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The Gunnison River flows at 4,030 cubic feet per second as it passes through the Gunnison River whitewater park on the outskirts of Gunnison on Tuesday, July 2, 2019. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Bountiful snow in the Rocky Mountains last winter buoyed levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, but not enough to prevent the first-ever mandatory cuts in water delivery for Arizona and Nevada under drought contingency plans finalized this spring by the states that rely on the Colorado River Basin. 

Lake Mead will enter 2020 just 1 foot below the threshold that triggers cuts in water delivery to Arizona and Nevada from the Colorado River, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s annual 24-month study of the Colorado River Basin released Thursday. The study sets 2020 operation plans for Lake Mead and Lake Powell based on the previous year’s reservoir levels, inflows and outflows. 

It’s the first time the rolling 24-month study, which looks at the last 12 months to plan for the next 12 months, has resulted in mandatory cuts. 

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“This is a big deal for everybody on the Colorado River system,” said Jim Pokrandt, the head of community affairs for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water District. 

The study won’t have much of an impact on Colorado, where the Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan has water users hammering out the details of “demand management.” Those details include asking for temporary, voluntary and compensated curtailment of water rights to build a bank of Colorado water in Lake Powell before mandatory cuts are imposed by the federal government. 

Pokrandt said the dawning of mandatory cuts in the Lower Basin increases the urgency of demand-management talks in Colorado. Without a demand-management plan encouraging water users to volunteer their water rights in Colorado, the state could see mandatory cuts, where “nobody gets paid,” he said.  

MORE: Colorado’s snowy winter and wet spring were a boon to the state’s reservoirs. These satellite photos show it.

“The news from the Lower Basin is a reminder that 2019’s snowpack cannot give us a false sense of security,” Pokrandt said, recalling that Colorado’s super-snowy 2011 was followed by an exceptionally dry 2012. “This is a reminder of the importance of what the Upper Basin states have to do for their own Drought Contingency Plan.”

The major reservoirs of the Colorado River have been dropping since 2000, the beginning of a drought that lingers today. This spring, the seven states and Mexico that rely on the Colorado River confronted the impacts of climate change and thirsty, growing populations by signing historic drought contingency plans that leave more of their water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. 

The Lower Basin — Arizona, Nevada and California as well as Mexico — agreed to leave more water in Lake Mead when the reservoir dipped below certain levels starting at 1,090 feet, which is an elevation, not a depth. 

The bureau’s study projects Lake Mead will be at 1,089 feet by Jan. 1, 2020. That’s 14 feet above the level where all three Lower Basin states and Mexico are in a water shortage and must trigger cuts outlined in the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan.  

But Lake Mead will begin the year below the drought contingency plan’s threshold of 1,090 feet, so Arizona, Nevada and Mexico must make additional water contributions to Lake Mead in 2020. California’s cuts are triggered at a lower point. 

The so-called bathtub ring around Lake Mead measured about 140-feet high in the summer of 2018. Lake Mead, and its counterpart, Lake Powell, had not been this low since they were filled. (Larry Ryckman, The Colorado Sun)

Arizona will get about 192,000 acre-feet less water than it got in 2019, which is about 7% of its total annual allotment from the Colorado River. Nevada will get about 8,000 acre-feet less and Mexico will take about 41,000 acre-feet less. The states and Mexico can recover that water left in Lake Mead if the reservoir reaches a higher level.

While the mandatory cuts are historic, states in the Lower Basin have been voluntarily leaving water in Lake Mead since 2015 as part of conservation measures that pre-date drought contingency planning. 

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

This year, Arizona water users — including Phoenix and Tucson’s Central Arizona Project, the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes — conserved and stored 236,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead. Those water users in Arizona already were planning to continue to conserve and contribute additional water to Lake Mead this year, regardless of drought contingency plan requirements, Chuck Cullom, manager of the Central Arizona Project’s Colorado River programs, said in a blog post on Thursday.  

Cullom called the installation of mandatory cuts “a new era.”

“These efforts are part of Arizona’s plan to implement DCP developed collaboratively by the Arizona water community and legislative leaders,” he wrote. “The plan balances the impacts of DCP amongst water users and provides additional protection to the Colorado River system, giving us a road map to follow for the next several years.”

With above-average snowfall in the Colorado River’s Upper Basin and runoff at 145 percent of average for the spring, Lake Powell’s water level grew by 50 feet since April, leaving it roughly 20 feet above the level recorded this time last year and very close to its 10-year average for the middle of August.

The bureau projects the level of Lake Powell on Jan. 1, 2020 will be 3,619 feet, which is about 81 feet shy of full. Where the Lower Basin states forged plans that trigger cuts when Lake Mead fell below a certain level, the Upper Basin states — New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah — have an agreement to create a plan that includes reimbursing water users for voluntarily contributing their water to a collective stash of Upper Basin water in Lake Powell. 

That’s called demand management. Across Colorado, water districts and water users are studying whether demand management will work. 

“Nobody knows if it will be feasible,” said Pokrandt, whose 15-county district spans the Western Slope, noting that the Colorado Water Conservation Board just launched its Demand Management Workshop to educate the state’s water users on the idea of temporarily suspending water rights for cash in order to build a bank of Colorado water in Lake Powell. “Determining feasibility will be a long process.”

Lake Powell will enter 2020 in the “Intentionally Created Surplus Condition,” which allows for the release of the usual 8.23 million acre-feet of water in 2020 to fill Lake Mead. It also means the Upper Basin states will increase their own banked storage in the reservoir, enabling them to better weather low-snow years with a protected cache of extra water. 

Total storage in both reservoirs is 55% of capacity, compared with 49% at this time last year. But officials warn that one good year does not mean the threat of a 20-year drought is over. 

Spectators hike along a service road to view spring runoff spilling from Morrow Point Dam that holds back Blue Mesa Reservoir earlier this year. The 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 fifth largest tributary. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We must remain vigilant,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said in a statement announcing the 24-month study. “The additional actions under the contingency plans will help ensure the reliability of the Colorado River system for the 40 million people dependent upon it.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins