Disaster scenarios raise the stakes for Colorado River negotiations

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LAS VEGAS — Water managers responsible for distributing the Colorado River’s dwindling supplies are painting a bleak portrait of a river in crisis, warning that Western farms and cities could face unprecedented shortages and that old rules governing water distribution must change.

State and federal authorities say years of overconsumption are colliding with the harsh realities of climate change, pushing Colorado River reservoirs to such dangerously low levels that the river’s largest dams could soon become a barrier to water supplies for millions of people in the Southwest.

Officials fear a “full-on doomsday scenario” for the drought-stricken Colorado River

The federal government has called on the seven Western states that rely on Colorado River water to cut consumption by 2 to 4 million acre-feet — up to a third of the river’s annual average flow — to try to avoid such dire results. But states have so far been unable to reach a voluntary agreement on how to achieve this, and the Interior Department may impose unilateral cuts in the coming months.

“Without immediate and decisive action, elevations in Lake Powell and Mead could cause the system to shut down,” Interior Department Deputy Secretary Tommy Boudreau said Friday at a conference of Colorado River officials. “This is an intolerable condition that we will not tolerate.”

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

Ted Cook, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which supplies Colorado River water to central Arizona, said that within the next two years, “there is a real opportunity to create an effective dead basin.” That means water levels could drop so far that the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams that created the Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs would become a barrier to supplying water to cities and farms in Arizona, California and Mexico.

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“We may not be able to get water past either of the two dams in the main reservoirs during certain parts of the year,” Cook said. “It’s on our doorstep.”

The looming crisis has fueled this annual gathering of water bureaucrats, with the occasional cowboy hat seen among the standing-room-only crowd at Caesars Palace. It’s the first time the conference has sold out, organizers said, and the specter of a massive water shortage looms as state water managers, tribes and the federal government meet to figure out how to cut water use on an unprecedented scale.

“I sense anxiety and uncertainty in this space and in the basin,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Kalimlim Towton.

The Colorado River is in crisis and getting worse by the day

The negotiations will ultimately have to balance cuts in fast-growing urban areas with cuts in farming communities that produce much of the nation’s winter vegetable supply. In the complex world of water rights, farms often have priority over cities because they use river water longer. Unlike previous negotiations, water managers now expect the cuts to affect even older water 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 fluctuating river flows. The lower basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada – also use much more water.

“In the upper basin, we can say we’re going to take 80 percent, and Mother Nature is giving us 30,” said Gene Shawcroft, chairman of the Utah Colorado River Authority. “Those are some of the challenges we’re grappling with.”

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The federal government set an August deadline for states to reach a voluntary agreement on the cuts, but that deadline passed without agreement. Some public officials are blaming the Biden administration here. When it became clear this summer that the federal government was unwilling to impose unilateral cuts, the need for a deal disappeared, they said.

Now, the Biden administration has launched a new environmental review of Colorado River stock distribution in underwater scenarios. Water managers hope to have more clarity on what states can offer by the end of January. The federal government is expected to define its authority to impose unilateral cuts by the summer.

“Unfortunately, it’s a year later than we need it to be,” Cook said in an interview.

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

The problems in the river have been building for years. Over the past two decades, during the region’s worst drought in a century, states in the Colorado River Basin have withdrawn more water from the river than it has produced, draining reservoirs that act as a buffer during hard times. The river’s average annual flow during that period has been 13.4 million acre-feet, while users withdraw an average of 15 million acre-feet a year, said James Perry, research and modeling group leader for the Bureau of Reclamation.

In 1999, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, held 47.6 million acre-feet of water. That’s down to about 13.1 million acre feet, or 26 percent of their capacity. An acre foot is equal to 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover an acre of land in a foot of water.

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Federal officials have predicted that as early as July, the level of Lake Powell could drop to a point where the hydroelectric plant at Glen Canyon Dam could no longer produce electricity, and then continue to drop beyond supply. water that southwestern states rely on. Water managers say that within two years, such a “dead pool” is also possible in Lake Mead.

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

David Palumbo, deputy commissioner for operations at the Bureau of Reclamation, emphasized that the effects of climate change — a hotter and drier West, where the ground absorbs more mountain snow runoff before it reaches reservoirs — means the past is no longer useful. a guide to the river’s future. Even in high snow years, runoff is low now, he said.

“The effectiveness of this runoff is very important to be aware of and, frankly, to be feared,” he said.

Water managers say most of the cuts are likely to come in southern states, including Arizona and California, where major agricultural regions consume much of the available supply. Those states that get water after it passes through Lake Mead and Hoover Dam also face the greatest risk if reservoirs drop to dangerous levels, said John Entzminger, director general 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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