Taking more water from the Colorado River’s upper basin

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.


  1. I label all such problems as subtraction problems. If you have 1000 units of something and no way to borrow more, you can’t hand out 1200 units.
    My guess is that some crisis will force the politicians to make decisions that are unpopular but necessary. The politicians will then have to convince their constituents that no better deal could be had.
    For example, study the unfolding Greek financial crisis.

  2. Legislative government seems to keep coming up empty in its ability to deal with these issues, particularly across state lines. The fact that folks are currently stuck with unpopular decisions that were made for them (just like in Greece) points towards the need for a different process. Manufactured crisis doesn’t require us to act without thinking.

  3. If politicians try to act without the political cover of a manufactured crisis, they are former politicians. They will not be reelected. So, the problem is a problem of voter behavior more than it is a problem of political lack of insight.

  4. One needs to read between the lines of the WyoFile article. Wyoming has been successful on the East Slope in similar endeavours with water that wasn’t even theirs. Wyoming believes that its more advantageous to them, to generate electricity close to the coal energy source, and transport it over power lines. The power line transmission is supposably cheaper than transporting the coal over the rails. With enough federal money it may be. The proposed wind farm for Wyoming along with power line connection to California might be more than it appears. As utilities curtail coal generation in favor of natural gas, nukes, and renewables, Wyoming is stuck with a resource with declining revenues. Irrigation is nothing more than a front, a false facade. If the BurRec has to factor in coal generation into the footprint things aren’t so rosy. With enough FERC, BurRec, etc, funding anything can appear feasible.

  5. HR 2273. Hearing held yesterday. Testimony by the Director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission is available at http://naturalresources.house.gov/uploadedfiles/labondetestimony.pdf. The need to add riprap is to simply allow the reservoir to be drawn down – there are existing contracts for water supply out of Fontenelle that Wyoming would be unable to service because the reservoir can not be drawn down. It was built as a diversion dam rather than as a water supply reservoir. More details below:

    The water right for Fontenelle Reservoir indicates its primary purposes are irrigation, domestic, industrial, municipal, stockwatering, fish and wildlife and recreation; and when not required for the primary purposes, storage water can be used for power generation, the secondary purpose. However, the major existing benefits of Fontenelle Reservoir relate to industry.

    The construction of Fontenelle Dam was completed in December, 1967, under water right Permit No. 6629 Res. Fontenelle Reservoir has a total capacity of 345,397 acre feet. Originally, only 190,250 acre feet was designated as active capacity for the above listed purposes and 154,584 acre feet was designated as inactive capacity. The remaining 563 acre feet was the designated dead storage, as it could not be physically released. In 1962, the State of Wyoming contracted with the Bureau of Reclamation for 60,000 acre feet of the active capacity for a price of $900,000. This amount was loaned to the State of Wyoming at an interest rate of 2.632% at a term of 50 years, plus the state was obligated to share in the actual operation, maintenance and replacement costs for the facilities.

    Originally, the purpose of the inactive capacity (154,584 acre feet) was to raise the reservoir surface to an elevation high enough to release water to the proposed East Side and West Side Canals. In 1973, it was apparent that the two canals would not be constructed. Therefore, an enlargement to the original permit was granted (Permit No. 9502). The enlargement served to move the previously designated inactive capacity to active capacity; thereby increasing the active capacity from 190,250 acre feet to 344,834 acre feet, which could be used for the permitted purposes, previously discussed. In 1974, the State of Wyoming again contracted with the Bureau of Reclamation for 60,000 additional acre feet of active capacity; thereby increasing its total interest in Fontenelle Reservoir to 120,000 acre feet. The price was $11,410,000 for the additional 60,000 of active capacity, which was loaned to the State of Wyoming at an interest rate of 2.632% at a term of 40 years, plus the state was obligated to share in the actual operation, maintenance and replacement costs for the facilities.

    In the 1974 contract, 5,000 acre feet was designated for the Seedskadee Wildlife Refuge. The United States reserved 65,000 acre feet of capacity for its uses, subject to provisions that the Bureau of Reclamation would not compete with the State of Wyoming in the water market. This contract also required the United States and State of Wyoming to ensure operations that would provide for the maintenance of 50 cfs in the Green River at the USGS streamgage near Green River, Wyoming.

    Presently, the State of Wyoming, through the Wyoming Water Development Commission, has allocated 46,550 acre feet of its entitlements to Fontenelle water through the following water supply or readiness to serve contracts: Jim Bridger Power Plant (35,000 acre feet per year), FS Industries (10,000 acre feet per year), Church and Dwight (1,250 acre feet per year, and Exxon, USA (300 acre feet per year). The fact that there is unused and unallocated water in Fontenelle Reservoir has caused some to question its value. Fontenelle Reservoir provides hydropower, recreational, and environmental benefits. Further, its present operation supplements natural flow in the Green River. In addition, it can be surmised that the availability of water in Fontenelle Reservoir, and Wyoming’s entitlements in the reservoir, were key considerations in the siting of the Jim Bridger Power Plant and the chemical fertilizer plant presently owned and operated by FS Industries. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, it offers future economic development opportunities for the Green River Basin.

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