As seen in the Montrose Daily Press on November 11th, 2022 in article by Katharhynn Heidelberg.
If Colorado’s legal/political position on the complex, century-old Colorado River Compact can be broken down into bite-sized chunks, it might look like this: The state and the other Upper Basin states have lived within the hydrology of the ever-drying river, in an ever-warming climate. Lower Basin states, particularly California, have not. Further, a fair apportionment is supposed be based on a 50-50 split of what is actually in the river.
“How do you live within a lesser river?” Colorado River Conservation District Manager Andy Mueller asked the roughly 400 people who filled the Montrose County Event Center’s indoor arena on Thursday for the West Slope Water Summit.
The Colorado River Compact divided the river’s water between Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming (Upper Basin) and California, Arizona and Nevada (Lower Basin), based on 17.5 million acre-feet. Under a treaty, Mexico receives Colorado River water as well, 1.5 million acre-feet.
The amount exists on paper; however, the running average is only 15 million acre-feet (7.5 million acre-feet per basin). Mueller reports the last 10 years’ average has been 12.6 million acre-feet, with more than 14 million acre-feet in use, which has drained down once brimming reservoirs.
Add to that temperature increases that dry out the soils, which in turn suck up a fair amount of snowfall precipitation; transportive losses; evaporative losses, plus federal pressure to conserve even more water, and the reality is: water consumption has to be cut. Although the ongoing argument between the Upper and Lower Basins tends to center on who has already been cut too deeply and who has not, it doesn’t change the hotter, drier climate conditions.
“Because of that, we should understand our water uses have to be reduced as well,” Mueller said, after detailing the history of the Colorado River Compact, uses, and political disputes over the river’s water.
Mueller said although the Upper Basin has consistently lived within its hydrology while meeting its compact obligations to send water downstream, and the Lower Basin hasn’t, everyone must be more innovative in bringing solutions to protect agriculture, communities, and the attendant economies.
The Western Slope also is challenged by the political makeup of Colorado itself: 85% of the voting population lives on the Front Range and that population also depends on the Colorado River.
“We’ve got a fight ahead of us, both in our state and on the big river,” Mueller said.
The bulk of Colorado’s water comes from snow, most of which falls in a four-month period, keynote speaker and natural resources policy expert Greg Walcher later said.
The water serves 5 million state residents (and the population is expected to soar to 9 million by 2050, with no comparable increase in water coming), as well as all states who have legal rights under the compact.
By 2060, the Colorado River Basin’s population is expected to swell to 76 million.
Colorado lacks sufficient storage capacity in its reservoirs to capture everything it’s entitled to, so it is lost downstream, Walcher said. Another “cruel reality” is that although 80% of the water falls on the western side of the Divide, about 80% of the population lives on the eastern side, setting the stage for political battles over “a much too small water supply,” he added.
The battles will come over storage, diversion and use: the things people can actually control, because no human can control snowfall. “Put simply, westerners have to store water during the wet periods to use during the dry periods or they can’t live here,” he said.
There is no question that there is less water in the Colorado River now than when the compact was entered — but the parties need to stop arguing over why, Walcher said. “That bogs us down into this never-ending argument that solves nothing.”
Whether the cause is climate change, federal mismanagement, evaporative losses, invasive plant species or a combination of factors, it’s time to determine how to keep the Southwest supplied with water, as more and more people flock to the region.
“The Southwest is the fastest growing part of the United States,” Walcher said, and it is already dependent on too little water. Water, he said, is always going to be the principle natural resource of the West. “It is the issue that underlies all others.”
The balancing act under the river compact is as delicate as it is critical.
The Upper Basin’s main storage is at Lake Powell and the basin cannot deplete the river at Lee Ferry below 75 million acre-feet over a 10-year average. Although what this means is disputed, if the Upper Basin’s post-compact uses deplete the river below that amount, it could be held in violation of the contract, Mueller said.
Conversely, the Upper Basin could argue that the unprecedented storage shortage in the reservoirs is the result of federal Bureau of Reclamation mismanagement. The Upper Basin has, despite the shortages, always maintained the correct delivery amount to Lower Basin states, he said.
As it stands, Powell is barely skirting disaster. If it drops below 3,490 feet elevation, water will no longer flow to turn the power turbines, which could have a large-scale effect on economies, because that power is comparatively cheap, Mueller said.
If Powell dips to 3,370 feet, it’s “dead pool,” no longer flowing through the pipelines that deliver water to the Lower Basin.
“If they let the reservoir fall that low, it is possible that we will not see water of any sufficient amount in the Grand Canyon as soon as the end of next year,” Mueller said. “It’s unbelievable that we have reached this crisis with the Bureau of Reclamation managing these dams. This was a foreseeable event. For 20 years, people could see this coming and there were not changes in the way they operated.”
In June came a federal mandate: Cut river uses by between 2 and 4 million acre-feet and, within 60 days, present a plan for doing so, or the government will step in to achieve the cuts itself.
