#ColoradoRiver: Lake Mead Record Low Reflects Changing American West — Circle of Blue #COriver

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

From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

Nervous investors, concerned about their nest eggs, will check the financial markets. Is the New York Stock Exchange up? What direction is the NASDAQ moving?

For people living in the American Southwest, water levels in reservoirs play the same role. And Lake Mead is the blue chip, the biggest, most consequential, most widely watched piece in the game. When water levels are up, spirits are unburdened. People are confident in their place in the desert.

But when water levels are down, a cloud of worry creeps in, bringing questions about the fragility of life in the drylands. Down, way down, is where Lake Mead is today. On May 18, just before sunset, the surface elevation of America’s largest reservoir crossed the 1,074.7 foot threshold, setting a new record low for the iconic water body. The next day another record low was set. In fact, every day since then the reservoir has broken the old mark. The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages Mead, expects the daily decline to continue through June. The reservoir is 36 percent full — or, to look at it another way, 64 percent empty.

Public worry has evolved to a transcendent regional anxiety, and moving the Southwest to action. Communities are investing in new equipment and partnerships in order to adapt to the basin’s new math. Las Vegas spent nearly $US 1.5 billion to construct a water intake at the bottom of the lake and a pumping station to lift the water. Los Angeles, which is outside the basin but gets Colorado River water delivered by canal, is cutting reliance on imported water. Phoenix and Tucson, often viewed as ideological opposites, agreed in 2014 to coordinate the use of their water facilities, to maximize storage and minimize cost. Most remarkable of all, California — which holds the most power in the basin and the most secure rights — is in talks with Arizona and Nevada on a new conservation agreement. That agreement would reduce California’s annual take of the Colorado River for the first time.

Mead started to tumble at the turn of the 21st century, when drier conditions took hold in the Colorado River Basin. With every new annual low the sense of urgency in the seven-state, two-country watershed grew. A landmark 2007 agreement worked out a formula for declaring a shortage in the lower basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, and for restricting water withdrawals from Mead. The three states are now working to delay that day of reckoning by keeping more water in the big reservoir.

A reckoning is imminent. The climate and the Colorado are drying. There are proposals from the upper basins states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — to take more water out of the river, which will reduce flows into Lake Mead. Utah filed a federal application earlier this month for a pipeline to draw water from Lake Powell, located upstream from Mead.

Topography is another complication. Because the canyon that holds the lake is v-shaped, water levels fall more quickly near the bottom. Every one-foot drop in elevation equates to 80,000 acre-feet of water lost — an acre-foot is 326,000 gallons — or more water than San Francisco uses in a year. It all adds up to a long-term forecast of diminishing supplies.

There is no time to waste. The timetable for action is accelerating. The record lows are coming sooner in the season – July 9, 2014; June 23, 2015; May 18, 2016. All eyes are on the number 1,075. If Mead’s elevation in August is projected to be lower than 1,075 feet at the start of the following year, then a shortage would be declared. The Bureau of Reclamation estimates a 56 percent chance of a lower basin shortage by 2018. This means water cuts from the Colorado for Arizona and Nevada (and potentially for California, depending on how the ongoing negotiations shake out).

Despite the gloomy forecast, there are encouraging signs of camaraderie. A shortage would have come sooner if not for concerted conservation efforts in recent years. A $US 11 million program that was agreed to in 2014 is paying for conservation projects that bank the saved water in Mead. A similar program is taking place in the upper basin.

All told, a shortage will not decimate the basin. Its punch is more psychological at the moment than physical. But it is symbolic of the difficulty ahead if Lake Mead drops below 1,050 feet, or 1,025 feet, or even near the 950-foot level where hydropower generation would cease. The sternest tests for the Colorado River Basin — both political and hydrological — are still to come.

#ColoradoRiver: “If you ask Congress to solve your problems, you’re usually asking for trouble” — Jeff Kightlinger #COriver

Arizona Navy photo via California State University
Arizona Navy photo via California State University

From The Los Angeles Times (Michael Hiltzik):

The last time two states went to war over water, it was 1934. The combatants were California and Arizona and the casus belli was the start of construction of Parker Dam, which would direct water from the Colorado River into California via the Colorado River Aqueduct.

The episode unfolded with a sort of Gilbert and Sullivan absurdity. Arizona’s governor, Benjamin Baker Moeur, dispatched a handful of National Guardsmen upriver in a ferryboat named the Julia B., which frontline correspondents dispatched to the river by The Times and other California newspapers happily dubbed the “Arizona Navy.” The “brave little Julia B.,” The Times reported, promptly ran into a sand bank and got worked free by bridge-building crews, after which a truce was dictated by the federal government.

