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Colorado River drought plan set for public review

Lakes Mead, Powell at lowest level in a century

Published: Thursday, March 8 2007 12:18 a.m. MST

ST. GEORGE — Six years of drought have dropped the Colorado River reservoirs of Lake Mead and Lake Powell to their lowest level in nearly 100 years of recorded history, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

A plan that would help the federal agency coordinate water delivery during such extreme shortages at the two reservoirs is now ready for public review. The draft environmental-impact statement poses four possible action alternatives, plus a no-action choice. Bureau staff, five federal agencies, water-rights stakeholders, environmental organizations and other interested parties assisted in drafting the plan.

"The seven basin states of the Colorado River not too many months ago were ready to turn loose their lawyers and begin the battle of the titans" over water rights, said Mark Limbaugh, Assistant Secretary of Water and Science with the Department of the Interior. "Since then, the biggest turnover I've ever seen has taken place. They are now working together to share shortages, better manage reservoirs and make it through the tough times we know are ahead of us."

Limbaugh spoke this week in St. George to more than 650 people attending the Utah Water Users Convention.

"This is history-making," said Limbaugh. "The Secretary of the Interior will choose an alternative, and a record of decision will set forth the guidelines on how to manage water shortages and retain the water rights they have."

Over the past six years, water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead dropped from nearly full to less than 60 percent of capacity at the end of 2006, according to the bureau. No federal guidelines are currently in place to define the circumstances of when and how the annual amount of water available would be reduced to the states holding water rights in the Colorado River.

The states holding water rights are Utah, Wyoming and Colorado as the Upper Division, while Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California make up the Lower Division states.

"The West has always had drought in one way or another," said Limbaugh. "That's why we have reservoirs. We're in a new era in water management. We need to manage like we are in a drought every year. We need to save for the future. We can't go back to complacency."

The primary purpose of developing the drought guidelines is to improve management of the Colorado River by considering trade-offs between frequency and magnitude of any reductions in water supply. The plan developers also wanted to consider the effects of water storage in the two reservoirs on supply, power production, recreation and other environmental resources.

And the planners aimed to provide the Lower Division states a greater degree of predictability when it comes to water delivery during a drought, as well as additional methods of storage and delivery of the water supplies in Lake Mead.

Copies of the Draft EIS are available at the Bureau of Reclamation's Web Site at usbr.gov/lc/region/programs/strategies.html. The public review period for the document ends April 30, 2007. A public hearing on the plan is scheduled April 5 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Hilton Salt Lake City Center, 255 S. West Temple.


E-mail: nperkins@desnews.com

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