Colorado is spending $1.7 million to determine if it should create an ambitious water-saving program that would help boost supplies in Lake Powell and protect the state against a future demand for its water from California, Arizona and Nevada.
But this month, Colorado lawmakers representing rural agricultural water users questioned the need for the conservation program.
At issue is a new drought plan for the Colorado River Basin that all seven states that share the river – Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and California – signed earlier this year. As part of that agreement, the Upper Basin states —Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were for the first time ever given the legal right to store extra water in Lake Powell that is not subject to mandatory releases to the Lower Basin’s Lake Mead. The storage pool is authorized to hold up to 500,000 acre-feet of water — enough for roughly 1 million homes — and could help the Upper Basin meet future obligations to the Lower Basin during an especially dry period on the river.
Now the Upper Basin states are exploring whether it makes sense to create a so-called demand management program that would pay farmers and cities to voluntarily and temporarily slash their water use —and be compensated for it — and to take that saved water and put it in Lake Powell. There are many unknowns about how the unused water would be measured, verified and moved to Lake Powell, without being picked up by other downstream users. And all four Upper Basin states would need to agree to move forward together for the storage pool to be utilized. Many are hopeful that the concept has potential, but such a broad-scale program continues to worry some farm interests because they fear it will result in a permanent reduction to their water supplies.
Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling), questioned the need for the program, saying that as long as Colorado complies with the rules of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, its water users should be protected by the courts from any legal demands from the Lower Basin states.
“Are we worried that the Supreme Court would not hold our compact to the letter of the law?” Sonnenberg asked. His questions came during a meeting earlier this month of the state legislature’s Interim Water Resources Review Committee.
In fact the main concern isn’t the terms of the 1922 compact, but the ability of the Colorado River to continue supplying the 40 million people who rely on its flows. If flows drop too low, due to ongoing drought and climate change, then the Upper Basin might have difficulty meeting its compact obligations to the Lower Basin, putting its water users at risk. Agriculture producers and communities across the state rely on the Colorado River, and major metropolitan areas, including Denver, import Colorado River water to serve their residents and industries.
Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), said the water-saving effort could give everyone breathing room, so that if and when Colorado River supplies drop, the seven states can manage the issue themselves, rather than relying on the courts.
Since irrigated agriculture consumes 85 percent of water in the West, cutting back farm water use to fill the Lake Powell pool is one method that would most likely be used if Colorado ultimately decides to create this conservation program. Mitchell and her agency have committed that no matter the shape the program takes it would be voluntary, temporary, and compensated.
The likely focus on ag cutbacks troubles Rep. Marc Catlin (R-Montrose), former manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. “We’re still looking at agriculture as a living reservoir that we don’t have to build,” he said, “because we can just keep chipping away at the acreage.” And he questioned the temporary nature of the program, citing testimony from earlier in the meeting by Colorado State University climate scientist Brad Udall suggesting streamflows throughout the Colorado River Basin will continue to drop due to higher temperatures, earlier runoff and reduced snowpack, creating a permanent, rather than temporary, need for the water.
The Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), signed by the seven basin states and the U.S. Department of the Interior on May 20, is an attempt to better manage the operation of the river’s two largest reservoirs—Lakes Powell and Mead—and prevent any legal fight over the water from developing. It requires cuts in water use among the lower basin states (they’re looking at using 1 million acre-feet less water), but not the Upper Basin, according to Brent Newman, head of the CWCB’s Interstate, Federal and Water Information Section.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, said he isn’t sold on the need for the conservation program, but that Colorado water users need to be looking ahead in order to be prepared. “The concern has to be where we are headed right now,” he said.
Surplus deliveries to the Lower Basin from high water years in 2011 and 2012 have dropped off, he noted, and “we can see a rising risk of the Upper Basin being in a position where we may violate the compact.”
Committee chair, Sen. Kerry Donovan (D-Wolcott), committee chair, said the uncertainty that lies ahead should be dealt with now, “We don’t know [the potential for a compact call] but not knowing that, and the significance of the issue we’re dealing with, is motivation enough to not go through the experience of learning the answer after (we spend) years in the court system.”
The CWCB, which has convened a series of public work groups to study the feasibility of the new drought pool, has not set a deadline for a decision on the program.
Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fresh Water News is an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at www.wateredco.org.