By Vernon Robison
Moapa Valley Progress
An abnormally warm spring high up in the mountains that feed the Colorado River, has dampened hopes that the road to Overton Beach in the Lake Mead Recreation Area will be re-opened this year.
The road to Overton Beach was temporarily closed in April of 2010 when water levels dropped to an elevation of 1095. That was the level that National Park Service (NPS) officials claimed was too low to continue operating water treatment facilities at the location. Over the past year, water levels have been on the rise and Moapa Valley residents have been calling for the area to be reopened.
Last fall, when the lake level had reached an elevation of 1,121 ft, NPS Public Information Officer Andrew Munoz gave a report to the Moapa Valley Town Advisory Board. Munoz told board members that it was too early to make the decision to reopen the area. Extended high runoff would be needed before the idea to reopen the road would be considered again, he said. At that time, Munoz also told the town board that the matter might be revisited in April 2012 when the next year’s runoff projections were available.
But the April projections were miserable. An unusually warm and dry March caused mountain snowpacks to disappear early all across the west. Experts said that in April the mountain ranges already looked like they usually do going into June.
Thus, the runoff forecast for the April-June time period in the upper Colorado basin was revised sharply downward last month by 1.9 million acre feet (af); that is nearly 600 billion gallons less than previously projected.
“That projection is in the bottom 10% of all April forecasts that have ever been made since the [Glen Canyon] Dam was built in 1963,” said Barry Wirth, Bureau of Reclamation spokesman for the Upper Colorado Region, in an interview with the Progress.
Lake Powell, just below the Glen Canyon dam, will only see 3.5 million af. of runoff coming in from the mountains this year, Wirth explained. That is far less than the 8.23 million af. that is supposed to be released each year from Lake Powell into Lake Mead to meet water requirements downstream, Wirth said.
Not all the news is bad, though. Fortunately, the Colorado River system is just coming off of a stellar run-off year. During the 2011 water year, runoff into Lake Powell came in at 16.7 million af which is 139% of average, Wirth said. By September 2011, Lake Powell had reached 72% of its full capacity.
So the good news is that there is plenty of water left from last year’s surplus to make up for this year’s deficit.
“We are going to be able to make all the obligations in delivering the minimum of 8.23 million af out of Lake Powell,” Wirth said.
That is expected to draw down levels at Lake Powell by about nine feet in elevation, bringing it to 68% of its full capacity, Wirth said.
But, though Lake Mead is getting its full allotment from the north, its water levels are still expected to drop significantly this year. As the terminal point for water delivery, Lake Mead is obligated to deliver a total of 9 million af to downstream users. That includes 4.4 million af to California, 2.8 million af to Arizona, 300,000 af to Nevada and, eventually, 1.5 million af to Mexico. By October 2012, lake levels are projected to drop to an elevation of about 1,115 ft. That is about 19 feet lower from January’s high of 1,134 feet.
Still, that grim projection is well above the 1,095 ft. elevation needed to maintain the water treatment systems at Overton Beach. In fact, it is even slightly above the 1,109 ft level that NPS officials say is needed to maintain a usable and safe boat launch ramp there.
Even so, the NPS has decided to keep things status quo at Overton Beach.
“There is still a lot of uncertainty about what the water levels are going to do,” said Randy Lavassur, Assistant Chief of Resource Protection at Lake Mead National Recreation Area. “These are really best case projections. Lake Mead may very well continue to recede further and end up below the levels needed to open the area back up.”
Lavassur stated that the NPS, along with many federal agencies is getting a 2% cut across the board to its budget.
“Funding is tight right now, so we will want to be able to justify the expense of opening the area by seeing sustained higher run-off years over time,” Lavassur said.