After a winter of happy news about the generous snowpack in Colorado’s mountains, summer brought reminders that our regional water situation is dire — or, at least, poised on the edge of direness.
Just as the ink was drying on mid-July headlines announcing that Lake Mead had dropped to its lowest level since filling 80 years ago, a new study found that groundwater loss in the Colorado River Basin has been even more dramatic. The study used satellite data to track changes in the amount of water in the basin from 2004–2013, and found that 75 percent of the nearly 53 million acre feet lost during that period was from groundwater depletions.
While it is easy to measure how much water is in reservoirs, it is much less clear how much groundwater remains in the region’s aquifers. Western Colorado doesn’t rely much on groundwater, but other states in the basin do.
Then, in early August, researchers at CU-Boulder released an updated report on climate change in Colorado. The report notes that higher temperatures are likely to put further pressure on the state’s water supplies even if we get a bit more rain and snow, because plants will need more and more will evaporate.
An historic 14-year drought plus increasing demands are pushing the Colorado River system ever closer to the point where it could no longer be able to provide the services people rely on. And groundwater appears to be disappearing too fast to be much of a safety net.
The city of Las Vegas, Central Arizona farmers and power generation at Glen Canyon Dam are among the first in line to take a hit if water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead continue to drop.
However, disaster is not inevitable. The multi-state, bi-national agreement to send water back to the Colorado River Delta last spring, for the first time in 30 years, demonstrates that those who manage the river are capable of improbable feats.
Many of the same minds that negotiated the deal that provided water for the delta are working intensely to find ways to keep Mead and Powell functioning and to keep the region’s cities, farms and environment intact. There seems to be both a growing sense of urgency and an increasingly cooperative spirit to these efforts.
Not long ago, when I heard Colorado officials and water managers discuss the overuse of water in the Colorado River Basin, they made it clear that this was mostly a problem for California, Arizona and Nevada — and that Colorado was still intent on developing its full legal share. That tune hasn’t exactly changed, but more cooperative efforts have moved into the foreground.
Most recently, the Central Arizona Project, Denver Water, The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Southern Nevada Water Authority announced that they will team up with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to provide $11 million for pilot conservation projects to boost levels in Powell and Mead.
Cooperation is crossing constituencies as well as Upper–Lower basin divisions. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel recently reported that Denver Water, the Colorado River District, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Colorado Farm Bureau, the Southwestern Water Conservation District, the Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited are working together to explore ways to use some of that $11 million to test “temporary, voluntary and fully compensated” conservation strategies.
Even within Colorado, some of the conflict between West Slopers and Front Rangers over additional transmountain diversions could be softening. A recent “conceptual agreement” released by Colorado’s Inter-basin Compact Committee, which includes representatives from all the state’s river basins, outlines how additional Colorado River water could be sent east “under the right circumstances.” Central to the draft agreement is the recognition by East Slope entities that a new transmountain diversion may not be able to deliver water every year and must be used along with non-West Slope sources of water.
These shifts in tone seem to indicate a coming-to-terms with the fact that Colorado River Basin water supplies are limited, and that everyone who relies on them has a stake in finding ways for all to live within those limits. What remains to be seen is whether we can adapt quickly enough to keep ahead of crisis. Don’t stop praying for snow just yet.
Hannah Holm is the coordinator for Water Center at Colorado Mesa University. This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region.