Tuesday, February 11, 2020

WATER WARS, Ch. 4, Colorado River Basin

Water Wars Sharing the Colorado River

There are two major water basins in the American Southwest, the Rio Grande and the Colorado. The Rio Grande flows southeast from the Rocky Mountains, and the Colorado flows generally southwest from these peaks. The Colorado River Basin is expected to experience significant water shortages in the coming decades; we have chosen it as the focus of our work.
As David Owen (2017) notes, “Water challenges in the United States are less dire than those in places like India, Syria, and Brazil, but they are similar in kind. They also involve much more than water, since they’re inextricable from equally thorny challenges concerning energy, economics, governance, democracy, and climate.” Owen also commented that in some ways water problems are straightforward: without water, we die. We must find solutions, but each “solution” has its own set of problems.


The Colorado River drains approximately one-quarter of a million square miles in a region that contains some of the most rapidly growing U.S. urban populations, a total of about 40 million persons. The State of California ends up being the largest single user of water from the Colorado River even though that river does not naturally flow through California. Unfortunately, this region has been in a drought since about 2000.
The 1400-mile-long Colorado River has been called “the American Nile.” The river is so heavily used that it just peters out.
Native Americans occupied this Southwest region for a thousand years, coping with the variation in weather conditions, husbanding the relatively rare water supplies. Their encampments were usually concentrated along streams and rivers. From 800-1130 A.D., the weather was wetter than usual, but this was followed by an extended drought that in a score of years dramatically reduced the size of the settlements. The year 1100 was pivotal; in the prior century, flooding destroyed much of the canal systems: in the following century, a prolonged drought changed conditions radically toward desertification. (Gallagher, 2017)
 Special “dry land” farming techniques were used by those not near water sources, as the general area was arid. A dry period in the mid-13th century led to internecine warfare among the Southwestern tribes over access to water. Around this time, the populations in the Four Corners area (UT, CO, AZ, NM) dispersed. (Gallagher, 2017)
The Hohokam people lived in the Colorado Basin for nearly 1500 years and developed water distribution canal systems unrivaled until the early 20th century.
Although the Colorado River is certainly a large river, when compared to the Mississippi, it can seem rather small. Still, it is crucial to the wellbeing of the American Southwest, draining about ¼ million square miles. The Mississippi is 1000 miles longer, and the annual Colorado River flow is equal to about two weeks of the Mississippi’s, but the river and its tributaries flow through seven states in the West: Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California, and then on into Mexico. 36,000,000 people benefit from its water supply. That includes irrigating farmland and powering two giant hydroelectric plants, Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam, and several smaller ones. It supplies Lake Mead and Lake Powell and some smaller lakes, as well. (Owen, 2017)
All the states along the path of the Colorado River claim some of its flow, to the point where more flow is claimed than the river provides, an imbalance made more awkward by a recent drought in the West, a drought that began shortly before the year 2000, leaving the river seriously “over-allocated.” (Owen, 2017)
Some scientists believe that global warming, if it occurs, will reduce the flow in the Colorado River. Historically there have been periods where the flow has been unusually low. The river has been managed since 1922 under the Colorado Compact agreement among the seven states involved. One feature of the Colorado Compact constrains the Upper Basin by forbidding it to reduce the flow below a 7.5 million acre-feet average for any 10 consecutive years, without distinguishing whether this was due to overuse or reduced rainfall and snow pack melt. [An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover one acre to a depth of one foot, approximately 326,000 gallons or 1230 cubic meters.]
Historically, the allowed allocations of water use have so far not been reduced. Owen writes, “The prior-appropriation doctrine and the Colorado River Compact are central elements of what’s known throughout the Colorado’s watershed as the Law of the River…,” a mix of written and unwritten rules, known almost exclusively to river oldtimers. (Owen, 2017)


The Colorado River is fed by a host of tributary rivers, and their management has given rise to a host of legal and practical controversies.
The Blue River flows into Lake Dillon, which is dammed, and which supplies about 40% of Denver’s water, being 3200 acres in area and about 250,000 acre-feet in capacity. A tunnel carries water under the ridge of the Continental Divide, running 23 miles, being ten feet in diameter. It feeds the South Platte River, which carries the water farther to the east. (Owen, 2017)


