Entities link up to help ailing Powell, Mead

Wahweap Bay on the south end of Lake Powell.

A diverse mix of Colorado water interests is partnering in an effort to tap part of a newly announced funding pool of $11 million for pilot conservation programs aimed at boosting storage levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Denver Water, the Colorado River District, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Colorado Farm Bureau, the Southwestern Water Conservation District, the Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited plan to explore approaches using funding to be provided under the Colorado River System Conservation Program, which was announced last week.

That program is being set up and funded by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, Denver Water and water entities serving Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles. It’s intended to respond to the severe drought that is harming storage in the two major reservoirs along the Colorado River. Lake Mead is at its lowest level since it first filled some 80 years ago.

Officials fear that a continued drop could impact hydropower production, water supplies, recreation and the environment all along the Colorado River Basin. This impact would affect Upper Basin states such as Colorado in part because of a 1922 compact dividing up the river’s water supply between Upper- and Lower-Basin states.

The new program will provide funding to develop and test temporary, voluntary and fully compensated measures that would enhance water levels in Powell and Mead.

“If a pilot program proves to be successful, it could be part of a contingency toolbox developed by states and the federal government to be implemented only if a severe shortage looks imminent and discontinued when conditions improve,” Denver Water said in a news release Wednesday.

The utility gets half of its water from transmountain diversions of Colorado River water.

Denver Water manager and chief executive officer Jim Lochhead said in the release, “Lake Powell is the ‘bank account’ that assures the Upper Basin has the wherewithal to meet our obligation to the Lower Basin under the Colorado River Compact. While the risks of Lake Powell going below its power pool are low, the consequences are high. Currently there are no contingency plans for such an event.”

Enough of a drop in Lake Powell’s level could cut off the water supply powering hydropower turbines, eliminating an important energy source, and associated revenues that fund programs including an endangered fish recovery effort in the Upper Colorado Basin. A long-term concern would be a compact call by Lower Basin states that would affect Upper Basin water users.

One conservation concept the Colorado entities already have been considering involves water banking, under which agricultural users would temporarily lend their water for a fee. Jim Pokrandt, a Colorado River District spokesman, said a key concern for the district is that Western Slope agriculture alone not be expected to conduct such fallowing, and that Front Range agricultural and municipal users also have to be targeted in the conservation conversation.

“The river district is not interested in West Slope agriculture being a sacrifice zone to solve the state’s water problems. As a participant, we’re going to make the point that all sectors have to share the pain,” he said.

Gary Wockner, chairman of the Save the Colorado River Campaign, said in a statement last week that’s it’s good to hear Denver Water and the other major municipal water providers talking about protecting the health of the Colorado River.

“Keeping more water in the river and moving downstream is critical for the long-term health of the river and all the creatures, human and non-human, that depend on it,” he said.

But he believes Denver Water is being hypocritical in pursuing new diversions from the river at the same time.

He added, “We also have concerns that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is not yet taking the California drought as seriously as it should, and has not yet instituted aggressive and mandatory water restrictions as have other parts of the state.”


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