Drought drives West to water reform
By the time the Eagle, Roaring Fork, and dozens of other rivers and creeks have finished emptying their muddied waters into the Colorado River this summer, Lake Powell is projected to be slightly more than 50 percent full.What a change that is from only last year. Coming off the drought of 2002, Powell had receded by January 2005 to only 34 percent of capacity. It’s walls of red sandstone were bleached after decades of immersion and a bathtub ring marked the reservoir’s maximum storage after the big water years of the 1980s and 1990s.More startling yet was the speculation by hydrologists of the previously unimagined: That Powell could – if the drought continued – go dry within another two or three years.Faced with this prospect of the biggest water bucket in the American Southwest going dry, Colorado and other states had begun preparing for a protracted and enormously expensive legal battle over rights to Colorado River water. A $2 million budget was allocated to refine measurements of stream and river flows.Driving this concern was the potential that all diversions that began after 1922 would, with protracted drought, be forced to cease until rights of California and Arizona were satisfied.Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which includes Summit County, says the chances of this “call” on the river by downvalley states was remote, but serious.”The chances of a call in the next 20, 30, 40 years are very, very very remote,” he says. “It’s on the order of being hit by a hurricane in Colorado.”But, were it to happen, he adds, the most junior rights are those at most risk. “And the ski industry even though it now has been around some 40 and 50 years in some places, is relatively junior compared to agriculture, mining and municipal uses,” he explains.”The most junior users are most at risk, and the most recent industry, if you want to call it that, is skiing, snowmaking, and even more recently, municipal diversions sort of connected with the second homes,” he said. Ski industry diversions are also junior to many diversions for Eastern Slope farms and cities. Dillion Reservoir diversions began in 1962, and those from Granby Reservoir in 1954.”The last drought gave everyone pause,” says Jim Lochhead, a Glenwood Springs-based water lawyer who represents several of Colorado’s largest water organizations on both sides of the Continental Divide.
After two moderately good winters, stark visions of even more searing drought have receded. Still, the drought has now produced major changes in the Colorado River basin and those who depend upon it. That vast region extends from California coastal cities to portions of Mexico to Cheyenne, Wyo., and Colorado farming communities along the Nebraska and Kansas borders.One major change is a revised operating plant for Powell and Lake Mead. Faced with an ultimatum by now former Secretary of Interior Gayle Norton, the seven states returned to the negotiating table to iron out agreements.Spurred by the drought, the states also revisited the Colorado River Compact, which was adopted in 1929. That agreement was struck in a time of greater runoff than has been common during the last 1,000 years. They couldn’t have known that then, but the drought of the early 21st century – combined with new tree-ring research and other techniques – made it clear that the aridity of the Southwest was even greater than had been assumed.Compounding the problems were some unexpected patterns of population growth.”We have seen droughts in the past, but we have never seen droughts in the past with the kinds of demands that we are seeing today,” says Chris Treese, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
Colorado had always assumed future growth, but not Nevada. When the compact was struck, Las Vegas remained a small and sleepy train stop, little different than the outpost created by Mormon settlers. Quite possibly nobody could imagine it becoming a premiere oasis of the risqué and naughty, much less one of the world’s fastest-growing retirement centers. Two years ago, Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, exceeded the population of Manhattan. Las Vegas, Henderson and other nearby communities desperately need more water supplies if they are to continue growing. And Las Vegas has made it abundantly clear it has no intention of not continuing to do so. Officials there even suggested efforts to overturn the Colorado River Compact unless changes were made to allow them more water.In addition to Nevada’s cranky desperation, the drought exposed some fundamental disagreements between Arizona- second only to Nevada during the 1990s in population growth – and upper-basin states, such as Colorado, the nation’s third fastest growing state, and Utah, the fourth fastest growing. “I think it would be fair to say,” says Lochhead, “that the states were contemplating the prospect of litigation over the compact, although the states certainly were aware that litigation was dangerous and that it was something they would want to avoid.”The agreement that was reached among the seven states has a little something for everybody, says Lochhead. Nevada has more avenues for getting more water. The key is a new provision that will allow greater flexibility for transferring water from farms to cities.Such instate transfers have occurred for decades. Indeed, about 50 percent of the water delivered to the Phoenix-Tucson areas by the Central Arizona project is now used for municipal use, compared to 75 percent several decades ago. Water use in Colorado has similarly shifted, as is evident in subdivisions of the Eagle Valley that three or four years ago were hay fields.
The new agreement also allows transfers among lower-basin states. As such farmers in Arizona, for example, could sell water to Las Vegas. Still barred would be transfers from Colorado and upper basin states to lower-basin states.Conservation groups generally like this new provision. Among those paying attention has been Jennifer Pitt, a senior resource analyst for the Boulder-based Environmental Defense.”I think that there is pretty common agreement that, at this point, use of the Colorado River is at or above the sustainable yield of the watershed, so that push has come to shove – and something has to change,” says Pitt.The greater flexibility being proposed would allow market forces to determine water allocations, she says. That will yield fewer farms, or at least more efficient farms. She points out that agriculture continues to use a majority of water in the American Southwest.”If you look at the economies of crops in the Southwest, the crops that are making the least amount of return per acre-foot of water use are field crops, mostly alfalfa and sorghum and a few others,” she said. She sees the new agreement benefiting the environment. In the past, all changes ultimately have come at the expense of the environment. She sees the new flexibility allowing environmental groups to buy rights to water that could then be used specifically for environmental purposes, such as to restore the delta of the Colorado River at the Gulf of California. Some years, no water actually reaches the delta.Nobody thinks that water in the Southwest can be like the five loafs of bread and two fish that, in the Biblical tale, Jesus used to feed 5,000 men. Still, some water managers are thinking ahead, wondering if they can’t somehow augment natural snowfalls or rind new sources of water. Among those strategies: cloud-seeding. For Colorado, the proposed agreement diminishes the threat that water users junior to the 1922 compact will, in some period of future drought, be forced to let water go downstream to Arizona and California.”It really affects everybody in Colorado, whether there is a compact call, and I think this agreement goes a long way in avoiding that possibility,” says Lochhead.
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