Summit County’s State of the River event shows how Colorado leaders are working to protect dwindling water resources

Eliza Noe
Summit Daily
Water levels were low at the Wahweap Marina at Lake Powell in this photo from December 2021. Last year, Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison supported Lake Powell, and this year, Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming will prop up the lake during drought conditions.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

As the decades-long drought plaguing the West continues, water users across the Western Slope gathered at State of the River annual events to hear about current conditions of Colorado water.

Some visitors at Summit County’s event expressed concerns about where local water is going, and leadership from across the state addressed what is being done to protect it.

Zane Kessler, director of government relations for the Colorado River District, said that collaboration between counties and groups across the Western Slope has been a great asset to advocate for protecting local water sources. As drought conditions continue and demand for water rises, Kessler said part of the district’s job is to protect Western Slope interests.

The states making up the Colorado River Basin are divided into two groups: the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. Lower Basin states are Arizona, Nevada and California. There are also water consumption areas outside of the river’s natural basin that rely on exports of water, such as Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front, the San Juan-Chama area in New Mexico, large cities in southern California like Los Angeles and San Diego, and Colorado’s populations that rely on trans-mountain diversions.

“It was formed at the request of Upper Basin representatives, and specifically Colorado’s representative that noticed the rapid development and rapid additional consumption of water by the Lower Basin,” Kessler said. “At the time, the Colorado River was governed as a whole on the system of prior appropriation.”

Prior appropriation is a first-in-line system for water. Essentially, he or she who has the most senior water rights gets to use that right first.

“What they did in Colorado River Compact of 1922 was essentially split the river in half — 7.5 million acre feet to the Upper Basin, 7.5 million acre feet to the Lower Basin. And it was not necessarily so much about the numbers as it was the equitable portion.”

Though there are other treaties and appropriations of Colorado River water, Kessler said that there is still a “significant imbalance” in usage between the two basins. On average, the Lower Basin uses 11.5 million acre feet while the Upper Basin is in the range of 4.5 million acre feet, and Kessler added that 2007 General Guidelines can explain that deficit.

“We live within the hydrology. Anybody here that’s an irrigator will be able to tell you — when the water is out, it’s out. When the ditch runs dry, we’re done. When the snowpack is gone, we live within our means, and we do what we can. That’s not the case in the Lower Basin,” Kessler said.

Current guidelines will be in place until 2026, and Kessler said that negotiations around them are currently in the works. Colorado River District general manager Andy Mueller said that something has to be done about the overuse of water resources by the southern portion of the Colorado River, and the river district is advocating for smarter usage that isn’t at the sacrifice of only Colorado water users. This year, an additional 500,000 acre feet will be released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming to help prop up Lake Powell.

In 2021, eight feet from Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Western Slope was sent to Lake Powell as an emergency action resulting from the mega-drought. The drop in water levels led to an early closure of the marinas, cutting six weeks out of the lake’s five-month tourism season, and the marinas this year will stay closed during the boating season.

“​​Those Lower Basin states have benefited from the fact that they’ve been able to keep making those withdrawals over a period of time when we continue to tighten their belts,” he said. “As you think about the state of things, they’re only starting now to start doing things we’ve been doing our last 20 years.”

In addition to water depletion from over usage, Mueller said that water speculation has become an increased concern for the district. Water speculation is the purchase of a water right without the plan or intent to put that water right to beneficial use, or securing a water right with the primary motivation of profiting from future sale of that right. A lot of the time, investors purchase water rights in order to ship water to cities in the Lower Basin.

“Anybody who cares about Colorado, cares about local food production, who cares about our cities being able to grow with affordable water, cares about multipurpose solutions that we can create as Coloradans — when you get outside investment into our area, it’s a really serious problem,” he said.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser also emphasized his office’s focus on protecting water on the Western Slope.

“Right now we’re one of the few states in the nation who manage their water rights according to the availability of water,” Weiser said. “Going forward, this is the foundation that we are going to build. We’re going to continue to invest in efforts to better measure and manage and provide infrastructure here in the Upper Basin states.”

Weiser also emphasized that partnerships between Coloradans is going to be “critical” to navigating how to handle water usage going forward. He said that his office has added two new members to the team to help with negotiations around new guidelines in 2026 to reach more water supply security.

“We’ve got to create the right culture here in Colorado, remembering our overall goals and objectives,” Weiser said. “If we can all stay aligned around critical values that serve us in Colorado, that’s going to be crucial to us getting to the other side. There are going to be lots of different impulses, short-term ideas that people put out there that are not necessarily aligned with our overall goals and objectives. That’s going to take work and leadership.”

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