Opinion: New guidelines can save the Colorado River
The Colorado River is the moving force of the West. It provides water to 40 million people and is vital to economic prosperity in the western states it runs through.
Despite its majesty, the Colorado River faces unprecedented challenges. Population growth, climate change, and increasingly drier conditions pose risks to the Upper Division States — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — which are on the front lines of meeting these challenges.
Over recent years, we have adapted to significant reductions in water supplies because, unlike the Lower Division States, we are without the benefit of enormous reservoirs above us that provide a steady, reliable source of supply even in drought years. Because of this experience, the Upper Division States are uniquely positioned to lead the way in finding long-term sustainable solutions that can work across the entire basin.
Colorado has a long history of administering water rights according to the availability of water supply in a particular location at a particular time. We are one of only a few states in the country to do so. The last 20 years of drought have forced Coloradans to make difficult choices. During that time, we have learned to do more with less water.
Two decades of drought have meant that cuts in water usage go deeper each year. Thanks to our system of water management, we maximize the use of available supplies by measuring every drop. Going forward, Colorado plans to build on our current system and improve our water measurement infrastructure, working with the other Upper Division States and using funding from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. After all, we can’t manage what we don’t measure.
Our system of water administration according to water availability has adapted well to changing circumstances. Consider that in 2021, the Upper Basin used 25% less water than in 2020 — a huge reduction in water use of almost one million acre-feet. That’s enough water to supply three million homes for an entire year.
In addition to administering water rights, the Upper Basin has contributed significant volumes of water — beyond what’s required under the Colorado River Compact — to prop up levels in downstream reservoirs. The Upper Basin states worked with the Bureau of Reclamation, Tribal Nations, water users, and non-governmental organizations, to finalize the 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan in May. The 2022 Plan maintains critical elevations at Lake Powell to protect infrastructure and municipal water supplies by sending 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Lake Powell. This is in addition to the 161,000 acre-feet released from the Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa Reservoirs in 2021. Together, these releases equal approximately 15% to 20% of our annual consumptive use in the Upper Basin. The 2022 Plan does not call for any additional releases from Blue Mesa.
When adding the one million acre-feet of foregone uses in 2021 with the 661,000 acre-feet of water provided from Upper Basin reservoirs in 2022, the Upper Basin is providing roughly 43% of its annual water use to help protect Lake Powell through April 2023. These are short-term measures. Further such contributions from the Upper Basin are unsustainable.
For the long-term, we must manage the river in light of depleted storage and drier conditions. Finding lasting solutions will require us to first recognize that depleted storage in Lake Powell is largely the result of releases to meet the downstream needs of the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada.
The Lower Basin’s ability to overuse water in the face of diminishing supplies reflects a limitation of the 2007 Interim Guidelines. The current guidelines are out of sync with the diminishing supplies in the Colorado River and depleted storage in the system. Any new guidelines must require the Lower Basin to manage its uses within the available supply from the Colorado River, account for depletions within the Lower Basin, and restore resilience in the system by increasing storage levels. This will require hard choices and bold actions. We must learn from our experience under the 2007 Interim Guidelines and collaborate with our partners to make the next set of reservoir operating rules sustainable for all the Basin States.
The pain caused by a smaller river is being felt acutely in Colorado and across the Basin. Unfortunately, the hard choices that existed 20 years ago are even harder now. As we go forward, Colorado stands ready to participate in and support the hard choices that must be made across the Basin to bring the system into balance and to sustain Colorado’s future.
Phil Weiser is attorney general of Colorado and serves as an ex officio member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Rebecca Mitchell is the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado’s Commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission.
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