The whole Colorado River basin is in crisis


The US Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) this year shared alarming news regarding unprecedented conditions on the Colorado River. The agency, which oversees federal water management in 17 western states, publishes some pretty shaky information, even for those of us who regularly interact with this agency and rely on its analyzes.

However, in June, Reclamation shared its new five-year projections for the Colorado River Basin. He shares these projections several times a year to help manage drought in the basin. This time, the news was big: The water situation on the Colorado River is worse than expected when the shared scarcity agreements called Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans (DCP) passed in 2019 passed.

To jump to the conclusion: Reclamation’s projections signal that we urgently need to do more than the planned FADs due to increasingly hot and drier conditions in the basin. Reclamation continued to revise its projections throughout this incredibly dry spring, resulting in some truly 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 have arrived at the point where the limits of the Colorado River are reached.

What does this mean for the birds? Birds depend on the riparian habitats of the Colorado River and its tributaries, and waterfowl also depend on the large reservoirs of the river. Waterbird surveys at Lake Powell have documented dabbling ducks, diver species, shorebirds, etc. The American Coot and the Western Grebe are common. Gadwall, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Redhead, and Green-winged Teal have also been observed. The habitats created by Lake Powell have been around for less than 60 years and can change with the level of the lake, which can affect birds.

You may recall that the major reservoirs of the heavily plumbed Colorado River – Lake Powell and Lake Mead – sometimes “equalize” water flows. Lake Powell is the receiving reservoir for the upper basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico), which means that it stores the water that flows downstream from these states. Lake Mead is the distribution reservoir for the lower basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and California) and Mexico, meaning that water deliveries to each of these locations come from the water available in that lake (and from legal water rights, of course). The amount of water in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, determines how much water a state has for its Colorado River water users.

The reclamation predicts that Lake Mead’s water levels are, for the first time, so low that they will require reductions in water deliveries to the Lower Basin, operating in a Level 1 shortage. agency says there is a greater than 99% chance that this shortage will continue into 2022 and a high risk (over 80% chance) that Lake Mead will remain subject to shortage operations for at least the next five years , perhaps even more aggressively. cuts.

Severe drought conditions also trigger an emergency response with the release of water from reservoirs further upstream to cope with declining water levels at Lake Powell and protect the ability of the Glen Canyon Dam to produce water. hydropower. Representatives of Reclamation and the Upper Basin States have just announced that they will release water from Flaming Gorge and other reservoirs.

If we have another bad hydrologic year, the elevations of Lake Mead could even be lower than before the creation of Lake Powell. It’s bottoming out for these two tanks.

Why is this important? These unprecedented and exceptional drought conditions are a signal for all of us to take action to ensure that the river flows long into the future and ensure water security for people and wildlife. Climate change is here and the entire Colorado River basin is in crisis.

We have a very limited window to start implementing the innovative tools that are at our disposal to adapt 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 help people. economic sectors and ecosystems to adapt to changing conditions. Future water projections by Reclamation – and future Colorado River deals – must take climate extremes into account.

The effects of prolonged drought and climate change affect everyone in the basin. Our lifestyles are at stake: millions of acres of farmland and ranches, urban and rural communities, recreation on rivers and lakes, our economies, and incredible birdlife. Our work is more urgent and more difficult.

This piece was originally presented on July 16.


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