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Weather trends spell trouble for river basin

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Photo by Tamie Meck Jim Pokrandt with the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs spoke in June at the Rotary Club of the North Fork Valley on water trends in the Colorado River basin. If trends continue, the state's river flows could be reduced by as

For the fourth time in more than a half century, the Fire Mountain Canal was shut off before the end of the growing season, impacting some 488 irrigation water shareholders and more than 15,000 acres of arable land in the North Fork Valley.

If current weather trends continue, by 2050 scientists say, there could be 20 percent less water in Colorado's river system by mid-century, and 35 percent less water by the end of the century, said Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs. The district was formed some 95 years ago to protect the waters of the Colorado River and its tributaries.

Speaking at the June 21 meeting of the Rotary Club of the North Fork Valley, Pokrandt explained that in 1922, seven southwestern states signed the Colorado River Compact, an interstate agreement that controls water rights along the Colorado. The seven states were then divided into an Upper Division comprised of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, and a Lower Division including Nevada, Arizona and California.

Under the compact, the lower states get their share of the water before the upper states do. That puts a big target on the biggest water user in the state: agriculture, said Pokrandt.

Lake Powell was created "to store water to satisfy the obligations of the Colorado River Basin." In years like this one, said Pokrandt, "We dip into our savings account." Otherwise, there would be no way for the upper states to provide the 7.5 million acre feet of water to the lower states under the compact.

Because it is a headwater state with virtually no water flowing into it, Colorado relies solely on snow pack for its water. Just four out of the last 18 years produced what is considered a normal snow pack, said Pokrandt. "If it weren't for Lake Powell, we'd be looking at curtailing our water uses up here to satisfy the lower basin's water uses."

In 1999, the last year Lake Powell was considered essentially full, Hite Marina was a good place to put a boat on the water, said Pokrandt. Beginning in the early 2000s the area began experiencing a prolonged drought. By 2005, Lake Powell's water level was reduced by about two thirds. "Today, Hite Marina doesn't exist," he said.

This year "is not looking good for the Colorado River system," said Pokrandt. A normal runoff period results in about 7.2 million acre feet of water for Lake Powell; the latest forecast for 2018 is 2.8 million acre feet. "That's not good," he said.

In the North Fork area, Paonia Reservoir filled this year thanks to snow pack on the Grand Mesa, which was about 50 percent of normal, said Pokrandt. The reservoir continues to do its job, but this year is considered the fourth worst year in history. "These are trends we're concerned about," said Pokrandt. "If this is the new normal, we have more population, we have warming temperatures."

The CRD wants to protect current water users and uses, including agriculture, recreational and environmental, said Pokrandt. "We want to be able to protect current uses so the west slope continues to look the way it does and we all can continue to enjoy the lifestyles we do."

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