#ColoradoRiver: Lake Mead hits new record low (since first fill) #COriver

Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam December 2015 via Greg Hobbs.
Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam December 2015 via Greg Hobbs.

From The Las Vegas Review-Journal (@RefriedBrean):

The nation’s largest man-made reservoir slipped to a new record low sometime after 7 p.m. Wednesday, and forecasters from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expect see its surface drop another 2 feet through the end of June.

The latest dip into record-low territory comes as officials in Nevada, Arizona and California consider a new deal to prop up the declining lake by giving up some of their Colorado River water.

But some river advocates argue that those voluntary cuts could be rendered meaningless by proposed water developments that will further sap the overdrawn and drought-stricken river before it ever reaches Lake Mead…

Others see reason for hope.

Colby Pellegrino, Colorado River programs manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the “silver lining of this cloud” is the cooperative work among water managers, regulators and policymakers across the river basin. She said some of those collaborations have already made a tangible difference at Lake Mead, where the water would be even lower than it is now without some of the banking agreements and conservation efforts agreed upon by the states.

The voluntary reductions being discussed are designed to stave off deeper, mandatory cuts for Arizona and Nevada if the lake sinks below levels outlined in a 2007 agreement.

Nevada would leave 8,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead each year under the first round of voluntary cuts, while Arizona would give up 192,000 of its 2.8 million acre-foot Colorado River allocation to benefit the reservoir…

The annual reductions would increase to 10,000 acre-feet for Nevada and 240,000 acre-feet for Arizona should Lake Mead drop another 30 feet to 1,045 feet above sea level.

Elevation 1,045 is also where California would see its first voluntary cuts, which start at 200,000 acre-feet a year and increase by 50,000 with every additional 5-foot drop in Lake Mead. Under existing law, California is not required to give up any of its 4.4 million acre-foot river allocation, which is the largest among the seven states that share the Colorado.

Lake Mead’s new record low erases the old mark of 1,074.71 feet above sea level set just over a year ago on June 26.

Federal forecasters expect the lake to finish this June at elevation 1,070.98. The last time Lake Mead had so little water in it was May 1937, the month of the Hindenburg disaster, when the reservoir was filling for the first time behind a newly completely Hoover Dam.

Record-low water levels present more of an access problem than a supply problem for the Las Vegas Valley, which depends on the lake for 90 percent of its water.

Southern Nevada Water Authority officials insist Nevada’s comparatively small 300,000 acre-foot share of the Colorado River can be stretched enough through reuse and conservation to serve the growing community for decades to come. But to keep that water flowing from the shrinking lake, the agency is spending almost $1.5 billion on a new deep-water intake and pumping station.

Wherever this year’s low-water mark eventually lands, the record is not expected to stand for long. The current forecast calls for Lake Mead to start 2017 about 4 feet higher than it is now, then dip downward again into record territory in April. The reservoir should bottom out near elevation 1,063 sometime in June 2017.

From The Las Vegas Sun (Daniel Rothberg):

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, the elevation inched below the past record set last June, when it hit 1,074.70 feet, according to hourly data from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency responsible for overseeing Western water management and the Hoover Dam.

“This is the early warning signal,” said Drew Beckwith, a water policy manager with Western Resource Advocates, a conservation group. He said that it signifies that more water is being used than the Colorado River, which feeds Lake Mead, provides.

“It’s about an over-allocated resource,” he said.

Projections show the lake could continue dropping about 3 more feet through June, ebbing farther from a full capacity of 1,221 feet above sea level, which was last achieved in 1983. Facing a drought of more than a decade, it has dropped 130 feet since 2000.

“It’s a visual and physical manifestation for all of us,” said Rose Davis, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation. She added that water issues are plaguing countries throughout the world and that Lake Mead provides an illustration. “We might not see it globally but we can certainly see the bathtub ring.”

For now, the drop is largely symbolic since shortages are not likely to be triggered next year. But states could face cuts in 2018. No resource planning is an exact science, but the Bureau of Reclamation says there is a higher chance states will be asked to voluntarily reduce their Lake Mead allocations in 2018…

The river is fed by snow melt in the Rocky Mountains…

…the Southern Nevada Water Authority told the Sun earlier this month that it was building a water system impervious to elevation drops.

“We are building a water delivery system that will ensure a secure water supply regardless of lake levels in Lake Mead,” John Entsminger, SNWA’s general manager, said last week.

Last fall, the water authority completed a “third straw” project that would draw water from the bottom of the lake if surface elevations were to drop below a critical level of 1,000 feet. SNWA can call on more than 1 million acre-feet of water in the case of a shortage.

Beyond the drought and climate change, Beckwith said that what is also driving the drop is that Lake Mead loses more water than it takes in. He said states have come to recognize this in recent years.

Davis, with the Bureau of Reclamation, said that as states negotiate more voluntary reductions, individuals should also play a role in conservation and improving their water usage practices.

“(The water agencies are) doing what we can,” she said. “But it’s got to go farther than that. It’s got to go down to the individual.”

Many states, including Nevada, have made strides in conservation that focuses on the end-user, but Beckwith said more can be done.

“In the cities, we’re going to need to start deploying next-generation urban water efficiency measures,” he said. “How do you affect personal behavior rather than how do you just affect the toilets and the showers and the appliances that use water?”

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