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Upper Basin states lay out plan to help the Colorado River, but say Lower Basin needs to chip in more

Letter: ‘Efforts to protect critical reservoir elevations must include significant actions focused downstream of Lake Powell’
A fisherman tries his luck in the Colorado River near Burns. (Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily via AP, file)

Water managers in the four Upper Colorado River Basin states say they have a plan to help stabilize the overtaxed river, but in a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation say any work to balance the system must include “significant actions” in the three Lower Basin states.

“The Upper Division States recognize that bringing the system into balance will require collaboration and efforts from all Basin States and water use sectors. Accordingly, we stand ready to participate in and support efforts, across the Basin, to address the continuing dry hydrology and depleted storage conditions,” the letter reads. “However, the options the Upper Division States have available to protect critical reservoir elevations are limited.”

The letter, dated July 18, comes in response to an announcement last month by Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton calling for 2 million to 4 million acre-feet in cuts in Colorado River use by the end of next year to avoid the system from reaching “critically low water levels.” The system supplies water and generates electricity for millions of users across the West.

The commissioner requested ideas from the seven Colorado Basin states by mid-August for how to meet the aggressive target and also said the bureau had the authority to take unilateral action.

Signed by Charles Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, an interstate agency that manages water in the Upper Basin – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico – the letter lays out a plan the states will pursue to “proactively support critical infrastructure and resources.”

The actions discussed in the letter include the potential for more releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to aid Lake Powell, reauthorization of a water-conservation research effort known as the System Conservation Pilot Program and consideration of an Upper Basin demand management program. Two other bullet points focus on how water is managed in the Upper Basin, including implementing funding to “accelerate enhanced measurement, monitoring and reporting infrastructure to improve water management tools across the Upper Division States.”

The new Upper Basin letter, however, notes that none of these measures will be as effective without significant actions in the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada – a refrain Upper Basin water managers have repeated since Touton made her announcement to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on June 14.

“Reclamation data shows that Lower Basin and Mexico depletions are more than double the depletions in the Upper Basin,” the letter reads. “Therefore, additional efforts to protect critical reservoir elevations must include significant actions focused downstream of Lake Powell. Otherwise, the effectiveness of our 5 Point Plan will be limited.”

In 2021, the Upper Basin states collectively used about 3.5 million acre-feet, down from about 4.5 million the prior year, while the Lower Basin including Mexico used about 10 million acre-feet in 2021, up slightly from the prior year, according to numbers from the UCRC. Upper Basin states including Colorado have received less water because of climate change and other factors and there are no massive reservoirs to store water like those that exist for the Lower Basin.

Launching discussion of potential reservoir releases in 2023 would mean restarting a conversation that water managers had only just finalized a few months ago for 2022. Federal officials approved this year’s Drought Response Operations Agreement, or DROA, in April. The DROA dictates how water is released from Upper Basin reservoirs throughout the year. The goal of transferring that water to Lake Powell is to help prop up the historically low levels at the Utah reservoir to protect infrastructure and hydropower generation at Glen Canyon Dam.

Glen Canyon Dam, on the Utah-Arizona border, provides water from the Colorado River Basin to about 30 million people. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford, file)

The 2022 DROA spared Colorado’s Blue Mesa reservoir west of Gunnison from additional releases and instead called for the release of 500,000 acre-feet from the larger Flaming Gorge reservoir, which straddles the Utah-Wyoming border. In 2021, federal water managers approved an emergency release of 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge and 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa.

“The Upper Basin is naturally limited to the shrinking supply of the river, and previous drought response actions are depleting upstream storage by 661,000 acre-feet,” the letter reads. “Our water users already suffer chronic shortages under current conditions resulting in uncompensated priority administration, which includes cuts to numerous present perfected rights in each of our states.”

By the end of September this year, federal officials expect Blue Mesa to be about 35% full, which equates to roughly 295,000 acre-feet of storage, according to Bureau of Reclamation projections.

The letter indicates the states will seek to extend water conservation research that happened under what’s called the System Conservation Pilot Program. The UCRC launched the program in 2015 with the goal of funding pilot projects that examined the effectiveness of possible water-saving measures, including fallowing irrigate land, and looked at how those efforts could assist in raising water levels at Powell, meeting Colorado River Compact obligations or protecting hydropower production.

The letter also indicates that the Upper Basin states would “consider an Upper Basin Demand Management program as interstate and intrastate investigations are completed.”

Demand management was a key component of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans agreed upon by all seven Colorado River Basin states. The idea was that the Upper Basin states would each investigate the feasibility of paying water users to conserve water on a temporary and voluntary basis and store the water in Lake Powell in a special 500,000 acre-foot “account” for future use.

This spring, Colorado state officials paused investigation of a state demand management program, saying that Colorado needed to let other states catch up in their own research before determining whether a program was feasible.

“The challenges in the Colorado River Basin affect us all and require collaboration across the entire Basin,” the letter reads. “We request your support as we advance our 5 Point Plan, including for federal legislation to reauthorize the System Conservation Pilot Program and for funding to support the Plan through September 2026.”

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