Water deal provides relief to West Slope
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Water users across Colorado’s Western Slope can rest a little easier.
Last week’s landmark agreement on how to share the Colorado River during drought conditions provides some relief to worried water users, including ranchers and ski resort snow makers.
At issue is how the Colorado River is divided up among seven states, and more specifically, between the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and the Lower Basin (Nevada, Arizona and California).
Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne signed a record of decision on a set of new rules for allocating water in drought conditions, and for operating Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the giant Colorado River reservoirs in the Lower Basin.
Until last week, the rules of the river were set under a 1922 compact specifying how much water the Upper Basin has to deliver downstream based on a 10-year average. In drought conditions, that water (8.23 million acre feet) might not be available.
The biggest fear in Colorado and the rest of the Upper Basin was that the Lower Basin states would exercise their rights under the compact, resulting in curtailment of water use upstream.
Based on the first-in-time, first-in-right doctrine, about half of Colorado’s water is subject to being lost to a downstream call, according to Scott Balcomb, a Glenwood Springs water attorney who was appointed by Colorado Gov. Bill Owens to the negotiating team.
Balcomb said most of that water is dedicated to municipal and industrial uses on the Front Range. Many agricultural water rights in Colorado pre-date the 1922 compact, and would not be directly affected by a downstream call.
But there could be indirect effects to the West Slope, said Jim Pokrandt, education specialist with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, headquartered in Glenwood Springs.
“People know how sharp the knives can be when things get ugly,” Pokrandt said. In a drought scenario, it would be unlikely that Front Range water use would be cut off.
Instead, the ripple effect would be felt on the Western Slope, with increased diversions to the Front Range and less water available on the western side of the Continental Divide, he explained.
The deal spells out conditions under which smaller releases from Lake Powell could occur. That’s critical for the Upper Basin states, including Colorado, because it leaves more water in Lake Powell, the “savings account” for the Upper Basin.
The agreement enables Lower Basin states to conserve water and store it in Lake Mead without losing their rights, Pokrandt said.
“We don’t ever want to see a compact call,” Pokrandt said.
In addition to reducing, or at least delaying the likelihood of a compact call, last week’s agreement has a more immediate benefit, Balcomb said.
Nevada, desperate for water to fuel its unfettered growth, was threatening to challenge the 1922 compact in court. Under the new conditions for operating the big reservoirs, Nevada now has some new options, and the threat of litigation has been avoided, at least for now.
“In my way of thinking, that’s the immediate benefit of the agreement,” Balcomb said.
In general, the deal buys time and gives water managers much more certainty as they plan for the future, said Ted Kowalski, program manager for the Colorado Water Conservation Board and a member of the negotiating team.
“It’s never been decided until this year how to share water when there are shortages,” Kowalski said.
Kowalski explained the history of the negotiations. The talks were triggered in 2003, when serious drought conditions caused levels in Lake Powell to plummet. The Upper Basin states formally asked former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton to consider allowing smaller releases from Lake Powell under drought conditions.
Norton denied the request, but set into motion the process that resulted in last week’s agreement, which spells out the conditions under which less than 8.23 million acre feet can be released from Lake Powell, Kowalski explained. The other key element is a new set of guidelines for operating Lake Powell and Lake Mead that benefit the Lower Basin states, he added.
“What this agreement does is, it means Lake Powell and Lake Mead can be raised and lowered a bit more in tandem. That reduces the risk to both the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states,” Kowalski said.
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