Risk of ‘dead pool’ looms at Colorado River meeting

The largest reservoirs on the Colorado River are nearly three-quarters empty, and federal officials now say there is a real danger that the reservoirs could get so low that water will no longer flow past the Hoover Dam for two years.

That dire scenario, which would cut off water supplies to California, Arizona and Mexico, took center stage at the annual Colorado River conference in Las Vegas this week, where officials from seven states, water agencies, tribes and the federal government are meeting. negotiating on how to decrease usage on a scale never seen before.

Outlining their latest projections for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the country’s two largest reservoirs, federal water managers said there is a risk that Lake Mead could reach “dead pool” levels in 2025. If that happened, water would no longer flow downstream from Hoover Dam.

“We are in a crisis. Both lakes could be two years from the dead pool or so close to the dead pool that the flow from those dams will be an awfully small number. And it keeps getting worse,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

He said there is a real danger that if next year is extremely dry, “it might be too late to save the lakes.”

Hoover dam

Federal officials warn that Lake Mead could drop to dead pool levels by 2025. At that point, water would no longer flow downstream of the Hoover Dam, shown here.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

The Colorado River has long been severely overcommitted and its flows have been drastically reduced over a period of 23 years. mega drought supercharged by global warming.

For the past six months, federal officials have pressured water managers in the seven states that rely on the river to propose plans for major cuts. But the negotiations so far could not produce an agreementand the voluntary cutoffs that states and water agencies have proposed remain far short of the federal government’s goal of reducing water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, a decrease of about 15% to 30 %.

With the prospect of large-scale mandatory cuts being imposed by federal authorities, officials from states and water districts have been holding private talks in an effort to reach an agreement.

“We’re still talking between the states to try to figure something out,” Buschatzke said. “I think the scale is daunting.”

Buschatzke and other water managers say they fear talks about voluntary cuts won’t be enough. Officials in Arizona, Nevada and other states have urged federal officials to take steps such as accounting for evaporation losses from canals, as well as redefining what is considered a “beneficial use” of water, a change that could possibly open the way. for large cuts mandated by the federal government.

The US Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Reclamation have already begun a process of reviewing the existing rules for water scarcity. they have also started reducing the amount of water they release of Glen Canyon Dam over the next five months, hoping to boost reservoir levels until spring runoff arrives. And they have warned that they may need to continue reduce the amount of water they release of the dam, which would reduce downstream flow and accelerate the decline of Lake Mead.

“I think the states and the federal government are not moving fast enough,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “Circumstances on the ground are outpacing discussions and negotiations.”

Entsminger said negotiations are continuing, but he didn’t see anything significant coming out of the conference.

“One way or another, physics and Mother Nature will dictate the results if we don’t find some solutions,” Entsminger said. “I would like all Colorado River water users to recognize that the 21st century has substantially less water than the 20th century. And all the institutions we built in the 20th century must adjust, in months, not years, to face the reality of less water for every user, in every sector, in every state.”

River water flows past a table

The Colorado River runs through Marble Canyon in the Navajo Nation en route to the Grand Canyon. This segment of the river joins Lake Powell in Utah and Lake Mead in Nevada.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Federal officials have given states and water providers a January 31 deadline to submit an alternative plan for the Reclamation Office to consider as part of its review, said Henry Martinez, general manager of the Irrigation District. California’s Imperial, which uses most of the river to supply about 500,000 acres of farmland in the Imperial Valley.

“We have about six weeks of heavy lifting to do in conjunction with the seven states to come up with something different,” Martinez said.

“It’s not going to be easy, to say the least,” Martinez said. “But there was a commitment from all of us to work over the next six weeks to come up with something that we can take back to the office for you to consider as another plan.”

So far, four California water districts have proposed reducing water use by up to 400,000 acre-feet per year. That would equate to about 9% of the state’s total water allocation from the river through 2026.

In return, the Biden administration has agreed to contribute 250 million dollars for projects in the Salton Sea, which is being scaled back, in an effort to speed up work on wetland and dust control projects. The federal government is also offering to pay farmers and others who agree to give up some of their water, taking advantage of the $4 billion set aside for drought response efforts in the Inflation Reduction Act.

The bulk of California’s reductions would come from the Imperial Irrigation District, while cities across the region could face mandatory water rationing by April under a plan being considered by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Water managers, tribal leaders and others at the conference discussed how climate change aridification del Oeste is drastically reducing the flow of the river.

“The water is leaving. And it’s a crisis for everyone,” said Melvin Baker, chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in southwestern Colorado. “In fact, we have seven rivers that flow through our reserve. And right now, some of those rivers look like streams in the middle of summer. There’s no water.

Ted Cooke, the outgoing manager of the Central Arizona Project, which delivers Colorado River water to some 5 million people, said the real risk of reservoirs hitting bottom should drive action.

“This is on our doorstep,” Cooke said. “Recovery and states and tribes must reach a compromise approach quickly to significantly reduce risks, in a way that can cause the least damage and prevent complete drainage of reservoirs.”

lake powell

A boat is anchored in one of the many coves on Lake Powell in May 2021.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Speaking at the conference, James Prairie of the Office of Reclamation presented a black and white photo from Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, before the reservoir was filled. He noted that the water level in Lake Powell is now 37 feet above the “minimum energy pool,” a point at which the dam would no longer generate electricity.

Prairie said the agency is looking to keep Lake Powell above that level. If the reservoir falls much lower, she said, dam managers would have to stop using the main intakes, called penstocks, and could release water only through the lower bypass pipes, which have reduced capacity.

“These are elevations that we don’t want to see in Lake Powell,” he said.

The leadership role of the federal government will be critical in moving toward a solution, said Felicia Marcus, a Stanford University researcher and former president of the California State Water Resources Control Board.

“I think there’s a lot of danger and promise where we’re at right now,” Marcus said. “It’s a shame we’re so close to Armageddon so people can rise to the occasion.”

Although giving up water can be politically challenging, cuts have become inevitable.

“We have to do something that will be painful for everyone, although the shape of that pain will be different depending on the party,” according to their water rights, Marcus said.

What will be key in any agreement, Marcus said, is “to come up with something that may seem painful, but that people can recognize as fair.”

The crisis presents an opportunity, not only to address the scarcity, but also to start changing the river’s management system, said Kathy Jacobs, director of the University of Arizona’s Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions.

“I think right now, everyone has blinders on and is so focused on protecting their own interests that they have lost sight of the long-term opportunities here,” Jacobs said. “We really need to be prepared for really significant long-term consequences.”

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