In Lower Colorado River Basin, Small Fixes Are Hoped to Avoid the Big Fix

The white ring "around the tub" shows how much elevation the surface of Lake Mead has lost with drought stress on the Colorado River.

Rose Davis / Bureau of Reclamation

The white ring “around the tub” shows how much elevation the surface of Lake Mead has lost with drought stress on the Colorado River.

With the surface level of Lake Mead presently at about 1,072 feet above sea level, the vast reservoir near Las Vegas is at its lowest since filling behind iconic Hoover Dam in the late 1930s. More to the point, it’s also three feet below the level at which the Department of the Interior could declare a shortage on the Colorado River, potentially altering the division of water supplies.

The river system, with its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, has been stressed by drought since 2000. The most recent national climate assessment for the Southwest forecasts that the country’s hottest and driest region can only expect more of the same.

“This may be what the start of a water war looks like,” suggested a recent story in the Los Angeles Time.

The story by ace writer William Yardley focuses on negotiations between the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada to voluntarily reduce withdrawals from Lake Mead in order to forestall the mandatory, more drastic cutbacks that most likely would come with a federal declaration.

Yardley calls the approach “tinkering.”

But Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and one of the senior water managers on the river, says, “I like to describe this as another incremental step.”

The question is, can incremental steps preserve the governance of the river pretty much as is, defined by the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and modified by numerous laws and court decisions since?

“I don’t think a water war is inevitable,” Buschatzke tells Yardley.

The upper basin states generally and Colorado particularly are not as in dire shape as the lower basin states. As we’ve said before, Colorado has almost been in a bubble the past couple of years – average to above average snowpack, strong runoffs, filled reservoirs. But if water runs short for 25 million people in the lower basin, many of whom are in Southern California, no one can expect to remain untouched.

Yardley seems to admire the Arizona approach.

“But for Buschatzke,” he writes, “who has spent decades efficiently providing water for a desert population – Arizona uses less water now than it did 60 years ago even though the population has soared from 1.1 million to 6.7 million – the big fix is actually in the accumulation of all the little fixes he and others are constantly making. A federal grant for new technology that will better measure water use. Paying a farmer to fallow a field. Saying nice things about your colleagues across the state line and the fine folks in Washington. Keeping things collegial. Sharing. Saving. Preserving the process – and the peace.”

Obviously better than a new water war.

Vegetation grows between boat slips at the now-defunct Echo Bay Marina in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Las Vegas.

Associated Press

Vegetation grows between boat slips at the now-defunct Echo Bay Marina in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Las Vegas.

 

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