The clock is ticking for the Colorado River, but solutions on how to save the river basin, which provides water to 40 million people in seven states and Mexico, still appears to be elusive, at least from the federal government.
However, proposed solutions are starting to bubble up through Colorado agriculture's community, including projects that received funding to address drought this week from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
The U.S. Department of the Interior on Thursday announced steps it would take to prevent the reservoirs along the Colorado River from falling to critically low levels. The announcement, however, was primarily a rehashing of the steps announced in August and contained no new ideas on how to resolve the crisis that has left the nation's two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, starved for water.
Water level at Lake Mead, as of Thursday, is at 1,044 feet, about 23 feet lower than a year ago. That's already affecting the ability of Hoover Dam to generate power. For Hoover to generate power, its minimum requirement is 1,050 feet. At 895 feet, or about 150 feet below where it is now, the lake reaches "deadpool," and that's when Hoover can no longer generate electricity, and water can no longer be pumped out the reservoir. That 's electricity to nearly 8 million people in Nevada, Arizona and California.
Since the beginning of the drought 22 years ago, water levels at Lake Mead have dropped 150 feet. It's currently at 27% of capacity.
Lake Powell, which serves as the water bank for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, is 23.83% full. Through the Glen Canyon Dam, it supplies power to 3 million people in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Nebraska. Lake Powell's deadpool level is 3,490 feet; it's currently at 3,529 feet, a drop of 17 feet in just the past year alone.
The Interior Department said the steps, to be discussed at a Colorado River Symposium in Santa Fe, N.M., this week, build on those announced in August.
• Ensuring the Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada and California) continue to work on "developing voluntary measures and agreements to conserve water." Arizona and Nevada, responding to a call from Commissioner of Reclamation Camille Touton in June to find a way to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water in the next year, came up with a plan to save 2 million acre-feet, but the plan was rejected by California and the federal government.
• Working with the Upper Basin states on a five-point plan, although that plan that does not identify any water savings.
• Investments in drought resilience and water management, to be funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Inflation Reduction Act and existing programs.
The Interior Department said it also plans to take "administrative actions," such as authorizing a reduction of Glen Canyon Dam releases below 7 million acre-feet per year to protect the dam's infrastructure. The 1922 Colorado River Compact and ensuing agreements require the Upper Basin states to send 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year from Lake Powell to Lake Mead.
Other actions include implementing emergency drought operations at Powell; assessments of evaporation and other losses; and preparations for action in 2023 to make additional reductions, based on the 2007 Interim Guidelines.
“The prolonged drought afflicting the West is one of the most significant challenges facing our country. As a 35th-generation New Mexican, I have seen firsthand how climate change is exacerbating the drought crisis and putting pressure on the communities who live across Western landscapes,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. "As we move forward, we will do so with key guiding principles, including collaboration, equity and transparency. I am committed to bringing every resource to bear to help manage the drought crisis and provide a sustainable water system for families, businesses and our vast and fragile ecosystems.”
A coalition of U.S. Senate and House members from Colorado and New Mexico wrote to the Bureau of Reclamation this week, urging the agency to prioritize funding for long-term permanent solutions to the Colorado River crisis. That group included all of the Democrats in Colorado's congressional delegation.
The letter identified priorities the group asked Touton to consider as the federal government decides how to dole out $4 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act targeted for the Western drought.
Resources should flow through states, local governments, Tribes and public entities, in a manner "that limits potential speculation or profiteering from those suffering from the consequences of drought," the letter said. The money should also go toward permanent solutions and "meaningful long-term reductions in water use from the River."
The letter also addressed the longstanding difference in how the Upper and Lower Basin states consider evaporation, which was included in the Aug. 16 Touton announcement.
Currently, the Upper Basin states are assessed for evaporation from system reservoirs. That counts toward the Upper Basin states' annual consumptive use.
The Lower Basin states, however, have historically never taken evaporation into account, expecting the full 7.5 million acre-feet regardless of how much loss takes place due to evaporation. One estimate places the additional water the Lower Basin states get because they don't take evaporation into account at 900,000 acre-feet annually.
However, that policy is beginning to change; the letter from Congress noted six of the seven basin states are now calling for the Bureau of Reclamation to account for system-based loss of water, including through evaporation.
Colorado agricultural producers are not waiting for the federal government to take action.
James Eklund, an attorney with Sherman & Howard and Western Slope rancher who previously served as director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, has been circulating a petition among ag producers that contains a nonbinding water conservation plan that would compensate those producers for voluntarily and temporarily conserving water in the Colorado River Basin. Eklund sent a draft of the petition to Touton on Monday.
The Colorado Ag Water Alliance announced Thursday it had received funding from the CWCB for 10-15 projects to address agricultural drought resilience and water conservation projects.
Agricultural water accounts for 80% of the consumptive water used in the Colorado River Basin, including in Colorado.
The alliance said in a statement that the funding will "provide technical and financial assistance for early-stage projects that have the potential to reduce water use, improve water management, and/or demonstrate drought resilience and adaptation. Agricultural producers, ditch companies, and others that work with irrigated agriculture are all eligible to apply for funding." The types of projects envisioned include alternative crops and forages, wetland and stream restoration, rotational fallowing, soil health improvements, adaptive tillage and harvesting strategies, or different herd size and grazing strategies.
“Already we have been talking with farmers and ranchers throughout the state about how they can make their farm or ranch better in a drier future,” said Greg Peterson, Executive Director for the Colorado Ag Water Alliance. “We hope that these funds can support their ideas to keep agriculture as productive as possible.”
The funding can go to any part of the state, not just those in the Colorado River Basin, according to Peterson. He explained they eventually hope to "scale up" projects that show promise for reduced water consumption.