The poker faces of Southwestern water officials at a recent water policy conference in Los Angeles spell trouble for the future of hydropower along the Colorado River. California has enjoyed cheap, reliable hydropower from the Colorado River for decades. But those days appear to be numbered, and water officials know this. However, state energy officials have not focused on the issue. Inexpensive Southwestern hydropower stems from visionary engineer Arthur P. Davis. Eighty years ago, he proposed a monumental construction project after the Colorado River flooded the Imperial and Yuma valleys in the early 1900s. As the federal government's reclamation director and chief engineer, he pushed for a 724-foot-tall, 6.6-million-ton dam on the river to control floods and provide water and power for the soon-to-boom Southwest. The result was Hoover Dam. Considered one of the world's great structural achievements, it took 5,000 people five years to build in the harsh desert environment. It was finished in 1935. Six years later, it created Lake Mead, a reservoir that was 540 feet deep and 120 miles long, holding the equivalent of the entire flow of the Colorado River for two years. To further expand the water and power supply for the region's growing population, the federal government followed Hoover Dam with the Glen Canyon Dam, which created Lake Powell. The upstream cousin of Lake Mead can hold one and a half times the river's annual flow. Hoover Dam produces up to 2,080 MW of electricity, while irrigating crops and slaking the thirst of populations in major Southwestern cities. Southern California uses most of the power, including the 28.6 percent the Metropolitan Water District uses to pump river water over the mountains into Southern California and send it to millions of taps. Glen Canyon Dam has added to the pool of cheap power for the Southwest with its capacity of 1,296 MW. Today, however, changing hydrology and water use patterns in the Southwest threaten to render the dams powerless. Lake Mead - drained by five consecutive years of drought in the Colorado Basin - will never refill with average precipitation and expected water demand along the river, according to a recent projection by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the two reservoirs. Lake Powell, two-thirds of which had been drained over just five years by the end of last winter, will take decades to refill with average rainfall. The problem is that unlike in days past, growth in the Southwest has created a population large enough to consume virtually all of the river's water. Except in abnormally wet years, water is not available for reservoir storage. Moreover, a growing number of scientists who have studied tree rings believe that the recent "drought" is no drought at all, but the return of the river to more normal historical flows. Water allocations to states along the river, and the planning of facilities and whole cities, were based on what scientists now say was an exceptionally wet period in the basin. "Regardless of the drought, we will have shortages in the lower [Colorado] basin," said Tim Henley, Arizona Water Bank director. Consequently, it is increasingly likely that the region will face a choice between power from the mighty dams and regional water supply. Maintaining reservoir levels high enough to keep the generators spinning likely will require the bureau to withhold water from downstream users. "Given current demands in the lower basin (including Mexico) and minimum objective release from Lake Powell, Lake Mead storage will continue to decline," according to a recent bureau report. Given that outlook for perpetual water shortages along the Colorado, Las Vegas is betting that water supply will trump hydropower. The Vegas water district is planning to open by 2010 a new water intake at the 850-foot elevation on Lake Mead, according to Kay Brothers, Southern Nevada Water Authority deputy general manager for engineering and operations. That is 200 feet lower than its current intake, which sits right at the minimum level needed to generate power at Hoover Dam. Keeping water above the intakes for the generators at both Lake Mead and Lake Powell will create a 1-in-10 chance that the bureau will have to withhold water for use by cities and farms over the next five years. Protecting power production for 10 years will raise the odds of a water shortage for Southern California and Arizona to 1 in 2 over the next ten years, according to the bureau. Meanwhile, Vegas further hedged its bets in the high-stakes water and power game by pursuing a project to divert water from two tributaries to Lake Mead, known as the Virgin and Muddy rivers. Downriver states are quick to point out that this will accelerate Lake Mead's decline and deprive Phoenix and Southern California of water and power. Only El Ni?o-like weather of a magnitude not seen since 1983-84 is likely to forestall shortages and the decimation of Lake Mead, the bureau reports. To prevent chaos from reigning should those storms fail to appear, the Department of the Interior is preparing a plan - due in 2007 - on how to manage the river under shortage conditions. The proceeding is in its early stages, but the Department of Energy has weighed in heavily on the side of protecting power production. "Power from these plants plays a critical role in interconnected power system operations, stability, and reliability," wrote DOE to the Interior Department earlier this year. Power sales also generate the revenue needed to operate federal irrigation systems throughout the region. Loss of power from Hoover Dam would hit California where and when it hurts - in the energy-short southern part of the state in the dead of summer, when demand is high. Southern California Edison uses 5 percent of the dam's output, which nears full capacity during the hot months of June and July. The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power takes 15 percent of its power. The Metropolitan Water District will have to scramble to find an alternative source of megawatts during a time of peak use of both power and water to keep water flowing from the river to its giant service territory in Southern California. Numerous cities that use small amounts of the dam's output will need alternative sources too. Unfortunately, the potential loss of power from the Colorado River is not the only threat to the 14.8 percent of the state's power supplied by hydroelectric dams. Drought in the Pacific Northwest has threatened hydropower supplies. Warmer winter weather is diminishing snowpack in the Sierra, causing more winter precipitation to run off as rain during the winter. The water must be released to the sea by dams to prevent flooding. Then summer flow is lower because of the smaller snowpack, diminishing the potential for in-state hydropower generation. The bright spot is that as water resources in the West become increasingly tight, untapped water conservation measures hold significant promise for reducing the need for power. Water use in California consumes 19 percent of the state's electricity and 32 percent of its natural gas, according to the California Energy Commission. Folding water conservation measures into state energy-efficiency programs may be the best way to prepare for the potential loss of hydropower in the decade ahead. Want to secure your future energy supply? Get a low-flush toilet today.