Colorado River Reservoirs Drop Below 47 Percent Of Capacity

By Lauren Gilger
Luke Runyon, KUNC
Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2018 - 12:47pm
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Luke Runyon/KUNC
Lake Mead has been dropping for years, and if it dips too low it could trigger a shortage in the Lower Colorado River Basin.

LAUREN GILGER: Reservoirs along the Colorado River are at their lowest point for the first time of year since they were filled nearly 40 years ago. And to fill us in on the significance of this new low point is Luke Runyon. He covers the Colorado River with KUNC. Good morning, Luke.

LUKE RUNYON: Hi.

GILGER: So they're at their lowest point in 40 years. What level have they hit now?

RUNYON: So as of October 1st, reservoirs that store the Colorado River's water are at just under 47 percent of their capacity and that's according to some new data from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. And put that another way, if you add up a lot of the reservoirs that provide water to about 40 million people and irrigate more than five million acres of farmland in the Southwest, they're less than half full.

GILGER: Right, so less than half full doesn't sound good, but I mean, is this unprecedented? Has this ever happened before?

RUNYON: This is a new low point for these reservoirs. The largest reservoirs on the system, Lakes Powell and Mead, have been on the decline for a long time but they've been buffeted by some of these other reservoirs throughout the system that have held their levels at a pretty high point. And now they're dropping to a point where the whole system is at a low point, at that 47 percent of capacity.

GILGER: Okay. So you said the system provides water to 40 million people, irrigates five and a half million acres of farmland here. This sounds like a very big deal. But tell us, sort of in context, what has led up to this.

RUNYON: It is a pretty big deal. The reservoirs were at a high point just over 20 years ago. So in the year 2000, the entire Colorado River system was nearly full. And then this dry period that we've been in for the last nearly 20 years began. And you now have seen the reservoirs drop to unprecedented levels. It's a big deal in that these reservoirs provide water for that farmland, for cities throughout the desert Southwest. And if they're dropping to unprecedented levels, then you're gonna start seeing things like water cutbacks, not just to cities but to farmers as well.

GILGER: Are we seeing that happen already? Are they looking at drought plans?

RUNYON: Yeah, and that's something that's going on right now throughout the Colorado River watershed. You have water managers who are negotiating these plans called drought contingency plans. And what those are is essentially a recognition amongst water managers saying, "We know that our reservoirs are low, we know that we need to cut back our water use. But how do we do that voluntarily before the system crashes completely and we're forced to take these water cutbacks?" And having those conversations about who has to take water cutbacks first. Under what conditions do they have to take those cutbacks — those are really painful discussions and those are happening right now throughout the watershed, including in Arizona.

GILGER: And that's mostly for agriculture, it sounds like? Or are we talking about communities' use of water as well?

RUNYON: Both. And that's kind of the hard point. You have farmers who say cities need to be doing more to cut back and you have cities pointing the finger back at farmers in some states, saying, "No, you're the one who needs to be taking an equal share of these cutbacks." So it can end up being a really kind of accusatory situation. Not always though. You're seeing people come together and work on these plans collaboratively to try and get to a point where where everyone is sort of feeling the pain together.

GILGER: Yeah. I wonder is there any end in sight, I guess? I mean this sounds like it's been a long time coming but if weather patterns change or if we put in some drought contingency plans, could we turn this around?

RUNYON: If you have a few years of really high snowpack in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, unprecedented snowpack, maybe then you would start to see these reservoirs turn around. But even the water managers who are negotiating these drought contingency plans don't even think that they're the solution. They're sort of this temporary patch to keep the reservoirs from crashing and dropping to a point where they wouldn't be able to release any water out of these dams. So there's — the drought contingency plans themselves are meant to be finished by the end of the year. That's the deadline that the Federal Government has given these states to finish these plans. So that's the next approaching deadline for these water managers.

GILGER: Okay, so then last question for you and a very forward-looking, broad one but — if this is a temporary patch and eventually the Colorado River will not have the water that we need, what other solutions are there?

RUNYON: It's going to take really hard discussions throughout the western United States in the seven states that rely on the Colorado River to figure out a path forward where we're less reliant on the Colorado River. And what that means — it could be building desalination plants on the coast to turn ocean water into drinkable water. It could mean sort of crazy pipelines taking freshwater all over the western United States. The future solutions are pretty broad. And we definitely need to figure that out at some point.

GILGER: All right. Luke Runyon is a reporter with KUNC who reports on water and the Colorado River. Luke, thank you so much for joining us to talk to us about this this morning.

RUNYON: Thanks, Lauren.

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