Water shortage spans the Southwest – but so does water progress

Bridget Bennett/Reuters
Low water levels due to drought are seen in the Hoover Dam reservoir of Lake Mead near Las Vegas, Nevada, June 9, 2021. The light-colored “bathtub ring” alongside the reservoir shows where the water level has been dropping to levels not seen since the dam was built in the 1930s.

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For the first time, low levels of water in Arizona’s Lake Mead are triggering a federally declared water shortage under which some Western states will need to reduce their use of Colorado River water. It’s a sign of severe pressure on a water source that’s vital to both the U.S. and Mexico. And amid the second worst megadrought in 1,200 years, some say it portends the need for new water management policies due to climate change.

But the declaration reflects something else – success at a collaborative model that can help pave the way forward. The cutbacks are based on states’ past ability to agree on plans to cope with precisely this kind of scenario. A bilateral U.S.-Mexico deal is also in place. And significant conservation actions are already happening. 

Why We Wrote This

Too often, when shared resources grow scarce, competition results. But with today’s declaration of a Lake Mead shortage that will affect Colorado River Basin states and Mexico, a cooperative long-term plan holds sway.

Southern California has reduced water use by 40% since 1990. Phoenix has cut water use 30% in two decades and diversified its supplies.

“It’s going to require us to spend more money than we want to, and change more ways than we want to,” says Felicia Marcus, the former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board. “But we can do it. It’s all doable.”

For decades, Lake Mead has represented a vibrant life in the desert for people in both the U.S. and Mexico. From farmers in both countries to the millions who call cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix home, the massive reservoir has anchored family and commercial life, watering a long-term population bloom in the desert Southwest. Now, the lake is shrinking in the face of a 22-year drought – the driest years on record. 

Monday, for the first time, the federal government declared an official water shortage in Lake Mead. To stand atop the Hoover Dam, looking at the “bathtub ring” of chalky calcium deposits marking the dropping water level, and to gaze down, down, down to the lake’s emerald-blue surface, is to get the message – viscerally.

But it may come as a surprise that this is not a situation for which people in charge are unprepared. Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, recalls a neighbor telling her that it feels like there’s no plan, and there needs to be one. “I said …. ‘There is a plan. The plan works. But the future is hotter and drier, and we know we have to do more.’ ”

Why We Wrote This

Too often, when shared resources grow scarce, competition results. But with today’s declaration of a Lake Mead shortage that will affect Colorado River Basin states and Mexico, a cooperative long-term plan holds sway.

For years the seven states, tribes, and Mexico that make up the vast Colorado River Basin have been preparing for this moment, as well as two more tiers of potential shortage. In 2007, they agreed on guidelines for use of the river water, the single most important water resource in the West serving 40 million people. But the guidelines were insufficient in the face of this megadrought – the second driest period in 1,200 years. 

So in 2019, after six years of very tough negotiations, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming signed a Drought Contingency Plan in which they agreed to lower their water take and to share reductions during shortage. It’s not easy to give up water, but Mexico led the way for the states with a bilateral contingency plan with the U.S. in 2017. 

“We knew it was the correct thing to do,” says Roberto Salmon, who last year stepped down as the Mexican commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission. “We are all trying to save the [Colorado River] basin. The livelihood of millions of people depends on it, including Mexico.”

States working together

This cooperative spirit, as well as significant progress in water conservation, gives water managers in the Southwest hope that they can face what’s coming – including a possible sharp acceleration of dropping levels due to climate change. It’s entirely possible that rapidly changing conditions will require the Drought Contingency Plan to be renegotiated before it expires at the end of 2026, even as the parties begin difficult negotiations next year on a post-2026 agreement.

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Looking toward the Arizona side of the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead on Aug. 6, 2021. It shows intake towers built for a time when the country's largest reservoir was full of water from the Colorado River. The water level now stands at its lowest point since the dam was built in the 1930s, and on Jan. 1, Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico will for the first time see cuts in their allotted water. The dam is producing about 25% less power compared with 2000.

“We haven’t had litigation. If you look at any other river basin, they have litigation going like crazy,” says Patricia Aaron, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which today forecast that Lake Mead is expected to drop to a level below 1,075 feet by the start of next year. This will trigger the first ever water delivery reductions to Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico on Jan. 1, totaling 613,000 acre-feet. (That’s the equivalent of about 7 to 8 feet of depth in Lake Mead.) At 1,045 feet, it would be California’s turn. “Everybody is in this together. It gives me a lot of hope and a lot of confidence. There are a lot of dedicated, smart people working on this problem,” she says.

