Did the Bureau of Reclamation just announce that the first domino had toppled toward water shortages in the southwestern United States? Here’s the seemingly innocuous language only a water engineer could love:
“[I]f the August 24-Month study projects the January 1, 2014, Lake Powell elevation to be less than 3,575.0 feet and at or above 3,525.0 feet and the Lake Mead elevation to be at or above 1,025.0 feet…the water year release volume from Lake Powell will be 7.48 [million acre-feet (maf)]. This August 2013 24-Month study projects that…the January 1, 2014, Lake Powell elevation [will] be 3,573.69 feet and the Lake Mead elevation [will] be 1,107.39 feet. Therefore…the Lake Powell operational tier for water year 2014 is the Mid-Elevation Release Tier with an annual release volume of 7.48 maf.” – August 24-Month Study (emphasis added)
Let’s back up a moment before answering that.
Sitting at either end of the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are the two primary storage reservoirs on the Colorado River. Lake Powell, the upstream reservoir, sits on the border between Arizona and Utah. Lake Mead is in the southeastern corner of Nevada about 35 miles east of Las Vegas and supplies water to Arizona, Nevada and California. The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates both reservoirs, tries to equalize the amount of water in each reservoir to maximize their combined storage capacity. However, this goal becomes difficult to achieve when there simply isn’t much water in the river, which is the case right now.
The southwestern United States is suffering through an extreme drought. The last 14 years have been the driest period in the last 100 years. Both Lake Powell and Lake Mead are less than half full. The elevation of water in Lake Mead is 120 feet below its maximum, leading to the infamous “bathtub ring”.
Fortunately, the seven states in the Colorado River Basin – Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California – and the Bureau of Reclamation saw this coming. They came together in the early 2000s to reach an agreement for how to share the pain during times when water is scarce. Their agreement is known as the 2007 Interim Guidelines. Among other things, it specifies how much water Reclamation will send from Lake Powell to Lake Mead based on the water levels in each reservoir. Historically, this amount is 8.23 million acre-feet.
However, when the water level in Lake Powell gets low enough, Reclamation will send less water downstream. This month – for the first time ever – Lake Powell crossed that threshold.
So in 2014 Reclamation will release 7.48 million acre-feet of water to Lake Mead, a decrease of 750,000 acre-feet from the historical amount and the lowest amount ever released since Lake Powell filled in the 1960s. This doesn’t mean that 6 million fewer people in Arizona, Nevada and California will get water next year. (An acre-foot of water is approximately as much water as two families of four will use in a year.) It does mean there is about a 50 percent chance these states will get less water from the Colorado River by 2016. (Circle of Blue has a good description of how this supply reduction will likely play out in practice.)
What Reclamation’s announcement makes clear is that we have entered a new paradigm in the Colorado River: Water shortages, which never have occurred before on the river, are not something that may happen sometime in the distant future – they are on the doorstep. Population growth and climate change will put more demands on the river and make droughts more frequent and more severe, ensuring that managing water in the face of shortage will only get harder from here.
The Colorado River Basin states and Reclamation are making decisions now about how to live in this new paradigm. There are ways they can keep the southwestern United States vibrant for the next 50 years, but if sportsmen don’t engage in those decisions, making their preference for strong habitat and species protections known, water for fish and wildlife could be the first to go. That’s why the TRCP is working to conserve and improve water resources management for hunting and fishing areas. Sign up to become part of this effort. (Bob Marshall at Field & Stream makes an impassioned case for why sportsmen need to get engaged.)
The goal for sportsmen should be to keep Reclamation’s announcement from becoming the first domino toppling toward a tragic, inevitable conclusion. Rather, we should take it as a call to action to ensure the Colorado River – and other critical waterways – is managed for the 21st century and beyond.