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The seven states have surrendered to a no action policy at a critical time in the history of the Reclamation Era

September 13, 2022
by John S. Weisheit

Shortage scenario of Trace/Run 21 for 2012 Basin Study compiled by the states and feds at flow reduction of -16%
Shortage scenario of Trace/Run 21 for 2012 Basin Study compiled by the states and feds at flow reduction of -16%

"Climate changes, their benefits and damages, and the benefits and damages of the actions that bring them about will fall unequally on the world's people and nations. Because of real or perceived inequities, climate change could well be a divisive rather than a unifying factor in world affairs."
Statement from the National Academy of Sciences in 1983.
"If water managers were MDs, they would lose their license to practice medicine."
Overheard in 2022 during oral arguments before a federal judge about the flawed management plans of the Colorado River.
"A silent acknowledgement that there is a problem, but a public determination that there isn't...that's the problem."
Overheard in 2019 during a river trip in Grand Canyon National Park.
"Very soon now, everybody will understand what its like to live on an Indian reservation."
Overheard on a Zoom Call in 2022 to organize a climate justice movement.
In my opinion, the Colorado River system crashed a very long time ago."
Overheard at a conference about the 100th Anniversary of the Colorado River Compact of 1922.
The person who invented dams, also invented dam failure."
Inspirational reading in a waiting room.


The seven states of the Colorado River Basin have always known a day of reckoning would arrive, especially when all their river augmentation proposals failed in the 1960s and again in the 2000s; and for reasons that all the surrounding river basins understand that these proposals to import water into the Colorado River Basin revealed an insatiable and covetous behavior.

Additionally, the price to desalinate seawater for the total deficits in the Colorado River Compact, the Boulder Canyon Project Act, and the Mexican Treaty, as written, would cost USA taxpayers 8 billion dollars per year, and that does not include the construction costs for the pipelines to convey this water to where it is needed, nor the electric generating stations to supply the energy for all the pumping stations this technology demands. In other words, fixing this problem with extraordinary engineering schemes will cost more than the total combined expenses of every single water project now exisiting in the entire Colorado River Basin. Not to mention it will take 30 to 50 years to complete these construction projects and at a time when all the existing reservoirs are about to empty out.

Have the seven states finally surrendered? Actually, they don't have any other choice. Since the seven states are totally unprepared and unwilling to create a water use reduction strategy at this critical time in history, this whole matter will likely end in the laps of the federal government with an expectation for a taxpayer bailout, or the judicial branch will receive a petition for some imaginary redress. Whereas, changing the baseline misinformation in the 1922 Colorado River Compact to reflect reality, is definately the adult thing to do for this river basin community (See: Sibley's Rivers).

Journals about correcting errors in the 1922 Colorado River Compact



Jack Schimdt, Eric Kuhn and John Fleck



If you look at the scenario planning graphic above, combined water shortages for the Upper and Lower division states (the 7 states) of the Colorado River Basin (CRB) could be as high as 7.5 million acre-feet (MAF) per year once reservoir storage is structurally exhausted, which this Reclamation presentation suggests could happen before Year 2026. This totally makes sense, because the surplus from a wet winter has historically been as high as 7.5 MAF per year. Regaining system reliance to normalize the natural variability of the Colorado River is just not posssible, once system storage is completely lost.

The current annual average of natural flow of the Colorado River at the Compact Point (Lee's Ferry, Arizona) is presently 14.8 million acre-feet (MAF). When the Compact was negotiated in 1922, the average annual yield was 16.8 MAF (natural flow data). The built-in water imbalance for the official administrative record is locked in at negative 2 MAF. The average system losses for reservoir and channel evaporation is also 2 MAF per year. The reduction in supply consequent to global warming, and for the last two decades, is also negative 2 MAF, and this heat will increase until the international community produces an effective climate adaptation accord that reduces geenhouse gas emissions. Morever, human delay tactics to address the new climate reality also helps the CRB deficits to widen.

The water managers can manage the ups and downs of a reservoir system if total system storage is maintained at 60% (the recommendation of 602a Storage Federal Notice & 602a Final EA) but if total system storage is downdrawn to 30% (the present state), then the states have no choice but to accept a maximum shortage call from the basin's watermasters, namely the Secretary of Interior and the Upper Colorado River Commission.

See: Modified graphic from 2004 Final EA for 602a Storage. Modified by Weisheit; the 2026 projection runs off the lower boundary of this Reclamation produced graphic.

In other words, what their intentional procrastination achieved, is a storage system at 30%. The managers did scenario planning when system storage was 65% (2012 AOP), did nothing and why the present situation is so egregious. Instead of choosing to be proactive about reducing demands in 2012, management choose wishful thinking for wet winters, even though their own scenario planning documents clearly demonstrated that reservoir rebounds are short-lived

See: Trace 21 graphic for reservoir elevations; 2012 Basin Study projections from 2010 to 2060.

