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Winter 2016-2017

A project of the Water Education Foundation

Dealing With Drought in the Upper Colorado River Basin

By Gary Pitzer

Dependence on the Colorado River as a water supply source has been shaken by 16 years of drought that has rewritten the rules for managing water. In the Lower Basin water users are grappling with the potential of a shortage that would reduce annual allocations. In the Upper Basin, Colorado, New

Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and the Up- per Colorado River Commission are working on a Drought Contingency Plan that outlines the means by which the Upper Basin will attempt to avoid critical low-reservoir conditions at Lake Powell – conditions that could cause severe consequences for the system and water users.

Te Drought Contingency Plan would continue and expand upon cloud seeding (weather modification) and established emergency operation of upstream storage reservoirs, and calls for studies demand management as a drought mitigation tool. “We would be remiss if we did not

have [a plan],” said Don Ostler, execu- tive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Our hope is that the plan will go on the shelf and never be used.”

Te effort coincides with a separate

endeavor to develop a Drought Contin- gency Plan by the Lower Basin states – Arizona, California and Nevada – which

are determined to preserve Lake Mead as a water supply source even as years of drought have strained its storage capac- ity. (See the Summer 2016 issue of River Report for more information on the Lower Basin plan.) Formed by Glen Canyon Dam,

Lake Powell is the bank account for the Upper Basin. Its operation works in concert with Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead to coordinate the water supply needs of nearly 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland in the Southwest. Te reduced runoff because of the lengthy drought has resulted in a struggle to

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After 16 years of drought Lake Powell remains at about 50 percent capacity.

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