Upper Colorado River Basin states lay out conservation plan

The states that make up the upper half of the Colorado River Basin have embarked on a plan to curb water use over Lake Mead.

During a meeting Wednesday at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas, the The Upper Colorado River Commission said it is now accepting suggestions from users as part of a $125 million program that would pay them not to use their water rights.

The announcement comes as the seven states that draw water from the Colorado River continue to work towards a consensus on how to reduce water use along the dwindling river in the coming years, with federal officials calling for cuts of up to 30 percent next year to protect water supplies and hydroelectric operations at the river’s two largest reservoirs at Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

States have yet to agree, with deep divisions among upper basin states – Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico – and the lower basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona.

“The real enemy here is not the other pool, not the alfalfa, not the golf courses. The common cause we need to address is reduced runoff caused by climate change,” said Commission Chair Anne Castle. “We have to work on that together. It’s not an enemy we can defeat. We have to live with that.”

Limited Effect

How much the program will save is not known, and the commission said it has no target volume for how much water it wants to save.

Elizabeth Koebele, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno who studies water policy and governance, said she’s not sure the upper basin plan will have a big impact on the larger aspect of the Colorado River’s problems.

The federal government in June mandated the states of the Colorado River Basin to reduce water use by 2 to 4 million acres starting next year to raise water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The Bureau of Reclamation, in recent public presentations, painted a bleak picture of what could happen if no action is taken, including Lake Powell’s ability to generate hydroelectric power, which is under threat as early as spring 2023.

“I think there is interest in this type of temporary, compensated conservation. But whether that aligns with what we need in the tank to actually mitigate some of these negative trends that we’re seeing, I have my doubts.”

Koebele said she also wonders how much interest there will be in the program from water users, some of whom are already facing water cuts due to shrinking water supplies.

Revision of the farm plan

The plan is a revision of an earlier pilot program to pay farmers and other users in the catchment not to use their water as part of earlier water conservation efforts from 2015-2018.

Congress has yet to approve the program before it can officially move forward, which could happen as early as Friday or early next week, said Chuck Cullom, the commission’s executive director.

The base compensation rate starts at $150 per acre-foot of conserved water, which is considerably lower than the rates some farmers and other users were targeting across the basin.

It’s also lower than the $300 to $400 per acre foot the federal government announced in October to pay farmers and water districts to conserve water, with $4 billion of funding used to respond to droughts, approved by Congress.

Cullom said the rate is based on median compensation over the last year that the original 2018 program was in place. The water users of the upper reservoir have the possibility to ask for a higher compensation, but only if they can justify this increase.

“We will not encourage speculation and profit from this program,” Cullom said.

Contact Colton Lochhead at [email protected] consequences @ColtonLochhead on twitter.

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