Conditions in the West range from mountains that receive heavy snow to deserts that receive almost no moisture. Snow melt in May and June and a brief “monsoonal” period later in the year provide almost all the water for much of this area. The very little precipitation occurs during the growing season.
As civilization developed, humans were first dependent upon water, then were able to manipulate water, and finally, they were able to control water. In the American Great Plains, Native Americans developed a lifestyle that essentially involved following the migration of the bison, the major food source, and the bison themselves were following the availability of plant material on which to graze. The lifestyle of the Plains Indians was totally dependent on water.
Historian Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail describes the development of communities that grow until coming close to the carrying capacity of the land they inhabit, and then are faced with sometimes devastating consequences from relatively minor environmental changes.
Overcoming this environmental variability required controlling the water resources of the region. For example, the Mormons became highly successful in developing irrigation. Massive irrigation projects were too expensive for local communities, and soon the Federal government was called upon. A milestone in this regard was the 1902 Newlands Reclamation Act which supported widespread dam-building to provide water storage and hydroelectric power. These projects transformed areas that had been deserts. Water converted Southern California’s desert Valley of the Dead into the Imperial Valley, providing 70% of the nation’s winter vegetables. The Colorado River itself changed course, too, due to increased flow.


Mark Twain commented that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. One researcher noted, “…mounting litigation over increasing water rates, mandatory rationing and reducing amounts of water delivered to senior water rights holders--- just scratch the surface of what is in our future.” (Gallagher, 2017)
A senior scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratories warned that there could be a situation in which 22,000,000 people are told they only have 12 to 18 months of water. This is what could face southern Californians. (Gallagher, 2017)
Water levels in 2015 dropped below the 50% marks in both Lake Mead and Lake Powell, major reservoirs along the Colorado River. The Santa Cruz River in Tucson, Arizona, runs dry during parts of the year now. It’s claimed that this is due to increased pumping of groundwater that provides water for various purposes, an eightfold increase in usage over a 60-year period. (Gallagher, 2017)
An Associated Press article published by the Denver Post online on September 3, 2018, cited the Colorado River Research Group statement that transfers from already-low Lake Powell to Lake Mead have dropped Lake Powell to “dangerous levels,” the result of a two-decade drought. Lake Powell serves primarily the Upper Basin and Lake Mead serves the Lower Basin. “The scientists suggested it could be time to reform the management system.” [https://www.denverpost. com/2018/09/03/lake-mead-lake-powell-drought-colorado-river/]
Los Angeles Times reporter Bettina Boxall [http://www.latimes.com/ local/lanow/la-me-colorado-cuts-20181010-story.html] outlined an agreement being worked out with Arizona and Nevada on sharing water from the Colorado River during periods of drought. California would reduce its diversion from the river 4.5% to 8% as the shortage continued, with Arizona and Nevada losing water earlier, as these two states have later appropriation histories. So far, with occasional breaks, there has been a shortfall from 2000 on. The whole Basin is at 47% of capacity, the Upper Basin’s Lake Powell is at 45%, and the Lower Basin’s Lake Mead is at 38%; some experts expect drought restrictions to be announced by 2020.
Because of arrangements made in prior years, including the purchase of water rights and the banking of unused water allocations, the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California has some built-in cushioning of the effects of drought conditions region-wide. Experts believe the Lower Basin problems will only worsen, because the usage is outpacing the supply.

Drought in the Colorado River Basin

An exceptional Internet site has been prepared by the Department of the Interior, “Drought in the Colorado River Basin,” posted at these locations:
https://www.doi.gov/water/owdi.cr.drought/en/ http://doi.gov/water/owdi.cr.drought/en/index.html#coRiverLifeLine
including a wealth of text, illustrations, and active links on the topic. What follows has been taken from that source (DOI, 2018), accessed in August 2018:
The Basin provides about 10% of Americans with their municipal water, irrigates over 5 million acres and supplies over 4000 megawatts of electrical power. The river is over 1400 miles long and drains “roughly one-twelfth of the land area of the contiguous United States.”
Most of the water supply comes from precipitation and melting in the Upper Basin. The period 2000-2016 was the lowest sixteen-year period in a century and one of the driest sixteenyear periods in the past 1200 years, as determined by examining tree ring patterns. The most extreme drought in this area, historically, occurred in the mid-1100s.

The water storage capacity of the Basin, primarily at Lake Mead and Lake Powell is 60 million acre-feet (maf) of water, about four times the historical average annual water supply (“inflow”) to the region.

