The Colorado River is draining quickly. But Lake Havasu City residents won’t notice much of a change for a while.
For the first time in history, a tier one water shortage is expected to be announced for the river on Aug. 16 by the Bureau of Reclamation, when its next monthly report is published. There are two tiers that follow – and with each new tier comes new cutbacks.
While the water shortage isn’t official yet, it’s “no surprise” that the declaration is coming, according to John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program.
However, while Lake Mead’s water supply continues to plummet, Lake Havasu’s water level should remain steady.
Fleck explained that Havasu was originally created “to ensure a stable surface” for the Whitsett Intake Pumping Plant to draw from. The plant, located just north of the Parker Dam, delivers water to the Metropolitan Water District — serving about 19 million people in the Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, Orange, Riverside and Ventura counties.
Because of this, Lake Havasu levels shouldn’t fluctuate — even with the impending water shortage declaration.
The declaration means Arizona won’t be able to take as much water from the Central Arizona Project’s Mark Wilmer pumping facility, located just around the river bend from the MWD’s plant. It also means that Lake Mead will release less water.
“Less coming in and less going out means stable levels for Havasu,” Fleck said.
That water level is always kept between 445 and 449 feet, according to Kristen Johnson, Colorado River manager for the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
It wouldn’t be until the water shortage surpassed Tier Two and Tier Three declarations — meaning Lake Mead’s water level drops below 1,025 feet — that Havasu would start seeing an impact.
“Further drops in lake elevation will prompt a conference between [the Bureau of] Reclamation and the affected states for negotiation of options, which could include implementing a second tier of shortages that effectively bars all water deliveries to fourth priority users in Arizona such as Lake Havasu City,” according to the city’s 2020 Water Conservation Plan.
The city’s plan states that if water shortages are declared that affect Havasu residents, five basic strategies would be launched to address water supply reductions:
- Ask citizens to voluntarily conserve water
- Establish mandatory water use restrictions
- Utilize alternative water sources
- Mandate water rationing allocations
- Modify tiered water rates to suit the situation
As for California’s share of water, the Tier One shortage declaration won’t have any effect on the amount the MWD can pull from the river. If the shortage increases to a Tier Two declaration, however — if Lake Mead drops under 1,045 feet — California will be required to make contributions to the supply.
“However, we are one region, and we are working collaboratively with our partners in the Colorado River Basin to come up with solutions to promote long-term sustainability,” Maritza Fairfield of MWD said.
MWD has been “banking” water in Lake Mead for years, allowing them to start pulling more water from the Colorado earlier this year to combat the severe drought their area also faces.
The district entered 2021 with a record 3.2 million acre-feet of water storage saved up, including 1.3 million acre-feet in Lake Mead.
“In addition to alleviating drought impacts on Lake Mead, our storage in the reservoir has allowed us to pre-save water, so that if a Tier Two shortage is declared, we can contribute some of that stored water to the Colorado River system as part of the Drought Contingency Plan agreement,” Fairfield said.
The water shortage isn’t a new problem, though it has reached a drastic point.
“The Colorado River basin has been experiencing a prolonged drought for more than 20 years,” Johnson said. “Those drought conditions have caused a steady decline in the two major reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell. Without wet hydrology to replenish the reservoirs, the basin finds itself in an all but certain shortage condition for the first time.”
Fleck said it’s “really a supply problem,” not demand.
“Demand has either stayed the same or decreased over the years,” he said. “Residents have been successful at conserving water. But the inflow is decreasing.”
It’s been a dry year, and the little rain and snow there has been dries up quickly.
“With warming temps thanks to climate change, snowmelt is evaporating quickly, and there’s less water in the rivers as a result,” Fleck said.
Thirsty plants are also drinking up more of the water, and the dry soil soaks up any that’s left like a sponge.
“Climate change is driving temperatures up,” Fleck said. “This is not a problem that is just going to go away. We can’t just expect a wet winter to solve it.”