Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lower Basin States Work to Keep Lake Mead Afloat

May 30 2017

Lake Mead on the Colorado River has become an hourglass of shrinking water supplies. Can lower-basin states turn back the clock?

What a difference 135 feet makes Satellite images taken in 1984 and 2016 show a dramatic change in the perimeter of Lake Mead, the major Colorado River reservoir. Drag the slider near the center of the image to view the difference over time. Images by Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey

By Felicity Barringer

Hoover dam and the reservoir it created have had one public purpose since the 1930s, when they first tamed the Colorado River. And as the Depression's engineering marvels aged into the 21st century, Lake Mead and its dam were still seen largely as the workhorses needed to send water and hydroelectricity around the Southwest.

But in the last 15 years, things have changed. Climate change and the disconnect between the river’s water supply and the amounts promised has given Lake Mead a new identity. It remains the biggest storage tank in the Southwest's plumbing system, but now it is also an hourglass. Its falling level marks the time remaining before interstate and international agreements kick in to dictate who loses water. As of this writing, the lake level stands at 1,082 feet. As the bathtub ring on the canyon walls gets larger, the time will get shorter.

Everyone wants to keep lake levels above 1,075 feet as long as possible to delay that moment. The deeper worry is that the level will sink to 1,025 feet, at which point the federal Bureau of Reclamation would step and make decisions without any standing agreements, and a tangle of litigation would likely begin. So they are debating over how much water to store, how and by whom. Meanwhile, Mexican negotiators seem ready to agree to the plans, if the Americans can reach agreement among themselves.

Into the Danger Zone

Lake Mead Monthly Levels, 1998-Present


Measurements are height of surface above sea level.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Lake Mead in Perennial Deficit

The bottom line for both the lower basin negotiations and those with Mexico is the same: sharing the shortage caused by what the parties like to call a “structural deficit” – Lake Mead gets 8.23 million acre-feet from upstream releases each year, and is obliged to provide 9.1 million acre-feet to its users.

International relations are framed predominantly by 1944 treaty guaranteeing Mexico 1.5 million acre-feet of water a year. But the 73 years since that treaty have been marked by amendments – known as “minutes” – fine-tuning the agreement in terms of new developments. In the United States, current negotiations among California, Nevada and Arizona aim to produce a Drought Contingency Plan, with all users agreeing to help keep water in Lake Mead, given the risk of having its level drop below 1,075 feet or, worse, below 1,025 feet feet, when the federal Bureau of Reclamation would take over management and water allocation.

As William Hasencamp, the manager of Colorado River Resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (known as Met and one of five California subcontractors with rights to Colorado River water) describes it, the contingency plan “was not to solve problems on Colorado River – it was to buy time … There was a concern [whether existing measures] were enough to stop Lake Mead from reaching critically low levels. So they said, ‘let’s have an overlay to get us through the crisis.’” Or avoid it entirely.

An ‘Overlay’ of Additional Water Reductions

Lower Basin States Weigh Further Cuts to Preserve Lake Mead

While the prolonged western drought is largely over, Lake Mead's ongoing “structural deficit” means that its water level may continue to decline in the future. Should the reservoir's level drop to the levels shown below, the three lower-basin states may agree to additional reductions in their share of Colorado River water, beyond what they agreed to in 2007.


Source: Central Arizona Project

But one stumbling block after another has emerged.

In California, two users – Met and the Imperial Irrigation District (the biggest single user of Colorado water, with a claim to 3.1 million acre-feet annually) – wanted water-related demands met.

Since Met has just two pipes of incoming supply – the Colorado and northern California water coming through the Bay Delta – it wanted federal assurances that it could get one supply before it agreed to possibly curtail another. It got them, Hasencamp said earlier this month. “We still have to figure out within California about our issues. But that box with Feds has been checked.”

The Imperial Irrigation District has a different worry. The children of Imperial County in southeastern California have some of the country’s worst asthma rates. Toxic dust that blows into their lungs from the dry lakebed of the fast-receding Salton Sea. This lake, accidentally created 112 years ago when a raging river broke through dikes and poured into an inland basin, is drying out, leaving dead fish and dangerous silt behind.


Natural Earth Data

Kevin Kelley, the district’s general manager, said, “we had a precondition to even signing on in that we needed some sort of coherent plan for the Salton Sea.” In March, California unveiled a new $383 million plan to build ponds and wetlands, but the funding source remains unclear. Asked if his condition for agreeing to Colorado River drought planning had been met, Kelley said, “This constitutes real progress, but we are not yet ready to declare victory.”

