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Part Two: The Colorado River and Drought: Are They Now Inseparable?

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part Guest Opinion column. Read Part One in the March 29 edition of the Roundup.

Hydropower revenues at Lake Powell also fund many things, such as salinity control and the upper river’s endangered fish program, both of which either protect or incentivize the continued development of the Upper Basin’s unused Compact apportionments. Hydropower revenues feed a recent MOA program where the Bureau of Reclamation and the states can invest in infrastructure or other needs related to federal facilities.  Those same revenues also fund repayment of construction costs and operation and maintenance (O&M) at the dam, keeping the turbines running and the lights on.  

Speaking of lights, Lake Powell puts out inexpensive power to the tune of 4.5 billion kilowatt-hours per year, which many basin residents, including Wyoming families, use.  If Lake Powell lost its ability to generate power, all those programs, plus compact compliance, are at risk.  

Sure, the Lower Basin States have great responsibility for reducing their use, increasing the efficiency of that use and for seeking new infrastructure to make it all happen. But we in the Upper Basin, even though states like Wyoming don’t use our full apportionment, have a dog in the fight too.  We can lose if the Compact is violated or those important programs or hydropower go away.  

Drought is not our fault, but we have to be engaged in a solution that keeps the Basin’s critical reservoirs operating.  

Is the heavy lifting to be done in this Basin squarely on the Lower Basin?  You bet.  Do we have lifting to do as well?  Bet on that, too.  And, mind you, Upper Basin obligations have nothing to do with providing water simply for use in the Lower Basin.  It has everything to do with Compact compliance and protecting Wyoming’s ability to continue to develop our water by complying with that Compact.

So while the Lower Basin has perhaps tens of things at which they must look for conservation, efficiency or management effects, the Upper Basin has three.  

Those include weather modification – and the Wyoming Water Development Commission (WWDC) study is a stellar example, water banking or demand management, and extended reservoir operations.  

Some cloud seeding, though not as formal as Wyoming’s study, is already ongoing in Colorado and Utah, and with financial partners, the WWDC study could become an operational program by next year.  

Water banking or demand management, where market drivers or incentives could reduce use in critical periods, needs much public vetting and technical study before it could be even designed or implemented or its positive impacts could be known.  

The third concept, involving selected reservoir operations in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, is a possibility that could be implemented more quickly and would have more quantifiable benefits. In Wyoming, this means looking at both Fontenelle and Flaming Gorge Reservoirs.

Those two reservoirs would have different benefits to Wyoming, depending on their use. Fontenelle, in which Wyoming holds 120,000 acre-feet in contracts, could be looked at for ways in which some of the unspoken-for water under those agreements could be used to mitigate drought or Compact curtailment events, if curtailment ever happens, and support and protect our water users. It would be far preferable to dedicate some water from that structure to Compact needs rather than curtail any Wyoming uses if a mechanism for doing so can be devised. 

Flaming Gorge is a different animal. With no Wyoming permit and minimal contracts on its water or space, the “Gorge” could serve to help manage storage throughout the basin by providing water to Lake Powell more quickly in an emergency — and only in an emergency — while continuing to operate within the record of decision constraining its operations since 2006. 

But, such operational decisions also need public vetting in southwest Wyoming because of the strong recreational and environmental interests that have arisen around that beautiful feature. Just like other reservoirs in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico are being evaluated for their contribution to the greater good, so must our interests in Flaming Gorge. 

While nobody wants to see its level reduced as a matter of practice, if crippling drought continues, it also is hard to defend holding that feature near full if Lake Powell is sitting at less than 10 percent active storage. As part of the larger Colorado River community, when drought of large magnitude strikes nobody is immune. Wyoming and Utah can’t put Flaming Gorge in a safe and act like its invulnerable in such an emergency. But, we can inform and influence how it is affected, and that’s the conversation that needs to occur — with all stakeholders involved. 

Drought impacts are never fun to experience first-hand, but neither can they be ignored or dismissed. Planning ahead for contingencies to help in an emergency is the prudent thing to do — and that’s what we’re talking about here, contingency planning, not normal operations. 

The snowpack we’re seeing this winter is a godsend and should provide some time to exhale and critically assess how we react if and when winters like 2012-13, or 2000-09, come again. And they will. 

Deep snow should not stop the planning, and it won’t, but it certainly can help keep the immediate conversation rational and productive. And that, as water issues go, is never a bad thing!

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