"If we think about water and what it means to the economy, there's no greater economic issue facing the Western U.S. than the real value of water," economic analyst Jeremy Aguero said at a June 18 meeing in Durango of the Upper Colorado River Commission. "Without it, we don't have an economy."
The commission has one representative from each of the four Upper Colorado River Basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico) and one federal representative. They meet twice a year in different states.
The Colorado River Basin, which covers all or part of seven states, generates $1.4 trillion in economic benefits, Aguero said, but he added, "The true value of the resource is almost inestimable."
He noted that population and water demand within the basin are increasing. Colorado and Utah have the highest population growth in the Upper Basin states, double the national rate of population growth. Job growth in the Upper Basin states is attracting in-migration, and more people are retiring, Aguero said. "The population is coming whether we want it or not."
But drought and water supply instability threaten economic activity and jobs, and what happens in one state affects the others, he said. "We get calls from businesses that want to move out of California. More and more, the first question is, do you have sufficient water resources? Sometimes it's hard to answer that. There's nothing that isn't affected in the Western U.S."
Water will have to be used more efficiently based on economic output and jobs supported by each gallon consumed, because, "At the end of the day, it's a finite resource with what seems to be unquenchable demand," Aguero said.
Several speakers said a "miracle May" has turned around grim water supply prospects for the region, at least for this year.
As of a month ago, snowpack was low at 116 mountain sites, and spring melt started about a month earlier than normal, said Bureau of Reclamation representative Chris Cutler. Runoff was expected to be around 74 percent of average. Then the cool rainy miracle May happened. "We not only stopped the runoff. We increased snow in some places," Cutler said. "This was a drastic improvement in outlook."
The entire basin saw 150 percent of average precipitation in May. "This was a life saver," he said.
He showed a graph with a multi-year trend of declining flows in the Colorado River Basin. "We haven't seen average runoff very often," he said.
Lake Powell is a critical part of the very complex river compact requirements in the seven state Colorado River Basin. Water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead have been declining year by year. Before the May rains, this year's inflow to Powell was predicted to be 42 percent of normal. It's now projected to be 70 percent, Cutler said.
"It's great news, but it's still 70 percent of average," he said. "We're not out of the woods."
Upper Colorado River Commission director Don Ostler cited river flow statistics and said, "Everybody celebrates when we get anywhere near average."
The four Upper Basin states are required to deliver a certain amount of water each year to the three Lower Basin states (California, Arizona, Nevada) based on an average over 10 years. This is measured at Lee's Ferry in the Grand Canyon below Lake Powell. In addition, both Powell and Mead have critical water levels where they could no longer generate hydroelectric power. It's a major priority to stay above those levels.
The forecast is for Powell to be about 14 feet above that level at the end of this year, and water releases from Powell should be more than enough to meet the requirements at Lee's Ferry this year, Cutler said. "We're in much better shape than before," he said. The water level in Mead is about seven feet above the critical level for hydro generation, referred to as the minimum power pool.
Hydro power from Bureau of Reclamation dams is marketed through the Western Area Power Administration to wholesale suppliers such as Tri-State and retail suppliers like Excel. WAPA representative Lynn Jeka said Powell currently represents about 75 percent of power generation from Colorado River projects. Upstream reservoirs - Navajo, Blue Mesa, and Flaming Gorge - are the back-ups to release more water if necessary to keep Powell above the minimum power pool level, she said.
Jeka noted WAPA has contract obligations to supply power to its customers, and if hydro generation isn't meeting those obligations, WAPA must buy power from elsewhere to make up the difference. That cost $66 million in 2014 and is expected to be $24 million this year, she said.
"We still have firm (supply) contracts that we have to meet, and our customers still need the power."
James Eklund, Colorado's representative on the commission, said Colorado is "actually in good shape. The doctrine of prior appropriation is in good shape. It can be adjusted. The Colorado doctrine is able to flex and adjust as we need it to."
He noted the Colorado Water Plan, the draft of which was released in December 2014. The final plan is due this December. It won't be a glossy plan that sits on a shelf, Eklund said. "Our water plan aims for meaningful action and property right owner control" versus centralized control like in California, he said. The plan is on-line at www.coloradowaterplan.com.