Running on Empty? The Colorado River in Crisis

A combination of environmental issues, states’ authority, and individual water rights linger over the future of the Colorado River. Recently, The Denver Post published an article that called on the incoming Trump administration to protect the Colorado River basin, which said that the country is extremely close to experiencing its first water shortage declaration. To better prepare contingency plans for drought and put water savings plans into place, The Post calls on federal assistance to help secure the future of this vital water supply.

Years of drought affecting the Western states have had a major impact on the river’s water supply, as well as the major water reserves that it stocks. States have difficulty in rolling back water usage as well, as many states continue to count the actual river water as a separate entity from the groundwater reserves, essentially double-counting the available water for use. As the population is set to continue its growth in the major western cities, is there a way federal and state governments work to improve the life of this vital river?


Problems facing the Colorado River

At 1,450 miles, the Colorado River supplies water to nearly 40 million people and traverses the landscape of seven Western states – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Nearly 70 percent of the residents of these states rely on the Colorado River for their water supply. This is all in addition to supporting 15 percent of the nation’s food supply and filling two of its largest water reserves, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the most recent conditions place each of the seven states that rely on the Colorado in some level of drought that ranges from abnormally dry to ‘exceptional drought.’ Of these states, five are ranked among the top three worst categories for drought. In California, 93 percent of the state has been experiencing severe drought conditions, along with 86 percent of Nevada, 34 percent of Utah, 29 percent of Arizona, and 11 percent of New Mexico. Through its outlook for the first quarter of 2017, the Drought Monitor expects the drought to persist for nearly all of Southern California, large swaths of Arizona and large parts of Nevada (as well as a large stretch of the southern Midwest and southeastern United States).

As the Western states have experienced years of drought and dwindling water supplies, many state governments have allowed businesses and individuals to tap into groundwater sources. According to an article published by ProPublica in July 2015, nearly 60 percent of California’s water comes from underground, and nearly half of Arizona’s water supply is pumped from aquifers. However these two sources of water are linked and drawing water from one will most surely result in the eradication of the other.

The use of river water for other purposes in the West is a major factor that is contributing to the dwindling resources. As National Geographic reports, agriculture consumes 78 percent of the Colorado River’s water while municipalities and industry use the remaining 22 percent via diverted aqueducts and pipelines.  Many of the crops require water that is diverted from the river itself or drawn from groundwater sources. States like California grow water-intensive crops like almonds and rice, while Arizona’s continued growth of cotton typically requires 60 percent more water to grow than is required to harvest wheat.

Expected population growth links these separate issues and brings this problem to the policy forefront. In the Las Vegas, Nevada and northern Arizona area population is expected to grow nearly 25 percent from 2020 to 2030, and surrounding areas in southern Utah and northern Arizona are expected to grow between 15 to 25 percent over the same period of time. ProPublica expects the population in the Denver metropolitan area to grow by 56 percent within the next 25 years, which would bring its population to nearly 4 million by 2030. As these major population centers continue to grow, their reliance on the Colorado River to meet demands will further exacerbate the declining water levels.


Governing the Colorado 

Historically, claims to river and water rights in the United States fall under two systems: either 1) riparian water rights or 2) appropriation rights. In the West, appropriation water rights are much more common and were put in place to protect the first settlers who laid claim to river water from any latecomers. This priority exists during times of shortage, and appropriators (those using water diverted from the river) are only able to use the water that is needed, which means excess must be returned to the source. In other words, use it or lose it.

To complicate matters, Western states are currently operating at a water deficit, in that there is an over-allocation of river water. This problem began in the 1920s, when water was divvied up between the Colorado River states to keep any one populous state from taking complete ownership. However, this was done by calculating the flow based on an abnormally wet year, with an 18 million acre-feet river flow with nearly 4.8 trillion gallons of water. Within a few years the river had only a 12 million acre-feet flow, but this did not stop the breakdown of river water among the several states. In 2015, Scientific American reported that 16.5 million acre-feet of water flow had been allocated among the states, yet the river had been flowing at a rate of 12.4 million acre-feet per year.

