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Biden’s oil oddity; uncrowded public lands

Jonathan P. ThompsonAug 16
Glen Canyon Dam and the bathtub ring several years ago. Jonathan P. Thompson photo. 

Federal officials today declared a first-ever shortage on the Colorado River—meaning there’s just not enough water in the huge system for all the folks who have dibs on it. The Tier 1 shortage declaration will lead to cutbacks for downstream users starting next year. Arizona will feel the cuts most acutely, losing about 18 percent of its Colorado River water. 

A Tier 1 shortage is triggered when Lake Mead’s surface elevation drops below 1,075 feet as of the first of the year. It is currently sitting just under 1,068 feet and is not expected to recover by January. The reservoir is shrinking thanks to the prolonged drought or, if you prefer, aridification, that has plagued the Southwest for more than two decades. Yet the roots of the shortage go back a century or more.

In 1922, the states in the Colorado River Basin divvied up the river’s water. Based on just a couple dozen years of record-keeping, the folks in charge believed that 15 million acre feet of water flowed past Lees Ferry, just below the current location of Glen Canyon Dam, each year. So they allocated 7.5 million acre feet to the Upper Basin States—Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico—and 7.5 million to the Lower Basin States—California, Nevada, and Arizona. In 1944 they came up with another 1.5 million acre feet for Mexico. 

That turned out to be a heck of a lot more water than was actually in the river. Analysis of nearly a millennium of tree ring data has shown that the actual flows are closer to 14 million acre feet per year, meaning hundreds of billions of gallons of “paper” water don’t actually exist and never really did. And over the past 20 years, as cities and farmers and lawn-waterers have maxed out their allocations, the flows have decreased even further. The “unregulated inflow” to Lake Powell—the Bureau of Reclamation’s estimate of how much water would run into the lake without upstream diversions or withdrawals—averaged just 8.62 million acre feet from 2000 to 2021. You can’t say they weren’t warned:

Clearly something had to give. So, here we are. Farmers who draw from the Central Arizona Project, which sucks water from the river below Lake Mead and sends it via canal hundreds of miles across the desert to Phoenix and Tucson, will take the biggest hit, losing 65 percent or more of their water. Nevada’s allocation will also be cut, but the state’s water supply likely will be unaffected since the state currently uses less than its share (and because it has bolstered its allocation with some nifty tricks with treated wastewater). California won’t take any cuts at all, but water managers from Lower Basin states plan to pay some California farmers to stop irrigating and fallow fieldsto reduce overall demand. 

Lake Mead’s levels have hovered at the current level for the last month or so. Meanwhile, its upstream cousin, Lake Powell, continues to shrink, in spite of some healthy monsoonal storms in Utah and Colorado and increased releases from reservoirs even further upstream. And as Powell gets smaller, the number of headlines about its fate grows. Even the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert visited to see the once-flooded treasures that have been revealed

The Associated Press took a different angle, looking at the impact to recreation at the reservoir. Only the Wahweap boat ramp near Page, Arizona, is still marginally useful and it will close today until National Park Service workers can build a new low-water ramp nearby. In the past, Glen Canyon Recreation Area has seen more than 4 million visitors per year. This year visitation is likely to be half that or less, dealing a blow to the economy of Page, which is still reeling from the shutdown of the Navajo Generating Station two years ago. 

Reading the perspectives of some of the sources for these stories can be rather enlightening to someone like me, who has mourned the flooding of Glen Canyon for much of his life. Not only are these folks crestfallen, but they also seem oblivious of the reasons the lake is shrinking and of the far-reaching impacts. One guy told the AP reporter: “It’s really sad that they’re allowing such a beautiful, beautiful place to fall apart.” 


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