Creeping toward shortage: Lake Mead now headed for bigger drop next year than we thought

Folks worried that Lake Mead might drop below elevation 1,075 and trigger a first-ever Lower Colorado River Basin shortage now have more to worry about. The latest monthly model runs from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (pdf) have increased the odds, and suggest that Mead (currently at 1,077.03) could drop all the way to 1,054 by the end of the 2016 “water year” – 18 feet lower than projected just one month ago.

This is all a result of the interaction of two important water management rules – one that calls for holding more water upstream in Lake Powell to keep that reservoir from dropping too far, and a second that calls for curtailing water deliveries to Arizona, holding the water back in Lake Mead, outside Las Vegas.

The latest monthly Bureau model runs, released this afternoon, point toward a likely need to cut releases from Lake Powell, on the Colorado River along the Arizona-Utah border, beginning Oct. 1. That would result in less water being delivered to Lake Mead, downstream, increasing the chances of a first-ever shortage declaration and cascading shortfalls in Arizona as early as Jan. 1. So far odds are against that second eventuality – Arizona cuts beginning Jan. 1. But it’s very close right now, with projected Jan. 1 levels of 1,075.92, just 11 inches from the trigger point.

Regardless of whether we hit the 1,075 trigger this time around, however, reduced releases from Lake Powell would ensure huge drops in Lake Mead next year.

This is all part of the complicated operating rules adopted in 2007 intended to balance shortfalls in Powell, the main upper basin storage reservoir, and Mead, the main reservoir downstream for use by Nevada, Arizona, and California. Powell has been hovering right around a trigger point (elevation 3,575 feet above sea level on Jan. 1) that would require cutbacks to keep more water in Powell. There’s a lot of “if this then that” rules stumbling over one another here, but if the August monthly modeling run shows Powell is too low, that automatically invokes a rule to hold more water in Powell and release less water to Mead. And less water in Mead translates to increased risk of triggering a second rule that would keep more water in Mead next year by cutting deliveries to Arizona.



  1. Hi John. So this is a contradiction I see in the general argument for your book. On the one hand, what you say, it’s a matter of cleverly and creatively gathering the experts and tweaking the kafkaesque rules and outdated institutions to adapt. But on the other hand, maybe the rules and institutions are like an 8 track tape in a brand new Stingray with Sirius and an iPhone adapter and we need a radical transformation.


  2. Mike is onto something here. Not being a book writer, I am free to mix metaphors: BuRec is just kicking the can down the road in gaming the 1075′, hoping for a Hail Mary pass from Mother Nature who bats last in the form of a big next snowpack as steakholders hold hands singing kumbaya while they flood-irrigate another alfalfa field so the two mile long double-decker container trains at Barstow don’t go back to Asia empty. Like the starving donkey staring indecisively at two equally spaced bales of hay, I wonder if these ‘rules stumbling over one another’ don’t amount to the aquatic version of Gödel’s axiomatic incompleteness theorem.

    I’m thinking here of MWD contemplating a 200,000 acre-ft withdrawal of its Intentionally Created Surplus bank account at Lake Mead– a 2.5′ drop. A run on the bank by California, Nevada, Arizona and Mexico would lower the lake 10′, so drop the level into the end zone if not quite the dead zone.

    On top of withdrawals during a single year being capped (eg 300,000 af for Las Vegas of its 524,000 af banked), the bank cannot be tapped during a declared shortage on the river or if federal officials determine that a withdrawal would tip the river into shortage. Beyond those constraints, BuRec has no real control over what the depositors choose to do.

    So at a bare minimum, your rule book should add “within limits but not this if that” to “if this then that”.

    The reality is, Lake Mead is effectively at 1067′ today rather than 1077′. Bank customers are looking at their deposits as hopelessly stranded assets — unless they withdraw them in a hurry before the shortage declaration or future tippage determination, which cannot take place before August. It could devolve into a game of musical chairs — get out before the music stops because your fiduciary responsibilities trump team player

    ICS was a device to forestall a shortage declaration but is verging on becoming the equivalent, a Hotel California or floating roach trap where your water can go in but can never come out.

  3. Or maybe more the featherless bipeds who created what the geographers call the “hydrosocial cycle” that we’re trying to change today.

  4. Tom –

    Your “ICS run on the bank” scenario seems unlikely.

    MWD has already, as you note, announced its intention to remove its remaining 169kaf of ICS, which if I understand the modeling correctly is already included in the 24-month study’s results.

    Nevada has agreed to convert some of its ICS to “system water” as part of the “Pilot Drought Response” MOU approved in December, essentially relinquishing its claim. Nevada has no way to take out the rest – it’s got no place to put it. That’s a total of 565kaf of ICS water that’s staying in Mead.

    That leaves Arizona’s 103kaf, and because Arizona is the one with the most to lose when Mead slips under 1,075, it has an incentive to leave it there as well.

    Mike – When I say the hydrology is giving my hypothesis a stress test, I’m not just being glib. There are specific things that happen under the institutional adaptations already in place, built through the processes that I am chronicling in my book, and the hydrology is providing a test of whether those things work.

    First and most importantly, as the water runs short, more is held upstream in Lake Powell and water users downstream are forced to curtail. The “shortage” everyone’s freaking out about isn’t some unforeseen crisis. It’s the plan everybody made to curtail water use when there’s not enough water in the system – to hold more water in Mead and Powell and reduce downstream uses.

