Arizona Water News: June 2015

Third straw at plunging Lake Mead nearly complete

June 1, 2015 | By Conor Shine | Las Vegas Sun

Six hundred feet down an elevator shaft near the shore of Lake Mead, the weight of Las Vegas’ future rests on a 19,000-pound plug at the mouth of a three-mile tunnel.

The plug sits atop a domed cavern beneath the lake, holding back the pressure of millions of acre-feet of water.

Later this summer, the tunnel will be flooded and a crane will pull out the plug, connecting the lake’s third intake straw to nearby pumping stations and providing a new level of protection against a blistering drought that has sent Lake Mead’s elevation to record low levels.

The new intake — basically a steel and concrete tube that uses gravity to feed water into the valley’s pumping facilities — will keep working even if the lake’s elevation drops below 1,000 feet, a point at which two already existing intakes will have stopped functioning. With Lake Mead’s elevation currently at 1,076 feet and dropping, the third intake provides a much-needed insurance policy to ensure the drought doesn’t cut off the source of 90 percent of Las Vegas’ drinking water.

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Dry Heat: As Lake Mead hits record lows and water shortages loom, Arizona prepares for the worst.

May 8, 2015 | By Eric Holthaus |

Last week, Lake Mead, which sits on the border of Nevada and Arizona, set a new record low—the first time since the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s that the lake’s surface has dipped below 1,080 feet above sea level. The West’s drought is so bad that official plans for water rationing have now begun—with Arizona’s farmers first on the chopping block. Yes, despite the drought’s epicenter in California, it’s Arizona that will bear the brunt of the West’s epic dry spell.

The huge Lake Mead—which used to be the nation’s largest reservoir—serves as the main water storage facility on the Colorado River. Amid one of the worst droughts in millennia, record lows at Lake Mead are becoming an annual event—last year’s low was 7 feet higher than this year’s expected June nadir, 1,073 feet.

If, come Jan. 1, Lake Mead’s level is below 1,075 feet, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river, will declare an official shortage for the first time ever—setting into motion a series of already agreed-upon mandatory cuts in water outlays, primarily to Arizona. (Nevada and Mexico will also receive smaller cuts.) The latest forecasts give a 33-percent chance of this happening. There’s a greater than 75 percent chance of the same scenario on Jan. 1, 2017. Barring a sudden unexpected end to the drought, official shortage conditions are likely for the indefinite future.

Why Arizona? In exchange for agreeing to be the first in line for rationing when a shortage occurs, Arizona was permitted in the 1960s to build the Central Arizona Project, which diverts Colorado River water 336 miles over 3,000 feet of mountain ranges all the way to Tucson. It’s the longest and costliest aqueduct in American history, and Arizona couldn’t exist in its modern state without it. Now that a shortage is imminent, another fundamental change in the status quo is on the way. As in California, the current drought may take a considerable and lasting toll on Arizona, especially for the state’s farmers.

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Arizona can deal with drought, Senate panel told

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee examined the historically dry conditions that have gripped the West and precipitated a water crisis in California.

June 2, 2015 | Bill Theobald |

WASHINGTON – Witnesses presented a bleak picture of the ongoing drought in the West during a Senate hearing Tuesday, but there were a few rays of hope.

First the bad news:

  • Seventy-five percent of the land in the 11 westernmost states is facing abnormally dry-to-exceptional drought conditions, according to the S. Drought Monitor.
  • California has ordered a 25 percent reduction in water use by non-farm users.
  • Washington has declared a statewide drought emergency and is predicting $1.2 billion in crop losses this year.
  • Oregon has declared a drought emergency for 15 counties.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who as chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee convened the hearing, said she visited California recently and “saw whole fields of beautiful healthy citrus trees that were literally bulldozed over because there was no water.”

But Thomas Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, testified that tough steps taken by the state years ago have prepared it for current weather conditions.

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