Next Steps to Close Water Gap in Colorado River Basin

Spring 2014 Newsletter

The WRRC conference dedicated it first sessions, after the welcome and opening keynote, to the Colorado River Basin Study Next Steps. The Next Steps program is following up on the “Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study” conducted by the Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado and Lower Colorado Regions, in collaboration with representatives of the seven Colorado River Basin states. Kay Brothers, co-chair of the Colorado River Basin Study Next Steps Working Groups Coordination Team, made a keynote presentation, which was followed by a panel of representatives from the three workgroups and the Navajo Nation, a stakeholder in the Next Steps program. Published in December 2012, the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study characterized current and future water supply and demand imbalances in the basin and assessed the risks to basin resources. In order to move forward to address challenges identified in the study, in May 2013, the Bureau of Reclamation established the “Next Steps” Coordination Team and Workgroups. The Coordination Team directs and reviews the work of the following three workgroups: Municipal and Industrial Conservation and Water Reuse Workgroup; Agricultural Conservation, Productivity and Water Transfers Workgroup; and Environmental and Recreational Flows Workgroup.

Kay Brothers described the next steps process as an effort to find robust solutions for an uncertain water future. She noted that past predictions of population growth greatly underestimated what actually occurred in the Lower Colorado River Basin. At the same time, projected flows in the river were overestimated.  She observed, “We can’t imagine what the future is going to be.” For that reason  we have to start now with conservation, reuse and planning for augmentation, she said — “Do it all.”

The first panelist was Taylor Hawes, a member of the Environmental and Recreational Flows Workgroup and the Colorado River Director for The Nature Conservancy. She began by explaining that environmental and recreational needs and values should be considered as demands and not merely as metrics. She added that this is the first assessment of environmental and recreational flows in the Colorado River Basin. Phase 1 of their assessment focused on identifying four highly vulnerable river segments for intervention, each with a different geography, different values and impacts. After selecting the sites, the workgroup has moved to assess what data exists and what are the data gaps, what is the state of the resource, and what type of processes are going on at each site. They are also evaluating the existing mechanisms or programs that have been successful at meeting the needs of people and the environment. As she explained, “environmental and recreation needs are very site-specific, there is no silver bullet to solve the issues across the river.”

The second panelist was Reagan Waskom, a member of the Agricultural Conservation, Productivity, and Water Transfers Workgroup, and Director of the Water Resources Research Institute at Colorado State University. Waskom began by highlighting the fact that there are approximately 2.8 million irrigated acres in the Colorado River Basin, not including Mexico. With Mexico, the number climbs up to 3.2 million. Annual consumptive use by agriculture ranges from 8 to 10 MAF, or 70 percent of total consumptive use in the basin. The goal of the workgroup was to quantify current agricultural conservation efforts and transfers, both in and out of the basin. The questions guiding their work were: “How much water can we conserve? How will conserved water be transferred to other uses?” Waskom explained that many water conservation techniques work at the farm level, but this does not necessarily translate to the basin level. The group is developing a baseline of efficiency projects in the river, looking at their outcomes, future plans, and the impact they could have in terms of production.

The third panelist was Carol Ward-Morris, member of the Municipal and Industrial Conservation and Reuse Workgroup, and Program Manager of Demand Management and Sustainability at Arizona Municipal Water Users Association. As part of the working group’s assessment, they collected qualitative and quantitative information on successful water conservation and reuse programs. Twenty-five case studies will be highlighted in the final report illustrating that legal implications and water planning criteria vary significantly across the study area. They also tried to quantify past water conservation and reuse savings by obtaining data from 1980 to the present from existing reports, studies, and documents for areas with over 100,000 people. However, they soon found out that existing documentation was not sufficient or readily available, and that specifics about what is reported varies across providers. She reminded the audience that conservation assumptions often do not reflect local circumstances and it is necessary to identify a variety of challenges and opportunities to be able to find local and regional solutions.  

The final panelist was Jason John, Principal Hydrologist and Branch Manager at the Water Management Branch of the Navajo Department of Water Resources. He began by explaining that the Navajo Nation did not participate in the “Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study” and this presents challenges for determining current and future supply and demand in the basin. His presentation focused on water development, water rights, and water use in the Navajo Nation. He stated that water use planning in the Navajo Reservation was designed for 50 gallons per capita per day, while off the reservation municipal consumption is designed for 100-160 gallons per capita per day.  He estimated that more than 90 percent of the Navajo Nation uses unreliable sources of groundwater supply and suggested that in the near future they will need to expand their access to surface water supply. In light of this, the Navajo Nation, as part of the Ten Tribes Partnership, will continue to engage in the Colorado River Basin Study Next Steps program by participating in a study aimed at evaluating tribal water demands in the basin, he said.

Phase 1 of the First Steps process is anticipated to be completed in the summer of 2014.