Why is the over-allocation continuing to plague Western states? Water politics in the West have taken on a ‘third rail’ aspect, in that changing the status quo is politically risky and therefore not always viable. For example, two of the states shown to be suffering from severe drought conditions – California and Arizona – still continue to count groundwater resources as separate from the river resources, which essentially double-counts the water available for use. In California, while recent legislation did begin to regulate the withdrawal of groundwater it did not address the interconnection between groundwater and surface water. In fact, the legislation prevents state regulators from addressing the interconnection between both sources of water for local plans until 2025.


What happens next?

As the new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, oversees the Bureau of Reclamation and US Geological Survey, both of which enforce federal laws over the Colorado River. As a Congressman, Zinke was a supporter of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, and while he has advocated for a review of “job-killing regulations” he does support infrastructure improvements for the National Park Service. To many, Zinke’s opposition to regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and his stance on climate change is troubling and may not help in the long run to improve conditions with the Colorado River.

There is a potential for federal action here. Since states have tied their own hands when it comes to addressing the relationship between groundwater and river water, management at the federal level could tackle this challenge. New management at the could direct conservation efforts; for example farmers can be incentivized to grow alternative crops that require less water for growth through subsidies dispersed at the federal level. Federal agencies can also consistently measure water flow and issue guidance to direct state agencies to use this data in their allocation of resources.

In a recent letter to the new Secretary, Latino leaders from Western states requested his leadership on three key priorities related to the Colorado River. They included working with Governors to balance the water levels in the lower basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada), collaborating with the Mexican Ambassador to ensure the continuation of adequate water levels in Lake Mead to support water for their shared environment, and using market-based tools and collaborative solutions to ensure the water supply. During his confirmation hearing, Zinke alluded to the collaboration between his department and the basin states, and the U.S. already has an agreement with Mexico to ensure water levels.

In addition to these recommendations, Congress could push legislation to clearly define the linkage between groundwater and river water to prevent double counting and find a balance to the ‘use it or lose it’ problem that comes with appropriation rights, perhaps through a regulated market system to sell access to unused resources. Major cities and urban areas could be directed to come up with their own conservation plans and require businesses within their jurisdiction to implement conservation efforts for industries that use plenty of water. Good performers can be incentivized to continue their trend and serve as a model for industries struggling to adapt.

While these major problems continue to hinder the flow of the Colorado River, they highlight the need for combined local, state and federal solutions to solve the problem. Through efforts to recognize the link between surface and groundwater, like in California, and hearings at the federal level to address the entire western water system, conservation and modernization efforts can begin to take root and bring life back to the Colorado River.

Image Source: Shutterstock

The Flint Water Crisis: Who’s to Blame?

The response, or lack thereof, to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan has dominated headlines in recent weeks. Until April 2014, the city of Flint used water from Lake Huron. As Flint faced a financial crisis, city officials opted to use the Flint River as the city’s water source, switching from using Detroit’s water pumped from Lake Huron to save $4 million per year. However, water from the Flint River contained higher levels of chloride, causing it to corrode plumbing materials and leach lead into the city’s tap water after officials failed to treat the city’s water with orthophosphate, a substance used to mitigate corrosive materials in water.

Soon after the switch, residents contracted rashes and complained about the water’s taste, color and odor. General Motors stopped using the city’s water because the company claimed that it corroded car parts. The city of Detroit offered to reconnect Flint to its water system, waiving a connection fee, but the city government refused the offer.

Despite high levels of lead found in multiple residents’ homes and in the blood of many children, Michigan officials and EPA administrators insisted that the water was safe. After government epidemiologists validated the high lead levels in children’s blood in October 2015, city officials told residents to stop drinking the city’s tap water. For nearly 18 months Flint’s residents drank and bathed in poisoned water while officials ignored the signs that something was seriously wrong.

Agency Failures

EPA experts found that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality tested the water in a fashion that drastically understated lead levels. This protocol allowed Flint River water to pass quality tests for far too long. The department continuously disputed reports that the water corroded plumbing equipment and failed to enact corrosion controls in a timely fashion. MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel repeatedly downplayed concerns and said that Flint citizens should relax and not worry about the water’s quality.

