On paper, the Colorado River is just fine.
In reality, maybe not.
It all has to do with the water levels in two reservoirs that draw their supplies from the Colorado River: Lake Powell, on the border between Utah and Arizona; and Lake Mead, which gets its water from Lake Powell.
Earlier this year, Lake Mead experienced, for the first time, a drop below a critical level. The drop lasted only about an hour, but it is a sign of things to come, and it’s raising concerns for everyone on the Colorado River.
At last week’s Colorado Water Congress, water experts discussed how changes in these two lakes will affect the Colorado River.
“It’s in our vested interests” as well as that of other Upper Colorado River states of Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, to make sure Lake Powell stays full, according to James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Eklund is also the state representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission, an interstate administrative agency for the four states in the Upper Basin.
The problem: Lake Mead is running a “structural deficit” – it’s tapping about 2.5 million acre-feet of water per year more than it’s getting from Lake Powell. An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover one acre of land by one foot, or about 325,000 gallons.
Eklund told The Colorado Independent that differences in legal interpretations of a 1922 interstate compact have led to a disagreement about just how much water the three Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada and California) should get.
The three Lower Basin states believe they are entitled to more water from Lake Mead, which gets its water from Powell. The Upper Basin states believe the Lower Basin states are getting exactly what they should. It’s a standoff, Eklund said this week. “Everyone’s agreed to disagree.”
That’s been okay in the past, because there was enough water in the system. But years of drought in the West have changed the situation from “more than enough” to “not enough,” according to Eklund.
Eklund pointed out that the Colorado River will send more than 9 million acre-feet to Lake Powell this year, and that happened last year, too. The compact requires only 7.5 million, on average, per year. But the Lower Basin states are still drawing about 2.5 million acre-feet more than Powell can supply. That’s put Mead below its critical levels.
The deficit has led to planning among the seven states along the Colorado to ward off potential critical low levels at Lake Powell. That plan calls for several actions, including moving water from several Upper Colorado River reservoirs to Lake Powell, and stronger conservation efforts.
There are dire consequences for everyone, Eklund told the audience at the Water Congress’ summer conference last week. Should Lake Powell drop below its critical levels, the Glen Canyon Dam could lose its ability to turn its turbines. That would result in less electrical generation, and force rural electric companies that rely on power from Glen Canyon to buy electricity elsewhere.
That leads to less money available for endangered species recovery and a system to control salt buildup where the Colorado River ends, in Mexico.
Since 1988, rural electric revenue has helped pay for species recovery for four endangered fish species on the Colorado: the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pike minnow and razorback sucker. “This has impacts for the health of the entire system,” according to Eklund.
Eklund told The Independent that all the stakeholders have seen the modeling for these scenarios.
“Everyone loses if we act in our own self-interest,” he said.
The Lower Basin states have been reluctant to talk about the deficit at Lake Mead, but that’s coming to an end, and everyone is now at the table, discussing how to manage the river system more cooperatively.
Eric Kuhn of the Colorado River Water Conservation District has been involved with the Colorado River since 1980. He pointed out during last week’s forum that 90 percent of the Colorado River water is in the Upper Basin while 90 percent of the people are in the Lower Basin, including Southern California.
Over the next few years, Kuhn said, they are looking for several solutions, including a “Godzilla El Niño” year in 2016, similar to what happened in 2011, that will help refill Mead and Powell. The El Niño in 2011 provided an additional 4 million acre-feet of water to the lakes.
Kuhn advocates for a solution among the seven states on the Colorado that keeps the parties out of court. That includes building up enough water in the lakes to create a buffer, which he said is essential.
The bottom line, according to Kuhn, is that in theory, the 2.5 million acre-feet deficit in Mead has no impact on the Colorado. Mead’s deficit has existed since the 1940s, he explained. But “in practice, the deficit has a major impact,” he said.
Could it lead to a “call” on the Colorado River? A call is when the Colorado can’t supply the amount of water required under the compact. It would require the Upper Basin states to send more water down the Colorado to Lake Powell, and it would mean less water for the Upper Basin states.
A call is years away, if ever, according to both Eklund and Kuhn. But both say it’s better to plan now when “we’re not in a crisis,” like California.