What Does It Mean that Lower Basin Has Been Called the “Most Endangered River”?

On April 11th, the conservation group American Rivers released America’s Most Endangered Rivers 2017, this year’s installment of its trademark report that focuses and prioritizes the group’s advocacy work for the next year. Topping this year’s list is the Lower Basin of the Colorado River.

American Rivers selects the rivers for its Most Endangered Rivers report based a major decision that effects the well-being of the river coming in the next year, the river’s significance to communities and the environment, and “the magnitude of the threat to the river…”

The Colorado River Basin, which was divided into two parts, the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin by the 1922 Colorado River Compact, has been called the “Lifeblood of the Southwest.” It provides significant water supplies for municipal, agricultural, tribal, environmental, and recreational uses throughout the seven Basin States (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) and has the capacity to generate 4200 megawatts of power through hydropower facilities.

In the Lower Basin (Arizona, California, and Nevada), the river supports $900 billion in economic activity—meeting municipal water needs for a population of 30 million and agricultural water needs for farmland that produces $600 million in crops annually and supporting tourism, recreation, and tribal water needs. It also provides habitat for six threatened or endangered species and is a critical water supply for the Mexicali Valley.

American Rivers says that reliable water supplies, the region’s economy, and the health of the river are threatened by the Trump Administration’s FY 2018 budget proposal. The proposal would cut funding from the discretionary budgets of most executive departments. The agencies with jurisdiction over water—the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”), and the Department of the Interior (“DOI”), which includes the Bureau of Reclamation (“Reclamation”)—would see funding cut by a total of $8.7 billion compared to the 2017 continuing resolution. American Rivers is concerned that the cuts could impact programs such as Reclamation’s System Conservation Program, USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, DOI’s WaterSMART program, and Title XVI grants that support municipal conservation and efficiency. Funding from these programs is being leveraged to bolster efforts to keep water in Lake Mead and avoid a shortage declaration.

The State of the Lower Basin

The 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead (“Interim Guidelines”) specifies the trigger for a shortage declaration: if Reclamation’s August 24-Month Study projects that Lake Mead’s elevation will be less than 1,075 feet the following January, Arizona’s allocation is cut from the 2.8 MAF to 2.48 MAF, and Nevada is cut back from 300,000 AF to 287,000 AF. Further cuts are imposed to Arizona and Nevada when the projection falls below 1,050 feet and again at 1,025 feet.

In 2016, Lake Mead’s elevation dropped to a point not seen since the 1930s when the reservoir was filling. Water managers throughout the Lower Basin waited with bated breath for the August 24-Month Study, which projected the January 2017 elevation to be 1,080.02 feet. There would be no shortage in 2017, but a briefing on Colorado River System Future Conditions 2017-2021 showed near even chances of a shortage declaration in 2018 and even greater chances in subsequent years. Thanks to precipitation levels this winter that projection has improved, but threat of a shortage remains.

Lake Mead has gotten to this near-critical state because of four major stressors—population growth, climate change, drought, and a structural deficit. In 2012, Reclamation released the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study (“Basin Study”) analyzing the nature and magnitude of the water supply stressors. According to Reclamation, by 2050, population in the U.S. portion of the Lower Basin is expected to increase by 20 million people, with annual water demands increasing 5 MAF. Climate change projections show runoff dropping by 8.5% by 2050, and tree ring studies show that drought that has plagued the region since the turn of the century has produced the lowest inflows in over 900 years.  The most significant problem, though, is the structural deficit—annual allocations of water out of Lake Mead exceed the amount that flows into the reservoir each year by 1.2 MAF. As a result, the elevation of Lake Mead has been declining about 12 feet per year.

Efforts to Date

Water managers and other stakeholders have been working to slow the bleeding and avert a shortage.

In December 2014, Reclamation, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (“MWD”), Southern Nevada Water Authority (“SNWA”), Central Arizona Water Conservation District (“CAWCD”), Colorado River Board of California (“CRB”), Colorado River Commission of Nevada (“CRCN”), and the Arizona Department of Water Resources (“ADWR”) executed a memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) in which they established a goal to put 1.5 MAF to 3 MAF into Lake Mead over 5 years beginning in 2015 and committed to initial steps for the first 740,000 AF. 2014 also saw the launch of the Pilot System Conservation Program, which started with the signing of a funding agreement among Reclamation, CAWCD, MWD, SNWA, and Denver Water to provide $11 million in funding for projects that would conserve water to benefit the Colorado River system (rather than any specific user).