Additionally, the EPA failed to take a memo written by EPA employee Miguel Del Toral seriously. Del Toral’s memo expressed concern about the safety of Flint’s water. Instead, agency officials said that the report needed to be assessed and verified by other sources, which did not prompt Flint to take the initiative to improve its water treatment.

Health and Social Implications

Due to this inaction, Flint’s citizens face an array of health hazards. Since last fall nearly 200 children have exhibited elevated levels of lead in their blood. Lead exposure in children can cause neurological damage such as IQ reductions and attention-deficit problems. The EPA classifies lead as a “probable human carcinogen”. Aside from lead, other harmful materials were found in Flint’s water. Legionella, the source of Legionnaire’s disease and total trihalomethanes, potential carcinogens, were discovered in water samples.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver expressed her concern about the social implications of the water crisis. The resulting IQ loss from lead exposure may increase incidence of learning disabilities among the city’s youth. The mayor is also worried about the potential increase in mental health issues and the strain that may put on the juvenile justice system. Lastly, as adults begin feeling the effects of lead poisoning and other toxins, there may be larger demand for adoptive and foster parents.

Aftermath Responses

Congress held a hearing in which EPA administrators, state, and local government officials were blasted for their lackluster response. The FBI also announced the beginning of an investigation to determine if criminal violations of federal environmental law occurred.

During the latest Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders weighed in on the crisis. Clinton said that Governor Snyder acted like he did not care that Flint’s poor, largely African American citizenry drank contaminated water while Sanders called for the governor’s resignation.

Meanwhile, the controversy was mentioned only once during the GOP debate, when Governor Kasich was asked how he would handle a similar situation. In a CNN interview, Jeb Bush praised Governor Snyder for his leadership.

Emergency Manager Law to Blame?

In the wake of this crisis, Governor Snyder’s implementation of Michigan’s emergency manager law has come under much scrutiny. The law allows the governor to appoint emergency managers to seize control of communities in fiscal trouble. Michigan voters rejected the measure in 2012, but the state’s Republican controlled legislature reinstated the law less than six weeks later. Flint was under the control of Emergency Manager Darnell Earley during the water crisis.

Critics see an array of glaring issues that stem from emergency management. Some believe that emergency managers are more apt to make rash decisions that compromise public health and overall citizen wellbeing for the sake of cutting costs, as displayed by Flint’s water supply change. Many also point to the fact that cities, such as Flint, under the control of appointed managers are often majority-black. Those opposed to the measure view this as the disenfranchisement of African American communities and a gross usurpation of power from elected local officials that eliminate essential checks and balances. Lastly, due to their appointment by the governor rather than election, emergency managers are only held accountable to the governor’s office rather than the citizens in their respective municipalities. Widespread belief exists that if Flint remained under the control of local officials rather than an emergency manager, such reckless decisions could have been avoided due to greater levels of accountability and closeness to the situation.

Flint’s residents deserve a thorough investigation from the FBI and Congress must continue to hold those responsible accountable for their actions. Additionally, emergency management laws not only in Michigan, but also across the nation, must be further examined to determine whether such laws lead to increased instances of public health hazards, disenfranchisement, and lower quality governance. No community in the United States should have to suffer the way Flint has.

Image credit: Sam Owens/AP


Are Wildfires Spreading the U.S. Forest Service Too Thin?

Budgetary and resource concerns rise amid record-breaking wildfire season

Wildfire occurrences and vastness in the United States are on the rise, and with these trends, there are mounting concerns that the U.S. Forest (USFS) and National Park Services (NPS) are being pushed to their limits. Several policy solutions have been proposed to accommodate the growing financial needs of the USFS and NPS, but none have successfully passed through Congress.

Shifting Resources Amidst Funding Woes

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) along with the National Park Service (NPS) jointly address the nation’s wildfires through special task forces and prevention programs. Additionally, the USFS and NPS are responsible for maintaining federal lands through sustainability, education, and prevention. Wildfire seasons have been growing drastically over the past 50 years, and many question whether these services are being spread too thin.

