Spring rains boosted Lake Mead, heading off water emergency – for now

Lake Mead showing the effects of drought in this file photo. Officials said that heavy spring rains recharged the lake to the point that they will not have to declare a water emergency, but that lingering drought remains a threat. (Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)

WASHINGTON – Unusually high rainfall in the Colorado River basin this spring helped boost Lake Mead water levels, averting a possible water emergency that would have triggered cuts in water allocations next year.

Officials had warned as recently as June that there was a 33 percent chance of a “Tier 1” water shortage in 2016, which occurs when the water level in Lake Mead drops below an elevation of 1,075 feet. A Tier 1 declaration would result in a cut of 320,000 acre-feet to Arizona’s share of Colorado River water, about an 11 percent reduction.

But the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation earlier this month reported that there would not be an emergency declaration. Lake Mead’s elevation was at 1,078.24 feet on Sunday.

“In May and June of this past year … we had unusually high rainfall in the basin,” said Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. He said it was the second-highest level of rain during that period in the past 108 years, trailing only 1983.

In addition to dropping the chances of a Tier 1 declaration to zero for 2016, the Bureau of Reclamation lowered predictions for 2017 from the 75 percent chance it was looking at this summer to just 18 percent in the latest report.

While the findings are good news for all seven states in the Colorado River basin, Buschatzke said the drought is definitely not over.

“This will buy us some time to find more collaborative solutions,” Buschatzke said of the basin states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Those seven states signed an agreement in 2007 outlining how to coordinate water levels between Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Rose Davis, the Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman for the lower Colorado region, said balancing the two lakes is a collaborative effort.

Water can be released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, but only in such a way that it does not affect anyone who draws from it, Davis said. She said that the basin states have been battling the current drought for 16 years, with the exception of one good year and one decent year.

Buschatzke said his department “will plan for average or less-than-average conditions” going forward. The Bureau of Reclamation report said there is still a 52 percent chance of a water shortage in 2018, including a 10 percent chance by then of a more-severe Tier 2 emergency.

Despite the recent good news, those who rely on the river for their water – either to live or for their livelihoods – should continue to conserve when they can, said Julie Pastrick, president and CEO of the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s in the best interest of business and residents alike to be smart users and to continue to conserve our most precious resource … water,” Pastrick said in an email Monday. She added that the 15 local rafting companies in the Flagstaff area that rely on the Colorado River “pump $37.5 million” into the region’s economy.

Sharon Hester, at Arizona Raft Adventures in Flagstaff, said the company is not experiencing abnormally low flows this summer, adding that it would take a significant shortage to greatly affect business.

But Buschatzke urged people to take the long view.

“Things got significantly better,” he said, “in the short term, anyways.”