by Greg Walcher, E&E Legal Senior Policy Fellow
As appearing in the Daily Sentinel
Last week, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told a Senate committee the government must reassess its management of the Colorado River Basin because of unprecedented drought. She cited the historically low levels of both Lake Powell and Lake Mead, though her testimony was long on drama and short on plans. In fact, she offered no indication that she understands the role her own agency has played in what she admits is a crisis.
She thinks the crisis is about drought, but in reality it is more about management. I say that because there is little the government can do about amounts of snowfall, but it can do much about its management of reservoirs. The existing “drought contingency plan,” agreed upon by the seven states with legal rights to Colorado River water, expires in 2026. She urges changing the management plan sooner, but without explaining how.
The Colorado River Research Group, a team of scholars at Utah State University, studies this river system, from perspectives in social, physical and biological sciences, along with water law and public policy. In 2018, they highlighted the role of policy decisions in draining Lake Powell, in a paper aptly titled, “It’s Hard to Fill a Bathtub When the Drain is Wide Open.” That is precisely what has happened at Lake Powell, yet the report has been largely ignored. It should be required reading for everyone concerned about the Colorado River.
Lake Powell was created for the primary purpose of administering the Interstate Compact — ensuring the Upper Basin states can deliver the water they are required to send downstream, even in dry years. It was completed in 1966 and finally filled to its 27 million acre-foot capacity by 1980. But since 2000, the water level has dropped 94 feet, even though the Upper Basin states have consistently used only 60% of their entitlements. The lake holds barely 10 million acre-feet today.