When you’ve held on to something valuable for a long time, it can be hard to choose to give it up. When that something is water, it’s even harder — especially in the desert southwest.
But that’s the reality facing water managers in the lower stretches of the Colorado River, a lifeline for farms and cities in the country’s driest regions.
Drought and population growth are forcing tough conversations and negotiations about who gets water and who must cut back. The future of agriculture, urban development and the environment in the seven states that rely on the river’s water -- Arizona and California in particular -- hinges on one measurement: How full is Lake Mead, the country’s largest human-made lake?
More than half empty
Without consulting reams of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation data on the reservoir’s height, the human eye alone can tell you Lake Mead is nowhere close to being full. A glaringly white bath tub ring stains the cliffs near Hoover Dam.
Just 34 years ago the lake was overflowing. Excess water drained through spillways, past the dam’s power generators. Photos of that moment in the summer of 1983 hang inside the dam, mementos to signal to visitors: “No, it hasn’t always been this low.”
On a tour, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Zane Boyster leads a hard-hatted group through the cavernous Hoover Dam.
At the first stop, before he gets to the usual tour talking points, the facts and figures of how many died building the dam or how much power it generates or how it caused the desert to bloom, Boyster brings up the elephant in the room.
“Someone asked me about the water in Lake Mead,” Boyster says. “Is it low? The answer is yes. We are about 38 percent of capacity.”
The vast majority of the lake’s water comes from Rocky Mountain snowmelt, sent here via the Colorado River and other, smaller reservoirs upstream. But after the past 16 years or so of dry weather, the reservoir is more than half empty — or less than half full depending on your level of optimism.
But the weather isn’t the full story. When water managers divvied up the river in the 1920s, Boyster explains, it was during an uncharacteristically wet period for the Colorado.
“That’s right, we overallocated the water from the very beginning,” he says. “We’re still tasked with honoring those same water contracts even today. Basically, we’re forced to write checks we can’t cash.”
Lake Mead near shortage
Thirty-five miles away in Las Vegas, Lake Mead's water bubbles up from an ornate fountain inside Caesars Palace. The casino resort is the venue where water managers as part of the Colorado River Water Users Association — sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding support for water reporting at KUNC — meet each winter to hash out their biggest problems. And right now, that problem is Lake Mead.
“It’s rather clear that it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when the Colorado River goes into an official shortage,” says Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
The lake has been flirting with that shortage declaration for years. If the water drops to less than 1,075 feet in elevation, the Department of Interior Secretary could, for the first time, announce a shortage and start curtailing deliveries downstream. This year alone the lake has been within 10 feet of the shortage level since April. In the past two years it’s been even closer.
If triggered, the shortage could allow the federal government to have a stronger hand in managing the river, a thought that leaves many local and state-based water managers queasy.
“With that looming over us,” Kightlinger says, “we’ve been trying to figure out — are there ways we can cooperatively share this pain and make this whole situation easier?”
Under the current guidelines, set up in a 2007 agreement among the states, Arizona would be hit the hardest. A cascade of water users could see their deliveries curtailed in a shortage declaration: First farmers, then suburban developers, possibly even big cities like Phoenix and Tucson if Lake Mead continues to drop.
But an agreement in the works -- called the Drought Contingency Plan -- would, for the first time, place some of burden on fast-growing California.
“Droughts don’t last that long”
The main thrust of the Drought Contingency Plan is that it forces cuts to water deliveries to happen earlier and to a greater degree. Rather than starting to cut back water when Lake Mead hits 1,075 feet, it would trigger some cuts at 1,090 feet, compelling Arizona, Nevada, and California to spring into action sooner.
The states involved have come to an agreement on the broad strokes of the plan. But after more than two years of negotiations it’s hung up by intrastate bickering. The delays have left negotiators antsy. Some would like to reopen some elements of the plan thought to be settled.
“The 2007 guidelines took about 3 years to do," says Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which delivers Colorado River water to farmers and cities in Arizona. "They only lasted about half as long as they were anticipated to last, and now we’re trying to patch it. And it’s taking just about as much time as it did to do the original thing.”
When the 2007 guidelines that currently govern the river's shortages were put in place, water managers were optimistic that the drought, then in its fifth year, was nearly finished and another wet cycle would replace it.
