Major water cutbacks loom as shrinking Colorado River nears ‘moment of reckoning’
As the West experiences another year of unrelenting drought, exacerbated by climate change, the Colorado River’s reservoirs have fallen so low that major water outages will be needed next year to reduce the risk of supplies reaching dangerously low levels. a senior federal water official said Tuesday.
Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said during a Senate hearing in Washington that federal officials now believe protecting “critical levels” in the nation’s largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — will reduce much greater water supplies required.
“A warmer, drier west is what we’re seeing today,” Touton told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “And the challenges we see today are unlike anything we’ve seen in our history.”
The cuts needed, she said, will be between 2 million acre feet and 4 million acre feet next year.
In comparison, California is entitled to 4.4 million acre feet of water from the Colorado River per year, while Arizona’s allotment is 2.8 million acre feet.
The push for a new emergency deal to deal with the dwindling Colorado River flow comes just seven months after officials from California, Arizona and Nevada signed an agreement to draw significantly less water from Lake Mead, and six weeks after the The federal government announced it was holding back a large amount of water in Lake Powell to reduce the risk of the reservoir sinking to a point where the Glen Canyon Dam would no longer generate electricity.
Despite those efforts and a previous agreement between the states to share in the deficits, the two reservoirs are at or near record levels. Lake Mead near Las Vegas has fallen to 28% of its full capacity, while Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border is now only 27% full.
Touton said it is critical to deliver the additional cuts and her agency is in talks with the seven states that depend on the river to develop a plan for the cuts over the next 60 days. She warned that the Bureau of Reclamation has the authority to “act unilaterally to protect the system, and we will protect the system.”
While Touton hasn’t set out what that might entail, the Department of the Interior could impose austerity measures if states themselves fail to reach an agreement. Touton said her agency is “working with the states and tribes to have this discussion.”
“We need to see the work. We need to see the action,” Touton said, calling on state representatives “to stay at the table until the job is done.”
The Colorado River supplies water to nearly 40 million people in cities from Denver to Los Angeles and farmlands from the Rocky Mountains to the US-Mexico border. The river has long been overpopulated and its reservoirs have declined dramatically since 2000 during a severe drought that research shows is exacerbated by global warming and described by some scientists as the prolonged “drying out” of the Southwest.
“What has been a slow-motion train wreck for 20 years is accelerating and the moment of reckoning is near,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies the Las Vegas area.
He pointed out that the water level of Lake Mead, now at 1,045 feet above sea level, has continued to drop to critically low levels. Hoover Dam could still drain water up to a level of 895 feet, but below that, no more water would pass through the dam to supply California, Arizona and Mexico — a level known as “dead pool.”
“We are 50 feet from 25 million Americans losing access to the Colorado River, and the rate of decline is accelerating,” Entsminger told the senators.
Avoiding “potentially catastrophic conditions,” Entsminger said, will require a reduction in usage that many water managers previously thought unattainable.
Talking to representatives from other states, Entsminger said, they all recognize the urgency of the situation and are working to increase conservation efforts.
“However, and there is no way around this, cities alone cannot handle this crisis,” Entsminger said.
Entsminger pointed out that about 80% of the river’s flow is used for agriculture, and most of it for thirsty crops like alfalfa, which is grown primarily for livestock, both in the US and abroad.
“I’m not suggesting that farmers stop farming, but rather that they carefully consider crop selection and make the investments needed to optimize irrigation efficiency,” Entsminger said. “By reducing their use of Colorado River water, agricultural entities are protecting their own interests.”
Last year, the federal government first declared a Colorado River shortage, leading to significant cuts in water supplies to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. Farmers in parts of Arizona have left some fields dry and unplanted and have switched to more groundwater pumps.
The cuts have yet to curtail water supplies for Southern California, but that could change if reservoirs continue to fall.
Touton’s timeline to reach a water reduction agreement within 60 days sets the deadline just before the Bureau of Reclamation releases its mid-August projections for reservoir levels on the river. These forecasts determine the level of the shortage in 2023 and the seriousness of the necessary cutbacks in the water supply.
“Let’s sit down at the table, and let’s sort this out in August,” Touton said. “That’s what we’re working towards.”
As drought crisis deepens, government will release less water from Colorado River reservoir
2022 Los Angeles Times.
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