As expected, a recent announcement from the United States Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) that warns of a historically low reduction in the amount of water to be released from Lake Powell next year has alarmed water officials across the Southwest and in California.
It has also prompted an organizer for the National Young Farmers Coalition to release a statement warning of a looming water crisis and a sharp decline in future agricultural production if water stakeholders fail to respond with better conservation and water management practices.
The BOR report warns that for the first time ever the water level at Lake Powell next year will dip below a point that automatically triggers a reduction in water that is delivered downstream to Lake Mead, a measure many believe could prompt an unprecedented water crisis if that trend were to span multiple years.
Following the BOR statement, Southern Nevada Water Authority chief Pat Mulroy said she believes the time has come to talk about federal disaster aid. The SNWA is charged with providing water to Las Vegas, and Mulroy says increased demands for water and a water shortage pose a threat to the Southwest and West in the coming years as deadly as Hurricane Sandy was last year for the Eastern third of the nation.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead are the major storage reservoirs for the Colorado River and the largest in the nation. How the reservoirs are managed was decided by terms of the 2007 Interim Guidelines Record of Decision, a document signed by the Secretary of the Interior after extensive consultation with the seven Colorado River Basin states, Native American tribes, federal agencies, environmental organizations, and other stakeholders and interested parties. These guidelines control how water is stored and used at the two reservoirs.
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According to that agreement, both reservoirs are automatically required to be drawn down together in times of drought to limit the amount of shortages imposed on water users.
Lake Powell is approaching a level that, under the guidelines, mandates a 750,000 acre-foot water release reduction to Lake Mead, bringing the delivery down to a total of 7.48 million acre feet. That represents a significant drop from the typical 8.3 million acre feet sent down the river to Lake Mead each year.
Agriculture is concerned
In addition to concerns voiced by water officials in Las Vegas and other major cities over the smaller release, representatives of agriculture are also expressing concerns. Kate Greenberg, Southwest Organizer for the National Young Farmers Coalition, released a statement last week warning that population growth and a shortage of water create a recipe for disaster for the future of farming.
"The future of farming in the Southwest is at a fork in the road. We can continue on the same old route of diverting more water from the Colorado River system and ‘buying and drying' farmland, or we can save agriculture for future generations by significantly improving water efficiency in cities and on farms," the statement reads.
According to BOR, about 78 percent of water exported from the Colorado River and its tributaries goes to agricultural use. Numbers indicate that includes about 15 percent of all crops produced in the United States.
Greenburg says with the sustainability of the Colorado River directly linked to the future of farming in the Southwest, the time has come for state and federal authorities to require better use and efficiency in the way water is shared.
"Water conservation, recycling and market-based water banks provide a cost efficient means to improve water security in our region. Hopefully this unprecedented announcement by the Bureau of Reclamation will prod our state and federal officials into action to improve water use efficiency in the Colorado River Basin," Greenburg said.
She warned that unless something is done quickly, the "prospects of young and future farmers will continue to dim as we’ll be caught in a crisis cycle of water shortage."
The BOR report says based on the best available data projections of Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoir elevations, 7.48 million acre-feet from Lake Powell is what will be released in FY 2014, which begins Oct. 1 this year and runs through Sept. 30, 2014. That number, if it doesn't change, represents the smallest release of water in a given year since the filling of Lake Powell in the 1960s.
Water officials say the announcement doesn't come as a surprise. The Southwest region has been suffering a 14-year drought. But BOR's Lower Colorado Regional Director Terry Fulp says things could improve if a heavy snowpack were to be realized next year.
"With a good winter snowpack next year, the outlook could change significantly as it did in 2011, but we also need to be prepared for continuing drought," he said.
To further complicate the problem, officials warn that if drought conditions continue in the region, 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 in six states. Also, less water coming into Lake Mead from Lake Powell may bring the level in Lake Mead below an intake pipe that delivers water to Las Vegas by spring of 2015. It could also result in a decline in power generation at Hoover Dam that would adversely affect the supply of power for consumers in Nevada, Arizona and California.
As a result of the smaller water release next fiscal year, Lake Mead water levels are expected to drop about eight feet. But BOR officials say Lake Mead will still be able to operate under normal conditions in 2014, and water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin and Mexico should receive their full water allotments as prescribed in the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico.