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World News
January 5, 2014

Colorado River Drought Forces a Painful Reckoning for States

Click here to read this story by Michael Wines of the New York Times

Click here to go directly to

Click here to read this AP story called "Downstream States Eye Flaming Gorge Water."


Click here to read a similar story published in The Economist (February 26, 2014).


Old Facilities, Older Rivers, and Arizona Water Legislation Pending At The State Capitol Supports Bringing The Yuma Desalting Project Back Online, But The Federal Government Says That’s Not The Answer

By Chris Braswell

Modern Times Magazine

Feb. 17, 2014 — In the high deserts of Arizona and throughout the Southwestern United States, access to water resources seems far closer to mind at a policy level than any wetter or non-landlocked states.

The Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study released by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in December 2012 predicts a future imbalance between the supply and demand for Colorado River water, which, by way of the Central Arizona Project, is where most Arizonans get their water.

The Yuma Desalting Plant is in the southwest corner of Arizona, which today approximates the southernmost extent of the Colorado River flow. The Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Act of 1974 provided for the YDP’s construction in order to treat saline agricultural return flows from the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District in the Yuma area.

During the implementation of the project, a separate canal or “bypass string” was built that takes the salty groundwater and delivers it to the Cienaga Santa Clara wetlands, where it serves as a recharge catalyst for the ecological water mixture in the area.

Since the YPD was built, water has been delivered to Mexico from the Colorado River instead of treated flow delivery from the YPD, but that still satisfies the U.S. obligation to the saline-mitigated flow to Mexico, said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region. Meanwhile, the bypass string has been used over the years to continue feeding the growing Cienaga Santa Clara ecosystem.

Proposed during the current second session of the 51st Arizona Legislature, Senate Concurrent Memorial 1001 spearheaded by Arizona Senator Gail Griffin, district 14, urges the U.S. Department of the Interior to “immediately take all necessary measures to operate the Yuma Desalting Plant.”

The legislation criticizes the DOI for using 100,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Mead to fulfill the treaty's water quality obligations to Mexico rather than conserving an equivalent amount of water through the operation of the Yuma Desalting Plant, and it also notes an ongoing 14-year drought that has led to DOI projections of a shortage of Colorado River water to exceed 50 percent in 2017.

“By abdicating its obligation to operate the Yuma Desalting Plant, the federal government has caused the loss of more than 1,300,000 acre-feet from Lake Mead, placing the state of Arizona at increased risk of water shortage,” according to SCM 1001. “If the federal government were to operate the Yuma Desalting Plant, it would conserve 100,000 acre-feet per year, equivalent to the water needed to supply more than 250,000 Arizona residents with water annually.”

The USBR holds a different view about the wisdom of bringing YDP back into full operation.

When the complex was built in the 1980s, “it was a low-water period so it made some sense, and we were flushed with the government money at the time,” Davis said.

In 1992, the region went into surplus flooding conditions, and the YDP was put into maintenance mode by the USBR. In 2007, the USBR did a 90-day demo run of the facility at one-tenth capacity, to see if it was still being maintained correctly.

“It was still working OK, but we did not really have a call from any of the water stakeholders, the water customers, to use it on a consistent basis,” Davis said.

In 2010, as the current drought continued, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Central Arizona Project asked the USBR to go ahead with another demo run. Other organizations involved with these recent demonstration and pilot tests at the YDP include University of Arizona Department of Geosciences, as well as some Mexican partners such as the non-governmental agency Podnatura, and the state agency which is responsible for the biosphere preserve status that exists in the northern half of the Gulf of California.

“(In 2010) we looked at the expenditures needed for operations, the chemicals involved, updating the designs, the solid contact reactor, the reverse osmosis pumps, the membranes, the high pressure piping, media filtration, and the instrumentation required to bring the electronic operations up,” Davis said. “The initial investment at running it at one-third capacity, would be over $23 million to fix it up. And if you wanted to operate it at two-thirds capacity, that would be another $20 million per year. At one-third capacity you would get 31,361 acre feet, so I don't want to say it is a “drop in the bucket,” but that is not a lot of water.

Today, that kind of money is not available in the USBR's budget.

