Water managers in Southwest Colorado voiced grave concerns Wednesday that communities along the Front Range should contribute just as much as the Western Slope in addressing dwindling water reserves in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
“We don’t think that should be on the backs of West Slope communities and West Slope agriculture,” said Bruce Whitehead, executive director of Southwestern Water Conservation District.
The Colorado River supports about 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland in seven western states, divided into the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming) and the Lower Basin (Arizona, California, Nevada).
But prolonged drought and increasing demand are causing those states to draft a new plan about how that water is divided.
Lain Leoniak, assistant attorney general for the state of Colorado, said previous water agreements were based on data gathered during abnormally wet years in the 1900s, which led to overestimations of available water.
Water compacts agreed upon in 1922 and 1948 were renegotiated in 2007, but even so, worsening drought conditions and overuse of water created the need for a new water agreement and an emergency drought plan.
A draft of the “Upper Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan” was released Tuesday and discussed Wednesday at the Southwest Basin Roundtable at the Durango Public Library.
The drought plan is the result of almost two decades of prolonged drought throughout the region that has changed reasonable expectations about how much water there is to use and deliver.
Four of the five lowest years on record occurred in the past 18 years, Leoniak said. Seven of the last 18 years of inflows into Lake Powell were less than 5 million acre-feet. The years 2002 and 2018 are the first and second driest years on record.
Now, Lake Powell is less than half full. If water levels continue to drop at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, it could have serious implications for how water rights are distributed in the Colorado River Basin.
About three years ago, the Lower Basin states implemented a drought contingency plan, which calls for cutbacks on water use and for conservation measures.
Leoniak said the Upper Basin states have never come close to falling out of compact compliance, which says the Upper Basin will not cause the flow at Lee’s Ferry in Arizona to fall below 75 million acre-feet over a 10-year span.
In fact, the Upper Basin states have delivered 91 million-acre feet over the past 10 years, Leoniak said.
“But ... we’ve had 18 years of very dry hydrology, so we need to be responsible water managers and plan,” she said. “Whether we ever implement the plan is a different story, but we need to plan.”
John Currier, chief engineer of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said another major concern is having Lake Powell fall below a critical water level that would no longer allow the dam to pump for hydroelectric power.
That could affect rural communities that depend on the electricity, as well as cut off revenue that is used for water treatment and endangered species programs. And, of course, it could lead to Upper Basin states not meeting their water compact.
Brent Newman with the Colorado Water Conservation Board said the drought contingency plan in the works aims to avert this worst-case scenario.
For starters, Upper Basin states could implement smaller-scale measures, like using weather modification programs, such as cloud seeding, and removing plants that absorb a significant amount of water, Newman said.
The plan would also move water into Lake Powell from Upper Basin state reservoirs, such as Flaming Gorge in Wyoming, Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado and Navajo Reservoir along the Colorado-New Mexico border.
But if these measures fall short, water managers must consider the less preferred and far more controversial prospect of “demand management,” which the Colorado Water Conservation Board hopes would be “temporary, voluntary and compensated.”
Because the demand management program is more controversial, it is being considered separately from the drought contingency plan, Newman said. Both processes he said would be “heavily vetted” by Colorado communities.
“It would not be done in a vacuum,” he said.
Leoniak said, ultimately, the drought contingency plan would function as a Band-Aid until the wider water agreement is renegotiated. Any plans would need unanimous agreement among the four Upper Basin states.
Members of the Southwest Basin Roundtable made clear to state water managers that communities along the Front Range, which relies on transmountain diversions from the Western Slope, should also implement water-saving measures.
“Contributions should be roughly equal on the East Slope as the West Slope,” Whitehead said.
Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District and chairman of the Southwest Basin Roundtable, said a subgroup of the roundtable would be formed to dive deeper into the issues of the drought plan.