SNWA Submits Colorado River Plan to Protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has a plan for how the seven states that depend on the Colorado River can protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

But it remains to be seen if the other six states have any interest in backing that plan.

On Tuesday, the water authority outlined how it believes Colorado River Basin states and the federal government can slash water use across dwindling Colorado next year to prevent water levels in its two reservoirs. plummet further and threaten to jeopardize their capacity. to deliver water downstream and generate hydroelectric power.

The plan, submitted to the Department of the Interior, calls for significant modifications to current drought guidelines for the river’s two main storage reservoirs and reduces water use in the basin to more than 2 million acre-feet starting next year. .

“While the magnitude of the reduction in water use is staggering, it is necessary, achievable, equitable and effective,” the water authority wrote in its letter sent Tuesday.

Specifically, the water authority’s proposal calls for:

— Account for the more than 1.5 million acre-feet of water lost throughout the river system each year due to evaporation and other system losses that would effectively act as drawdowns in the lower basin, approximately half of which would come from of the California allocation.

— Previous triggers for mandatory water supply shutoffs in the lower basin states of Nevada, Arizona, and California, with additional shutoffs if deemed necessary by the federal government.

— Continued discharges from reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell and additional modifications to discharges at Glen Canyon Dam when elevations of Lake Powell project to nearby elevations that would jeopardize hydroelectric power generation.

— Additional 500,000 acre-feet mandatory cutbacks in the four Upper Basin states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Two decades of contraction

The drought-stricken river has seen its waters shrink substantially since 2000. Current guidelines are based on a river that sees approximately 15 million acre-feet flowing through it per year, but flows in recent 20 years is closer to 12.2 million acre-feet, the authority noted in its letter.

Those decades of low flows in the Colorado River, combined with the continued overloading of the system by its users, have “brought the river to a breaking point,” the authority wrote.

Recent Bureau of Reclamation modeling shows that water levels in Lake Mead could drop below the minimum elevation needed for the Hoover Dam to generate hydroelectric power by 2024, and drop to its “dead pool” height of 895 feet by 2025, which means that water will no longer be able to pass through the dam downstream to California, Arizona, and Mexico.

“It is time to ban the inefficient delivery, application or use of water in all sectors and by all users; there is simply no water in the Colorado River System to go to waste and every industrial, municipal, and agricultural user must adhere to the highest industry standards in water management, use, and disposal,” the authority wrote.

So far, states have proposed only smaller plans to reduce consumption along the river. California recently said it will conserve up to 400,000 acre-feet of water, or about 9 percent of its annual allocation, starting next year. And the Upper Colorado River Commission last week released a $125 million plan to pay farmers and other water users to conserve water, though states did not say how much water that program is expected to conserve.

‘It was time’

Kyle Roerink, chief executive of the Great Basin Water Network, said “it’s about time the chorus got bigger for mandatory cuts in the upper basin.”

“It’s unprecedented to not only hear an agency take a realistic look, but also to look at the upper basin to say that more needs to be done between Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico,” he said.

In October, the Office of Reclamation began the process of reviewing current drought guidelines and tasked basin states with proposals to reduce water use along the river by 2 to 4 million acre-feet annually. starting next year.

Interior Department officials have said states have until the end of January to craft a consensus agreement that could then be reviewed by federal agencies to determine if it is a viable solution to keep the cratered river system afloat. 40 million people depend on it. for drinking water

But if a consensus isn’t reached by then, the federal government says it’s prepared to move forward with a separate plan in which officials could mandate states to prevent water levels in Mead and Powell from reaching points that would threaten the water supply. and hydroelectric capacities at the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams.

optimistic authority

The water authority still hopes to work with the other basin states and water users to refine the proposals, said Colby Pellegrino, the authority’s deputy general manager for resources.

“We still believe that the best way forward for this basin is for states and water users to come together and roll up their sleeves and over the next month really figure out what exactly this is like,” Pellegrino said. “I feel more optimistic than in a long time. States always work best when there is a clear deadline and a clear direction.”

Under normal circumstances, Nevada receives approximately 300,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River annually, and the river supplies approximately 90 percent of southern Nevada’s water.

The water authority has been successful in implementing several water-saving measures since the drought began more than two decades ago, reducing the region’s water use by nearly 100,000 acre-feet per year and adding approximately 750,000 new residents.

Pellegrino said the authority has run into obstacles for other states to see the need to reduce water use in recent years.

“Agreeing to use less water is a huge challenge for everyone on the river. I think everyone recognizes the problem, everyone recognizes the magnitude of the problem,” she said. “I don’t know if everyone agrees on the urgency of the problem.”

Contact Colton Lochhead at Follow @ColtonLochhead On twitter.

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