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Plan to slow creeping Colorado River crisis could drain more water from Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge reservoirs

Historic proposal to create a conservation bank of water in Lake Powell fed by reservoirs in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico would protect the withering Powell and requires approval of eight states and the federal government

The water level of the Ridgway Reservoir rests well below its typical level pictured here on Sunday August 19, 2018. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Nearly two decades into a pervasive drought that has more to do with a warming climate than precipitation, the seven states that rely on the Colorado River are nearing completion of a seven-year plan to protect water in the West.

The Upper Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan — one of the most significant proposals in the history of Colorado water management — isn’t going to buoy all of the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River.

But the plan, a draft of which was released Tuesday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, could spread the burden of these exceptionally dry years across all the communities that draw from the overtaxed river. It also would move water from popular reservoirs like Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa to bolster a flagging Lake Powell.

While ever-optimistic water users across Colorado and the West have long pined for super-snowy years to deflect the drought, the days of simply praying for precipitation are over. Four of the five driest years ever recorded have come during this 19-year drought; 2018 is the third-driest on record; and 2012-13 were the driest consecutive years in modern record-keeping.

“We are probably in a new normal, and it doesn’t do us any good to hope we are going to bailed out by hydrology,” Upper Colorado River Water Commissioner James Eklund said as he introduced a path toward lessening the blow of the creeping crisis on the river.

MORE: Amid drought, a changing climate and population growth, can Colorado’s unique water law system survive?

That path is pretty simple: Conserve more water and store it in Lake Powell so that the Colorado River plumbing system, which supports a $1.4 trillion economy, doesn’t collapse. Getting there — with seven states and Mexico protecting their own interests while agreeing to a balanced reduction of use and increase in storage — is a monumental task.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, both fed by the Colorado River, are at their lowest levels in history. More water pours out of the critical Lake Mead than pours in. Colorado snow provides 70 percent of the water that flows through its namesake waterway.

The state’s insurance policy for providing water to downstream states is Lake Powell, the bathtub-ringed reservoir on the border of Arizona and Utah that, having fallen 94 feet since 2000, is nearing a critically low point.

If Lake Powell — the bank of Rocky Mountain water that feeds increasingly thirsty downstream cities and users in the Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada and California) — gets below a certain level, three bad things will happen:

Lake Powell has declined 94 feet since 2000, reaching a critically low level that is prompting historic plans to fill the reservoir on the Arizona – Utah border. (Jed Selby, Special to The Colorado Sun) 
  1. The water will get too low to turn the Glen Canyon Dam turbines that deliver electricity to many rural communities.
  2. Revenue from selling that electricity won’t be available for water treatment and protection of endangered species.   
  3. The reservoir will no longer be able to provide the required water allotment to downstream users.

It’s important to note that the Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — are not close to violating the complex web of laws and compacts that govern the flow of Colorado River water. The Upper Basin is obligated to provide at least an average of 75 million acre-feet of water over a 10-year span, or 7.5 million acre-feet a year. The Upper Basin has delivered more than 91 million acre-feet over the past 10 years, so it’s far from triggering any violation of the compact that regulates the Colorado River.

But if levels at Mead and Powell keep dropping, Colorado may lose its ability to control its own water, threatening the state’s Byzantine system of water rights. That’s not likely, but it’s a big risk.

So it’s critical that Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming do everything they can to prevent Lake Powell from dropping any more.

Lake Powell in September 2018. (Jed Selby, Special to The Colorado Sun) 

“The whole system is better with water in Lake Powell,” Eklund said in a 90-minute web presentation Tuesday.

Hence, the drought contingency plan, which aims to tweak how the Upper Basin states store and allot water in an effort to protect levels in Lake Powell.

In 2007, the Upper Basin and Lower Basin users of the Colorado River negotiated a plan that adjusted agreements from 1922 and 1948. That started the process of requiring Arizona, California and Nevada to pay water back into the system whenever Lake Mead fell below certain levels.

Those 2007 guidelines need revision more than a decade later as dry conditions worsen and Lake Mead withers to a critically low level. Three years ago, the Lower Basin states agreed to a drought contingency plan for more demand management and conservation.

Now, it’s time for the Upper Basin to finalize its plan.

And here it is: Create a conservation bank of Upper Basin water in Lake Powell. Right now, every drop of water the Upper Basin states squeeze out of belt-tightening users through aggressive conservation can simply flow to Lake Mead for the Lower Basin states.

“If we are going to conserve water intentionally and voluntarily, we need to have the ability to store it somewhere, and right now we don’t have that ability,” said Colorado’s First Assistant Attorney General Karen Kwon, who is in charge of navigating the Colorado River’s daunting legal whitewater for the state.

Blue Mesa Reservoir, the state’s largest body of water, was only 39 percent full at the end of August, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources. That’s the lowest since 1987, as evidenced by a 50-foot bathtub ring around the lake. Photo by Jason Blevins, Colorado Sun.

The plan requires shifting water to Lake Powell from Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir, in western Colorado; Navajo Reservoir, which spans the Colorado-New Mexico border; and Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which holds back the Green River in Wyoming and Utah. This would create a new “invisible” account of Upper Basin water in a reservoir that has traditionally served as the Lower Basin’s bank account.

That’s a very simple explanation of a very complicated plan. And the Upper Basin plan is basic compared with the Lower Basin plan, which Kwon called “weedy.”

“I’ve worked in this for 13 years, and it’s really complicated to understand the contingencies … in the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan,” Kwon said. “If you are reading it and confused, join the club.”

And, to add to the calculus, Congress needs to forge legislation that allows the Upper Basin and Lower Basin drought contingency plans to proceed. And the plans need to be ready to roll by 2020, when the seven states begin negotiating a replacement for the 2007 interim agreement that sunsets in 2026.

And — yes, there are so many “ands” in this deal — not only do all four states in the Upper Basin need to unanimously agree to the drought contingency plan, but users in each state need to agree on how to balance more water-conservation cuts among diverse populations.

The most recent U.S. Drought Monitor map, showing extensive drought in the Colorado River basin. (Screenshot)

The Colorado Water Conservation Board is touring the state to discuss demand management with water users. The “comprehensive outreach program” is selling any potential cuts in water use as “a temporary, voluntary and compensated scenario,” said Rebecca Mitchell, the executive director of the board.

Yet another complication: If reservoirs in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico continue to drop — Blue Mesa, for example, reached historic lows last month — will that trigger lengthy review under the National Environmental Protection Act?

Kwon said it would not. The operational changes should fall under NEPA guidelines set after the 2007 agreement, she said.

MORE: Colorado’s hot summer of dry ditches and empty reservoirs has left distressed farmers sweating: Will it get worse?

Weston Wilson disagrees. The former Environmental Protection Agency engineer from Colorado Springs who directed NEPA reviews for 35 years said that while the Interior Department will make the final decision, “it seems to me this is a major federal action.”

He wonders how reduced water levels in state reservoirs might hurt endangered species and recreation.

“This is a radical change,” he said. “My opinion: This whole thing is going to devolve into litigation.”

That’s a worst-case scenario. The Bureau of Reclamation shows that a lack of a drought contingency plan for the upper and lower users of the Colorado River spikes the likelihood of Lake Powell falling to a level that it cannot provide enough downstream water or any hydropower.

“Litigation with seven states and the federal government and the Supreme Court is not advised,”  Kwon said. “So working this out is the best way to go.”

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