Colorado to make tough decisions when it comes to water usage in drought contingency plan
The water battle is over, but the war has just begun.
At the 26th annual Summit County State of the River conference in Silverthorne last week, the mood was light because of robust snowpack in the mountains and the recent approval of a drought contingency plan to lower water usage during critical shortages among states in the Lower Colorado River Basin — Nevada, Arizona and California.
However, when it comes to water, consistency is preferred over short-term victories, and the West is still in the midst of a long-term water shortage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, primary reservoirs that serve 40 million people. For that reason, the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — have to also come up with their own drought contingency plans.
That means Colorado might be heading into choppy waters as one of the requirements of a drought contingency plan — demand management — could pit communities and regions against each other as they fight to retain among the most precious legal rights available in the state — water claims.
Colorado River Water Conservation District general manager Andy Mueller, who oversees the special district and its function as the state’s primary water policy and planning agency for the Colorado River Basin, outlined the state’s approach to drafting its drought contingency plan to attendees at the State of the River meeting.
Both the Lower and Upper Basin states are allotted 7.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water over 10 years on a rolling average. One acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons, enough to fill a football field with a foot of water. The average home uses one-half to 1 acre-foot of water per year.
However, the Lower Basin states have been overdrawing their allotted share to the tune of 1.2 million acre-feet each 10-year term, primarily due to overuse and evaporation from Lake Mead, which regularly comes close to bottoming out. Also, 1 to 1.5 million acre-feet is lost from the Lower Basin due to evaporation and system delivery losses.
On the flipside, the Upper Basin states have been using well below their allotted share. Of the 7.5 million allotted, the less-populated Upper Basin states only use up about 4 million to 4.5 million acre-feet each rolling 10-year block.
Given that the Colorado River is a finite resource and that the original allotment was based on faulty data that overestimated yearly flows, Mueller said that despite the underuse, it was still Colorado’s responsibility to lower usage as much as possible to save the river from running dry.
That means all users must commit to making sacrifices to their water use if a drought threatens water levels in Lake Powell and flows to the Lower Basin states beyond. In the event of drought, the state would approach water users and ask them to make voluntary, temporary or compensated cuts to their water use.
But that doesn’t mean the district will be forcing residents or agriculture to stop using water altogether if the drought contingency arises.
“We’re not going to turn water off people’s taps,” Mueller said. “It’s about finding water for our critical needs … and staving off a very real threat to the cultural fabric of western Colorado.”
To stave off internal disputes and help navigate the process toward a drought plan, Mueller outlined the state’s priorities. The state would seek proportional water conservation from the Eastern and Western slopes, with all sectors of water-use community contributing, all while ensuring that Western Slope agriculture — which makes up to half the state’s water consumption — does not become the “sacrifice zone” for water cuts for the benefit of residential water users on the Front Range and eastern Colorado.
The plan will also be consistent with the prior appropriation system, striving to ensure no injury to others and that whatever water is conserved stays within the control of Upper Basin states.
For those users whose water cuts would be compensated, Mueller insisted that the money would be found among basin states, even if it isn’t available in state coffers at the moment.
“The Colorado River Basin supports 40 million people, and all 40 million have vested interest in keeping the river in balance and avoiding a compact violation,” Mueller said.
“The litigation and fighting would be system-wide and basin-wide. We expect to see the money come from the entire seven-state basin area.”
Mueller also said that demand management would include condemnation of abandoned water claims. Water claims considered abandoned because of lack of use or declaration of use will eventually be put on a list of claims that can be condemned by the state for productive use.
The claims that are most senior — ones that existed before the 1922 Colorado River Compact — are the most precious to the state and its people, and therefore most closely watched by the state, which would lose those claims forever if they are snapped up by an out-of-state entity.
Although demand management is a significant part of formulating a drought contingency plan, the state is also trying to find ways to produce more water. That includes cloud seeding, which involves launching minute particles into the air that moisture can collect around and therefore form storm clouds that drop rain into the valleys. Another tactic could be the removal of excess phreatophytes from the river — long-rooted plants that absorb a lot of water.
Whatever the long-term strategy is, Mueller expects water users in the state to be able to come to amicable agreements that assure that the Colorado River continues to offer enough water to the West’s exploding population for many years to come. The current Upper Basin drought contingency plan expires in 2026.