Recent water levels at Lake Mead suggest that by 2020 water cutbacks could be instituted if something does not change, and quickly. Due to these concerns, there has also been discussions in the recent past of potentially negotiating a way to maintain the water levels at Lake Mead and prevent further decline.
Unfortunately, a recent report from the Colorado River Research Group, titled “It’s Hard to Fill a Bathtub When the Drain is Wide Open,” suggests that the water issue is just as problematic further upstream at Lake Powell. The group, consisting of 10 scientists, also state that the consistent declines for 18 years reflect a worsening “structural deficit” of the Colorado River.
Even with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – the Upper Basin states – using less water than they are legally entitled to, Lake Powell has continued to decline. This is largely because additional releases have been made into Lake Mead to prevent shortage conditions there. In fact, the scientists said that “the only thing that has kept Lake Mead from dropping into shortage conditions” are those extra releases from the Upper Basin.
Doug Kenney, a professor at the University of Colorado and the group’s chair, stated that he wants “people to know that what’s going on at Lake Mead is very, very closely tied to what’s going on at Lake Powell,” he continued, “We’re draining Lake Powell to prop it up.” Even with the extra releases Lake Mead is only 38 percent full leaving Lake Powell at only 48 percent full.
Over the past 1,200 years, the last 19 years have been perhaps the driest period for the Colorado River basin, which covers an area from Wyoming to Mexico. This dry period has caused the region to dry out. This factor, combined with higher demands from farms and cities that far exceed the water supply, are exacerbating the drought.
According to the group, they present an “independent, scientific voice for the future of the Colorado River.” In their report, they explained the decline and how drastic it has been for a period of less than two decades. There is also a projection currently in place that suggests Lake Powell will have dropped by 94 feet from its nearly full levels in 2000.
The researchers report stated that if operations continue in the same way, additional draining of Lake Powell will occur and “erode the benefits associated with its water storage.” They also said that “If storage in Lake Powell cannot rebound in an era where the Upper Basin consumes less than two-thirds of its legal apportionment, then the crisis is already real.”
A Single, Outdated, Overused, System
Nearly 40 million people and more than 5 million acres of farmland depend on the Colorado River and its tributaries to provide for their water needs. Those numbers are much higher than they were nearly a century ago when the 1922 Colorado River Compact first established the legal framework determining how the Colorado River would be divided among seven states and Mexico. The climate was much wetter then as well. Because the original Compact and subsequent agreements are outdated, they have in fact allocated more water than is available in the river annually. To further the damage, the overallocation has led to overuse at pandemic levels.
The current system that manages the river is quite clear about the distinct Upper Basin and Lower Basin, with a line of division running through Lees Ferry, in Arizona. Originally, treaties allocated equally 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to each the Upper Basin and Lower Basin, and only 1.5 million acre-feet for Mexico. Recently, John Fleck, director of the water resources program at the University of New Mexico, highlighted on his blog the fact that the Lower Basin has in face received more water than allocated in the compact. The total of this “bonus water” amounts to 9.7 million acre-feet – and yet levels at Lake Mead continue to decline.
“Better options might be found by thinking outside of this familiar framework. Lakes Mead and Powell, after all, are essentially one giant reservoir,” the group stated. “Managing — and thinking — of these facilities as two distinct reservoirs, one for the benefit of the Upper Basin and one for the Lower, now seems outdated.”
Currently, the federal government will declare a water shortage if Lake Mead reaches an elevation of 1,075 feet above sea level. If that occurs, Arizona and Nevada will experience cutbacks to the water supply. Even deeper cuts would be required by Arizona, Nevada and California, to prevent Lake Mead from declining even further, so representatives from each state have been in recent talks of a drought-contingency plan that would be implemented to prevent such cuts. Separately the four Upper Basin states are working on a regional drought plan to help improve the current circumstances.
In addition to the reservoirs’ declining over time, nearby aquifers are also declining throughout the river basin from extra pumping of groundwater. These trends started around the same time in the mid-2000’s. A “temperature-dominated drought” is what scientists are calling the reduced water volumes that are resulting from higher temperatures since 2000. It is expected that at the current rates of decline, the river’s flow will continue to decrease by more than 35 percent in the next 80 years alone.
Scientists say status quo ‘untenable’
Viewing the lack of supply and high levels of demand as only a problem for the Lower Basin to manage is the wrong perspective to take. Because many stakeholders would prefer to avoid changing the law or the administration of the river, the group’s report suggested “it might be worthwhile to think about what could be achieved in terms of water security, Grand Canyon (and perhaps Glen Canyon) restoration, and other objectives if we allowed ourselves more flexibility in managing (and perhaps modifying) the massive infrastructure investments already in place.”
Draining Lake Powell to a level at which hydroelectricity can still be generated by the Glen Canyon Dam but minimizing the amount of excess water in the reservoir has been proposed in what has been termed the “Fill Mead First” proposal. This would make Lake Powell a secondary reservoir to Lake Mead, meaning that Lake Mead would only release water to Lake Powell when it was full.
Jack Schmidt, one of the members of the Colorado River Research Group and a professor at Utah State University has studied the “Fill Mead First” proposal and said, “We should store water in whatever way minimizes total system losses and maximizes environmental benefit to the Grand Canyon.” The proposal would also allow the natural ecosystem of Glen Canyon to thrive again, but water managers have not properly considered the proposal, deeming it unworkable. Schmidt also stated that although the outdated framework that currently manages the two lakes they are “effectively one reservoir” and should be managed as one. In other words, “We need to say, ‘How do we effectively operate the Mead/Powell Reservoir?”, he said.
Debates of Extending Additional Water Usage
Even with all the concerns and evidence of worsening conditions, there has been talks of controversial projects that would draw more water from the reservoirs in the norther states. One such project suggests building a 140-mile pipeline that would carry additional water from Lake Powell to St. George, which is currently experience large population growth.
Denver Water in Colorado has also proposed expanding the Gross Reservoir, however conservation groups have suggested that this expansion would violate the Endangered Species Act by harming local green-lineage cutthroat trout. According to the group, the agency failed to properly examine the full effects on the ecosystem that the project would have and stated that thousands of fish would certain die out.
These groups have notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they intend to sue to prevent the enlarged dam from becoming a reality. The groups, which include Save The Colorado, WildEarth Guardians, the Environmental Group, Waterkeeper Alliance, Living Rivers, and the Sierra Club, have sent notifications to the Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department and Denver Water in addition to the notice provided to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, of their intentions to sue if something is not done within 60 days.