U.S. Water News Online
LAS VEGAS -- In a victory for California, Arizona and
Nevada, Interior Secretary Gale Norton rejected a plea by four other
states to cut releases of Colorado River water from drought-depleted
In letters to governors and water officials in seven Colorado
River basin states, Norton said melting snow is projected to be
slightly above average for the rest of the year and reservoirs have
more water now than had been projected last year.
"We have concluded that an adjustment to the release amount from
Lake Powell during the next five months is not warranted," she said.
However, Norton also declared her authority over managing water
flow on the river; said she wants another review next April to see if
adjustments should be made; and instructed the states to start
meeting this month on a long-range plan to share river water during
Questions about how much water should be released from Lake Powell
have split the states that rely on the river for drinking water and
Upper-basin states Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico argue
that heavy winter rains raised Lake Mead downstream enough to justify
an unprecedented reduction in water released from Lake Powell, now at
34 percent capacity.
"I'm disappointed, no question about it," said Don Ament, Colorado
agriculture commissioner and member of the state water conservation
board. "It's always been my feeling that you store water as high as
you can because you can always release it later."
Tammy Kikuchi, spokeswoman for Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, said it
wasn't all that Utah and the other upper-basin states had asked for,
but it's what was expected.
"The one thing we can be encouraged by is that Secretary Norton
did say she wants to do another midyear review next year," she said.
Lower-basin states California, Arizona and Nevada maintain that
holding water back at Lake Powell would threaten their ability to
draw water and power from Lake Mead, now at 62 percent capacity.
"This is a good thing for us. This is exactly what we would have
wanted," said Bob Barrett, spokesman for the Central Arizona Project,
which delivers Colorado River water to central and southern Arizona.
Lakes Powell and Mead are the largest of the more than 40
reservoirs capturing Colorado River basin water in wet years. A 1922
agreement allocating Colorado River water does not specify how water
should be divvied up during drought. Last fall, Norton asked the
states to find a way, but states failed to reach agreement last week.
Tom Weimer, acting assistant Interior secretary for water and
science, called Norton's decision "fairly balanced."
"The severity of the drought and length of the drought has forced
people to look at everybody's self-interest," Weimer told reporters
by conference call from Washington, D.C. He said lower-basin states
lost a bid to get Norton to say she had no authority to change water
Gerald Zimmerman, executive director of California's state
Colorado River Board in Glendale, Calif., and Russell George,
director of the Colorado state Department of Natural Resources in
Denver, welcomed Norton's call for continued talks.
"Hopefully, the states will ... determine a way to operate the
reservoir system in a period of low-water conditions," Zimmerman
Don Whipple, of the Interstate Stream Commission in New Mexico,
said New Mexico hoped Norton would keep more water in Lake Powell as
a hedge against continued drought.
"One year of average runoff doesn't break the drought. It might
slow it down but it doesn't break it," he said.
The lower-basin states want the Bureau of Reclamation to keep
water flowing from Powell to Mead at a minimum 8.23 million acre-foot
per year set in 1970, several years after the Glen Canyon Dam was
completed near Page, Ariz.
"The lower basin wasn't the asker for a change," said Pat Mulroy,
general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas.
"We were protecting the status quo."
Systemwide, Colorado River storage dropped to 50 percent of normal
last summer, but is projected to increase to 57 percent this
Norton said melting snow in the Rocky Mountains is expected to
raise water flow into Lake Powell to 106 percent of average this
That relieved some pressure to cut water flow, which Weimer said
would set a legal and policy precedent.
Although the snowpack has increased, Ament said warm, windy
weather could reduce the amount of runoff making into the waterways.
"It's just like counting your chickens before they're hatched or
counting your wheat harvest before it's in the bin. All kinds of
things can happen," Ament said.
There also were concerns that withholding 500,000 acre feet of
water in Lake Powell would decrease power production by up to $10
million at the Glen Canyon and $2.5 million at Hoover dams.
Even without cutting flows, Lake Powell could rise to 48 percent
and Lake Mead could drop to at 57.5 percent capacity by Sept. 30 --
with Lake Powell rising to 54.3 percent and Lake Mead dropping to
52.2 percent by the end of next year.
"We will essentially equalize the reservoirs," said John Keys,
Bureau of Reclamation commissioner.
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