Disaster scenarios raise stakes for Colorado River negotiations
State and federal officials say years of binge drinking are colliding with the harsh realities of climate changepushing Colorado River reservoirs to levels so dangerously low that major dams on the river could soon become obstacles to bringing water to millions in the Southwest.
The federal government has asked the seven western states that depend on water from the Colorado River to reduce usage at 2 to 4 million acre-feet, up to one-third of the river’s average annual flow, to try to avoid such dire results. But states have so far failed come to a voluntary agreement on how to make that happen, and the Department of the Interior may impose unilateral cuts in the coming months.
“Without immediate and decisive action, the elevations in Lake Powell and Mead could force the system to shut down,” Tommy Beaudreau, assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior, said at a conference of Colorado River officials here Friday. “That is an intolerable condition that we will not allow to happen.”
Many state water officials fear that time is already running out.
Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which brings water from the Colorado River to central Arizona, said that “there is a real possibility of an effective dead pool” within the next two years. That means water levels could drop so low that the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams, which created the reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, would become an obstacle to bringing water to cities and farms in Arizona, California and Mexico. .
“We may not be able to get water through either of the two dams in the main reservoirs during certain parts of the year,” Cooke said. “This is on our doorstep.”
The looming crisis has energized this annual gathering of water bureaucrats, the occasional cowboy hat visible among the standing crowd inside Caesars Palace. It’s the first time the conference has sold out, organizers said, and the specter of a massive shortage looms as state water managers, tribes and the federal government meet to discuss how to reduce use on a scale without precedents.
“I can feel the anxiety and uncertainty in this room and in the basin,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Office of Recovery.
Ultimately, the negotiations will have to weigh cuts in fast-growing urban areas against those in the farming communities that produce much of the country’s winter vegetable supply. In the complex world of water rights, farms often take precedence over cities because they have been using river water longer. Unlike previous negotiations, water managers now expect the cuts to affect even the oldest water users.
States in the Upper Colorado River Basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — say it’s hard to specify how much they can cut because they rely less on reservoir allocations and more on variable river flows. The lower basin states (California, Arizona, and Nevada) also consume much more water.
“In the Upper Basin, we can say we’ll take 80 percent, and Mother Nature gives us 30 percent,” said Gene Shawcroft, president of the Utah Colorado River Authority. “Those are some of the challenges we are wrestling with.”
The federal government set an August deadline for states to reach a voluntary agreement on cuts, but that deadline passed without agreement. Some state officials here blame the Biden administration. When it became clear this summer that the federal government was not ready to impose unilateral cuts, the urgency to reach a deal evaporated, they said.
Now, the Biden administration has released a new environmental review for the distribution of supplies from the Colorado River in low-water scenarios. Water administrators hope to have more clarity on what states can offer by the end of January. By the summer, the federal government is expected to define its authority to impose unilateral cuts.
“Unfortunately, it’s a year later than we need it to be,” Cooke said in an interview.
Across the West, drought has already led to record numbers of wells running dry in californiaforced large tracts of farmland to lie fallow and required landowners to limit how much water their lawns. This week, a major water provider in Southern California declared a regional drought emergency and called on those areas that depend on Colorado River water to reduce their imported supplies.
The problems in the river have been building up for years. In the last two decades, for most of severe drought For the region in centuries, Colorado River basin states have drawn more water from the river than it has produced, draining reservoirs that act as buffers during hard times. The river’s average annual flow over that period has been 13.4 million acre-feet, while users withdraw an average of 15 million acre-feet per year, said James Prairie, head of the river’s modeling and research group. the Recovery Office.
In 1999, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the country, held 47.6 million acre-feet of water. That has fallen to about 13.1 million acre-feet, or 26 percent of capacity. One acre-foot is equal to 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover one acre of land in one foot of water.
Federal officials have projected that, as early as July, the level in Lake Powell could drop to the point where the hydroelectric plant inside Glen Canyon Dam could no longer produce power, and then continue to drop until it is impossible to deliver the amounts. of water on which the southwestern states depend. Water managers say such a “dead pool” is also possible in Lake Mead within two years.
“These reservoirs have served us for 23 years, but now we are pushing them to the limit,” Prairie said.
David Palumbo, deputy commissioner for operations for the Office of Recovery, emphasized that the effects of climate change, a hotter and drier westwhere the soil absorbs more runoff than snowy mountain before it reaches the reservoirs, it means that the past is no longer a useful guide to the future of the river. Even years with a lot of snow now have little runoff, he said.
“It’s critical to consider runoff efficiency and, frankly, fear it,” he said.
Water managers say the cuts are likely to hit Arizona and California hard, where major agricultural regions consume large portions of the available supply. These states, which get their water after passing through Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, also face the greatest risk if the reservoirs drop to dangerous levels, said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
“If you can’t get water through the Hoover Dam, that’s the water supply for 25 million Americans,” he said.