Day 1: Overview - Water Policy, Conservation & Growth

Las Vegas
Reshaping Water Policy in the West, Las Vegas Doubles Down on Conservation and Growth : A Conversation with Pat Mulroy 

 When the Colorado River was initially divvied up among the states of the growing American West, Nevada was mostly an afterthought and Las Vegas, then little more than a stop on the rail line, a far cry from the major player it is today.  As the former general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Pat Mulroy, did more than perhaps anyone else to secure Las Vegas’s share of Colorado River water and, by extension, its current and future growth. Mulroy also ushered in an era of innovation in water conservation. We heard from her about the balancing act between using less water while bringing in more water users, especially as levels in Lake Mead, the city’s primary source of water, continue to drop. 

Day 2: Pipelines, Southern Nevada Water Authority & Lake Mead

Las Vegas
The Last Straw: Groups Push Back Against Las Vegas’s Proposed Water Pipeline
 

More than a decade ago, the Southern Nevada Water Authority floated the idea of a 250-mile long pipeline to tap aquifers in far eastern Nevada. The proposal was part of a long-term plan to meet water needs in a rapidly growing city and an insurance policy against Lake Mead’s dwindling supply. A collection of environmental groups, ranchers and Native American tribes filed a lawsuit claiming the project would have irreparable ecological and cultural impacts.  In 2017, a federal judge agreed, saying there was “no question” of adverse impacts and asking that the Bureau of Land Management address  “deficiencies” in some of the proposal’s environmental impact statements and mitigation measures. However, citing southern Nevada’s “intractable water shortage,” the judge allowed the proposal to proceed. Over breakfast we heard from some pipeline opponents about their concerns and where things now stand.

Supply and Demand in a Boom Town: How the Southern Nevada Water Authority Meets Las Vegas’s Unquenchable Thirst 

Formed in 1991 to address regional water needs in Southern Nevada, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) serves more than 2.1 million residents and thousands of businesses and industries in Boulder City, Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Clark County. For much of its existence, especially the last decade, the agency has grappled with severe drought and record-low water levels in Lake Mead. At the same time, it has reduced water consumption in the Las Vegas Valley by 30 billion gallons even as 625,000 more residents moved in. We got a demonstration of the WaterWorks and discussed where the water comes from, how conservation efforts have paid off and what the agency does to address environmental concerns.  

The River Card: Putting Water Back in Lake Mead

Like the last card in a poker game, the Las Vegas Wash is the last round in metropolitan water use in the Valley. Running twelve miles downstream to Lake Mead, the Wash was once a 2,000 acre stretch of wetlands acting as a natural filtration system. Today only 200 acres of those wetlands remain, making it more challenging to process the urban runoff, shallow groundwater and releases from the valley’s four reclamation facilities that account for two percent of the water in Lake Mead. We visited the wash to see ongoing efforts to control erosion, fight invasive species, plant vegetation and protect what wetlands remain.

Hoover Dam
Hoover Dam: Holding Back a Dwindling Reservoir

Built in the 1930s to hold back the Colorado River, the Hoover Dam created the largest reservoir by volume (when full) in the United States, controlled flooding and producing hydropower for three states. The dam stands more than 700 feet tall and 1,000 feet long, a monument to civil engineering and Art Deco sensibilities. But today, while no less grand a structure, the dam is producing diminishing returns. Lake Mead’s water levels continue to drop as drought and diminished snowpack upstream send less water into the Colorado River. We were lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the dam while we talked about water policy and planning in an age of uncertainty and scarcity.