Met and IID had demands. But they, along with other users, felt overwhelming pressure to conserve water. A preliminary 2014 Memorandum of Understanding among the lower basin states “was an important first step to demonstrate that we in the lower basin can work cooperatively on a voluntary basis,” said Chuck Collum, the Colorado River Programs Manager of the Central Arizona Project. With a chuckle he added his own neologisms: the conservation was “vandatory” and “voluntold.”

From 2014 to 2016, under the system of intentionally created surpluses, four big users have set aside increasingly large totals, including 143,000 acre-feet in 2016, when the level of the reservoir flirted with the the 1,075-foot level. At its current level, 80,000 acre-feet equals roughly one foot of elevation in Lake Mead.


Lake Mead at the interior side of Hoover Dam. Photo taken in November 2008, when the lake stood at about 1,108 feet. Marcus Winter via Wikimedia Commons

As Hasencamp observed, there is an evolving attitudinal change: the early 20th-century adherence to the doctrine of prior rights is now joined by a recognition that all Colorado River jurisdictions need to work together. He said this represents “progress toward seeing the larger picture.”

But in Arizona at the moment, cooperation has grown threadbare, perhaps because of the new respite from the drought. Whether thanks to a wetter winter to or more conservation, Lake Mead’s level is eight feet higher than a year ago.

Now there is jockeying for dominance over Arizona water policy. In two recent lawsuits, CAP claimed that it is equivalent to a governmental entity, and as such has sovereign immunity from suit. The claim, later modified, provoked a legal rebuttal and a sharp response from Tom Buschatzke, the Arizona Department of Water Resources director. “The governor and the executive branch feel it’s their prerogative to drive the water policy of the state,” he said. CAP “is impinging on that prerogative.”

He also opposed the suggestion of a board member of CAP’s companion agency that too much conservation could cause problems with deliveries to Lake Mead. Not so, Buschatzke said in his own op-ed.

The rest of the lower basin is watching. Kelley of the Imperial Irritation District said, “I hope they work it out because they are relying on California to help them. What happens between them is important to the entire river community.”

Though hiccups slow the progress toward the stopgap plan, Collum expects the agreement with Mexico on the new amendment will be concluded by the time the old amendment, Minute 319, ends on Dec. 31. He predicted a drought contingency plan will follow next year.

Then the struggle over the Colorado River’s long-term future will begin.

 

Read Next in ...& the West

In Other Words, Water

The language of the West evolved a distinctive vocabulary around an element that is essential, often missing, and feared when too much of it comes too fast.

 

 

 

Submit a Comment

We'd like to know what you think. We will not share your email address or add you to any lists. If you'd like to be notified about new blog posts and news from the Center, you can join our mailing list.

You will receive emails no more than once a week. We will not share your information.

 

...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Francisco L. Nodarse, Devon Burger, and Madison Pobis

Articles Worth Reading: August 3, 2020

In Reversal, Army Corps Determines Alaska’s Pebble Mine Poses No Serious Threat to the region’s valuable sockeye salmon population. The Corps’ ruling overturned a 2014 finding by the Obama Administration. The proposed mile-square mine, 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, is poised to unearth one of the richest deposits of copper, gold and other valuable metals in the world. It pits two of the state’s most important industries, mining and fishing, against each other. Washington Post The New York Times

Land Subsidence Means Chunks of California’s Coast Are Vanishing, a new ASU study reveals. The sinking hotspots are found in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco where the population of millions will be at greater flood risk. “We have ushered in a new era of coastal mapping at greater than 1,000 fold higher detail and resolution than ever before,” said Manoochehr Shirzaei, a co-author of the study. “The unprecedented detail and sub-millimeter accuracy resolved in our vertical land motion dataset can transform the understanding of natural and anthropogenic changes….” Earth.com

Pairing Landowners and Land Management Agencies and Nonprofits has allowed Montana’s Blackfoot Challenge to develop a more resilient landscape and rural community. Its programs include prescribed burns, predator deterrence, and drought-sharing agreements. Bitterroot

California Farmworkers Are Paying High Price as COVID-19 Surges, worrying that as the pandemic surges in agricultural hubs, it could catch and kill them. Or it could kill their jobs. Protections for farmworkers, like masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing, need to be made mandatory, advocates said, and longstanding conditions that farmworkers have endured, such as crowded buses to and from work, or overcrowded housing, need to be addressed. InsideClimate News

