More than 50 percent of all the water that flows in the Colorado River past Las Vegas comes out of the San Juan Mountains, the Flattops, and other ranges in Colorado, mostly in the form of snow. And because of that, managers of the two big reservoirs on the river, Powell and Mead, keep track of winter and spring storms in Colorado with an eagle eye.
Last spring, Colorado was, to paraphrase Dickens, a tale of two states. In the San Juan Mountains, maximum snowfall depths were reached on March 30, eight days earlier than average. Peak accumulations were about 90 percent of average.
North of the Gunnison River, however, the La Niña storms stayed strong – and then, in April and May, turned remarkable. The Gunnison River itself had flows 125 percent of average. But northward, at Crested Butte, Aspen and Vail, the spring storms were unyielding.
Colorado’s most remarkable story was in the Steamboat Springs region. At Buffalo Pass, eight miles from downtown Steamboat, the snow this year surpassed the tops of the 18-foot poles assembled to measure it.
“Judging from the additional water equivalent, I would think we approached 20 feet,” said Mike Gillespie, snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The maximum snow depth was probably on Memorial Day weekend, and had the snow melted instantly, there would have been seven feet of water.
The snow melted normally, with only minor flooding, but about a month behind schedule. Even in August, enough snow remained on the 10,800-foot pass to block vehicles.
This huge water year in Colorado – rivaled during recent decades only in 1995 and 1984 – had profound consequences for the big reservoirs downstream to which the Uncompaghre, San Miguel and other rivers ultimately deliver their water. Lake Powell had risen 24 feet as of late August as compared to last year. Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, was at 73 percent of capacity once again.
How very different from last December when Mead was at 42 percent of capacity, the lowest level since 1937, soon after completion of Hoover Dam.
With drought more years than not, the decade from 2000 to 2010 had the lowest flows of any of any 10-year period in the 100-plus years of recordkeeping in the Colorado river Basin. More than half of the water originates in Colorado.
Painfully conscious of the odds, Las Vegas continues to drill a third tunnel, at a cost of $700 million, to draw water from the lake, but lower down than the previous two tunnels, in case the lake level kept falling. The metropolitan area gets 80 percent of its water from Mead.
For now at least, the nail-biting time is over in the Colorado River Basin. The river and its tributaries deliver water to 24 to 30 million people between Denver and San Diego, with diversions also delivering water to people in Cheyenne, Albuquerque and Salt Lake City.
But the fundamental issues remain the same.
“For those of us on the ground, trying to manage supplies, the reality is that things are changing,” said Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water, at a conference in early June, shortly after the colossal runoff had begun. “We need to deal with them, because that’s the reality.”
Two giant changes are underway in the basin, with ripples sure to be felt by people in the Western San Juans as elswhere. First is the continued population growth. While demographers can only see with clarity for a few decades into the future, at most, they project no end of people moving to the American Southwest.
The second clear change is a shifting climate. Climates shift naturally, always, but computer modeling suggests accumulating greenhouse gases and landscape vegetative changes will produce significant shifts. A study released in June by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation sees a nine percent decline in volume for the river by around 2050.
Even if that figure is correct – and nobody can really know at this point – the shifts are not likely to be uniform. Steamboat may well get wetter, and Telluride may get drier. But both will get warmer.
The most significant debate in Colorado now is whether to build the infrastructure to impound and divert yet more water. Even those who accept the science of global warming are mixed on the proper response.
One school of thought is that Colorado needs to build more dams and reservoirs, to impound unclaimed water in big snow years.
But it’s not clear how much water Colorado can claim under the compacts that govern use of the various rivers, including the Colorado River and its tributaries.
By some estimates, Colorado may have up to a million acre-feet yet to develop, but nobody really knows.
“We have a compact entitlement that we haven’t completely developed – although some people would argue with that,’ said Jennifer Gimbel, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board at a conference held in Steamboat during August.
One speaker at the same conference estimated that Colorado allowed 4.5 million acre-feet to flow out of state this year beyond what it was obligated to release to downstream states, mostly on the Western Slope.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican from Cortez who represents much of the Western Slope, was among many speakers at the Water Congress in Steamboat to call for more dams in Colorado.
“Fundamentally, we know in our hearts that we need to do everything we can to achieve more water storage in the state,” he said. He further promoted construction of dams as a way of delivering “proven, clean hydropower.” Hydro already delivers 75 percent of U.S. non-carbon renewable energy. “We have some opportunities to be able to develop that further,” he added, while calling for reduced regulations.
