The snow that falls in the Rocky Mountains provides the majority of the water for the Colorado River. But with warming temperatures, drought and increased dust settling on the snowpack, that water source is diminishing. (David Wallace/The Republic)

States need federal help to complete a drought plan and boost Lake Mead water storage.

Uncertainty over proposals to prop up Lake Mead and avoid a water shortage in the Southwest has landed the lower Colorado River atop a conservation group’s annual list of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers.”

American Rivers focused its 2017 report on the part of the river that flows from Glen Canyon Dam and past Arizona, Nevada and California because federal support for water conservation is at a crossroads. The states are counting on federal leadership and financial support for conservation at a time when the Trump administration proposes slashing the Interior Department’s budget up to 15 percent, said Matt Rice, the group’s Colorado River program director.

“There’s a real concern that the new administration has taken their eye off the ball on Colorado River issues,” Rice said.

Arizona officials aren’t feeling quite the pressure they once did to reach a shortage-prevention deal thanks to a snowy winter in the Rocky Mountains that has reduced the urgency.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources had been seeking big cutbacks in consumption to keep water levels higher at Lake Mead through 2020. Now, spokeswoman Michelle Moreno said, the wet winter appears likely to have managed that on its own — for now.

The evolving drought plan “must adapt to the new conditions,” Moreno said, perhaps with a goal of forestalling mandatory reductions for even more years. The department is currently reviewing “an appropriate new target date and potential volume of water to get to that end.”


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The department will not present a drought plan to the Arizona Legislature this year, Moreno said. It previously had planned to do so, but, Moreno said, Central Arizona Project officials determined the state’s conservation proposal was no longer viable. The water delivery proposal has raised concerns about losing out on possible releases from Glen Canyon Dam upstream if the lower-basin states keep too much water in Lake Mead.

The federal government releases extra water through Glen Canyon Dam during wet years like this one to equalize the holdings in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The higher Lake Mead is at the start, the less extra water it gets from Lake Powell that year. The result could be that conserving water in Lake Mead without regard to the year’s weather could actually result in less water filling the reservoir to last through future dry years, CAP Colorado River Programs Manager Chuck Cullom said.

CAP objected to a plan that would designate specific conservation volumes every year instead of parceling the savings out over drier years. But the agency still supports a state effort to save water, Cullom said.

“CAP has and continues to support contributions to Lake Mead to avoid shortages,” he said.

Drew Beckwith, a water policy expert with Western Resource Advocates, said he remains hopeful that Arizona can still reach agreement among various water users this year, even if it can’t get immediate legislative approval. Putting off conservation makes little sense on a river system that is routinely overextended, he said.

“Fundamentally, Arizona is still on the hook first for the largest amount of water (losses) if there’s a shortage in Lake Mead,” Beckwith said.

INTERACTIVE MAP:Tracing the path of the Colorado River

“It’s going to happen in the future unless the lower basin reduces its use of water. So we need that (plan) in place before the shortage happens.”

Arizona water officials had been working on a deal that would see a variety of willing users from farmers and tribes to cities curtailing nearly a third of what the Central Arizona Project canal delivers from the river. But that would require millions of dollars in compensation.

The proposal relied on some $45 million from the Interior Department, a target the Obama administration had discussed. Department officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether that money is forthcoming. Moreno said it’s now unclear if the money is needed, but that a $6 million Bureau of Reclamation deal to keep some of the Gila River Indian Community’s water in Lake Mead is a “head start” on further conservation.


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One alternative to a drought plan is to wait and hope for more wet winters to keep resetting the clock and buoying Lake Mead above elevation 1,075 feet — the level at which a 2007 federal-state agreement starts curtailing Arizona’s water without any compensation.

That’s a plan that American Rivers considers no plan at all. A big snow year in 2011 broke a long string of dry years and raised hopes throughout the basin, Rice noted, but ultimately proved just a blip on the drought chart.

The three lower-river states still consume more than the river can give long-term regardless of any one winter, he said.

GO IN-DEPTH:As the river runs dry

From March 2012 to March 2016, Lake Mead’s surface dropped nearly 50 feet, before rebounding 8 feet last month. On Monday, the reservoir’s elevation was 1,087 — 12 feet above the first level at which restrictions kick in.

“If we’ve learned anything,” he said, “we can’t plan for our water management by (Rocky Mountain) hydrology.”

Conservation funding isn’t the only requirement for sustainability, Rice said. The Southwest also needs federal leadership to help strike new deals like the one that the last administration made allowing Mexico to store water in Lake Mead and help prevent an earlier shortage that could have affected Arizona, he said.

The Hispanic Access Foundation joined American Rivers in calling on state and federal leaders to keep water in the river and reservoir. Foundation president Maite Arce said the group held a gathering at the Grand Canyon and learned that Latino leaders from Yuma and San Luis feared the loss of river water threatened cultural and economic values, from riverside baptisms to farm jobs.

As a result, the non-profit produced a film, “Milk and Honey,” documenting generations of river users from the area. Its release online coincided with the American Rivers report.


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