Water fight: Montezuma County pulls its support from a drought plan as Colorado River Basin states seek to prepare for a drier future

Photo by Gail Binkly

The Montezuma County commissioners have rescinded their previous support for a drought contingency plan for the Upper Basin states on the Colorado River.

It was a small gesture of defiance in what looms as a much, much larger battle.

“I don’t think we can stop this, but 10 years down the road, when this does take place, I want my community to know I was there fighting for them and I didn’t go along with this,” said Commissioner Larry Don Suckla.

At issue is a sweeping effort to try to deal with increasing water shortages in the American Southwest, which is enduring one of its longest dry spells in recorded history.

“The entire Colorado River Basin is currently in the worst hydrologic cycle in the historic record,” says a Nov. 15, 2018, policy statement adopted by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which helps oversee the state’s water.

New normal?

Between 2000 and 2018, the document says, the river basin experienced its single driest year on record (2002) as well as the driest two years in a row (2012 and 2013).

Only five times over the past 19 years has the basin seen above-average runoff. Average natural flows at Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River in Arizona have been running about 20 percent below the historic long-term average. And forecasts are for “a likely continuation of the trend of reduced flows and increased demand,” the statement says.

“Regardless of whether this is an extended drought or the new normal hydrology,” it says, “the potential impacts to the state and its citizens could be significant.”

That’s something of an understatement.

If conditions worsen, the document points out, water levels in Lake Powell could decline so far that it loses “operational functionality” for generating hydroelectric power.

Additionally, mandatory water-saving measures could be imposed to ensure compliance with legal agreements.

More water, fewer users

Usage of water in the Colorado River and its tributaries is governed primarily by the Colorado River Compact of 1922. That act separates the seven river-basin states into two groups – the Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) and Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada, California). It spells out how the water is to be allocated between those basins.

However, the compact was written during a time when there was generally a lot more water in the river system and there were considerably fewer users. Experts say the Colorado River has been over-allocated since the compact was signed and the situation has only grown worse.

In 2000, reservoirs throughout the Colorado River system were nearly full; now the system is less than 50 percent full.

Lake Mead, which straddles the Arizona-Nevada border, serves as the emergency reserve of water for the Lower Basin states, while Lake Powell, near Page, Ariz., is the reserve for the Upper Basin.

During the recent drought, users have been pulling from those two reservoirs to meet their needs. Mead’s water levels have fallen to less than 40 percent, while Powell is at about 44 percent. Under a set of interim guidelines adopted in 2007, the Lower Basin is able to draw water from Powell to “equalize” the reservoirs as Mead gets low.

In compliance

Under the 1922 compact, if the Upper Basin ever falls short of delivering the amount of water it’s supposed to – something that hasn’t happened so far – the Lower Basin could issue a “call” to demand its full allocation. Then Colorado’s state water engineer would impose mandatory cuts in water usage.

Since the Dolores Project and McPhee Reservoir have water rights that are largely “junior” (established later in time) to other rights in the system, the local area could be hit hard.

At the urging of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, in 2013 the seven states began developing drought contingency plans, one for each basin.

The Upper Basin’s drought plan is intended to avoid an occurrence such as a call. It recommends developing a system of voluntary “demand management” under which water users would be compensated for voluntarily using less water, and the establishment of a “non-equalized” Upper Basin storage account in Lake Powell for up to 500,000 acre-feet of saved water. That means the saved water couldn’t be used to balance water levels in Powell and Mead. It would be used specifically to make sure the Upper Basin could stay in compliance with the compact.

The Lower Basin’s plan calls for those states to reduce their water consumption and try to leave more in Mead. Both basins have agreed to coordinate their plans.

Seeking approval

To be implemented, the Upper Basin plan must be approved by each of the four states, certain water users in those states, and the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Lower Basin states don’t have a commission like the Upper Colorado River Commission, so they must individually approve the drought plans.

At press time, all the necessary parties had signed on except Arizona and California. If their approvals come through, federal legislation would be sponsored approving the two drought plans and the special water-storage “bank” in Lake Powell.

