January 23, 2012 {authors} {/authors}

Fight over Colorado River should heat up in 2012

Water will once again be in the headlines this summer as snowpack, Bureau research closely watched

{authors} By Fight over Colorado River should heat up in 2012 {/authors}

Even on the heels of a record year, water planners in the West have no doubt been fretting about below-average snowpack throughout much of the Colorado River basin so far this winter. The West is always one drought year away from a crisis, and though recent precipitation has planners breathing easier, it’s likely that water supply will once again be a front-page story as the year goes on.

Aside from spring weather, the water community’s focus will also be sharpened by the summer release of the  Colorado River Basin Water Supply & Demand Study, research conducted by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation.  The study, which began in January 2010, “will define current and future imbalances in water supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin and the adjacent areas of the Basin States that receive Colorado River water for approximately the next 50 years, and will develop and analyze adaptation and mitigation strategies to resolve those imbalances.”

Given this language, it’s obvious to the Bureau that in the foreseeable future (if not today) demand for Colorado River basin water will exceed supply. Studies like this, including research recently completed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, may well eliminate any lingering doubt that even in the wettest years, the collection of Basin states have tapped-out the River. And as data continues to provide more precise quantification of the shortfall, future allocation of water among signatories to the Colorado River Compact, which divides the spoils of the River, will take center-stage in River discussions. 

In 1922, the Compact divided the Colorado River roughly in half, allocating 7.5 million acre-feet to the Upper Basin states – Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico – and Lower Basin – Arizona, Nevada, and California, settling on 15 million-acre feet as a reasonable annual-flow average. (Even though many now believe the Compact was negotiated during a period of abnormally high precipitation, and that climate change will reduce flows even further.)

The nuance, of course, it that actual usage has differed from terms of the treaty.  What’s certain is that the Upper Basin has never fully used its allocation – and that the Lower has been slurping up the surplus. Colorado, for one, is evaluating future projects that would enable the state to fully utilize its River Compact allocation at the same time it quantifies supply, even as opponents of any future diversions of the River seek to safeguard current flows. (Only this week, the Utah State Engineer approved a request for 50,000 acre-feet for a proposed nuclear power plant, from the Green River, based on the  assumption that Utah has water left to develop pursuant to the Compact. More on this later.)

One future showdown will almost certainly pit Upper basin states v. Lower. Climate change may expedite the proceedings: the Compact requires the Upper Basin to send a minimum of 75 million acre-feet, or half the projected total, to Lower Basin states during any ten-year period. If a warming planet reduces precipitation in the Rocky Mountains, any shortfall below 15 million acre-feet will fall squarely on the Upper states. There’s no provision, at this time, for shared sacrifice in the event of a diminished River.

This alone will likely send parties scurrying to reposition their claims after the release of the Bureau’s study. 

In the meantime, the Bureau of Reclamation is seeking input from the public on ways to resolve future water supply and demand imbalances. Deadline is early February; consider this a “last call”. So click here if you’d like to submit a proposal.

Planet-Profit Report will continue to report on the Colorado River Basin Water Supply & Demand Study– and host a Colorado River basin-wide forum in late summer.

Contact me for more information. Bart Taylor, btaylor@planetprofitreport.com, or 303-888-2832.

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