Efforts currently in development include the Drought Contingency Plan (“DCP”) and Minute 32x. The DCP is intended to overlay the Interim Guidelines and specify additional reductions in allocations to Lower Basin States. Arizona and Nevada would take deeper cuts sooner, and California would take cuts at the lower Lake Mead elevations. In addition, there would be a commitment to “protect 1020” and thereby protect the power generating capacity of Hoover Dam, and the federal government would commit to conserving 100,000 AF during shortage operations. Minute 32x would be the successor to Minute 319, the soon-to-expire treaty Minute that governs binational cooperation on the Colorado River between the United States and Mexico. Minute 32x would have a longer term than its predecessor and would continue or expand significant water management components. In addition, Arizona is developing an in-state agreement (“DCP Plus”) intended to conserve 1.234 MAF through compensated and uncompensated system conservation, development of Intentionally Created Surplus (“ICS”), and dedicating a portion of Central Arizona Project (“CAP”) excess water for additional conservation.

The crisis in the Lower Basin has also spurred innovation. A shortage in the Lower Basin would hit Arizona hardest, due its junior priority water rights. The Arizona Community Foundation has stepped up to address the problem by sponsoring the New Arizona Prize Water Consciousness Challenge in 2015 and the New Arizona Prize Water Innovation Challenge in 2016. The Water Consciousness Challenge “sought the best digital strategy to raise Arizonans’ consciousness about [their] water future.” The winner, Beyond the Mirage, developed a documentary about the state’s water future and tool that allows others to pull informative clips and produce their own documentaries. The Water Innovation Challenge sought an “innovative, scalable market-based solution” that would help the applicant advance water sustainability within Arizona. The winner, Southwest Water Campus, seeks to increase public acceptance of reuse water by holding a local craft beer competition using water from a mobile potable effluent-to-reuse facility. Other proposals included treating groundwater using solar heat, reducing potable water demands at Arizona State University by reclaiming wastewater for use in the campus cooling towers, developing a groundwater credit-purchasing program, and creating an electronic water exchange platform.

American Rivers’ Advocacy

By including the Lower Basin in its Most Endangered Rivers report, American Rivers brings its advocacy work to the table. Per American Rivers, “the report highlights ten rivers whose fate will be decided in the coming year, and encourages decision-makers to do the right thing for the rivers and the communities they support.”

Including its place on the 2017 list, the Colorado River, or a portion of it, has been included in American Rivers’ annual list in four of the last five years. In 2013, on the heels of the Basin Study, it was named the number one most endangered river in 2013 due to outdated water management. Advocacy was aimed at supporting funding and investment for efficiency, conservation, and infrastructure. In 2014, the Upper Basin was the number two most endangered river due to diversions. Advocacy was aimed at avoiding new trans-mountain diversions in the Colorado Water Plan. In 2015, the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon was the number one endangered river due to a construction project, mining pollution, and groundwater depletion. Advocacy was aimed at halting uranium mining in the area, completing a comprehensive review of local water sources before allowing the Town of Tusayan to expand, and urging the Secretary of the Interior to initiate a dialog aimed at finding an alternative to the Escalade Project, a proposed entertainment complex on Navajo Nation land on the eastern rim of the Grand Canyon. Opposition from the Navajo Nation, the nearby Hopi tribe, and the environmental community appear to have stalled the project.

The remaining nine rivers targeted by American Rivers this year include (in order):

  • Bear River in California, which is threatened by Centennial Dam, a project proposed by Nevada Irrigation District to meet future water demands and make up for a climate change-driven loss in snowpack storage;
  • South Fork of the Skykomish River in Washington, which is threatened by a hydropower project that is being proposed by the Snohomish County Public Utility District;
  • Mobile Bay in Alabama, which is threatened because a lack of water management efforts is allowing for the waste and overuse of water resources;
  • Rappahanock River in Virginia, which is threatened by fracking. American Rivers is calling for land use ordinances to ensure that public water supplies are protected;
  • Green-Toutle River in Washington, which is threatened by a proposed copper, gold and molybdenum mine;
  • Neuse and Cape Fear Rivers in North Carolina, which are threatened by the industrial agricultural waste from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the floodplain;
  • Middle Fork Flathead River in Montana, which is threatened by railroad transport of oil from the Bakken Shale. American Rivers is calling for the development of a safety compliance agreement between the Federal Railroad Administration and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad that would include site specific safety measures to prevent derailments in the river corridor; and
  • Buffalo National River in Arkansas, which is threatened by a CAFO that feeds 80,000 hogs per year. The resulting waste is sprayed on fields, and manure is stored in ponds causing public concern about water quality impacts to the country’s first National River.