Decline in Western Bumblebee Populations Gets More Dramatic, a federal review reveals. In the last two decades, the bee population has dropped by as much as 93% in the last two decades. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now deciding whether the insects need protection under the Endangered Species Act. The bees are important pollinators and many factors contribute to their decline: pesticides, habitat fragmentation, a warming climate, pathogens and agricultural chemicals. E&E News

The Fight for Clean Water in California’s Central Valley Is a Slog, as clean water is unavailable for hundreds of thousands of Californians in the state’s agricultural heartland. Tooleville, an unincorporated community of 80 homes at the southern end of the Central Valley, is trying to consolidate with a larger and better-resourced neighboring community.. “It’s very, very, very hard,” Yolanda Cuevas said of worries about her children and grandchildren’s exposure to contaminated water. Yale Environment 360

Murder Hornets: What do We Need to Worry About? The arrival of the Asian Giant Hornet in the western U.S. has researchers anxiously looking for ways to control the insect with the terrifying sting, which can pierce the protective clothing of even professional beekeepers. How many are there and where could they spread? A podcast on those questions by the WGA. Western Governors Association NPR

Santa Fe’s Indian Market Goes Virtual This Month, as more than 400 artists must find a new way to sell their work. On Saturday, Aug.1, the first Virtual Santa Fe Indian Market opened for business for the rest of the month. Lovers of Native art can shop for jewelry, dolls, textiles, pottery, clothing, baskets and much more at the SWAIA website, though August 31. Native News Online

Articles Worth Reading: July 21, 2020

Government Throws Curveball at Klamath Dam Removal Efforts. The long-range plan to take down four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, which flows between Oregon and California, seemed to be headed for conclusion. Then federal regulators refused to let the dams’ owner, PacifiCorp, sever its connections to the project, which it now owns. But energy regulators ruled that while the company can transfer its license, it must remain a co-licensee, potentially leaving it with unexpected liabilities beyond those it has already assumed. The decision throws the idea of recovering Klamath salmon populations further in doubt. Associated Press

Dramatic Increase Coming in California Weather Extremes as climate warming intensifies the cyclical oscillation of air systems, a phenomenon that influences everything from cyclones in the Indian Ocean to drought in the southwest. This finding from a University of California, Davis researcher suggests that the West will experience greater month-to-month fluctuations in extremely dry and wet weather. UC Davis

A Rabbit Plague Is Hitting the Southwest, bringing a mortality rate of up to 70 percent to populations of jackrabbits, hares and related species, including the rare pika. Rabbit hemorrhagic disease causes fevers, bloody noses and lethargy in rabbits, hares and other similar species, who often die of internal bleeding or liver failure. It came from China and Europe and infected domestic rabbits two years ago, but is now spreading in the wild. “The virus is in a pretty vast area, and we don’t have any tools to use to mitigate the spread or stop it once it’s out in free-ranging populations,” said a U.S. Geological Survey expert. The Guardian

Effort to Block the California-Quebec Climate Deal Fails, as a federal court finds the pact on greenhouse-gas emissions doesn’t usurp federal foreign-policy prerogatives. The cap-and-trade program at the heart of California’s fight against climate change could have been weakened if the Trump administration challenge had been upheld. Bloomberg

In Utah, a Debate Simmers Over Estonian Radioactive Waste, which could be reprocessed at a mill next door to the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, the only operational uranium mill in the United States. State officials must approve an importation license. Tribal officials fear this waste transfer could become the first of many to the White Mesa Mill in San Juan County, in southeastern Utah. The tribe says the mill was designed for a different function and is 20 years past its original planned lifespan. Reuters

Yellowstone’s Grizzly Bears Won’t Lose Federal Protections, thanks to ruling in a Montana state court that has been upheld by federal appeals judges. A 2017 federal decision stripping the bears of threatened status under the endangered species act could have paved the way for state-planned hunts Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Birds, Like Buildings, Can Have Confederate Names. One is the McCown’s longspur, a sparrow-like bird that summers in the Great Plains and winters in the southwest. John Porter McCown, its namesake, helped forcibly relocate Native Americans in the 1840s and served as a Confederate general during the Civil War. “Naming and language have power. The way that you use language tells people whether they belong or not,” said Earyn McGee, a University of Arizona doctoral candidate and organizer an online campaign to increase visibility of Black birders. The American Ornithological Society had balked at a name change; it is now rethinking that decision. Undark

Why Is the West Running Out of Water? A crisp and succinct video history of the series of poor decisions that have left the region looking at a parched future. Some 40 million people now depend on the Colorado River, which will be increasingly unable to provide water to those that need it. Cheddar

