New Colorado River agreement will have headwaters impacts in Eagle County |

New Colorado River agreement will have headwaters impacts in Eagle County

Six of seven states have a model, but California's holding out

Scott Miller
Vail Daily
The All-American Canal conveys water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley in Southern California. The Imperial Irrigation District is the largest user of Colorado River water.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

EAGLE COUNTY — Eagle County is part of the birthplace of the Colorado River. Any agreement to allocate that river’s water is likely to affect residents.

A century-old agreement to divide the Colorado’s water is no longer sufficient to govern the river’s use. After years of work to divide up a diminishing resource, officials Monday announced that six of the seven states governed by the compact had created a model for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to possibly incorporate into its own management plan.

Six of the seven signatory states to the compact — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada — signed the new agreement. The only non-participant is California.

It’s still unclear what California will do, but state officials are talking in positive terms about the deal.

“I am encouraged today that six states came to an agreement on potential mechanisms to better manage the critical reservoirs on the Colorado River,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said in a Monday statement.

The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments is made up of virtually all the counties in the river’s headwaters. Council Director Jon Stavney said the compact, completed in 1922, was good in theory, but the amount of water divided up in that compact was based on river flows from the 10 wettest years on record. That doesn’t work in a region plagued by a drought that is now more than two decades old.

That’s been reflected in the continual emptying of Lake Powell in Utah and Lake Mead in Nevada.

Colorado’s ‘leadership position’

Torie Jarvis is the staff attorney for the Quality and Quantity subcommittee of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. Jarvis said that Colorado banding with other states “ensures we have a leadership position” in discussions.

Jarvis said that’s important because, without state involvement, the federal government will impose a one-size-fits-all solution that might not properly fit anyone’s needs.

Diane Johnson of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District said state involvement is also crucial because the federal government has control over federal projects — which includes Lake Powell and Lake Mead — while Colorado administers Colorado water rights.

But minimum levels are a big part of the six-state agreement. Under the proposed agreement, Arizona, Nevada and California will cut their use by 250,000 acre-feet if the water surface elevation of Lake Mead hits 1,030 feet. Another 250,000 acre-feet have to be cut if Lake Mead’s elevation drops to 1,020 feet. The goal is to protect Lake Mead’s elevation to a minimum of 1,000 feet.

Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry is the chairwoman of the Quality and Quantity Subcommittee. She’s also the current chairwoman of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District. That agency covers 15 counties through which the river or its major tributaries flow.

Chandler-Henry said the lower basin states have been taking unsustainable amounts of water from the large reservoirs. She noted that outflow from Lake Mead in 2021 totaled more than 9.8 million acre-feet. The reservoir only took in about 3.5 million acre-feet that year.

The upper basin (states) keep using less because we have to,” due to supply, Chandler-Henry said. “The lower basin has continued to draw out of those reservoirs.”

That’s caused serious draw-downs in other federally-controlled reservoirs along the river. The Bureau of Reclamation last year took a substantial amount of water from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County.

“That had serious effects on the Gunnison County economy,” Chandler-Henry said.

The importance of ag

Agriculture is a huge part of water use in the Colorado River system. But, Chandler-Henry said, farmers in the lower basin “don’t have the connection to the river that we do,” since much of that irrigation water comes to fields through pipes and other systems.

The water many farmers receive also doesn’t cost much. On a November tour of the lower basin states, Chandler-Henry said a rancher in California’s Imperial Valley told her there’s no incentive to cut back on water use.

Further complicating water supplies is the fact that Mexico is a signatory to the compact and is entitled to a share of the river’s water. In addition, Chandler-Henry said Native American tribes in the region also are entitled to roughly 20% of the river’s water but are only now starting to create the infrastructure to move that water where it’s needed.

While conservation is essential in the upper basin states, Jarvis said another reason state control is so important is to fulfill a goal of making further cutbacks “temporary, voluntary and compensated” when providing extra water to the lower basin.

But that extra water has been in short supply for some time. The current winter would have been a pretty normal one 30 years ago. Now it’s a pleasant bonus.

“We’re already living with what we’re given, but we have to plan for (the drought) being long-term,” Johnson said.

Jarvis said she’s been happy to see an agreement even among six of the seven compact states. Now, she added, “California has to step up.”

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