In response to dwindling water supplies from the drought-ravaged Colorado River, the federal government on Tuesday announced a new round of cuts to the amount two states can take from the river. But so far the government has refrained from imposing deep cuts which officials say will be needed next year to protect the river’s infrastructure.
Interior Department and Bureau of Reclamation officials said levels at Colorado’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, remained dangerously low after more than two decades of drought in the southwest compounded by climate change. Lake Mead, behind the Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border, is now about 175 feet lower than it was in 2000, when the The southwest mega-drought has begun.
This level triggers agreed reductions in the amounts that two of the lower basin states, Arizona and Nevada, and Mexico can withdraw from Lake Mead. The other lower basin state of California is currently unaffected, nor are the upper basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. About 40 million people depend on the Colorado for at least some of their water, and it irrigates more than 5.5 million acres of land.
In June, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called on the seven states to negotiate and recommend much deeper cuts to keep operations safe. Reclamation engineers were particularly concerned that Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam near the Utah-Arizona border, could sink so low that it could no longer generate hydroelectricity. , and the dam’s ability to pass any water downstream could be threatened.
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Since then, talks between the states had progressed slowly, with some pointing fingers marking the Western Waters negotiations for much of the last century.
On Tuesday, Ms Touton said that while “significant progress” had been made in the negotiations, “they are not over”.
“States have collectively failed to identify and enact actions of a significant scale that would stabilize the system,” she said.
Ms Touton had warned in June that if the states failed to agree, the government would impose cuts itself. But no immediate unilateral cuts were announced on Tuesday.
But there’s no doubt more cuts will come, up to 4 million acre-feet of water, an amount equal to about one-third of the river’s current annual flow.
The cuts announced on Tuesday are relatively small and come on top of cuts triggered last year when the government declared a first-ever water shortage at Lake Mead.
With the new reductions, Arizona will have had to reduce its consumption of Colorado by almost 600,000 acre feet, or 21% of its annual allocation. Nevada’s total reductions are now 25,000 acre feet, or about 8% of its allocation. Mexico’s cuts total 104,000 acre feet, 7% of its allocated supply.
In Arizona, the cuts have largely affected farmers in the central part of the state. And when it comes to the deeper cuts demanded by Ms Touton, agriculture is also expected to be hit the hardest. Agriculture uses about three-quarters of Colorado’s supply.
Jennifer Pitt, director of the Colorado River program at the National Audubon Society, said there has been intense pressure on all stakeholders to come up with a plan for the steep cuts. “The water just isn’t there,” she said. “That’s the stone-cold reality, and no amount of political politics can change that.”
Climate change has worsened the drought and made it less likely that a series of wet years could occur and end it. But increased water withdrawals as the region’s population grew and agriculture developed also played a role.