River beat: the emptying of Lake Powell

Colorado River Storage

Colorado River Storage

In late 2010 and early 2011, when I was plotting out the narrative arc for my Colorado River book, I began collecting what I imagined was the detailed storytelling material to describe the decline of the river’s great reservoirs. I’d been out to Lake Mead to document the day it dropped to record level. And then it got wet. Total storage jumped 5 million acre feet in 2011. Great for the river’s water managers. Totally screwed up my story line.

Looking at the latest numbers in the Bureau of Reclamation’s monthly river operations plan (pdf) I’m wondering whether it’s time to pick up the story line again.

Based on the latest forecast, the year-end storage level in Lake Powell will be the second lowest in history, only behind 2004. After the brief bump from the very wet 2011, Lake Mead is dropping again too. And with Powell low, the “bonus water” the Lower Colorado River Basin’s water users have come to depend on as a result of the complex “equalization” rules aimed at balancing supplies in the two big reservoirs, can no longer be counted on.

Mead’s projected to drop 11 feet this year (end of September compared to same date in 2012). Powell will be down an estimated 32 feet.

Maybe this story arc is going to work out after all.

One Comment

  1. I wouldn’t worry John. If we can burn through a surplus like we saw in 2011 in just a couple of years the overall trendline isn’t gonna change. Not until we make some significant changes in demand.

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