The Big Gulp: Troubles with Lake Powell |

The Big Gulp: Troubles with Lake Powell

BOB BERWYNspecial to the daily
Summit Daily/Brad Odekirk Shot from the starboard side of an airplane traveling from Denver to San Diego, branches of Lake Powell stretch in many directions filling many canyons in Utah along the Colorado River basin.

SUMMIT COUNTY – Nobody thought it could happen this fast. Lake Powell in Utah has drained so rapidly that water experts are talking about what might happen if the giant reservoir drops to its “dead pool” level, below which it can’t deliver stored water downstream.If it does, and the natural flows of the Colorado River aren’t enough to satisfy all water rights, states in the lower basin could exercise senior rights and call for water upstream.Upstream means Summit County.The water in question in some cases is already being used by towns, farmers and industry. The upstream domino effect could be tremendous in Summit County. In an extreme case, existing users like Denver Water might have to curtail their own diversions and deliver water downstream.State and federal officials say they are working toward an agreement that would split potential shortages equitably , but even then, the upper basin could be pinched first, according to some experts.Water that originates in the Upper Colorado River Basin, including the headwaters county of Summit, is allocated by interstate compact to Nevada, Arizona and that giant thirsty sponge, otherwise known as California.Lake Powell was constructed in the 1950s as a water bank account to make sure Nevada, Arizona and California could always take their water draws, while Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah took theirs from upstream flows.The drought, in effect, is causing a big run on the bank, and unless Rocky Mountain snowfall returns to normal to pump up Lake Powell, the water world as we know it will be turned upside down.That day could come much sooner than almost anyone anticipated, perhaps before the end of the decade.”I think none of us thought it would ever happen in our lifetime,” said Peter Roessmann, education specialist with the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District.

“We’re starting to hit that hard stop on the river,” Roessmann said. “Right now, if the severe drought continues, it’s possible we might have to deliver some water that’s already being used,” he said, outlining a scenario that was almost unthinkable just a few years ago.The math is pretty simple. Imagine Lake Powell as a giant bathtub, holding 24.3 million acre-feet when it’s full. At the beginning of 2000, the reservoir was at 95 percent of capacity.But the drain is wide open, and the tap – the Colorado River – has only been trickling for the last four years. As you might guess, the tub is about half empty and going down fast. Over the past four years, inflows into Lake Powell have averaged only about six million acre-feet, just half of the long-term average 12 million acre-feet as tallied by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the lower basin states are due about 8.5 million acre-feet, with water rights dating to 1929, when the compact was officially ratified.There is some leeway over time, since the delivery amount is not an annual obligation, but rather a requirement that the Upper Basin deliver about 75 million acre-feet over the span of 10 years, according to natural resource law expert David Getches, dean of the University of Colorado law school.”Lake Powell was built and is thought of as a savings account to meet the obligations of the Colorado River Compact,” Getches said. While the states have learned how to allocate surplus flows, there hasn’t been much planning for below average scenarios, he added.”Some of us, like a voice crying in the wilderness, have said we should be thinking about how to operate with shortages,” Getches said. “What are Colorado and the Upper Basin going to do if they can’t deliver 75 million acre-feet over 10 years? That’s a good question for the state engineer; what will you do if Colorado can’t deliver, shut off users?” Getches said.Roessmann poses the question, “Do we split the shortage equally between the lower and upper basins?” Roessmann said.It’s not clear that anyone has a good answer, but federal and state officials have started to hold some serious pow-wows on the topic. If it comes to push and shove between the Upper and Lower Basin states, the arguments could hinge on whether it was the intent of the compact to carve up the river for all time, or whether it can be done in a way that spreads any shortages equitably, Roessmann said.

In the last few years, the river has not delivered water enough to meet the downstream claim without taking a hefty gulp out of Lake Powell. For all anybody knows, it could snow like crazy next year, but some climate researchers are warning the West could be in an extended dry period, with river flows staying well below the levels the population has come to expect as “average.”A fact sheet recently published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) gives added reason for concern. According to the agency, tree ring studies – including some data from Summit County – show that the current drought could be the most severe in 500 years, with more impacts on the Colorado River Basin than the Dust Bowl drought.According to the USGS, the entire Colorado River Basin has been experiencing drought conditions for a decade, resulting in the lowest Colorado River flows on record. The agency reported an adjusted annual average flow of only 5.4 million acre-feet at Lees Ferry, Ariz., below Lake Powell, between 2001-03. By comparison, the agency said the average annual flows during the Dust Bowl years (1930-37) averaged about 10.2 million acre-feet.

What happens when there is no more water in Lake Powell to augment the natural flows of the river for deliver downstream?”The potential for a compact call on the Colorado River is immense,” said Scott Hummer, who as water commissioner administers water rights in Summit County for the State Engineers Office.In a worst-case scenario, Hummer said, Colorado could be forced to curtail use of water rights junior to 1929.”That knocks out most of the transmountain diversions,” Hummer says, referring to the extensive reservoir and delivery system that takes Western Slope water east across the Continental Divide. That means Denver Water and the water utilities in Colorado Springs, Aurora, Pueblo, Boulder, Fort Collins, Greeley and elsewhere would be curtailed.So instead of capturing flows from Colorado River tributaries like the Blue River in Summit County and the Fraser River in Grand County, Western Slope and Front Range entities would likely have to let water flow unimpeded toward distant Southwest deserts and cities. “We believe it is time for the public to be educated on the possibility of a compact call and the consequences of such a call,” said Dennis Gelvin, general manager of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.”A gallon of water not used in Colorado does not just go to California, it goes to Lake Powell to be stored for the benefit of Colorado residents to protect against a compact call,” Gelvin said.

A 1996 study by researchers from seven universities examined worst-case scenarios, including a case study of a hypothetical 16-year drought.By year nine, some state governments would have to declare a state of emergency to manage the resource for only the most essential uses.And by year 11, the drought could become all but unmanageable, perhaps even leading to mass migrations out of the Colorado River Basin, the researchers reported.While the West could almost certainly find ways to sustain existing population levels, it might take a while, leading to at least temporary displacement and potentially serious economic impacts.Imagining a worst-case scenario, Bill McEwen, water commissioner for the Eagle River district, said that, with not all its Colorado River Compact water available, impacts to this state could include massive rationing, taking out all nonnative landscaping or eliminating half the farming in Colorado.”We could find a way to live, I’m sure, but it would mean huge changes to how we live,” McEwen said.”I’d put it in terms of, we’ve always had shortage, but they’ve been because of natural fluctuations. We’ve never had to worry about water leaving the state, water that we’re actually using.” McEwen said.”This drought is a wake-up call, and the people that need to hear it aren’t listening,” said Crested Butte resident Steve Glazer, who tracks statewide and regional water issues for the Sierra Club. Glazer said there are sections of the Upper Colorado River Compact that deal with allocation in times of severe drought, but that those provisions have never been tested.Under the compact, for example, Wyoming is allocated 600,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water. Wyoming doesn’t use its share, but can officials work out a deal by which other states can use that water without threatening Wyoming’s water rights?In any case, meeting potential shortages will mean switching management modes from the supply side to the demand side, said Owen Lammers, of Living Rivers, a Utah-based group that advocates draining Lake Powell all together.That means considering the fact up to 40 percent of the river’s flow is used to grow alfalfa and other forms of cattle feed in the Lower Basin, Lammars said. Beyond that, 50 percent of the municipal use is for ornamental landscaping purposes, he said.”We have to bring our use of the river back into balance with what the river can deliver,” Lammers said. “And at least from our viewpoint, the ecology of the river has a seat at the table.”Bob Berwyn can be reached at

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