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New Colorado River Water Savings Plan Doesn't Go Far Enough, Researcher Warns


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Scenic view of Lake Mead with low water levels and white bathtub ring on shore
In the past year, the water level in Lake Mead has fallen about 16 feet,
exceeding predictions.

A blunt assessment from the Arizona Daily Star finds that emergency plans for water saving in the Colorado River likely won’t be enough to stabilize a system beset by drought. The story, released mid-December in the major Tucson news outlet, relies on research from the Center for Colorado River Studies from the Quinney College of Natural Resources to make the case that the emergency plans that three Lower Basin states developed to save an extra 500,000 acre-feet of river water won’t go far enough to stabilize dropping levels.

The emergency plan asks significant cuts in deliveries to the Central Arizona Project, which brings river water via canals to tribes, farms and the Phoenix and Tucson areas. Kevin Wheeler, consultant for the Center for Colorado River Studies, warns that the three states will ultimately need to save at least twice the amount of water proposed by the new plan, and at a faster pace, to prop up an ailing Lake Mead.

Meanwhile, states are looking at longer-term intervention to save Lake Mead and Powell from dropping below critical levels within the next few years. Arizona and Nevada are scheduled to start conserving 520,000 acre-feet of river water under a separate drought contingency plan in 2022. The latest plan is scheduled to take effect next year.

A 2019 drought contingency plan and the current plan are seen as short-term fixes for Lake Mead until a longer-term plan can be approved when all seven Colorado River Basin states negotiate a replacement for a set of broader federal guidelines that expire in 2026. A federal forecast predicted Lake Mead could fall to 1,030 feet by July 2023.

The ‘groundbreaking study’ from the Center warns that a total of at least 2 million acre-feet of Lower Basin conservation will be needed to stabilize the combined reservoir storage of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the article states. Together, the 2019 plan and the one announced in December would also conserve almost 2 million acre-feet, after Lake Mead falls another 40 or so feet below where it stands today. But Wheeler said the Lower Basin needs to conserve faster than planned because of the rapidly plummeting reservoirs. Lakes Mead and Powell have fallen faster this year than predicted.

If the ‘millenium drought’ that began in 2000 persists, the 1 million acre-feet of conservation now approved or on the verge of approval won’t be enough, Wheeler said. And if river flows keep declining as they’ve done since the turn of the century, more savings will likely be needed, he said.

In the past year, water levels in Lake Mead fell about 16 feet, while Lake Powell has dropped about 47 feet. Between them, the two reservoirs are currently storing about 15.73 million acre-feet, well below their combined capacity of about 50.44 million. Powell is 28% full and Mead is 34% full, federal records show. They were nearly full at the turn of the century.

“Any buffer that existed at the beginning of the year is now gone,” Wheeler said. “We lost that buffer much faster than expected.”

Managers should not wait for the reservoir to fall below 1,025 feet to make more drastic cuts in water deliveries, Wheeler said. It should begin as soon as possible.

Wheeler is an Oxford University senior research fellow and a lead investigator for the extensive series of Colorado River studies conducted at the Center for Colorado River Studies.