July 23, 2007 11:14 AM PDT

A dry-weather crisis for Hoover Dam

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HOOVER DAM, Ariz.--To get a sense of what seven years of drought in the Colorado River basin looks like, all you have to do is gaze out at Lake Mead from the top of the dam here and view the 108 feet of brightly colored earth below the familiar red walls rising from the water.

Lake Mead is 108 feet below its traditional level, the result of the many years of low rainfall, and these dry years could soon have some serious effects on the region.

I visited Hoover Dam on my Road Trip around the Southwest and was given a behind-the-scenes tour by Robert Walsh, the external affairs officer for the lower Colorado region of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the dam.


And Walsh was not in an optimistic mood.

He explained to me that while there have been several severe droughts in the dam's history--including one that lasted 12 years in the 1950s, as well as some in the 1970s and 1980s--this one is more serious because the population in the region has exploded, due in large part to the tremendous growth of the Las Vegas area.

Now, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, who has legal control over the dam, has mandated that the Bureau of Reclamation come up with a plan for how to deal with potential shortages in available water for California, Nevada and Arizona, should continued low rainfall eventually mean that the Colorado River--and thus Hoover Dam--not be able to meet those states' water demands.

The problem, Walsh said, begins with the 7.5 million acre-feet of water allotted to the lower Colorado River basin region under the Boulder Canyon Act enacted by Congress in 1928. Every year, the river has been able to provide Arizona, California and Nevada with that much water--or more--but it is beginning to look like there may be a shortfall in the future if the drought doesn't end.

Ironically, in the 1990s, the basin had a surplus of water, and Reclamation began to work on guidelines for how to share the extra water. The guidelines were completed and implemented in 2000, according to Walsh, just as the drought began.

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The situation is actually quite complex, it turns out, and has to do with the interior secretary's annual responsibility to make a determination of whether there is a surplus, a shortage or a normal supply of water.

And now that it looks like we're in for the first shortage year, the secretary has demanded that Reclamation have a plan ready by this winter.

What seemed to me to have Walsh--and presumably many others--pessimistic is the sense that the likely scenario would be to come up with a plan that mandates stretching the existing supply out as long as possible, which means drawing supplies from the water table, something that can never be replaced.

Of course, one option could be to demand severe conservation on the part of southern Nevada, southern California and Arizona--the constituencies of the Lower Colorado River basin region--but who can imagine that happening?

Walsh said that all those constituencies recognize that the circumstances surrounding the river--and its water production--have changed since the dam was opened in the 1930s, and that the states understand that they have to work together to solve the serious problem that could come from continued drought and presumably water shortage.

Yet, no one knows how to solve the problem.

Reclamation has come up with a complex matrix of possible scenarios (click here for PDF), and we may see the bureau demand some of those be implemented when it makes its determination of what to do in the case of a shortage in December.

It does appear that conservation is part of the bureau's preferred plan, and that would be good.

But judging from Walsh's assessment, it's not necessarily a bright future for the region. Droughts do come and go, but water demand is only going up, and over time, it seems certain that the region is going to need more water than is available.

And unless it comes up with some way to drastically alter its water use, the future is a more than a little scary.

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I am amazed...
At how many places are facing a water shortage, yet expect residents to let their yards die, stop washing clothes and dishes, etc. Yet the states, county and cities continue to build more and more crap shacks (particle board homes) that apparently we can ill afford when it comes to natural resources like water.

Maybe instead of expecting people to let their property values drop 10 to 15% by letting their yards die they should stop building, stop wasting money on fountain filtration (here that San Jose) and conserve themselves. It seems a bit disingenuous to put all of this on the residents when that state, counties and cities continue to use large amounts of water and continue to build more of those particle board crap shacks.

Also, since Los Angles was unwilling to help California during the power crisis I think the rest of California needs to stop sending them water. Now power for us, no water for them. We need what we have, buzz off!

Posted by Heebee Jeebies (632 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Agreed...New Construction Ban in Affected...
Areas. Someone has got to make a hard decision and new buidings (not replacing older buildings with equal floorspace) should be one of the mandates.
Ironically the idea of letting lwans die for the sake of saving water only means an increase in power demand due to the dead lawn no longer having the cooling effects on the house.
On the other side of that though is that you don't need 10 acres of lawn to have this effect so maybe some restrictions should apply there.
Poor populous planning is the root of this issue and until that is addressed this will be a recurring issue.
Posted by fred dunn (793 comments )
Link Flag
The real crisis is....
.... that the government is looking to make everyone conserve and kill off their lawns to "solve" this problem. Even suggesting we pull from the water table.

