Respected water blogger sees a (barely) hidden message in federal press release on Colorado River management

 

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Bureau of  Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman

Well-respected water journalist and author John Fleck is serving up some intriguing thoughts on his blog about a recent press release issued by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Author of Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West, Fleck contends the Bureau’s press release was less of a traditional press announcement than an implicit call to action directed at the Colorado River basin states.

John Fleck at Morelos Dam
Journalist and author John Fleck

Fleck argues that Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman used the press statement as an opportunity to kick-start the effort to finalize drought-contingency planning among the seven Colorado River states.It’s hard to argue with Fleck’s point. As quoted in her press release, Commissioner Burman observes that “(w)e need action and we need it now.

“We can’t afford to wait for a crisis before we implement drought contingency plans,” she said.

Fleck noted that the press release also took the unusual step of including messages supportive of drought-contingency planning from representatives of all seven Colorado River basin states. He said his favorite quote was from John Entsminger of Nevada, who observed that “Mother Nature does not care about our politics or our schedules.”

Well spoken, indeed. But the representative from Arizona, we should note, also had interesting points to make:

“The completion of the lower basin states’ Drought Contingency Plan is vitally important to Arizonans,” wrote Tom Buschatzke,  Director of the Arizona Department of  Water Resources.

“The plan reduces the likelihood of Lake Mead declining to critically low levels and incentivizes the use of tools to conserve water in the Lake so that reductions in delivery of Arizona’s Colorado River supplies are avoided or lessened.”

Working out the bugs: Colorado River researchers work to increase bug populations to fatten up fish

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From the perspective of humans, the experiment being conducted now on the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam may not seem like the best use of a scientist’s time.

If all goes well, for example, the experiment should prompt a noticeable increase in the populations of black flies and midges. Hopefully by as much as 26 percent.

Endangered humpback chub in the Grand Canyon rely on aquatic insects as a primary food source. ©Freshwaters Illustrated 

And, if things go really well, the experiment even might prompt the return of bigger bugs that had all but disappeared from the area –creatures like caddisflies and mayflies. The sort of buzzing, circling, flying annoyances that help make a hot day in the out-of-doors memorable. Although not in the best of ways.

From the perspective of fish living in the region, on the other hand, the “Experimental Macroinvertebrate Production Flow” project – aka, the Glen Canyon “Bug Flow” – may mean life itself.

Beginning this month, a team of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey is conducting an experiment intended to increase the production of insect eggs and larvae that provide food sources for fish populations on the river below Glen Canyon Dam.

Between May 1 and August 31, this “flow-based” experiment will adjust the planned releases from the dam that creates Lake Powell in order to maximize the conditions favorable to insect eggs.

The flows consist of steady weekend releases and normal fluctuating releases during weekdays.

Grand Canyon Youth river trip participants collect a sample of aquatic insects along the Colorado River. ©Freshwaters IllustratedEnter 

While the patterns of water releases are changed, the amount of water flowing out of Lake Powell and, ultimately, into Lake Mead, remains unchanged. 

The rhythm of the releases is intended to keep insect eggs, which typically lay just below the water’s surface, from drying out when water levels go down and they become stranded above the water level or on sand bars. Increasing bug populations means increasing the health of the creatures that feed on the bugs, like fish, birds and bats.

This will be the first experiment conducted under the Record of Decision for the Glen Canyon Dam Long Term Experimental and Management Plan Final Environmental Impact Statement.

The plan was approved in April when a Leadership Team made up of representatives of the agencies involved in the operation of the Glen Canyon Dam – including the Arizona Department of Water Resources — recommended pursuing the Bug Flow experiment. The plan went live with the approval of Tim Petty, the Department of Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water & Science.

Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey had noticed a distinct lack of bugs in that region of the Colorado River, including the once-prized fishery around Lee’s Ferry.

They also noted that fish in the area appeared malnourished.

Researcher Ted Kennedy of the U.S. Geological Survey told an Associated Press reporter recently that scientists studying the Grand Canyon’s ecosystems had noticed a distinct lack of stoneflies, caddisflies and mayflies, as well as other bugs, as far back as 2002.

Concurrently, they also found that the condition of fish was poor – that rainbow trout and native humpback chub appeared longer and thinner than normal and that they lacked energy.

That prompted Kennedy and other researchers to begin examining the bug populations. They saw linkage between the condition of the fish and the lack of a stable food source.

ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke Comments on DCP in Recent Bureau of Reclamation Press Release

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“The completion of the lower basin states’ Drought Contingency Plan is vitally important to Arizonans. The plan reduces the likelihood of Lake Mead declining to critically low levels…” –  Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

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C.C. Cragin Reservoir: Fire-threatened reservoir a marvel of water-storing technology

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Sometimes, events come at you fast.

On Thursday, April 26, a senior water-rights analyst for Salt River Project, Sharon Morris, presented a scheduled tutorial on a unique reservoir in the pine country of northern Gila County for an assembly of Arizona Department of Water Resources employees.

 

The projected increase in the number of “very large fire weeks”—weeks in which conditions are favorable to the occurrence of very large fires—by mid-century (2041-2070) compared to the recent past (1971-2000). Projections are based on the possible emissions scenario known RCP 8.5, which assumes continued increases in carbon dioxide emissions. NOAA Climate.gov map, based on data from Barbera et al, 2015.

