LAS VEGAS - Once-teeming Lake Mead marinas are idle as a 14-year drought steadily drops water levels to historic lows. Officials from nearby Las Vegas are pushing conservation, but are also drilling a new pipeline to keep drawing water from the lake.
Hundreds of miles away, farmers who receive water from the lake behind Hoover Dam are preparing for the worst.
The receding shoreline at one of the main reservoirs in the vast Colorado River water system is raising concerns about the future of a network serving a perennially parched region home to 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland.
Marina operators, water managers and farmers who for decades have chased every drop of water across the booming Southwest and part of Mexico are closely tracking the reservoir water level already at its lowest point since it was first filled in the 1930s.
"We just hope for snow and rain up in Colorado, so it'll come our way," said marina operator Steve Biggs, referring to precipitation in the Rockies that flows down the Colorado River to help fill the reservoir separating Nevada and Arizona.
By 2016, continued drought could trigger cuts in water deliveries to both states. While water authorities say they've been saving water for potential dry days, the prospect of the first cuts is already prompting action.
"I've downsized in the last couple of years, probably a good thing the way this water shortage is going," said farmer Dennis Bagnall, who has planted just 225 of the 1,500 acres that are typically green this time of year on his farm south of Phoenix.
Last week, officials announced an $11 million pilot program involving the federal government and water agencies in Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix to pay farmers, cities and industries to reduce river water use.
"We can certainly hope for better conditions than we've experienced in recent times, but we have to actively and continue to plan for the worst case," said Michael J. Lacey, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
This week, an update from the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the keeper of the Colorado River network's dams and reservoirs, will help set the course for water deliveries for the next two years.
Federal officials and water administrators in metro areas such as Las Vegas and Phoenix say they're committed to finding new ways to make every drop of river water count - from cloud seeding to pipelines to new reservoirs to desalination plants.
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