Colorado River states worry about continuing drought

Thursday , December 11, 2014 - 12:00 AM

By KEN RITTER
Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — Amid worries that crucial multi-state water agreements are beginning to erode due to concerns about supply and ongoing drought, representatives of seven Colorado River basin states are emphasizing cooperation during annual meetings this week in Las Vegas.

David Modeer, general manager of the Central Arizona Project and keynote speaker at the conference on Thursday, is pointing to a new agreement aimed at keeping 4 feet of Arizona water in Lake Mead through 2017.

The deal involves CAP, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Modeer said California, Nevada and Bureau of Reclamation conservation efforts could yield another 6 feet of elevation at the lake, for a total of 10 feet.

“If the river continues its decline, everyone is affected,” Modeer said in an interview ahead of the three-day conference at the Caesars Palace resort on the Las Vegas Strip. “We need cooperation among the states that use the water.”

Officials acknowledge the effort to prop up the water level is a short-term fix. But keeping the water level higher than 1,075 feet above sea level is key to avoiding agreed-upon cuts in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and California.

Lake Mead stood Wednesday at a little under 1085 feet above sea level — only 10 feet above shortage declaration.

The reservoir behind Hoover Dam is the key measuring point of water in the vast Colorado River system that also includes the Green, San Juan and Gila rivers and some 55 dams and diversions. The basin is home to some 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland.

Lake Mead dropped to historic levels this year after almost 15 years of regional drought, leaving a distinctive white mineral “bathtub ring” on surrounding canyon walls.

John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas, called the plan to create what he termed a “system conservation agreement” a template for future pacts.

“Even on average days, more water goes out of Lake Mead than goes in,” he said.

The agreement was approved last week by the Central Arizona Project board, and approved Wednesday by the SNWA board.

Bob Muir, spokesman for Metropolitan, said board members of the Los Angeles-area agency were notified of the agreement Monday.

Modeer said Arizona aims to keep water in Lake Mead by using local water supplies for Phoenix instead of reservoir water. He said CAP was also working on agreements with farmers to use less water.

The conference in Las Vegas involving the upper basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico and lower basin states Arizona, California and Nevada came amid a flood of developments about water in the West.

— Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper received a report Wednesday calling for his state to capture and use every legal drop of Rocky Mountain snowmelt before it flows downstream. Colorado cities are projected to grow from 5.5 million today to up to 9 million by 2050, and farmland is going dry as cities buy out farmers to get their water.

— At Lake Mead, crews broke through on a 3-mile tunneling project to establish a so-called “third straw” drinking water intake for Las Vegas. The project, costing more than $800 million, has taken three years to drill. Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its drinking water from Lake Mead. The new intake could be operational this summer.

— In Las Vegas, the water authority board approved spending $650 million to build a pumping station to draw water from the deepest reaches of the lake, in case two existing intakes go dry. Average residential customers will pay for the project with a rate hike of nearly $5 per month that will be phased in over the next three years.

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