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Drought takes its toll on Colorado River

The Colorado River and its slew of manmade reservoirs are being sapped by 14 years of drought that’s nearly unrivaled in 1,250 years.

From the Rockies to southern Arizona, the river has slowed to a trickle and reservoirs have shrunk to less than half their capacities, according to a report in The New York Times.

Regional water agencies are recycling sewage effluent, offering rebates for those willing to tear up grass lawns and are subsidizing water-saving appliances ranging from dishwashers to shower heads.

Despite those mitigation efforts, many experts believe the current drought is the harbinger of a new, drier era in which the Colorado’s flow will be substantially and permanently diminished.

Faced with the shortage, federal authorities this year will for the first time decrease the amount of water that flows into Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, from Lake Powell 180 miles upstream. That will further reduce the level of Lake Mead, a crucial source of water for cities from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and for millions of acres of farmland.

Reclamation officials say there is a 50-50 chance that by 2015, Lake Mead’s water will be rationed to states downstream. That, too, has never happened before.

“If Lake Mead goes below elevation 1,000” — 1,000 feet above sea level — “we lose any capacity to pump water to serve the municipal needs of seven in 10 people in the state of Nevada,” John Entsminger, senior deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told the paper.

These new realities are forcing a profound reassessment of how the 1,450-mile Colorado, the Southwest’s only major river, can continue to meet demand in one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions.

Agriculture, from California’s Imperial Valley to Wyoming’s cattle herds, soaks up about three-quarters of its water, and produces 15 percent of the nation’s food. But 40 million people also depend on the river and its tributaries, and their numbers are rising rapidly.

Lake Mead currently stands about 1,106 feet above sea level, but it is expected to drop 20 feet in 2014. A continued decline would introduce a new set of problems: At 1,075 feet, rationing begins; at 1,050 feet, a more drastic rationing regime kicks in and the uppermost water intake for Las Vegas shuts down. At 1,025 feet, rationing grows more draconian; at 1,000 feet, a second Las Vegas intake runs dry.