Colorado River Releases Slashed To Historic Low



Feds Slash Colorado River Release To Historic Low

Sally Deneen

for National Geographic

Published August 16, 2013

A "No Fishing" sign sits improbably along a dry desert road in Nevada. The largest man-made reservoir in the U.S., Lake Mead, once extended this far—but the watery destination of anglers and boaters has shrunk so much that the lakeshore now is about a half-mile away. (View an interactive map of the region.)

The recession of the massive lake that straddles Nevada and Arizona is symbolic of a long-standing problem that just got a lot worse: The Colorado River's record-low flows and the shrunken reservoirs of lakes Mead and Powell (pictured above) for the first time have triggered big cuts in the amount of water allowed to flow downstream. The loss has prompted one alarmed official to float the idea that Western states ask for federal aid.

A new report has brought a sense of urgency to the slow-moving disaster represented by the shrinking Colorado River.

For days and weeks, water officials fretted that the federal Bureau of Reclamation's anticipated 24-month study would deliver bad news, and it did. The agency—a division of the Department of Interior that provides water and power in the West—announced today it would cut water released from Lake Powell's Glen Canyon Dam by 750,000 acre-feet next year. That's about enough water to serve 1.5 million homes.

"Unprecedented," said Scott Huntley, spokesperson for the Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority, whose chief, Pat Mulroy, has mentioned the idea of seeking federal aid.

A business coalition warned of an "unprecedented water crisis within the next few years," thanks to the situation in lakes Mead and Powell, the latter of which straddles Arizona and Utah.

It's the first time in the history of the nearly 50-year-old Glen Canyon Dam that water going downstream would be cut. "This is the worst 14-year drought period in the last hundred years," said Upper Colorado regional director Larry Walkoviak in a press release.

Among the effects, said Gary Wockner of SavetheColorado.org, are negative impacts on fish, wildlife, and the ecosystem in the Grand Canyon. "The river is already severely endangered due to way too many dams and diversions," said Wockner. "The impact on the health of the Colorado River is unsustainable."

Las Vegas effectively has two straws into Lake Mead, which is roughly 300 miles (480 kilometers) downstream of Lake Powell, to get its water. One of those straws could stop working once the lake drops too far—somewhere between 1,050 feet (320 meters) and 1,075 feet (328 meters) above sea level, it's thought. Perhaps as early as autumn 2014, Lake Mead is expected to drop to 1,075 feet (down 25 feet from the current level).

Anticipating trouble earlier, the city's water authority has been busy installing a third straw to reach a deeper part of Lake Mead.

"It's essentially a race for us," Huntley said, as the lake "is going to drop more precipitously than seen in the past."

If things continue to worsen as climate change brings more evaporation and less rain over time, other issues will come into focus for the seven states and part of Mexico that rely on the Colorado River. Power production at Hoover Dam would stop if the water's elevation drops enough, for example.

"You won't be able to put water through the turbines," Huntley said. "You don't have enough really to be much more than a river at that point, as opposed to a storage reservoir."

(Related: "8 Rivers Run Dry.")

What the Report Means

"It's a kick in the pants or a blow to the head to make us pay attention to both short-term and long-term projections of supply and demand imbalances," Brad Udall said of the Bureau of Reclamation report. Udall is the director of the University of Colorado Law School's Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment.

Record drought and overuse of water from the meager Colorado River have taken a toll. Tree-ring reconstructions of stream flow suggest the past 14 years rank among the lowest stream-flow periods in 1,200 years, according to Udall and Michael Connor, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation.

"Something very, very unusual is going on," said Udall, who suspects climate change is playing a part.

It's as if a giant sucked up an astonishing amount of water with a straw. Some 8.23 million acre-feet of water is supposed to flow each year into Lake Mead from Lake Powell to serve Nevada, Arizona, California, and Mexico, per long-standing interstate and international agreements. But the past 14 years have been tough.

"Basically, Mead has lost the equivalent of one entire year's worth of flow," Udall said. "It's missing 8 million acre-feet of water." (An acre-foot of water is equivalent to one acre with 12 inches of water on it.)

Lake Powell also is missing a year's worth (about 15 million acre-feet). Drought is the main culprit for Lake Powell, Udall said, while Lake Mead's issue is overuse.

The Colorado River Basin "is one of the most critical sources of water in the West," Connor said in written comments submitted to a Senate subcommittee hearing in July. The river and its tributaries quench the thirsts of 40 million people and nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland, plus seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas, and 11 national parks.

end of excerpt.

Also See:

Climate Change Reflected In Lake Mead

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In the article above regarding climate change reflected in Lake Mead the author is hopeful that snows will return and the river system can be saved. I too share that hope. However, after watching this play out over the last decade there is no doubt that climate instability has taken hold in this region of the country. Anyone paying attention knows of the increase in drought and wildfires in concert with the decreasing level of the Colorado River. I think we are now at the stage when we will see more people coming forward to do all they can to conserve and preserve this treasure. However, the question we now need to ask is will it be enough? Has it gone too far?

This is why it is so important to listen to scientific reports on these regions that for the most part have been correct and not get sidetracked by the noise of those who continually seek to deny this reality for their own selfish reasons. We must never see the day when the Colorado River can no longer support life. This goes so far beyond the vendetta of politically, ideologically and financially motivated special interests. This is about our heritage, our culture, the very heart of America. And this is not trite: This IS about our children and all species that share this life source with us.

"It's as if a giant sucked up an astonishing amount of water with a straw."

Yes, and dumped it on NJ, Missouri, Colorado...

The warnings of the past are now present. We still have time to listen, learn and act.

Also see:

Lake Mead Is Drying Up

The Greatest Water Crisis In The History Of Civilization: Coming To The American West?"

Colorado River- Running On Empty

Colorado River Reservoirs Could Bottom Out By Mid-century

Southwest Turns Anxious Eye To Shrinking Lake Mead

So All May Drink Wisely From The Colorado

Southwest Water Woes

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