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Upper Colorado River drought measures examined

Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico are considering voluntary demand-management programs to avoid mandatory curtailment.

Tim Hearden

October 27, 2021

4 Min Read
As water levels decline at Lake Mead, officials fear continued drought and over drafting of the Colorado River system will cause the lake to fall to the point that water can no longer be used for hydroelectricity or be released to the lower Colorado River.Todd Fitchette

A program under consideration to voluntarily reduce agricultural water use in the upper Colorado River basin could cause a relatively small loss of income while saving growers money in irrigation and labor costs, according to a University of Wyoming study.

Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico are studying the feasibility of demand-management programs that would compensate landowners for voluntarily conserving water on a temporary basis to send more water downriver.

The program would be an effort to keep Lake Powell's water levels from going so low that it triggers a mandatory curtailment under the century-old Colorado River Compact. Under curtailment, Upper Basin states would have to begin regulating water right holders' use.

With a voluntary program, a grower would have the option of enrolling acres that would give them a positive return, while not enrolling the more productive acreage for which the returns for fallowing would be negative, the study's summary explains.

Related: Colorado River states collaborate on remaining water

Regional impacts would be felt as participants' decisions rippled throughout the region's economy.

“For example, if a producer receives compensation for irrigating fewer acres in a DM (demand-management) program, they might buy a new truck and/or hire less help for harvest,” said Kristiana Hansen, water resource economics specialist and one of the study's authors. “These impacts are measured in terms of changes in jobs and income that would occur, directly or indirectly, as a result of implementing a DM program.”

Hansen, an associate professor, was joined in the study by Roger Coupal and Ellen Yeatman of UW's Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics and Drew Bennett of the university's Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources.

Limited costs to economy

The researchers found that a voluntary reduction of 25,000 acre-feet in Wyoming would cause between $2.17 million and $4.77 million in lost income and 95 to 146 in lost jobs, depending on how producers change their hay and livestock operations in response to the program. This range represents 3.12% to 6.85% of income in the regional agricultural economy and 0.04% to 0.10% of income in the overall regional economy, according to the report.

By contrast, Wyoming's cutback under mandatory curtailment would most likely be 30,000 to 50,000 acre-feet, and it could be more, according to the State Engineer's Office.

Related: Colorado River can no longer sustain Western thirst

Under Wyoming water law, any water right that isn't used in a five-year period could be forfeited through an abandonment procedure. Thus, landowners who took part in a DM program for fewer than five years wouldn't put their water right in jeopardy, the scientists noted.

The discussions come as Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the Colorado River system's two large reservoirs, are about one-third full after more than a year of drought in the West.

Lake Mead hit a shortage trigger earlier this year when the reservoir fell below 1,075 feet in elevation. Now at under 1,070, Lake Mead will be managed in 2022 under a Tier 1 shortfall, necessitating over 500,000-acre feet of water delivery cuts to Nevada and Arizona. California is not required to reduce its take on the Colorado River under Tier 1.

Water levels in Mead and Powell have been falling so fast that officials worry both reservoirs could reach "dead pool," a phrase rarely uttered publicly by water officials. Above dead pool sits minimum power pool levels in both lakes, the elevation at which water can no longer move through powerhouse intakes to generate carbon-neutral electricity for the West.

Related: La Nina, Part II: Northern U.S. set for wet, cold winter

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projects Lake Mead will fall to a Tier 2 shortage level of 1,050 feet sometime next year. Once Lake Mead falls to 1,045 feet, California must begin cutting its total take on the river system by 200,000-acre feet annually. If the reservoir falls below 1,025 feet, total cuts to Colorado River water users will exceed 1.3-million-acre feet.

The Upper Basin could prove a valuable resource this winter, as a second straight year of La Nina climate conditions promise colder, wetter storms in the northern U.S. while leaving the drought-stricken Southwest warm and dry, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Winter Outlook.

Some big winters are needed, as hydrology on the Colorado River reveals declining supplies. While the compact was negotiated with an expected annual supply of 18 to 20 million acre-feet (maf) annually, today an optimistic supply across the system is closer to 14 maf with drought limiting that supply to under 10 maf, officials say.

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