I will submit that the managers deserve their self-inflicted conundrum. What this means for the communities that they serve, both urban and rural, is that they should begin to make contingency plans for themselves and fill this leadership vacuum.

Colorado River Simulation Systems (CRSS)

  • CRSS explained. Colorado River Science Wiki. Please bookmark this website.

A CRSS simulation of Trace 21 represents the historic hydrology of the Colorado River Basin (CRB) beginning in Year 1927. It is the perfect Trace for scenario planning to demonstrte how multi-decadal aridity will affect water deliveries to the 7 states of the CRB under maximum consumption. The persistent dry cycle from 1930 to 1980 was interupted by a wet cycle in the 1980s and the 1990s, and then interupted by severe aridity once again, in the 2000s and the 2010s.

The aridity from 1930 to 1980 did not really impact water deliveries because the system still had surplus water. After the development of the Colorado River Storage Project Act of 1956 and the Colorado River Basin Project Act of 1968, the system's surplus transitioned into a system deficit. Congress was aware that these new projects would negatively impact the water budget of the basin and initiated cautionary legislation in 1970 called Long Range Operating Criteria (LROC). The latest iteration of LROC planning is 2007 Interim Guidelines, which didn't work because this reservoir stabilization program was based on voluntary cooperation. Cooperation that we now know never existed.


Please take a look at this graphic from Reclamation and the 7 states. This is a scenario planning graphic from Appendix G of 2012 Basin Study:

I placed six red dots in this modified graphic that represents the real time elevation of Lake Powell as of January 1, 2022. As you can see, the real time position of this river basin is the 10th percentile bracket (drier than normal); the perceived normal position is represented by the 50th percentile bracket and obviously does not reflect reality.

In this scenario planning exercise Lake Powell is not producing hydropower for the rest of the century and all the runs end in the inactive pool for decades, and some scenarios stay in the dead pool position for decades. 

This scenario suggests a possible explanation for the behavior of the seven states to surrender on August 16th, 2022; to submit a repsonse of no action to Reclamation staff and put the onus on them to create the necessary solution. In other words, the states understand that stakeholder-driven solutions are not possible, and solutions that invovle water reductions to balance the water budget are just not feasible. Because they permitted infrastructure for new communities with a water supply based on fantasies.

Such stalemates are the legacy of intrastate relationships and why, for instance, the states divided this river basin into two parts (upper and lower) during the final negotiations for the Colorado River Compact in 1922, and also the litigation in the US Supreme Court case from 1952 to the Decree of 1964, and known as Arizona vs California. Both of these actions were just unhelpful to everyone, except the five tribes of the lower Colorado River (See: Decree of AZ v CA).

At present, the states conveniently claim lack of leadership from the federal government. Though this claim is partialy true, most of the angst should be directed is to the states and their inability to provide robust leadership and for the last 100-years and will assuredly persist into the future (See: 2022 comment letter of the 7 states). When the reservoirs go empty, and they will, their efficiency programs, their demand management schemes, and their shining new diversion projects, was money directed to bad choices at the worst possible time.

The water managers should have been proactive about balancing the water budget immediately in 1971, especially in the significant drought year of 1977, but the distractions of a wet cycle that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, is why two decades of time was lost to properly plan and prepare for system shortages. They essentially used a savings account provided by taxpayer revenues and then gambled it away.


There were institutions (below) that were paying attention and they provided appropriate and justified warnings, and based on existing scenario planning exercises and concerned about possible social disruptions caused by water shortages and water inequities.

1979 - Exerpts from GAO

  1. GAO recommends that the Congress establish a task force, consisting of the principal State and Federal executive agencies and representatives of water users, to determine the type of organization best suited to meet the basin's needs and protect the rights and interests of all concerned.
  2. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates that the basin will run out of water for future growth in 2020. Others are less optimistic, foreseeing an impendinq water shortage around 2000.
  3. Actually, a solution is needed before [2000]. It takes at least 30 years to plan and construct a water storage or distribution facility. Therefore, the planning and decision-making organization GAO envisions should have been in operation in 1970 if the most pessimistic estimates are valid, or need not be established until 1990 if the optimistic estimates are accurate.
  4. Predicting the future supply is even more difficuit when considering future demands on the basin's water. Litigation over Indian water rights may involve as much as one-third of the basin's water.

1983 - Exerpts from Scripps

  1. CLIMATE CHANGE AND WATER-RESOURCE SYSTEMS: 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 probably 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.
  2. The report by Scripps essentially repeats the recommendations of GAO, including Indian water litigation/settlements.

