An extraordinary drought in the west drains the Colorado River and drains the nation’s largest reservoirs: Lake Mead and Lake Powell. And amid the overuse of the river and the desiccation of the region, the federal government is enacting new mandatory water cuts and asking states to come up with a plan to save the river basin.
The federal government announced Tuesday that the Colorado River will operate in a Tier 2 deficit condition for the first time from January, as the West’s historic drought has taken a heavy toll on Lake Mead.
According to a new forecast from the Department of the Interior, Lake Mead’s water level will be below 1,050 feet above sea level in January — the threshold required to declare a Tier 2 deficit as of 2023.
The Tier 2 deficit means Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will have to further reduce their use of the Colorado River from January. California won’t cut back on the water they receive from the Colorado River just yet.
Of the affected states, Arizona will face the biggest cuts — 592,000 acre feet — or about 21% of the state’s annual river water allocation.
“Every industry in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used as efficiently as possible. To avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River system and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the basin must be reduced,” Tanya Trujillo, the Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, said in a statement. .
It’s only been a year since the Department of the Interior declared the Colorado River’s first shortage — a Tier 1. But the past 12 months haven’t brought enough rain and snow. Lake Mead’s level this summer was about 1,040 feet, only 27% of its full capacity.
The growing concern is that the mandatory cuts announced today — part of a system only updated in 2019 — are not enough to save the river in the face of a historic climate change-induced drought. 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 past few years have been so dry that we realized those cuts weren’t enough and aren’t enough,” Bill Hasencamp, the Colorado River resource manager at Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District , told CNN. “So the two things we’re focusing on are how do we get through the next three years without the system crashing, and then how do we develop a long-term plan to preserve the Colorado River.”
The waters of the Colorado River were distributed among seven states in the West a century ago. The pact gave half of the river’s water to the states in the Upper Basin (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico) and half to the Lower Basin (California, Arizona, and Nevada). Mexico – through which the river flows before reaching the Gulf of California – also received an allocation guarantee.
There was one big problem: it was written in the 1920s, at a time when precipitation was higher than usual. The pact overestimated how much water the Colorado River carries. Nor did it explain the West’s rapidly growing population growth and its hotter and drier future in the face of the climate crisis.
Colorado residents fear their lifeline will get entangled in tug of war
At a Senate hearing in June, Camille Touton, chief of the Bureau of Reclamation, issued a stark warning. To stabilize the Colorado River basin, states and water districts must come up with a plan by August 15 to reduce 2 to 4 million acre feet of water use next year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water an acre would fill a foot deep — about 326,000 gallons.)
Touton’s proposed cut is a huge amount — the target’s highest point is about 25% less water than the states currently receive. And the bottom of the target represents the vast majority of Arizona’s annual allotment of Colorado River water.
Touton also made it clear in June that if the states cannot come up with a plan, the federal government will act.
“It is in our authorities 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 need to see the action. Let’s sit down and find out in August.”
Home Office has not yet outlined the next steps in Touton’s demand for the states’ plan.
But the negotiations between the states are not going well.
John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told CNN that so far not enough of the stakeholders have made proposals to bring the basin to Touton’s target. He said he hopes the federal government will propose “some pretty strong measures” that can be implemented immediately.
“Honestly, I’m frustrated because the overwhelming feeling I’ve gotten from the negotiations is that there aren’t enough people who take this seriously enough and understand that this is about adapting to less water in this river,” Entsminger said.
Nevada has already moved to reduce metropolitan water usage, ban non-functional grass and pay people for years to clear water-intensive lawns, Entsminger said. But agriculture, which absorbs a lot of water from the river, must also play a role.
“You have to have a contribution from the sector that uses 80% of the water,” he said. “That’s not law, politics, it’s just math.”
Entsminger said other stakeholders who are hesitant to give up their water allocation must accept a new reality: the river is running dry and sacrifices must be made.
“It doesn’t matter what can be agreed upon because there is only so much water, and Mother Nature will figure this out at some point,” he said. “At some point, there’s just no water in the river channel.”
The federal government has intervened infrequently and has taken control of state water management plans, but has the authority to do so in the Lower Colorado River basin — which includes Arizona, Southern Nevada, and Southern California. And experts told CNN that the threat of federal action is something states will respond to.
“We need the federal government to make some threats to push for 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 federal government comes in and tells states, ‘You have to do this or we’re going to do something you don’t like.”