Originally, the USFS and NPS focused on improving our nation’s parks through various programs such as reestablishing damaged ecosystems, promoting sustainability, preventing and fighting forest fires and maintaining recreation and wildlife visitor facilities. USFS has continued to strive for these goals, but due to an increase in wildfires, the need for wildfire suppression programs is outgrowing the Forest Service’s capacity and overshadowing other important programs that impact the national parks. Because the USFS has a dominant role in the fighting and prevention of wildfires, it receives a large amount of appropriated funds from Congress. Funding has increased annually; however, sequestration and the increased need for resources to fight wildfires has put a major strain on the services and other programs under their jurisdiction. The future of the USFS is clearly on an unsustainable path if no policy solutions are seriously pursued. First, more funding is needed to address the increase in wildfire occurrences. Additionally, it would be in the best interest of the USFS to consider restructuring to ensure all programs are treated as a priority moving forward.

Drier and Warmer: Global Warming and Wildfires 

Wildfires have been a growing environmental issue for the western United States over the past 30 years. Since the 1980s, wildfire occurrences have increased by an average of 7 each year. 2015 was the most active wildfire season to date with more than 8.8 million acres affected.


Source: World Resources Institute

Not only have the instances of wildfires increased, the wildfire season has extended from 5 months in 1970 to 7 months in 2015. Both the increase in incidences and duration of wildfires has been directly linked to drier conditions, a result of global warming. With surface temperatures consistently increasing annually, forests are drier longer than previously, and conditions are primed for fires to spread. The graph below from NASA’s Earth Observatory this surface temperature trend:


Source:  Earth Observatory, NASA

Ninety percent of wildfires are induced by people, and can turn into fast moving disasters with dry conditions. NPS and USFS both offer several means of wildfire prevention that include tree thinning, watershed restoration and fuel removal to avoid adding fuel to the fire. To compensate for the increase in fire incidences, the USFS and NPS have resorted to using funds in their budget allocated for other prevention and beautification programs such as watershed restoration, tree thinning or recreation projects to fund fighting unexpected fire disasters. This is problematic because by taking funds from fire prevention programs, it only increases the magnitude of wildfires.

Sustaining USFS: Policy Options

For both the USFS and the NPS, fund transfers between programs are allowed to cover additional costs that arise within the year. This occurs on a regular basis due to the increasing occurrences of wildfires and the unanticipated amount of funding needed to address them. Every time a fund transfer occurs to cover fire costs, it impacts other programs. During a 2013 Congressional hearing, Thomas Tidwell, USFS Chief, stated, “Each time the agency transfers money out of accounts to pay for fire suppression there are significant and lasting impacts across the entire Forest Service. Not only do these impacts affect the ability of the Forest Service to conduct stewardship work on national forests, they also affect our partners, local governments and Tribes.”

It was suggested that a separate fund be created to address the funds transfer issue. A new wildfire fund would operate like the Natural Disaster Relief. Additional funding would be set aside for years where wildfires are a major issue that creates a financial burden on the services. For several years, legislation that would create a Wildfire Disaster Fund has been introduced and then expired before enactment. H.R.167 and S.235 have been introduced in both the House and Senate in 2015, but have yet to be considered. These bills would create the necessary backup funding the USFS needs to accommodate the increase in incidences.

Finally, due to the rise in wildfires, the original purpose of the USFS has shifted to largely the nation’s wildfire prevention service. Although the services still make major improvements to national lands, it is evident that the USFS and NPS are spread very thin. Year after year, the USFS transfers other program funding to cover the growing costs wildfire prevention has inherited.

In June 2015, the USFS released their five year strategic plan, highlighting their ongoing commitment to “sustaining our nation’s forests and grasslands, delivering benefits to the public, applying knowledge globally, and excelling as a high-performing agency.” This strategic plan fails to address the major problems at stake. In 2013, Tidwell described the major obstacle for the USFS: “…how we adapt our management to anticipate climate change impacts and begin to mitigate their potential effects. We must discuss and find ways to fund programs while minimizing the effect on all Forest Service operations.” In order to reestablish USFS’s robustness and maintain wildfire prevention, more appropriations are needed. Additionally, establishing a separate entity outside of the USFS that directly and exclusively addresses wildfires would alleviate the financial and program priority concerns that are evident today.

Image Source: How Stuff Works, Science