“What would we have to sacrifice to take out $30 million, out of all of our programs, our conservation programs, our safety of dams programs, our upgrades to our electronic systems and security? The money definitely is an issue,” Davis said. “This would be a huge investment. But if things got really worse and worse, then there might be great minds that come together to say, how do we fund bringing it up to this century's standards, and make it work.”

There are a couple of plants in California that the USBR has helped get off the ground with some funding through our Water Smart Program, and the technology has improved greatly since the 1980s and the time of the YDP’s construction, Davis said.

Bringing the YDP online would also affect the saline water from its bypass stream that currently goes to the Cienaga Santa Clara, according to the USBR. Before the YDP bypass flows began, the Cienaga Santa Clara was “about 10,000 acres or less of pretty poor-quality tidal infill,” said Tom McCann, assistant general manager of operations, planning, and engineering for the Central Arizona Project. “Now it’s about 40,000 acres, of which about 14,000 is dense, marshy vegetation areas. The remaining acreage is open-water habitat.”

Each year, 1.5 million acre feet of water from the Colorado River go into Mexico, McCann said, which satisfies the U.S. treaty obligations. The water crosses the Southwestern border in two places, at its “Northerly International Boundary” near the Morales Dam immediately west of Yuma (at a rate of about 1.35 million acre-feet per year), and at the “Southern International Boundary” near the border at San Luis. The SIB is a far more limited amount of flow of about 150,000 to 160,000 acre-feet per year.

None of the NIB flow continues downstream since it is entirely redirected by Mexico, primarily to irrigated farmland in the Mexicali Valley Irrigation District in Baja State. About 1 or 2 percent of the NIB flow goes to Tijuana by pipeline. The SIB flow goes to San Luis, Sonora.

Weather Patterns

“People may realize that it is a finite resource, you know we have studies out there that are looking out 50 years and looking back 1,200 years, and recognizing the cycles of water. But now we are adding in climate change effects,” Davis said.

Ken Waters, Phoenix-based warning coordination meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, consented that the desert Southwest has been under drought conditions for 14 to 15 years, but that the Yuma area itself only typically gets rain about two or three times per year anyway. Rain is rare in greater Yuma, southern Arizona and northern Sonora, and when it does come, it comes fast, resulting in far more groundwater runoff than basin recharge. The seasonal monsoon precipitation phenomenon in the region is sporadic and does not go as far north into Arizona as it used to.

The headwaters of the Colorado River are fed by snowpack in western Colorado, “and that's been at a deficit for a number of years,” Waters said. “Lake Powell and Lake Mead are also going down again. Las Vegas is very concerned because the Lake Mead levels are going down. It all goes downhill, so to speak, and it's going to eventually get down to Yuma. In the next couple of years, we don't see it turning around.”

Agricultural concerns are a large portion of the water appropriation of the Colorado River and its constituent Central Arizona Project. California’s Imperial Valley is a very robust agricultural community, and is largely irrigated from the Colorado River up north all the way to Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. Still, a significant portion of the Arizona agricultural efforts are irrigated via the Gila River, which eventually merges with the Colorado.

“It’s still a desert, but it’s irrigated,” Water said. “Four years ago, the decision was made to reduce the Lake Powell release, which even more reduced the supply along the Colorado.”

The climate models are highly variable. It is not simply a matter of how much precipitation may come, but also that the type of precipitation could change from snow to rain for example, or the pattern of precipitation could change to different times in the year.

“There are a number of global climate models out there, and they disagree on what will happen in the Colorado River basin, ranging from zero to 33 percent reduction in river flow,” McCann said. “But, a 10 percent reduction in river flow due to climate change is probably a likely, reasonable, middle-of-the-road expectation for the next 50 years in this basin.”

On Thursday, delegates from the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Intergovernmental Affairs Office, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy met with California Governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and state, local, and tribal leaders from across the country at Los Angeles City Hall following the second meeting of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. The Task Force was established in November to advise the administration of how to respond to needs of communities throughout the nation through the White House’s Climate Action Plan. The task force meeting focused on improving the resilience and longevity of our nation’s transportation, water, and energy infrastructure in the face of extreme weather, sea level rise, extreme temperatures, drought, and other various effects of global climate change.

