Colorado River Basin States have reached a draft agreement to deal with critical water shortages across the West

Deepan Dutta / Summit Daily
Lake Dillon bottoming out due to drought, Friday, July 6, near Frisco.
Hugh Carey /

As hurricanes flood the east coast, seven Western states are trying to avert a disaster caused by drought. Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California have drafted a set of agreements to manage water flow between the states as major reservoirs on the Colorado River reach critically low levels.

The Colorado River provides water to 40 million people and over 6,300 square miles of farmland. The Colorado River Compact, signed by the seven basin states in 1922, provided the basis for water sharing across the West, which allowed irrigation across the West and Southwest, leading to the massive development and population boom we see today.

Yet the compact has long been criticized for overestimating how much water actually flows down the Colorado, as it was based on water flow data that was gathered during unusually wet years in the early 20th century.

At the moment, the compact assumes 16 million acre-feet of water flow, and requires 15 million of those acre-feet to be shared roughly equally between the Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — and the Lower Basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California.

However, these past few years have seen unprecedented dry conditions that some experts say are part of a regular cycle that was not accounted for when the compact was signed. The water flow assumed as average for the compact is higher than long-term average flows seen over the past few decades.

Due to drought and increased water usage, Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir when full and the main source of water for the Lower Basin States, has regularly hovered around a “drought trigger” level of 1,075 feet above sea level. Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir when full, would see a shortage if it is at 3,525 feet. If either of those reservoirs are at or below the level when the new year starts, the Bureau of Reclamation will declare a water shortage and require states using the reservoirs to cut back on use. At the moment, Lake Mead is at 1,079 feet and Powell at 3,591.

In order to avoid that shortage, which has never been declared before, the Bureau asked the seven basin states to come together in 2018 to form drought contingency plans that will avoid triggering shortages. This past Wednesday, the Bureau released a draft plan formed by the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states.

The draft contingency plan would see Lower Basin states agree to conserve more water and curtail use and keep more water in storage if Lake Mead reaches the critical level. The Upper Basin states agreed to keep Lake Powell at least 30 feet above the 3,525 feet trigger level and gain the ability to keep a certain amount of excess water in storage, instead of losing it to Lower Basin states.

In a joint statement, the Bureau’s Lower Colorado Regional Director Terry Fulp and Upper Colorado Regional Director Brent Rhees lauded the landmark draft agreements.

“The seven Colorado River Basin States have taken an important step forward by releasing draft drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basins,” the statement read. “The Bureau of Reclamation commends the work of the many partners in the Basin. We are encouraged by their progress in responding to ongoing drought conditions that continue to threaten reservoir elevations at an unprecedented rate.”

The statement goes on to say that the Bureau hopes the draft agreements will be finalized and adopted by the end of 2018. However, states will need to have a framework for how to distribute water cuts, which may require dealing with painful realities while tightening belts.

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