Water pact could help Lake Mead

Federal officials are wrapping up negotiations with Mexico on a water deal that could provide a much-needed boost to Lake Mead.

In a speech on Friday in Las Vegas , Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he will travel to Mexico on Sunday to discuss the international water agreement and other issues. "We have high hopes. We'll know more within a very few short days," he said.

The details have not been finalized, but the concept is for Mexico to store some of its Colorado River allocation in Lake Mead for use in future years, temporarily lifting the water level in the drought-stricken reservoir.

Right now, Mexico can't take its full share of water from the river because of a 7.2 magnitude quake that struck Mexicali on April 4, damaging canals and reservoirs that supply the vast agricultural area just south of the California border.

Salazar said the expected agreement with Mexico would benefit the U.S. by keeping additional water in storage "so we can help address lake levels at Lake Mead."

The surface of the reservoir has dropped 130 vertical feet since drought took hold on the Colorado River in 1999. If the lake falls another 9 feet, it will trigger the first-ever shortage declaration on the river that supplies water and power to about 25 million people across the West.

Under shortage rules, Nevada and Arizona would be forced to reduce their combined use by 400,000 acre-feet a year. Nevada's share of those cuts would start at 13,000 acre-feet and increase incrementally as Lake Mead continues to drop. One acre-foot of water is enough to supply two average Las Vegas Valley homes for a year. Nevada gets 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water annually, one-fifth of Mexico's allocation.

Local water managers worry that Lake Mead will drop far enough to shut down one of the two intake pipes that supply the Las Vegas Valley with about 90 percent of its drinking water.

"Obviously it's a priority to keep Lake Mead levels as high as possible," said Scott Huntley, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. "Keeping those lake levels up is a top priority."

Salazar spoke about the negotiations with Mexico during the annual conference of the Colorado River Water Users Association, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of stakeholders that holds its annual convention at Caesars Palace.

The secretary of the interior often delivers the keynote address at the association's convention. In recent years, those speeches have focused on cooperation among the seven Western states that share the river, and Salazar did not stray from that theme.

He said the last 11 years have been the driest in 102 years on record for the Colorado River Basin, and tree-ring analysis suggests this might be the most serve dry spell in a thousand years. Only by working together can water users make it through this drought and the emerging challenges posed by what Salazar called "the reality of climate change."

"We must not re-create those water wars of the last century," he said. "I think everyone here will agree the road of cooperation is the preferable one to take."

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.