The decision by an interstate agency representing the Upper Basin states to press the federal government to postpone the release of a portion of 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah to Lake Powell isn't only about the better snowpack the West is getting this winter.

It's more of a game of chess between the upper states of the Colorado River and the Lower Basin states, particularly California, said Gage Zobell, a water law attorney at Dorsey & Whitney.  

Zobell said it's about "sending a message that [the Upper Basin states] refuse to continue supplying Lower Basin’s limitless demands for water."

“The record snowfall is the context needed to justify the request of the Upper Basin states, but it does not appear to be their underlying rationale,” Zobell said in a statement to Colorado Politics. “You cannot throw good water after bad and, to me, California’s refusal to acknowledge evaporative and conveyance loss is a strong basis for the Upper Basin states to make this request.”

The Upper Colorado River Commission, which includes representatives from Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, recently voted to ask the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to postpone the release from Flaming Gorge, intended to help prop up water levels at Lake Powell, the "bank" for the Upper Basin states.

Gene Shawcroft, the commissioner representing Utah, reportedly said earlier releases from Flaming Gorge have done their job, and that the better-than-expected snowpack can do the rest of the work to help Lake Powell in the coming months.

Lake Powell, the nation's second-largest reservoir, has dropped to record low levels, endangering hydropower generation. Based on its current level, hydropower generation at the Glen Canyon Dam has already dropped by 47%. That's a blow to the cheap electricity that helps support backup power for wind and solar, aids with agricultural production, reduces reliance on fossil fuels, and funds water projects and environmental programs in the seven basin states and beyond. 

At 3,490 feet above sea level, hydropower generation comes to a halt. At 3,370 feet of elevation, the lake hits "deadpool," and is no longer able to push water down the river to Lake Mead, which also is at critically low levels and which supplies water to the three Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada, as well as to several states in Mexico.

Lake Powell, which currently sits at a 3,521-foot elevation, just below a critical low level of 3,525 feet, is expected to drop farther before the spring runoff, according to Anne Castle, the federal representative on the UCRC. Castle spoke to a group of lawmakers at the state Capitol Wednesday morning on the crisis on the Colorado River. 

However, she said, the lake is projected to rise to above 3,550 feet later this year. 

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, snow-water equivalents, a measure of snowpack, are well above average. As of March 1, Colorado's Western Slope snowfall that feeds into the Colorado River are at 121% to 140% of normal. In Utah, it's even better, ranging from 145% to well above 200% of normal. 

Late last fall, the Bureau of Reclamation, after failing to obtain a seven-state agreement in August on how to save Lake Mead and Lake Powell, decided to look at an emergency environmental impact statement, and sought, yet again, an agreement from the seven states. Their decision is expected this spring with a final decision in the summer.

Six of the seven states came up with a proposal that would require the Lower Basin states to do something they haven't done before: Take into account evaporative demand and conveyance loss, which would reduce the Lower Basin states' allocation by about 2 million acre-feet of water annually. The Upper Basin states have taken evaporative demand into account for their allocations for decades. 

California balked at the six-state plan and came up with its own, one that relied heavily on more big allocation cuts to Arizona's water supply. 

Zobell said the decision by the Upper Basin states "looks a lot like Newton’s Third Law being applied to water policy — California’s refusal to join into a water agreement with the six other states has resulted in the Upper Basin states definitely requesting their largest water reservoir not be further depleted to provide water downstream,” he said. 

In the past, those releases to Lake Powell have been intended to serve as the Upper Basin states' water "bank," which could be held back to support the water needs of those states.

However, Castle said Wednesday that Flaming Gorge, through the request from the UCRC, will more or less serve as that higher-up-in-the-system bank. 

“Some might say the actions of the Upper Basin states in requesting a pause (note not an end) to water releases is selfish," Zobell added.

But the Upper Basin states need to recognize that, if Flaming Gorge is further emptied to supply water to Lake Powell and then to Lake Mead, snowpack in Wyoming will help refill Flaming Gorge, the lawyer said, adding, that, if the Lower Basin states — and most notably, California — refuse to engage in water conservation, that snowpack from Wyoming just heads downriver once again.

"In many ways, the Upper Bbasin is feeding a water addict in the form of Southern California. Sometimes, going cold turkey is the only way to break the addict of his addiction," Zobell said.

The decision by the UCRC should give confidence to those who rely on the Colorado River in the Upper Basin states that the UCRC will fight to preserve existing water supplies, Zobell said, adding, "Water users can find some comfort in knowing that the current snowpack in the Upper Basin is not simply going to be allowed to go downstream to supply those states who are refusing to come to the table.” 

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