Another deadline to establish new cutbacks in water use in the seven-state Colorado River Basin is quickly approaching on Jan. 31, as states continue their talks, as ordered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
In addition to the cutbacks, several other key decisions also lie ahead in the coming weeks, including how a $125 million, broad-based water conservation pilot program would operate, whether a permanent water conservation program known as demand management could work among the Upper Basin states, and how the third-year of an emergency drought plan, known as the Drought Response Operations Agreement, will function this spring and summer.
All are tied to reducing short-term and long-term demands on the drought-strapped river as part of a five-point plan put forward by the Upper Basin states last summer. In releasing that plan, the Upper Basin recognized its effectiveness would hinge on additional actions to reduce use in the Lower Basin.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation late last year had given the seven basin states until Jan. 31 to come up with a new agreement on water reductions, after an August deadline had passed.
Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said talks were continuing but that more work and specific plans from California, Arizona and Nevada would be necessary to reach an agreement and take action.
“The basin states, the federal government, and the tribes have been working collaboratively and tirelessly to find potential points of consensus on short-term actions to protect lakes Powell and Mead,” Mitchell said Monday at a meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board in Aurora.
“I continue to believe strongly that the Lower Basin states must take action to reduce their demands out of Lake Mead.
“We are moving forward on our commitments, but it is important to recognize that those commitments and that work alone mean nothing if the Lower Basin use continues as it has been,” she said. She also stressed the importance of considering what must occur in the Lower Basin before Colorado moves forward with widespread participation in the System Conservation Pilot Program.
The basin is divided into two regions. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin covers Arizona, California and Nevada.
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 by August, but no agreements have been reached. Now the states, along with tribal leaders and the feds are aiming to agree to cuts by Jan. 31. If no consensus is reached next week, it leaves the possibility that the federal government will decide how to make the cuts in the coming weeks.
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.
Since December, the water forecast has improved slightly thanks to heavy mountain snows in Utah and Colorado, according to Michelle Garrison, a water resources specialist at the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“Snowpack and runoff in all of western Colorado and Utah is quite a bit above average … but from here on, it could get really dry just like it did last year. So folks need to be prepared to plan for a continued wet or a sudden drop to really dry or anything in between as they’re looking forward,” Garrison told the board.
Now 23 years into a megadrought widely believed to be the worst in 1,800 years, the highly developed river system is on the brink of collapse, with lakes Powell and Mead falling dangerously close to dead pool, a water level so low that, if it is reached, Powell won’t be able to produce hydropower and Mead won’t be able to serve the millions of people in the Lower Basin who rely on the river.
The river begins in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains, high in Rocky Mountain National Park. It gathers water from major tributaries in Colorado, such as the Yampa and Gunnison rivers, and throughout the Upper Basin, accumulating some 90% of the streamflow that it will provide throughout the seven-state river system thanks to the runoff from the Upper Basin’s deep mountain snows.
But since 2002, those mountain snowpacks have been shrinking, crushed by warming temperatures and fewer snow days.
Beginning in July of 2021, the U.S. Department of the Interior ordered, for the first time, emergency releases from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs. But that has done little to restore levels, although the releases are credited with providing some protection to the power supply.
While Lower Basin states have been forced to begin cutting back water use under a special set of operating guidelines and drought plans approved respectively in 2007 and 2019, negotiations in recent months have failed to achieve the federally ordered cutbacks. Upper Basin states are considering new programs and actions to further cut Upper Basin water use, but are hoping for additional Lower Basin commitments before taking additional water use reductions of their own.
At the same time, the drought has continued, and this winter could be dry once again, particularly in the Lower Basin. In response, last week, the federal government announced it would expedite negotiations on a new set of operating guidelines designed to protect lakes Powell and Mead to help restore the river.
Under the terms of the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the river’s supplies are divided equally between the Upper and Lower basins. But because the Upper Basin states have smaller and fewer reservoirs than the Lower Basin, users here have had to cut back their water use as the drought has continued. At the same time, Lower Basin users have been able to rely on stored supplies in Powell and Mead, at least until now.
Looking ahead, Jessica Brody, who represents the Metro Basin on the CWCB Board of Directors, said she would like to see more time taken before critical Upper Basin decisions are made, including participation in the $125 million System Conservation Pilot Program, which is accepting applications through Feb. 1.
“I’m a little bit concerned about the Feb. 1 deadline when we don’t yet know whether the Lower Basin will be able to come to the table in terms of reducing the demands in the Lower Basin,” Brody said.
Corrections: A previous version of this story mistakenly stated that the Colorado River Basin states were likely to miss a Jan. 31 deadline established by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to propose new water use cuts. There is no evidence that they will not reach that deadline at this time. A previous version of the story also stated that Jessica Brody represents the South Platte Basin on the CWCB Board of Directors. Brody represents the Metro Basin.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Caitlin Coleman is a contributor to Fresh Water News and is editor of Water Education Colorado’s Headwaters Magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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