Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aaron and Becki Bryant):
The Bureau of Reclamation today released the Colorado River Basin August 2021 24-Month Study. This month’s study projections are used to set annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2022. Releases from these massive reservoirs are determined by anticipated reservoir elevations.
Most of the flow of the Colorado River originates in the upper portions of the Colorado River Basin in the Rocky Mountains. The Upper Basin experienced an exceptionally dry spring in 2021, with April to July runoff into Lake Powell totaling just 26% of average despite near-average snowfall last winter. The projected water year 2021 unregulated inflow into Lake Powell—the amount that would have flowed to Lake Mead without the benefit of storage behind Glen Canyon Dam—is approximately 32% of average. Total Colorado River system storage today is 40% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year.
Given ongoing historic drought and low runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin, downstream releases from Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam will be reduced in 2022 due to declining reservoir levels. In the Lower Basin the reductions represent the first “shortage” declaration—demonstrating the severity of the drought and low reservoir conditions.
“Like much of the West, and across our connected basins, the Colorado River is facing unprecedented and accelerating challenges,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo. “The only way to address these challenges and climate change is to utilize the best available science and to work cooperatively across the landscapes and communities that rely on the Colorado River. That is precisely the focus of the White House Interagency Drought Working Group—a multi-agency partnership created to collaborate with States, Tribes, farmers and communities impacted by drought and climate change to build and enhance regional resilience.”
“Today’s announcement of a Level 1 Shortage Condition at Lake Mead underscores the value of the collaborative agreements we have in place with the seven basin states, Tribes, water users and Mexico in the management of water in the Colorado River Basin,” said Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Camille Touton. “While these agreements and actions have reduced the risk, we have not eliminated the potential for continued decline of these critically important reservoirs. Reclamation is committed to working with all of our partners in the basin and with Mexico in continuing to implement these agreements and the ongoing work ahead.”
Plans that have been developed over the past two decades lay out detailed operational rules for these critical Colorado River reservoirs:
- Based on projections in the study, Lake Powell will operate in the Mid-Elevation Release Tier in water year 2022 (October 1, 2021 through September 30, 2022), and Lake Mead will operate in its first-ever Level 1 Shortage Condition in calendar year 2022 (January 1, 2022 through December 31, 2022).
- Lake Powell Mid-Elevation Release Tier: The study projects Lake Powell’s January 1, 2022, elevation to be 3,535.40 feet – about 165 feet below full and about 45 feet above minimum power pool. Based on this projection, Lake Powell will operate in the Mid-Elevation Release Tier in water year 2022. Under this tier, Lake Powell will release 7.48 million acre-feet in water year 2022 without the potential for a mid-year adjustment in April 2022.
- Lake Mead Level 1 Shortage Condition: The study projects Lake Mead’s January 1, 2022, elevation to be 1,065.85 feet – about 9 feet below the Lower Basin shortage determination trigger of 1,075 feet and about 24 feet below the drought contingency plan trigger of 1,090 feet. Based on this projection, Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Shortage Condition for the first time ever. The required shortage reductions and water savings contributions under the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, 2019 Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan and Minute 323 to the 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico are:- Arizona: 512,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 18% of the state’s annual apportionment
– Nevada: 21,000 acre-feet, which is 7% of the state’s annual apportionment
– Mexico: 80,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 5% of the country’s annual allotment
In July 2021, drought operations to protect Lake Powell were implemented under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement which project releasing up to an additional 181,000-acre feet of water from upstream initial units of the Colorado River Storage Project to Lake Powell.
Relying on the best available scientific information to guide operations, investing in water conservation actions, maximizing the efficient use of Colorado River water and being prepared to adopt further actions to protect the elevations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead remains Reclamation’s priority and focus.
From Audubon (Jennifer Pitt):
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation today announced that 2022 will bring unprecedented water shortages to Arizona, Nevada and the Republic of Mexico. The shortage determination follows release of a forecast of water supply in the Colorado River’s reservoirs, indicating that levels continue precipitous decline.
While last year’s snowpack was decent, extraordinarily warm temperatures through the spring meant that by the time the snow melted and flowed into Colorado River reservoirs much of it had evaporated, and the year’s water supply was only 32% of the 30-year average. Since 2000, the decline in Colorado River reservoir elevations has been dramatic, and scientists studying climate change tell us there is no end in sight.
