New dam merely a figment? Reservoir on map sparks water debate

SPECIAL TO THE SENTINEL Water officials downplayed a map that was included in a March 2018 presentation related to an ongoing study of risks related to Lake Powell levels dropping farther due to continuing drought. The map seemed to show a large reservoir being built in Utah upstream of Powell.

A public presentation related to an ongoing study might seem to envision a possible new, million-acre-foot reservoir not far upstream of Lake Powell in southeast Utah as a means of helping Powell's water levels.

But it isn't meant to suggest such a reservoir actually is being contemplated, a water official says.

"I don't think anybody was proposing a new reservoir in Utah," Eric Kuhn, who is former general manager of western Colorado's Colorado River District and still works part-time for the district on river issues, said Thursday.

Kuhn was responding to a news release issued by anti-dam activist Gary Wockner a day earlier. Wockner said that a page in a presentation related to an ongoing study of risks related to Powell levels dropping farther due to continuing drought, and options for protecting the reservoir's levels, shows a large reservoir being built in Utah upstream of Powell.

Wockner, director of the group Save the Colorado, said the study shows the extremes to which states in the Upper Colorado River Basin are willing to go to try to save Powell, "including building a massive new and environmentally destructive dam and reservoir," when Glen Canyon Dam instead should be torn down and Powell drained.

The presentation, which the consultant doing the study has been using to provide public updates on it, includes a map showing a triangle over what Wockner says is the Dirty Devil River near its confluence with the Colorado River. A label pointing to the triangle refers to a million-acre "Water Bank Reservoir." But Kuhn, who is involved with the risk study, said the consultant, John Carron of Hydros Consulting, placed the reservoir there just for demonstration purposes.

Kuhn said the idea was to discuss storing that much water for banking purposes anywhere within the Upper Basin river system, from Powell itself to upstream reservoirs. That storage could include newly created storage, he said, but any new storage would likely have to overcome the challenge of cost-competitiveness versus using existing storage space, not to mention considerations such as environmental impacts and political viability.

The water-banking concept — discussed again Wednesday in a meeting in Grand Junction of representatives of stakeholder groups for West Slope basins of the Colorado River watershed — would entail conserving water through temporary irrigation fallowing and other means and then storing that water to help shore up Powell levels. Water officials are concerned that continuing drought could drop those levels low enough that it could jeopardize hydropower generation and the ability of Upper-Basin states to meet legal obligations to deliver water downstream.

Powell itself, with its huge size and current large amount of unused storage space, is an obvious and convenient place to consider banking water, according to Kuhn and other water officials. The Bureau of Reclamation reports that as of the end of March, it had about 13 million acre-feet of water in it, and was about 53 percent full. Many upstream reservoirs are less well-positioned to bank water for the long term because they're designed to fill in wet years.

However, the challenge when it comes to Powell is how to figure out how to ensure any water that's banked there can actually go toward helping protect the reservoir's levels rather than being subject to release downstream based on other agreements dictating operations of Powell as part of the larger Colorado River system.

But Kuhn says there's a precedent for what's called intentionally created storage or surplus already in place in the Lower Basin, taking advantage of vacant storage space in Lake Mead.

"It's more than just a conceptual idea. It actually works," said Kuhn, who said that shows the concept can work elsewhere in the Colorado River Basin.

If new storage is considered, one possibility that could be evaluated is in far northwest Colorado. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District in Rangely has been looking at a possible storage project at Wolf Creek, a tributary to the White River on the Moffat County line. Kuhn said that reservoir could be built for local needs in Rio Blanco County, but also sized up to help bank water for Powell. But he said it wouldn't provide enough space, nor is the White River big enough, for such a reservoir to meet the entire water bank needs.

Rather, storage for a bank could be spread out among multiple reservoirs.

Kuhn believes new storage can't be ruled out as a possibility.

"I think the (Upper) Basin has to be open to all suggestions and then weed them out," he said.

But he nevertheless believes any new reservoirs face "a heavy lift" when it comes to proving themselves a better option than the more obvious choice of using existing reservoirs.

Any new reservoir proposal can expect to face heavy opposition from Wockner. Even if a Dirty Devil River dam proposal isn't on the table, he thinks the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and other districts will be maneuvering to get a storage project. He considers the water banking concept to be a "fool's errand."

"Obviously there's not enough water to keep Lake Powell alive right now, or just barely alive, and so the management of the (river) system would have to change dramatically in order for something like this water bank to even be realistic," he said.

He said that just as in the old days people said rain would follow the plow, now, "they're saying rain will follow the dam if they build the dam.

"The idea they're going to be able to dam and store their way out of this problem is ridiculous in my opinion," he said.

Wockner believes the river system's storage needs can be met by storing more water in Mead and no longer using Powell — an idea disputed by entities like the Colorado River District. He also says farmers are getting increasingly skittish about the idea of water banking and other measures that they worry could lead to the permanent transfer of more water away from agriculture.

River district officials likewise have been emphatic that measures being considered to protect Powell can't end up contributing to the long-term drying up of Western Slope agricultural land.

Recommended for you