Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Water In America’s Southwest: A Glass (Lake?) Half Full

Courtesy of The New York Times, two interesting articles on the political, hydrological, and environmental challenges facing an increasingly dry American Southwest.  As the first notes, the distribution of the Colorado River’s dwindling bounty is likely to be reordered as early as next year because the flow of water cannot keep pace with the region’s demands:

“…A once-unthinkable day is looming on the Colorado River.

Barring a sudden end to the Southwest’s 11-year drought, the distribution of the river’s dwindling bounty is likely to be reordered as early as next year because the flow of water cannot keep pace with the region’s demands.

For the first time, federal estimates issued in August indicate that Lake Mead, the heart of the lower Colorado basin’s water system — irrigating lettuce, onions and wheat in reclaimed corners of the Sonoran Desert, and lawns and golf courses from Las Vegas to Los Angeles — could drop below a crucial demarcation line of 1,075 feet.

If it does, that will set in motion a temporary distribution plan approved in 2007 by the seven states with claims to the river and by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada would be reduced.

This could mean more dry lawns, shorter showers and fallow fields in those states, although conservation efforts might help them adjust to the cutbacks. California, which has first call on the Colorado River flows in the lower basin, would not be affected.

But the operating plan also lays out a proposal to prevent Lake Mead from dropping below the trigger point. It allows water managers to send 40 percent more water than usual downstream to Lake Mead from Lake Powell in Utah, the river’s other big reservoir, which now contains about 50 percent more water than Lake Mead.

In that case, the shortage declaration would be avoided and Lake Mead’s levels restored to 1,100 feet or so.

Lake Powell, fed by rain and snowmelt that create the Colorado and tributaries, has risen more than 60 feet from a 2004 low because the upper basin states, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah, do not use their full allocations. The upper basin provides a minimum annual flow of 8.23 million acre feet to Arizona, Nevada and California. (An acre-foot of water is generally considered the amount two families of four use annually.)

In its August report the Bureau of Reclamation said the extra replenishment from Lake Powell was the likeliest outcome. Nonetheless, said Terry Fulp, the bureau’s deputy regional director for the Lower Colorado Region, it is the first time ever that the bureau has judged a critical shortage to be remotely possible in the near future.

“We’re approaching the magical line that would trigger shortage,” Mr. Fulp said. “We have the lowest 11-year average in the 100-year-plus recorded history of flows on the basin.”

The reservoir is now less than 15 inches above the all-time low of 1,083.2 feet set in 1956.

But back then, while the demand from California farmland was similar, if not greater, the population was far smaller. Perhaps 9.5 million people in the three states in the lower Colorado River basin depended on the supply in the late 1950s; today more than 28 million people do.

The impact of the declining water level is visible in the alkaline bathtub rings on the reservoir’s walls and the warning lights for mariners high on its rocky outcroppings. National Park Service employees have repeatedly moved marinas, chasing the receding waterline.

Adding to water managers’ unease, scientists predict that prolonged droughts will be more frequent in decades to come as the Southwest’s climate warms. As Lake Mead’s level drops, Hoover Dam’s capacity to generate electricity, which, like the Colorado River water, is sent around the Southwest, diminishes with it. If Lake Mead levels fall to 1,050 feet, it may be impossible to use the dam’s turbines, and the flow of electricity could cease.

The fretting that dominates today’s discussions about the river contrasts with the old-style optimism about the Colorado’s plenitude that has usually prevailed since Hoover Dam — then called Boulder Dam — was completed 75 years ago, impounding the water from Lake Mead.

The worries have provoked action: cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas have undertaken extensive conservation programs. Between 2000 and 2009, Phoenix’s average per-capita daily household use has dropped almost 20 percent; Las Vegas’s has dropped 21.3 percent.

Nonetheless, “if the river flow continues downward and we can’t build back up supply, Las Vegas is in big trouble,” Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in an interview.

While Las Vegas is one of the Colorado River’s smaller clients — it consumes 2 percent of the river’s allocated deliveries— the city relies on Lake Mead for 90 percent of its water supply. From 2002 to 2009, the metropolitan area’s population mushroomed by nearly 40 percent, to 1.9 million from 1.37 million.

In response to the population boom and the drought, which began in 1999, the authority began an aggressive effort to encourage water conservation in 2002.

Now it is expanding its options: it is tunneling under the bottom of Lake Mead to install a third intake valve that could continue operating until lake levels dropped below 1,000 feet.

Saddle Island, the construction staging site on the reservoir, looks like an abstract painting, its dusty russet ground covered with interlacing segments of the 2,500 concrete rings that will make up the three-mile-long pipe.

Ms. Mulroy has also pushed aggressively for pipelines to carry distant groundwater to the Las Vegas area; most contentious is a planned 285-mile pipeline that would cross the state diagonally and take groundwater from the Snake Valley, on the Nevada-Utah border, to Las Vegas.

The authority has also spent about $147 million on a program to encourage homeowners and businesses to eliminate their lawns in favor of the rock, grass and cactus landscaping known as xeriscaping. More than 70 percent of household water usage is attributed to outdoor use, Ms. Mulroy said.

