“Water banking” is an emerging term in western Colorado as water planners work on concepts to protect water supplies in the face of long-term drought, increasing demand and the uncertainties of a changing climate.
Simply put, water banking is a voluntary, market-based tool that could facilitate water transactions between willing sellers and buyers. Water right owners, who are willing to free up some of their water in a particularly dry year or years, would temporarily lease it to those who simply can’t afford to be without water.
Also known as water sharing, it is one mechanism that could address the needs and concerns of agriculture, cities and the environment in advance of a crisis. It can add predictability and certainty for users of Colorado River water in unpredictable times. It may also enable agricultural water right owners to realize the value of their senior rights without outright selling those rights.
Perhaps most importantly, water banking could be employed to avoid a crisis should declining Colorado River water supplies force a curtailment of uses either because of low reservoir levels at Lakes Powell and Mead, or under water curtailment requirements to meet Colorado River Compact obligations.
The elevation of Lake Powell is a critical indicator of water availability in the Colorado River Basin. The reservoir helps manage water deliveries to the Lower Basin and generates more than 4,200 megawatts of electricity. The reservoir elevation is now around 3,612 feet, just 53 percent full. “Minimum Power Pool” in the reservoir is about 3,500 feet of elevation. Below that level, Lake Powell can no longer generate hydropower.
Lake Powell elevations also impact the reservoir’s ability to release water downstream, which in turn may threaten the Upper Basin’s obligations under the Colorado River Compact to provide for a minimum delivery of water from Colorado and its sister Upper Basin states to the Lower Basin. Should continuing drought jeopardize our ability to meet that obligation, the Upper Basin states could be forced to cut off water uses in Colorado in order to honor our commitments under the compact. In the face of such scenarios, water banking allows us to manage our water more flexibly in advance of a crisis.
Colorado’s water bank effort is being led by the Colorado River District, Southwestern Water Conservation District, Front Range Water Council, The Nature Conservancy, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The goal of this collaboration is to avoid agricultural dry up on the West Slope while minimizing risk for all Colorado River water users. The group seeks to develop solutions that strike a balance between urban, agricultural and environmental needs and sees water banking as an excellent tool to do that.
While we all hope for the best as the record drought in the Western states prolongs, there is an increasing urgency to be prepared for the worst. To be ready for whatever comes, we must consider all possible methods to prevent water shortages. Casting a wide net for solutions yields diverse and effective ways to meet the many possible challenges ahead of us and increases the likelihood that Colorado is prepared if a crisis similar to what California is currently experiencing occurs here. Whether it’s clean water for your kitchen tap, for your crops and animals, or for rivers and streams, this uncertainty affects us all.
To best address the water challenges before us, awareness is key. First, we must fully recognize the urgency at hand. A few months of welcome rain this year did not change the overall trajectory of the Colorado River supplies. Second, we must act in collaboration — communities, water managers, farmers and conservation groups developing solutions together. The best plans will benefit from input from a diversity of voices. Farmers and communities especially need to get involved to ensure that any new water programs are in their best interests. We all must be part of the solution.
We will need a smart range of options to reduce water use in the region on a temporary basis to help get through critical dry times. As we forge into an unknown future, water banking emerges as one of the most promising components in Colorado’s portfolio of options to better manage our limited water resources.
Jon Stavney is president of the Board of Directors, Colorado River District and a member of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Water Quality/ Quantity Committee.