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Bonus Water on the Colorado River

Lee's Ferry, the dividing line between the Upper and Lower Colorado River basins. (Photo: Lissa Heineman)

By John Fleck

It is telling that when Los Angeles Times reporter Bettina Boxall went looking for a way to explain the implications of this year’s bountiful Colorado River Basin snowpack, she ended up at one of Lake Powell’s boat ramps:

The sudden rush of water into the lake has meant seven-day workweeks for the National Park Service and concessionaire crews that manage the boating facilities. Again and again they have reeled in floating docks and marina utility lines that were extended as the reservoir shrank. Dive teams were called in to move anchors.

At the Hite marina on the lake's northern end, where boating facilities had been stranded on the dry lake bed for years, workers used a backhoe and trucks to free them from layers of muck and silt as the water rose.

This is not a criticism of Boxall, one of the best reporters on the Western water beat. Such is water management on the Colorado River that, in the wake of the worst drought in a century of record-keeping, from 2000 to 2010, everyone in the seven western U.S. states and Mexico that depends on the Colorado River continued to get their full allotment. As the lakes receded, journalists (myself among them) turned to the recreational boating business in our search for a visible manifestation of drought. Marina operators engaged in the ritual they call “chasing water”, moving their floating docks farther and farther out into the lakes as the reservoirs shrank. Reporters followed along.

Precipitation in the Colorado River’s Upper Basin is 26 percent above normal (pdf) this year. Lake Powell and Lake Mead have each risen 25 or more feet since Oct. 1. The water is chasing back, as marina operators hurry their gear up slope to keep the boat docks in step with rising lake levels.

As Boxall makes clear, there is more to the story than boat ramps. While Colorado Basin water users had survived 11 years of drought without suffering shortages, simply by draining their two big reservoirs, US Bureau of Reclamation calculations raised the clear possibility that by next year, the first ever shortage declaration on the river would be needed, forcing Nevada and Arizona to cut back.

This year’s bounty has pushed that possibility off another three years at least, according to Bruce Williams, head of the River Operations Group at the Bureau’s Boulder Canyon Operations Office. Buried in the fine print of a report (pdf) out Friday (8/12) from Williams’ team of hydrologists was a projection that there will be enough water in Lake Powell come January to continue massive releases of what I’ve come to call “bonus water” from Lake Powell, the water savings bank for the Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. That bonus water, above and beyond the legally required delivery under the Colorado River Compact, means extra water in Lake Mead for downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California.

The minimum legally required delivery from Lake Powell to Lake Mead is 8.23 million acre feet, which is all the Lower Basin got during most of the drought. If the current release schedule holds up, which looks likely, this year the Bureau will release a whopping 12.4 million acre feet from Powell, the most since 1998. It will take until sometime early next year to push all the bonus water through Glen Canyon Dam’s generators and send it downstream through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead, said Rick Clayton, who works in the Bureau’s Upper Colorado Basin management group. “We have been pushing water out of Lake Powell as fast as the power plants will allow,” Clayton told me last week.

That means that as it stands, even if the Colorado Basin were to have a dry winter in 2011-12, there is enough surplus sloshing around the system for Lake Mead to get bonus water again in 2012.

Last modified Wed, 7 Sep, 2011 at 14:51