By Jack Bombardier
Another fishing season on the Colorado River has passed, and the ice that’s begun to form every morning begins to grow. Soon it will thicken and cross entire span of the river in spots, and the river will look normal. But things aren’t normal, or at least what is “normal” these days is unlike what we’ve seen before.
This year river flows were as low as they’ve ever been, and the river was closed to fishing for a good chunk of the summer. What we really need is a whopper of a snowy winter to replenish the snowpack and fill the reservoirs next spring. But with another La Nina weather pattern on tap, that’s not likely to happen.
Lately I’ve been thinking about dams more than usual (and I usually think about them more than most sane folks). Average people have more pressing things on their plate than worrying about where their water comes from, or how much is in any given watershed at the moment. But living and making a living beside the Colorado River means that whatever water is being released from one of the many reservoirs above has a direct impact on my life and business. I’m also privileged to be a member of the Upper Colorado River Stakeholder group that is developing a plan to protect the river, and get to see some of the behind-the-scenes discussions that go into the river’s management. What’s made me feel hopeful is that all of the stakeholders around the table seem to have the best interests of the river in mind. I’d like to think that whatever challenges we’re facing can be solved through good faith and cooperation.
Due to the ongoing drought (now twenty years and counting), the dwindling water levels of Lakes* Mead and Powell have been in the news a lot. The lakes* are now at their lowest levels since they were filled in the 1930s and 1960s. At the same time that dropping reservoir levels have been drawing attention, a proposed dam on a tributary of the Colorado River has also been in the spotlight, at least locally. The Colorado Springs water utility wants to build a second dam below the existing Homestake Reservoir, which will flood a yet-undetermined number of miles of pristine valley. Water would be pumped from the lower reservoir to the upper, which has the existing infrastructure to deliver it to the Colorado Spring and Aurora. So now there are two dams on the Colorado River at the forefront, one at the top of the watershed and one at the bottom. The lower dam currently exists but is on track to become useless, while the upper reservoir is still just hypothetical.
Being a certified tree-hugger, I’m supposed to be automatically against any and all dams. I’ve consumed the Edward Abbey canon and had a dislike for Lake* Powell long before I ever even saw it. But my view of dams is more nuanced and pragmatic than that. My backyard is sixty miles downstream from the nearest reservoir, and it’s loaded with rainbow and brown trout that couldn’t live there without the cool, late summer water that the dams provide. And it’s not just because they aren’t native trout, for in dry years like we’ve been having the low water in summer would be far too warm for any salmonoid, even native cutthroats. Because of climate change and transbasin diversions, there’s much less net water flowing down the Colorado River each year. But the dams also out smooth out the curve of the hydrograph over the course of a calendar year. We may lose the high flows of spring, but gain more water in the late summer and fall. We end up with more water in the river late in the summer during dry years, when there would be next to none otherwise without the dams to release it. Dams aren’t inherently good or bad, it’s how they’re managed that’s important. The dams on the Upper Colorado River and its tributaries have helped create the wonderful trout fishery we have today.
The fact that Lakes* Mead and Powell are at historic lows is well known. But with each passing dry summer it becomes more apparent that the “lakes” are not on a sustainable course, in part because they are not lakes at all, but reservoirs. The primary reason for Powell Reservoir to exist is political, in that it gives the Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico) a place to store water for the Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona). The fact that the Glen Canyon Dam is located where it is, just above the Arizona state line, is not an accident. The second thing that Powell Reservoir provides is hydropower, and a lot of it (at least for now). The third benefit is that Powell collects and traps all of the sediment that would otherwise clog Mead. The fourth benefit the reservoir provides is recreational, but as the water level drops, one by one the marinas will be going off-line. I’ve actually made some good memories on and around the lake*, and can see why people love it so much in its current form. If weather patterns don’t change by a lot and soon, Glen Canyon will be restored some day one way or another. There will be new recreational opportunities to be had floating the canyon instead of motoring around on it as people do today. It won’t have as large of an economic impact as the current house and powerboat culture provides, but at least it will be sustainable.
The reason that people like Ed Abbey wanted the Glen Canyon Dam removed is because it buried a spectacular canyon under hundreds of feet of water. But the reason now for draining Lake* Powell is that it makes no sense to operate it under current climatic conditions. Its been estimated that the lake* evaporates between 300,000 and one million acre feet of water a year. Having a large body of water sitting in the middle of an increasingly hot desert makes no sense. The second problem comes from below, as the porous sandstone substrate the lake* sits atop leaks another unknown amount of water per year. While the lake* might look like it’s storing water, what it’s actually doing is losing it. Then there is Mead Reservoir. It suffers from the same evaporation issues as Powell Reservoir, but it lies on a harder, volcanic substrate that isn’t as much of a leaky bucket. Also, Las Vegas is dependant on Mead for drinking water, and the Imperial Valley for irrigation. What makes the most sense is to keep Mead Reservoir as full as possible, which will reduce the evaporation by cutting the surface areas of two lakes* in half. This might mean draining Powell, but it’s slowly draining itself anyway. This past summer, to try and prop up Lake* Powell water had to be released from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado, Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, and Flaming Gorge in Wyoming. The higher that water is stored in a watershed, the less is lost to evaporation, and the more options you have as to when to release it. Sending it off into the desert is a stopgap measure at best. And where does a lot of that electricity go? It goes to places like Phoenix, enabling what is possibly the world’s least sustainable city. In the past twenty years, while the total water available in the Colorado River watershed has dramatically dropped, the population of the Phoenix metro area has risen from 2.9 to 4.5 million. Las Vegas has doubled from 1.3 to 2.7 million. This is the very definition of unsustainability.
