Water committees look at Colorado River water proposalWritten by Saige Albert
At the August meeting of the Wyoming Water Development Commission (WWDC) and Select Water Committee, Sen. Ogden Driskill of Devils Tower brought forward a proposal he – and other members of the committee – believes has merit. His proposal is one to better utilize Wyoming water that flows down the Colorado River each year.
“Wyoming has somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 acre-feet of unrestricted water that flows down the Colorado River every year,” says Driskill. “This is water that was allocated to Wyoming, and it has flowed downstream every year since the compact.”
He continues, “My proposal is that we lease water to the downstream states, which would allow them, for a term, to use Wyoming’s part of the water.”
Driskill adds that a similar arrangement can be seen on the Snake River with Idaho where water is stored in Wyoming and sold to end-users in Idaho. The money returns to the state of Wyoming.
He proposed that the idea be pursued in a level one study by WWDC.
“What I’m proposing is that we take that volume of water – whatever the study comes up with – and lease it in 25,000 to 50,000 acre-foot increments,” he says.
If funded, Driskill says both a level one and level two water study would likely have to be conducted to define the amount of water available, analyze the parameters of the Colorado River Compact and look at determining how to sell water leases and deliver water to buyers.
“On its surface, it is a very simplistic proposal,” says WWDC Director Harry LaBonde. “Administratively, it is very difficult – hence the need for study, if Wyoming is interested in going forward.”
Currently, California and other Lower Basin states in the Colorado River Compact are experiencing severe droughts, which have been detrimental to their economies.
“Water has been sold for between $2,000 and $4,000 an acre-foot each year in California,” Driskill explains. “We are talking about a potential $200 million to Wyoming.”
The revenue would be deposited into a fourth water development account, as proposed by Driskill. The money from the account would fund storage projects that would be 100 percent owned by the state of Wyoming.
“There would be no cost-share on building the projects,” he says. “They would be available for irrigators or other users to purchase the stored water or the entire project, similar to what is done by Bureau of Reclamation.”
“We could end up with millions of additional acre-feet of storage in the state of Wyoming,” Driskill says.
In addition, the proposal would add revenue to the state through agriculture.
“As energy winds down in Wyoming, more of the tax burden will shift back to agriculture, and ag generates much more money on irrigated ground than dry ground,” he explains. “This is long-term economic development.
“As a legislator, I think it hits on irresponsible to give away this much of Wyoming’s water every year,” Driskill emphasizes.
Driskill notes, however, that the proposal is not without some concerns.
“There is a real concern about creating insatiable demand for the water, which would mean we wouldn’t get it back,” he says. “My response is that we have to wrestle it back for ourselves right now. At least we would have the acknowledgement of the entire river basin that it is Wyoming’s water.”
He also adds that there is much research to be done, and he doesn’t have all the answers related to the proposal yet – which makes a study by WWDC important.
LaBonde comments, “While this proposal seems straightforward, due to the complexity and laws of water on the Colorado River, it is not that simple.”
The Upper Colorado River Compact Commission, among others, would be involved in the regulatory aspects of any potential agreement, adding more complexity.
“Similar proposals have been brought forward numerous times in the past and have not been successful,” LaBonde adds. “There are a lot of institutional interests that will be looked at.”
Other questions also arise if the state of Wyoming can lease its water outside of the Colorado River Compact.
For example, if the state can lease water, can individual appropriators get involved in the market? The answer to that question is currently unknown.
LaBonde also looks at the 200,000 acre-feet of water that currently flows out of the state, noting that it ends up in Lake Powell and counts as system water which the Upper Basin states use to meet downstream compact obligations.
“How do we protect the water once it leaves state boundaries?” asks LaBonde. “Does this take a step toward weakening the Colorado River Compact? There are a lot of questions to be answered.”
“There could be some holes in this proposal,” Driskill says, “but on the surface, there are no fatal flaws that we’ve seen.”
During their August meeting, WWDC and the Select Water Committee opted to go forward with a level one study of the proposal. It will be presented as a project of WWDC at their Nov. 4-5 meeting in Casper.