Lake Mead’s water levels this year fell to a near all-time low in the midst of a 16-year drought throughout the Southwestern U.S., prompting discussion at a national conference last week.
The Colorado River Water Users Association met last week in Las Vegas for an annual conference, where guests — including Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper — discussed the need for conservation efforts and governance of the Colorado River’s water supply. Ducey and Hickenlooper hosted a question-and-answer session with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last Monday, in which both agreed that water is an issue that “transcends partisan politics.”
According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Arizona and California are negotiating the terms of a contingency plan to protect Lake Mead, a final agreement is still pending.
“This plan is a way to delay and maybe thwart shortage declarations with the most important aspect of California agreeing to take shortages after Lake Mead reaches particular elevations,” said Lake Havasu City’s Water Resources Coordinator Doyle Wilson. “Since the plan has not yet been approved by all parties, details are uncertain.”
Havasu receives an allocation of about 28,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River. Havasu uses about half that amount. If a water shortage were declared, the city would be required to use 20 percent less than its currently-allocated amount. According to Lake Havasu City officials, the city would be in no immediate danger in the event of a shortage. Havasu’s pending effluent water project is will provide reused water to city parks, further progressing the city’s conservation efforts.
“A combination of projects and programs have helped to educate the community on conserving water and have resulted in real water use efficiency at both the personal and citywide levels,” Wilson said. Havasu residents have used low water-use faucet and shower heads, geyser stop devices for irrigation systems, and have received rebates for water conservation.
“Over the years, the combined activities, along with the acknowledgment that the winter water averaging strategy for setting monthly sewer rates has lowered the city’s overall water consumption,” Wilson said.
In Havasu, total water consumption has more than halved in the past thirty years. In 1985, water consumption peaked at more than 450 gallons daily per capita. As of 2015, Havasu’s total water consumption was recorded at about 175 gallons per capita, daily, and trending even lower. Residential water consumption in Havasu was recorded at about 130 gallons per capita, daily.
Conservation efforts continue statewide, according to Arizona Department of Water Resources spokeswoman Michelle Moreno.
“As a state, we’re more efficient in water conservation,” Moreno said. “We use less than we did in the 1950s, despite a 600-percent population increase, in part because of our conservation efforts.”
Arizona regulates water use on an industrial level, maintaining mandatory conservation while allowing providers to educate customers in conservation efforts. Some water providers offer rebates to customers for efforts to conserve water at home.
The Central Arizona Project is continuing to lead conservation programs to prevent a shortage in 2018, according to the Department of Water Resources, but the risks of another shortage are expected to increase from 2019-21.
Stakeholders in the Lower-Basin Colorado River expected this year’s conference to focus on agreements associated with the Drought Contingency Plan, which would revise water conservation efforts and restrictions in the event of a water shortage. Stakeholders also expected announcements involving an agreement on water rights and restrictions between the U.S. and Mexico. No such announcements came, which could hold consequences for Lake Havasu City, as well as the American Southwest.
The situation in Lake Mead is only projected to become worse, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Lake Mead’s surface now rests at about 1,077 feet above sea level, and Bureau of Reclamation officials say there is a 54 percent chance that the lake will fall below 1,075 feet in 2017.
Lake Mead’s water levels are measured every August, and the results of that month’s measurement will determine if cuts will need to be made, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources. If Mead’s water level falls below 1,075 feet above sea level in August 2017, Arizona water providers will be forced to reduce their water usage by 192,000 acre-feet until August 2018, according to new proposed guidelines. Nevada would similarly have to reduce water usage by 8,000 acre-feet per year, while California would not be required to make reductions at all.
Arizona, California and Nevada each have an interest in maintaining Lake Mead’s water levels. Mead represents one of the two largest reservoirs in the Colorado River system, and directly affects the supply of river water to all three states. Federal agencies measure Lake Mead’s water levels to determine whether a shortage should be declared on the Colorado River. If such a shortage were declared, California would be asked to make significant cuts to its water usage.
Arizona, California and Nevada are negotiating the terms for their proposed “Lower Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan,” which would revise 2007 water restriction guidelines among the three states. According to the 2007 guidelines, Arizona would make the bulk of reductions in the event of a shortage, despite consuming less than either of its neighboring states. California, however, would never face water restrictions, no matter how low the water levels become at Lake Mead.
The Colorado River provides water to 13 percent of America’s population. More than 40 million people rely on the river, but water shortages have exposed a need for changes in water use and policy. According to this month’s Arizona Department of Water Resources Drought Index, Southwestern Arizona continues to undergo severe drought conditions and the Havasu region is beginning to experience an “abnormally dry” season.
As negotiations continue between Arizona, Nevada and California, the Department of Water Resources says the next steps for its “Lower Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan” discussions will include continuing to assess potential impacts on the southwest.