Then there is the proposed dam at the top of the Colorado River watershed along Homestake Creek, just below the existing one. The new project would be called Whitney Reservoir. It would seem to support the idea of reducing evaporation by building smaller reservoirs higher up the watershed, although water would have to pumped uphill to get to the upper pool. Is it possible that putting a reservoir there might be a good thing? Maybe it could be used to cool water in the Eagle River in the summer the way the Colorado does. If I don’t have a problem with the dams above me on the Colorado River, then shouldn’t another dam tied to the Colorado be a good thing?
Not necessarily. The stretch of Colorado River below Kremmling I live and guide on is in a sweet spot, hydrologically speaking. We are below numerous reservoirs run by several different water providers, but above most of where the water demands are coming from. The Front Range providers are usually capable of “providing” water on demand downstream when necessary, though referring to some of them as “providers” is a bit of a misnomer since their operations result in a net loss to the watershed. The folks that they are chartered to provide water to live east of the Continental Divide, but water is taken from western watersheds and flows east instead under the mountains via tunnels. That said, in recent years Front Range water utilities have shown more flexibility releasing water westward during periods when they are not obliged to. This kind of collaboration has proven critical to maintaining river health during hot periods in the summer. There have now been several occasions since 2012 when the river water got warm and either Denver Water, Northern Water, the Bureau of Reclamation or the Colorado River District let water out of a reservoir to cool the river, sometimes in combination with each other. When the water temps got above seventy degrees this past June, enough water was released to get the water temperatures down to where only a few fish were lost. This year the extra water lasted until the monsoons came in July, and that natural mechanism was enough to keep the fish happy for the rest of the summer. Of course one reason the river was so low to begin with was that dam operators were holding back the spring runoff, trying to fill their big buckets. But in August, when other rivers in the state with less storage got low and warm, the cool water in those upper reservoirs was released, and the Colorado River was the place to be.
That’s why I’ve had mixed feelings about the Homestake proposal. In wet years, some water that would otherwise flow into the Eagle and then to the Colorado would end up going east, being stored in the new reservoir pool. But in dry years, perhaps water could be sent westward to help the Eagle when it got low and warm. A 1998 memorum of understanding between the Colorado Springs, Aurora and the Eagle River Sanitation District specifies that 10K acre feet of water would go west, and 20K acre feet go east. There might be a net benefit to the Eagle River by having water available which could be released when needed.. But that would not be the primary purpose of an additional reservoir. The main beneficiaries of a second dam would be for people living on the Front Range, not fish living in the west.
The Homestake Valley is a beautiful and relatively accessible slice of heaven, but its rich wetlands (known as fens) are a much better way to store moisture than open bodies of water which evaporate it. A new dam project is also a continuation of an old, failed paradigm. The idea that western slope is the place for the Front Range to come looking for water is the old way doing things, and its time for some new thinking. People keep moving to Colorado for good reasons, for it’s a great state to work and live. But where is the water going to come from to support them all?
Maybe if the cost of water were the same per gallon as unleaded gasoline it would slow the influx, but probably not. People tend to think of access to clean water as a right, not a privilege. I came here from somewhere else too thirty-five years ago. Colorado is a great place to live all year round (not just half the year like some desert locations). Conserving water will obviously need to be an important part of the future. But the lion’s share of water is used by the agriculture sector, and people need to eat as well. Other options need to be on the table.
One part of the solution might be to add reservoirs on the eastern side of the Continental Divide. The Front Range gets moisture from a lot of storms that miss the western slope, either by dropping down from Canada or spinning up from the Gulf of Mexico. I spent seventeen years living on the Front Range before moving to the mountains, and never realized how much nicer and drier the weather can be on the west slope than it is in Denver. We watch the Denver TV for the weather forecasts, and very often the live shots from there are overcast while we are looking up at blue sky. So why are Front Range water providers still so focused on getting water from dwindling supplies from the western slope, instead of collecting the precipitation that’s already falling on their side of the divide? Best of all, its gravity fed, with no pumps or trans-basin tunnels required.
I’m not advocating for huge projects like Two Forks, but a series of smaller impoundments located up high, something like the size of Black Gore Lakes below Vail Pass. In other words, many small buckets instead of one big one. If some of that snow and rain could be collected in smaller reservoirs located east of the divide, water could be released when needed without complicated, expensive infrastructure. It would then ultimately flow down to the Platte or Arkansas River basins naturally. This past spring we had very little snow or rainfall on the western side of the Continental Divide, but plenty to the east. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have some places to store all that bounty?
Where water is concerned, the time has come to start thinking outside the box, for it’s the one commodity that none of us can live without. The sooner we start planning for a future with less of it than we’ve been accustomed to, the better.
*Not a lake