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Making Sense of the Latest Colorado River Proceedings

As news about the Colorado River trickles out in the press, we’ve received questions and noticed a little bit of confusion in the water world about the myriad of regulatory ongoings currently undergoing federal review. We’re here to break it down for you.  We work hard here at GBWN to follow these proceedings, and making sure that more folks in the public understand what is happening will help our communities and ecosystems alike.  

For all aspiring water wonks out there, we outline the three major proceedings that have been making the rounds recently on short and long-term management at the nation’s two largest reservoirs – Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

With major deadlines for public comment looming, we hope this is helpful for all who care and depend on the river. 

Glen Canyon Dam Long Term Experimental and Management Plan (LTEMP) 

Press Release

Initiation Date: October 4, 2023 

Upcoming Public Comment Deadline: November 3, 2023 

Expected Record of Decision: Late 2023, Early 2024

First up is LTEMP. This is a more obscure CO River policy proposal, but we can think of it as the canary in the coal mine.  

It comes from language in the Grand Canyon Protection Act of 1992 and other Bureau of Reclamation analysis from the late 80s/early 90s.  

LTEMP is meant to govern management for riparian life and ecosystems downstream of Glen Canyon Dam in Glen, Marble and Grand Canyons. In reality, it’s been managing a loss of those things in those places. 

Since the LTEMP Record of Decision in 2016 (the part of the NEPA process where they chose which management alternative to pursue among a suite of options), we have seen non-native fish like the Smallmouth Bass bypass Glen Canyon Dam and enter ecosystems where native species like the Humpback Chub exist.  

Smallmouth feast on the humpbacks, which thrive in turbid waters that aren’t too warm or too cold. The Humpback Chub is a threatened species as listed under the Endangered Species Act. Current management, undoubtedly, jeopardizes the status of the chub. 

The Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) describes the problem succinctly: 

As the water elevation at Lake Powell has declined, the epilimnion, or upper layer of the lake where most fish reside, has become closer to the water intakes for Glen Canyon Dam, meaning that nonnative fish are now more likely to pass through the dam and downstream into the Colorado River. The epilimnion is also the warmest, top-most layer of the reservoir and, when discharged downstream, increases the temperature of the river. These warmwater releases are creating ideal spawning conditions specifically for smallmouth bass, a predatory invasive fish species which poses a threat to the federally protected humpback chub and other native fish.

The management framework from LTEMP is also responsible for redefining High Flow Experiments (HFEs), which are run by BOR to send sediment downstream to support sand bar building in the canyons below Glen Canyon Dam.  

Sand bars are necessary for wildlife, ecosystem functions and for recreation like whitewater rafting – and there are fewer and fewer of them. HFEs aren’t working as well as the 2016 Record of Decision envisioned and in bad water years Upper Basin states don’t want to send the water down for HFEs, as it lowers reservoir levels and causes hydropower reductions. 

The open secret about LTEMP is that it was supposed to be a plan for mitigating impacts of hydropower production at Glen Canyon Dam, but because of resistance from states towards more HFEs and greater action to protect native species, LTEMP has turned into a means by which to justify hydropower generation at the expense of places like Grand Canyon National Park and endangered species like the chub. 

Bottom Line: The public comment deadline for LTEMP is this Friday, November, 3rd, for those who would like to push for more aggressive protection of the Humbpack Chub and the ecosystems down stream of Glen Canyon Dam. 

Post-2026 Colorado River reservoir operational guidelines and strategies for Lake Powell and Lake Mead 

Press Release

Initiation Date: June 16, 2023 

Upcoming Public Comment Deadline: DEIS expected in mid-2024 

Expected Record of Decision: Before December 31, 2025. 

Following the terrible water year of 2002, the federal government began reviewing the management of Lakes Mead and Powell. That process created a framework of river management today known as the 2007 Interim Guidelines.  

The 2007 Interim Guidelines offer a guide for responding to drought conditions and coordinating operations at Powell and Mead, and they’re set to expire on December 31, 2025—thus the creation of the Post-2026 Guidelines, to guide management into the end of the decade and likely further down the road. 

As with the 2007 plan, the post-2026 criteria will include management regimes for initiating cuts and other actions on the nation’s two largest reservoirs.  

The Bureau fielded public comments during their scoping process this summer and published a Scoping Summary Report – the sum of these comments — earlier this month. 

GBWN would love to see the Bureau implement a regime where we focus on filling Lake Mead first- aptly known as “Fill Mead First.” (Learn more about it here and read about the looming threats to the entire CO River system as Lake Powell levels decline here.) 

There will be other considerations too, like implementing curtailments and reductions throughout the Upper and Lower Basins and making good on what’s owed to tribal water rights holders who are senior to all others in the basin –– though not yet recognized as such with wet water.  

To understand our perspective, read what we wrote in pre-scoping comments earlier this year, and scoping comments this summer. 

We expect a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) to come out sometime around spring-2024. The public will then be able to review and comment for a period that will likely last at least 90 days.  

The questions here are plentiful: How will BOR address Glen Canyon Dam? How will BOR address trigger levels for Lower Basin cuts? How will BOR address Upper Basin consumptive uses (the federal government isn’t the water master in the Upper Basin. It is in the Lower Basin, per the Arizona vs California ruling) –– how would curtailments look? Will BOR address the invasive smallmouth bass? Will BOR address tribal water rights and the inherent disparities? Will this process force Congress to appropriate more money? Could more wet winters skew thinking about the future? What type of hydrologic scenarios will BOR run ie will 9MAF or 10 MAF natural flow runs be the low-end?  How will Mexico be addressed?

Bottom Line: In today’s increasingly dry climate, we have some big questions to answer and likely, big changes to make in how we manage the Colorado River System to adapt to an arid future. Keep an eye out for the upcoming DEIS in 2024 for an opportunity to submit comments. 

 Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for Near-term Colorado River Operations 

Press Release

Initiation Date: November 17, 2022 

Upcoming Public Comment Deadline: December 11, 2023 

Expected Record of Decision: Early 2024 

As we told news outlets across the country last week, this ongoing regulatory review is more of a pat on the back rather than a hard look.  

Last year, before we understood the full extent of El Niño and the record precipitation that was coming to the West, the federal government announced it would undertake an environmental review of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, in response to the extreme drought conditions and record low reservoir levels of late 2022.  

However, Mother Nature and Congress delivered. A flood of water and federal funds (to the tune of $1.2 billion) helped spark an agreement among the Lower Basin states (AZ, CA, NV) states to cut use by 3 million acre-feet between now and 2026. 

This nullified a real need for analysis, but the federal government was obligated to continue conducting an environmental review. In other words, the outcome is already known, and the federal government is just going through the motions. 

For more on the SEIS, check out our comments in Alex Hager’s story for KUNC and Brooke Larsen’s analysis in High Country News. 

Bottom Line: You can submit comments until December 11th, but it’s probably not worth your time. The cake is baked.  

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