As I explained in my story today, if Lake Mead continues dropping, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will declare a shortage and implement cuts that the seven Colorado River states agreed to in 2007.

That plan goes into effect when Lake Mead hits 1,075 feet of elevation and stays in place until the reservoir sits at 1,025 feet. Lake Mead is currently at 1,099 feet, having dropped eight feet in the last year. It’s steadily been dropping since 1998.

For now, Arizona and Nevada take the hit if a shortage is declared. But if Lake Mead drops below 1,025 feet, it’s anyone’s guess. The states have agreed to renegotiate at that point.

So will California, the largest single user of Colorado River water, take a hit? Not without a fight.

“Certainly, there will be some views in the basin that if we’re at that position in the reservoir, it’ll have to be sharing of the pain among the shareholders,” said Terry Fulp, deputy regional director of the Lower Colorado region for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river. “There will be disagreement in your state — that’s why it won’t be an easy negotiation.”

Halla Razak, the Colorado River programs director at the San Diego County Water Authority, told me she’s been impressed by the recent cooperation among the seven Colorado basin states in talking about shortages. But California has so far not been asked to give up any of the water it’s entitled to; its water rights are senior to Nevada’s and Arizona’s.

Asked whether California or San Diego would accept a cutback if Lake Mead hits 1,025, Razak said: “I have to be very careful how I respond. Everybody’s nerves get very heightened. California is extremely well represented on the river. We have a high number of people living in California. That cannot be discounted.”

Agencies are preparing for Lake Mead to continue dropping. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies Las Vegas, is spending $817 million to build new intake pumps in Lake Mead.

The authority currently has two pumps that draw water out of the reservoir. The first goes inoperable when Lake Mead hits 1,050 feet. The second is lost at 1,000 feet. The new intake can draw until the reservoir hits 900 feet.

J.C. Davis, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada authority, told me that the agency doesn’t expect Lake Mead to drop that far. But, he said, “you need to be prepared for that eventuality.”

“We would love nothing more than for the Colorado River to recover,” Davis said. “But chances are that’s not the way it’s going to play out.”


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