Even as successive snowstorms obliterated drought conditions in the state of Colorado, the states that share the Colorado River put the final touches on a plan to use less water. On March 19, representatives from California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado asked Congress to approve their "Drought Contingency Plan." Congressed obliged, and President Trump added his signature on April 16.
The lightning speed with which the Drought Contingency Plan was approved in contentious Washington, D.C. reflects the plan's importance. Over the past two decades, water use from the river has regularly exceed inputs from snow and rain, leading water levels in Lakes Mead and Powell to drop perilously low.
The risk is most acute for the downstream states, because if water levels get too low at Lake Mead, no one but Las Vegas will be able to get any of their Colorado River water out. Las Vegas has spent billions on an intake at the bottom of the lake, just in case. Because of that risk, the lower basin portion of the plan has a detailed schedule of delivery cuts triggered by different lake elevations. Until the snowstorms really picked up this year, the first trigger was expected to come in 2020.
Here in Colorado and the other upstream states, we catch whatever water falls from the sky on its way to Lake Powell. Water in Lake Powell is mainly useful to us for generating hydropower (and money from hydropower, which is spent on infrastructure and environmental projects) and for keeping us out of trouble with our obligations to the downstream states.
Releases to the lower basin have always met or exceeded the requirements in the 1922 compact between the states, and the obligation is calculated on a 10-year rolling average. The threat of having to cut upper basin water uses to comply with the compact is therefore somewhat distant and shrouded in both hydrologic and legal uncertainties.
Because the upper basin risk is less immediate, the upper basin portion of the Drought Contingency Plan is less tangible. It is a "plan to plan," outlining processes for making extra releases from upstream reservoirs under certain conditions, and for developing a special account in Powell for conserved water. Water in this special account would be protected from releases to Mead under normal operations to balance water levels in the reservoirs.
The conserved water pool in Powell can't be used unless a "Demand Management" plan is developed and unanimously agreed to by all four upper basin states. Colorado officials are currently gathering input on what such a plan should look like. Based on what they've already heard, fundamental criteria are that any Demand Management Plan would be based on voluntary, temporary and compensated water use reductions: no one would be forced, no uses would be permanently retired, and whoever participates will get paid for it.
It seems obvious that it's a good idea to start building a savings account little by little through modest, deliberate, compensated water use cuts in order to avoid large, mandatory, uncompensated cuts in the future. But important concerns have been raised about how water use cuts would be balanced between the West Slope and East Slope, between urban and agricultural users, and between different West Slope basins. Since agriculture is the biggest user of Colorado River water, it is almost certain that under any Demand Management Plan, agricultural water use will decline, even if cities are roped into sharing some of the burden. That's a tough pill for a lot of people to swallow.
It sometimes seems like proactively cutting water use is just too unpleasant and complicated, and maybe doing nothing would be better. But the Drought Contingency Plan was developed for a reason. There's less water in the river than there used to be, and our long-term warming trend suggests that there will be even less in the future.
Last year's miserable snowpack showed us our vulnerabilities. If the snow hadn't come back this year, even Grand Valley farmers served by big ditches with senior rights and reservoir storage upstream would have been forced to cut their water use over the coming summer, despite a lack of compact compliance problems. And no one would have paid them for it.
At some point, we will get two really bad snow years in a row. Participation in a voluntary, temporary, compensated Demand Management program may, if done right, help fund investments in technology and crop alternatives that enhance local farmers' ability to stay viable when less water is available. This will benefit our entire community, regardless of whether the shortage results from downstream obligations or nature's failure to provide.
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 about the center at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.