Is the Colorado River tapped out?

A NASA satellite image of the Colorado River and Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona.

Federal water agency says it will cut deliveries from Lake Powell next year

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO ā€” Colorado River water supplies are already stretched dangerously thin, and the faucet is about to get turned down, as federal water managers said they will probably have to curtail downstream deliveries from Lake Powell in 2014.

July inflow into Lake Powell was just 13 percent of average, following a spring runoff season during whic the river delivered only about a third of the average amount of water.

The cutback comes as no surprise, and won’t have an immediate impact on water users in California, Arizona and Nevada. In 2007, states that depend on the river agreed to a set of guidelines for reduced flows to the Lower Basin states when Lake Powell dips to a certain level. The giant reservoir holds about 24.3 million acre feet but is currently only about half full, nearing a level that triggers the agreed-upon cuts.

“This is the worst 14-year drought period in the last hundred years,” BuRec’s Upper Colorado regional director Larry Walkoviak said in a statement. “Reclamation’s collaboration with the seven Colorado River Basin states on the 2007 Interim Guidelines is proving to be invaluable in coordinating the operations of the reservoirs and helping protect future availability of Colorado River water supplies,” Walkoviak added.

Lake Mead is expected to drop by eight feet during 2014, but will continue to provide normal deliveries water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin and Mexico, according to BuRec.

Based on historic precipitation and river flow trends, BuRec officials said water users probably won’t feel the pain directly until 2015 and especially 2016 ā€” unless the next couple couple of winters are exceptionally wet.

“With a good winter snowpack next year, the outlook could change significantly as it did in 2011, but we also need to be prepared for continuing drought,” BuRec’s Lower Colorado Regional Director Terry Fulp said in a statement.

But if dry conditions persist, power production could be affected at Glen Canyon Dam by late 2015, affecting power supplies and prices in six states.

Water levels in Lake Mead are dropping close to a point at which supplies to Las Vegas could be affected, and power production at the Hoover Dam could also be affected in the next couple of years.

Environmentalists are concerned that the reduced flows from Lake Powell will harm fish and other wildlife in the Grand Canyon.

“The river is already severely endangered due to way too many dams and diversions. The impact on the health of the Colorado River is unsustainable,” said Gary Wockner, of “One partial solution is for water conservation and recycling programs to be dramatically ramped up in cities throughout the Southwest U.S.,” Wockner added.

In the wake of the announcment, some politicians advocated for water conservation. Sen. Mark Udall urged Coloradans to do their part by responsibly using water and making every drop count. Udall said every Coloradan has an obligation to conserve water.

He also urged the groups involved in the Colorado River Supply and Demand Study to keep moving forward to implement the strategies identified in the study, which include reducing demand through innovation, conservation and better management of supply.

“The Colorado River made our state what it is today: It irrigates our crops, sustains a robust recreation industry, and supports cities throughout Colorado,” Udall said. “The Bureau of Reclamation’s announcement today is a reminder that every Coloradan has a role to play in keeping the Colorado River strong. Make every drop count: Only use what you need and make water conservation a priority.”


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