David Arend was named the Deputy Regional Director for the Bureau of Reclamations Lower Colorado Basin in December of 2021. His responsibilities include oversight of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States. I interviewed David at the Hoover Dam near Boulder City, Nevada.
“We release water out of Hoover Dam based on the water needs of the irrigation districts and the the farmland and the tribal interests down river.
We’re approximately 30% full right now. And that number is continuing to drop by the end of this current calendar year. Also our inflow of the water coming into it is only about 72% of average. We’re into the time of year where we have higher water demands by the farmers, the irrigation districts and the tribal interests down river.
The biggest concern is being able to continue to send the water down the river, to continue to grow the vegetables, to continue to supply the water that the cities need, the agricultural communities need, the tribal entities need as well.
Power is not one of the major components as to why the dams were built, but there are concerns with the dwindling ability to generate power. The less water we release, the less generation we’re going to get off of that water. Also the less capacity in the lake—the less height of the water—there’s less head pressure, so the generators operate less efficiently than they would otherwise.
We’ve had about a 25% drop in our capacity for the energy generation. And we expect probably another 10 to 13% [reduction] over the next several years. We’ve done some things along the way to improve our efficiency of our units. And so we recalculate. We look at every two feet of change in Lake Mead. We recalculate what our new capacities are.
There is no one solution. There’s no way—with the current hydrology conditions—we’re not going to conserve our way out of this issue. So there has to be other things. Maybe desalinization is part of the answer. Water reuse is a big part of the answer. That’s where you’re recycling the water that’s been taken out and put it back in. So your consumptive use drops significantly.”
“Some of the comments that you read say, “California’s taking all our water,” “Arizona’s taking all our water.” It’s not one entity’s water. It was decided years and years ago in a compact. This year is the hundredth anniversary of the compact that divided up the river, and we’re still following that compact today. But we are doing everything we can to make sure that all the water is available.
As the water level dwindles, there’s going to be less supply for everybody. So everybody needs to look at what can we do to reuse water? What can we do to save water? Don’t just look at it in terms of “It’s my water, and I gotta protect my water and the heck with everybody else.” Reclamation used to look at it as the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin. And in the last several years, we’ve started to look at it in terms of the Colorado River itself, as a whole. It is one flow and whatever affects them upstream, affects us. And what affects us downstream affects upstream.
When they [originally] calculated out what’s a normal flow, they had used values from when they had high flow over several years. If you expand it out over a longer period of time, the amount of anticipated flow on average is lower than what they had anticipated. I’ve heard numbers as low as 9.5 million acre feet would be the correct number for what we can expect going forward. But certainly not the 16 million acre feet that was originally designed.
When you can’t reach that amount, we work with them [the states and the tribes] and we reduce the amount of water that they’re going to receive. And we’re actually working with them on agreements where they’ve been leaving water in Lake Mead, it’s called intentionally created surplus to help maintain levels in the lake as we go forward.”
“The lower basin agreed to leave 480,000 acre feet this year in Lake Powell and Flaming Gorge over the next year is going to release an additional 500,000 acre feet. So it’s close to a million acre feet to be retained in Lake Powell. Because there was a real threat that Lake Powell would get so low that they would reach deadpool and they wouldn’t be able to generate. On top of that, one of the chapters in the Navajo Nation, as well as the city of Page, draw their water off the lake directly. And they would hit the level where they would not be able to draw anymore water off the lake. So we’re trying to protect those things as best we can. We’re not in a great situation in Lake Mead, but we are in a little bit better situation than Lake Powell is.
There are certain points, certain levels that we hit that were agreed upon that if you hit a certain level, then the states will take so much less water, certain percentages less. We hit that. I think the first one was at 1075. That number was agreed upon in what’s called the drop contingency plan that went into effect probably four or five years ago,
If it hits this level, then these states take a certain reduction and we’ve already hit that level. So Nevada took a reduction. Arizona took a reduction. California did not yet. If we hit what’s called a tier two shortage, then everybody takes a little bit less.
We worked out the drought contingency plan to sort that out. And so the states have all agreed to that. Just like we announced that we would leave 480,000 acre feet in Powell and release the 500,000 acre feet out of Flaming Gorge, that was all agreed to by the states as well. It wasn’t us mandating to them. They knew about it, they signed off on it, they agreed to it. And then the secretary announced that that’s what we’re going to do.
The states are well aware of where we’re at and they understand that we’re all in this together. One of the representatives in one of the states said, “We’re gonna get through this because we have no other choice.” It’s no longer esoteric. It’s no longer somebody thinking, “This could happen.” It’s happening. We’ve been in over 20 years of drought now. It’s not getting much better. In some cases getting worse.
