The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is in charge of managing the Colorado River, a river on which many in the Southwest depend. They are trying to manage orders for water from that river and maintain the ecosystem while, at the same time, dealing with the region’s worst drought in recorded history.

That was the message Reclamation’s Mike Bernardo and Noe Santos delivered to a public meeting held Tuesday, May 3, at the La Paz County Boating Safety Center. The meeting had been arranged by La Paz County District 2 Supervisor Duce Minor so residents could hear from Reclamation directly and ask them questions.

The first part of the problem is the Colorado River is over-allocated, they said. A total of 16.5 million acre feet is allocated each year. The historical average flow through the river is 16 million acre feet per year. With the recent drought, the annual flow is currently about 13 million acre feet.

Bernardo said engineers and hydrologists recognized that flows would vary from year to year, so they built storage reservoirs like Lake Mead, Lake Powell and Lake Havasu to accommodate four times the average flow on the river. That way, they would have water to cover those years where there was less flow.

The last time the reservoirs were full was in 2000, Bernardo said. The years 2000 to 2005 were the driest years on record, and the reservoirs were at just 50 percent of their capacity in 2005. Santos said they are currently at 35 percent of their capacity.

Lake Powell, which is behind Glen Canyon Dam, is at 26 percent of its capacity, Santos said. Lake Meade, which is behind Hoover Dam, is at 31 percent of its capacity.

The water shortage can be seen in the fact that rock formations and other geographical features that had been submerged since these dams were built are now plainly visible. The City of Las Vegas, Nev. has had to extend its intake lines as the water level of Lake Meade has dropped below the level of the lines. On May 1, a barrel containing the body of a murder victim was found in Lake Meade as a result of the dropping water levels. The body had been submerged and hidden for more than 40 years. In published reports, the police are trying to identify the victim. Judging from the clothing, they said it looked like the victim was killed sometime from the mid-1970s to mid ‘80s.

Bernardo and Santos said they are working with the states to promote conservation. While, under legislation from 1928, the Secretary of the Interior is the “Water Master” for the river, the water legally belongs to the states involved.

“The water belongs to the states,” Bernardo said. “Reclamation is just a facilitator.”

One of the conservation ideas is “water banking.” Bernardo said it used to be that a user had to use their full allocation or they risked losing it. Under water banking, they don’t need to use all of their allocation. They can keep some it in reserve in Lake Meade. He said this has encouraged efforts like those of the Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles to conserve water and develop new technologies like cleaning effluent so it can be pumped into the groundwater.

When the floor was opened to questions, someone asked how long it would take for things to return to where they were should the drought end today. Bernardo answered it would take five or six years of above average inflows into the Colorado River for things to get back to where they were.

Another question was how is the water allocated, and why was it allocated that way. Bernardo said California is allocated for 4.4 million acre feet, Arizona for 2.8 million acre feet, Nevada for 300,000 acre feet, and 1.5 million acre feet was to go to Mexico. The allocation to the states was based on irrigated agricultural acreage at the time, as that was seen as the primary use for the water. California and Arizona had a lot more irrigated land than Nevada.

There were questions regarding Reclamation’s operations and how and when they decided to release water. Bernardo and Santos said that depends on scheduled deliveries of water that’s been ordered. This is why water releases and water levels vary greatly over the year. He added they also try to release more water for hydroelectric production at peak hours. This means utilities don’t have to purchase power on the open market.

Bernardo said much of Reclamation’s funding comes from revenue from hydroelectric power.

When asked about Headgate Rock Dam on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, Bernardo said the dam is operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a diversion dam for irrigating the CRIT reservation. He said they work closely with BIA on water releases.

Another question was directed at Marcus Dickerson, the manager of Parker Dam. He was asked when vehicles with trailers will be allowed to cross the dam. He replied that some are already allowed. They have to be no wider or longer than the vehicle that’s pulling them, and they must be open, not enclosed.

“If a trailer meets those requirements, it should be allowed,” he said.

Dickerson said larger vehicles can’t cross the dam because the roadway is so narrow.

“It’s not a regulation roadway,” he said. “If vehicles are too wide, we could see a situation with a fender bender on the dam.”

At the end of the presentation, Minor thanked Bernardo and Santos. He said he appreciated the information they presented, and added that residents asked some good questions.

Bernardo described what they do and like “threading a needle.”

“We try to meet everyone’s needs,” he said. “We can’t make everyone happy, but we do the best we can.”

A few days after the meeting, Minor offered this link where people could see a video of the meeting as well as the Power Point presentation:


(4) comments


Lake MEAD. No "e".

sam whittemore

tell me again what they do? manage water? another agency that failed in its job......


Parker water rights = 1903

Ehrenberg water rights = 1865

sam whittemore

whoopsie! thats a problem! water rights are all about seniority, if i remember right......

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.