Nevada calls on Utah and Upper Colorado Basin states to slash water use by 500,000 acre-feet

Drastic measures are needed to rescue Lake Powell, but Upper Basin states say their use did not cause the crisis on the Colorado River.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A boat travels near the Glen Canyon Dam, on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. As Lake Powell's levels continue to drop, the state of Nevada is now proposing Utah and the other states that rely on the Colorado River accept cuts totaling 500,000 acre-feet.

Nevada water managers have submitted a plan for cutting diversions by 500,000 acre-feet in a last-ditch effort to shore up flows on the Colorado River before low water levels cause critical problems at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams.

But the Silver State’s plan targets cuts in Utah and the river’s other Upper Basin states, not in Nevada, whose leaders contend it already is doing what it can to reduce reliance on the depleted river system that provides water to 40 million in the West.

“It is well past time to prohibit the inefficient delivery, application, or use of water within all sectors and by all users; there simply is no water in the Colorado River System left to waste and each industrial, municipal, and agricultural user should be held to the highest industry standards in handling, using, and disposing of water,” states a Dec. 20 letter the Colorado River Commission of Nevada sent to the Interior Department. “It is critical that Reclamation pursue all options that will help reduce consumptive uses in the Basin and provide water supply reliability.”

One option Nevada offers is for Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming to accept substantial cuts in the amount of river they tap to ensure enough water reaches Lake Powell to keep Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower turbines spinning and Lake Powell functioning as a reservoir.

Years of drought have plunged the Colorado River into crisis. The four Upper Basin states have resisted proposing specific cuts to their use because most of the river’s water is used in the Lower Basin, which has received on average 8.5 million acre-feet of the Colorado’s flow in each of the last 10 years.

“There’s no question everyone that uses Colorado River water will feel a pinch,” said Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s Colorado River commissioner. “I like the fact that Nevada threw something on the table, because that gives us a point to talk to them about and explain again how the Upper Basin works.”

For years, the seven basin states have collectively drawn more water than the river could provide thanks to climatic changes that have reduced flows by about 20%. Consequently, levels at Mead and Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, reached historic lows this year and are projected to continue dropping.

“These declines represent the loss of large volumes of critical reservoir storage that will not be easily refilled,” states Nevada’s plan, which was crafted with the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). “Further depletion of reservoir storage is directly increasing risk and uncertainty about future supply reliability.”

The proposal comes in the form of Nevada’s official comments to the supplemental environmental impact statement the Bureau of Reclamation is preparing for proposed changes to the operations of the drought-depleted reservoirs. One of three Lower Basin states, Nevada called on the Upper Basin states to reduce their withdrawals by a combined 500,000 acre-feet if Lake Powell’s level is projected to drop below 3,550 feet above sea level at the start of the coming calendar year.

Today, the lake’s level is already far below than that, at 3,525.7 feet, just 35 feet above the point at which Glen Canyon Dam’s turbines would be damaged if water passes through the penstocks. Absent drastic intervention, the dam is not expected to generate power much longer, potentially destabilizing operations on the West’s power grid and cutting off an important source of revenue for endangered species conservation of the river’s native fish.

Environmentalists say the crisis on the river is of the states’ own making following years of willfully ignoring the impacts climate change has had on the Colorado’s flows.

“Finally someone is speaking out against Colorado and the Upper Basin’s schemes to further drain the Colorado River and escalate the political chaos,” said Gary Wockner of Save The Colorado, a nonprofit group that advocates against further diversions on the Colorado. “Let’s hope the Bureau of Reclamation listens to SNWA and clamps down because Colorado and the Upper Basin states need to immediately stop building more dams and diversions, stop planning for more dams and diversions, and start diverting far less water.”

Utah and other Upper Basin states, which are all pursuing new diversions, have argued they have historically used less than their allotted shares of the river. Accordingly, they say, the Lower Basin should absorb the bulk of the cuts needed to save the big reservoirs.

Comments submitted by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the Colorado River Authority of Utah are silent on cuts, instead reaffirming the Upper Basin states’ “five-point plan,” which emphasizes “demand management.”

“The historically low water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead are not caused by water use in the Upper Division States,” wrote Charles Cullom of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “The Upper Division States are taking action to address local and regional drought impacts using existing tools and routinely cutting back diversions and uses in times of shortage. In addition, significant new conservation efforts are being undertaken in each Upper [Basin] State which help mitigate impacts from unprecedented drought, protect critical elevations in Lake Powell, and ensure continued compliance with the Law of the River.”

Under a century-old agreement dividing the river’s water among seven states, Utah has historically used nearly 1 million acre-feet a year, some of it diverted to Wasatch Front cities. That interstate compact obligates the Upper Basin, which accounts for most of the river’s flow, to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet to the Lower Basin. Utah is allotted 23% of what is left.

“The reason our five-point plan doesn’t have any specific numbers is because we don’t know what’s ahead of us. We don’t know whether the runoff is going to be 7 million acre-feet or 20 million acre-feet,” Shawcroft said. “The real challenge is the hydrology. But we know for a fact that that we’re not going to be able to continue operating the river like we always have. The majority of the water gets used in the lower basin states, but does that mean that Upper [Basin] states are off the hook? I don’t think they are.”

As the crisis on the river deepened this year, the Bureau asked the seven basin states to submit plans for cutting use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet. At last week’s Colorado River Water Users Association annual meeting in Las Vegas, the states committed to coming up with a consensus plan by a deadline set for the end of January. If they fail to deliver, the Bureau could unilaterally impose cuts.

The Bureau has already ordered releases from upstream reservoirs to bring Lake Powell’s level up, but it wasn’t enough. So earlier this month it announced Glen Canyon Dam would delay releases totaling 523,000 acre-feet this winter, which is expected to boost Powell by 10 feet through April. That held-back water, which roughly matches the amount Nevada wants the Upper Basin states to forgo, would be added to Lower Basin releases between June and September.