Federal Water Tap, July 15: Colorado River Basin Sniffs a Shortage

Because the outlook for Colorado River reservoirs gets gloomier every month, I might soon have to drop the question mark from this subheading. Why? The July 24-month study from the Bureau of Reclamation forecasts that a first-ever water shortage on the iconic river could be declared as soon as April 2015.

A shortage is triggered when the water level in Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet above sea level. The 24-month study, updated monthly, plots the most likely water supply scenario for the major reservoirs on the river.

In the June 24-month study, Lake Mead was projected to hover a few inches above shortage level in May 2015. A month later, the forecast has worsened, with water levels expected to plunge another 1.5 meters (5 feet) – and a month sooner. The nation’s biggest reservoir and Las Vegas’s lifeline will run into a shortage situation in less than two years if conditions hold.

Lake Mead is also an energy source. See my 2010 article, written the last time shortage levels drew close, on what happens to electricity generation at Hoover Dam as water levels drop.

Water Scarcity Update
The Government Accountability Office will update its 2003 report on water scarcity in the United States. The report found that water managers in 36 states expected water shortages within a decade.

Chuck Young, managing director of public affairs, tells Circle of Blue that the updated report should be ready by January 2014. It was requested by Rep. Ed Markey, the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. Markey will move to the Senate this week, after winning a special election last month to fill John Kerry’s seat.

Energy and Climate Change Report
The U.S. energy sector is vulnerable to increasing temperatures, insufficient water supplies, and extreme weather, according to a Department of Energy report on climate change.

Not the Record You Want to Set
The shortest ever irrigation season for the federal Rio Grande Project ends tomorrow, when the Bureau of Reclamation closes the gates of Caballo Reservoir after little more than a month. The Rio Grande Project serves irrigation districts and cities in southern New Mexico, west Texas, and Mexico.

The season, which normally runs for as much as eight months, ends with essentially no project water stored in Elephant Butte Reservoir to carry over to next year. Farmers and cities will now turn to groundwater and hope for a wet winter to boost supplies, though forecasts say it is unlikely.

“We’ve never been this low,” Filiberto Cortez, manager of the Bureau of Reclamation’s El Paso office, told Circle of Blue.

Unconventional Fuels Research
Groundwater protection and water treatment technologies are two priorities for the Department of Energy’s unconventional fossil fuels research program, according to its annual report to Congress. The main goal of the DOE’s unconventional fuels program is to increase production of natural gas and oil from shale rock while minimizing environmental harm.

U.S. Stream Health
A rigorous study of U.S. streams finds that “we can have healthy streams while using the land and water,” Daren Carlisle, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told Circle of Blue. Only 17 percent of the 585 streams sampled, however, showed “unaltered” habitats for a trio of biological indicators – fish, large invertebrates, and algae.

U.S.-China EcoPartnerships
The State Department announced six new EcoPartnerships, collaborations between U.S. and Chinese organizations that seek to address environmental problems.

New York Institute of Technology and Peking University will lead a group aiming to improve groundwater monitoring. Coca-Cola will work with a partner in the Yangtze River Delta to turn farm waste into bottles. Other agreements involve energy development and energy efficiency.

Mississippi River
The Army Corps of Engineers is proposing a change to the operating regulations for reservoirs in the upper Mississippi River Basin in order to reflect an operating plan approved in 2010 that allows for lower minimum flows. This is basically an administrative procedure.

Pipelines and Flood Hazards
The federal agency that oversees pipeline safety issued a bulletin warning pipeline operators about the risk of ruptures from flooding. A number of threats are at play: riverbank erosion could destabilize support infrastructure; debris in a bloated river could cause a rupture; valves not normally covered by water could fail. Less than one percent of pipeline accidents are caused by flooding, but they have a disproportionate effect on drinking water supplies, says the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

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