The Upper Basin is Not Meeting the Demands on the Colorado River
On May 15th, 2016, the Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, James Eklund, penned a column in the Grand Junction Sentinel that contains some false, misleading, and missing information regarding management of the Colorado River.
The Colorado River is being very poorly managed, resulting in massively depleted reservoirs as well as the ecological deterioration of the river’s fish species and habitat. Further, what’s been called a “16-year drought” has set in over the Southwest U.S. and has co-mingled with this bad management to drain the river even more. Further yet, every scientific study of climate change paints a bullseye on the Southwest U.S. and the Colorado River system – all of the predictions indicate less flow in the river, and some of the predictions indicate much larger decreases in flow as climate change intensifies.
Eklund’s column appears to try to reassure the public that the Colorado State government, the state’s water users, and water users throughout the Upper Basin States are grappling with these challenges effectively and have a plan in place to ensure water supply security for the region. However, his column does not reassure readers who are closely engaged with the issue.
First, Eklund says that “…the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming have been working on preparations to ensure the health of the Colorado River system in sustained dry conditions.” However, facts lead us to the opposite conclusion, that all four states are working to drain the river even more:
- Wyoming is proposing a massive new diversion of 125,000 acre feet from the Green River at Fontanelle Dam,
- Utah is planning a massive new diversion of 86,000 acre feet from the Colorado River called the Lake Powell Pipeline,
- Colorado is planning for two new diversions from the Colorado River totaling 45,000 acre feet – the Windy Gap Firming Project and the Moffat Collection System Project,
- And New Mexico is planning a new diversion from the Gila River of 12,000 acre feet.
In addition, WY, UT, and CO all think they have even more water rights and have discussed even more diversions than noted above. What’s really going on in the Upper Basin – and officials in Wyoming and Utah have said so publicly – is that the states want to get the last legally allowed drops of water out of the system before the federal government steps in and forces everyone to cut back diversions.
Second, Eklund says that “…many Upper Basin water users, including Coloradans, have answered the call to voluntarily explore ways in which we would be able to
manage our Colorado River…” Eklund provides no reference for the word “many,” but presentations and articles on the topic I have seen suggest that it’s more like a ‘few dozen water users,’ not “many,” and that these explorations have so far been unsuccessful. In fact, the word “miniscule” has been used to describe how much water has so far been saved by these voluntary explorations.
Third, Eklund says the Upper Basin states have “…focused our efforts on operating our reservoirs as effectively as possible…” He appears to be referring to what is sometimes called “reservoir re-operations” as a strategy to ensure that enough water flows downstream to Lake Powell. When I contacted the Bureau of Reclamation recently, they said they have not yet re-operated any of the Upper Basin reservoirs – including Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa, or Navajo – to try and prop up Lake Powell but may consider doing so in the future. However, it is very questionable if changing the operation of these reservoirs could make much of a difference – they are much smaller than Lake Powell and could only add a tiny amount of water to a problem that requires a very large course correction.
While I appreciate Eklund’s attempts to reach out to the public to try and provide reassurance, I conclude that his column is not accurate and that his plan would not even work. Management of the Colorado River system needs a major change, one that short-term elected officials and their appointed managers are unable to likely make. The needed change will require painful cuts to plans to divert more water, and cuts to current deliveries, as well as broad-scale agreements by all four Upper Basin states and thousands of individual water users, most of whom are farmers and are not likely to easily enter into discussions or agreements.
Here’s what needs to be done in order to face our future climate-changed world on the Colorado River:
- The Upper Basin states absolutely must stop all new proposed dams and diversions – there simply is not enough water in the system right now to support new diversions, and every climate change model indicates there will likely be less water in the future.
- A new and dramatic focus on water conservation in cities and farms must begin as soon as possible, and the water that is conserved must stay in the river and flow downstream instead of being diverted by a different user.
- The Upper Basin states will have to give up trying to stabilize or refill Lake Powell, and instead should let the Lake drain. With less and less snowpack and water now and in the future, the Lake was simply a mistake. Draining Lake Powell and storing the water in Lake Mead would save water, money, farms, and even electricity.
Each of these three changes will be very difficult to accept and implement – they are exactly the kind of change that our short-term political system won’t be able to implement until the water system nears collapse and no other choice is possible. And they are exactly the kind of change that needs to be pushed forward into the public discussion from the outside by people and groups who have a stake in the management of the Colorado River.
Gary Wockner, E.D., Save The Colorado River
May 16, 2016