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Schaller: We're still in the dark as western water framework unravels

Fields began going fallow in January when many Central Arizona farms saw the last of their Central Arizona Project water. Lake Mead had reached its first consequential trigger point at the end of 2021, dropping below 1,075 feet and triggering a Tier 1 shortage. Meanwhile, our second poor runoff year in a row this spring is not expected to stabilize Lake Powell’s already record-low elevation. When Lake Powell runs low on water, Lake Mead is not far behind.

Lake Powell’s level is low enough to risk the loss of power generating capacity at Glen Canyon Dam and triggering of all manner of grid stability issues and economic losses across the region. Suddenly, our water problem also poses a regional energy threat.

With responsibility for the operational integrity of the overall Colorado River system infrastructure, the U.S. Interior Department has recently notified all states dependent on the Colorado River of its plans to retain almost a half-million acre-feet of water in Lake Powell beginning as early as May. It must do this to mitigate the near-critical operational issues facing dam operators should the lake’s level drop much further. Arizona and the other lower and upper basin states have until April 22 to provide comment.

The half-million acre-foot boost for Lake Powell translates quickly downstream into an unexpected half-million acre-foot deficit for Lake Mead. Mead is now less than eight vertical feet from the level that triggers a Tier 2 cutback, meaning less water for Arizona next year. It is dropping over a foot a week as irrigation demand reaches a maximum at spring planting time in California and Arizona. In August, we’ll learn if a Tier 2 shortage is to be declared at Lake Mead for 2023. Currently, it looks like a good bet.

As Arizona’s Colorado River crisis becomes more intractable by the month, I wonder what it will take for some honest information on the extent of water shortage we’re facing. There has been little in the way of notice from the State Water Resources Department, the CAP leadership, or Tucson Water for that matter on what we can expect as this crisis worsens by the day.

With Interior’s ‘borrow from Mead to pay Powell’ scenario unfolding in the coming weeks, it is hard to see Arizona do anything but lose access to even more water from the Colorado. Yet we hear nothing from our water managers or elected officials. It would be nice to have a community conversation before the next tier of rationing hits.

And we need keep in mind that Interior’s latest move was no request. At best it was a notice of intent, at worst it is a signal that we will soon have a new game in western water, one no longer tethered to the hundred years of laws, rules, guidance, court decisions, treaties, deals, and side deals known collectively as the Law of the River. The framework itself originated in the Colorado River Compact of 1922. It has taken a brief 100 years for it to unravel. It didn’t have to be this way.

Perhaps a story from the archives tells it best.

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A meeting of the minds

I often think back to a warning we had that might have led to different outcomes. It was a moment where science was intersecting with policymaking and where some bold decisions could have generated actions to avoid the upheaval we now face.

In July 2008, I sat in on a conference called “Meeting of the Minds” held in Portland, Ore. There, futurists, planners, civic leaders and captains of industry such as Toyota, General Electric and IBM gathered for a quick day and a half meeting. The goal was to share perspectives on the future of transportation and mobility in the Pacific Northwest in light of population growth, climate change, ecosystem preservation and shifting energy sources.

The conference keynote was to be given by Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist Dr. Tim Barnett. Five months earlier, Barnett and Scripps’ colleague David Pierce had stunned the western water world with a peer-reviewed study forecasting a 50% chance of Lake Mead being “dry” by 2021. This grabbed headlines from Las Vegas to London. Even in Tucson. In other words, Big News!

This is what I remember as a great opportunity missed. Looking back, 13 years seems like plenty of warning. Yet here we are entering uncharted territory.

As a then newly hired sustainability manager for the city of Tucson, I went off to Portland, eager to learn what the forward thinking folks from progressive companies and governments could add to my growing awareness of sustainability challenges in the western United States. And of course there was the draw of hearing from Tim Barnett on a topic dear to our interests in Arizona. Surely our local water utility managers knew about this but I had a chance to hear it straight from the source and so off to Portland I went.

Conference speakers the first morning included the governor of Oregon, vice-presidents of Toyota and Bonneville Power, director of alternate energy from BP, and other public and private heavyweights. They were interesting enough but they also helped set the stage for the main attraction, Dr. Barnett.

When the time came for Tim Barnett’s post-lunch address, dessert service was underway. Barnett strikes an imposing figure and, in a room full of two- and three-piece suits, his casual attire stood out. I’m remembering he wore suspenders and maybe even a long-sleeved flannel shirt. Few took notice as he moved slowly to the front of the room for his introduction. Clearly, Tim Barnett was not dressing to impress that day. What he had to say was another matter.

This was a transportation conference, attendees told themselves as they continued checking email and finishing their cheesecake. Barnett’s academic home at Scripps seemed to put him quite out of place at a conference about hybrid cars, electric vehicles, and highway planning. Even if some were aware of Barnett’s calm-shattering forecast for Lake Mead, attendees might be excused for feeling a little disinterested in water issues a thousand miles away from Portland. If so, they were never more wrong.

OK, so what happened that day?

