Water Lines: Western Coloradans discuss options to head off regional water shortages
Free Press Weekly Columnist
Despite recent rains and late spring snow in the Colorado high country, 2015 is shaping up to be another in a long series of dry water years in the Colorado River Basin.
On May 21, speakers at the annual Mesa County State of the River meeting discussed what this could mean for western Colorado now and for the broader region over the longer term, as well as how to protect local agriculture in the event of regional shortages. The meeting was sponsored by the Colorado River District and the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University and held at the Avalon Theater in Grand Junction.
In Mesa County and much of the rest of western Colorado, good reservoir storage levels and soil moisture from a wet 2014 will limit the pain of drought. Ryan Christianson of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported that the major reservoirs the Colorado River Basin within Colorado, including Green Mountain, are expected to fill, which should put Grand Valley farmers in good shape for the irrigation system.
Christianson also reported that coordinated reservoir releases to meet peak flow targets to benefit endangered fish habitat in the Colorado River near Grand Junction should be possible this year. Flow targets for critical habitat in the lower Gunnison have already been met, thanks to timing releases from the Aspinall Unit to match runoff from recent rains in the North Fork Valley. Flow targets on the Gunnison move up and down depending on the year’s snowpack, and this year is classified as “moderately dry.”
In the Colorado River Basin as a whole, the picture is much bleaker. Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District, reported that April to June inflows into Lake Powell are forecast to be just 42 percent of average this year. Kuhn showed that water use in the Colorado River Basin has exceeded inflows for many years, which has dropped the combined storage in Lakes Mead and Powell from 50 million acre feet to 18 million acre feet between 1999 and 2015.
Lake Mead is currently at its lowest level since it originally filled, and Kuhn reported that levels are likely to drop enough to trigger an official shortage declaration by 2017, which would reduce water deliveries to some Arizona farmers for the first time.
The Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico are more directly affected by levels in Lake Powell, our “bank account” for meeting downstream obligations agreed to in the 1922 compact between the states that share the river. Kuhn pointed out that long before the Upper Basin gets into trouble with the compact obligation, which is averaged over 10 years, Lake Powell could hit the minimum level required to produce hydropower. This would not only affect power rates across the West, but it would also cut off funding for salinity control and endangered fish recovery programs, both of which provide big benefits to Upper Basin farmers.
Kuhn argued that planning to head off or respond to a shortage ahead of time was likely to result in better outcomes than waiting for a crisis. The meeting closed with a panel of farmers and water managers discussing one potential tool for propping up levels in Lake Powell: payments to farmers in exchange for reducing their water use. The panel was moderated by fruit grower and former County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca; and it included Fruita farmer Joe Bernal, Uncompahgre Valley farmer and water policy specialist Marc Catlin, and River District engineer Dan Birch. All the panelists participated in a tour earlier this year where they met with farmers in Arizona and southern California that had accepted payments from the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego in exchange for fallowing portions of their lands.
The satisfaction of these lower-basin farmers with the fallowing programs varied significantly, in part due to how lucrative a deal they were able to negotiate. However, it seemed that over all, the programs had succeeded in transferring agricultural water to cities without significant negative impacts on farmers and agricultural communities.
The panelists could see numerous complications with using such a system to reduce agricultural water consumption in western Colorado, but they were open to exploring the idea. The river district and numerous partners are studying if and how it could work to create a “water bank,” where irrigators would be paid for the option to reduce their use if necessary. Use could be reduced through fallowing, irrigating for only part of the season or providing crops with less water than needed for maximum growth.
Despite their openness to exploring how agriculture could participate in heading off a crisis, the panelists bristled when an audience member suggested that such efforts may facilitate more diversions of water from western Colorado to the Front Range. Catlin got support from the whole group when he said that it wasn’t OK for senior water rights holders (western Colorado farmers) to cut back their water use in order to protect junior water rights holders (Front Range diverters) before seeing how much those juniors could save first.
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or Twitter at Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.
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