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Even after a rush of snow and rain, the thirsty Colorado River Basin is “not out of the woods yet”

It will take as many as 13 water years exactly like this one to erase the impacts of long-term drought in the West, Colorado River District engineers say

Morrow Point Dam stands upstream of the Gunnison River. Morrow Point Dam was completed in 1971, the first large double-curvature, thin-arch dam built in the United States. Morrow Point Dam was created as part of the Colorado River Storage Project as a way to manage and control the Colorado River, of which the Gunnison River is the 5th largest tributary. through. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado’s water year has been extraordinary.

After nearly 20 years dominated by drought, a combination of heavy storms, persistent precipitation and cold temperatures conspired for a water bonanza not seen in decades. 

Today, rivers are swollen, ample snow lingers in the mountains and the statewide snowpack sits at 3,700 percent of normal (just one of many eye-popping stats attributed to a later-than-normal runoff and summer snow).

Perhaps most notable is this: For the first time in 19 years, the entire state has been proclaimed 100% drought free. The fields are green, rivers are overflowing their banks and reservoirs are refilling.

But in the long-term puzzle of ensuring that the Colorado River — the main artery of the American West — provides water to the millions of people in the basin who depend on it, the challenges are mounting. And in the face of a complicated tangle of population growth, long-term drought and climate change, does 2019’s water stand a chance of making a meaningful impact?

Water experts say the answer is: Sadly, not likely.

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

Colorado River District general manager Andy Mueller likened it to a year-end salary bonus. It’s a great development in the short term, but if it’s an anomaly in the broader picture, its effects will be minor.

“This is a short-term boon, and we should be happy,” Mueller said before adding the caveat stressed by many in the water community: “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Blue Mesa Reservoir is Colorado’s largest lake, 20 miles long with a surface area of over 14 square miles. The reservoir was created by the damming of the Gunnison River by the Blue Mesa Dam in 1966 as part of the Colorado River Storage Project, helping control the flow of water into the Colorado River as well as generating hydroelectric power, flood control and storage. Last year, the reservoir was drawn down dramatically because of persistent drought. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A pattern of aridification

Going from the record-breaking drought of 2018 to the record-breaking water year of 2019 is a stroke of luck that has enabled a much faster recovery of fisheries, soils and watersheds, said Taryn Finnessey, Colorado’s senior climate change specialist.

Here, reservoirs such as Blue Mesa, Navajo and Ridgway are expected to rebound as snowmelt flushes through rivers.

“However, on the broader Colorado River, even with a banner water year, we won’t see a significant recovery,” she said.

Large inflows are expected into both Lake Powell on the Utah/Arizona border and Lake Mead downstream — the big reservoirs considered to be the savings accounts for the Colorado River basin. The reservoirs, which have been steadily dropping for years, are projected to end the year at slightly higher levels.

But both are so far from capacity — as of June 24, Mead was only at 40 percent, while Powell was at 51 percent, according to the Bureau of Reclamation — that these increases will, at best, put them a little more than half full by year’s end.

“So we’re not seeing a huge rebound in those really large storage buckets that provide long-term storage in the Southwest,” Finnessey said.

Snow on the San Juan Mountains can be seen as people boat, fish and picnic near Ridgway Reservoir on June 23, 2019. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Why not? The short answer, she said, is climate change.

Over the past 20 years, the broader Colorado River system has experienced not only decreased precipitation — in the form of 19 years of drought — but also increased temperatures. The hotter weather creates more rapid evaporation and thirstier soils, and causes the snow to melt more quickly, transforming it from the steady flows that were once typical, into an annual big-water flush that’s harder to capture and store.

The result, Finnessey said, is a slow shift in the basin “from drought to long-term aridification” that’s drawing down the water. A growing population only exacerbates the problem. And one good year of water won’t reverse that.

In fact, Mueller said the river district’s engineer guesses it would require eight to 13 years “exactly like this one” to emerge from the deficit. So, relying on Mother Nature to turn things around isn’t a reliable option.

James Eklund, the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado Basin Commission, said the problem is that the entire system of storing, capturing and using the water of the Colorado River is predicated on the way things functioned before climate change.

“That’s not a responsible way to move forward because that’s just not the reality that we’re going to be facing,” he said. “If you had perfect foresight, you would not have designed water law, policy and storage the way that we designed it.”

Make no mistake, Eklund said, managers will store every drop they can in a year like this. Unfortunately though, “climate change is boxing Colorado water managers in from all sides.”

Spectators hike along a service road to view spring runoff spilling from the Morrow Point Dam the afternoon of June 3, 2019. At full capacity the dam can release 41,000 cubic feet of water per second. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A big step

No question, 2019’s abundance of water is positive news for the Colorado River, which, along with its tributaries, provides water for about 40 million denizens of the Southwest.

But what may prove even more significant is a new drought-contingency plan that promises to better manage the overtaxed system.

