U.S. Water News Online
LAS VEGAS -- Lake Mead, which is approaching record low
levels due to three years of drought, could drop another 20 inches
under a decision made by the U.S. Interior Department.
The lake surface is now at about 1,155 feet above sea level, and
releasing 260,000 acre-feet for California farms would bring the lake
slightly closer to a point that would trigger water cutbacks in Las
Vegas, officials said.
But a federal Bureau of Reclamation official told the Las Vegas
Sun that a drop of a little more than 11/2 feet would barely be felt
amid a steady drop in the lake's water level.
``In terms of ... what is going to happen to the lake over the
next 18 months, that amount of water won't even be noticed,'' said
Bob Walsh, spokesman for the agency controlling the dam on the
Colorado River. The lake level has been dropping about one foot a
Federal and southern Nevada water agencies have been preparing to
deal with cuts in 2004 and said they do not expect the additional
drawdown for California agriculture to hasten the need for water
Officials with the Imperial Irrigation District, which takes the
greatest share of Lake Mead water for agricultural use, said the
additional water could be critically important over the next six
weeks to meet the nation's demand for fresh winter vegetables.
``We are the nation's winter salad bowl,'' district spokeswoman
Susan Giller said. ``There are times in the winter where virtually
the only lettuce produced in the country comes from the Imperial
Other winter crops from California include carrots, broccoli,
tomatoes and onions.
But while the nation depends on Imperial Valley's vegetables, the
desert Southwest depends on Lake Mead's water.
The amount authorized for the California farmers by Interior
Secretary Gale Norton equals about as much as Las Vegas' basic
allotment from the lake.
Walsh said if the lake drops below 1,145 feet next year, Las Vegas
could be forced to reduce water use in 2004.
The bureau predicts the water level will drop below 1,138 feet by
the end of November 2003.
If the water level is between 1,145 and 1,125 feet by the end of
next year, southern Nevada would lose half the ``surplus'' water
unused by states in the upper Colorado River basin. The total lost in
this case would be 15,000 acre feet per year, enough water for about
the same number of households.
If the water level drops below 1,125 feet, southern Nevada would
lose the full amount of the surplus -- about 30,000 acre feet, or 10
percent of what the region draws from the lake annually.
Norton authorized the extra drawdown because of extreme drought
conditions in California's agricultural areas, including the inland
Imperial Irrigation District.
Under the terms of river law known as the Interim Surplus
Guidelines, the farmers will have to pay back the extra water by
cutting consumption over the next four years.
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