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Colorado River in Drought, Climate Change Even Less in Doubt

According to new federal government forecast models, the Colorado River will remain in drought conditions for at least the next five years. Between the wildfires that are burning now and this stark portrait of an even drier future, it’s getting even harder to deny the reality of climate change and our own actions that have exacerbated it.

First, an overview of climate change and the American West

When we checked in on the Tahoe Summit last month, we noticed how severe the Western Wildfire season was already becoming then. It’s only worsened since. From the downright apocalyptic smoky sky above San Francisco to the string of active wildfires that stretches all the way from Eastern Washington (State) to California’s Central Coast, it’s getting increasingly difficult to deny that climate change is underway and having a real effect here.

And yet, following his COVID-19 super-spreader rallies here in Nevada, President Donald Trump ventured to California yesterday and directly contradicted the scientific consensus on climate change, the reality on the ground on the wildfires, and even documented evidence on America’s carbon emissions. Or as Trump once said himself (which Michelle Obama later clapped back at him), “It is what it is.”

When we last checked in on the Colorado River, federal officials were celebrating the states’ completion of their drought contingency plans (or DCP’s) and still above average regional snowpack. But now that NOAA forecasters have announced that La Niña will take hold this winter, and now that exceptionally hot and dry conditions have already fueled record breaking wildfires across the West Coast, that last outbreak of optimism may prove to be short lived.

It’s official: The fed’s expect the drought to continue, and they expect Lake Mead to drop further.
Colorado River, climate change
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

Earlier today, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued its official forecast for the Colorado River, and this forecast remains as grim as ever: Federal officials expect drought conditions to continue through 2026, and they expect Lake Mead’s surface water level to drop below 1,075 feet by 2023, and they expect Lake Powell’s water level to remain at or fall below its current range of roughly 3,600 feet for the next five years. Now that the states’ DCP’s are in effect, this forecast points to a growing likelihood that all seven Colorado River states (Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California) will need to prepare to implement their agreed-upon DCP water cuts soon.

During Reclamation’s virtual press conference today, their lead scientists explained how they developed these projections and what all of this actually means for Americans who live in these seven states (as well as those in Mexico who also rely on Colorado River water). More specifically, Dr. Carly Jerla from the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Center for Advanced Decision Support for Water and Environmental Systems (CADSWES) explained the “stress test” model that relies on water flow records from 1988 to 2018, which differs from the “full hydrology” model that leans on water flow records dating back to 1906. As Jerla described the “stress test” model, “It’s certainly not a worst case scenario. It’s more of a ‘worser case scenario’.”

 Under the “stress test” model, Lake Mead has a 77% chance of dropping and staying below 1,075 feet in 2025 and a 19% chance of dropping below the 1,025 feet level that will necessitate more severe water cuts. Another thing to keep in mind is that the “stress test” factors in the seven states’ DCP agreement.

“We know we’re at risk for the next five to six years, and the drought contingency plans are here to address that.” 
– Brenda Burman, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Colorado River, climate change, Brenda Burman
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

When asked by reporters if federal authorities will do anything beyond the DCP’s that were already approved last year, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman stated, “We have greater uncertainty than we did last year. We know the drought contingency plans are working.” She then insisted, “We think there’s an extra six feet of storage at Lake Mead because of our conservation efforts. […] We know we’re at risk for the next five to six years, and the drought contingency plans are here to address that.”

While Burman acknowledged the reality of climate change and growing populations earlier in her presentation, she and the Reclamation scientists declined to further specify climate change’s and the suburban/exurban sprawl tradition’s effect on regional water supply. According to a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report published this past February, a 1.4° Celsius (or 2.5° Fahrenheit) regional temperature increase has led to an 11% drop in Colorado River water flow in the last century. And according to that same USGS report, Colorado River water flow may drop another 14% to 31% by 2050 due to climate change.

Though no one at this press conference denied climate science like Trump has, they used alternative terminology, such as “decision making under deep uncertainty”, to acknowledge the challenges ahead while avoiding direct contradictions of Trump’s anti-science rhetoric

“Make sure we continue to provide reliable water supply to tens of millions of people.” 
– Brenda Burman, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Colorado River, climate change
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

During our prior conversations with officials at the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), we learned more details on how local water regulators here have already begun preparing for climate change and a drier Colorado River. At least in the immediate future, the Las Vegas Valley faces little risk of water shortage. But with Utah officials planning to build a pipeline to divert water from Lake Powell to the St. George region, and with the Trump administration seemingly siding with Utah despite the other six states’ objections, we may be closer than ever before to the “nightmare scenario” of the Colorado River being litigated in federal court rather than collaboratively managed by the seven states.

Reclamation officials made no mention of Utah’s proposed pipeline. Instead, Brenda Burman promised that her bureau will continue to fulfill their mission: “Make sure we continue to provide reliable water supply to tens of millions of people.”

But as we can see from this growing body of evidence, the Colorado River’s water supply is shrinking, and climate change plays a major role in this shrinkage. Though we may not face a near-term emergency here, these data points and the current emergency of the ongoing wildfires serve as stark reminders that if we don’t take sufficient action soon, the forecast will probably only turn bleaker.

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