Day 3: Water Leasing, Tribal Rights, Agriculture & Conservation

Parker, AZ
Powerful Water: CRIT, Leasing, and The Future of Water in Arizona

The Colorado River Indian Tribes (commonly known at CRIT, and comprised of members of the Navajo, Hopi, Mohave and Chemehuevi tribes) own rights to more than 660,000 acre-feet of Colorado River Water and are the senior rights holder in the Lower Basin. With just over 4,000 tribal members and 300,000 acres of reservation land, most of it in agricultural production, CRIT finds itself in a powerful position - with more water than they need. Currently CRIT is in conversation with the state, the governor’s office, CAP, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation about leasing more than 100,000 acre-feet of their allotment, and diverting it elsewhere in the state. CRIT sees this as a long-term boost to their economy, and some agencies see it as a solution to the ever-increasing demand for water in areas that predict ongoing development. But critics object to the secretive nature of ongoing negotiations, and the short-sightedness of encouraging development. As of now, unknowns abound: Will federal legislation legislation allows CRIT to lease their water, and if so, who gets it? How much will it cost? Will other tribes follow suit? In the meantime, CRIT is putting their water to good use. We visited a number of sites to learn about water infrastructure and agriculture on the reservation, including the The Head Gate Dam, The Aha Khav Preserve, The Scott Road Spill, and CRIT Farms.

Blythe, CA
New crop, new hope: A farm town seeks reinvention

California’s Palo Verde Valley is known for growing melons, cotton, alfalfa and vegetables. In 2005, the Palo Verde Irrigation District reached agreement with the Metropolitan Water District to fallow 35 percent of its farmland (about 26,000 acres) and allow the corresponding water to be used by cities on the coast. The fallowing didn’t just idle farmland, according to community leaders: It also gutted the farm economy, erasing jobs and depriving Blythe, the valley’s largest town, of its agricultural heritage. Now the valley is eyeing a new crop to help return Blythe to its former glory: cannabis. And even though the PVID holds California’s most senior water right and cannabis is now legal in the state, the path is anything but clear. The water needed to grow thirsty cannabis must be delivered by the Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency.

Indio, CA
Saving Water in a Desert Oasis

The Coachella Valley’s water use looks a bit different from its larger neighbors: Fruit groves and golf courses make the valley a winter getaway, and resort towns need water too. Coachella gets its water from a branch of the All-American Canal, and it employs a range of conservation methods, from lined canals that prevent seepage to micro-irrigation. The district also has a long-term water exchange agreement with the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies water to Los Angeles, San Diego and other coastal cities, while allowing CVWD to constantly replenish its own groundwater supplies. We toured the valley and took a look at some CVWD conservation techniques, and also heard from the Metropolitan Water District.

Day 4: Salton Sea, Environmental Justice, Agriculture & Imperial Irrigation District

Red Hill Bay Marina:
Salton Sea: Ecological Dream, Economic Nightmare

While some version of the Salton Sea has existed for millennia, the current iteration was formed by an accident of engineering, when overflows from the Colorado River breached irrigation infrastructure in the big flood years of 1905-07. Fed by agricultural runoff, by mid-century the sea had become both a recreation hotspot and a crucial stopover for migrating birds - and is now also a promising prospect for geothermal projects. But with less water on the landscape, not only is the Salton Sea shrinking, it’s facing other challenges as well: increasing salinity and pollution, ever-dwindling habitat, and a dry lakebed releasing toxic dust that threatens the health of nearby residents. At the end of 2017, a 15-year agreement to deliver water to the Sea expired - with no solution in sight. Despite several options on the table - and California stuck holding the ball - neither funding nor answers are forthcoming.  

Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge
Shrinking Sea, Growing Problem: Neighboring Communities and Toxic Dust

 The Imperial Irrigation District is part of a multi-agency air quality monitoring and mitigation project to reduce hazardous playa dust. We heard from Comite Civico del Valle about citizen science, impacts of air pollution on local residents (especially kids), and efforts to both educate the public and find solutions to this ongoing problem.

Imperial, CA
Basin Behemoth: The Imperial Irrigation District

Holding the basin’s largest single entitlement to Colorado River water, the IID irrigates roughly 500,000 acres of farmland via the All-American Canal. It’s a $1 billion industry in a place that averages less than three inches of rain per year. We heard about how IID controls water, and what the future might hold.

Imperial Valley may be best known for keeping grocery stores across North America stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables all winter long, but among its 90-some crops, cattle and alfalfa are top dogs by dollar amounts. Carrots, lettuce, sugar beets, wheat, cantaloupe, Sudan grass, onions and asparagus round out the top 10. We took a windshield tour of some farms that are practicing on-farm and system-wide conservation measures. 

