Lake Powell water cuts could trigger “unprecedented water crisis”

Lake Powell. 1999.
Lake Powell. 1999.
Lake Powell. 2013
Lake Powell. 2013

The US Bureau of Reclamation will cut water releases from Lake Powell by 750,000 acre feet due to the worst 14 year drought in 100 years. Two huge reservoirs, Lake Powell on the Arizona / Utah border and Lake Mead near Las Vegas store water from the Colorado River and are the primary source of water for 36 million people in seven states, including 22 native American tribes, 4 million acres of farmland, and national parks.

The move could trigger an “unprecedented water crisis within the next few years,” the business coalition group Protect the Flows told USA Today, as reductions could have major ramifications for farmers and businesses downstream that depend on those flows, as well as on hydroelectric power generation.

Lake Mead will continue having lower water levels, due to the drought and less water from Lake Powell. It is getting close to the threshold for a formal water shortage to be declared. Their water authority is building a third intake in case water levels drop below the first intake.

“It’s essentially a race for us,” Scott Huntley of the Southern Nevada Water Authority told National Geographic, because the lake likely “is going to drop more precipitously than seen in the past.”

Sure, droughts are a normal part of the cycle of nature. But the drought is exacerbated by climate change and by the millions of people who rely on Colorado River water. She canna take much more of this, captain.

Worst Colorado River drought in 100 yrs forces Lake Powell cutbacks

Lake Powell 2007. Note bathtub ring
Lake Powell 2007. Note bathtub ring

Water releases from Lake Powell in the coming year will be 10% lower than last year, lowest since the lake was filled in the 1960’s – when there were a whole lot less people dependent on that water. Water agencies are prepared for this, have some water in shortage, and cities like Tucson have been making admirable gains in reducing water usage. Still, if the drought persists, this will get ugly.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell lowest level since Powell was filled


jfleck brings baleful news about water levels in two crucial lakes, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, that feed into the Colorado.

Ever the journalist in search of gloomy extremes, I just noticed that total storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs used to manage flows on the Colorado River, is currently forecast (USBR pdf here) to end the current water year at its lowest level since 1968.

I’ll see your gloom, jfleck, and raise it. California snowpack this year is 17% of normal. No one out-glooms me when it comes to water.

Lake Mead drought, Lake Powell too

AZ Republic photo. Mark Henle

The ongoing drought is severely affecting water levels at Lake Powell in Utah, which in turn impacts the amount of water in Lake Mead in Arizona and Nevada. All of this is further complicated by convoluted water sharing agreements between the seven Colorado River states that mandates everyone get a certain share.

But Mother Nature isn’t cooperating. Shaun McKinnon at Arizona Republic has full details. The current system of water sharing in the American southwest is hugely convoluted and contentious. There has to be a better way.

Dead Pool — Imagining the future of the American Southwest

Dead Pool

Worldchanging reviews James Lawrence Powell’s Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West. This is sobering stuff. The historical record shows that the American Southwest generally is drier than it is now. Currently, the four primary rivers in the region are drying up and the snowpacks are receding. Lake Powell, a major source of water, could reach “dead pool” by 2021. This means water levels will have dropped below that of the lowest outlets.

“For the Colorado River basin and the Southwest,” Powell says, “the threat from global warming lies not in the comfortably distant future — the threat is here today. West of the 100th meridian, the danger derives not from the slow rise of the sea but from the more rapid fall of the reservoirs… business as usual cannot continue.”

I don’t think this is alarmist. Clearly there are far too many people and not enough water. And it’s getting worse, not better. We need to start planning now.