Federal Water Tap, March 23: More Water for Lake Mead, But Record Lows Are on the Horizon

The Rundown

Bureau of Reclamation juggles water between the largest reservoirs in the West. An Illinois aquifer gets protected status. A promising drought forecast for the southern Great Plains. Western Governors urge more federal spending on water. Senate Democrats introduce a $US 50 million water infrastructure bill.

“The most important thing we have to do is stop these ridiculous environmental flows out of what precious little water remains behind our dams.” — U.S. Representative Tom McClintock, a California Republican, speaking in Mountain Area, California about his priorities for this session of Congress.

By the Numbers

15 percent: decrease in freshwater withdrawals in Washington state between 2005 and 2010 because of less water being withdrawn for irrigation and power plants (U.S. Geological Survey)
9 percent: projected increase in water released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead (Bureau of Reclamation)

Reports and Studies

More Water for Lake Mead
Lake Mead, the celebrity reservoir that is a water-supply keystone for the American Southwest, is expected to receive 9 percent more water this year, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages dams and reservoirs on the Colorado River. Mead is still projected to set new record lows this summer but the extra water will help delay a first-ever restriction on water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada.

Lake Mead will get more water because Reclamation will release more water from Lake Powell, located upstream. A 2007 agreement set a goal of balancing the amount of water in the two big reservoirs. The criteria for determining water releases are complex, but simply put, Powell has more water than Mead and enough water that a little extra will be released.

Reclamation will finalize the year’s water releases in April.

Southern Plains Drought Outlook
More rain and cooler temperatures are expected to alleviate drought conditions in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, according to the National Weather Service. However, the most severe areas of drought – those in northern Texas and southwest Oklahoma – will most likely persist.

News Briefs

Western Governors Ask for Water Funds
The director of the Western Governors’ Association urged Congress to spend money on water. In testimony to a House Appropriations subcommittee, Jim Ogsbury recommended “adequate” support for two U.S. Geological Survey programs that monitor river flows.

“These two USGS programs are important elements of a robust water data management program in the western states, and provide needed support for drought mitigation efforts throughout the West,” Ogsbury said. Infrastructure, he asserted, is also crucial for responding to drought and he asked for continued support of the EPA’s two loan programs for water and sewer projects.

Protected Status for Illinois Aquifer
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency bestowed “sole source” status on the Mahomet Aquifer in eastern Illinois, a designation that comes with additional federal protections.

A sole source aquifer provides more than half of a region’s drinking water where no other alternative to groundwater exists. To get federal loans, contracts, or grants for development projects in a sole-source region, applicants must provide that the project will not contaminate the aquifer.

The Mahomet Aquifer supplies 94 percent of the drinking water for 500,000 people in 14 counties. More than 80 aquifers in the United States have sole-source status.

Water Infrastructure Bill
Three Senate Democrats introduced a bill to provide $US 50 million per year for water pipes and treatment facilities. The money would cover up to half of a project’s cost. This is a second attempt for the Water Infrastructure Resiliency and Sustainability Act. A version introduced in 2013 did not make it out of committee.

On the Radar

EPA Meetings
Two expert panels that advise the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced meetings in the coming months. On April 29-30, the science advisory board will discuss the agency’s list of drinking water contaminants that are being considered for federal regulation. That list of 100 chemicals and 12 microbial contaminants was released in February.

Then the environmental finance advisory board will meet on May 14-15 to talk about the agency’s new center for water infrastructure financing. Both meetings take place in Washington, D.C., and are open to the public.

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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