From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 4, Number 46 - February 10, 2005
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

State to plan for compact curtailment

by Cat Urbigkit

With snowpack in much of the West dismal, it’s not going to be enough to save the region from continued drought. That means that critical reservoirs on the Colorado River system aren’t going to fill and Colorado River Compact states need to be planning ahead for a massive “call” on the river, with water regulation and restrictions, according to top officials in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Wyoming water officials aren’t sitting on their laurels waiting to see what will happen either, with Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell scheduled to discuss the matter with the Green River Basin Advisory Group at a meeting April 5 in Big Piney. While Tyrrell has pledged to fight “tooth and nail” to keep regulation from occurring, the state must have an alternate plan in place. This spring, Wyoming officials will kick off the process of gathering public comment on what should be incorporated into the state’s plan for compact curtailment. The earliest regulation of the Upper Basin would take place, should conditions deteriorate further, would be in 2007 or 2008.

In a recent address to the Colorado River Water Users Association, Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles pointed out that in just the past decade, the population of the seven basin states that rely on the waters of the Colorado River has grown by nearly 11 million people, an increase of 26 percent. 

Griles said research indicates the current drought “may be the worst five-year period in 500 years in the Colorado River Basin.” Indications of the direness of the situation are everywhere:

• Lake Powell stands at about one-third of its capacity. It is currently more than 130 feet (the equivalent of a 12-story building) below its high-water mark, its lowest level since the reservoir was first filling in 1969.

• Studies show that if the drought continues with extremely low runoff, and with continuation of current operations, all power production from Glen Canyon Dam would be lost in the spring of 2006.

• Lake Mead stands only half full. Under current operations, it will continue to decline unless a significant wet cycle returns. 

• Power production at Hoover Dam has already been reduced by 15 percent, and will continued to decline if drought conditions drive reservoir levels to lower elevations. 

Griles said: “Although we do not know how long or severe the drought will be, we must face our collective responsibility to plan for the likelihood that water supplies may be limited in the Lower Basin over an extended period of time. More specifically, we must accelerate the development of procedures for the administration of shortages in the Lower Colorado basin.”

Calling the drought “our wake-up call in the Colorado River Basin,” Griles urged states to move forward in finding solutions to manage the limited water supplies available, noting the Interior Department has already stated “that if the states were unable – or unwilling – to find and implement solutions, the department would do so according to the Law of The River.”

Tyrrell said in an interview Tuesday that state officials will hold public meetings to discuss a compact curtailment plan later this spring or early summer.

Tyrrell called curtailment, “the dark side of the compact.”

“My hope is that we come up with a system that people understand” that makes use of existing water law in Wyoming, Tyrrell said. “Hopefully, we never have to use it.”

The plan will serve as a last resort, Tyrrell said, adding that it could only be implemented once things were worked out with Lower Basin states to prove that a call for curtailment was valid.

As the official at the helm of Wyoming water, Tyrrell said he would be remiss not to have thought this issue through and developed a contingency plan.

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