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State Engineer looks at Colorado River Basin issues moving forward

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Riverton – “Of all of the river basins across the West, the Colorado River Basin has been the most affected by drought and has had the most sustained drought,” said Pat Tyrrell, Wyoming state engineer, during the May 11-12 meeting of the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee.

While the Missouri River system received significant water during the past four or five years, even bringing extensive flooding to the Dakotas, the Colorado River Basin saw reductions in water.

“We never saw the heavy rains that we needed to fill Lake Mead and Lake Powell,” Tyrrell added. “They are both less than half-full right now.”

With Lake Mead at 40 percent capacity and Lake Powell in slightly better shape, he noted that there is still room for improvement.

“Recent rains will help, but it won’t cure the problem,” he continued.


Current water demand in the Colorado River Basin is centered primarily in the Lower Basin states.

“Right now, there is a 75 percent risk that the Lower Basin will go into shortage in 2017,” Tyrrell said. “That means they will be reducing their demand on the system.”

Wyoming is bound by compact not to deplete the river at Lee Ferry below 75 million acre-feet of water every 10 years as a running average.

Drought planning

“The Upper Basin has approached the possibility of drought in a couple of ways,” he says.

“First, we have a drought contingency planning effort that has three primary elements,” Tyrrell explained.

The first aspect of the three-pronged approach is weather modification programs, including Wyoming’s program. The effort is echoed in other states.

“All of the states will seed snowpack to the extent that they can,” he said. “There is quite a bit going on with Wyoming Water Development’s program.”


Secondly, an extended reservoir operation program looks at all of the federal reservoirs in the system, including Flaming Gorge in Wyoming, the Aspinall Unit in Colorado and Navajo Dam in New Mexico.

“When Lake Powell gets within about 1.8 million acre-feet of not being able to produce power – or virtually dry – we can influence how to move water from those systems, in line with existing records of decision on their operations, to keep it flowing through the power plant,” Tyrrell explained. “If we were to lose power production at Lake Powell, that would be a big problem.”

Without sufficient capacity to produce power, many people across the West could see ramifications in terms of power availability. For example, not only does Lake Powell’s hydroelectric power production capability provide electricity, it also provides the soft start-up power for other plants.

In addition, revenue produced through the plant is distributed to states for programs like endangered fish programs and basin-wide salinity control efforts.

“Wyoming would be affected by a loss of power production at Lake Powell,” he commented.  “In addition, at such low levels there is a real question as to its hydraulic capacity to even release our compact obligation, potentially jeopardizing that protection.”

In the event that drought does continue, utilizing the reservoir operations program, Tyrrell said the power pool in Lake Powell could be extended by one to two years.

“For Wyoming, Fontenelle is the reservoir that we hope to use that would minimize curtailment of uses, if that decision ever arrives” he said.

Managing demand

The final aspect of the drought contingency planning strategy is demand management.

“Demand management looks at the voluntary, non-mandatory, incentivized reduction of water use – whether that be municipal, industrial or agricultural, to the extent that we can leave more water in the system and benefit reservoirs,” Tyrrell explained.

He added that four municipal entities – Denver Water, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Metropolitan in Southern California and the Central Arizona Project, along with the Bureau of Reclamation – have invested $11 million to investigate how reductions in water use can be incentivized.

“A subset of $2.75 million of that is available to the Upper Basin,” Tyrrell said. “The Upper Basin has delved into demand management in the past, and we are breaking new ground to improve projects under that program.”

One pilot program being debuted in Wyoming now in the Green River Basin is entitled the “Pilot Conservation System Program” and is intended to provide incentives to irrigators who fallow or deficit irrigate or to municipalities or industry if they have conservation ideas. The program will continue through 2016, at which time a reassessment will be made to determine if the strategy has made an impact.  Tyrrell noted the Request for Proposals is now posted on the SEO website.

To further facilitate alleviating potential drought in the Colorado River Basin, Tyrell noted that education, technology and knowledge will all be necessary to work through the process and ensure there is enough water available.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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