Residents can now water their yards only three days a week, before 11 a.m. and after 7 p.m., and the restrictions are to tighten this winter.

Dolores Cormier, 82, who lives on Monterrey Avenue on the southern side of Las Vegas, reconfigured her front and side lawns, installing a rocky cover and drip irrigation. Under a water authority program known as Water Smart Landscapes (colloquially, Cash for Grass), she has received $2,689 in utility subsidies that will offset the $5,600 or so she said the xeriscaping cost her.

She is pleased with the new look but said her average monthly water bill of $45 or so has yet to decline, perhaps because she still tends grass in her small backyard. “I need some lawn,” she confessed.

If the 1,075 level is broken at Lake Mead next year, more drastic conservation measures will be needed, officials warn.

“We have a very finite resource and demand which increases and enlarges every day,” said John A. Zebre, a Wyoming lawyer and the president of the Colorado River Water Users Association.

“The problem is always going to be there,” he said. “Everything is driven by that problem.”

As the second notes, there is a big divide in how water managers see the future of the Colorado:

Levels have declined so sharply at Lake Mead  that water deliveries to Nevada and Arizona could be affected.
The water managers of the Colorado basin can be categorized several ways. Upper Basin andLower Basin. Technicians, lawyers. Holders of senior water rights and owners of junior rights.

But the basic divide is between optimists and pessimists — those who think the river’s flow will keep pace with the rich past, and those that don’t. Pat Mulroy, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, serving Las Vegas and its suburbs, is a pessimist.

She had expected the glass of Lake Mead to become half-empty. As I wrote in an article in The New YOrk Times on Tuesday, now it is. More accurately, it is 61 percent empty after an enervating 11-year drought. Water levels in Lake Mead, the reservoir for three of the fastest-growing states in the country, have declined to 1,084.4 feet, about 15 inches above the low of 1083.2 feet, reached in 1956.

They are less than nine feet from the level at which a new allocation regimen agreed to in 2007 kicks in. For Las Vegas, which gets 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead and was a latecomer to the water-rights arena, this is scary.

Experts from the Congressional, nonprofit and regulatory arenas see Ms. Mulroy, 57, whose back has been to the wall for most of the past two decades — first because of the area’s rapid growth, then because of the water’s disappearance — as a clear-eyed, practical leader for the new world of scarcity. Others in the world of western water seem impressed yet a bit unnerved by her.

More on Ms. Mulroy in a second, but first a bit of context. In the legal pecking order governing water users in the lower Colorado region of Nevada, Arizona and California, Las Vegas ranks low. The regional population may have grown enormously, to just under two million in the past 20 years, but that makes no difference. What is most important, under the current legal framework, is that it is a latecomer to the table when it comes to water rights.

In the West, water law is based on the principle of first-come, first-served (more formally known as “First in Time, First in Right”). The first-comers were usually farmers. Nevada folklore has it that the prospects of farming Nevada were so remote that its delegate sat out the deliberations leading to the 1922 Colorado River compact, which divides the river among all its users.

Upon her arrival as a water leader two decades ago, Ms. Mulroy was open about her incredulity about the legal system of water rights underpinning the compact. Yet the Law of the River, however, is viewed in the seven states of the Colorado basin with something like reverence.

She set herself against this status quo. “I was quite the combatant in 1989,” she said in a recent interview. “I still believed in blasting holes in the compact.”

No longer. Her preferred strategy now is to weight it down with subsequent agreements so numerous that the contract is in effect suffocated. In her words, “Put enough agreements on top of it that it becomes meaningless.”

While her style remains blunt and no-nonsense, her grasp of the realpolitik of the Colorado River water users has grown more sure and subtle. She is a deal maker when necessary, looking to expand the possibilities for trading water rights or to provide incentives for others to compromise. She infuriated residents of northeastern Nevada and western Utah by pushing for a 285-mile pipeline to bring groundwater from the Snake Valley to Las Vegas but eventually struck a deal, although resentment remains and Utah is not yet formally on board.

“Pat Mulroy in 1989 would have declared me off my rocker,” she says today, but “I would remind her that the whole is greater than the sun of its parts. Cooperation is more important than combat.”

“If you create an adversarial relationship and don’t look at solutions for all sides,” she said, the “human survival instinct” will be awakened — and things could get ugly.

Still, she continues to believe that “priority water rights make no sense in the 21st century.”

More cooperation will be needed, she said, because the current interim guidelines agreed to by the seven states and put into regulation by the federal Bureau of Reclamation deal only with water levels above 1,025 feet. It is time to start deciding what will happen if the current 11-year drought stretches out further and Lake Mead’s level reaches that crucial line, she said.

“The rest of the states are worried about Nevada,” said Ms. Mulroy, who describes her state as “the Achilles heel” of the compact that binds the seven Colorado River states together.

“Nevada’s problem has become everyone’s problem,” she said. “The last thing that everyone needs is for a city that relies 90 percent on that water to not meet its needs.”

“If this is the new normal,” she said of the drought, “we’ve got to change a lot of things on the Colorado River.”



This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 29th, 2010 at 9:25 am and is filed under News.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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