Fed to ink Colorado River water pact | AspenTimes.com

Fed to ink Colorado River water pact

The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

A top federal official plans to sign a sweeping interstate water sharing agreement next week that could blunt the impact of drought on the Colorado River and secure more water for southern Nevada, officials said.

The document to be signed Dec. 13 by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne would extend until 2026 guidelines for determining surpluses and shortages of river water and for operating the key Lake Mead and Lake Powell reservoirs during shortages like the drought that has gripped the region since 2001.

“It sets up the guidelines for how the secretary would determine and declare a shortage in the lower basin,” Bob Walsh, a bureau of reclamation spokesman, said Thursday. “It also addresses the coordinated operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead under a complete range of conditions.”

Kempthorne is due to sign a record of decision formalizing the shortage agreement after addressing an annual conference of the Colorado River Water Users Association at the Caesars Palace hotel-casino, Walsh said.

Water authority General Manager Pat Mulroy said the broad pact includes about two dozen smaller agreements among the seven Colorado River states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming in the upper basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada in the lower basin.

Some would let the Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority tap groundwater in the Coyote Springs basin north of Las Vegas and use existing Lake Mead intakes to exercise rights to draw almost 40,000 acre-feet of water from the Virgin and Muddy rivers.

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Mulroy called the agreements “hugely important” to give the authority time to build a pipeline to tap groundwater in rural basins across eastern Nevada.

The $3.5 billion project, still in review stages, is expected to provide up to 200,000 acre-feet of water a year by 2015 for a region now nearing 2 million people and 90 percent dependant on the Colorado River for its water supply.

An acre-foot, or about 326,000 gallons, is roughly the amount used by two Las Vegas homes in one year, water authority officials say.

The pact Kempthorne is due to sign has been in the works since 2005 and follows several other accords that have eased competition between Western states that share Colorado River water.

Interim Surplus Guidelines in 2001 spelled out how extra water would be divvied up during wet years on the river, and an agreement in 2003 got California to stop taking more than its share from the Colorado.

Mulroy said the new agreement could be especially important when the Colorado River returns to normal flows.

That’s when the water authority would be allowed to start using a one-time reserve of at least 400,000 acre-feet of water it would get in exchange for building a new reservoir just north of the Mexican border in California that could cost as much as $206 million.

The 8,000 acre-foot reservoir, costing as much as $206 million, would capture canal water that now flows into Mexico.

Mulroy said the broad pact Kempthorne is slated to sign is made up of about two dozen smaller agreements among the seven Colorado River states.

At the heart of the overall agreement are rules designed to protect minimum water levels in lakes Mead and Powell through the year 2026.

Since 2001, the water level at Lake Mead has dropped more than 100 feet. A decline of another 35 feet to a lake elevation of 1,075 feet above sea level would trigger a federal shortage declaration and force Nevada, Arizona and Mexico to reduce their combined water use by 400,000 acre-feet a year.

Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com

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