In response to dwindling water supplies from the drought-ravaged Colorado River, the federal government announced another round of austerity measures on Tuesday in the amount two states can draw from the river. But for now, the government has stopped mandating major reductions that officials say will be needed next year to protect the river’s infrastructure.
Officials from the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation said levels in Colorado’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, remained dangerously low after more than two decades of drought in the Southwest, exacerbated by climate change. Lake Mead, behind the Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border, is now about 50 meters lower than it was in 2000, when the southwestern megadrought began.
That level leads to agreed cuts in the amounts that two of the Lower Basin states, Arizona and Nevada, and Mexico can take from Lake Mead. The other Lower Basin state, California, is currently unaffected, as are the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico. About 40 million people depend on the Colorado 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 had called on the seven states to negotiate and recommend much sharper cuts to maintain safe operations. Land reclamation engineers were particularly concerned that Lake Powell, behind the Glen Canyon Dam near the Utah-Arizona border, could sink so low that it could no longer generate hydroelectric power, and that the dam’s ability to carry water downstream could be compromised. leave could be endangered.
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Since then, talks between states have been slow, with some finger-pointing that has characterized negotiations over western waters for much of the past century.
On Tuesday, Ms Touton said that while “significant progress” had been made in the negotiations, “they are not complete”.
“States have collectively not identified and adopted any actions of significant magnitude that would stabilize the system,” she said.
Ms Touton had warned in June that if states could not agree, the government would impose cuts itself. But no unilateral immediate cuts were announced Tuesday.
But there is little doubt that further water savings will come, up to 4 million acre feet of water, an amount equivalent to about a third of the river’s current annual flow.
The cuts announced Tuesday are relatively minor and come on top of the cuts initiated last year when the government first announced a water shortage at Lake Mead.
With the new cuts, Arizona will have 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 the allotment. Mexico’s cuts total 104,000 acre feet, 7 percent of the allotted supply.
In Arizona, the austerity measures have mainly affected farmers in the central part of the state. And when it comes to the sharper austerity measures that Mrs Touton is calling for, agriculture is also expected to be the hardest hit. Agriculture uses about three quarters of Colorado’s supply.
Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director at the National Audubon Society, said there was great pressure on all stakeholders to come up with a plan for the steep cuts. “The water just isn’t there,” she said. “That’s the icy reality, and no amount of politics can change that.”
Climate change has exacerbated the drought and made it less likely that a series of wet years could come to an end. But increased water withdrawals as the region’s population has grown and agriculture has grown have also played a role.