 

In addition to a great many fascinating details about the reservoir’s history since it was completed in 1965, the analyst offered this sober note of concern:

“It is susceptible to catastrophic forest fire,” she said.

That observation quickly became a premonition.

Scarcely 24 hours later, Arizona media were reporting that the reservoir — the C.C. Cragin Reservoir, a 15,000 acre-foot facility in a densely forested watershed – was near the ignition point of a human-caused wildfire. As of mid-day Thursday, May 3, the “Tinder Fire,” as it became known, had burned through more than 12,000 woodland acres.

The apparent result of careless campers who failed to extinguish an illegal campfire, the Tinder Fire ignited a mere mile and a half northeast of C.C. Cragin. Through mid-week, strong winds were blowing the fire away from the reservoir, but in the path of numerous woodland communities.

This April 29 aerial photo provided by the US Forest Service shows a wildfire burning in north-central Arizona.

(For up-to-date information about the Tinder Fire, as well as other conflagrations around the State, the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management recommends InciWeb, a public website providing information about fire evacuations or road closure notices, fire size and containment numbers, pictures, maps, and other information.)

Though just 21 percent full following a historically dry winter, the reservoir, said Morris to her ADWR audience, typically is considered “very productive” thanks to its position in a moisture-heavy sweet spot atop the Mogollon Rim in Coconino County east of the mountain resort communities of Clints Well and Happy Jack.

This year, however, conditions at Cragin have proved so dry that SRP chose not to run the reservoir at all this summer.

“We can run it,” said Morris. “But we run into operational risks, so we have agreed not to run the reservoir this season.” For a time, the U.S. Forest Service even closed roads leading to the reservoir. While they since have re-opened (pending the outcome of the Tinder Fire), boat ramps on the reservoir have been closed for the season.

SRP acquired C.C. Cragin (formerly Blue Ridge) reservoir from Phelps Dodge Corporation in February 2005 as part of the Gila River Indian Water Rights Settlement approved by the Arizona Water Settlement Act. (Photo Courtesy of Salt River Project)

The town of Payson and nearby communities have invested considerably in recent years on infrastructure necessary to deliver C.C. Cragin water, located 25 miles north of town. By agreement with SRP, Payson has a right to just over 27 percent of the reservoir’s productive capacity, or about 3,000 acre-feet per year.

Originally known as the Blue Ridge Reservoir, the facility was built by Phelps Dodge, which used water from the Black River at its Morenci mining operations in an exchange agreement with SRP for the Blue Ridge Reservoir’s water.

That exchange, which began in 1962, provided for the future transfer of the Blue Ridge Reservoir system to SRP in the event it no longer was needed by the mining company. As the company’s need for water credits decreased, the water exchange eventually ceased in 2002, and Phelps Dodge sold its land holdings in the area to SRP.

The most significant change in the reservoir’s operations began taking shape in 2004 with the passage of the Arizona Water Settlements Act by Congress. In addition to authorizing important tribal water settlements, the Act transferred ownership of the then-Blue Ridge Reservoir to the United States, as part of the Salt River Federal Reclamation Project. As a result, SRP acquired the reservoir in February 2005.

 

C.C. Cragin Facilities and Town of Payson Delivery Infrastructure (Map Courtesy of Salt River Project)

 

The Act allowed for changes in the beneficial uses of the water and specified that the reservoir’s water right was transferred to SRP for use within its service area. Up to 3,500 acre-feet per year would be made available for municipal and domestic uses to communities in northern Gila County. That region includes Payson, which secured its deal for Cragin water in 2008.

Including its 147-foot dam, the Cragin reservoir is a marvel of engineering.

A pumping station that houses seven 450 horsepower pumps, as well as one 150 horsepower submersible priming pump, draws water (at 33 cubic-feet per second) from the reservoir uphill into a 2 million gallon priming reservoir.

From there the water drains from the priming reservoir downhill over the Mogollon Rim to a three-megawatt hydropower plant located next to the East Verde River. That power is transmitted back to the pumping plant, providing power to the pumps while the Cragin water is discharged into the East Verde River, eventually flowing into the Verde River and on into the Valley.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources & CAWCD Announce: They Will Work Collaboratively on the Drought Contingency Plan

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ADWR and CAWCD are committed to bringing DCP to closure in Arizona by addressing a broad range of issues that respect the concerns of all stakeholders across the State.  The discussions between ADWR and CAWCD are only the first step in a process that will expand to include participation by stakeholders.

Facing Down Arizona’s Impending Wildfire Season

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Flames and smoke rise from last year’s fire near Mayer, Ariz. (Jennifer Johnson/AP)

6 questions for Tiffany Davila of the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management

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Tiffany Davila, public information officer for Forestry and Fire Management

Among its many duties focused on the protection and health of Arizona’s forestlands, the Forestry Department provides public outreach through various platforms including social media, billboard marketing campaigns, public service announcements, and community-wide events – all of it focused on informing Arizonans about the condition of their forests and the need to protect this valuable resource.As Arizona warily approaches an early summer fire season marked by record-low watershed runoff and tinder-dry forests, the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management is gearing up for what many fear may be a challenging time ahead.

