Drought’s continued depletion of Colorado River bodes ill for California

In another sign of California’s scarce water supply problem, top Arizona water officials say the increasingly severe depletion of reservoirs on the Colorado River will require action. seriously to combat the effects of a 22-year super-drought that shows no signs of showing.

Federal projections show that Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the country’s two largest reservoirs, will continue to decline in the coming months, reaching shorts that are likely to cause larger water cuts next year. 2023 for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico – and this could eventually cause a similar drop in California.

“The immediate situation is dire,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “We hope more significant actions are needed to reduce water use.”

The Colorado River provides water for nearly 40 million people, flowing to cities, farmland, and tribal states from the Rocky Mountains to Southern California. The river has been overused for decades. So much water has been diverted that the river delta in Mexico has largely dried up decades ago, leaving only natural wetlands scattered in a dry river channel that runs through farmland.

Federal and state officials spoke at a meeting in Phoenix on Friday, three days after the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced plans to reduce the amount of water released from Lake Powell this year to reduce ink risks. The reservoir’s water level is too low at Glen Canyon Dam. . Last year, the dam generated enough electricity to meet the needs of more than 300,000 homes – something it wouldn’t be able to do if water levels dropped so drastically that it could no longer generate electricity.

Buschatzke added that more needs to be done to protect water levels in Lake Mead, which releases water that reaches Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico.

Lake Powell, which straddles the Arizona-Utah state line, has fallen to just 24% of operating capacity, its lowest level since it was filled in the 1960s following the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam.

The water released from Lake Powell flows through the Grand Canyon and reaches Lake Mead near Las Vegas. Lake Mead has dropped to 30% of its full capacity, its lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

The latest projections, Buschatzke said, show a decrease in the amount of wastewater released from Lake Powell would result in the level of Lake Mead dropping by about 22 feet.

“It’s about maintaining the flows in the Colorado River, including through the Grand Canyon,” says Buschatzke. Because if flows are severely restricted, the drop in Lake Mead will accelerate.

Buschatzke notes that the surface of Lake Mead is currently just 1,054 feet below sea level. He points out that if the reservoir drops to 895 feet, it will reach the “dead abyss” – the point where water will no longer pass through the Hoover Dam.

The federal government’s latest plan would involve releasing about 500,000 acres of water from the Volcanic Gorge Reservoir, located upstream, and retaining an additional 480,000 acres in Lake Powell.

California, Arizona, and Nevada used 6.8 million acres of Colorado River water in 2020. (Each acre is enough water to cover a football field about 1 foot deep.)

If Lake Powell were to drop to a lower level, below 3,490 feet, water could still be routed through four 8-foot-wide pipes, the dam’s river outlet still functioning.

“However, if the lake declines, the ability to release water will decrease,” said Daniel Bunk, director of the Federal Reclamation Bureau’s Boulder Canyon Operations Office. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in operating below that.”

Over the past few years, state and federal officials have repeatedly negotiated agreements to try to reduce the risk of reservoirs on the Colorado River to extremely low levels.

In 2019, representatives from seven states in the Colorado River basin signed a series of agreements called Drought Contingency Plans, including a pact between California, Arizona, and Nevada to draw less water from the river. Mexico has agreed under a separate arrangement to contribute by leaving a portion of its water in Lake Mead.

With reservoirs continuing to dwindle, water officials from California, Arizona and Nevada signed another agreement in December to draw less water from the river.

Despite those efforts, reservoirs continue to decline.

Scientists have found that higher temperatures caused by climate change are making droughts much worse than would be possible in the watershed. They say the warmer atmosphere has a “thirst” effect, drying the soil and evaporating moisture from the landscape, reducing runoff in streams and Colorado rivers.

“We are getting less runoff than we are getting rainfall, which is a very worrying trend and will pose a challenge for us in future river management,” says Buschatzke.

Last year, inflows into the reservoirs were the second-lowest on record, just 32 percent below average. This year the snow was just a little below average but the flow from it Bunk said the expected is only 62% of the average.

“We seem to be getting rainfall, but other factors like warmer temperatures, dry soil conditions… all seem to be conspiring against the actual flow,” he said.

Buschatzke says the Southwest needs to adapt.

“Our future is probably what we now call living with deprivation,” he said. “We must all work together to help solve these problems of the Colorado River.”

Arizona is estimated to receive about 36% of its water from Colorado. Farmers in parts of the state are facing severe cuts in the Colorado River, and they have to drill wells to make up some of the shortfall.

This year, water loss in Arizona totals more than 800,000 acres, about a quarter of the state’s total.

So far, the cuts have largely not affected Arizona’s cities, but officials say the state may eventually find a way to reduce outdoor water use.

“We need to dig a little deeper, innovate and create more,” said Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project. “Additional voluntary conservation is needed and may delay a larger involuntary shortfall.”

Buschatzke said the state is preparing for additional cuts next year, and that even larger cuts are likely to hit the region in 2024.

He noted that California is on track to use more than 4.4 million acres this year as state agencies are draining some of the water they have saved in Lake Mead, under a 2019 drought agreement that allows .

California has stockpiled 1.3 million acres in the Mead, and will be taking out about 250,000 acres this year to help as the state’s other supplies have dwindled during the drought, said Bill Hasencamp, administrator. Metropolitan’s Colorado River Resource Manager for Southern California’s Water District.

“We only take a small fraction of the water that we put into Lake Mead,” he said.

“We are asking our customers to step up conservation this year. But despite the conservation enhancement, we need more Colorado River water,” added Hasencamp. “We put it in there for a dry day, a dry year like this one, and that’s why we had to take it out.”

Nearly two weeks ago, the water district declared an emergency water shortage and ordered outdoor watering to be restricted to conserve the limited supply from Northern California provided through the State Water Project. The restrictions, which will be different for each water agency, will go into effect June 1 in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties.

Other areas of Southern California rely primarily on unrestricted Colorado River water. But the Metropolitan Water District has urged people across the region to reduce water use by 20%.

Buschatzke, the Arizona water official, said his state wants to avoid the severe restrictions currently being implemented in California.

“We don’t want to live on water allotted for health and safety in our state. And we may be in that place at some point in the future,” Buschatzke said. “We are committed to doing everything we can to avoid that outcome.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-05-06/colorado-rivers-california-arizona-powell-mead-risks Drought’s continued depletion of Colorado River bodes ill for California

Edmund DeMarche

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