River series: The state of the river — The Vail Daily #ColoradoRiver

From the Vail Daily (Randy Wyrick):

Lake Powell is being drained to fill Lake Mead, which is being drained by states downstream from it.

Ken Neubecker, executive director of the Western Rivers Institute, has often put it this way: “The West will always be a semi-arid environment, no matter how much we move the water around.”

However, how that water gets moved around is a constant matter of contention for those pulling it from the Colorado River — which is almost everyone who lives in this part of the country…


Delphus Emory Carpenter, an early Colorado attorney and rancher, was the first native-born Coloradan to serve in the Colorado state legislature. Carpenter litigated the early conflicts over Colorado River water and saw California developing much faster than Colorado.

“He could foresee a time when all the water would go to California,” said John McClow, general counsel of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and one of the West’s foremost water experts.

Carpenter created the Colorado River Compact in 1922 to equitably divide the river’s water among seven Western states — split into the Upper Basin and Lower Basin — and Mexico. Everyone wants a share — and then some.

Sean Cronin and John McClow at the 2014 CFWE President's Award Reception
Sean Cronin and John McClow at the 2014 CFWE President’s Award Reception

“If you use more than your share, you have to pay it back before anyone puts in any more water,” McClow said. “The Compact has been tested but has proven to be pretty adaptable.”

It apportions Upper Basin and Lower Basin each 7.5 million acre feet per year. The dividing line between the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states is Lee Ferry, Arizona. Upper Division states cannot deplete flows at Lee Ferry below an aggregate of 75 million acre feet over any period of 10 consecutive years.

However, at their current rate of consumption, the Lower Basis states would be at 90 million acre feet over 10 years, McClow said.

That water has to come from somewhere, and it’s coming from Lake Powell. However, since 2000, inflows into Lake Powell have only hit the average for three years.

“The problem is that Lake Powell is emptying fast,” McClow said.

Lake Powell is full when its water surface is 3,700 feet above sea level. The last time that happened was 1999. Right now, it’s about 44 percent full…

“Efficiency is improving immensely and rapidly,” McClow said.

In 2000, California was using 5.6 million acre feet. Two years ago, Californians were forced to cut consumption to their allotted 4.4 million acre feet.

“There’s a lot of blood on the floor in California,” McClow said…

In May, forecasts said Lake Powell will fill to 3,610 feet above sea level by the end of this year. Right now, it’s at 3,491 feet, 44 percent full.

“We dodged the bullet,” McClow said.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

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