A recent agreement for sharing the Colorado River between the United States and Mexico garnered the most attention for bringing a decades-old accord up to date with modern realities, but it also is being celebrated by Southern Nevada businesses for what it means for water levels at Lake Mead.
Declining water flow and dilapidated infrastructure in northwestern Mexico that was exacerbated by a 2010 earthquake necessitated an amendment to the original water use treaty between the nations, which was signed in 1944 and also covered the Rio Grande and Tijuana River.
The Colorado spans 1,450 miles, weaving from Rocky Mountain National Park to the Sea of Cortez, a vital vein of fresh water for seven U.S. and two Mexican states. The signatories hailed the agreement as a step forward in maintaining river flow and providing much-needed resources to make Mexico's water use more efficient.
In Nevada, businesses that directly depend on the river and Lake Mead, and others that simply see the benefit of a healthy waterway in Southern Nevada, also have embraced the amendments.
"Being able to store more water in Lake Mead is good for the businesses that operate on the lake and the people who directly and indirectly depend on the lake," said Molly Mugglestone, project coordinator for Protect the Flows, a coalition of more than 600 businesses in the Colorado River basin that advocates for sustainable use of the river.
According to a study by Protect the Flows, recreation on the Colorado River supports 234,000 jobs and generates $26 billion in economic output annually in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The coalition estimates that, in Nevada, recreation on the river and Lake Mead accounts for 25,329 jobs and adds about $2.9 million to the local economy annually.
"This agreement between the U.S. and Mexico will result in more water in Lake Mead, perhaps up to a 15-foot increase in the water level. This is great news for people who recreate on Lake Mead and the businesses like mine who serve them," said Izzy Collette, owner of the Boulder City kayak touring company Desert Adventures and a member of Protect the Flows, in a statement at the time of the agreement. "But the most important impact of this agreement is the precedent it sets. By implementing a flexible management policy and improving water conservation, the agreement manages to simultaneously improve habitat restoration for the river in Mexico and Arizona, while improving water availability for users in both countries."
Dan Cameron, one of the owners at Boulder City kayak rental company Evolution Expeditions, said anything that stabilizes water levels is good.
"I've been here since 1985 and was raised on the lake water skiing and everything else," he said. "I watched water levels go up and down, and I've watched the population of the valley quadruple in my short life span. The water levels continue to drop and the rate of construction continued to rise."
It is not just businesses with direct ties to the waterway that have lauded the accord. Many realty companies have signed on to the coalition, recognizing the benefits of a healthy Colorado River to quality of life and property values.
Terry Stevens, owner of the Coffee Cup Cafe in Boulder City, said he joined to the coalition because he knows how vital a healthy Colorado River and Lake Mead are to Boulder City's tourism industry and economy in general.
"Everyone comes here for the water, and I don't think anybody would be here if it weren't for the river and water around here," said Stevens, who is 29 years old and was born and raised in Boulder City. "I'm glad that they are at least attempting to help Mexico get the infrastructure it needs to save water."
Until now, the United States was obligated to send 1.5 million acre-feet, approximately enough to serve 3 million homes, of Colorado River water annually to Mexico. Under the revised pact, Mexico will relinquish a portion of its share in times of drought, something California, Arizona and Nevada had already agreed to do in 2007.
Mexico, in return, will be able to store water in Lake Mead during periods of surplus. Mexico was already storing water in Lake Mead because of the damage caused by the 2010 earthquake. Mexico does not have sufficient water storage capacity, and this arrangement will conserve water while the country updates its infrastructure. Additionally, Mexico will receive $10 million to repair irrigation channels damaged during the earthquake and funding to restore the Colorado River delta, a once-thriving fishery that is now largely dry.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority will pay Mexico $2.5 million in exchange for 23,700 acre-feet of the nation's allotment of water, and other states worked out their own deals with Mexico.
Mexico will begin to surrender some of its Colorado River allotment when Lake Mead drops to 1,075 feet above sea level and reaps surpluses when it rises to 1,145 feet. The current level of Lake Mead is 1,115 feet.
Mexico is allowed to store up to 250,000 acre-feet of water in the reservoir and will be able to draw on nearly all of the reserves whenever they are needed.
"We think this is a smart and innovative way to go about it," said Andres Ramirez, Nevada director of Nuestro Rio, a group that advocates for the conservation of the Colorado River and the cultural heritage of the communities in the river basin. "When you deal with renegotiating water usage of the Colorado River, it can be a politically sensitive issue. ... We increase our share of water usage, and they get what they need to work on their infrastructure. It's a win-win situation all the way around. More water kept in the river and lake is a good thing all around because of the drought we are having."
The Colorado once flowed into the Sea of Cortez but now trickles out in the Sonoran Desert miles from the sea. Water levels in Lake Mead hit a 75-year low in 2010, but rebounded slightly in 2011, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
The bureau is currently putting the finishing touches on a Colorado River water supply and demand study that is due out by the end of the year. The study will look at demands on the waterway over the next 50 years, and possible strategies for maintaining, and improving, the river's health.
The Nov. 20 agreement was structured to be a trial run for this new arrangement, and expires in five years.
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