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Colorado River: Is historic cut in water release the new normal?

The US Bureau of Reclamation announced the cut Friday, from Lake Powell, because of drought conditions. While the move involving the Colorado River will be hard for people to detect at the faucet, it carries symbolic importance.

By / August 16, 2013

The high-water mark for Lake Mead appears on the Hoover Dam and its spillway near Boulder City, Nev., in this April photo.

Julie Jacobson/AP/File

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Fourteen years of drought in the West and a revised rule book on allocating water along the Colorado River have prompted the US Bureau of Reclamation to make the deepest cut in water released from Lake Powell in the reservoir's 46-year history.

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Lake Powell is the second largest engineered reservoir in the United States by capacity, bested only by Lake Mead, more than 200 miles downstream.

The bureau formally announced the cut Friday. The amount of water that the bureau will release from the lake starting Oct. 1 will be some 10 percent less than the amount released in the prior 12 months – some 7.48 million acre-feet of water during the 2014 water year, compared with 8.23 million acre-feet during the current water year, which ends Sept. 30.

Retaining more water in Lake Powell reduces the amount of electricity that generators at the Glen Canyon Dam can produce. But it also means that water managers upstream can keep more water on hand for cities and farms than they otherwise might.

While the move also cuts the amount of water flowing into Lake Mead, a crucial source of supply for Nevada, California, and Arizona, the lake will still be able to supply the water that users have ordered for 2014, the bureau notes. And Mexico will still get its treaty-based share.

What happens beyond 2014 is less clear. The bureau forecasts little likelihood that water-delivery shortages will hit Lake Mead users in 2015. But it also forecasts a significant chance of delivery shortages there in 2016, depending on what the snowpack is like in the mountains during the preceding winters. Winter snows, and the length of time they linger into summer, are the West's ultimate reservoir.

While the move will be hard, if not impossible, for people to detect at the faucet, it still carries symbolic importance, some water-policy specialists say.

"We're in an unparalleled – at least in recorded history – period of droughts on the Colorado River system," says Michael Cohen, a senior research associate who specializes in Colorado River water issues at the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif.

"It seems that this is the new normal," he says, noting that climate scientists studying the potential effects of global warming have been predicting these conditions in the region for more than a decade.

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