Six states propose measure to deal with declining Colorado River

Proposal contains "no anticipated impacts" to Colorado Springs water supply
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The Colorado River's headwaters. (Photo by the U.S. Geological Survey)

A proposal to deal with the dwindling Colorado River drafted by six of the seven states in the river’s basin won’t impact water supplies in Colorado Springs, says Colorado Springs Utilities spokesperson Jennifer Jordan.

“No curtailments to the Upper Basin states are proposed in the CBMA [consensus-based modeling alternative],” Jordan tells Sixty35 news magazine in an email. “There are no anticipated impacts to Colorado Springs’ water supply at this time.”

On Jan. 30, states sharing the Colorado River submitted a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation that outlines a CBMA for the federal agency to evaluate and incorporate into its development of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to revise current Operating Guidelines (2007 Guidelines) for Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell and Hoover Dam at Lake Mead, the Southern Nevada Water Authority explained in a news release.

The six states are Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. A seventh state in the basin, California, was not part of the CBMA.

“Revisions to the ’07 Guidelines are necessary to protect critical elevations and infrastructure within the two reservoirs to ensure the Colorado River system – which has been significantly impacted by more than two decades of prolonged drought exacerbated by climate change and depleted storage – can continue to serve more than 40 million people, approximately 5.5 million acres of irrigated farmland, Basin Tribes, environmental resources, and power production across seven states and portions of Mexico,” the authority said.

The interim guidelines address Lower Basin shortages and coordinated operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead. A Bureau of Reclamation analysis is to be completed this spring, Jordan says, and a decision is expected in August regarding 2024 operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Jordan explains that the proposal suggests what factors Reclamation should include in its analysis of the Upper Basin, of which Colorado is a part, including hydrologic shortages and voluntary contributions from programs that could result in reductions of consumptive use, such as demand management programs.

But the CBMA focuses primarily, she adds, on actions the Lower Basin states should take to reduce their use and what factors Reclamation should consider. “Of note,” she says, “it proposes that Lower Basin system losses (e.g. transport and evaporative) should be assessed and incorporated in their Colorado River compact allocation moving forward. Those losses are estimated to be up to 1.5 million acre-feet and are not currently accounted for in their allocation.”

The Lower Basin states are Arizona, California and Nevada. Upper Basin states include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

"The framework offered today [Jan. 30] by Colorado and five other states is a productive step forward." U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado.

U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper issued a statement after the framework for modeling future management of the river was released.

“All of us in the Colorado River Basin are experiencing long term drought and aridification,” his statement said. “The framework offered today by Colorado and five other states is a productive step forward. Ultimately, any solution needs to be collaborative and inclusive to cope with less water from the river we all rely on.”

The Colorado Water Conservation Board issued a release outlining the provisions of the proposed alternative:

  • Adjustments to the existing ‘07 Guidelines, including reduced releases from Lake Powell and Lake Mead to ensure the deliverability of water downstream and power production.
  •  Adjustments to Lower Basin contributions required under Drought Contingency Plan.
  • Accounting for more than 1.5 million acre-feet of losses within the Lower Basin that are necessary to protect infrastructure.
  • Additional combined reductions of 250,000 acre-feet to Arizona, California and Nevada at Lake Mead elevation 1,030 feet and below.
  • Additional combined reductions of 200,000 acre-feet to Arizona, California and Nevada at Lake Mead elevation 1,020 feet and below, as well as additional reductions necessary to protect Lake Mead elevation 1,000 feet.
  • Actions outlined within the Upper Basin State’s Drought Response Operations Agreement.
  • Additional voluntary conservation measures that take into account hydrologic shortage in the Upper Division States.

Governor Jared Polis said in a statement that while Colorado continues to implement the Upper Basin States’ plan to contribute to the long-term solutions needed for the river, he urged all seven basin states to “come together to forge a new path — one which acknowledges the river’s limitations while recognizing that there are opportunities for every state to thrive, grow and provide for future generations.”

Jordan also says, “Keep in mind, the BOR [Bureau of Reclamation] is producing a supplemental EIS to the 2007 interim operating guidelines for Lakes Mead and Powell to implement ‘stop-gaps’ — temporary operations measures — that will keep those reservoirs from dipping below critical levels. The bigger picture includes what happens after the interim guidelines expire at the end of 2025 and the administrative direction taken at that point.”

Although more will be known this summer about how Reclamation will move forward to rescue the river, Jordan’s comments that the proposal won’t curtail Colorado Springs’ water supply is sure to be viewed as welcome news as the city grapples with an acute housing shortage and debates how the city should or shouldn’t extend water service outside its boundaries or to annexed land.

See our previous reporting on this issue here and here.


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