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Collaborating to protect Lake Mead

Lingering drought and demand from growing cities have lowered water levels on Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam. The U.S. Interior Department could declare a shortage on the Colorado River as early as 2017. (U.S. Geological Survey Photo)

Lake Mead (U.S. Geological Survey Photo)

The Central Arizona Project (CAP) and the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) recently hosted a second Colorado River Shortage Update. CAP and ADWR presented the latest information about the near-term outlook for the river and how Arizona can keep the river out of shortage in 2017. The update also featured a look at what needs to happen going forward to protect Lake Mead, the reservoir that supplies Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico.

Lisa Atkins

Lisa Atkins

Last April, at the first of these shortage events, much of the discussion was concentrated on whether or not shortage would be declared for 2016, and all eyes were on the Bureau of Reclamation’s August 2015, 24-month study.  Each month, the Bureau’s study projects Lake Mead levels two years into the future. The August results are extremely important to Arizona, because that is the month the Bureau uses each year to determine whether to declare a shortage for the following calendar year, which would result in a reduction of Arizona’s supply from the Colorado River.

We avoided shortage in 2016 due to our collective efforts to conserve water in Lake Mead and a fortuitous boost from Mother Nature’s precipitation–the so-called “Miracle May.” We can be proud of the success we collectively created to bring us to this point. Together, we’re improving the health of the Colorado River.

However, the drought continues, the serious situation on the Colorado River persists, and more effort is required by all Colorado River users. The work ahead will not be easy.

Collectively, the reservoirs along the Colorado River are at less than 50 percent capacity.  Whether or not the drought eases, we will also still have an over-allocated river to address. Even in years with normal precipitation, more is taken out of Lake Mead than flows into the reservoir. This is the “Structural Deficit.”

The Colorado River system has reached a tipping point, signaling the need for Colorado River water users, regardless of state, priority, or use sector, to work even more quickly and diligently to address the ongoing imbalances between supply and demand, increase conservation to benefit the system itself, and to take proactive measures to increase Colorado River water supplies.

For CAP, this has meant working closely with those who use CAP water to find ways to reduce demand and increase conservation. We have made great strides in protecting Lake Mead through the voluntary participation of our municipal, agricultural and tribal stakeholders, and changing the way CAP operates. We will continue to work alongside our customers to allow for additional water storage in the lake.

CAP and ADWR have also been taking cooperative actions with others who depend on the Colorado River to avoid shortages and support our reservoirs. Future success is possible only with even more collaborative efforts that go beyond what we are already doing to protect the river. All Colorado River water users have a responsibility to safeguard the health of the river, conserve water wherever and whenever possible, and seek opportunities for cooperative programs that benefit the river system.

Lisa Atkins is president, board of directors at the Central Arizona Project. 

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