By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Suddenly there was a flurry of fears that the Colorado might be entering a long-term dry spell, of a severity not seen since the “epic drought,” which lasted through much of the 1500s, as documented by tree-ring records. So the bureau, he explains, is preparing shortage guidelines. They will govern how the federal government stores and releases water in the reservoirs along the river during dry conditions beginning by late 2007.
Under the law of the river, when the bureau cannot deliver 7.5 million acre-feet to the lower-basin states, those states have the right to put a call on the upper-basin states to release enough water to make up the difference, a demand that has never been made. Such a call would trigger water shortages in Denver by cutting the amount of water piped over the Rockies and leave ranchers and farmers on the western slopes of the Continental Divide high and dry.
If water was unavailable upstream, Johnson explains, Arizona would be the big loser along the lower Colorado, then Nevada. However, faced with the growing prospect of a real shortage, the states agreed that if Lake Mead gets too low, they would talk about novel approaches to using the river’s remaining water.
“Shortage,” says Johnson, “causes the states to think differently about how the river should be managed.”
I leave Boulder City on U.S. Highway 95 north, driving over the peaked purple mountains silhouetted by the setting sun and on into the valley of Las Vegas. Before me lie the sprawling lights of a city that has grown by epic proportions since I last visited in the late 1990s. I wanted to see how this fast-growing desert metropolis was dealing with water limits.
The population in Clark County has grown from 1 million in 1995 to 1.8 million today, almost doubling in 10 years, and is expected to hit 2.6 million by 2015. The buildings here look similar to suburban developments in Santa Clarita or Rancho Cucamonga, but the landscaping is decidedly different. There are fewer lawns and more native vegetation.
“If the only time you walk on the lawn is when you mow it, it’s time to do something else,” says J.C. Davis, spokesperson for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the main water supplier for the Las Vegas region. In the face of a persistent drought in Las Vegas, the agency has paid residents up to a dollar a square foot to rip out their lawns in a drastic effort to conserve water. Since the “cash for grass” program began in 1999, Las Vegas–area residents have torn out 68 million square feet of lawn, Davis says, cumulatively saving more than 8 billion gallons of water. Local governments have banned planting lawns in front yards and have limited turf covering to 50 percent of the back yard of each new home.
Despite these efforts, Las Vegas remains under a drought alert and places restrictions on sprinklers, car washing and other uses of water. Violators face monetary penalties.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority has a hefty water-conservation budget compared to Southern California water agencies. It spends $7.89 per person in its service area on conservation programs, compared to $3.33 at the LADWP, $2.19 at the Metropolitan Water District and just 56 cents at the San Diego County Water Authority.
Even then, fearful of its water future, the authority is constructing a water-intake plant on Lake Mead, its only large source of water, 200 feet below the level of its current facility. Under an agreement reached by the states early in February in response to the Bureau of Reclamation’s coming shortage guidelines, the authority has agreed to, in essence, trade water with California. It would generate water for California by paying to build a dam at the lower end of the river. The dam would prevent suddenly unneeded irrigation deliveries — prompted, for instance, by unexpected rain — from flowing to Mexico so California could use the water. In exchange, Las Vegas would take more water from Lake Mead.
As I drive into the Los Angeles area from the Cajon Pass at night, the view looks distinctly different from what I saw during my earlier descent into Las Vegas. Instead of lights highly visible from the elevated freeway, here they are obscured by a canopy of trees along the thin greenbelt of urban sprawl that is Southern California.
I soon return to the river, this time down California State Highway 86, along the shimmering Salton Sea, at sunrise. The modern incarnation of this salty inland lake was made when the Colorado River breached its levee in 1905. Since then, farm irrigation-water runoff from the seemingly endless agricultural acreage of the Imperial Valley has fed the sea.
I am driving to the headquarters of the Imperial Irrigation District [IID], which helped propel the construction of Hoover Dam and other dams along the lower Colorado to bring a predictable supply of water to farmers in the Imperial Valley after the devastating flood. From a high-technology control room, the district operates by remote control a series of gates on its canals, which deliver more than 3 million acre-feet of river water to vegetable farms across the sandy valley, much of which lies below sea level. The IID delivers water to farms covering 479,000 acres through 1,700 miles of canals that branch off the 82-mile-long All-American Canal. This long canal takes water out of the river just north of Mexico and runs west, paralleling the international border. The farms bring a billion dollars a year into the valley.