A paddler plies the placid waters of the upper Green River, with the Bridger Wilderness of the Wind River Mountains as a backdrop. The Green River is the main tributary to the troubled Colorado River. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

Wyoming joined the three other Upper Colorado River Basin states this week in telling federal officials they will take on additional water conservation efforts, but cannot commit to sending specific volumes of water to downstream states in 2023.

“We stand ready to participate in and support efforts, across the Basin, to address the continuing dry hydrology and depleted storage conditions,” Upper Colorado River Commission Executive Director Charles Cullom stated in a July 18 letter to the Bureau of Reclamation. “The options the Upper Division States have available to protect critical reservoir elevations are limited.”

The federal government in June asked for firm, voluntary water conservation commitments among all seven Colorado River Basin states that would keep an additional 2 million to 4 million acre feet of water flowing into Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2023. That’s the estimated volume of additional water necessary to keep the levels at Powell and Mead high enough to continue generating hydroelectricity next year.

Wyoming is one of four upper-basin states governed by the Colorado River Compact and associated laws that require 7.5 million acre feet of water to flow past Lees Ferry, Arizona, annually. (Colorado Foundation for Water Education)

For comparison, the Flaming Gorge Reservoir straddling the Wyoming-Utah border has a storage capacity of 3.8 million acre feet of water.

If unsatisfied with the voluntary commitments, the Bureau of Reclamation and Interior Department are prepared to use their federal authority to implement mandatory water conservation actions, according to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton. Touton issued the challenge to Colorado River Basin states in June, giving them 60 days to submit their voluntary water savings commitments. States have until Aug. 15 to respond.

But for Wyoming, one of the four Upper Basin states along with Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, it’s impossible to either quantify or guarantee a specific volume of water savings under the ongoing Colorado River Drought Response Operations Plan, according to Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart.

Mother Nature is the biggest reason behind that, he said. As a headwaters state, Wyoming’s role in the Colorado River system is that of a supplier, and that supply varies wildly depending on seasonal snowfall, evaporation and soil moisture — even more so than volumes of water used by ag producers, industry and municipalities.

“We really are unable to commit to any specific volumes by the deadline [Aug. 15],” Gebhart said. “The [water supply estimating] process requires forecasting data that isn’t available until late winter and early spring of 2023.”

Further, Gebhart added, the federal government lacks the authority to force those with water rights in Wyoming to curtail their water use, and the state is reluctant to do so because it would require coordination among thousands of water rights users. “We would much rather have the water rights users decide how they want to be involved than for us to go in and regulate.”

Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah side near the dam in September 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Wyoming and other Upper Colorado River Basin states should feel an obligation to do a better job of accounting for their water use compared to seasonal water availability, Great Basin Water Network Executive Director Kyle Roerink said. That would help those states set more specific targets in contributing to the system-wide drought response plan.

“For right now, the response from the Upper Basin states has been ‘hell no, we’re not giving up a drop,'” Roerink said.

Colorado River crisis

The continuing climate change-driven aridification across much of the West has depleted Colorado River reservoirs to historic lows, threatening hydroelectric power generation and water supplies to some 40 million people who rely on the river system. The surface elevation at Lake Powell fell to 3,522 feet in June, the lowest since construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s. Water intake ducts at the dam’s hydroelectric power station would no longer function if the lake’s surface level reaches 3,490 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

Increasing demand for water throughout the southwest combined with climate forecasts suggest the situation will only become worse for those dependent on the river system.

“The conditions we see today, and the potential risks we see on the horizon, demands that we take prompt action.” Interior Department Assistant Secretary Tanya Trujillo told reporters in May.

Boat ramps stretch to the water at Flaming Gorge Reservoir in September 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The Bureau of Reclamation owns and operates a large complex of reservoirs along the Colorado River and its tributaries that serve as a water banking system. That includes the Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River in Wyoming and Utah. The Green River, the chief tributary to the Colorado River, originates in the Wind River Range, flows to Flaming Gorge Reservoir, then connects with the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

In June, the Bureau of Reclamation announced it would release an extra 500,000 acre feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir this year, dropping the surface level by an estimated 15 feet sometime in the fall. The agency also plans to withhold 480,000 acre feet of water in Lake Powell, while Colorado River Lower Basin users agreed to increased water conservation measures.

Federal and state officials worry that more drastic measures may be required to maintain critical water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead next year and for the foreseeable future.

“Despite the actions taken by the [Bureau of Reclamation], significant and additional conservation actions are required to protect the Colorado River system infrastructure and the long-term stability of the system,” Commissioner Touton testified to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in June.

More conservation tools

Rather than committing to sending specific volumes of water downstream, the four Upper Basin states say they need the Interior’s help in pushing Congress to reauthorize the 2014 System Conservation Pilot Project. The program offered payments to water rights users who voluntarily cut back on their normal water diversions.

“[Reauthorization] is a Congressional action,” Gebhart said. “And because [the SCPP program] is voluntary, we don’t know what amount of participation will occur.” 

