At Water-Starved Lake Mead and Lake Powell, 'The Crisis is Already Real,' Scientists Say

With Lake Mead dropping to levels that could trigger water cutbacks in less than two years, there's been a lot of talk lately about negotiating a deal to keep the reservoir from falling even further. 

But in a new report, scientists say the situation is just as worrisome upstream at Lake Powell. 

The declines there during the past 18 years, they say, also reflect the Colorado River's worsening "structural deficit."

The 10 scientists, who make up the Colorado River Research Group, said even though the four Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — haven't been using all the water they're legally entitled to, Lake Powell has declined due to extra water releases into Mead.

Those releases, they said, are "the only thing that has kept Lake Mead from dropping into shortage conditions."

"I want people to know that what's going on at Lake Mead is very, very closely tied to what's going on Lake Powell," said Doug Kenney, the group's chair and a professor at the University of Colorado. "We're draining Lake Powell to prop it up."

The scientists titled their report "It's Hard to Fill a Bathtub When the Drain is Wide Open."

Lake Powell now sits 48 percent full, and Lake Mead is 38 percent full.  

The Colorado River basin, which stretches from Wyoming to Mexico, has been drying out during what scientists say is one of the driest 19-year periods in the past 1,200 years. The river has long been over-allocated, with the demands of farms and cities exceeding the available water supply, and the strains are being compounded by growing population, drought and climate change. 

The scientists, who say their group presents an "independent, scientific voice for the future of the Colorado River," detailed how much Lake Powell has gone down in less than two decades. By the end of this year, Powell's levels are projected to have dropped 94 feet below where the reservoir stood in 2000, when it was nearly full. 

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates Glen Canyon Dam and manages the releases from one reservoir to the other. 

"Continuing this operational pattern will further drain Lake Powell and erode the benefits associated with its water storage," the researchers said in the report. "If storage in Lake Powell cannot rebound in an era where the Upper Basin consumes less than two‐thirds of its legal apportionment, then the crisis is already real."

Learn More at AZCentral