As we watch climate change impacts unfold before our eyes, we worry about the birds and other wildlife that depend on Colorado River (and tributary) habitats. We worry about the communities that rely on Colorado River water supply. We also worry about how decision-makers will respond, because in a crisis, environmental resources will be at risk.
In recent years, the U.S. and Mexican federal governments and states that share the Colorado River have adopted shortage rules (2007 Interim Guidelines, Minute 323, Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans). That is important, because it allows water users to plan ahead for dry times with some predictability, even in extraordinary drought. Arizona, Nevada and Mexico all have known the 2021 shortage is coming. On a short-term basis, they have plans to mitigate the shortages. Arizona, which will take by far the biggest cuts, will employ diverse strategies including temporarily buying water from willing sellers (funded by Arizona taxpayers and philanthropies), increased water releases from in-state reservoirs, and increased groundwater pumping.
These are good strategies for the short-term, but what about 2023 and beyond? Historically, water management was based on the premise that drought would be followed by wet years. Climate change means we can no longer make that assumption. Good short-term solutions may not be sustainable: Will public and philanthropic funds remain available over the long term? Local reservoirs will need to be refilled with Colorado River water, so what happens once they are emptied? How long can water users rely on fossil groundwater before that resource is threatened as well?
A recent report from Audubon and conservation partners suggests that we need to start investing now in solutions for the long term, including improving forest health, wetlands restoration, and regenerative agriculture. These practices improve soil health such that over time more of the snowpack will translate into water supply as well as improved resilience of the entire watershed.
Good planning and robust investments can help minimize the pain of Colorado River water shortages, and are critical to maintaining reliable water supplies for people and nature alike. It is reassuring that the United States and Mexico have held fast to their commitments to provide a small volume of water to the Colorado River Delta, and the river has been flowing to the sea this summer.
The Colorado River is due for new operating rules in 2026, and Audubon will be working hard to ensure that the results are designed for the 21st century, starting with a process that includes all stakeholders, including Native American tribes with Colorado River water rights and environmental interests. Our goals include a new management framework that stabilizes reservoirs as the water supply declines, robust public investment in long-term strategies to improve the water supply and the basin’s resilience, measures that ensure tribes benefit from their water rights, and that decision-makers do not raid the last drops of water supporting habitats Colorado River habitats.
“deeper levels of shortage are likely in the next few years… additional reductions to CAP water users are likely to occur pursuant to the DCP. Such reductions would include impacts to CAP water currently available to some central AZ municipalities and tribes.” #AZWater #CORiver https://t.co/NFHTtB0cNp
— Carol Ward (@CWardMorris) August 16, 2021
Director Buschatzke of @azwater notes that another key trigger has been reached: Lake Mead is projected to hit 1030’. This requires AZ, CA and NV to reconvene to decide what additional steps they will take to keep Mead from falling below 1,020’. #CORiver #AZWater
— Carol Ward (@CWardMorris) August 16, 2021
From The Nature Conservancy (Lindsay Schlageter):
Due to the low levels of water, the federal government has declared a Tier 1 water shortage in the Colorado River for the first time ever. This declaration reduces the amount of water that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico can claim from the river.
“The Tier 1 shortage declaration highlights the challenges facing the Colorado River Basin; however, this did not come as a surprise,” says Taylor Hawes, The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program Director. “The Colorado River has witnessed a steady decline in flows since 2000 that impacts communities, agriculture, industry, and the health of our rivers in the region. Even as flows decreased, our demand reductions have not kept pace.”
The declaration not only reduces the amount of water available for cities, but it will likely restrict water supplies for farmers. Some farmers may be forced to sell cattle, switch to different crops, or use groundwater from wells.
Colorado River Hit Hard by Climate Change
The Colorado River provides drinking water for more than 40 million people, hydroelectric power to meet the needs of over 7 million people, and water for 30 Native American Tribes. It irrigates around 5 million acres of fields that supply vegetables to the entire world and supports a thriving $26-billion recreation and tourism economy, as well as a wide variety of wildlife.
