Flaming Gorge Reservoir at the dam in Utah, September 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The state’s top water authority will outline Wyoming’s role in the ongoing Colorado River Basin water crisis, including voluntary conservation and efficiency programs, at a public meeting Tuesday in Pinedale.

Though Wyoming declined to commit specific volumes to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s call for 2023 water savings, the state’s water users in the Green River drainage — a tributary of the Colorado River — will likely be called upon to voluntarily curb water consumption in coming years, according to the State Engineer’s Office.

SEO officials will provide information about ongoing drought conditions, Wyoming’s rights and obligations under the Colorado River Compact and options to “prepare ourselves to not only mitigate impacts to our water users, but to potentially help offset negative impacts to the rest of the system,” Wyoming senior assistant attorney general for the SEO’s water division Chris Brown said.

The meeting will be from 2-5 p.m. Tuesday at the Sublette County Public Library.

Why it matters:

Two decades of drought exacerbated by human-caused climate change has sapped the Colorado River Basin water system that serves some 40 million people across the West and in Mexico. The two largest reservoirs in the system, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, shrank to historic lows this summer, threatening hydroelectric power production.

This “teacup” diagram displays reservoir storage levels as of Sept. 21, 2022. (Bureau of Reclamation)

There’s simply not enough water in the system to fulfill the water allotments divvied among stakeholders by the 1922 Colorado River Compact, and the situation is expected to get worse, according to federal officials.

“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency,” Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said in a prepared statement. “In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced.”

Among other strategies, Wyoming plans to resume participation in the federal System Conservation Program, which pays water users to curb consumption, according to the Wyoming State Engineer’s office. Congress recently re-appropriated funding for the program, while the Inflation Reduction Act includes some $4 billion for efforts to modernize Colorado River Basin infrastructure and water management practices. Another $8.3 billion from the bipartisan Infrastructure law is available to address water and drought challenges throughout the U.S.


To help make up for shrinking water levels in Lake Powell, the Bureau of Reclamation tapped Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border for an extra 125,000 acre-feet of water in 2021 and an extra 500,000 acre feet this year. Water levels at the reservoir are expected to drop by 15 feet total this fall.

“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency.”

Tanya Trujillo, Interior Department

As one of three “upper basin” states, Wyoming’s plays an integral role in supplying water to the Colorado River system. Agriculture accounts for most of Wyoming’s water use in the system. However, Wyoming’s total water contribution mostly depends on seasonal climate and precipitation, Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart contends.

Those conditions have become more erratic, especially as average temperatures at Wyoming’s highest elevations — where seasonal snowpack serves as a “water bank” — warm at an alarming rate.

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. An examination of the historic SNOTEL data collected and recorded by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service National Water and Climate Center will show that overall annual precipitation hasn’t varied all that much since Lakes Powell and Mead were constructed. On the other hand, the great population centers in Arizona, Nevada, and California have absolutely sky-rocketed since the constrution of those reservoirs. Climate change has been a planetary fact for the past 4.54 billion years or so; it’s not “man-made.” The ever-increasing human population is man-made. “Conserve” as we might, the regional human population has already out-stripped the freshwater resources of the southwestern states. (In point of fact, the planet hasn’t lost a drop of water for billions of years!)

      1. I think you missed the point: Our planetary temperatures have been increasing for the past 13,000 years…after a two and half million year deep freeze. Sixty million years before that, the average daily planetary temperature at our latitude is estimated to have been around 120 degrees F, based upon plant fossils and subtropical pollen(s) found within the Morrison Formation. Our planet is now experiencing an inter-glacial period; they last tens of thousands of years. Glacial periods last for millions of years. There’s a great exhibit called “The Journey Through Time” at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. It’s a multi-level (story) exhibit that requires several hours to tour if one actually reads the interpretive signage. It does an incredible job of explaining Earth’s natural history.

  2. Interesting foto, Matt. Thanks for coming to my house with Angus & Matt. Also good piece on antelope herd at high aLtitude.
    Charlie Thomson

    1. Before retiring four years ago, I worked in Building 800 on the Denver Federal Center for the USFS Rocky Mountain Regional HQ. That building houses the National Science Foundation Ice Core (Laboratory) Facility. After examining 400,000 years of atmospheric samples, it can be scientifically stated that the CO2 content of our atmosphere was of 280 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution. After the Industrial Revolution began, the CO2 content grew to its present 400 parts per million. That’s an increase of only 120 parts per million (or 120 thousands of 1 percent!) that, at its extreme, can be attributed to human activity. So it’s a stretch, to say the least, that our current planetary climate has been created by mankind. Our planet began it’s latest warming cycle about 13,000 years ago, which is the beginning of an inter-glacial period. Two hundred and fifty million years ago, the atmosphere of our planet contained at least 1,600 CO2 parts per million; that figure has been derived by comparing the relative thickness of shell growth layers of present-day-living and fossilized mollusk shells. There are MANY factors that determine the warming rate (and cooling) of our planetary climate; mankind’s influence may be additive, but it is minimal compared to all other factors.

  3. FIRST IN TIME – FIRST IN RIGHT!!!! The most basic principal of water appropriation. No way Wyoming irrigators on the Green River basin should give up their water rights so recent – 1970 to 2022 – rapidly growing states below us can fill up their swimming pools and water their golf courses. If they’re running short of water its mother natures way of telling them to stop growing – they have reached their human capacity in the southwest. Its not our problem – they did it to themselves.

    1. You mean Arizona and Utah? Arizona is cutting back only because they have to by agreements in 2007 and 2019. Utah has no intention of really being “conservative” and last year set up a commission to explore ways of developing every drop of their 1922 compact water, whether there is any water or not. Nevada, a blue state I guess, has done more than all the others combined to be “conservative”. Colorado is close behind.

      My point is that this crisis in the Colorado River Basin is not a political, Blue State vs Red State thing. It’s on all of us regardless of political ideologies. Physical reality and climate reality trump all of that trivial nonsense.

  4. typical for the states california & colorado for example: that have overbuilt & have high taxes to be
    demanding that the state’s that hes must make ave kept construction & taxes low wyoming for example :
    are demanding that those state’s make sacrifice’s to meet there demands.