Much of that work falls to Tiffany Davila, a public information officer for Forestry and Fire Management. Tiffany has long been a familiar face among Arizona media covering wildfires in Arizona, providing up-to-date information on many of the more serious conflagrations that plague the state at this time of year.

Arizona Water News recently caught up with Tiffany to get her sense of what lies ahead for Arizona’s forests.

Arizona Water News: With the human-caused Rattlesnake Fire southwest of Alpine, the state’s wildfire ‘season’ already seems to be underway. Are we seeing an unusually early start this year for forest fires?

Tiffany Davila: Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a ‘season’ anymore. Wildfire activity picks up every month nowadays. This January and February we had fire activity across southern Arizona and we expect it to get even busier across the entire State as we move into the warmer months.

The Rattlesnake Fire, posted to Inciweb approximately April 20, 2018. Photographer unknown;

Last year, the Sawmill Fire started on April 23rd and burned nearly 47,000 acres. This year, the Rattlesnake Fire started even earlier and has already reached 22,000 acres.

Southern Arizona was very active last year. But this year is different. The lack of precipitation over the winter and increasingly warm temperatures means a decrease in fuel moisture. Therefore, the fire outlook predicted is for high wildfire activity across all of Arizona.

AWN: Rangers in the Tonto National Forest reported issuing 300 warnings and citations between April 20 and 22 for violations of Stage II fire restrictions in the forest – violations that include use of wood and charcoal in campfires, smoking outdoors, parking on dry vegetation. Is it tough getting out the message that these are extremely dangerous things to do in the forest at this time of year?

TD: It’s very hard and at times I feel like a broken record repeating the same things: ‘Don’t drag tow chains… put out your campfires completely… create defensible space… don’t burn on windy days…’ I think I even say it in my sleep.

But seriously, if we keep reinforcing and pushing the messaging it will eventually stick with folks. Many times, people become complacent and yes, accidents do happen, but one spark is really all it takes to start a major wildfire and that’s why it’s very important we continue our marketing efforts to push out our prevention messaging year-round.

AWN: On the plus side, cooler weather and lighter winds for several days have appeared to have helped firefighters with the Rattlesnake Fire. On the minus side, forecasters anticipate dry lightning moving into Arizona during the coming weekend. Is it fair to say you have a love-hate relationship with the weather service at this time of the year?

TD: Actually, we have a love-hate relationship with mother nature. Ha! The forecasters are just doing their jobs. We are fortunate that all our forecasters excel at what they do.

The weather service is very good at keeping us briefed on incoming or poor weather conditions during a fire. In a critical fire situation, we can call them for a spot weather report and they will immediately get us the data we need. Spot weather forecasts are very important because they are based off a pinpointed location of a fire and can be customized to that area.

The forecasters help us do our jobs more effectively and safely and we thank them for that.

AWN: Governor Ducey recently announced doubling his request for fire prevention funding this year to $2 million. How does that funding get used?

TD: That funding is specific for the Department of Forestry and Fire Management’s Hazardous Vegetation Removal program. We use that funding to conduct mitigation projects across the state.

We have several ongoing projects, including one in Safford that is targeting the salt cedar along the Gila River Corridor. Salt cedar, or tamarisk, is a highly flammable and invasive plant that can cause a fire to spread fast and burn very hot. Since last fall, DFFM crews have been working to remove the salt cedar and treat it with herbicide to prevent it from growing back.

Another project that was part of our HVR funding was the fuel break project near Mayer. The 270-acre fuel break installation was a multi-year project that essentially created a buffer zone for the town of Mayer. The break was tested after last year’s Goodwin Fire and proved successful in stopping the fire from moving into the town.

HVR funding is essential for our work, and having that additional money, should the Legislature approve, will be critical in allowing us to do more projects in high-risk areas around our state.

AWN: The communications team at Forestry and Fire Management notoriously gets zero rest when a major fire breaks out. Can you tell us what you do to keep Arizonans aware of things during a fire incident?

TD: We just drink a lot of coffee and energy drinks. I think last year, I worked more than 100 hours during the first seven days the Sawmill Fire started. I’m not even sure how that’s possible.

We have multiple ways to get information out to the public, and one of them is using InciWeb, a public website. There, the public can find evacuation or road closure notices, fire size and containment numbers, pictures, maps, and other information they may be looking for or needing.

We also work closely with our county emergency managers, the sheriff departments, the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Red Cross and, of course, our partnering agencies — the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service — to make sure we are getting the public the pertinent information they need in a timely manner.

Often, we conduct public meetings or town halls to ensure we are reaching all the residents impacted by a fire. We also use ‘trap lines,’ which are basically informational booths, that we set up throughout impacted communities, like at a convenience store or post office, where residents can get information on fire size, suppression efforts, and assistance services, like the Red Cross.

And we can’t forget about social media! The Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management uses social media to update the public once a fire breaks out and throughout its duration.

Every fire is different, so each requires a different approach from a public information standpoint. In the end, our goal is to make sure our residents are safe, and they are getting the information they need to keep them briefed and try to make them at ease during tense situations.

