A blog about water, watersheds, ecology and community in the Pacific Northwest.


Woes on the Colorado: Lake Mead hits a new low.

Colorado River from Grand Canyon

Colorado River from the Grand Canyon.

Since the early 2000s, Lake Mead–the massive reservoir created by Colorado River as it backs up behind the 1960s vintage Glenn Canyon Dam–has been slowly draining to a point where white bathtub rings are visible along the canyon walls. But now the level of those exposed surfaces are getting close to the point where the Bureau of Reclamation (who runs the dam for the U.S. Department of Interior) must declare drought and force cut-backs in users in both the upper and lower Colorado River Basin states.

The issue is as complex as decades of negotiations between lawyers and water using interests (like the cities of Southern California, Phoenix, Las Vegas and thousands of farmers along with Indian tribes and environmental organizations) permit. But now it could get even more complicated as the decades-long decline of water flows into this lifeblood of the Southwest have taken their toll on the river, the system that delivers it, and its huge physical plumbing which includes dams like Hoover, Glenn Canyon and Havasu. If the lake levels continue to drop in this particular lynch-pin dam, the turbines that generate electricity for the Southwest energy grid will also need to stop, or else the Bureau will need to stop allowing flows to leave the dam before the water level is replenished by winter rain and spring snowmelt.

While it may feel like the Colorado River and the tribulations of people dependent upon its flows are a long long way from Oregon consider for a moment the obvious economic and demographic linkages between the Southwest and the Northwest. For this reason (among many others), I pay attention to this issue. I hope H2ONCoast readers will too.

Check out the story from the Arizona Republic here.

Navigable Rivers and the Clean Water Act

Los Angeles River, courtesy of Wikimedia

The February 2nd edition of High Country News published a great story related to the Rapanos v. United States decision to declare that rivers without navigable status are not subject to the regulation of the Clean Water Act.  This U.S. Supreme Court decision was a hugely important one for those interested in the regulation of pollution in rivers and other U.S. waterbodies.

So what do I mean by navigable rivers? The Clean Water Act protects all waters of the United States from excessive pollution and destructive development for agriculture or urban uses.  Rapanos essentially removed those waters that were not deemed navigable—or unable to accommodate boat traffic—from protected status. In parts of the west that aren’t as blessed with free flowing surface water as the maritime PNW, this is a critical issue.  Desert washes and even tiny trickling streams (in our region) still provide innumerable benefits to their surrounding environment, but might not be navigable, except in cases of flooding.  Wetlands too are affected by the decision, though they often directly connect to rivers during flooding.  This is also frequently the case with most streams in the desert Southwest (my home turf).

The court case revolved around a Michigan shopping center developer named John Rapanos who filled in 50 acres of wetlands without a permit.  He was taken to court and found guilty of violating the Clean Water Act.  The fines were huge.  Rapanos appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion took the U.S. Army Corps to task for “stretching the term [navigable] beyond parody.”  As a result of the split decision, the two federal agencies with the most power to regulate U.S. waters—the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps—devised a highly technical process for determining the relationship between smaller tributaries (even dry ones) and the mainstem of a stream.  This is known as the “nexus test” (or showing a “significant nexus of relationships between a distant tributary and a receiving water body).  As a result, the agencies have to do a very difficult analysis that has left developers such as John Rapanos scratching their heads.  Rather than clarifying things, the Rapanos decision made the waters considerably murkier.

Once the Rapanos decision became case law, however, the Army Corps was able to remove many streams from protection, meaning that developers could build in the channel itself, and upland pollution sources that affected it would not be governed by the same legal tools as those provided by the Clean Water Act. The EPA too dropped many cases of Clean Water Act violations it had been pursuing because they could not prove a “nexus.”

One Army Corps biologist, Heather Wylie, joined a group of kayakers and canoeists to travel down the largely concrete Los Angeles River in Southern California after it too had been declared non-navigable by her agency.  Their journey was meant to highlight that “navigable” was a more flexible category than the feds had applied to the LA or other major streams in the arid West. For that act, Wylie was suspended and then laid off.  She has since become a symbol to environmental and property rights activists alike.  The story of this relatively obscure court decision and its repercussions for both sides of the debate is worth a read. You can view it by clicking here.  Heather’s story also appears in a short YouTube video titled “Heather and Goliath”.   Below are some other links to the Clean Water Act and the Rapanos decision:

The actual U.S. Supreme Court decision:  http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/04-1034.ZS.html

