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The water level of the Ridgway Reservoir rests well below its typical level pictured here on Sunday August 19, 2018. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

PHOENIX — The diverse, yet unified, politicians from seven states hailing this week’s swift passage of legislation supporting the installation of drought contingency plans to protect the Colorado River have taken the first step in what promises to be a long and painful process.

Everyone in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California soon will feel the pinch of water conservation.

Folks in snowy Tabernash at the headwaters of the Colorado River will have to share the burn with their sun-baked counterparts in Palm Springs, California. Ranchers and dairy farmers in Arizona’s Pinal County will share their injuries with Colorado’s Western Slope, where 15 counties provide the snow that feeds a majority of the Colorado River’s flows into Arizona and California.

The need to keep water in a toxic lake in eastern California’s Imperial Valley will pinch every upstream resident. Native American tribes that have watched their massive amounts of Colorado River water flow by unused will need more water — or payment — as they develop. And don’t forget Mexico, which has tolerated a lot of thirsty Americans sipping a river that barely trickles across the border.

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This river has woven its way into the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions, regardless of state and international boundaries.

“Passing the Drought Contingency Plan is a win for the millions of people across the West who rely on the Colorado River,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, said in a written statement Tuesday trumpeting the Senate’s passage of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act. “Following the leadership of Coloradans and communities across the seven affected states, we are now one step closer to countering drought, addressing climate change, and strengthening Colorado’s agricultural and outdoor recreation-based economy.”

The headwaters of the Colorado River in Grand County. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“A remarkable achievement”

That the seven states came together and agreed to communal sacrifices in the Drought Contingency Plans “is a remarkable achievement,” said Bruce Babbitt, the former Arizona governor who helped create an underground storage plan for his state before he became Secretary of the Interior, where he shepherded the Colorado River through its most robust years.

“We actually forged a pain-sharing agreement,” Babbitt said earlier this month at a weekend gathering of Colorado River scientists and journalists hosted by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The Lincoln Institute formed the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy in 2017 to help lead and orchestrate water-based decisions in states along the Colorado River.

The rally was to educate journalists on the looming crisis on the Colorado River, where storage is at record lows, demand is growing and warming temperatures in a 19-year drought paint the bleakest of futures for a river that waters 40 million people in a 244,000-square-mile basin.

It’s been a snowy season in Colorado. It’s April and the peaks still are getting painted with fresh snow and snowpacks are way above normal, promising a bountiful water season. But the Colorado River Basin is so emaciated that snowy seasons are not going to help.

Snow certainly doesn’t hurt, but there’s no way to blizzard the basin out of this hole.

So for the last several years, water users in all seven states — divided in the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states — have hammered out these drought contingency plans, designed to keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead water above critically low levels.

The so-called bathtub ring around Lake Mead as seen from an airplance. (Larry Ryckman, The Colorado Sun)

If the levels drop any more, the federal government could step in and start making hard cuts that will be much worse than what was negotiated over the last few years.

The DCPs are a first step in deflecting federal cuts. A significant step, for sure, proving that water is apolitical and diverse Westerners are able to set aside a lot of differences when it comes to keeping faucets flowing. The hurried legislation in Washington that approved the DCPs wound through both the House and Senate in less than two weeks, corralling representatives and senators across the West in a rare, unified effort.

But, as one veteran water guardian noted, the DCP is a “Band-Aid.” The current guidelines for the river — hammered out in 2007 and detailing state reductions when Lake Mead and Lake Powell drop below certain levels — expire at the end of 2025.

“The DCP took almost six years,” said Anne Castle, senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado. She served as assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department between 2009 and 2014. “So we have to start again immediately. We have a couple years, I think, to do a lot of creative thinking and kind of change our paradigm.”

A pretty simple arrangement

So as the seven states return begin to hammer out the next chapter in river agreements, they also have to start installing the drought plans that could entail painful cuts in use, conservation and paying farmers and ranchers to fallow fields. All while protecting Mead and Powell and the Colorado River, not just as a delivery system but as a vital ecosystem.

But first, here’s a brief background. Dating back to 1922, when Colorado River Compact framers mistakenly assumed the river would always have enough water, the river has been divided between Mexico, the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, and the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California.

The Upper Basin gets 7.5 million acre-feet, the Lower Basin gets 7.5 million acre-feet and Mexico gets 1.5 million acre-feet. (An acre-foot can cover an acre with a foot of water, enough to sate about one household a year.)

It’s a pretty simple arrangement. But the simplicity fades quickly.

The two primary storage facilities on the river — lakes Powell and Mead — were built to better control allocations and storage. The two reservoirs hold about 60 million acre-feet, roughly four times the annual flow of the Colorado River. And since the dawning of the drought in 2000, those lakes are hurting.

Lakes Powell and Mead are at historical lows of about 42 percent capacity. The last time they were this low was when they were filling. The bathtub ring around Mead is 140-feet high. In the last 19 years of drought, only four years have seen above-average inflow to the two reservoirs.

