Apparently, the plan to save a tanking Lake Mead and Lake Powell is 'stay tuned'

·5 min read

The Bureau of Reclamation can’t be this shortsighted.

For weeks, the agency that oversees Lake Mead and Lake Powell had talked tough about states making 2 million to 4 million acre-feet in additional cuts, over and above all that we’ve already agreed to cut, to keep them on life support.

Everyone needed to be in pool on this, it said. And if the seven states that rely on the Colorado River couldn’t decide how to do that, Reclamation was prepared to decide for them.

Or not.

Does Reclamation even have a plan?

The mid-August deadline rolled around. Yet when there was no deal from the states – which shouldn’t have been a news flash, as negotiators have privately expressed their defeatism for weeks – the bureau did not mandate amounts to be cut.

Instead, it released its August 24-month study, which painted a similarly grim forecast for the lakes as previous monthly iterations, declared a water shortage for 2023 that will entail cuts to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico (ones to which we had previously agreed and that are far rosier than the actual conditions we are facing), and played up the need to do more.

Yet it only spoke in general terms about what those additional actions might be.

Taps run dry in Mexico: A similar water crisis looms in the US

Given the complexity of a deal like this – involving states, tribes, environmental groups and cuts that are an order of magnitude larger than anything we’ve negotiated before – it’s understandable if there were still details to button up by Aug. 16.

But Reclamation didn’t offer any insight on how much water it wants saved, or by when. If it has a plan to mandate actions, and that’s a big “if,” it’s anyone’s guess how it might play out.

This much uncertainty hurts us all

I can’t tell you how big of a problem that is.

Reclamation made a lot of noise about the need to act quickly and decisively.

And for good reason.

Its modeling suggests that states would need to cut at least 2.5 million acre-feet of water use in 2023 and beyond, simply to maintain minimum levels in the nation’s two largest reservoirs. It also found that if the states fail to cut that much initially, we’d need to cut even more in subsequent years to maintain those same low lake levels.

Yes, technically, we’ve got a couple of months to finalize Reclamation’s annual operating plan, which guides how Lake Mead and Lake Powell would operate in 2023. But we’re rapidly approaching that point in the year when farmers must decide what (or whether) to plant for the winter, and cities must finalize their water orders and rates for the coming year.

Leaving this much uncertainty, especially if it stretches into September or October, is a disservice to everyone.

Basin states have hit an impasse

Some might argue, quite fairly, that if anyone’s to blame for this uncertainty, it should be the states for failing to reach a deal. The closest we got to one was everyone else saying, “Let Arizona handle the brunt of this,” even though that would essentially zero out water for metro Phoenix and Tucson before anyone else would have to give up a drop.

That wasn’t what Reclamation directed in June or what Tanya Trujillo, a senior official at Interior, the federal department that oversees Reclamation, reiterated on Aug. 16. They insist that everyone – every state, every industry – must contribute.

But that also requires addressing decades of sibling rivalries, no longer realistic guarantees on water use and other elephants in the room.

Reclamation had to know how hard that was going to be, especially in the eight weeks it gave parties to work through their baggage.

Which is why, presumably, it initially promised to make these decisions for states if they couldn’t agree.

That’s no small thing. For years – decades – the name of the game has been voluntary collaboration among states. We’ve pursued that track to keep deals out of court and moving forward.

But states have hit an impasse, even with $4 billion on the table for temporary fallowing or to stabilize the environmental hazard that is a shrinking Salton Sea.

It’s doubtful that more meetings will produce a vastly different result, especially since Reclamation has offered limited additional insight on what it wants the states to do.

Forecasts are clear: Lake Mead is dying

A formerly sunken boat pokes into the air along the shoreline of Lake Mead on Friday, June 10, 2022. Lake Mead water levels haven't been this low since the lake initially filled more than 80 years earlier.
A formerly sunken boat pokes into the air along the shoreline of Lake Mead on Friday, June 10, 2022. Lake Mead water levels haven't been this low since the lake initially filled more than 80 years earlier.

Rather, backing off now sends the message that maybe we didn’t have to act as quickly as Reclamation said. And that maybe this was all an empty threat to get the states to play along.

Which, as the August 24-month forecast lays out, is simply not the case.

If we don’t do a lot more than we’ve already planned, Lake Mead is projected to slide below its minimum protection elevation of 1,020 feet by next summer – and that’s in the more optimistic version of the forecast. The more realistic version puts us below 1,000 feet in 2024 – dangerously close to the point where power could no longer be generated at Hoover Dam.

Combine that with other Reclamation modeling, and we are on a steady descent to “dead pool,” the point where reservoir levels are so low that no water can pass downstream to Arizona, California and Mexico.

There’s no avoiding calamity at that point. We all lose.

Reclamation needs to be the bad guy

Like it or not, states need Reclamation to play the bad guy.

Consider how it went down in 1980. Central Arizona was rapidly depleting its groundwater. Then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt secretly asked then-Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus to issue an ultimatum that could spur action on needed protections: Either pass a law or we’ll withhold construction of the Central Arizona Project, the canal system that delivers Colorado River water to central Arizona.

Babbitt publicly railed against Andrus’ supposed overreach, as he told him in private that he would. But Andrus never wavered, and that gave Babbitt the political cover he needed to push through provisions that had stalled. Arizona passed the Groundwater Management Act, the CAP moved forward, and a water disaster was averted.

We need that kind of leadership.

Not a wavering bunch of bureaucrats who are afraid of a lawsuit.

But a bureau with a clear plan to save Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

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

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Lake Mead is dying, and Reclamation's response is 'stay tuned'