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Colorado River update: Wyoming State Engineer’s Office hosts webinar to provide updates

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The Wyoming State Engineer’s Office (SEO) Colorado River Working Group hosted a Wyoming SEO public webinar Feb. 7 to discuss plans for a consensus-based modeling alternative (CBMA) for Lakes Powell and Mead, in addition to the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) 2023. 

SEIS process
and summary 

On Jan. 30, the Colorado River Basin State representatives of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming sent a six-state letter to the Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) in response to the BuRec’s public scoping process for a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) intending to supplement the 2007 Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

In the letter, representatives asked BuRec to model and evaluate CBMA impacts in the draft SEIS to be issued pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) before identifying a preferred alternative. 

“Those 2007 guidelines provide an operation plan for Lake Mead and Lake Powell, but did not contemplate the dry hydrology as we are experiencing now,” said Brandon Gebhart, Wyoming state engineer. “This response is to amend actions which can be taken under the interim guidelines and help address the situation we are seeing now – in relation to drought – and to protect and restore water storage in the reservoirs.” 

He added, “The six states acknowledged the need to manage water uses within the available supply, reduce the risk to all new water users, sectors and resources stemming from depleted storage and ongoing drought, address the issue of unaccounted evaporation losses in the lower basin, recognize the limitations imposed on the upper basin due to annual variations in our hydrology and hydraulic shortages and take actions in addition to those identified in the guidelines.”

He noted this is not an implementation agreement and none of the states are agreeing to what they identified in the CBMA, it simply offered some ideas, which can be evaluated, based on what the six states feel could address the situation and help with decisions on how to operate the system. 

“All of the seven basin states remain committed to working together, and this includes outreach with Tribes, water users, environmental organizations and federal partners,” said Gebhart. “We want to recognize any actions in the states may ultimately agree to or require broad support and much more outreach before we would make those agreements.” 

Lake Powell and
Lake Mead CBMA

The six-state letter noted several alternatives, which would make specific modifications to Lake Powell and Lake Mead operations to prevent water supply from falling to critically low elevations impacting water delivery or power production from either reservoir in 2023 and 2024. 

These operations are governed by the Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead in the 2007 guidelines.

Lake Powell operations would include raising the lower elevation of the Mid-Elevation Release Tier (MERT) from elevation 2,525 to elevation 3,550 and fixing the annual release volume in the MERT at 7.48 million acre-feet (af); raising the upper elevation of the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier (LEBT) from elevation 2,525 to elevation 3,550 and fixing the annual release at seven million af without balancing releases and reducing releases as necessary to protect elevation 3,500. 

In addition, the letter noted the CBMA included elements anticipated by the BuRec notice. In revising 2007 guidelines, the CBMA assesses 1.543 million af per year of reductions among all Lower Basin Contractors when Lake Mead is below elevations 1,145 for the protection of critical infrastructure.  

The six-states implementation of the CBMA would protect Glen Canyon Dam infrastructure, water deliveries, power production and adequately mitigate the risk either Lake Powell or Lake Mead reaches dead pool. 

The letter noted several CBMA adjustments to the 2007 guidelines and to elevation-dependent Drought Contingency Plan in Lake Mead operations.  

Currently the state of California has proposed a plan for Colorado River water conservation outlining some different provisions, but Attorney General Chris Brown mentioned, “This isn’t a finish line, and just because we don’t agree now, doesn’t mean we won’t later – we still have the opportunity to move forward in this process and find a southern state agreement, and we’re still working towards that.” 

In closing, Brown said, “All seven states agree significant actions need to be taken. California goes at it a little differently, but we’re all still agreeing reductions need to be made.” 

CBMA provides an alternative framework for BuRec to analyze its SEIS process. BuRec is expected to release its SEIS draft in March of 2023 and a final SEIS in late spring. A record of decision could come in the summer of 2023 and would allow for implementation in 2024.  

Conservation program 

From 2015-18, the Upper Division States of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, through the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC), conducted the first Upper Basin SCPP, which was a four-year pilot program designed to explore potential solutions to address declining water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell due to long-term drought in the Upper Colorado River Basin. 

The Upper Division States and UCRC developed and adopted a Five-Point Plan, which put forward a number of strategic activities to improve the Colorado River System and reauthorize and reinitiate the SCPP program with subsequent steps of developing an agreement, legislation and funding, which would enable SCPP activities to take place in the upper basin in 2023. 

The SCPP 2023 application deadline has been moved to March 1. As of Feb. 7, the office has received several applications of interested parties. They include two municipal, one industrial and four agricultural applications covering nearly 8,000 acres of land and conserving roughly 10,000 af.  

The panelists noted filling out an application is the start of conversations and those with questions about the project can reach out to the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office. 

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

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