Severe drought has ravaged the fabled Rio Grande, leaving expanses of muck where a 40-mile-long lake once lapped against the desert floor.
The reservoir at Elephant Butte Dam, a lifeline for large portions of New Mexico and Texas, has dropped 75 feet below the brown sandstone cliffs at its abutments. The river is so emaciated, it has even lost its way to the dam, forcing federal workers to dig a $9-million trench through the muck in hopes of capturing whatever water does flow.
And for all the demands on the dwindling river, priority goes to an endangered silvery minnow, which has won a court order that guarantees its share of the precious water.
Conditions along the Rio Grande mirror the chaos and upheaval in virtually every major Western watershed, where key reservoirs are well below capacity and in some cases bone-dry.
“Every indication is that in large portions of the West, we are in a historic drought,” said John W. Keys III, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that operates 348 reservoirs supplying water to the West.
“Lord only knows how long it will last. I wouldn’t even hesitate a guess.”
The history of the West has been punctuated by long periods of drought, and the prophecy of a water crisis is nothing new.
But increasingly, modern trends -- urban growth, environmental concerns and climate patterns -- are magnifying weather trends, placing even greater strains on the limited resources west of the 100th meridian, where the humid East meets the arid West and natural precipitation cannot support agriculture.
The future holds even more grim news: New studies by climate experts at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography predict global warming will aggravate the West’s problems.
“There will be more frequent droughts and more severe droughts,” said climate scientist Tim Barnett of Scripps. “It is not a good scenario. We have a lot of social decisions to make.”
Making those decisions for the future, however, will require wading through policies of the past: Water use in the West is ruled by byzantine legal and political structures formed more than 100 years ago. A spaghetti bowl of local, state and federal agencies oversees the Western watersheds, and conflicts often end up in the nation’s courts.
Though the bureaucratic system has difficulty coping with current conditions, the future promises even more challenges.
The Scripps Institution, in a series of 15 reports, predicts two problematic trends. Precipitation levels will drop in many areas, particularly in the Colorado River Basin where they could decrease 10% and trigger a one-third falloff in water reservoir storage.
Equally threatening is a projection that all across the region more precipitation will fall as rain, rather than snow, and that winter snowmelts will occur earlier in the season.
Wildfires will double in size, it predicts.
And with less snow stored in the mountains, hydroelectric generation in the Pacific Northwest will decrease in the summer when electricity demands are highest, said Dennis Lettenmaier, a University of Washington engineering professor who participated in the Scripps study.
Such disaster scenarios are not far off from what is already occurring in much of the West in the current drought.
Water levels this year at Lake Powell, the massive Colorado River impoundment behind the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, were the lowest since the dam was built. Hydrologists say rainfall in the river basin was the lowest since records began in 1906.
Conditions across the Northwest, from Washington to Montana, are similarly bleak. Precipitation in the vast Columbia River Basin has run 50% below normal in recent months, leaving officials worried that this winter could duplicate the dry conditions of the last two seasons.
Major rivers like the Missouri, Yellowstone, Snake, Pecos, Colorado, Sacramento and Klamath are all running low and in some cases at fractions of normal flows. The Rio Grande carried just 13% of its normal flow this year, according to Bureau of Reclamation officials.
Thousands of acres of farmland are being taken out of production in Texas, according to Texas Department of Environmental Quality water master Carlos Rubinstein.
Irrigators and some state officials want the federal government to shut off water deliveries to Mexico in retaliation for failing to make good on a half-trillion-gallon water debt owed to the U.S.
Gordon Hill, general manager of Bay View Irrigation District in Texas, says the only long-term solution is to build a canal from the Mississippi River to the dry Plains. Such an audacious plan was long considered in the era of dam building, but abandoned for its staggering costs and environmental consequences.
Sante Fe, N.M., has declared a Stage 3 water emergency, clamping tight restrictions on car washing, lawn watering and other routine activities.
The worst may be coming. Under age-old water laws, the city is supposed to empty its municipal reservoir into the Rio Grande. State officials are desperately trying to arrange a water swap to avoid that step.
Conditions are just the opposite in Yuma, Ariz. While it has not received any measurable rain in 27 months, it has no shortage of water. The desert city holds one of the oldest municipal claims to Colorado River water, according to Yuma Mayor Larry Nelson.
“We have had no adverse impacts in Yuma from the lack of rain,” he said. “But we are conserving water, because it is the right thing to do.”
Across the West, water officials are hoping that a predicted El Nino weather pattern will bring relief, though it’s far from a sure bet. Even with a wet winter, it would take years to redress the shortages in much of the region.