The next water war may involve the same combatants, but may not be so amusing. Lake Mead, the main reservoir holding Colorado River water for California, Arizona and Nevada, has reached its lowest point since it began filling behind Hoover Dam in 1935. As of midnight Sunday, the lake reached 1,074.37 feet above sea level. It’s expected to keep falling until mid-summer, reaching 1,070 feet before seasonal agricultural demand falls off and it begins to fill again. Last year, the reservoir reached a low point of about 1,075 feet, but not until late June.

Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)
Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

The long-term prospects for Colorado River supply are dire. Demand for its water among the seven states of the river basin–chiefly California and Arizona–hopelessly outstrips the supply, and has been almost since the seven states in its basin worked out an allocation deal in 1922. That interstate compact, brokered by then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, was based on an estimate of river flows that was flagrantly inflated and never has been met. Since then, the recognition of claims from Mexico and Southwestern Indian tribes has only increased demand. Climate change and drought are making the crisis worse.

So water officials from California, Arizona and Nevada have been meeting to work out a solution. Arizona faces the most pressing deadline: Under existing agreements, if the current Lake Mead level persists to the end of this year, the Central Arizona Project, which supplies Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, will be required to give up roughly 13% of its allocation. Further cutbacks are mandated if the lake falls to 1,050 and 1,025 feet, at which point Arizona would lose 17% of its water. Each cutback would especially threaten the livelihood of farmers dependent on the Central Arizona project, who have the most junior rights to the water.


Nevada would also face cuts, though these would be relatively modest, since the state has the smallest allocation from the river.

The interstate talks are focused on maintaining the level of Lake Mead to avert a federal declaration of shortage triggering the Arizona and Nevada cutbacks. The idea on the table involves California’s taking a voluntary reduction of as much as 8% of its annual allocation of 4.4 million acre feet from the river if the level gets much lower. That would be an extraordinary concession, since existing interstate and federal agreements largely exempt California from any cutbacks as long as there’s water in Lake Mead to meet its allocation. The chief consequences for California of a continued decline in Lake Mead’s water level is that the date of a required renegotiation of water allocations, now set at 2026, would be accelerated by several years. (One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, enough to serve one or two average California households.)

But California officials know that working out an interstate deal to keep the reservoir level higher is the wiser option in the long run. “At the end of the day,” says Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, “once you get so low, California loses out.”

Among the risks is that federal officials could step in to impose a reallocation settlement among the three states. Arizona’s U.S. senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, already have hinted at trying to work a settlement agreement into federal legislation, a step that would probably provoke a donnybrook among the two states’ congressional delegations without resolving the underlying issues.

“If you ask Congress to solve your problems,” Kightlinger says, “you’re usually asking for trouble.”

Nor does anyone want the issue to land in court; the last major lawsuit over river water, the 1952-vintage Arizona vs. California, would last 11 years and go down in history as one of the longest, costliest and most complicated ever to come before the Supreme Court. Its outcome pleased neither party, for the justices ruled that federal officials, not the states, had the ultimate say on the river — “the life-and-death power of dispensation of water rights long administered according to state law,” complained Justice William O. Douglas in a furious dissent.

All the parties are under pressure to reach an agreement by the end of this year, before the current administration leaves office and the process has to start anew with new federal overseers. But the interstate complexities may pale in comparison with the difficulty of working out agreements among water users within each state. California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which has the largest entitlement of Colorado River water, has balked at any agreement to preserve water levels in Lake Mead without a parallel agreement to preserve the Salton Sea. That huge inland pond has suffered as a result of earlier multi-billion-dollar deals by which the Imperial Irrigation District transferred water to San Diego, the MWD and other users.

The shrinkage of the sea already is an environmental and public health disaster. Withholding more water in Lake Mead without a rescue plan would be unacceptable, Imperial Irrigation District General Manager Kevin Kelley said recently. “The Salton Sea has always been the elephant in the room in these talks,” he told the Desert Sun newspaper.

The real elephant in the room, however, is the prospect of a lasting shortage in Colorado River water supply. Says Kightlinger, “It’s no longer a matter of if, but when.”

Delph Carpenter's 1922 Colorado River Basin map with Lake Mead and Lake Powell
Delph Carpenter’s 1922 Colorado River Basin map with Lake Mead and Lake Powell

#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?”

