Water ‘crisis’ discussed by Interior’s Haaland, Colorado officials at Denver roundtable

Fueled by climate change, severe drought conditions persist West of the Continental Divide

By: - July 22, 2021 3:26 pm

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland discussed federal efforts to respond to severe Western drought conditions at a press conference in Denver on July 22, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s visit to Colorado began on Thursday at the headquarters of Denver Water, where she met with state and local leaders to discuss federal efforts to deal with the worsening drought conditions that have spread across much of the American West.

“Being from New Mexico, I know how much climate change impacts our communities, from extended fire seasons to intense drought and water shortages,” Haaland said at a press conference. “And I know how important the Colorado River Basin is to these discussions.”

Haaland, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Denver, were among those who joined a closed-door roundtable discussion of water issues prior to Thursday’s press event.


“Part of our goal today was to hear directly from affected communities and affected water districts who are experiencing drought,” said Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department. “We’re taking leadership from the president, directly from the (Office of Domestic Climate Policy), and are working on drought and resiliency, both in the short-term context but also looking forward to longer-term programs.”

As of July 20, 2021, more than 36% of Colorado was experiencing “severe” drought conditions or worse. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

The latest weekly map released by the U.S. Drought Monitor on Thursday showed virtually no change to conditions in Colorado, where more than a third of the state — an area including much of the Western Slope — remains under a “severe” drought classification or worse. Things are even more dire in many other Western states, with “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions persisting across nearly all of Utah and Nevada, and large parts of California, Arizona, Oregon and Washington.

The conditions are part of a decades-long trend, driven by human-caused climate change, towards hotter, drier weather across much of the West. The post-2000 “megadrought” impacting the Colorado River Basin, the primary water source for more than 40 million people, is estimated to be the region’s worst dry spell since the 16th century, and scientists say it is being driven in large part by higher temperatures, rather than natural variability in precipitation.

One year after a historic and deadly 2020 wildfire season, another round of large, fast-moving fires is again razing drought-stricken lands in multiple states this summer, their smoke plumes drifting across the country and causing hazy skies and unhealthy air quality as far away as New York City. For the first time ever, officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have begun emergency water releases from reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell, including Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir, in an effort to keep water levels high enough to continue hydroelectric power generation at Glen Canyon Dam.

Friday stop in Grand Junction

“Drought doesn’t just impact one community,” said Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to lead the Interior Department, which oversees more than 500 million acres of land across the country, much of it in the West. “It affects all of us, from farmers and ranchers to city dwellers and Indian tribes. We all have a role to use water wisely and manage our resources with every community in mind.”

The Colorado River Basin is subdivided into Upper and Lower basins, with the former ending at Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam. (U.S. Geological Survey)

“The idea of collaboration and interconnectedness, I think, is really important,” said Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead at the press conference. “It’s not just what happens here in the headwaters of the Colorado River, it’s also what happens in the Lower Basin states. … We are working collaboratively. I think we need to work more closely.”

Along with their counterparts in other states, officials with the Colorado Water Conservation Board are currently studying the feasibility of a “demand management” program for the Upper Colorado River Basin, which would establish a voluntary program to pay large water users to temporarily reduce their consumption under certain conditions. Such a program could be implemented as part of a renegotiated Colorado River Compact, an interstate agreement that is set to expire in 2026.

“That is something that has to be approved by all the Upper Basin states,” Becky Mitchell, director of the CWCB, said at Thursday’s press conference. “This is one potential solution, or piece of the solution. … This has definitely put a sense of urgency on the work we’re doing at the state level, and we’re going to continue to push forward as much as we can on that.”

Haaland and other officials also used Thursday’s event to tout the importance of congressional efforts to improve water management throughout the West, including through an infrastructure package currently being negotiated by the White House and a bipartisan group of senators, including first-term Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper.

“The President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework includes important investments that will provide much-needed funding for the western drought crisis by investing in water efficiency and recycling programs, Tribal water settlements, and dam safety,” the Interior Department said in a press release.

Haaland’s trip to Colorado will continue with a stop in Grand Junction on Friday, where she will hold a meeting on wildfire response and preparedness and visit the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management, as a decision looms on whether the Biden administration will reverse the agency’s controversial 2019 relocation there. Haaland is also scheduled to hold a roundtable discussion on outdoor recreation in Ridgway on Saturday.


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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.