California reservoirs are well below normal levels. Shasta Lake, the state’s largest, holds 2.3 million acre-feet, about half of its capacity. Lake Oroville, ranked second, is storing 1.2 million acre-feet, about a third of its capacity.
(An acre-foot is enough water to supply two families for about a year, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.)
“Most of the state’s sources of water are below normal,” said Jeanine Jones, drought preparedness manager for the California Department of Water Resources.
The Metropolitan Water District, which supplies most of Southern California’s water, says it has adequate storage for a few years even if drought continues. It draws from the state’s northern dams and the Colorado River.
Lake Mead, the impoundment of the Colorado at Hoover Dam, is about one-third below full capacity. The Bureau of Reclamation predicts that the level will continue to drop over the next two years, though it does not expect to go so low that the MWD would lose any of the water it currently receives from the river.
“The water crisis is upon us in many parts of the West,” said Denise Fort, a University of New Mexico law professor who chaired a presidential commission on Western water policy four years ago. “There is no unallocated water in the West, with only rare exception. Water is going to be a limitation to future development.”
Western states have boomed, emerging as the fastest-growing centers in the nation. But the growth occurred during an uncommonly wet period in the region’s history, from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Fort said that the report on water policy was only the first step of a comprehensive reform of Western water management, which is gaining in urgency as populations grow and environmentalists successfully sue to enforce the Endangered Species Act.
The dire conditions at Elephant Butte Dam are a microcosm of the multiple pressures building across the West.
The drought has left much of the lake dry and the river has disappeared into a flat expanse of muck and nonnative salt cedar trees, an Asian species that consumes large quantities of water. In a somewhat desperate measure, the Bureau of Reclamation has deployed four massive floating excavators to dig an 18-mile channel for the Rio Grande behind the dam.
As matters stand, the reservoir is only holding 15% of its capacity and users will get only a fraction of their regular allocations next year.
Two irrigation districts draw on the reservoir and the fast-growing city of El Paso depends on it for half its supply. Mexico also is entitled to an allotment under a 1906 treaty.
Every gallon of water that flows into the reservoir in a normal year is allocated to somebody, meaning that it will take many years of above-average flow to refill the lake.
But people are not the only demand on remaining water.
A coalition of environmental groups sued the Bureau of Reclamation this year to force water releases to support the silvery minnow, an endangered fish below the dam.
U.S. District Judge James Parker ruled in favor of the environmental groups and his decision could have ramifications at reservoirs nationwide. An appeal was filed and oral arguments will begin next month.
As a result of the suit, the Bureau of Reclamation was forced to buy water for $100 an acre-foot to support the minnow, said Steve Hansen, deputy manager of the agency’s Albuquerque area office. By comparison, farmers in the region pay about $50 an acre-foot for their crops of alfalfa and pecans.
The minnow rescue has cost taxpayers $4.8 million so far, just another effect of the drought, but unavoidable like all the others.
“What has happened in this basin is just the leading edge of what the entire West is going to experience,” Hansen said. “It is going to create a new era of learning how to adapt to competing needs. Nobody has a road map for it. That is being duked out in the courtrooms.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Although many of the major reservoirs west of the 100th meridian are typically low at this time of year, before it starts to snow in the mountains, most of the artificial lakes are below their 15-year averages due to several years of drought in the region.
Decreased precipitation the last few years has resulted in below-normal dryness through most of the West. Levels are based on the last two years of precipitation, as of Nov. 31.
1. Lake Roosevelt (Wash.)
Capacity*: 5.1 million
Current storage*: 4.7 million
Percent full: 91
2. Shasta (Calif.)
Capacity*: 4.5 million
Current storage*: 2.3 million
Percent full: 51
3. Oroville (Calif.)
Capacity*: 3.5 million
Current storage*: 1.2 million
Percent full: 34
4. Fort Peck (Mont.)
Capacity*: 18.7 million
Current storage*: 11.8 million
Percent full: 63
5. Clark Canyon (Mont.)
Current storage*: 36,015
Percent full: 20
6. Boysen (Wyo.)
Current storage*: 268,800
Percent full: 36
7. Lake Granby (Colo.)
Current storage*: 155,800
Percent full: 28
8. Lake Powell (Utah)
Capacity*: 26.2 million
Current storage*: 14.1 million
Percent full: 58
9. Lake Mead (Nev.)
Capacity*: 28.5 million
Current storage*: 16.8 million
Percent full: 65
10. Elephant Butte (N.M.)
Capacity*: 1.9 million
Current storage*: 315,800
Percent full: 16
* In acre-feet (one acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough water for two average familes for a year); ** end of year projection
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Western Regional Climate Center
Researched by Julie Sheer / Los Angeles Times