But climate change is hitting the Colorado River hard. The West has been in the grip of a drought for over 20 years that scientists believe is the worst in a thousand years, and the river is starting to feel the pinch. Its flows are powered by snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains, and as precipitation declines across the region, the river’s supply has dwindled too. Higher year-round temperatures also mean that the water evaporates faster while water use increases. These challenges make it harder and harder to balance the needs of people and the fish and wildlife that depend on healthy, flowing rivers.
“The Colorado River can be a model for resiliency and sustainability but not without a concerted and significant effort by stakeholders in the region,” Says Hawes. “While stakeholders have been developing solutions and adapting to a drier future, we must all accelerate the pace. We need short term solutions to stabilize the system while also working on longer term solutions. These include reducing water use across sectors, modernizing infrastructure, improving forest health, enhancing natural infrastructure, using technology to bolster groundwater levels, and improving stream and river health.”
Leading on Innovative and Collaborative Solutions
Already, water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two major reservoirs that store the Colorado River’s water, are down to 34% of their capacity and may soon drop too low to spin the hydroelectric turbines in their dams. Some smaller reservoirs began emergency releases in summer 2021 to prop up water levels in these lakes.
The situation is serious, but there’s plenty we can do to improve it. We know that the West will continue to get hotter and drier due to climate change. By proactively working together and planning for this future, we can share the Colorado River’s water equitably among all those who need it, including nature. We can use water more efficiently in our homes and businesses, improve agricultural irrigation infrastructure, adopt innovative water sharing approaches, and plant crops that use less water. With proper planning, the river will have enough water for fish and animals as well as people.
“Water issues are complex and require partnership and collaboration,” says Hawes. “The Nature Conservancy has worked in the Colorado River Basin for 20 years and appreciates the critical importance of partnerships in charting a sustainable and resilient future. However, the river system has changed more quickly than we have adapted. We must accelerate our efforts and think more broadly and creatively than ever before to chart a sustainable course. We must work together, testing ideas, sharing knowledge and investing in both short-term and long-term solutions in order to have the greatest impact in a short amount of time. This approach is our best path forward to minimize more future shortages on the river.”
With our contacts in the region and our history of bringing diverse stakeholders together, TNC is ideally situated to broker agreements that keep the Colorado River healthy. In Colorado, we developed the Yampa River Fund, a compact in which downstream users pay to protect the health of their water supply near its source. In Arizona, we developed a groundwater recharge system and helped farmers switch to water-efficient crops. We helped Mexicali, Mexico, invest in wastewater treatment solutions to leave more water available for nature. We are supporting policies at local, regional, and national levels that safeguard water supplies in the arid West.
Here’s a release from the Southern Nevada Water Association (Bronson Mack):
Low water levels in Lake Mead prompted the federal government today to issue a water shortage declaration on the Colorado River, which will reduce the amount of water Southern Nevada will be allowed to withdraw from Lake Mead beginning in January 2022.
Combined with existing water reductions outlined in the Drought Contingency Plan, the declared shortage will cut Southern Nevada’s annual water allocation of 300,000 acre-feet from Lake Mead—the source of 90 percent of the community’s supply—by a total of 21,000 acre-feet (nearly 7 billion gallons of water) in 2022.
“During the past two decades, Southern Nevada has taken significant steps to prepare for these cuts, including constructing Intake 3 and Low Lake Level Pumping Station and storing unused water in reserve for our community’s future use,” said Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) General Manager John Entsminger. “But water conservation remains our most effective management tool, and now is the time for all of us to redouble our conservation efforts in order to remain ahead of the curve and continue protecting the investments we have all made in our community.”
Entsminger said Southern Nevada must continue to reduce outdoor water consumption—which accounts for about 60 percent of the region’s overall water use—by following mandatory seasonal watering restrictions, replacing unused grass landscapes with drip-irrigated trees and plants through the SNWA’s Water Smart Landscapes rebate program (WSL), and preventing and reporting water waste (water flowing off a property into the gutter) to local water utilities.
“Southern Nevada has the capability, the obligation, and the need to be the most water-efficient community in the nation,” Entsminger said. “We already safely treat, recycle and return indoor water use back to Lake Mead, so conserving the water we use outdoors will help us achieve that goal and ensure our long-term sustainability.”
