Hard work begins after Trump signed Colorado River drought contingency plan
Averting water wars in the near future, on Tuesday President Trump signed a landmark drought contingency plan that was painstakingly negotiated between seven Colorado River basin states, Mexico and thousands of major water rights holders.
The contingency plan affects water usage for 40 million people across the West and attempts to avoid water shortages at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which have both come dangerously close to critically low water levels that would prevent water delivery and production of hydroelectric power. It is valid until 2026, when another agreement will need to composed.
The decline in water levels has been attributed mainly to a decade-long drought, climate change, overuse and the lack of foresight when water agreements were drawn up nearly a century ago.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact, which allotted 7.5 million acre-feet of water to Lower Basin states from Upper Basin states on 10-year rolling terms, was signed at a time when water flows in the river were unusually high and did not reflect standard measures. That factor, combined with explosive population growth and the unforeseen usage that came with it, led to the near-crisis seen today as growth and consumption continues to climb.
The current drought contingency plan was drawn up between the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico; and the Lower Basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona.
The Lower Basin states are the only states that have planned to voluntarily cut usage if Lake Mead reaches critically low levels. Arizona, which has the most junior water rights, stands to lose the most water in that contingency.
However, the Upper Basin states have yet to make their own concrete action plan. Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River District, said the hard work ahead is something the state is acutely aware of.
“In terms of the Upper Basin, the real work has just begun,” Pokrandt said. “The Upper Basin has a plan to make a plan.”
Pokrandt said that Colorado Water Conservation Board is looking into creating a number of work groups to figure out how to avert a future water shortage in Lake Powell, the “savings account” for water in drought years.
Pokrandt said that one of the plans being explored is to divert water from other major reservoirs, such as the Flaming Gorge, Navajo and Blue Mesa reservoirs, to make up any shortage at Lake Powell.
However, that would not be a long-term solution, or a very viable one. Pokrandt said that the real solution is a difficult one to sell to the people, who for generations have been accustomed to not having to think about how much water they’re using while spending next to nothing for it.
“The real work would go to the most controversial plan — a demand management program,” Pokrandt said. “The state would investigate what a demand management plan would involve and how it would work. They would come up with a certain amount of water users need to give up if we ever needed water sent to Powell in the event of a shortage.”
Much like the skirmishes surrounding the multistate drought contingency plan — even after it was signed into law, the plan was sued from being implemented by California’s Imperial Irrigation district, the largest user of Colorado River water — attempting to apply voluntary, compensatory, temporary or mandatory water cuts will be a struggle.
In Colorado, the main fight will be between the Eastern and Western slopes — or urban users versus farmers and ranchers. Agriculture users on the Western Slope remain the biggest consumers of water in the state, and their concerns must be weighed against residential and commercial users on the Front Range and beyond.
“I think it is important to note that any agreement needs to be equitable as far as how it impacts agriculture, industrial and municipal users, as well as being equitable for Eastern and Western slopes,” said Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier.
The drought contingency plan and other important state water issues will be discussed at the 26th annual Summit County State of the River convention on Tuesday, May 7, from 6–8 p.m. at the Silverthorne Pavilion. Representatives from local, state and federal agencies will speak and provide presentations giving a clearer picture of the river’s health and how water usage is affecting it.
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