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Mighty Colorado River in crisis as water continues to drop at unprecedented levels

Colorado River water is dropping at unprecedented levels
Colorado River
Posted at 2:00 PM, Sep 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-26 16:03:09-04

COLORADO SPRINGS — One of the most pressing issues of our time in the Western United States is the dwindling water supply from the Colorado River, which is a lifeline for some 40 million people and the $15 billion-a-year agriculture industry that depends on it.

The amount of water feeding what is called the upper and lower Colorado River basin is woefully short. The upper basin includes Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, the lower basin states include California, Arizona and Nevada.

A service region that has grown by 3.7 million people in 20 years. However, since 2000, flows on the river have declined an estimated 20%. Analysts say that climate change, resulting in less snowpack that feeds the river, plus ongoing drought conditions have put us in what is described as a crisis situation, that we saw coming.

The impact has been far-reaching, the two main storage reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, for example, are at just 27% capacity, it was 95% in 2000.

So why does this matter? Well, 70% of the water used by Colorado Springs Utilities comes from the Colorado River. Do the math, it doesn't add up as we continue to see exponential growth.

The next time you turn on your faucet at home, fire up the sprinkler system in your yard, or enjoy a day out on your favorite lake or reservoir, take a minute to consider water is a finite resource, with more and more of it disappearing every day.

So I asked the experts at Colorado Springs Utilities if they believe that people in general, understand how important this resource is to their quality of life.

Pat Wells, General Manager of Resource and Infrastructure Planning told me, "I think people really have a fundamental interest in water and that water evokes a lot of positive emotions in people and that's what we really are trying to do is tap into the emotions surrounding water about the value of what it provides to our local economy to our quality of life."

But as we continue to grow as a community, a state, a region, a country, the prospect of maintaining, let alone putting a plug on the drain that is this evaporating resource, is daunting.

Colorado Springs Utilities told me that per capita water usage within its system has actually been reduced by 41% since the year 2000, so conservation matters and ratepayers should be applauded for their efforts to help out.

The problem is that we're not on an island, we need every one of the seven states and the communities within those states in the upper and lower Colorado River basin to do the same, which is a tough ask and cooperation is the key, but the conversation with our regional water partners has at least started.

Lisa Barbato who is the Officer of System Planning and Projects for Colorado Springs Utilities told me, "We are working with some of the lower basin states to get their participation because of the urgency around the matter."

I asked her if she gets a sense that all these partners are coming on board anytime soon to support the collective plan moving forward, to which she said, "That is definitely our goal is to get participation from all parties because this is a collective problem we all need to work together on."

And the collective push to find long-term solutions is included in what's called a "Memo of Understanding," a letter that encourages the Federal Bureau of Reclamation to rubber stamp a proposed agreement and understanding by all these states to push for solutions that frankly, in the short term, have not been sustainable.

In fact, the first-ever water shortage has officially been declared for the lower Colorado River basin states.

To be clear, Colorado Springs Utilities hasn't been waiting around for the rest of this water coalition to get their act together. The CSU water board signed off in 2017 on a 50-year plan.

This "Sustainable Water Plan" includes diversifying the water supply, agriculture water sharing, recycling and re-use, conservation, finding new water supplies, and increasing water storage.

This includes expanding the Montgomery Reservoir, a key component in the upstream Blue River Pipeline, which sits near the summit of Hoosier Pass in Park County.

Barbato told me, "Enlarging the dam by increasing the height of the dam, this will allow us to take advantage to take more water into that system during wet years, we are in pre permitting now, we should have permitting done in the 2030 range and then we will determine the right time to actually construct that enlargement."

Also part of this long-term plan, this past July the water board approved a new fund dedicated to buying new water rights and infrastructure in the years and decades to come. The primary revenue would be generated from new fees on construction separate from an existing tap fee. The initial goal is $40 million dollars.

Barbato says, "Some communities actually have higher targets than that, that is where we are starting just to get the fund going but we may need to grow that fund based on what rights are going for on the market."

The Bureau of Reclamation is making its own demands of Colorado and other river basin states, cut between two and four million acre-feet of Colorado River water use by next year.

One acre-foot can serve two families of four for a year. That's a significant cut, the question is, can it be done?

Pat Wells remains optimistic, at least as it relates to the partnerships here in Colorado, telling me, "Municipal water providers, non-governmental and environmental organizations, east slope, west slope, it's important for us to all get together because if we can't solve these challenges together, we'll never bring the system back into balance."

To be clear, Colorado Springs Utilities has not signed off on that "Memo Of Understanding" with the other river basin states yet, citing questions about mandatory requirements for ornamental turf.

But the lower basin states have not signed off on the proposed agreement either for various reasons. Only time will tell if they can collectively move in the right direction for the sake of water resources in years to come.

Also, this past Colorado legislative session, Governor Polis signed multiple bills into law that incentivizes water conservation and water efficiency across the state.