Historic drought conditions across the West have prompted a federal call for Wyoming and other western states to reduce their consumption of Colorado River Basin waters this year.
Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart met this week with representatives from six states, collectively known as “basin states,” in Las Vegas.
The meeting was the first of several to determine how the states could voluntarily reduce their use of Colorado River Basin water by 2 million oto 4 million acre-feet to increase flows into lakes Mead and Powell, which are at critically low levels, said Jeff Cowley, the State Engineer’s Office administrator of interstate streams.
An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover 1 acre of land with 1 foot of water, almost 326,000 gallons.
The basin states include Wyoming, California, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has given the states until mid-August to come up with a water consumption reduction plan, Cowley said.
“If we can’t come up with a plan,” he added, “the Bureau of Reclamation is going to step in and do it for us.”
The states were tasked with finding ways to reduce their own Colorado River Basin water consumption this year by Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton during a U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing in June.
“Between 2 (million) and 4 million acre-feet of additional conservation is needed just to protect critical levels (in lakes Mead and Powell) in 2023,” Touton told the committee. “It is in our authority to act unilaterally to protect the system, and we will protect the system. But today, we are pursuing a path of partnership.”
Touton explained the two reservoirs, which are fed by the Colorado River, serve millions of people across the West, but water levels are dropping to historic and potentially dangerous lows.
During the hearing, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, acknowledged the severity of the drought, but spoke to the dangers of diverting water away from agricultural uses in Wyoming.
“Extreme drought is a concern to all Westerners, but especially to small rural farming and ranching communities in Wyoming,” Barrasso said. “Reducing the use of water doesn’t just put ranchers and farmers out of work, it increases the cost of food.”
Through the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact, codified in 1948, Wyoming has annual access to 14% of water available to the upper basin — after 50,000 acre-feet set aside for Arizona is taken into account, Cowley said.
“Under a full supply of 7.5 million acre-feet, Wyoming would have access to about 1 million acre-feet,” he explained. “But we typically don’t have a full supply available.”
In recent years, Wyoming’s average use of upper basin water has been about 600,000 acre-feet, Cowley said.
Agriculture is, by far, the largest user for those waters, accounting for about 83% percent of the annual usage. Industry is the second largest user at 8%, followed by municipal uses at 3%, Cowley said.
Wyoming rancher and Family Farm Alliance President Patrick O’Toole told the Senate committee that farmers and ranchers are always the first ones asked to make sacrifices.
“Here’s the reality … we’re in an unprecedented situation,” O’Toole said during the hearing. “We’re about to do with agriculture what we did with manufacturing, let it go overseas. We cannot give up our production to the Third World.”
Agricultural producers are “under attack,” he added, urging the Senate committee to allow the current water preservation processes to function as designed, rather than force additional reductions in consumption.
Worst Drought In Centuries
Whether or not Wyoming reduces its 2022 consumption of water supplied by the Colorado River Basin remains to be seen, but Cowley said Gebhart and a team of water specialists are working to navigate the complexities of interstate water agreements and ensure Wyoming has a seat at the bargaining table.
“Wyoming’s role is to work diligently with the other basin states to develop the plans,” he said. “The best case scenario is all the basin states build off their past successes by figuring out how to work together. As uncomfortable as this topic continues to be, one really good thing is they continue to work together.”
A worst case scenario could include negotiations breaking down between the states and stakeholders, such Native American tribes, resulting in lengthy and expensive litigation as well as the Bureau of Reclamation stepping in to divvy up water consumption as it sees fit, Cowley explained.
But, even if every state leaves the table in agreement, this call for reduced consumption may not be the last.
“Based on tree-ring analysis, this is the worst drought the region has seen in 1,200 years,” Cowley said. “If the hydrology continues to decline, these cuts could come up every year. This is not a one-time deal.”