Finding Conservation Solutions that Work for America's Heartland
Finding solutions for a river threatened by drought and overuse of water
What does a water crisis look like? Along the parched shores of Lake Mead on the Colorado River, it appears as a giant bathtub ring, a sun-bleached stain marking the reservoir’s steady decline.
The ring is Mother Nature’s measuring stick. Over 16 years of extreme drought, Lake Mead’s water level has fallen a startling 135 feet. The nation’s largest reservoir is now filled to just 37% capacity - its lowest levels since the Great Depression, when the lake was first being formed following construction of the Hoover Dam.
Lake Mead is a stark symbol of the growing threat facing the entire Colorado River basin, laid low by the worst drought in the West in more than a century.
The reservoir’s surface elevation has flirted with 1,075 feet for the last several years – the level at which the Secretary of the Interior declares a water shortage for the states in the Colorado River’s lower basin.
Without collective action by the federal agencies, the States, and the water users, current projections show there is approximately a 50% chance shortages will take effect in January, 2018.
The river’s drought-related problems are being compounded by constrained and inflexible water management laws in a region so thirsty that, in most years, demand exceeds supply.
Under this complex system, more water is annually allocated to the seven Colorado River states and Mexico than the basin can provide, especially in dry years, creating a water deficit that threatens supply to roughly 36 million people and 6 million acres of land. It is only by depleting the basin’s vast storage supplies over the last 16 years that the basin has been able to meet demands.
This week in Las Vegas, just 25 miles from Lake Mead, the Colorado River Water Users Association is meeting to try and make tangible progress on ways to address the most urgent problems.
The Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan López will lead the federal delegation to the conference, which will also include officials from the Colorado River basin states, the Mexican government, Native American tribes and the private and non-governmental sectors.
The Walton Family Foundation supports reforms to policies that drive overuse of water, and is committed to solutions that restore healthy rivers and a healthy regional economy. The foundation supported the development of a recent survey by the University of Colorado’s Colorado River Project, which produced recommendations for immediate steps to ease the strain on the Colorado River and its tributaries.
While comprehensive change will take concerted effort, over years, here are five actions the survey identified as urgent priorities that should be addressed immediately:
1. Complete negotiations between the United States and Mexico to better manage river flows across the international border. This would extend and expand an agreement, due to expire in December 2017, that includes joint investments in conservation projects, short-term water exchanges and sharing of water shortages and surpluses.
2. Stabilize water levels on Lake Mead. The federal government should support efforts by states in the lower Colorado basin (Arizona, Nevada and California) to complete a drought contingency plan to lessen the impact of over-consumption through management of water demand. Should those state efforts fail, the federal government should find a workable alternative.
3. Agree on drought contingency plans for the Colorado River’s upper basin. The federal Bureau of Reclamation should finalize a memorandum of understanding with upper basin states (Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado) on interconnected drought operations for reservoirs of the Colorado River Storage Project.
4. Resolve tribal water claims. Several Native American tribes in the Colorado River basin have outstanding claims that, left unresolved, create uncertainty over how to manage water demand over the long term. It’s essential the federal government work to reach deals to settle those claims.
5. Improve federal coordination on Colorado River management. The Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture can advance water conservation efforts and address the impacts of drought through better collaboration, using their respective expertise to identify projects that address several problems at once.
Ted Kowalski is a senior environment program officer who leads the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River basin initiative.