Wyoming is pursuing federal legislation to take another 150,000 acre feet per year from its share of the Colorado River’s Upper Basin allotment:
If successful, the project would allow the state to use the bulk of its remaining allocation under the Colorado River Compact, diverting another 149,600 acre-feet from the Green River annually, according to state documents.
The legislation tackles a technical question: the need for improvements to Fontenelle Dam to allow Wyoming to fully use its water. I don’t know squat about the technical question. I’ll refer you to Angus Thuermer’s story for that, he does a good job with that context.
The basin-scale policy question, though, is clear. In a general sense, the water simply isn’t there to do things like this. But Wyoming’s dogged pursuit of the project illustrates what I think is the core Colorado River Basin policy dilemma.
All of the states of the Colorado River’s Upper Basin (Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah) are using substantially less than their current full legal allocation. The Colorado River Compact allocated a total of 7.5 million acre feet of water to those four states. In 2012 (the most recent year for which we have good data – pdf here) the Upper Basin States used 4.639 maf. But even though they are using far less than their share, the big reservoirs on the system, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are dropping.
There is simply not enough water in the system for everyone to take their full legal allotment.
Here is the dilemma. People who work at the basin scale understand this. They understand that, in the long run, some sort of grand bargain (or federally imposed solution) is going to have to restrict the number of straws sucking water out of the river and the amount of water moved through each straw.
But everyone working at the basin scale has to go home and face a domestic politics that is not particularly attentive to this basin-scale problem. There, people point to the pieces of paper (the Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin Compact), and say, “Yeah, but we’re entitled to that water, it says so right here!”
You can see this tension playing out in the back-and-forth earlier this year between Colorado senior water dude James Eklund and his basin counterparts over Colorado’s new draft water plan:
“If anybody thought we were going to roll over and say, ‘OK, California, you’re in a really bad drought, you get to use the water that we were going to use,’ they’re mistaken,” he said.
Eklund, who lives at the boundary between these two worlds – basin-facing politics and domestic water politics – got slapped around a bit, because the language flew in the face of the delicate diplomacy now underway. But the dilemma remains unresolved.
Ultimately the water for the Upper Basin to keep dipping in new straws to expand use into its full legal entitlement just isn’t there. In the short run, with Lake Mead at record lows, the basin has more pressing problems, focused in the Lower Basin. But in the medium to long term, sorting out this issue is the central challenge of Colorado River Basin water management.