As western US states failed to come to terms on reducing water use from the troubled Colorado River, the federal government stepped in on Tuesday and imposed reductions that will affect two states and Mexico.
As the drought continues to batter the American west, its largest reservoirs have reached record low levels, prompting the Bureau of Reclamation to declare a “tier 2” shortage in the river basin. Falling water levels continue to endanger hydroelectric power generation, drinking water supply, and agricultural output; they have also left dramatic bathtub rings in reservoirs and exposed buried bodies and other artifacts.
In a press conference on Tuesday, M. Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, said, “The system is approaching a tipping point,” indicating the need for immediate action. Preserving the status quo means safeguarding the people living in the American West.
With the new cuts, Arizona’s water share will be reduced by 21%, Nevada’s by 8%, and Mexico’s by 7%, but officials are worried that even more cuts will be necessary. The reductions will put significant stress on state and local governments in those states to prepare for rising temperatures, drier conditions, and larger populations.
Forty million people in seven western U.S. states and Mexico rely on water from the Colorado River, which also supports a $15 billion annual agricultural industry. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, California, Nevada, and Arizona all receive water from the vast system before it finally reaches Mexico.
After agreements drafted a century ago failed to accurately account for the water in the system and created a maze of junior and senior water rights that excluded Indigenous nations, the rights to these waters have been hotly contested ever since. However, the most tense times are yet to come. Expectations are that the climate crisis will worsen, necessitating even greater reductions and conservation efforts.
Official hydrology projections, or estimates of future water levels in the river, are eagerly awaited by cities and farms across the region to determine the magnitude of water supply reductions. It is predicted that hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in the United States’ breadbasket will be left fallow, which will put a strain on the country’s ability to produce enough food to feed its own population.
When asked to stabilize the system, the states as a whole “have not identified and adopted specific actions of sufficient magnitude,” as stated by Touton.
Touton has stated that the additional cut is required to prevent interruptions in water deliveries and hydroelectric power. If the states could not come to an agreement, she was evasive on Tuesday about whether she would impose those cuts unilaterally.
She repeatedly avoided answering when the states would have until to reach the agreement she requested back in June, but she did stress the importance of partnership between federal officials and their counterparts in the seven states and Mexico.
The river’s reservoirs have been depleted because cities and farms have been taking more water from it than the river can sustainably supply.
The first mandatory reductions hit Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico last year, after more than two decades of drought. There are conservation measures in place, such as restrictions on grass lawns, and residents of the region’s growing cities are being compensated to leave some of their fields fallow.
However, the current level of effort is insufficient.
As a result of the crisis, the water level in Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the United States, has dropped to below a quarter of its capacity.
The federal government has had to take such extreme measures because of the potential disruption of water delivery and hydropower production.
Meanwhile, the 24 million acre-foot Lake Powell is going through a similar disaster, with the Guardian reporting in July that energy production could stop as soon as July 2023.
The first tier 2 shortage was declared after the interior department predicted that Lake Mead would be below 1,050 feet above sea level on January 1.
There will be only 32 feet of clearance between the projected elevation of Lake Powell’s water surface and the bare minimum needed to generate electricity from hydroelectric operations.
“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency,” said Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science in the Department of the Interior. Reducing water use in the basin is necessary to prevent a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River system and future instability and conflict.
In anticipation of emergency reductions, the US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) issued a warning last year to the seven states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. In June, authorities warned that states would have to reduce their water consumption by 15 percent in the coming year or face mandatory reductions.
As a result, states with contrasting water needs have become increasingly antagonistic, and diplomatic efforts have thus far failed to produce a solution to the problem.
Different groups’ priorities often clash. Great Basin Water Network director Kyle Roerink told the Los Angeles Times, “There’s a lot to overcome, and there’s a lot of animosity.”
Now that the mid-August deadline for the seven Colorado River states to cut water use by 25% has passed, the bureau must figure out what steps the reclamation bureau commissioner, Camille Touton, can take.
Further reductions are likely, according to some experts, and this could have an impact on states further up the basin, including California.
The western states are facing unprecedented challenges as they attempt to prepare for a drier future in the face of bleak hydrology projections and a deadline for cuts.
This may be a temporary solution, according to some experts. Hydrologist Kevin Wheeler from the University of Oxford noted that the USBR is “very focused on just getting through this to next year,” but that any reductions would likely need to be in place for much longer.
What the science adds is that “these reductions just have to stay in place until the drought has ended or we realize they actually have to get worse and the cuts have to get deeper.”
In 2019, the seven states and Mexico will work together to keep reservoir levels steady. The water level in Lake Mead determines how much of the plan’s water can be distributed to the states.
The lake’s level dropped to historic lows last year, prompting the federal government to declare a water shortage in the region for the first time, resulting in mandatory cuts for Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico in 2022.
22 years of drought, exacerbated by the climate emergency and overuse of the river, have led to catastrophically falling reservoir levels.
The Colorado River, which begins its journey in the Rocky Mountains and winds its way 2,334 kilometers (1,450 miles) south-west to the Gulf of California, has seen its water supply decrease due to less snowmelt in the spring.
This report was written with assistance from the Associated Press.
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