While the shortage declaration is the first of its kind, it is not the first time Southern Nevada was required to reduce its water use in response to drought conditions and a hotter, drier climate. When the drought was first declared in 2002, Southern Nevada was using more than its legal entitlement of 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water. However, the community’s commitment to conservation led to a 23 percent decline in water use since 2002 despite the addition of nearly 800,000 new residents.
But conservation progress has stalled in recent years. As an example, only about half of single-family households comply with the year-round seasonal watering restrictions, which limits the number of days landscapes can be watered each season. If every water user diligently followed these restrictions each season, Southern Nevada could save more water than is being cut under the shortage conditions.
In addition, tens of millions of gallons go to waste each year as poor irrigation practices result in water flowing off properties. Reporting this waste to local water utilities helps educate property owners about the issue and gives them an opportunity to correct it. However, those that continue to waste water receive a violation and a water-waste fee.
“In the face of this unprecedented shortage, we must step-up our commitment to conservation,” Entsminger said. “These efforts are imperative to assure our community’s long-term economic success—and history has shown that they work.”
For information on what you can do to conserve water, including SNWA conservation programs, seasonal watering restrictions, and preventing and reporting water waste, visit http://snwa.com.
From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):
The federal government declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time since a compact between seven river basin was inked a century ago, with major 2022 water delivery cutbacks for Arizona and a lesser amount for Nevada and the nation of Mexico.
But water resource experts warned Coloradans not to be smug about far-away troubles in Arizona, where central state farming methods and production will take a big hit. The duty of Upper Colorado River Basin states to continue delivering set quotas of water under the treaty is one of the next big climate change battles in the West, and it will force changes here at home.
“The announcement today is a recognition that the hydrology that was planned for years ago, that we hoped we would never see, is here today,” Camille Touton, deputy commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation, said at a news conference bringing together officials from all the compact states.
“It’s really a threshold moment,” said Bart Miller, healthy rivers program director for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates. “They are words a water manager doesn’t like hearing: unprecedented, never done this before. That short-term response is a good one, but the longer term response might be most interesting.”
At the news conference Monday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officially announced what its previous reports had warned was coming: Drought and climate change have drained so much water from the Lower Basin compact states’ main pool, Lake Mead, that the most junior rights on the lower river must be suspended until supplies are restored.
“They will not be delivered the water,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona Department of Water Resources. “They will physically not have the water, and they will have to figure out how to deal with the ramifications of that outcome.”
Arizona, with primarily junior water rights for its Central Arizona Project canals that take farm water into the desert, will lose more than 500,000 acre-feet from its projected allotment for 2022. That’s about 18% of the state’s usual allotment from the Colorado River.
Nevada will lose 21,000 acre-feet, or about 7% of its planned 2022 allotment; Mexico, which has a treaty with the U.S. over Colorado River water, will lose 80,000 acre-feet, or about 5% of its annual total.
Though the 22-year drought in the West prompted years of contingency planning for the river that delivers water to 40 million people, failing snowpack and dry soils that drink up runoff have forced federal regulators to speed their efforts…
Earlier this summer, another contingency move triggered by the drops at Mead and Powell included partial draining of Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison to help refill Powell and keep its pool above the minimum level needed for generating hydroelectric power. Federal regulators also moved water down to Powell from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border, and Navajo Reservoir straddling the Colorado-New Mexico border.
All the compact states will have to contribute to solutions as the drought continues, federal and state officials warned.
“We also recognize the very real possibility that the hydrology that was planned for years ago may not be the worst that the basin may see in the future,” Touton said…
There are a few ways Colorado and federal water managers are working on to leave more water in the river, Miller said:
Improving the efficiency of agriculture — which uses 85% of the water available in Colorado — through fixing canals and ditches and moving to drip irrigation when possible. Capital costs could be funded in part by the infrastructure bill on the verge of passage by Congress, some of which was earmarked for water projects. Changing crops to those that take less water. Arizona gets criticized for using Colorado River water to irrigate cotton, alfalfa and other high-water crops in an arid climate, but most of western agriculture takes place in a high desert. Colorado farmers could switch from alfalfa and other fodder to rye or other crops. Letting water go through “demand management.” Cities have been drying up farms for their water rights for decades, raising the anger of rural Colorado. Demand management, by contrast, can rent the water from farmers for a set number of years in a given period, without drying up the land or the water rights entirely. Renting the water takes big money, though, another possible use of infrastructure stimulus. City water conservation. Front Range cities have come a long way providing household water to millions of new residents without taking more water overall, Miller said, but those efficiency gains are slowing. Still, the cities could make additional trims: Las Vegas spends large amounts buying up lawn grass and paying homeowners to keep low-water or zero-water plantings.
