Lodi News-Sentinel

Lake Mead and Lake Powell are unlikely to refill in our lifetimes

- Rong-Gong Lin II and Ian James

LOS ANGELES — The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is the deepest it’s been in decades, but those storms that were a boon for Northern California won’t make much of a dent in the long-term water shortage for the Colorado River Basin — an essential source of supplies for Southern California.

In fact, the recent storms haven’t changed a view shared by many Southern California water managers: Don’t expect lakes Mead and Powell, the nation’s largest reservoirs, to fill up again anytime soon.

“To think that these things would ever refill requires some kind of leap of faith that I, for one, don’t have,” said Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University.

Lake Mead, located on the Arizona-Nevada border and held back by Hoover Dam, filled in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2000, it was nearly full and lapping at the spillway gates. But the megadrough­t over the last 23 years — the most severe in centuries — has worsened the water deficit and left Lake Mead about 70% empty.

Upstream, Lake Powell has declined to just 23% of full capacity and is approachin­g a point where Glen Canyon Dam would no longer generate power.

Even with this winter’s above-average snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, water officials and scientists say everyone in the Colorado River Basin will need to plan for low reservoir levels for years to come. And some say they think the river’s major reservoirs probably won’t refill in our lifetimes.

“They’re not going to refill. The only reason they filled the first time is because there wasn’t demand for the water. In the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, there was no Central Arizona Project, there was no Southern

Nevada Water Authority, there was not nearly as much use in the Upper (Colorado River) Basin,” said Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolit­an Water District of Southern California. “So the water use was low. So that filled up storage.”

Demand for Colorado River water picked up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile-long water delivery system, brings water from the Colorado River to Arizona’s most populous counties and wasn’t completed until the 1990s. The Southern Nevada Water Authority was created in 1991.

Arizona began starting to take its full apportionm­ent of river water in the late 1990s, and Nevada in the early 2000s. California continues using the single largest share of the river.

“Now the water use is maxed out. Every state is taking too much, and we have to cut back. And so there’s just not enough. You would need wet year after wet year, after wet year after wet year, after wet year. Even then, because the demand is so high, it still wouldn’t fill,” Hasencamp said in an interview.

Climate change has dramatical­ly altered the river. In the last 23 years, as rising temperatur­es have intensifie­d the drought, the river’s flow has declined about 20%.

Scientists have found that roughly half the decline in the river’s flow has been caused by higher temperatur­es, and that climate change is driving the aridificat­ion of the Southwest. With global warming, average temperatur­es across the upper watershed — where most of the river’s flow originates — have risen about 3 degrees since 1970.

Research has shown that for each additional 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), the river’s average flow is likely to decrease about 9%.

In multiple studies, scientists have estimated that by the middle of this century, the average flow of the river could decline by 30% or 40% below the average during the past century.

“The last 23 years are the best lessons we have right now, and they should scare the pants off of people,” said Udall, who has been a co-author of research showing how warming is sapping the river’s flows.

Based on the low levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, Udall said, he would estimate that refilling the reservoirs would take roughly six consecutiv­e extremely wet years, with water flows similar to those in 2011.

“We’d need six years like that to refill this system, in a row, based on current operating rules,” Udall said. “And I just don’t see that even being remotely possible.”

The Colorado River Basin very well could get a few wet years, he said.

“We might even get a wet decade. But, boy, the long-term warming and drying trend seems super clear to me,” Udall said. “And a bet on anything other than that seems like water management malpractic­e, that we have got to plan for something that looks like a worst-case future.”

The Colorado River supplies water to seven states, tribal nations and Mexico. The states are under pressure from the federal government to agree on cuts to prevent reservoirs from dropping to dangerousl­y low levels.

California and the six other states are at odds over how to make the cuts, and have submitted separate proposals to the federal government, with some disagreeme­nts centering on the legal system that governs how the river is managed.

Scientists have warned of a coming crisis for many years.

In a 2008 study, scientists Tim Barnett and David Pierce examined the likely flow declines with climate change and estimated there was a 50% chance the usable water supply in Lake Mead and Lake Powell would be gone by 2021. They titled their study “When Will Lake Mead Go Dry?” In research published in 2009, they wrote that based on projection­s with climate change or even the long-term average flows, “currently scheduled future water deliveries from the Colorado River are not sustainabl­e.”

“Climate change is reducing the flow into the Colorado River system, so the agreements are divvying up more water than exists,” said Pierce, a climate scientist at Scripps Institutio­n of Oceanograp­hy. “This drop in reservoir levels is happening because we are abiding by agreements that do not account for changes in water inflow into the system due to climate change.”

 ?? ALLEN J. SCHABEN/LOS ANGELES TIMES ?? A boater gets an up-close view of the “bathtub ring” on Lake Mead — evidence of its low water level — while touring Hoover Dam.
ALLEN J. SCHABEN/LOS ANGELES TIMES A boater gets an up-close view of the “bathtub ring” on Lake Mead — evidence of its low water level — while touring Hoover Dam.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States