The verdict is in for the Las Vegas Valley’s main water source, and it is as grim as expected.
Lake Mead will receive its smallest water delivery ever in the coming year, thanks to a sudden dip in Lake Powell fueled by the second- driest year since drought hit the Colorado River in 2000.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation made it official Friday with the release of its August forecast that sets the annual water delivery from Lake Powell and predicts reservoir levels along the river through July 2015.
The document calls for Lake Powell to release 7.48 million acre-feet of water in the coming year, 750,000 acre-feet less than in any year since the reservoir on the Arizona-Utah border was created.
The move will speed the decline of Lake Mead, which is expected to drop almost 25 feet to a record low by November 2014.
By April 2015, the surface of Lake Mead could sink to 1,075 feet above sea level, triggering the first federal shortage declaration on the river and prompting water supply cuts for Nevada and Arizona.
Should the lake keep dropping from there, it eventually will shut down one of the two intakes the Southern Nevada Water Authority uses to draw about 90 percent of the Las Vegas Valley’s water supply.
According to the federal projections released Friday, that could happen sometime in late summer 2015.
WHERE’S THE URGENCY?
Water authority General Manager Pat Mulroy recently made headlines when she said the drought on the Colorado was a natural disaster no different than Hurricane Sandy — and every bit as deserving of federal aid.
She was more tempered Friday, calling the bureau’s decision to slash the annual water release from Lake Powell unwelcome but “not unexpected.”
“Conditions on the Colorado River continue to deteriorate,” she said. “Weathering this storm will require an exceptional level of cooperation among all of us who rely upon the Colorado River, whether for municipal water supplies or agricultural irrigation.”
Conservation groups are expressing alarm. One group called what is happening to the river “The Great Depletion.”
“This is like the ‘check engine’ light coming on in your car,” said Bart Miller of the Boulder, Colo.-based Western Resource Advocates. “It’s a message from the Colorado River telling us that something is wrong, and we need to fix it soon.”
Said Gary Wockner from the advocacy group Save the Colorado: “Climate change is real — the future is here, and it’s dam ugly.”
Back in Southern Nevada, critics of the water authority argue the agency isn’t behaving as though there is a crisis. No major new water restrictions have been adopted or even proposed since 2009, and no real effort has been made to curb indoor water use or set limits on future residential and commercial development.
If this is such an emergency, why aren’t Mulroy and company screaming for the community to cut its water use as much as possible?
For one thing, said authority spokesman J.C. Davis, this is not a problem that can be solved by people in Southern Nevada using less water.
Nevada gets 300,000 acre-feet, or about 2 percent, of the 16.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water that is parceled out each year among seven western states and Mexico. If the Las Vegas Valley went one year without using any water from Lake Mead, the impact on the reservoir would be a rise of about 3 feet.
One acre-foot of water is enough to serve two average valley homes for a year. The 750,000 acre-feet to be held back in Lake Powell represents a three-year supply of water for Southern Nevada.
Davis said valley residents already have done a great deal to conserve water. Spurred by drought restrictions adopted in 2003 and mostly made permanent in 2009, the community has reduced its annual water consumption by 28 billion gallons even while adding 400,000 more residents.
“The short answer is that we do not have any new (drought) measures planned for Southern Nevada,” he said. “We have asked a lot of residents (already). There has been no erosion of either our commitment to water efficiency or the community’s response.”
As for the prospect of limiting new development, authority officials have argued their job is to keep water coming out of local taps, not decide how many taps there should be.
“As much as people want SNWA to be the spoke that gets jammed into the wheel to stop growth, we are essentially a utility,” Davis said. “It would be like asking NV Energy to stop growth by not connecting any new customers to the grid.”
SCRAMBLING FOR A FIX
The annual release of water from Lake Powell is governed by a complicated framework implemented by the federal government in late 2007.
The rules were designed to coordinate the rise and fall of the nation’s two largest man-made reservoirs and protect minimum water levels through the year 2026.
At the moment, the lakes are in similarly bad shape.
Each is less than half full, and their combined storage is rapidly approaching the lowest level ever.
Mulroy said Mead and Powell are like a bank account, and Colorado River water users have been living off their savings since the drought began.
But the river’s troubles are as much man-made as anything else. Even in an average year, the Colorado does not carry enough water to fill the full allocations of the seven states and Mexico.
Mulroy is scrambling to find some immediate ways to slow the decline in Lake Mead, including paying farmers downstream to temporarily cut back on irrigating with Colorado River water.
She met with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada early this week in search of federal money for the cause.
Conditions are so bad on the river that forecasters predict Lake Mead will see its delivery from Powell cut to 7.48 million acre-feet again next August, even with a normal amount of rain and snow this winter in the Rockies and other ranges that feed the Colorado.
The shrinking reservoir also will cause problems for private marina operators and National Park Service personnel, who will have to scramble to extend boat ramps and reposition floating docks so visitors can keep using the lake as the shoreline recedes.
A COSTLY CRISIS
Local water customers are feeling a financial pinch from a shrinking Lake Mead, and more pain is on the way.
Last year, residents and businesses were hit with a new infrastructure charge the authority and its member utilities adopted to help pay down $2.5 billion in construction debt and finish a new intake now being built to draw water from deeper in Lake Mead.
That $817 million project — already almost two years behind schedule and millions of dollars over its original cost estimate — might not be finished until the end of 2014, just months before the authority could lose one of its existing intakes.
The current infrastructure charge, which hit commercial customers the hardest, is scheduled to last through 2015, when debt payments are set to jump again and another rate hike will be needed.
For the past several months, a panel of community representatives has met to discuss how the next rate increase should be structured and when it should take effect.
The panel plans to deliver its recommendations to the water authority board next month.
And this isn’t even the biggest financial hurdle facing the authority and its ratepayers.
The agency still hasn’t figured out how to pay for what figures to be one of the most expensive public works projects in Nevada history: a network of wells, pipelines and pumps stretching several hundred miles to bring groundwater to Las Vegas from across rural Clark, Lincoln and White Pine counties.
By the authority’s own estimates, the in-state water project could wind up costing as much as $15 billion, including financing costs.
Authority board members have yet to cast a final vote authorizing the design and construction of the controversial pipeline, but a decision could come by the end of next year.
Under rules adopted by the authority in 2009, the vote will be taken as soon as Lake Mead drops to the 1,075-foot level.
It seems the only thing that can stop that now is a Rocky Mountain winter choked with heavy snow.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350.