Disaster Scenarios Raise Stakes in Colorado River Negotiations

Disaster Scenarios Raise Stakes in Colorado River Negotiations


LAS VEGAS — Water managers responsible for apportioning the Colorado River’s dwindling supply paint a grim picture of a river in crisis, warning that unprecedented shortages could hit farms and towns across the West and that the old rules governing water sharing will need to change.

State and federal officials say years of overconsumption are colliding with the harsh realities of climate change, pushing Colorado River reservoirs to levels so dangerously low that major dams on the river could soon become roadblocks to water supplies. millions of people in the southwest.

Authorities fear ‘complete doomsday scenario’ for drought-stricken Colorado River

The federal government has called on the seven western states that rely on Colorado River water to reduce their use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet — up to a third of the river’s average annual flow — to try to avoid such disastrous results. But states have so far failed to come to a voluntary agreement on how to do this, and the Home Office could impose unilateral cuts in the coming months.

“Without immediate and decisive action, the elevations of Lakes Powell and Mead could force the system to stop working,” Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, told a conference of Colorado River officials on Friday. “It is an intolerable condition that we will not allow.”

Many state water officials fear they are already running out of time.

Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which supplies water from the Colorado River to central Arizona, said “there is a real possibility of an effective dead pool” within the next two years. This means water levels could drop so far that the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams – which created the Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs – would become a hindrance to water supplies for towns and farms in Arizona, California and Mexico.

“We may not be able to get water through either of the two dams into the main reservoirs during some parts of the year,” Cooke said. “It’s on our doorstep.”

The looming crisis energized this annual gathering of water bureaucrats, the occasional cowboy hat visible among the crowds standing inside Caesars Palace. It’s the first time the conference has sold out, organizers said, and the specter of massive shortages looms as state water managers, tribes and the federal government come together to determine how to reduce the use on an unprecedented scale.

“I can feel the worry and uncertainty in this room and in the basin,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, Commissioner of the Claims Office.

The Colorado River is in crisis, and it’s getting worse every day

Negotiations will ultimately have to weigh cuts in fast-growing urban areas against those in farming communities that produce much of the country’s supply of winter vegetables. In the complex world of water rights, farms often take priority over cities because they have been using river water for longer. Unlike past negotiations, water managers now expect cuts to affect even the most experienced users.

The states in the upper Colorado River basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — say it’s hard to pinpoint how much they can cut because they depend less on reservoir allocations and more on the river’s varying flows. The lower basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada – also use significantly more water.

“In the upper basin, we can say we’ll take 80 percent, and Mother Nature gives us 30,” said Gene Shawcroft, chairman of Utah’s Colorado River Authority. “These are some of the challenges we face.”

The federal government set an August deadline for states to reach a voluntary agreement on the cuts, but that deadline passed without an agreement. Some state officials here blame the Biden administration. When it became clear this summer that the federal government was not prepared to impose unilateral cuts, the urgency for a deal evaporated, they said.

Now, the Biden administration has launched a new environmental review for the distribution of Colorado River supplies under low-water scenarios. Water managers hope to have more clarity on what states can deliver by the end of January. By the summer, the federal government should define its power to impose unilateral cuts.

“Unfortunately, it’s a year later that we need it,” Cooke said in an interview.

(Video: Erin Patrick O’Connor/The Washington Post)

Across the West, drought has already dried up a record number of wells in California, forced huge swaths of farmland to lie fallow and forced homeowners to limit the amount of water they water on their lawns. This week, a major water supplier in Southern California declared a regional drought emergency and called on regions that rely on Colorado River water to cut back on imported supplies.

The problems on the river have been piling up for years. For the past two decades, during the region’s most severe drought in centuries, Colorado River Basin states have taken more water from the river than it has produced, draining reservoirs that act as a buffer during difficult times. The river’s average annual flow during this period was 13.4 million acre-feet – while users extract an average of 15 million acre-feet per year, said group leader James Prairie. research and modeling at the Bureau of Reclamation.

In 1999, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the country, held 47.6 million acre-feet of water. That fell to about 13.1 million acre-feet, or 26% of their capacity. An acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover one acre of land in one foot of water.

‘Where there are bodies there is treasure’: a hunt as Lake Mead shrinks

Federal officials predicted that as early as July the level of Lake Powell could drop to the point where the hydroelectric plant inside the Glen Canyon Dam could no longer generate electricity, then continue to drop so that it would become impossible to deliver quantities. of water on which the Southwestern states depend. Water managers say such a “dead pool” is also possible on Lake Mead within two years.

“These tanks have served us for 23 years, but now we’re pushing them to their limits,” Prairie said.

(Video: Erin Patrick O’Connor/The Washington Post)

David Palumbo, the Bureau of Reclamation’s deputy commissioner for operations, pointed out that the effects of climate change – a warmer and drier West, where the ground absorbs more mountain snow runoff before it reaches the reservoirs – mean that the past is no longer a useful guide to the future of the river. Even high snow years are now seeing low runoff, he said.

“It’s essential to be aware of this trickle-down efficiency and, frankly, to be afraid of it,” he said.

Water managers say the cuts are likely to hit hard in Arizona and California, where major agricultural regions consume much of the available supply. Those states, which get water after crossing Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, are also at greatest risk if reservoirs drop to dangerous levels, said John Entsminger, chief executive 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.

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