A concern that agricultural water supplies in McPhee Reservoir could be unfairly threatened under a proposed Colorado drought plan has prompted the Montezuma County Board of Commissioners to withdraw their preliminary support for the proposal.
After a two-hour discussion with officials from local water districts, the commissioners voted to oppose the proposed Colorado Basin Drought Contingency Plan, citing fairness issues and fears it could put at risk junior water supplies in McPhee Reservoir.
The plan addresses a variety of drought management issues and impacts in the Colorado River Basin, which includes the Dolores, Mancos, Animas, Gunnison and San Juan Rivers.
Two main aspects are complying with the Colorado River Compact, which divides Colorado River Basin water between Upper Basin and Lower Basin users and assuring Lake Powell stays full enough for operation of the Glen Canyon hydro-electric power plant depended on by 5 million people.
Colorado is part the Upper Basin, along with Wyoming and parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The Lower Basin includes California and Nevada, and the other parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The dividing point is Lees Ferry, just downstream of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell.
Commissioners Larry Don Suckla, Keenan Ertel and James Lambert said they no longer support the proposed state drought plan and need specifics on how McPhee water users could be impacted. They want more assurances that Front Range cities using Colorado River Basin water via transmountain tunnel diversions will share in water shortages fairly with Western Slope users during drought.
“I see the writing on the wall and believe down the road this drought plan could lead to curtailment of our water, or our farmers being asked to fallow their land. That would be a financial hit for our community, so I’m pulling support until we get a better deal,” Suckla said.
Bruce Whitehead, of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, said districts are “fighting hard” to protect local water resources in light of the proposed state drought plan.
“It is driven by hydrology and declining reservoir levels,” he said. “How shortages will be shared is the sensitive issue.”
Demand management — a synonym for reducing water use — is a way to avoid curtailment of water supplies, Whitehead said.
The drought plan suggests a voluntary program whereby Colorado participants use less of their water, which is measured and stored in a water bank in Lake Powell. The pool of reserved water would be used to avoid potential compact noncompliance with the Lower Basin and mandatory curtailment.
Local water districts assert that any drought program should be limited to voluntary participation with adequate compensation provided for reduced water uses to offset economic losses.
Ertel emphasized that any deal must require Front Range cities receiving transmountain diversions and Lower Basin states to cut back on water in a way that is fair to Western Slope, Colorado agricultural users.
“The lower basin is using more than their share, and we are not using all of ours, so they should not come after our water,” he said.
“Arizona and California are pulling down Lake Powell, and we need to loudly say to them to reduce their use,” said Don Schwindt, of the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
Ed Millard, a member of the Southwestern Basin Roundtable representing Montezuma County, said demand management and curtailment plans to address drought are better suited during times of water surplus.
“The water bank would be below us and come out of Colorado fields,” he said, adding that pulling county support of the plan does not mean they are leaving the table.
“In fact, we are probably more engaged than most in questioning these policies and trying to make them better,” Millard said. “We have a lot at stake and really do have skin in the game.”
Officials warn that prolonged drought with weak winters that fail to recharge local reservoirs could trigger mandatory curtailment. The idea of a volunteer water bank aims build up a reserve in Lake Powell earmarked to avoid curtailment action, but commissioners worry the deal makes McPhee users unfairly vulnerable.
Reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin – including McPhee, Navajo, Blue Mesa, Powell and Mead – are abnormally low because of a very weak 2017-18 winter and years of drought.
The Upper Colorado River Basin must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of water on a rolling 10-year average to Lees Ferry to meet the Lower Basin water rights, including Mexico.
Mike Preston, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said that if the Upper Basin fell out of compliance with the Colorado River Compact, the Lower Basin would place a call on the Upper Basin for post-1922 Compact Water Rights. This would bring about a mandatory curtailment administered by the state engineer.
“The consequences for McPhee Reservoir could be major, depending on the size of the shortfall and how the state engineer administers the call,” Preston said. “Such a call could fall hard on McPhee, which is a federally owned reservoir with a 1940 storage right.”
There is no immediate threat of the Lower Basin allocation being missed, officials say, and compact curtailment has never been done. But Colorado and other Upper Basin states are formulating a plan on how to reduce demand and meet compact requirements if severe drought continues.
Reservoirs built more specifically for storage, including Flaming Gorge, in Wyoming, and Blue Mesa, near Gunnison, are the first in line to deliver water to Lake Powell to meet power generation levels and to meet compact obligations, officials said.
Staying engaged in negotiations and planning on drought contingency management plans is key for avoiding curtailment, Preston said, and will better prepare the state if the effort fails and ends in mandatory curtailment.
“It will take vigilance on the part of the DWCD board and all who rely on McPhee Reservoir for water,” he said. “We need to stay well informed and strongly assert our interests, while exercising diplomacy to strengthen our alliances and deal effectively with any adversaries working against these interests.”
A concern for Western Slope agriculture is that Front Range entities having the economic clout to buy Western Slope agricultural land and associated water rights to satisfy growing municipal demand, so called “buy and dry.”