Arizona, Nevada and Mexico bear brunt of latest reductions in effort to save Lake Mead, Lake Powell
by Jim Carlton, The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2022
The federal government has declared an unprecedented new stage to the water shortage afflicting the Colorado River, triggering cutbacks likely to deepen economic damage to the Southwest driven by a long-running drought.
The cuts of less than one million acre-feet are lower than the two million to four million officials of the Bureau of Reclamation had told the seven states that use the river, as well as Mexico, to prepare for in an advisory two months ago. They notably leave out California, the river’s largest user, which would have been affected by bigger cuts.
An acre foot is enough water for a typical family of four for one year.
Bureau officials said they were prepared to impose additional cuts if cooperative efforts to achieve savings to prop up two of the river’s biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, don’t work. Officials said Tuesday that both reservoirs reached what is classified as a Tier 2 shortage for the first time.
“The system is approaching a tipping point and without action we cannot protect the system and the millions of Americans who rely on it,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in a press briefing.
As of Tuesday, Lake Mead stood at an elevation of 1042.4 feet, the lowest since Hoover Dam was completed in 1936 to form the reservoir. Lake Powell stands at 3,534 feet, or 166 feet below its capacity.
The amount of water states and Mexico must lose is based on their priority in longstanding agreements. Under the new cuts announced Tuesday, Arizona must stop using 592,000 acre-feet, Nevada 25,000 and Mexico 104,000 during 2023. The total of 721,000—enough to meet the annual needs of Las Vegas—is about 100,000 higher than the cuts that were ordered after a first-ever Tier 1 shortage was declared last year.
Unusually strong monsoon rains this summer have helped replenish dry soils and reduce wildfire risk, but they added little to the reservoirs in part because so much water evaporates in the heat, water officials say. The reservoirs depend mostly on snowmelt runoff, which has sharply declined because of the warming climate, the officials said.
The region is locked in its worst drought in 1,200 years, according to a University of California, Los Angeles-led study earlier this year.
Bureau officials had warned in June that cuts were likely coming and put affected states on notice to either come up with reductions on their own or face having the agency do it for them.
However, the states so far have been unable to agree. A tension point has been the amount of water used by farmers, whose fields soak up as much as 80% of the Colorado’s water used by people, rather than for environmental purposes.
Reducing such allocations could raise food prices, according to agriculture officials. Reductions for cities are also likely, which could stunt their growth, urban planners say.
In addition, the Bureau of Reclamation has said both Lake Mead and Lake Powell soon could fall below the level needed to generate hydropower, which could disrupt the region’s electric grid.
The 1,450 mile Colorado River fuels $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity in the basin states, according to a 2015 study by Arizona State University.
Officials in Arizona objected to the amount of cuts that the federal government is demanding of them. “It is unacceptable for Arizona to continue to carry a disproportionate burden of reductions for the benefit of others who have not contributed,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project water agency, said in a statement.
Federal officials said Tuesday they were still hoping states will come up with a way to meet the necessary reductions. The officials also said they have begun administrative actions that would allow them to order states to take mandatory actions if they don’t reach their own agreements soon.
Officials offered no timeline on when any of such actions might go into effect.
“We believe the solution here is one of partnership, but we need to be able to protect the system,” Ms. Touton said.
The bureau is also looking at potential engineering fixes, such as allowing water to be released from the reservoirs at lower elevations. In addition, they plan to use $8.3 billion in federal infrastructure funding for efforts such as conservation and storage.
Some water users said a final plan could take at least two more months to finish, because the water rights are so complex they have to work together on any agreements.
In a letter Monday to federal regulators, John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, accused other users of coming up with unreasonable proposals—including for “drought profiteering.” In an interview, he singled out farming districts in Arizona and California that have offered to use less water on their crops in return for cash payments.
Farm officials say they have conserved, too, and called the money-for-water plan necessary to quickly achieve savings and help offset the economic impact.
In Yuma County, Ariz., four irrigation districts have put together a plan to pay farmers $1,500 for each acre foot of water they don’t use over 935,000 acres there over the next four years, said Wade Noble, general counsel for the districts.
The arrangement would represent a roughly one-fifth reduction in the farmers’ water use, which they would attempt to make up by improving crop yields. They could get compensation from $4 billion in drought relief Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.) negotiated to include in the Inflation Reduction Act, which President Biden signed Tuesday.