AWN:  Your Twitter handle is “asusundevils2000.” Just how big a Sun Devils fan are you?

TD: Let’s just say I bleed maroon and gold. I’m a huge Sun Devil fan! How can I not be? I’m a native Arizonan! I graduated from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and I am a football season ticket holder! My grandparents were season ticket holders for decades and used to take my brother and I to football games and it just became a family tradition. Our whole family supports ASU, not only the football program, but the institution itself! Forks up! Go Devils!

 

Water Resources Director details plans for saving Lake Mead, concerns with CAWCD’s claim to “sovereign immunity”

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Director Buschatzke addresses legislative panel at “Learning Tour” gathering in Yuma

At a highly anticipated public meeting on water issues in Yuma on Friday, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke told legislators and a packed audience that sound management of Arizona’s Colorado River supplies requires forbidding the operator of the Central Arizona Project canal from using “sovereign immunity” as a legal weapon against folks with Colorado River water entitlements.

“The State has concerns that [the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, operator of the CAP canal] will attempt to use the defense of sovereign immunity at the expense of water users in Arizona,” said Buschatzke. CAWCD has maneuvered, unsuccessfully thus far, to just do that.

“Sovereign immunity” is a legal protection that indemnifies some public entities – such as states and the federal government – from many types of lawsuits. CAWCD has acknowledged that gaining sovereign immunity as a so-called “arm of the State” of Arizona is of “fundamental importance” to the canal operator.

The Director reminded lawmakers that the District has attempted to use the defense in the past, notably in a federal case involving a Colorado River water entitlement holder, the Ak Chin Indian Community.

“To prevent CAWCD from claiming sovereign immunity in the future, the Governor’s Office and DWR proposed legislation that would clarify that CAWCD is not entitled to sovereign immunity in any type of lawsuit,” said Buschatzke.

“I would like to see our proposed legislation move forward this session.”

Buschatzke delivered his remarks at a special “Learning Tour” organized by legislative leaders seeking public input on proposals to reform Arizona water laws.

Organized by Sen. Gail Griffin and Rep. Rusty Bowers — chairmen, respectively, of the Senate and House natural resources committees — the tour already has taken public commentary at a meeting on March 9 in Casa Grande.

In addition to his oral testimony expressing opposition to CAWCD’s pursuit of a “sovereign immunity” legal defense against its own customers, Buschatzke also provided the panel with a more expansive written testimony.

That written statement illustrated the State’s priorities in reforming Arizona water law this year.

Those priorities include taking action to protect Lake Mead from falling to critically low elevation. Among those actions: winning legislative authority to finalize a “Drought Contingency Plan” with Arizona’s Lower Basin Colorado River partners.

A central feature of that plan is giving the ADWR Director authority to “forbear” delivery of Colorado River water conserved by an Arizona Contractor in Lake Mead. That means the Director would assure no other contractor could take that water from the troubled reservoir.

Director Buschatzke’s full statement to the legislative Learning Tour panel in Yuma follows:

Testimony of ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke Before the Special Meeting of the Arizona House Committee on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources

Yuma City Hall, March 23, 2018

My name is Tom Buschatzke. I am the Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources or DWR.

I know that most of you are familiar with DWR, but for those who are not, it is the agency designated by the Legislature to represent the State of Arizona with the United States, other states, and Mexico on matters involving the Colorado River. The State Legislature and DWR, working with the Governor, are the appropriate entities to represent the State. DWR is also the agency tasked with protecting the State’s rights to Colorado River water.

I take those responsibilities very seriously.

Colorado River water is vital to our State.  No one knows that better than the people who live and work in Yuma, where approximately 1 million of Arizona’s 2.8 million acre-feet of Colorado River water is used. Colorado River supplies are becoming increasingly at-risk. Continuous, long-term drought coupled with an over-allocation of Colorado River supplies, the structural deficit, has not only brought Lake Mead to the brink of shortage, it has increased the probability of the Lake dropping to critically low elevations that could affect all Colorado River water users in the State.

The volume of water that Arizona receives every year from the Colorado River is tied to Lake Mead elevations. Once the Lake’s elevation falls below 1,075 feet, Arizona deliveries are reduced by 320,000 acre-feet, approximately 11% of Arizona’s total Colorado River allocation. Deeper, more extensive shortages occur at lower “trigger” elevations. Early shortages will hit water users in Central Arizona, and particularly the CAGRD and the Arizona Water Banking Authority, the hardest. At even lower elevations, draconian reductions will be necessary to protect remaining water supplies in the Lake.

“Continuous, long-term drought, coupled with… the structural deficit, has not only brought Lake Mead to the brink of shortage, it has increased the probability of the Lake dropping to critically low elevations that could affect all Colorado River water users in the State.”

Yuma water contractors hold some of the most senior rights on the River. But even senior rights are at risk when Lake Mead elevations plunge. If Lake Mead reaches deadpool at elevation 895 feet, no water can move past the dam. Picture a bathtub with only an overflow drain. It could have water in the tub that you could not get out of the tub. That is what “deadpool” is.

