Three things to know about the Upper Colorado River Basin drought contingency plan

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
The Animas River flows, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, through Boyd Park in Farmington.

FARMINGTON — While the Four Corners region experienced a wet winter, the Colorado River Basin has been experiencing drought for about two decades, and that is placing a burden on water resources.

The lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California have created a drought contingency plan while the upper basin states including New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming have a different drought contingency plan.

These two plans fall under a companion agreement between the upper and lower basin states as well as federal legislation signed into law earlier this year.

More:What is the Drought Contingency Plan and will it affect me?

The key component of these agreements is to keep water levels in Lake Powell from dropping below 3,525 feet in elevation and to keep water levels in Lake Mead above 1,090 feet in elevation.

The upper basin states will be responsible for maintaining the levels in Lake Powell.

The San Juan Water Commission learned about the drought contingency plan during a meeting on Aug. 7 in Farmington.

More:Drought contingency plan could have major impact on San Juan County

Here are three things New Mexico residents should know about the Drought Contingency Plan:

1. Navajo Lake is a key component

Navajo Lake is pictured, April 18, 2019, in the community of Navajo Dam.

If the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projects the water levels in Lake Powell could drop below 3,525 feet within 24 months, a draft plan will be created to respond to the drought.

New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission Lawyer Dominique Work said the first step will be to look at operations at Lake Powell to determine if less water could be released. If that does not work, the response plan will look at different storage reservoirs — Flaming Gorge, Aspinall and Navajo Lake.

All three reservoirs can release water into rivers that eventually flow into Lake Powell.

“It’s going to depend on where’s the drought and what does it look like,” she said.

Water gushes from the bottom of the spillway into the San Juan River in February at Navajo Dam.

One of those three storage reservoirs could be chosen to release water to keep the levels at Lake Powell above 3,525 feet.

The plan would remain in place until the water that was released from the reservoir was returned.

2. The 3,525 feet water level was chosen for hydropower generation

Lake Powell produces hydropower that provides electricity to utilities in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Nebraska. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the hydropower plant at Glen Canyon Dam produces about five billion kilowatt hours of power each year.

Electric utilities in Farmington and Aztec both receive power from Lake Powell.

If the lake levels drop below 3,490 feet, the hydropower plant cannot work.

“If we get to 3,525, we know that power generation is in jeopardy,” Work said.

If the plant was unable to generate electricity, the utilities that use it would have to purchase more power on the market.

3. Plan also allows upper basin states to place water in storage

Another key aspect of the plan is it allows the upper basin states to develop a plan to store up to 500,000 acre-feet of additional water in Navajo Lake, Flaming Gorge and Aspinall. This water would be released if needed to fulfill Colorado River Compact requirements.

Article Three of the Colorado River Compact requires the upper basin states to deliver at least 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 consecutive years to the lower basin states. This is measured at Lee’s Ferry in northern Arizona.

If the upper basin struggled to meet that compact requirement, it could release some of the 500,000 acre-feet of stored water.

The Animas River is seen, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, in Boyd Park in Farmington.

However, the 500,000 acre-feet of water must come from water rights that would otherwise have been used if it had not been put into storage. For example, a farmer could choose to put an acre-foot of water into storage and let their field go fallow.

The upper basin states must develop a demand management program before they can begin putting water in storage in the reservoirs.

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

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