Wyo prepares for less water as the drought creeps up the Colorado River
When federal water managers declared the first official water shortage on the Colorado River last week, a senior official said he was confident Wyoming will responsibly implement its plans to store and divert even more rivers from the disturbed waterway.
The Home Office said Aug. 16 it would reduce water diversions to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico in 2022 after a scheduled review in August set restrictive sideboards for next year’s releases.
Despite this limitation, Wyoming is plans to lock an additional 115,000 acre-feet annually by building and modifying dams and operating them to potentially accommodate more diversions.
At the same time, Wyoming is refining its drought contingency plan and “demand management” program that could provide voluntary reductions in diversions before users in the state could be cut off. Wyoming does not expect restrictions in the next year unless drought, drought, and climate change unexpectedly compound Lake Powell decline.
In a press call announcing the reduction of the downstream diversion, a regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation said he was unfazed by the potential impact of Wyoming’s dam plans.
“Wyoming has shown foresight in the work of its Wyoming Water Development Commission,” said Wayne Pullan, director of the BOR for the Upper Colorado River Basin, “and with many years of experience with Wyoming, we are confident that they will pursue all future projects. “Responsible, fully aware of the context of hydrology and difficulties on the Colorado River.”
Wyoming’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, which will determine how any restrictions will be carried in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, said his cohorts were “very concerned about the hydrology this basin is facing”. A drought contingency plan, adopted in the form of a skeleton, “provides the tools to deal with what we are seeing now, worrying as that is,” Commissioner Pat Tyrrell said at the press conference.
Wyo is pushing ahead with dams …
Pullan was unwilling to comment on any specific ongoing Wyoming projects, at least five of which in the Green River and Little Snake River Basins would collectively control an additional 115,000 acre-feet at an estimated cost of $ 123 million.
“It’s worth noting that one of the purposes of the Colorado River Storage Project is to help states by making their division according to the [1922 Colorado River] Compact, ”said Pullan. Wyoming has not developed or appropriated its full share of the water it deserves under this historic agreement, state officials said.
Projections of sinking water levels in Lake Powell suggest that upstream states may need to deliver more water to their southern neighbors. (Ministry of the Interior / BOR)
However, the compactness and division between the seven states and Mexico is based on an annual supply of at least 15 million acre-feet, an amount that experts say the river basin no longer produces. Additionally, Wyoming believes that Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico historically overused their stake in the lower basin, while the upper division states did not fully enjoy their rights.
At least one group has called for a moratorium on new storage or diversion projects in the basin until the seven states and Mexico can address claims widely asserted as claims on non-existent drains. Wyoming still deserves its share, state officials believe.
“We are not obliged to overuse anywhere else,” said Tyrrell in an interview, “at the expense of our existing claims here in Wyoming.”
Tyrrell offered a scenario where an ongoing dam project could be immediately affected by less runoff. At Big Sandy Dam in Sublette County, the Bureau of Reclamation is raising the structure to confiscate an additional 12,900 acre-feet for irrigation.
“That will fall under a newer priority date,” said Tyrrell, which means the new storage area will be among the first to be cut off as the bottlenecks in the lower basins creep upriver. The pre-appropriation doctrine that governs water use in Wyoming recognizes that first-time water appropriation is right first when there is a shortage.
“For example, if we’re restricted in any way,” said Tyrrell, “Big Sandy shouldn’t be allowed to fill.
“It won’t put additional strain on the system if it can’t get full,” he told WyoFile.
Other new dams, reservoir extensions, or operational changes that would give Wyoming access to more water are subject to separate sideboards depending on whether they are built, what priority of appropriation they seize, who they belong to, and other factors.
The amount of water involved in the Wyoming projects is “very small compared to Lake Powell,” Tyrrell said. Powell has about 20 million acre-feet of so-called active storage – the amount that can actually be used.
The downstream reductions – 18%, 7% and 5%, respectively, of the Arizona, Nevada and Mexico annual allotments – total 613,000 acre-feet. That’s about 3% of Powell’s reservoir, or, put another way, about 10% more than Wyoming’s average annual use of basin rivers.
The impact of additional consumptive uses in Wyoming – which could add up to 115,000 acres in Wyoming dam plans – “is very, very small compared to what could be stored in Lake Powell,” Tyrrell said.
“I believe the Environmental Impact Statement for Big Sandy indicated that an extension would not have a significant impact on the reservoir’s elevations downstream,” he said.
Wyoming’s legal team is behind water developers, Assistant Attorney General Chris Brown said as he reiterated Tyrrell’s survey. “We certainly have no obligation to stay on the backs of water users in Wyoming anywhere else in the basin, either now or in the future.”
Water developers, including Wyoming itself, understand the priority system and the risks involved in building impoundments to hold back flows. With supply dwindling, some wonder whether new structures could become stranded assets – facilities that were built under a single scenario and cannot be used as intended in a new reality.
A professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School was skeptical of Wyoming’s catchment-wide plans. “That seems like a bad investment,” said Mark Squillace in an interview.
… and plans for cuts
The Bureau of Reclamation has already activated provisions under its drought control agreement to release water from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah. Pullan called the operation a “little ‘e'” emergency release that will help keep Powell levels high enough to continue generating valuable electricity.
The Flaming Gorge publications and others are also helping the four upper basin states meet their water flow commitments under the 1922 Pact, said Tyrrell, of Wyoming. The dwindling currents, he said, “threaten to get worse”.
A lock on a canal in the Upper Green River Basin has a lock that can be used to regulate the flow. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./Wyofile)
Another winter of meager snowfall could have “really dramatic effects” on the 1,400-mile river system, Tyrrell said. Two thin winters in a row – by spring 2023 – and “we’re going to see some real problems at Lake Powell” that could affect upstream.
“Unfulfilled inquiries are a situation the Upper Basin is very familiar with,” Tyrrell said at the press conference. “Talks are ongoing to develop and, if necessary, finalize response plans for 2022.
“Typically what we have to do [in shortage situations] is to reduce consumption, ”said Tyrrell. An important response element is Demand management where cuts could be voluntary, possibly with incentives before they are imposed.
A Pilot project could be a harbinger in the Upper Green River basin a few years ago. It saw irrigation companies accept $ 200 an acre to forego irrigation after mowing their season’s hay. The program saved 14,617 acre-feet in Wyoming for a year while generating $ 2.2 million for users who temporarily gave up some of their annual redirects.
Municipalities and conservation groups financed the pilot program, which left two questions unanswered. One of these was whether the water saved was immediately diverted downstream by another irrigation system, or whether it flowed all the way to Lake Powell to thank Wyoming. The second question was who would pay for a similar program if adopted during a real crisis.
Some irrigation systems on the west side of the Upper Green River Basin regularly process fewer runoffs than they have the right to divert, Tyrrell said. Even in 2011, a year of spring flooding, the irrigation systems did not receive any diversions that the state had approved, lawyer Brown said.
“We still had a few of our tributaries that were regulated back to the 1880s,” he said, meaning the state engineer cut off diversions for water rights holders acquired later than that date.
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Because of the regularity of shortages, the superintendent of the Upper Green River Area Water Department ordered irrigation systems to install 22 gauges on a creek to clarify various claims, Tyrrell said.
“Nobody believed him when they went out and measured the flow,” Tyrrell said of the superintendent. “He said, ‘Well, you know, man, I’m going to take this authority and this statute to require you to use your own measuring device.’
“It made hell for a couple of weeks,” said Tyrrell, “but they did it.”