Five Years of Drought
by Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times
LAS VEGAS -- After five years of distressingly low rain and snowfall, a drought is hammering the West harder than ever, causing multibillion-dollar losses and prompting unprecedented measures in many states to cope with less water.
As winter begins, few expect the coming months to fix the problems. Weather forecasts are equivocal.
Explosive population growth, environmental lawsuits to divert water for wildlife, and below-average precipitation have put a strain on the big federal reservoirs that supply the West but were designed decades ago when the outlook was far different.
"The drought is still raging in many places," said John W. Keys III, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that operates the key dams in Western states. "Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Montana are in really bad shape. The Missouri River is at historic lows. The Platte River and Rio Grande are way down."
Nowhere is the situation more serious than the basin of the Colorado River, a lifeline in seven states.
Lake Mead has dropped by more than 90 feet in recent years and is so low that the federal government might have to curtail water deliveries in the next few years. And the outlook remains grim, with official estimates giving only a one in five chance the lake will refill by the end of the decade.
Lake Powell, the massive impoundment of the Colorado River behind Glen Canyon Dam in Utah, has dropped below its half mark for the first time since it was filled in the 1960s. Like a ring around a bathtub, a band of discolored rock for hundreds of miles shows the progress of the drought.
Less water also means less electricity. The massive generators at Glen Canyon produced just 30 percent of their capacity this year.
Water agencies are no longer betting on Mother Nature: The Southern Nevada Water Authority approved a plan last Thursday to extend its intake pipes 50 feet deeper into Lake Mead to prevent sucking air if the water continues to drop.
The situation in Arizona, where the state pays out $1 million a month for homeowners not to grow grass, is just as bad.
"We have depleted our reservoirs," said Herb Guenther, director of the state's Department of Water Resources. "We still have ground water basins to fall back on."
Across the Continental Divide, the conditions are similarly bad. At Elephant Butte Dam, the largest reservoir on the Rio Grande and the main supply of water for New Mexico is holding just 10 percent of its capacity and managers have curtailed deliveries.
In the Pacific Northwest, tributaries to the Columbia and Snake rivers remain in drought conditions and reservoirs in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho are below normal. With court orders to maintain adequate water for endangered salmon and steelhead, the federal government is spending $15 million this year to buy water for the fish and make other recovery efforts.
California, meanwhile, embodies both the best and the worst of the situation. It was the only Western state that received above-average precipitation last winter, meaning its big reservoirs at Shasta and Oroville are higher than average for this time of the year, according to the Department of Water Resources.
But California has sustained some of the worst impacts of the lengthy drought, officials say.
The wildfires that raged across six counties in Southern California's mountains in October were the result of the same drought that is causing Lake Mead to drop, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Fed by dry brush and dead trees, the fires killed 20 people and caused $3 billion in insured property losses.
Earlier this month, when Colorado River water managers assembled on the Las Vegas strip for their annual convention, the city was deluged by a storm that dropped 2 1/2 inches of water in a few hours. But it provided only momentary relief.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the group that the Colorado River will deliver less water than normal this winter. The weather outlook is so unpredictable, owing to Pacific Ocean conditions, that forecasters say they can offer little guidance.
Even if Mother Nature supplies plenty of snow and rain, the soil is so parched and water tables so low across the Colorado River basin that runoff reaching the river will remain below normal.
The West's water system was based on expectations developed in the early 20th century. But studies of tree growth rings have shown that those were the wettest decades in 500 years and the current drought may be the norm.
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