If elevation 3,490 is Lake Powell’s new “dead pool”

abandoned boat at Lake Mead

Lake Mead shipwreck

LAKE MEAD – The Park Service has cut a raggedy new dirt road (“4×4 recommended”) north of Hemenway Harbor along Lake Mead’s receding shoreline so you can still get in to go fishing and do the beach thing.

Mead was at elevation 1,043 and change as I rode it on my bike yesterday afternoon, with lunch and time on my hands to ponder the stakes. You could see the uppermost Las Vegas water pipe, exposed to the winter air, and the stranded intake from the World War II-era Basic Magnesium factory.

I passed three Lake Mead shipwrecks, the media icons of the great collapse, ruin porn of the Colorado River. I was happy, I guess, to finally bag the pictures for myself. I guess?

It was my annual pre-Colorado River Water Users Association Lake Mead visit – a bike ride along the reservoir, a trip to Hoover Dam, some quiet time in Boulder City before heading into the madhouse of Las Vegas and CRWUA and a Colorado River in crisis.

Managing in crisis mode

The challenge right now is a very practical one. We’ve no longer time the sort of vague generalizations I got when I turned to ChatGPT for help – “Implementing stricter water usage regulations and reducing water waste can help bring the supply and demand of the Colorado River into balance.” Great. Thanks. How we gonna do that?

The Colorado River brain trust has to write new rules, and it has to write them now, in a very specific way, with little time or room for error.

I have long had a dodge when reporters or my students or whoever asked me what I think we should do: It doesn’t matter what I think we should do, I would tell them. What matters, I would say, is what emerges from the seven states and the federal government, and increasingly the Tribes and others who who now, rightly, find themselves at the negotiating table(s).

Unfortunately, what has emerged from that process is shipwrecks emerging from Lake Mead.

So I’ve dropped the shield and begun thinking about how I would rewrite the rules, if anyone asked me. Come to think of it, the Federal Government has asked me, along with all the rest of you, via this Federal Register notice. You’ve got a week left before your assignment is due.

Basically, we need to do two things.

First, we need to rewrite the rules governing releases from Glen Canyon Dam to protect Lake Powell from reaching critically low levels that, by forcing the use of the dam’s lower outlet works, might threaten the structural integrity of the dam. We do this by setting a maximum release from Powell based on the current year inflow.

Second, we need rules to cut far more deeply into Lower Basin water use, like right now – far deeper than the rules we’ve got now. They’re just not sufficient. We have to include evaporation and system losses as part of each Lower Basin state’s allocation.

Saving Glen Canyon Dam

Section 6, Interim Guidelines

Section 6C and 6D of the 2007 Interim Guidelines is the critical first step.

This is where the current rules lay out how much water is to be released each year from Glen Canyon Dam. Note the quaintly anachronistic “Lake Powell Active Storage” column on the right, with “dead pool” – zero active storage – at elevation 3,370.

If Reclamation decides it doesn’t trust the dam’s outlet works, which sit down there, then suddenly “active storage” doesn’t start until elevation 3,490, the level of the power plant intakes.

For now at least, 3,490 is the new dead pool.

That would mean that at elevation 3,525, rather than having 5.93 million acre feet of “active storage” – the amount of water above “dead pool” – we’ve really got less than 2 million acre feet of really actually usable, releasable water in Powell. The whole notion of “balancing” active storage in Mead and Powell, so central to the ’07 Guidelines, now has to look completely different.

When you get close to dead pool, you’ve got a “run of the river” system, which means that the only water that leaves a reservoir is the amount that comes in. Given that we’re apparently redefining that for Powell on the fly, the new versions of 6C and 6D somehow have to restrict releases from Powell to not much more than comes in. Basically starting now, and for the foreseeable future, until we can begin to refill Powell or drill some new tubes at the bottom that we trust.

A simple approach to the new rule here might be rewrite the release rules when you’re in the “Mid-Elevation Release Tier” (below 3,575) and the “Lower Elevation Release Tier” (below 3,525) to cap releases to inflow minus evaporation. That would set a sort ratchet that would prevent a further decline in Lake Powell below its current dangerously low levels.

