Wyo braces for less water as drought sets in on Colorado River | New

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As federal water managers declared the Colorado River’s first-ever official water shortage last week, a senior official said he was confident Wyoming would responsibly implement its plans to store and divert even more streams from the troubled waterway.

The Home Office said on Aug. 16 it would reduce water diversions to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico in 2022 after a review scheduled for August set restrictive limits for the outflow. next year.

Despite the reduction, Wyoming plans to lock up an additional 115,000 acre-feet per year by building and modifying dams and their operations to potentially allow more diversion.

At the same time, Wyoming is expanding its drought contingency plan and a “demand management” program that could result in voluntary reductions in diversions before state users are cut off. Wyoming doesn’t expect reductions to occur next year, unless drought, aridification and climate change unexpectedly exacerbate Lake Powell’s decline.

In a press appeal announcing the downstream diversion reductions, a regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation seemed unfazed by the potential impacts of Wyoming’s dam construction plans.

“Wyoming has been foresight in the work of its Wyoming Water Development Commission,” said Wayne Pullan, BOR director for the Upper Colorado River Basin, “and with our long history with Wyoming, We are confident that they will pursue all future projects in a responsible manner, fully aware of the hydrological context and the difficulties on the Colorado River.

Wyoming’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission, which will decide how cuts in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico will be supported, said his cohorts were “very concerned about the hydrology with which this basin is confronted “. A drought contingency plan that was adopted in skeleton form “provides the tools to help manage what we are seeing now, unsettling as that is,” said Pat Tyrrell, commissioner, at the meeting. press conference.

Pullan would not comment on specific projects underway in Wyoming, of which at least five in the Green River and Little Snake River basins collectively control an additional 115,000 acre-feet at an estimated cost of $ 123 million.

“It should be noted that one of the goals of the Colorado River Storage Project is to assist states, using their allocation as part of the [1922 Colorado River] Compact, ”Pullan said. Wyoming has not developed or appropriated its full share of the water allowed under the landmark deal, state officials said.

The contract and allocation between the seven states and Mexico, however, is based on an annual supply of at least 15 million acre-feet, an amount experts say the river basin no longer produces. Additionally, Wyoming believes Lower Basin Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico have historically abused them while the Upper Division states have failed to fully exploit their rights.

At least one group has called for a moratorium on new storage or diversion projects in the basin until all seven states and Mexico can respond to what are widely seen as claims for flows that no longer exist. . Wyoming still deserves its share, state officials say.

“We don’t have to maintain overuse anywhere else,” Tyrrell said in an interview, “to the detriment of our existing demands here in Wyoming.”

Tyrrell proposed a scenario in which an ongoing dam project could be immediately affected by less runoff. At the Big Sandy Dam in Sublette County, the Bureau of Reclamation is elevating the structure to impound an additional 12,900 acre-feet for irrigation.

“This will be on a more recent priority date,” Tyrrell said, meaning the new storage area will be among the first to be cut if the lower basin shortages spread upstream. The doctrine of prior appropriation that governs water use in Wyoming recognizes that the first appropriation of water is the first in times of scarcity.

“If we are, for example, under any restriction,” Tyrrell said, Big Sandy “will not be allowed to fill.

“It will no longer put additional stress on the system if it is not allowed to fill up,” he told WyoFile.

Other new dams, reservoir expansions, or operational changes that would give Wyoming access to more water would be subject to separate reservations depending on whether they are built, what priority of appropriation they might retain, who they belong to, and where. other factors.

The amount of water involved in the Wyoming projects is “very small compared to Lake Powell,” Tyrrell said. Powell owns some 20 million acre-feet of what’s called active storage – the amount that can actually be used.

The downstream reductions – 18%, 7%, and 5% of Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico’s annual distributions, respectively – amount to 613,000 acre-feet. That’s about 3% of Powell’s storage or, seen another way, about 10% more than the average annual use of Wyoming Basin flows.

The impact of any additional consumption in Wyoming – which could approach the 115,000 acre-feet envisioned in Wyoming’s dam plans – “is very, very small compared to what could be stored in Lake Powell,” he said. said Tyrrell.

“I think Big Sandy’s environmental impact statement revealed that there would be no significant impact on the elevations of the reservoir downstream by widening,” he said.

Wyoming’s legal team supports water developers, Assistant Attorney General Chris Brown said echoing Tyrrell’s preview. “We certainly don’t have to keep overuse in other parts of the basin at the expense of current or future Wyoming water users.”

Water developers, including Wyoming itself, understand the priority system and the risks associated with building dams to hold back flows. Faced with the dwindling supply, some wonder if new structures could become stranded assets – facilities built under a scenario that cannot be used as intended in a new reality.

A natural resource law professor at the University of Colorado Law School has expressed skepticism about Wyoming’s basin-wide plans. “It seems like a bad investment,” Mark Squillace said in an interview.

The Bureau of Reclamation has already activated the provisions of its Drought Control Operations Agreement to release water from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah. Pullan called the action a “little ‘e’” of an emergency trigger that will help keep the level at Powell high enough to continue producing valuable electricity.

The discharges from Flaming Gorge and others are also helping the four upper basin states meet their water flow obligations under the 1922 pact, Tyrrell of Wyoming said. The decrease in flows, he said, “threatens to worsen.”

Another winter of scant snowfall, “could have really dramatic effects” on the 1,400-mile river system, Tyrrell said. Two meager winters in a row – until spring 2023 – and “we’re going to see real problems on Lake Powell”, which could have ramifications upstream.

“Unfulfilled demands are a situation the upper pelvis is very familiar with,” Tyrrell said on the press call. “Discussions are underway to develop and finalize, if necessary, response plans for 2022.

“As a general rule, what we should do [in shortage situations] is to reduce consumption, ”Tyrrell said. A key part of the answer is demand management whereby reductions could be voluntary, possibly incentive, before being imposed.

A pilot project in the upper Green River basin several years ago could be a harbinger. He saw irrigators accept $ 200 per acre-foot to forgo irrigation after cutting their season’s hay. The program saved 14,617 acre-feet in Wyoming in one year while generating $ 2.2 million for users who temporarily gave up some of their annual diversions.

Municipalities and conservation groups funded the pilot program, which left two questions unanswered. One was whether the saved water was immediately diverted by another irrigator downstream or if it flowed to Lake Powell to accumulate to Wyoming’s credit. The second was who would pay for a similar program if adopted during a real crisis.

Some irrigators on the west side of the upper Green River basin routinely process less flow than they are allowed to divert, Tyrrell said. Even in 2011, a year that saw spring flooding, irrigators did not have state-authorized diversions, lawyer Brown said.

“We still had a few of our tributaries that had been regulated since the 1880s,” he said, meaning the state engineer cut off the diversions for the water rights holders obtained. after this date.

Due to the regularity of the shortages, the superintendent of the Upper Green River area water division ordered irrigators to install some 22 measuring devices on a stream as he settled various claims, Tyrrell said.

“No one believed it when they went out and measured the flow,” Tyrrell said of the superintendent. “He said ‘well, you know, man, I’m going to invoke that authority and that status and ask you to put on your own measuring device. ”

“It raised holy hell for a few weeks,” Tyrrell said, “but they did.”

WyoFile is an independent, non-profit news organization focused on the people, places, and politics of Wyoming.


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