Articles Worth Reading: July 7, 2020

Four Years After the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Sued to Block the Dakota Access Pipeline, and about four months after a federal district judge said the environmental assessment used to grant a permit was insufficient, the $3.8 billion pipeline is ordered to shut until a new environmental impact statement is finished. The pipeline had carried up to 570,000 barrels of Bakken Shale oil out of North Dakota daily before the pandemic. The U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg, who revoked the Army Corps of Engineers’ permit allowing the pipeline to operate, is known for writing opinions featuring good humor and cultural savvy. Bismarck Tribune E&E Daily

Energy Department Approves First West Coast Liquefied Natural Gas Terminal at Coos Bay, Oregon. The Jordan Cove terminal, strongly supported by natural gas companies in Colorado and Utah that seek easy access to Asian markets, was first boosted in March when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission authorized operations. DoE approval means the project can export as much as 1.06 billion cubic feet of LNG daily. A lawsuit seeking reversal of the FERC approval is pending. E&E DAILY

Images of Walls of Dust Headed for Phoenix Have Become a Summer Staple for a reason: researchers determined that these haboobs doubled in number between the 1990s and 2000s. Less often pictured are the likely impact: hospitals report a 4.8 percent increase in intensive care admissions on dust-storm days; the increased in respiratory admissions tops nine percent the next day. Bloomberg

Rio Grande Flow Levels Sink to Historic Lows in Albuquerque as rainless days force the release of water held in reserve. That supply may run out by mid-July, forcing difficult decisions over how existing groundwater supplies will be apportioned. John Fleck/Inkstain

PG&E Exits Bankruptcy With a New Board and a Lot of Work to Do as Wildfire Danger Proliferates PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, facing liabilities from multiple catastrophic wildfires that killed more than 100 people in northern California after they were sparked by its power lines. The company’s $25.5 billion payout to victims, insurance companies, and local governments. Leaving bankruptcy now means PG&E can take part in a $21 billion wildfire insurance fund. Utility Dive

The Border Wall Will Not Cross the Cocopah Reservation in the Colorado River Delta. The original plan had included this seven-mile stretch east of the Colorado, but the money to pay for it was cancelled by Trump Administration lawyers in May after the Sierra Club and other groups sued to block that section of the wall. ASU/Cronkite News

The White-Throated Sparrows’ New Song Tops the Charts From British Columbia to Manitoba, avian scientists find. It’s taken about two decades for the new song, ending in a doublet of repeated tones, to be picked up other sparrows further East. Now the conversion from the old song -- ending in a triplet -- has become evident across most of Canada, starting in the far West. The scientist who discovered the change reports “White-throated sparrows have this classic song that's supposed to sound like it goes, ‘Oh, my sweet Canada, Canada, Canada….And our birds sound like they're going, ‘Oh, my sweet Cana– Cana– Cana– Canada.’” National Geographic

Articles Worth Reading: June 24, 2020

Legislators United Around Sweeping Plans to Help Public Lands as Democrats and Republicans in large numbers voted to approve the measure. It does everything from shoring up the major federal conservation fund to putting billions aside to maintain and improve national parks, which have long been neglected. Two western Republican senators, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana, were seen as major political beneficiaries of the legislation. San Jose Mercury News   CNN

Black Americans Account For Just Two Percent of National Park Visitors, and a Black writer who is immersed in America’s wild places believes “the great outdoor in the U.S. has never truly been a welcoming place for people of color.” Until the end of World War II, Jim Crow laws were in place in most parks; Black tourists once depended on The Negro Motorist Green Book for information on facilities near parks that served Black clientele. Now a digital version of the Green Book is being written, and hope is rising that people who felt excluded from the outdoors will now embrace it. National Geographic

Wave of Real Estate Sales in the Mountain West As City Dwellers seem to be fleeing the crowding in the midst of the pandemic. A surge of out-of-staters are buying homes in Montana, Wyoming and other parts of the Mountain West, according to real estate agents. Boise State Public Radio

Should We Use a New Word for What the Decline in Colorado River Flows Means? Scientists have decided the word drought doesn’t cut it anymore. Researchers covering the climate in the river basin argue that a drought is temporary, and a word like “aridification” would describe something permanent. The Revelator

By 2016 Coal Production in Wyoming Was Half Its 2008 Levels. The Pandemic Changed That Trend– For the Worse. Rather than moving away from coal as an economic base on a glidepath to a new economy over a deacde, coal communities could see their economies disappear much faster. “Basically the [Wyoming revenue] trend that’s happened here is a vertical-downward; there’s no slope, it’s just straight down,” said University of Wyoming energy economist Robert Godby. Wyofile

