Colorado River-Climate Change Lake Mead

In this July 16, 2014 file photo, what was once a marina sits high and dry due to Lake Mead receding in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Arizona.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS • Supply and demand on the Colorado River and challenges facing those who depend on its water were a key topic Thursday on the final day of the Colorado Water Congress' summer conference.

Earlier this year, the seven states and Mexico that are tied to the 1,450-mile-long river signed a sweeping agreement intended to ensure it can continue to supply water to the 40 million people it already serves and to the future populations expected in coming years. 

The agreement, known as the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), is intended to ensure that two reservoirs that supply water and hydroelectric power to the Colorado River's lower basin states (California, Arizona and Nevada) will continue to have sufficient water supplies to keep operating.

The DCP runs through 2026 and won congressional approval last April.

What the agreement means for the state of Colorado, according to a presentation a year ago at the Water Congress conference: Possible releases of water to Lake Powell from reservoirs in the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico), including Blue Mesa in Gunnison County; and a program of "demand management," defined as voluntary, temporary and compensated reduction in water use that will help keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead from critically low levels.

Lake Mead, straddling the Nevada-Arizona border and which supplies hydropower to nearby Las Vegas, was at such low levels last year that there were concerns that the low levels could trigger a 1922 multi-state compact that would force mandatory water reductions in the upper basin states, although the Colorado Water Conservation Board pointed out at the conference a year ago that the compact looks at water levels over a 10-year period, not just one year.

But the lower basin states, according to a 2018 CWCB presentation, face unprecedented water shortages at their reservoirs, and predictions are for increasing demand and decreasing supply.

This year, however, the lake is almost 21 feet higher than a year ago, thanks to the winter snowpack. 

In the meantime, the states and Mexico, all served by the Colorado River, signed the Drought Contingency Plan, and the upper basin states, including Colorado, began planning for how each individual state would handle its responsibilities.

The goal of the upper basin's DCP is to eliminate the possibility that Lake Powell, mostly in Utah and another hydropower source, will drop to levels that will impact its ability to provide hydroelectric power through 2026.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, a unit of the state Department of Natural Resources, began working on that "voluntary, temporary and compensated" demand management plan a year ago. 

CWCB's Brett Newman explained during a presentation Thursday at the Colorado Water Congress that the demand management plan, if implemented, "would enhance certainty and security in the Colorado River water supply."

What demand management looks like: According to a 2017 report by Aspen Journalism, a four-year pilot project in Wyoming, known as the System Conservation Pilot, paid farmers and ranchers about $200 per acre-foot for not using their water. One farmer near Pinedale, Wyoming, realized about $240,000 in 2015 for fallowing his hayfields for half a summer, and allowing the water that would have gone to irrigate those fields to stay in tributaries of the Green River.

The program, launched in 2014, would "pay ranchers to use less water on their fields and instead let the water flow down the Green, Colorado, and San Juan rivers to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two biggest water storage buckets in the Colorado River system," the report said.

Kelsey Macllroy, a doctoral student at Colorado State University, has looked at the cultural and social implications of a demand management program, talking with farmers, ranchers, water managers, lawyers and basin roundtable members on the Western Slope.

"The general impression I got is one of curiosity, conversations have changed and people don't know what it is," she told the Water Congress Thursday.

Macilroy characterized her research as "we want to see what you come up with and what will happen before we make up our minds." 

Awareness of demand management varies, based on whether those interviewed saw it as necessary or an opportunity or burden, Macilroy said. "I believe there is a disconnect between the state level conversation and the conversation happening with individual irrigators," said one water policy advisor.

There isn't a lot of information out there, which leads to curiosity as well as fear and concern, Macilroy said. 

The program's "voluntary, compensated and temporary" nature also raised questions for those Macilroy surveyed. They questioned whether such a program would be truly voluntary; one person commented that "when Captain Bligh puts the gun at the back of your head and walks you down the plank, you're going voluntarily."

But there were also those who believed the program should be uncompensated and mandatory, addressing some pitfalls in the program because of its voluntary nature. People on the Western Slope look at the Front Range and want the Front Range to participate, too, MacIlroy said.

One roundtable member said demand management is an effort to "get people to eat less beef and help climate change that that water is available for other uses." 

The relationship between ag on the Western Slope and water is very different than for those on the Front Range, she explained. "It's emotional" for those on the Western Slope, with some who believe their way of life is under attack, and that "demand management is just the latest" of those attacks, she said.

Demand management "can become the current scapegoat for how these things affect rural areas," Macilroy said. "It's important to recognize that that fear and vulnerability exists."

Demand management is not a foregone conclusion, CWCB's Newman said. This is intended to be a proactive approach, rather than waiting to be hit by a compact demand. And it's not just for Colorado. 

"Our work groups, staff" and others are still looking at the feasibility of a demand management plan, how that water could be stored and released, and how to pay for it and ensure it's consistent with the state's prior appropriation laws, Newman said. 

The CWCB has set up workgroups to identify and evaluate priority issues, and within the year hopes to come up with a scope of work and budget. The workgroups include subject matter experts on Colorado River issues or water management. Three more meetings are scheduled between now and June 2020.

The workgroups will not make decisions about demand management nor make recommendations on whether the state should enter into a demand management program, Newman said. They also are soliciting input from lawmakers and other water policy experts.

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