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Executive Summary for June 23rd

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including a troubling new Lake Mead forecast, and more desalination news from San Diego. We also look at a controversial water pipeline in Utah.

Published on June 23, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Lake Mead Forecast Drops, Despite Wet Winter

A new runoff forecast by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation shows that Lake Mead’s water level will actually decline by 4 feet over the next 18 months, a big change from an earlier forecast in April that projected it would increase by 25 feet.

This isn’t just quibbling over numbers. Lake Mead’s elevation is crucial to interstate water planning. If the lake level falls below an elevation of 1,075 feet, this triggers a so-called “shortage declaration” in Colorado River water contracts that mandates severe water rationing.

Despite the lower forecast, Lake Mead is still expected to remain one foot above the level that would trigger a first-ever federal shortage declaration on Jan. 1, 2019, the outer limit of the forecast period. Of course, much depends on future precipitation. If next winter proves to be unusually dry, the forecast could worsen.

The narrow margin of safety in the new forecast prompted concern from Arizona officials. The state would face the harshest water supply cuts under a shortage declaration.

“We need people to be vigilant,” state water resources director Tom Buschatze said, “and we need people to support the types of action it’s going to take to proactively manage our way now and in the future on the river.”

Crucial Permit Moves San Diego Closer to Tapping Mexican Desal

The Otay Water District in San Diego County has been granted a presidential permit by the U.S. State Department, a crucial milestone to linking up with a new seawater desalination facility across the border in Mexico.

Purchasing and transporting water from the $421 million Aguas de Rosarito desalination plant in Baja California, Mexico, is a component of the Otay district’s supply diversification efforts. The Rosarito plant could meet up to two-thirds of the district’s water demand by 2024. It plans to build a 4-mile pipeline to connect with the Baja desalination project, and the new permit allows it to “construct, connect, operate and maintain” such a pipeline across the international border.

The first phase of the desalination project is expected to be operational by late 2019 or early 2020, and would make 50 million gallons of desalinated water available daily to the Tijuana/Rosarito region. The second phase, expected to be done in 2024, would deliver an additional 50 million gallons daily, with 10 to 30 percent of that available to the Otay district.

“Although there are still several hurdles to overcome, receiving the presidential permit … is a giant leap for the district and its customers so we have more control over our local water supply,” said Mark Watton, the district’s general manager.

Utah Asks Trump for Hurry-Up Pipeline Review

The fast-growing St. George region of southern Utah is asking President Donald Trump to expedite approval of a controversial pipeline planned by the Washington County Water Conservancy District to draw water from Lake Powell on the Colorado River.

The $1.4 billion project involves building a 140-mile pipeline that would carry 86,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to Washington and Kane counties. It is under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission but has been repeatedly delayed amid local concern about whether it’s really necessary.

Environmental groups have labeled the pipeline a “boondoggle,” claiming vigorous water conservation could avoid the need for the project. They note the St. George region has among the highest per-capita water consumption in the nation.

Many believe less expensive alternatives exist that are being ignored, in favor of spending billions of tax dollars,” said Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.

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