Gunnison & Colorado River Basins brace for water issues

Drought emergency declared for Gunnison, 20 other counties

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

As a multi-year drought has persisted across the Western Slope, water supply issues are top of mind for water planners and the Upper Gunnison River Basin, which feeds into the Colorado River, is no different. The water year has entered its final quarter, and the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and other entities that study and manage the Colorado River and its inflow to Lake Powell are predicting that decreasing water levels in the reservoir may soon prompt a new drought response operations plan. That process will include participation from all Colorado River stakeholders, including Gunnison County. Water supply issues and lawsuits across the West appear likely in the coming years.

In a recent update to Gunnison County commissioners, Gunnison County’s Colorado River District board representative Kathleen Curry recapped the latest district board meeting, and stated the big takeaway for Coloradans and particularly the Western Slope is that Lake Powell is now at 3,559 feet.

“That decline is significant enough to hit an elevation early next year that could impact power production,” she said of the hydropower production at Lake Powell, which is based on storage volume. The BOR’s current forecast states that Lake Powell will end the year at near 3,525 feet in elevation, based on predicted inflow.

That specific elevation has been identified as the trigger for more drought contingency planning, and the numbers indicate that can be expected sometime in the next year.

Curry told commissioners that according to the most probable estimates of inflows to Lake Powell the trigger elevation of 3,525 feet is expected to happen by January 2022. “And then our ability as a state to meet our compact obligations will become more of a challenge if it continues to decline below that elevation,” she said.

The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center projects that the most probable (median) unregulated inflow volume this year will be 3.37 million acre feet, or 31 percent of average.

According to the BOR’s data, “Water year 2021 observed unregulated inflows from October 2020 through June 13, 2021 are 215 [thousand acre feet] greater than the observed unregulated inflows at this point in water year 2002, the driest year on record.” That forecast was issued on June 3, and the water year will end on September 31.

Curry said that water curtailment conversations have begun across the Western Slope. A demand management stakeholder group has been getting together with River District staff, “and getting some really good input,” she said. “The demand management discussion is ongoing, and I think there will be a recommendation this summer to the River District board regarding what the staff has been hearing.”

Curry believes there are multiple opportunities for litigation if the ongoing drought conditions result in water right curtailment. And one question is how water rights that were adjudicated in the 1940s (approximately two-thirds to three quarters of the water use in the Gunnison Basin) will be impacted because the cut off date on the Colorado River Compact is 1922.

“Depending on how a shortage would be allocated, up to three quarters of our junior water rights could be impacted if compact administration had to happen. So that’s what we’re looking at here, is more than half of the water that we see out of the meadows is junior to the compact,” she said.

Commissioners asked Curry what curtailments might come from the drought contingency planning. She said that question is coming up a lot, and the issue of timing and what it means on the ground is that “we wouldn’t expect anything this year.” She said she would expect more internal water calls or issues in the basin this year related to stream flow conditions.

“I think in 2022 you’ll see the state engineer’s office start advertising its process for rulemaking. And then maybe in 2023, that would be the earliest where we might see any kind of direct impact.” Curry noted that there is the potential for a number of issues to be litigated, such as how curtailed water would be sheparded downstream. What isn’t known is whether or not water use would be curtailed when litigation was underway.

“For years and years and years we talked about the challenges downstream and not hitting the magic number. It seemed like every time we got dire there was the miracle winter, or the miracle May or the miracle March. But here we are, finally. And it’s the consequences of what’s going on with drought in the West for the past 20 years…the ability to count on that [miracle] goes away over time,” commented commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck.

Houck also said he expects rulemaking to begin a flurry of activity in the coming years, and asked what would be advisable for members of the Gunnison River District.

“I think in our basin we ought to all be thinking about how we can work together once this starts to become real,” responded Curry. She said she had a great memory of a reserved water rights case in the Black Canyon from when she worked for the Upper Gunnison District, when the district coordinated with the county, the Colorado River District and others to help dozens of different irrigators that had filed statements of opposition in the case.

“I would love to see that kind of collaboration again so that every water user out there doesn’t have to hire their own attorney and their own engineer to defend their interests. I’m not exactly sure what the disputes would be right now, but I think there will opportunity for us all to work together.”

She said having these regular meetings between the River District and commissioners now and doing the groundwork sets everyone up for these issues a few years down the road.

Curry said the River District’s legal counsel also sits on a working group that is taking on the issue of water speculation and how to prevent it, possibly by strengthening laws that govern it.  That group is scheduled to report to the River District’s water resources review committee in August, and the topic will likely be an agenda item for the next River District meeting on July 20 and 21. It will also be the River District’s first in-person/hybrid meeting, in Glenwood Springs, since the COVID pandemic forced meetings into the realm of Zoom.

Meanwhile, Governor Jared Polis declared a drought emergency last week for 21 counties on the Western Slope, including Gunnison, Montrose, Pitkin, Mesa, Garfield, Delta and Ouray that are now in Stage 3 activation of the State Drought Plan.

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