Why the Colorado River “Pilot Project” Program Represents Government Insanity

Hi Friends of the Colorado River!

Over the last 2 years, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Dept of Interior have been experimenting with the Colorado River “Pilot Project,” which is an effort to buy and lease water from farmers in WY, CO, and UT and try to run that water down to Lake Powell. The goal is to keep Lake Powell above “power pool” which is the minimum level at which the hydroelectric turbines can spin and create electricity. Due to the 16 year drought, Lake Powell has declined such that the federal govt and the states believe they must start acting to protect the Lake and its electricity. This table depicts the results of their project in 2015 — they spent $1,631,224 dollars and temporarily leased 7,308 acre feet of water.

But there’s some inherent craziness in the government’s program.

At the same time that the federal government is testing this program to lease water from farmers, the same branches of the government are supporting large-scale new dam and diversion projects in the same states, the diverted water from which would completely eclipse the water saved by the Pilot Project. For example:

  • Denver Water’s “Moffat Collection System Project” would drain ~15,000 acre feet of new water every year out of the Colorado River, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether to permit the project right now.
  • Northern Water’s (in Northern Colorado) “Windy Gap Firming Project” would drain ~30,000 acre feet of new water every year out of the Colorado River, and the Bureau of Reclamation has already approved the project. The project still needs another permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.
  • The State of Utah has started the permitting process for the Lake Powell Pipeline which would drain another 86,000 acre feet of water out of the Colorado River directly at Lake Powell every year. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will make the permit decision on this project.
  • The State of Wyoming is proposing to start the permitting process to re-engineer Fontenelle Dam and Reservoir to divert another 125,000 acre feet of water out of the Green River before it meets the Colorado River.
  • And, there are other projects proposed that would drain even more water out of the river before it reaches Lake Powell.

So, has the Bureau of Reclamation or Dept of Interior said anything about, or tried to stop, any of these river-draining projects? Nope — not one word. 

The “Pilot Project’s” 7,308 acre feet of water saved from diversion would be totally eclipsed by all of the new proposed river-draining projects which would divert a new 250,000 acre feet of water out of the river. Further, the “Pilot Project’s” water is only temporary — a 1 or 2 year lease — whereas the river-draining projects are every year and permanent. Further yet, the Pilot Project water can’t be guaranteed to flow to Lake Powell — in fact, water law in all three states allows the same water to be diverted downstream at the next diversion point by the next ditch company, farmer, or city. Finally, the Pilot Projects are just that, experiments in a pilot program, and would have to be scaled up by 35 times just to keep the inflow and outflow even, if all of the proposed dam and diversion projects are built. To actually start refilling Lake Powell, hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water every year would need to be bought from farmers in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah.

At Save The Colorado, we support stopping the insanity and promoting sane river management policies. The federal govt is spending lots of money to go “1 step forward and 20 steps backward” and has no plan for an end-game that even addresses the problem they are trying to solve. The smartest and easiest thing to do is to stop all the proposed new dams and diversions, and that’s our policy and why we are fighting the permitting processes for every single project. Further yet, the drought and climate change are making it clear that Lake Powell’s demise is inevitable — and buying hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water from farmers every year to try and save Lake Powel seems politically and financially unrealistic — and that’s one of the big reasons why we support decommissioning and removing Glen Canyon Dam.

We’re not trying to play politics, curry favors, get invited to government meetings, or get big grants to support the status quo. We’re trying to make sense and save the river.

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