Colorado River depletion weighs on multi-state region – Loveland Reporter-Herald
A century after the adoption of the Colorado River Compact, drought, declining flows, and rapidly expanding use threaten not only the West Slope and other states, but also northern Colorado communities.
That was the message from the water law panel at BizWest’s Confluence – Colorado Water Summit Thursday at the Embassy Suites in Loveland.
Kyle Whitaker, water rights manager for the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District, said the Colorado River Basin affects a wide area, including northern Colorado.
The Colorado River Compact divided the river into two basins: the Upper Basin, which includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and the Lower Basin, which includes Arizona, California, and Nevada.
The pact sets subdivisions for each basin, with policies to manage the river based on water availability and regulate the flow of the river.
“So what is the Colorado River Basin, and why are we all sitting here in northern Colorado on the east side of the Continental Divide? Why do we care about the Colorado River? said Whitaker.
The answer, he said, is that areas east of the Continental Divide receive significant amounts of water from the Colorado River via 28 transmountain diversions.
“In total, that’s about 20 percent of the South Platte Basin’s flows and supplies (which) come from the Colorado River,” said Whitaker, who irrigates, in part or in whole, 630,000 acres of the South Platte region.
“Millions of people are served by supplies from the Colorado River outside of the natural basin, along with recreational and environmental benefits and opportunities.”
But prolonged drought conditions lead to low levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, prompting drought mitigation measures.
“It’s important for all parts of Colorado,” Whitaker said. “It’s important to the supply of the Colorado River, and there’s a lot of focus on it right now, because of hydrology, because demand and uses don’t match supply very well.”
One of the requirements of the Colorado River Compact is that flow in the upper basin not be depleted below a certain level based on a 10-year rolling average.
The federal government declared a Level I shortage in the Colorado River in 2021, the first such declaration in the pact’s history. Reservoir releases began in 2021, with reservoirs in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah/Wyoming releasing water to support Lake Powell.
“When demand exceeds supply, something has to change,” Whitaker said.
Kate Ryan, program director and senior counsel for the Colorado Water Trust, who acted as the panel’s moderator, noted that water diversion in Colorado began before Colorado even became a state, with a diversion for mining and agriculture.
Water in northern Colorado had been fully appropriated by the early 1900s, she noted, with disputes arising over water in the South Platte River and the Cache la Poudre River.
Recent developments in Colorado water law include:
• A 2020 law, Senate Bill 20-048, commissioned a study to consider strengthening the ban on speculative water appropriations. Speculation refers to the acquisition of water rights that could be purchased for unauthorized purposes, such as investment. The commission that was created concluded that speculation is not a big deal, she said, without any recommendations being made to the state.
• Another bill, House Bill 1379, allocated $15 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to provide local governments with watershed restoration and flood mitigation, as well as help local governments apply for grants federal efforts related to wildfire mitigation.
• A 2020 bill, Senate Bill 1037, which relates to the power of the Colorado Water Conservation Board to increase stream flows with vested water rights that were previously decreed for use increased.
• Colorado’s plan will be re-released in 2022, which provides a framework for short- and long-term water planning across the state.
Proposed 2022 legislation, which did not pass, would have allowed certain public entities to create additional recreational diversions in the channel to support recreational activities.
James Eklund, a member of Sherman & Howard, said Colorado wields enormous influence over water policy in the West.
“We punch above our weight when it comes to water,” Eklund said, comparing Colorado’s 7 million people to California’s 40 million.
Eklund said a potential effect of a prolonged drought — with potential loss of agricultural production in places like California — could force Colorado to grow crops that might otherwise come from California, or, perhaps, s do without.
“When we talk about winners, losers, trade-offs, ‘the lower pelvis has got to solve this whole thing’, all of that may be true, but we’re going to have to get used to maybe growing our own stuff and going without it. strawberries in February,” Eklund said.
“What happens there matters to you, sitting here in northern Colorado,” he added.
Additionally, as water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead decline, hydropower generation could become threatened, potentially threatening power generation for millions of residents and even increasing electricity costs. in areas such as Colorado, he said.
He noted that data going back years indicates a prolonged and significant reduction in Colorado River flows.
“Should you panic, or is this a ‘boy who cried wolf’ kind of thing?” said Eklund. “I will say the wolf is here. It’s out the door, and it’s real.
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