California benefits most under new accord

LAS VEGAS — Earlier this year, Lake Mead's water level was at its lowest historic level for early spring since the drought years of 1955 to 1957.

Abundant snow in the mountains promises some relief when the melt began, but much more will be needed. Nearly a decade of water deficit has left Mead at roughly 48 percent, and prospects are slim that better years are on the way, according to researchers at Columbia and Princeton.

Meanwhile, millions of residents in California are breathing a huge sigh of relief, following the negotiation of a new seven-state accord that details how the Colorado River will be shared. The agreement almost certainly is the most important since the original 1922 compact, which divided the water at a time when populations in the Southwest were but a fraction of what they are now.

Under the new accord, California would not lose any of its share of water until Lake Mead diminished to just 16 percent of capacity. Also, cuts to Arizona and Nevada will not be triggered until 2010 at the earliest, officials insisted, because of the vastness of the system, which also includes Lake Powell to the northeast.

"This is a monumental agreement on the Colorado River. It provides us with new tools and possibilities," said Roger Patterson of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

"We'll know when we'll have shortages and how much the shortages will be, and we'll be able to plan for them," added Thomas Carr of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

"It's not about who gave up what. We all benefit. We avoided long, expensive, uncertain legal battles."

Still, some uncertainties do remain.

How will Mexico, which also depends on the Colorado River, respond to this agreement?

And how will fish and wildlife fare?

The accord does allow for some storage in Mead for the latter, explained Jennifer Pitt of Environmental Defense. "If they hadn't left that door open, there would be no hope for the Colorado River Delta in the long run," she said.

California, meanwhile, not only improved its standing during times of drought, but it also will be permitted to keep up to 400,000 acre-feet a year extra in Lake Mead. That's enough to meet the needs of 800,000 average households a year. (An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons.)

"This, for the first time, allows Metropolitan to bank unused water and have it stay in Lake Mead with Met's name on it," Patterson said.

Under the current low water conditions, that's not likely to happen in 2008.

Additionally, California agreed in 2003 to gradually reduce its withdrawal from the Colorado River to 4.4 million acre-feet following years of taking more than its share.

As of spring 2008, Mead contained just 12.6 million acre-feet, well below its 25.87 million acre-feet capacity. The last time it was in that range was 1964, when populations — and demands — were considerably lower and no one feared the consequences of climate change.

And, still, 19 years were needed for the reservoir to refill.


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