The Entire Colorado River Basin is in Crisis
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) recently shared alarming news about the unprecedented conditions on the Colorado River and I’ll attempt to explain their complicated projections. Reclamation, the agency that oversees federal water management across 17 western states, publishes some pretty wonky information, even to those of us who regularly interface with this agency and rely on its analyses.
Just last month, in June, Reclamation shared their new 5-year projections for the Colorado River Basin to further assist drought management within the Basin. They share these projections a few times every year. The big news is that the water situation on the Colorado River is worse than folks anticipated when adopting the shared shortage agreements called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) adopted in 2019.
To jump to the conclusion: Reclamation’s projections signal that we urgently need to do more than the DCPs envisioned because of the increasingly hot and dry conditions in the basin. Reclamation has continued to revise their projections throughout this shockingly dry spring, resulting in really dire projections for water storage and distribution. In other words, less water for people, and less water in streams that benefit birds, fish, and a robust recreational economy.
We’ve arrived at the time when the limits of the Colorado River are being reached.
What does this mean for birds? Birds rely on the riparian habitats of the Colorado River and its tributaries and aquatic birds have come to rely on the big reservoirs on the river too. Surveys of aquatic birds at Lake Powell have documented dabbling ducks, diving species, shorebirds, and more. American Coot and Western Grebe are common. Gadwall, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, and Green-winged Teal have also been observed. The habitats created by Lake Powell have existed for less than 60 years and can change with the lake level, which can affect birds.
You may recall that the main reservoirs on the highly-plumbed Colorado River—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—sometimes “equalize” in water accounting flows. Lake Powell is the receiving reservoir from the Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) meaning that it stores water that runs downstream from these states. Lake Mead is the distributing reservoir for the Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and California) and Mexico meaning that water deliveries to each of these places comes from available water in this lake (and legal water rights, of course). The amount of water in Lake Mead—the largest reservoir in the country—determines how much water a state has available for their Colorado River water users.
Reclamation projects that Lake Mead water levels are, for the first time ever, so low that they will require cuts in water Lower Basin water deliveries, operating in Tier 1 shortage. And they say there is a greater than 99% chance of this shortage in 2022 and a high risk (greater than 80% probability) that Lake Mead will remain under shortage operations for at least the next five years, perhaps with even more aggressive cuts.
Severe drought conditions are also triggering emergency response (outlined in the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement as part of the DCP here on page 7) whereby Reclamation will release water from reservoirs further upstream to address declining water levels at Lake Powell and protect the ability of the Glen Canyon Dam to generate hydropower. Representatives from Reclamation and the Upper Basin states just announced they will release water from Flaming Gorge and other reservoirs.
If we have another bad water year, elevations at Lake Mead could even be lower than before Lake Powell was created. It’s getting to the bottom for both of these reservoirs.
Why does this matter? These unprecedented and exceptional drought conditions are a signal to all of us to take steps to ensure the river flows long into the future and address water security for people and wildlife. The entire Colorado River Basin is in crisis.
Climate change is here. We have a very limited window to begin implementing innovative tools that are at our disposal in order to adapt to and mitigate climate change. In addition to reductions in carbon emissions and other large-scale solutions for our planet, Audubon continues to focus on federal and state investments in climate resilient strategies that will help stabilize water supplies and better assist economic sectors and ecosystems adapt to changing conditions. Future water projections by Reclamation – and future agreements on the Colorado River – need to account for climate extremes.
The effects of prolonged drought and climate change affect everyone in the basin. Our way of life is at stake—millions of acres of farmland and ranches, urban and rural communities, recreation on rivers and lakes, our economies, as well as incredible bird life. Our work is more urgent and more difficult. Please join us in advocating for climate solutions that benefit the Colorado River and other important rivers in the West. Sign up for updates here.