Six-state solution to Colorado River crisis could end up saving hydropower in the West — or in court | Energy & Environment
The proposal submitted by six of the seven states on the Colorado River could offer a path forward on saving hydropower at two dams and the West’s $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry.
But without agreement from California — the largest water user on the Colorado — the proposal could fall flat.
Or wind up in court.
Most notable about what was suggested by Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada in the Jan. 31 letter to the US Bureau of Reclamation is that the lower basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California — would take into account evaporation and other losses, part of what’s known as system loss accounting.
Kalsoum Abbasi, water conveyance planning supervisor for Colorado Springs Utilities, called the proposal a good sign.
But, even if adopted, the measures may only be temporary ahead of major operational changes for the river that will take effect after 2026, Abbasi said.
“These are stopgap measures to get us through,” she said.
Without these steps, Mead and Powell could see water levels crash, she said.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Conservancy District, went so far as to call the requirement that the lower basin states start system loss accounting “a watershed moment” for the Colorado River.
“Our state and the Colorado River District have been called for the proper assessment of evaporation in the lower basin for decades,” Mueller said Tuesday.
The upper basin states have been accounting for evaporation and other losses in their annual allocations since 1948, he said, while the lower basin states, until now, have resisted.
For a lot of different reasons, two of the lower basin states — Arizona and Nevada — have now aligned with the upper basin states on this issue, one that Mueller said could form a permanent solution for resolving the imbalance on the river.
Abbasi agreed that accounting for system losses, such as evaporation, in the lower basin states is a straightforward step to help Lake Mead’s levels, and that other water users, including Colorado Springs Utilities, have been accounting for system losses for years.
The upper basin states have never used their full allotment of the Colorado River. While collectively, the 1922 Colorado River compact and subsequent agreements dictated the upper basin states receive 7.5 million acre-feet per year, the four states have never used more than 4.6 million acre-feet. In 2021, the consumptive use in the upper basin states dropped to 3.5 million acre-feet, according to the Upper Colorado River Commission. In comparison, the compact says Colorado should receive 3.9 million acre-feet from the Colorado annually.
That’s echoed by Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission, who said in a statement Tuesday that it remains critically important to Colorado that “any potential solutions recognize the hydrologic realities in the basin, including the fact that our water users routinely take deep and painful shortages due to lack of physical and legal availability of water.”
“Because of that factor,” she added, “the Upper Division States regularly use less than half of our Compact apportionment and significantly less than the Lower Division States, who have been able to rely on reservoir storage in times of low flows.”
Upper Basin reservoirs, including Blue Mesa and Navajo in Colorado and Flaming Gorge in Utah, have been depleted from previous releases, Mitchell pointed out.
She said the upper basin states are, nonetheless, committed to being a part of the solution to “the extent we are able, and are committed to doing that through additional voluntary conservation efforts, taking into account hydrologic conditions.”
She said the upper basin states also continue to diligently implement the Five-Point Plan released in July.
That plan, however, doesn’t identify how much water could be conserved by the upper basin states. The Southern Nevada Water Authority suggested last month that the upper basin states should cut their allocations by 500,000 acre-feet per year.
Evaporative loss accounting the solution?
Evaporative loss is not a small matter. The Southern Nevada Water Authority recently estimated that evaporation and transportation and other system inefficiencies resulted in a loss of about 1.5 million acre-feet per year just in the lower basin states.
Mueller said that, if the Bureau of Reclamation, which could force the lower basin states to start accounting for evaporative loss, had done so 20 years ago, that would have left 25 million acre-feet of water in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
“We’d have about 12.5 million acre-feet more in those two reservoirs, and the Colorado River would not be a front-page news story. It would not be in a state of crisis had the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Interior implemented this at the turn of the millennium,” Mueller said.
Mueller said this accounting would be a huge piece of how to fix the river.
But the cost to California, which refused to be a signatory on the six-state proposal, could also be huge.
The allocation for California, the largest user of water from the river allocation, is about 4.1 million acre-feet per year. More than 3 million acre-feet of that water goes to the Imperial Valley Irrigation District, the nation’s largest producer of winter vegetables. The Colorado River supplies 100% of the water used in the district, which also holds the most senior water rights.
Were the Bureau of Reclamation to account for system loss, evaporative loss could result in 708,000 less acre-feet of water for California, said Mueller, who added that the US Department of Interior should impose those requirements and it has the legal authority to do .
But that almost certainly will provoke a lawsuit from California or at least from the Imperial Valle, he said.
“They have made it very clear they will sue the Bureau over this,” Mueller said, adding that has so far stopped the Department of Interior from moving forward on a system accounting standard.
“We think it’s really important that it be set up correctly. Not only does Interior have the legal authority, [the standard] also follows the laws of physics,” Mueller said. “Those users should be held accountable for those losses.”
There’s enough at stake that California, or at least the Imperial Valley Irrigation District, will sue, he said.
California appears to be ready for that possibility.
JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California and the state’s Colorado River Commissioner, said in a statement Tuesday that California water agencies will submit their own modeling framework for additional water use reductions — “based on what is practical, voluntary, and achievable through 2026 in a way that works within the existing body of laws, compacts, decrees, and agreements known collectively as the Law of the River.”
The proposal submitted by the six other basin states, Hamby said, is inconsistent with that law, which includes the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Hamby added that California is “not able to provide input on the six-state proposal and detail our state’s specific concerns,” which he did not identify in his statement.
“California remains focused on practical solutions that can be implemented now to protect volumes of water in storage without driving conflict and litigation,” Hamby continued. “Our state’s voluntary commitment to conserve 400,000 acre-feet of water a year through 2026 is the only concrete proposal submitted to date from any basin state’s water users as part of a solution to address the current water shortage.”
The six-state proposal submitted to the Department of the Interior will become one among dozens of suggestions the department will consider under a supplemental environmental impact statement for near-term Colorado River operations. The SEIS, as it’s known, will address the potential for continued low-runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin in the next couple of years, a stopgap that the department hopes will cover the river’s operations until the seven states, Mexico and tribal nations conclude Negotiations for new operational guidelines, slated to be in place by Jan. 1, 2027.
The decision on the SEIS from Department of Interior is expected in August 2023.
In a statement Tuesday, the department said it remains committed to “pursuing a collaborative and consensus-based approach, and ongoing conversations with the basin states, tribes, water managers, farmers, irrigators and other stakeholders are helping to inform the supplemental process to revise the current interim operating guidelines for the operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams.”
The dams, on Lake Powell and Lake Mead, respectively, are both in danger of seeing water levels drop so low that they will not be able to generate the hydropower that supplies electricity all over the West.
The department’s statement added that its collaborative supplemental process is “our strongest immediate tool to help improve and protect the short-term sustainability of the Colorado River System by empowering the Bureau of Reclamation with additional alternatives and tools needed to address the likelihood of continued low- runoff conditions across the Basin over the next two years.”