Colorado River Compact meeting draws large crowd

Attendees packed the auditorium of Lyman Intermediate School on Tuesday, July 12, to hear experts talk about the Colorado River Compact and the importance to Wyoming and other western states. (HERALD PHOTO/Kayne Pyatt)

EVANSTON — A large crowd of ranchers, politicians and other interested parties filled the auditorium at the Lyman Intermediate School on Tuesday, July 12, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to hear two Wyoming experts provide an update on the Colorado River Compact, the continuing regional drought and the potential impacts to Wyoming.

Wyoming Superintendent of Water Division IV Kevin Payne and Senior Assistant Attorney General of the Water Natural Resources Division Chris Brown were the featured speakers.  Sponsors of the event were the Uinta County Conservation District, Uinta County Weed & Pest, Jones and DeMille Engineering (out of Roosevelt, Utah) and Western AgCredit.

Kerri Sabey with Uinta County Conservation District began the meeting.

“This is strictly an informational meeting; it is not intended to be a public hearing or an opportunity to protest the compact,” she said. “It is informational only. If there is time, there will be an opportunity for questions after the speakers have concluded.” 

Sabey then introduced the speakers and informed the audience that lunch would be served following the event. She said maps of the Colorado River Basin were available at the check-in table and when they ran out of maps, people were able to order a copy on a link on the conservation district website.

“The Colorado River is the most regulated river in the world, and it is a complex issue. Most of what I want to talk about today is the relationship Wyoming has with the other states involved,” Brown said. “The Colorado River System consists of the entire Colorado River Basin, which covers nearly 250,000 square miles. This provides water to seven U.S. states and two Mexican states. That system supplies water to 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of irrigated lands which has an economic value of approximately $1.4 trillion annually.”

The system, Brown said, has the capacity to store four years of average annual flow.  The Colorado River Basin includes other outside areas served by the water: Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, Denver and Colorado Springs, Albuquerque and New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley, Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Imperial and Coachella valleys.

Brown said the Imperial Valley in California is the largest user of the water and the area is experiencing substantial growth.

Brown said the big three laws concerning water allocation are the Compact of 1922 and, later, the treaty with Mexico in 1944 and the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact of 1948.

There are three methods available for allocating interstate streams among states, Brown said. The first is a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which allocates water among states based upon equitable considerations and provides equitable apportionment.

The second is through interstate compacts; an agreement between two or more states allocating use of water from interstate streams with the consent and approval of Congress. The last method is by congressional action, which becomes federal law.

The 1922 Compact was created due to a problem between Colorado and Wyoming. Colorado claimed it had the right to as much water from the Colorado River as it needed, and Wyoming’s Constitution said Wyoming had first rights to the water. The matter was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Wyoming won.

The compact divided the geographical area into two major areas: the Upper Basin (Wyoming), which had the legal rights to the water use and the Lower Basin, which maintained a legal obligation for water use. A problem for the Upper Basin was the large amount of water needed by the Lower Basin, especially Imperial Valley.

The Lower Basin’s main problem is that the areas flood in the spring and then become dry in the summer. At the time of the 1922 Compact, Colorado needed a dam to store water but didn’t have the finances to build it and needed federal help. The Upper Basin refused to allow Colorado to build the dam.

The 1922 Compact agreement apportioned beneficial consumption use between the upper and lower basins. The 1922 Compact does not apportion water, it apportions the “exclusive beneficial consumptive use” of water. If it is not being used the right to the water is lost. Total apportionment for the Upper Basin is 7.5 MAF (million-acre feet) and 8.5 MAF for the Lower Basin.

In 1944, the treaty with Mexico decrees that any water over and above the amount used by the states involved will be given to Mexico. Any deficiency in the amount of water for Mexico has to come from both Upper and Lower Basin in order to meet the 1.5 MAF now designated for Mexico.

The Upper Colorado River Basin Compact of 1948 divided the Upper Basin’s allocation among Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming. The 1948 Compact also established the Colorado River Commission (UCRC); established provisions for possible curtailment of Colorado water use; and established the State Engineer with the responsibility for implementing curtailment within Wyoming to maintain compact compliance.

“The primary insurance policy for the Upper Basin was the Colorado River Storage Project Act (CRSP) of 1956,” Brown said. “Federal dollars provided for the building of the Glen Canyon Dam which created Lake Powell; and the Aspinall, Flaming Gorge, and Navajo dams and projects in Wyoming: Fontenelle, Eden and Lyman.”

Brown then showed graphs of the serious decline of inflow into Lake Powell and Lake Mead due to the continuing drought. He said the Bureau of Reclamation announced, on May 3, two separate urgent drought response actions that will help prop up Lake Powell by nearly 1 MAF of water from May 2022 through April 2023.

To protect Lake Powell, more water will flow into Lake Powell from Flaming Gorge and less water will be released downstream.  Also, less water will be released from Lake Powell into Glen Canyon Dam. 

By ensuring that Lake Powell doesn’t fall below the target elevation of 3,525 feet, it helps to ensure compact compliance and continued Upper Basin water use and development. It also maintains hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam and minimizes the adverse effects to resources and infrastructure in the Upper Basin.

“It took a year for all of our agencies working together to develop the Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA),” Brown said. “We realize there will be a serious impact on recreation and those facilities and on endangered species. And we realize the cuts are happening to real people in the lower basin. We want to make sure that people understand and know the reasoning behind the cuts and the need to reduce water use.”

Brown summarized by saying that irrigation is the biggest use of annual apportionments and agriculture has 70% of the rights to the beneficial consumptive use.  The State of Wyoming decides how to curtail and meet compliance, the questions is how, Brown said.

Superintendent Payne then addressed the audience and summarized the methods of irrigation and ways to conserve.

“Regulation is based on flow rate. We have to look at efficiency and flood irrigation has only a 50% efficiency rate,” Payne said. “Using handlines and wheel lines provides 60% efficiency and using a center pivot will bring efficiency rates up to 70 to 90%.”

Payne said what is needed is a basin-wide conservation effort, installation of measuring devices, a monitor at the reservoirs, and stream gauges. Regulations require the construction and maintenance of head gates and allow for measuring devices. The agency is looking at requiring more pie-shaped pivots. 

“When to regulate and how much regulation is what we are dealing with,” Payne said. “We are working on a mapping project to prioritize water use and reservoir priorities.”

Payne said the direct flow storage law states that regulation and use cannot impact other users, cannot interfere with others’ rights and cannot injure anyone else. He said there are solutions for water users in petitions and exchanges. Users can exchange water with another source if it is available to them and will not affect other users and can be administered.  Users can also petition for a temporary water use agreement (TWUA) on a two-year basis.

Payne said the agency was looking at how they can retain as much water as possible and Brown said he is working with the Colorado River Compact on a plan to measure, conserve, and regulate the water use.

Brown concluded, “We will continue to work with the laws we have and develop solutions. It is a complicated problem.”

Brown and Payne stayed after the close of the meeting to answer questions and visit with individuals.

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