LAS VEGAS — Facing dwindling water supplies, Western states are struggling to capture every drop with dam and diversion projects that some think could erode regional cooperation crucial to managing the scarce resource.
Against that backdrop, eight Western governors meeting in Las Vegas this weekend will address regional water issues, and water managers from seven states arrive next week to work on ways to ensure 40 million people in the parched Colorado River basin don’t go thirsty.
Gary Wockner, a conservationist with the Denver-based advocacy group Save the Colorado, said there’s already jostling amid the fear of empty buckets. “Everyone is trying to get the last legal drop of water,” he said.
Colorado River Water Users Association representatives deny there’s discord at their table.
“Fifteen years of drought has tightened everything. But I don’t see this as people are getting ready to fight,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. That agency is dealing with a double-whammy — drought on the Colorado River and in the Sierra Nevada and Northern California.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval will host Western Governors’ Association counterparts from Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming this weekend to consider several issues, including water. Two days of drought workshops follow.
“The motto is: We save the system as a whole,” said Pat Mulroy, longtime general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas and now a senior policy fellow with the Brookings Institution.
“If we get into, ‘I’m going to win,’ and, ‘You’re going to lose,’ there won’t be a winner,” Mulroy said.
But Wockner said Colorado, Wyoming and Utah are considering dams and diversions in the mountains to capture water they’re entitled to before it reaches the Colorado and flows to the deserts.
New Mexico has plans to divert and store water from the Gila River for cities and farms before it flows into Arizona and empties into the Colorado River near the Mexico border.
“Diversions extract water from the system,” said Jack Schmidt, professor of watershed sciences at Utah State University. He just completed three years studying the Grand Canyon for the U.S. Geological Survey. “More water use and more water retention in the upper basin means less water flowing through the Grand Canyon to the lower basin.”
Schmidt referred to the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and agreements with Mexico that promise about 16.5 million acre-feet of water annually from a river system that has historically taken in about 15 million acre-feet from rainfall and snowmelt. But that amount has diminished during almost 15 years of drought. One acre-foot of water is about enough to serve two average Las Vegas homes for a year.
“You could say that we decided how to divide the pie, but the pie is smaller than anybody thought,” Schmidt said. “With climate change, it is even smaller than that.”
In Las Vegas, which virtually relies on water from Lake Mead, officials are making plans to add a $650 million pumping facility to draw from the reservoir even if levels drop below 1,000 feet above sea level. That’s the line at which Hoover Dam’s hydroelectric turbines would be idled.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority already is drilling an $800 million tunnel to tap water from the bottom of the lake, at 860 feet above sea level.
At 900 feet — so-called “dead pool” — the river would end at Hoover Dam. Nothing would flow downstream.
The lake reached its high water mark in 1983 at 1,225 feet.
The Metropolitan Water District’s Kightlinger said the seven basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico upstream and California, Arizona and Nevada downstream — have a history of cooperating, and they have forged several landmark agreements.
A 2012 amendment to a 70-year-old treaty between the U.S. and Mexico has the river flowing south of the border again.
Last summer, water agencies in Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix began an $11 million pilot program with the federal government to pay farmers, cities and industries to cut use of Colorado River water.
The goal is to prop up Lake Mead, which stood Friday at 1,084 feet above sea level — just 9 feet above the crucial 1,075 level that would trigger cuts to Arizona, Nevada and California.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation this week projected a better than 50 percent chance that it will declare such a shortage in January 2017.
The Central Arizona Project would face the first cutbacks, and farmers would be hit hardest, agency chief David Modeer said.
“Hoping for snowpack is not sufficient to solve this,” Modeer said. “It’s going to take cooperation and sacrifice among all of us to stave off disaster in the river.”
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