From KUNC (Luke Runyon):
In 2007, years into a record-breaking drought throughout the southwestern U.S., officials along the Colorado River finally came to an agreement on how they’d deal with future water shortages — and then quietly hoped that wet weather would return.
But it didn’t.
Those states are now back at the negotiating table to hammer out new deals to avoid a slow-moving crisis on the river system that supports 40 million people in seven Western states…
The canyon beyond the dam is stained with a stark white ring. For the past 20 years, Pitt says, demands for water have outstripped the supply, meaning Lake Powell and its sister reservoir — Lake Mead further downstream — continue to drop. Both are less than half full.
Pitt says without changes to how the two human-made lakes are managed, they could plummet to levels where no water can be released, referred to as “dead pool.”
“If that happened, that would be a catastrophe for this region’s economy, for all of the people who depend on the Colorado River, and for all of the wildlife that depends on it as well,” Pitt says…
It’s not about blame
That dystopian future of shuttered farms, dried up streams and water-stressed cities is one water managers, like the Upper Colorado River Commission’s James Eklund, are attempting to avoid.
“Take Lake Mead,” Eklund says. “More is being taken out than comes into it. Like your bank account, if you do that over a sustained period you will run a deficit, and if you’re talking about water for 40 million people and economies that are massive — fifth largest economy in the world, the Colorado River Basin represents — then that’s significant.”
They’re attempting to boost reservoir levels with a suite of agreements under the umbrella of “drought contingency planning.” The premise is simple: Cut water use now, use that saved water to bump up Powell and Mead, and doing so will help to avoid bigger problems in the future, when supplies are likely to be even tighter.
Water officials in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming are working on a plan that covers the river’s Upper Basin and focuses on boosting snowpack with weather modification, better managing existing reservoirs and creating a water bank in Lake Powell.
The Lower Basin plan, being worked on by officials in Arizona, California and Nevada, is meant to create new incentives for water users like farmers and cities to conserve water in Lake Mead and to agree to earlier, deeper cuts to water use so the reservoir can avoid dropping to dead pool levels.
“There is clearly enough evidence that if we were to have another 2000 to 2004 kind of a multi-year drought, the system is in very serious trouble,” says Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District, a Glenwood Springs, Colorado-based water agency.
When the current guidelines for river management were written back in 2007, he says people were feeling optimistic.
“Historically we’ve always said, ‘Well, next year will be better,’” Kuhn says. “And that’s the easy way out.”
After just finishing one of the driest and hottest water years on record, much of that optimism is gone.
Kuhn says Arizona has had the hardest time coming to an agreement due to intrastate battles over who will take cuts to water allocations and when they’ll take them. But states in the river’s Upper Basin — like Colorado — have had issues, too.
Like with the concept of demand management.
“It’s the difficult one,” Kuhn says. “Somebody’s going to have to use less.”
Climate change is just one factor to get these deals done quickly. Another is pressure from the federal government. Officials with the U.S. Department of the Interior have given states an end-of-year deadline to get things done. If not, the assumption is the feds will step in and do it for them.
“That’s I think a fear of everybody on the river especially in the Upper Basin,” says Jennifer Gimbel, a former Interior undersecretary, now with Colorado State University. “And the last thing we want is interference by the federal government in that role.”
Gimbel says the fate of the entire region hangs in the balance.
Back at Glen Canyon Dam, the National Audubon Society’s Jennifer Pitt says it’s more than just the fates of people and economies tied up in river politics. An entire ecosystem is at stake.
“I think a lot of people who care about wildlife in this region are concerned,” she says. “And it’s not just birds. Seventy percent of all wildlife in the arid West rely on rivers at some point in their life cycle. So it has outsized importance for anyone who appreciates nature in this part of the country.”
This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.
From The Summit Daily News (Deepan Dutta):
In order to avoid that shortage, which has never been declared before, the Bureau asked the seven basin states to come together in 2018 to form drought contingency plans that will avoid triggering shortages. This past Wednesday, the Bureau released a draft plan formed by the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states.
The draft contingency plan would see Lower Basin states agree to conserve more water and curtail use and keep more water in storage if Lake Mead reaches the critical level. The Upper Basin states agreed to keep Lake Powell at least 30 feet above the 3,525 feet trigger level and gain the ability to keep a certain amount of excess water in storage, instead of losing it to Lower Basin states.
In a joint statement, the Bureau’s Lower Colorado Regional Director Terry Fulp and Upper Colorado Regional Director Brent Rhees lauded the landmark draft agreements.
“The seven Colorado River Basin States have taken an important step forward by releasing draft drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basins,” the statement read. “The Bureau of Reclamation commends the work of the many partners in the Basin. We are encouraged by their progress in responding to ongoing drought conditions that continue to threaten reservoir elevations at an unprecedented rate.”
The statement goes on to say that the Bureau hopes the draft agreements will be finalized and adopted by the end of 2018. However, states will need to have a framework for how to distribute water cuts, which may require dealing with painful realities while tightening belts.