Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, has hit record lows.

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, has hit record lows. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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Business as usual on the Colorado River may be about to come to a screeching halt.

One of the worst recorded droughts in human history has stretched water supplies thin across the far-reaching river basin, which serves 40 million people.

Nowhere is this more obvious than Lake Mead, which straddles the border of Arizona and Nevada. The water level in the country’s largest manmade reservoir has been plummeting; it’s now only 38 percent full.

With an official water shortage imminent, Arizona, Nevada and California are taking matters into their own hands.

The states are hammering out a voluntary agreement to cut their water use — an approach some consider revolutionary after so many decades of fighting and lawsuits.

The cooperation springs from self-preservation. If Lake Mead drops too low, the federal government could step in and reallocate the water.

At the same time, upper basin states like Colorado and Wyoming want to use more Colorado River water — something they’re legally entitled to.

In Colorado, Denver Water is in the final stages of seeking approval on a water storage project that would take more water out of the Colorado River. Wyoming is researching whether to store more water from the Green River, a Colorado tributary.

Utah is discussing whether to build a pipeline to transport water from Lake Powell, the reservoir found up river from Lake Mead along the Utah-Arizona border.

Add in the likely impacts of climate change and how it’s affecting the Colorado River basin and you have an increasingly complex and challenging picture developing for the 21st century.

Pat Mulroy, a senior fellow at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and a leading Western water expert, says the time for a new toolbox and ideas to approach water management has arrived.

“There won’t be any winners and losers,” Mulroy says, unless Colorado River states move beyond the fighting and lawsuits of the last century as they try to adapt to the next century. “There will only be losers.”

Upper Basin States Want More Storage

There’s a silent miracle that delivers water every day to Denver Water’s 1.4 million customers. For decades, the Fraser River, a tributary of the Colorado River, has flowed through a manmade system of dams, diversions and tunnels beneath the Continental Divide.

A critical linchpin sits just outside Boulder. Gross Reservoir is a man-made lake that provides reliable storage for Denver Water. Retired IBM workers Beverly Kurtz and Tim Guenthner live just out of eyesight from the reservoir. For Kurtz, that’s on purpose.

“It’s choking off a wild river which in my opinion is never a good thing,” Kurtz says.

Beverly Kurtz and Tim Guenthner live near Gross Reservoir outside Boulder and oppose a reservoir expansion project. Denver Water is seeking to raise the dam behind them 131 feet.
Beverly Kurtz and Tim Guenthner live near Gross Reservoir outside Boulder and oppose a reservoir expansion project. Denver Water is seeking to raise the dam behind them 131 feet. (Grace Hood/CPR)

The couple have a new-found job in retirement. It’s fighting a proposed expansion to Gross Reservoir’s dam. Denver Water wants to raise the dam by 131 feet.

“It doesn’t make sense to build a multi-million dollar dam and disrupt the environment here, when down the line,” Kurtz says. “That’s not going to solve the problem.”

The problem is that Colorado’s population is expected to nearly double by 2050. A carefully crafted water plan by Colorado’s top chiefs calls for 400,000 more acre feet of storage, and 400,000 additional acre feet of conservation.

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead says more storage is an important part of the solution. It’s also an insurance policy against future drought.

“From Denver Water’s perspective, if we can’t provide clean, reliable, sustainable water 100 years from now to our customers, we’re not doing our jobs,” says Lochhead.

With the proposed expansion of Gross Reservoir, Denver Water took a new approach. The agency worked with environmental groups and Western Slope water interests on the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement.

Part of the effort involves Denver Water actively working on the Fraser River to narrow the stream channel and restore the river. If the agency gets the green light to expand Gross, it would be required to keep a formal relationship with environmental groups and local governments through the life of the project.

But that expansion is still expected to decrease stream flows by about one half of what they are now.

In Wyoming, state engineer Pat Tyrrell says the state is studying whether to store more water from the Green River, another Colorado River tributary.

“We feel we have some room to grow. But we understand that growth comes with risk,” he says.

There’s risk because Wyoming could expand reservoirs with proper permits. In 10 or 20 years there may not be enough water to fill that storage — or deliver enough water to existing reservoirs like Lake Powell. Upper basin states have developed a contingency plan to make sure that happens in the future.

Imbalance Between Supply and Demand

What unites all water planners from Colorado down to California is the need for certainty. They need confidence there will be enough water to fuel population and agricultural growth. And there’s a huge new wildcard in the deck.

“Climate change upsets all aspects of the water cycle,” says Brad Udall, Senior Water and Climate Scientist at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University. He says hotter temperatures and drought make certainty a thing of the past.

Udall says a 16-year drought has dramatically decreased water supply. This recent past could be indicative of what the future holds. He worries that flows across the basin could be reduced by as much as 20 percent by 2050.

“We know that temperatures are going to go up,” Udall says. “We know the temperature increases will influence the river flows, and that influence is likely to be strongly downward.”

Right now users along the Colorado River face a critical juncture. Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael Connor recognizes the stress that climate change could have on future water supply. He also understands how overallocated the river is now.

