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Despite Wet Year, We Need Conservation Across Colorado Basin

Now is not the time to forgo smart water management – conservation and innovative sharing are the key to long-range water sustainability, writes Sinjin Eberle of American Rivers.

Written by Sinjin Eberle Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
Vail blizzard
People make their way off China Bowl in Vail, Colorado, in a blizzard on Jan. 10, 2017. High snowpacks across the mountains of the American West are yielding a better water year for many states that had been experiencing drought conditions.Chris Dillmann/The Daily via AP

The stories are everywhere – record precipitation and snowpack in California, atmospheric rivers crashing across the Pacific Northwest and lingering above-average snowpack across Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. And while short-term relief is welcome, we shouldn’t break out the party hats quite yet. As Mother Nature often shows us, we never really know what is right over the horizon – we need to be prepared.

Certainly, California’s statewide snowpack numbers are great – over 160 percent of average in early April – even inspiring Governor Jerry Brown to recently declare the end of the current drought. Upper Basin states are rolling in the numbers, as well – the Colorado River basin is currently at 122 percent and every major river basin in Utah is at or above historical average. But not to throw a wet blanket over this year’s good news, we still have a long way to go before taking our foot off the gas in encouraging everyone across the Colorado Basin toward greater conservation measures, smart water-sharing agreements and stabilization of the system overall.

The Colorado River is currently overallocated to the tune of more than 1 million acre-feet (1 acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons) per year – there is physically not as much water in the river as is being taken out. The main storage reservoirs in the system, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are both at under 50 percent of their capacity. In order for the system to be sustainable, and in preparation for the uncertainty of more bouts of lingering drought and climate change, we must all work together to support a stable and reliable Colorado River system – from the headwaters in the Colorado Rockies to the lettuce fields of Yuma and beyond.

Even with a few wet years, climate impacts are reducing flows on the Colorado River. A recent study by Jonathan Overpeck and Bradley Udall illustrates that warmer temperatures on the river between 2000 and 2014 accounted for a reduction of at least a half-million acre-feet of water a year – the amount needed to support 2 million people. The study concludes that warming temperatures alone could cause Colorado River flows to decline by 30 percent by midcentury if solutions are not implemented.

While water levels in both Lake Mead and Lake Powell will likely rise significantly this summer, it would be unwise to give up on collective and collaborative efforts across the Southwestern US to develop agreements and practices to conserve water across the Colorado River basin. Lake Mead is still more than 140ft (40m) below full, and even with a projected rise in Powell to bring it to nearly 66 percent full by the end of the water year, we still have a long way to go. One good snow year is nice, but the long-term effects of prolonged drought and substantial overuse mandates diligence, effort and flexibility in how we interact with our delicate yet crucial water supply in the Southwest.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

This story first appeared on American Rivers.

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