Steep water cuts loom as Colorado River narrows and Lake Mead levels drop


Two major announcements could come on Tuesday. The first is a forecast from the US Bureau of Reclamation that could trigger the first-ever Level 2 water shortage for the lower Colorado River basin. The second is the bureau’s next step in its demand that the seven river basin states find a way to voluntarily reduce up to 25% of their water use, or the federal government will do it for them.

Just a year ago, the Ministry of the Interior declared the first shortage on the Colorado River – a level 1. But the last 12 months did not bring enough rain and snow. A report from July shows Lake Mead, which the agency uses to determine shortage conditions, is hovering around 1,040 feet above sea level, having dropped 10 feet in just two dry months.

Tuesday’s report is almost certain to show that Lake Mead will be below 1,050 feet in January – the threshold required to declare a level 2 shortage from 2023. The question is how far below it will be of this threshold. If the forecast drops below 1,045 feet, which recent forecasts suggest, mandatory water cuts will extend beyond Arizona, Nevada and Mexico and into California for the first time.

But the growing concern is that the mandatory cuts – a system that was updated as recently as 2019 – are not enough to save the river from a historic drought due to climate change. States, water managers and tribes are now back at the negotiating table to figure out how to solve the water crisis in the West.

“We thought we were good, but the last few years have been so dry that we realized these reductions in levels weren’t enough and aren’t enough,” said Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River resource manager at Metropolitan Water. District of Southern California. told CNN. “So the two things we’re focused on are how do we get through the next three years without the system collapsing, and then how do we develop a long-term plan to sustain the Colorado River.”

“There is not much water”

The Colorado River water was distributed among seven states in the West a century ago. The pact gave half of the river’s water to the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) and the other half to the lower basin (California, Arizona and Nevada). Mexico – through which the river flows before reaching the Gulf of California – was also guaranteed an allotment.

There was one major problem: Having been written in the 1920s, at a time when rainfall was above normal, the pact overestimated the amount of water carried by the Colorado River. He also failed to account for the West’s booming population growth and hotter, drier future in the face of the climate crisis.

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During a Senate hearing in June, Bureau of Reclamation chief Camille Touton issued a stark warning. In order to stabilize the Colorado River Basin, states and water districts must come up with a plan by August 15 to reduce water use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet by next year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that would fill one acre per foot of depth – approximately 326,000 gallons.)

The reduction proposed by Touton is a huge amount – the high end of the goal is about 25% less water than states currently receive. And the bottom of the goal accounts for the vast majority of Arizona’s annual water allocation from the Colorado River.

Touton also clarified in June that if states cannot come up with a plan, the federal government will act.

“It is within our powers to act unilaterally to protect the system, and we will protect the system,” she said at the time. “We have to see the work. We have to see the action. Let’s sit down and get this sorted by August.”

A satellite view of Lake Powell, a Colorado River reservoir and the nation's second largest, in April.

But interstate negotiations are not going well.

John Entsminger, chief executive of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told CNN that so far, few stakeholders have come forward with proposals that would see the basin achieve Touton’s goal. He said he hoped the federal government would come up with “some pretty strong measures” that could be implemented immediately.

“Frankly, I’m frustrated because the overwhelming feeling I got from the negotiations is that there aren’t enough people who take this seriously enough and understand that it’s about adapting to less water in this river,” Entsminger said.

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Nevada has already moved to reduce its metropolitan water use, banning non-functional turf and paying people for years to remove water-hungry lawns, Entsminger said. But agriculture, which absorbs much of the river’s water, must also be part of the equation.

“You have to have a contribution from the sector that uses 80% of the water,” he said. “It’s not law, it’s politics, it’s just math.”

Entsminger said other stakeholders who are reluctant to give up their water allocations must come to terms with a new reality: the river is drying up and sacrifices must be made.

“It doesn’t matter what can be agreed, because there isn’t much water, and mother nature will find out at some point,” he said. “At some point there is simply no water left in the river channel.”

The federal government hasn’t often stepped in and taken control of state water management plans, but it has the power to do so in the lower Colorado River Basin, which includes Arizona, southern Nevada and southern California. And experts told CNN the threat of federal action is something states will respond to.

“We kind of need the feds to make threats to incite action,” John Fleck, a western water expert and professor at the University of New Mexico, told CNN earlier this year. “Progress seems to happen when the feds come in and say to the states, you have to do this or we’re going to do something you don’t like.”

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