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Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming published a plan this week to appease federal officials wanting to save water from the drying Colorado River

By Conrad Swanson The Denver Post

 

Water officials from Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming published a plan this week to appease federal officials wanting to save water from the drying Colorado River but didn’t include any specific, mandatory cuts to save the precious resource.

 

One critic called the Upper Colorado River Commission’s five-point plan “meaningless gibberish” but Jennifer Gimbel, senior water policy scholar at Colorado State University’s Water Center, said it’s the strongest action she’s seen from the states in recent years.

 

The most substantial cuts and savings must come from Arizona and California, Gimbel noted, because those two states are taking more water than the Colorado River has to give.

 

The upper-basin states also are limited in the amount of cuts they can make in water use because they’re depen-

 

dent on the amount of snow and rain that falls each year, Sara Leonard, spokeswoman for the Upper Colorado River Commission, said. Now eyes turn to those lower-basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

 

“We look forward to hearing what they may bring to the table,” Leonard said.

 

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials gave all seven states until Aug. 15 to create a plan to save 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water.

 

If they fail, the federal government will take control and impose its own cuts as water use exceeds supply and an ongoing megadrought continues to sap water from the Colorado River.

 

For context, an acrefoot is enough water, by volume, to last a year for two average families of four.

 

The drying river flowed with an average of 9.6 million acre-feet annually from 2011 to 2020, according to the commission’s 2020 annual water report.

 

So, the Bureau of Reclamation is asking for the seven states to save 21% to 41% of the river’s average annual flows.

 

Charles Collum, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, wrote to Bureau of Reclamation officials on Monday, noting that water users in the four states “already suffer chronic shortages” under current conditions but also outlining his organization’s five-point plan to help save more water.

 

The plan includes considering a new demand management program, better measuring and monitoring water use, continuing existing “strict water management and administration” and developing a new “Drought Response Operations Plan.”

 

For Gary Wockner, head of the nonprofit Save the Colorado, the plan “ does nothing but continue the status quo that has pushed the river to collapse already.”

 

But Gimbel said the document is an important step, demonstrating that the upper-basin states plan to work together to ensure water continues downstream to America’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

 

The plan’s focus on demand management could help save water, she added. That could include paying farmers to fallow their fields or switch to crops that require less water.

 

Plus the upper-basin states already live within their water allotment, Leonard added, and they cut water use by 25% last year.

 

“Meanwhile, Lower Basin uses have not been reduced despite the unprecedented drought impacting the Basin,” Leonard said in an email.

 

Those states, particularly Arizona and California, annually are using nearly 10 million acre-feet more than they’re allotted legally.

 

As of Friday, lower-basin states had yet to put forth any plan of their own.

 

While the back-andforth between the lowerand upper-basin states continues, experts say widespread cuts in water use will be needed one way or the other.

 

Ultimately, life will change in some way for the 40 million people depending on the Colorado River.

 

That likely means less water for major cities such as Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Diego plus higher electricity and grocery bills.

 

Short-term cuts are needed now but hydrologists also agree the seven states, 30 Native American tribes and Mexico also must find a new way to divide the Colorado River’s water for the decades ahead.

 

Conrad Swanson: 303-954-1739, cswanson @denverpost.com or @conrad_swanson

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