Big water cutbacks ordered amid Colorado River shortage

As the West endures another year of unrelenting drought as climate change worsens, reservoirs on the Colorado River have dropped to levels so low that major water cuts are needed next year to reduce the risk. supplies have fallen to dangerously low levels, a top federal water official said Tuesday.

Reclamation Bureau Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said during a Senate hearing in Washington that federal officials now believe protecting “critical levels” at the country’s largest reservoir – Lake Mead and Lake Powell – would require much larger water reductions.

“A warmer, drier West is what we’re seeing today,” Touton told the Senate Energy and Resources Committee. “And the challenges we’re seeing today are unlike anything we’ve seen in our history.”

The amount of cuts needed, she said, ranges from 2 million acres to 4 million acres next year.

For comparison, California enjoys 4.4 million acres of Colorado River water each year, while Arizona’s allotment is 2.8 million acres.

The push for a new emergency agreement to deal with the dwindling flow of the Colorado River comes just seven months after officials from California, Arizona and Nevada signed an agreement to take significantly less water out. Lake Mead, and six weeks after the federal government announced it was keeping large amounts of water in Lake Powell to reduce the risk of the reservoir collapsing to the point where the Glen Canyon Dam would no longer produce electricity.

Despite those efforts and an earlier agreement between the states to share the shortage, the two reservoirs remained at or near record lows. Lake Mead near Las Vegas has dropped to 28% of operating capacity, while Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border is currently only 27% full.

Touton said it’s important to achieve additional cuts, and her agency is in talks with seven states that depend on the river to develop a plan for cuts over the next 60 days. She warned that the Bureau of Reclamation has the authority to “act unilaterally to protect the system, and we will protect the system.”

Although Touton did not explain what could be the cause, the Home Office could impose cuts if states fail to reach a separate agreement. Touton said her agency is “working with states and tribes to have this discussion.”

“We need to see the work. We need to see action,” Touton said, urging representatives of the states “to stay at the table until the job is done. ”

The Colorado River supplies water to nearly 40 million people in cities from Denver to Los Angeles and farmland from the Rocky Mountains to the US-Mexico border. The river has long been overallocated, and its reservoirs have shrunk since 2000 during a severe drought that the study found was increasing due to global warming and what some scientists describe as the long-term “aridity” of the Southwest.

“What used to be a slow-moving train wreck for 20 years is picking up speed, and timing counts,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies the Las Vegas area. was near.

He pointed out that the water level of Lake Mead, currently 1,045 feet above sea level, continues to drop to extremely low levels. The Hoover Dam can still release water down to 895 feet, but below that, water will no longer pass through the dam to supply California, Arizona and Mexico — a level known as the “dead abyss.”

“We are 25 million Americans who have lost access to the Colorado River, and the rate of decline is accelerating,” Entsminger told the senators.

Avoiding “potentially catastrophic conditions,” Entsminger said, will require reducing uses that many water managers previously considered unattainable.

When speaking with representatives from other states, Entsminger said they all recognize the urgency of the situation and are working to ramp up conservation efforts.

“However, there is no way to solve this problem, cities alone cannot solve this crisis,” Entsminger said.

Entsminger points out that about 80% of the river’s flow is used for agriculture, and most of it is for thirsty crops like alfalfa, which are mainly grown for livestock, both in the US and abroad.

“I am not suggesting that farmers stop farming, but rather that they carefully consider their crop choices and make the necessary investments to optimize irrigation efficiency,” says Entsminger. “By reducing Colorado River water use, agricultural organizations are protecting their own interests.”

Last year, the federal government first declared a shortage on the Colorado River, causing significant cuts in the water supply to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. Farmers in parts of Arizona have left some fields dry and uncultivated, and turned to pumping more groundwater.

The cuts have yet to limit water supplies to Southern California, but that could change as reservoirs continue to decline.

The timeline offered by Touton, to come to an agreement on water cuts within 60 days, offers a deadline just before the Bureau of Reclamation is scheduled to issue mid-August forecasts for water levels. reservoir on the river. Those projections define the extent of the shortage in 2023 and the severity of the cuts to the water supply needed.

“Let’s start talking and figure this out in August,” says Touton. “That’s what we’re working towards.” Big water cutbacks ordered amid Colorado River shortage

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