On the Cusp of a Paradigm Shift?: Musings on the State of the Colorado River

Lake Mead and the Arizona Intake Tower, July 1, 2014

Lake Mead and the Arizona Intake Tower, July 1, 2014

Last July, Lake Mead dropped to its historic low elevation.

Water managers keep tabs on the reservoir conditions, so they were not blindsided.  Solutions were already being sought.  But I wonder, does crossing such a threshold spur a sense of urgency? Or do they already feel the pressure as the threshold approaches?

Water managers up and down the river are working hard to keep from crossing the more critical threshold of a shortage declaration, the first tier of which would occur if the Bureau of Reclamation’s 24-Month Study in August projects an elevation at or below 1,075 feet msl for the following January.  In a February report to a state legislative committee in Arizona, Central Arizona Project Deputy General Manager Marie Pearthree said there is a 61% chance of a shortage declaration by 2017.

Elevations of 1,050 feet and 1,025 feet trigger subsequent shortages with further cutbacks.  A drop below 1,000 feet would put the pool below Southern Nevada Water Authority’s third intake, preventing the Authority from taking any water from the reservoir.  Lake Mead’s dead pool is at 895 feet.

There is a 5% chance that Lake Mead would fall below 1,000 feet by 2019—which is up from the 1% chance projected when the Interim Guidelines were signed in 2007.

So why is the Colorado River Basin—especially the Lower Basin—in such a state?

By the now, the answer is a familiar chorus: population growth, climate change, drought and a structural deficit, all of which are addressed in the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study and subsequent materials.

What needs to be done to fix it?

A number of solutions with varying degrees of feasibility are outlined in the Water Supply and Demand Study, and parties in both the Upper and Lower Basin are taking practical steps toward a solution. Entities in the Upper Basin are focusing on preventing loss of Lake Powell’s power pool and avoiding or minimizing issues with compliance—and as practical steps are experimenting with weather modification, pilot projects and release of Colorado River Storage Project (“CRSP”) water upstream of Lake Powell.  The Lower Basin has a goal to store an additional 1.5 MAF to 3 MAF in Lake Mead in the next five years—and in December, they signed an MOU to put the first 740,000 AF in the next three years. (For more on the MOU see, “Lower Basin States Sign MOU to Stave Off Shortage,” Journal of Water, January 2015).

While these actions are promising and interesting, I find most fascinating the changes in philosophy advocated by water managers who participated in the panel, “In the Heat of the Drought: Sustaining Our Basin Supplies,” at the Colorado River Water Association’s 2014 Annual Meeting.  The panel was moderated by Tom McCann, Deputy General Manager of the Central Arizona Project.  The participants were John Entsminger, General Manager of Southern Nevada Water Authority; Terry Fulp, Regional Director of the Bureau of Reclamation Lower Colorado Region; Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River Program Manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; Michael Lacey, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources; and Don Ostler, Executive Director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.

These esteemed water managers called for the development of a new equilibrium (the balance that must be achieved for sustainability) and greater flexibility—which is needed to allow states to manage their share of the resources as they need  and to spur development of innovative solutions that go beyond river hydrology, storage, recycling, conservation and transfers.

Entsminger added, “In the real world, it’s not a math problem.” He followed with an explanation that a solution requires parties acting within the system as a whole.


His comment echoed those of his predecessor, Pat Mulroy, former SNWA General Manager, Senior Fellow of Climate Adaptation and Environmental Policy at the Brookings Institute, and Maki Distinguished Faculty Associate position at the Desert Research Institute.  Mulroy has been advocating for a more systemic view of the Basin for some time now.  Most recently was a keynote address at the California Water Policy Conference where she called for California to stop seeking the perfect solution for the Delta, develop something flexible and take a step toward fixing it.  She said that California needs to fix the Delta “because what happens in the Delta matters in Denver,” thanks to way we have engineered ourselves into one large watershed. (Hat tip to Maven for transcribing the address).

I see these comments as a call for a paradigm shift in how water is managed, which I find encouraging because it demonstrates that those in positions to do something about the problem recognize how dramatic a change is needed (and I am assured that they are not insane—i.e. not doing the same thing over and over expecting different results).  But I do have some reservations.  If not everyone buys into the new paradigm, then policy will have to change incrementally, and we don’t have that kind of time.

There are also questions in the medium and short terms.  Can the development of other sources, such as brackish or seawater desalination, ease demands on system water and help build elevation in Lake Mead?  As parties seek both local and Basin-wide near-term solutions, can the spirit of cooperation and collaboration be maintained? Will the actions that are currently being pursued be enough to avoid a drop in Lake Mead’s elevation below 1,000 feet? What about to avoid a shortage declaration?

Voice your opinion on the last question on the Stratecon Water Policy Marketplace:  Will the Bureau of Reclamation’s 24-month study issued in August 2015 forecast that Lake Mead’s elevation will be at or below 1,075 feet on January 1, 2016?

My Perspective

About a week before Lake Mead hit that historic low elevation, I had taken an excursion to Hoover Dam.  It was the highlight of a four-day vacation in Las Vegas.  We didn’t brave the July heat (119o F, I think) for the tour or to marvel at the engineering wonder. No, we were there because I simply wanted to go to this critical feature of the Lower Basin; I wanted to see the so-called bathtub ring for myself; and I wanted my own pictures of it.

While I have crossed over the Colorado River many times traveling to visit relatives in Arizona, this was only the second time that I purposefully sought to see the Colorado River.  The first time came when I was just a child.  During a trip from my home in Southern California’s Inland Empire region to my grandparents’ home in Mesa, Arizona, we took a respite in Blythe.  My grandparents thought it would be fun for me to see the river and to stand with one foot in California and one foot in Arizona, so they found a quiet crossing where that could happen.

I think it may have been the moment that I caught the “water bug.” After that, I was fascinated with seeing water—not taps, bathtubs and swimming pools, but rather, lakes, rivers, streams and even the ocean—all bodies of water that I now know to be water supply sources.  I started to recognize water as a political issue in high school.  In the 11th grade my AP Government teacher gave us an assignment to write a paper on a political issue that was not front page news.  I wrote about a water transfer deal between the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (“MWD”) and the Imperial Irrigation District (“IID”), which is now known as the landmark MWD/IID Conservation Agreement.

I also learned early that water is a valuable and precious resource.  My family, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, took steps to conserve water that top the list of today’s public education campaigns: my grandparents were among the first to xeriscape their yard; we swam in a public swimming pool (not that we could afford a pool of our own); we hosed down walkways and driveways only when the mess could not be handled by a broom (which unfortunately happened frequently as there often was car grease to clean up from my dad moonlighting as a mechanic); and we always turned off the water when brushing our teeth.

We weren’t perfect.  Water was wasted on occasion.  We played in the sprinklers, sometimes in the heat of the day—and there was the time that my dad joined our water balloon fight using the garden hose as his weapon of choice.  But overall, we were ahead of our time on the conservation front.

So it is through this lens that I see the dismal condition of the Lower Basin, and I am troubled.  I am also heartened because of the innovation and cooperation that I have seen in the water industry.

For now, I am holding on for the ride of my life as the water managers in the Basin work, and this chronicle unfolds— and I am hoping for a day when I can go back to Hoover Dam and take pictures with the water level so high that the intakes appear to be floating.