Confab: Feds say Colorado River flows will continue to plummet, threatening releases from Powell

Las Vegas: As the Colorado River crisis deepens, a new federal analysis of flows into Lake Powell shows that they will continue to plummet through 2025, before beginning to recover.

James Prairie, a hydrologic engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said flows are likely to be just 24% of average this year, making it unlikely under various planning scenarios that Powell will have enough water for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming to meet their legal commitment to deliver a minimum of 7 million acre-feet of water to the Lower Basin. That amount is already reduced from the historical delivery obligation due to low flows on the river.

The news comes as more than 1,300 of the river’s most powerful water users gather this week in Las Vegas for the Colorado River Water Users Association Conference, the largest annual confab on the river.

This year it has sold out for the first time in its history, according to Crystal Thompson, communications manager at the Central Arizona Project, a major user of Colorado River water and a conference organizer.

In the water world, stream and reservoir measurements are based on what’s known as the water year, which begins Oct. 1. Prairie said Upper Basin flows in water year 2023 are expected to be just 24% of average. In 2024 they are likely to improve, reaching 58% of average, before rising to 61% of average in 2025.

But because Lake Powell is so low — it’s just 23% full with roughly 5.5 million acre-feet of water stored right now — it won’t be able to recover enough water to keep those releases going, Prairie said. And that means that users across the seven-state Colorado River Basin will see more dramatic cutbacks in their water supplies to try to protect remaining supplies in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead, farther downstream.

The basin, mired in a drought believed to be the worst in 1,200 years, is divided into two regions. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin covers Arizona, California and Nevada.

Colorado River Basin. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

Colorado River Basin. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

During a meeting of the Upper Colorado River Commission held Wednesday during the confab, hundreds packed a conference room to hear the reports. The commission works to ensure the Upper Basin states receive their allocation of Colorado River Water and that they meet their obligations to send water to the Lower Basin.

“We all know that we are gathering here today in a time of unprecedented crisis in the basin,” said Anne Castle, a Colorado water attorney who President Biden appointed to serve as federal chair of the commission in September 2022.

“We all know we have a huge imbalance between supply and demand and we also know we don’t have much time to correct it,” Castle said.

Last summer U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered the states to figure out how to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, but no agreements have been reached, leaving the possibility that the federal government will decide how to make the cuts.

Touton urged water users to continue working together to find a solution to the crisis.

As lakes Powell and Mead have dwindled, all seven states have had to get by with less water and federal forecasts indicate that is likely to be the case for several more years.

In Colorado, major cutbacks have already occurred.

Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the state has already had to temporarily dry up thousands of acres of irrigated farmland because of the crisis.

Mitchell said that the Upper Basin used 25% less Colorado River water in 2021 than it did in 2020 because of the drought.

Critical negotiations among the states are underway to reach a consensus on how to slash water use enough to keep Lake Powell full enough to continue producing power.

“The gap is big enough that no one basin, no one state, no one sector of the economy can solve it alone,” Castle said.

“The real enemy here is not another basin, or another state or alfalfa or golf courses. It is climate-change-induced lower flows. It’s not an enemy that we can defeat. It is one that we have to learn to live with,” she said.

Correction: Becky Mitchell said the Upper Basin states, not just Colorado, reduced water use 25% in 2021.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.

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