Despite heavy rain and snow, officials strive to keep Lake Mead water level up

Isaac Windes//February 8, 2017

Despite heavy rain and snow, officials strive to keep Lake Mead water level up

Isaac Windes//February 8, 2017

(Arizona’s water experts discuss contingency plans to avert more drastic water shortages at a forum in Phoenix on February 7.  Photo by Isaac Windes, Arizona Capitol Times)

The winter storms that brought heavy rain and snow to Arizona earlier this year provided a momentary relief amidst the drought ravaging the Southwest for almost two decades.

But the rain and snow have to persist for much longer to improve Arizona’s drought conditions. More significantly, water experts know that to keep Lake Mead from dipping below critical levels, Arizona and the other lower basin states simply can’t rely on rain and prayer.

Arizona water officials last year launched a campaign to convince stakeholders to agree to a statewide strategy, the aim of which is to leave sufficient water in Lake Mead and improve the chances that the lake will stay above manageable levels over the next few years.

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said the plan, if adopted, creates a longer-term net benefit for the state’s water users.

“So, you could take a little bit smaller reduction at a higher elevation and you can offset the impact on the water users,” he said.

The state’s efforts are meant to buttress a larger proposal, called the Colorado Basin Drought Contingency Plan, that is being negotiated among Arizona, Nevada and California (the lower basin states), and the federal government to keep Lake Mead’s water from reaching critical points.

That’s because under an agreement inked in 2007 by several states, Arizona, along with Nevada and New Mexico, would suffer catastrophic reductions in its allocation if the water at Lake Mead dips below a certain level. The contingency plan is meant to head off those drastic scenarios by, among other things, having Arizona and Nevada take even less water at higher elevations than outlined in the 2007 agreement. Under the plan, California would also take a hit.

Ted Cooke, executive director of the Central Arizona Project, said the plans being drawn and negotiated are meant to avert a disaster.

“It’s really to prevent the lake from getting to catastrophically low levels where there are shortages thrust upon us that we would not be able to mitigate,” Cooke said.

Those contingency plans were the focus of a panel discussion organized by the Arizona Capitol Times on February 7.  The forum came at a pivotal time. Although no shortage is expected this year, there’s a greater than 50 percent probability that the water level in Lake Mead will decline toward precariously low levels in 2018 and beyond.

Lake Mead is the country’s largest water reservoir, and the most critical source of water for several states, including Arizona, California and Nevada. The lake’s levels have been on a steady decline for the last 17 years.

While the drought in the Southwest is a contributing factor, Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU, emphasized that the bigger problem is that the lower basin states collectively use more water than what’s available for supply. The four states, California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, take about 9 million acre-feet each year, yet Lake Powell releases only about 8.23 million acre-feet each year to Lake Mead. That’s not counting water loss due to evaporation.

“The problem with Lake Mead is a structural deficit, meaning that 1.2 million acre-feet are allocated that are not obligated to be put into it,” Porter said. “That means that unless we have really wet years, we need to learn to manage the water better.”

Beyond managing Lake Mead, the panel members also noted that Arizona’s water use has been steady even as its population has exploded. Many expect Arizonans to continue to use less water in the coming years.

But while water use is declining, infrastructure costs remain the same, a looming issue for water companies.

“We see a two percent decline in sales per-capita, so our customers are using less, which is a good thing,” said Shawn Bradford of EPCOR. “But the problem is that our expenses don’t decline by two percent a year.”

Cooke, the CAP official, also noted that water issues have a tradition of operating outside of partisan politics.

“It continues to be a non-political arena,” he said. “We’ve been most successful when we work together.”

But that tradition could end if the rhetorical spat between the Trump administration and Mexico’s government escalates and spills over into water policy.

Under a 1944 treaty with Mexico, the U.S. must deliver 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water a year to its southern neighbor. However, that treaty did not fully define the terms in case of a water shortage. In 2012, the U.S. and Mexico reached an agreement, called Minute No. 319, in which Mexico would accept shortages, just like the lower basin states.

That agreement expires at the end of 2017.

With Trump’s tense relationship with Mexico, a proposed new agreement, called Minute 32x, faces an uncertain future. That worries Dave Roberts, the associate general manager of Salt River Project.

“I fear that the rhetoric might get in the way of being able to actually accomplish some of these things,” he said during the forum. “One of the things that’s very important, as part of Minute 32x, is the opportunity to actually try and figure out a way to augment the water supply in the Colorado River through desalination that we could work with Mexico on.”