Anatomy of a looming water war |

Anatomy of a looming water war

Ken Neubecker

Just what is a drought? According to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), it’s when the demand for water exceeds the available supply. We are deep in a drought right now, although we do seem to have enough water to keep the grass green and the water in the toilet clear.Most of the water we have been using for the past few years either comes from reservoirs or is dependent on reservoir supplies to replace what we take directly from the rivers. That’s the case here on the Eagle, where we really have no reservoirs upstream for our water supply. We “augment” or replace what we take out for our use when someone with a senior right downstream “calls” for it.Dennis Galvin, General Manager of the Upper Eagle River Water Authority and the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District wrote a letter to the Vail Trail a couple weeks ago with some serious concern about our water supply. Most folks in the Eagle Valley and Colorado look to reservoirs like Ruedi, Wolford, and Green Mountain as the safe guards of our water. After all, the senior rights are the Shoshone Power plant and the orchards of the Grand Valley, right?Well, sort of.We don’t tend to think much about what’s west of the state line, into the deserts of Utah. We don’t tend to think of Lake Powell as important to our water supply.We haven’t had to until now.Lake Powell has always been our largest guarantee of water for senior downstream rights. It has provided a pool for Colorado to float its growth on over the past 40 years. We now may be facing the prospect of that growth running aground as the rocks of Glen Canyon rise out of the dropping waters of Lake Powell.Back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, as Colorado grew and it’s economic development began to settle down from the rambunctious days of mining to a more stable agricultural and urban life, some folks began to worry about the supply of water that was needed for the State’s future. Trans-basin diversions and arguments between communities were a concern, but a more distant threat was rising downstream: California.Prior appropriation was the accepted form of allocating water throughout the west, in one form or another. The first claim was sacrosanct. Anyone with a legitimate need could claim all of the available water from the river. Southern California was growing faster, and getting thirstier, than any other area in the Southwest. After drying up the Owens Valley, they turned their eyes to the Colorado River. There was a lot of unclaimed water flowing out of Colorado at the time. An awful lot.Delph Carpenter from Greeley and others organized a commission of representatives from all of the States that the Colorado River flows through to equitably divide the rivers waters, before California claimed it all. Future President Herbert Hoover was appointed as representative from the Federal Government, and became the commission’s chair. Out of this commission came the Colorado River Compact.The Colorado River Compact, the foundation of the “Law of the River”, has a priority date of June 25, 1929. That’s pretty senior in the history of large scale western water appropriations. It is senior to all of the major trans-basin diversions; Northern’s Colorado-Big Thompson, Denver’s Moffat Collection system and Roberts Tunnel (Dillon), Homestake and the Frying Pan-Arkansas system (Ruedi). It’s also senior to most other municipal diversions on the west slope, like the Upper Eagle Valley Water Authority.In 1922 the Commission split the rivers’ flow evenly between the Upper Basin States which “produced” the water, and the Lower Basin States, which need the water. Lee Ferry, Arizona, is the divide between Upper and Lower Basin watersheds. Each Basin is entitled to 7.5 million acre feet (maf) per year. The Lower Basin is also entitled to an additional benefit of 1 maf. Mexico was entitled to a bit of water as well, 1.5 maf after signing a treaty in 1945. That’s 10 maf, per year, that the Upper Basin is obligated to pass by Lee Ferry. The Compact also provides that the Upper Basin States “shall not cause the flow of the river to be depleted below an aggregate of 75 maf for any period of ten consecutive years”.These allocations were based on the best information available at the time. The Colorado River would flow on average 16.4 maf or more per year at Lee Ferry. Those figures were based on some of the wettest years on record. The reality is that the river flow averages around 13.5 maf at Lee Ferry, and it’s been a lot less recently.Lake Powell, 10 miles above Lee Ferry, is at the lowest level it has been since the gates on the dam were closed in 1963. The water level is down 120 feet from full pool and if the drought continues it could reach the minimum power pool level as soon as next year. That’s the point at which the level of the lake is too low to generate electricity. If the drought goes on longer the Lake will reach the point where it can no longer deliver 7.5 maf per year to the Lower Basin. It might even get to the point where the aggregate of 75 maf over 10 years won’t be meet. All of this could trigger a “Compact Call”.So what happens when the Lower Basin States; Arizona, Nevada and especially California, call for their senior water right on the Colorado River? I don’t think any one really knows for sure, but I do know that a lot of people are thinking hard about it. Especially the big cities east of the Continental Divide. The water suppliers in our small valley are having some sleepless nights as well. Dennis Gelvin, along with the rest of us, has reason to worry.Any diversion upstream from Lee Ferry that is Junior to June 25, 1929, could be forced to stop. Water originally destined to flow east under the mountains or onto the lawns, golf courses and ski slopes of the Eagle Valley, would have to stay in the stream, on it’s way to Lee Ferry. While this might sound great for the fish, it wouldn’t be too much fun if you couldn’t take a shower after fishing, or flush your toilet. Denver and the Front Range do have some cushion, in the stored waters of Dillon and other reservoirs. The Eagle Valley only has the small amount of water that is senior to the Compact, the water actually consumed by the hay fields before 1929. When the waters stored in Lake Powell, the Aspenall Unit, Navajo, and Flaming Gorge are gone it will be all we have left. That’s not much.I suppose Colorado could simply refuse to release the water. California might sue, but that would take years in the courts and hopefully the drought would be well over by then. We could just pay them back, if we wanted to. What is California going to do? Send their Army? Mexico still needs their 1.5 maf, and they do have an ArmyThe approaching threat of a Call on the Colorado River Compact is real. Resolution of such a call is as muddy as the waters swirling past the collapsing cliffs of sediment in Lake Powell. If the drought continues and deepens we may be seeing a lot more mud, in Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and the other reservoirs built to help guarantee the rights spelled out in the Compact. It could also mean seeing more dry bottoms in reservoirs like Dillon and Lake Granby as their junior rights are called out.So what is a drought? Drought is when the demand for water exceeds the available supply. We just might be in a real drought. We need to start taking that idea seriously. Neither water from the faucet nor the recent rains means that we can forget the dry legacy of the past few years: Lake Powell is still dropping. VTKen Neubecker can be contacted at

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