Colorado River water management beyond the era of ‘just add water’
Speakers talk about disconnects at both ends of river
by Allen Best
By its natural flow, the Colorado River originates in Rocky Mountain National Park and ends in the Sea of Cortez. But flows of the Colorado decades ago ceased to be natural, as Phil Fradkin famously captured in his 1981 book “A River No More.”
A discussion on April 3 sponsored by the University of Colorado Law School’s Environmental Law Society examined two aspects of the unnatural flows. All three speakers, in different ways, talked about different management regimes for water revolving around the adage of “just add water.”
Since 1999, Jennifer Pitt has shepherded efforts on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund to restore flows to the river’s delta in Mexico. Water has not reached the sea with regularity since the 1960s and, until special releases last spring, not at all since the late 1990s.
Eric Wilkinson talked about the diversions of the river and its tributaries to cities along the Front Range of Colorado and to benefitting farms at least as far downstream as the Nebraska and Kansas borders. He’s general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District, which administers the single largest diversion across the Continental Divide, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
Introducing the session, law professor Mark Squillace framed the primary issue of the Colorado as one of management that recognizes inherent limits and demands choices: “When do we say no, and who do we say no to?”
The two giant reservoirs on the Colorado, Powell and Mead, together were at 94 percent of capacity in 1999. By 2007, that storage had dropped to 54 percent of capacity.
This year looks even worse: 42 percent of storage capacity for the two reservoirs, and more decline as the year progresses look inevitable. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this year projected runoff in the Colorado River to be just 52 percent of normal. “Things are not looking good,” Squillace said.
“Are we facing a crisis?” he asked rhetorically, before answering his own question: “I would suggest it’s not a water crisis. It’s a management crisis.”
In talking about the successful effort to return water to the river delta in Mexico during March 2014, Pitt described a long, evolving process that essentially began in 1999 with a study that found that ecosystem functions in the river delta could be restored with just 1 percent of annual flows. Securing that water for a successful pulse of water last year required persistence and new levels of cooperation.
Wilkinson continued Pitt’s theme. “Everything you do with water takes time,” he said.
The Colorado-Big Thompson Project itself took time. It was conceived in at least some vague ways in the late 1890s as farmers in the South Platte Valley of northern Colorado noted insufficient water for late-summer irrigation. Recurrence of drought in the 1930s added argument for a giant, federally funded capital works project. Work began in 1938 on Green Mountain Reservoir, to serve needs of the Western Slope, but final work was not completed until 1957.
This and other diversions from the Colorado River headwaters have created a thriving economy along the Front Range. Weld County, the largest in the basin, is 8th in the nation in total agricultural production. By itself, Weld County produces more than all 20 counties on Colorado’s Western Slope combined.
All this belies the impression of Zebulon Pike who, upon encountering the high plains leading up to the Rockies, made comparisons to the deserts of Africa. “Just add water,” Wilkinson advised. He said that two-thirds of irrigated acres in Colorado get at least some of their water from the Colorado River.
The munificence of Colorado River water extends to the cities of the Front Range corridor, where about 85 percent of Coloradans live, mostly in the fast-urbanizing strip along I-25 north from Denver. The Front Range, said Wilkinson, represents 80 to 86 percent of Colorado’s economic activity.
Wilkinson’s description of Colorado’s transmountain infrastructure was a story of triumph. The future, he acknowledged, is far more muddled.
One outstanding issue is whether Colorado can expect to divert substantial amounts of additional water from the Colorado River and its tributaries. It’s not clear how much Colorado has left of its apportionments as specified by two major compacts governing the Colorado River, the seven-state compact of 1922 or the 1948 compact among the four headwaters states.
But even if there is water, said Wilkinson, there are additional questions: “If so, how do you develop it, and if so, how do you develop it in ways that protect basins of origin and still make the project economical?”
Then there’s this simple fact: existing diversions are not an absolute. They depend upon volumes of water in the river to meet compact requirements—and deepening drought could throw even long-standing diversions off the rail.
Responding to a question about California’s drought, Wilkinson said that he is “scared” that the federal government—administrator of the compact—will someday force curtailment of diversions with appropriation dates after 1922. That would include the Colorado-Big Thompson.
As the northern Front Range looks to add 2.5 million people during the next 35 years, the equivalent of the existing Denver-Boulder metroplex, there will be questions of where the water will come from. There is, said Wilkinson, a “disconnect” between the people who provide water and the people who approve residential developments.”
All this points to a new era of water management, as opposed to the “just add water” mantra of the mid-20th century.