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Producers and water users discuss water management

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The Colorado River Compacts, Continuing Drought and Potential Impacts to Wyoming Pinedale public meeting took place Sept. 27 at the Sublette County Public Library. 

Points of discussion pertained to producers and water users who use water from the Green River or a tributary of the Green River including, but not limited to Piney Creeks, Cottonwood Creek, Horse Creek, Beave Creek, New Fork and its tributaries, East Fork, Boulder Creek, LaBarge Creek and Fontenelle Creek in Sublette and Lincoln counties. 

Speakers included Wyoming Superintendent Water Division IV Kevin Payne and Senior Assistant Attorney General Chris Brown. 

Colorado Work Group 

“The reason the Colorado Work Group was formed was in part of a couple of things,” said Wyoming House Rep. Albert Sommers. “Larry Hicks and I had drafted a bill to look at a commission-style advisory group for the governor on the Colorado River because there really was no formal way for water users to be able to comment and provide input into the state engineers office and the Upper River Valley Colorado commissioner – there was no real mechanism.”

“As water and water resources continued to decline, the governor saw the value in creating a work group made up of a variety of stakeholders,” he added. “The work group continues to listen to updates impacting the Colorado River, and in the interim, try to see if there are any solutions that can help all of the users of Wyoming water.” 

“We continue to meet and examine what is going on,” he said. 

How the
Colorado River works

“It’s my job to represent the state of Wyoming as the state’s water lawyer,” mentioned Brown. “This means defending Wyoming’s water use and water users.” 

“The Colorado River, for all of us working on water in Wyoming, takes up more and more of our time,” he added. “We must first understand how the Colorado River works from a legal, seven state and basin perspective, because in order to understand the impacts which might come to Wyoming, we have to understand how the whole basin works.” 

This is a very dire situation – it has been hot and dry, he noted. 

“It’s easy to think about the river system in a context of Wyoming, but whenever we’re dealing with it, Wyoming has to deal with several other states, two states in the country of Mexico and of course, the federal government – we have 40 million people and 110,000 Wyomingites relying on the Colorado River – there’re a lot of people outside of this state relying on this river,” said Brown. 

The Colorado River not only includes the water inside its geographic basin, where the water actually flows into the main stream, but it also includes areas outside of the Colorado River as well. The Imperial Valley is the single largest user of water in the entire basin, Brown mentioned. 

“Even in the lower basin, where municipal water use is considerably higher than it is in the upper basin, 70 to 75 percent of all the water use in the lower basin is irrigated agriculture – it’s not just an increasing population in city centers in the lower basin that has put strain on the river.”

Brown shared there are three different ways to divide up interstate rivers such as the Colorado River. They can be split up by U.S. Supreme Court decisions when one state sues another state; in interstate compacts, which is the preferred method; and through congressional action. 

“It’s important to keep these things in mind because generally, as we look for solutions, it’s going to be through one of these three ways,” he said. “As we think about the solutions which might come to fix these problems we’re facing, it’s going to be one of these actions moving forward.” 

Currently, Wyoming and the other upper Colorado River Basin states, which includes Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, are obligated to not deplete the flow above Lee Ferry in northern Arizona below 75 million acre-feet over any 10 year period, or on average 7.5 million acre-feet annually. Projections indicate flows could fall below this threshold by 2028. 

Brown suspected the earliest curtailment might happen in 2028 if drought conditions continue and if flows at Lee Ferry fall below a certain threshold.

“The way things are going, it’s coming,” said Brown. “The day where we have to do more with less water, is potentially coming.” 

Curtailment or regulation 

“Curtailment is involuntary regulation,” explained Brown. “It’s involuntary reductions in order to comply with the law – the law in this case, the Colorado River Compact and the 1948 compact.” 

In the event of a curtailment, Wyoming will only be held responsible for its actual use – which is about 600,000 acre-feet of water on average annually. 

“As the amount of water available decreases, the chances of using more than what is allotted increases. It all depends on how much water is available each year, and as we go through more hot and dry weather and there is less water available, the chances of overusing increases,” Brown mentioned. 

There are reductions taking place in the lower basin under the existing agreements, he said.

Payne shared, under curtailment, the concept of consumptive use comes in and it’s a little different than under other compacts throughout the state.  

“When we’re talking about conserving consumption use, efficiency can actually increase water use,” said Payne.  

Payne mentioned if a curtailment is initiated, his team has been working on a basin-wide priority schedule. An immense amount of work will need to take place if a curtailment is enforced, and a lot more staff will be needed. 

Currently, water rights in Wyoming are appropriated under the first-in-time, first-in-right doctrine. The earlier a right was obtained, the more senior those rights will be.  

A curtailment would be applied to those most junior water rights. The 1922 Colorado River Compact does not apply to those water rights appropriated before the compact. No matter how much water Wyoming might be asked to curtail, it would only apply to those water rights adjudicated after 1922, mentioned Brown. 

Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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