American Rivers was founded in 1973 when a group of river runners and conservations come together to fight for wild, free-flowing rivers. Since then, the organization has expanded its work to include restoration of damaged rivers and protection of water supplies.


Hydrowonk (aka Rodney T. Smith, Ph.D., President of Stratecon Inc., which operates the Hydrowonk Blog) was a part of the team that proposed an electronic water exchange platform for the New Arizona Prize Water Innovation Challenge. Learn more about the efforts to bring the technological solution of an electronic trading platform to the water industry at www.nawex.co.

This entry was posted in Colorado River Basin, Hydrologic Risk, Water Shortages on by .

About Marta Casper

Marta Casper, Director of Research of Stratecon Inc.—an economics and strategic planning consulting firm—provides research support for all aspects of Stratecon’s services and is the Managing Editor for the Journal of Water, a quarterly publication providing in-depth analysis of water market activity and selected water policy developments in the Colorado River Basin, Texas and elsewhere in the Southwest. She also participates on teams dedicated to developing new ways to address water supply issues in the American Southwest. For more, go to www.stratwater.com.

9 thoughts on “What Does It Mean that Lower Basin Has Been Called the “Most Endangered River”?

  1. WayneLusvardi

    Funded for $8.7 billion? No. How do we know whatever the extra soft costs for conservation efforts are not already in the proposed budget? And why wouldn’t the BOR just reduce its authorized allocations as a way to incentivize conservation?

  2. Jai Rho

    Since dimes are made out of copper, a thin dime of federal funding is worth about what a penny used to be (now they are made out of zinc). If Trump gets his proposed budget cuts, the federal agencies with jurisdiction over water (EPA, DOI and Reclamation) will be reduced to pennies. You may have missed Marta’s explanation that existing federal programs will be threatened, and that more, not less, must be done to address structural issues such as population growth and climate change.

    Except for one $11 million program to benefit the Colorado River system, the state and local efforts described by Marta are focused on their own water allocations, not the Colorado River which is declining in volume.

    While water conservation at every level is a very important factor overall water management and supply, it is not possible to conserve what no longer exists. That may be why the main topic of Marta’s article is not water conservation, but the highly endangered status of the Colorado River.

    And about your question, “billions for what?” If Congress passes Trump’s proposed budget, those billions will not be going back into your pocket. $54 billion will be going to defense contractors and the military as a down payment on more wars. Who knows, maybe the new tanks and ships will deliverTrump bottled water.

  3. Jai Rho

    Trump has the answer: Build a wall and stop 1.5 million AF from flowing to Mexico every year. On the other hand, it looks like Texas is going to lose the Rio Grande when the wall shuts off the Rio Conchos.

    1. WayneLusvardi

      So by my calculation MWD of So. Cal. and Arizona Dept. of Water Resources would conserve 4,234,000 acre feet of water. Neither are funded by the Bureau of Reclamation or Department of Interior which would suffer an $8.7 billion budget cut. Moreover, dividing $8.7 billion by 4,234,000 acre feet of saved water suggests it would cost a mind boggling $2,055 per acre foot to conserve that much water.

    2. Marta L. Weismann Post author

      Thank you for your comments.

      I assume that your reference to Trump’s wall was a tongue-in-cheek statement. But it points to an interesting problem: the Southwest faces two major issues that at face value seem to be unrelated. Yet solutions seem to be inextricably linked.

      Both problems are priority issues that need to be addressed. Arriving there will not be easy, and the dialog will likely be contentious. We’ve already got one lawsuit. The Center for Biological Diversity and Congressman Grijalva (whose district includes 300 miles along the border) have filed a suit calling for environmental review of the proposed border wall. I have not yet read the pleading, but I plan to do so soon.

  4. WayneLusvardi

    Thanks Marta for bringing this to our attention. It looks like water conservation doesn’t need on thin dime of Federal funding, as the conservation efforts you cite do not require such. Billions for what?

    1. Marta L. Weismann Post author

      Thank you for your comment, Wayne.
      I agree that there is a lot that can be done without federal funding. But I would not go as far as to say that we can do what needs to be done with zero federal dollars. The federal government is a party to existing efforts (such as the Lower Basin MOU and the Pilot System Conservation Program) and to efforts in development (i.e. the DCP and Minute 32x). And, as the manager of the Colorado River system, the federal government will by necessity have role in resolving the structural deficit (and other systemic issues that arise). That work needs to be funded.

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