1997 - Excerts from Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission

  1. The basin states and Secretary of the Interior should agree on and formalize a cooperative management structure for the basin to address and resolve major water management issues affecting the public interest and which defers to state implementation and management wherever possible.
  2. The federal government should undertake a thorough review with the basin states and tribes over the next several years to determine how the various agencies could be reorganized to provide more efficient, cost-effective service in administering their programs without sacrificing the national interest or trust responsibilities. In addition, whenever feasible, federal agencies with water management programs and responsibilities should be organized along watershed or sub-basin boundaries.
  3. A centralized and integrated data center for the Colorado River basin should be established to collect and provide a comprehensive, reliable, scientific and economic database that is electronically available to all who need it.
  4. The Secretary, basin states and Indian tribes, with input from other interests, should agree on a plan for reservoir operation and surplus and shortage criteria that is equitable to all interests and meets federal statutory obligations and treaty obligations to Mexico.
  5. An interstate water bank should be established in the Lower Basin along the lines proposed by Arizona, with maximum flexibility for marketing and banking water, including tribal water.
  6. The basin states and local water managers need to develop stronger conservation programs to maximize conservation and reuse potential and more clearly define and regulate reasonable beneficial use. In the lower Colorado River basin, the Bureau of Reclamation and the states, working together, need to more clearly define and regulate reasonable beneficial use.
  7. Recovery plans for endangered fish in the Colorado River basin should be consolidated in one multi-species recovery plan and recovery goals more clearly defined. In addition, the three different recovery implementation programs in the basin should be coordinated.
  8. The Secretary should establish a policy which allows for more public input into the development of reasonable and prudent alternatives under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. The FWS should develop policies that provide water development interests with more clearly defined, realistic mitigation requirements that will provide the maximum possible certainty for existing and planned water development projects.
  9. An environmental trust fund should be established with dedicated funding for endangered species recovery, habitat restoration, and environmental enhancement in the basin.
  10. A Binational Commission should be established to review and make recommendations on the potential for restoration of the Colorado River delta and the environmental and economic benefits and costs of such restoration.
  11. The Secretary should commission a comprehensive study of alternatives to operation of the Yuma Desalting Plant and what should be done with this facility if it is determined not to be in the long-term interest to operate the Plant.
  12. Future salinity control programs should emphasize on-farm irrigation management, reuse and conservation, fallowing agreements, and retirement of marginal lands.
  13. The federal government should develop a more effective strategy and establish priorities for settling and implementing Indian water rights claims in the basin.
  14. The basin states and tribes should agree on a plan for integrating tribal water use, banking, and leasing of tribal water in state and interstate water marketing systems.


In the Upper Basin, Reclamation will:

  • The Department’s approach will continue to seek consensus support and will be based on a continued commitment to engage with partners across the Basin states, Tribes and the country of Mexico to ensure all communities that rely on the Colorado River will provide contributions toward the solutions.
  • Take administrative actions needed to authorize a reduction of Glen Canyon Dam releases below 7 million acre-feet per year, if needed, to protect critical infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam.
  • Accelerate ongoing maintenance actions and studies to determine and enhance projected reliability of the use of the river outlet works, commonly referred to as the bypass tubes, at Glen Canyon Dam for extended periods.
  • Support technical studies to ascertain if physical modifications can be made to Glen Canyon Dam to allow water to be pumped or released from below currently identified critical and dead pool elevations.
  • Continue to work with the Basin states, Basin Tribes, stakeholders and partners to be prepared to implement additional substantial releases from Upper Basin Reservoirs to help enhance reservoir elevations at Lake Powell under the Drought Contingency Plan’s Drought Response Operations Agreement.
  • Invest in system conservation and voluntary agreements.
  • Consider other operational actions to establish flexibility in Upper Basin operations at Reclamation facilities.
In the Lower Basin, Reclamation will:
  • Take administrative actions needed to further define reservoir operations at Lake Mead, including shortage operations at elevations below 1,025 feet to reduce the risk of Lake Mead declining to critically low elevations.
  • Prioritize and prepare for additional administrative initiatives that would ensure maximum efficient and beneficial use of urban and agricultural water, and address evaporation, seepage and other system losses in the Lower Basin.
  • Support technical studies to ascertain if physical modifications can be made to Hoover Dam to allow water to be pumped/released from elevations below currently identified dead pool elevations.
  • Invest in system conservation and voluntary agreements.
  • Consider other operational actions to establish flexibility in Lower Basin operations at Reclamation facilities.


  • Admit failure and commit to the necessary changes that must happen and accept that this transistion will be difficult and expensive.

Interview: Kai Rysssdal for The Markeplace - Colorado River Conservation Deal Negotiations. "Shapiro thinks the basin states could use a mediator. And maybe some group therapy to help them focus on the common threats they all face: looming water and hydroelectricity shortages that would affect millions of people."

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