February 6, 2023

Disaster scenes raise stakes for Colorado River negotiations


LAS VEGAS — The water managers responsible for dividing the Colorado River’s dwindling supply paint a bleak portrait. A river in crisisIt warns that farms and cities in the West could face unprecedented shortages and that old rules governing how water is shared must be changed.

State and federal officials say years of overconsumption collide with stark reality Climate changePushing Colorado River reservoirs to dangerously low levels could soon prevent the river’s major dams from supplying water to millions of people in the Southwest.

Officials fear ‘total doomsday’ for drought-stricken Colorado River

The federal government has issued a call to seven western states that rely on Colorado River water Reduce usage 2 to 4 million acre-feet — about one-third of the river’s annual average flow — to try to avoid such dire consequences. But states have failed so far Reach a voluntary agreement And how to do that, the Home Office could impose unilateral cuts in the coming months.

“Without immediate and decisive action, Lake Powell and Meade elevations could force the system to cease operations,” Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the interior, said Friday at a conference of Colorado River officials. “This is an intolerable situation and we will not allow it to happen.”

Many state water officials fear that time is already running out.

Ted Cook, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which supplies Colorado River water to central Arizona, said there is a “real possibility of a viable Dead Pond” in the next two years. That means the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams — which created reservoirs in Lake Powell and Lake Mead — would become a bottleneck for supplying water to cities and farms in Arizona, California and Mexico.

“For parts of the year we may not be able to get water into the two dams in the larger reservoirs,” Cook said. “It’s on our doorstep.”

The occasional cowboy hat in the standing-room-only crowd inside Caesar’s Palace, the looming crisis has added excitement to the annual meeting of water officials. Organizers said it was the first time the conference had sold out, and the threat of massive shortages looms as state water managers, tribes and the federal government meet to figure out how to reduce use at unprecedented levels.

“I can feel the tension and uncertainty in this room and in the basin,” said Kamil Kalimlim Dudan, commissioner of the Bureau of Rescue.

The Colorado River is in crisis, and it’s getting worse every day

Negotiations should ultimately boil down to those in rapidly growing urban areas versus those in farming communities that produce winter vegetables. In the complex world of water rights, farms often have priority over cities because they have long-term use of river water. Unlike past negotiations, water managers now expect the cuts to affect even the most senior water users.

States in the upper Colorado River basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — are hard to say how much they can cut because they rely less on allocations from reservoirs and variable river flows. The lower basin states of California, Arizona, and Nevada also use the most water.

“In the upper basin, we take 80 percent and Mother Nature gives us 30,” said Gene Shawcroft, president of Utah’s Colorado River Commission. “Those are some of the challenges we wrestle with.”

The federal government had set an August deadline for states to reach a voluntary agreement on the cuts, but that deadline passed without an agreement. Some state officials here blame the Biden administration. They said the rush for a deal evaporated when it became clear this summer that the federal government was unwilling to impose unilateral cuts.

Now the Biden administration has launched a new environmental review to look into distributing the Colorado River during low-water conditions. Water managers hope to have more clarity on what states can provide by the end of January. In the summer, the federal government is expected to define its power to impose unilateral cuts.

“Unfortunately, it’s a year later than we needed,” Cook said in an interview.

Across the West, drought has already led to record numbers Dry wells in CaliforniaLarge tracts of agricultural land are forced to fallow and landowners must control their extent Water their lawns. This week, a major water supplier in Southern California A regional drought emergency has been declared It also called on regions that rely on Colorado River water to reduce their imports.

There have been problems in the river for many years. For most of the past two decades Severe drought For centuries in the region, the Colorado River basin states took more water from the river than it produced, draining reservoirs that act as buffers during hard times. The river’s average annual flow during that period was 13.4 million acre-feet — with users pulling an average of 15 million acre-feet a year, said James Prairie, chief of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Research and Modeling Group.

In 1999, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, held 47.6 million acre-feet of water. That’s down about 13.1 million acre-feet, or 26 percent of their capacity. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, or one foot of water, enough to cover an acre of land.

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In July, federal officials predicted that Lake Powell’s water level could drop to the point where the hydroelectric plant inside Glen Canyon Dam could no longer generate electricity, making it impossible to supply the amounts. Water on which the southwestern states rely. Water managers say a similar “pool of death” is possible on Lake Mead within two years.

“These reservoirs have served us for 23 years, but we are now pushing them to their limits,” Prairie said.

Consequences of climate change – a Hot and dry westFrom where the floor absorbs the most runoff Mountain snow before it reaches the reservoirs – meaning that the past is no useful guide to the river’s future. Even more snowy years now see less runoff, he said.

“The performance of that run is key to being alert and, frankly, scared,” he said.

Water managers say most of the cuts will fall in southern states including Arizona and California, where large agricultural areas use a large portion of the available supply. The states, which receive water via Lake Mead and Hoover Dam, face the greatest risk if the reservoirs fall to dangerous levels, said John Entzminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

“If you can’t get water through the Hoover Dam, that’s a water supply for 25 million Americans,” he said.