    Specifically, while more water is held in Lake Powell and Lake Mead drops as a result, Arizona because of its junior status takes the brunt of cutbacks for some time to come. This is the deal Arizona made to get the Central Arizona Project built, and which it confirmed in the development of the 2007 shortage sharing agreement. Knowing this, Arizona has stacked its water use deck to leave a substantial buffer of agriculture in Maricopa County, which has been subsidized by municipal users to provide this buffer, keeping CAP full even when Central Arizona didn’t need the water. The test here is whether this grand bargain struck within Arizona to get CAP built and to prepare for shortage holds, and the plans in place to cope with shortfalls – ag reductions and use of banked groundwater – can be successfully implemented. In other words, the system as I am describing it in my book is quite specific about who gets shorted at what levels of “not enough water”. The test is whether the plans in place to respond to that can be successfully executed.

    The second test is California, which had to get its water use house in order in a hurry back in 2003, when it was cut from 5-plus million acre feet per year to 4.4maf. The sort of fuzzy “social capital” I’m writing about succeeded at that task when lots of people were skeptical in the same way that you are today regarding the current situation. The result is that California now has the tools to do more if it has to. When people have less water, they use less water.

    The third test is Las Vegas, which has already passed parts “a” and “b” – get its water use house in order (it’s now using less than its full allocation 225k of its 300k last year) and get its water intakes upgraded so it can still pull water from Mead at low levels. Part “c”, its pumping plant, will leave it with the ability to get water out of the Colorado River when no one else can.

    In other words, what the current horrid hydrology is doing is testing institutional stuff that’s already in place, with predictable answers to the question of “who runs out of water” down to lower lake levels than are currently forecast.

    The fourth test is the part where there’s no way to tell whether you’re right or I am until it happens – is the current institutional framework capable of developing the next tools needed if the hydrology stays bad? At the end of all this, if the hydrology stays bad, cities will use less water (which they’ve clearly demonstrated they can when they have to), we’ll farm less (which we’ve repeatedly shown we can do when the water runs short). It’s just a question of how we get there.

  5. Thanks John. Enlightening to say the least. And just to be sure, my motives are to do what I’ve done for centuries, last couple of months for example for U Chicago and U Calif presses, namely try and be annoying to an author of a book I’m reviewing that I also like to help him/her elaborate an argument in the face of possible reader questions.

    I want to look over this new post and will write more later.

    My own thing, not yet ready for prime time, is to generalize water via the many “nexuses,” generalize the drought/climate change to a transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, argue that it represents a phase transition in the sense of nonlinear dynamics, and then derive from that the uncertainty in terms of process and outcome that calls for adaptive and co- management models that, in what I’ve read so far and experienced in New Mexico, are extremely difficult to implement given the history of water governance. You’re doing politics as the art of the possible. I’m doing politics as the barrier to the possible. They’re not necessarily contradictory, though you’re more hopeful. But then I just turned 70 and am writing more and more like Abe Simpson.

    More news at ten and thanks as always for keeping your loyal readers up to date on your research.

  6. I’ll just add a few examples:

    International avoidance of water in connection with climate change in Lima:

    National–new drilling rig in the arctic:

    New Mexico–piece I did for The Mercury on regional water planning:

    That’s it for now.

  7. I have an elephant in the living room question. Considering the obvious need for water recycling and re use,what is going on vis a vis research or development in new water technologies? It seems like the sum total of federal money here is a $1.4 MM RFP out by the Bureau of Reclamation, and that with strings, requring 50% matching funds, except for Universities. Industrial research has also gone by the boards, mostly long ago laid off along with any capital improvements to goose profit numbers.

    -Marc Andelman

  8. It all comes down to the snowpack in the next several winters. If the drought continues, the concept of genuflecting before the received planning wisdom of these water institutions is not going to fly, not with one year of reservoir capacity and 20 of (irreversible) groundwater depletion left in CA.

    Actually serious drought doesn’t have to continue because 2015 and beyond will have such elevated temperatures relative to the allocation baselines that there is an effective drought — from rain not snow and evapotranspiration — even when precip is average.;topic=1020.0;attach=11240;image

    I see these institution as myoptic stumblebums, lurching from crisis to crisis via ad hoc ‘Law of the River’ hack-ons, brinksmanship planning blind to the larger context. Limited remit and ‘politically possible’ are lame excuses; there is only do or not do. The more charitable alternative — they know exactly what they are doing — has them running a Ponzi scheme.

    It is a terrible disservice to allocate surface water without considering impacts of those policies on groundwater withdrawals. The emergency planning under discussion here did not consider or even want real groundwater withdrawal data.

    We know this only because an independent academic not connected to these institutions happened to have the interest, grants, and journal publishing ambitions to measure Basin-wide subsidence (aka net groundwater withdrawals).

    The satellite data Famiglietti used is freely available online along with simple interferometric fringing software — anyone with a remote sensing background could have done this study — yet the large staffs of these institutions did not (with the exception of localized studies by a now-defunded AZ Water Resources). California has elected to keep its head in the sand on groundwater — legalizing the race to the bottom (merely asking for volunteer reporting in 2040).

    Surface water and groundwater are tightly coupled, not just in the environment but also by policy decisions: declare a shortage in surface water and the response will be massive groundwater pumping — and now we know how much, even as ag fights off reporting and chatters about sustainable recharge in future surplus years that aren’t coming. In many basins, recharge is physically impossible; subsidence measures pore collapse, not just water withdrawn.

    There’s major irony in dedicating so much of this water to alfalfa, which is to say cow-belch methane, one of the most potent global warming gases. These institutions are thus facilitating in their own small way the ‘ridiculously resilient ridge” (and ‘terribly tenacious trough’) at the very root of this drought. Long Shadow of the Cow

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