In December, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told representatives of those two states she will give them until the end of January to wrap up their plans before the bureau takes action and imposes its own measures, according to the Colorado Independent.

Burman made her announcement at the Colorado River Water Users Association annual conference in Las Vegas, Nev.

Approval of the Upper Basin drought plan came only after lengthy negotiations and the hashing out of a number of concerns, particularly between Colorado’s Front Range, with its big, thirsty cities, and the Western Slope, where the population is low but agricultural demand is high.

The Southwestern Water Conservation District, which oversees water resources in a nine-county area, and the statewide Colorado River Water Conservation District outlined such concerns in a letter to the CWCB dated Sept. 17, 2018.

The conservation districts emphasized that they wanted the demand management program to “avoid disproportionate impacts to any single basin or region within Colorado.

“This means that the water generated from Colorado under the Demand Management Program will be derived from water rights used on both sides of the Continental Divide…,” they wrote. It was only after such concerns had been satisfied that the CWCB supported the drought plan.


The Montezuma County commissioners initially supported it too, but after a lengthy discussion on Dec. 3, they voted 3-0 to pull their support. The discussion included Don Schwindt of the Southwestern Water Conservation District board, SWCD Executive Director Bruce Whitehead, and Ed Millard, Montezuma County’s representative to the Southwest Basin Roundtable, one of eight water roundtables in Colorado.

Schwindt and Whitehead tried to persuade the commissioners to stay on board with the preliminary support they had already given for the drought plan.

Whitehead said the commissioners’ previous letter of support had been very helpful. “Those letters that came from you and four other counties helped the CWCB put sideboards in some of the drought contingency plan that was adopted,” he said, adding that the separation of the issues of demand management and compact compliance was an important point.

“Our concern was the West Slope would become a target for demand management,” Whitehead said. “We wanted sideboards in place to limit that.”

Whitehead told the commissioners that mandatory curtailment of water use won’t happen unless the Upper Basin were to be found to be in violation of the compact. The drought plan is intended to avoid such a situation.

“I have a personal opinion on when curtailment could take place and that only happens when we’re in a compact violation or it’s imminent.”

The demand-management program is a way to avoid that, Whitehead said.

“The voluntary [demand-management] program is to pay for reduction of use to create a ‘bank account’,” he explained. “It really is the alternative to curtailment we’re trying to get to.”

A widespread die-off of juniper trees in southeastern Utah is being reported. Here, a mixture of live and dead junipers is seen along the Utah-Colorado border. The cause of the die-off is unknown, but there is speculation that it’s related to the warmer, drier winters being produced by climate change and/or the ongoing drought in the Southwest.

A widespread die-off of juniper trees in southeastern Utah is being reported. Here, a mixture of live and dead junipers is seen along the Utah-Colorado border. The cause of the die-off is unknown, but there is speculation that it’s related to the warmer, drier winters being produced
by climate change and/or the ongoing drought in the Southwest. Photo by Gail Binkly

‘It is coming’

But the commissioners were skeptical.

“I’m looking after our people in this county,” said Commissioner Keenan Ertel.

He said the Lower Basin states are using too much water and “have been abusing the compact for a number of years.”

“We’re the screwees and they’re the screwers,” he said. “That’s how it seems to me.”

Whitehead said the drought contingency plan is a form of insurance to keep the Upper Basin in compact compliance. “We feel this is a good compromise to avoid mandatory curtailment,” he said. “Southwestern [Water Conservation District] is not trying to impact anybody’s water. We’re trying to protect the interests of all of this area, trying to keep us from having curtailment imposed.”

The Dolores Project, he reminded them, has a more junior water right than many rights in the basin and “could be one of the first ones curtailed.”

“But I don’t think we should be talking about curtailment at all,” he added. “We’re not there yet.”

But Suckla said “it does not take a genius” to see that local water supplies are at risk, given the millions of people in Phoenix, Las Vegas and California. “It is coming and you ain’t stopping it,” he said. “I would bet the ranch that in 10 years or sooner they are coming to fallow our ground.”