Speaking more than two months earlier, and in Boulder, Kuhn cautioned against significant further development of water. Better to live with existing supplies, as are impounded in dams and diverted through canals, rather than to build infrastructure for water that may not be available, he said.
Colorado has had to curtail water use in the South Platte, Republican, and Rio Grande drainages, all east of the Continental Divide, because of overdevelopment. On the Republican, the state this week began draining a reservoir, called Bonny, to meet downstream commitments to Nebraska and Kansas.
Drew Beckwith, water policy manager for Western Resource Advocates, an environmental analysis group, argues against the “pipe dreams” of long-distance diversions, such as have been proposed from the Green River, to deliver water to growing cities between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. He said demand-side management programs adopted by cities could reduce per-capita use 35 percent over the next 25 years. New diversions represent last-century thinking, he said.
But even more than cities, farms offer potential for savings, as they use upward of 75 percent of the water in the Colorado River Basin, including 85 to 90 percent in Colorado. However, should federal subsidies for certain crops end, 30 percent of crops now grown with basin waters could not be economically justified, said Bonnie Colby, of the University of Arizona’s Department of Agriculture & Resource Economics.
Gimbel, speaking at the Boulder conference, spoke of changed sensibilities.
“It used to be that if water left our state, it was wasted,” she said. “If water got to Mexico, it was waste. We don’t think that way anymore, and that’s good.”
And she noted a larger reality: global population growth, expected to push from 6 billion in 2000 to 10 billion during the next 50 years. She sees the need for continued efforts to explore cooperation, keeping in mind the wealth of cities that can create opportunities. She also stressed that environmental needs for water go beyond the needs of endangered species.
Efforts to more equitably honor commitments of water to Mexico represent a major new initiative that is rapidly moving onto center stage among the basin states. That effort will have reverberations even in the upper basin states, said Pat Tyrrell, state water engineer for Wyoming.
Non-traditional water users – recreation and environmental purposes – were also noted, as was the need to broaden the table for other interests.
Perhaps the most articulate proponent of the need for a new spirit of cooperation in the Colorado River is Pat Mulroy, the manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. She has good reason to want cooperation.
In addition to not imagining cell phones, the compact-framers never imagined the Bellagio and the Venetian – let alone the fact that Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, would one day surpass Manhattan in population, as it did about 2004. As such, Nevada was apportioned only 700,000 acre-feet annually of water from the Colorado, compared to 4.4 million acre-feet for California.
“Trust me, it keeps me awake at night,” said Mulroy. She was talking about the third tunnel into Lake Mead. The tunnel bores down 990 feet then 3.4 miles, coming up under Lake Mead in the original channel of the river. It’s the $700 million insurance policy by Las Vegas in case the drought intensified and Lake Mead dropped further.
Twenty years ago, said Mulroy, the seven states were in their separate silos. “And at that point our neighbors in Mexico were not even talked about.”
In the 1990s, there were battles over surpluses – which yielded to firm federal pressure on California to live within its appropriation, which it is now doing. Later, a new concept called a groundwater bank was put into place, allowing Las Vegas to buy or borrow water from Arizona.
Extreme Needs, Measures
“The next steps will be even more daunting,” Mulroy said, talking about the impacts of climate change and reduced electrical production from Boulder Dam. “We can’t even get our hands around it,” she said.
And like Gimbel, she noted that the Southwest is not immune to global population growth and food demands that will likely impose great challenges on the Colorado River Basin. “This isn’t two lifetimes from now. This is the next generation,” she said.
But the seven states – and Mexico – must devise their own solutions. “The worst thing that can happen to us if this gets resolved in the halls of Congress,” she said.
And she sees revamping of the Colorado River Compact as “not worth the time and energy,” but instead sees a mosaic of solutions. The foundation for solutions, she emphasized, is development of relationships among the states and their representatives.
Can the Southwestern states solve their most pressing water shortages by creating more water? They already are, at a desalinization plant at Yuma, Ariz., but a study completed two years ago by Black and Veatch and CH2M Hill explored many other options. For example, could water produced in coal-bed methane mining produce significant volumes (not likely). Cloud-seeding is cheaper, but some doubts remain about how effective it really is.
Perhaps the most audacious – and unlikely – idea is to import water in the Southwest from the Mississippi River.
“We looked at anything and everything,” said Las Lampe. A second, more detailed examination of augmentation options will start later this year.