State and federal authorities say years of overconsumption are colliding with the stark reality of climate change, pushing the Colorado River’s reservoirs to such dangerously low levels that the major dams on the river could soon become obstacles to supplying water to millions in the Southwest.
Officials fear ‘complete doomsday scenario’ for the drought-stricken Colorado River
The federal government has called on the seven western states that rely on the Colorado River’s water to reduce its use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet — up to one-third of the river’s annual average flow — to try to prevent such avoid bad consequences. But the states have so far failed to reach a voluntary agreement on how to make that happen, and the Interior Ministry may impose unilateral cuts in the coming months.
“Without immediate and decisive action, increases at Lake Powell and Mead could force the system to stop functioning,” Tommy Beaudreau, the deputy secretary of the Interior Department, told a conference of Colorado River officials here Friday. “That is an intolerable condition that we will not allow.”
Many state water officials fear they are already running out of time.
Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which supplies water from the Colorado River to central Arizona, said “there is a real possibility of an effective dead pool” within the next two years. That means water levels could fall so far that the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams — which created the reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead — would become an obstacle to providing water to cities and farms in Arizona, California and Mexico.
“We may not be able to get water past one of the two dams in the major reservoirs during certain parts of the year,” Cooke said. “This is on our doorstep.”
The looming crisis has revitalized this annual gathering of water bureaucrats, with the occasional cowboy hat visible among the people standing and standing alone in Caesars Palace. It’s the first time the conference has sold out, organizers said, and the specter of massive shortages looms as state, tribal and federal water managers meet to figure out how to curb usage on an unprecedented scale .
“I feel the fear and the uncertainty in this room and in the basin,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation.
The Colorado River is in crisis and it’s getting worse every day
Negotiations will ultimately need to balance cuts in fast-growing urban areas against those in farming communities that produce much of the country’s winter vegetables. In the complex world of water rights, farms often take precedence over cities because they have been using river water for a longer period of time. Contrary to previous negotiations, water managers now expect cuts to affect even the most experienced water users.
The states of the Upper Colorado River Basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — say it’s hard to say how much they can cut because they rely less on reservoir allocations and more on variable river flows. The lower basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada – also use much more water.
“In the Upper Basin, we can say we take 80 percent, and Mother Nature gives us 30,” said Gene Shawcroft, chairman of Utah’s Colorado River Authority. “Those are some of the challenges we’re grappling with.”
The federal government set a deadline in August for the states to reach a voluntary agreement on spending cuts, but that deadline passed without a deal. Some state officials are blaming the Biden administration for this. When it became clear this summer that the federal government was not ready to implement unilateral cuts, the urgency for a deal disappeared, they said.
Now the Biden administration has launched a new environmental assessment for the distribution of the Colorado River’s supplies in low-water scenarios. Water managers hope to have more clarity about what states have to offer by the end of January. By the summer, the federal government is expected to determine its authority to impose unilateral cuts.
“Unfortunately it’s a year later than we need it to be,” Cooke said in an interview.
Across the west, the drought has already caused a record number of wells to run dry in California, leaving huge tracts of farmland fallow and forcing homeowners to limit the amount of water they give their lawns. This week, a major Southern California water supplier declared a regional drought emergency, urging areas that rely on Colorado River water to reduce their imported supplies.
The problems on the river have been accumulating for years. Over the past two decades, during the region’s most severe drought in centuries, states in the Colorado River basin have drawn more water from the river than has been produced, depleting the reservoirs that serve as a buffer during troubled times. be emptied. The river’s average annual flow during that period was 13.4 million acre-feet — while users average 15 million acre-feet per year, said James Prairie, chief of research and modeling at the Bureau of Reclamation.
In 1999, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the country’s two largest reservoirs, contained 47.6 million acre-feet of water. That’s down to about 13.1 million acre-feet, or 26 percent of their capacity. An acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover an acre of land in a foot of water.
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Federal officials have predicted that levels in Lake Powell could drop as early as July to the point where the hydroelectric plant at Glen Canyon Dam could no longer produce power, and then continue to fall so that it would become impossible to deliver the quantities of water that the states in the Southwest depend on. Water managers say that such a ‘dead pool’ is also possible on Lake Mead within two years.
“These reservoirs have served us for 23 years, but we’re pushing them to their limits now,” Prairie said.
David Palumbo, deputy commissioner of operations for the Bureau of Reclamation, stressed that the effects of climate change – a hotter and drier west, where the ground absorbs more mountain snow runoff before it reaches the reservoirs – means that the past is no longer a useful guide to the future of the river. Even years with a lot of snow are now seeing low runoff, he said.
“That runoff efficiency is critical to be aware of and, quite frankly, to be afraid of,” he said.
Water managers say most of the cuts are likely to fall in southern states, including Arizona and California, where major agricultural regions consume large chunks of available supply. These states, which receive water after it passes through Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, are also most at risk if reservoirs drop to dangerous levels, said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
“If you can’t get water through the Hoover Dam, that’s the water supply for 25 million Americans,” he said.