Las Vegas Sun

June 24, 2019

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Southwest states eye drought plans ahead of expected Lake Mead shortages

Lake Mead

Julie Jacobson / AP

This March 23, 2012, file photo shows pipes extending into Lake Mead well above the high water mark near Boulder City.

Colorado River water users will meet in Las Vegas this week as states lay out plans to combat expected shortages at Lake Mead amid a nearly 20-year drought.

The Bureau of Reclamation in August predicted a 57 percent chance of a shortage at Lake Mead by 2020, up from 52 percent earlier this year. The combined capacity of Lake Powell and Lake Mead was lower than it’s ever been in the 19 years of drought along the river, according to the bureau.

“We’re all in this together,” said Kim Mitchell, a senior water policy adviser in Arizona for nonprofit organization Western Resource Advocates. “All of these states are going to be looking at ways to more effectively manage water supplies.”

Mitchell said Arizona is one of the holdouts in finalizing its drought contingency plan, and the state will be a focus for experts at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference at Caesars Palace, which runs from today to Friday. The drought plans are intended to boost the water level in Lake Mead in order to prevent larger cutbacks in water deliveries as reservoirs diminish along the Colorado River.

Nevada is one of the states to sign its plan recently, according to AP, and will use less water than allocated along with Arizona and California to help keep lake levels healthy.

Who bears the brunt of the drought burden in the coming years has been one of the sticking points in Arizona, Mitchell said. The Arizona proposal under consideration currently, which needs legislative approval, is close to being finalized and represents a workable compromise, she said.

“The negotiations have been difficult,” Mitchell said. “What has been discussed is how water can be made available to minimize the impacts, and more importantly in an equitable manner among water users.”

The water users impacted by cuts to water deliveries are farmers in central Arizona, tribes and cities, Mitchell said. Negotiations have centered on how to provide water to those groups equitably, she said.

Arizona’s plan provides payment for those with Colorado River rights to leave water in Lake Mead rather than taking deliveries off the river, Mitchell said, a move intended to help stabilize water levels on Lake Mead. Some of those users include the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes, she said, and they are supportive of leaving a portion of their water in the river.

“This plan really ends up providing a net benefit to Lake Mead, and that’s very important just for sustainability,” Mitchell said.

Arizona and Nevada would experience cuts first if the lake drops too low, Mitchell said. Two years ago, she said, the goal of guidelines on the river were to prevent shortages. Now, she said, officials know that these shortages are coming and are working to mitigate the impacts.

Drought contingency plans will run through 2026 as part of water management guidelines and restrictions set up in 2007, Mitchell said. Basin states could start conversations as early as next year on a plan that will extend beyond 2026, she said, with the 2007 guidelines requiring talks starting in 2020 at least.

“Maintaining water levels in Lake Mead is of utmost importance to Colorado River Basin management,” Mitchell said. “… Without any kind of a drought contingency plan, those reservoir elevations could drop to critical levels quickly, so we’re trying to prevent that.”