States working past deadline on Colorado River conservation plan
It was snowing in Salt Lake City last week when water managers from seven Western states convened to address the pressing drought on the Colorado River.
The waterway winds 1,450 miles from Wyoming to Mexico, providing crucial water to more than 40 million people. New Mexico farmers rely on it to sustain alfalfa, corn, beans and numerous other crops.
Through the San Juan-Chama Project, a river diversion, the Colorado River Basin supplies drinking water to Albuquerque residents. Santa Fe, Taos, Española and other towns and villages in New Mexico also rely on the project’s water, which sends flows into the Rio Grande watershed.
But the massive waterway is experiencing its worst drought on record.
If conditions persist without fundamental changes to how states use flows from the Colorado River, the Southwest could see devastating consequences in the next five years, experts say. Reserves in Lake Powell and Lake Mead could continue to plummet, threatening hydropower, electricity and water supplies.
“If your choice is using less water or abandoning your city, it’s a no-brainer,” said John Fleck, director of the water resources program at the University of New Mexico. “You don’t see people abandoning their cities when they haven’t used all their conservation options.”
While none of these doom-and-gloom scenarios are in the near term for New Mexicans, water experts say, proper water use plans need to go into effect now to mitigate extreme drought conditions and ease the future strain on the Colorado River.
For the past decade, Arizona and other lower-basin states, which include Nevada and California, have taken more water from the river than federal and interstate compacts allow. New Mexico is legally obligated to turn over at least 75 million acre-feet to lower-basin states at Lee’s Ferry, near Page, Ariz., over a 10-year period. But in the lower basin, states have pulled roughly 16 million more acre-feet than they are due.
Now these states are trying to figure out how to limit water use.
“This megadrought that we are in has continued to get worse,” said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, bureau chief of the Colorado River Basin for the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.
While there have been interim guidelines for how to manage dropping water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell since 2007, states spent the last 2½ years developing drought contingency plans, with each working to establish concrete actions it can take to preserve water supplied by the Colorado River.
Federal water managers at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation set a Jan. 31 deadline for states to complete their drought plans, which would be sent to Congress to create federal legislation for water management.
John Longworth, acting director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, said the plans build on previous work: “It is not like we all woke up yesterday worrying about drought.”
While New Mexico and the other upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — approved drought plans in December, Arizona and California struggled to meet the January deadline. Arizona’s legislature approved that state’s plan just under deadline, and California was still deliberating after the deadline passed.
Arizona will have to take some of the steepest cutbacks, potentially reducing how much water it uses by a third, or roughly a half-million acre-feet per year, which is about the amount of water the city of Albuquerque uses over nine years.
California will likely have to shift how and where it grows crops. The state also is grappling with how to address dropping water levels at the Salton Sea, a shallow saline lake.
Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation agreed to give states a few more weeks to reach an agreement. If they are unable to agree on a drought plan to send to Congress within the next month, governors from the seven states will be asked to submit input on potential federal interventions into water planning for the lower-basin states.
Longworth and other water managers said states were not able to reach an agreement last week, with some new stopping blocks arising from California and Arizona; talks could continue into March.
Longworth’s office also will be working on a recommendation for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on how New Mexico would approach any federal intervention.
“Nobody questions the growing risk and urgent need for action along the Colorado River,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said in a news release. “… Action is needed now. In the absence of consensus plans from the Basin states, the federal government must take action to protect the river and all who depend on it — farmers and cities across seven states.”
If plans are approved and legislation signed, states will then embark on a process to determine just how they will be implemented.
New Mexico released a draft of its plan in October.
It calls for reoperating three large reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell. They are Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah and Wyoming, Navajo Lake in New Mexico, and Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado.
Drawing water from these reservoir would not violate legal agreements, Schmidt-Petersen said.
The plan also would create a voluntary exchange program for farmers throughout the upper-basin states. In exchange for a payment, farmers would agree not to use their land to grow crops, thereby conserving water use. In New Mexico, the exchange would target farmers in the San Juan Basin.
As part of a pilot program in 2018, farmers were paid between $150 and $219 per acre-foot conserved, Schmidt-Petersen said.
“We have to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Fleck said. “On the one hand, climate change is reducing supply in the Colorado Basin, so there is cause for concern about that. On the other hand, communities have gotten really good at using less water when we have to.”