Colorado shows support for regional water effort to keep up levels at Lake Powell
November 18, 2018
Editor's note: Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift newspapers. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
GOLDEN — The state of Colorado is now officially on board with a regional water strategy designed to keep enough water in Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam to avoid violating the Colorado River Compact and keep generating hydropower at the dam.
At a meeting Thursday in Golden, the directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board unanimously adopted a state policy giving its "full support" to proposed drought-contingency plans and agreements now being reviewed in both the upper and lower Colorado River basins.
"I think we've really done something important for the state today," Russ George, a CWCB director from Rifle, told a meeting room filled with water managers, water users and water attorneys from around the state.
The new policy means Colorado, along with the other upper-basin states of Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, can declare its support for the drought-contingency plans and agreements at a mid-December meeting in Las Vegas of the Colorado River Water Users Association.
The lower-basin states of California and Nevada also are in support of the agreements, but water managers in Arizona are still working through a series of contentious, complicated issues and have yet to reach consensus.
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But, if consensus in both basins can be reached by mid-December, legislation may be introduced during the current lame-duck session of Congress.
A sense of urgency to do something about the falling water levels in Lake Powell has been growing and was heightened in Colorado (in 2018) by the hot and dry conditions.
The policy adopted Thursday by the CWCB was crafted by staff members at the CWCB and the attorney general's office to bridge the latest chasm that had emerged between water managers on the Western Slope and the Front Range.
Officials on both sides of the Continental Divide want to store water in Lake Powell in a regulatory pool controlled by the upper basin, with the goal of keeping the reservoir levels high enough to keep producing hydropower at the dam.
But exactly how water now being consumed will be conserved and then sent downstream to fill the new pool in Lake Powell is uncertain, and a key issue is whether the state might be able to require mandatory cuts in water use to fill the new pool to avoid a compact call.
The Western Slope, lead by the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs, also wanted the state to help ensure that the new pools didn't lead to a buy-and-dry of irrigated agriculture on the Western Slope.
And they wanted assurances that the state would use a public process to devise any new rules or laws requiring mandatory cutbacks in water use, should low water conditions persist.
Meanwhile, Front Range water interests wanted to make sure that the state didn't tie its own hands and restrict its abilities to take steps to avoid a compact.
The state's policy says it will use an open public process to create a "demand management" program that incentivizes water users — primarily irrigators — to temporarily cut back on their consumptive use of water for compensation.
And if mandatory cutbacks in water use are necessary, "any alternative measures or rules for compact compliance administration" will be developed after "timely and extensive public outreach" and with "the goal, but not the requirement, of achieving general consensus within the state."
"The CWCB was very responsive to our request that they display state leadership establishing a policy that going forward provides some security for the Western Slope and other regions of the state, and that no one region is going to suffer the brunt of a demand-management program," said Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, after the meeting.
Mueller also said the CWCB "clearly separated demand management from some form of involuntary curtailment. It was very important to do that, as they are two different things."
Patti Wells, who represents the Denver metro area on the CWCB, said it was important that Colorado not be split by differences between the east and west slopes.
"There clearly is more that unites us in the ability for Colorado not to be subject to a compact call, then there is in the details of how we might avoid that," she said.
She also challenged water managers to come up with a demand-management program that "makes everyone better off."
"We ought to be able to figure out a way to get some water into Lake Powell without doing harm to anyone, and really making it a program that will benefit all the participants to the extent that we can," said Wells, who recently retired as the general counsel for Denver Water. "I see no reason why we can't approach this in that way, because we are Coloradans for God's sake, and we are not anyone else."