Southwestern States Face Steeper Water Cuts As Drought Plagues Colorado River Basin

The region is experiencing its driest spell in at least 1,200 years, research shows.

Federal officials on Tuesday announced the first-ever “Tier 2” water shortage for the lower Colorado River Basin — a designation that triggers new water use reductions for Arizona, Nevada and neighboring Mexico next year.

The nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are now at 28% of their full capacity, an historic low, and continue to shrink amid a 23-year climate-fueled “megadrought.” Researchers have concluded that the U.S. Southwest is experiencing its driest spell in at least 1,200 years.

Camille Touton, commissioner of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, told reporters Tuesday that the Colorado River system, which some 40 million people rely on for water, is nearing a “tipping point.”

“Protecting the system means protecting the people of the American West,” Touton said.

A new study from the Bureau of Reclamation forecasts that the water level in Lake Powell will drop to 3,522 feet by the start of next year, just 32 feet above the minimum level required to generate hydroelectric power. Lake Mead’s water level is expected to be at 1,048 feet, enough to trigger the next water scarcity designation. The situation has prompted federal officials to once again limit release from Glen Canyon and Hoover dams next year. And states in the lower basin will be forced to curb their water use for the second year in a row.

A formerly sunken boat sits upright into the air with its stern stuck in the mud along the shoreline of Lake Mead, near Boulder City, Nevada. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
A formerly sunken boat sits upright into the air with its stern stuck in the mud along the shoreline of Lake Mead, near Boulder City, Nevada. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
via Associated Press

Arizona will bear the brunt of next year’s cuts, losing 21% of its annual allotment of Colorado River water — up from an 18% cut this year. Nevada will have to reduce its water use by 8%. And the country of Mexico will lose 7% of its yearly allotment. California narrowly avoided having to cut its water usage in 2023.

But the cuts announced Tuesday will not bring Western states anywhere near the water conservation target that the Biden administration set earlier this year. In June, the Bureau of Reclamation gave seven states in the Colorado River Basin an ultimatum: Come up with a plan by mid-August to collectively slash next year’s water use between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet per year (or approximately 15% to 30%), or the federal government would step in and mandate appropriate cuts in order to avert disaster.

That federal deadline arrived this week without states having reached such a deal.

During Tuesday’s news conference, Touton and other administration officials acknowledged that states have not yet identified a voluntary path forward, but stopped short of announcing additional mandates or new deadlines.

“Today we’re starting the process and more information will follow as far as the actions we’ll take in that process,” Touton said. “But I want to continue to push on the need for partnership in this space and the need for collaboration, and finding a consensus solution — not just for next year, but for the future.”

There’s an old adage out West that “whiskey is for drinking — water is for fighting.” As climate change drives up temperatures and fuels drought, dwindling water resources are already a growing point of conflict. Drought is helping drive both water and food insecurity across East Africa. And a United Nations report earlier this year found that water deficits are linked to 10% of the increase in global migration between 1960 and 2015.

Tanya Trujillo, the bureau’s assistant secretary for water and science, warned about the high stakes in the western U.S.

“Without prompt responsive actions and investments now, the Colorado River and the citizens that rely on it will face a future of uncertainty and conflict,” she said.

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