Maybe it’s time to give up on developing new Upper Basin projects, the Center for Colorado River Studies says, after all demand has been flat for three decades.
Mar 1, 2021
By Heather Sackett, Aspen Journalism
Some water experts fear that a long-held aspiration to develop more water in the Upper Colorado River Basin is creating another chance to let politics and not science lead the way on river management.
“Alternative Management Paradigms for the Future of the Colorado and Green Rivers,” a white paper released in February by the Center for Colorado River Studies, says that in order to sustainably manage the river in the face of climate change, we need alternative management paradigms and a different way of thinking compared with the status quo.
Estimates about how much water the upper basin will use in the future are a problem that needs rethinking, according to the paper.
The paper says unrealistic future water-use projections for the upper basin — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — confound planning because they predict the region will use more water than it actually will. The Upper Colorado River Commission’s estimates for future growth are unlikely to be realized and are perhaps implausible, unreasonable and unjustified, the paper says.
“The projection of demand is always higher than what is actually used,” said Jack Schmidt, one of the paper’s authors and the Lawson Chair in Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. “We said you can’t plan the future of the river based on these aspirational use projections when there’s a clear demonstration that we never end up using as much as we aspire to use.”
The Center for Colorado River Studies is affiliated with Utah State but draws on expertise from throughout the basin. The paper is the sixth in a series of white papers that is part of The Future of the Colorado River Project. The project is being funded by multiple donors, including the Walton Family Foundation, the USGS Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, the Utah Water Research Laboratory and two private donors, as well as by grants from the Catena Foundation, which is a major donor to Aspen Journalism’s water desk.
According to the paper, consumptive water use in the upper basin has remained flat between 1988 and 2018 at an average of 4.4 million acre-feet a year. This figure is based on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Consumptive Uses and Losses reports. The UCRC’s most recent numbers from 2016 show future water use in the upper basin — known as a “depletion demand schedule” — at 5.27 million acre-feet by 2020 and 5.94 million acre-feet by 2060.
“In percentage terms, these UCRC projections for 2020 are already 23% higher than actual use and would be more than 40% higher than present use in 2060,” the paper reads.
We now know how many billions of gallons of water Colorado will save by closing coal-fired power plants
And future water use is unlikely to increase because of three main reasons: thirsty coal-fired power plants are on their way to being decommissioned; land that was formerly used for irrigated agriculture is transitioning to residential developments, which use less water; and there are regulatory and political barriers to more large transmountain diversions from the headwaters of the river to the Front Range.
The white paper’s authors say these unrealistic future projections of water use make it harder to plan for a water-short future under climate change.
“Unreasonable and unjustified estimations create the impression that compact delivery violations, very low Lake Powell and Lake Mead storage content and greater Lower Basin shortages are inevitable,” the paper reads. “Such distortions mislead the public about the magnitude of the impending water supply crisis and make identifying solutions to an already difficult problem even harder.”
The issue is twofold: With climate change, there is not enough water for the upper basin to develop new projects without the risk of a compact call; and if the past three decades are any indication, the upper basin is not on track to use more water in the future anyway.