'We're All Going To Have To Live With Less Water': Upper Basin States Activate Activate Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Tuesday, January 26, 2021 - 1:56pm
Updated: Wednesday, January 27, 2021 - 12:39pm

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Sustainability coverage is supported in part by Intel

The Upper Colorado River.
Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management
The Upper Colorado River.

LAUREN GILGER: It's only a few weeks into the new year, and things aren't looking good for our water future already. Last week, dry conditions activated a 2019 drought plan for the first time in the upper reaches of the Colorado River basin, forcing states and the region to plan for an even drier future. KUNC's Luke Runyon covers the Colorado River basin for the region. He joins us now with more on all of this. Good morning, Luke.

LUKE RUNYON: Hi, Lauren.

GILGER: OK, so let's start with what we are seeing now. Like, what triggered the drought contingency plan this time?

RUNYON: This was a provision in the upper Colorado River drought contingency plan. And that plan focuses heavily on the level of Lake Powell, which is one of the river's biggest reservoirs. The federal government runs these models every month that project basically how much water is expected to be in the river's reservoirs for the next two years based on what snowpack is looking like, what the reservoir levels are, soil moisture, a bunch of other things. And this month, for the first time, they projected that within the next two years, it's plausible that Lake Powell is projected to fall below this critical threshold that was identified in the drought contingency plan. Really, this is a sign of just how bad things are getting on the Colorado River this year. About 84% of the total land area in the upper Colorado watershed is in extreme to exceptional drought. So the fact that this plan is getting used isn't totally unexpected. But some scientists and water managers that I've talked to have said that they're surprised at just how dire the forecasts have become in just the last couple months.

GILGER: Wow. Wow. And this directly affects, I know, the states that depend on the upper basin for water, right? So this is Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico. What's the effect down here in Arizona?

RUNYON: Yeah, this provision that was triggered this month forces the states in the upper basin to start planning more intensely for dry conditions and get ready to make some potentially big decisions on how to respond to it. The lower basin, which Arizona is part of, has already started using its drought contingency plan. In 2020, the state had its water deliveries from the Colorado River curtailed, and it will again in 2021 and for the foreseeable future. Those cutbacks are likely to get even steeper now that the drought is intensifying during this dry winter that we're having. And it's important to note here, too, that when things are bad in the upper basin, it eventually worsens in the lower basin too. If it's dry in the headwaters, that means less water flowing to downstream states, more pressure on big reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

GILGER: OK, sounds like there are also some ecological concerns here, too.

RUNYON: Yeah, people aren't the only living things that rely on water, obviously. And this is when you start to see this sort of cascade of effects throughout the region. Climate change is raising temperatures across the Southwest. When you combine that with limited precipitation, desert wildlife — which is already adapted to water scarcity — they start to have a hard time surviving. You see that, too, with vegetation. I talked with Arizona's state climatologist Nancy Selover recently, and she says the record setting high temperatures that Arizona saw this past summer and fall are stressing out plants that everyone associates with being able to withstand hot and dry weather.

NANCY SELOVER: That heat heated the ground around saguaros, and we had saguaros dying off because the ground got so hot that they couldn't survive.

GILGER: Yeah, the saguaros falling over is not a good sign. So this, though, is what the drought contingency plan was created for, right? Like, what does all of this mean for our water future?

RUNYON: The plans were created because the Colorado River's big reservoirs were at risk of dropping rapidly and users having to take some massive cutbacks all at once. They're really an attempt to try and rebalance some of the river's fundamental disconnect between water supplies and demands, where more water exists on paper and legal agreements than is actually flowing in the river itself. We've now had 20 years of above average temperatures and below average flows in the river. And with that, you're now starting to see that reflected in its biggest reservoirs. They're just not able to keep providing the same amount of water without being drained. So the takeaway is we're all going to have to live with less water in the Southwest and in the Colorado River basin. It's just a matter of who has to use less and when.

GILGER: All right. That is KUNC's Luke Runyon joining us this morning. He covers the Colorado River basin for the region. Luke, thank you so much for coming on and explaining this all to us.

RUNYON: You're welcome.

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