From the Wall Street Journal: Agency Says Lake Mead Could Drop Below Critical Threshold

Updated Aug. 15, 2018 8:32 p.m. ET

Agency Says Lake Mead Could Drop Below Critical Threshold

Decline could trigger shortage declaration on Colorado River, harm Southwest economy

A new forecast says the water level in Nevada’s Lake Mead could fall below a critical threshold in 2020 and possibly prompt a shortage declaration on the Colorado River.

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.

Lake Mead, which serves as the biggest reservoir of the river’s water, resumed its decline this year after the region returned to drought conditions. As of Wednesday, it stood at 1,078 feet, about 150 feet below its peak.

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.”

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