Lake Mead water shortage could spell trouble for Colorado

Author: Marianne Goodland - August 22, 2018 - Updated: September 10, 2018

Lightning strikes over Lake Mead near Hoover Dam at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Arizona in this 2014 file photo. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

A new forecast from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation shows signs that water levels at Lake Mead, which supplies water to three southwestern states and northern Mexico, could drop so low by next year that it could eventually result in a demand for more water from the Colorado River and from the upper basin states, including Colorado, that rely on the big river.

And if Colorado residents think that we shouldn’t care whether someone in Los Angeles or Phoenix has enough water, think again. The ever-increasing shortages in those three southwestern states could eventually mean water shortages, here, too.

The Bureau of Reclamation forecast estimated that Lake Mead, located on the Nevada-Arizona border, will need a release of 8.23 million acre-feet of water from Lake Powell, which is about 300 miles north on the Arizona-Utah border. Both reservoirs rely on the Colorado River for their water supplies.

That water release, likely to happen by 2020, will keep water levels at Mead at around 1,075 feet. That’s the minimum water level required to provide to supply enough water for the 40 million residents of southern California, Nevada (including Las Vegas) and Arizona, including Phoenix.

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So why would that matter to Coloradans, especially those on the Front Range?

Lake Powell is Colorado’s insurance policy, says James Eklund, the Colorado representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, an interstate agency that includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. The commission manages the Upper Colorado River and is working on what to do when water shortages downstream start demanding more water from its upstream source.

“A healthy Lake Mead means a healthy Lake Powell,” because Lake Powell stores water for Colorado and its fellow upper river states.

The Colorado River not only provides water to Nevada, Arizona, California and northern Mexico. It also supplies about half of the water that comes out of Front Range faucets and sprinklers. That happens via a series of tunnels, known as transmountain diversions, that cut through the mountains and over the Continental Divide and eventually fill many of the reservoirs along the Front Range.

The time may be coming when Colorado will be asked to share more of its water with the southern states.

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In 1948, the seven states through which the Colorado River flows signed a compact that today requires the four Upper Colorado River states to send about 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the three lower states and Mexico. Las Vegas, for example, gets 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead. The reservoir is also a major water supply for Phoenix and Los Angeles.

An angler makes his way along the Colorado River in the late afternoon near Parshall, Colo., despite the sign asking for cooperation with a “voluntary fishing closure” between 2 p.m. and midnight because water conditions have severely stressed fish. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

In good water years, the upper Colorado River states send about 9 million (sometimes more) acre-feet down to Lake Powell and on to Lake Mead. So sending less water must be pretty good, right?

Wrong, Eklund explained. The 8.23 million acre-feet forecast for 2020 is a sign of the sad shape of the river system, he said. There just isn’t enough water headed to Lake Mead. The Bureau of Reclamation estimates the chances of a shortage at Lake Mead in 2020 at 52 percent, Eklund said.

Everyone relies on the Colorado, he said. A shortage in the lower Colorado states means Colorado and the Upper Colorado River states are going to learn what it’s like to live with shortages year after year.

“We don’t have the luxury of having the nation’s two largest reservoirs above us” like the Lower Colorado states do, Eklund explained. “We have snowpack — Mother Nature’s reservoir – but that’s a variable supply,” as Coloradans learned in this drought year.

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There’s also financial risk tied to shortages at Lake Mead that could also affect Colorado and its Upper Colorado neighbors, said Taylor Hawes of the Nature Conservancy. Once Mead drops, and Powell drops with it, that could impact Powell’s ability to generate hydropower, and that means money, Hawes said.

Hydropower at Lake Powell generates revenue that repays the Bureau of Reclamation for a variety of water-related projects in the Upper Colorado states. If that revenue goes away or at least drops substantially, that’s a bill that Colorado taxpayers will have to cover for projects tied to Endangered Species Act compliance, for example.

The underlying issue, Hawes said, is that the western United States is in a 19-year drying trend. “We used to say it’s a drought. After 19 years, we can say this is a pattern and trend that is punctuated by super dry years like 2002 and this year.”

One thing that might help stave off the shortage, or at least help all the seven states better prepare for a shortage, is drought contingency planning. “We have to plan for the situation when there’s a shortage declared and that Mead and Powell are compromised,” Eklund explained. “We have to prop up our insurance policy in Lake Powell, either by pushing more water down there or by using less, and probably a combination of the two.”

Contingency planning has been in the works, one set for the upper states and another for the lower, for more than a year. Eklund said both groups hope to have that done by the end of this year. “Those plans have to work together.”

land and conservation water fund
Gov. John Hickenlooper fishing in the Cache la Poudre River in Larimer County. (Photo by Evan Semón Photography, provided by the governor’s office)

Hawes also points to the drought contingency plans being prepared by the interstate agencies as a way of preparing for what’s coming, but there’s one other plan that hasn’t yet started, and that’s one specific to Colorado.

The state of Colorado needs its own contingency plan, once the Upper Colorado plan is in place, Hawes said. It could look at, for example, statewide curtailment or reduction of water use, once those region-wide drought plans are implemented.

> RELATED: COVER STORY: Hickenlooper’s legacy of water

Conservation is another tool that Colorado citizens will also have to embrace more than they do now, said Ted Kowalski, who’s with the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River Initiative.

As Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has said, “every water conversation has to start with conservation,” Kowalski told Colorado Politics. “This is underscored by the current conditions.”

Kowalski has been involved in an incentive program for water savings that he said over time could make a significant difference in the water levels for both Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

The urgency at Lake Mead on the cusp of a declared shortage in 2020 “means we need to get our house in order on how to meet obligations by reducing water use,” Kowalski said. He’s been involved in a system conservation pilot program, started three years ago, with a pool of money from Denver Water, the Walton Foundation, the Bureau of Reclamation and other water providers.

Under that program, farmers, ranchers are cities who are willing to conserve for the benefit of the entire system are paid to do so. Over the program’s three years — it’s now heading into a fourth — water saved in the Upper Colorado states total somewhere between 25,000 to 40,000 acre-feet. “We’ve seen the seeds of a water bank,” Kowalski said. The next step is to find sustainable funding. 

The cost hasn’t been cheap: the first two years, the program cost $11 million, the third year was $10 million and this year the program will need $14 million. As Kowalski sees it, the cost is small compared to what the Colorado River means to the nation’s economy. It represents about 20 percent of the nation’s GDP, he said.

Should the program be launched on a grander scale, “it could ensure water sustainability” for the southwestern United States, he added. 

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.