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Lake Mead Will Go Dry

February 26, 2015
by John Weisheit

The real menace are the water managers of the Colorado River basin
The real menace are the water managers of the Colorado River basin

"There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be."
Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire.
"The Colorado River doesn't have a water scarcity problem, it has a planning and zoning problem."
Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson

The decline of reservoir storage in the Colorado River basin of the Pacific southwest is recognized worldwide.

When Lakes Mead and Powell of the Colorado River are full, they are the largest reservoirs by volume in the USA. However, the total annual volume of the Colorado River does not even show up on the list of the nation's top 20 rivers.

In 2003, human consumption and system evaporation for the Colorado River basin equaled the river's natural flow. How possibly could the Colorado River reservoirs ever fill again without surplus water? There is only one way: a 100-year snow melt (see this AGU paper). Until this snow melt arrives, it is not far-fetching to assume the reservoirs will empty during the interim.

When the 100-year snow melt does arrive a national emergency will be declared, because planning and zoning departments have allowed the 100-year floodplain to be occupied with critical infrastructure. Dam managers had serious spillway issues to deal with during the snow melt of 1983, which was only a 30-year event (statistically).   

The 100-year snowmelt is overdue by several decades, and just why is that? Does it really matter if the denial of climate change exists, or not? Is it not already obvious that hydro-societies can't manage the dry and wet cycles they were born into? Especially if the gluttonous mandate is "total use for greater wealth?"

If the reservoirs go empty, who is to blame but the water managers? Look at this graph again, if you didn't in paragraph three. Note that when Lake Mead was filling in 1935, there was a system surplus of about 8 million acre-feet. If that surplus existed today, would sustained and severe drought have a devastating impact?

If infrastructure was kept out of the floodplain, would a 100-year snow melt have any impact?  It could actually be worse, since a 500-year snow melt requires the attention of water managers too.

If a hydro-society intentionally creates an unsustainable situation on the sole basis of generating maximum wealth with public funds, than why should the rest of the world feel sorry for them when it fails?

Secondly, why should the rest of nation provide assistance to get them out of a mess they themselves created? And thirdly, if the nation did give them assistance, do you really think they would use those resources to make the water works of the Colorado River resilient? The answer is no, because their behavior has always been and will always be, "total use for greater wealth." When the coming trainwreck occurs their quote will become, "no use and no prosperity for nobody."

Reference: The Colorado River: A Natural Menace Becomes a National Resource. Dept. of the Interior. 1946.

The water managers of the Colorado River basin understand that when Lake Mead (Hoover Dam) runs dry, it also means the surplus in Lake Powell (Glen Canyon Dam) has been exhausted too. The two reservoirs have been managed as one since Lake Powel began filling 1963. However in 2007, the guidelines for "equalization" were finely tuned to avert water curtailments, the cessation of hydropower, and the looming possibility of exhausting the contents of the reservoirs. By following specific operating criteria for the release of water at Glen Canyon Dam, it can take one or two years to accomplish this balancing act. Shortages do not begin until the elevation of Lake Mead reaches 1075 feet on January 1st.

The guidelines of 2007 are not Draconian. If water shortages are declared by the Secretary of Interior, the maximum amount withheld from the lower basin users amounts to only 5% of the annual average released from Hoover Dam.

This same document allows the upper basin states to increase their consumption to 1 million acre-feet by year 2050 (16.5% of the flow into Lake Powell). Ironically, under this so-called shortage plan there is actually an 11.5% increase in consumption.

What is the plan if it gets worse? We don't know. The Bureau af Reclamation and the seven states of the basin did not go there, other than to say, when Lake Mead gets to elevation 1025 feet, a "reconsultation" process begins.

Think about how unprofessional it is for water managers to reconsult in the middle of a water crisis and not before. Perhaps you are wondering why the publically-funded 2007 guidelines, nor the 2012 Basin Study, did not have a worst-case scenario plan?

CLICK HERE to read the 70-year public record of agency neglect toward balancing human demand with the natural supply of the Colorado River.

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