We anticipate that the Secretary of the Interior will act to avoid the Lake reaching deadpool, but we can’t know how. Modelling projects that waiting to act until the Lake reaches elevation 1020 could result in a 3 to 6 million acre-feet reduction in the Lower Basin. All Arizona Contractors should be concerned about the uncertainty that could result from possible Secretarial intervention.

To address this increasing risk, beginning in 2015 DWR, on behalf of Arizona, began meeting with representatives of California and Nevada, which also receive Colorado River water from Lake Mead, and the federal government to devise ways to keep more water in Lake Mead. That group developed a water management framework designed to do just that, called the Drought Contingency Plan or DCP.

The DCP is not yet in effect. There are still aspects of it which need to be resolved, and ultimately, the Legislature must approve it. But the core commitments embodied in the DCP are historically remarkable in many ways. The plan contains a collective commitment on behalf of the Lower Basin states to protect against Lake elevations falling below elevation 1020. It would require California, for the first time, to participate in mandatory shortage reductions. It also contains additional efforts by Nevada to conserve water in Lake Mead, and through its connection to Minute 323 to the Mexico Water Treaty, would require additional water savings from Mexico.

In order to receive these benefits, Arizona must be willing to give something as well. The DCP contemplates that Arizona will begin taking shortages at higher Lake elevations, Specifically, Arizona would be required to leave 192,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead at elevation 1090.

Impacts of that additional reduction will be partially mitigated when Lake Mead is kept above elevation 1075 by keeping CAP agriculture’s water supply whole. Incentives included in the DCP for conservation by Nevada, California, and Mexico are expected to help achieve that goal. But Arizona must also act to conserve water in Lake Mead to achieve that goal. Those actions by Arizona are known as DCP Plus.

In June of 2017, the Governor’s Office convened a group of stakeholders to deliver support for DCP and to find a way to make DCP Plus work. During that process, the Governor’s Office and DWR proposed a program to facilitate conservation efforts by Arizona Colorado River Contractors to target maintaining Lake elevations at or around 1,080 feet. The proposed program would facilitate conservation in several ways, one of which is to ensure that water that is kept or stored in Lake Mead by an Arizona Contractor would not be taken out by another Arizona water user. This last feature is achieved by giving the ADWR Director authority to “forbear” delivery of the water to other water users.

The Governor’s proposal has met with resistance. One the most vocal opponents has been CAWCD.

CAWCD is resisting efforts for all Colorado River water contractors to create conserved water, and in the process has sought to exercise an outsized role in shaping Arizona’s Colorado River water policy.

For example, Arizona Indian tribes have rights to nearly half of all the Colorado River water delivered through the CAP canal. At least one of those tribes, the Gila River Indian Community, is already leaving water in the Lake to help prop up Lake elevations. Tribes are interested in conserving additional water in Lake Mead through the creation of something known as Intentionally Created Surplus. Both the U.S. and the State of Arizona agree that they have the legal right to create ICS. However, to date, CAWCD refuses to recognize that right. We need all hands on deck within the State of Arizona.

“CAWCD is resisting efforts for all Colorado River water contractors to create conserved water, and in the process has sought to exercise an outsized role in shaping Arizona’s Colorado River water policy.”

With respect to DWR and the Governor’s Conservation Program proposal, CAWCD has asserted that it should have veto authority in all decisions about who in Arizona can conserve water and under what conditions.

CAWCD is governed by elected officials from Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal counties, yet they make decisions affecting all of Arizona. Several actions taken by CAWCD over the past few years demonstrate that CAWCD gives little thought to the broader statewide impacts of its actions.

I will give two specific examples, though there are more:

In 2014, the CAWCD entered into an agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and Denver Water for a pilot program to fund the creation of Colorado River system water through voluntary water conservation. Water that was left in Lake Mead pursuant to that agreement has been important in avoiding shortage, and no one seeks to deny or minimize that fact. However, that agreement was negotiated without the involvement of DWR, and contains at least one provision that should cause concern throughout the State of Arizona.

The pilot agreement recognizes conservation through reductions in the “consumptive use” of Colorado River water; however, rather than defining consumptive uses with reference to the “Colorado River mainstream,” as it was defined in U.S. Supreme Court’s Decree in the landmark case of Arizona v. California, the pilot agreement allows for the creation of system water through reductions to consumptive uses of water from the “Colorado River System,” including “water drawn from the Colorado River System by underground pumping.” The term “Colorado River System,” is defined in the pilot agreement to have the same meaning as in the 1922 Interstate Compact among the seven Basin States, which included not only the Colorado River mainstream in its definition, but also all of its tributaries.

We vigorously disagree with this reckless definition of “consumptive use.” It flies in the face of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Arizona v. California and the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928. The literal reading of this language suggests that all wells used by agriculture, industry, mining, cities, towns, and counties connected to water that is tributary to the Colorado River might be pumping Colorado River System water. If that were the case, all of those wells would need a contract with the Secretary of the Interior and those withdrawals would count against Arizona allocation of 2.8 million acre-feet. It appears that CAWCD gave no thought to the potential impacts of this language on water users across the State.

CAWCD’s disregard of the impacts of actions to other water users is also evidenced in its relentless efforts to claim sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Under the Eleventh Amendment, states cannot be sued in federal court with certain exceptions. Political subdivisions of the state, like CAWCD, generally are not entitled to claim this immunity.