Lake Powell has declined almost 95 feet since 2000, reaching a critically low level that is prompting historic plans to fill the reservoir on the Arizona-Utah border. (Jed Selby, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Since Mead began filling in 1937 and Powell in 1963, the storage systems have worked well. Now, climate change and increasing demand for the Colorado River water has stressed the system, which sees the Upper Basin states using less than they are allocated and the Lower Basin states using more than their allocation. (They call that 1.2 million acre-foot overdraw on Lake Mead a “structural deficit.”)

All this means the reconsideration of almost a century of hard-fought agreements that divvy up Colorado River water — known as the Law of the River — is on the table as states wean themselves from an overburdened river.

And hovering over Colorado River negotiations are warming temperatures that further slow the river’s flows.

“Our future depends on how we act relative to climate change.”

Climate scientists Bradley Udall and Jonathan Overpeck’s 2017 report on the impact of warming on the river projected a climate-driven 20 percent reduction in Colorado River streamflow by midcentury and a 35 percent reduction in streamflows by the end of century. Just about everyone who has studied the science agrees these are conservative estimates. Warmer temperatures across the basin likely will reduce flows even more.

Kathy Jacobs, the director of the University of Arizona’s Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions, has worked on five Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and four National Climate Assessment reports. She does not shy from sharing the horror looming for the Southwest.

She said it’s going to get hotter. Streamflows will be reduced. It will be drier, with more intense rainstorms delivering floods in the middle of droughts. Jacobs detailed “cascading effects” of rising temperatures like brown-outs during heat waves and the public health and ecological impacts of wildfires.

“Our future depends on how we act relative to climate change,” Jacobs said. “We’ve got a lot to adjust to and we need to be significantly prepared for a lot more change than we have already seen.”

MORE: Amid drought, a changing climate and population growth, can Colorado’s unique water law system survive?

Jacobs helped launch the Science for Climate Action Network this month. The network — they are calling it SCAN — stems from a global call to enroll communities in science-based strategies for not just mitigating but adapting to climate change. The idea is that by encouraging citizens to help manage climate risk, federal support for climate action can reach deeper into society and have a larger, more localized impact.

“We need to empower people with facts,” Jacobs said. “They need to be part of the process of generating those facts.”

The Colorado River Basin’s previous guidelines, negotiated in 2007 when the drought was only an adolescent, were not enough to prepare for prolonged drought and warming temperatures “and we knew they were not enough,” said Jim Lochhead, the CEO and manager of Denver Water who negotiated for Colorado as the seven states forged the 2007 guidelines.

What those negotiators didn’t know was how quickly lakes Powell and Mead would reach the shortage markers established in the 2007 plan.

“It’s kind of shocking to me,” Lochhead said. “In terms of the long history of the river, I never really thought in my career we would be in the situation that we are in right now. But to give you an idea about the speed for which things can happen, we are having a good year this year but if you started with today’s reservoir conditions and you started with the hydrology beginning in the year 2000, in three years Lake Powell would be dry. It’s not a prediction, but it’s a possibility. It could happen and it could happen really quickly which is why we need to ask the basin to act quickly and decisively to keep this system afloat.”

Simple conservation might not be enough

The quick action in those drought contingency plans have challenged traditional positions on water. Talk to anyone who knows the DCPs and they use the same words: “hard,” “challenging,” “difficult,” “demanding.”

The complicating factors are monumental. Arizona, for example, is bearing the largest burden of the drought plan water cuts — the state was late to the Colorado River trough — with valleys of farmers there getting paid to surrender their Colorado River water to support the plan. Arizona’s drought plan calls for the state to cut its use of Colorado River water by an additional 192,000 to 240,000 acre-feet if Lake Mead levels drop any more.

That’s on top of cuts ranging from 320,000 acre-feet to 480,000 acre-feet required under the 2007 guidelines. Many Arizona farmers plan to tap already depleted ground-water supplies to irrigate crops.

“One of the biggest concerns we have about the DCP is that it basically sends the message that we can keep doing things the same way,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, who suggested incentives paid to Arizona farmers should include considerations to move away from thirsty crops like cotton and alfalfa. “If we are going to give money, maybe money to do different things should be looked at.”

And then there’s the Salton Sea in California’s Imperial Valley, home of the Imperial Valley Irrigation District, the largest consumer of Colorado River water. The district did not approve Caifornia’s drought plan, arguing it would support the plan if the federal government pitches in $200 million to fix the receding sea, which is really not a sea but a salty, shallow lake that serves as drainage for the valley’s farms.

The Salton Sea is about 800 miles from the Colorado border but it looms large on the state’s water future. The shallow lake — the largest in California at 378 square miles — was formed in 1905, when Colorado River floods breached an irrigation diversion and filled what was then called the Salton Sink.

More than a year ago, farmers next to the sea saw their Colorado River supplies cut, which hastened the evaporation of the Salton Sea. As the water recedes and the shoreline grows, toxic dust swirling from the lake bed imperils the Imperial and Coachella valleys and resort cities such as Palm Springs.

One plan to save the Salton Sea proposes ferrying water from the Pacific Ocean or Sea of Cortez and desalinating the ocean water to fill the lake. Seriously.

