Colorado is suspending its investigation into the feasibility of demand management, a program that would allow the state to pay water users to temporarily and voluntarily conserve water and store water preserved in Lake Powell for future use.
“There’s no more energy being spent on this right now,” Jaclyn Brown, chairman of the Colorado Water Conservation Commission, said this week. “Until the facts change; until someone brings us new information.”
Demand management is a key component of the 2019 drought contingency plan agreed by all seven Colorado River Basin states. The idea is that the upstream basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — would each investigate the feasibility of paying water users to save water temporarily and voluntarily, and then store the excess water in Lake Powell in a special On 500,000 acres – foot “account”. Then, if needed, the upstream basin states can later use this water to meet delivery requirements set out in the Colorado River Compact.
The CWCB, the agency charged with protecting and managing the state’s water resources, leads the Colorado State Demand Management Survey. Now, after years of hard work, Colorado is further along than the other three states in the process — no plan would be possible without the participation of all four of the Upper Basin states. Brown said the fact that Colorado was ahead of other states was an important part of what led the board to take what she called a “hard suspension” when reviewing the concept.
“We have to get other states to catch up with their concerns and the problems they’re seeing,” she said.
In suspending its research, the CWCB decided at a meeting last week that it would instead focus on what can be done this year to help Colorado water users navigate the challenges of drought conditions affecting the state. Brown said the board was pleased to be able to focus on what can be done locally without the need for support from neighboring countries.
“What can we do as a state — recognizing that this trend is clearly skewed toward lower hydrology and drier climates — to prepare for this uncertain future that we’re looking at?” Brown said. “What can we do now?”
Each new forecast seems to point to a more challenging climate for Western water users. On March 17, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its spring outlook, with forecasters predicting a prolonged drought in the West, possibly below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nearly 60 percent of the continental U.S. is experiencing conditions ranging from mild to unusually dry. More than 82 percent of Colorado is experiencing some degree of drought, with parts of southern Colorado in “extreme drought,” according to the latest map from the U.S. Drought Monitor. What’s more, scientists studying tree-ring data recently found that the past 20 years were the driest on record 1,200 years ago, and that climate change has made the current megadrought worse.
In addition to identifying demand management as a possible way for Upper Basin states to store water in Powell, the 2019 agreement also includes an elevation of 3,525 feet as an important “target elevation” for Utah reservoirs. The mark provides a buffer to the lowest water level at 3,490 feet at which Glen Canyon Dam can generate electricity. More than 3 million customers use electricity from Glen Canyon Dam, and the federal government generates approximately $150 million in revenue annually from the sale of the hydropower. Last week, Powell fell below 3,525 feet for the first time since the lake was deemed “full” in 1980.
As other Upper Basin states catch up, CWCB Director and Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell said now is a good time to focus on Colorado. “I think we’ll have to wait and see what other states are thinking,” Mitchell said. “I think we have our own ideas and ideas and we have the ability to figure it out. But it seems like the right time to pause. Instead of sitting still, we’re looking at what we can do at the state level.”
strike a balance
In the arduous process of investigating demand management, Brown said she felt attitudes to the program had shifted from thinking it could be some kind of water-saving panacea to thinking it was just a potential type of ammunition. “Everybody is hesitant, as a public institution, what does that tell you?” Brown said of the concept. “If people think it’s a panacea, then they have plenty of time to really get involved – we’ve never heard of it.”
What’s more, Brown said she’s concerned about the impact the demand management program could have on farming communities — that agriculture will take on too much of the burden of putting water into Powell’s water storage account. For example, some demand management pilot projects focus on the idea of paying farmers and ranchers not to irrigate certain fields.
“I’m not an agronomist,” Brown said. “But I live on the West Slope and grew up here and I don’t want to change the structure of Colorado so that the only people who can afford ranch are rich people from out of town and it’s a tax record closing or whether they make money It doesn’t matter to them. I worry that the further we go down the demand management road, the more it will fall on ag.”
CWCB board member Heather Dutton said the board would take lessons from demand management efforts and apply them to what can now be done locally.
“Much of this conversation was: How does Colorado get involved in projects across all the states in the Upper Basin, how do we become a part of the Upper Basin team?” she said. “We’re still ready to be part of the team if everyone agrees, but let’s do some work and think about Colorado itself.”
Fourth-generation Grand Valley farmer Joe Bernal said he thought about focusing on Colorado, but added that he remains concerned — and doesn’t want to ignore — the issue of compact administration, which is a big challenge for him. Say, that’s an elephant in Colorado. Room. “We should be ready to respond,” he said. “The bigger problem is whenever someone knocks on our door.”
Troy Waters, a fifth-generation Fruita farmer, has the same concerns. “When people in Arizona or Denver or Los Angeles start running out of electricity or not having enough water in the taps, my biggest fear is that the federal government will come here and condemn our water for public health and safety reasons, and then I’ll go out of business ,” Waters said.
Amy Ostdiek, CWCB’s director of interstate, federal and water information, said the agency had developed a wealth of data on potential demand management plans and was ready to revisit it “in due course.”
When it comes to storing any water in Powell, it’s important to look at the balance between the upper and lower basins, Ostdiek said. In dry years, little water can be saved and transferred to Powell, Ostdiek said.
“Our water users are already slashing their water consumption because there is simply no water,” she said. “Their idea of donating water to Powell is not.”
Last year, in an effort to protect Powell’s water levels, water managers conducted emergency discharges from Wyoming’s Fire Canyon Reservoir and the Blue Mesa west of Gunnison. The releases lowered Blue Mesa water levels by 8 feet, forcing an early end to the boating season and having a major impact on the Gunnison County economy.
CWCB President Brown said she was concerned about how much water was actually going to Powell.
“The bureau is not tracking this water through the state,” Brown said. “That’s not to say there isn’t a solution to shepherding and tracking this water. … We’re seeing Blue Mesa basically cease operations because of the release; in the tourism sector alone, that’s making a real tangible difference to Colorado. influence.”
Kremlin rancher Paul Bruches was recently appointed by the Governor to the CWCB. However, Bruches’ appointment has yet to be confirmed by the state Senate, so he only participated in recent board discussions as a non-voting member.
“As the elevation of Lake Powell increases, urgency still has to be maintained across the basin,” Bruches said. “We’re on this pause waiting for other states to catch up, but reflect at home.”
Bruches said now is a critical time to learn how to adapt to current conditions such as dry soils, which have damaged spring runoff in recent years. “So far, we have fulfilled our contractual obligations,” Bruches said. “That doesn’t change the fact that my neighbour on a small tributary has been out of water for two years.”
Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit organization, has long been involved in developing demand management programs. Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Program, said he still believes demand management can be a tool to help Colorado meet its obligations to provide water under the Colorado River Compact.
The CWCB plans to hold a workshop soon to discuss specific things that can be done in Colorado this year. Brown said that could include finding ways to help improve agricultural viability, analyzing an in-state reservoir system, considering opportunities for federal infrastructure funding for projects and education and outreach efforts.
“We’re going back to the concept of trying,” she said. “People would want ready-made rock, low-hanging fruit. I can’t say exactly what that is. But we know it’s there.”