CCA Ag Water NetWORK: Living Within the River's Means

DENVER, CO., September 22, 2023 — The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association Ag Water NetWORK hosted a webinar to provide an update to agriculture producers on the 2023 Colorado Water Plan and on the Colorado River Basin.

Amy Ostdiek, Interstate, Federal and Water Information Section Chief of Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) focuses on Colorado River matters and supporting Commissioner Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s principal negotiator on behalf of the state on interstate Colorado River matters. In her update on the Colorado River, she said the 101-year-old Colorado River Compact was developed by the basin states and remains vitally important to understanding water issues and it remains firmly in place today.

Prior to the development of the Compact, Ostdiek said Colorado River Commissioner Delph Carpenter (1877-1951) was looking downstream at California and the high rate of development there. Carpenter, was a lawyer, state senator, and interstate streams commissioner and is credited with persuading other states to negotiate the Compact. He was concerned with what California’s senior water rights might mean for Colorado and, at about the same time, a Supreme Court decree that clarified if two neighboring states in the same Basin both recognize the prior appropriations doctrine, it would apply across state lines. She said Carpenter recognized this as a problem for Colorado, and through the Compact, California was not granted senior water rights on the Colorado River with regard to the Upper Basin states. The Compact apportions an equal amount of 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) per year in perpetuity to the Upper and Lower Basin states, which overrides any Supreme Court decision. 

She said oftentimes in the news it is reported that the Upper Basin states owe a delivery obligation to the Lower states, though that is untrue, it is a non-depletion obligation. The Compact clarifies that the Upper Division States will not cause flow to be depleted below aggregate of 75 million acre-feet over a ten-year period. She credits Carpenter and the other drafters of the Compact with recognizing the snowpack levels vary widely and affect the hydrology in the state. For these reasons, she said the Upper Basin States, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, are opposed to redesigning the Compact.

The two major reservoirs on the Basin are Lake Mead and Lake Powell and the location of those storage facilities create realities for the Basin.

“The very critically important point here is that, as we know, those two major reservoirs are below our use in the Upper Basin,” Ostdiek said. “Once water is in Lake Powell, we can’t pull it back up to Colorado. That means that we in the Upper Basin are fully dependent upon snowpack for our water supply.”

Conversely, in the Lower Basin States with the major reservoirs above them, they can draw down the reservoirs even in years of record low in flows.

“It has given them a degree of certainty and security and allowed them to put in full water orders, and get all that water even when we have record low inflows into the reservoirs,” she said. “We haven’t had the ability to do that in the Upper Basin because, again, we rely entirely on snowpack.”

Ostdiek said this is a good way to keep the Upper Basin states living within their means of what the river provides. Even though the Upper Basin states are not always able to take the total apportionment of the River, she said it doesn’t mean the Lower Basin states shouldn’t share in the shortages and honor the equity that is in place in the Compact.

In 2019, Lower Basin use (includes Mainstem Colorado River use by the Lower Basin States and Mexico, as calculated by the Upper Colorado River Commission, no including tributary use) was 9.3 maf while Upper Basin usage was 4.5 maf of the equally apportioned 7.5 maf per basin. In 2020, Lower Basin states used 9.6 maf compared to Upper Basin states’ 4.5 maf, and in 2021, Lower Basin states used 9.9 maf compared to Upper Basin states’ 3.5 maf.

“Yes, we have been in a record drought,” she said. “We all know that in the Colorado River Basin. Climate change is definitely impacting the flows, but that’s only part of the story. As you’ve had record low inflows in Lake Powell, you’ve also had large releases out of Lake Mead.”

In 2021, 3.5 maf flowed into Lake Powell and 8.23 maf were released from Lake Powell into Lake Mead.

She said there are two sets of rules and guidelines that are set to expire at the end of 2025 that are important to recognize in terms of understanding the levels in Lakes Powell and Mead. The 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines coordinated the operations of the two reservoirs. The 2019 Drought Contingency Plans provide an additional layer of security to protect critical elevations at Lakes Powell and Mead. The Bureau of Reclamation has now called for additional short-term actions to protect critical infrastructure.

In response to the call, the Upper Basin state reservoirs have provided 661,000 acre-feet of water to protect Lake Powell, reduced uses by 25% in 2021 and continue to live within the means of the River every year, and have taken additional measures through the Upper Basin Five-Point Plan. Ostdiek pointed out that this is not a crisis the Upper Basin states have created by using more than the due apportionment.

“From Colorado’s perspective, the most impactful thing that can be done to save the Colorado River system is to live within the means the River provides every year,” she said. “A prior appropriations doctrine in Colorado gives us a good mechanism to do that. That doesn’t mean it’s not painful for water users, it just means it provides some level of certainty of how that will be carried out. If everyone would have lived within their means of what the River provides, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are now.” 

Source: The Fence Post Magazine, Western Ag Network