In response to dwindling water supplies from the drought-stricken Colorado River, the federal government on Tuesday announced a new round of cuts in the amount two states can take from the river. But for now, the government has stopped ordering large reductions that officials said will be needed next year to protect the river’s infrastructure.
Interior Department and Bureau of Reclamation officials said levels at Colorado’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, remained dangerously low after more than two decades of drought in the Southwest, made worse by climate change. Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border is now about 50 feet lower than it was in 2000, when the Southwest drought began.
That level triggers agreed cuts in the amounts that two of the lower basin states, Arizona and Nevada, and Mexico can take out of Lake Mead. The other lower basin state, California, is currently unaffected, as are the upper basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. Some 40 million people depend on the Colorado River for at least some of their water, and it irrigates more than 5.5 million acres of land.
In June, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called on the seven states to negotiate and recommend much steeper cuts to maintain safe operations. Reclamation engineers were particularly concerned that Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam near the Utah-Arizona border could drop so low that it could no longer generate hydroelectric power and jeopardize the dam’s ability to even channel water downstream .
Since then, talks between the states had progressed slowly, with some blame-pointing dominating western water negotiations for much of the past century.
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On Tuesday, Ms Touton said that while “significant progress” had been made in the negotiations, “they are not yet complete”.
“States as a whole have not identified and adopted any significant measures that would stabilize the system,” she said.
Ms Touton warned in June that the government itself would impose cuts if states couldn’t agree. However, no unilateral immediate cuts were announced on Tuesday.
But there’s little doubt that further cuts of up to 4 million acre-feet of water will come, an amount equivalent to about a third of the river’s current annual flow.
The cuts announced on Tuesday are relatively small and come on top of cuts triggered last year when the government declared a first-ever water shortage at Lake Mead.
With the new cuts, Arizona had to reduce its Colorado consumption by nearly 600,000 acre-feet, or 21 percent of its annual allotment. Nevada’s total reductions are now 25,000 acre feet, or about 8 percent of its allocation. Mexico’s cuts total 104,000 acre feet, 7 percent of its allocated supply.
In Arizona, the cuts have largely hit farmers in the central part of the state. And when it comes to the steeper cuts Mrs Touton is calling for, agriculture is also likely to be hit hardest. Agriculture consumes about three-quarters of Colorado’s supply.
Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director at the National Audubon Society, said there was intense pressure on all stakeholders to come up with a plan for the steep cuts. “The water just isn’t there,” she said. “It’s the cold reality, and no policy can change that.”
Climate change has made droughts worse, making it less likely that a series of rainy years would occur that would end them. However, increasing water withdrawal as a result of population growth in the region and growth in agriculture also played a role.