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Colorado Basin shortages possible by 2016

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

The Colorado River Basin could see shortages as early as 2016, according to a new analysis by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Initially, shortages would be borne by Nevada and Arizona, but states using water farther up the river’s basin, including New Mexico, could see shortages in the years that follow, Mike Connor, head of the Bureau of Reclamation, told the Journal in an interview Tuesday.

The San Juan River, one of the Colorado’s largest tributaries, is a major source of water in New Mexico. In addition to serving the Navajo Nation and other communities in northwest New Mexico, San Juan water is transferred through tunnels to the Rio Grande Valley, where it is used for drinking water in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

With the Colorado in drought since the late 1990s, major water users have continued to get full supplies by slowly draining the river’s major reservoirs, which were built for just that purpose. But Lake Mead, the reservoir near Las Vegas, Nev., that provides water for Arizona, Nevada and California, is dropping fast. This year alone, the big storage reservoir’s surface level is projected to drop 11 feet, enough water to serve some 2 million typical households.

By 2016, there is a one in three chance of it dropping so low that the federal government will reduce the amount of water it delivers to Arizona and Nevada, according to Connor.

While that will not affect New Mexico in the short run, shortfalls projected in the long run could force New Mexico and other states in the Colorado’s upper basin – Wyoming, Colorado and Utah – to also grapple with shortages, Connor said.

Connor’s comments came as water managers from around the western United States gathered this week in San Diego to begin talks about how to deal with increasingly chronic shortages on the Colorado, as population growth drives up demand while climate change reduces flow in the river.

In December, the Bureau of Reclamation released a massive study documenting the long-term risk to Colorado Basin water supplies, along with a long list of possible options to deal with the problem.

The San Diego meeting launched a review of those options, including a search for those that can be realistically implemented in the near term, said Estevan López, head of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. “If it’s real, let’s make it happen,” López said in a telephone interview from San Diego, where he was representing New Mexico at the meeting.

Ideas on the table range from increased municipal water conservation efforts to water-trading agreements among users.

In New Mexico, the effect of a Colorado Basin shortage would be felt by users of water from the San Juan River, where the state of New Mexico, the Navajo Nation and the federal government are close to culminating a major deal settling the Navajos’ water rights.

There is a great deal of legal uncertainty about who might see their water deliveries reduced, and by how much, if Lake Mead and the other Colorado Basin reservoirs keep dropping beyond 2016. But under the state-federal-Navajo agreement, if a shortfall forces water use cutbacks on the San Juan River, the Navajo Nation’s large agricultural operation, which uses water stored behind the Bureau of Reclamation’s Navajo Dam, would be among the first to be curtailed, according to López.

The state-federal-Navajo agreement also sets aside a large pool of water for Albuquerque and Santa Fe in an effort to ensure their use of Colorado Basin water would not be curtailed in a shortage.