Waiting for a miracle at Lake Mead

Lake Mead has dropped another ten feet since I wrote about its open-loop management,

My hypothesis is that the de facto policy for managing water levels is to wait for good years to restore the excess withdrawals of bad years, and that demand management measures in the interim are toothless. That worked back when river flows were not fully subscribed. The trouble is, supply isn’t stationary, and there’s no reason to assume that it will return to levels that prevailed in the early years of river compacts. At the same time, demand isn’t stationary either, as population growth in the west drives it up. To avoid Lake Mead drying up, the system is going to have to get a spine, i.e. there’s going to have to be some feedback between water availability and demand.

An article in the Arizona Republic confirms my thinking,

To slow the lake’s years-long decline, river users have built a reservoir west of Yuma to catch unused runoff, paid farmers to leave fields unplanted and are negotiating with Mexico to leave some of its allocation in Lake Mead while its farmers recover from an earthquake.

None of the steps will yield significant amounts of water, but together, they could keep Lake Mead from sinking below the drought triggers, buying time until a wet winter can replenish some of the water lost to drought.

“It’s time that we need,” said David Modeer, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which moves water from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson. “The reservoirs have shown they’re resilient. After a 12-year drought, they’re still half-full. What we do now will be worth it to stay out of a shortage.”

Managers are assuming that a return to historic rainfall patterns will save their bacon. But if climate models are right, and the Southwest will be on the losing end of trends in precipitation, that won’t happen. Even if they’re wrong, increasing demand can easily overwhelm restored rainfall. At some point, the loop will have to close – the question is how. Will property rights get reallocated and price signals aligned so that people live within the limits of supply? Or will the lake wind up permanently depleted? There are some signs of improved cooperation among states, but Nevada appears to be betting on failure:

if the reservoir fell below elevation 1,050 feet, one of the tunnels Nevada uses to draw water from the lake would sit above the waterline and would be useless. Nevada is working on a new, deeper tunnel

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