Drought pinches Colorado River reservoirs

by Lin Alder and Matt Jenkins

PAGE, Ariz. - Frank Young stares blankly at 50 feet of salmon-colored sand separating the Antelope Point boat ramp from the waters of Lake Powell. It has been more than 10 months since any boaters have been able to launch from this anomalous desert marina in a dusty corner of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Without the boats, Young's days as launch watchman are long and lonely.

Lake Powell is now 51 feet below its full elevation of 3,700 feet - and dropping. The Antelope Point launch is stranded by the complexities of Colorado River water politics and more than two years of drought. Young has no choice but to watch the dust blow and to wait for the reservoir to rise.

That wait could be very long, says Henry Diaz, associate director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Atmospheric and Climate Dynamics branch in Tucson. Diaz says that the drought currently blanketing the Colorado River's watershed will worsen this year, and lakes Powell and Mead will continue dropping.

The drought has raised concern downstream, in Las Vegas and especially in California. In 2000, the landmark "4.4 Plan," brokered by former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, gave California access to 15 years of surplus Colorado River water. In the meantime, California would work to reduce its use of the river's water by 20 percent to get back to its legally allowed take of 4.4 million acre-feet per year (HCN, 5/21/01: Quenching the big thirst). But the numerous local water transfers and conservation agreements that will make the plan work aren't yet finalized, and an extreme drought could trigger an early cutoff of the surplus water.

If that happens, says Brad Luckey, head of Southern California's Imperial Irrigation District, "The resulting water crisis would make the energy crunch of 2001 look like child's play."

"It's not looking real keen"

Everything depends on the weather. NOAA's Diaz says that snowpack in the Upper Colorado River watershed * the key source for both reservoirs - is now 60 percent of normal. He is forecasting a very dry year across a large part of the West, particularly in upper Colorado River watersheds. Diaz says that he expects precipitation in the upper watershed to end the year anywhere between 15 and 30 percent below average.

The looming drought of 2002 might not be the end of the bad news. Julio Betancourt, a geoscientist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Tucson, says that the current drought could be part of a longer-term trend known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. His studies suggest that modern climate patterns in the watershed tend to occur in one or two decade-long cycles. The most noticeable recent cycle was a wet two-decade period from 1976 to 1996. Now, says Betancourt, "We may be in a dry cycle that is also two decades long."

But it's too early to panic, says Wayne Cook, the director of the Upper Colorado River Commission in Salt Lake City, Utah. Cook says that next year would also need to be dry before the 4.4 Plan's built-in safety mechanisms begin forcing Californians to ration their water use. "Could things get that black? Yes," Cook says. "Will it get that black? Probably not."

Downriver, Lake Mead's elevation is currently at 1,174 feet, 47 feet below its full pool elevation. According to Bob Walsh, a Bureau of Reclamation spokesman at Lake Mead, the reservoir is expected to drop another 14 feet by November.

"Sitting here at the beginning of March, it's not looking real keen," says Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (HCN, 4/9/01: The water empress of Vegas). For the first time ever, southern Nevada will fully consume the 300,000 acre-feet to which it's entitled under the Law of the River. But right now, says Mulroy, water quality - not quantity - is the critical issue. Turbidity levels in the lake are high, and drought conditions could cause another major algal bloom like one that occurred last year. Either condition makes it increasingly expensive to treat drinking water for Las Vegas.

The real hot spot, however, is Southern California. The outlook for the summer largely turns on the level of Lake Mead, which, along with Lake Powell, is being drawn down to provide California with water while the state turns the 4.4 Plan into reality. But if Lake Mead drops 29 more feet, says Cook, the first of the 4.4 Plan's safety triggers will kick in, requiring California to pump water from groundwater storage projects and to call in "dry year" contracts, which would free up agricultural water for municipal uses by paying farmers not to irrigate. If Lake Mead's level drops below 1,125 feet above sea level, all surplus deliveries to California will be cut off.

The agency that runs both giant dams remains confident in the short run. "We believe there will be enough water for any demands that come our way this year," says Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Colleen Dwyer.

In Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Water District's Bob Underwood also downplays the drought. "We'd be in a big world of hurt if we didn't have the reservoirs," says Underwood, "but it looks like we'll be OK for this year." Underwood says that there's sufficient water available from California's State Water Project, which grabs water from Northern California, and from groundwater storage projects, to supplement any lost Colorado River water.

Hitting the wall

But the specter of shortages has highlighted the urgency of the effort to get the 4.4 Plan rolling.

"We can't take a day off," says the Met's Underwood. "The schedule's that tight."

The plan requires that a major settlement agreement between the state's biggest water users - the Imperial Irrigation District, the Metropolitan Water District, the Coachella Water District and the San Diego Water District - be signed by Dec. 31, 2002. The agreement spells out exactly where most of the state's required water savings will come from: water conservation, agricultural to municipal transfers and new groundwater-storage projects.

But environmentalists fear that a major water transfer between the Imperial Irrigation District and San Diego would kill the Salton Sea, starving the migratory bird refuge of the agricultural runoff that has kept it alive (HCN, 6/19/00: Accidental refuge: Should we save the Salton Sea?). The draft environmental impact statement is now out for public review. It's clear that the transfer will have a huge impact on the sea, and Imperial Valley farmers, conservationists and water districts are battling to determine how water will really be conserved and who will ultimately pay for stopgap measures to keep the Salton Sea from drying up.

At the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting last December, the Department of Interior turned up the deadline pressure. Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bennett Raley warned that the agency will take a hard-nosed stance if California fails to get its 4.4 act together by the end of the year.

Some environmentalists say the deadline and threat of water cutoffs are being used by the water agencies as a scare tactic to speed the Imperial Valley transfer through without adequate environmental oversight or opportunities for public appeals. "It seems highly unlikely that (Interior) Secretary Gale Norton would ignore the political might of California and unilaterally reduce its water supply come January first," says David Hogan of the Center for Biological Diversity. An attempt to ram the transfer through might spawn legal challenges that could drag a final 4.4 agreement into at least 2003, says Hogan.

In the meantime, NOAA's Diaz says, the West could be getting a taste of the future.

"This could be a really amazing year in terms of drought," he says. "I'm sure it will be catching a lot of people's attention."

 

Lin Alder writes from Springdale, Utah. Matt Jenkins is assistant editor for High Country News.

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