Bob Leal

LAS VEGAS (CN) — Following a winter of above-average precipitation, the Bureau of Reclamation released its Colorado River Basin plan Tuesday that reduces the cuts states reliant on the river will have to shoulder.

The guidelines determine the tiers for the coordinated operation in 2024 of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The current water capacity of both reservoirs combined is 36%, according to Reclamation. The 24-Month Study basically projects water levels for Jan. 1 in 2024 and then determines how much water will be cut from Nevada and Arizona.

The operating conditions take into account agreements under the 2007 guidelines and the lower basin Drought Contingency Plans and will be followed until the supplemental environmental impact statement is finalized.

The 23 years of drought in the region have taken a serious toll on the basin. The Colorado River is approximately 1,450 miles long, originating along the Continental Divide in Colorado and flowing to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. The states involved are Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. Also involved are 30 Native tribes and Mexico. Around 40 million Americans depend on the Colorado River.

While Reclamation has given the states leeway and the opportunity to come up with water-saving plans together, it has said it will not hesitate to act with cuts on its own.

“We have to,” said David Palumbo, deputy commissioner of operations for the Reclamation, at the annual Colorado River Water User Association’s conference in Las Vegas last year.

In addition to supplying water, the lakes’ dams, Glen Canyon at Lake Powell and Hoover at Lake Mead, generate hydroelectric power.

Water managers are encouraged throughout the basin after receiving 150% of normal precipitation last winter, but most say it will take years of similar weather to get both reservoirs near capacity.

“The above-average precipitation this year was a welcome relief, and coupled with our hard work for system conservation, we have the time to focus on the long-term sustainability solutions needed in the Colorado River Basin. However, Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the two largest reservoirs in the United States and the two largest storage units in the Colorado River system — remain at historically low levels,” said Reclamation commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton in a statement.

She continued: “As we experience a warmer, drier west due to a prolonged drought, accelerated by climate change, Reclamation is committed to leading inclusive and transparent efforts to develop the next-generation framework for managing the river system.”

John Entsminger, the Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager, echoed Touton’s statements.

“While the near-term hydrologic conditions have improved slightly, one good year on the river does not change the long-term projections,” Entsminger said in a statement. “With climate change expected to create a warmer and drier future, water users across every sector must remain committed to conservation and continue finding ways to use less water.”

The SNWA serves 2.3 million southern Nevadans along with 40 million visitors annually.

Based on projections in the 24-Month Study, Lake Powell will release nearly 7.5 million acre-feet of water in 2024, which is called Mid-Elevation Release Tier. One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover an acre of land about the size of a football field in a foot of water.

Lake Mead will operate on a Level 1 Shortage Condition, an improvement over last year’s Level 2 Shortage Condition. Lake Mead’s overall release below Hoover Dam in 2023 is projected to be 1.5 million acre-feet less than an average normal year, due to conservation efforts in the Lower Basin funded in part by the Biden administration, above average inflows below Hoover Dam and conservation in Mexico.

“The current operating guidelines for the Colorado River expire at the end of 2026. So, the Colorado River states are now working to negotiate what the next operating regime will be going forward after 2026. It remains to be seen what this will bring,” said Bronson Mack, SNWA public outreach manager.

Lake Mead has come up about 20 feet in the past year, said Bronson, but he agrees with other managers that the water issue can’t be fixed by one year of above-average precipitation.

“In order for Lake Mead and Lake Powell to recover to their pre-drought capacity, we would need to see consecutive years of like we just had last winter, where the runoff into the Colorado River was about 150% of average, and we would need to see that occur over multiple years consecutively to really pull us out of this 20-year deficit that we are in now,” Bronson said.