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West Slope water managers ask: What authority do the feds have?

Projects with reclamation ties could be at risk

Heather Sackett
Aspen Journalism
Houseboats on Lake Powell on Dec. 13, 2021, near Wahweap Marina, where the quarter-mile-long boat ramp is unusable due to low water levels. The Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner has said 2 to 4 million more acre-feet of conservation is needed to protect the system, leaving water managers wondering what authority the feds have over upper basin water projects.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

COLORADO — As the deadline approaches for the seven Colorado River basin states to come up with a plan to conserve water, some Colorado water managers are asking what authority the federal government has in the upper basin and which water projects could be at risk of federal action.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton sent water managers scrambling when she announced in June that they had a 60-day window to find another 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water to conserve or the federal government would step in to protect the system. With many reservoirs, transbasin diversion systems and irrigation projects in Colorado tied in one way or another to the Bureau of Reclamation, some are asking if the water in these buckets could be commandeered by the feds to make up the shortfall.

“I think that there’s probably a good argument that the Secretary (of the Interior) has some authority under those projects,” said Eric Kuhn, Colorado River author and former Colorado River Water Conservation District general manager. “The projects on the Western Slope and in the upper basin states that are owned by the federal government and are ultimately under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior, those are the projects at risk.”



There are many dams and reservoirs across Colorado that are tied to the Bureau of Reclamation’s 20th century building frenzy to impound water and “reclaim” arid regions through irrigation. On the Western Slope, some of the well-known projects include the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project (Ruedi Reservoir), Dallas Creek Project (Ridgway Reservoir), the Dolores Project (McPhee Reservoir), Paonia Reservoir, the Grand Valley Project, the Silt Project (Rifle Gap Reservoir), the Uncompahgre Project (Taylor Park Reservoir) and more.

In general, the local entities like conservancy districts, irrigators and municipalities who use the water are responsible for repaying the Bureau for the cost of the project. But the infrastructure is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. Some projects are operated by Reclamation and some are operated by a local entity. Many also have a hydropower component.



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