U.S. Water News Online
GUNNISON, Colo. -- Even when the drought ends, the Colorado
River can't keep up with growing downstream and upstream demands,
officials and water experts from both sides of the Continental Divide
The future of irrigated agriculture and the use of the Colorado
River for development in all parts of the basin is at stake, they
told the 30th Western Water Workshop at Western State University.
"The numbers don't add up," said Doug Kenney of the Natural
Resources Law Center of the University of Colorado. "This river was
in trouble before we ran into this drought."
Environmentalists have questioned the sustainability of the
Colorado River for years, but Kenney is concerned because water
managers have begun saying the same thing.
The demand on the Colorado River averages 15.4 million acre feet
per year, Kenney said.
The long-term average flow is 14.8 million, leaving a shortfall
that eventually could further deplete the two reservoirs which
regulate flows -- Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
Because of the prolonged drought the levels of both lakes are well
below average, a source of contention between upper and lower basin
Upper basin states Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, are
required to deliver 8.23 million acre feet annually through Lake
Powell, located on the Arizona-Utah border. Lower basin states
Arizona, California and Nevada, store flows in Lake Mead, located on
the Arizona-Nevada border.
In 1922 the Colorado River Compact was drafted to attempt to
settle differences among the seven states, but the flows of the river
were poorly understood at the time, Kenney said.
Allocations -- 7.5 million acre feet to the upper basin, 7.5
million acre feet to the lower basin and 1.5 million acre feet to
Mexico (under a 1944 treaty) -- were made during a wet period when
river flows were overestimated.
"It raises fundamental questions about the law of the river,"
He warned Colorado against overdeveloping its available rights on
the river, saying existing transmountain diversions could be
"We've been creative with buying 10 years here or 10 years there,
but how do we stop that?" Kenney said.
Eric Kuhn, manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation
District in Glenwood Springs, came up with a slightly different
conclusion. Kuhn said Colorado still has not fully appropriated its
share of the Colorado River, and the pressure lies with growth
"The worlds are so different between the upper basin and the lower
basin, and it's going to take a lot to bridge the gap," Kuhn said.
"There has been a huge change in the balance between the two basins
and the problem is not the drought, but overuse in the lower basin."
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