Las Vegas Sun

May 26, 2024


Climate change as reflected in Lake Mead

Every summer, Brian Greenspun turns over his Where I Stand column to guest writers for several weeks. Today’s guest is Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Patricia Mulroy.

For the past 13 years, the desert Southwest has withstood the ravages of a debilitating drought. As difficult as it has been, this crisis has brought out the best in problem-solving and cooperation among the seven states that share the Colorado River, their federal partners and Mexico. Agreements to share in the shortages and use existing facilities in ways that benefit everyone would have been inconceivable 20 years ago.

It also has brought out the best in the citizens of Southern Nevada, who have shown the world that a prosperous desert community can conserve one-third of its water use and bring its residential water footprint down to 75 gallons per person per day. Our community has also been willing to reach into its pocket and fund facilities that were never necessary when the river was healthy.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature is not willing to stop her assault on the Colorado River. The latest water numbers released by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are not good. In fact, they are downright awful. Unless there is a miraculous improvement in the Rocky Mountain runoff within the next 10 months or so, Lake Mead could dip below its all-time low next summer and reach shortage levels by the end of 2014.

This year is on pace to be the worst water year since 2002, a year in which the Colorado River received less than one-quarter of its historic runoff. There is one major difference between 2002 and today. Back then, our reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — were relatively full; today, both are at or below half full. That means the consequences of this very dry year will be far more severe. To put the impact into perspective, Lake Powell, which can hold almost 25 million acre feet, will have only 9 million acre-feet left in it. And since it is so low, the agreement between the states dictates that 750,000 acre feet less water will be delivered to Lake Mead in water year 2014. With the exception of one wet year in 2011, Lake Mead is already operating at a deficit. Only 8.23 million acre-feet have come into the lake each year, while 9.5 million acre-feet have left the lake by either use or evaporation. If we are to receive that much less water next year, Lake Mead will drop faster and farther than ever before.

For Southern Nevada, the most urgent issue is that we face the possibility of losing our original, upper intake in Lake Mead before the third intake is completed, especially if the coming winter is as dry as last winter. Our engineers are right now examining every facet of our existing facilities to determine what modifications can be made to ensure that, even if we should face this challenge, Southern Nevada’s water supply will remain secure.

At the same time, we and our partners on the river are looking at what needs to happen to protect the water supply for all of us — for more than 30 million people and some of the country’s most important agricultural areas. We are exploring what the next round of agreements can include.

One shorter-term answer that is of particular interest to Southern Nevada is increasing the amount of unused water in Lake Mead, especially until our third intake is completed. Lake Mead is 10 feet higher today because the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Central Arizona Water Conservancy District, Mexico and Southern Nevada have been putting acquired water into Lake Mead to slow its decline. Our goal is to do as much additional storage as possible in the near term in order to keep Lake Mead at an elevation that preserves the operation of our old intake until our new one is complete.

Extreme weather events, whether massive storms such as Hurricane Sandy, the increase in tornadoes in the Midwest or the devastating drought we are experiencing, are all harbingers of something changing climatically. I agree with the overwhelming scientific assessment that we are facing a very different global climate — one in which events such as these will be far more frequent.

All over the world, nations are beginning to set aside funds to help their communities make the necessary repairs and accommodations to survive these changes. One of the responsibilities of the federal government is to provide assistance to communities that are being devastated. We have done so in the case of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and we have provided relief for towns leveled by monster tornadoes. Droughts of the proportion we are facing are in the same category, especially if they affect a river region that combined represents more than 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. This may be a timely conversation to have with our federal partners.

I believe there will be ample snowfall again one day in the Rockies and the river system will recover, just as the clouds cleared over New York and New Jersey after the hurricane. The question for us is how long the dry spell will last and how often will we experience droughts of this severity. Southern Nevada and the communities of this Colorado River Basin will survive this. It will take creativity, cooperation and tenacity, all of which this river community has demonstrated in the past. We who lay awake at night worrying about this take solace in one thing: Failure is not an option.

Patricia Mulroy is the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

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