The 500-plus plan to save Lake Mead is monumental – and still solves nothing

·5 min read
A boat pulls a water skier on May 10, 2021, in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, on the Arizona/Nevada border. A high-water mark or bathtub ring is visible on the shoreline.
A boat pulls a water skier on May 10, 2021, in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, on the Arizona/Nevada border. A high-water mark or bathtub ring is visible on the shoreline.

Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this column misidentified one of the lower basin states.

Additional details are emerging about the “500-plus plan,” which would leave at least an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead every year through 2026, over and above the water we are obligated to conserve.

And they underscore how big – but also how much of a Band-Aid – this plan to save the lake really is.

The lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada are already obligated to cut 533,000 acre-feet next year because we are in a Tier 1 shortage. The 500,000 acre-feet would be on top of that – so, roughly double the amount of water that we were planning to leave in Lake Mead in 2022.

That’s a lot of water to find in a matter of months.

But we don’t have much choice.

If we don't act now, we'll have to do more later

Poor runoff at the upstream Lake Powell has skyrocketed the risk of Mead plunging below a dangerously low 1,020 feet of elevation. The chances are now approaching 60% – nearly as high as they were before we signed the Drought Contingency Plan in 2019 – even if we carry out every mandatory water cut in that plan.

In other words, the states could conserve more than a million acre-feet of water in a Tier 3 shortage, the deepest cuts in the plan, and it still would not be enough to keep Mead from approaching “dead pool,” the point at which no water leaves the lake.

We need to do more – a lot more – and do it now, if we have any hope of substantially lowering that risk.

Subsequent modeling suggests that if we don’t save an additional 500,000 acre-feet or more in 2022, when lake levels are higher, we’d have to save significantly more in later years to produce the same result (and likely with fewer users willing and able to conserve then).

The window to act is now.

Where will the water come from?

Unlike the Drought Contingency Plan, which revolved around mandatory cuts, this time the savings would be voluntary and compensated.

We don’t have a full picture of where this saved water will come from, as negotiations are ongoing. But we know that some will agree to leave water in the lake that they may be able to withdraw later under certain conditions (sort of using the lake as a water savings account), while others will deposit water that stays in there to benefit everyone.

A good chunk of the latter water will likely come from fallowing farmland, or perhaps by finding other efficiencies that can immediately save water.

The estimated bill to do this in 2022 and 2023 is $200 million, with the feds shouldering half. Arizona Department of Water Resources and Central Arizona Project (CAP) have agreed to provide a combined $60 million.

We're spending a ton just to buy time

Yes, that’s a lot of money. And it is likely only the tip of the iceberg, considering that the lower basin also must save another 500,000 acre-feet in 2024, 2025 and 2026, over and above the cuts we must make based on whatever shortage tier we’re in during those years, just to keep the lake from tanking.

The states haven’t even begun to discuss what happens in those years, which likely will be a lot thornier given that there will be a lot less water to go around then.

And no, we’re not going to have anything to show for it. We’re simply buying time, not solving any problems.

But that’s probably the best we can do. More lasting water conservation projects could take at least a year to throw together, and any decent-sized augmentation project is at least a decade out.

We must pursue those ideas.

But when you’ve got months, not years, to find this much water, paying people not to use it may be the easiest way to get there.

This won't be easy. Or pain free

Not that any of this will be easy. Or pain free.

The board that oversees the CAP made that plain on Dec. 2 when it approved a regional agreement and its share of funding for the 500-plus plan. Ratepayers and taxpayers will ultimately pay more for this deal – and in some ways, it’s a double whammy.

It costs to pay people not to use water, while having less water in the canal increases the cost to deliver it.

The good news is a broad range of Arizona water users have stepped up to help reach our conservation goals, including the Gila River Indian Community, the Colorado River Indian Tribes, Salt River Project and even on-river users, including the Yuma Mesa, Wellton-Mohawk and Mohave Valley irrigation districts.

Without their help, this effort would be infinitely harder.

Even still, a plea to CAP users to offer water has only netted about half of their 60,000 acre-feet target. And that’s with a relatively generous offer of $261 per acre-foot.

Water will cost more. Know that now

By now, it should be clear that while the 500-plus plan may be a needed emergency measure, it also is fundamentally unsustainable. We can’t keep paying people $100 million a year not to use water (if $100 million will even cut it – you know the asking price is only going to go up the longer this goes on).

But it’s also clear that water is going to get more expensive, no matter what we do. We can spend that cash on stopgap measures or more lasting fixes.

Let’s hope with more lead time next year and beyond, we can find more of the latter.

Reach Allhands at joanna.allhands@arizonarepublic.com. On Twitter: @joannaallhands.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 500-plus plan to save Lake Mead is monumental and still solves nothing

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