Nevada’s Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir in the West, is on track to fall below a critical threshold in 2020, according to a new forecast by the Bureau of Reclamation.
In a prediction released Wednesday, the Bureau of Reclamation, a multistate agency that manages water and power in the West, said there is a 52% probability that water levels will fall below a threshold of 1,075 feet elevation by 2020. If Lake Mead’s water levels fall below that threshold, it could trigger the first ever federal shortage declaration on the Colorado River—which experts say could undermine the Southwest’s economy.
“The very big concern is the perception that water supplies are uncertain,” said Todd Reeve, chief executive officer of Business for Water Stewardship, a nonprofit group in Portland, Ore., that works with businesses on water use nationally. “So if a water shortage is declared, that would be a huge shot across the bow that, wow, water supplies could be uncertain.”
This isn’t the first time the agency has predicted a shortage. In 2015, it forecast a high probability for a shortfall in 2017. But that was averted when the Southwest was hit with unusually heavy rain and snow.
The Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people from Denver to Los Angeles, has been in long-term decline amid what bureau officials call the driest 19-year period in recorded history.
Colorado River users, meanwhile, say they hope a regional effort to conserve more water will leave enough of their unused supplies in Lake Mead to stave off a shortage declaration.
However, many farmers in Arizona—which would be among the first states hit with cutbacks—are taking precautionary measures. Officials of the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, which could lose about half its Colorado River water if a shortage were declared, say they are working on alternatives such as digging more wells.
The district, with 60,000 acres under cultivation between Phoenix and Tucson, might see as much as 15% of its planted fields left fallow under a shortage, said General Manager Brian Betcher. “We’re not sure how much acreage will go out,” he said, “but we know there will be a hit.”
As originally published in Wall Street Journal by Jim Carlton on August 15, 2018