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Who Will We Blame When the Tap Runs Dry?

November 19, 2010
by Emily Brophy

Hoover Dam at elevation 1,100 feet
Hoover Dam at elevation 1,100 feet

If the desert reservoirs dry up because consumers will not change their consumptive patterns of water use, will the water authorities step in and force changes for them? If they do, will the mandates be predictable and orderly, or will they wait until a panic arrives and chaos ensues? Will they install true conservation programs that actually store water, for example, in depleted aquifers to serve as a savings buffer? Or will the saved water be used instead to build yet another house or business that further hardens the demand and compounds the problem?

Judging by the lack of concrete solutions proposed by the governors of the western states and the Secretary of Interior, and that this leadership has had over 50 years to prepare for the inevitable, the answers would appear to be: no, they are not prepared; no, they will not save water; and yes, there will be a panic.

Nearly 27 million people rely on the Colorado River. Without it, the Imperial Valley, which provides jobs for 1.1 million Californians and provides over 10% of U.S. agricultural production, would dry up. Las Vegas, which relies on Lake Mead for 90% of its water, would go dark. Development in the west would cease as we know it.

On October 17, 2010, Lake Mead dropped below its lowest recorded level of 1083.2 feet above sea level. The reservoir currently sits at 1082.1 feet, or 38% of capacity. At full pool, the reservoir reaches 1,229 feet and can hold more than 28.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water.

If this alone does not induce panic in the residents of the lower basin states, the policies that accompany a further decline in the reservoir surely should. The current reservoir height lingers precariously close to 1,075 feet, the level at which the Colorado River Interim Guidelines, signed in 2007, would go into effect. The plan mandates forced water shortages upon the lower basin states of Nevada and Arizona for a total of 333,000 acre-feet. Arizona's supply would be reduced by 320,000 acre-feet and Nevada's reduction would be 13,000 acre-feet. California is exempt from this call of shortage, because it has senior water rights. (See: Record of Decision, page 37). 

The Bureau of Reclamation is expected to increase releases from Lake Powell downstream to Lake Mead to equalize (balance) the two reservoirs and keep Mead above this threshold level. Releases from Lake Powell in water year 2011 are expected to increase ~10%, and could increase more should Lake Powell get some recovery in the snowmelt of 2011 (9/10/10 update). This is not expected to happen due to a strenghtening La Niña, which bodes a situation of continued reservoir decline (forecast).

However, the upper Basin states are facing the same challenges as the lower basin as development and drought continue to place additional demands on the already stressed river.  Relying on the Upper Basin to meet the needs of the Lower Basin is a fool's errand as increased water deliveries will only lessen the challenges to the one region by increasing those to the other, exacerbating the social and ecological threats to the system as a whole.

The Interim Guidelines offer a structured plan to sort the deckchairs on the Titanic, with the option to change the arrangement should the states so choose. What the plan does not offer is a solution to the problem. It does not address a scenario where neither reservoir (Mead nor Powell) is full enough to provide the minimal water needed to keep the power-generators at Hoover Dam online. Furthermore, the guidelines maintain a two-reservoir operating plan and does not explore the option of decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam to maintain a functionable water level in Lake Mead. Along these lines, they also does not offer a solution should one reservoir drain completely.

To further complicate the issue, four of the seven Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) don't use their full allocation of water, but that is not expected to be the case for long. Since 2000, the population of the seven states in the Colorado River basin has cumulatively increased by 15%, or one and a half times the national growth rate of 10%.

The population of the Basin states is expected to increase another 13% by 2020, compared to a 9% projected population growth nationally (Las Vegas is losing population right now, but Clark County demographer anticipates positive growth rates through 2050).

Furthermore, industrial development in the Southwest continues to be water heavy, especially in the fastest growing industries. To combat energy scarcity, the nation is banking on solar development across the southwest, but a typical solar thermal plant (a 100 mega-watt facility) requires over one million gallons of water per day in order to operate.

Arizona is on track to build the world's largest solar plant, a 250-megawatts facility two and a half times the size of a typical plant. A similarly sized plant has recently been approved in California, but will operate on a less water-intensive, and less efficient system.

Climate change is also likely to decrease water supply in the region. Sources almost ubiquitously project that the Southwest will experience significant declines in precipitation in the coming decades (see also here). The same sources find that region will have one of the largest increases in freshwater demand over the same period, leading to a greater risk to the sustainability of the area's water resources.

The nation is cheering for a losing team if they think the west will be able to support national energy growth in the coming decades.

As demand continues to increase, and supply trends downwards, conservation is the only feasible solution to maintaining current development and projected growth in the region. The meager conservation methods outlined in the interim plan are limited and not mandatory. While the Basin states have independently sought self-serving policies, no system-wide solution has been proposed.

California may have passed state legislation to decrease per capita water use by 20% by 2020, but this year the Metropolitan Water District of South California (MWD), which supplies more than 50% of Californians, reduced its conservation budget by nearly 70%.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) is helping itself by drilling a third intake into Lake Mead by tunneling a three-mile pipe line under the reservoir at a cost of $700 million. The tunnel would be capable of providing water to Nevada at a reservoir level of 1,000 feet, and the greater distance into the reservoir avoids taking in wastewater return flows (treated) from Las Vegas Bay; the project is expected be completed by 2013. However, the project has faced several setbacks including the flooding of the underground chamber where the drilling machine was to be assembled.

Water managers may be able to pat themselves on the back for developing minimal local conservation methods. They can congratulate themselves for discovering new ways to suck the reservoirs of the Colorado River to the dregs. What they fail to accomplish, though, is the development of a basin-wide conservation plan based on realistic population and industrial needs of the future, in light of climate change and drought.

The Bureau of Recreation was formed to reclaim the wild spring waters of the Colorado River Basin for use by western industrial and municipal customers during periods of drought and decreased runoff. Today, the anticipated surplus runoffs have been replaced by annual shortages, and the Bureau must instead focus on reclaiming the water from wasteful uses that have been perpetuated by decades of unchecked development and ignorant water policies. Without mandatory and concrete conservation plans implemented basin wide, all users will suffer when the tap runs dry.


Emily Brophy is a multi-day raft guide on the Colorado, Green, and San Juan rivers.  When she is not in a boat, she works as an ecological economist and is an advocate for sustainable communities.  Her research and interests include ecologically-minded planning, inter- and intra-basin water policy, and dynamic resource modeling.  She is currently developing a non-profit to connect youth to the green industry through environmental community projects.

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