The fight for water: Here's why the West's oldest battle could hit you at the tap
Drought, coupled with the over-appropriation of Colorado River water, poses significant and constant challenges to water storage — the so-called insurance policies that appear as the more than 100 dams built along the Colorado River and its tributaries. They can hold approximately four times the annual flow of the river, or 60 million acre-feet.
Storage, however, can hold up only so long in the face of drought.
The two largest reservoirs in the system, Lake Mead in Nevada and Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona, have been experiencing drastic declines. It took 19 years to fill Lake Mead to a level of 24 million acre-feet in 1998, but by 2007, the lake's level had already decreased 54 percent. Mead supplies water to Las Vegas and surrounding communities — two-thirds of Nevada's population.
"The swings in the Colorado River are getting more wild and more severe," said J.C. Davis, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. "I don't think that 'likely' is too strong of a word that levels at Mead are going to continue to drop."
By mid-April, Lake Mead was just more than half full, with levels expected to plunge another 14 feet by the end of the year. Declining levels at Lake Mead, impounded behind Hoover Dam, call into question the possibility it may someday be idled as a source of hydroelectric power.
Such a scenario would throw the power supply for 29 million people into question and cause a destabilization of the regional energy market, forcing utility companies to buy up power at considerably higher prices, which are eventually passed on to consumers.
Federal managers have already reduced the hydroelectric generating capacity by 23 percent at Hoover and are buying new equipment to make power generation as efficient as possible.
Rose Davis, with the Bureau of Reclamation, said the agency is installing a wide-head turbine and has plans to add two more in the next year.
Lake Powell, behind the Glen Canyon Dam, is experiencing a similar situation. It took 17 years to fill Lake Powell to its full capacity of 27 million acre-feet, and in just six years, between 1999 and 2005, the level of the lake was reduced by 60 percent.
The latest numbers projecting the volume of this year's runoff into Lake Powell show that in only two other years — 1977 and 2002 — was there less water, leaving water managers to yearn for the conditions of last year, which was the third wettest on record since the gates at Glen Canyon Dam were closed in the mid-1960s.
"Never in the historic record have we seen a swing in hydrology from wet to dry of this magnitude," said Rick Clayton, hydraulic engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation.
Malcolm Wilson, chief of water resources with the agency, agrees the threats of population growth and more demand on the limited supplies of the Colorado River loom as very real hazards. But they do not constitute the most severe threat.
He said the real problem is apathy born from ignorance.
"The biggest hazard in my mind is that people don't take this problem of future imbalances seriously," Wilson said. "They're not thinking hard about how we are going to address this and society will have to grapple with the tough choices."
COMING MONDAY: Solving the problem. A look at possible solutions to the shrinking Colorado River.
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