Federal Decision on Colorado River Management in the Third Decade of Climate Change-Driven Drought
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In the wake of extreme drought that has lasted more than two decades, and with the expectation that climate change impacts will increase over time, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is evaluating–in its Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for Near Term Colorado River Operations (DSEIS)–how to reduce water uses across the American Southwest to avoid a water supply crisis on the Colorado River. Because of potential impacts to birds and people, Audubon recently reviewed the DSEIS, looking carefully for indications of how the federal government defines impacts of their management actions. Existing shortage rules are set to expire at the end of 2025, and we expect a substantial re-evaluation and revision of Colorado River management at that time. In the near-term, the current federal proposal is focused only on 2024-2026 because of the very real prospect of a crisis unfolding in the next few years.
With the arrival of bountiful snow over this winter, the risk of a near-term crisis is diminished but we know from the past 25 years that this was one good winter amidst a long-term trend of increased heat, and declining snowpack and river flows. Now the question arises as to whether the federal government will proceed with developing these short-term rules as set forth in the DSEIS, whether the states that share the Colorado River will propose a different–and possibly more modest–set of water use reductions for the next few years, or whether decision-makers will punt management decisions until they are required in 2026.
Regardless of how the federal government proceeds with managing the Colorado River system for the few years before 2026, they need to factor in natural system and habitat considerations for the birds and other wildlife that rely on Colorado River. Understanding existing and future conditions as well as potential management decisions on the Colorado River and associated resources enables robust stakeholder dialogue about impacts, trade-offs, and helps us focus on where and how much to invest in solutions that mitigate impacts. As climate change destabilizes the Colorado River system, federal, state, local and private investments in solutions will be critical. But these resources–including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act–can only be deployed effectively if Colorado River managers are transparent and thorough in describing the changes we may see on the river and on the places, people, and wildlife that depend on it.
What are the guidelines under consideration?
The DSEIS published April 14, with comments due by May 30, 2023, assesses three scenarios. One preserves the status quo (shortage guidelines established in 2007 and the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan established in 2019), and two alternatives implement changes to water releases from Glen Canyon Dam and require additional significant cuts to water uses in the Lower Colorado River Basin (Arizona, California, and Nevada) but allocate those cuts differently. In one alternative, strict adherence to historic western water law’s priority system allocates most of the shortage to Arizona’s water users, while protecting water users in California. In the other alternative, shortages are distributed equitably to all water users with entitlements, contracts, or reserved rights to the Lower Colorado River mainstem, regardless of priority. In both alternatives, Nevada’s shortages are small, proportional to its very small, allocated water rights, and both alternatives avoid defining additional shortages for Mexico (appropriate, as the federal decision only applies domestically). To protect all the resources at risk in a water supply crisis, Audubon generally supports the objectives of the management alternatives to reduce Colorado River water uses. If we do not reduce our water use on the Colorado River, all water users and the American West will suffer.
What’s at stake?
Today’s abundant snowpack fortunately reduces the probability that implementation of the short-term federal action alternatives would have major impacts on these resources in the near term. Nonetheless, the DSEIS must examine impacts thoroughly, as a matter of federal obligation, as a bridge to longer-term management that will be adopted in 2026, and as a basis for defining where investments can help the region avoid a future of dust and despair.
In the long term, federal investments will be needed to increase the resilience of the Colorado River Basin to climate change, and the resources of the full federal government will be needed to mitigate the third-party impacts of aridification in the West. Audubon’s focus in the near term will remain on ensuring we understand how water use reductions may affect habitats, and on forging solutions that allow federal and state partners to make investments that keep them healthy.
Most Lower Basin habitats do not have their own water rights. Where habitats do have water rights, those rights and the management of those water deliveries may need to be strengthened. Where impacts are unavoidable, there are opportunities to invest in solutions, particularly where the impacts are well described. Colorado River-dependent habitats in the Lower Basin are already shaped by massive-scale human interventions, both inadvertent and planned. Additional, intentional management–fueled by investments now possible with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act–can help to ensure these habitats continue to support the birds and other wildlife that depend on them.
Grand Canyon: Of all the Colorado River’s iconic places, the Grand Canyon towers above the rest. It is a National Park, a sacred space for multiple Native American Tribes, a recreational resource that generates billions of dollars, and important habitat for dozens of species including California Condors and Southwestern Willow Flycatchers. Management of Colorado River flows in the Grand Canyon is subject to both the Grand Canyon Protection Act (a federal law enacted in 1992) and the federal Grand Canyon Long Term Environmental Management Program.
With federal alternatives for Colorado River management that consider the prospect of significantly modified annual flow volumes from the Glen Canyon Dam just upriver, the DSEIS should (but does not) give consideration to impacts on the environmental, cultural, and recreational resources in the Grand Canyon. As climate change depletes Colorado River flows, it will be important to figure out how to ensure Glen Canyon Dam releases continue to include some of the tools developed to protect these important resources, such as short-duration, high flow releases that prevent non-native fish from entering the Grand Canyon and that are important to sustaining beaches that buffer important cultural resource sites and are used by Grand Canyon boaters.