It’s a plan supported by Pat Mulroy, a senior fellow at the University of Nevada’s law school whose decades of water resource management in the Southwest includes serving as general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

She warns that Arizona, California and Nevada should not forge plans thinking that the Upper Basin states will not use all their allocated water.

“It’s not logical and it’s not a safe assumption,” Mulroy said. She’s the one who called the DCPs “a Band-Aid.”

Mulroy has a lot of warnings. She says the time for radical action is now. And by radical, she means simple conservation is not going to get the Lower Basin states out of the problem that it is using more water than flows into Lake Mead. It’s time to talk about adding water to the system, she said.

So why not pump ocean water across Southern California to the shore of the Salton Sea, deploy geothermal energy to desalt that water and fill the shallow lake with 1.5 million acre-feet of debrined Pacific Ocean, which could leave 1.5 million acre-feet in Lake Mead?

“We are all tethered to the Salton Sea,” Mulroy said. “If we are going to go through a planning process, everything’s on the table. Conservation is foundational. That’s a given. But at what point is conservation no longer able to answer the question? We have to put augmentation on the table.”

Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for the Audubon Society has some notes on this desalt-the-Salton plan. Desalination of ocean water would create about 40 million tons of dry salt a year. That would require a 100-car train every day to haul that salt … somewhere else.

“I’m concerned that it doesn’t add up,” said Pitt, who laments that “silver bullet” solutions can detract from “a million nickel-sized projects” that can help shore up Lake Mead’s storage.

Dave White directs the direly named “Decision Center for a Desert City” at Arizona State University. He joined the chorus of doom by lamenting not just the lack of a historical roadmap  to reveal what’s coming with climate change, but the lack policy structures that can help grease real change.

“There is simply no historical record that approximates what the future will be under the future that the projections expect,” White said. “We have no policy. The mechanisms that have designed the system we have now cannot be marginally tweaked to produce different outcomes. And we are nowhere near designing a policy system that is flexible, innovative, adaptive and fast moving enough to address the physical changes we are seeing.”

One more huge complicating factor in the water negotiations involve tribal waters. Ten Native American tribes recently completed a three-year tribal water study that concluded they have senior water right claims for 2.8 million acre-feet of the Colorado River and they only use about half of that.

Many tribal communities — there are 28 in the Colorado River Basin — are unable to invest heavily in the infrastructure needed to develop their water, so about 1.4 million acre-feet of tribal water flows down the river, crossing several state lines, where it’s used by others and the tribes are not reimbursed.

“Tribes have to be at the table, at the policy table. The first framework (of the Arizona Drought Contingency Plan) was unacceptable to the community because we weren’t at the table,” said Gov. Stephen R. Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, which approved his state’s DCP after assuring protection for the 2004 Arizona Water Settlement Act that restored their historic water rights based in canals built more than 1,000 years ago by the ancestral Hohokam.   

The boat dock in the community of Heeney sits on dry land due to low water levels at Green Mountain Reservoir on Sept. 9, 2018. The reservoir, which backstops Western Slope water supplies during drought years, was only 55 percent full last fall. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

“My motto is a drought is a terrible thing to waste”

While creating new supplies is new terrain for Colorado River users, there is a strong model for conservation.

Westminster is a national example for water conservation as well as imbedding water issues into development approvals. While the city’s population grew 15 percent between 2000 and 2016, the city kept its water consumption at 2000 levels. That story is mirrored in Denver, Las Vegas, Albuquerque and other communities across the West, where conservation efforts have yielded steep declines in per-capita water use.

“My motto is a drought is a terrible thing to waste. We wouldn’t have much of our policy if it wasn’t for droughts,” said Stu Feinglas, the water resources specialist from Westminster, recalling how moms marched over poor water quality and citizens formed a committee on water after the city banned lawn sprinkling and lost its Clear Creek water during the drought of 1962.

Denver Water, which gets about half its water from the Colorado River, has spent more than $100 million since the mid-1990s on conservation programs that have yielded savings of more than 1 million acre-feet of water that has flowed in Lake Powell. Denver Water also helped forge a model for persuading users to temporarily give up water rights.

In 2015, Denver Water joined water districts in Arizona, Nevada and Southern California on a three-year pilot program that tested interest in farmers taking cash to temporarily give up their water rights. From 2015 through 2017, the Upper Basin Colorado River System Conservation Pilot Program received applications from 93 agricultural water users and spent $4.6 million on 45 projects that reduced agricultural water use by 22,116 acre-feet.

“It proved there is demand out there,” said Lochhead with Denver Water.  

But can the program be scaled up by a factor of 10 so it can really impact storage levels in Lake Powell? Where is the money for those fallow fields going to come from? Can the Upper Basin states build a system that verifies, tracks and accounts for that water as it flows into Lake Powell? Those are all questions that need answers, Lochhead said.

Especially in the Upper Basin, where the drought plan calls for creating a new bank of water in Lake Powell not for Lower Basin use, but as storage for unused Upper Basin water. The plan also calls for “demand management,” which is more jargon for cutting use and conservation. That would entail paying farmers, ranchers and other water users to temporarily release their water rights.

“It’s going to be really a tough, complicated process to set that up,” Lochhead said.

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...