We’ll get to tier two at 1050 and it’s predicted by the end of the water year—which is the end of August—we’ll be somewhere below the 1050 mark. That’s the predictions that are being put out of our 24 month study, all the modeling and everything we’ve done. The power intakes at Hoover are around 940 feet elevation.
If you look at the lake, there’s still a lot of water in the lake. It looks pretty deep. But actually it’s shaped like a V. So the lower the elevation gets, the faster it’ll drop.”
“We have several other tributaries that all feed into the Colorado River. We look at snow packs up in the Rockies. The snow has to fall on the Western slope because if it falls on the Eastern slope, it flows through a different basin. We’re not seeing any of that. The other problem is because of the drought, the ground is so dry. So even when we have a large snow pack, as the snow melts, less of it is making its way into the river because it’s being absorbed into the soil because it’s been parched and dry for so long. More of that is being taken back into the soil and not making it into the river flows.
We do anything we can do to help out. We fund certain study programs. We look at different pilot programs that we help them with. There’s a program in Southern California called Crop Swap. And so Reclamation is funding part of that with the water district, where if a farmer on his land is growing a crop that uses a large amount of water, that we assist them and help pay for part of the changeover to a less water hungry crop.
Under the bipartisan infrastructure law, we can help them with money for aging infrastructure, water conservation programs, things like that. We’re looking at shifting things over to drip irrigation, repairing irrigation canals so they’re more efficient, less seepage or leakage coming out of the canals to help prevent that loss as well.
One of the things that gives me hope is the resourcefulness of people themselves.We find a way and come up with an answer. A lot of times we have to wait for it to become a crisis before we respond and we react. But the resourcefulness and the ingenuity of the human race itself is very strong.”
“There are different programs that districts are running, like here in Nevada, they’re doing the removal of grass. They call it useless grass. If the only person walking on the grass is the guy cutting it, that’s probably useless grass.
So that’s grass that’s in front of office buildings or in the median strip of a boulevard or things like that. They will actually pay you to take out the grass and put in xeriscape. I can give you one example. I was on a board at our homeowner association and it was a gated community. So we had little parks and everything that we’re responsible for. There were large portions of the parks that weren’t used, but they were just covered in grass. So we pulled out the grass, a portion of it. It cost $16,000 to pull out the grass and put in the xeriscape and WWA refunded us $11,000. So you still had a $5,000 deficit, but sitting on the board and seeing the bills, we reduced our water usage by $400 a month. It was just over a year and you had your return on investment. So now they’re pushing to remove more grass from this area. They said, when that useless grass all has to be out by 2026, that’ll reduce the water usage in the valley by another 14%. So that’s huge. That’s huge when you start thinking about it.
They’re not going to pay you to just tear out your grass and leave dirt, or just cover everything in asphalt. There has to be some drought tolerant vegetation, and they work with you and tell you how much you have to have and what it needs to do to meet the minimum requirements. And then once it’s in, they approve it and then they pay. I was just at a symposium up in Salt Lake City and the municipal water district from Los Angeles said they’re now starting that same program, based on what they saw with us and Arizona is starting to do the same thing.
Water reuse is becoming more prevalent. California’s not big on the complete water reuse like we have here in Nevada, but they’re starting what they call their purple pipe. And they’re allowing reuse water for watering grass or watering plants or outdoor use. And they call it the purple pipe program, because the piping that’s carrying the reuse water is colored purple, so you can identify it and know that it’s reused water and it’s not necessarily potable.
I’ve learned a lot about the laws of the river. The water laws. They’re incredibly complex. We have volumes of books that list the entire laws of the river. And you’ve got to be a little cautious when you start talking about reducing flows of water to the states. Nobody wants to hear that. But they finally come to the realization…they look at it…how much water is really out of Lake Mead. From a distance, it doesn’t look as bad. But just come here to Hoover Dam and look over the edge. To see that bathtub ring that really opens your eyes. If the water’s not there, it can’t flow downstream. It’s pretty simple math.
This is a hundred percent uncharted territory. We have never been this low since the filling of the lake, so every day, it’s a new historic low. But we’ll find a way. We have to find a way. We have no other choice.”
-Do you live in a part of the country where water is abundant or scarce?
-Do you spend much time thinking about your water use?
-Do you know what your per capita daily use of water is? Take a guess. Then learn more about statistical comparisons here.
-Do some simple math about water use in your community. If each person saved five gallons of water per day, what would that add up to in a calendar year? (story problem!)
-Are there ways you can reduce your water consumption?
-Have you allowed water consumption to drive decisions about your landscaping? About where you would live?
-David talks about the cooperation of states in the Colorado River Basin, working together to solve the common challenge. Share another time where you have seen effective cooperation to address a mutual problem.