As agreed, states in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River are now releasing water from reservoirs to Lake Powell – the nation’s second biggest reservoir – which feeds into Lake Mead. Lake Powell, too, is at a historic low, disrupting tourism and boating just as at Lake Mead. And hydroelectric power produced by dams at both lakes is down significantly – by about 25% since 2000 at the Hoover Dam. 

How Las Vegas conserves

Because of tremendous strides in water planning and conservation since the start of this century, Southern Nevada – which includes Las Vegas – will not even feel its reduced water allocation in this “first tier” of shortage. Since 2000, it has cut its per capita use of Colorado River water by more than 50%, and it is already using less water than the reduced allotment coming in January.

Water that drains down sewer pipes in homes and businesses is recycled and returned to Lake Mead, so the focus now is on turf removal and evaporative cooling. Offering cash incentives, the water district has made huge progress in replacing grass with desert-scape. To finish the job, a new law bans ornamental turf in the Las Vegas metro area by 2027, a national first.

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Perry Kaye, a water-waste investigator for the Las Vegas Valley Water District, points to signs of overwatering at a home in The Lakes neighborhood of Las Vegas, on Aug. 5, 2021. Allowing sprinkler water to stream into the street gutter violates water-waste laws, and Mr. Kaye left a warning tucked into the garage door. The homeowner must fix the problem immediately or a $80 fine will appear on the water bill. The greater Las Vegas area has cut Colorado River water use per capita by 50% since 2000.

In The Lakes neighborhood in western Las Vegas, Perry Kaye is winding his way through a neighborhood of single-family homes in his “Water Patrol” SUV, yellow lights flashing. He is a water-waste investigator for the Las Vegas Valley Water District – colloquially, a water cop.

Early on an August morning, he spots a stream coursing down a street gutter. He follows it to the end of a cul-de-sac. The sprinkler head along the driveway is watering the concrete; tall grass is pushing back spray, and water flowing onto the sidewalk is a clear sign of overwatering. Mr. Kaye fills out a warning for water waste and tucks it into the garage door. Failure to permanently fix the problem will result in an $80 fine.

“I love my job,” he says. “More than anything else I love helping people fix the problem.” He’ll even do video chats to show customers how to set their sprinkler clocks. With new metering technology, the water authority will be able to detect leaks in real time.

Progress in California, Arizona

Yet Nevada is a small player in the Lower Basin – currently allotted only 300,000 acre feet a year, compared with its neighbors Arizona (2.8 million) and California (4.4 million). Unlike Nevada, both have big agricultural sectors, and that’s where roughly 75% of the water goes.

In California, the governor has called for a voluntary 15% reduction in water use statewide, but Southern California – which has access to Colorado River water from Lake Mead – is in better shape than the rest of the state, which does not have that access. It’s able to make up for less water from the California State Water Project partly by relying more on Colorado River water. 

The region has also made significant investments in water storage, building up water in the wet years of 2017 and 2019, and in diversifying its supply with water recycling, storm-water capture, and groundwater recovery. The 19 million people who live in Southern California are now using 40%less water than they did in 1990.  

All of that has made it possible for Southern California to store three years’ worth of potential cuts in Lake Mead – pre-delivering 1 million acre-feet over the last decade, says William Hasencamp, Colorado River programs manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

“We’ve been ramping up our local conservation and water recycling for the last 30 years,” Mr. Hasencamp says. They’re also paying farmers to not grow crops (it hasn’t affected the food supply) and to help them switch from alfalfa to vegetables, which drink less water but are also more labor intensive. “Right now, we’re in relatively good shape.”

Felicia Fonseca/AP
Paul "Paco" Ollerton and his dog, Aggie, look toward the canal system that delivers Colorado River water to his farm near Casa Grande, Arizona, on July 20, 2021. Climate change, drought, and high demand are forcing the first-ever mandatory cuts from the Colorado River water supply, and Arizona farmers will be affected the most.

Similarly, Arizona has “banked” water in Lake Mead even as it’s been conserving. Water use in Phoenix, for instance, dropped 30% over the past two decades, and the fast-growing desert metropolis also re-piped in order to diversify its water source by tapping the Salt and Verde Rivers, explains Kathryn Sorensen, the former director of Phoenix Water Services. 

