Current Events

Water Emergency Staved at Lake Mead

With unusually high rainfall in May and June, the second-highest level of precipitation during that period in the past 108 years, trailing only 1983, Lake Mead water levels were boosted thereby averting a possible water emergency that would have triggered cuts in water allocations next year. Officials had warned as recently as June that there was a 33 percent chance of a “Tier 1” water shortage in 2016, which occurs when the water level in Lake Mead drops below an elevation of 1,075 feet. A Tier 1 declaration would result in a cut of 320,000 acre-feet to Arizona’s share of Colorado River water, about an 11 percent reduction. In August the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) reported that there would not be an emergency declaration. Lake Mead’s elevation was at 1,078.24 feet at the end of August. In addition to dropping the chances of a Tier 1 declaration to zero for 2016, the BOR lowered predictions for 2017 from the 75 percent chance it was looking at this summer to just 18 percent in the latest report. While the findings are good news for all seven states in the Colorado River basin, the drought is definitely not over but this will buy time to find more collaborative solutions.

Colorado Water and Growth Dialogue

Whose job is it to worry if a city, town, or rural area's water supply is sustainable? Some believe it’s a planner’s obligation to consider the long-term security of water supply, while others contend that securing a sustainable water supply too overarching for a single planner and department. Complicating the issue is the fact that not everyone who deals in water supply and land use is on the same page. Land use planning is typically a local governmental concern, while water planning and allocation occur on multiple local, state, and federal levels. The traditional disconnect between planning and land use decisions and current and future water supply realities can preclude a sustainable balance between water supply and growth. To-these-ends, the Colorado Water Institute and the Keystone Policy Center have joined forces for a two-year project to tackle what they call the “dilemma” of water use in Colorado. The project, referred to as the Colorado Water and Growth Dialogue, is an attempt to explore and demonstrate how the integration of water and land use planning should be utilized to reduce water demand from the development and re-development associated with the projected population increases. This approach to planning aims to direct and incentivize smart, water-wise growth in lieu of allowing pure market conditions to guide how Colorado grows. 

Recreation Work at Lake Nighthorse

According to Ed Warner, Area Manager of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (BOR) Western Colorado Area Office, the BOR is working with all the Animas-La Plata Project partners and stakeholders to reach consensus regarding development and management of recreation at Lake Nighthorse. Current recreation work includes: working on a recreation lease and annexation agreement with the City of Durango, developing a cultural resource management plan for the reservoir area in accordance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, preparing National Environmental Policy Act documents, and finalizing construction plans and contracts for the Lake Nighthorse entrance area and aquatic invasive species inspection station to be constructed this fall and winter. The proposed recreation concept plan prepared by the City of Durango, is available on the City’s website at  

At the Margins

Across the Colorado River Basin precipitation has been well above average, and while it has not been enough to make up for a weak winter snowpack, it has been enough to improve things significantly at the margins, at a time when “at the margins” is where the basin’s managers have been eking out a nerve-wracking existence. In particular, a 2016 Lower Basin shortage declaration, which would have mandated reduced water deliveries to Central Arizona, seems a lot less likely.

Endless Growth

The punishing California drought is forcing a reconsideration of whether the aspiration of untrammeled growth that has for so long been this state’s driving engine has run against the limits of nature. “Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live here,” said Kevin Starr, a historian at the University of Southern California who has written extensively about this state.

The Age of Limits

According to United Nations predictions, the world’s food supply will need to double by 2050. In coming decades, farmers, especially in the western US, will need to find a way to meet a growing need for exports with far less water than they have used in the past, said Patrick O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance. “We’ve reached the era of limits, we always thought the West was unlimited,” he said. It’s not just water that may be scarce in the future. “We’re watching people go out of agriculture, we’re watching land go out of production,” he said.

No Water, No Growth by Mary Ann Dickinson, Alliance for Water Efficiency

The following is a condensed version of an article that was published in the Alliance for Water Efficiency’s Water Currents newsletter and is reprinted with permission:

We’re accustomed to waiting in lines for a football game, to buy movie tickets or perhaps to get a seat in the most coveted professor’s class. But what if we had to wait in line to move? What if we had to be granted access to a city where we found a great new job or the family dream home we always wanted? This idea isn’t so far-fetched; in some places, it’s already an unfortunate reality. In the seaside village of Cambria, California, 666 families and individuals are currently waiting for permission to move into their single family homes. Many have been on the wait list for upwards of 20 years. Why have communities resorted to such extreme measures? The answer: insufficient water supplies to hook up to new homes and facilities. Planners and decision-makers are increasingly challenged with the task of accommodating new water customers which in turn places limits on overall economic growth and deters businesses from investing or expanding operations that can create jobs and bring opportunity to cities.

Expert: Overpopulation and City Expansion Result in Colorado River Water Shortages

According to a mid-February Grand Canyon News story, experts say conservation efforts like not watering lawns, taking shorter showers, turning off faucets, and not washing your vehicle are not going to help in a long-term solution for water shortages along the Colorado River Basin. According to John Weisheit, Conservation Director for Living Rivers, the only thing that will stop water from disappearing is to put the brakes on population growth and city expansion. Living Rivers, located in Moab, Utah, is an educational organization dedicated to conservation, preservation and restoration of the Colorado Plateau and is considered by many to be the voice of most non-governmental organizations located in the Colorado Basin areas. For the last 15 years Living Rivers has said the Colorado River Basin area is going to run out of water. According to Weisheit the only solution is to inform the public that the Colorado River water supply is gone in the West and there is no room for further business or residential opportunities. While population control may seem like a drastic measure, even if a solution to slow down the shortages were presented right now, it would take years to get underway and even then may not make a difference. "It's not something that can be fixed in one year--it'll take 30 years," Weisheit said.

Study: Warming Pushes Western US Toward Driest Period in 1,000 Years

During the second half of the 21st century, the U.S. Southwest and Great Plains will face unprecedented, persistent drought worse than anything seen in times ancient or modern, with the drying conditions driven primarily by human-induced global warming. The finding were part of a new study, "Unprecedented 21st-Century Drought Risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains," featured in the inaugural edition of the new online journal Science Advances, produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which also publishes the leading journal Science. The research indicated that the drying would surpass in severity any of the decades-long mega-droughts that occurred much earlier during the past 1,000 years--one of which has been tied by some researchers to the decline of the Anasazi or Ancient Pueblo Peoples in the Colorado Plateau in the late 13th century. Many studies have already predicted that the Southwest could dry due to global warming, but this is the first to say that such drying could exceed the worst conditions of the distant past. "The 21st century projections make the mega-droughts seem like quaint walks through the Garden of Eden," said Jason Smerdon, a co-author and climate scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Report: Colorado River Water Evaporation Increases Due to Climate Change

A new report from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation predicted an 8 percent increase in irrigation demand on the lower half of the Colorado River Basin and a 10 percent increase in evaporation from Lake Mead by 2080. The upper half of the Basin, above Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, is expected to see demand for agricultural water jump by almost 23 percent, while Lake Powell loses 7 percent more water to evaporation than it did during the last half of the 20th century. The estimates are based on a projected temperature increase of about 5 degrees across the region.

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