With Lake Mead at a new record low, officials are under increasing pressure to keep it from dropping enough to eventually force slashes in power production and Southwest water deliveries.
Interest groups want more action from state and federal officials to conserve or reuse more water or do more to counteract forces causing Mead to fall about 12 feet a year.
In the past two weeks, Mead has dropped below 1,082 feet above sea level — 7 feet above the level at which the federal government would declare its first shortage on the Colorado River. It’s the second time in four years that it’s reached its lowest level since the lake was first filling during the Great Depression.
Early Friday, the lake was at 1081.52 feet, about 39 percent full. The previous record low was 1081.85 feet in November 2010.
Next Friday, representatives of Arizona, the six other Colorado River Basin states and the federal government will meet in Denver to discuss possible solutions. That comes on top of two days of similar meetings earlier this month in Manhattan Beach, California.
The lake’s record low is “the canary in the coal mine” for 30 million people across the West who depend on Colorado River water for drinking, farming or industrial use, wrote Doug Kenney, a veteran University of Colorado water researcher, and Kimery Wiltshire, head of a regional water activist group known as Carpe Diem West.
The water level is a symbol that the river is approaching a shortage, said Chuck Cullom, a Central Arizona Project official. That shortage, expected for 2016 or 2017, would reduce CAP deliveries by about 20 percent, affecting mainly farms and some other non-urban users and the artificial recharge of river water in the Phoenix and Tucson areas by the Arizona Water Banking Authority.
“Fortunately, there are obvious solutions within reach. The trick will be to turn toward them,” Kenney and Wiltshire wrote in the Boulder (Colorado) Daily Camera. “The math is simple: Either we somehow create new water in the basin, or we need to use less.”
But Cullom and Tom Buschatzke of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, both of whom will attend Friday’s meeting, say they don’t expect a major breakthrough anytime soon.
The only idea to publicly surface so far is a plan for Arizona, Nevada, California, Colorado and the federal government to spend $11 million to pay farmers, industries and others to not use water in a pilot project that would save about 100,000 acre-feet of water a year. CAP’s computer models say about 600,000 to 900,000 acre-feet need to be saved or added to keep Lake Mead whole in the short term.
“I don’t anticipate a grand unveiling of some entirely new approach to how we address and operate the entire Colorado River system,” said Cullom, Colorado River programs manager for the CAP, which supplies most of Tucson’s drinking water. “I think we’re working on projects that will demonstrate ways to conserve water and protect the reservoir.”
Buschatzke, assistant director of the state agency’s planning division, said he can’t provide a time frame for when a final plan for the river will be prepared.
But a water attorney, several researchers and environmentalists say they want progress soon.
“How urgent it is depends on what you think the risk is,” said attorney Wade Noble, who has represented Yuma-area irrigation districts for 30 years. “If the risk is high that the water is not going to be there ... then something needs to be done in the immediate future, not next year.”
In 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned that the river could run up to 3 million acre-feet short by 2050 due to drought, climate change and increasing demands by growing cities such as Tucson, Phoenix and Las Vegas.
This spring, CAP officials, citing bureau forecasts, warned that Mead could drop to 1,000 feet sometime between 2019 and 2026. That’s because cities, farms, industries and others take 1.2 million acre-feet a year more from the lake than nature puts in, even in normal runoff years.
At or below 1,000 feet, power production from Hoover Dam would drop sharply, cutbacks to CAP’s urban and Indian users —including Tucson — are possible, and Las Vegas’ ability to extract its river water would be jeopardized.
Other calls for action in the past week came from Sharon Megdal, director of University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center and a CAP board member; Jay Famigletti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California; and the conservation groups American Rivers and Western Resource Advocates.
The latter two groups offered some of the few specific solutions to come from the interest groups. They wrote in a position paper Thursday that over time, municipal conservation in the entire river basin could save 1 million acre-feet of water, municipal reuse could save 1.2 million acre-feet and more efficient water use on farms and more water banking could save another 1 million acre-feet.
The U.S.’ allocations of river water to the seven Western states may have to be rethought, Famigletti told the Desert Sun in Palm Springs, California. That idea is sure to be controversial because it would require reopening of the 1922 Colorado River Compact that divvied up the water among the states.