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The many conversations in the Colorado River Basin to prepare for different reservoir operations by 12/31/2025

February 21, 2020
by John Weisheit

Note: This site will be modified on a regular basis; this piece is a work in progress.


A chronology of the conversations initiated in 2005 for the development of Shortage Criteria Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and finalized as 2007 Interim Guidelines EIS.

  • Note: The Interim Guidelines of 2007 combines Surplus Criteria (finalized in 2001) with Shortage Criteria (initiated in 2005). The original provisions of Surplus Criteria EIS were set to expire in 2016. The combined provisions of 2007 Interim Guidelines will expire on December 31, 2025 (the completion of the 2026 Annual Operating Plan).

Foundation Documents


2005 - Mid-Year Review. On page 3, in response to increasing aridity, Interior Secretary Gale Norton advises the seven states of the Colorado River Basin (CRB) that:

"...the Department intends to issue a notice through the Federal Register on or before June 15, 2005 to begin work on these matters. At a minimum, we will address the following matters in our upcoming Federal Register notice : 1) Development of Lower Basin Shortage Guidelines, and, 2) Development of Conjunctive Management Guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. It is my expectation that, regardless of the particular process utilized, the Department will complete these processes by December 2007." (page 3)

2007 - National Academy of Sciences. From the Epilogue:

"This report points to several important scientific findings as they relate to Colorado River hydrology and climate. It also includes findings related to cooperation among the basin states and between scientists and water managers. It recommends that a comprehensive assessment of contemporary urban water management practices and other relevant water supply-demand issues be conducted, and that this assessment consider issues such as implications of agriculture-to-urban water transfers and regional water demand forecasting. In doing so, it defines an action-oriented study that could provide a more systematic blueprint for better managing water across the rapidly-growing and arid Colorado River basin. The cooperation that such a study would entail could also be useful. As the Colorado River basin enters another phase of coping with aridity and drought, future challenges promise to be more exacting than those faced in the past. As such, good scientific information, and good cooperation and communication at all levels, will be more important than ever."

2008 - When Will Lake Mead Go Dry? From the Introduction:
"A water budget analysis shows that under current conditions [2007 Interim Guidelines] there is a 10% chance that live storage in Lakes Mead and Powell will be gone by about 2013 and a 50% chance that it will be gone by 2021 if no changes in water allocation from the Colorado River system are made. This startling result is driven by climate change associated with global warming, the effects of natural climate variability, and the current operating status of the reservoir system. Minimum power pool levels in both Lake Mead and Lake Powell will be reached under current conditions by 2017 with 50% probability.* While these dates are subject to some uncertainty, they all point to a major and immediate water supply problem on the Colorado system. The solutions to this water shortage problem must be time-dependent to match the time-varying, human-induced decreases in future river flow."

*Note: In 2014 the state of Colorado acknowledged potential hydropower loss at Glen Canyon Dam in this memo and recommended initiating contingency planning as the appropriate response.

The Universities

1937 - Unversity of Arizona - Pioneers in the assessment of climate regimes in the Holocene Epoch in regards to aridity, pluvials and floods. This includes dendrochronoly (Andrew Ellicott Douglass) and paleoflood hydrology (Victor R. Baker), and other interdisciplenary sciences related to geochronology.

  • To be continued

1957 - Scripps Institute - Pioneers on the effects of greenhouse gases that initiated global warming based on time-proven accuracy and consistant appeals to society to initiate climate adaptation programs.

We start this conversation with a paper that was written in 1956 and published in 1957 by Roger R. Revelle and Hans E. Suess called, “Carbon Dioxide Exchange Between Atmosphere and Ocean and the Question of an Increase of Atmospheric CO, during the Past Decades.” Revelle and Suess tested a hypothesis that carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere, from burning fossil fuels since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, were being sequestered in the sedimentary rock layers under the ocean. Their findings demonstrated that the transfer of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the ocean had already reached its saturation point before 1956. Therefore, the increasing load of carbon-based emissions would remain in the atmosphere and create a greenhouse effect, and then global temperatures would progressively rise and the heat would increase the mean temperatures of the atmosphere and ocean. They admitted that further research was required, which they provided in 1983.

That research was published by Roger R. Revelle and Paul E. Waggoner and called, Effects of a Carbon Dioxide-Induced Climatic Change on Water Supplies in the Western United States. When this paper was published, every reservoir in the CRB was brim full. However, the data and equations in this document are stunning and the climate scientists of the 21st century have since confirmed the accuracy of their temperature projections.

The cautionary summary of this 1983 paper by Revelle and Waggoneer, is as follows: "Planning and construction of major water-resource systems have a time constant of 30 to 50 years. In the past, these activities have been based on the explicit assumption of unchanging climate. The probable serious economic and social consequences of a carbon dioxide-induced climatic change within the next 50 to 100 years warrant careful consideration by planners of ways to create more robust and resilient water-resource systems that will, insofar as possible, mitigate these effects."

