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‘The Great Depletion’: Historic Alarm Triggered at Lake Powell

Water policy experts convening at the annual Clyde Martz Summer Water Conference in Boulder, Colo. (Aug. 15-16), are abuzz about an unprecedented alarm in the Colorado River Basin. Amidst the driest 14 years on record in the Southwest, for the first time in history the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) will reduce the amount of water that Lake Powell releases to Lake Mead – an alarm that could be the first indication of serious water shortages ahead.

Western Resource Advocates (WRA) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have prepared a fact sheet to help explain the significance of the Lake Powell release reduction. [Download the Fact Sheet here (PDF)]

“This is like the ‘check engine’ light coming on in your car—it’s a message from the Colorado River telling us that something is wrong and we need to fix it soon,” said Bart Miller, Water Program Director at Western Resource Advocates. “If we don’t take action to fix this ‘Great Depletion,’ we will face serious consequences within a matter of just a few years.”

Lake Powell and Lake Mead are the major storage reservoirs for the Colorado River, which provides clean drinking water to 36 million people and powers massive hydroelectric generators at Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam. Water levels at Lake Powell are so low that, under an agreement reached in 2007, it must restrict its release to Lake Mead (the primary reservoir for Lower Basin states) by 750,000 acre-feet – or enough water to meet the residential needs of 7.5 million people. As a result, Arizona and Nevada will likely declare first-ever water shortages by 2015.

“Water efficiency and conservation are more important than ever,” said Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River Project Director for EDF. “We must act now to implement cost-effective solutions that will sustain the lifeblood of the American West.”

The Colorado River Basin Study, a three-year effort by the Bureau of Reclamation and the seven basin states (released in Dec. 2012), sets out solutions to meet the gap between supply and demand. Top among those options are municipal and agricultural conservation, water recycling, and a water bank to increase flexibility in the river system.

“The problem isn’t drought, and a big rain storm, or a heavy winter snow season won’t fix this. What we need are fundamental changes in how we manage water in the Colorado Basin,” said Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers. “That means more water conservation and efficiency for farms and cities, and water-sharing measures like water banks to increase flexibility. This is the loudest wake-up call so far for Colorado Basin water supplies, and we hope it brings everyone together to get serious about solutions.”

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