Western water suppliers reach Colorado River conservation agreement
Ryan Summerlin August 3, 2014
Denver Water joined forces last week with water providers in Arizona, California and Nevada and the federal government to sign a water conservation agreement.
The Colorado River System Conservation program is an effort to address a long-term imbalance on the Colorado River caused by years of drought and water demands that exceed supply.
Denver Water, Central Arizona Project, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Southern Nevada Water Authority each contributed $2 million and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation pitched in $3 million to create an $11 million fund for Colorado River water conservation pilot projects.
The projects will demonstrate the viability of cooperative, voluntary compensated measures for reducing water demand in agricultural, municipal, industrial and other areas.
“This situation is becoming increasingly critical. We are already dealing with unprecedented pressure on the southern California region’s water system.”
general manager for The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California
“Summit County has a huge stake in this with Denver Water,” said Jim Lochhead, Denver Water CEO.
The county is a headwaters community for the Colorado River, and Lochhead said Summit shares a common interest with the utility in water conservation and in meeting collective obligations to the people and ecosystems down river.
One of the biggest causes for concern, he said, is the dangerously low water level at Lake Powell.
Built at the Utah and Arizona border, Lake Powell is the second-largest manmade reservoir (behind Lake Mead, near Las Vegas). Lake Powell acts as a savings account to help states in the Upper Colorado River Basin meet their legal water obligations to lower states. If the drought and Western water use continue at their current pace, Lochhead said, Lake Powell is projected to fall below critical elevation in three to four years.
That has a host of consequences for communities up river from the lake, including increased energy bills due to less productive hydroelectric power plants, reduced agricultural output, diminished snowmaking capabilities at ski resorts, water quality issues and loss of funding for protections under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Plus, he said, “we might have to be cut off from our water supply in order to meet our obligations to the lower basin.”
Summit County especially would see the effects in Dillon Reservoir, which Denver Water constructed in 1963 to supply its customers in the Denver metro area.
“Dillon could be literally drained in that scenario,” he said.
For more than a decade, a severe drought has gripped the Colorado River, causing the world’s most extensive storage reservoir system, which includes Lake Powell and Lake Mead, to come closer and closer to critically low water levels.
“This situation is becoming increasingly critical. We are already dealing with unprecedented pressure on the southern California region’s water system,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager for The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “This innovative program is aimed at expanding conservation efforts from a local level to a collaborative system-wide program.”
According to a release from Denver Water, the Colorado River and its tributaries supply nearly 40 million people, and the combined metropolitan areas served by the river represent the world’s 12th largest economy, generating more than $1.7 trillion in Gross Metropolitan Product per year along with agricultural economic benefits of just under $5 billion annually.
“I applaud the far sighted municipal water providers for beginning to address the imbalance in supply and demand on the Colorado River that could seriously affect the economy and the people who rely upon the river,” said U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor in a press release. “There is still much work to be done, and the Interior Department is committed to supporting the efforts of the Colorado River Basin states and other stakeholders as partners in improving water management and operations, particularly during this historic drought.”
The program’s pilot projects will include residential and industrial water conservation programs and in the agricultural sector, something called “temporary compensated borrowing,” which Lochhead said would pay farmers not to irrigate or to irrigate less than they were.
The pilot projects are in the planning stages but should start next year, he said, and the two-year program will fund them into 2016. Successful ideas could then be expanded or extended.
To ensure that local concerns are addressed and that there is equity and fairness among all parties, the Bureau of Reclamation will manage the conservation actions in the Lower Colorado River Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada in a manner consistent with past programs. In the Upper Basin, the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming and the Upper Colorado River Commission will have a direct role in program efforts.
Denver Water plans to do a broad outreach program and partner with agricultural and environmental groups, Lochhead said.
“I think it’s important that we engage all of those groups in this effort,” he said. “We just set up the funds. Now we got to figure out how to make it work.”