New Colorado River proposals put environmental needs front and center in deciding river’s future

Environmental groups and water experts say the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation should give nature a say in how it manages the Colorado River for years to come.

In March, seven states, including Colorado, released two competing proposals for how to manage two enormous reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin and make painful decisions about cutting back on water use once current operating rules expire in 2026.

But they’re not the only ones throwing out ideas: Water experts and environmental advocates have submitted two proposals of their own. They want to make sure endangered fish, Grand Canyon ecosystems, and more aren’t left out of the conversation.  

The experts hope their proposals, which highlight changing climate data and environmentally focused reservoir releases, help inform the Bureau of Reclamation’s final report for how the river should be managed after 2026. A draft of that report is expected in December.

“If you don’t care about the environment, then the whole system crashes,” said John Berggren, a regional policy manager with Western Resource Advocates. “That’s not to say the environment takes priority over water supply and other issues, but rather they can be integrated.”

The current operating rules, established in 2007, focus on how water is stored in Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border, released to Lake Mead on the Nevada-Arizona border, and then released to millions of water users in the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

Together, lakes Powell and Mead make up about 92% of storage capacity, about 58.48 million acre-feet, in the Colorado River Basin. Both are about one-third full.

One acre-foot roughly equals the annual water use of two to three households.

High-stakes negotiations stalled early this year with states at loggerheads over how to share water cuts. The four Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — only included cuts to the Lower Basin’s water use, although the states promised to pursue voluntary conservation programs. The three Lower Basin states called on all seven states to make cuts when the amount of available water falls below 38% of the total capacity in seven federal reservoirs.

Several tribal nations submitted their own proposal to advocate for tribal water rights in the federal process.

These proposals have the potential to impact water users across the basin, which provides water to 40 million people, more than 5 million acres of farmland, two states in Mexico, and cities including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Denver.

One perspective all of the proposals have in common: The status quo operations aren’t going to work in the future.

“We need to use less water, and there’s going to be shortages for the Colorado River going forward,” Berggren said. “We wanted ours to focus more on how to integrate environmental considerations regardless of who’s taking shortages.”

Giving nature a seat at the table

Neither proposal from the basin states places a heavy emphasis on incorporating environmental concerns into how lakes Powell and Mead are managed, and there are plenty of environmental hotspots in the basin.

The Grand Canyon sits below Lake Powell, and its ecosystems and landscape can be helped or hurt by the reservoir’s releases. In 2011, water officials released an 11 million-acre-foot surge of water into the canyon — the right amount of water according to the current rules — that was too big and ended up eroding sandbars where people camp and view the national park. That sand is hard to replace since most of the Colorado River’s sediment is trapped in Lake Powell.

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program is trying to boost endangered fish populations in the face of growing numbers of predatory, invasive fish. The Salton Sea in California is shrinking, exposing dry shorelines with toxic dust particles to the wind. The once-vibrant ecosystem in the Colorado River Delta, where the river meets the Gulf of California, is now diminished.

With these areas in mind, one environmental proposal advocates for linking environmental priorities to how the reservoirs operate. It also suggests using updated climate data, in addition to reservoir storage, to determine releases from lakes Mead and Powell.

This proposal was put forward by Western Resource Advocates, Audubon, American Rivers, Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Since 2007 under the current guidelines, when the water in lakes Mead and Powell dropped to pre-decided water levels, officials knew to release a predetermined amount of water.

Another environmental proposal suggests a more flexible approach: On an annual basis, the secretary of the Interior would decide how much water to release from Lake Powell based on the environmental, recreational, water supply and hydropower goals for that year — rather than using a fixed rule for years to come.

This adaptive-management proposal was submitted by well-recognized Colorado River experts Jack Schmidt, former chief of the federal Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center; Eric Kuhn, former Colorado River District general manager and author of “Science be Dammed”; and Kuhn’s co-author John Fleck, a journalist-turned academic at the Utton Transboundary Resources Center at the University of New Mexico School of Law.

