Four months ago, the outlook for the Colorado River was so dire that federal projections showed imminent risks of reservoirs dropping to dangerously low levels.
But after major storms this winter, the river’s depleted reservoirs are set to surge dramatically with runoff from the catchment’s largest snowpack since 1997.
The heavy snow blanketing the Rocky Mountains provides some limited relief as water managers representing seven states and the federal government continue to evaluate options for reducing water use.
Despite the delay, officials are still grappling with how to address chronic river water shortages, exacerbated by 23 years of drought intensified by climate change.
“It’s an amazing iceberg,” said Bill Hasenkamp, director of Colorado River Resources for the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California. “It gives us some space to breathe. It gives us a little room to negotiate.”
The complex politics surrounding the river became particularly contentious in January, when officials from California and six other states made two conflicting proposals to reduce the water.
It now appears that tensions have eased somewhat with the snowy winter. Directors of water agencies across the region have vowed to continue negotiating in an effort to reach consensus from seven countries, and wetter conditions are likely to give them more leeway in the talks.
Abundant snow could also relieve some of the pressure to make deep cuts immediately as the Biden administration considers alternatives to managing reservoir levels over the next three years.
“This snowpack means we don’t need nearly the level of cuts as we thought we might have just four months ago,” Hasenkamp said during a tour of the water infrastructure and farming areas along the river.
The tour begins at the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas, where Lake Mead recently fell to its lowest levels since it was filled.
The reservoir, which was nearly full in 2000, now stands at just 28% of its full capacity. On its rocky shores, a white cast of minerals marks the waterline rising 180 feet above the water’s surface.
Upstream in the Rocky Mountains, the upper Colorado River basin’s snowpack volume is 150% of the average since 1986, making it one of the largest snowpacks since 1980.
Runoff in the spring and summer will boost the level of Lake Powell on the border of Utah and Arizona, and the water will make its way to Lake Mead, which stores supplies for southern California, Arizona, southern Nevada, and northern Mexico.
Hasencamp said the runoff should eventually raise the level of Lake Mead by 20 to 30 feet, which could bring it back toward an “equilibrium level,” though the two main reservoirs are expected to remain well below half full.
“This bump saves us a little bit of time, knowing that, at least for the next two or three years, we won’t have to make significant cuts,” Hasenkamp said. An unusually wet winter, he said, “will give us very little time to develop a long-term solution”.
Hasenkamp said California’s historic snow and rain this winter allowed the region to “fall back on the supply of the Colorado River,” which in turn will help increase water levels in Lake Mead.
He said many of the existing plans to voluntarily reduce Colorado River water use should suffice for now, but plans are still needed to adapt as climate change continues to shrink the average river flow.
“The current use of the Colorado River water is not sustainable,” he said. “We have to deal with the fact that we have to permanently reduce our use of about 25% or more of the Colorado River water. So we’re going to need more innovative ways to expand our water supply.”
Since June, federal officials have urged representatives of the seven countries to agree on plans for a significant water cut. The Federal Home Office and Bureau of Reclamation are examining options to prevent reservoirs from reaching critically low levels, and they soon plan to release a preliminary draft review of the alternatives.
Water agency directors say they will hold more talks to try to reach consensus. In addition to settling on an approach for the next three years, they still need to negotiate new rules to deal with shortages after 2026, when the current rules expire.
California has the largest entitlement to water of any state on the Colorado River, supplying farmland in the Imperial and Coachella valleys and cities from Palm Springs to San Diego.
At Lake Mead, water flows through the inlets of the Hoover Dam and rushes through 30-foot-wide tubes called penstocks. The water spins turbines, generating enough electricity for about 350,000 homes, and continues toward Lake Mojave.
In Lake Havasu, on the border between California and Arizona, the Metropolitan Water District operates the WP Whitsett Pumping Plant, which since 1941 has been taking water and pumping it uphill to begin its journey across the desert in the 242-mile Colorado River Canal.
“We keep Southern California wet,” said Derrick Lee, pump station MWD team manager, explaining that five pump stations raise water more than 1,600 feet along the canal.
He showed a group of reporters the factory’s nine six-foot-wide pipes, which lean up a rocky hill and converge into larger 10-foot pipes.
Hasenkamp said that over the past three years, with other supplies cut off from Northern California during the drought, the intake plant has operated near full capacity, usually running seven or eight pumps.
But this year, the region has sharply reduced pumping from the Colorado River, with only three or four pumps running recently.
