The commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Reclamation recently called for renewed commitment to drought contingency plans from states using the Colorado River. The region has been in a sustained drought since 2000.
Utah uses the Colorado River for drinking water, irrigation, recreation and sustaining fish species. Utah shares water from the river with neighboring states like Colorado and New Mexico.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the division of the Department of the Interior that manages water, drought contingency plans help states mitigate the effects of the current drought.
Malcolm Wilson is the drought contingency expert from the Bureau of Reclamation regional office. Utah belongs to the Upper Basin region, which also includes Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. Wilson said there are three basic elements to drought contingency in the Upper Basin.
"Augmentation through cloud seeding, and in-demand management, which is basically conservation," he said. "And then the third element being what we call drought operations, which would be moving water from some of the upper reservoirs from the system up here including Flaming Gorge, Aspinall, Navajo, moving that water down to Lake Powell."
The Bureau of Reclamation works with state and local water agencies to ensure drought plans work, and that water usage is within state water laws.
"Whenever we have projects within a state, we work through the Division of Water Resources or the state engineer’s office in establishing our projects, for the projects we’ve funded and constructed for local constituents, and in obtaining water rights for those projects," Wilson said.
Wilson said that with the drought in its 19th year, there are possible actions that could have a big impact on water users if the drought continues—particularly concerning Lake Mead.
"First off, should Mead continue to drop, and it’s actually projected, if current hydrology continues, to be looking at shortage levels starting in 2020, there’s about 50 percent [chance] that users of Lake Mead water will be facing the first level of a shortage," Wilson said. "What that translates to for users, especially in the lower basin, is potential reduction in supply, to agricultural users, to municipal users, to folks who use Colorado River water."
Wilson said more dire potential outcomes to continued drought are a long way off if they come at all. In the meantime, he said he has confidence that Upper Basin states will make plans to see water users through the drought successfully.