One million, two million, three million

Barnett began with some slides of Lake Mead and the Colorado River including graphs and charts of measures such as rainfall, river flows, reservoir capacities and other hydrological indicators. He described the science and modeling behind his work with David Pierce and then stated that under a business as usual scenario of withdrawals and projected runoff into the Colorado River there was a 50% chance of Lake Mead being dry by 2021.

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“Dry” was figurative speech. It was how water managers spoke of that moment when reservoir water levels fall too low to allow any further releases downstream. Think of it as a “wet” dry. The reservoir might as well be literally dry at that point as its precious content could only sit and evaporate. Power generation at Hoover Dam would also halt. Not good.

Distracted attendees suddenly started listening hard to Barnett’s words. The suits put down their Blackberries; the clattering of dessert plates halted. Perhaps sensing the attention, Barnett paused for a moment before moving on to what his provocative study portended for the cities of the Southwest. To drive home the point, he named them: Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas. He could have added Tucson, San Diego and others. Collectively, their dependence on water from the Colorado River system of reservoirs and canals now supports as many as 40 million people.

Barnett digressed some to say that when he was invited to give the event’s keynote he wondered why the sponsors had asked him to speak to a gathering of “Who’s Who” in the Pacific northwest transportation planning world. After listening to a half-day of conference speakers discuss their 20-year transportation plans, new highway interchanges, and road widening Barnett said he now understood.

He understood because he and Pierce had projected significant depopulation from the southwestern cities dependent on Colorado River water. He used numbers like one million, two million, even three million, saying that many people may literally pack up and leave the Southwest as the Colorado River and Lake Mead lose the ability to meet their needs.

Barnett finished by encouraging regional planners in the Northwest to take into account the in-migration that would occur in little more than a decade as the Southwestern states go into severe water shortage. It would certainly give pause to everyone’s 20-year transportation plans. The silence in the room was palpable. As Barnett left the stage, everyone finally knew why “Meeting of the Minds” had invited him to speak.

Dicey game being played

Thirteen short years have come and gone since Barnett warned us. He was off by one or two wet years from calling it as it has since played out. Now April 2022, we are staring directly into the face of that exigency.

Since his epic research first made headlines, Barnett has retired. A year after his Portland talk and already in his early seventies, he told Voice of San Diego, an independent news outlet in Southern California, that scientific research was a young man’s quest. “I think I’ve made the point,” he told then-VOSD web editor Dagny Salas. “We’ve called out a serious problem. The probability that it will happen is very high. The solution is outside academia.”

One didn’t need to be in the room that day in Portland to have heard about Barnett’s and Pierce’s study. Every state and municipal water manager across the Southwest had to have seen the initial headlines in February of 2008. They are paid and expected to know this stuff.

The upcoming intervention by the Department of Interior to save the power generating assets at Glen Canyon Dam will starve Lake Mead by a not-insignificant half-million acre-feet of water between now and October 1, 2022. It will also disrupt other values along the Colorado River corridor such as habitat and species protection and recreation.

Its a dicey game being played as protecting Glen Canyon’s hydropower assets will keep Lake Mead’s elevation in free fall. This risks the near-dead pool situation that Barnett warned us was looming. Unless Powell’s level rises in a late-spring miracle, there will be little excess to spare for Lake Mead over the following nine months.

The folks at Interior aren’t waiting to see if the actual spring snowmelt into Lake Powell is adequate. They are about to approve the Upper Colorado River Commission’s plan to drain a half-million acre-feet from Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge reservoir to help prop up Powell. That Interior is acting ahead of the onset of runoff season speaks to how tenuous they find the situation. As May approaches, the rivers feeding Lake Powell are currently flowing at 44% of average. Best to reinforce Powell with water actually on hand at Flaming Gorge than to wait for snowmelt that, like last year, may never really arrive.

Believing Cassandra

One of this generation’s academics taking over Tim Barnett’s role as a Cassandra of the Southwest water crisis is Dr. Jack Schmidt, director of Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. Schmidt and his research teams have issued no fewer than seven “white papers” on the future of the Colorado River. They are not sanguine over our prospects.

Schmidt told the Miami Herald earlier this month that: “We’re in crisis management, and health and human safety issues, including production of hydropower, are taking precedence.” Like Tim Barnett over a decade ago, Schmidt tutors us with an equally disturbing look into the future: “Concepts like, ‘Are we going to get our water back?’ just may not even be relevant anymore,” he told the Herald.

Jack Schmidt and his team in Logan, Utah, are water leaders, working hard on this regional crisis. But its still galling to have to rely on information from long-ago conferences and East Coast newspapers to understand the distressing future we face. That we are here in 2022, in the predicament we find ourselves, is testament to how much more our local water managers could have been doing about what we learned in 2008. It perhaps explains a reluctance to give us straight talk now on what we’re facing in the coming months. Instead, there is the sound of silence.

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Ted Wood/The Water Desk

The Central Arizona Project canal north of Tucson near Picacho Peak State Park, 2018.

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