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Drought: Lake Mead Level Could Trigger Extreme Conservation Rules

Posted by Christina B. Farnsworth

Oct 26, 2015 1:57:52 PM

Lake Mead water levels now hover very near 1,075-feet deep—the point that will trigger extreme water reductions.


California has been the focus of drought stories, but dought isn’t limited to California, any more than the State's primary  water source, , the Colorado river, is limited to just the one State. In fact, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California all share the Colorado's liquid wealth. They divided the River’s water in 1922, when it was flowing at abnormally high levels and population was low.


For many years, the less populated states were not using their allotment, California took more than its allotment. Arguments and lawsuits modified allocation somewhat over the years. To protect themselves some states, such as Arizona, take “their water” and bank it by pumping the water into aquifers. In fact, Phoenix has been banking some of its Colorado River allocation in Tucson-area aquifers.

The Colorado River water circulates through Arizona via open-air aqueducts. In the 1960s, litigation allowed construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), but also agreed that if Lake Mead fell below 1,075 feet that Arizona would lose about half its river allotment because it had a “junior” position. Arizona would lose the largest portion, but no state would be unscathed

People, who live in rainier parts of the country probably don’t understand western water. Just because a river runs through a piece of land doesn’t mean a landowner can use that water.

In many other parts of the country by comparison, riparian rights typically extend to mid-points of rivers, or a certain distance from lakeshore. Especially in rural areas, it water runs on or adjacent to your property, you can use it. 

In the West, many desert rivers dried up. If it rains a lot, there is some flow, but the rivers soon go back to being mud flats. Water is complicated in the desert. Each state has its own set of rules, but most have legislation that allows first users (the people who arrived first, which in some states does include tribal water rights as first) a higher priority.

Lake Mead, this year, for the first time did indeed reach the low 1,075-foot level, but in the nick of time, some Spring rain raised the water just enough to forestall cut backs for the immediate future.

The federal government recently allocated $110 million dollars in drought aid to the western states. In California, local counties are re-exploring ocean water desalination. Carlsbad, CA, is about to open a plant that will provide maybe 10 percent of San Diego’s water. Some entrepreneurs were resurrecting an idea from 1898 to float icebergs from Alaska. Alaskans aren’t likely to be happy if their glaciers and icebergs are mined for water. Alaska’s glaciers are melting. So far this last idea is still at the talking stage because the money doesn’t make cents. Though I suppose, one might purify and bottle melting glacier fresh water for delivery to thirsty ports. I can imagine water factory ships.

Though Californians have used less water than water reduction restrictions require, fire fighting is using a lot of water. And the area remains much hotter than normal. Aside from water conservation success, there is little else to celebrate in what some are calling a megadrought.

Here are plenty of links:

Central Arizona Water Web site and project brief about Colorado River shortage.

Histories of Colorado River Pact and Central Arizona Project (CAP).

Inside Climate News article Drought-Parched Lake Mead Could Leave Seven States High and Dry.


Aljazeera America article about delivering glacier water.

Journal of Water -- Hydrologic Conditions: Colorado River Basin, August 2015.

High Country News Lake Mead Watch.

Supreme Court Decision that cleared the way for CAP and made Arizona a junior partner in Colorado River Water allocation.

ProPublica Killing the Colorado Series.

Sustaining Water by conservation scientist Gary Nabham (pictured left).

Bill Moyers on the how the California drought is a much bigger water crisis.

Brookings Institute 5 facts you need to know about Lake Mead’s water crisis.





And the YouTube interview with Pat Mulroy explaining much about water.



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