Bennet, Hickenlooper on potential revisions to Colorado River operation: Wet year no excuse to ignore a drier future

John LaConte
Vail Daily
Water levels in Lake Powell, seen here in December 2021, have fallen to historic lows.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The Bureau of Reclamation on Tuesday issued a set of potential options to revise the current operation of the Colorado River system, catching the attention of many residents and stakeholders within the system.

The Colorado River system includes the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, along with 30 federally recognized tribes, providing water to approximately 40 million people.

The options were laid out in a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, which determined that some action would be required to protect the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety in the years to come.

In the Upper Basin, the Glen Canyon Dam creates the Lake Powell reservoir, and in the Lower Basin, the Hoover Dam creates the Lake Mead reservoir. Both have reached historically low levels in recent years, “to the point that critical infrastructure and hydropower operations may be negatively impacted,” according to the statement issued Tuesday.

The main boat ramp at Wahweap Marina was unusable due to low water levels in Lake Powell in December 2021.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

In December 2007, the Department of the Interior signed a decision to create new guidelines for the Colorado River system, including provisions regarding timing and volumes of potential water delivery reductions, and additional operating flexibility to conserve and store water in the system. The 2007 guidelines were anticipated to be in place through 2026, but “the continuing drought within the Basin has increased the probability that the water supply system will be unable to make required releases,” according to the statement issued Tuesday. “In addition, reservoir levels have continued to fall to the point that critical infrastructure and hydropower operations may be negatively impacted.”

The process to create the statement was initiated by the Department of the Interior in the fall of 2022 following emergency drought response actions which began in the spring of 2022 in an effort to increase Lake Powell storage. Those actions included releasing more water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and reducing Glen Canyon Dam’s annual release volume.

The Department of the Interior published a Notice of Intent in the Federal Register on November 17, 2022, saying it would “promptly identify and analyze modified operating guidelines to address current and foreseeable hydrologic conditions.” That notice was published as a result of “the declining reservoir elevations, the anticipated continuing trend of low-runoff conditions, and the need to protect infrastructure and Colorado River operations,” according to the statement published Tuesday.

But in the months that followed, historically high levels of snowfall blanketed the Colorado River system, causing entire chairlifts to be buried under 800 or more inches of snow in Californiaflooding in Nevada and record-high snow totals in Utah.

All that could be good news for those reservoirs that rely on melting snow to refill.

Among the alternatives laid out in the statement is a “no action” alternative, which assumes that the current operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead would lead to a “dead pool, thereby preventing operation of Glen Canyon Dam or Hoover Dam, or both, to provide water supplies in the Basin.” That also assumes “extreme low-runoff scenarios,” which are not likely this spring and summer.

But that doesn’t mean anyone should consider that alternative, according to the senators who represent Colorado.

Sen. Michael Bennet, following Tuesday’s announcement, issued a statement saying as much.

“This year’s good snowpack can’t be an excuse to kick the can down the road,” Bennet said. “This SEIS is a constructive step toward sustaining the Colorado River system for the long term, and I continue to urge all seven Basin states to come to an agreement. We have no time to lose.”

The Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement contemplates an “absence of consensus among all entities affected by changed operations,” saying sound and prudent operation of the reservoirs on the system “will almost certainly lead to objection by specific entities to the impacts of one or more aspects of water management decisions.”

Sen. John Hickenlooper called the statement “an important step in planning for a drier West, saying states “must work towards a collaborative, seven-state solution for managing water scarcity that honors our communities, the sovereignty of Tribes, and the concerns of agricultural producers.”

Hickenlooper also mentioned the lure of the no-action alternative in the shadow of the historic winter of 2022-23.

“No matter how promising this year’s snowpack is, we must prepare for less water in the river on which we rely,” he said.

One way in which the Eagle County area has begun preparing for less water in the Colorado River is through a water shepherding test.

From Sept. 23 to Sept. 39 of 2020, 1,667 acre-feet of water was released from Homestake Reservoir in Eagle County, into Homestake Creek and the Eagle River, in an attempt to see how well water flows through Eagle County and the Western Slope, and how much of it makes it to Utah.

The release was conducted so water engineers could observe transit times and amounts of water originating from an Upper Colorado River basin headwaters reservoir to the state line, and to “identify and better understand administration issues that may be related to compact administration during streamflow and hydrologic conditions that may not otherwise present themselves.”

While the release “brought to light areas where administration may need to be adapted,” it also “created the opportunity to identify important considerations for the Engineers, Colorado River water users, and other West Slope entities going forward,” according to a report from the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

It’s possible that similar water releases occur in the future if, as Tuesday’s statement assumes, extreme low-runoff scenarios continue in the Colorado River system.

Hypotheticals aside, there isn’t much in the statement that will have a dramatic effect on the average Coloradan, said Tony Caligiuri with Colorado Open Lands.

“However, Coloradans should probably see this as an opportunity to address the longer-term water issues on the Colorado River while we still have time to make adjustments,” he said. “While we might not be in the crosshairs at the moment, the trends are pretty obvious.”

That point was echoed by Diane Johnson with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.

“Conservation and efficiency is the future regardless of what happens in this big picture, we know we have to adapt,” Johnson said.

Locally, water has become much more expensive in recent years in Eagle River Water & Sanitation District’s East Vail to Cordillera service area, where homeowners are now looking at a fourth consecutive year of the tiered water rate allowing for less usage per tier.

“We used to have five tiers, with 10,000 gallons allotted for each tier, per (single-family equivalent),” Johnson said. “Then we went down to 9,000 gallons per tier, to 8,000, to 7,000, and this year we’re at 6,000 gallons per tier.”

That means a home using 19,000 gallons of water per month in Eagle County is now being charged at four tier rates, rather than two, as was the case four years ago.

But Johnson said a regular, single-family home might not notice the difference as most should be using less than 6,000 gallons per month.

“We’re most concerned with outdoor water use,” Johnson said. “Because 95 percent of the water use inside a home comes back to a wastewater treatment facility, and goes back to the river from which it was taken.”

Of outdoor water use, “the biggest water hog is lawns,” Johnson said. “We encourage converting bluegrass lawns to native grasses which might not need any supplemental water, switching from annuals to perennials. It’s really about plant choices.”

Besides the no-action alternative, other alternatives laid out in Tuesday’s statement include decreasing the quantity of water that would be apportioned for consumptive use in the Lower Basin states in years of low flow and low reservoir elevations; reducing the quantity of water released from Glen Canyon Dam in years of low flow and low reservoir elevations; reducing deliveries from Lake Mead; decommissioning the Glen Canyon Dam, and others.

The draft SEIS will be published in the Federal Register on Friday, at which time a 45-day public comment period will commence. To view the draft, visit

Four Zoom meetings will take place — on May 4, May 8, May 10 and May 16 — at which time the Bureau of Reclamation will provide information on the draft SEIS, answer questions, and take verbal comment. To register for the meetings, visit

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