You could start the year by capping Powell releases at the 24-month study’s “minimum probable” unregulated Powell inflow level, with the option of raising the release an April review based on the “most probable” unregulated inflow. Minus evaporation. You’d have to subtract evaporation from that.

Other than that, the 6C and 6D rules could stay the same.

Saving Lake Mead

As the modeling presented by Reclamation in its webinars two weeks ago shows, if you operate Powell the way I describe under low flow scenarios, you can crash Mead in a hurry. We need rules that are ready for that.

the Lower Basin “structural deficit”, reified

Taking evaporation and system losses off the top before we begin handing out water is a start. The “structural deficit” is real, it’s a result of not taking evaporation and system losses into account, and it’s written in shipwrecks emerging from the depths of Lake Mead.

Right now evaporation and system losses are in the ballpark of 1 million acre feet per year, but to be on the safe side, let’s set them at the 1.2 million acre foot per year level in the classic Reclamation “structural deficit” Powerpoint slide.

So the cuts in section 2D of the Interim Guidelines would have to be rewritten, with Arizona, Nevada, and California taking a proportional share of system losses right off the top.

You can do this some really complicated ways, based on the distance downstream of each user’s intake – so Imperial and Yuma would take a bigger system losses hit, and Las Vegas (pulling straight out of Lake Mead) would only suffer evaporative loss.

That seems like a recipe for scientized litigation, so my proposal is simple: Everyone shares this equally (sorry, Nevada friends).

That would leave us with a base allocation that looks something like this:

old allocation new allocation
CA 4.4 3.696
AZ 2.8 2.352
NV 0.3 0.252


The cuts in the big ’07 Guidelines/DCP allocation tables would then be deducted from these numbers. So under this scenario, if we drop into the Mead elevation 1,040-1,045 tier, the total allocations would be:

1,040 – 1,045
CA 3.496
AZ 1.712
NV 0.225
US Total 5.433


Notably, this gets us to the 2 million acre of cuts Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said we need in her testimony to Congress last summer.

Upper Basin

This obviously doesn’t touch the Upper Basin. The process Interior is using for this round of crisis management – a straight up revision to the ’07 Guidelines – doesn’t seem to offer a clear path to force the Upper Basin to come up with contributions of their own. For now, I’m OK with that. Since the ’07 Guidelines were signed, the Upper Basin has delivered more than 10 million acre feet of water above the required 8.25 million acre foot annual requirement. Despite that, the Lake Mead shipwrecks are emerging from the shallows. The key  here is clearly to get Lower Basin overuse under control.

But I don’t think in the longer term the Upper Basin is off the hook. Reclamation’s modeling clearly shows a risk of the Upper Basin slipping below its 82.5×10 obligation if we have a few more bad years. We need a plan to deal with that. And it’s also a matter of fairness, in my view. We all have to contribute.

My scheme for Upper Basin contributions involves the next wet year – figuring out how to forego some of the Upper Basin storage we’ve got and get that water into Lake Powell instead. Suggestions for how to write that rule are welcomed – bonus if anyone can figure out how to fit that into the rewrite of the ’07 Guidelines currently underway.


I still believe in the power of the collaborative governance framework we’ve developed in the Colorado River Basin. As Assistant Secretary of Interior Tanya Trujillo told me when I was moderating her appearance at last summer’s Getches-Wilkinson Center conference, we’d be in a lot worse shape without it.

For what it’s worth, ChatGPT agrees: “Collaboration and cooperation among states and water users is crucial in finding solutions to the supply-demand imbalance on the Colorado River.”


  1. Math works but the Juniors agreed to take cuts first. Somehow you are fluffing that point and leaving it up to the States to apportion the cuts. That is a recipe for lawsuits by the pre-Compact PPR holders. Longer term question is what to do about the fire deficit. More trees mean more eT and less flow into Powell. Again the Juniors support a growing fire deficit

  2. I am just one guy, but it seems to me that the century old compact, the interim guidelines, and the DCP have failed pretty miserably. Manifest destiny era “rights” should be replaced with a more equitable arrangement. Folks have made all sorts of agreements over the years but all were based on hydrology/inflows that simply do not exist anymore. If actual inflows are 12MAF per year we should take out losses and evap from that, leave some for the COR delta/Mexico, and then start apportioning the water for contractors. While we are at it we should limit the uses of water to actual beneficial uses. Water used to grow crops exported out of the country would not fit in my definition of a beneficial use.

