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A watchful eye on the ‘Big River’

Amid dry soils and struggling snowpack in Denver Water’s collection area, longer-term Colorado River challenges also loom large.

Denver Water’s supply managers are closely attuned to the dry weather, lagging snowpack and poor soil moisture in its mountainous collection area that could mean heightened efforts to conserve water this summer.

At the same time, the utility is closely engaged with a more persistent and growing long-term challenge: a drying trend across the seven-state Colorado River Basin.

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Colorado River at Rocky Mtn National Park
The Colorado River, which feeds into Lake Powell, begins its 1,450-mile journey in Rocky Mountain National Park near Grand Lake, Colorado. Denver Water gets half of its water from tributaries that feed into the Colorado River. Some of these tributaries include the Fraser River in Grand County and the Blue River in Summit County. Photo credit: Denver Water.

The two issues go hand-in-hand.

While early snowpack has been underwhelming, a few recent storms brought us closer to average in the two nearby basins that matter most to Denver Water: The South Platte and the Colorado.

Even so, the long-running drought across the southwestern United States persists. And earlier this year, a new warning was triggered after updated projections from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation suggested poor inflows to Lake Powell could put the reservoir at a level low enough to take new steps.

In short, the BOR said Lake Powell — the massive storage vessel that serves as the bank account for the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — is at risk of falling below an elevation of 3,525 feet in 2022.

Watch this 2018 video journey with CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead to see drought impacts on the Colorado River and learn what we’re doing about it: 

That’s important to Denver Water and many Colorado water users as a century-old law requires states in the upper basin to send a certain allotment out of Lake Powell each year to the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

Under major agreements developed between the federal government and the seven states in 2019 called drought contingency plans, Reclamation’s projection initiates a planning process with water leaders across the upper basin states to address ways to avoid further elevation declines in Powell.

This is a trigger point to say, “Hey, it’s time to ramp up our monitoring and planning, to be ready to address the potential further decline in reservoir levels,” explained Rick Marsicek, planning manager for Denver Water. “This was a metric, developed to ensure the upper basin states focus harder on next steps should Lake Powell be at risk of hitting that level.”

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Lake Powell
Lake Powell ended the 2020 “water year” at an elevation of 3,596 feet above sea level. That is 104 feet below what is considered Powell’s full capacity. The “water year” is a term used by the U.S. Geological Survey to measure the 12-month hydrologic cycle between Oct. 1 and Sept. 30. The October start date is used to mark when snow begins to accumulate in the mountains. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Planners focused on 3,525 feet as a trigger point, so as to have time to act before Lake Powell falls another 35 feet, which would threaten its ability to send enough water through turbines to generate hydropower, another important element of Powell’s operations. Hydroelectricity at the dam provides power to more than 5 million customers.

It's an initial step toward drought contingency plans, which could be triggered as early as 2022 in the Upper Basin. The lower basin’s DCP was triggered last year, when projected shortages in Lake Mead, the other gargantuan Colorado River reservoir — a sister of sorts to Powell — required Arizona and Nevada to pull smaller amounts from supplies stored there.

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DCP Signing Credit
In May 2019, Colorado joined six other western states and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to sign a Drought Contingency Plan to find temporary solutions to the Colorado River’s supply and demand imbalance. Photo credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, May 20, 2019.

All of this movement comes amid other developments important to Denver Water and water interests throughout Colorado.

  • The state of Colorado is working with water providers and users across the state to gauge the potential of a “demand management” plan. Such a plan would compensate water users to temporarily and voluntarily conserve water that would flow instead to Lake Powell as a deposit in a sort of bank account. Such a “pool” of water would maintain critical water levels in Lake Powell and could later be released if necessary to assure Colorado River Compact compliance.
  • Water users kicked off a study related to demand management in 2020. Irrigators in the Kremmling area fallowed some parcels as part of a detailed study on how high-elevation farmland would respond should water be left off the land in some growing seasons. 
  • At the same time, the basin states, in partnership with the federal government, are beginning to dig into a new set of guidelines to help manage river supplies that must be complete in 2026, when an existing set of interim guidelines is set to expire. These guidelines co-exist with the 1922 Colorado River Compact and numerous other agreements that make of the “law of the river,” which split the river between the two big basins and the country of Mexico.
  • Closer to home, Denver Water and other metro area and Front Range water providers are coordinating in preparation for a year when they may have to toughen summer watering restrictions to address a dry winter and spring. It’s too early yet to know for sure how supplies will look, but the meetings that kicked off this month are an effort to get ahead of the situation and see where watering and conservation messages can be aligned to help the public understand the potential need to reduce outdoor irrigation between May and October.

“There is a lot happening, and that’s a good thing,” Marsicek said. “Far better to overplan and overprepare than to simply hope for the best. We’ve had drought years before, and we have a long-term drought now in the Colorado River Basin. By working together and planning not just for a hot summer, but for a drier long-term future, we can meet this challenge with our eyes wide open.”