Colorado River Water Users Convention in Las Vegas: What we learned

LAS VEGAS — First, the good news: Las Vegas hasn’t changed much in recent decades. You can still catch Wayne Newton in concert (though, he doesn’t look so great these days), you can still smoke indoors and you’ll still be harassed on the Strip by locals who want your money.

Okay, now the bad news: Las Vegas is in trouble and so is everybody else who lives in the Colorado River Basin, some 40 million people. The river is drying up and nothing state and federal officials have done so far is enough to stop an impending crash.

So far solutions are few and far between. This week some of the best minds looking for a way to avoid disaster flew into Las Vegas for the annual Colorado River Water Users Convention and for the most part, little new information emerged.

Water managers, politicians, scientists and business officials hashed and rehashed what most of them already knew. With the receptions, raffles and wine tastings throughout Caesar’s Palace, the occasion drew at least a few comparisons of the Roman emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

But there’s value in the camaraderie, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said. There’s value in understanding that nobody’s alone in this crisis.

In any case, the convention is a good place to catch up on precisely how dire this situation is. The whole thing began as a drought, then they called it a megadrought and now we’re coming to terms with the fact that climate change is cementing these conditions as a permanent fixture of life in the American West.

We have to learn to live with far less water. That doesn’t mean just turning the water off as you brush your teeth, it means far more painful, expensive and substantive changes, most of which have yet to be decided (publicly, anyway).

Here’s what else you need to know:

1: If the West’s water use doesn’t change, the region has a year or two before disaster could strike.

“Things are happening faster and faster,” Brenda Burman, executive strategy advisor for the Central Arizona Project said during the conference. “We think we’ve got things under control. We look up six months later and it turns out we don’t.”

The country’s two largest reservoirs – lakes Powell and Mead – are losing water. Currently, they’re only about 26% full, according to James Prairie, the research and modeling group chief for Reclamation. For comparison, in 1999 they were 92% full.

As early as next November the water level at Lake Powell could drop so low that the Glen Canyon Dam would no longer be able to generate electricity. That means much higher utility bills, particularly for indigenous, rural and poor communities. Arizona’s U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly said at the conference that about 5 million people rely on electricity produced at the dam.

By the end of the next year, Prairie said Powell’s water level could fall so low that the dam won’t be able to use its normal tubes to send water downstream and it would instead have to rely on emergency bypass tubes, which are much smaller.

In other words, water would be trapped upstream where Arizona, California and Nevada can’t get to it.

2: As you’re reading this, the reservoirs are sinking lower still.

As of Thursday morning, Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said about 4,600 cubic feet per second of water was flowing into Powell. At the same time, the Glen Canyon Dam was releasing more than twice that much water downstream at 9,700 cubic feet per second.

Lake Mead on the other hand is receiving just as much as its Hoover Dam releases downstream, Cullom said. But that’s still a net loss because with that much water just sitting in the desert, billions of gallons are lost to evaporation.

3: There’s a goal on the table, but nobody seems quite sure how they’ll reach it.

This summer Touton asked the states to find a way to save between 2 and 4 million acre-feet each year. For context, an acre-foot is a volumetric measurement of water, a year’s worth for two average families of four.

None of the states have come close. The upper-basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming put out a five-point plan that some called the strongest action from the states yet. Others called it “meaningless gibberish.” Either way, the most meaningful water cuts will have to come from Arizona and California if for no other reason than they consume the vast majority of the water.

You’ll hear talk of demand management, effectively paying people — farmers, for example — not to use water. It’s not a sustainable solution. Rather, Touton said it’s a short-term strategy, one that can help prop up the levels of lakes Powell and Mead.

Then folks talk about efficiency. Senator Kelly spoke of improving irrigation processes for the agricultural world (by far the biggest water user in the basin) and said that might even lead to higher crop yields. Doing more with less.

Kelly mentioned desalination plants, which could make seawater safe for consumption. Or maybe we could pipe water in from another river basin, he said.

The senator acknowledged that both of the latter two ideas were “ambitious.” Water experts have described the ideas as legally or physically impossible, prohibitively expensive or too time-consuming, given the deadline set by the crisis.

However unlikely any idea might seem, everything is on the table — these folks are looking to think outside the box. Ultimately, however, there doesn’t seem to be much of a way around the notion that water use is going to have to be cut on a large scale.

So we’re waiting to see whose water gets cut, by how much and when.

4: The states have yet to figure out how to handle the Native American tribes.

Thirty Native American tribes depend on the Colorado River. And they own the rights to as much as 30% of the river’s water. But most of those rights have never been legally quantified and cemented.

Everybody else is talking about how to save water but tribes are still wondering when they’ll have access to what’s rightfully theirs just so they can begin to develop their communities.

At the beginning of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s meeting Wednesday, Chairwoman Anne Castle listed the seven states in the basin, asking residents of each to stand when she called their home. Then she asked federal officials to stand.

She didn’t mention the tribes at all, Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe pointed out an hour or two later.

State and federal officials say they’re “engaging” tribal leaders but many of those conversations are still in the early “trust building” phases, Lorelei Cloud of the Southern Ute Tribe said. They’re still learning what the tribes want and need.

Meanwhile, too often Native Americans go without water, Heart said. And all too often even when they do have water, it’s not safe.

Despite their massive share of water and disproportionate share of inequities, Native American tribes have far too small of a voice in conversations to save the Colorado River, Heart said.

Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Tribe of Uintah and Ouray in northeastern Utah, minced words even less.

“How long do you listen to the same song and damn dance?” Chapoose said.

5: There’s another deadline.

Right now the seven states in the Colorado River Basin are working together to find ways to save water. They have six months. If they don’t reach a deal by then, Touton will decide for them.

That’s how long an updated study on the river – referred to during the conference as simply the SEIS or the supplemental environmental impact statement – will take to complete. That study will have recommendations for how best to share the water shortage throughout the basin, among other things.

It will also give Touton the authority to dole out water cuts to the states, something neither she nor the states want to happen.

As to how this all works out, levels of optimism span the whole spectrum.

Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, noted at one point that the basin is mired in a state of anxiety and uncertainty.

But they’re all working on it. And they’re watching the mountains in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, hoping for snow.

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