“I think everybody was subconsciously thinking well this will be over soon, probably. Droughts don’t last that long,” Cooke says. “But ten more years of it has gone by now. And it may be the new normal.”
The Drought Contingency Plan is such a heavy lift, Cooke says, because he, and his counterparts in the other states, have to convince the major water users not to use the water they’re allocated. If he just convinces one irrigation district or suburb not to take their full allotment, the next person down the line with a valid water right can take the water anyway.
“We all have a sales job to do,” Cooke says, to go back to all the water users in a state and convince them that voluntary conservation needs to happen or else a shortage declaration will force them to make a change.
Former Colorado River District manager Eric Kuhn says the Drought Contingency Plan negotiations mark a change in how even the staunchest water managers, often criticized for a narrow focus on claiming as much water as possible and storing it in reservoirs, think about the Colorado River. In the past, he says, conversations were about who would claim the next drop of the river’s water.
“Now we’re talking about when we cut back, which we will probably have to, who’s going to take those cutbacks?” Kuhn says.
Without the plan, water managers in Arizona and California have begun behaving as though it’s been signed. This year they’re leaving surplus water from last winter’s heavy snowpack in Lake Mead rather than take it out, keeping the reservoir above shortage.
But even with triggered tiers of cutbacks, the Drought Contingency Plan might not be enough to keep Lake Mead from dropping in the future. Critics say the proposal is inadequate, a temporary patch to long term systematic problems. Those negotiating the plan acknowledge they’re not attempting to fix all the river’s problems at once.
The proposal doesn’t immediately tackle the so-called “structural deficit,” the river’s ongoing imbalance between supply and demand. As the Drought Contingency Plan stands now, Lake Mead would have to drop to critical levels before California, Arizona and Nevada are required to conserve the annual 1.2 million acre-feet deficit. Given the lake's languishing supply, any future declines in its level are unacceptable, some conservationists argue.
The plan also fails to factor in climate change, which already saps some of the river’s flow. And given the multi-year stalemate on getting states to sign it, there’s no guarantee it will ever be finished, which means Lake Mead could continue its decline.
“Nothing less than the future of the West”
So, what’s at stake if the states can’t come to an agreement?
“It’s really nothing less than the future of the West,” says Mary Kelly, a partner at Culp & Kelly, a law firm specializing in Western water issues and representing environmental groups, cities and foundations. On various Colorado River issues, Culp & Kelly represents the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding to KUNC.
“Do you want vibrant agricultural communities? Do you want flowing rivers? And do you want cities that don’t fall into crisis every other year?” Kelly asks.
To get all parties to sign on to something, Kelly says it’s incumbent upon the federal government to put pressure on the states to resolve it. The federal agency best equipped to do that urging — the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — went without a confirmed commissioner for nearly 11 months of 2017.
Brenda Burman, an Arizonan with experience working for both water management and environmental groups, was sworn in as the Bureau’s commissioner in mid-December and delivered an unequivocal message to the Colorado River Water Users Association at Caesars Palace: Finish the Drought Contingency Plan.
“We’re just helping everyone recognize the message,” Burman says, “which is: look at the hydrology. We are tripling our chance of shortage between 2019 and 2020. We really need to act now. The states are trying, but this is the year to focus and get them done.”
In the hallways outside of Burman’s talk conservationists and water managers joked that the wet winter last year dashed their chances of getting a Drought Contingency Plan signed. Some said they’re hoping for poor snowpack in the Rocky Mountains this year just to sharpen everyone’s mind about what’s at stake, and recognize that drought might be the new normal for the Colorado Basin.
Back at the Hoover Dam, standing above a massive pipe used to move water from one side of the dam to the other, the tour’s attention also turns to snow and drought.
Tour guide Zane Boyster assures the group that the Colorado River’s flows are cyclical, if you look at the historical record. There are wet periods and dry periods. He uses his arm to make a wave to demonstrate.
“I’m hoping that we’ve reached that bottom and we’re headed back out,” Boyster says.
“Right now, it doesn’t look too good. Not a lot of snowpack in the Rockies this year yet, but it remains to be seen.”
And as this winter continues you can be sure Boyster — and everyone else who works on all 1,450 miles of the Colorado River — will be watching the level of Lake Mead.
Editor's note 1/15/17 6:02 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect Culp & Kelly's relationship to the Walton Family Foundation.
This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.