Sally Jewell sees progress in #ColoradoRiver talks #COriver — The Desert Sun

From The Desert Sun (Ian James):

American and Mexican officials have been negotiating an agreement to replace their current five-year accord, which expires in 2017. Jewell said she is optimistic about those talks, and also about recent negotiations between states on sharing cutbacks if the levels of reservoirs continue to drop.

“The Colorado River is over-allocated. There are more water demands on that river than there are resources,” Jewell said Wednesday during a hike in the newly created Sand to Snow National Monument. “What has been happening in a really powerful way is seven basin states have been getting together outside of politics to say, ‘What are we going to do about this collectively?’ Because we have a problem together that we need to solve.”

Representatives of California, Arizona and Nevada said last week they hope to have a deal finalized by the end of the year for all three states to accept cutbacks in order to keep more water in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, and stave off a more severe shortage.

“I think it’s extraordinary collaboration. It’s extraordinary in terms of its scope and scale and the fact that people are staying at the table and working together,” Jewell said. Without mentioning California specifically, Jewell noted that some states have water rights “that don’t require them to be at the table, but they’re at the table anyway.”


She said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan López is deeply involved in the talks with Mexican government officials.

“We need to get the next minute renegotiated – Minute 32X we call it – with the Mexican government. And those negotiations are going really, really well. So we would love to get this wrapped up,” Jewell said. “I feel optimistic that we’re going to get in a good place with the Colorado River because we have to.”

Mexico receives a share of the flows from the Colorado River under a 1944 treaty. In 2012, American and Mexican officials reached their most recent agreement, Minute 319, which specified how reductions would be shared in the event of shortages.

That landmark agreement made possible the 2014 “pulse flow” flood in an effort to help restore the long-dry Colorado River Delta. The agreement also enabled Mexico to keep some water in Lake Mead near Las Vegas for future use.

“Right now, Mexico is storing extra water in Lake Mead. That is helping drive hydroelectric power generation, and also just the elevation in that lake. That is so important for where the outtakes are from the lake,” Jewell said. “It is really important that we get that next part done because it was only a five-year program, so we don’t want the clock to run out on that.”

Much is riding on the separate negotiations between states, and between Mexico and the United States. Without changes in how the river’s flows are allocated, the potential scenarios appear dire. The Bureau of Reclamation could declare a shortage during the summer if it projects Lake Mead’s elevation would sink to an elevation 1,075 feet or lower at the beginning of next year. The U.S. Department of the Interior would take charge of water allocation if the reservoir’s level were to sink to an elevation of 1,025 feet.

“If we don’t work this out around a negotiating table, people that understand these issues deeply – and they are complicated and they are technical – we will end up in an environment that is driven by the courts and is driven by politics, and I think that’s a huge mistake,” Jewell said.

Lake Mead’s levels have declined during 16 years of drought, and climate change is projected to add significantly to the strains on the river.

Officials in California, Arizona and Nevada say that while they’ve discussed the outlines of proposals, difficult negotiations remain between water districts in each state and between the states. The federal Bureau of Reclamation is also involved in the talks.

Tanya Trujillo, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, said recently that if agreements are reached to plan for various scenarios, “then we have that basic framework in place that we can rely on.”


The Upper Colorado River Basin states – which include Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona – also have been considering measures aimed at ensuring the levels of Lake Powell don’t reach critical lows. Don Ostler, executive director and secretary for the Upper Colorado River Commission, called it a “parallel process” to the talks in the Lower Basin states, but with different circumstances.

Ostler said the Upper Basin states are considering “what may be possible on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis” to keep Lake Powell from hitting shortage levels.

Jewell said the growing stresses on the Colorado River make it vital for all of the parties to be at the table and working together.

“If we want to actually have a long-term solution to this incredibly complex issue, we need to keep politics out of it,” she said. “We need to keep the experts at the table. We need to understand each other’s issues and work through those.”

The Colorado River Basin. The Upper Colorado River Basin is outlined in black.
The Colorado River Basin. The Upper Colorado River Basin is outlined in black.

#ColoradoRiver: “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth, there are only crew members” — Troy Wineland

Colorado River Basin, USBR May 2015
Colorado River Basin, USBR May 2015

From The Summit Daily News (Kevin Fixler):

The major water bodies around Summit County and throughout most of the state are in strong shape after a slightly above-average winter season. However, the region is far from out of the woods on the matter of water in the West.

That was the thrust of speakers at Summit’s 23rd annual State of the River meeting on Wednesday evening, May 4 at the Silverthorne Pavilion — the first of six such meetings along the Colorado River Basin. With the Western Slope encompassing an average of 28 percent of the state’s water and spanning 15 counties, including Summit, this meeting of water wonks often sets the tone on consumption strategy and planning for rest of the year.

“There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth,” Troy Wineland, Summit County’s water commissioner, told the congested room, “there are only crewmembers. We’re all in this together.”

Wineland stressed that despite snowpack totals currently at about 115 percent of average above Dillon Reservoir — and with peak flows still to come around the first or second week of June once meltoff takes hold — circumstances are not as favorable. Other states in the country that also primarily rely on the Colorado River remain at near-critical shortages.

“While things are nice and rosy and wet and looking great here in the county,” he said, “you look throughout the entire Colorado river basin … not quite as rosy. The Lower Basin states right now are facing some very serious problems with access to water and need.”



Both Wineland and Denver Water’s Bob Steger were sure to discuss the present levels at Lake Powell during their respective presentations. Each noted how vital the resource is to every state along the Colorado Basin, even though water has already passed by many of them to arrive to Powell.

Aside from Powell functioning as the chief water supply for drinking, crop irrigation and recreation for 30-to-40 million residents in the region, the Glen Canyon Dam there also provides hydroelectric power. Besides contractual obligations of an annual average of 7.5 million acre-feet at Powell through that basin compact, of course, when water there gets below necessary levels, that has an impact back up to the Upper Basin states with increased electrical bills…

“(Lake Powell) is our bank account against accounts payable to the Lower Basin states,” re-iterated Wineland. “We’re probably within 20 feet of the critical threshold, at which point, Arizona and Nevada are going to have to make some hard decisions and really cut back on their water use.”


Despite the challenges even in what seems a healthy water year locally, all hope is not lost. The overall tenor of the meeting was mostly positive, with emphasis on how collaborative efforts across Colorado, as well as through such multi-state interdependence and agreements, proper attention on this limited resource is increasing.

Steger, Denver Water’s manager of raw water supply, brought encouraging news that the water from snowpack averages just a couple days ago are not only well above both the 20-year average on Dillon Reservoir (14.6 inches), but also ahead of 2015 (16.5 inches) as well. Current measures are 19.5 inches from this winter’s snowfalls.

On top of that, snowpacks on the South Platte River are also above normal for this time of year. That means Denver Water can most likely avoid pulling much water from Dillon Reservoir through one of its primary transmountain water diversion, Roberts Tunnel, this season for the South Platte and Denver’s consumption needs.

In fact, if that happens, that will continue a beneficial trend where 2014 and 2015 were actually the two lowest years within a 50-plus-year span for how much water has had to be removed from Dillon Reservoir through Roberts for the Platte and North Fork rivers.

“I attribute that partly to Mother Nature,” explained Steger to the audience, “because we’ve had good water supplies on the South Platte, but also our customers are doing a better and better job every year I think of conserving water. When our Eastern Slope supplies are good, that means we don’t have to take as much water from the Western Slope to the other side of the divide. That indirectly helps Lake Powell.”

Wineland also discussed how momentous the unveiling of Colorado’s statewide water plan — years in the making — in November is for the general conservation movement. To boot, regional endeavors like the recent $32,000 Colorado Water Conservation Board grant awarded to the Frisco-based High Country Conservation Center (HC3) for development and execution of a countywide water efficiency program are additional steps in the right direction. His parting words were of encouragement and optimism for the Colorado River Basin’s future.

“I just want to bring it back to the bigger picture,” he said. “We have leaders who are putting forth all this legislation and these cooperative efforts. But what we’re lacking are champions, and those champions, really, are you and I — everyone in this room. We need to take this legislation and work to the next level and implement these changes.”

#ColoradoRiver: As Lake Mead sinks, states agree to more drastic water cuts — The High Country News

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

From The High Country News (Sarah Tory):

For decades, the West’s big reservoirs were like a security blanket, says Anne Castle, the former assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department. But the blanket is wearing thin. Under normal conditions, Lake Mead loses 1.2 million acre-feet of water every year to evaporation and deliveries to the Lower Basin states plus Mexico, which amounts to a 12-foot drop. Previously, extra deliveries of water from Lake Powell offset that deficit, but after 16 years of drought and increased water use in the Upper Basin, those extra deliveries are no longer a safe bet.

