Western states hit by further cuts to Colorado River water

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — For the second year in a row, Arizona and Nevada will face reductions in the amount of water they can draw from the Colorado River as the West experiences more drought, have federal officials announced on Tuesday.

While the cuts won’t bring immediate new restrictions – like a ban on watering lawns or washing cars – they do signal that unpopular decisions about how to cut consumption are on the horizon, including s Priority should be given to growing cities or agricultural areas. Mexico will also face cuts.

But those reductions are only a fraction of the potential pain ahead for the 40 million Americans in seven states that rely on the river. Because states failed to meet a federal deadline to figure out how to cut their water use by at least 15%, they could see even bigger cuts than the government has said are needed to keep reservoirs from sinking so low. that they cannot be pumped.

“States have collectively failed to identify and enact specific actions of sufficient magnitude to stabilize the system,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said.

Together, the missed deadline and the latest budget cuts are putting city and farm water supply officials under renewed pressure to plan for a hotter, drier future and a growing population.

Touton said a reduction of 15% to 30% was needed to ensure water deliveries and hydropower generation were not disrupted. She was evasive on Tuesday about whether she planned to impose those cuts unilaterally if states failed to reach an agreement.

She repeatedly declined to say how long the states had to complete the deal she had requested in June.

The inaction has raised concerns across the region about the office’s willingness to act as states stubbornly cling to their water rights while acknowledging that a crisis is looming.

“They’ve called the bluff desk time and time again,” Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said of the Colorado River Basin states. “Nothing has changed with today’s news – except that the Colorado River system keeps collapsing.”

Stephen Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian community in central Arizona, said the tribe was “shocked and disappointed” by the lack of progress. The tribe, which is entitled to nearly a quarter of Arizona’s Colorado River deliveries, no longer plans to store its unused water in Lake Mead, as it has done in recent years, and instead plans to store it under earth.

For years, towns and farms have diverted more water from the river than it flows through it, depleting its reservoirs and raising questions about how it will be divided as water becomes scarce.

After more than two decades of drought, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico were hit with mandatory cuts for the first time last year. Some farmers in the region have been paid to leave their fields fallow. Residents of growing cities were subjected to conservation measures such as limits on lawns.

But these efforts so far have not been enough. The water level in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest man-made reservoir, has dropped so low that it is currently less than a quarter full and is getting dangerously close to a point where there would not be enough water. to generate hydroelectric power at the Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border.

Officials in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have been reluctant to propose more draconian water rationing measures or limits on development.

The tradeoffs emerge most in Arizona, which is among the nation’s fastest growing states and has lower priority water rights than water users to the west, in California.

Under Tuesday’s cuts, Arizona will lose an additional 80,000 acre-feet of water, 21% less than its total share but only 3% less than it receives this year.

An acre-foot equals one acre of land covered by 12 inches of water. An average household uses between one-half and one acre-foot of water per year.

After placing last year’s burden on the agriculture industry, state officials said this year’s cuts would extend to tribes and growing cities that depend on Colorado, including Scottsdale.

Rather than ration water, mandate conservation, or limit development, cities are likely to turn to other sources. Phoenix, for example, will rely more on the state’s Salt and Verde rivers, while directing less of its supply to recharge its underground aquifers.

Arizona officials have lambasted neighboring states for not offering cuts even as Arizona implements its own.

Arizona and Nevada proposed a reduction plan that would have been nearly proportional to water use, but California and the Bureau of Reclamation rejected that deal, state officials said.

“We need California to participate; we can’t do this alone with just Arizona and Nevada,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

The effect of the cuts on farmers remains unclear, but many fear further cuts could further stoke tensions between cities and agriculture, which uses more than 70% of the basin’s water.

Paco Ollerton, a Phoenix-area cotton farmer, fears deeper cuts will jeopardize his water next year. Arizona farmers have already lost much of their Colorado River’s water in previous cuts, but they’ve been compensated with water through deals with cities like Phoenix and Tucson.

This year, Ollerton only grew half of what he had grown before. The cuts announced Tuesday could further squeeze those towns, raising questions about whether they will share with farmers next year.

“It kind of changes my thinking about how long I’m going to keep cultivating,” Ollerton said.

Nevada will also lose water – about 8% of its supply – but most residents won’t feel the effects because the state recycles the majority of its water used indoors and doesn’t use all of it. of his allowance. Last year, the state lost 7%.

Scorching temperatures and less melting snow in the spring have reduced the amount of water flowing from the Rocky Mountains, where the river rises before meandering 1,450 miles (2,334 kilometers) southwest and into the Gulf of California.

In the midst of climate change, extraordinary measures are already taken to keep water in Lake Powell, the Colorado River’s other large reservoir, which straddles the Arizona-Utah border.

After the lake fell low enough to threaten hydroelectric power generation, federal officials said they would hold back water to ensure the dam could still produce power. This water would normally flow to Lake Mead.

Mexico will lose 7% of the water it receives each year from the river. Last year it lost about 5%. Water is a lifeline for northern desert towns, including Tijuana, and for a large agricultural industry in the Mexicali Valley, just south of the border with California’s Imperial Valley.

Historically, Mexico has been left out of discussions about how to share the river, but in recent years there have been significant efforts by countries to keep more water in the system, experts say.

“People realized this was a very important relationship to maintain,” said Jennifer Pitt, who leads the Colorado River program at the Audubon Society.

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Naishadham reported from Washington. Ronayne reported from Sacramento, Calif.

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The Associated Press is supported by the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

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