Vague and voluntary proposals may do little to help #ColoradoRiver — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

John McClow, left, moderates a panel on the Colorado River at the Colorado Water Congress summer conference in Steamboat Springs Thursday. From left: Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and commissioner of the Upper Colorado River Commission; Gene Shawcroft, Colorado River Commission of Utah; Tom Buschatzke, director, Arizona Department of Water Resources. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

No strong action from feds and no agreement among states

Water managers in recent weeks have put forth plans for conservation aimed at addressing the water-scarcity crisis on the Colorado River. But the proposals, which are vague and voluntary and lack goals with numbers, will probably do little to get additional water into the nation’s two largest reservoirs with the urgency officials say is needed.

In June, federal officials said the seven Colorado River basin states had to conserve an additional 2 million to 4 million acre-feet and threatened to take unilateral action if the states didn’t come up with a plan within 60 days.

But the deadline came and went without a basinwide deal or drastic action by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, except to implement the next round of cuts already agreed to by the states in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. As of Friday, there was still no plan from the lower basin states — California, Nevada and Arizona — on which upper basin water managers say the bulk of the responsibility to conserve rests.

Golfers take shots on the green lawns of the City Park Golf Course in central Denver on Sept. 28 2020. Denver Water has signed an MOU to the Bureau of Reclamation committing to reducing water use.CREDIT: LINDSAY FENDT / ASPEN JOURNALISM

Cities say they will reduce

On Wednesday, a group of seven municipal water providers — Aurora Water, Denver Water, Pueblo Water, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Colorado Springs Utilities, Southern Nevada Water Authority and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — sent a letter and memorandum of understanding to the Bureau of Reclamation pledging to be part of the solution by reducing their water consumption. They committed to expand water-efficiency programs and reduce nonfunctional turf grass by 30%.

The move was praised by environmental conservation group Western Resource Advocates as a good first step.

But the MOU does not include a specific amount of water savings from the municipalities. And although some urban water providers in the basin have been using less water in recent years even as their populations grow, it’s unclear if the new commitments will result in them diverting less from the Colorado River.

“They weren’t able to put numbers, they weren’t able to put dates, we don’t know how much they can actually save, but I’m glad they are saying we want to be part of the solution,” said John Berggren, a water policy analyst with WRA.

Berggren said any success of the measures will depend on the scale.

“If all these providers really scaled up their programs … with millions of dollars and dozens of staff, in a year or two, we could see fairly decent savings,” he said.

Even if the municipalities do conserve water, the amount of water they command is relatively small. Agriculture uses about 80% of the Colorado River’s allocation; in the state of Colorado, it’s roughly 86%.

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