High good, low bad: Mead in July 2011

Why, you might wonder, would anyone in their right mind use a map highlighting the Mississippi River system for a monthly post about the elevation of the largest reservoir on the Colorado River?  The reason is a renewed offer on the table from Las Vegas water manager Pat Mulroy. Divert the Mississippi and its tributaries to feed upper basin Colorado River users, give Vegas the water therefore left in the Colorado River system and she’ll leave the Great Basin aquifer alone. “The instate project wouldn’t be needed because at that point what you’ve done is securitize the Colorado River,” she tells a reporter for “Vegas, Inc.” 

This transcontinental flood control scheme isn’t new. Pat’s been braving ribald mockery over it for at least three years now. The “give me more Colorado River water or the Great Basin desert gets it” line isn’t new either — that’s been a

High good, low bad: Mead in June 2011

Source: Water Resource Planning in Washington County, Utah and the Lake Powell Pipeline, Presented at the Nevada Water Resource Association meeting February 3, 2011 by Corey Cram of the Washington County Water Conservancy District

Not only is this normally first-of-the-month post about Lake Mead late, it’s not even about Lake Mead. I find that the other great storage reservoir on the Colorado River, Lake Powell, was the more interesting of the big drinks in June. The Salt Lake Tribune found Utah’s Department of Water Resources taking state legislators for a plane ride over Utahn water ways. Whee.

Unlike leaner years, there was plenty of gleaming snowpack to sell any number of projects, not least the patently crazy proposal for a $1.1bn pipeline from Lake Powell into the snowbird communities of Washington County. That stretch of old Mormondom is to the south of the state, along the border of Nevada’s dry

High good, low bad: Mead in May 2011

Lake Mead’s rise by two feet in May presages a total rise of 32 feet by the end of February, 2012, reported the Las Vegas Review-Journal several weeks ago. Last night at midnight, the elevation of the largest storage reservoir in the US was 1,097.89, leaving another 30 feet due for release from Lake Powell upstream. The federal Bureau of Reclamation graphic, left, shows how much water sits in reserve as snowpack in the upper Colorado region.

As the snow melts and the water makes its way through the dam system upstream, the 2010-11 water year on the Colorado will push Lake Mead steadily upward from the 1,075 elevation, at which point shortages would have been declared for Arizona and Nevada. For California to be hit by shortages, the reservoir would have to drop further because of an antique priority rights system governing the river.

While Las Vegas celebrated

High good, low bad: Mead in April 2011

Mural, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Photo: Emily Green

Last week at a meeting of the Southern California Water DialogueReclamation had good news and bad news. The good news was that as tallies keep coming in from a record water year on the Colorado River, the looming prospect of shortage declarations for the “Lower Basin” has receded. (By last night, the closing April elevation of Lake Mead was 1,095.77 feet, more than 13 feet higher than November 2010, when the largest reservoir in the American West was within 7 feet of shortages being declared.)

The bad news was that Mead, which serves Nevada, California, Arizona and Mexico, is still less than half full. As this graphic shows, when a dry trend began on the river in 1999, Mead was 95% full. While we’ve had a wet blip in 2011, if this generally dry trend persists for

High good, low bad: Mead in March 2011

Click on the map to be taken to the US Drought Monitor.

Smart people object to the term “drought” being applied to the water supply of the Western US. Dryness is not necessarily drought in a dry place, they say, no matter how rashly you might overdevelop that place.

So, this being the week of April Fools, these strict interpreters might agree with California that, after heavy winter precipitation, the Golden State is no longer in a drought. To drought skeptics, it never was. It’s simply full of fools who view the state’s massive system of reservoirs much like a drunk assesses a whisky bottle.

To us drunks, however, the world looks very different here in California. The drought is on when we don’t get what we want, and it’s over when we do. It has nothing to do with the health of the waterways that we siphon, the

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