CAWCD nevertheless raised the defense in 2012 in an employment case filed in federal district court known as the Gressett case.  CAWCD argued that it should be entitled to sovereign immunity because it is an “arm of the State.” The district court rejected that argument.

CAWCD appealed the ruling and, in an effort to convince the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that it is an arm of the State, it made inaccurate claims about its authority and responsibility in securing and managing Colorado River water.  CAWCD also argued that the State of Arizona would be functionally liable for CAWCD’s debts if CAWCD were unable to meet them.

In fact, CAWCD was established to ensure that the cost of repayment of the State’s share of the construction of the Central Arizona Project would be borne by water users and tax payers in the three counties that benefit from CAP water deliveries, and not by the taxpayers in Arizona’s 12 remaining counties, who rely on other water supplies.

The State has concerns that CAWCD will attempt to use the defense of sovereign immunity at the expense of water users in Arizona. And in fact, CAWCD raised the defense in a case brought by the Ak-Chin Indian Community regarding the Community’s rights to the delivery of Colorado River water. The State of Arizona opposed CAWCD’s attempts to obtain a court ruling that it has sovereign immunity. CAWCD settled that case before the Ninth Circuit ruled on it.

CAWCD testified to the Legislature in early February that sovereign immunity is limited, and that it would not be used in contractual disputes. However, on February 26, 2018, CAWCD requested the court vacate its decision so that it can raise the defense of sovereign immunity in future lawsuits. CAWCD said that sovereign immunity is of “fundamental importance” to it. The State opposed this action as well.

The State is seeking a permanent resolution to this issue. To prevent CAWCD from claiming sovereign immunity in the future, the Governor’s Office and DWR have proposed legislation that would clarify that CAWCD is not entitled to sovereign immunity in any type of lawsuit. But that legislation appears nowhere in any bill. We are committed to protecting Colorado River water users in Yuma, La Paz, and Mohave counties, as well as those water users within CAWCD’s service area.

I would like to see our proposed legislation move forward this session.

 

New “Water Book” outlines Arizona’s path forward on water

The Governor’s Office has released “Securing Arizona’s Water Future,” an illustrated outline of Governor Ducey’s plan for taking action to help secure the State’s water supplies.

The “water book,” as it is known, is available on the Governor’s website.

It escorts readers through Arizona’s storied (and, often, trailblazing) history of water management, including a candid outline of the challenges now facing the State in this era of drought. It also proposes legislative solutions to those issues.

Arizona is a renowned leader in water management thanks to its long history of careful planning and effective governance. But, with the State facing serious challenges to some of its key water supplies, the Governor’s Office asserts that the time to act on water policy is now.

Governor Ducey has prioritized Arizona’s water future as one of the most crucial policy issues facing the State. He highlighted the issue in his 2018 State of the State address:

“Earning Arizona’s reputation as a national leader in water management was no easy feat and it didn’t happen by accident. It was the proactive nature of our predecessors, and our state’s willingness to take-on complex issues.

“This session, we must follow their lead and put forward responsible policies that will ensure Arizona speaks with one-voice to secure the state’s future for generations to come.”

As the water book illustrates, Arizona relies on the Colorado River for 40 percent of its water supply. Unfortunately, the Colorado River system has experienced severe drought conditions for more than 17 years. Lake Mead, a vital reservoir on the Colorado River, is less than 40 percent full.

Lake Mead water levels are important because they determine whether a shortage is declared in the State’s Colorado River allocation, which would result in decreased delivery levels of water.

Based on data from the Bureau of Reclamation, the threat of a shortage declaration by the Bureau at Lake Mead is real.

Building on Arizona’s history of responsible initiatives, the Governor’s Office has proposed a plan that focuses on strategic conservation.

The plan also calls for protecting consumers through responsible groundwater management and by speaking with one voice on water-management issues, particularly regarding the Colorado River.

Governor Ducey’s plan would better enable voluntary conservation of Colorado River water by providing the State with forbearance authority relating to specified circumstances. This would contribute to higher Lake Mead elevations, reducing the likelihood of a shortage and providing increased protection from the economic consequences of water-delivery reductions.

With an eye toward achieving the management goals of Active Management Areas (the geographic areas created through Arizona’s landmark 1980 Groundwater Management Act), the Governor’s proposal would also establish an advisory committee to monitor the progress of AMAs.

Finally, since decisions about Arizona’s water supply affect the entire state, the Governor’s plan ensures accountability by requiring State authorization before entering into interstate deals involving Colorado River water.

Historically dry winter means Lake Mead may be closer to shortfall than people think

Dry Rockies

LAKE MEAD SHORTFALL AS SOON AS 2019? DON’T WRITE IT OFF

A Q&A WITH THE ADWR DIRECTOR ABOUT POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES OF AN HISTORICALLY LOW SNOWPACK IN THE ROCKIES

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve had some beautiful warm, sunny, dry days of late.

And weeks. And months. The entire Southwest, in fact, has experienced one of the warmest, driest winters on record. For golfing and hiking and living the outdoor lifestyle, that’s great, of course. But, alas, there is an unsettling flip side to all this fair weather.

