Water in the West: The West gets thirstier as water supplies dwindle

Lauren Glendenning
The Colorado River, seen here west of Windy Gap, has been listed as one of the most endangered rivers in the country. Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News file photo
Byron Hetzler | Sky-Hi Daily News

Editor’s note: This is part one of a four-part series about water supply threats to the Colorado River Basin.

EAGLE COUNTY — The soothing sound of the Colorado River as it meanders its way across Colorado’s Western Slope is the sound of a thriving economy, a fragile environment and also an impending crisis.

The state of water supplies in the arid West is volatile and forecasts are grim. Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at alarmingly low levels, while populations across the West are swelling past the capacities of current water supplies.

The Colorado River Basin is facing a battle of sorts as Colorado creates a statewide water plan. It’s a battle against time and against competing water needs, both here in Colorado and in lower basin states like Nevada and California.

Regionally, some view it as an Eastern Slope vs. Western Slope battle, although water officials are carefully shaping the public relations message as one of unity and collaboration. There’s a very real fear that exists west of the Continental Divide, though, that Colorado’s growing Front Range population is going to suck the Colorado River Basin dry. Some even say that has already happened.

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The environmental and economic impacts of more transmountain diversions from west to east would be huge, say Western Slope water providers and conservationists, but without them the Front Range faces serious consequences, too. Eighty percent of Colorado’s water supply comes from the western part of the state, while 80 percent of the population lives along the Front Range.

“Population is still growing and there’s a need to find more water for municipal uses,” said Jim Pokrandt, chair of the Colorado Basin Roundtable and spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “We don’t want to demonize the Front Range.”

The state demography office predicts population in Colorado to double by 2050 to 10 million people. The growing population is what prompted Gov. John Hickenlooper to sign an executive order last year calling for a state water plan, something most of the other states within the basin already have.

And while the order was just signed last year, the state’s water planning has really been going on for over a decade, said Brad Udall, a research faculty member at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and Environment and former director of the Western Water Assessment.

Udall has written extensively about climate change issues as they relate to water resources but his passion for Western water began outside of books and classrooms. His mother took him down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in the early 1970s, paving the way for Udall’s future in guiding Grand Canyon river trips. After getting into environmental engineering at Stanford University and developing a passion for water issues, he also began working on climate change issues. That’s when he realized that climate change means water change. They’re one in the same, he said.

The Colorado River Compact

With climate, population and water resources change upon us, there’s a sense among those working toward drafting the state water plan that the potential for a Colorado water catastrophe is real.

That catastrophe could come in many forms, but the most feared is a curtailment of the Colorado River Compact of 1922.

Seven states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada — form the United States portion of the Colorado River Basin. Those seven states separated the basin into an upper and lower region under the Colorado River Compact, apportioning the water and mandating minimum average flows at the border that divides the Upper and Lower Basins in Lee Ferry, Ariz.

When the Compact was signed in 1922, the flow of the river was estimated to be at least 17 million acre feet, so 7.5 million acre feet was apportioned to both the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin, with the Lower Basin also getting the right to an additional 1 million acre feet. The remaining 1.5 million acre-feet are apportioned to Mexico. The river flows were based on flows 1899 to 1920, an exceptionally wet period.

But none of the states want to go back and draft new laws based on the realistic flows, except for maybe California, Porzak said.

“If you go back and say, ‘We made a mistake when we negotiated, we thought there was 17 million acre feet.’ If you renegotiate, (Colorado’s) going to lose,” he said. “All water is political.”

The 10-year rolling average flow at Lee Ferry cannot fall below 75 million acre feet under the Compact. That 10-year average over the last three years has been around 90 million acre feet, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. In the early 2000s, the average was just more than 100 million acre feet.

Lake Powell in the Upper Basin and Lake Mead in the Lower Basin are the river system’s two main storage reservoirs, both of which are approaching critically low levels. Inflows into Lake Powell over the past decade provide evidence of a sustained drought — in fact, according to climate data including the U.S. Drought Monitor and the National Climatic Data Center, the past 13 years have been the driest period in more than 1,000 years in the American West.

In Colorado, about one-third of the water stays and two-thirds has to flow downstream. A Compact curtailment or call would mean anyone with junior water rights — which includes transmountain diversions from the Western Slope to the Front Range — would have to stop diverting water until the senior water rights are satisfied. That’s one of the reasons so many municipalities along the growing Front Range have their eyes set on buying up as many senior agricultural rights as possible.

The cost of overuse

The major concern at Lake Powell is that it’s getting down to such a level that it will no longer be able to generate power, said Glenn Porzak, a water attorney based in Boulder who represents water entities and municipalities in both Summit and Eagle counties, as well as Vail Resorts.

“The cost of power is going to quadruple,” Porzak said of Lake Powell, should it drop below power generating levels. “Almost all of the Western Slope’s power comes from the power grid that’s generated off Colorado River storage projects. That hits the ski industry and every other industry if the cost of power goes up four times.”

It also hits the average citizen, who has been enjoying relatively cheap water at home, Udall said.

“You hear we’re running out of water and we gotta get more, but we’re running out of cheap water,” he said. “Water that people are putting on lawns, that shouldn’t just be free, it should come with significant costs. … One of the lessons here is that water is going to get more expensive in the municipal sector, and a little bit more in the (agriculture) sector.”

When prices are low, people over-use water, but when they’re high, conservation becomes a lot easier and more attractive. And conservation is a big theme in the first draft of the Colorado Basin Implementation Plan, which came out last month and will undergo several more revisions before it’s sent to the state later this year for incorporation into the state water plan.

See Tuesday’s paper for part two of Water in the West, which will address irrigation and conservation issues in Colorado.

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