Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Editor’s note: For August, Brian Greenspun has invited some members of the community to talk about the issues important to them. Today’s column is by Pat Mulroy, who served as general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority from 1993 until retiring in February 2014.
A week does not go by without some national or international news outlet heralding the impending demise of Southern Nevada as a result of the relentless drought that has plagued the Colorado River system for well over a decade. These stories are fueled in part by declarations made by some scientists that Lake Mead could “empty” by as early as 2025. The belief appears to be that the only location at risk as a result of this drought is Southern Nevada. There seems to be little, if any, understanding of the dominoes that begin to fall if crucial reservoir elevations are reached in Lake Mead. Although initially amused by the silliness of this storyline, I quickly became concerned that not only could the creation of this mythology hurt Southern Nevada’s economy, but lull citizens in downstream communities — both urban and agricultural — into believing that this situation does not affect them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Lake Mead, which when full hovers at 1,220 feet above sea level, has declined more than 100 feet to its lowest point since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s. When it approaches the elevation of our lowest intake — which sits at 1,000 feet — the situation will be critical. With the completion of the community’s newest intake and pumping structure, Southern Nevada will be able to draw water as low as 860 feet above sea level. What is not understood by many is that when Lake Mead hits 900 feet no amount of water can be released from Hoover Dam to users in Arizona, California and Mexico. So while almost 30 million inhabitants in the United States and some of the country’s most productive agricultural lands will be facing empty reservoirs, Southern Nevada will still be able to draw from whatever water is left in Lake Mead, although possibly at significantly reduced amounts.
Before we cast our eyes northward to find quick solutions from our partners in the Upper Colorado River Basin, we have to consider how depleted Lake Powell is. Lake Mead is fed by releasing water from Lake Powell based on an intricate formula negotiated by the Basin States. The two reservoirs are balanced, meaning they are about as equal in content as possible, especially during dry times. So if Lake Mead is dangerously low, so is Lake Powell. And if Lake Powell is that low, the four Upper Basin States — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — will have suffered through some of the worst drought years imaginable. Water right holders will have had their supplies cut off and urban areas will be scrambling to meet the needs of their citizens. Yes, should those conditions occur, everyone in all seven states and the country of Mexico will be suffering.
What we are experiencing is not a Las Vegas problem — it is truly a regional problem that encompasses an area responsible for 27 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. It is for these reasons that the efforts of the four major urban agencies in Southern California, central Arizona, Southern Nevada and Denver are so significant. In partnership with their agricultural neighbors, who have begun to understand the consequences they, too, face, the urban areas in the Lower Basin are conserving now to bolster Lake Mead. In the case of Denver and the northern partnership, they are protecting the essential power production of Glen Canyon Dam. Our motives may be different, but the positive results benefit every citizen of the Colorado River Basin.
Through the efforts currently underway, the worst can be avoided in the short term. However, since we do not know how long this drought will last, how dry it will become or how quickly the change will occur, the next logical question looms large: What does this river community do in the long term? That is when the conversation has to turn to augmenting available water supplies. These discussions will have to occur within each of the states, and for the region as a whole.
Pat Mulroy is a former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.