Falling Lake Mead Water Levels 'Incredible Warning Sign'


Pat Mulroy, General Manager, Southern Nevada Water Authority

John Fleck, reporter, Albuquerque Journal

Robert Glennon, University of Arizona law professor and author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to do About it

BY AMY KINGSLEY -- The Colorado River — and Lake Mead — are in deep trouble.

Studies by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation show that demand will soon overwhelm supply. The first stage of water restrictions could come as soon as 2016, when Lake Mead has a one-in-three chance of slipping below the critical 1,075-foot threshold.

That’s when Nevada will have to cut its water allocation by 4 percent. Residents probably won’t notice the first round of cuts, said Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Still, it is an important limit for Colorado River users.

“It is an incredible warning sign,” Mulroy said. “Because what happens at 1,075 is that you’re now getting in to the lower reaches of Lake Mead. And Lake Mead is a V. So the further you go down in the reservoir, the faster the rate of decline.”

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In recent years, the seven states that share the river — along with Mexico — have done a better job collaborating on ways to stretch the water supply. But it still hasn’t been enough to keep the level of Lake Mead from falling.

“We are buying and storing water in Lake Mead to buffet it and prop it back up again,” Mulroy said. “So if despite all those efforts, despite everyone spending as much money as we are, and everybody leaving their water in Lake Mead, we still get to 1,075 – the time has come for the states to really get serious about some real critical elevations.”

If the water falls to 1,050 or 1,025, then Arizona will be hit the hardest with cuts to the Central Arizona Project, said Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona. But the conversation shouldn’t focus on which communities or industries will be hit the hardest, because they are all imperiled, he said.

“The bigger picture is that the whole basin is looking at a tough situation,” Glennon said.

The good news is that we can do something about it.

“We have the tools to use the water in a more sustainable way,” Glennon said.

The bigger questions is whether we have the time to implement those solutions.

“If this were to happen in the next five or six years, if you were to start seeing a rapid downward spiral, you don’t have the time to make the investments in an IID (Imperial Irrigation District), or a Palo Verde, or any of the agricultural areas down in the southern end of the system,” Mulroy said. “The time is not there.”

States have resorted to lawsuits, and even military action to protect water sources in the past. Lawsuits have a huge downside, and can cost municipalities access to water if they lose.

“What we’ve seen going back to the late 1990s is that it’s in their best interest not to fight,” said John Fleck, reporter for the Albuquerque Journal. “It’s much better for the water managers to understand how the shortage is going to be shared.”

Lake Mead will almost certainly fall below 1,075 feet in the near future, Mulroy said. Soon after that, life will change in Southern Nevada. Eventually, Hoover Dam will stop producing electricity, and water restrictions will change the way we live.

“Everything starts falling apart at elevation 1,000,” Mulroy said. “Which why, for our planning purposes, 1,075 is such an enormous trigger.”

“This is going to come as an enormous wake up call.”



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