The dictum frustrated the river district. Mueller said the Upper Basin had already conserved 1 million acre-feet, and not because of programs or federal cash incentives, but because the water wasn’t legally or physically available at headgates. Still, he said, the Lower Basin wanted the Upper Basin to save even more. Mueller said the Lower’s use of 8.8 million acre-feet put it out of compliance with the compact.
When the 60-day deadline arrived, the Upper Colorado River Commission produced a five-point proposal:
• Reauthorization of a systemic conservation pilot project to pay users to temporarily cut consumption. The money would theoretically offset economic losses and also encourage more water-friendly use methods.
• A drought response operations plan that would only send releases from reservoirs into Powell if that water would actually stay in Powell to protect hydropower — but not if that would just be released downstream.
• A demand management program that would track conserved water and hold it in reservoirs to protect compact obligations.
Mueller admitted he was “uncomfortable” with how the rollout of such a provision could affect people. The river district’s board has “very cautiously” authorized a risk and effectiveness study, but Mueller isn’t convinced those releases would actually make it into Powell, since thirsty vegetation along the river would drink up quite a bit.
He pointed to the 2021 release of 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa Reservoir to shore up Powell: it is not known how much of that actually flowed into the bigger reservoir.
“We think less than half of that actually made it into Powell,” Mueller said.
• The final leg of the five-point proposal was to fund improved water management tools.
Mueller was not impressed with the Lower Basin’s suggestions.
Mueller took aim at California’s Colorado River Board’s proposal, which included conserving up to 400,000 acre-feet in Mead each year between 2023 and 2026, and what he interpreted as an ask for most of the $3 billion allocated for water conservation in the Inflation Reduction Act.
The 400,000 acre-feet accounts for only 9% of the Lower Basin’s water use in a single year, Mueller said, going on to label that proposal as “disingenuous,” because he doubted it would even happen.
The Colorado River compact calls for an even split of the water — which again, from the Upper Basin’s perspective, means an even split of water actually in the river each year, and not an even split of 15 million acre-feet that isn’t.
Mueller said that between 2011 and 2022, the Lower Basin used about 8.8 million acre-feet a year, while the Upper Basin used 4.4 maf and Mexico received 1.5 maf.
“That’s not what we agreed to under the compact,” Mueller said, referring to the split between Basins. (Mexico has been a good and cooperative partner, he said.)
Walcher in his remarks said it defies common sense to think that the compact means Colorado agreed to deliver a fixed amount to the Lower Basin every year, no matter what.
The Upper Basin also chafes at evaporative and transit losses being assessed against its allotment, while there is no such assessment against the Lower Basin’s. It shakes down to a 60-30 split, not an even division, Mueller said.
Arizona and Nevada have begun to agree, he added.
The water summit later presented Vineetha Kartha, Central Arizona Project program manager, who spent her time detailing how the state has been building resiliency in the face of lower river flows in order to protect Lake Mead, the Lower Basin’s main storage.
Mueller wants California treated the same as the other parties to the river compact and alleged the federal government isn’t doing so, in part because it dreads being sued by the Golden State.
In response, Mueller said the river district here has had to rattle a legal saber, too — if the BuRec insists on taking the 2 to 4 million acre-feet water savings out of the Upper Basin, the basin is poised to sue for breach of contract.
Colorado has to be ready for that, as the push-pull between the Upper and Lower Basins over the compact could one day come before Supreme Court. In that scenario, it would be best if Colorado could prove it has “clean gloves” — a demonstrated track record of making do with the amount of water that is actually in the river and maintaining its releases to the Lower Basin, reducing uses further and adapting.
The Upper Basin is also working with Native tribes whose water rights, although not enumerated in the compact, are by an implied and reserved right senior to compact members’. Their water rights are determined by the date on which their respective reservations were established, Mueller said, in answering an attendee’s question about how compact negotiations affect tribes.
For Colorado’s two tribes (Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute), that date was 1886, putting those rights senior to everyone who isn’t Native American, he said. Currently, the 30 tribes in the basins own about 25% of the current flow on the river and have only developed about 40% of that amount. If they developed all of their water rights, the compact’s junior rights would be affected.
Mueller said the tribal rights must be respected in both basins, which have to work with the tribes on the matter now, rather than avoiding it. The tribes appear to be invested in working with others and in taking care of the Colorado properly, he added.
“They want the respect and the seat at the table.”
Change is hard, Mueller acknowledged in his talk. “It’s not going to be the same way our dads, mothers and grandparents did it. It’s going to be different, if only because the climate is different,” he said.
(The West Slope Water Summit, emceed by Montrose County Commissioner Sue Hansen, also included a Q&A session with the Uncompahgre Water Users Association, an overview of meteorology and an update on a conserved consumptive use project, presented by CSU’s Perry Cabot. The entire six-hour summit can be viewed at westslopewaterinfo.com)
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.