GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Before the Colorado River District will support pending federal legislation allowing drought contingency plans in both the upper and lower Colorado River basins to proceed, it wants the state of Colorado to adopt a policy putting limits on a new water-use reduction program designed to bolster water levels in Lake Powell.
That was the clear message from the River District board that general manager Andy Mueller said he received during a passionate discussion during a district meeting Tuesday.
“Most of the board is saying that at a bare minimum we have to have the state, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, affirm that there are in fact some sideboards and protections from the risks we face,” Mueller said, in summarizing the board’s discussion. “We’ve got to have some principles that guide the way this program is set up, and its consistency with the state water plan.”
Mueller said the program has to be consistent with the state water plan, there has to be an equitable distribution of wet water coming from both the Front Range and the Western Slope, and the program has to be voluntary, temporary and compensated.
“This board is not OK with the idea of a mandatory curtailment to fill a demand management pool,” Mueller said. “We don’t feel that there is legal or statutory authority for such a program.”
The concerns of the River District directors stem from an ongoing multi-state effort to create and gain approval for “drought contingency plans” in the lower and upper basins.
The lower basin states include California, Arizona and Nevada, and the upper basin states include Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.
And as part of the regional “DCP” effort, it is anticipated that federal legislation will be required to implement changes to how water is managed in the upper and lower basins, with the goal of keeping enough water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell to keep those massive reservoirs functioning in the face of an ongoing 18-year drought.
The proposed changes include modifying the current regulations that guide how much conserved, or saved, water can be stored in Lake Mead by lower basin entities.
The changes include developing a plan to release water in a coordinated fashion from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs, which can send water down the Green, Colorado and San Juan rivers, respectively, to Lake Powell.
And the changes include creating a legally secure pool of water in Lake Powell to be filled with water conserved after fallowing fields, primarily, in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
Officials from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City who are working on the drought contingency plans say legislation will be submitted to Congress during the lame-duck session after the midterm elections.
And it’s widely assumed that such legislation will pass only if there is no opposition from entities that would be affected, such as the Colorado River District, which represents 15 Western Slope counties.
Mueller said Wednesday he was “cautiously optimistic” that the CWCB, a state agency that manages water planning, will adopt a guiding policy at its November board meeting about the creation of a demand management program.
And a senior CWCB official Wednesday offered reasons for Mueller’s optimism, including that such a policy is now being drafted for the board’s consideration.
“The policy statement will be informed by the public testimony, letters received, and the feedback we’ve heard from stakeholders around the state in the past year of aggressive public outreach,” said Brent Newman, who is the section chief of CWCB’s Interstate, Federal and Water Information Section and the state agency’s point person on Colorado River issues. “Because we’re hoping to respond and provide CWCB leadership to concerns that our partners and stakeholders have raised, it will likely address these issues.”
Newman also emphatically told the river district’s directors Tuesday that the state is not working on a mandatory curtailment program to avoid a call on the river system under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
“Not myself, not the CWCB staff, not our board, not the Attorney General’s Office, not the division of water resources, not the state engineer, none of us at the state are assessing or recommending any kind of mandatory anticipatory curtailment scenario,” Newman said. “That is not in our books. Yes, we’ve had some water users say that if voluntary, temporary and compensated isn’t sufficient, you may have to look at this. We are not doing that.”
It was also made clear during the river district’s meeting that “anticipatory mandatory curtailment” of water rights in Colorado is seen as a direct threat to family-run farms and ranches on the Western Slope.
“If we want to push the Western Slope to the brink, where people start to actually sit down at the kitchen table and consider whether or not they ought to sell the farm to some outside-the-Western-Slope interest, this is how we get there,” said Marc Catlin, who represents Montrose County on the River District’s board, and also represents District 58 in the Colorado House.
After Catlin’s comments, many other River District board members said they agreed.
“This just shows how important it is to get the demand-management program right, and that we don’t rush into a demand-management pool in Lake Powell before we’ve had this discussion and before we’ve agreed to a policy and principles to guide us,” said Tom Alvey, the current president of the district’s board, who represents Delta County. “From all the perspective of water users on the Western Slope, there is huge concern about this.”
Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in the Colorado River basin in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift newspapers. The Times published this story on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018.