NOTE: In the on-air version of this story we incorrectly stated the date of a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announcement about Colorado River cut-backs to lower basin states. That announcement happened in 2013, not this year. (8/26/14)
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced this month water releases from Lake Powell to Lake Mead will increase next year, after historically low releases in 2014. Lake Mead has reached record low levels this summer. The Colorado River supplies these large reservoirs. At a water conference in Snowmass Village last week, drought and the Colorado River were discussed. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.
The Colorado River starts in Rocky Mountain National Park and runs through our backyard, flowing through Glenwood Canyon and west along Interstate 70. The River supplies water to 40 million people, irrigates crucial farmland, feeds the recreation economy and aids endangered fish. To say it’s an important resource is an understatement.
As cities grow and climate change continues, water managers are nervous. In the middle of a drought in 2012, they began to lay out a contingency plan. John McClow is President of the Colorado Water Congress. He says the idea was to come up with solutions in case the drought continued.
"Well it didn’t, as you know. But, we still feel like the potential is there and we need to have that plan in hand in order to be prepared should it occur. Because the results are catastrophic."
McClow joined others from the seven Colorado River basin states on Wednesday in Snowmass Village to discuss how to respond to extreme drought.
One state that depends on the river is Arizona. Tom McCann manages the Central Arizona Project that delivers water to 5 million people. He says his organization could lose one-fifth of its supply by 2017.
"So what have we been doing to prepare for this coming shortage and the issues that we see on the river. One of the things we’ve done for some time now is to invest in sys tem conservation and efficiency type projects," he says.
His group is spending millions to conserve water. They’re also storing the resource underground and funding weather modification programs - like cloud seeding - in upper basin states, such as Colorado and Wyoming.
Still, there’s a problem, McCann says. The lower basin states, like Arizona, use more water than they get from Lake Mead so they depend on “equalization releases” from Lake Powell. Lake Powell supplies the upper basin with water.
"All of us in the lower basin and the basin in general, share the same risk. It’s the risk of Lake Powell going down creates risk of Lake Mead going down. The two reservoirs are operated together. We all live and die together as a basin," McCann said.
Lake Mead is strikingly low due to a drought that’s gripped the southwest and much of the west.
"Are we headed for trouble? Maybe we are, maybe we aren’t," says Eric Millis with the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
Utah is one of the upper basin states. Millis' primary concern is that drought will bring Lake Powell down to critical levels. His state is expanding weather modification projects, looking to draw more water from upper basin reservoirs and increasing water conservation efforts.
The current drought may be hitting California the hardest. Emergency crews have responded to more than 4000 wildfires and 400,000 acres of farmland have gone unfarmed due to drought. Water is so precious, there’s a $500 fine for wasting or misusing it. And to make matters worse…
"We’ve also been experiencing above-normal temperatures," says Tanya Trujillo with the Colorado River Board of California. She says the temperatures have been "really increasing the challenges of trying to keep the water resources down. The hotter it is, the more water that tends to be applied, especially in outdoor situations."
She says the Colorado River is the “good news” story for California this year because a full supply - partly from a good Colorado snowpack - helped fill a gap from dry California reservoirs.
The state has historically used water other lower basin states didn’t need but, that’s changing. Now states like Arizona are growing and need their full share. So, California’s investing in efficiency projects and fallowing farmland in order to transfer that water to cities.
With drought planning, she says California has partnered with other basin states to store water and reduce water loss. Trujillo hopes to build off of such programs as the drought contingency planning continues.