The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has an unenviable job in a wet year, but in prolonged periods of drought, the task of managing the Colorado River is even harder. The agency is in charge of balancing the water levels in the country’s two largest reservoirs, the serpentine desert lakes called Powell and Mead. Seven Western states depend on water from the Colorado for everything from showering to growing lettuce, and keeping the reservoirs at the proper level makes sure everyone gets their legal share – that is, until drought complicates things.
Fourteen years of drought exacerbated by a dry spring and an even drier July prompted the Bureau of Reclamation to do something it’s never done before: release less water from Lake Powell. That means water levels at Lake Mead, 250 miles downstream of Powell, will continue to drop, threatening to render one of two intake pumps inoperable and leaving Las Vegas with only one source of water and no backup.
Unlike many major cities in the Southwest that supplement Colorado River water with groundwater, Las Vegas depends almost entirely on the river. And according to a 2007 Colorado River water agreement, Arizona and Nevada would be the first to feel the effects of an official shortage declaration – when Reclamation would deliver less water to users in those states than normal – while California would not be affected. Reclamation's Lower Colorado River Director Terry Fulp says a shortage could occur as soon as 2016.
So it’s easy to see why water managers in Southern Nevada are trying everything they can think of to get more water into Lake Mead, including going after a meager 10,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water from a wildlife refuge on Southern California’s Salton Sea. Just days after Reclamation announced its water cuts on the Colorado, the Southern Nevada Water Authority sent a letter to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge accusing its managers of illegally using Colorado River water to maintain wetlands and grow food for migrating birds.
The Salton Sea is a strange place. Created by accident in 1905 by a blowout in an irrigation canal, the 381-square-mile lake became an important migratory stop-over and nesting site for many species of birds, including the endangered Yuma clapper rail. In 1930, President Hoover recognized the ecological importance of the sea by declaring portions of it a national wildlife refuge. Now, due to water efficiency measures on farms in the Imperial Valley and rural-to-urban water transfers, the sea is drying up, risking the health of both birds and people, who could choke on toxic dust from the sea bed, as happened downwind of Owens Lake in the early 20th century.
As a wildlife refuge, the folks at Sonny Bono are concerned primarily with the birds, and in order to maintain their wetland habitat they have been buying 10,000 acre-feet of water from the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) for decades. “It’s not like we’re stealing water here,” says Michael Woodbridge, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Southwest Region. “We’ve been doing it a long time and through the proper channels.”
But Southern Nevada Water Authority disagrees, arguing that using Colorado River water to create habitat for birds is not technically irrigation, and therefore violates Imperial’s contract with the Bureau of Reclamation. (SNWA declined to comment on the letter, citing “legal implications associated with this issue.”)
Although this water sale has been happening for years, a July court case gives SNWA a new legal leg to stand on. In Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Indians v. Nevada Dept. of Wildlife, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that using water to construct waterfowl habitat is not “irrigation,” and that Nevada water law speaks of “irrigation solely in the context of agriculture and distinguish(es) such use from the application of water for recreational, aesthetic and wildlife purposes.”
Even before this new legal challenge, Patricia Mulroy, who heads up SNWA, has long held a grudge against the Sea, calling it “an accident” and “agricultural runoff; that’s all it is,” in The Las Vegas Review Journal. Mulroy also told the newspaper that “it’s ludicrous to imagine fresh water being sent to evaporate in a lake that’s already saltier than the Pacific Ocean while Lake Mead threatens to shrink low enough to shut down Las Vegas’ water intakes and the turbines at Hoover Dam.”
Mulroy’s also critical of previous efforts by the IID to replenish the sea, including a 2010 delivery of nearly 50,000 acre-feet of water that Reclamation is now forcing the district to pay back. The fact that Imperial has the right to much more Colorado River water than Nevada – 3.1 million acres, more than 10 times the Silver State’s annual allotment – could also have something to do with Mulroy's grudge. Still, SNWA maintains that neither drought or the recent court case influenced its decision to criticize water use at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea refuge.
For its part, IID maintains that sending irrigation water to the Salton Sea is legal. “It is folly to object to Colorado River water being used for environmental purposes at the Salton Sea. It is misguided. It is wrong as a matter of environmental policy and it is wrong as a matter of law,” IID General Manager Kevin Kelley told The Imperial Valley Press.
So what could SNWA’s accusation mean for the Salton Sea? If the refuge can no longer buy water from IID, it could accelerate the exposure of the sea bed and potentially hasten the creation of toxic dust clouds. More certain is that without Colorado River water, tens of thousands of migrating birds won’t have rye grass to eat in the winter, which could force them to chomp crops on neighboring fields, angering farmers. As Woodbridge says, “You can’t manage for wildlife in a place like the Salton Sea without water.”
Emily Guerin is a High Country News correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @guerinemily.