I-Team: Interior Secretary to Sign New Water Plan in Las Vegas

Some say it will be the most historic event governing the use of the Colorado River since 1922. Thursday, the Secretary of the Interior will be in Las Vegas to sign a plan which outlines what will happen to the river's water if drought conditions worsen.

It been 85 years since the law that governs the river was adopted. In water circles, it is called the "law of the river." Back then -- the west was a far different place.

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Cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix were nothing compared to what they are today -- and the science used to project river flows was much different. A recent flyover of Lake Mead by Skywitness 8 tells the story of our current drought. There is a white "bathtub ring" that marks the lake's former high water mark.

The tower in the middle of the picture is one of the intakes for all of the water supplied to the Las Vegas valley.

Now, Nevada and the six other states that use Colorado River water have all agreed to what is called a "water supply management plan."

Once it is signed Thursday by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne -- it will set out specific steps each state must take in the event lake levels continue to drop. And -- water managers say -- the deal provides both 'flexibility' and 'certainty' for all states.

George Caan of the Colorado River Commission said, "One -- we know what to expect during shortage conditions like what we are experiencing today. We also have the certainty that the legal framework that involves the Colorado River has been has been made more flexible for this kind of additional resource development."

Among other things, the agreement will allow Nevada to bank water in Arizona and pull it out in times of extreme drought. But it also calls for Nevada to actually reduce its use of Colorado River water by up to seven percent under some circumstances.

The first stage of this federal drought plan would kick in when Lake Mead drops to a surface elevation of 1075 feet. As of today, the lake level is just 37 feet above that point.

Experts say at the current rate we could hit the first drought stage by 2009, with the most drastic steps possibly needed as early as 2012. To see this drought plan, click here.

The agreement's impact, most important, is that the water will continue to flow, but officials say they don't want this agreement to be taken as a sign that it is okay to cut back on conservation. Conservation is still one of the centerpieces of the overall water management plan.

Email your comments to Investigative Reporter Mark Sayre.


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