Seven western states and the 40 million people in them that depend on the Colorado River can’t yet agree how to use less water and Tuesday federal officials asked them to cut even deeper.
The river is drying and those western states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — have been drawing too much water for years, heading toward disaster.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gave the states until Monday to voluntarily find a way to save at least 21% of the river’s annual flows, threatening to take over the process and impose its own cuts. The states didn’t make the deadline and instead experts worry the states are fracturing at a time when they most need to work together.
“They are not singing ‘Kumbaya’ right now,” Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network told The Denver Post. “They’re sharpening their knives.”
At the same time, conditions along the Colorado River are expected to worsen so much in the coming months that additional and mandatory cuts are now needed. Officials from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of the Interior said in a news conference Tuesday morning that Arizona, Mexico and Nevada are first on the chopping block. Together they must find a way to save an extra 7.5% of the river’s average annual flows.
No cuts are yet required of California, which uses the most water in the basin. Although that might not remain the case for long. Federal officials said that more must be done to keep water flowing downstream and to keep reservoirs on the river full of enough water.
Unless the states start using less water – and fast – the country’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead in southeast Nevada and Lake Powell in south-central Utah, will shrink lower and lower. If their levels fall too far they might not be able to send enough water downstream to cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles and they’ll lose the ability to generate electricity.
“Everybody has to tighten their belts in this situation,” Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the Interior, said during the conference.
Currently, lakes Mead and Powell combined sit at only 28% full, a historic low, according to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton.
State and federal officials have known about the impending shortage for years now but it’s taken a new and greater urgency as a megadrought plaguing the American West shows no signs of slowing.
“Without prompt, responsive actions and investments now, the Colorado River and the citizens that rely on it will face a future of uncertainty and conflict,” Tanya Trujillo, Interior’s assistant secretary for water and science, said.
Last month water officials from the upper-basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming published a plan to appease federal officials but it didn’t include any specific, mandatory cuts to save the resource.
That type of action must first come from Arizona and California, Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, said.
“Until they do that, they should expect no additional help,” Mueller said.
While it’s true that the lower-basin states – particularly Arizona and California – are using the greatest share of Colorado River water, far more than they’re allotted, Roerink said the entire basin must move to save water, not just two states.
“The upper basin, quite frankly, is sticking its head in the sand, digging its heels in deep,” Roerink said. “They do not want to contribute a drop to the cuts.”
If the impasse continues, Roerink said the entire basin risks a court battle which would waste massive amounts of money but also time, which is a luxury it doesn’t have as the Colorado River sinks deeper into drought and overuse.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
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