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Colorado River States Now On "Notice" About Drought Risk

Photo of Lake Powell.
Linde Cater
National Park Service
Seven states that rely on the Colorado River for water for 40 million people have been concerned about the declining levels of Lake Powell (above) and Lake Mead. A federal agency has set a new deadline for the states to complete drought contingency plans.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation put the seven states in the Colorado River Basin on notice Friday that they have just one more chance to finish drought contingency plans for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Utah is one of five states that met the original, Dec. 31 deadline and submitted plans to protect the two, massive reservoirs from falling dangerously low. But Arizona and California missed that deadline — plus and a second one last week.

Last week, Brenda Burman, the Bureau of Reclamation’s commissioner, reaffirmed her agency’s plans to take over Colorado River operations if all the basin-wide plans are not complete by March 4.

“The department must be prepared for action, if needed, to better protect the water
users against increasing risks facing the basin,” she said in a conference call with reporters.

Burman is also asking the states to suggest additional steps her agency can take if the drought contingency plans aren’t done by March 4 and her agency ends up developing its
own plan for the states to follow. She said more than 40 million people in the West are at risk of losing a critical water source if the 19-year drought continues.

Conservationist Gary Wockner said the obvious answer to the Basin’s current and future water shortages is simple: scrapping plans by Colorado and Utah for new water projects, including the Lake Powell Pipeline to deliver Colorado River water to Kane and Washington counties.

“It’s insane,” Wockner said, “to be even further draining the Colorado River.”

Wockner pointed out that, prior to last week, the Bureau of Reclamation has never before in American history issued a formal “notice” about the threat facing the river.

Eric Millis, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said he remains hopeful that Arizona and California will be able to finalize their drought contingency plans by the new deadline. He said the upper-basin states — Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico — and the lower-basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California — all benefit from working cooperatively on the plans.

Millis said the Upper Basin’s drought contingency plan aims to protect the water users by making sure there’s sufficient water in Lake Powell. “And, by doing all of those things,” he said, “it safeguards all uses in the upper basin, including the Lake Powell Pipeline.

Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Utah has an untapped share of Colorado River water that would be sufficient to supply the Lake Powell Pipeline Project with about 86,000 acre feet of water each year — about enough to support 99,000 homes. Meanwhile, lower-basin states have been using the unused water allocations of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming for decades while also adopting aggressive conservation measures, such as gray-water reuse and restrictive water pricing.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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