The real crisis here are the 10 million illegal aliens living in the Southern California and Arizona areas. They're the ones who have driven water demand through the roof. If the Bush administration had done its job and enforced the laws on the books already we wouldn't be facing a shortfall.
Posted by Dr. Iguanadon (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
illegal aliens adding to water shortage
Yes, and so many of those illegals are hired to water lawns and crops!
Posted by technikallyright (17 comments )
Link Flag
... your ignorance.
There are a lot more than 10 million illegal residents. Every non-native is an illegal immigrant.

As for Mexicans, they originally were supposed to get water from the Colorado, but the dam stopped the river from reaching the Gulf of California or even the Mexican border as it originally did.

I don't expect someone to understand why its okay for luxury abuse of water for watering lawns should be curbed in the face of people dying from inadequate water ... its an American tradition you follow.
Posted by KlondikeWolf (6 comments )
Link Flag
Source solution for Hoover Dam & Colo River
July 24, 2007

Letter to the Editor

Amazing that your "tour guide" Bureau Bob would say that no one has a solution when he knows full well we offered the Bureau a fresh water Source Three years ago ! Development of the Source will not damage the water rights of anyone, anywhere !

It is better to develop a new water Source for the Colorado River, or
more paper ?

For the eighty-four (84) years since the signing of the Colorado River
Compact, complex maneuvers have been on-going which have created
mountains of paper, but not a drop of new water for the Colorado River.
After all this time and thousands of meetings, my brother and I have
taken it upon ourselves to seek a real solution for the twenty-five (25)
million people who depend on the life blood of the Colorado River.

Thorough knowledge of water rights in the arid southwest and strict
adherence to the "law of the river" is absolutely essential to solving
such a complex puzzle as providing ample new water for the ribbon of fluid
so often fought over. Above all else, the riddle can only be solved if
no existing water rights are in the least bit damaged. Furthermore, no
plan is viable without ample protection for the environment and its

The final pages of the struggle for a real "wet water" solution may
someday be written, because the marvelous Source has in deed been
discovered, analyzed and is ample for the burgeoning populations, industry and
recreation. Secondary return flow use of waters from the Source will
aid the restoration of the estuaries of the Colorado River Delta and
Salton Sea.

Why is it that the entities/agencies which have been empowered to
divert, deliver and distribute the water of the Colorado River have not
pursued the investigation of such a wonderful resource ? Have they not
been notified of its existence ? Have they not been assured that the
Source is real ? Of course they have ! Even with a 100% satisfaction
guarantee, they have thus far formulated no way to provide a few crumbs
from the water table to the two of us who have strived so long to
uncover the fountain of ample supply.

As the meetings convene and players take their seats in the halls of
justice and convention centers, let it be known that a real Source
solution does indeed physically exist which is legally and economically
feasible to develop to provide 750,000 acre feet of fresh water each year
for the dwindling Colorado River.

We can only hope we have found in your publication, a messenger who can
deliver to the people our claim of a vast water Source sufficient for
their expanding needs and future livelihoods.

We stake our collective 70 years of related water rights and
engineering experience on the existence of the Source we have described. We ask
you to report only what we claim; disclosure of the Source will
eventually speak for itself.

Respectfully submitted for publication,

Ray Walker (Retired Colorado River Water Rights Analyst)
249 Coyatee Shores
Loudon, TN 37774
865 408-0041
Posted by watersource (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Ray - love the vagueness of your new source. if it's water from air, already being done. a winery in nor cal is doing it right now. best they are hoping for is reduce their groundwater/imported water use not eliminate it. on a large scale...pull the moisture from the air at a rate of 750K acre feet a year and won't that impact the local/regional climate by reducing potential rainfall elsewhere? Hadn't thought of that had you?

Or maybe it's treating and recharging the COR system with mining/drilling water? What are you going to do with the brine waste?