Imperial Dam

Straddling the Arizona-California border, the Imperial Dam is actually a vast series of structures that remove silt and sand from the Colorado River and divert the remaining water to California, Arizona and Mexico. We toured the dam and learned about how it works and where the water heads next.

Day 5: Mexico-U.S Water Agreements, Colorado Delta, Wetlands Restoration

Morelos Dam
Good Rivers Make Good Neighbors? The U.S., Mexico, and the Colorado River

It’s fair to say the United States and Mexico have had better relations than they’re having now, and plenty of evidence can be found by looking at how the two nations work together on the Colorado River. Through a treaty signed in 1944 and updated numerous times, Mexico is entitled to 9 percent of the Colorado River’s water. Most of that water is diverted at the Morelos Dam and fuels agriculture in the Mexicali Valley, and much has been made of the fact that the Colorado River is so oversubscribed before it even reaches Mexico that it no longer reaches the Gulf of California. Minute 323, which became finalized in late 2017, is a commitment by the U.S. and Mexico to work together to solve water scarcity issues through 2026. It calls for Mexico to leave more water in Lake Mead and the U.S. to fund $31.5 million in water conservation projects in Mexico. It also sets a goal of increasing the 1,000 restored acres of riparian habitat in Mexico more than four-fold, continuing the restoration of the Colorado River Delta. We heard about the background of this agreement, the on-the-ground impacts, and how it’s imperative that the two countries continue working together.

Laguna Grande

Some 70 miles of riparian habitat still exist along the Colorado River in Mexico (even though the water’s gone), and a 2014 “pulse flow” that sent water all the way to the Gulf of California revived a long-desiccated river corridor. Beginning in 2006, the Sonoran Institute and partner ProNatura Noroeste began the work of establishing a 1,200-acre nature preserve along the river. So far the Sonoran Institute and its partners have restored more than 1,000 acres and planted more than 200,000 trees; its largest restoration site is Laguna Grande. We hiked through the site and heard about restoration efforts, community involvement, and future plans.

La Ciénega Santa Clara

La Ciénega Santa Clara began as a happy accident, when water too salty to deliver as Mexico’s allotment of fresh water was diverted through the 60-mile-long Wellton Mohawk Irrigation Canal and dumped on dry ground that was once the eastern part of the Colorado River Delta. That water has flowed for more than 45 years now at a rate of roughly 100,000 acre-feet per year, creating the largest wetland in the Lower Colorado basin at more than 40,000 acres. It’s home to thousands of birds and a critical stop along the Pacific Flyway. But with every drop of Colorado River water under scrutiny, talk of firing up the desalination plant in Yuma just won’t go away. Doing so would deprive La Ciénega of its water source and could undo decades of habitat restoration. We visited the wild moonscape that is the Colorado delta, and ventured aboard boats for a quick tour of the wetlands.  

Day 6: Tribal River Restoration, Water Management in Arizona

Yuma, AZ
Riparian restoration: Yuma brings back a diminished asset

The Colorado River at Yuma ain’t what it used to be. The historic crossing that carried fortune-seekers to California once forded a mighty river that sometimes swelled as far as the eye could see. In the 20th Century, dams up and down the Colorado squeezed Yuma’s river to little more than a trickle, choked by invasive plants that served as habitat only for vagrants. That changed in 2004, when a range of agencies led by the Fort Yuma Quechan (pronounced ket-SAN) Indian Tribe and the City of Yuma, began the process of restoring the Colorado to a more natural state. Today some 350 acres have been restored to native plants and created crucial habitat for native birds. We heard from the tribe and the city about how the collaborative project got its start, what they’ve accomplished so far, and what’s coming next.

