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Reclamation Issues Final EIS for Colorado River Operations under Low Reservoir Conditions

November 02, 2007
by John Weisheit

Hoover Dam
Hoover Dam

On November 2, the Bureau of Reclamation announced the publication and distribution of their Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for determining guidelines to operate the two largest reservoirs in the United States, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, under low reservoir conditions and in light of probable shortages for the water users of the Colorado River. The popular name for the plan is called Shortage Criteria.

The Final EIS is now available for the public's review on Reclamation's project website. Click here

Since 1999, when the two reservoirs were nearly full, the total water storage capacity in the two reservoirs has declined steadily to 50%. The last eight years of drought have been observed as the most severe in the last 100 years of recorded history.

Reclamations' operating criteria on the opposite end of the spectrum, a plan called Surplus Criteria, was completed in 2001. Both plans will be in effect until 2026, with the possibility of a reconsultation during this interim time period.

The Final EIS presents a Preferred Alternative, which proposes that certain water levels in Lake Mead be used to determine when a shortage condition would be declared in the lower basin of the Colorado River, and how that shortage would be shared by the states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

It also proposes a mechanism to implement river augmentation and conservation of water supplies in Lake Mead to minimize future shortages should the drought persist. The impacts of climate change were not considered by Reclamation in this environmental study.

What this study also does not address is the full range of results from the various paleoclimate studies of the last 30 years. This data is derived from a scientific analysis of tree-rings to reconstruct the historic streamflow patterns of the Colorado River over a time period that spans 1,200 years.

Such studies reveal that the long-term annual yield of the Colorado River can be lower than it has been in the last century, and that drought can endure for a few, to many, decades.

The plan is expected to be adopted by the Secretary of the Interior in December, and take effect in January 2008. Reclamation will use this criteria to develop the Annual Operating Plan for Colorado River reservoirs through 2026 .

Additional information:

Read the comment letter by Living Rivers and Center for Biological Diversity. This letter explains that the Bureau of Reclamation took the softest approach possible in developing an operating plan for a systemized river that has nothing left to give.

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