The Gunnison Tunnel is shut down.
There has been much in the news over the last couple of weeks regarding the extreme drought plaguing the Western United States and much speculation as to what actions are necessary to ensure the “Maintenance of the Colorado River System”. The Commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation has recently testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and stated that drastic measures must be initiated in 2023 to ensure to stability of the system, meaning the operational integrity of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Bureau of Reclamation is calling on all the states in the basin to develop a plan to address the projected shortfall of between 2-4 million acre-feet over the next year to maintain the system. The states were asked to come up with a collaborative plan to meet these shortfalls by mid-August 2022. If a mutual agreement cannot be reached the Bureau of Reclamation has inferred that it will preserve the system without regard to water rights.
First, a little background information on where the 2-4 Million Acre Feet (MAF) number came from. When the Colorado River Compact was originally signed in 1922 the annual yield of the basin was determined to be 15 MAF which allowed 7.5 MAF for the Upper Basin States and 7.5 MAF for the Lower Basin States. This number was based on a study of what was later identified as one of the wettest periods on record and the more realistic number was 13.9 MAF. More recently with prolonged drought and climate change those numbers have been shifted downward to 13 and 11 MAF respectively. So, the 2-4 MAF reduction is from the 15 MAF original allocation.
The recent language used by the Bureau is of great concern to the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, and all of Colorado. The Gunnison Tunnel Project is a federally owned project that is operated by UVWUA under contract with the Bureau of Reclamation. The water rights diverted into our system are owned by the federal government. While this makes the language from the Bureau more concerning to us, UVWUA has not been directed to make any cuts at this time. The Upper Colorado River Commission is working on these issues with the lower basin states to determine an equitable solution, but no information has been released to date.
Becky Mitchell is the Director for the Colorado Water Conservation Board and sits on the Upper Colorado River Commission. The position presented by Commissioner Mitchell, which UVWUA supports, is that Colorado has been adapting to decreased flows for years since we are solely reliant on annual hydrology and not reservoir storage. The Upper Basin Commissions position is that the Lower Basin states have continued to divert above their allocated amounts and have been shielded from climate change due to Lakes Mead and Powell operations. The Upper Basin States have consistently delivered more water than required by compact only to be mismanaged through excess diversions and releases. I’m sure that these realities will be brought to the table while negotiating shortfalls and solutions to better managing the system.
UVWUA is closely monitoring the situation and is in communication with other West Slope water users to collectively address these potential reductions in supply. We are developing data to support our use of water and the impacts any reduced diversions may have on our system.
As we learn more I will continue to provide as much information as possible on the status of these decisions and how they may affect us here at UVWUA.
Steve A. Pope