Las Vegas Sun

January 21, 2022

Currently: 55° — Complete forecast

Federal water shortage is declared for Lake Mead

Residents won’t see rate increases or usage restrictions as a result of the shortage

Lake Mead

John Locher / AP

People take pictures of Lake Mead near Hoover Dam at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, in Arizona. The bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water mark of the reservoir which has fallen to record lows.

Updated Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 | 3:44 p.m.

Nevada will begin 2022 under a federally-declared water shortage and will have to reduce its annual usage by 7% — or 21,000 acre-feet, which roughly equals 6.8 billion gallons.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation confirmed today what it has been forecasting for some time: Lake Mead’s depth by the end of this year will dip below 1,075 feet, the trigger for declaring a shortage for the Lower Colorado River Basin. The river provides water supply to 40 million people in the West.

“The announcement today is recognition that the hydrology that was planned for years ago, that we hoped we would never see, is here,” Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Camille Touton said.

The Bureau, which operates Hoover Dam, releases 24-month projections for the Colorado River Basin every August that establish the coming year’s releases from the Lake Mead reservoir. The lower basin includes Nevada, Arizona, California and Mexico.

Although this is the first official shortage, the region has been under sustained drought for more than 20 years and the persistently dry conditions gradually brought Lake Mead to historic lows. In June, it tied the record low 1,071 feet. Currently, it’s at 1,068 feet.

By Jan. 1, according to the Bureau’s latest predictions, Lake Mead could be a hair under 1,066 feet.

The shortage will lead to cuts in Arizona and Mexico. Arizona will cut about 18% of its annual Colorado River allotment next year, while Mexico will cut about 5%.

The bureau declares a shortage with the input of the seven states that rely on the Colorado via a negotiated joint drought contingency plan that the states signed in 2019.

The shortage runs for one year, renewable annually depending on conditions. It would be repealed when the depth of Lake Mead returns to 1,075 feet as of an official August reading.

The Las Vegas valley relies on Lake Mead for about 90% of its water. However, residents won’t see rate increases or usage restrictions as a result of the shortage. Aggressive conservation and water recycling efforts have kept water consumption well under Nevada’s river allocation and under the cap the state will face with upcoming cuts.

Nevada’s Colorado River allotment is about 300,000 acre feet per year. The new cap will drop down to 279,000 acre-foot, but the state used about 256,000 acre-feet of water in 2020.

In other words, Nevada has “pre-conserved,” and water deliveries in the Vegas region will not be reduced, said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water District.

“We have been preparing for more than two decades to respond to shortage and the inevitable impacts of a hotter and drier climate,” he said.

The shortage only applies to the Lower Basin. But Pat Tyrrell, who represents Wyoming on the upper Colorado river commission, said the states upstream of Glen Canyon Dam — Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado — are concerned with the state of its southwesterly neighbors.

“We Upper Basin states understand the risks and the vulnerabilities we face in the Colorado River due to the millennium drought we’re in and a potentially hotter and drier future,” he said. “We appreciate the Lower Basin will be dealing with shortages which threaten to get worse. Unsatisfied demands are situations with which the Upper Basin is very familiar, and it is unfortunate the entire basin is in this position.”

Entsminger said the water district has invested nearly $1.5 billion in infrastructure to maintain access to the area’s primary water supply in addition to its conservation protocols.

“We must adapt to the new reality of a warmer, drier future,” he said. “Every community, every sector, every industry that uses Colorado River water must do more to conserve and protect this critical water resource upon which 40 million Americans depend.”