Top official delivers bleak forecast for Lake Mead

WASHINGTON — Nevada faces “significant possibilities” of water shortages if drought on the Colorado River persists into the next two years, according to an ominous forecast delivered Wednesday by a top government official.

Michael Connor, deputy secretary of the Interior Department, said there is a 20 percent chance of shortages in Nevada and Arizona in 2016 if levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell continue to drop, “and it goes up to almost 50 percent after that.”

Connor briefed members of the House Interior subcommittee who met to review the department’s budget request for the coming year. Connor, the department’s No. 2 leader and its ranking expert on water, appeared alongside Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

The dire assessment comes as little surprise in Nevada, where residents have watched with dismay as a shrinking Lake Mead has left boat ramps high and dry and uncovered the remains of communities that once sat far below the surface. In July, Lake Mead sank to a record low not seen since the reservoir was first being filled in the late 1930s.

Nevada, Arizona and California have entered into a series of cooperative efforts to bank water and save the lake, which provides 90 percent of the water for Las Vegas.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority is overseeing the drilling of a new deep-water intake pipe — like a straw — to allow pumping to continue even as lake levels continue to recede.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell upstream are the nation’s two largest reservoirs by capacity, with the ability to store a combined 50 million acre-feet of water. One acre-foot is enough water to supply two average Las Vegas Valley homes for more than a year.

Both lakes were thriving 15 years ago, but drought since then in the mountains that feed the Colorado River has taken a toll. Today the reservoirs are about 45 percent of capacity, said Connor, a former director of the Bureau of Reclamation.

“When we hit elevation 1,075 (feet above sea level in Lake Mead), the states of Nevada and Arizona will start taking shortages,” he told lawmakers.

“Right now we will not have a shortage in 2015, but we are looking at significant possibilities starting in 2016 and 2017.”