From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 4, Number 29 - October 14, 2004
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Regulating the river?

by Cat Urbigkit

Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell said in a telephone interview Monday that although there might be rumblings of concern about the possibility of future water regulation throughout the Colorado River system, he will “fight tooth and nail” in an effort to keep that from happening in the upper basin.

The Colorado River system drains nearly a quarter of a million square miles of seven states, with the upper basin states being Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, and the lower basin includes Arizona, Nevada and California.

The Bureau of Reclamation provided a recent status report on the Upper Colorado River Basin: “With the beginning of the new water year on Oct. 1, 2004, the Upper Colorado River Basin is now entering its sixth year of a severe drought, which began in October 1999.”

BuRec noted that inflow to Lake Powell serves as a sort of drought barometer for the basin. In the late 1990s, inflow to Lake Powell was above average and the lake stayed full from 1995 through 1999. As late as September 1999, Lake Powell was still 95 percent full.

“Today, in October 2004, after five years of drought, storage in Lake Powell has been reduced to 38 percent of capacity and the water surface elevation is 3,571 feet (129 feet from full pool),” BuRec stated. “Inflow into Lake Powell from water years 2000 through 2004 has been about half of what is considered average. The 2002 inflow was the lowest ever recorded since Lake Powell began filling in 1963.”

BuRec added: “It is important to understand that to provide for the water and power needs of the Southwest, Lake Powell functions essentially as a bank account of water that is drawn upon in times of drought. In 1922, the Colorado River Basin states signed the historic Colorado River Compact. Under the compact, the states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming received an entitlement to use 7.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year. The Compact also requires that these states deliver 75 MAF over any 10- period at Lee Ferry (16 river miles below Glen Canyon Dam) for use by the downstream states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

“Without the bank account of water stored in Lake Powell, water users in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming might have to curtail uses during periods of drought to meet this delivery requirement. Instead, storage in Lake Powell is used, resulting in lower storage levels during periods of drought. The system is designed to function this way, and it is working well. There have been water shortages caused by the drought in the Upper Colorado River Basin the past five years (particularly in 2002), but water users above Lake Powell have not had to curtail use to meet deliveries to water users in the Lower Colorado River.”

But one more bad winter could mean water regulation in the upper basin in the future. According to Tyrrell, “if push came to shove,” the earliest regulation would take place would be in 2007 or 2008.

Tyrrell said that the upper basin states will approach the issue in this manner: If this winter is once again a bad winter, the upper basin states will urge a 7.5 million acre feet (the lower basin’s basic annual entitlement) release out of Lake Powell instead of the minimum objective release of 8.23 MAF called for in the 2004 annual operating plan for Lake Powell.

Regardless, Tyrrell said, “We need to have some plan on the shelf” in case there is a water shortage, although Tyrrell’s “hoping that we’ll never have to use it.”

The planning process will begin this winter, Tyrrell said, and will involve John Shields of Tyrell’s staff, water superintendent Jade Henderson and his alternative Colorado River Commissioners (which includes Big Piney’s Dan Budd). Tyrrell said the group that develops this plan won’t be the Green River Basin Advisory Group because this planning group will need to meet more often over a fairly short period of time. Tyrrell said the process will probably involve a facilitator as well.

“The public has got to be involved,” he said.

Tyrrell said he doesn’t want people to hear about this planning process and think that regulating basin water will automatically follow, but Wyoming must have an alternative plan in place.

The seriousness of the situation can’t be overstated, and the warnings have been frequent. Last December, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner John Keys III said: “There is also, at least statistically, the possibility that a shortage could be declared in the lower Colorado River Basin in the future, possibly before the end of this decade. After 2015, the probability of a shortage exceeds 40 percent. That has never occurred on this river, which tells you how serious this water situation we’re facing today is.

“That’s why Colorado River water must be carefully managed and used,” Keys said. “And that is why the Bureau of Reclamation ... will continue to manage the river more intensely than we have in the past.”

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