U.S. Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) said they would bring a reauthorization bill to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this month.

This map shows irrigated lands in the Green River Basin. (State’s West Water Resources Corporation)

Other elements of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s counter-offer, or “5 Point Plan,” include asking the federal government to fund better water measurement, monitoring and reporting tools. Combined with reauthorizing the SCPP, Wyoming and other Upper Colorado River Basin states can build a more “permanent” program to manage water demand, according to Gebhart and the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office.

Setting up a comprehensive conservation plan is the best Wyoming can offer for now, said Chris Brown, Wyoming Senior Assistant Attorney General for the office’s water division.

“It’s something we can do to try to help the system within the time period that the [Bureau of Reclamation] commissioner asked for,” Brown said. “We’ll set that up and do what we can to try to incentivize reductions in use.”

Committing specific volumes of water savings is “logistically impossible” to do by the Aug. 15 deadline, he added.

Meantime, Gebhart said he and other Wyoming officials will continue to work within Gov. Mark Gordon’s Colorado River Working Group and with all the Colorado River Basin stakeholders in figuring out how Wyoming can help stabilize the river system under worsening conditions.

Dustin Bleizeffer

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 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. i can not add to the comments other than to say watch out wyoming.

    the water compact was written when water was looked at as a commodity not as
    a necessity.

    the lower states will have to drill down for aquifers to draw more water.

  2. Page 66 of the “A Future on Borrowed Time – Colorado River Shortages and the New Normal of Climate Change” shows the water balance for the State of Wyoming under various climactic change conditions while meeting existing Colorado River Compact requirements.

    See the Utah Rivers Council website Climate Change section for a PDF of the 2021 report which shows the same calculations for the other Upper Basin States.

  3. Barrasso, Cheney, and Lummis are all beholding to the oil, gas, coal industries. Nothing will change untile they’re gone. Water will become the number one issue when we have to choose who gets what and how much. Play golf or eat. Lawns or fishing. We can live with out gas but only a few days with out water.

  4. WYOMING’S WILDLIFE DEPENDS ON THE MELT TOO: Our irrigators on the Upper Green provide an unrecognized benefit for thousands of deer, antelope, elk and sage grouse. The hay and alfalfa they raise not only benefits the ag economy but supports the wildlife at the same time. I doubt if anyone in the lower Colorado River states cares about their welfare but those of us in Wyoming care greatly. We never want to short change the forage they need for survival.

    1. If you really care about wildlife and no forage issues, quit supporting Magagna, Rock Springs Grazing Assoc. and all the rest of the Wyoming welfare recipients calling itself a livestock industry. Having roamed the desert around Rock Springs almost nightly for 30 years, I do know how livestock comes in and eats all the new and leaves nothing for deer, antelope and Elk. Then it is another year to wait for a new 1/2 inch of growth and here comes the sheep and it is all gone again. “Make Wyoming what America once was again.” BS

  5. When the 7 states that divert water from the Colorado River hammered out the Colorado River Compact, the total average yield of the River was over estimated. The language of the Compact rendered the upper basin states obligatory to guarantee a rolling 10 year average of 7.5 million acre feet per year allocated to the lower basin states. This essentially allowed water diverters in California, Arizona and Nevada to ignore reality and add massive demand for water due to population growth, ag development and industrial usage. Writers On The Range posted a good overview of how the upper basin has not impinged usage by the lower basin, all the while urban development in those states and water managers and governmental gurus willfully ignored future prospects of shortage. Lower basin water experts are laughably being indignant by pointing fingers at upper basin states.

  6. very well stated by Brandon Gebhart on behalf of the State of Wyoming. Too bad the feds cannot relate to common sense.

  7. Take Barrasso away from this process. As a Dr. he was questionable, as a senator-bogus. In fact, bogus works for all that he says and does. BS

  8. Read Mark Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert. The development planned, knowing water was limited, was criminal and certainly not sustainable.Further, many cities in the west are retirement areas wanting golf courses and swimming pools. Those need to be last priority for water. Growing crops should be at the top.
    Future development should be limited. Certainly buying up agricultural water rights should be stopped. Already agricultural lands have been converted to subdivisions requiring more and more water. More development and population in low water areas should be discouraged. People have resisted zoning, but our survival may depend on it.

    1. Southern Arizona is a locale where crops can be grown year-round. It makes much more sense to grow food and fiber crops there, rather than tear up agricultural lands which have been carefully leveled and irrigation infrastructure built to build more and more ugly subdivisions. My daughter lives in one of those subdivisions with its HOA restrictions. All my wife’s relatives live in Arizona. People move from one “island” of air conditioning to another: from home to auto to shopping center to pick up kids at school, denying the oppressively hot climate.

      Arizona once had a vibrant citrus industry. No longer. Remnants of former orchards now go unpicked for lack of any marketing infrastructure.

      People around the west seem to think that mega-metropolises are a higher use of water than agriculture. If you take all the water away from ag, what will we eat?