A resolute effort in Arizona, California, and Nevada to reduce Colorado River water use is slowing the decline of Lake Mead and delaying mandatory restrictions on water withdrawals from the drying basin.
The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees lake levels, forecasts that Arizona, California, and Nevada will draw less than 7 million acre-feet from the river this year, some 500,000 acre-feet less than they are permitted to consume and the lowest since 1992. (An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, enough water to flood an acre of land with one foot of water.) At Lake Mead’s current water level, 500,000 acre-feet equals slightly more than six feet in elevation — just enough water to tip the lake into shortage levels, if it had been used.
The savings have been building. Four major conservation programs since 2014 have added roughly 10 feet of water to Lake Mead since 2014, according to Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Office. These programs, collaborations between federal, state, and local agencies, pay farmers not to grow crops, line earthen canals with concrete to prevent leaks, remove grass from golf courses, or install more efficient irrigation equipment. The savings are banked in Lake Mead.
“These programs are working,” Davis told Circle of Blue. “These partnerships are working. They are making a difference.”
The August analysis of the basin’s hydrology, an assessment carried out every month by the Bureau of Reclamation, concluded that the water level in Lake Mead will be above 1,075 feet in elevation next January. Those dates are important because the August study determines how much water the Bureau will release from Lake Powell into Lake Mead the following year and whether there will be a shortage in the three lower basin states. A shortage, which has never been declared, happens when the August study shows that Lake Mead will be below 1,075 feet in January. That will not happen next year. The lake’s forecasted water level in January is 1,080 feet.
The benefits of conservation spread beyond next year. The risk of a shortage in the near-term will go down. The last time the Bureau ran the numbers, in April, the results showed a 56 percent chance of shortage for 2018. The updated calculations, which will be published next week, will show “greatly reduced odds,” Davis said.
Water managers in the basin say that conservation gains can be maintained and extended. “All of the programs are long-term, reaching out several decades,” Tanya Trujillo, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, told Circle of Blue.
More Challenges Still To Come
Even with the conservation success, hard decisions are close at hand. One, the basin must come to terms with the “structural deficit.” This is the term water managers use to describe a basic imbalance: in a year with average water releases from Lake Powell, the water level at Lake Mead will drop by roughly 12 feet because demand exceeds supply. James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, called the structural deficit “a root discussion over the last several years” among all seven basin states.
Two, the risk calculations will change as the four states in the upper basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — pull more water out of the basin.
Three, water managers and politicians alike must figure out what to do about the Salton Sea, a festering sore in the basin’s politics. The sea — in fact, a lake — was created in 1905 when the Colorado River burst through a dike and filled a desert depression that had no ocean outlet. In later years, the Salton, now California’s largest lake, swelled with farm drainage and grew saltier from evaporation.
The Salton has been shrinking since 2003, when a historic agreement between Imperial Irrigation District and state, federal, and tribal agencies resulted in a large transfer of water from farm to city, which reduced farm runoff. As part of the agreement, Imperial delivered water to prop up the lake, which is also an important habitat for birds migrating along the Pacific flyway. But those deliveries will cease at the end of 2017, after which the lake will go into a tailspin, shrinking rapidly and becoming several times saltier than the ocean. Pesticides, salts, and toxic dust on the seabed poses an immediate health threat to the people of the Coachella Valley, Imperial County, and Mexicali, a border city of 1 million people. A solution to the Salton Sea problem is inevitably tied to Colorado River issues upstream.
“Being one of the largest users on the river, it’s in our best interest to look out for and promote the health and welfare of the system as a whole,” Marion Champion, spokeswoman for Imperial Irrigation District, told Circle of Blue. “That said, we will need some reassurances from the state of California that it will live up to its restoration promises for the Salton Sea.”
Imperial has the largest allocation of Colorado River water — 3.1 million acre-feet, more than one-fifth of the river’s average annual runoff — of any user in the basin. Champion said that she expects Imperial to be a part of a basin-wide drought plan, but only if the Salton Sea is addressed, with either money or water, or both.
“That participation is contingent on a state led restoration plan and implementation commitment to ensure our community’s public health is protected,” she said.