US urges Colorado River drought planning

FILE - In this July 28, 2014 file photo, lightning strikes over Lake Mead near Hoover Dam at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Arizona. Federal water managers said Wednesday, May 9, 2018, that there is a better-than-even possibility that Mexico and the U.S. states of Arizona and Nevada will get less water from Lake Mead, a Colorado River reservoir, in 2020 because of a drought. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Colorado River Basin water managers should have drought-contingency plans in place by year's end so they can put them to use should current trends continue, the head of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said Wednesday.

"We all — states, tribes, water districts, non-governmental organizations — have an obligation and responsibility to work together to meet the needs of over 40 million people who depend on reliable water and power from the Colorado River," Bureau of Reclamation Chief Brenda Burman said in a statement.

Runoff from the Rocky Mountains down the Colorado and into Lake Powell this year is anticipated to be only 42 percent of the long-term average. The bureau noted in a statement that the period between 2000 and 2018 is one of the worst drought cycles in the last 1,200 years.

Storage has allowed water managers to weather the current shortage, said Brent Rhees, Upper Colorado regional director for the bureau, calling for the completion of drought contingency plans to "provide better certainty for continued reliable water and power."

Lake Powell is the "savings account" for upper Colorado River water managers who are required to deliver more than 8 million acre feet of water to the lower basin and Mexico.

This year, those managers anticipate seeing 9 million acre feet flow out of Lake Powell while about 3 million acre feet are flowing in, according to Andy Mueller, who heads the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

"The lower basin is simply using too much water," Mueller said Tuesday at the district's State of the River meeting in Grand Junction.

Water agencies in Colorado, however, also are under pressure to complete their own drought contingency plans.

"Colorado is heartened by Commissioner Burman's call to action, stands at the ready to move drought contingency planning forward, and agrees that the situation is urgent," said James Eklund, who represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission. "Paraphrasing Ben Franklin, the states must hang together or we'll hang separately."

The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river, released projections on Wednesday showing a 52 percent chance the river's biggest reservoir, Lake Mead in Arizona and Nevada, will fall low enough in 2020 to trigger cutbacks under agreements governing the system.

If that happens, those two states and Mexico would be the first to see their share of water cut. Further drops in the reservoir could trigger cuts for other states.

The chances of a shortfall rise to 64 percent in 2021 and 68 percent in 2022, the bureau said.