Water scarcity, main topic of the Colorado River conference

Lake Powell near Page, Arizona, December 13. The influx into the Colorado River’s second largest reservoir was the second lowest on record last year, and current Bureau of Reclamation projections suggest this year could be similar. Water scarcity is one of the main topics of discussion at a meeting of water managers and experts in Las Vegas this week.
Heather Sackett / Aspen Journalism

LAS VEGAS – Degreaser. Disturbing. The new abnormal. Bad fool. These were the words used to describe conditions on the Colorado River at the largest annual gathering of water managers and experts in Las Vegas this week.

“I just want to manage everyone’s expectations,” said Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission and former director of Colorado River programs for the Central Arizona project. “It’s super sinister.”

Water scarcity – and the sense of urgency to address it – highlighted this year’s Colorado River Water Users Association conference. By 2000 the storage system was almost full, but over the past two decades the river’s two largest buckets, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have fallen to just a third of their capacity.

In July, the Bureau of Reclamation began releasing three reservoirs in the upper basin, including Blue Mesa in Gunnison County, to raise Lake Powell levels and preserve the capacity to generate hydropower. In August, the federal government declared the first-ever level one shortage in the Lower Basin, triggering mandatory cuts for Arizona farmers.

But scarcity, Cullom said, also spurs innovation and collaboration. Lower Basin water managers on Wednesday signed a memorandum of understanding, or memorandum of understanding, to spend up to $ 200 million to prevent Lake Mead levels from falling to dangerously low levels. The agreement, known as the 500+ plan, aims to add 500,000 acre-feet of water to the reservoir in 2022 and 2023, which would increase the reservoir by about 16 feet.

The program will be funded by $ 40 million from the Arizona Department of Water Resources; $ 20 million each from the Central Arizona Project, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and the Southern Nevada Water Authority; and $ 100 million in federal government matching funds.


The Lower Basin is taking action in accordance with the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, which sets a threshold of 1,030 feet elevation in Lake Mead. He is currently at 1,065 feet.

“We have all seen how quickly conditions have continued to deteriorate,” said Adel Hagekhalil, chief executive of Metropolitan. “Water users in the lower basin have recognized that we don’t have much time to wait. It unites Arizona, Nevada and California.

The signing of the MOU came on the same day the Bureau of Reclamation released its December 24-month study report, which predicts how much water will flow into Lake Powell, a critical data point. for water planners. Last month, the office predicted that the spring runoff would be about 82% of normal. But after a dry November in the Upper Basin on Wednesday, the updated monthly estimate fell to just 64% of average. Water from Lake Powell feeds Lake Mead downstream. Modeling suggests that Lake Powell could fall below the minimum level needed to generate electricity by next fall.

Conditions are setting up to reflect a historically bad 2021, when a near-normal snowpack resulted in only 31% of normal runoff. It was the second worst influx on record to Lake Powell. One of the culprits was a previous hot, dry summer and fall, highlighting the disproportionate impacts that continuing drought and rising temperatures due to climate change have on Colorado River flows.

The historic Navajo Bridge spans the Colorado River just downstream from Lee Ferry, the metering point for water deliveries from the Upper Basin to the Lower Basin. The low levels of the reservoirs and Lakes Powell and Mead, the two largest storage buckets in the Colorado River system, are topics of discussion at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference this week.
Heather Sackett / Aspen Journalism

“The last 22 years have no analog in the 20th century,” said Brad Udall, senior water and climate researcher at Colorado State University. “If you call it something, call it the new abnormal.”

Upper Colorado Basin Commissioner Pat Tyrrell, who represents Wyoming, said the 500+ plan was swift action to respond to rapidly deteriorating conditions.

“It’s not painless, that part goes without saying,” he said. “There is no effective approach to imbalance that does not affect a water user somewhere. “

It is still unclear where exactly the 500,000 acre-feet of water would come from. One possibility is to pay the irrigators to voluntarily leave water in the river.

Colorado Water Conservation Board director Rebecca Mitchell, who is also the state’s Colorado River commissioner, told state water officials at a breakfast on Wednesday that she was missing still seen the details of the lower basin water saving plan.

“We haven’t seen anything written,” she said. “But everything that concerns and protects the tanks, I will obviously support.”

Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more information, visit http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

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