Last year was a bad water year in Colorado and the Colorado River Basin. A record-low snowpack on the Grand Mesa and the rest of our high country was followed by low streamflows, stressed fish, and thin hay harvests. The Grand Valley was spared the worst, thanks to senior water rights and upstream reservoir storage, but the city of Grand Junction got nervous enough to impose outdoor watering restrictions for the first time. In the Colorado River Basin, the combined storage in all Colorado River Basin reservoirs dropped to 47 percent of capacity last year. Runoff into Lake Powell was only 43 percent of average.
In 2018, we also heard scientists saying that we weren't just experiencing a drought, but a long-term process of aridification. With drought, you can expect that better days lie ahead. With aridification, not so much.
Water leaders in the states that share the Colorado River seemed to be coming to terms with its limits, as draft "drought contingency plan" (DCP) documents were circulated. The draft DCP sets out a plan for water delivery cuts in the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada and the authorization for a special pool in Lake Powell to save voluntarily conserved water from the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. This pool would help keep lake levels high enough to generate hydropower and ensure that the upper basin states stay in compliance with downstream delivery obligations.
Approval of the plan got hung up in Arizona, however, which faces the twin challenges of having to take the only immediate, severe cuts under the plan and the need to get approval from its state legislature. This led the Commissioner of Reclamation to issue a stern warning that if all the Colorado River Basin states don't approve the DCP by Jan. 31, she will initiate federal action to make the delivery cuts necessary to keep reservoir levels from crashing. So, 2018 wasn't exactly a banner year for water decision-making, any more than it was for snow.
How is 2019 looking? Hydrologically much better, although not quite better enough to rid the region of drought. Locally, we have a normal amount of snow on the Grand Mesa. The mainstem Colorado River Basin in Colorado, on which most Grand Valley agriculture depends, is even a hair above average for this time of year. The Gunnison Basin is at about 96 percent. The southwestern Colorado river basins have about three times the water in their snowpack that they did at this time last year, but it's still only 78 percent of average. Long-range forecasts show continued drought, and spring runoff into Lake Powell is forecast to be just 66 percent of average. There's a lot of dry soil out there to soak up snowmelt before it can reach rivers and streams.
In terms of water decision-making, it's way too early to make any judgments on how 2019 will stack up. We don't yet know if stemming overuse in the lower basin will be done collaboratively or only through top-down federal action.
Closer to home, our decent snowpack is giving us time to carefully and deliberately make the kinds of water decisions that can help our communities stay ahead of crisis. Promising work is underway on many fronts.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board will be working to develop a voluntary, compensated "demand management" program to cut water use and protect water levels in Lake Powell.
The board will be seeking input, and it will be up to us to provide it in order to make sure any such program doesn't hurt more than it helps. Stakeholder groups are working to better understand their water supply vulnerabilities through integrated water planning projects, in hopes of identifying ways to improve resilience. Ditch companies and individual farmers continue to move forward with efficiency projects to make the best use of every drop, and many residential property owners are replacing lawns with native plants.
Whether these efforts will add up to enough to keep us out of trouble with our downstream obligations and keep our communities vibrant remains to be seen. It will depend in part on our luck with the snow, and in part on how much energy and careful thought we put into the kinds of efforts described above.
Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Support for Hutchins Water Center articles is provided by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. You can learn more at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.