Colo. River rep warns of drought planning

Keeping in touch with the commissioners and 3,525 feet at Lake Powell

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

It appears drought contingency planning is officially underway for 2021 and 2022 throughout the Colorado River Basin, and water banking in conjunction with conservation and curtailments may be the way of the future. As a newly appointed Colorado River District board member, Kathleen Curry gave Gunnison County commissioners an update recently on the River District board meeting she attended in late January.

Among the biggest concerns, said Curry, are drought conditions that persist even on years with pretty good snowfall. “Even when the snowpack is decent, it’s not all getting down to the major reservoirs. Maybe it is soil moisture, maybe ambient temperatures, I’m not sure that we know exactly why. But the whole system will be under a drought release scenario and that does include Aspinall unit operations,” she said.

As of March 9, the Upper Gunnison Basin snowpack was 76 percent of average according to the Gunnison River Basin website. The spring (April through July) unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir is forecast to be 68 percent of average. The website estimates that flows originating from the Gunnison River Basin historically contribute about 17 percent of the total flows in the Upper Colorado River Basin, accounting for water that approximately 6.8 million people annually rely upon.

Lake Powell may drop
Curry described Bureau of Reclamation projections that Lake Powell will release 8.23 million acre-feet to Lake Mead, with around 6 million acre-feet coming in and resulting in an overall decline in water storage.
“So we have to send that water down to Lake Mead, but the Bureau is projecting this declining hydrology to put us into some new drought contingency planning,” she explained. The contingency plan has now formally been triggered per 2007 agreements.

“In 2022, our releases [from Aspinall] will decrease from 8.23 to 7.48 million acre-feet, which is good, it gives us a little bit of relief. But still, those releases are higher than the inflows, most likely. Powell will continue to drop,” she predicted.

Curry said that reservoir might hit an elevation of 3,525 feet. “It’s a number you might hear quite often. It’s an important number for planning purposes,” she said, because at levels below that elevation Lake Powell power production is in jeopardy as wind turbines and hydropower would cease. “The Bureau is forecasting that we could hit that in 2022,” she said.

Curry also warned that in 2021, “We’re not even going to fill Blue Mesa. We’ll be lucky to hit 73 percent,” and as she expected that has since been adjusted to a lower target of 68 percent. Curry said these concerns are driving much of the discussion in the water community regarding the Colorado River’s status.

Demand management and water banking
The River District has kicked off a stakeholder advisory group on demand management, which is also being discussed at state levels.

“It’s the talk of the town. Everybody’s been thinking about it for a couple of years now,” said Curry. The idea is a voluntary, temporary and compensated water conservation program could put water aside in a 500,000 acre-foot storage pool in Lake Powell to help the state deal with Colorado River Compact compliance issues and shortages. “There are a couple pieces to this demand management discussion,” said Curry.

She said there are questions of funding, impacts, participation and whether there could be enough water generated to make a difference. Five participants from the Gunnison Basin have joined the group, and will give input to the Colorado Water Conservation Board in June or July.

A lot of water rights in the Gunnison Valley are junior to the compact, and both those and senior water rights could become a part of the dialogue. “So we have an interest, since we are an agricultural basin, in this issue,” said Curry.

County commissioner Liz Smith asked how water banking could benefit the communities doing the conservation, versus that water being drawn from downstream users in the past. Curry agreed that there had not in the past been a way to account for historic consumptive use and subsequent water savings, but there are methods being developed for logging and saving that water.

Curry also reviewed some conservation techniques for water banking, including curtailment programs where ranchers would fallow their land for either part of a season or an entire season.

Staying in touch
Going forward, Curry agreed to meet with commissioners during their work sessions prior to each quarterly River District meeting and again afterward to better bridge the voices of the county with those of the district.
“So she is entering those meetings informed on where we stand, and then she can come in on the back end of those meetings to reflect on them like she is doing now,” said commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck.
Curry will continue providing updates on current water-related legislation and the position of the River District on those bills as well.

The next River District meeting is scheduled for April 20-21.

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