  3. The two issues that scare me are:
    1. Colorado’s trans-basin diversions. Those were before, are now, and shall remain the Achilles heal of the compact. Somehow more new trans-basin diversion projects are still in play for Northern Colorado. New east slope storage to satisfy front range growth, and Nebraska & Platte River needs. Amazing that this is still a growing thing. As someone who grew up near the headwaters (of the Cache la Poudre, Colorado, and the Laramie rivers) I was taught in school that this was the birthright of the headwaters. It is simply just accepted as a thing. Delph Carpenter would have been proud, but it’s not right.

    2. The growing power of bureaucracies. Reclamation acting like they have the authority to “take” water rights or dictate how water is used. There are dozens of agencies, laws and rules that influence western water. But the core water rights remain with the 7 States, the Tribes and Mexico. Power generation remains subservient to water for irrigation and domestic uses. That is being chipped away at, but it’s not gone yet.

    The Compact and SCOTUS decisions (even those from over a century ago) still hold back giving authority to the bureaucracies. And for that Delph Carpenter should be proud. I hope it snows hard, and soon, so that they do not get tested further.
    I also hope there are good and productive discussions at the CRWUA. Best of luck.

  4. Upper basin could use some more storage aswell as the lower basins . plenty of desert to flood . and got salt lake . find ways to make the water usefull or divert it into the Colorado basin . salt lale is a useless body of water only brine shrimp live in it and all the fresh water thay gets wasted.pooriing into it . side storage off river . no more dams on the river . water reclaiming. Gray water systems …… I love the way we built our water ways . absolutely genius . especialy here in Colorado . where the river starts . good this year so far snow on track to ne good year here for the upper basin … Wet year patterns are apon us and we are behind the ball . on this subject.
    I would to he in on the planning when comes to more storage and moving it . how the denver and Colorado sorings/aurora co – op move water to the front range is amazing and is to me a model for the rest of the country … California could actually conserve , store and rethink landscapes that use tons of water . would he a big help.

  5. After reading this article & About You I can say your credentials & outlook on the subject are well taken. You need to use your influence to work with Reclamation & other entities.
    I think there needs to be another straw for Page, Arizona’s water supply. If it can be incorporated into the deeper outlet tubes that you mentioned then do that. Deeper outlet tubes do need to be constructed and soon. It would also be a travesty if water is dead-pooled and is unable to flow down into the Grand Canyon at an environmentally healthy amount.
    Hire more scientists to develop more new alternative sources of water production. I’ve read about some getting water from the air.

  6. Came to my attention that foreign countries have bought 1000,s of acres of land to grow alphafa and use our water to grow then send to China?? Where did they obtain the water rights?
    Is this true??

  7. My belief is the Federal Government needs to come up with a plan that involves saving the Colorado River by setting up a plan for how far away from the natural flow of the river. The more miles added to a water system the more evaporation will occur. The Colorado River has not made it to its natural end the Gulf of California in years. They need to reduce the extra miles of water ways. Like the Mississippi River let it flow more naturally.

  8. When all the rivers are used, when all the creeks in the ravines, when all the brooks, when all the springs are used… there is still not sufficient water to irrigate all this arid land.
    – John Wesley Powell to the 1893 Los Angeles International Irrigation Conference

    Powell was right. There were reasons the Anisazi left. Powell was booed off the stage for telling the truth. The West is toast unless concrete, draconian rules are established and enforced. Byebye swimming pools, fountains, green lawns, golf courses, and other noncritical uses. Everyone was warned but most ignored it and the crisis is here now. Good luck.

  9. We build a pipeline thousands of miles for oil and we dont even need oil to live. Not like we need water. Pipe it around like Egypt’s neighbor.

  10. The problem is not so much drought and climate change as it is politics. The levels are dropping because usage has exploded over the past 20 years. A lot of it to grow crops for export. The Chinese have lived off rice, chicken and pork for 100s of years. They have been increasing their consumption of beef immensely. That’s where the demand for alfalfa is coming from. It’s become a very profitable crop and farmers have a .ot of pull to make sure things stay the same. The amount of water going into the Imperial Valley is massive. The area is extremely hot and dry. That means a lot of evaporation. It gets all of its water from the Colorado River and they have first rights. Good luck changing that.

