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Colorado hits a “hard pause” on water demand management as it waits for other states to catch up

The Colorado Water Conservation Board wants to instead focus on what can be done to help Colorado water users this year

Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County shows the effect of a water draw down on October 29, 2021. The reservoir has lowered because water from it is being released downstream to increase the volume of water available to downstream users that rely on the Colorado River. Blue Mesa is fed by the Gunnison River, one of the Colorado River's largest tributaries. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado is taking a “hard pause” on investigating the viability of demand management, a program that would allow the state to pay water users to temporarily and voluntarily conserve water and store what’s saved in Lake Powell for future use.

“No more energy spent on this right now,” Colorado Water Conservation Board chair Jaclyn Brown said this week. “Until the facts change; until someone brings us new information.” 

Demand management was a key component of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans agreed upon by all seven states in the Colorado River Basin. The idea was that the Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — would each investigate the feasibility of paying water users to conserve water on a temporary and voluntary basis and then store the extra in Lake Powell in a special 500,000 acre-foot “account.” Then, if needed, that water could later be used by the Upper Basin states to meet delivery requirements specified in the Colorado River Compact. 

The CWCB, the agency tasked with protecting and managing the state’s water resources, worked on Colorado’s demand management investigation. Now, after years of work, Colorado is further along in the process than the other three states — and no program can be implemented without all four Upper Basin states on board. Brown said the fact that Colorado is ahead of the others is a big part of what led the board to take what she described as a “hard pause” on examining the concept. 

“We have to let the other states catch up with their concerns and the issues they see,” she said. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

In pausing its research, the CWCB decided at a meeting last week that it would instead focus on what can be done this year to help Colorado water users with the challenges presented by the dry conditions impacting the state. Brown said the board is excited to focus on what can be accomplished locally, without needing buy-in from neighbor states. 

“What can we do as a state — recognizing that the trend is obviously leaning toward lower hydrology and drier climate — to prepare for this uncertain future that we’re looking at?” Brown said. “What can we do right now?” 

Each new forecast seems to point to a more challenging climate for Western water users. On March 17, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its spring outlook in which forecasters predicted prolonged drought to persist across the West, with below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures likely. 

Nearly 60% of the continental U.S. is experiencing conditions ranging from minor to exceptional drought, according to NOAA. More than 82% of Colorado is experiencing some level of drought, with parts of southern Colorado in “extreme drought,” according to the latest map from the U.S. Drought Monitor. What’s more, scientists who studied tree-ring data recently found that the past two decades are the driest on record going back 1,200 years, and that climate change has made the current megadrought more severe. 

In addition to identifying demand management as a possible way for the Upper Basin states to bank water in Powell, the 2019 agreement also set 3,525 feet above sea level as an important “target elevation” for the Utah reservoir. That mark provides a buffer from the minimum level at which Glen Canyon Dam can generate power, 3,490 feet. More than 3 million customers use Glen Canyon Dam electricity and the federal government generates roughly $150 million in revenue each year from selling that hydropower. Last week, Powell dipped below 3,525 feet for the first time since the lake was considered “full” in 1980. 

With the other Upper Basin states catching up, CWCB director and Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell said it was a good time to focus on Colorado. “I think it’s critical that we wait and see what the other states are thinking,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got our thoughts and ideas and we have the capability of figuring it out, I think. But it seemed like an appropriate time to hit pause. Rather than sitting idle, we’re looking at what we can do on the intrastate level.”

Striking a balance 

During the arduous process of investigating demand management, Brown said she felt the attitude toward the program had shifted from thinking it might be some kind of water-saving silver bullet to the idea that it’s just one potential type of ammunition. “Everybody was so hesitant, and as a public body what does that tell you?” Brown said of the concept. “There was plenty of time for people to really get on board if they thought this was the silver bullet — we never heard it.”

