My colleague John Fleck writes about a report showing that with the end of the 2009 water year, the last decade (2000-2009) was the driest 10-year period in the Colorado River Basin since record-keeping began 100 years ago.
Since 1999, inflow to Lake Powell — the massive reservoir that collects water from the Upper Colorado Basin — has been below average in every year except the water years of 2005 and 2008. In 1999, the lake was close to full capacity, but as of the end of October, the lake was at 63 percent of capacity. Meanwhile, reservoir storage in the Colorado River Basin overall is now just 56.95 percent of capacity, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. Yet last I looked, The Bellagio in Las Vegas hadn’t drained its massive lake and fountains, and gardens were still blooming in Los Angeles.
How long can this continue? According to recent research by Balaji Rajagopalan of the University of Colorado, if climate change reduces the flow on the Colorado by 20 percent over the next few decades — not a terribly bad bet — the reservoirs in the basin stand a 50 percent percent of running dry. And that, of course, would mean bye bye Bellagio.
But for now, at any rate, the system of water allocation we use in the West seems to be doing okay. In fact, this incredibly complex system may be better suited to dealing with water shortages than the one used in the eastern United States, according to Dan Leucke, a consultant to Dividing the Waters, a network of judges, special masters and referees who preside over western water adjudications. Here in the West, the system of water rights, based on the concept of “first in time, first in right,” was designed to allocate water under an assumption of shortage. In the East, a “riparian” system prevails, which allocates water on the principle that landowners whose property is adjacent to a body of water have the right to use it. That system has run into some problems in parts of the Southeast.
Meanwhile, the mighty reservoirs along the Colorado, combined with our Rococo system of water rights, have helped get us through the driest ten years in a century. So the tourists at The Bellagio can continue enjoying a grotesque water spectacle every evening.
But if the reservoirs run dry, no system of allocation, not even one designed to deal with shortage, is going to help us.