  11. We all what the Colorado River means to all of us as people, and the health of the western US. I with some of the other posters. At this point, and until our weather returns to something like it use to be, and it could, we don’t have a choice. We all have to see this a our problem. The bottom line is we have to use less water, otherwise there won’t be any water to use. Right? We are guilty of overuse in the past. I myself living in Southern California used to wash all eight of my cars every week, some of them twice a week. That was back in the early 80s when I would visit both lakes all the time. I saw how high the water levels were in Mead, Powell, and even Flaming Gourge. They were beautiful and full, something I thought would be that way for hundreds of thousands of years to come. I’m sure many of us felt the same way. We’ll we were wrong. And now it’s up to all of us to do our part to fix it. We all have to make the necessary cuts, for example I only wash my car once a week and I take it to a nearby car wash that uses recycled water, take shorter showers and turn the water off until all the dishes are shaped and can be rinsed all at one time. The other change I’ve made is, I think about the problem every day. It’s always on my mind and that helps me to raise the awareness to others. I know there are people out there that never think about it at all.

  12. Anyone know if it’s true that foreign corporations are using the water to grow crops and ship them out of the country ? There ought to be a law.

  13. Millions of people did not have to move to and reproduce in an area that John Wesley Powell said could not support a substantial population. Word to the wise.

  14. Someone should visit Palm Springs. Green everywhere!! Water features going and flowing. Golf courses, yards, abundant green grass everywhere. Tropical to say the least while upstream everything is dead or dying. CA can have its water for agriculture but the extras need to stop…TODAY!!

  15. Someone should visit Palm Springs. Green everywhere!! Water features going and flowing. Golf courses, yards, abundant green grass everywhere. Tropical to say the least while upstream everything is dead or dying. CA can have its water for agriculture but the extras need to stop…TODAY!!

  16. I have an idea, why don’t we let the river be a river screw the rec dams, an the rights of individual states the river will flow an dry just as it has way before we started meddling with putting in dams an sorry for the 1’s that have to suffer Cali an the rest have taken way more than there share for years to keep the pools full and the plants watered when they live in a desert community, no grass no pools no landscape that requires amounts of water other than what mother nature provides an Arizona An Nevada aren’t any better, the people that choose to live there above theneans of what nature gives them an all other states for that matter deserve to have to fight to servive

  17. Look at the numbers. Shut off the water to NV completely and there is no impact on the problem. Yes we should lower our usage, but our savings are quickly irrelevant towards solving the problem. Why is this not discussed in the state and federal reports?

  18. Cut that usage down to 4.5Maf of reliable water in the upper and lower basins, hand the remaining 3 million or so to Mexico (1.5 for ag, the other 1.5 for the river bed and delta).

    That leaves in the lower states
    CA 2.64
    AZ 1.68
    NV 0.18

    Most importantly, 7.5Maf per year continue to flow through the river between Powell and Mead (this seems to be to only requirement people agree on).

    What is holding any improvent back is refusal to ration. Instead some kind of “age priority” water right is insisted upon.

  19. Aren’t a lot of the cities returning their waste water back to the lake? All of the water used should be coming back as waste water or in the storm drains, right?

  20. I think drilling lower intakes is a very bad idea because it’s still not addressing the real problems. Strict water usage laws need to be implemented and enforced from the state and federal levels all the way down to the single end users. Redefine acceptable uses ex. lawns, golf courses, fountains, irrigation for domestic used crops and types of crops, etc,etc. and strict limits on them. A sliding scale of allotments per state needs to be developed so annual usage never exceeds annual intake minus evaporation and loss to absorption. Encourage and give incentives for capturing and using rain water and grey water. Strong fines for violators with progressive penalties for repeat offenders. Bottom line is balancing the usage with the intake . With intake volumes staying at or near the last 20-30 yr levels ( Lord willing) a balanced usage would insure the vitality of the entire regions future for generations to come. Good luck and let’s pray that the awakening and time for drastic action is finally realized.

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