Upper-basin states could be challenged to meet obligations

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FARMINGTON — Approximately 19 years of drought in the Colorado River basin have led the seven states that rely on water from the river and its tributaries to look at ways they can avoid severe water crises.

That could have major impacts for San Juan County residents, according to Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, who serves as the bureau chief for the Colorado River basin for the Interstate Stream Commission.

“The issue that we’re talking about today and the plans that we are talking about today are very important for the Upper Colorado basin,” said Schmidt-Petersen during a San Juan Water Commission meeting on Wednesday.

There are about 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River and its tributaries for water.

Drought contingency plans drafted

The drought could challenge the ability of upper-basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — to meet the requirements of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

The upper-basin states are required to ensure an average of 7.5 million acre-feet of water reaches Lee's Ferry in Arizona each year over the course of 10 years. That would mean the lower-basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California — would receive 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years.

If the upper-basin states do not meet that requirement, they will be required to make up the difference.

That would mean any water rights allocated after 1922 become junior rights, which means they are not prioritized. In that year, the seven states that rely on Colorado River water signed a compact that outlined how much water each of those states could take.

That potential junior rights designation could impact many water rights in San Juan County. Schmidt-Petersen cited the Navajo-Gallup project and the water rights in the Hammond area near Bloomfield as some of the post-1922 water rights.

The potential challenges the seven states that rely on the Colorado River could face in the future led to the two basins drafting drought contingency plans, which were released in October.

The upper-basin plan has two aims — ensuring the water level in Lake Powell does not drop below a certain point and developing a system for storing water in certain reservoirs, including Navajo Lake.

Schmidt-Petersen said Navajo Nation was not included in the process of drafting the plan.

The draft drought contingency plan can be read at ucrcommission.com.

Navajo Lake plays role in drought contingency plan

The upper-basin plan will focus on maintaining the water level in Lake Powell while the lower-basin plan will focus on Lake Mead. The upper basin would use reservoirs including Navajo Lake, Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa to help keep the water level up in Lake Powell.

Schmidt-Petersen said if one reservoir, such as Navajo Lake, releases water to balance the level in Lake Powell, it would not be required to release water again until the other two reservoirs had made similar releases.

Hydropower, conservation programs at stake if Lake Powell water elevation drops

Schmidt-Petersen said if the water level falls below 3,480 feet in Lake Powell, it will impact the ability to generate hydropower.

That hydropower electricity is used by Farmington electric customers, as well as Aztec customers. In addition, the revenue from the hydropower sales helps fund conservation programs, including the San Juan River Recovery Implementation Program in New Mexico. The program is used to maintain habitat for endangered fish species.

 “We have to be concerned about Lake Powell because of the things it triggers for us if it gets too low,” Schmidt-Petersen said.

Upper basin looks to create storage plan exempt from lower basin calls

In addition to working on their drought contingency plan, the upper-basin states are hoping to obtain storage-capacity rights in certain reservoirs, including Navajo Lake. That storage would allow them to keep water in the reservoirs even if the lower-basin states demand that more water be released from the upper basin.

The water placed in storage would come through a program that would pay farmers to voluntarily and temporarily allow their fields to go fallow.

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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