Because of population growth and dwindling water supplies, McCain said he’d be in favor of renegotiating the document that divvies up the river among the seven U.S. states that rely on it. Ashby was floored.

“I knew immediately that was a no-no, at least for politics here in the state of Colorado,” Ashby recalled. “And so I said to him, ‘Are you sure you want to say that? Because that won’t go over well up here.’”

Their phone connection kept cutting out, but McCain called back twice to double down on his idea. Sensing a big scoop, Ashby called a few other Colorado politicians to get their reactions. Prominent Democrats and Republicans agreed that McCain was out of line. Colorado’s sitting Democratic senator at the time, Ken Salazar, went so far as to say the Colorado River Compact would be renegotiated over his dead body.

“Then-Governor Bill Ritter said to me after that story ran, he said, ‘Charles, that story may have delivered the state to Obama,’” Ashby said.

McCain eventually walked his comments back after a thorough lashing in the press.

But with one sentence, he had touched a nerve in Western water politics.

“A lot of it is just the word choice: renegotiation,” said Doug Kenney, a water policy expert at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Some of Kenney’s work is funded by the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

Renogotiation is a word that inflames decades-old tensions in the vast watershed, Kenney said – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah in the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin.

“I think a lot of the parties think it’s scary simply because it’s a little scary to negotiate when not all the parties have the same political power,” Kenney said.

That power imbalance is what brought regional political leaders to the table in 1922, when the Colorado River Compact was signed. The desert Southwest was beginning to grow rapidly, and rather than acquiesce all of the river’s flow to the sprawling cities and cropland of Southern California, water managers felt it was in their best interest to come to an agreement to divvy up the river among themselves. The alternative was conflict and litigation.

Each basin was to receive 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year, which the basins allocated among themselves. The Upper Basin opted for percentages, with Colorado receiving the largest share. The Lower Basin chose to parse it into discrete, fixed portions, with California and Arizona receiving the largest amounts.

Conventional wisdom about the math underlying the compact goes something like this:

Water managers used the available data to figure out how much water they had to work with; however, the time period they examined had been uncharacteristically wet. Soon after the compact’s signing, the river returned to its more normal flows, and right from the start, the compact didn’t mesh with reality. More water existed on paper than in the river, creating a gap between supplies and demands that continues to today. So the story goes: It was no one’s fault, just a historical fluke.

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program, says that conventional wisdom is wrong. Allocating more water than was available was the politically expedient thing to do. He’s finishing a book with Colorado River expert Eric Kuhn on what water managers of the 1920s knew about the river’s flow and when they knew it. They found that scientists with the highly respected U.S. Geological Survey were complaining about the inflated numbers even before the compact was signed.

“They all concluded the same thing, ‘You’re basing this on an unusually wet period. You need to take into account dry periods. There is really less water than you think,’” Fleck said. “And all those scientific experts were ignored.”

Today, there’s broad consensus about the compact’s math problems. Although it was scoffed at a decade ago, McCain’s proposal to renegotiate has support among some environmentalists, including Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director with WildEarth Guardians. She says the only way to fix the river’s fundamental supply-demand problem is to go back to the beginning.

“It’s just like curing illness, right? You have to get at the source,” she said.

Old agreements among states to manage water in the West don’t reflect modern realities, like climate change or broader environmental concerns, Pelz said. Compacts for the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers allocate every drop for human use. There’s value in leaving water in rivers for recreation and ecosystem health, she says.

“I think that is a huge problem, and I think that we don’t want to have that conversation because it’s hard,” Pelz said.

The river’s foundational problems are front of mind these days as Colorado River water managers are attempting to finalize new agreements called Drought Contingency Plans, designed to boost declining reservoirs and cut back on water use throughout the watershed. Pelz says the plans don’t go far enough.

“It’s all like shuffling chairs on the Titanic,” she said. “The ship is sinking still. And if you shuffle all those chairs around and you make it look pretty, it’s still not going to make any difference.”

Reopening the Colorado River Compact would require the support of people like Pat Tyrrell, the Wyoming state engineer. And he is not interested.

“No, I would never advocate going back to the compact,” he said.

There’s a work around, he says. Rather than renegotiate the original document, water managers like him come up with new agreements that build on it and address some of the compact’s bad math. But throwing the whole thing out would be a mistake.

“If it were to go away, there would be a free for all,” Tyrrell said. “There is no magic second compact sitting in the wings behind it, and the battle between Arizona, California and Nevada against us four Upper Basin states would be brought anew.”

Although water managers today have no appetite for changes to the compact, it’s uncertain the compact’s framers meant for it to be immutable. When Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover was selling the deal to Congress, he hedged the agreement’s finality. In 1926, Hoover told members of a House committee that if the deal could “provide for equity for the next 40 to 75 years, we can trust to the generation after the next to be as intelligent as we are today.” And that those future water leaders “will settle it in the light of the forces of their day.”

In his Ph.D. dissertation at University of Colorado, Jon Berggren, now a water policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, summarized Hoover’s testimony as suggesting that, “at least from Hoover’s perspective, the negotiators of the compact did not intend to make the original allocations of the compact static.”

Hoover gave the original agreement a shelf life of 75 years.

“He underestimated us a little bit, didn’t he? We’re still here making it work,” Tyrrell said. “We have shown in the Colorado River Basin the ability to adapt, even in areas where the compact may may feel constraining.”

The word “adapt” seems to go over a lot better with Colorado River water managers than the dreaded “renegotiation.”

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.