Calling this year’s forecasted Colorado River streamflows a “a once-in-a-century” event, water officials are warning decision makers not to squander the river’s surprising 2023 bounty.
The drought-strapped Lake Powell could see new supplies of more than 10 million acre-feet this year, 2 million more than had been forecast just one month ago, according to the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center.
Due to drought, and climate-driven reductions in mountain snows, Lake Powell hasn’t been full in 20 years and plummeted to just 23% full last year. It holds roughly 26 million acre-feet when it reaches maximum storage capacity. One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons.
“It’s a tremendous gift. Our challenge is to not squander it,” said Chuck Cullom, director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents the four Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the Lower Basin.
Cullom’s comments came March 31 at a seminar by Colorado’s Southwestern Water Conservation District in Ignacio, Colorado.
With the new streamflow forecasts, reservoirs are expected to recover dramatically. Upper Colorado River water officials say the water needs to be held in the Upper Basin to improve the health of the system and to help cope with future drought years and reduced mountain snowpacks.
Even with the unexpected surge in new water supplies, Powell is only expected to recover slightly this year. Another bad year could throw the river back into crisis, officials said.
The seven-state Colorado River basin has been mired in a drought for more than 22 years, a dry spell widely believed to be the worst in more than 1,200 years. Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the largest reservoirs in the nation, have dropped to record lows, threatening water supplies to millions of people and jeopardizing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s ability to generate low-cost, renewable hydropower for thousands of electric utilities across the West.
In 2019, in response to the ongoing drought and an alarming drop in storage levels at Powell and Mead, all seven states agreed to an historic set of drought contingency plans, which include cutbacks in use in the Lower Basin, as well as emergency releases from Utah’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir and Colorado’s Blue Mesa in the Upper Basin, to bolster Powell.
Those emergency plans were activated in the summer of 2021. Since then roughly 600,000 acre-feet of water has been released from Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa, with the majority coming from Flaming Gorge.
Just a few weeks ago it wasn’t clear that any of the actions taken would be enough to keep Powell and Mead from dropping into crisis territory, where power generation would stop and deliveries out of Lake Mead to Lower Basin states would not be enough to satisfy demand.
But now, because of the surprising depth of mountain snows, suddenly there will be water and Reclamation has pledged to hold as much of it as it can in the Upper Basin to restore levels in Flaming Gorge and elsewhere, Cullom said.
In the coming weeks, the seven states have critical decisions to make about how the system will operate for the rest of this year, including how much water will be released from Powell and from Mead.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, which oversees the river across a 15 county region in western Colorado, said he is grateful for the watery surge, but he said the Upper Basin states will push hard to limit releases from Powell and Mead this year and in years to come.
“We have to recognize that the water supply has changed underneath our feet. Yes, this year is a good year, and we appreciate that. What we have to remember is that one good year means the weather was good. It doesn’t mean the climate is going to go back to what we experienced in the 1970s or before,” Mueller said.
“The current guidelines have been focused on crisis management … We can’t continue to do that if we are going to get out of this problem,” he said, referring to the drought contingency plans and current guidelines for reservoir operations.
Manuel Heart is chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in southwestern Colorado. The tribe is a major agricultural producer in the region. In 2021, the tribe received just 10% of its Colorado River water allocation due to the drought. Fields went dry and workers were laid off.
Now, along with other Colorado River farmers and ranchers, the tribe is looking for ways to adapt to a drier climate.
But this year, Heart said he is enjoying this remarkable wet season.
“Our prayers got answered this year,” he said. “It’s good to see the mountains the way they are supposed to look. I like to see the rivers flow and our lands green.”
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.
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