Texas Deciding Whether to Ban Flaring Natural Gas or simply to regulate it. The State’s Railroad Commission has authority over the oil and gas industry, and can use existing state laws to control flaring – the laws prohibit a “waste of natural resources.” But the agency issued 7,000 exceptions last year, up 27percent from the year before. Two new studies support a ban on routine flaring. E&E News

Want to Know Where Fish-ish Meals on Your Plate Will Be Coming From in coming decades? Check out this lab at the University of California Berkeley, which specializes in alt-meat. Hakai

Articles Worth Reading: June 8, 2020

Record-Setting Floods Have Re-ignited the Debate Over Damming Washington’s Chehalis River. Most proposals recommend the creation of a seasonal reservoir to moderate water flows, but they face criticism from environmental groups who argue that obstructing the waterway would hinder salmon breeding. Crosscut

New Revelations in the Enduring Mystery of Mount St. Helens’ Geology could help scientists better predict future eruptions. The volcano, known for its devastating 1980 eruption, has long puzzled vulcanologists due to its unique location away from large magma deposits. National Geographic

Has Legislative Inaction Left Oregon Vulnerable to the Coming Wildfire Season? Experts suggest drought conditions will exacerbate the fire risk, but efforts to address budget difficulties — the state faces over $80 million of outstanding fire-related debt — fell through after Republican lawmakers walked out of a session that pinned the worsening fire situation on climate change. The Oregonian

Federal Judges Across the West Set Back Trump’s Energy Agenda, delivering a series of rulings that cancelled oil and gas leases and required more thorough environmental analyses for such projects. Though energy industry allies have denounced the decisions as judicial activism, environmentalists suggest that the rulings will do little to deter the expansion of drilling projects in the region. Associated Press

More Than 100 Alaskan Communities Lost Access to Essential Deliveries when Rvan Air, the state’s largest regional airline, filed for bankruptcy last month. The announcement, delivered mere hours before service ended, left tribal coordinators scrambling to arrange alternate ways to supply their communities. Indian Country News

‘Glacier Mice’ Have Puzzled Geologists for Decades by Their Herd-like Movements. NPR’s Short Wave team spoke to experts to learn more about a strange phenomenon – the small balls of moss that dot glacial landscapes. NPR

Articles Worth Reading: May 26, 2020

Glacial Retreat in Alaska’s Prince William Sound Could Cause a Megatsunami, climate scientists warned last week. The glacier, subject to extensive calving thanks to climate change, could dislodge a massive slope of rock and dirt, spawning a wave hundreds of feet high that would destroy much of the heavily-touristed bay. Researchers have urged local authorities to set up monitoring to address the growing threat. The New York Times

Bureaucratic Mismanagement is Undermining Wildfire Preparedness in the face of the coronavirus epidemic. Wildland firefighting crews have received little guidance from their parent organizations, and are struggling to respond to the changing public health situation, raising alarm among firefighters and politicians alike. Grist

Questions About The BLM’s Billion-Dollar Plan to Curb Wild Horse Populations and protect rangeland. It is designed to promote sustainable grazing and envisions the capture of hundreds of thousands of horses over two decades. Some groups remain skeptical, however, arguing that the plan aims to assist cattle ranchers without establishing clear protections for wild horse populations. The Salt Lake Tribune

The Grand Canyon’s Inter-Tribal Working Group Renovated the Park’s Interpretive Sites as part of a broader effort to include indigenous histories in park curricula. Renovations at the Hopi Tower, aimed at preserving Hopi culture, could usher in a more harmonious working relationship between the Park Service and local groups. National Parks Conservation Association

A Lawsuit Brought Against the Federal Government by the Yurok Tribe Was Blocked when a federal court, which affirmed the government's decision to limit water flows on the Klamath River. Attorneys representing the Yurok had argued that diminished water flows would threaten Coho Salmon habitat near the river’s mouth. The ruling, a blow to Yurok efforts to preserve traditional salmon fishing, comes in the wake of mass fish die-offs due to bacterial infections. E&E News

The Hmong Flower Farmers of Seattle Adapt to Coronavirus Closures A long-time staple of the iconic Pike Place Market have drawn strength from their refugee experiences. The Seattle Times

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

Recent Center News

Aug 12 2020 | Out West student blog
Claudia Kania believes transparency to be the currency of leadership.
Aug 10 2020 | Out West student blog
Virtual programming has made it possible for the Natural History Institute to share its work and events with a far greater, international audience.
Aug 7 2020 | Out West student blog
Zack Boyd is laying groundwork for future projects at the Henry's Fork Foundation.