SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — U.S. officials announced Tuesday that two U.S. states that rely on water from the Colorado River will experience more water shortages as they endure extreme drought.
The move that hit Arizona and Nevada came as officials predict that levels at Lake Mead, the US’s largest reservoir, will drop even further than they have. The cuts will put officials in those states under extraordinary pressure to plan for a warmer, drier future and a growing population. Mexico is also facing austerity measures.
Lake Mead is currently less than a quarter full, and the seven states that generally depend on its water have missed a federal deadline to announce proposals about plans to cut additional water next year.
The Colorado River supplies water to 40 million people in seven states in the American West and Mexico and helps feed an agricultural industry worth $15 billion a year. Cities and farms across the region are anxiously awaiting official hydrological projections — estimates of future water levels in the river — that will determine the magnitude and scope of cuts to their water supplies.
And that’s not all: State officials are also struggling to meet a deadline imposed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to reduce their water use by at least 15% to prevent the water level in the river’s storage reservoirs from falling further.
Together, the projections and deadline for austerity pose unprecedented challenges to Western states and confront them with difficult decisions about how to plan for a drier future.
While the Bureau of Reclamation is “very focused on getting this through to next year,” any cutbacks will likely need to be in effect for much longer, said University of Oxford hydrologist Kevin Wheeler.
“What science is contributing is that it’s pretty clear that these reductions just have to last until the drought ends or we realize they have to get worse and the cuts have to get deeper,” he said.
The cuts are based on a plan signed by the seven states and Mexico in 2019 to help maintain reservoir levels. Under that plan, the amount of water allocated to states depends on the water levels at Lake Mead. Last year, the lake fell so low that the federal government was able to declare a first-ever water shortage in the region, leading to mandatory budget cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico by 2022.
Officials expect hydrologists to forecast the lake to fall further, leading to additional budget cuts in Nevada, Arizona and Mexico next year. States with higher priority water rights are not expected to see any cuts.
Reservoir levels have been falling for years — and faster than experts predicted — as a result of 22 years of drought exacerbated by climate change and overuse of the river. Scorching temperatures and less snowmelt in the spring have reduced the flow of water from the Rocky Mountains, where the river rises before winding 2,334 kilometers southwest into the Gulf of California.
Extraordinary steps have already been taken this year to hold water at Lake Powell, the Colorado River’s other major reservoir, which is upstream from Lake Mead and straddles the Arizona-Utah border. Water from the lake flows through the Glen Canyon Dam, which produces enough electricity to power between 1 million and 1.5 million homes each year.
After water levels at Lake Powell reached levels low enough to threaten hydropower production, federal officials said they would hold back another 480,000 acre feet (more than 156 billion gallons or 592 million cubic meters) of water to make it happen. ensure that the dam could still produce energy. That water would normally flow into Lake Mead.
Tuesday’s cuts will see Arizona lose slightly more water than it did this year, when 18% of its supply was cut off. In 2023, it will lose another 3%, a total reduction of 21% from its original allotment.
Mexico is expected to lose 7% of the 1.5 million acre feet it receives from the river each year. Last year it lost about 5%. The water is a lifeline for northern desert cities, including Tijuana and a large agricultural industry in the Mexicali Valley, just south of the California Imperial Valley border.
Nevada also plans to lose water — about 8% of its supply — but most residents won’t feel the effects because the state recycles most of the water used indoors and doesn’t use all of its allocation. Last year, the state lost 7%.
Nashadham reported from Washington. The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for its coverage of water and environmental policies. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all AP environmental coverages, visit: