COLORADO RIVER:

Drought forces first-ever cutbacks in Lake Mead water deliveries

The Bureau of Reclamation today announced it will reduce for the first time ever Colorado River water deliveries from the Lake Powell reservoir downstream to Lake Mead, which provides nearly all of Las Vegas' water.

Another parched year on the Colorado River has caused the water line at Lake Powell to dip low enough to trigger the unprecedented reduction in downstream deliveries, signaling the potential for water shortages in Nevada and Arizona in the coming years.

To conserve water in the upper basin, deliveries will be decreased by 750,000 acre-feet over the next water year, extending from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, 2014. That is roughly enough water to meet the needs of 7.5 million people.

Under guidelines written in 2007 by Reclamation and the seven basin states, the river's two major reservoirs are to be drawn down together during periods of drought in order to limit the amount of shortages imposed on water users.

"This is the worst 14-year drought period in the last hundred years," Upper Colorado Regional Director Larry Walkoviak said in a statement. "Reclamation's collaboration with the seven Colorado River states on the 2007 Interim Guidelines is proving to be invaluable in coordinating the operations of the reservoirs and helping protect future availability of Colorado River water supplies."

It is unlikely that Lake Mead will dip low enough to force cuts in deliveries to cities, states and farmers this year or next, Reclamation's Lower Colorado River Director Terry Fulp said, but there is a "significant chance" that such cuts might be necessary in 2016.

That prospect already has environmental groups renewing their calls for conservation and a Nevada official floating the idea of federal disaster aid for the region.

"This is as much an extreme weather event as Sandy was on the East Coast," Southern Nevada Water Authority chief Pat Mulroy told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week. "Does drought not rise to the same level as a storm? The potential damage is just as bad."

A sweeping study by Reclamation released in December found that within 50 years, demand in the basin will outstrip supply by the amount of water that is used annually by 3.2 million homes (Greenwire, Dec. 12, 2012).

Matt Niemerski, director of Western water policy for the nonprofit American Rivers, said that although the basin's troubles have long been seen looming, today's announcement was still a wakeup call.

"Nobody really thought we'd have to deal with this as quickly as we are," Niemerski said. "It's a bit of a tripwire -- it's kind of the first definitive domino to fall that could lead to a host of other troubles if we don't begin to act."

As water levels drop, hydroelectric power generation at Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell and at the Hoover Dam at Lake Mead could be affected. Not only would reduced generation affect regional power prices and revenue flowing into Reclamation's coffers, Niemerski said, but it could also affect the pumps that move water for irrigation.

"That, in turn, could affect food prices," he said. "You can see how the dominos start to fall."

The December study by Reclamation included more than 150 proposals from study participants for dealing with the supply gap.

"It is clear from the study that no single option is adequate to significantly reduce vulnerability," Mike Connor, the Bureau of Reclamation commissioner and nominee to be deputy secretary of the Interior, told a Senate panel last month. "It will require a portfolio of effective options and strategies to be implemented to accomplish this."

This spring, the Interior Department formed work groups to explore three priority areas: industrial conservation and water reuse, agricultural conservation and water transfers, and healthy flows for environmental and recreational uses (Greenwire, May 29).

Click here to read the 24-month study for the Upper Colorado Region.

Click here to read the 24-month study for the Lower Colorado Region.

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