SALT LAKE CITY — House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, said Monday he will introduce legislation as early as next week on drought contingency plans for the thirsty Colorado River to ward off possible shortage declarations that may come in the aftermath of the river's driest 100 years.
Representatives from all seven Colorado River Basin states testified before the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, detailing the years of hard work, compromise and negotiations that went into forging the plans that will be the operational foundation for the river through 2026.
The Colorado River, serving 40 million people, irrigates 5.5 million acres of farmland and has seen a 19 percent decline in its flows since the turn of the century.
Testimony came the same day the U.S. Drought Monitor released updated drought conditions across the United States, showing marked improvement in many of the basin states, including California — which is virtually drought free — and Utah, which sits with just 3.24 percent of its land mass in moderate drought.
That sliver of land is minuscule compared to where Utah sat just three months ago with drought conditions — with 99.96 percent of its land mass classified in moderate drought.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-California, and several others cautiously acknowledged the bountiful nature of this winter's precipitation, with upper Colorado River snowpack at 127 percent of normal and March rounding out to be one of the wettest ones on record.
"But one good year is no guarantee the 19-year drought is over, and prudence and experience both warn us of the need to be prepared," McClintock said. "History is desperately warning us to be prepared."
Brenda Burman, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, said the plans use a variety of tools and measures to implement water savings among the states.
"The drought contingency plans are not designed to keep us out of shortage, they are designed to keep us out of crisis."
She said savings are possible, pointing to the bureau's own accomplishment of tightening losses at the Hoover Dam of 100,000 acre-feet in the early 2000s to less than 7,000 acre-feet last year.
"We have overwhelmingly tightened the system," she said.
James Eklund, Colorado commissioner with the Upper Colorado River Commission, echoed McClintock's concerns about a good performing water year easing concerns over drought.
"Don’t be misled by the snowpack, the excellent snowpack we have received so far this year. It only demonstrates the wide swings we have to manage moving forward," he said. "You can put an ice cube, even an excellent ice cube, in a hot cup of coffee but eventually it is going to disappear. But for the 40 million people who depend on this river, it is not an abstraction. This is personal."6 comments on this story
Eric Millis, the Colorado River commissioner for Utah and director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said this year's snowpack will likely deliver near normal inflows from the Colorado River into Lake Powell.
"It is hard to know, however, if this year will be just one more good year among so many bad ones, " he told the committee. "It is therefore wise to have a plan and implement actions to help ensure we can keep the system operating in a way that complies with the law of the river and protects water users and the environment."