That dark flip side is the possibility of an unprecedented lack of snowpack runoff in the Colorado River system. Forecasts are calling for a continuation of the dry weather into the fast-approaching spring.

Winter – typically the Southwest’s season for accumulating snowpack in its mountain regions, which provides runoff into reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead – is nearing its end, regardless what groundhogs in Pennsylvania claim.

Arizona Water News recently sat down with Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, to discuss the consequences of what may be a record-low amount of runoff into the Colorado River system from the 2017-2018 Winter snowpack.

A transcript of that conversation follows:

Arizona Water News: Director Buschatzke, there is a concern that the lack of snowpack in the western Rockies – particularly in the southern sectors of the Rockies – may result in an unregulated runoff into Lake Powell this spring that may be at a record low. How real is that possibility?

Tom Buschatzke: Based on the current snow-water equivalent graphs, regarding that snow-water equivalent in the upper basin of the Colorado River where most of that water is generated is a very real possibility that the snow-water equivalent is tracking lower than 2002, which was the lowest year in recorded history for 100 years of records.

We do know that the runoff is not linear to what the snow-water equivalent is showing, but it is pretty alarming that we are tracking at this point 2002, or actually a little bit below 2002.

AWN: The Bureau of Reclamation has declared that there is almost no chance of a shortfall in water delivered from Lake Mead next year. But is there a chance that those predictions may change as a result of these extremely dry conditions in the Rockies?

TB: Yes, there is certainly a chance that that that prediction, that forecast, may change.

That forecast is based on a release from Lake Powell to Lake Mead of 9 million acre-feet. Normal release is 8.23 million acre-feet. If the unregulated inflow gets to a certain low level, that 9 million acre-feet release won’t occur. You will get 8.23 million acre-feet.

That loss of volume of water (represents) close to 10 feet of elevation in Lake Mead. The Bureau of Reclamation’s current projection — with that 9 million acre-foot release — is about five feet above the shortage trigger, which means that if we get 8.23 (million acre-feet), we could be five feet below the shortage trigger.

If we can’t conserve enough water in Lake Mead to make up the difference, that will be a high bar to achieve between mid-April and the end of July, which would be the time period in which we’d have to do that conservation.

AWN: We’re not the only ones experiencing an abnormally dry winter. California’s snowpack in the Sierra Nevada also is very low right now too. How might that impact California’s stored water in Lake Mead?

TB: If the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada continues to be also very low and the allocations of the State Water Project remain very low, that means southern California is going to get much less water from northern California than it normally does. It also means that they will be looking to make up the difference somehow, and they will be looking probably at the Colorado River to make up that difference.

Potentially, some of that water stored by California – by the Metropolitan Water District (of Southern California), particularly – that is stored in Lake Mead might start coming out of Lake Mead.

There is about 500,000 acre-feet of that water stored. That is over six feet of water under the regulations that control water going in and water going out of Lake Mead. California can take 400,000 acre-feet – or five feet of water (off the top of Lake Mead) – in this calendar year. So, that is a potential that plays into the possibility that the prediction made by Reclamation so far might also change.

 

AWN: How does the unusually dry winter affect the discussion among the Colorado River states regarding a Drought Contingency Plan? Many Colorado River stakeholders felt that last winter’s higher-than-average snowpack created a so-called “comfort zone” regarding finalizing a DCP. Can they remain comfortable about water in the Colorado now?

TB: So, I think between the states — the state folks who worked on that Drought Contingency Plan – we are in agreement that we need to finalize that Plan.

Some of the individual stakeholders, water-users, etc. that may have believed that there is a “comfort zone,” that we have bought time to further work on the Drought Contingency Plan, I think, need to really address what is happening with the hydrology and the increasing risks of not just the short-term impacts on Lake Mead, but potentially going into a shortage in 2019.

(They need to address the fact that) this bad hydrology also has implications for the future and for the lake falling to those critical elevations that the Drought Contingency Plan was intended to protect.

So, they should not be comfortable about water in the Colorado River. We need to continue to work to finalize the Drought Contingency Plan. And we need to make sure that in Arizona we have the tools in place to make that happen.

AWN: Thank you.

Attack of the Blob: How an enormous, persistent arctic low-pressure system is helping dry out the American Southwest

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It’s… the blob. It came from above. And it’s got the world in its grip.

And… it’s not going anywhere any time soon.

If that sounds like a trailer line for a low-budget sci-fi movie… well, it could be.

But it also fairly describes the powerful “Strong Hudson Bay Low” – an Arctic-spawned low-pressure systemthat locked in place over much of the Northern Hemisphere in mid-November. The strong, static “blocking” system is showing no sign of releasing its grip any time in the foreseeable future.

“WITH SNOW CONDITIONS IN THE UPPER COLORADO RIVER BASIN TRACKING AT JUST 31 PERCENT OF THE TOTAL AVERAGE SEASONAL ACCUMULATION AS OF MID-JANUARY, THE 2018 SEASON IS LOOKING DRYER THAN THE RECORD-DRY 2002 SEASON.”

