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Colorado River District representative discusses drought contingency planning

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Tom Alvey, representing the Colorado River District, met with Delta County Commissioners Doug Atchley, Don Suppes and Mark Roeber at their Nov. 5 meeting to give them an update regarding water availability from Lake Powell and Lake Mead to water users in the Upper Basin states and the Lower Basin states.

Alvey identified the problem as declining elevations in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two "buckets" for managing operations of the Colorado River under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

Currently Lake Powell is at 3,590 feet of elevation, down over 35 feet over the last year, and at only 45 percent of capacity -- 10 million acre feet versus being at full capacity of 22 million acre feet. (Lake Mead is at 38 percent of capacity.)

Lake Powell's minimum power pool elevation is 3,490 feet, but it starts losing operational ability at 3,525. Also, at 3,525 acre feet, the Upper Basin's obligation to the Lower Basin to release 5.5 million acre feet becomes compromised. There is not enough head to push that volume, which would trigger a compact call.

Alvey notes two causes for this situation.

One, hydrology: In 2018 some areas experienced the driest year on record. McClure Pass and Grand Mesa had the lowest runoff ever. The trend has been drier years since 1999. Three of the five driest years on record have been in the last 16 years. Extreme drought has become the condition all over the southwest.

Two, overuse by Lower Basin states. The Lower Basin is entitled to the release of 8.23 million acre feet, which includes the entitlement to Mexico, but has been using over 9 million acre feet yearly.

This overuse keeps Lake Mead at a low level, which under the 2007 operational plan, causes higher releases from Lake Powell. The net effect is critical low levels in the two reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

The Secretary of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation have been pushing the seven states of the Upper and Lower Basins to come up with a plan to minimize the risks of elevations falling below critical levels, calling for a Drought Contingency Plan (DCP).

There would be two plans, an Upper Basin DCP and a Lower Basin DCP.

The Lower Basin DCP would require Arizona, Nevada and California to stop over-using their entitlement from the Colorado River and reapportion the shares of those three states.

The Upper Basin DCP has three main parts:

1. Reoperation of the three upper basin federal reservoirs, Aspinall, Navajo and Flaming Gorge, to put more water into Lake Powell;

2. Continue cloud seeding; and

3. Demand management, which is the tricky part.

Alvey said, "Demand management simply means reductions in use in the Upper Basin. Some water users will have to use less. Also, to get any benefit from this reduction, there must be a place to deposit any saved water.

"To this end, the Upper Basin DCP would require federal legislation to create a separate pool in Lake Powell, a pool within a pool, which would be administered separately from the rest, not subject to equalizing releases to Lake Mead.

"The question then becomes where will the water come from?" Alvey said.

The Colorado River District has been directing its attention to this question. Since its seminar in Grand Junction in September, the Colorado River District has been calling for full transparency from the State and the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) concerning discussions and documents about DCP and demand management.

"We have drafted a set of principles that we want the state Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to adopt to guide any discussion of demand management,"Alvey said.

"The River District staff and I went to Steamboat Springs for the CWCB board meeting in September and requested they adopt a resolution affirming our six principles. They declined to take any action, but agreed to formulate a policy by the end of November to frame the demand management discussion.

"In October the UCRC and CWCB did release the draft DCP and held a webinar to explain it. We applaud these actions and are cautiously optimistic that we can come to agreement about what a demand management program would look like," he said.

The Colorado River District principles stress two main points:

1. Water would come only from voluntary, temporary and compensated sources; and

2. There would be an equitable contribution from all water users, a proportionate share from both the Front Range and Western Slope.

Alvey said, "Our fear is that, without guidelines, the Front Range will push for an anticipatory and mandatory cut of water use which could focus on Western Slope agriculture as the main supplier.

"These are extremely important issues that will shape water use for the next 50 years, and, to me, they are probably as important as the original compact," he said.

The commissioners and Alvey discussed the impact of water to the Delta County agricultural community, agreeing that "water is money," and pledged to support each other in bringing about legislation to protect the Western Slope in receiving its share of Colorado water.

They agreed to solicit the support of Colorado Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet in protecting the future of Western Slope water availability.

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