As Lake Mead Hits New Record Low, One Lake Only Scenario Examined

The Western water world took note in recent days when Lake Mead, which stores Colorado River water for the states of Arizona, Nevada and California, fell to its lowest level on record.

The lake’s surface elevation was 1,074 feet above sea level on Wednesday, below the 1,075 mark at which the federal government could declare a shortage on the river, a determination that wouldn’t happen until the first of next year.

The river system has been stressed by 16 years of drought, exacerbated by climate warming.

In Colorado, meanwhile, the experience has been one of another winter of near or above normal snowpacks, decent spring moisture, a cooler than average May, with runoffs turning robust. It’s almost like living in a bubble, compared to the water crisis that exists in much of the West.

But as headwater state for the Colorado River, and as a signatory to the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the so-called law of the river, it isn’t likely that the state would remain untouched by any major federal intervention. A shortage declaration could, at least temporarily and perhaps much longer, alter the long-standing rules of the compact, as modified over time by acts of Congress, Supreme Court decisions and numerous other dealings.

One idea to relieve stress on the lower river basin is to decommission the upstream Glen
Canyon Dam, allowing the waters of Lake Powell to drain through the Grand Canyon and fill Lake Mead.

This isn’t a new proposition and has been a non-starter for the upper basin states, including Colorado, where Lake Powell is considered to be the bank through which the lower basin is paid water allotments due by compact. And not one drop more.

But a new article by Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica, also published by The New York Times, offers an insightful perspective on the issue of the Glen Canyon Dam. That it was published in a neat bit of timing to coincide with Lake Mead’s new record low makes it even more provocative  food for thought.

One basic premise is that hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water would be saved each year by eliminating evaporation and leakage from Lake Powell, in and of itself enough water to supply Los Angeles. This is not a point that is  universally conceded.

Interestingly, Lustgarten left the final word in the story to Jim Lochead, the chief executive of Denver Water, who pointed out that such a change would likely require an act of Congress, plus an agreement between seven state legislatures and a revised treaty with Mexico, and a multi-year federal environmental impact analysis.

In other words, good luck with that.

“There’s just a lot that’s built on this scheme of management and the existence of Glen Canyon Dam,” Lochhead said in Lustgarten’s story.

“A half a million acre feet sounds like a lot of water,” he said, referring to the amount that would be saved by combining the Powell and Mead reservoirs, “but I don’t think it’s significant enough, frankly, to justify going through all of that.”

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