New research predicts Lake Powell, Lake Mead collapse if Colorado River Basin states don’t make sacrifices

Jul 22, 2022, 3:00 PM | Updated: Aug 2, 2022, 10:23 am
Colorado River Basin...
FILE: Low water levels at Lake Powell, December 18, 2021. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)
(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Some new research points to a collapse of Lake Mead and Lake Powell if neither the upper nor lower Colorado River Basin states sacrifice to cut water use.

“If neither side blinks, and neither side were to seriously reduce its use, then the system will go to dead pool,” said the Director of Utah State University’s Center for Colorado River Studies, Dr. Jack Schmidt. Schmidt was among the authors of the peer-reviewed research.

On Friday, Lake Mead’s water level dropped to historic lows. Increasing flow from the Colorado River would help replenish Lakes Mead as well as Lake Powell, which also generates hydroelectricity.

“A basin-wide water supply crisis is occurring because of decreased watershed runoff caused by a warming climate and legal and water management policies that allow systematic overuse,” the authors write.

A possible solution suggested by the study authors is a deal between the Colorado River Basin’s upper and lower basin states. Namely, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico would agree not to conduct any more water development projects. In turn, the lower basin states — California, Arizona, and Nevada, along with northwest New Mexico — agree to more reductions.

We identified that if upper basin uses do not decrease, then the lower basin would have to reduce its consumptive uses on the order of 2 to 4 million acre-feet per year,” said Dr. Schmit. “Which is an extremely large number for a basin (the lower) that supplies some of the most vibrant economies in the nation, and grows the nation’s winter vegetables.”

But the upper basin states have long argued they shouldn’t shoulder the whole load. Especially when they use less water than the lower states.

“At the same time, the upper basin, which has traditionally used much less water than the lower basin, seeks to hold onto the smaller amounts of water that are used,” Schmidt said.

Sacrifices from each of the Colorado River Basin states

However, agriculture is among the biggest water users of upper basin water.

Dr. Schmidt said he thinks the solution is going to come in sacrifices from both sides.

“I think that it is inevitable that cuts in agricultural water use have to occur in the upper basin, at the same time that the lower basin efficiently uses its water,” he said.

This all comes after the Bureau of Reclamation announced that the two sides have until mid-August to finalize a plan. That, or they will make the 2 to 4 million acre-feet in water cuts.

“So long as we continue to point at the other guy, and say we have a problem and it’s the other guy’s responsibility to solve the problem, I don’t think we’re going to get where we need to get,” Schmidt said.

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New research predicts Lake Powell, Lake Mead collapse if Colorado River Basin states don’t make sacrifices