“What I have learned in a 40-year career in the Grand Canyon is that scientific understanding evolves, changes and improves,” said Schmidt, currently the director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. “Going forward, we’re making a mistake to define hard and fast rules for what the releases from Lake Powell to Lake Mead would be.”

Big ideas and key questions

Environment and water experts say they are mainly trying to elevate their concerns and the role of nature in the federal process. When it comes to the nitty-gritty, however, each of the proposals raises some key questions for other Colorado water experts.

The joint environmental proposal, which Berggren helped with, identifies several environmental hotspots, like the Grand Canyon, Salton Sea and endangered fish programs, and proposes incorporating them into how lakes Mead and Powell are managed in the future.

For example, the post-2026 operating rules could include minimum flows from Powell into the Grand Canyon of 4.34 million acre-feet per year to ensure that ecosystems, from the lower canyon’s Sonoran Desert to the North Rim’s coniferous forest, stay healthy.

“You incorporate environmental considerations, and suddenly you have a more healthy, flowing Colorado River, which allows the basin states to have a more reliable water supply,” Berggren said.

But incorporating so many different environmental concerns in one document was a big “red flag” for Jennifer Gimbel, a senior water policy scholar at the Colorado Water Center and former deputy commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation.

How officials manage each of these environments is tied to years of work by programs, rulemaking documents, legislation and more. Reservoir releases that aim to help the environment are often wrapped into established rules that govern how each reservoir operates.

“That is one scary document if we’re looking at how to manage everything on the river,” Gimbel said. “I’m not sure how practical they are with trying to move that forward.”

The environmental groups’ joint proposal also suggested that officials look at both total reservoir storage and updated climate data to guide operations at lakes Mead and Powell.

The climate data would come from a federal three-year climate model that factors in temperature, precipitation, snow and more to guide operations at lakes Mead and Powell. The total reservoir storage would be based on the amount of water stored in seven reservoirs, including federal reservoirs in the Upper Basin such as Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs. That’s similar to the Lower Basin states’ proposal.

Blue Mesa Reservoir, photographed from the bridge spanning Colorado Hwy 149, on Sept. 6, 2021, and June 6, 2023. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Considering both factors together would help avoid unreliable forecasting and adjust to changing conditions, according to the proposal. Upper Basin reservoirs would help with calculations but would not be used to move water from one reservoir to another, Berggren emphasized.

But including Upper Basin reservoirs in how lakes Mead and Powell operate is a flashpoint in the Colorado River negotiations.

Officials like Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s top Colorado River negotiator, have been fighting attempts to include these reservoirs in the operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa, Colorado’s largest reservoir, had to release water to boost Lake Powell’s historically low water levels in 2021, and then Flaming Gorge released more in 2022.

“These reservoirs are not intended to protect Lake Mead or provide for additional Lower Basin supply, but are for Upper Basin uses and environmental flows, among other purposes,” Mitchell said in a written statement, adding that her team was still analyzing the proposal. “They are also essential to the success of the recreational and tourist economies in the region.”

The three water experts’ proposal says the post-2026 rules should include instructions on how to reduce water use when available water is unusually low. But the rules should not include prescriptive annual releases from Lake Powell.

“Because the science on which those rules were developed is going to change in the next 20 years, and then you’re going to have to renegotiate the whole damn thing again,” Schmidt said.

Instead, the annual releases from Powell can fluctuate, as long as they comply with water law. For example, instead of releasing too much water from Powell because the rules say so — and harming the Grand Canyon’s landscape in the process — the Secretary of the Interior could have more flexibility to decide how much water to release.

Deciding releases annually, instead of setting up fixed rules, has caused other water officials to balk, according to Schmidt.

“I have already had behind-the-scenes, off-the-record conversations with some state people, and they basically said, ‘you’re out of your mind. We need certainty,’” he said.

But if water managers do not create rules that are flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions in the river basin, they will continue to run into problems, Schmidt said.

“How do you incorporate flexibility in a water supply negotiation that seeks certainty?” he said. “That is the fundamental problem.”

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