Colorado water managers engaging in emergency response planning for Colorado River
VAIL — Water managers from around the state gathered for a three-day meeting of the Colorado Water Congress last week and were told it was time to develop a plan to cut back on water use in Colorado in order to prevent a compact call on the Colorado River.
At the heart of such a plan is a reduction in the use of water by agriculture — on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis — in order to send more water downriver to bolster levels in Lake Powell.
If the giant reservoir, which is now 49 percent full, drops much lower, then Glen Canyon Dam, which forms Lake Powell, will not be able to produce electricity or release enough water to meet the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which requires Colorado, Wyoming and Utah to send water to California, Arizona and Nevada.
Colorado state officials are taking steps to put together a “demand management” plan to bolster reservoir levels but are also careful to say the plan may still not be necessary, depending on how much snow falls in coming winters.
During a panel on the topic Friday, Lain Leoniak, an attorney in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, said state and regional water managers were now engaged in what amounts to “emergency response planning.”
“The goal is to identify methods to provide additional security to the entire Colorado River system to address this unprecedented hydrology that we’re experiencing, and have been since 2000,” Leoniak said.
There are three main elements of such a regional drought contingency plan: short-term releases of water from the big reservoirs above Lake Powell, including Flaming Gorge, Navajo and Blue Mesa reservoirs; cloud-seeding to produce a deeper snowpack; and “demand management.”
“Demand management is defined as the temporary, voluntary and compensated reductions of diversions to conserve water that would otherwise be consumptively used, when and if it is needed,” Leonick told the crowd at the Water Congress meeting.
State water officials, led by staff at the Colorado Water Conservation Board, have been reaching out to water managers and users around the state over the past few months, trying to figure out how such a plan might work. And this year’s hot drought has added urgency, and relevance, to their work.
One such regional demand management effort, known as the System Conservation Pilot Program, has been underway over the past four years and has been paying willing ranchers and farmers about $200 per acre-foot of conserved consumptive use.
But the program has also identified the need for a way to track, or shepherd, the saved water as it makes its way downstream to Lake Powell.
It’s also shown a need for a new legally identified pool of water in the big federal reservoir so that the upper basin states of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah can get credit for their water-saving efforts.
During the Friday discussion of demand management at the Water Congress meeting, Bruce Whitehead, the general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, based in Durango, sought to put such an effort into plain terms.
“This is a reduction in use,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead also pointed out that “there are statewide usages of Colorado River water” and voluntary reductions of use of Colorado River water now diverted under the Continental Divide to the Front Range are going to have to be part of the solution.
“In tough times like this, we have to learn to work together,” he said.
Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, seconded the theme.
“Our fear is that we’re not working cooperatively, and openly, in a very informed manner as a state, and we’re going to end up putting the West Slope agriculture as the sacrificial lamb on the alter of the Colorado River,” Mueller said. “And our belief is that will, in the short term, hurt the West Slope. In the long term, it will hurt the state.”
Lee Miller, an attorney for the Southeastern Water Conservancy District, which is based in Pueblo and imports water from the Colorado River basin, said it will be important to develop a demand management plan that has flexibility built into it, especially in the early years.
“The key part of this is that we have to have a framework that is flexible, one that allows us to make changes,” Miller said. “When we start making demands, and start making bright lines, ‘no this, no that,’ we put ourselves in a very difficult position to adjust in uncertain times.”
Aspen Journalism is covering the Colorado River basin in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications publications. Find more at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
The Upper Colorado River Commission decided unanimously to continue the federally funded System Conservation Program in 2024 — but with a narrower scope that explores demand management concepts and supports innovation and local drought resiliency on a longer-term basis.