Big River Updates

April, 2024

View the complete public packet including all staff memos by clicking HERE (.pdf)

It has been a busy few months in the interstate and federal arena on the Colorado River. Last fall, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) requested that the seven basin states present a consensus-based proposal to the Bureau of Reclamation containing the states’ collective desire for future operational guidelines for Lakes Powell and Mead.

The Commissioner had requested that this consensus modeling proposal be submitted no later than March 11, 2024. Unfortunately, the seven states were unable to reach a consensus. In fact, the Lower Division States stopped showing up to meetings with the Upper Division States back in mid-January, making it very hard to reach a seven-state consensus. The Upper Division States and the Lower Division States submitted modeling proposals the week before the March 11 deadline.

Those proposals can be found HERE (Upper Division) and HERE (Lower Division) respectively.

“These proposals are pretty far apart in a lot of ways,” said Dave “DK” Kanzer, Dir. of Science and Interstate Matters for the River District. “But they all include some significant reductions in the Lower Basin.”

Summary of Upper Division States Proposal

  • The Upper Division States propose operating Lake Powell based how full Lakes Mead Powell is October 1st. In their proposal, reductions in the Lower Basin use are dependent on an October 1 Combined Storage Trigger for Lakes Powell and Mead.[1]
  • The Upper Division States also discuss “parallel activities” within the Upper Basin which are not part of the federal action or alternatives recommended to be modeled as part of the Post-2026 NEPA process but which may complement the proposal in the future. These include:
    • Releases from Flaming Gorge, Navajo, and Aspinall Unit; and
    • Pursuing a voluntary, temporary, and compensated conserved consumptive use program.

Lower Division States Proposal

  • The Lower Basin proposes a “total system contents method” which bases reductions on volumes of water contained within seven Upper and Lower basin reservoirs[2] rather than on Lake Mead and Lake Powell elevations.
  • The Lower Basin proposal acknowledges what it refers to as the “structural deficit” and commits to reducing Lower Basin water use by up to 1.5 million acre-feet each year when system storage dips below 58% with optional reductions before that.
  • However, when combined system storage dips below 38%, the Lower Basin proposal asks that additional cuts be split evenly between the Upper and Lower Basins.
  • The Lower Basin proposal’s release criteria for Lake Powell are based on reservoir contents in the Upper Basin (Flaming Gorge, Navajo, Blue Mesa, and Lake Powell).

So what does that mean?

The Upper Basin proposal charts a reasonable path forward for the basin. It acknowledges the hydrologic realities of the river as well as the long-standing impacts to communities and industries who have already dealt with decades of involuntary reductions by living within what the river provides each year.

“Living within the hydrology is something we do here in the Upper Basin every year,” said Andy Mueller, Colorado River District General Manager. “Water users like those in the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association have to take a guess at how much water his water users are going to be able to have each year. And until perhaps last year, no one in the Lower Basin has ever been faced with that decision.”

On the other hand, the Lower Basin proposal would unfairly burden the Upper Basin when storage volumes are low by forcing reductions in use in the Upper Basin that are equivalent to reductions in the Lower Basin – even though the Lower Basin’s consumptive use far exceeds use in the Upper Basin by millions of acre-feet. It does not recognize the imperative to live within the hydrologic realities. This approach continues to use failed and outdated math and is unrealistic about the future of the river under the impacts of climate change.

Other Proposals

More recently, at least three other proposals of note were submitted to the Bureau of Reclamation for consideration:

  • A group of 20 of Colorado River basin tribes submitted a set of guiding principles to Reclamation that strongly suggests policy changes to address (HERE) the historical lack of Indigenous voices in the discussion and decision-making processes regarding Colorado River issues and calls for equitable representation.
  • Seven environmental organizations submitted a proposal (HERE) to Reclamation that outlines new flexible operational rules based upon reservoir storage thresholds and climatic conditions. Furthermore, they propose specific stewardship targets related to Grand Canyon flows, endangered fish recovery, and the Colorado River Delta. To support these targets, they propose creating an environmental water bank via purchase and/or conservation actions that would be operated independently from the abovementioned operational thresholds to meet environmental goals.
  • A group of independent water professionals that includes Professors Jack Schmidt and John Fleck along with CRD’s former General Manager, Eric Kuhn, submitted a proposal (HERE) to Reclamation that suggests a new flexible accounting concept be implemented that would allow storage credits to be created and transferred without impacting Colorado River compact accounting. It also suggests creating a new authority under an expanded Glen Canyon Dam adaptive management program and Federal Advisory Committee to enable more operational flexibility to meet multiple objectives beyond water supply objectives.

[1] The Trigger is calculated using Lake Powell and Lake Mead’s Storage volume (live storage below flood control elevations) by subtracting a threshold volume from the total live storage. The threshold volume for Lake Powell is 4.2 MAF. The threshold volume for Lake Mead is 4.5 MAF. The threshold volume for the two reservoirs combined is 8.7 MAF.

[2] For purposes of this Lower Basin Alternative, “total system contents” is the total volume of water in live storage within Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Blue Mesa Reservoir, Navajo Reservoir, Lake Powell, Lake Mead, Lake Mojave, and Lake Havasu.