Feds Give Colorado River States a 60-Day Timeline to Cut Water Use

Feds Give Colorado River States a 60-Day Timeline to Cut Water Use

The Colorado River is alarmingly low and according to Federal Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, the seven states that rely on it must be ready to make unprecedented changes to balance the water budget. If the states cannot develop a deal amongst themselves within 60 days, the Feds are prepared to impose necessary cuts using emergency authority. To protect “critical [low] levels” of the country’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, Touton says that much more significant reductions in water use are essential. The commissioner has further called for a cut of between two and four million acre-feet next year. For context, Arizona is allotted an annual 2.8 million acre-feet from the river. Such cuts will dramatically change the conversation about water use on the Colorado River.

Denver7: The Colorado River's 1,400-mile journey through the West, explained, July 15, 2021.

PBS: Megadrought causes perilously low water levels at Lake Mead, June 2, 2022.

Why This Matters

Lake Powell and Lake Mead are respectively at 26% and 28% of their full capacities -- at or near historic lows. The Colorado River provides water and electricity to seven states and 30 tribal nations and is nearing critical levels. The drought at Lake Powell is forcing states like New Mexico and Arizona to choose between conserving water in the lake or generating electricity for their homes. The Department of the Interior has prioritized hydropower, holding back the release of water last month at the Utah-Arizona border to keep a volume of 480,000 acre-feet of water to safeguard hydropower production. Still, many users question whether hydropower can survive in such drought conditions. Lake Mead, currently at 1,045 feet above sea level, will no longer be able to produce electricity if the levels fall below 895 feet because water would be unable to flow any farther without being pumped.

ABC: Colorado River named country’s ‘most endangered,' April 18, 2022.

VICE: 40 Million People Rely on the Colorado River, and Now It's Drying Up, Aug 14, 2021.

Is Such A Deal possible?

The magnitude of the water-use cut is unprecedented for the Colorado River, and such a reduction will require collaboration among all seven states. Yet, disagreements already exist between the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) and the Lower Basin (Arizona, California, and Nevada) about who should do the heavy lifting. The Upper Basin collectively uses 3.5 million acre-feet, a reduction from 4.5 million the year before. The executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, Amy Haas, said the Lower Basin would need to do the heaviest lifting because they use the vast majority of the water. Meanwhile, Arizona Public Media reports that the Upper Basin States “have a history of struggling to commit to specific conservation goals when it comes to the river’s management.”

Not only will all seven states have to get on board, but sacrifices will need to be made by every sector. Agriculture uses 80 to 90% of the nation’s water, meaning that even if municipal users reduce their use, farming will still have to make significant cuts. Patrick O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance, expressed concerns that taking water from agriculture could harm rural communities and food production.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has called for rewriting the Colorado River Compact entirely. The Compact, signed in 1922, stipulates that the Upper Basin must deliver 75 million acre-feet to the Lower Basin, which was 50% of the annual flow at that time. As the Environmental Defense Fund explains: “Water use across the Colorado River Basin has been unsustainable for years, and it was set up to be that way. … But climate change is now magnifying and accelerating problems in the basin.”

It will be difficult for the states to make a deal by August on a river where every drop of water is already spoken for.

CNBC: What Is The Future Of Hydropower?, May 28, 2022.

CBS: Megadrought in the West threatens energy and water security, May 5, 2022.

ABC: Native American Tribes plea for help as Colorado River dries up, October 6, 2021.