August 1, 2014

Colorado River Concerns Mount as Lake Mead’s Surface Continues to Fall

The white ring \"around the tub\" shows how much elevation the surface of the lake has lost. (Rose Davis / Bureau of Reclamation)

Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Lake Mead, the vast reservoir behind iconic Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas, is plummeting past levels not seen since it first filled in the 1930s. That is not good news for any of the seven states or Mexico that share Colorado River water.

All of this is governed by "90 years of agreements," including the Colorado River Compact of 1922. To bring the so-called "Law of the River" into 21st century realities of population growth and climate warming, many observers say the rules are going to have to change.

Western water expert Brad Udall, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado Law School, believes it will take a "full-out" crisis to bring meaningful reforms, but that such a crisis may well be at hand.

The surface elevation of Lake Mead reached the historic low of 1,081.75 feet above sea level during the week of July 7, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, and is projected to fall to 1,080 by November. On July 31, it was projected at 1080.61.

However, should it fall to 1,075 feet it would trigger a declared shortage on the river, at which point water deliveries could be impacted. The lake has dropped 128 feet since 2000.

But, Udall told Rocky Mountain PBS I-News, water providers are looking at solutions to avoid a shortage declaration.

"There’s a plan underway right now that involves Denver water, involves three of the lower basin water providers, one in each state, plus the Bureau of Reclamation, to put $11 million dollars on the table next year to start buying these water rights from voluntary agriculture users and have them not exercise those rights in order to keep the two reservoirs – Lake Mead and upstream Lake Powell – keep them higher than they might otherwise be.”

To effectively meet the challenges of this century, the basic premise underpinning the Law of the River – first in time, first in right – will have to be rethought.

“The other way to look at this is that the glass is half full," Udall said. "We still have 80 percent of the river, still a lot of water. But we’ve got to use it correctly, and that means a healthy agriculture industry that doesn’t use 70 percent. It could be a system in which agriculture is paid handsomely not to plant in very dry years. We need to do better in using water wisely.”