National Public Radio story: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5226083

Understanding the Clean Water Act (River Network): http://www.rivernetwork.org/rn/cwa/aboutcwa

U.S. EPA Clean Water Act website: http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/lcwa.html

Western Water and Desperate Measures

I am a long-time fan of the western environmental publication High Country News. This dusty and crusty news magazine has been around since the 1970s and dispenses some great journalism, opinion and thought on the unique Western issues from the full spectrum of perspectives out of booming cities like Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles to struggling rural hinterlands.  My only criticism is that the stories tend to cover issues eminating from the Intermountain region more than the coastal states.  But all in all, HCN writers and editors seem to have a special penchant for covering water issues (often quite well in my professional opinion).

HCN’s latest November 21st issue has a cover story on the resurgence (or potential) desalinization plants to service the thirsty masses in California–if only the energy costs were reasonable.  More germane to H2ONCoast, however, is a nice round up of some–shall we say, uniue–Western approaches to extracting more water from a dry landscape. Included in that list is the idea of tapping the Columbia for NW profit while slaking thirst further southward.  I’m serving up that list here for your edification with many thanks to HCN’s Jonathan Thompson for unearthing the compendium:

  1. Tamarisk removal
    Tamarisk — which infests some 1 million acres in the West — chokes out willows and cottonwoods, and ruins beaches. It also slurps up lots of water — some say a single tamarisk drinks 200 gallons per day. Estimated cost to remove it? $3,000 per acre, though newer methods, such as tamarisk-eating beetles, are cheaper.
  2. Logging for water
    In 2002, as Colorado was racked by drought, the state proposed something drastic: Clear-cutting its forests to increase runoff. Fewer trees, the theory goes, would result in more snow on the ground — it was proven on a small scale in Wyoming. Most people just laughed at the idea because of the high cost and environmental impacts.
  3. The Big Straw
    Hear that sucking sound? This scheme would have had a 200-mile pipeline carrying Colorado River water from the Utah border back, uphill, to the Front Range of Colorado. The idea was born in the 1980s, discarded, then reborn during the 2002 drought. It’s dead again, at least until the next devastating dry spell.
  4. “Oregon’s Oil”
    The Colorado River provides water to about three times the population of Oregon and Washington combined, but it has less than one-tenth the water of the Northwest’s Columbia River. So why not pipe water from the Columbia down to the Southwest? It’s been considered since the 1960s, and just last year, Oregon State Sen. David Nelson began pushing the idea in earnest again to generate revenue for his state. He figures sending some 1 million acre-feet of water southward would net his state about $3 billion per year. The salmon may not like the idea, but if it’s not done, says Nelson, “Oregon will become the Appalachia of the West.”
  5. Pipe dreams
    The idea of funneling water from one river basin to another is pretty old hat. But these days, thirsty Western communities are getting more ambitious. Utah’s proposed Lake Powell Pipeline would move 100,000 acre-feet of water across 177 miles to three booming counties in southwestern Utah at a cost of at least $1 billion. There’s also the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s $2 billion-$3.5 billion proposal to pump up to 167,000 acre-feet of groundwater from the state’s basin and range country through 327 miles of pipeline to Las Vegas. In Colorado, businessman Aaron Million has proposed a privately financed $2 billion-$4 billion, 400-mile-long pipeline that would transport water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir through Wyoming to Colorado’s Front Range cities.
  6. Bagging it
    During dry 2002, Alaska businessman Ric Davidge proposed filling giant poly-fiber bags with 13 million gallons of water each from Northern California’s Gualala River, and then towing them with barges and tugs all the way down the coast to San Diego. The Gualala locals weren’t so happy, and when the California Coastal Commission voted to oppose the measure, Davidge withdrew the plan.
  7. Strange brew
    Conceived in the 1950s, the North American Water and Power Alliance would have moved water from Canada to the Southwest and Great Plains via an ambitious network of pipes and canals, including a giant pump in Montana to clear the Rockies. It actually gained favor on a federal level in the 1960s, but faded into wacky water obscurity by the 1970s. In recent years, the idea has surfaced again.
  8. Bonanza!
    While studying the source of a couple of wells, Sandoval County, N.M., officials recently discovered an aquifer near the rapidly growing city of Rio Rancho that contains some 4 million acre-feet of water, or enough for a city of 300,000 people for 100 years (75,000 people now live in the city). Rio Rancho officials now have visions of even more growth. Problem is, the water’s brackish, so it must be desalinated. Cost to build the pumping and desalting facility? $47 million.
  9. Off the roof
    In order to harvest rainwater in Colorado, one must navigate onerous state water laws. Not so in one arid Arizona city. In October, Tucson became the first city in the U.S. to require commercial developments to harvest rainwater. Under the law, which takes effect in 2010, developers will have to get half of their landscaping water from the roof.
  10. Seeding the clouds
    Of all the unconventional solutions to drought, “seeding” rain clouds with silver iodide to increase precipitation is the most widely implemented. Ski areas fund cloud-seeding efforts in Colorado, power companies support it in Idaho and Los Angeles County is forking out $800,000 this year to seed clouds over the San Gabriel Mountains. Problem is, it may not work: It’s true that introducing particles into moisture-laden clouds can help create raindrops, but there’s not enough conclusive evidence to determine if and how much extra precipitation this may create in a specific spot. And if it does work, is it just stealing rain from those downwind? A five-year study in Wyoming, costing more than $8 million, is under way in hopes of answering these questions. Regardless of its actual effectiveness, it’s valuable as a sort of meteorological placebo: Ski areas tout cloud-seeding programs in their marketing propaganda, and water managers get to say they’re actually doing something about the weather. Meanwhile, conservation-minded folks say that it would make more sense to spend that money on efficiency measures, such as low-flow toilets and showerheads.
  11. Pluviculture
    Modern-day cloud seeding may have its roots in the mysterious craft of Charles Mallory Hatfield. Back in the early 1900s, Hatfield built a tower in the San Gabriels from which he disseminated his secret concoction of 23 chemicals into the air in order to create rain. After a storm came, local ranchers paid him $1,000 for his “moisture acceleration” talents. Later, the city of San Diego hired him. A few days after he set up his tower, a deluge struck, breaking a dam and wreaking havoc. The city never paid him.

