Drought takes its toll on Colorado River

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The Colorado River and its slew of manmade reservoirs are being sapped by 14 years of drought that’s nearly unrivaled in 1,250 years.

From the Rockies to southern Arizona, the river has slowed to a trickle and reservoirs have shrunk to less than half their capacities, according to a report in The New York Times.

Regional water agencies are recycling sewage effluent, offering rebates for those willing to tear up grass lawns and are subsidizing water-saving appliances ranging from dishwashers to shower heads.

Despite those mitigation efforts, many experts believe the current drought is the harbinger of a new, drier era in which the Colorado’s flow will be substantially and permanently diminished.

Faced with the shortage, federal authorities this year will for the first time decrease the amount of water that flows into Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, from Lake Powell 180 miles upstream. That will further reduce the level of Lake Mead, a crucial source of water for cities from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and for millions of acres of farmland.

Reclamation officials say there is a 50-50 chance that by 2015, Lake Mead’s water will be rationed to states downstream. That, too, has never happened before.

“If Lake Mead goes below elevation 1,000” — 1,000 feet above sea level — “we lose any capacity to pump water to serve the municipal needs of seven in 10 people in the state of Nevada,” John Entsminger, senior deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told the paper.

These new realities are forcing a profound reassessment of how the 1,450-mile Colorado, the Southwest’s only major river, can continue to meet demand in one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions.

Agriculture, from California’s Imperial Valley to Wyoming’s cattle herds, soaks up about three-quarters of its water, and produces 15 percent of the nation’s food. But 40 million people also depend on the river and its tributaries, and their numbers are rising rapidly.

Lake Mead currently stands about 1,106 feet above sea level, but it is expected to drop 20 feet in 2014. A continued decline would introduce a new set of problems: At 1,075 feet, rationing begins; at 1,050 feet, a more drastic rationing regime kicks in and the uppermost water intake for Las Vegas shuts down. At 1,025 feet, rationing grows more draconian; at 1,000 feet, a second Las Vegas intake runs dry.


2 comments on “Drought takes its toll on Colorado River

  1. Chuck Fisher

    Apparently the Las Vegas hotels haven’t heard about the shortage. The water pressure in my room was so high that it almost blew what little hair I have left right off my head.

  2. Bob Gustafson

    As a resident of Las Vegas, I follow the water issue quite closely. With 40 million visitors each year, tourism is the economic engine of Las Vegas. The industry has focused on water conservation and accounts for only 6-7% of the total water used in the valley. Through conservation, the entire Las Vegas valley has held total water usage generally flat while seeing significant population growth. This was accomplished through conservation efforts such as increasing water rates and paying home owners and golf courses to replace grass with “Water Smart” landscaping. That program has upgraded more than 160 million square feet of grass to water-efficient landscaping. In total, Nevada is allocated 300,000 acre feet of water each year from Lake Mead. Compare that to California which gets 4.4 million acre feet each year, most going towards agriculture in the Imperial Valley, and Arizona which gets 2.8 million acre feet each year.

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