What’s more, Brown said she was concerned about the effect a demand management program might have on the agricultural community — that ag would bear too much of the burden of putting water into a Powell storage account. Some demand management pilot programs, for instance, focused on the idea of paying farmers and ranchers not to irrigate certain fields. 

“I’m not an agriculturalist,” Brown said. “But I live on the West Slope and grew up here and I don’t want to change the fabric of Colorado to the point where the only people that can afford to have ranches are rich people from out of town, that it’s a tax write off or it doesn’t matter to them if they’re making money or not. I worried the further we got down the demand management road it was going to fall on ag.” 

CWCB board member Heather Dutton said the board would take what it has learned from the demand management work and apply it to what can be done now locally. 

“So much of this conversation has been: How does Colorado participate in a project for all the Upper Basin states, how are we part of the Upper Basin team?” she said. “We’re still ready to be part of the team if everyone agrees, but let’s take some of that work and think about Colorado itself.” 

Fourth-generation Grand Valley farmer Joe Bernal said that he gets the idea of focusing on Colorado, but added that he’s still worried about — and wouldn’t want to ignore — the question of compact administration, that to him that’s the big elephant in the room. “We should be ready to respond,” he said. “The bigger problem is whenever someone comes knocking on our door.”

That concern is shared by fifth-generation Fruita farmer Troy Waters. “When people start running out of power or there ain’t enough water in the taps in Arizona or Denver or L.A., my biggest fear is the federal government will come in here and condemn our water for public health and safety reasons and then I’m out of business,” Waters said.  

Amy Ostdiek, chief of interstate, federal and water information at CWCB, said the agency has already developed a huge body of data on a potential demand management program and will be ready to revisit it “if and when the time is right.” 

When it comes to banking any water in Powell, Ostdiek said, it’s important to look at the balance of the equation between the Upper and Lower basins. In dry years, Ostdiek said, the amount of water that can be saved and transferred to Powell is very little. 

“Our water users are already taking significant cuts because the water just isn’t available,” she said. “The idea they would have water to contribute and send to Powell is just not the case.” 

Last year, to protect the level at Powell, water managers made emergency releases from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Blue Mesa west of Gunnison. The releases dropped the water level at Blue Mesa by 8 feet, which forced an early end to the boating season and significantly impacted the Gunnison County economy. 

Brown, the CWCB chair, said she was concerned about how much of that water actually made it to Powell.

“The bureau is not tracking this water through the states,” Brown said. “That’s not to say there aren’t solutions to the shepherding and tracking of this water. … We saw Blue Mesa basically stop operating because of the releases; that’s a real tangible impact to Colorado just in that one area to tourism alone.”

Paul Bruchez, a Kremmling rancher, was recently appointed to the CWCB by the governor. Bruchez’s appointment, however, has not yet been confirmed by the state Senate and so he participated in the recent board discussion only as a nonvoting member. 

“With the elevation of Lake Powell, basinwide there still has to remain urgency,” Bruchez said. “We’re at this pause waiting on other states to catch up, but reflecting on that back home.”

Bruchez said it’s a critical time to learn how to adapt to current conditions such as dry soil, which has hurt spring runoff in recent years. “We have fulfilled our compact obligations to present date,” Bruchez said. “That doesn’t change the fact that my neighbor on a small tributary has been water short for two years.” 

The nonprofit Trout Unlimited has long been involved with developing a demand management program. Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado water program, said he still believes demand management can be a tool that helps Colorado meet its obligations to deliver water pursuant to the Colorado River Compact. 

The CWCB plans to hold a workshop soon to talk through specific things that can be done this year in Colorado. Brown said that could include searching for ways to help improve agriculture viability, analyzing a kind of in-state water-banking system, considering whether there’s an opportunity to pursue federal infrastructure money for projects and working on education and outreach. 

“We’re going back to the concept of trying things out,” she said. “People will come up with ready-to-rock, low-hanging-fruit stuff. What that is I can’t say precisely. But we know it’s out there.”


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