To understand the complex system of divvying up water in the Colorado River basin, you must go back to its foundational governing document, the Colorado River Compact of 1922.

That document split the basin into two groups, the Upper Basin (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico) and the Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada and California). It dictated that each basin was allowed 7.5 million acre-feet per year, with the Lower Basin entitled to be quenched first.

After Glen Canyon dam closed in 1963, it took 17 years to fill Lake Powell, which hit capacity — or full pool — in 1980. The much older Lake Mead was last full in 1983. 

Demand for water has outpaced supply for the past two decades, thanks in big part to drought and rising temperatures, and the Lower Basin states’ overuse of their allotment. That had led to declines in the now bathtub-ringed Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which last year hit their lowest levels since being filled.

(Upper Basin states use Powell to store water and ensure there is enough to send downstream to meet their compact obligations; Lower Basin states use Mead to store and manage water for municipal and irrigation use.)

It became plain to all involved that if those patterns continued, the system would collapse. That prompted water managers in both basins to come to the table. Their mission was to avoid catastrophe.

The result of those talks is the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which was signed in May. In that agreement, the Lower Basin states agreed to specific decreases in water use.

The plan is designed to bank water and leave it in Lake Mead, which in turn keeps more water in Lake Powell (by preventing large releases from Powell required to bail out the Lower Basin’s supply.) And unlike in the past, the water that is banked in Powell by the Upper Basin states will belong solely to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico as a sort of emergency water account.

Previously, all the water saved by Upper Basin states in Lake Powell could be released to Lake Mead for the Lower Basin states to use. 

“That was a perverse incentive,” Eklund said of the former arrangement that didn’t really reward water conservation by Upper Basin states. “What we decided to do is make it a positive incentive.”

The Upper Basin states, meanwhile, agreed in the Contingency Plan to explore methods for managing and reducing consumption.

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(As part of that promise, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has assembled eight workgroups to study a demand-management program for the state, which is envisioned as a voluntary program that would pay users to not use their water rights. The water saved through that program, the river district’s Mueller said, could be stored in Lake Powell to be used explicitly for Upper Basin needs.) 

Finally, the contingency plan makes reservoir operation more flexible for Colorado’s Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs and Flaming Gorge in Wyoming — while still respecting the environmental considerations of their water releases.

Lauren Ris, deputy director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, called the plan “a huge milestone.” And Eklund said, “The system as a whole is better off with the plan.”

Mueller was more measured, though. “I think it’s an important interim step in trying to reach balance,” he said. “It’s a good step toward the fix, but it’s not the ultimate fix in this river system.”

The headwaters of the Colorado River in Grand County. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Ever more precious

It has been 150 years since John Wesley Powell led his historic expedition down the big river, setting out to chart, understand and study a vast system of canyons and hydraulics that at the time was largely unknown — an enormous blank swath on the map.

A century and a half is a mere blip in the life of the mighty Colorado River. But since that expedition, the river has witnessed monumental changes. These include the creation of three major dams, two basins, 15 special-management areas and more than 20 laws governing its water use; the explosion of human population in the vicinity of its rugged and rocky banks; the development of agriculture and energy; the increase of recreational uses; the ever-rising clamor for its precious contents; and a climate that’s changing in wild swings of unpredictability.

Factored all together, the result is a conundrum that’s too entrenched and ungainly to be turned around by a single water year, no matter how significant. It’d be like using a toothpick to prod an elephant to move. 

But it’s also a problem that can’t be ignored away. “Everybody in the basin has to get better, faster, smarter at our jobs,” Eklund said. “Our policies have to become more flexible, smarter and better.”

MORE: Read more environmental coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Mueller echoed that, noting that if Lake Powell is a measure of how secure the Upper Basin should feel about its future, “we should not feel that secure.”

He said it’s time to take a hard look at measures such as removing sod, improving agricultural efficiency, crop switching and even cloud seeding.

There are models of success out there. Denver Water, which serves 1.4 million people in Denver and the surrounding suburbs, has seen its per-capita water use drop 34 percent since 2001 thanks to major conservation efforts.

“We’re actually using the same amount of water that we used in the ’70s even though our population has grown by half a million,” said Dave Bennett, the utility’s director of water-resource strategy. “And that’s really a testament to conservation.”

When it comes to the Colorado River, conservation may not be enough. For now, though, it’s one of the best tools available. So, while nobody has come up with the end-all answer for solving the long-term crisis, water managers are unanimous on one thing: Users can’t afford to waste a single drop of water, even in a year of abundance. 

“We were lucky this year,” said Finnessey, the climate change specialist. “But I don’t think that’s something that we can ever assume will happen again. So we need to be really wise stewards of our resources.”

Ris echoed that.

“Hooray that this is happening,” she said of the state’s current state of overflow. “But we need to remember that we live in a semi-arid state. Another drought is coming — we just don’t know exactly when. I don’t think we can place all our hopes and dreams on this one water year for solving all the problems on the Colorado River.”


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