Plan asks Colorado River states, including New Mexico, to cut water allocation

Aug. 17—As a historic megadrought parches the West and diminishes the mighty Colorado River to record lows, federal water managers released a 24-month plan Tuesday with a clear message.

All seven states that tap the Colorado River Basin — including New Mexico — must get by with less.

A warmer, drier climate, which has helped drive the West into its worst drought in 1,200 years, has weakened snowpacks and increased evaporation in the face of steady population growth, depleting the river by 20 percent since the late 1990s.

It's also drained Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the nation's two largest reservoirs, to critical levels, requiring greater austerity from the Western states to ensure the power stations keep running and water keeps flowing to the 40 million users.

"The system is approaching a tipping point," Camille Calimlim Touton, a Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, told reporters at a Tuesday online news conference. "Without action, we cannot protect the system and the millions of Americans who rely on this critical resource."

The two reservoirs combined have fallen to about 28 percent of their capacity, Touton said.

Lake Powell is expected to fall to 3,521.84 feet by January, just 32 feet above the "minimum power pool," or threshold needed to generate hydropower. Lake Mead is projected to drop to 1,047.61 feet, a historic low that activates Tier 2 water reduction.

Those cuts will reduce Arizona's yearly allocation by 21 percent; Nevada's by 8 percent; and the nation of Mexico's by 7 percent.

The century-old water-sharing agreement known as the Colorado River Compact is divided into upper and lower basins, with each basin operating under its own guidelines.

New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are in the upper basin, while Arizona, Nevada and California are in the lower one. The upper basin mostly sets its policies through a commission, and the lower basin is more directly governed by the Interior Department.

Still, the bureau can issue edicts to both basins.

In June, the agency gave the states 60 days to come up with plans for trimming their combined water consumption within the Colorado River Basin by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to supply two or three households for a year.

The states' plans for reducing water use were due Tuesday, with the threat the bureau would make its own cuts otherwise. Federal officials didn't mention the deadline as they discussed the 24-month plan but addressed the subject when a reporter asked about it.

Touton said they started the process that will give them the tools to enforce a deadline when necessary. She expressed disappointment the states had failed to adopt actions "of sufficient magnitude that would stabilize the system."

In July, the Upper Colorado River Commission sent Touton a letter that contained a five-point plan for water conservation.

Recommendations were broad and included managing water demand in the basin, ensuring the benefits of water sent downstream to Glen Canyon are preserved, and creating a drought response program, such as farmers fallowing fields.

The Bureau of Reclamation's assistant secretary for water and science, Tanya Trujillo, and other officials said while such efforts would be a good start, more must be done.

"Our reservoirs are declining rapidly," said Trujillo. "The circumstances we face will require swift actions and increased water conservation in every state, from every sector. We all have a responsibility to ensure the water we do have available is used with maximum efficiency."

In New Mexico, water is diverted from the Colorado River Basin through a complex series of tunnels and dams known as the San Juan-Chama Project. This water merges with the Rio Grande and supplements supply for Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Native pueblos and irrigators in the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

Decreasing New Mexico's portion would involve sending more water downstream via the San Juan River, which flows through the Navajo Reservoir and eventually into Lake Powell.

State and local water managers have said the federal allotments act more as a supplement here because they are blended with other sources, such as well fields and Rio Grande water, versus states whose main water supply comes from the Colorado River.

This year, New Mexico received only half of its maximum allocation.

In an earlier interview, Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, Interstate Stream Commission director, said New Mexico and other upper basin states have already endured cutbacks, in contrast to the lower basin states that get their full amount.

"We don't have a lot to give, but we will try to help," Schmidt-Petersen said, referring to the five-point plan. "We don't think it will generate a whole lot of water. We don't think there's a whole lot of water in the upper basin to get."

In the coming year, the bureau will reduce the water released from Glen Canyon Dam to 7 million acre-feet from the current 7.5 million.

One chart presented at the news conference showed how dramatically river flows into Lake Powell had diminished in the past quarter-century — from 17 million acre feet in 1996 to less than 6 million this year.

"The prolonged drought afflicting the West is one of the most significant challenges facing our communities and our country," Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said. "The growing drought crisis is driven by the effects of climate change, including extreme heat and low precipitation."

A bright note is $8.3 billion in federal infrastructure money will pay for water improvements, including for rural projects, dam safety and watershed health, Beaudreau said. At the same time, the newly passed Inflation Reduction Act will provide $4 billion in funding for water management and conservation in the Colorado River Basin.

Trujillo said the funding couldn't have come at a better time.

"We are currently facing unprecedented challenges," Trujillo said. "And we have unprecedented resources available to address them."