Despite drought, Colorado has to let water go

(Note: This is a fascinating story about water and the different places that
parts of a river flow to, but notice the way that different entities are --
without coming right out and saying it -- seeking to withhold water and
charge a great deal more money for it. This appears to be shaping up to
become a bidding war, just like California and Oregon's water. Lastly, note
the 'professional' comments by the USGS employee about goofed up flow

March 10, 2003

By Kit Miniclier
Denver Post Staff Writer

Trillions of gallons of water flow out of Colorado every year to 18 other
states and Mexico -- even though Colorado is in the midst of the worst
drought in memory.

Given the dry spell's severity, why doesn't Colorado simply turn off the
spigot and keep the water here?

For one thing, it's not physically possible -- because there aren't enough
dams and reservoirs to hold it back.

But more importantly, water experts say, the state has both a legal and a
moral duty to let the water flow.

Over the past 81 years, Colorado has signed 18 interstate compacts that
guarantee downstream users water.

"The idea that somehow all the water that rises in our state belongs to us
and is free for
our use is not well thought-out," said veteran Colorado water lawyer David

"Once the water leaves Colorado, it is not Colorado's water," added Robbins,
who has been practicing water law for 28 years.

Bob McLavey, Colorado's deputy commissioner of agriculture, agrees.
"Obviously, because Colorado is the source of water for numerous other
states, we do have a legal and moral obligation to live up to our previous
agreements," he said.

The Colorado River Water Users Association notes that Colorado has been
called the mother of rivers.

The North and South Platte, the Arkansas, the Rio Grande and the Colorado all
begin in Colorado's mountains.

Historically, the state exports an average of 10.7 million acre-feet of water
annually through its 18 outbound rivers and streams, according to the
Division of Water Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey.

That's almost 3.5 trillion gallons. (There are 325,851 gallons in an

In times of severe drought, it isn't easy to let that much water flow out of
the state when Colorado's own reservoirs are so low.

For example, the John Martin Reservoir on the Arkansas River, 18 miles
upstream from Lamar, has a capacity of 233,000 acre-feet but today contains
only 36,000 acre-feet, McLavey said.

But low reservoirs notwithstanding, the requirement to let water leave
Colorado must be met.

The highest-profile interstate water compact involves the Colorado River, the
nation's fifth-longest.

The 1922 Colorado River Compact divides the water of that river system, which
includes Wyoming's Green River and many other tributaries.

The Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and part of
Arizona, and the Lower Basin states of California, Nevada and the rest of
Arizona, plus a bit of New Mexico and Utah, are apportioned 7.5 million
acre-feet annually, with an additional 1 million acre-feet annually for the
Lower Basin.

A subsequent 1944 treaty gives Mexico at least 1.5 million acre-feet a year.

Among other compacts: New Mexico and Texas share the Rio Grande.

Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas share the Arkansas River before it enters the

After that point, Mississippi and Louisiana share it.

Nebraska holds Platte River rights before its waters run into the Missouri

>From that point, Missouri and Iowa share its waters. When it reaches the
Mississippi, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee share the waters.

"We are not really exporting water. It originates here and runs out.
Colorado, Wyoming and Montana have the distinction of being headwater
states," said Ken Wahl, a recently retired hydrologist with the U.S.
Geological Survey.

In years of normal precipitation, Colorado doesn't use anywhere near its
legal limit of Colorado River water -- making it relatively easy to fulfill
its obligations under that compact.

But in drought years, the requirement may prove problematic because -- though
in-state flows may be drastically reduced by the drought -- out-of-state
obligations stay the same.

It's still too early to say whether Colorado will be able to meet those
obligations this year.

Both McLavey and Rod Kuharich, director of the Colorado Water Conservation
Board, the state's water-policy agency, agree the snowpack in the mountains
is much better than it was at this time last year, thanks in part to recent

But the statewide average reservoir capacity at the end of February was just
52 percent, compared with a good-year average of 85 percent going into March,
McLavey added.

In that context, Kuharich warns, "it will take several years to fill the
state's reservoirs," which have been drawn down dramatically over the last
four years.

"I have a funny feeling that water entities will continue water-use
restrictions in an attempt to build up the reservoirs as much as possible,"
he added.

State water officials also are looking at another option for getting water to
thirsty Front Range users, an option that could someday have bearing on
downstream users of Colorado River water.

The so-called 'Big Straw project' would siphon water from a point near the
Utah border and pump it back over the mountains.

Legislators last month appropriated $500,000 for a study of the project,
which -- if undertaken -- would not come into play for years.

Meanwhile, it is about a month too early to accurately forecast this year's
stream flows and this winter's impact on long-term drought relief, said Bill
Horak, district chief for the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado.

The Geological Survey has had stream-flow gauges in Colorado for 30 to 100
years. However, during winter months, many of the gauges are under ice,
"which goofs up the flow," Horak said.

Although Colorado's yearly water "exports" to other states may seem high,
they pale in comparison with those of Montana, which sends an average of 30
million acre-feet downstream annually via the Missouri, Yellowstone and Clark
Fork rivers, hydrologist Wahl said.

The last two major dry years in Colorado were in 1977 and 1980. Both were
bracketed by wet years with above-average moisture.

However, the state is now going into its fourth dry year, and experts say it
will take two or three years for subsoil moisture to be replenished in
drought-stricken areas of the Eastern Plains and southwest.

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