“The imbalance between supply and demand, is just going to increase over the next 50 years if we don’t have some very strategic plans that we put in place,” Connor says.

Lower Basin States Turn to Cooperation

Downstream, the imbalance between supply and demand is already a reality. With an historic water shortage on the horizon, California, Arizona and Nevada are working on a voluntary agreement to cut back water use.

The stakes are especially high in California, where Colorado River water has played a critical role in the state’s five year drought.

“It’s been the reliable source of water for us,” says Jeffrey Kightlinger, manager of the Metropolitan Water District, a water wholesaler that serves 19 million people in Southern California, and major power player in California water policy. “We’ve been getting hardly anything from Northern California.”

At least a quarter of Metropolitan’s water supply comes from the Colorado River, which is delivered through a 240-mile aqueduct that stretches to the Arizona border.

That supply is reaching a crisis point. Lake Mead could drop so low in 2017, an unprecedented shortage could be declared.

“That’ll be a historic moment,” Kightlinger says.

Arizona and Nevada would be forced to cut back on how much water they draw from the river. California wouldn’t be required to, because it has senior water rights. But if levels in Lake Mead keep dropping, the federal government could step in and reallocate the water, including California’s share.

In a last-ditch effort to avoid that, the three states are hashing out a voluntary agreement. Arizona and Nevada are considering deeper water cuts, if California agrees to cuts amounting to somewhere between five and eight percent of its supply.

“We all realize if we model the future and we build in climate change, we could be in a world of hurt if we do nothing,” says Kightlinger.

These negotiations would have been unthinkable just a decade ago, Kightlinger says. The three states have years of bad blood among them over the river. Most disagreements have been settled with lawsuits.

For some, that’s not easy to forget.

“We know there’s a target on our back in Imperial Valley for the amount of water we use,” says farmer Steve Benson, checking on one of his alfalfa fields near the Mexican border.

The valley produces two-thirds of the country’s vegetables in the winter. Its sole source of water is the Colorado River. Benson sees little reason to share it because the district has senior water rights that trump the rights of Metropolitan Water District.

“Other districts need to understand their place and their rights,” he says.

The Imperial Valley produces around two-thirds of the country’s vegetables in the winter, solely with Colorado River water.
The Imperial Valley produces around two-thirds of the country’s vegetables in the winter, solely with Colorado River water. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

Many farmers also say they’ve compromised enough already.

For decades, California used more than its legal share of the Colorado River and finally agreed to cut back in 2003. The Imperial Irrigation District was under pressure to transfer water to cities like San Diego to make the cutbacks possible.

“It was the single, hardest decision I have ever made in my life,” says Bruce Kuhn, who voted on the water transfer as a board member of the district. He cast the deciding vote to share the water, but it came at a personal price.

“It cost me some friends,” he reflects, still sighing at the memory. “I mean, we still talk but it isn’t the same.”

Kuhn may have to make that same call again, and soon. California’s plan to voluntarily give up water to avoid an emergency shortage will likely come up for a vote. The Imperial Irrigation District is considering the deal, but is looking for incentives like the ability to bank water in Lake Mead.

Jeffrey Kightlinger of the Metropolitan Water District says it’s a tough conversation. “But if the Colorado River dries up, Imperial goes out of business. It’s in all our interest to solve this.”

To some, the negotiations are sign of what’s to come on an increasingly-stressed river.

“Can we get through?” asks UNLV’s Pat Mulroy. “Yes, but not the same way we got through the last 100 years. There’s a different set of interconnections and relationships that have to be forged. So it’s how we tackle the problem that has to change.”

Arizona Public Media and Beyond the Mirage contributed audio to this story.

  • mthstar

    Why not work on stabilizing the population instead of planning on it growing? It is well past high time we do.

  • Rush Sturges

    In the Mississippi Valley and the North West Coast it seems there are frequently an oversupply of water while California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas are parched. It may be that we need a continent wide water management system with pipes to store and redistribute water as needed. A few years back Louisiana was flooded while Texas was parched.

  • DonWood

    “We feel we have some room to grow. But we understand that growth comes with risk,” he says.
    Unfortunately almost all cities in the west feel the same way. So they are compounding the risk to a point where disaster is certain. Unless the West finds a way to survive without population growth, we’re all heading over a cliff together. But even if we convinced all families in the west to have no more than two kids each, we have no way of preventing more people from moving here from the eastern US and other countries. Eventually water supplies in the southwest will dry up and whole city populations will have to find somewhere else to live. We are going to go the way of the Anastasi Indian tribe. They too thought that water was an inexhaustible resource. They were wrong, and so are we.

  • Many years ago, in the State of Hawaii, I helped develop the format and prepared a “Water Use and Development Plan” The basic thesis of this local plan was that Water Use needed to be sustainable, and that sustainable use was an integral part of a Development Plan. Because Hawaii is a very isolated place, and because each island is essentially an isolated ecosystem, such an approach was both obvious and imperative. The entire United States should be viewed as several such ecosystems, and similar water plans developed. These plans should be regional, regionally administrated, and provide for appropriate give and take between entities. Our current system is chaotic and needs to be changed..