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Pay to save: Commission offers $1.8 million to leave Colorado River untouched

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue  |  Posted Oct 9th, 2016 @ 7:52am


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SALT LAKE CITY — Drought is turning the nation's largest reservoir dry — Lake Mead reached its lowest levels this summer since the 1930s — and Lake Powell is limping along, just a little over half full.

That scenario is prompting the Upper Colorado River Commission to offer $1.8 million in funding for pilot projects in which users in the upper basin states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Mexico voluntarily reduce their demand on the Colorado River.

The idea is to test what works and what won't work in a drought contingency plan, and what may be the most effective ways to keep water levels at Lake Powell at the elevation necessary to maintain hydropower production.

Robert King, the interstate streams engineer for the Utah Division of Water Resources, said the commission hopes to learn if river system conservation actually sends that water on to Lake Powell.

Because there are more water rights than water that exists in the Colorado River in Utah, King said the concern is even if there are reductions made along the way, there's no guarantee Lake Powell will see the benefit.

"We hope it works," he said. "A major part of this is to see how it works with water rights. That is what we are trying to evaluate or if it will actually take something more drastic institutional changes."

Municipal, industrial and agricultural users are encouraged to submit proposals that, among other things:

• Generate signficant, measurable consumptive water savings.

• Involve multiple participants.

• Involve a ditch company or irrigation district.

• Include opportunities for federal or tribal participation.

• Partners with state in-stream flow programs and downstream water users to move saved water downstream.

Pilot program participants will be selected on factors that include implementation schedule, the identified environmental benefits, the cost per acre-foot saved and the demonstration of water savings.

Creation of a drought contingency plan is just one of the recent steps being embraced by Western states struggling with the dynamics of little precipitation, growing populations and increasing demand on water resources.

A huge chunk of the western half of Utah has earned a drought classification by the U.S. Drought Monitor, with a piece of central Utah that has moved into the severe category, according to the map released Thursday.

A new monthly report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service noted the dry, hot summer that plagued the state, keeping Utah in its fifth year of drought.

Although the water year ended on a near normal level of precipitation, the rain and snowfall has not been enough to lift the state from its years of dryness.

Reservoir storage is down from last year, and managers across the state are hoping for a stellar year for snowpack, which delivers the majority of Utah's water supply.

King said Colorado River users interested in participating in the pilot project should submit proposals by Nov. 30.

Utah users can email Robertking@Utah.gov for additional information.

Amy Joi O'Donoghue
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