Water in the West, Part 2

sub title
What everyone needs to know about the water challenges in the Southwest
December 8, 2016

In the wake of the driest 16-year period in the known history of the Southwest, it seems fair to ask:

Has anything positive come of this dry spell? Anything at all?

The answer, of course, is… of course. Of course there are positives.

The general public, for example, understands (and appreciates) far more about the inherent value of water than we did just a few years ago. 

We have learned that even in the wettest of eras, fresh, clean water is an asset to be valued, protected and conserved, since its essential presence in a community is never assured for long.

Likewise, we have gained a new appreciation for the lack of moisture.

We’ve learned that “drought,” for example, is a highly nuanced term. The Southwest may be in its 16th year of epochal drought, but many climatologists and meteorologists believe most of Arizona has been in drought for 22 years or more. And, precisely speaking, southern California – which nearly tumbled into a catastrophic water-availability crisis in 2015 – has been in serious drought for just five years. 

Northern California experienced one of its wettest Octobers ever this year. So is that region certifiably free of drought? Nope. Climatologists contend the region will need several more consecutive wetter-than-normal winters to lose its “drought” designation.

The same is true of Arizona. 

Northwestern Arizona may have attained a “no drought” designation in the latestArizona Department of Water Resources Long-term Drought Status report, but the bulk of the state remains (officially) “abnormally dry.” And one of the most critical water-producing regions of the state – the Verde River Watershed – remains locked down in “moderate drought.”

But the great challenge of the Great Southwestern Drought is not a lack of rainfall in California, Arizona or, for that matter, Nevada. It is the lack of winter snowpack on the western slopes of the Rockies. That snowpack, which has produced lower-than-average spring-summer run-off for all but three of the last 16 years, is the single most important measure of the Southwest’s moisture-health, by far. 

It is the lack of water flowing down from the Rockies and into the Colorado River system that defines the region’s drought. Therein lies the region’s most serious water challenges. On the slopes of the Rockies.

Beginning December 14, the major stakeholders of the Colorado River system will gather to discuss a response to the threats to the Colorado River system, notably to Lake Mead, where water levels have been dropping precipitously.

It is possible – although considered unlikely, at this late date – that the parties (including state and federal representatives) attending the annual Colorado River Water Users Association meetings may agree to limits on their allocations of Colorado River water in order to bolster Lake Mead water levels.

The hurdles to coming to an agreement in principle before the end of the year on a so-called “drought contingency plan” are high. But the consequences of not coming to an agreement soon may prove far more problematic.

This week, we are highlighting, in bullet-points, some of the essentials about the current state of the Southwest’s water supplies. And, unlike the drought challenges facing Arizona specifically, the Southwest’s water challenges really do look very much like a genuine crisis:

The Southwest and Water in 2016: An End-of-Year Thumbnail

  • Lacking a major, all-in intervention by all the stakeholders in the Lower Basin of the Colorado River system, the risk of Lake Mead's water levels descending to "dead pool" depth is stark and real.

    Because of over-allocation and a barely average level of flow in the Colorado River, Lake Mead water levels are descending at an average of 12 feet per year, not counting emergency efforts in recent years by the states and the Republic of Mexico to stanch the bleeding.

    Without any effort to keep more water in the lake, worst-case scenarios project Lake Mead descending below 1,000 feet before 2021, barely four years from now, although this is not the expected outcome now thanks to some aggressive efforts by the system's stakeholders to protect water levels in the reservoir.

    At that meager depth, the health of the reservoir is in serious jeopardy. Water pressure necessary to drive turbines to generate electrical power is in question. For that matter, no one is sure if operators even could withdraw water once Lake Mead descends to 895 feet. That is why they call that water level "dead pool." And that is why the Lower Basin States and the federal Interior Department are moving heaven and earth to find a way to avoid it.

  • If the three Lower Basin States – California, Arizona and Nevada -- cannot come to an agreement on a drought-contingency plan on their own, the federal government will be forced to make allocation-shortfall choices for them.

    The Federal Bureau of Reclamation, a division of the Department of Interior, manages the Colorado River "system" and all of its elements, including Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, as well as the reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Its boss, the Secretary of the Interior, holds final decision-making power over what "shortfall" allocations to the states will look like should the states not work it out themselves. Such enormous power is not something the states are anxious to cede to the feds.

  • Even a successful effort to keep Lake Mead above danger levels may be in jeopardy long-term, largely because of annual allocation imbalances.

    The states sharing the river, as well as the federal government and the Republic of Mexico, agreed in 2007 to interim guidelines for responding to descending water levels in Lake Mead. In the wake of an additional ten years of drought, it is clear now that those guidelines are insufficient to protect the integrity of the reservoir.

    The situation worsens, however, when we total up the basic apportionments of the Lower Basin states, the allotment delivered to Mexico and evaporation loss. Taken together, the annual outflow from Lake Mead is about 1.2 million acre feet more than the combination of annual releases to Mead from Lake Powell and the local flow (including, for example, inflow from the Little Colorado River) between the two reservoirs.

    The result? An imbalance that causes Lake Mead to drop an average of between 12 and 14 feet annually. Without an intercession by stakeholders, those conditions bring the lake remorselessly down toward elevations that will trigger a shortage declaration on the system.