The future of the American West, the one in which water supplies dwindle and politicians must play the role of King Solomon to allocate uncertain shares to 30 million people, is here, whether we like it or not. And nobody does. Nor will most Westerners be happy about how their lives must inevitably change with the changing climate.
July's Colorado River flow into Lake Powell was about 100,000 acre feet less than had been expected, or just 13 percent of normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That follows a June that reached just 35 percent of normal river flow. The months ahead are expected to be somewhat better.
Climatologists have been warning us for decades that the early effects of global climate change would hit hard at Western states, where the land is dry, water supplies are dependent on mountain snowpack and even slightly warmer temperatures upset a delicate ecological balance. Add perennial population increases to global warming, both of which have accelerated faster than predicted, and you have a recipe for disaster. Not in 20 or 50 or 100 years. Now.
For starters, the new data means reductions in Glen Canyon Dam water releases next year of 750,000 acre feet, enough water to supply 1.5 million homes. The dam's power generating system could also soon be in trouble; both Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the lower-basin Colorado River reservoir in Nevada, are less than half full. Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead. A third "straw" to draw water from Lake Mead will be completed at huge expense about the same time the uppermost "straw" begins sucking air.
Under an agreement among the states supplied by the Colorado River, when Lake Powell's level dips below 3,575 feet above sea level and it's safe to say that's no longer an "if" annual releases would decrease from 8.23 million acre feet to 7.48 million acre feet. On Wednesday the level was 3,592 and dropping by two or three inches a day; Friday the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced the cutback is certain.
Utah is an "upper basin" state among the seven Colorado River Compact states, along with Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, so the Beehive State's usage will have a direct impact on the "lower basin" states of California, Arizona and Nevada. Vegas, in particular, given its penchant for decorating with water, is facing dire times. But Utahns also will be required to use less water, change the way they landscape and, if water managers act responsibly, start paying the real cost of the water they use.
Reports like this one are very likely to become the norm, spelling doom for the ill-conceived Lake Powell pipeline to St. George and plans for a thirsty nuclear power plant on the Green River in eastern Utah. Utahns will be lucky to avoid the expense of building more diversion projects as it becomes clear there is not enough water to divert.
Utahns should not allow state officials to spend any more taxpayer money on plans for more dams or pipelines that are simply a folly, given the reality of hotter temperatures, less snowpack and diminished river flow.
It's a new reality that Utah policy makers should get used to.