Federal Water Tap, December 22: Colorado River – Pulses, Surpluses, and Cooperation

The Rundown

The Colorado River Delta is greener thanks to cooperation between Mexico and the United States. The Interior secretary talks about water. Jail time could be coming for the individuals responsible for the West Virginia chemical spill. Sea-level rise will increase nuisance floods.

“Our role is as a convener, making sure all parties are at the table working on joint solutions. A great example is the Colorado River.” – Interior Secretary Sally Jewel responding to Circle of Blue question about the Interior Department’s role in western United States water issues.

By the Numbers

43 percent: increase in greenness in portions of the Colorado River Delta wetted by a surge of water this spring.

Reports and Studies

Nuisance Floods
Cities in the Northeast will be the first to experience persistent nuisance flooding related to rising seas, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study. NOAA defined a tipping point for nuisance floods — when water rises at least two feet above the high tide line more than 30 times per year.

Wilmington, Delaware; Annapolis, Maryland; and Washington, D.C. have already passed this tipping point, NOAA concludes. The study forecasts when the tipping point will be surpassed for more than two dozen coastal cities.

News Briefs

Interior Secretary Talks Climate, Water
Sally Jewell, head of the department that manages many of the largest dams and canals in the American West, addressed the world’s largest Earth sciences convention last week. Jewell told those gathered in San Francisco at the American Geophysical Union meeting that social challenges can propel scientific breakthroughs. The space race that animated her childhood, she recalled, should have a modern equivalent.

“The moon shot we need to take now is climate change, the defining issue of our time,” she said.

Jewell emphasized that good policy is buttressed by data, noting that NASA satellites are measuring groundwater depletion worldwide.

“Groundwater is something we need to pay attention to,” she observed. “We don’t have as much as we thought we had.”

After the speech, Jewell took questions from reporters. When asked by Circle of Blue what the Interior Department’s role should be for water in the Western United States, the secretary said it is as a convener.

“We’re making sure all parties are at the table working on joint solutions,” Jewell said, adding that the federal government needs to be at the table too.

Colorado River Discussions
While Secretary Jewell highlighted the Colorado River as an example of collaboration, the federal government is beginning talks with Mexico about the next steps for the shared watershed.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor met with Mexican counterparts at the Colorado River Water Users Association annual meeting early in December. The talks are too young to produce many details, said Jennifer McCloskey, assistant director for Reclamation’s Lower Colorado region office.

“It’s too early to say what that [collaboration] will be,” McCloskey told Circle of Blue.

Colorado River Pulse Flow
Mexico’s cooperation was essential for a recent environmental restoration success story. The beleaguered Colorado River Delta, which ceased flowing to the sea more than a decade ago, is a more verdant ecosystem today thanks to a “pulse” of water that was released from dams in the United States in March.

The surge of water into the dry delta nurtured seedlings and increased its greenness by 43 percent in wetted areas, according to an analysis of NASA satellite images. The pulse flow was drawn from surplus water stored by Mexico in Lake Mead under two recent Colorado River agreements.

Mexico Surplus Storage
Those two agreements — Minutes 318 and 319 — allowed Mexico to store water in Lake Mead that it could not use because of an earthquake in 2010 that damaged irrigation canals. At the end of 2014, Mexico has 339,574 acre-feet stored in the big reservoir, an amount of water greater than Nevada’s annual use of the Colorado River. That number, however, will be reduced once the pulse flow accounting is completed, said Jennifer McCloskey, Bureau of Reclamation assistant regional director.

When asked if Mexico has plans to take delivery of that water, McCloskey told Circle of Blue that Mexico has not made any such indication. Withdrawing all of its storage at once, an implausible scenario, would cause Mead to drop by roughly three feet.

“The expectation is that the water stored there will remain there for the time being,” McCloskey said.

Freedom Industries Charges
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brought misdemeanor charges against four employees of Freedom Industries, the company whose chemical storage tanks leaked in January into the Elk River, shutting off drinking water for 300,000 people in Charleston, West Virginia.

The four face multiple years in prison if convicted of the Clean Water Act violations.

“Holding people accountable, as in the case announced yesterday, is an important part of deterring future violations, because it motivates other companies — and the individuals who make the decisions — to make sure they are following the rules,” Jennifer Colaizzi, EPA spokeswoman, told Circle of Blue.

Great Lakes Denied
The House passed a five-year extension of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which provides $US 300 million annually for ecosystems. But the Senate did not and will need to take up the measure again when Congress reconvenes in January. The program will still be funded next year, thanks to the December budget deal, the Associated Press reports.

On the Radar

Clean Water Needs
An assessment of infrastructure investments needed to meet Clean Water Act goals will be published in early 2015, according to Robert Daguillard, EPA spokesman. Updated every four years, the next report will reflect 2012 data.

Ski Area Water Rights
According to its regulatory outlook, published every six months, the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to have a final rule regarding water rights for ski areas operating on U.S. Forest Service land by February 2015. The draft rule proposes tying the water rights to the land so that they cannot be sold, even if the ski resort closes.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

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