DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A relentless drought in the American West has forced the government to make a difficult decision. The federal agency that oversees water management, the Bureau of Reclamation, is announcing today that it will cut back on the water it will release next year from Lake Powell on the Colorado River. This is the first time it's happened since the lake filled in the 1960's. And it's a warning for nearly 40-million people, from Denver to San Diego, who depend on Colorado River water. NPR's Ted Robbins has the story from Las Vegas.
RICK LEEVER: OK. We are dropping straight down 451 feet.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Construction manager Rick Leever is taking me down in an enclosed basket to a tunnel being dug below Lake Mead.
LEEVER: We'll arrive in a couple of minutes here, about two and a half minutes, three minutes.
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ROBBINS: Workers at the bottom are digging around the clock to finish the tunnel which will provide water for Las Vegas. Las Vegas gets almost all its water from Lake Mead. Its two existing intake tunnels are now near useless because the lake has dropped so much in recent years. Lake Mead is behind Hoover Dam at the lower end of the Grand Canyon. Two hundred-plus miles upstream is Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam.
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ROBBINS: Water releases at Lake Powell provide electricity for the West and water for downstream users. But Lake Powell and Lake Mead - both huge reservoirs - are now at less than half their capacity. It's the result of a drought which began in 2000.
TERRY FULP: That's the lowest 14 years we've seen in this 108 years of record keeping.
ROBBINS: Terry Fulp is with the Bureau of Reclamation. He says it's even bleaker if you look at the prehistoric record found in ancient tree rings.
FULP: In terms of the 1200 year tree ring record its one of the worst lowest.
ROBBINS: Low enough to trigger about a 10 percent reduction in releases from Lake Powell next year. That will keep the two reservoirs balanced between the seven states which get Colorado River water. People won't get less water downstream next year, but the Bureau says there is a significant chance of a water shortage in just two years.
It's a warning to farmers and to cities, from L.A. to Phoenix to Las Vegas, a warning that more water conservation, re-use, and infrastructure repair is inevitable. Matt Niemerski of the organization American Rivers says old aqueducts, pipes, and water works need to be fixed.
MATT NIEMERSKI: Literally, where are the leaks? Where is water wasted? How it gets from source to tap and how does water move through that system make that infrastructure more efficient.
ROBBINS: Pat Mulroy heads the Southern Nevada Water Authority-which began serious conservation efforts more than a decade ago.
PAT MULROY: We, for example, have invested almost $200 million in paying our customers to remove turf and remove the grass. We live in a desert. As a result, we've been able to reduce our water use by a third cumulatively.
ROBBINS: Las Vegas also treats almost all the water used indoors and returns it to Lake Mead so it can be used again. San Diego is building a water re-use plant. Arizona is banking water, storing its river allotment underground. Mulroy says what the country lacks is an overall water strategy to implement solutions.
MULROY: And it's not just the Colorado River basin. I think you're going to see debilitating droughts and floods that 21st century flood control projects probably could avoid.
ROBBINS: For now, though, it is the Colorado River Basin which has to deal with reduced water supplies. It's largely up to states and cities to implement solutions. And fast. Ted Robbins NPR News, Las Vegas.
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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.