The tour continued by plane, flying over farmland around Blyth where MWD has a program that pays farmers who agree to let some of their fields dry. While county managers touted their efforts to reduce reliance on the Colorado River, federal officials held events elsewhere along the river this week to announce new funding for conservation programs and water infrastructure.
Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Boudreau and others from the Biden administration while visiting the Imperial Dam announced $585 million to repair and improve water systems across the West, part of $8.3 billion for water infrastructure projects included in the bipartisan Infrastructure Act.
Biodro said the infrastructure money, along with $4.6 billion from the Inflation Control Act that will be used to address drought, “represent some of the largest drought-resilience investments in American history.”
In Arizona, federal officials announced that the Gila River Indian Community will receive $150 million over the next three years to pay for reducing water use and leaving a portion of their water in Lake Mead. The tribal government will also receive $83 million to expand water reuse through a reclaimed water pipeline project.
These efforts will greatly benefit the region, Biodro said, and the Department of the Interior will announce more funding in the coming months to conserve water and “provide long-term sustainability.”
Since the largest share of the river’s water is used for agriculture, it is expected that a portion of the federal funds will go to paying farmers who have temporarily given up some of their water and left the fields dry.
While the rain and snow this year will help, “we’re definitely not out of the woods,” Beaudro said. “It took us 23 years to reach this deficit, and it will take more than one year of snowfall to get us out.”
Continuing their tour of the Colorado River, Department of Social Development officials visited farmers in the Bardwater area who are participating in a seasonal land fallow program. During the summer, farmers agree not to grow crops such as wheat or cotton in some fields, and receive compensation while continuing to grow profitable vegetable crops in other seasons.
They also met with Quechan tribal leaders on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, who have a voluntary program in which MWD pays farmers not to plant crops on some of their lands from April through July, supporting an effort to boost Lake Mead levels.
The Quechan tribe is one of 30 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin, and Native chiefs have been calling for their inclusion in talks about river management where they were previously largely excluded.
Last month, Geishan Chief Jordan Joaquin was named a member of the Colorado River Council in California by Gov. Gavin Newsom, becoming the first tribal representative to hold the position. Joaquin described it as an important step towards more tribal representation in decision-making.
“How do we solve our water problems? Well, you can solve them by having everyone at the table, and that includes the tribes,” Joaquin said. “The chiefs of the tribes should be there.”
He and other representatives of the tribe said they are optimistic about finding solutions, and that the river is central to their way of life.
“We should definitely have a living river,” said Frank Venegas, the tribe’s water technician. He stood beside a wetland garden where he restored a project to restore thriving plants and birds.
“This is life for the Kuchan people,” said Venegas.
Regarding the unresolved water shortage, he said, “We all have to sit down together and we have to develop an answer together.”
Hasencamp shared similar optimism as the Tour finished at the FE Weymouth water treatment plant in La Verne.
“Three years from this summer, we need to approve and implement this next set of generational agreements, so we have three years to figure out the future of the Colorado River, how to make the river sustainable,” Hasenkamp said. “It’s going to be hard work. We’re going to have to give and take. But I think people are realizing that this is by far the best approach, as opposed to methods that are more likely to lead to litigation.”
MWD delivers water supplied by its member agencies to 19 million people across Southern California. On average, about a quarter of the region’s water supply comes from the Colorado River.
It is important for the district to work together to invest in solutions, such as recycling more wastewater, capturing more rainwater and cleaning polluted groundwater, said Adel Haj Khalil, the district’s general manager. He noted that water agencies in Arizona and Nevada are helping fund initial work on a large water recycling project in Southern California.
He suggested that the Colorado River Basin might someday consider creating a single water authority to control water management across the seven states, much like the Tennessee Valley Authority. He said such a body could help guide the region in making “watershed investments that save the entire river.”
“We have to think holistically as one,” said Hajj Khalil. “We are stronger together, more effective together than if we were fighting.”
He said heavy rain and snow should not diminish the urgency of finding long-term solutions for the Colorado River.
“Nature has given us a lifeline,” Hajajalil said. “Let us not waste it.” “Let’s find out how we can prepare now.”
“This is the new climate,” he said. “And we need to adapt to it.”
2023 Los Angeles Times.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
the quote: Drought-Ravaged Colorado River Gets Relief From Snow, But Water Crisis Prolongs (2023, April 10) Retrieved April 10, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-04-dravaged-colorado- river -relief-long-term.html
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