And neither is one of the stronger regional effects of the huge low-pressure system:

An equally persistent, equally strong high-pressure ridge has locked into place beneath the blob. It sits in an equally unyielding “blocking” pattern over the eastern Pacific and the southwestern U.S., which is driving the west-east jet stream and its storms well to the north of the parched American Southwest.

That strong high-pressure system is proving to be a virtual mirror image of the Strong Hudson Bay Low, driving temperatures dramatically up and sapping the atmosphere of moisture.

“How strong and permanent it becomes depends on establishment of other high- and low-pressure systems as well as the amplitude of the jet stream around the globe,” explained Greg Smith, a senior hydrologist at the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, a division of the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Coming at the time of year when the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains typically build snowpack that, come spring, provides run-off into the Colorado River system, the moisture-robbing effects of this static high-pressure system may prove to be record-setting.

So too might the effects of the Artic blob.

On January 2 in the U.S., at least one location in all 50 states recorded temperatures below freezing. Yes, even in Hawaii.

Water fountains in Florida froze over. Off-shore, sharks swimming near Cape Cod froze to death. And all that occurred before the infamous “bomb cyclone” drove temperatures deeply negative on the entire East Coast for nearly a week.

On the opposite side of the globe, meanwhile, it’s the same deal. The Arctic blob has much of the eastern side of the Northern Hemisphere frozen and snow-bound, too.

In Yakutia, Siberia – 3,300 miles east of Moscow – residents reported their eyelashes freezing as temperatures dropped to an astonishing 88 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. In southwestern Scotland — typically cold and wet in the winter — blizzard conditions shut down highways. And shipping on the normally blue Danube – for now, icy gray – was halted because of ice.

All weather patterns being inter-related with all other weather patterns, the powerful high-pressure ridge sitting over much of the southwestern U.S. built up around the same time as the Strong Hudson Bay Low gathered its global steam – in mid-November.

And like its Hudson Bay “polar” opposite, there it has remained. And remained. Strong. Resolute. And dry.

While neither strong low-pressure systems that sweep down from the Arctic nor high-pressure ridges laying out over the western U.S. are unusual at this time of year, these systems are unique in one important respect: their persistence. They won’t quit.

The high-pressure ridge has proved so persistent – and the conditions it creates so dry – that hydrologists at the Forecast Center now are comparing this season’s snowpack in the Rockies (as well as in the Arizona mountains) to that of the infamously dry winter of 1976-1977, which produced one of the lowest inflows into Lake Powell on the Colorado River system on record.

How low did that inflow go?

The fall-winter “water year” season that ended in 1977 produced an unregulated Colorado River inflow into Lake Powell of roughly 5.8 million acre-feet. That is almost three million acre-feet less than the average river flow into Powell since 2000, a period when much of the Southwest, including Arizona, has been locked in chronic drought.

Measured against the historic average since 1964, the 1977 inflow into Powell was almost five million acre-feet below average. Since 1964, only three seasons have provided less runoff than 1977.

“What drew us to the comparison (with 1977) initially was the snow situation,” said Smith.

The Forecast Center’s highly advanced “SNOTEL” (for “snow telemetry”) network indicated that many of the Colorado River Basin’s snowpack areas, especially in the southern regions, were experiencing the “lowest snow on record,” according to Smith.

To Smith and other hydrologists, the atmospheric patterns prompting the weak snowpack seemed familiar:

“Some of us recall how poor conditions were in 1976-77. Then we noticed these large atmospheric features — strong low in the east and ridge in the west — were similar.”

Added Smith: “These are not uncommon features from year to year. But in both 1976-1977 and this year they were fairly strong, and the jet stream flow in the atmosphere similarly had a high amplitude. These strong low- and high-pressure systems, known as blocking features, or a blocking pattern, can be quite stubborn.”

As it stood in mid-January, the estimate for unregulated inflow into Lake Powell from the western slopes of the Rockies indicated the lake would receive 6.75 million acre-feet of runoff, or 62 percent of the historic, 30-year average. Not good, obviously. But not historically bad.

That estimate may be changing, however. And not for the better.

The lowest Colorado River inflow into Powell ever recorded was about 2.3 million acre-feet in 2002.

With snow conditions in the Upper Colorado River basin tracking at just 31 percent of the total average seasonal accumulation as of mid-January, the 2018 Water Year season – at this point in time — is looking dryer than the record-dry 2002 season.

A “snapshot” chart recently released by the federal Bureau of Reclamation compares the current water-year snow conditions with Water Year 2002. As of January 17, which is 57 percent through the snow-accumulation season, snow conditions were tracking well below conditions in 2001-2002.

Caveats apply, certainly.

Weather changes. The “blocking” low- and high-pressure systems could weaken and dissipate. And we are still relatively early in the snow-accumulation season. The very dry mid-January snapshot of conditions could look very different by mid-February.

As Smith notes, the 1976-1977 pattern finally broke down in March 1977, ushering in a much wetter late-winter period, especially in the northern Colorado and Great Basins.

As our days of unnervingly pleasant sunshine and annoyingly dry, easy breezes drone on – and on – the prospects for matching (or, gulp, “besting”) the Great Colorado River Dribble of 2002 increase.

But, again, as the forecasters well know, weather changes. Even the extraordinarily dry winter of 1977 ended pretty wet.