Wet Winter Eases Dispute Over Colorado River Flows

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, May 3, 2005 (ENS) – The Bush administration on Monday denied a request by Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming to curb Colorado River water releases from drought-depleted Lake Powell.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton said reduced flows are unnecessary because heavy winter rain and snow have eased drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin.

The decision reaffirmed the Interior Secretary’s authority to manage water flows on the river and Norton said the agency would review the situation next April to see if adjustments are then warranted.

Federal officials "remain concerned about drought in the basin," Norton said. "We need to continue close monitoring of reservoir levels and releases."

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Water levels in Lake Powell are low as shown by the dry white margins visible all around the reservoir. (Photo credit unknown)
The decision is the latest twist in the long struggle to satisfy the seven increasingly thirsty states that rely on water from the Colorado River Basin.

A 1922 federal/state compact divides the water between Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – the upper basin states – and the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

Satisfying the demands of the accord has in recent years proved more contentious due to sustained population growth and a multiyear drought that began in 1999.

Improved conditions this winter prompted the upper basin states to ask the federal government to reduce releases through the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona – a move that would boost the level of Lake Powell, which sits on the Arizona-Utah border.

Lake Powell is currently at about 34 percent of total capacity.

Water released from Lake Powell flows downriver into Lake Mead, which sits on the Arizona-Nevada border.

Lake Mead is the primary reservoir for Arizona, California and Nevada – water from the reservoir is also used to meet U.S. treaty obligations to Mexico.

The upper basin states contend the request is justified because heavy rains have sufficiently boosted the level of Lake Mead to some 60 percent capacity.

The move is "unwarranted," Norton said, given the region’s wettest winter in five years.

Federal officials said their projections of snowmelt – and the planned releases – will bring both reservoirs to similar levels by September 2006.

The decision met with the approval of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat. "I commend Secretary Norton's decision to support the laws of the Colorado River," the governor said Monday. "This decision also recognizes that there is great value in maintaining the longstanding and cooperative relationship among the seven states that draw water from the Colorado."

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Lake Mead is created by the Hoover Dam across the Colorado River. Water levels in the reservoir have been low for years. (Photo credit unknown)
The latest forecast from the National Weather Service indicates that snowmelt runoff through July will be 106 percent of average.

With this runoff, Lake Powell is projected to be at 48 percent of capacity, and Lake Mead at 57.5 percent of capacity by September 2005.

These capacities equal some 10.9 million acre-feet and 13 million acre-feet, respectively.

If "average" runoff persists through next year, these reservoirs are projected to have nearly identical contents by September 2006, according to the Interior Department.

Interior also officials cited concerns about the impact of reduced flows on hydroelectric power production and on conservation efforts partially funded the utilities.

Norton urged the seven states of the Colorado River Basin to agree to a comprehensive plan to manage the river during drought, including reservoir levels and releases from Lake Powell – something they have been unable to manage to date.

In a bid to jumpstart that effort, Norton announced a meeting of federal and state officials, as well as relevant stakeholders, to be held later this month.

Those consultations should "at a minimum" address the development of guidelines for lower basin shortages and management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, said Norton, who called for the effort to be completed by December 2007.

"We do not underestimate the challenges facing us in this effort," Norton said. "The importance of the Colorado River to the Southwest for water supply, hydropower production, fish and wildlife, recreation and other benefits dictates that all parties work together to find creative solutions that will conserve reservoir storage and help to minimize the adverse effects of drought in the basin."