“There’s a growing recognition that even these huge reservoirs aren’t sufficient to keep the water supply sustainable anymore,” says Castle.

For the three Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — that rely heavily on Lake Mead, the situation is particularly urgent. For the last several years, Mead has hovered around 1,075 feet above sea level, the point at which harsh water rationing measures kicks in. And if conditions in the reservoir continue to worsen, the Interior Department could even take control of water allocation from Lake Mead.

So, with the threat of a federal takeover looming, last summer, water policy leaders in the Lower Basin states, along with the Bureau of Reclamation, the reservoir’s operator, began meeting to discuss ways they can jointly boost water levels in Lake Mead. Some of the details are now available and indicate that all three states are now willing to accept additional water cuts from the reservoir on top of the cuts that they previously agreed to make in 2007.

Those measures follow a set of federal guidelines adopted nine years ago to manage water deliveries from Lake Mead given the likelihood of future shortages. The guidelines established a series of thresholds for the reservoir’s water levels that would trigger increasingly severe cutbacks for the Lower Basin states. At the time they were negotiated, few people anticipated that the drought would last as long as it has, but as Lake Mead inched closer to the critical 1,075 mark, water managers in the Lower Basin realized that the existing guidelines were not enough to prevent an eventual shortage.

While the terms of the new agreement between California, Arizona, and Nevada are still being negotiated, a few details have emerged. For starters, the Bureau of Reclamation has pledged to cut 100,000 acre-feet annually through efficiency measures such as lining irrigation canals to prevent seepage, or possibly by re-opening the long-shuttered Yuma Desalination Plant.

The three states’ willingness to collectively ration their water use would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago when states fought each other in court to win as much water from the Colorado River. The cooperation is a nod to how new climate realities are re-shaping old water politics in the West. Take California, for instance. Legally, the state could hold onto every drop until Lake Mead is nearly down to mud, since the 1968 law that authorized the Central Arizona Project’s construction gave California highest priority water rights to the Colorado River. But at that point, says Castle, they’re just as impacted as everyone else.

Other collaborative agreements to reduce the strain on the Colorado River include a 2014 Memorandum of Understanding between the big water providers in the Lower Basin states, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Central Arizona Project, pledging “best efforts” to conserve 40,000 acre feet in Lake Mead. In 2014, major municipal water providers in Arizona, California, Nevada and Colorado also agreed to fund new water conservation projects through a pilot initiative called the Colorado River System Conservation program.

For the Lower Basin especially, the negotiations are necessary to avoid the potential federal takeover, says Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Although the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, has not voiced any immediate plans to that effect, in the past, she has made public statements on the matter.

For Buschatzke, the threat is clear: “She’ll take action if we don’t collaborate,” he says.

Here are the cuts states could face:

Arizona would lose 512,000 acre-feet of its total 2.8 million acre-feet per year allotment if Lake Mead dips below the 1,075 feet threshold. That’s 192,000 acre-feet more than the 320,000 acre-feet it had previously agreed to cut under the 2007 guidelines. Further cuts occur if the reservoir continues to drop. In another unprecedented move, Arizona water officials are talking of trying to spread cuts across all sectors of the state’s economy that rely on CAP water for drinking and irrigation — cities, farms, industries, Indian tribes and others — instead of letting only farmers take the brunt of the cuts, as dictated by their junior water rights.


Thanks to the 1968 law that authorized CAP’s construction, California’s 4.4 million acre feet allotment is shielded from most of the cuts should a shortage on Lake Mead be declared. But as part of the new negotiations, the state has volunteered to cut its water use from Lake Mead by 200,000 acre feet if the reservoir’s levels fall below 1,045 feet and up to 350,000 acre-feet if levels sink to 1,030 feet.


The state with the smallest allotment of Colorado River water, Nevada would take a much smaller share of the cuts — 8,000 acre-feet if Mead drops below 1,045 feet and 10,000 acre-feet after that — because it has the right to only 300,000 acre-feet.

#ColoradoRiver: The latest Hutchins Center E-Newsletter is hot off the presses #COriver

April 24-Month Study Date: April 14, 2016 via USBR
April 24-Month Study Date: April 14, 2016 via USBR

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

The Bureau of Reclamation’s April 14 forecast of April – July unregulated inflow into Lake Powell is 5.3 million acre-feet, or 74% of average. Forecasted inflow to Blue Mesa Reservoir over the same period is 515,000 acre-feet, or 76% of the 30-year average. Details on inflows and operations of these reservoirs and others in the Colorado River Storage Project can be found here.