Energy, Utilities & Water  November 15, 2022

Water commissioners want equity in Colorado River usage dispute

LOVELAND — Those working in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River to break the impasse over future allocations of the river want to accomplish a few select things:

They want the upper and lower basins to be treated equitably.

They want acknowledgment that the majority of the usage problem is occurring in the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

They want to preserve the economic vitality of the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico.

Using an airplane analogy, Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said, “You need to put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others. That has to be our strategy.”

In the 100th year of the Colorado River Compact — which was signed on Thanksgiving Day 1922 — use of the river remains in high contention.

Members of a panel at the Northern Water Conservancy District’s fall symposium Tuesday in Loveland detailed the past, present and future of the milestone agreement that population growth and climate warming has put into peril. Brad Wind, general manager of Northern Water, led the discussion.

Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, detailed the background.

The compact signed in 1922 split the river’s basin into northern and southern parts. Each part was granted 7.5 million acre feet of consumptive use of the river. The states in each part were expected to divvy up their share of the water.

In the southern basin, California was allotted 4.4 million acre feet, Arizona 2.8 million, and Nevada 0.3 million acre feet. The two largest users in the southern basin, the Metropolitan District of Southern California and the Imperial Irrigation District, dominated the allocations.

In the north, Colorado was allocated 51.75% of the 7.5 acre feet, or 3.88 acre feet. Utah was allocated 23%, Wyoming 14% and New Mexico 11%. 

In 1944, the U.S. by treaty allocated 1.5 million acre feet of the river’s bounty to Mexico.

The compact, Cullom said, was designed to create equity between the regions and create space for development.

The basins, however, operated differently. While the upper basin uses hydrology of the region to determine user allocations — in short, water usage depends upon snowpack — the southern basin relies upon the great reservoirs of Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Together, they have a combined storage of 50 million acre feet, and they were full in 2000, Cullom said.

Today, those reservoirs are at 28% and 25%, respectively, of capacity and dropping fast.

The drought that began in 2002 affected the upper basin but not the lower, because of the reservoirs, Mitchell said.

When the reservoirs were built, it was anticipated that the regions would fully use available resources for growth. “It was anticipated that hydrology would replenish the reservoirs every three or four years. This century, we’ve had two replenishing years,” Cullom said.

From 2007, about 5.5 million acre feet were flowing from the upper basin into Lake Powell, and 9 million or 10 million acre feet were flowing out, said Kyle Whitaker, Colorado River programs manager for Northern Water. 

“We manage differently in Northern Colorado. The lower basin has been going on 110% quota for the past several years. The upper basin has been allocating 70% for several years. If we had used 100% quota last year, we would have drained Lake Granby,” Whitaker said.

“As we look to the future, we have to say, ‘This can’t happen,’” Mitchell said. “Remember the equity component of the compact. One of the things to remember is that the economic drivers are also in the upper basin,” she said.

Cullom, who lives at Park City, Utah, said entitlement has grown up around the system. “[When] people believe they are entitled to things that no longer exist because of their actions, they do irrational things to restore what they think is rightfully theirs. There are those who believe that they are owed water from the upper basin [to continue their economic interests,] he said.

The upper basin took proactive measures to release water from Blue Mesa Reservoir and Flaming Gorge to protect infrastructure in Lake Powell. That strategy, however, has limits. 

In June, the Bureau of Reclamation gave the basins 60 days to come up with a plan. The upper basin responded within that timeframe with a plan that would implement a voluntary conservation program, investigate demand management, continue prior appropriation laws fundamental to water law in Colorado, and put a heavy emphasis on conservation, Mitchell said. Hard numbers were not part of the plan, because the upper basin bases its water usage on snowfall, which can’t be predicted.

The southern basin has yet to forward a plan.

“One of my biggest concerns,” Whitaker said, “is that if we have a good winter this winter, then any relief that mother nature might provide might slow the negotiations.”

“The Titanic is what happens when you continue to do the same thing with the expectation that things will get better on their own,” Cullom said. “We can’t solve the problem for them. They need to compromise in the lower basin.”

LOVELAND — Those working in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River to break the impasse over future allocations of the river want to accomplish a few select things:

They want the upper and lower basins to be treated equitably.

They want acknowledgment that the majority of the usage problem is occurring in the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

They want to preserve the economic vitality of the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico.

Using an airplane analogy, Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said, “You need to put the oxygen mask on…

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