Be a little more clear in your "vagaries" on water sources.
Posted by halodalo (2 comments )
Link Flag
Why is it...
that total morons who decide to build cities in the desert, total morons who decide to move to cities in the desert, total morons who are politicians in desert cities that have no water to begin with feel they have a god given right to water that is not theirs. When the idiot politicians in the SouthWest mandate that all their citizens wear dune suits and drink their recycled urine I will maybe start to have some sympathy for the plight of waterless desert cities.

Here is a real eye-opener. Find out how much water is lost through old decaying water supply systems in EVERY city in the US. Oh give us more water but dont expect us to spend $$$ to protect what we do get.
Posted by CNET BITES (18 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Reminds me of Sam Kinison
One of the funniest things I ever heard old Sam say was about starving people in Africa...

"This is sand. Nothing grows here. Know what it's gonna be like in a hundred years? It's gonna be sand! you live in a f--ing desert! We have deserts in America - we just don't live in them! Why don't you move to where the food is?"
Posted by SeizeCTRL (1333 comments )
Link Flag
I hear ya CNET bites. cheap, taxpayer subsidized water out west has led to a popn boom...maybe it also led to a decline in midwest and southeast US farming? I mean how can a farmer in those areas compete against western farmers who can grow 2-3 crops a year and pay pennies on the dollar for their water (vs actual costs to pump in the other areas)? Don't forget that every drop of western water also means less in the rivers....who cares right? How about the largest US fisheries? Don't remember those do ya? Your grandparents and older generations might. West coast big AG sucked up the water and while their AG production went up, the fisheries industry declined.

Should I also dare mention the Farm Bill that turns every small farmer (few of them left) and big corporate AG (lots of them) into major welfare recipients?

Yeah, we could fix the water and wastewater conveyance systems. The ASCE estimates to do this are astounding. If we don't, we will face some real problems in the next 10-20 years tho :)
Posted by halodalo (2 comments )
Link Flag
Just visited...
I just returned from Vegas and visited the dam on Friday. The level of the lake and surrounding area is VERY low. There is an attitude of ignoring the danger from the folks there that we met and that run the tours. They quote facts about how much water is supplied by the Colorado River each year and how Las Vegas only takes 1/4 inch of the lake each year. Sounds overly optimistic when you see the current levels. My question is about the intake towers that are the initial point of power generation and down river water supply. How low can the lake go before no water can be put into the system? When this happens, there is no water downstream and no electricity for SoCal. The dam was built with overflow and excess in mind as it was built during the great floods of the early 1900's. Don't know if anyone designed contingencies for low water levels.
Posted by DatabaseDoctor (858 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Water Shortage
Why not build solar-powered desalination plants to turn abundant sea water into fresh water? There is more than enough open land and sunlight to desalinate millions of gallons of sea water daily.

Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have desalination plants -- why can't we?

Conservation is the ultimate answer (not just for water), but unfortunately, conservation is not part of the American vocabulary.

We will continue to talk and talk about the pending water shortage and it will be too late -- that's the unfortunate reality of how things are (not) done in this country...
Posted by jollyruss (12 comments )
Reply Link Flag
why can't California (The Rich State) use the Ocean water and de-salt it for there use instead of reling on the Colorado River Water.
Posted by califwater (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
3 years later - my comment to this article is a little late - my apologies.

I have no solution to this conundrum.

My advice would be the best solution for everyone on the Planet.

Turn off everything. Take the dams down. Stop driving to work. Let nature take its course. Disassemble every non-essential resource and reassemble with it 1 principle above all else: The Environment comes first.

Granted other cultures will no doubt come and take us over and kill many if not all of us. Such is life and the history of the world. That's just life, it's all going to end someday. Who wants to live in this?

No modern society knows how to live in harmony with its surroundings. The only culture that I know of that had some semblance with the environment were the natives who lived in America prior to its invasion in 1492.

Boy, did all those morons have it wrong when they called the most prestigious form of the human species savages.

The only savages I see are the ones protecting the green grass on their lawns and their property values.

I despise everyone in the modern world except the Amish. They have at least found some balance with their lively hoods.

We are so consumed by the thought of the lose of human life. What about our home. We are defecating in the same place that we consume. Savages

I was born in America; I have lived in and seen other countries. I despise modern society and anyone who does not think about the environment before themselves.
Posted by Shawolf (1 comment )
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