Drought planning hinges on demand management, reaching an agreement could be challenging

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — There is growing demand for Colorado River water and dry conditions are creating limited supplies. The four states in the upper basin, including New Mexico, are working on demand management plans to reduce the risk they will be mandated to reduce water use to fulfill obligations of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. 

While this could reduce the risk to the water users, New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen told the San Juan Water Commission that he is not highly optimistic that the upper basin states can reach an agreement about demand management and storage. He said coming to an agreement on these topics will take a while.

The compact requires a certain amount of water to reach Lake Powell from the Colorado River and its tributaries, such as the San Juan River.

The San Juan River is pictured, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, downstream of Navajo Dam.

Recognizing that drought could strain the limited supplies in the river, both the upper and the lower Colorado River basins have created drought contingency plans. One key element of the upper basin plan is demand management. This means water users can be paid to temporarily reduce their water consumption and the water saved through that method would be placed in one of the upper basin reservoirs, such as Navajo Lake.

If a situation arose where the upper basin could not reach its contractual obligation to deliver water to Lake Powell, the water stored in one of those reservoirs would be released to meet those requirements.

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The details about demand management are still being worked out and, on Nov. 4, representatives from the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission provided the San Juan Water Commission with an update on those efforts. 

Schmidt-Petersn said there is only a small chance that there will be a call on the river that would require the upper basin to curtail use, but the demand management proposal will protect the water users if such situation arose. 

The spillway at Navajo Dam is pictured, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020.

Currently, New Mexico is in the stakeholder outreach process of developing a demand management plant, according to Ali Effati, who presented on behalf of the Interstate Stream Commission.

Effati said demand management could be easier to set up in New Mexico than in other upper basin states due to the proximity to Lake Powell, however there are still questions that remain such as how to shepherd the water that is released to meet the compact requirement and make sure that it makes it into Lake Powell.

Keep reading:Farmington residents urged to conserve water during ongoing drought conditions

All four upper basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — must agree on demand management and storage, as must the Upper Colorado River Commission. This type of agreement may be hard to achieve, Schmidt-Petersen warned, as each state works to protect its own interest in the Colorado River water.

San Juan Water Commissioner Jim Dunlap, who represents rural water users, emphasized the importance of having a way to meet the Colorado River Compact requirements even if a drought reduces the flows significantly in the rivers. 

A boat is pictured, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, on Navajo Lake.

New Mexico currently does not use all the water that it is allocated and Dunlap said that furnishes a "false benefit" to the lower basin states and could lead to challenges if New Mexico chose to increase its utilization of its allocated water.

Farmington Community Works Director David Sypher highlighted an area that could create challenges: how to fairly share the burden of water shortages. If a drought does occur, entities will have to cut back. But Sypher said the City of Farmington has already invested in efforts to conserve water such as leak detection, storage and maintenance. This has led to higher water rates for customers.

Sypher said conservation is a huge part, if not the most important part, of demand management.

Boats are seen, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, on Navajo Lake.

"We do all that and our citizens pay a huge price for that and so when we are standing there and they say 'okay, let's do shortage sharing,' we say, 'man we have spent a lot of cash, millions and millions of dollars in opportunity costs, to be in this situation and you want us now to share or to equally bear the burden of the drought when we've already put a huge amount of energy and time that others have not.' It's not that we don't want to be a team player, but we've already contributed a lot."

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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