The Colorado River’s largest reservoirs are nearly three-quarters empty, and federal officials now say there’s a real risk the reservoirs could sink so low that no water would flow past the Hoover Dam in two years.
That dire scenario — which would disrupt water supplies to California, Arizona and Mexico — was the focus of this week’s annual Colorado River conference in Las Vegas, where officials from seven states, water boards, tribes and the federal government negotiate how they use it can be reduced to an unprecedented extent.
Federal water managers outlined their latest projections for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the country’s two largest reservoirs, and said there was a risk Lake Mead could reach “dead pool” levels in 2025. If this happened, there would be no more water flowing down the Hoover Dam.
“We are in a crisis. Both lakes could be two years away from a deadpool, or so close to the deadpool that the runoff from these dams will be an awfully small number. And it’s only getting worse,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
He said there was a real risk that if the coming year was extremely dry “it could be too late to save the lakes”.
The Colorado River has long been severely congested, and its flows have shrunk dramatically during a 23-year mega-drought exacerbated by global warming.
For the past six months, federal officials have been urging water managers in the seven states that depend on the river to come up with plans for major cuts. But negotiations have so far yielded no deal, and the voluntary cuts that states and water agencies have proposed fall far short of the federal government’s goal of reducing water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet a year — a drop of about 15% to 30%.
Facing the prospect of federal agencies imposing mandatory large-scale cuts, state and water district officials have held private backroom calls to reach an agreement.
“We are still in interstate talks to try and figure something out,” Buschatzke said. “I think the scale is daunting.”
Buschatzke and other water managers fear talks about voluntary cuts are not enough. Officials from Arizona, Nevada and other states have urged federal officials to take steps like accounting for evaporative losses from canals and redefining what counts as “beneficial uses” of water — a change that could potentially pave the way for large, dated federally mandated cuts.
The US Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Reclamation have already begun revising existing water scarcity rules. They have also begun reducing the amount of water they release from Glen Canyon Dam over the next five months in hopes of raising the reservoir level in time for the spring runoff to arrive. And they have warned they may need to further reduce the amount of water they release from the dam, which would reduce flow downstream and accelerate Lake Mead’s decline.
“I don’t think the states and the federal government are acting fast enough,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “Circumstances on the ground are overtaking the pace of discussions and negotiations.”
Entsminger said negotiations are continuing but he sees nothing of significance at the conference.
“One way or another, if we don’t find solutions, physics and Mother Nature will dictate the results,” Entsminger said. “I want every water user on the Colorado River to realize that the 21st century has far less water than the 20th century. And all the institutions we built in the 20th century must be adapted – in months, not years – to meet the reality of less water for every user, in every sector, in every state.”
Federal officials have given states and water companies until Jan. 31 to submit an alternative plan for the Bureau of Reclamation to consider as part of its review, said Henry Martinez, general manager of California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which has the largest Share uses the river to feed approximately 500,000 acres of farmland in the Imperial Valley.
“We have about six weeks of hard work with all seven states to come up with something different,” Martinez said.
“It’s not going to be easy, to say the least,” Martinez said. “But we are all committed to working over the next six weeks to actually find something to give back to the bureau to consider as a further plan.”
To date, four California water districts have proposed reducing water use by up to 400,000 acre-feet per year. That would account for about 9% of the state’s total water allocation from the river by 2026.
In exchange, the Biden administration has agreed to allocate $250 million to projects on the shrinking Salton Sea to expedite work on wetlands and dust abatement projects. The federal government is also offering to pay farmers and others who agree to forego some of their water, drawing on $4 billion earmarked under the Inflation Reduction Act for drought-fighting measures.
The largest share of California’s reductions would come from the Imperial Irrigation District, while cities across the region could face mandatory water rationing through April, which is being considered by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Water managers, tribal leaders and others at the conference discussed how the climate change-induced desiccation of the West is dramatically shrinking river flow.
“The water is going away. And it’s a crisis for everyone,” said Melvin Baker, leader of Southwest Colorado’s Southern Ute Indian Tribe. “We actually have seven rivers that flow through our reservation. And right now, in the height of summer, some of those rivers look like streams. There is no water.”
Ted Cooke, the outgoing manager of the Central Arizona Project, which provides water from the Colorado River to about 5 million people, said the real risk of the reservoirs bottoming out must prompt action.
“That’s on our doorstep,” Cooke said. “Reconstruction and states and tribes must quickly find a compromise approach to significantly reduce the risks in a way that can cause the least amount of damage and prevent the reservoirs from being completely drained.”
At the 1963 conference, James Prairie of the Bureau of Reclamation presented a black and white photograph of Glen Canyon Dam before the reservoir was filled. He noted that the water level in Lake Powell is now 37 feet above the “minimum power pool,” a point at which the dam would stop generating electricity.
Prairie said the agency is trying to keep Lake Powell above that level. If the reservoir falls much deeper, dam managers would have to stop using the main inlets, called penstocks, and could only release water through lower bypass tubes, which have reduced capacity.
“These are bumps that we don’t want to see at Lake Powell,” he said.
Federal government leadership will be critical to finding a solution, said Felicia Marcus, a Stanford University researcher and former chair of California’s State Water Resources Control Board.
“I think there’s a lot of danger and opportunity where we’re at right now,” Marcus said. “It’s a shame we’re so close to Armageddon to push people to embrace this opportunity.”
While going without water may be politically challenging, cuts have become inevitable.
“We have to do something that will be painful for everyone, although the form of that pain will vary by party,” Marcus said, based on their water rights.
What will be critical to any agreement, Marcus said, is “to come up with something that may seem painful, but that people can recognize as fair.”
The crisis presents an opportunity not only to address shortages, but to begin changing the system for managing the river, said Kathy Jacobs, director of the University of Arizona’s Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions.
“I think right now all the blinkers are on and they’re so focused on protecting their own interests that they’ve lost sight of the long-term opportunity here,” Jacobs said. “We really need to be prepared for really significant long-term consequences.”
https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2022-12-16/risk-of-dead-pool-looms-at-colorado-river-meeting Risk of ‘dead pool’ looms at Colorado River meeting