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by Terry Scanga, general manager, and Chelsey Nutter, projects manager, Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District

In a dry year such as this, drought and water usage are on everyone’s mind. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, as of May 1, snowpack in the Arkansas River Basin was at 52 percent of median, and the Upper Arkansas Basin was at 73 percent of median. At the same time, our water storage reservoirs are full. What do these statistics mean and what role does conservation play?

During drought, many people talk about the importance of water conservation. In fact, water conservation efforts in large urban areas has helped maintain municipal water consumption at historic levels even as they experience significant growth. Conservation is a noble idea but one that will not work if you don’t have the most crucial component of all: water storage.

A current catchphrase in the water community is “every conversation needs to start with conservation.” In the Arkansas Basin, we believe that to have a conversation about conservation, you must first have a conversation about storage. For conservation to be effective, the “saved” water must be stored somewhere to be available for later use during dry periods. In the same respect, capturing water from a wet year to have available for a dry year also requires storage. Thus, storage is essential for the conserved supply to be available to meet future demands.

We at the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District like to explain the basics of water management and storage using the example of a banking account. Each month you receive your regular paycheck (normal precipitation), and in most years this is sufficient. In other years, you have a little extra (wet year), and you put that extra into your savings account (storage). Some years you have less than what you need (during dry years and droughts). These are the years when your savings account is critical. You can pull from your savings account to get by during that year, but you must also be diligent with refilling this account. Your savings account (storage) is the only practical way to honestly plan for future use.

Water managers like those of us who work for the conservancy district are tasked with securing water for future use. Storage allows us to capture and save unused water in a wet year. Through conservation coupled with storage, we can make sure we have supplies for a dry year. The importance of storage for planning for drought cannot be overstated, especially in a storage-short basin such as ours.

The conservancy district stores water in seven upper basin reservoirs, and we are also working on the development of alluvial (underground) storage for future water supply needs. All these reservoirs play a vital role in our ability to plan for drought and to manage for a more predictable water supply.

Without maintaining dominion and control through proper resource management and without available storage space, much like this year, conserved water will merely be lost and eventually diverted by the next downstream senior water right holder who is in priority. If our real objective is to develop strategies to plan for drought years, storage is essential. Conservation alone, without storage and proper management practices, does not provide the ability to place that “saved” water into storage to have available for future use.

This is the first installment of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District’s monthly “Water Talks” column. We hope to use this platform as a way of providing accurate and balanced water information to our constituents. If there is something, you’d like to learn more about, feel free to email us at We’ll do our best to address your questions.