No shortage for Lake Mead in 2019

August 17, 2018

BULLHEAD CITY — No shortage will be declared in 2019 for Lake Mead, but a looming shortage could trigger cutbacks in late 2019.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released its 24-month forecast Wednesday, warning that a nearly-20-year trend toward a drier regional climate coupled with rising demand could drain so much water from the Lake Mead reservoir that cutbacks would be automatic.

“The August study is the critical one because that study looks to Dec. 31 or Jan. 1 (and the) projected lake elevations,” said Mark Clark, Bullhead City council member and Arizona Water Banking Authority member. “If Lake Mead is below 1,075 feet in elevation, a shortage is declared. If it’s above 1,075, no shortage is declared. Right now they’re anticipating enough conservation, enough precipitation, to keep us just barely above that trigger point.”

The Colorado River system provides water to over 30 million people and 6,300 square miles of farmland in Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming, collectively known as the basin states. The basin states, along with the federal government, several American Indian tribes and the Republic of Mexico share Colorado River water supplies, which are managed and operated under numerous compacts, federal laws, court decisions, decrees, contracts and regulatory guidelines.

Arizona, which gets over 40 percent of its water supply from the Colorado River has the right to up to 2.8 million acre-feet of river water annually. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of ground one foot deep, approximately 325,851 gallons. One acre-foot supports two to three households per year.

The BOR forecasts all users will get their usual share of water through September 2019, but projects that by October 2019, the surface of Lake Mead could fall below 1,075 feet above sea level, the trigger point for cutbacks. Arizona, Nevada and Mexico would take the first cutbacks.

“If next winter is as bleak as last winter, it’s like a 99 percent chance (a shortage will be declared),” Clark said

The report increases the pressure on the State Steering Committee to complete the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan.

Arizona Department of Water Resources and Central Arizona Water Conservation District representatives announced in May the formation of the steering committee at a joint briefing to address the reliability of and risks to Arizona’s Colorado River supply.

LBDCP is a plan developed by Arizona, California, Nevada and the United States to create additional contributions to Lake Mead from Arizona and Nevada, along with new contributions from California and the U.S. with incentives for additional storage in Lake Mead.

“(DCP is) still a top priority and needs to remain a top priority,” Clark said. “Even if we do get past 2019, if we’re not going to have a shortage next year, it’s going to be by the skin of our teeth. If we don’t have a good (precipitation) year next year, we’re going to be screwed in 2020 — that’s why it is critical that we get the DCP completed.”

Arizona’s largest water users are still trying to agree on a unified state position, water experts said.

“Right now, the thing that’s holding it up is Arizona and the inability to come together,” John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program told the AP. “The whole system is at risk.”

Mohave County District 5 Sup. Lois Wakimoto, a member of the state steering committee, told the Daily News the four key elements for LBDCP include agricultural mitigation, Tribal intentionally created surplus, Arizona conservation plans and excess water.

“Everybody is going to have to give up something in this drought contingency plan,” Wakimoto said. “We want to make it as fair and as just as we can.”

Intentionally created surplus are programs that leave water behind the dam so that it can be pulled out at some point in the future, like a savings account, Clark said.

“Most of that ICS comes from Imperial, Palo Verde, the California entities that have been leaving water behind the dam,” Clark explained. “We’ve put about 20 feet of water into Lake Mead and actually we would have been in a shortage situation since 2015 had it not been for these programs.

“We need to get (LBDCP) done by the end of this year.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Update hourly