Phoenix, AZ
Overland: Moving Water Through the Desert

The Central Arizona Project is one of the largest, most-expansive aqueduct systems in the country, bringing water 336 miles from the Parker Dam (remember Parker?) at the south end of Lake Havasu, all the way to central and southern Arizona. Over 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water moves through the CAP system annually to Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties, destined for agricultural use as well as municipal use in the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas - home to 80% of the state’s population. This is all well and good, but there are those within the system - most notably Governor Ducey and Arizona Department of Water Resources - who claim that CAP isn’t playing fair with its share of Lake Mead’s water. The ensuing turf war has pitted agency against agency, and has tumbled into a name-calling, mud-slinging, legislatively murky imbroglio - all of which is gumming up the works for the multi-state, basin-wide Drought Contingency Plan, which can’t be hammered out until Arizona resolves its internal turmoil. We first visited with CAP, and heard their side of the story.

Looking Ahead: Watering a Desert City

The Arizona Department of Water Resources is tasked with “stewarding Arizona’s water future, and ensuring long-term, reliable supplies to support the continued economic prosperity of the state.” Created in 1980 as a result of squabbles over groundwater between agricultural producers, municipalities, and mining interests, ADWR has spent nearly 40 years keeping a risk-averse eye on Arizona’s water use. But as populations grow, drought shrinks water supplies, and levels in Lake Mead come precariously close to triggering shortage measures, the mandate of shepherding Arizona into a stable water future becomes ever trickier. How will water availability impact proposed development in this rapidly growing region? What does the future hold for agriculture? How can Arizona find sustainable ways to share a dwindling resource equitably? We heard from ADWR, the mayor’s office, and other invested parties about how they think water ought to be managed now and in the future.

Day 7: Farming, Mining, and the Grand Canyon

Verde River
Finding Solutions: Economics, Farmers, and Beer

While all eyes are on the Colorado, it’s important to remember that the river doesn’t operate in a vacuum - it works within a complex hydrological system that includes many other waterways as well, such as tributaries like the Verde River. The Verde is one of the last free flowing rivers in the state - and, unless something changes, it’s predicted to slow a trickle by 2050, due to irrigation and groundwater pumping. Collaborative efforts up and down the Verde (which includes partners like The Nature Conservancy, Arizona Water Institute, Arizona Game and Fish, irrigators, producers, Friends of the Verde River, and homeowners) are attempting to stem the tide, implementing on-the-ground fixes from the kind we hear about regularly - protecting riparian habitat, improving instream flows while making sure producers have enough water - to more creative, market-driven solutions: the Verde Valley Water Fund seeks investments by downstream users (in, say, Phoenix) to support practices in the Verde Valley that will protect their source of clean drinking water, and the Verde River Exchange allows homes and businesses to reduce their water usage, and in exchange sell those water credits to producers who want to continue their level of use. So where does the beer come in? Turns out malt barley grows really well in the Verde Valley, and uses far less water than alfalfa, the traditional crop. We visited farms that have switched to barley, and heard from farmers and conservationists about water-conservation successes and challenges.

Grand Canyon
Mining Moratorium Holds, But for How Long? 

Uranium mining can have a direct impact on water -- The Orphan Mine, shuttered in the 1980s, contaminated an aquifer that sits hydrologically above the Colorado River near the Grand Canyon area. Conservation groups and area tribes have raised concerns that the same may happen with other mines, especially given that very little is known about how groundwater moves in that system. In December, courts upheld a 20-year ban on uranium mining near the canyon, but in a separate ruling, the 9th Circuit ruled that the Canyon Mine - located 6 miles south of the Grand Canyon - will be allowed to proceed. Meanwhile, in Washington, the Trump administration says the ban will be revisited. We heard from the Grant Canyon Trust about how mining threatens the regions’s ecosystems and people, and from industry representatives about their response to criticism.

Day 8: Telling Environment Stories Better

Telling Environment Stories Better

Following a blizzard and single-digit temperatures at the Grand Canyon, the group reconfigured plans for the final day, and spent the morning discussing environment stories - how to tell them better, how to incorporate indigenous voices more accurately, and how to best utilize new social and digital media platforms.

We made our way back to Las Vegas for our final dinner and closing-night ceremonies.