The most important CRWUA meetings ever begin with a Water 101 primer

Incoming Central Arizona Project GM Brenda Burman is kicking off the formal program for the 2022 meetings of the Colorado River Water Users Association with a primer on the rare language of water that come easily to regular attendees, but can be obscure and confusing to newbies to this conference. And with an overflow audience, there are a lot of newbies here.

A fundamental element of Burman’s lecture is terminology. There are familiar terms: “acre-feet” (the basic measurement of apportionments of water when you’re dealing literally with billions of gallons) and “junior priority,” the notorious status of certain Arizona water users who must stand in line for river water until California’s buckets all are full.

The newest term in Colorado River-ese: “aridification,” the phenomenon that has contributed to dramatically drier soils in the Rocky Mountain watershed, which has been soaking up stunning amounts of snowpack runoff, contributing hugely to the dire conditions at Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Also: “You will hear people talking about ‘elevations at Lake Mead.’ We talk about that a lot,” said Burman. This is a relatively simple term. It refers to water levels at the biggest reservoir in the U.S., which are descending to near catastrophic levels (which also is the explanation for why the CRWUA annual meetings have sold out). When elevations at Lake Mead start descending toward the most notorious condition of all – dead pool – it attracts a whole lot of attention.

Brenda Burman, Executive Strategy Advisor, Central Arizona Project.
Brenda Burman, Executive Strategy Advisor, Central Arizona Project.

A part of the Burman presentation regards “intake valves” and “bypass tubes” at Glen Canyon Dam. This may be the most under-reported news story regarding threats to the river system’s infrastructure.

Once water levels at Lake Powell descend below the huge intake valves (which drive the generators at the dam and create electricity) the only way to pass water through the dam and down through the Grand Canyon is through a much smaller set of four “bypass tubes.” Burman observes that the Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Tom Buschatzke, often refers to these bypass tubes as “garden hoses.” He’s not wrong. The four much-smaller tubes literally are incapable of handling a typical year’s water flow out of Glen Canyon Dam, which is 7.5 million acre-feet. Relying on those intake tubes is a genuinely serious threat to the system.

“So what does all this mean?” she asks.

“We want to leave this river in a better place than how we found it. Given all we’ve seen here, that’s not an easy job.”

Note: A copy of Burman’s PowerPoint presentation will be posted on the CRWUA website.