Lake Mead

The DCP between all seven Colorado River water partners will help keep Lake Mead's water elevation above critical triggers, which would allow the federal government to regulate water users.

While much of the western US is experiencing drought conditions, California is one of the hardest hit. As of June 22, 100 percent of the State is experiencing some degree of drought. About 33 percent of the State has been categorized under exceptional drought — the most intense drought classification. But water access varies greatly by region, according to a recent article by CalMatters.

Governor Gavin Newsom expanded two earlier drought emergency declarations on July 8, to cover 50 of the State’s 58 counties. He signed an executive order calling on all Californians to voluntarily reduce water use by 15 percent. The governor’s emergency proclamation did not impose water conservation mandates. Instead, Newsom is leaving water conservation to each region.

“Not here as a nanny state,” Newsom said at the press conference where he announced the additional drought declarations. “And we’re not trying to be oppressive. But nonetheless, the sober reality is such that here we are again, and we will need to proceed with the lessons learned from the last drought.”

The Imperial Valley is a desert with an annual rainfall of two inches a year, according to the University of California. The Valley is not experiencing a drought, but normal desert conditions. The Valley’s water is not affected by the rest of California’s drought condition as it receives its water supply from the Colorado River, not the snowpack off the Sierra Nevada Mountain range or rainfall. The Valley has senior water rights and a high allocation of the Colorado River’s water.

“The Imperial Valley tends to rely on Colorado River water, so growers there usually have the most robust water access of any place in California,” Roland Fumasi said recently at an agriculture meeting discussing California’s drought. He is the head of RaboResearch Food and Agribusiness (F&A) North America team.

However, the rain and snow pack the Valley should worry about is in Colorado, where the river begins. 

Tina Shields, Imperial Irrigation District water manager, gives a water report at every IID Board meeting. Lately, it has begun the same way — with bad news.

“The season is drier than ever,” Shields began at the June 15 meeting. “I know I continue to give bad news. Cross your fingers for rain, a monsoon is good — as long as it doesn’t happen here. The winter snowpack didn’t make it into the (Colorado River) system. The land was so dry, it just soaked it up.”

When the snowpack doesn’t make it into the system, Lake Mead — the reservoir that holds the southern states’ water, including the Imperial Valley’s — begins to reach dangerously low elevations. In anticipation of low water levels at Lake Mead because of the western drought, and Lake Powell further up the river, the upper and lower basin states created a Drought Contingency Plan (DCP).

In 2007, the Colorado Basin States and the federal government agreed to the first DCP, called the “2007 Guidelines,” to govern water allotments in the event of a water shortage until 2026. There are three tiers of Lake Mead elevations in the 2007 Guidelines, each marker triggering water cutbacks. All of the junior rights holders in Arizona, Nevada, and parts of California would be subject to lower water rations, the drought would have to become dire before the Valley would give up any of its senior allotment.

The IID Board held up the latest DCP process saying it would not sign onto the plan without receiving $200 million in federal funding to restore the Salton Sea. However, the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), the agency responsible for supplying 19 million southern Californians with drinking water, said it would supply all of California’s 200,000 acre/foot allotment back to the Lake if it fell below 1,045 feet. The move cut the Imperial Valley out of the DCP, and the agreement moved to the US Congress for ratification.

On the same day that President Trump signed the DCP, the Imperial Irrigation District filed a lawsuit in California state court to delay the implementation of the DCP. The lawsuit says the Metropolitan Water District violated California's environmental laws because it failed to analyze the impacts for Southern California of taking greater river water cuts and did not consider how the agency would make up for the shortfall. 

The current level of elevation at Mead is 1,067 feet, already past the first trigger. Larry Cox, Brawley farmer, at the last IID Water Advisory Committee meeting suggested looking into using the stored water the IID has at Lake Mead as the next trigger would freeze stored water, essentially locking up the asset for the Valley’s use.

“The Lakes (Powell and Mead) are dropping precipitously. If Powell goes down enough, it won’t be able to generate electricity,” Cox said.

The prediction is close to being realized.

“Emergency water releases from reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell are underway to preserve the nation’s second-largest reservoir’s (Lake Powell) ability to generate hydroelectric power,” KUNC reported on their webpage July 15. “The Bureau of Reclamation started releasing additional water Thursday from Flaming Gorge reservoir in Wyoming.”

Despite the dire warnings, the Valley will continue to receive its allotted water without the need to cut back usage. Perhaps the greater danger for the Valley is not the lack of water, but its river allotment as thirsty cities turn their dry eyes towards the Valley’s senior water rights.

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