List: Relevant papers from Scripps Institute






Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Polivy @ UM Missoula

     WTI Document (2020): Toward a Sense of the Basin

  • This report summarizes the results of more than 100 confidential interviews, three workshops, and countless conversations with tribal and other leaders throughout the basin -- all focused on designing a collaborative process to develop the next set of guidelines for the Colorado River. The Colorado River provides water to more than 40 million people in two countries, seven states, and 29 Indian tribes. The demand for water currently exceeds available supply in any given year and is complicated by chronic drought and the uncertainty of impacts from climate change. The river is governed by a set of laws, policies, and institutions collectively referred to as the “Law of the River.” Several key components of this framework, including the 2007 Interim Guidelines, Minute 323, and the 2019 Drought Contigency Plan all expire in 2026, creating a unique opportunity to revise and update the framework for managing the river. Since 2017, the Water & Tribes Initiatives has pursued two complimentary objectives: to enhance tribal capacity to participate in basin-wide policy decisions and to advance sustainable water management in the basin through collaborative decision-making.
  • Press Release
  • Document: Making Sense of the Basin
  • Distribution List

2019 - SCREE at UW Laramie


2019 -  40th Annual GWC Summer Conference: Charting a Better Course for the Colorado River: Identifying the Data and Concepts to Shape the Interim Guidelines Renegotiation




The Grand Bargain involves capping the present total depletions of the Upper Basin in exchange for eliminating the Compact obligation of Upper Basin delivering 75 million acre feet every 10-years to the Lower Basin at Lee Ferry, AZ. This plan would eliminate the possibility of a “Compact Call” (curtailments to the Upper Basin) with the Lower Basin, but it would not eliminate the risk of curtailment within the Upper Basin itself, especially for LPP since it is resides in the Lower Basin.

This idea is essentially a rewrite of the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and this conversation should have happened immediatley following the USA Senate's appproval of the Mexican Treaty in 1944. If not then, most definately after the conclusion of USA Supreme Court decision of Arizona vs California in 1963. The tardniness about moving in this direction is why Lakes Powell and Mead will fall to empty, with or without the depletion of global warming impacts.


Memo (2/7/20) from Bureau of Reclamation about the Section 7.D review of Interim Guidelines, now underway until December of 2020. In his 12/13/2019 remarks at Annual Conference of Colorado River Water Users Association (video), Interior Secretary Bernhardt stated:

• 'Section 7.D of the 2007 Guidelines [the update of 12/10/2007, listed below] calls for Reclamation to initiate work prior to Dec. 31, 2020 on a formal review of the effectiveness of the 2007 Guidelines.'
• 'This provision provides an opportunity to take an objective look at where we've been, and where we are, with our operational rules.'
• 'We want to wrap up this effort, culminating in the 'Section 7.D Report,’ around this time next year."
• 'The report will be a Reclamation product but it will rely on important input from the Basin States, Tribes, NGOs and the public, as the report is developed."



• The Section 7.D Review wll be retrospective; a 'look-back' at past operations and not a
   consideration of future activities.
• The Review will result in a Report that: 1) evaluates the effectiveness of the Guidelines and 2)
   documents our operational experience with the Guidelines.
• Through this Review, we hope to build a solid foundation that informs decision-makers in future
   negotiations and bring partners, stakeholders and the public to a common understanding of
   past operations and their effectiveness.
• Input from the Basin States, Tribes, NGOs, other Federal agencies, and the public will be
   factored into the Review.
• Outreach with Basin States, Tribes, NGOs, and other Federal agencies will occur at 2 primary
   milestones: 1) at the start of the Review, with a discussion of the Report scope, approach, and
   schedule and 2) when the draft Report is ready for review.
• In March, we anticipate holding webinar(s) to present and discuss the Report scope, approach,
   and schedule with the Basin States, Tribes, and NGOs. Additional meetings with groups of tribes
   and individual tribes will follow as requested.
• In late summer, we anticipate holding webinar(s) to provide the draft Report to the Basin States,
   Tribes, and NGOs for review. Received comments will be considered and factored into the draft
   Report as appropriate. Additional meetings with groups of tribes and individual tribes will
   follow as requested.
• We anticipate publishing the final Report near the end of 2020.


7D Review: Letters of Submission


Combination of two alternatives: Basin States Alternative & Conservation Before Shortage Alternative (NGOs)

The purposes of the Preferred Alternative
ROD; Page 4

1. discrete levels of shortage volumes associated with Lake Mead elevations to conserve reservoir storage and provide water users and  managers in the Lower Basin with greater certainty to know when, and by how much, water deliveries will be reduced in drought and other low reservoir conditions;
2. a coordinated operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead determined by specified reservoir conditions that would minimize shortages in the Lower Basin and avoid the risk of curtailments in the Upper Basin;
3. a mechanism to encourage and account for augmentation and conservation of water supplies, referred to as Intentionally Created Surplus (ICS), that would minimize the likelihood and severity of potential future shortages; and the modification and extension of the Interim Surplus Guidelines (ISG) through 2026.