“Nothing here has changed my mind,” he said. “I know the conservation boards are doing what they think is best but I’m going to have to say you’re wrong.”

Ertel agreed. “We’re the ones that stand at the front of the line to get water taken from us,” he said, adding, “I’ve been educated by Mr. Millard.”

Whitehead said if locals wait until shortages occur, there will be mandatory cuts rather than voluntary reductions. “Mandatory curtailment can be forced if you are not in compact compliance.” He also warned about triggering speculation by investors looking to buy ag water.

“If we open that market up you will be impacted even quicker than the 10 years you’re talking about,” Whitehead said. “We’re trying to stay in compact compliance. A drought contingency plan is only used if necessary.”

He said SWCD is being cautious and hasn’t supported the entire policy package adopted by the CWCB. “My recommendation is we stay clearly in the discussions.”

Schwindt agreed, while saying he shares the commissioners’ concerns. “My point is, we need to be loudly saying [to the Lower Basin], ‘You need to reduce your use’,” he said.

If the Lower Basin does reduce usage, he said, the Upper Basin may be able to protect itself for the near-term future.

Word choices

But Millard said there are many unanswered questions. He said there needs to be a firm definition of compact noncompliance. “How do you solve a problem when you don’t know what it is?” he asked.

He said the Upper Basin drought plan “was negotiated largely in secret” and should have been done in the open.

He said there is 500,00 acre-feet of evaporation from Lake Powell every year and “if there’s a severe drought, that water bank is not going to help us – it’s too small.”

Whitehead said any strength the local area has lies in being part of a larger effort. “The position you took helped get some things in place that benefited us,” he told the commissioners.

But Suckla said they didn’t get everything they wanted, so “there’s no strength in going along with everything.”

He said he believes there is more power in opposition. Schwindt asked what precisely the commissioners are opposing.

“Word choices are really important,” Schwindt said. “We have to think about what are we opposing and what are we for.

“I think we all need to learn a little bit more,” he added. “I don’t have the answer to all of Ed’s questions.”

Millard said the CWCB has already given its support for the plan and he doesn’t believe the county’s opposition will change that.

“If we’re the only ones not on board, then maybe the ship’s fixing to hit an iceberg,” Suckla said.

He then made a motion to withdraw the commissioners’ letter of support for the Upper Basin drought contingent plan and the CWCB policy statement passed in November. The board voted 3-0 in favor of his motion.

A global water crisis

Many experts believe that disputes such as the discussions over the Colorado River are only the beginning of inevitable “water wars” that will be occurring worldwide.

Despite its name, about three-quarters of the Earth is covered in water. However, most of that is seawater; only a tiny fraction – 2.5 percent – is fresh water. And that is increasingly in short supply in various parts of the globe.

The more than 7 billion people on the planet “share the same amount of water that was available to less than one-sixth of this population at the turn of the 19th century,” writes journalist Jeffrey Rothfeder in the book Every Drop for Sale: Our Desperate Battle Over Water in a World About to Run Out, published in 2001.

How much water people have is largely based on the luck of geography, wealth, and politics. People in Haiti and Gambia exist on as little as 3 liters a day of fresh water, though the absolute minimum people need for safe drinking, hygiene, and cooking is estimated at 50 liters per day, according to Rothfeder.

In contrast, Americans use around 100 gallons (378 liters) per day, the majority of that for flushing toilets and taking showers. In Cortez, which has ample water rights for its current population, per capita use is a whopping 200 gallons a day, down from 325 in 1990, according to the city’s 2018 Water Conservation Plan.

This figure is for residential use only – it doesn’t include water a society uses for agriculture, industry, mining, and so on. Agriculture is typically the largest draw on a region’s water, depending on the crops produced and how much meat people eat. It takes 1,000 tons of water to produce just one ton of grain, according to the website theworldcounts.com, while producing a single steak can require 1,232 gallons of water (to feed, water, and raise the cow and clean the slaughterhouse).


From January 2019.