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Drought measures begin on Colorado River as reservoirs fall

August 16th, 2013 | by Ian James | Comments

Drought is dramatically pushing down water levels in reservoirs on the Colorado River, and federal water managers are responding with a plan to reduce the flow of water from Lake Powell to Lake Mead.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said Friday that Lake Mead is projected to decline an additional eight feet next year as a result of the lowest release of water from Lake Powell since it was filled in the 1960s.

Both lakes are less than half full after the driest multi-year drought period in a century. Federal officials say Arizona and Nevada now face a 50-50 chance of a shortage declaration triggering cuts in water deliveries in 2016.

For the Coachella Valley, the shrinking river raises important long-term issues but doesn’t pose a threat to water supplies, said John Powell, Jr., president of the Coachella Valley Water District Board. “It’s not going to have any real impact on the Coachella Valley,” he said.

Southern California water districts hold priority rights to Colorado River water, and under the 2003 water transfer deal known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement, the Coachella Valley is to receive increasing deliveries of river water through the All-American Canal in the coming years.

The Coachella Valley Water District now receives 368,000 acre-feet per year, and that is to grow gradually to 459,000 acre-feet per year by 2026. Each acre-foot is equivalent to 325,851 gallons, and a typical household in the valley uses about two-thirds of an acre-foot per year.

Powell said if the dry years continue and eventually trigger cuts in water deliveries elsewhere, the Coachella Valley’s agricultural entitlement is well-protected, “so we’re not really concerned about cutbacks.”

“A lot of that is because of the long-term investment that we have made, farmers have made in the Coachella Valley, to use water efficiently,” said Powell, who along with his brother owns Peter Rabbit Farms, which produces crops ranging from vegetables to table grapes.

He said the drought measures on the Colorado River underline the importance of smart water management and also point to a need for more and bigger reservoirs in California to help the state better cope with dry years.

“When you look at the difference between the Colorado River system – which has a significant amount of storage, particularly in Lake Mead and Lake Powell – and you compare that to what we have in California… you see much less storage, and so when you have a wet year you’re not able to capture that water.”

The Coachella Valley Water District is one of multiple California water agencies that want more money dedicated to building and expanding reservoirs in a proposed $5 billion water bond. Farmers have also called for building more reservoirs.

The bond proposal, once finalized in the Legislature, would go before voters next year.

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