LAS VEGAS — If water managers in Arizona and California are able to finalize agreements on drought-management plans by Jan. 31 — as the head of the Bureau of Reclamation on Thursday directed them to do — and if required federal legislation is passed, it will give water managers in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico a green light to develop voluntary water-use reduction plans in each state.

Such plans, which water officials call demand-management programs, are meant to send as much as 500,000 acre-feet more water downstream to Lake Powell to meet the water-delivery obligations that the four upper-basin states have to the three lower-basin states — the third is Nevada — under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

Representatives of the upper-basin states serving on the Upper Colorado River Commission voted Wednesday, Dec. 12, to approve agreements that are intended to set up a new legal pool of water in Lake Powell, one that can be purposely filled with water that otherwise would have been used to grow crops, primarily hay and alfalfa.

If water levels in Lake Powell fall below an elevation of 3,490 feet, hydropower production ceases and then less and less water can be sent downstream through the outlets in Glen Canyon Dam.

However, the broad agreements approved this week by the upper-basin states did not set up any specific demand-management programs, just a “framework” for such programs.

The agreements say that each of the upper-basin states must figure out a water-use reduction plan that not only works for their particular state but also meshes with each of the other states’ plans.

A key common consideration is making sure that the conserved, or saved, water — that which is not consumed by crops in fallowed fields — is actually reaching Lake Powell, which is fed by water running down the Colorado, Green and San Juan river basins.

(Here are the DCP agreements, as of Dec. 12: the drought response agreement on upper basin reservoir releases; the agreement on demand management storage in Lake Powell; a “companion agreement” linking the upper and lower basin agreements; the lower basin drought contingency plan agreement; and Exhibit 1 to that agreement).

Water diverted from the Roaring Fork River basin cascading into the Arkansas River basin. Such diversions could be curtailed, either on a voluntary or involuntary basis, under future demand management plans in Colorado. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Coming soon?

No deadline or schedule has been agreed upon by the upper-basin states to develop their water-use reduction plans, which are supposed to be “voluntary, temporary and compensated.”

John Stulp, the special adviser to Colorado’s governor on water issues, said Friday he did not think the demand-management programs would be ready for the irrigation season in 2019, but they may be ready by 2020.

Stulp also said Friday that officials in all the upper-basin states have been thinking a lot about how demand-management programs will work and that a recently concluded four-year pilot effort — the System Conservation Pilot Program — provides a good working model on which to build.

He also suggested that the process to set up such a plan, at least in Colorado, could be as important as some of the details in the plan itself.

“I think it’s going to be important that we have a process that is really transparent and that folks feel like they know what is going on and that the right people are at the table,” Stulp said Friday. “(Western Slope and Front Range) interests, anybody that touches in any way the Colorado River system needs to be able to know what’s going on there.”

Stulp said he expected that the directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency charged with managing the Colorado River Compact, would discuss a process for setting up a demand-management program at their January board meeting.

“I think it is important that we start right away,” he said.

Stulp was asked about the potential demand-management plans at the end of a three-day regional water meeting in Las Vegas, where a panel discussion on demand management, which featured the four commissioners on the Upper Colorado River Commission, took place.

Pat Tyrrell, the Wyoming commissioner who also serves as the state’s water engineer, was asked whether it was in the upper-basin states’ best interests to voluntarily cut back on water use to avoid violating the 1922 compact, which could lead to mandatory curtailment of water diversions.

“If headgates are going to be off anyway, if the pipelines are going to be off anyway due to shortage, why not do it in a way that lays the most lightly on our people?” Tyrrell said. “That’s what demand management does, that’s what the drought contingency plan does — it allows us to maintain those uses and maintain compliance with that important ’22 document.”

Tyrrell also said he was surprised how enthusiastic ranchers in Wyoming were about the System Conservation Pilot Program, which ran from 2015 to 2018.

“Water rights, especially the old ones, are often viewed, essentially, in religious terms in many of the upper-basin states,” Tyrrell said. “It’s anathema to these people to hear ‘Don’t use your water right, let the water go.’”

Tyrrell said even if the pilot program wasn’t perfect, “we have to kick the training wheels off and turn it into a demand-management program that is fully fledged.”

All four commissioners acknowledge that there are technical and legal challenges in setting up water-use reduction programs that work across state lines, including verifying how much water is not used, securely “shepherding” the water past downstream diversions to Lake Powell and finding funds to compensate irrigators for fallowing their fields.

Funding may be the biggest challenge, Colorado’s Stulp said.

But he pointed to the significant funding — $100 million — that is coming together in Arizona (from its water districts and state government, from the federal government and from philanthropists) as a sign that a water-use reduction program is worth trying in Colorado.

“The worse-case scenario — the fallback of all this — is a curtailment without compensation,” Stulp said. “Nobody wants to go there.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published this story on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...