The Ghost of the Dust Bowl

It’s funny how little conversations come around to turn into bigger and bigger dialogues. A few months ago fellow ex-Southwesterner Michael Campana (of the OSU Institute for Water and Watersheds, WaterWired blog, Aquadoc, etc.) and I had a long discussion of what if… What if the Southwest (including much of Calinfornia) found itself without enough water to go around? What if things were just inhospitable down there? Where would the masses of Phoenicians and Angelinos, Tucsonans and West Texans go?  We thought that they would probably come north to lovely green and watery Oregon of course!  Either that, or they would look towards purchasing some of our liquid gold for export, as I’ve blogged here before. Given the difficulty and probability of the latter excercise, Mike and I put more wheight on the former happening. Think 1930s Dust Bowl. Think of the diaspora of Katrina refugees out of the Gulf. Thing BIG.

Well, that conversation seems to have made it to the front page of the October 5th Oregonian with an article by Eric Mortenson.  The full article can be found by clicking here. The crux of the article is summed up by a quote from the article itself:

The prediction caused a collective grimace among the mayors, city councilors, engineers and planners in the audience. By 2060, a Metro economist said, the seven-county Portland area could grow to 3.85 million people — nearly double the number here now.

Then Lorna Stickel, a planner with the Portland Water Bureau, stood to ask a question. Does the population projection, she asked, account for the possibility of climate change refugees?

Brains have been spinning ever since. Because what if?

What if the American Southwest dries up, browns out, and those people now misting their patios in Arizona head to the still-green Pacific Northwest? What if Californians hit the road north in numbers far surpassing the 20,000 who now move to Oregon each year? What if the polar ice melts, oceans rise and millions living along coastal areas — or ravaged by Katrina-like storms — have to move?

What happens, Stickel later asks, “as we become more attractive and other places become less attractive?”

I also want to send kudos to Michael for putting this out on his WaterWired first and most importantly, for inspiring Lorna Stickel to bring up the question in the first place. Now, if only a combination of academic and applied colleagues in the SW and the PNW would be willing to try to play out this scenario, we might be able to generate some tools for planning BEFORE this happens.  And even if it never does, we have invested in some good water, infrastructure, land use and social planning for Oregon for what looks to be a more populous future.

“Down one road lies disaster, down the other utter catastrophe.” –Norman Church

Water Volley: Senate back and forth on Selling Columbia R. H20

The back and forth continues in Oregon over whether to sell some of “Oregon’s Oil” to the thirsty masses elsewhere. Presented here are the responses of the Democrats in the State Senate.

SALEM – Members of the Senate Democratic caucus Tuesday raised concern over a Republican plan to sell Oregon’s water to other states. The plan was released as part of the Senate Republican caucus’s agenda for the 2009 session.

