Feds: Drought to force cutbacks in Lake Powell releases
More water will be stored in Lake Powell in 2014 as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation anticipates the likelihood of continued drought.
“This is the worst 14-year drought period in the last hundred years,” Upper Colorado Regional Director Larry Walkoviak said, noting that low water levels will require increased coordination in the operations of reservoirs upstream from Lake Powell.
Storing more water in Lake Powell will protect the ability of the bureau to generate electricity at Glen Canyon Dam.
“Should Powell fall below powerhead (the level at which water can spin the turbines) there’s a whole revenue stream that’s at stake,” Colorado River Water Conservation District spokesman Jim Pokrandt said.
That revenue stream includes funding from Powell’s power revenues for selenium- and salinity-control programs, Pokrandt said.
Additional storage in Powell can insulate the upper-basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming from an immediate demand by downstream states for water guaranteed them under a 1922 agreement, but that possibility is not immediate, said Terry Fulp, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region director.
“With a good winter snowpack next year, the outlook could change significantly, as it did in 2011, but we also need to be prepared for continuing drought,” Fulp said.
Longer-term projections in the bureau’s longer-term models show a “very small chance of lower-basin delivery shortages in 2015,” Fulp said.
The first significant chance of reduced water deliveries to the lower basin is in 2016, Fulp said, noting that projections will be updated monthly to reflect changes in weather and hydrology.
Bureau officials and environmentalists have been raising alarms in recent months about demand outstripping supply on the river serving some 40 million people in seven states and cities including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver and Las Vegas.
“The problem isn’t drought, and a big rain storm or a heavy winter snow season won’t fix this,” said Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers in Washington. D.C. The advocacy group in April labeled the Colorado River the most endangered waterway in the U.S.
“What we need are fundamental changes in how we manage water in the Colorado basin,” Irvin said. “This is the loudest wake-up call so far.”
Fulp pointed to a federal report issued in December that concluded that the river may not meet the needs of a growing regional population by 2060.
“The study showed very clearly that demand and supply curves are crossing and demand is exceeding supply,” he said.
Fulp compares managing the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado River to pouring tea from one cup to another. He said the usual annual delivery of 8.23 million acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to Lake Mead will be cut next year about 9 percent, to 7.48 million acre-feet. Officials say one acre-foot is enough to serve two Nevada families for a year.
Lake Powell, near the Utah-Arizona state line, would decrease from 45 percent this year to 42 percent next year.
Lake Mead, on the Nevada-Arizona state line, is currently at 47 percent capacity and could drop to 39 percent capacity next year.
Lake Mead on Friday was at 1,106 feet. The low level next year would be about 10 feet above a 1,075-foot elevation trigger point agreed upon in 2007 by the seven U.S. states that share river water under a 1928 allocation agreement. Native American tribes and Mexico also get shares of Colorado River water.
A shortage declaration would mean Arizona would get 11.4 percent less than its 2.8 million acre-foot allocation. Nevada would get 4.3 percent less than its 300,000 acre-foot allotment — a loss equivalent of the amount serving 26,000 homes.
Southern Nevada Water Authority chief Pat Mulroy last week floated the idea of a federal disaster declaration due to drought in the Southwest. Meanwhile, local officials stress conservation, and note that iconic dancing fountains on the Las Vegas Strip use recycled water.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.