Colorado River drought leads to reduced water releases

by Dennis Wagner

 Editor’s Note:  This is one of many articles that appeared this week describing the serious situation that exists for those lakes and cities that depend on the Colorado River.– Hardly Waite.

A Bureau of Reclamation study released Friday says the Colorado River’s worst drought in a century will force reduced water releases from Lake Powell that could affect agriculture, downstream business and hydroelectric power production.

Groups urging conservation warned of drastic cutbacks and severe economic implications while state officials and the Central Arizona Project sought to downplay the alarm.

The bureau said releases from Lake Powell in the coming year (water year 2014 runs from Oct. 2013 to Sept. 2014) will be cut from 8.23 million acre-feet to 7.48 million acre-feet — the lowest since the lake first filled in the 1960s. An acre-foot is roughly 325,000 gallons or enough to supply two households for one year.

Water from Lake Powell flows through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead, where levels are expected to drop eight feet next year, causing reduced deliveries to farms and water banks.

“This is the worst 14-year drought period in the last 100 years,” said Larry Walkoviak, the bureau’s Upper Colorado Region director.

CAP officials emphasized that water delivery to towns and cities will not be affected. However, based on the bureau projections, they said shortages could trigger a 20 percent decrease in Arizona deliveries to agriculture.

Protect the Flows, a coalition of businesses that rely on the Colorado River, said the forecast dramatically increases chances of an “unprecedented water crisis within the next few years.”

“If drying trends continue,” the group warned in a news release, “lower water levels in Lake Powell could cut off power production at Glen Canyon Dam as soon as the winter of 2015, affecting power supply and pricing in six states.”

CAP stressed that, if the drought triggers a shortage and cutbacks in two years, it will not have an impact on municipalities, residential water users or Native American tribes.

Chuck Cullom, Colorado River project manager for the CAP, said that Lake Powell is only 45 percent full, the second-lowest level ever, and that Lake Mead is at 47 percent.

He confirmed that the forecast would trigger CAP cutbacks of 320,000 acre-feet, a 20 percent decrease. However, he expressed surprise at Protect the Flows’ dire warnings: “That’s not what the 24-month study will show. It is not Armageddon. It’s what we’ve been planning for for decades.”

Cullom said reduced generation of hydo-power is plausible, but it would occur only if the Colorado River drainage was hit with the two worst years of runoff on record.

Based on the federal projections, CAP is expecting a 9 percent reduction in Lake Powell releases during each of the next two years.

Sandra Fabritz Whitney, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources and chairwoman of the Arizona Water Banking Authority, said, “While the possibility of a shortage declaration is significant, Arizona has been planning and preparing for just such a condition.”

Still, conditions are so severe that Pat Mulroy, chief of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that federal disaster aid is in order. “This is as much an extreme- weather event as (Hurricane) Sandy was on the East Coast,” he said. “The potential damage is just as bad.”

According to Protect the Flows, the Colorado River supports a $26 billion recreation economy. Craig Mackey, co-director of the coalition of 900 businesses, called for increased water conservation. He said that water demands from the river now exceed supplies and that climate change is making things worse.

“We’ve gotten to a point where we’ve never been before,” he said.

The National Young Farmers Coalition said more than three-quarters of the Colorado’s water goes to agriculture.

Kate Greenberg, the group’s Southwestern organizer, said the projections are “unprecedented” and point to an urgent need for conservation and water banking.