Feds want to study Glen Canyon dam modifications, as state deadline for Colorado River water cuts expires

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During a Senate committee hearing on June 14, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton sat down before federal lawmakers and issued a grave ultimatum over the Colorado River.

Without significant reductions in water use, she warned, Lake Powell and Lake Mead – the two largest reservoirs in the country – could fall so low that hydroelectric generation could cease in the near future. At this point, the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the two reservoirs, would struggle to provide water to the majority of the 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River.

Touton called on the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to plan for the largest water use reductions ever, between 2 and 4 million acre-feet, or about 15 to 30 percent of total water use. the water in the basin. And Touton gave states 62 days, until August 15, to come up with a plan while saying his federal agency had the power to make unilateral decisions if necessary.

The deadline passed on Monday, and the states still didn’t have a deal on the tablewith the upper and lower ends of the pelvis looking at each other for more cuts.

In a call with reporters Tuesday, Bureau of Reclamation and Interior Department officials said they would postpone a decision to force between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet of cuts.

Instead, federal water managers will continue plans already laid out in previous drought contingency agreements to reduce water use in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico by about 720,000 acres- feet, well below the millions of acre-feet Touton cited earlier this summer. California, the largest water user in the basin, will not accept any immediate reductions because of its superior water rights.

Utah also escaped on Tuesday without having to make an immediate reduction in its water consumption.

(Water managers typically use acre-feet to measure large volumes of water, or the amount of water needed to fill an acre of land with one foot of water. An average family of four in the Utah uses about an acre-foot per year.)

While officials emphasized that there is a continued need for states, tribal nations and Mexico to work together as partners, they did not downplay the severity of the water crisis in the south- west.

“Sixty-three days ago,” Touton said, “I briefed Congress on Colorado River Science, the risks we see to the system, and the actions needed to stabilize the system. The conditions and risks have not changed.

Touton said the seven Colorado River states — which include Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming in the upper basin, and Nevada, Arizona and California in the lower basin — have yet to taken enough action to reverse the decline of Lakes Powell and Mead.

“The system is at a tipping point,” she added, repeating a phrase she used in Congress in June.

Touton did not give a specific deadline for when deeper cuts would be applied.

“Today we begin the process,” she said. “More information will follow regarding the steps we will take in this process.”

Will the Glen Canyon Dam be modified?

Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior, said all states and all sectors will need to reduce their water use, and she pointed to the billions of dollars in drought funding available through federal legislation like the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the recently passed an Inflation Reduction Act to facilitate these conservation measures.

The assistant secretary also said the federal government would study potential modifications to the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams.

“The reclamation will assess whether physical modifications can be made to the Glen Canyon Dam to allow water to be released below the currently identified critical elevations,” Trujillo told reporters.

Earlier this month, a coalition of environmental groups released a report that detailed how the engineering of the Glen Canyon Dam would not allow sufficient water releases through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead if the level of the Lake Powell continued to decline.

At a news conference Tuesday after the federal water manager’s announcement, the Utah Rivers Council, Glen Canyon Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, and Great Basin Water Network reiterated their call to Congress for him to study the feasibility of whether new tunnels could be drilled at the base. of the Glen Canyon Dam to allow the complete drawdown of Lake Powell, if necessary.

Environmental groups said the modifications will likely be necessary to ensure necessary water deliveries from the upper basin to the lower basin via the dam.

Jack Stauss, director of outreach at the Glen Canyon Institute, said building new tunnels at river level would provide an opportunity “to restore one of the most beautiful parts of the nation: a Colorado River flowing freely through Glen Canyon”.

Previously, Trujillo and other officials declined to directly answer reporters’ questions about whether the Bureau of Reclamation was investigating a possible dismantling of the Glen Canyon Dam.

“We are focused on maintaining the integrity of the existing structures and the existing system,” Trujillo said. “And that’s our top priority.”

A provide released by the Bureau of Reclamation on Tuesday says it’s possible power generation at Glen Canyon Dam could shut down by next October if runoff next spring is below average.

A lack of consensus among Colorado River states

While federal officials have called for state partnership and cooperation, some state water officials have expressed frustration with the planning process over the past two months.

Arizona Water Resources Division Director Tom Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke have been released a joint statement On Tuesday, Arizona and Nevada introduced a proposal that would reduce lower basin water use by 2 million acre-feet in 2023 and beyond.

“This proposal has been rejected,” Arizona water officials said. “…It is unacceptable that Arizona continues to bear a disproportionate burden of cuts for the benefit of others who have not contributed.”

John Entsminger, chief executive of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in a letter to federal officials monday that “despite the obvious urgency of the situation, the last sixty-two days have produced absolutely nothing in terms of meaningful collective action to help avert the impending crisis”.

Utah’s Colorado River Commissioner Gene Shawcroft told reporters on Tuesday that the upper basin has come up with a five-point strategy. to plan to study ways to reduce water use, but did not see a similar effort from the Lower Basin. Critics of the Upper Colorado River Commission called the plan insufficient last month.

“Utah is fighting hard to make sure we get to use the water we have for the state of Utah,” Shawcroft said. “We don’t expect to use more than our fair share. We expect everyone to use their fair share, but we certainly expect Utah to be able to use their fair share.

He added that while everyone will have to use less water if the 23-year drought in the Colorado River Basin continues, reductions for Utah aren’t on the table.

“The cuts we have to make in the upper basin states are cuts that frankly come from Mother Nature,” he said. “As the runoff comes in, we have the opportunity to use all the water available.”

Several upper basin state officials have recently claimed that water use is reduced in dry years because the water is simply not there to be diverted.

But independent analysis last month from Jack Schmidt, director of the Future of the Colorado River Project at Utah State University, Eric Kuhn, retired executive director of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, and John Fleck, writer-in-residence at the University of New -Mexico School of Law, found that the opposite was true in the pool most years.

Reviewing publicly available data from the Bureau of Reclamation, the researchers concluded that “on average, overall use of the upper basin is slightly higher in dry years and lower in wet years.”

A spokesperson for Utah’s Colorado River Authority did not respond to questions Tuesday about the analysis.

A slowdown in plans for the Lake Powell Pipeline?

“We were all going to have to make some sacrifices,” Utah Governor Spencer Cox said in a live chat hosted by The Washington Post on Tuesday, and he pointed to a slew of conservation laws. water passed in the state this year as proof of progress. .

Cox also acknowledged that Utah’s decades-long plan to build a controversial pipeline from Lake Powell to Washington County in southwestern Utah could be “slowed down” unless Lake Powell levels rise. recover.

“We’d love to build this pipeline,” Cox said, “but we’re also very hands-on and recognize that it won’t do as much good with Lake Powell and Lake Mead at record highs.”

Environmental groups including the Utah Rivers Council have called on Utah to abandon its long-delayed plans for the Lake Powell pipeline once and for all, and for all states and the federal government to step in to address the urgency of the situation.

“If we don’t get an all-out effort on the bridge right now,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, “we’re just going to realign the lounge chairs on the houseboats flowing on the lakes Mead and Powell.

Tribune reporter Bryan Schott contributed to this story.

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