Colorado River Named Nation’s Most Endangered Waterway

A report by Shoshona Davis for CBS News (April 22, 2013) noted, “American Rivers, an organization dedicated to protecting U.S. waterways, released their annual list of endangered rivers. Their list named the Colorado River as the most endangered river in the nation due to outdated water management, increased drought and overuse.”
Davis went on to quote a statement issued by Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers, “The Colorado River, the No. 1 Most Endangered River in the nation, is so over-tapped that it dries up to a trickle before reaching the sea. We simply cannot continue with status quo water management. It is time for stakeholders across the Colorado Basin to come together around solutions to ensure reliable water supplies and a healthy river for future generations.”
Davis noted that the river is used by over 36 million people, irrigates about 4 million acres of land, supports 15 percent of the crops grown in the U.S. Her article continued, “Current drought conditions are increasingly putting stress on quantities available for human use, but it is also causing major problems for the flora and fauna of the area. Researchers suggest that the flow of the Colorado River will reduce by 10 to 30 percent by 2050 due to climate change, limiting the amount of water available to all living things in the southwestern United States.”

Study: Colorado River Drying Up Faster Than Previously Thought

[https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2014/07/24/ study-colorado-river-basin-drying-up-faster-than-previouslythought/?utm_term=.eb3b9fbff87e]
Reid Wilson, The Washington Post, 24 July 2014, (Wilson, 2014) summarized the results of a study by Stephanie Castle et al. at the University of California at Irvine: increased water usage meant that in the prior nine years were lost about 65 cubic kilometers of fresh water, “nearly double the volume of the country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead,” based on data from a NASA weather satellite, and it was estimated that about 2/3 of this water came from aquifers, underground sources, rather than surface water. The Bureau of Reclamation regulates surface water; groundwater is not regulated by them but is left to the states to govern as they choose. Lake Mead is at the lowest level since it was created in the 1930s in association with the Hoover Dam. The study concluded that Federal officials “allocated 30% more water from the Colorado River than was actually available.” Flow from groundwater made up the difference, but groundwater supplies are slower to recover than surface water supplies, suggesting water supply problems for the future. (The article is accompanied by a finely detailed map of the Colorado River Basin.)
A July 18, 2015 Los Angeles Times feature article by environmental journalist William Yardley (Yardley, 2015) made the following points:
        The Colorado River is a major source of water for California and Arizona farmers, who supply a major fraction of certain foods during the fall-to-spring period in the U.S.
        “Nearly 40 million people in seven states depend on the river, a population some forecasts say could double in the next 50 years.”
        By 2015, the Basin had suffered 16 years of relative drought, leading to predictions of shortages soon, which could lead to mandatory cutbacks on use, the first in the nearly 100 years since the river has been managed under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
        Because of the laws governing the river, largely influenced by the prior appropriation principle, Arizona would generally be a major loser due to the cutbacks, with some significant exceptions, such as Yuma, whose early heavy use of the water supplies puts it in a favorable position not to have them cut, while Phoenix could be hard hit.
        The seven Basin states must wrestle with whether agriculture or urban living deserves the higher priority. While the farmers have prior use on their side, the urban dwellers have more votes.
        “Las Vegas and other southern Nevada communities draw up to 90% of their water from the Colorado.”
        In general, California would need to cut back less than most of Arizona, due to an agreement reached between the states in 1968.
        Highly agricultural Yuma would lose little of its large allocation of river water.
        “Research shows that a cut of just 4% in certain agricultural areas could increase the water supply by 50% for some cities,” according to Robert Glennon, a professor of law at the University of Arizona.

Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Program

Another threat to the availability of fresh water from the Colorado River is contamination, especially salt.
Protecting the Colorado River from the influx of salt from natural, industrial, and agricultural sources is a major concern, and has been for decades. The Colorado organization responsible for this describes itself as follows:
“The Colorado River Water Conservation District (River District) is a public water policy agency chartered by the Colorado General Assembly in 1937 to be ‘the appropriate agency for the conservation, use and development of the water resources of the Colorado River and its principal tributaries in Colorado.’ We are the principal water policy and planning agency for the Colorado River Basin within the State of Colorado and provide legal, technical, and political representation regarding Colorado River issues for our constituents….
Our district is comprised of 15 West Slope counties in which a majority of the Colorado River Basin in the State of Colorado exists.”

Problems associated with elevated levels of salinity include harm to plants, damage to infrastructure, and taste and odor impairments. With other organizations, approximately a million tons of salt per year are prevented from entering the river, an estimated $100 per ton of salt in damage prevented by these activities.


I will be serializing here weekly the Microsoft Word transcription of the final galley proof .pdf copy ot WATER WARS, and the book itself  is most conveniently found at amazon.com  https://www.amazon.com/Water-Wars-Sharing-Colorado-River-ebook/dp/B07VGNLSMX/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=water+wars+by+carter+and+cooper&qid=1577030877&sr=8-1

or at DWC's amazon.com author's book title list https://www.amazon.com/s?k=douglas+winslow+cooper&i=digital-text&ref=nb_sb_noss

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