On Feb. 4, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it will make $20 million in assistance available for agricultural water conservation efforts throughout California for producers who are affected by the drought. Interested landowners and managers have until March 3 to apply for funds. The program is also part of the White House’s Climate Action Plan, and the funds are appropriated through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program. NRCS Service Center locations and more information about the drought initiative can be found at

Drought Policy

The Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004 between Arizona and New Mexico gives New Mexico rights to about 14,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Gila River. The end of 2014 is the deadline for the Interstate Stream Commission to decide what to do with the water from the Gila and one of its tributaries, the San Francisco River. Federal funding is available to the state for diversion project construction, or if no decision is made, the water will continue flowing south into Arizona.

The Gila is a tributary of the Colorado that begins in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The proposed location for the diversion project is in a pristine roadless area of unblocked wild river. Farmers in the region want the diversion as backup water supply, while conservationists and sports enthusiasts argue that dams and diversions would the ecosystem. In the current New Mexico legislature, Senate Bills 89 and 90 attempt solutions to the issue.

And currently pending in the 51st Arizona Legislature is House Bill 2326 ( would amend the statute related to the Arizona Water Banking Authority in such a way as to make it more water storage/banking credits more fiscally commodifiable, adding language that reinforces water banking credits are purchasable by the authority, and providing for statutory basis for such accounting.

The Central Arizona Project provides water to about 80 percent of the Arizona population through a 336-mile long water delivery system that sources the Colorado River. Its construction was federally approved in 1968 for construction by the USBR, and in 1971, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which now manages the CAP, was formed to repay the federal government for certain construction costs once the system was complete. Construction began at Lake Havasu in 1973 and was completed 20 years later south of Tucson.

“We run 40 to 50 percent in the Phoenix area, and if you add in agricultural and the reservations that we also serve, about 80 percent of the population of the state takes CAP in some form or another,” said Robert Barrett, a spokesman for the Central Arizona Project. “It goes to agricultural use which is also critical in this state as well, and that's generally Pinal County, which is that area between Phoenix and Tucson, a big agricultural area. And then finally, we also recharge water; we store water that is not being used underground to guard against future drought.”

“You can't make up all that difference with conservation because right now in Arizona, we're one of the leading states in terms of conservation,” Barrett said. “Our population doubled or tripled from 1960 to today but our total water use has gone down during that period. You can only squeeze that lemon so hard before you do not get any more juice out of it, and what we need to do is start looking forward for ways to augment the supply in the Colorado River. They can do that by cloud seeding when possible, but that's not going to be enough, in and of itself. The CAP is looking at multiple ways to augment our water supply for the future, but for some of the ideas, all seven states are going to have to cooperate on the big picture.”

The CAP is examining the possibility of desalination, for which there appears to be two primary options to choose from, Barrett said.

“We could probably partner with somebody in California; we pay for them to desalinate the water and then whatever the volume they get out of it creates a net volume left in the river, and we take it so it would be a trade off that way,” he said. “The other thing we are talking about is working with Mexico, and there is a couple of locations in Mexico we are talking about. It is going to be some time before that happens, so right now most of the emphasis is going to be on conservation, you know, what more can people do, but that’s a limited fix, you can only take that so far.”

USBR is more optimistic.

“We are the water wholesaler, and Arizona, California, and Nevada are doing incredible things in the way of water reuse and recycling, in the way of conservation, in the way of Arizona storing a lot of water in groundwater areas,” Davis said. “Some of the planning that Arizona has done, and some of the things that they have implemented over the last decade have truly shown that the water managers have been looking at the horizon.”

An excellent model of municipal water management in the Southwest is Las Vegas, for example.

“Almost every drop of the water in Las Vegas is reclaimed water,” Davis said. “Everything that you are not drinking, all the toilet water—everything that you are not drinking—is recycled water.”

There are many great examples of progressive water use policy at the state and local levels in the Southwest, but when not all cities and agricultural operations are using the most cutting-edge civil engineering and technology, the USBR strongly cautions against resorting to industrial-scale desalination as an everyday solution.

“The states are the water managers, they are the retailers, so to speak, and are the managers of where the water is going within, how it is being used, how its being retreated, reclaimed, and recycled,” Davis said. “We’re really supportive of states' activities. And while the YDP is a piece of equipment that we are still maintaining, its just not high on the list of alternatives, considering the way the states are cooperating with each other, in augmenting water supplies and conserving water.”

Chris G. Braswell is the managing editor of Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at

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