WASHINGTON — The federal agency in charge of managing much of the West’s water warned Tuesday that it will act unilaterally to reduce water usage in the Colorado River Basin if state and tribal leaders can’t reach an agreement this summer.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille C. Touton told a U.S. Senate committee that states within the region will need to cut usage between 2 and 4 million acre feet in 2023 to protect the Lake Mead and Lake Powell reservoirs.
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For now, Touton said, the bureau is “pursuing a path of partnership,” though she noted the agency has the authority “to act unilaterally to protect the system.”
“There is so much to this that is unprecedented and that is true. But unprecedented is now the reality and the normal in which Reclamation must manage our systems,” she testified. “A warmer, drier West is what we are seeing today.”
Touton said the Bureau of Reclamation is currently prioritizing short-term actions to prevent Lakes Mead and Powell from reaching dead pool, a condition where water levels get so low they can’t flow past a dam.
“This is the priority for us, between the next 60 days to figure out a plan to close that gap,” she said.
The Colorado River Basin covers more than 250,000 square miles and provides water to Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The hearing in front of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on which Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado sits, gathered together officials from the Environmental Defense Fund, the Family Farm Alliance and the Southern Nevada Water Authority to look at short- and long-term solutions for extreme drought.
John J. Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told panel members that while the situation is bleak, it’s not unsolvable.
“I can assure you from on the ground that the ominous tenor of recent media reports is warranted,” Entsminger said. “What has been a slow motion train wreck for 20 years is accelerating and the moment of reckoning is near.”
I can assure you from on the ground that the ominous tenor of recent media reports is warranted …What has been a slow motion train wreck for 20 years is accelerating and the moment of reckoning is near.
– John J. Entsminger, general manager of Southern Nevada Water Authority
The solution, he said, is working toward “a degree of demand management previously considered unattainable.”
Entsminger pointed to his home state of Nevada as an example for others in the region to follow, noting that while the state’s population has increased by 800,000 people during the last two decades, its water consumption dropped by 26%.
The state, which gets 1.8% of the Colorado River Basin’s water allocation, has paid residents to remove grass, set a mandatory irrigation schedule and enforced water waste rules.
He said that long-term solutions cannot just focus on residential and urban water use, but must include changes to how farms operate in the region.
Eighty percent of the Colorado River’s water allocation is used for agriculture and 80% of that is used for forage crops like alfalfa, Entsminger testified.
“I’m not suggesting that farmers stop farming. But rather that they carefully consider crop selection and make the investments needed to optimize irrigation efficiency,” he said.
Patrick O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance, told U.S. lawmakers that he believes water storage and improving forest health are important steps to addressing severe, ongoing drought in the West.
The Alliance formed three decades ago to “ensure the availability of reliable, affordable irrigation water supplies to Western farmers and ranchers” in 17 states.
O’Toole cautioned that taking water away from farms would increase the amount of food the United States needs to import from other countries.
“We are about to do with agriculture what we did with manufacturing and let it go overseas,” O’Toole testified.
New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich, a member of the panel, pushed back against the committee using the term drought to refer to the situation in Western states, using aridification instead.
That word refers to a region gradually moving to a drier climate, whereas drought often refers to a shorter term reduction in water.
“This is not some random event, it’s frankly a direct result of the lack of action on climate that we have seen for more than 20 years,” Heinrich said. “And we all collectively own that.”
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Here’s the release from the Central Arizona Project:
The drought on the Colorado River is critical and we recognize the importance of taking additional actions now to protect the system.
Central Arizona Project has been participating with our partners in conservation efforts to protectLake Mead since 2014. This has included voluntary contributions of funding and water, mandatory
Tier 1 reductions and actions associated with the Drought Contingency Plan and the 500+ Plan.
In 2022 alone, this equals a contribution to Lake Mead of approximately 800,000 acre-feet. In Arizona, reductions have been borne primarily by CAP water users.
Despite our very best efforts, our reservoirs have rapidly declined to record low levels. This is a serious situation and it’s clear that Colorado River Basin users need to do much more. We support
the efforts of the Bureau of Reclamation to address this concerning issue.
Collaboration has been a hallmark in Arizona and across the Basin. Now, more than ever before, it will be essential to work together as we take action to address the effects of drought and climate change throughout the Colorado River Basin system.
Click the link to read “Major water cutbacks loom as shrinking Colorado River nears ‘moment of reckoning’” on The Los Angeles Times webasite (Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:
As the West endures another year of unrelenting drought worsened by climate change, the Colorado River’s reservoirs have declined so low that major water cuts will be necessary next year to reduce risks of supplies reaching perilously low levels, a top federal water official said Tuesday.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said during a Senate hearing in Washington that federal officials now believe protecting “critical levels” at the country’s largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — will require much larger reductions in water deliveries.
“A warmer, drier West is what we are seeing today,” Touton told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “And the challenges we are seeing today are unlike anything we have seen in our history.”
The needed cuts, she said, amount to between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet next year. For comparison, California is entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year, while Arizona’s allotment is 2.8 million.
The push for a new emergency deal to cope with the Colorado River’s shrinking flow comes just seven months after officials from California, Arizona and Nevada signed an agreement to take significantly less water out of Lake Mead, and six weeks after the federal government announced it is holding back a large quantity of water in Lake Powell to reduce risks of the reservoir dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam would no longer generate electricity. 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. 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.
Click the link to read “Painful Colorado River cuts are coming, whether basin states agree or not” on the AZCentral website (Joanna Allhands). Here’s an excerpt:
The window to avoid even more painful cuts on the Colorado River just closed. The federal Bureau of Reclamation is asking states to conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water, just to keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead out of critically low territory in 2023. And we’ll need a plan to do so by mid-August when shortage levels and other important operating details for the next water year are set…
Colorado River users have about 8 weeks to decide
We’re talking a mind-boggling amount of water. That’s roughly 650 billion to 1.3 trillion gallons…
If we were to carry out every cut contemplated in the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which applies to Arizona, California and Nevada, that would amount to 1.1 million acre-feet of water. That means the full basin would need to conserve at least twice as much as the deepest levels of shortage for which our three states have planned. In the best-case scenario. And we’ll need to agree on a plan to do so in about eight weeks – or else, the feds will act for us. Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton made that clear during a June 14 Senate hearing on drought.
Finding this much water will be tough
That’s going to be tough, considering that the Lower Basin has only met about half of this year’s target under the 500-plus plan, which calls for the three states to voluntarily save 500,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead, over and above what we are mandated to cut, each year through 2026. Most of what has been saved so far this year has come from tribes, cities and farmers in Arizona. California is not yet mandated to cut its use, so it has instead decided to take its full allocation this year, plus withdraw some of the water it had previously volunteered to store in Lake Mead, to help cushion the blow of a severely curtailed State Water Project. Meanwhile, the Upper Basin has not agreed to a plan to temporarily curtail use among states. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico have been talking about conservation and demand management ideas for years, including paying folks not to use water, but have never reached consensus…
It must be noted that saving 2 million to 4 million acre-feet next year won’t rebuild Lake Mead or Lake Powell; it just keeps them from falling to the point where hydropower can no longer be generated.