Water shut-off possible without new rules

The Green River Basin would be a target. Holly Dabb photo

waters at its Oct. 11 meeting in Pinedale to gauge interest in a broadened voluntary program where irrigators are paid to not use all of their water rights.

The presentation by State Engineer Pat Tyrell and staff, Chris Brown and Steve Wolff highlighted the serious situation that upstream water users face as the Colorado River Basin’s flows decrease and key reservoirs show critical declines, particularly at Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

In the worst-case scenario, Tyrell said, Wyoming water users could be curtailed if drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Colorado River basins are not proactive enough to keep a sustained supply of 7.5 million acre-feet flowing through the system.

“Since we’ve been in this 19-year drought, the risk of reservoirs declining to critically low elevations has increased nearly fourfold,” Tyrell said.

Drought monitor maps for Oct. 16 at www.drought.gov show all of Sublette County and 49 percent of Wyoming are “abnormally dry,” while 18 percent is in moderate to severe drought.

“Current rules for the Colorado River are insufficient,” Tyrell said of 2007 regulations to plan for water demand, storage and management. Lake Meade’s elevation sits at 1,020 feet and Lake Powell’s level at 3,592 feet is close to endangering the “power pool’s” minimum of 3,490 feet, beneath which power cannot be generated.

“Now, there is a 30 to 50 percent chance of that happening within the next two to five years,” he said, if the 7.5 million acre-feet requirement is short for 10 consecutive years.

Tyrell, Brown and Wolff talked to about 30 citizens, ranchers, users and water managers at the Pinedale Library about the reasoning behind such a project, which was tested on a smaller scale as the SEO’s Pilot System Water Conservation Program for the Upper Colorado River Basin.

Some of the audience was paid to voluntarily decrease water use from what their water rights would allow “and help protect storage” in the Green River Basin’s four-year pilot program. The program was testing its potential as a future tool to protect required water allocations for the Colorado Basin.

Drought contingency plans

Wyoming is one of seven Upper Colorado basin states being called upon to deal with critical water storage shortages that exist at Lake Powell in the Upper Colorado and Lake Mead for the Lower Colorado basin.

The state’s new draft Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan has two agreements, the “Drought Response Operations Agreement” and “Demand Management Storage Agreement.” The Lower Basin, which gets most of its water from the Upper Basin, has its own draft of agreements. There is also a “Companion Agreement” to tie the two together. Water officials hope to finalize the drafts by the end of this year and sign agreements in January on the path to “simple legislation,” according to Tyrell.

Upper states, the Department of the Interior and lower water entitlement holders worked on the draft DCPs “to respond to ongoing historic drought conditions and to reduce the likelihood of Colorado River reservoirs – particularly Lake Powell and Lake Mead – further declining to critical elevations,” according to the SEO’s office.

The Upper Basin DCP would protect critical elevations at Lake Powell for continued compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact and “authorize storage of water conserved in the

River Compact and “authorize storage of water conserved in the Upper Basin that could help establish the foundation for a demand management program that may be developed in the future.”

The Lower Basin DCP would require Arizona, California and Nevada to contribute more water to Lake Mead’s storage at predetermined elevations “and create new flexibility to incentivize additional voluntary conservation of water to be stored in Lake Mead.”

Wyoming’s share

Although it holds many headwaters flowing into the watershed, Wyoming’s annual allocation is 14 percent at about 1.04 million acre-feet. Its largest water consumer is agriculture, which from 2011 through 2017 used an average of 464,000 acre-feet per year for crops and livestock use of the total average use of 564,645 acre-feet per year, he explained. That means Wyoming’s unused water heads downstream to Lee’s Ferry at the Glen Canyon Dam that holds back the Lake Powell reservoir.

Lake Powell must pass 7.5 million acre-feet on to Lake Mead and “that can’t be breached and then try to fix it,” Brown said.

“Generally Wyoming does not use its full compact apportionment,” Brown said. “All four upper states (in the Upper Colorado River Commission) still have water they can develop. … The commission would decide how much each state has to curtail and then each state would have to go out and reduce use in the reverse order of priorities. That has never happened but that would be our obligation. … The water rights after 1922 are what could be curtailed for use.”

Water officials at all levels are considering how to raise the storage at Lake Mead with upstream water conservation programs – and then someday “get that water back.”

“Under certain rules we can get water back out later if we leave it in Lake Mead now,” Tyrell said.

Worst drought

Wolff explained that heavy snow winters haven’t made up for the drought that started in 2000; 2018 could “probably be the third worst year we have on record” with April to July inflows to Lake Powell at 36 percent.

“It’s the worst drought in our period of reference, he said. “Times are bad. … Somebody’s going to get shorted.”

He estimated critical elevations could hit “the tipping point … if we don’t do anything, it could happen in the next 10 years.

Tyrell told the audience that if DCPs are implemented, the key reservoirs’ elevations show a decreased risk by 2026, when new rules would take effect. “The alternative to our agreed-upon plans in the Upper Basin is mandatory curtailment.”

Legislation is “essential” to move forward and establish a process, he added. For example, Flaming Gorge is “the low-hanging fruit that has the least obligations on it.” Fontenelle is another reservoir with added storage potential.

‘We’re the only one sending water that’s not committed to some existing use,” he said, adding, “We want maximum flexibility to recover that storage once Lake Powell recovers.”


Questions arose about “temporary, voluntary and compensated conservation” that state officials are asking people to consider. For example, how much water would need to be turned away by the irrigators, who would pay them – and how much? And how to make sure to get the water back?

First, each Upper Basin state has to agree on the DCPs, perhaps with the SEO’s pilot project, Tyrell said. For the entire package to work, “very simple legislation” could give the Secretary of the Interior – water master for the Lower Basin states – authority to enact them

“This is part of our outreach,” Tyrell said, “to get out and see folks, put this on the table and see what you think.”

For more, go to www.seo.state.wy.us. n

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