Denver Water will join with Central Arizona Project, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Southern Nevada Water Authority and Reclamation to put forward some $11 million to fund new Colorado River water conservation projects.
The proposals being solicited are intended to demonstrate the viability of cooperative, voluntary efforts to reduce demand for Colorado River water, which seven states and Mexico share. The Southwest is the nation’s hottest and driest region, where population growth and warming pose continuing threats to water supplies.
Ongoing drought has squeezed the Colorado since 2000, shrinking water levels in major reservoirs. In July, reservoir levels in Lake Mead near Las Vegas dipped to the lowest level since iconic Hoover Dam began filling in the 1930s.
As of Oct. 22, Mead’s surface elevation was at 1,082 feet, seven feet above the 1,075 feet benchmark at which the U.S. secretary of interior could declare a shortage on the river. Mead has dropped more than 125 feet since 2000, when it was 91 percent full at 1,210 feet.
Could historic drought in the Southwest have ended the 700 year old civilization of the Ancient Pueboloans of Mesa Verde and Crow Canyon? Watch the new documentary, Living West: Water, Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. on Rocky Mountain PBS.
A declared shortage would be the first ever and could suspend or alter “the Law of the River,” the infinitely complex and arcane set of rules that govern the river’s use, starting with the Colorado River Compact of 1922, and changed by many agreements, lawsuits and rulings since, including acts of Congress and a Supreme Court decree.
The new agreement to solicit conservation proposals from agriculture, municipal and industrial holders of Colorado River water rights was announced by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Lake Mead and many other water resources in the West.
The proposals will first be solicited from the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. Requests from Colorado and the other upper basin states – Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico – will follow.
“We are pleased to see the momentum established in the lower basin,” said Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead. “We look forward to a similar process starting soon in the upper basin with our partners along the Colorado River … Together, we will identify and fund pilot programs that demonstrate the viability of cooperative, voluntary compensated means to reduce water demand.”
Annual flows that averaged 15 million acre-feet during the years prior to 2000 averaged about 12 million between 2000 and 2010, a decline of 20 percent, analyses have shown. With climate warming and population growth in the Southwest, many experts are pessimistic about reversing that trend.
All water conserved under this program will stay in the river system, according to the bureau, helping to boost the declining reservoir levels and protecting the health of the entire river system.