Colorado and three other states could set aside up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell in coming years, enough to serve 1 million homes, under a far-reaching agreement to protect the drought-stricken Colorado River and water supplies for 40 million people in the American West.
“We are in a very dire situation in the Colorado River Basin and it could be more dire if this year’s snowpack looks like last year’s snowpack,” said James Eklund, who represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission.
Eklund’s comments came Tuesday in a conference call with more than 200 people, including water officials from across the Colorado Basin and members of the public. The call unveiled a series of agreements that will, if formally approved by Congress and others, constitute a first-ever basin-wide drought plan designed to avoid mandatory water cutbacks among those who rely on the Colorado River.
Seven states comprise the Colorado River Basin: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.
Among the agreements is a drought plan covering the Lower Basin states, which include Nevada, Arizona and California. A second drought plan covers the Upper Basin States, which include Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. Additional agreements that involve collaboration among all seven states, Mexico, Indian tribes with claims to the river, and the federal government are also included.
In the announcement Tuesday, the Lower Basin and Upper Basin states agreed to one another’s drought plans and to take steps to begin implementing them. The announcement has been months in the making, stalled at various times by political disputes.
“The Lower Basin has taken off any hold that it had in the negotiations, and we have done the same with them,” Eklund said. “We’ve progressed to the point where we’re holding hands now and moving forward together.”
The Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan has two components: The first involves new storage in Powell and an aggressive 500,000-acre-foot water savings plan, in which water users in each of the four Upper Basin states would voluntarily agree to reduce water use. Their saved water would then be stored in a protected pool in Lake Powell. Any farmer or city that contributes to the drought pool would be paid.
How those water savings would be achieved and who would pay for them has yet to be determined and each Upper Basin state would have to agree to participate, said Karen Kwon, an attorney with the Colorado Attorney General’s Federal and Interstate Water Unit who has been helping write and negotiate the agreements.
The second component involves a new operating agreement that would allow water to be released from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado, Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico and part of Colorado, and Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah and sent down to Powell in times when it is needed.
Officials hope the agreements can be approved by water users, the states and Congress and finalized next year, Kwon said.
“I think this is really hopeful,” said Melinda Kassen, senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Trust who also sits on Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee, a group that monitors water issues within the state and between its major river basins.
“We’ve been talking about this kind of account in Lake Powell for a number of years, but the Lower Basin would never consider it. They didn’t want us to be able to store water in Powell that wasn’t subject to [use by the Lower Basin]. That position has changed now. That’s what makes this announcement so important,” Kassen said.
The agreements come after a devastating year in which Colorado and other states saw some of the lowest snowpacks and streamflows on record. Flows into Lake Powell were roughly one-third of average and Powell and Mead are now just 44 percent full on a combined basis.
Since 2007, the Colorado River Basin has been operating under a set of interim rules designed to protect Powell and Mead from dropping so low that either power production or expected water deliveries would be impacted.
But those rules were based on much higher projected river flows than have materialized since then.
“The drought we’re in is actually drier than we had anticipated under the 2007 guidelines,” Kwon said.
As water levels in Powell and Mead have dropped, alarm among water officials has been rising.
Colorado and other Upper Basin states are legally required to deliver 8.23 million acre-feet of water from Lake Powell in any given year. Because this year was so dry, even more was needed, and under the 2007 interim guidelines the Upper Basin states had to release 9 maf from their dwindling supplies in Powell.
At the same time, Lower Basin states have watched supplies in Lake Mead decline as well. Under the plan unveiled Tuesday, these states would have to take additional steps to use less water and leave more in Lake Mead. All told, they hope to store an additional 100,000 acre-feet of water in Mead, an amount they hope will keep the giant reservoir operational.
Kwon describes the drought agreements as a Band-Aid designed to keep the river system functioning until a new set of interim guidelines are written in 2026 that better reflect the lower snowpacks the region is now routinely seeing.
How successful Colorado will be in creating a water-saving program is unknown. The trick will be getting Front Range and West Slope water interests on the same page. The state’s Western Slope interests have been concerned for years that they would be the first forced to give up water in a situation such as the one the state faces now.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs, said he’s grateful the process is moving forward. But he said the West Slope would have to see the state formally adopt a policy that would, in effect, guarantee that any water conservation plan is voluntary, that users are paid, that it is temporary in nature, and that it draws water equally from the Front Range and the West Slope. Without such a policy, Mueller said it would be difficult to support Colorado’s drought contingency plan.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
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