State, federal officials planning to avoid ‘curtailment’ of water supplies |

State, federal officials planning to avoid ‘curtailment’ of water supplies

A fisherman fishes the Eagle River on Wednesday, May 9, in Edwards.
Chris Dillmann |

The bottom line

• The water level in Lake Powell is expected to fall another 20 feet this year.

• Lake Powell last year held about 13 million acre-feet of water.

• The lake’s maximum storage was 24 million acre-feet in 1999.

• Reservoirs in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming can be tapped to maintain levels in Lake Powell.

Source: Colorado Water Conservation Board.

This story has been corrected to reflect the location of Lee’s Ferry, and typing “Colorado” instead of “California” when listing lower-basin states.

EDWARDS — There are three words you never want to hear when talking about the Colorado River: Upper basin curtailment. The good news is, we’re probably a good distance away from using those words.

Under a 1922 compact between states that feed into, and use, water from the Colorado, upper basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — are required to deliver an average of 7.5 million acre feet per year to a measurement station at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona. That water is for use in the lower basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California.

If the day comes when the upper basin states can’t meet that commitment, then it’s time to talk about curtailing water use in the upper basin states.

At an Eagle River Valley State of the River Meeting held at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards on Wednesday, May 9, Colorado River District Director Andy Mueller talked about the potential impacts of curtailment. The district, funded by a small property tax levy, includes 15 counties that fall into the Colorado River watershed.

Mueller said under current state water law, the burden could fall most heavily on municipal and industrial water users on the Western Slope and Front Range.

That’s because state water law operates on a “first in time, first in line” system. That means agricultural users on the Western Slope, many of whom have held their water rights since before 1922, have priority over other users.

But those other users include the state’s main population centers, including Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs. Mueller said taking water from politically powerful areas could create “chaos” in the state.

“It’s not realistic” to curtail home water taps and fire hydrants, Mueller said.

Again, a curtailment order has never been issued. And, Mueller said, the current prospects of such an order, even during the present prolonged drought cycle in the west, is only about 25 to 30 percent.

But, he said, the risks to upper basin states are enormous.

That’s why state and federal agencies are working on planning for drought.

Brent Newman, of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said that planning includes researching ways to manage water demand and continued cloud seeding to boost winter snowfall.

Demand management is the state’s “last line of defense,” Newman said, but it has to be evaluated.

The ultimate goal is avoiding a drop in Lake Powell water levels that makes it impossible to spin the hydroelectric generators at Glen Canyon Dam.

Newman said if that day comes, everything from streamflows to Lake Mead to income from the power produced would be affected. Electricity prices would rise, Newman said, and the federal Bureau of Reclamation would lose income that’s used to pay for existing and future water projects, as well as fish-recovery and other environmental efforts. The impact spans the continent “from Jackson Hole to Tijuana,” Newman said.

The clock is already ticking on drought contingency planning. Newman said a 2007 agreement based on the original compact expires in 2026, with the states set to re-convene starting in 2020.

And, Newman said, it’s not just upper basin states that are planning. Lower basin states are also looking at voluntary reductions in water use, he said. A draft of that plan cuts 1.1 million acre-feet per year in use.

“There are a lot of opportunities and challenges,” Newman said. “We need to ensure users aren’t being harmed.” And, he added, “a lot needs to be investigated before implementing anything.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 and

Support Local Journalism