The new Colorado River Agreement will have impacts on headwaters in Eagle County

The All-American Canal carries water from the Colorado River to Southern California’s Imperial Valley. The Imperial Irrigation District is the largest user of water from the Colorado River.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

EAGLE COUNTY — Eagle County is part of the birthplace of the Colorado River. Any agreement to share water from this river is likely to affect residents.

A century-old agreement to share the water of the Colorado is no longer sufficient to govern the use of the river. After years of working to divvy up a dwindling resource, officials announced Monday that six of the seven states governed by the treaty have created a model The US Bureau of Reclamation may eventually incorporate into its own management plan.

Six of the seven signatory states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada — have signed the new agreement. The only non-participant is California.

It’s not yet clear what California will do, but state officials speak positively of the deal.

“I am encouraged today that six states have reached agreement on potential mechanisms to better manage critical Colorado River reservoirs,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement Monday.

The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments is comprised of nearly all headwater counties. Council director John Stavney said the contract, completed in 1922, was good in theory, but the amount of water shared in that contract was based on river flows from the 10 wettest years on record. This does not work in a region hit by a drought that is now more than two decades old.

This is reflected in the continued emptying of Lake Powell in Utah and Lake Mead in Nevada.

Colorado’s “Leadership.”

Tori Jarvis is an attorney for the Quality and Quantity Subcommittee of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. Jarvis said bringing Colorado together with other states “ensures that we have a leadership position” in the discussions.

Jarvis said that’s important because without state involvement, the federal government will impose a one-size-fits-all solution that may not properly meet anyone’s needs.

Diane Johnson of the Eagle River Water and Sewer District said state involvement is also critical because the federal government has control over federal projects — which include Lake Powell and Lake Mead — while Colorado administers Colorado’s water rights.

But minimum levels are a big part of the six-nation agreement. Under the proposed agreement, Arizona, Nevada and California would reduce their use by 250,000 acre-feet if Lake Mead’s water level reaches 1,030 feet. Another 250,000 acre-feet must be cut if Lake Mead’s elevation drops to 1,020 feet. The goal is to protect Lake Mead’s elevation to a minimum of 1,000 feet.

Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry is chair of the Quality and Quantity Subcommittee. She is also the current chair of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Conservancy. This agency covers 15 counties through which the river or its major tributaries flow.

Chandler-Henry said states in the lower basin have been drawing unsustainable amounts of water from the large reservoirs. She noted that the outflow from Lake Mead in 2021 totals more than 9.8 million acre-feet. That year, the reservoir took in only about 3.5 million acre-feet.

The upper basin (states) continues to use less because we have to,” because of supplies, Chandler-Henry said. “The lower basin continues to draw from these reservoirs.”

This has caused severe declines in other federally controlled reservoirs along the river. Last year, the Bureau of Reclamation took a significant amount of water from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County.

“It had a serious impact on the economy of Gunnison County,” Chandler-Henry said.

The meaning of ag

Agriculture is a huge part of water use in the Colorado River system. But, Chandler-Henry said, farmers in the lower basin “don’t have the connection to the river that we have,” because much of that irrigation water comes to the fields through pipes and other systems.

The water that many farmers get doesn’t cost much either. During a November tour of the lower basin states, Chandler-Henry said a rancher in California’s Imperial Valley told her there was no incentive to reduce water use.

Further complicating the water supply is the fact that Mexico is a party to the treaty and is entitled to a share of the river’s water. In addition, Chandler-Henry said Native American tribes in the region also have rights to roughly 20 percent of the river’s water, but are only now beginning to create the infrastructure to move that water to where it’s needed.

While conservation is essential in the upper basin states, Jarvis said another reason state control is so important is to meet the goal of making additional cuts “temporary, voluntary and offset” when additional water is provided for the lower basin .

But that extra water has been in short supply for some time. The current winter would have been pretty normal 30 years ago. Now that’s a nice bonus.

“We’re already living with what we’re given, but we have to plan for (the drought) to be long-term,” Johnson said.

Jarvis said he was glad to see agreement even among six of the seven compact states. Now, she added, “California needs to step up.”

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