Defining resevoir conditions
ROD; pages 5 & 6

1. A “Normal Condition” exists when the Secretary determines that sufficient mainstream water is available to satisfy 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) of annual consumptive use in the Lower Division states (Arizona, California, and Nevada). If a state will not use all of its apportioned water for the year, the Secretary may allow other states of the Lower Division to use the unused apportionment, provided that the use is authorized by a water delivery contract with the Secretary.
2. A “Surplus Condition”exists when the Secretary determines that sufficient mainstream water is available for release to satisfy consumptive use in the Lower Division states in excess of 7.5 maf annually. The water available for excess consumptive use is surplus and is distributed for use in Arizona, California, and Nevada pursuant to the terms and conditions provided in the ISG. The current provisions of the ISG are scheduled to terminate in 2016. In general terms, the ISG link the availability of surplus water to the elevation of Lake Mead. When Lake Mead is full and Reclamation is making flood control releases, surplus supplies are unlimited. As Lake Mead’s elevation drops, surplus water amounts are reduced, and ultimately eliminated. The ISG also link surplus availability to continued progress by California in reducing its agricultural use of water to benchmarks established in the ISG. If a state does not use all of its apportioned water for the year, the Secretary may allow other Lower Division states to use the unused apportionment, provided that the use is authorized by a water delivery contract with the Secretary.
3. A “Shortage Condition” exists when the Secretary determines that insufficient mainstream water is available to satisfy 7.5 maf of annual consumptive use in the Lower Division states. To date, the Secretary has never made such a (determination, as flow in the Colorado River has been sufficient to meet Normal or Surplus delivery amounts. When making a shortage determination, the Secretary must consult with various parties as set forth in the Consolidated Decree and consider all relevant factors as specified in the LROC, including 1944 Treaty obligations, the priorities set forth in the Consolidated Decree, and the reasonable consumptive use requirements of mainstream water users in the Lower Division states. If a state does not use all of its apportioned water for the year, the Secretary may allow other Lower Division states to use the unused apportionment, provided that the use is authorized by a water delivery contract with the Secretary.

Balancing and Equalization of Storage at Lakes Mead and Powell
ROD; Section 6 on page 49

The Active Storage of water in Lakes Mead and Powell will be balanced before January 1st of each year. Active Storage refers to sufficient reservoir levels to keep hydropower operational. Hydropower production is a contract obligation. The water level below safe hydropower operations is called Inactive Storage. For Lake Mead this level begins at 1045 feet (27% of full capacity) and for Lake Powell this level begins at 3525 feet (35% of full capacity). Note: The ROD does not provide this level of detail. 

Intenionally Created Surplus (ICS)

Page 11 - It is anticipated that the maximum cumulative amount of ICS would be 2.1 maf pursuant to Section XI.D. of this ROD; however, the potential effects of a maximum cumulative amount of ICS of up to 4.2 maf have been analyzed in the Final EIS. This alternative also includes modification and extension of the ISG (Interim Surplus Criteria) through 2026.


Page ?? - Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program (LCRMSCP)


  • The ecosystem impacts to Grand Canyon during an equalization release at Glen Canyon Dam after the large snowmelt of 2011
  • The looming problems of salinity and other reservoir related water quality issues
  • Invasive species such as quagga muscles and New Zealand mudsnails
  • Non-native fish hatcheries and artificial coldwater fisheries below dams
  • The looming problem of reservoir sedimentation that will compromise flood control and water storage
  • Aging and incompetent infrastructure


  • The planet needs an enforceable international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Scarcity will change the foundations of governance and markets.
  • Consumption is bound to the limits of nature.
  • Technology is confined to the limits of nature.
  • The future of planning and zoning will include: recycling, rebuilding, removing, and relocating.
  • Adaptation to long-term climate includes global warming and global cooling.
  • Extraordinary precipitation from summer monsoons and strong ENSO cycles are not persistent through time.
  • Conserving water is important, but lost when water savings are immediately transferred to new consumptive uses.
  • Legal tools and opportunities already exist to better use, share and manage water supplies.
  • Water dedicated to ecosystem functions improves water quality and human joy.
  • The consensus process is extremely important but, eventually, bold leadership must be asserted.


Epilogue: Rivers of Empire. Donald Worster.

A prevalent conception for the water managers of the Colorado River Basin is that the system can only be changed incrementally by working within the established legal frameworks and the water delivery infrastructure. However, this preference toward gradual change is not time-scaled to be effective over time:

  • The Reclamation Act of 1902 is a social experiment and requires vigilant adaptation.
  • The Colorado River Basin was developed carefully and systematically at the front ends, but the problems identified at the back ends were ignored. Conversations about these contradictions, as we approach the limits of this social experiment, remain evasive.
  • Vested legal frameworks that harm the public trust are deeply embeded.
  • Ecological and societal collapse is indeed possible, because of the political paralysis that exists.
  • Infrastructure has limitations at minimum and maximum stages that must never be exceeded, yet exceedance is inevitable.
  • Because entrophy is a fixed law of nature, infrastructure is not forever.
  • This hydraulic society must develop new ways of thinking about how our political economy should walk more lightly on the land.


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