'Moment of reckoning:' Federal official warns of Colorado River water supply cuts

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The Colorado River’s reservoirs have diminished to the point that significant cuts to the water supplied to the seven states that rely on it will be necessary next year, a federal official warned Tuesday.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee maintaining “critical levels” at the largest reservoirs in the United States — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — will require large reductions in water deliveries.

“A warmer, drier West is what we are seeing today,” she said at a hearing. “And the challenges we are seeing today are unlike anything we have seen in our history.”

From above, a river flows through a rocky desert landscape.
The relatively arid desert Southwest is viewed at 33,000 feet on May 19 near Moab, Utah. The Colorado River, flowing from Colorado's Rocky Mountain through Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California is dependent on winter snowfall in the Rockies. (George Rose/Getty Images)

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California, and Nevada all receive water from the Colorado River and next year will see a decrease of between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet of water due to the ongoing drought that has gripped most of the Western U.S. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre of land in one-foot-deep water.) Current allotments of water from the Colorado range from 300,000 acre-feet for Nevada to 4.4 million acre-feet for California.

“What has been a slow-motion train wreck for 20 years is accelerating, and the moment of reckoning is near,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told the Senate hearing. “We are 150 feet from 25 million Americans losing access to the Colorado River, and the rate of decline is accelerating.”

The West has been suffering through an acute drought since 2020, part of a megadrought that began in 2000. The last 20 years have been the driest two decades in the last 1,200 years. This year is so far the driest on record in California. Scientists attribute these conditions to climate change, which causes more water evaporation due to warmer temperatures.

“As a climate scientist, I’ve watched how climate change is making drought conditions increasingly worse — particularly in the western and central U.S.,” wrote Imtiaz Rangwala, research scientist in climate at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, in May. “The last two years have been more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 Celsius) warmer than normal in these regions. Large swaths of the Southwest have been even hotter, with temperatures more than 3 F (1.7 C) higher.”

A thick white ring above the coastline of a lake, and below a darker mountainous terrain, shows the dramatic decline of water levels at Lake Mead.
A thick white ring shows the dramatic decline of water levels at Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, which has reached its lowest water levels on record since it was created by damming the Colorado River in the 1930s, as growing demand for water and climate change shrink the Colorado River and endanger a water source millions of Americans depend on, near Boulder City, Nevada, April 16. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

Western states have already been undertaking emergency measures to deal with the water scarcity. Seven months ago, California, Arizona and Nevada signed an agreement to take less water from Lake Mead, and six weeks ago the Department of Interior announced it is withholding some water from Lake Powell. Otherwise, DOI feared, the reservoir could drop so low that Glen Canyon Dam would not be able to generate electricity.

Last year, for the first time ever, the federal government declared a shortage on the river, which led to reductions in water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada. Some farmers in Arizona have had to leave some fields unplanted as a result.

Local governments and water utilities have been imposing restrictions on water usage. On June 1, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California instituted limits on outdoor watering; typically it will be restricted to one or two days per week. But the water shortage persists.

“Despite those efforts and a previous deal among the states to share in the shortages, the two reservoirs stand at or near record-low levels,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Lake Mead near Las Vegas has dropped to 28% of its full capacity, while Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border is now just 27% full.”

A formerly sunken boat rests on a now-dry section of lakebed.
A formerly sunken boat rests on a now-dry section of lakebed at the drought-stricken Lake Mead on May 10, 2022 in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Touton told the Senate committee that her agency is negotiating with the seven states that depend on the Colorado River to develop a plan for apportioning the water supply reductions in the next two months. In all, nearly 40 million people rely on water from the river.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., attributed the gathering crisis to a lack of coordinated action to mitigate climate change.

“It’s frankly a direct result of the lack of action on climate that we have seen for more than 20 years,” Heinrich said.

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