Effects on farmers

Because of a water-use seniority system, the cut will be borne by the Central Arizona Project, which basically runs from Phoenix to Tucson. It will spare urban and tribal areas and affect mainly farmers. Officials say they will weather the cut by drawing on stored water in Lake Mead and by pumping from groundwater. “We have the resources and tools,” says Chuck Cullom, Colorado River programs manager for the Central Arizona Project. But “there is pain; there is sacrifice.” 

Farmers in the region were prepared to meet a shortage in 2030 – not 2022, says Chelsea McGuire, the Arizona Farm Bureau’s director of government relations. They are counting on a $50 million groundwater pumping and infrastructure project that is just getting started and still not fully funded. 

“The day they lose the water, they do not have the infrastructure to make up for it,” says Ms. McGuire, adding that a patchwork of other measures will “get them over the hump” until they can figure out what the groundwater infrastructure will look like. In the meantime, some farmers are going out of business, and others are having to rethink what crops they plant. Alfalfa, a thirsty crop, is a major player in the region. 

Investments in Mexico

By the time the Colorado River weaves its way across the Mexican border, it becomes little more than a trickle. The river once flowed to the Sea of Cortez, but today is heavily regulated by both the Mexican government, which diverts water to land irrigation, industry, and growing border cities, and by the binational water treaty with the U.S., which, starting in 1944, allocates Mexico 1.5 million acre-feet of water, or about 10% of the river, annually. 

Mexico voluntarily stored around 40,000 extra acre feet of water in Lake Mead in 2020, and next year, due to this month’s shortage announcement, is expected to refrain from drawing 80,000-acre feet from the Colorado River. Half of that water will, in theory, be retrievable in the future if reservoir levels improve. 

Darryl Webb/AP
Will Thelander, a partner in his family’s farming business, walks through his harvested corn field, July 22, 2021, in Casa Grande, Arizona. The Colorado River has been a go-to source of water for cities, tribes, and farmers in the U.S. West for decades. Now cutbacks in water use, due to low levels in Lake Mead, are likely to fall heavily on farmers.

Thanks in large part to updates to the water agreement, Mexico has seen more investment from the U.S. in irrigation upgrades in the Mexicali Valley in recent years – including upgrading infrastructure, repairing earthquake damage, and helping modernize canal linings to prevent loss through seepage. 

Although the binational agreement has been held up as an example of international water cooperation worldwide – even translated into Russian – some in Mexico feel the announcement of a shortage could still be met with anger. Nationwide, Mexico is suffering multiple droughts, and although officials are prepared for the Lake Mead shortage announcement, local farmers and citizens may not be.

“There will be social problems, that’s for sure,” says Mario López Pérez, a water resources consultant and former manager of binational water affairs with Mexico’s national water commission. He feels that local and state governments haven’t done the needed work in informing local populations about the framework to cope with drought, nor have they laid forward-looking plans.

Mexican officials have “a solid roadmap to deal with drought. They have the tools, they have the instruments, they should know the way. But the political will isn’t there,” Mr. López says. Desalination plants have stalled due to corruption allegations against former government officials in Baja California, for example, he says.

The “dead pool” scenario 

Hovering over all of this preparation for a shortage is what stakeholders have known from the beginning – that even under the current Drought Contingency Plan, the Colorado River is over-allocated by at least 1.2 million acre feet per year. This will make the post-2026 negotiations particularly tough.

And then there is climate change.

“I’m concerned that the impacts of climate change are being felt in the Colorado River basin more quickly than we’re adapting to them,” says Anne Castle, former assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Interior Department during the Obama administration. In particular, she says the Upper Basin states are “lagging” in steps to address “this very critical decrease in the overall flows in the system.”

The great fear is that Lakes Powell and Mead will reach “dead pool,” with water so low it can no longer be released past the dams. Instead, it would have to be pumped out in order to flow further down river. In Lake Mead, that level would be 895 ft. and below.

“I think we’re prepared for everything except a dead pool,” says Dr. Sorensen. 

Going forward, water experts such as Felicia Marcus at Stanford University urge acceleration of everything from reducing lawns and plugging leaks to big adjustments in agriculture. Southern California is already developing one of the largest water recycling plants in the world. 

“It’s going to require us to spend more money than we want to, and change more ways than we want to,” says Ms. Marcus, the former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board. “But we can do it. It’s all doable.”

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