Colorado River Planners Eye New Playbook As Climate Change, Drought Squeeze Supply


Audio: Grace Hood Looks At The Expansion Of Gross Reservoir


Audio: KQED’s Lauren Sommer Looks At California’s Pull On The Colorado River

A riverboat glides through Lake Mead on the Colorado River at Hoover Dam near Boulder City, Nev., in this photo from October 2015.

Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

Business as usual on the Colorado River may be about to come to a screeching halt.One of the worst recorded droughts in human history has stretched water supplies thin across the far-reaching river basin, which serves 40 million people.

Nowhere is this more obvious than Lake Mead, which straddles the border of Arizona and Nevada. The water level in the country’s largest manmade reservoir has been plummeting; it’s now only 37 percent full.

With an official water shortage imminent, Arizona, Nevada and California are taking matters into their own hands. The states are hammering out a voluntary agreement to cut their water use — an approach some consider revolutionary after so many decades of fighting and lawsuits.

The cooperation springs from self-preservation. If Lake Mead drops too low, the federal government could step in and reallocate the water.

At the same time, upper basin states like Colorado and Wyoming want to use more Colorado River water — something they’re legally entitled to.

Denver Water wants to raise the dam at Gross Reservoir 131 feet. Storage expansion is something Colorado and Wyoming are pursuing as they grow into their supply of Colorado River water.

Grace Hood/CPR News

In Colorado, Denver Water is in the final stages of seeking approval on a water storage project that would take more water out of the Colorado River. Wyoming is researching whether to store more water from the Green River, a Colorado tributary. Utah is discussing whether to build a pipeline to transport water from Lake Powell, the reservoir found up river from Lake Mead along the Utah – Arizona border.Add in the likely impacts of climate change and how it’s affecting the Colorado River basin and you have an increasingly complex and challenging picture developing for the 21st century.

Pat Mulroy, a senior fellow at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and a leading Western water expert, says the time for a new toolbox and ideas to approach water management has arrived.

“There won’t be any winners and losers,” Mulroy says, unless Colorado River states move beyond the fighting and lawsuits of the last century as they try to adapt to the next century. “There will only be losers.”

Upper Basin States Want More Storage

There’s a silent miracle that delivers water every day to Denver Water’s 1.4 million customers. For decades, the Fraser River, a tributary of the Colorado River, has flowed through a manmade system of dams, diversions and tunnels beneath the Continental Divide.

A critical linchpin sits just outside Boulder. Gross Reservoir is a man-made lake that provides reliable storage for Denver Water. Retired IBM workers Beverly Kurtz and Tim Guenthner live just out of eyesight from the reservoir. For Kurtz, that’s on purpose.

“It’s choking off a wild river which in my opinion is never a good thing,” Kurtz says.

The couple have a new-found job in retirement. It’s fighting a proposed expansion to Gross Reservoir’s dam. Denver Water wants to raise the dam by 131 feet.

“It doesn’t make sense to build a multi-million dollar dam and disrupt the environment here, when down the line,” Kurtz says, “that’s not going to solve the problem.”

Beverly Kurtz and Tim Guenthner live near Gross Reservoir outside Boulder. Thes proposed reservoir expansion would raise the dam behind them and take more water out of the Fraser River, a Colorado River tributary.

Grace Hood/CPR News

The problem is that Colorado’s population is expected to nearly double by 2050. A carefully crafted water plan by Colorado’s top chiefs calls for 400,000 more acre feet of storage, and 400,000 additional acre feet of conservation.Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead says more storage is an important part of the solution. It’s also an insurance policy against future drought.

“From Denver Water’s perspective, if we can’t provide clean, reliable, sustainable water 100 years from now to our customers, we’re not doing our jobs,” Lochhead says.

With the proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir, Denver Water took a new approach. The agency worked with environmental groups and Western Slope water interests on the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement. Part of the effort involves Denver Water actively working on the Fraser River to narrow the stream channel and restore the river. If the agency gets the green light to expand Gross, it would be required to keep a formal relationship with environmental groups and local governments through the life of the project.

But that expansion is still expected to decrease stream flows by about one half of what they are now.

In Wyoming, state engineer Pat Tyrrell says the state is studying whether to store more water from the Green River, another Colorado River tributary.

“We feel we have some room to grow. But we understand that growth comes with risk,” he says.

There’s risk because Wyoming could expand reservoirs with proper permits. In 10 or 20 years there may not be enough water to fill that storage — or deliver enough water to existing reservoirs like Lake Powell. Upper basin states have developed a contingency plan to make sure that happens in the future.

Imbalance Between Supply and Demand

What unites all water planners from Colorado down to California is the need for certainty. They need confidence there will be enough water to fuel population and agricultural growth. And there’s a huge new wildcard in the deck.

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