Lower Colorado River Mainstem: Below Hoover Dam, the river is so controlled that it no longer forms abundant floodplain wetlands and forests; nearly all valuable native habitat existing today is made and managed by people. For the past 20 years, a collaborative program of state and federal governments and water users known as the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program Habitat Conservation Plan (LCR MSCP), has restored habitats on the Lower Colorado River mainstem to help no fewer than 27 species of birds, wildlife and plants that are in trouble, as required by the Endangered Species Act. The DSEIS explores whether the LCR MSCP needs to expand to ensure adequate compliance under changed river operations and finds that modest additions may be needed to supplement wetlands habitats. That is important, and we expect to see even more need for the LCR MSCP to increase acreage of native habitats in the future.
However, Audubon has a near-term concern about the viability of existing habitats that the DSEIS does not address. These habitats were created as mitigation for riparian, backwater and wetland habitats lost in the wake of management decisions made regarding the Lower Colorado River between 2005 and 2055, with investments of hundreds of millions of dollars. The DSEIS states that reduced flows under the alternatives may also result in less water available for implementation of conservation actions associated with the LCR MSCP, but does not address how these habitats may change. Without a consistent and secure water supply, these habitats that are vital to Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and dozens of other species cannot be sustained, and eventually will disappear, yet the draft federal analysis does not identify the impact of water shortages at these sites. The LCR MSCP’s purpose is not only to develop restored habitats along the Lower Colorado, but also to maintain their health. The prospect of water shortages impacting the health of these habitats is a wake-up call that can be addressed through securing water supply for these sites and ensuring site management that keep them healthy.
The Lower Mainstem Colorado River is also home to three National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) that have federal reserved water rights. It appears that the NWR water rights may be subject to shortages, but these shortages are not discussed in the DSEIS nor are their impacts. For the sake of the birds and wildlife that depend on these all-to-rare remnant habitats on the Lower Colorado, we would like to have honest information about how they would be affected and how we can ensure no further harm to them.
Salton Sea: Nearly all water supplying the Salton Sea runs off farms that use Colorado River water in the Sothern California water districts of the Imperial and Coachella Valleys. The DSEIS proposed alternative for equitably reducing Colorado River water uses includes the prospect of involuntary shortages for these water districts, and inexplicably fails to consider impacts at the Salton Sea.
Fortunately, California has already created a Salton Sea habitat mitigation program, and Congress has already appropriated $250 million for Salton Sea habitat; the federal analysis needs only to quantify the incremental impact of the alternatives at the Salton Sea. The mechanisms for mitigation already exist, but the scale of mitigation needed with the proposed federal alternatives must be defined.
The Ci?nega de Santa Clara–just south of the U.S. border–is the largest remaining wetland in the mostly desiccated Colorado River Delta. Hundreds of thousands of waterbirds use the Ci?nega as winter habitat, and it supports 75% of all Yuma Ridgway’s Rails, an endangered bird that hides in the reeds. While the Ci?nega de Santa Clara is located in Mexico, it receives some 90% of its inflows from Colorado River water first used to irrigate farms in the region of Yuma, Ariz. Both federal alternatives under consideration could reduce the water supply to farms in this area, leading to reduced water for the wetlands and the birds that depend on them.
Even though the Ci?nega is in Mexico, we need to understand how it will change with modified Colorado River operations. While the federal decision document carefully notes that Mexico and the United States will reach any agreements about how Mexico shares in additional Colorado River shortages in separate, diplomatic processes, that does not mean the domestic actions proposed will have no impact in Mexico, and the Ci?nega is a case in point. If we could understand the impact of changed operations at the Ci?nega, the United States and Mexico could use the existing collaborative framework on Colorado River management, as established in Minutes 319 and 323, to negotiate a solution that protects the Ci?nega, much as they did in 2010 with Minute 316.
Finally, Audubon has concerns about how the federal decision document assesses impacts of the alternatives that would leave irrigated farmlands fallow. The DSEIS analysis focuses on economic impacts of fallowing farms, clearly important, particularly for economically vulnerable farmworkers. The analysis also considers the impact of fallowed farmlands on visual resources in farm communities, where the use of Colorado River water has “introduced vivid greens into these landscapes.” However the DSEIS does not consider how irrigated lands in the desert also serve as surrogate habitat for birds that use them in the absence of native Lower Colorado River habitats. Nor is there consideration of conditions created when irrigated lands are fallowed and begin to emit dust, potentially impacting public health in communities where asthma rates are already high. The authorities and missions of federal agencies to address these challenges are broad, and can be found at the Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and elsewhere, and the DSEIS should quantify these impacts on communities and enable the full federal family to begin addressing them.
Audubon is looking carefully at all of these issues and more and will submit comments to the federal government by the May 30 deadline about these concerns. Fortunately, mechanisms for mitigation of impacts to Lower Colorado River habitats already exist, but the scale of mitigation needed with the proposed federal alternatives must be defined. As climate change continues to diminish the Colorado River water supply over time, water uses need to be reduced, and federal and state governments that play a role in managing the river should be considering the full range of impacts of their management actions. Doing this hard work now will protect the West in the long term.