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U.S. may cut water to state

Southwest drought slashes Colorado River flows.

By Stuart Leavenworth -- Bee Staff Writer - (Published April 27, 2004)

The Bush administration is threatening to impose unilateral water cutbacks on California, Arizona and Nevada if the three states can't come up with a plan to deal with a historic drought on the Colorado River.

Following five years of dry weather, the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado are roughly half-empty and dropping fast, and Interior Department officials are urging water agencies to work together on a contingency plan or have one imposed on them.

"We need the three basin states to get their act together and deal with shortages," said Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley in a recent meeting with water officials from California, Arizona and Nevada. If the three states can't work out a plan, he said, the Interior secretary "will have to do it."

For years, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and other fast-growing cities in the region have depended on surplus water from the Colorado - supplies that exceed their entitlements. Now, the Southwest is shifting to a much drier period, and states are facing not only the loss of surplus but also cutbacks that could affect tens of millions of people.

In California, the water squeeze is already being felt statewide. With less water from the Colorado River, Southern California is pushing conservation, more use of groundwater banks and extra pumping from the Delta.

"We are entering some new territory," said Raley, who notes that the modern Southwest has never had to deal with an extended drought.

Since 1999, Lake Mead has dropped more than 80 feet and is at 58 percent of capacity. With less water pressure going through its turbines, Hoover Dam is losing some of its capacity to generate power, and Las Vegas is preparing to deepen its water intake in Lake Mead to keep up with a moving target.

Upstream, at Lake Powell, the water loss is even more dramatic. In four years, Powell has dropped nearly 120 feet, and now holds 42 percent of its maximum water capacity. Never before have both Lake Mead and Lake Powell been at such a low state at the same time, according to officials for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Water leaders in the Southwest are closely watching these lake levels, and so are those in other Western states. Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the upper-basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of water to the three lower-basin states each year. Lake Powell was built so the upper basin could deliver on that promise, but now Powell's future is in doubt.

According to federal forecasts, drought and water deliveries could drain Powell in three years. In such a situation, the upper basin would be forced to forgo river withdrawals or risk a major court battle.

To head off that prospect, water officials from seven states have been meeting regularly in recent months, said Dennis Underwood, a former reclamation commissioner who now works for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The most recent meeting was held Monday in Phoenix, where officials discussed options for keeping the taps flowing.

Some of those options, said Underwood, include storing lower-basin water in upper-basin reservoirs to reduce the huge evaporation that occurs in Lake Mead. Agencies are also discussing water trades and "forbearance agreements" - paying farmers not to irrigate - to help vulnerable areas through a drought.

One such spot is Las Vegas, the nation's fastest growing city and one that draws 98 percent of its water from the Colorado. Not wanting to gamble on their future, Nevada officials have been pressing for some type of interstate water-sharing arrangement.

Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the recent talks are a recognition that the regional water situation is serious. "People are finally realizing that the drought is real," said Mulroy, "and not something I thought up in a bar."

In a December speech in Las Vegas, Interior Secretary Gale Norton laid out some of the possible scenarios. Under the 2001 Interim Surplus Guidelines, Norton said she is required to cut surplus supplies to California, Arizona and Nevada if the surface of Lake Mead drops to 1,125 feet in elevation - 10 feet below its current level.

Further down the road, Norton could use her court-appointed authority as Colorado "river master" to declare a shortage and impose cutbacks. Some water experts believe Norton could make such a declaration when Lake Mead's surface level hits 1,083 feet elevation - about 52 feet below its current elevation - but the law isn't specific.

To ratchet up the pressure, Interior officials invited Southwest water leaders and a group of journalists on a boat trip this month down the Grand Canyon, where Raley repeated his warning Norton was ready to take action. "Time lost now is time we may not be able to recover," said Raley, pacing across a sand bar like Gen. George Patton.

Some environmentalists say the Bush administration is delaying tough decisions by playing this kind of drawn-out pressure politics. This year, they note, the Bureau of Reclamation declared a partial surplus on the Colorado River, which further depleted Lake Mead. Now federal officials are preaching drought preparedness.

"The bureau is dragging its feet," said Jeff Van Ee, a water watchdog for the Sierra Club in Las Vegas. "They haven't taken this drought seriously."

Raley, who oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, said he started working closely on the drought problem in January. Before that, he helped seal a landmark settlement that quantified how much water California's cities and farms could draw from the Colorado River. By agreeing to limit its water withdrawals to 4.4 million acre-feet, California was given a 13-year grace period to continue receiving "surplus" water from the river.

Now, say water officials, that grace period appears to be moot.