“While the complexities of this proposal have yet to be vetted, it seems doubtful that this is the sort of idea that Oregonians could get behind,” said Senate Majority Leader Richard Devlin (D-Tualatin). “Democrats in the legislature would prefer to store our water here at home before shipping it off to California.”

The Republican plan, which calls water “Oregon Oil,” suggests that 70 million acre feet of water a year is “wasted” when the flow of the Columbia reaches the Pacific Ocean. They suggest that this water is in excess of that needed for farms, fisheries, and hydroelectric power.

“First and foremost, while not closing our minds to long-term viable solutions for state funding, we are committed to ensuring that Oregonians and our agricultural community have the stable and sufficient water supply they need” said Senator Alan Bates (D-Ashland), chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources. “We are in the middle of a state-wide water needs assessment and we will respond to those needs before we divert our water anywhere outside of Oregon. Senate Democrats have demonstrated leadership on this issue, and I’m confident that we will continue our record of smart and sensible water planning for our state.”

Democrats have a strong record of looking out for Oregon’s water needs. During the 2008 February Session, Senate Democrats in the legislature passed the Agricultural and Community Water Act, or ACWA, which expands options for developing a sufficient and sustainable water supply for Oregonians. Additionally, in 2007 Democrats passed the first broad state water study in recent history.

“Continuing our commitment to Oregon’s water needs for now and the future is a duty that we don’t take lightly,” said Devlin. “We’re not interested in the commoditization of a precious resource when our own water security is still an issue and priority to many Oregonians.”

For Sale: Columbia River Water, Price: To Be Determined

Central Arizona Project canal. Mayabe full of Columbia R. water someday?I’m stealing liberally from my colleague Michael Campana’s Water Wired here.  An old friend argued to me once that all research is just stealing with citations, anyway. Yet, this topic was just too good to pass up, especially given my provenance as a Southwestern water geek now transplanted to the PNW.  Here’s the tale: long ago, in a galaxy far away, water managers in California tapped rivers far to the North of the state’s population bulges in the South and Central regions, built massive dams and aqueducts that dewatered whole valleys to fuel the booming megaregions.  Working with colleagues, water lawyers and politicos in seven states and two nations, they also successfully plumbed the mighty Colorado to supply over 30 million people with water.  The time was the early to mid-20th century and the “we can engineer a better future” mentality was riding high.  At the same time, a few water wonks speculated that the Columbia River–exceeding the Colorado’s flow by about 10 times–could play a role in future growth or drought scenarios. “Ridiculous!” many shouted, “that’s both unfeasible and unnecessary!”

Well, to quote Bob Dylan, “the times, they are a-changin’.”  It seems that some would quite seriously speculate that we’ve arrived in one one of those scenarios. As the reservoirs in the mighty Colorado dwindle under the weight of 8 years of serious drought (a good winter notwithstanding) and even more serious population growth, it seems that the basin’s states are contemplating just this sort of action (among others that include giant plastic-wrapped icebergs).  Searching for answers to the persistent question of “where will we get our water from,” managers are dredging up ideas that seem at face value to be technically impossible,  politically unfeasible, and economically unpalatable: extending a giant straw to the Colombia (likely inserted at–forgive the pun–the mouth) in order to send some precious water southward.

And Oregonians are contemplating what the water could cost and how we might facilitate selling it to them.  Think this is politically wild science fiction?  Sound like something out of Robert Ludlum meets Marc Riesner? Think again and read Michael Milstein’s piece in yesterday’s Oregonian. While you’re at it, check out the Aquadoc’s word on it too. And don’t forget to take a look at the press release put out by Oregon State Sen. David Nelson (R-Pendelton)  who proposes to sell 1 million acre-feet to out-of-state communities (read: the thirsty Southwest).  While this is still pretty speculative, the times they are a-changin’!

Nat. Geo. on Western Water, Climate

The good folks at National Geographic have put out a well done piece synthesizing a smattering of the latest science, economics and politics that wrap around the issue of a drying western United States. This is serious stuff and worth a read even for water logged North Coasters’. The article’s main premise: water management won the west; what happens when there is not enough water to manage? Remember, we may get abundance but we are extremely interdependent upon our other western neighbors. Drought that burns the Sunbelt will affect all things Pacific Northwestern very quickly. It’s a good FYI read and plus, the photos are pretty spectacular!

The on-line version of this article is available here.