“There’s still more there,” Miller said.
From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
What does this water shortage mean for Colorado? Nothing, legally.
Lake Mead stores water for the states in the lower Colorado River basin — that’s Nevada, Arizona and California. Because Lake Mead has dropped below 1,075 feet, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation can mandate water cuts in Arizona and Nevada…
Currently, Colorado and this group of states are complying with the water-sharing agreement. The upper basin is not legally at fault for the low levels in Lake Mead.
“When we hear a shortage declaration, that definitely causes angst,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “But I do feel like it’s a call to action both in the upper basin and the lower basin.”
Mitchell said all of the states in the Colorado River basin are working to manage “this very precious resource,” so that federal emergency actions like this are rare.
The official shortage declaration in the lower-basin states does add pressure to renegotiations of the Colorado River’s existing management guidelines, which are set to expire in 2026.
“It is much easier to make decisions in times of plenty,” [Rebecca] Mitchell said. “But the decisions are more important in times like now, and they have a greater impact.”
From Tucson.com (Tony Davis):
But additional cuts affecting more people may be coming more quickly than anticipated until now, officials said at a news conference called to make the formal announcement of the river’s first shortage declaration.
The shortage declaration by the bureau will reduce deliveries to the Central Arizona Project by roughly one-third, or 512,000 acre-feet.
Besides farmers, these cuts will also affect some Indian tribes, “excess water” deliveries to parties who normally buy water that other users don’t have contracts for and recharge of CAP water into various underground storage basins.
The cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico together will be about 613,000 acre-feet, although California will have no cuts in 2022. An acre-foot is enough water to cover a football field one-foot deep with water. The cuts were all prescribed by the 2019 drought contingency plan, an agreement among the seven Colorado River Basin states including Arizona that sought to prop up Lakes Mead and Powell by gradually reducing the states’ take of that water when reservoirs declined to low enough elevations.
But Arizona’s water chief indicated at the news conference that to keep already ailing Lake Mead from falling too low, the three Lower Colorado River Basin states including Arizona will need to take additional water-saving actions beyond what’s already planned. That additional action is legally required under the three-state drought contingency plan, because the latest bureau forecast says it’s possible that Mead could drop to close to critically low levels by June 2023.
The state representatives have already started meeting to discuss possible future cuts, Tom Buschatzke, Arizona Department of Water Resources director, told the news conference without providing much more detail.
“The tools we have to achieve the goal are conserving more water in Lake Mead and reducing water use,” Buschatzke said. “This is a serious turn of events, not a crisis…
…at a separate news conference held after the one held by officials, a group of environmentalists and the head of a huge Southern California irrigation district blasted as grossly inadequate the efforts of federal and state officials to respond to declines in Colorado River flows that have drastically lowered its reservoirs’ water levels since 2000.
They said that despite the much-touted drought plan the basin states approved in 2019, the states and feds really don’t have a long-term plan to bring the river into balance between how much water people use and how much nature provides.
“This is not the time for small steps, this is a time for large ones,” said J.C. Hamby, director of the Imperial Irrigation District, headquartered in El Centro, California, near Yuma. “This is a tremendous problem that requires tremendous solutions, bold solutions, to respond to the continued drawdown on Powell and Mead.”
The drought contingency plan is only a plan to manage reservoir levels, not to truly adapt to long-term declines in river flows triggered by climate change and the accompanying warming weather, added Zachary Frankel, director of the Utah Rivers Council.
“There is not a climate plan for the Colorado River, it’s just the federal government and states watching the reservoir levels drop,” Frankel said.
