As Colorado faces another dry year, water managers worry long-term drought could impact Moffat County ag
CRAIG — Moffat County is expected to see less moisture than normal this spring, though the county has fared better this water year than other parts of the state.
The Elkhead Reservoir filled April 11, and Stagecoach Reservoir is expected to fill within the next two weeks, as long as flows remain steady. Snowpack in the Yampa/White River Basin is at 86 percent of the average, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service. The Yampa River is projected to flow at 64 percent of its long-term average flow this year, according to the Colorado River District.
Still, water managers are concerned about the impacts a long-term drought could have on Moffat County and its rivers.
Statewide graphs of snowpack this year have been similar to the water year in 2002, which was a record low year for reservoir storage and river runoff. Twelve Colorado counties, including Bent, Crowley, Delta, Garfield, Gunnison, Kiowa, Montrose, Las Animas, Pitkin, Pueblo, Mesa and Otero have been designated as primary natural disaster areas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture due to losses and damages caused by the recent drought.
During the winter, drought conditions have crept toward Moffat County from the southwestern part of the state. Southwestern Moffat County is experiencing severe drought conditions. Central Moffat County faces moderate drought conditions, and eastern Moffat County is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
On April 1, the Colorado River District said it anticipated it would send only 43 percent of the long-term average amount of water it sends downstream to Lake Powell between April and July.
The state is required to send an average of 75 million acre-feet downstream to parts of California, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico during a 10-year rolling average under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. This water is stored in Lake Powell, and some is released into Lake Mead. Due to the drought in southern parts of Colorado, the Yampa/White/Green River Basin is anticipated to make up a larger portion of the water sent downstream this year.
With more and more drought years occurring, water managers are growing more and more concerned about meeting compact requirements.
The Colorado River basin is expected to contain 20- to 35-percent less water in the Upper Colorado River Basin by 2100, due to rising temperatures. Compound that with population growth and a growing demand for Colorado River Basin water on both Colorado’s Front Range and in Lower Basin communities, the river is being “pulled at both ends,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, during last week’s State of the River event.
When the elevation of the waterline in Lake Powell falls below 3,525 feet, the Glen Canyon Dam cannot reliably produce power, Mueller said. Power generated by the dam produces revenue to operate several major reservoirs, including the Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal Reservoirs in Colorado and the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah. It also helps fund the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program.
On Wednesday, Lake Powell sat a few inches above 3,609 feet, only 84 feet above that critical line.
“Powell is our savings account,” Mueller said. “A full Lake Powell means that, if we hit a drought for a few years, we’ll still be able to deliver water downstream. If Powell is dropping, as it is now, we run the risk of not being able to deliver the water out of Powell, and we have to create that water up here by turning off pre- or post-1922 water rights.”
If there is not enough water in Lake Powell, a compact curtailment would be instituted, meaning water users in Colorado would face curtailments, which are limits to their use. Mueller said if Colorado faces a drought period today as it did between 1999 and 2005, there is not enough water in Powell to deliver downstream, which means Colorado is at risk of suffering a compact curtailment.
Currently, there is no system in place to limit users should a compact curtailment happen.
Colorado’s system of prior appropriation designates how curtailments are administered within the state. The youngest, or most junior, water rights are curtailed until users with the oldest, or senior, water rights receive all of the water to which they are entitled. There is no such process outlined in the instance of a compact curtailment.
Mueller and others fear water would be disproportionately curtailed, with more water available for municipal and industrial use at the expense of agriculture on Western Slope. He cited examples from Aurora and Colorado’s eastern plains, where agricultural water was diverted to urban use.
Within Colorado, Western Slope agriculture is the largest consumptive use of water in the Colorado River Basin, according to the Colorado River District. About 69 percent of the water depleted in the basin goes to growing food, feed and livestock on the Western Slope. The next greatest portion of use is municipal and industrial use on the Front Range, which takes 18 percent of the depletions in the Colorado River.
“We believe our economy — the agriculture that we just talked about — is what is likely to suffer if we end up in a curtailment, so Colorado River District, along with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and others in the state are looking very closely at how we prevent a curtailment from ever occurring,” Mueller said.
Water managers in both the Colorado’s Upper and Lower River Basins are working on Drought Contingency Plans to manage water in a way that would avoid a compact curtailment. The Upper Basin Plan would incorporate releases at “critical periods” from larger reservoirs, such as Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa, to boost the water level in Lake Powell.
Mueller said these releases would be “a Band-Aid,” which would work in a short-term drought. These releases would supply about 2 million additional acre-feet of water to Powell, which would barely make a dent in a long-term drought, like the one of 1999-2005.
Some water managers are considering “demand management,” in which water users would receive compensation to voluntarily, temporarily reduce water use. The unused water would then be stored to avoid curtailment.
The River District is studying the concept and its economic impact on communities like Craig, which are dependent on agriculture, Mueller said. The district is gathering data from an experimental program in Grand Valley, where it’s testing leaving fields fallowed temporarily.
“Drying up West Slope ag, even temporarily, in order to save ag, seems a little bit off,” Mueller said. “We’re trying to make sure that, when we’re doing that, it’s not, in someone else’s mind, a permanent step towards a permanent dry-up of that water or that land.”
Other methods water managers are exploring include more contributions to Lake Powell from Lower Basin states and cloud seeding, which is already done in Central and Southwest Colorado.