Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has signed off on increased funding for water development projects that state officials regard as critical to meet growing demands. But the state’s plans to secure more water from rivers here are colliding with the hotter, drier climate that’s hammering the Southwest, where Colorado River reservoirs are at record-low levels.
Federal authorities warn hydropower electricity for millions of people (and their air conditioners) could be jeopardized if water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead — now both about 34% full — fall much lower. That’s partly why water officials from seven states met in Denver this week to size up perils before their next round of negotiations over how states deal with diminishing water.
Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming (the Upper Basin states along the Colorado River) are facing pressure from Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, California) to use less water — even though the 1922 Colorado River Compact legally entitles them to use more — to try to save the downriver reservoirs.
“There’s a reality that we do have a shrinking water supply and we’re all going to have to figure out new ways to reduce our use. We try to stay out of any state’s business, but we also realize there’s not enough water for the Upper Basin to use its full allotted water under the compact,” said Bill Hasencamp, the Colorado River resources manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million people in the Los Angeles area and San Diego.
“If Denver and Colorado want to use more water, that’s going to put the overall system at risk,” Hasencamp said, and referred to the as-yet unused “call” that downriver states could declare to demand more water and force mandatory cuts. “What would happen? Who would cut back? The Upper Basin really doesn’t want that.”
Colorado leaders over the past six years have awarded more than $500 million in grants and loans for 323 projects in carrying out the state’s water plan — which calls for $100 million a year through 2050. Polis last week signed the latest monetary infusion into law: HB21-1260 for $20 million more to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to go toward increased water storage capacity and supply. The bill provides $15 million for loans and grants and $5 million for the regional “roundtable” panels that have planned 500 local water development projects.
Polis also signed off on SB21-189 to spend $1.2 million more in construction funds for the implementation of the overall $20 billion water plan, which was launched in 2015 to ensure enough for a productive economy — from cities to farms to the recreation industry — while preserving healthy rivers through efficient water use and carefully designed water projects. Two in progress would siphon significantly more water out of the Colorado River basin — an expanded reservoir for Denver and enlarged Moffat system that diverts west-flowing water to the northern Front Range.
“We are so grateful for the legislature’s support in funding critical water projects around the state that will help us all meet our future needs,” said water conservation board director Rebecca Mitchell, who also serves as Colorado’s negotiator in divvying water with other states.
Colorado water users are “reliant on what comes down the river from snowpack,” Mitchell said.
“We are already actively talking about and experiencing cuts, which have been particularly painful in this very dry year,” she said, referring to the state’s allocation system that forces junior water-rights holders to use less in dry times. “These are historically low conditions and we need basin-wide solutions that we work on together.”
State officials in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming contend they’re entitled under the 1922 compact to use as much as 2 million acre-feet more water. But those shares are based on century-old calculations for how much water the river can provide — 15 million acre-feet a year — rather than the 12.3 million acre-feet average total flow since 2000.
Contingency plans for enduring severe droughts are expected to force mandatory cutbacks next year in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
The plummeting water levels in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir in southern Nevada, have led to 25% less electricity production this year due to decreased pressure to turn turbines, federal Bureau of Reclamation officials said. And if water levels keep falling in Lake Powell, the other main reservoir, straddling Utah and Arizona, officials said, the Western Area Power Administration will have to buy electricity from other sources at a greater cost to sustain 5.8 million customers across 15 states, including Colorado.
Some environment groups oppose new water supply development in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
“Any new water you take out of the Colorado River in Colorado is going to accelerate the political, electricity supply, and water management chaos in the Southwest,” Save the Colorado River director Gary Wockner said.
But other environmental advocates support Colorado’s efforts to increase supplies within compact limits.
“That’s what the state has been legally granted,” Conservation Colorado water advocate Josh Kuhn said. “But we’d like to see very wise use of that water.”
This content was originally published here.