The bureau’s CAP cuts for 2022 will take away about 60 percent of the Pinal farmers’ current CAP supplies of about 250,000 acre feet a year, said Paul Orme, a Phoenix attorney representing four Central Arizona irrigation districts. In 2023, the Pinal farmers’ share of CAP will shrink to zero, as prescribed by the 2019 drought plan, he said…
The latest bureau forecast for the end of 2022 is more dire still. The most likely lake level then will be barely above 1,050 feet, the bureau’s monthly 24-month study said. If Mead drops below 1,050 feet at the end of any calendar year, additional cuts kick in, affecting some Phoenix-area cities, Indian tribes and some industrial users, although Tucson wouldn’t be affected.
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico would lose a total of 613,000 acre-feet under that scenario, although California would lose no Colorado River water unless the lake drops below 1,045 feet…
But the bureau’s latest forecast also predicts that under the worst case climate scenario, Lake Mead could hit 1,030 feet by June 2023. If a forecast predicts the lake will fall that low within the next two years, the drought contingency plan requires the basin states to start meeting and find additional water use cuts to keep Mead.
The purpose of such cuts would be to keep Mead from dropping to 1,020 feet or below. The 1,020 foot level is five feet below the lowest level now planned for in the drought contingency plan, a level that would for the first time require cuts to Tucson’s CAP supply of 144,000 acre-feet…
The environmentalists and Hamby, however, said the reservoirs’ continued declines shows that it’s folly for Upper Basin states such as Utah and Wyoming to keep pushing to build more water diversion projects such as the Lake Powell pipeline. It would take 86,000 acre-feet a year of water — almost as much as Tucson Water customers use in a given year — from the lake to fast-growing St. George, Utah.
From The St. George Spectrum (Joan Meiners):
Cuts to Colorado River apportionments announced Monday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation triggered a new flood of protests against St. George’s Lake Powell Pipeline project, the largest proposed diversion of additional water from this river that serves the needs of 40 million people throughout the West.
“St. George is not going to get their pipeline,” said Robin Silver, a founder of the Center for Biological Diversity and a former Phoenix emergency-room physician, in a press conference hosted by environmental groups on Monday afternoon following the one held by the Bureau of Reclamation. “Whether they’re listening or not, they’re going to have no choice. But it’d be nice if they were listening so we could all figure out how to get out of this fix.”
The Lake Powell Pipeline is the Washington County Water Conservancy District’s (WCWCD) solution to the current rate of population growth outpacing its estimation of the local water supply. The project, which has been pursued by the state since the 1990s, would transport up to 28 billion gallons of water per year — enough to support around 150,000 households — from the Colorado River at Lake Powell 140 miles through the desert in a buried pipeline to Sand Hollow Reservoir for use by future St. George residents.
Despite the long history of the project and the $40 million the state of Utah has already spent on feasibility and environmental studies for it, however, the current megadrought has created a region-wide political climate where additional diversions from the Colorado River are becoming increasingly controversial.
From AZCenral.com (Ian James and Zayna Syed):
The declaration of a shortage by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has been anticipated for months and was triggered by the spiraling decline of Lake Mead, which stores water used by Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico…
Federal water managers said the first shortage declaration shows how severe the drought has become and how climate change is having serious effects on the river…
“The Bureau of Reclamation cannot control the hydrology. And we also recognize the very real possibility that the hydrology that was planned for years ago may not be the worst that the basin may see in the future,” Touton said. “This may also mean that additional actions will likely be necessary in the very near future.”
The cuts will be the largest to date on the river, shrinking the flow of water through the 336-mile Central Arizona Project Canal, which for more than three decades has supplied Arizona’s growing desert cites and vast stretches of farmlands.
Farmers in part of central Arizona will face major cutbacks in water deliveries next year, and they’re preparing for the supplies to be entirely shut off in 2023. The reductions will force growers in Pinal County to leave some fields dry and unplanted, while the state is providing funds to help local irrigation districts drill wells to pump more groundwater.
“The cutbacks are happening. The water’s not there,” said Will Thelander, whose family has been farming in Arizona for three generations. “We’ll shrink as much as we can until we go away. That’s all the future basically is.”
The announcement from the Bureau of Reclamation, which is based on projected reservoir levels over the next two years, also shows that even bigger cuts are possible in 2023 and 2024, meaning some Arizona cities could begin to see their water deliveries slashed as well.
