Don’t blame the Upper Basin states

By George Sibley

Kyle Roerink’s recent “Writers on the Range” opinion (“A dangerous game of chicken on the Colorado River”) reminds one of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1983 caution in a Washington Post op-ed: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Roerink, who heads the Great Basin Water Network, claims that the Upper Colorado River Basin states are shirking their responsibilities while the Lower Basin states valiantly work to grapple with the ongoing basin-wide drought. “With (reservoir) water savings gone,” he says, “the Lower Basin has been trying to cope, though the Upper Basin carries on business as usual.”

“Business as usual” in the Upper Basin has always been dealing with the realities of an erratic river, the annual flows of which can go from 5.8 million acre-feet in 1977 to 24.8 million acre-feet in 1984. The Upper Basin lives with that reality, dry years and wet.

But the Bureau of Reclamation has regularly and faithfully released to the Lower Basin, from Powell Reservoir, the Colorado River Compact and Mexican Treaty allotments –- 8.23 million acre-feet only dropping a little below those allotments half a dozen times since Powell began to fill in the 1960s. Dry year or wet, the Lower Basin always gets its full allotment.

Usually, more than that designated quantity is sent to the Lower Basin (as much as 12 million acre-feet above in 1984). The Compact and Mexican Treaty require that the Upper Basin send downriver 82.5 million acre-feet over a 10-year period; as of 2020, the 10-year running total was 92.5 million acre-feet.

So the Lower Basin never bears the brunt of low flows, as Roerink claims; it has always received its Compact and Treaty allocations since Powell Reservoir filled, usually with some extra, regardless of what was happening in the “real river” the Upper Basin states live with.

It is true that the Lower Basin states are currently “’trying to cope” with river shortages by making some difficult cutbacks in their uses. But what they are trying to cope with is their own excessive use of the water stored in Mead Reservoir.

For decades the three downstream states –- primarily California –- have been using considerably more than their Compact allotment of 7.5 million acre-feet; they have also not been subtracting from their allotment the significant losses to evaporation in desert storage and transit (automatically figured into Upper Basin use through the Powell releases).

This has resulted in what is euphemistically called a “structural deficit,” but is just the Lower Basin using more water than its entitlement. That was more or less okay before the Upper Basin use was fully developed, and before the Central Arizona Project came online; the Bureau’s extra releases, above Compact requirements, covered the overuse. No more.

So now the Lower Basin states, which have been drawing an annual average of 1.2 million acre-feet more out of Mead Reservoir than has flowed into it, are trying to bring their usage down to the actual Compact allotment. Drought might exacerbate that challenge, but it doesn’t cause it, nor does Upper Basin lollygagging.

The Upper Basin has not even used its full Compact allocation because it became obvious that the river could not supply that on a dependable basis. The Upper Colorado River Compact divides the Upper Basin states’ permissible consumptive uses by percentages rather than a set amount like the Lower Basin gets, but exactly what that allows each state is obviously ambiguous, depending on what “average flow” is used.

Are the Upper Basin states doing their part to ensure prudent uses of the river? They are developing “demand management” programs to pay farmers and ranchers to fallow some of their land to increase flows to Powell Reservoir. Last summer, Blue Mesa Reservoir’s recreation season was cut short to send most of the Reservoir’s water down to bolster Powell.

Denver Water is also working hard to re-plumb its city for reuse, as well as running an ongoing conservation program that has reduced their deliveries to a 1970 level with half a million more people.

Could the Upper Basin states be doing more? Probably, and they probably will be. But they are less to blame for the Lower Basin state’s dilemmas than are the Lower Basin states themselves.

George Sibley is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively discussion about Western issues. He has written extensively about the Colorado River.

Bryan Egner US Dept. of energy Glen Canyon Dam 2018

This column was published in the following newspapers:

03/21/2022 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
03/21/2022 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
03/21/2022 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
03/21/2022 Ruidoso Daily News Ruidoso New Mexico
03/21/2022 Alamogordo Daily News Alamogordo NM
03/22/2022 Vail Daily Vail CO
03/22/2022 Craig Daily Press Craig co
03/23/2022 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
03/26/2022 Lake Havasu News Lake Havasu City AZ
03/25/2022 Casper Star Tribune Casper WY
03/26/2022 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
03/27/2022 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
03/22/2022 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
03/26/2022 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
03/29/2022 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
03/28/2022 Sublette Examiner Pinedale WY
03/23/2022 Taos News Taos NM
03/31/2022 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
03/31/2022 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
03/30/2022 Curry Coastal Pilot Brookings OR
03/28/2022 Gallup Independent Gallup NM
04/10/2022 Fort Morgan Times Fort Morgan CO
04/10/2022 Sterling Journal-Advocate Sterling CO
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Don’t blame the upper basin states — Writers on the Range #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification – Coyote Gulch
2 years ago

[…] the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (George […]

Rick Gold
2 years ago

Good job Mr. Sibley! Facts are important and you did a good job of pushing back against those who want to write a sensational piece without knowing what they are talking about.

David H Merritt
2 years ago

This is what a lot of us in the Upper Basin have been trying to get across for a number of years. This has been the first declared shortage for the Lower Basin ever. However, when a rancher or grower in the Upper Basin can’t get their decreed water, either because of a call or because there is no water in the stream, it is not a “shortage” – there is just no water available.

Marlis Laursoo
2 years ago

Sen. Monihan’s quote is so apt.

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