Colorado River Basin a target for water-hungry communities in the west | VailDaily.com

Colorado River Basin a target for water-hungry communities in the west

Tom Ross
Steamboat Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The new general manager of the Colorado River District told an audience in Steamboat Springs that the continuing decline of water levels in Lake Powell, 413 highway miles from Steamboat Springs on the border of Utah and Arizona, is becoming worrisome for communities and water rights holders on Colorado's Western Slope.

"The key with Lake Powell is that it is our river savings account," Andy Mueller told a gathering of more than 200 people who packed into the Steamboat Springs Community Center on Tuesday, March 20, for the Steamboat State of the River meeting, less than 50 feet from the banks of the Yampa River.

The upper basin states are obligated to send, on average, 7.5 million acre feet of water annually to the lower basin states. But seven years of sub-par mountain snowpacks that feed the river and its tributaries, including the Eagle and Yampa rivers, have reduced the annual inflow to Lake Powell to the range of 3.2 million acre-feet, causing Mueller and his staff to keep a close eye on reservoir levels.

California is already consuming more than it is allotted under a historic multi-state compact, and Colorado's growing and increasingly thirsty Front Range is always looking for more water. Historically, that has placed a target on the relative abundance of water in the Colorado River Basin.

Less understood, Mueller said, is the Colorado River District's stake in power generation at Glen Canyon Dam, where water levels are coming perilously close to dropping below the intakes for the power plant.

"It really starts with power generation at Lake Powell," Mueller said. "That dam is a cash register for those of us on the river. It pays for the Colorado Endangered Fish Program, which allows all of us in Colorado to continue to divert water while the endangered fish are being protected."

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Ag water rights dominate Colorado District

Mueller assumed leadership of the 15-county Colorado River District on Colorado's Western Slope from longtime director Eric Kuhn, who retired late last year. The District's 25 employees are based in Glenwood Springs.

The district was created by the Colorado Legislature in 1937 to advocate for its constituents and to be the primary water policy and planning agency in the basin.

Mueller told his Steamboat audience that agricultural water rights continue to be of preeminent importance in the district.

"On the Western Slope, try to picture what it would look like without ag. It is a very different world if we don't have irrigated agricultural land," he said. "That's where the water is. Eighty percent of the water consumed on the Western Slope is in ag. We have to protect this agriculture, and a lot of that has to do with agricultural water rights."

But it won't be easy to accomplish, Mueller cautioned.

Future water

The district represents about 28 percent of the physical land mass in Colorado but is home to just 500,000 of the 5 million people in the state. And 57 percent of the water produced statewide comes from the Colorado River District.

"Eighty percent of the water in Colorado begins on the Western Slope," Mueller said. "And 80 to 90 percent of the people live on the other side," of the Continental Divide.

Lake Powell, backed up by Glen Canyon Dam, just above the Grand Canyon, is where the Rocky Mountain states, including Utah, Wyoming and the northern portions of Arizona and New Mexico store water to ensure they can meet their obligations to send water to the lower basins states including  California, Nevada and southern New Mexico and Arizona.

As of 1999 the reservoir was almost full. But subsequent drought years, notably 2002, drew the reservoir down. It took until 2012 to slowly re-build storage in the vast reservoir, but snowpacks in the Colorado Basin have not been generous since.

Water by the numbers

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported Friday, March 2, that Lake Powell’s April through July inflow could range from just over 2 million acre-feet to almost 6 million acre-feet, compared to the 29-year average of 7.16 million acre-feet. The highest seasonal inflow in the last 10 years was the nearly 13 million acre-feet recorded in 2011.