Reduction in water diversions from Colorado River possible if drought worsens, Northern Water officials confirm in public meeting
Front Range water supplier Northern Water could begin reducing water diversions from the Colorado River in the next few years if drought conditions persist in the Rocky Mountain west.
As the location of the Colorado River headwaters, Grand County would see more water flowing through the county if water diversions are reduced. While it would be good for Grand County, it would negatively impact water users along the Front Range.
In late February, officials from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, more commonly known as Northern Water, addressed the Loveland City Council about the town’s water supply. Northern Water provides Loveland with water through the infrastructure of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which diverts water from the western slope under the Continental Divide for disbursement to Front Range communities and agricultural operations.
Officials from Northern Water on Feb. 26 notified Loveland officials that reductions in trans-basin water diversions to the city from the Colorado River headwaters could be reduced in coming years due to ongoing concerns about water supply and reservoir levels in the Colorado River basin. Northern Water officials put the announcement in context of the organization’s efforts to be “proactive” in relation to concerns about water supplies in the state.
“This is our attempt to be proactive, to be sure we are talking about it well in advance,” said Brian Werner, spokesman for Northern Water. “We operate the largest transmountain diversion project in the state and we want our water users to understand that if the drought were to continue, and exacerbate, we will all have to tighten our belts a bit.”
According to Werner, Northern Water’s decision to begin discussing possible future drawdowns was simply one element within the overall discussion about water availability in the Colorado River basin and the ongoing negotiations around the Colorado River’s Drought Contingency Plans.
Colorado, along with the four other states in the upper basin, voted unanimously in December to approve the drought contingency plan worked out among all seven basin states.
While concerns about drought in the Colorado River Basin are nothing new, the ongoing depletion of reserves in the two largest reservoirs within the basin, Lake Powell in Utah and Lake Mead in Nevada, are prompting additional concern. As water levels in Lake Powell continue to decrease, the lake’s hydroelectric power equipment, which rely upon Colorado River flows to generate power, are in danger of becoming inoperable.
Werner noted that the federal government could impose mandatory water restrictions if water levels in Lake Powell drop enough to pass certain trigger points.
“We are trying to figure out ways that we could prop up Powell,” Werner said. “We don’t want to get to mandatory levels with Powell.”
Werner said that any decision by Northern to begin reducing water diversions to Front Range communities would be part of a broader conservation effort undertaken by the basin’s water users, and not just Northern Water itself.
“We won’t make that decision in a vacuum,” Werner said. “It wouldn’t be Northern alone.”
While there is no guarantee that drought contingency plans will need to be invoked in the Colorado River basin, Werner indicated that if such action must be taken it would not happen until 2020, at the earliest. Werner also highlighted Northern Water’s current efforts to create additional water storage on the eastern side of the Continental Divide as steps the organization is taking that they believe will help address the impacts of ongoing drought. Those two projects, the Windy Gap Firming Project and the Northern Integrated Supply Project, would see the creation of new reservoirs on east of the continental divide that would provide greater water storage.
“We are having dryer dry years and wetter wet years,” Werner said. “If we are going to have wetter wets we need to have more storage. We hope things do not get as dire as some models predict, but we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we were not factoring in for future water supply.”
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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the national Trout Unlimited group received the funding and to clarify exactly what the money will pay for.