NOV 15, 2016
One of the worst recorded droughts in human history has stretched water supplies thin across the far-reaching Colorado River basin, which serves 40 million people.
A riverboat glides through Lake Mead on the Colorado River at Hoover Dam near Boulder City, Nev., in this photo from October 2015.
Business as usual on the Colorado River may be about to come to a screeching halt.
One of the worst recorded droughts in human history has stretched water supplies thin across the far-reaching river basin, which serves 40 million people.
Nowhere is this more obvious than Lake Mead, which straddles the border of Arizona and Nevada. The water level in the country’s largest manmade reservoir has been plummeting; it’s now only 37 percent full.
With an official water shortage imminent, Arizona, Nevada and California are taking matters into their own hands. The states are hammering out a voluntary agreement to cut their water use — an approach some consider revolutionary after so many decades of fighting and lawsuits.
The cooperation springs from self-preservation. If Lake Mead drops too low, the federal government could step in and reallocate the water.
At the same time, upper basin states like Colorado and Wyoming want to use more Colorado River water — something they’re legally entitled to.
Denver Water wants to raise the dam at Gross Reservoir 131 feet. Storage expansion is something Colorado and Wyoming are pursuing as they grow into their supply of Colorado River water.
In Colorado, Denver Water is in the final stages of seeking approval on a water storage project that would take more water out of the Colorado River. Wyoming is researching whether to store more water from the Green River, a Colorado tributary. Utah is discussing whether to build a pipeline to transport water from Lake Powell, the reservoir found up river from Lake Mead along the Utah – Arizona border.
Add in the likely impacts of climate change and how it’s affecting the Colorado River basin and you have an increasingly complex and challenging picture developing for the 21st century.
Pat Mulroy, a senior fellow at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and a leading Western water expert, says the time for a new toolbox and ideas to approach water management has arrived.
“There won’t be any winners and losers,” Mulroy says, unless Colorado River states move beyond the fighting and lawsuits of the last century as they try to adapt to the next century. “There will only be losers.”