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Low tide: Lake levels have fallen so far it will take years to catch up

PHOENIX — It’s been at least 20 years since water levels have been normal at Lake Powell and Lake Mead and that isn’t going to change anytime soon, said a local climate expert.

Arizona State University climatologist Randy Cerveny said it would take at least five years of heavy snowpack in Colorado to porperly feed the Colorado River.

The snowpack is down approximately 20 percent from last year. The river supplies the water for both reservoirs, which are less than half full. Lake Mead in Nevada is 140 feet below capacity.

The river is so overused that it can’t catch up, Cerveny said. Any extra water will be taken in by people who are using river water.

“The last time we saw levels that were near long term normal was back in the early ’90s. It’s completely allocated,” Cerveny said.

“It used to be the Colorado River ran all the way to the Gulf of California. Now it’s sucked dry before it reaches Yuma.”

Cerveny said Arizona has been in various degrees of drought since 1997, and along with others, he is concerned that the state may be in the early stages of a mega drought. Such a drought can last for more than a century.

The Central Arizona Project, which delivers Colorado River water to the Valley and Tucson, said a water shortage could be declared next year or in 2017.

The cities wouldn’t see cuts in water but the CAP would stop pumping water into underground storage and some agriculture customers would face cuts in water delivery.

While the Colorado River situation is bleak, there’s optimism for Salt River Projects reservoirs, which are at 56 percent of capacity. That is only 1 percent less than last year.

Charlie Ester, manager of water resource operations with SRP, said the recent storms have helped.

“We have some snow in the mountains and the watershed is very wet. If we can get some additional storms we will get even more runoff. The last time our reservoirs filled was in 2010.”

Ester said SRP has plenty of experience in dealing with droughts and that the utility company was prepared for sustained drought.

“In 2002, Lake Roosevelt was down to 10 percent. Right now Roosevelt is at 47 percent full,” he said.