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Water security in the valley: County’s piece of a larger puzzle

18-years of sub-normal snowpack, rising temperatures prompts discussion

By Cayla Vidmar

Local water experts are not only keeping an eye on lean regional water levels; they are monitoring the Southwest’s major reservoirs in Utah, Arizona and Nevada that could eventually affect the Upper Gunnison Basin and how much water citizens in the valley can use in the future.

“Every time we’ve gotten close to that critical inflow rate required for downstream power production, we’ve had a miracle winter or a huge, wet spring. The concern is that we’ll have another winter like we did this year,” said county commissioner Jonathon Houck on August 14.

Houck was reporting on conversations from the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act roundtables, which engage eight of Colorado’s water basins on water management issues and encourages locally driven collaborative solutions to water issues, particularly issues arising from the Colorado River Compact that regulates water flows to states in the West.

Houck continued, “Three of the four lowest inflow years on record have occurred during what looks like a potentially 18-year drought phase we’re in right now. The concern is that we have the potential for another really dry year in 2019.”

There is no immediate concern about the water levels in Lake Powell, which, according to the Bureau of Reclamation website, supplies around five billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually to Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Nebraska. Water flowing from the Gunnison Valley eventually feeds into Lake Powell, and water levels of Lake Powell are indicative of the conditions upstream. The reservoir, which flows through the Glen Canyon Dam, has a “power pool” elevation of 3,490 feet above sea level. Which means if the water elevation goes below that number, the dam cannot produce electricity. As of mid-August, the elevation was 3,599 feet, or about 120 feet above the power pool level, according to Marlon Duke, public affairs officer, Upper Colorado Region for the Bureau of Reclamation.

The dry winter and summer of 2018 in the headwaters of Colorado, and projections for an increasing chance for water shortage if dry conditions persist, has the upper and lower water basin districts finalizing drought contingency plans, which are due to be wrapped up in December. “Water year 2018 has been a significantly dry year. Inflows to Lake Powell will likely end the year at about 46 percent of average,” wrote Duke via email.

Duke continued, “If inflows in water year 2019 were as low as they were in water year 2018, releases from Lake Powell would be reduced … and the elevation of Lake Powell would decline by 20 to 30 feet from the levels they are at this year.” By mid-August 2018, Lake Powell was about 100 feet below full pool, according to Duke.

“Current projections show a 52 percent likelihood for shortage in the lower basin states beginning in 2020,” Duke continues. “In light of this ongoing drought and increasing risk of shortage, [the Bureau of] Reclamation is actively working with states in the Upper and Lower Basins to develop a drought contingency plan which would help minimize risks by implementing demand management and drought operations actions across the basin.”

According to Jim Pokrandt, the director of community affairs for the Colorado River District, the drought that is taking place “seems to be the result of what is now an 18-year period of sub-normal snowpack and rising temperatures.” To understand the water security threats in the West, including in the Gunnison Valley, you have to start with snowpack.

“[Snowpack is] how we get to live in the West. In the perfect world, we get sufficient snowpack annually that melts off slowly, building to a peak runoff that fills reservoirs and as the summer progresses, provides baseflow by which man and nature can benefit. The snowpack also seeps into soils, maintaining soil moisture,” says Pokrandt. “When the snowpack is diminished, followed by warm weather and a poorly performing monsoon, all of these factors suffer.”

From there, what snowpack and precipitation we do get, Pokrandt explains, is absorbed into dry soils, thus not producing adequate streamflows that sustain the whole water system.

“This threatens our whole cycle of life, whether it be our natural systems left to their own or the manmade engineering created to take advantage of nature’s bounty. So everything from irrigation to tooth brushing is affected,” Pokrandt says.

How the continued drought cycle, the potential for another dry year in 2019 and the predictions of shortages in 2020, affect the Gunnison Valley and Colorado in general is complex. According to Pokrandt, in Colorado, municipal water suppliers and irrigation water providers operate locally and plan according to local supply, as we have seen play out this summer in the valley.

By April, the town of Mt. Crested Butte was already restricting watering for homeowners, and by mid-July, water managers were managing an “active call” on Meridian Lake (Long Lake), forcing managers to release water to satisfy senior water rights holders downstream—something that doesn’t typically take place until late fall.

On the larger scale, for the entire Colorado River System, which flows into Lake Powell, the upper basin states of the river compact (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) and the lower basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and now California), are working on a plan for how to govern water shortages, called Drought Contingency Plans. Each basin is working to have the plans completed by December 2018.

According to John McClow, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD), Lake Powell acts as a “bank account” for the upper basin states.

The upper states are obligated to supply the lower basin states with $7.5 million acre-feet of water per year. Currently, the water flowing into Lake Powell annually is well above that figure. However, the current drought in the upper basin and projections for future water shortages have both the lower and upper basin states working toward solutions for potential shortages.

Ultimately, a shortage of the 7.5 million acre-feet of water the upper basin is obligated to provide “could result in involuntary curtailment of water use in the Gunnison Basin,” according to McClow. At this time, the upper Gunnison Basin is trying out voluntary curtailment programs, which include paying users, like ranchers, to use less water. “To prevent involuntary curtailment of use, we’re exercising voluntary curtailment. The benefit of that is that you have some control; with involuntary curtailment, we don’t know the rules,” says McClow.

As the upper and lower basin states work through creating their drought mitigation plans, the emphasis has been on collaboration over involuntary, or forced, reduction. Should the upper basin states not meet the water obligations to the lower basin states, those states could sue the upper basin states. State-to-state litigation over water, according to McClow, is both expensive and incredibly time-consuming. California and Arizona have been battling it out at the Supreme Court since 1934. The outcome of court cases is also unknown, whereas with collaboration, stakeholders are allowed to participate and come to mutually beneficial solutions to an issue—an issue that is not going away.

As McClow says, “We’re going to have to do more with less throughout the Colorado River basin, but whether it will be planned reduction or involuntary reduction, I would vote for planned.”

For more information regarding the Colorado River basin and the effects of the persistent drought and aridification of the west, Jim Pokrandt encourages interested parties to attend the Colorado River District’s annual Water Seminar held Friday, September 14 in Grand Junction from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The cost of the seminar is $30 and includes lunch; students may attend for free, or $10 with lunch. For more information go to ColoradoRiverDistrict.org.

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