Water shortages not a big worry — yet

John Colson
Post Independent Staff

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Concerns about serious water shortfalls in the Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs on the Colorado River, caused by nearly unrelenting drought over the past quarter of a century, continue to vex water managers and politicians in the region known as the Colorado River Basin.

But one key figure in the debate over the future of the Colorado River said on Monday that for the upper Colorado River basin, particularly the Western Slope counties that border the river, the expected water shortages caused by the drought should not create much trouble, at least in the near term.

“Not much, right now,” said Eric Kuhn, General Manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

“It leaves the question open for the future,” he continued.

“We’re now in a 25-year dry spell,” he said, explaining that while there have been years where the snows were heavy and the runoff close to historic averages, these have been rare.

Colorado’s senior U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, in a statement issued on Aug. 16, noted that he had recently led a Senate hearing on the future of the Colorado River Basin, and added, “The Colorado River made our state what it is today: It irrigates our crops, sustains a robust recreation industry, and supports cities throughout Colorado. The Bureau of Reclamation’s announcement today is a reminder that every Coloradan has a role to play in keeping the Colorado River strong. Make every drop count: Only use what you need and make water conservation a priority.”

Kuhn and water managers across the basin have been fielding questions and deflecting panic since the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on Aug. 16 released a study acknowledging that the drought has reached a critical point.

The bureau reported the level of Lake Powell this year is expected to dip below a trigger point that, for the first time since Glen Canyon Dam was completed and the lake began to fill nearly 50 years ago, will result in decreased releases out of Lake Powell, which ultimately serve to fill up Lake Mead and provide water and power to millions.

The bureau is planning to reduce the amount of water released from Lake Powell by 750,000 acre-feet in 2014, roughly equivalent to the water needed to serve roughly 1.5 million homes, according to published reports.

News stories about the situation, in such diverse publications as USA Today and National Geographic, have reported predictions that water levels in Lake Mead, which slakes the thirst of Las Vegas, could drop far enough by 2015 to render one of the city’s two water-intake pipelines useless. The city currently is reported to be locked in a desperate race to build a new intake system to a deeper part of the lake, to ensure the city does not suddenly find itself facing a catastrophic loss of potable water.

The Central Arizona Project, a large canal diverting Colorado River water to central and southern Arizona and the metropolis of Phoenix, has some of the most junior water rights on the river, said Kuhn, meaning it could be one of the first diversions to be cut off if water levels keep dropping.

A long dry spell

Kuhn said the drought, which most observers date back to the year 2000, actually goes back much further.

“We’re now in a 25-year dry spell,” he said, explaining that while there have been years where the snows were heavy and the runoff close to historic averages, these have been rare.

For instance, he said, in 2005 and again in 2011 the river was treated to “good years,” that resulted in “three to four years of breathing space” with reservoirs and groundwater both in good shape.

In fact, he said, “We’re still in it,” meaning the breathing space provided by the 2011 heavy snow year.

But the intervening years have been dry, reservoirs everywhere in the basin display the tell-tale “bathtub rings” left by dropping water levels, and the water situation has been getting more dire by the year.

“Can we continue to draw levels lower and lower?” Kuhn asked rhetorically, answering his own question by admitting that no one knows what will happen.

Still, he remarked, “Glenwood Springs is not going to lose water because of what’s happening in the lower basin.”

The river is shared by seven states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah in the Upper Basin, with Nevada, Arizona, and California in the Lower Basin — and Mexico.

Each basin is theoretically supposed to get at least 7.5 million acre-feet per year of the river’s estimated total flow of 15 million acre-feet per year. Those diversions are averaged over a rolling 10-year period, so that every new year is part of a 10-year cycle that reaches back in time.

An acre-foot is one acre of water surface that is one foot deep, which is generally accepted to equal about the amount of water that one suburban household would use in a year, although in the arid West the rate of use is somewhat lower thanks to conservation measures.

At current estimates, the Colorado River brings water to an estimated population of 40 million people every year, in large part because of the extensive system of dams, reservoirs and aqueducts that store water for agriculture and municipal uses.

One consequence of heavy use of the river by the U.S. is that in Mexico, where the Colorado historically discharged up to 16 million acre/feet per year into the Gulf of Mexico, the river now does not usually even make it to the gulf except in years of exceptionally high runoff.

But all this has so far meant little to towns, counties and ranchers in western Colorado. Dating back to the late 1800s when the state was settled, many individuals and entities hold water rights that predate the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which parceled the river among its various dependent users.

“I think that’s true of almost anybody on the Western Slope,” Kuhn commented.

He said that in times of extreme shortage, when Lower Basin states may be forced to endure water rationing or worse, western Colorado should be spared that fate.

But, he added, another question looms: “What happens in 2021?” when the 10-year cycle that began in 2011, a heavy snow year, will be ending.

If annual precipitation levels have remained low and the drought in full effect, no one can be certain what the river will look like or what tensions may arise among the seven signatory states to the River Compact, Kuhn said.

Water conservation, water sharing agreements and other techniques may stave off the day of reckoning over the Colorado, Kuhn said, “and those conversations are going on right now.”

But, he concluded, “People are just waiting right now,” to see what the next few years will bring.

The concerns, however, have prompted expressions of concern by water-conservation advocates.

“Demand on the river’s water already exceeds supply, and we know that our population will continue to grow while water supply continues to shrink due to climate change, declared Craig Mackey, co-director of Protect the Flows. “It is clear that we need to become much more efficient with our water use to adapt to this mathematical reality. If we don’t, then we will enter into a costly cycle of repeated water shortages and further requests for emergency government funding that will damage our economy.”

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