The level of Lake Mead is projected to end the year at an elevation of 1,065 feet, putting the river’s Lower Basin in what’s called a tier-one shortage. The government’s estimates show the reservoir is likely to continue to fall in subsequent years toward lower-level shortages that would bring larger cuts.
The reductions are taking effect under a 2019 agreement called the Drought Contingency Plan, which was aimed at reducing the risks of Lake Mead falling to critical lows. But as extreme heat and unrelenting drought have persisted across much of the watershed, the levels of the Colorado’s largest reservoirs have fallen faster than had been expected.
“There’s no doubt that climate change is real. We’re experiencing it every day in the Colorado River Basin and in other basins in the West,” Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said. “I think the best strategy for planning is to think about a broad range of scenarios and a broad range of potential hydrology, and to work closely with our partners in the basin to try to think through all of those scenarios.”
The 2019 drought agreement included a backstop provision that called for the states to reconvene to consider additional measures, if necessary, to guard against the risk of Lake Mead falling to critically low levels below the elevation of 1,020 feet. Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said the state’s officials have begun to meet to discuss options with representatives of California and Nevada.
While they haven’t yet determined exactly what additional actions they may take, Buschatzke said, the possible steps include reducing the amounts taken from Lake Mead and conserving water in the reservoir…
Representatives of Nevada and California echoed that willingness to cooperate.
“We must adapt to the new reality of a warmer, drier future,” said John Entsminger of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “While the future is sobering, we are in this together.”
With Lake Mead projected to continue dropping, water researchers have also warned that the cuts agreed to under the 2019 agreement now are insufficient to deal with the severity of the situation, and that the region will soon need bigger efforts to adapt.
“We’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation. And we have to figure out how we get along with less Colorado River water coming into the state,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “I would say that everything’s on the table. How do we continue to have our cities and our economy and quality of life and prosperity on significantly less Colorado River water?”
Porter said the rapid declines of the river’s reservoirs show that the 2019 drought deal won’t be enough and that Arizona and neighboring states need to “figure out strategies to make sure that the Colorado system can stay functional” over the next several years…
Growers in Pinal County have said they may have to stop irrigating about a third of the area’s farmlands, leaving them dry and fallow…
Growers in Pinal County have known for years that their supply of CAP water would eventually be cut off, with a 2004 settlement outlining a schedule of decreasing water deliveries between 2017 and 2030. But the 2019 shortage agreement and the deteriorating conditions at Lake Mead have meant that Pinal farmers will lose their supply of Colorado River water much sooner…
Water’s retreat has accelerated
The Colorado River provides water for cities, tribal nations and about 4.5 million acres of farmland from Wyoming to the U.S.-Mexico border. About 70% of the water diverted from the river in the U.S. is used for agriculture, flowing to fields of hay and cotton, fruit orchards and farms that produce much of the country’s winter vegetables.
The watershed has been hit by one of the driest 22-year periods in centuries. Scientists describe the past two decades as a megadrought worsened by climate change, and say long-term “aridification” of the Colorado River Basin will require the region to adopt substantial changes to adapt to getting less water from the river.
In 2000, Lake Mead was nearly full. Since then, the water level in the reservoir has fallen about 147 feet, leaving a growing “bathtub ring” of minerals coating the rocky shores. The water’s retreat has accelerated over the past year during months of severe drought and extreme heat…
Arizona and Nevada took less water from the river in 2020 and 2021 under the agreement among Lower Basin states, and Mexico has been contributing water agreed under a separate accord to help the levels of Lake Mead.
California agreed to start taking cuts at a lower trigger point (1,045 feet) if the reservoir continues to fall — which the latest projections show could occur in 2024.
When the deal was signed, some of the states’ representatives described the agreement as a temporary “bridge” solution to lessen the risks of a crash and buy time through 2026, by which time new rules for sharing shortages will need to be negotiated and adopted.
Climate change ‘is making us face this reality quicker’
The deal wasn’t intended to prevent a shortage, which managers of water agencies have been expecting for the past few years. But the shortage has arrived sooner than officials and observers had hoped.
“We are in unprecedented territory,” said Haley Paul, policy director for the National Audubon Society in Arizona…
“In the end, hydrology is catching up to us and climate change is here and we’re hitting this new threshold,” Paul said. “Climate change is making us face this reality quicker than we would have otherwise. And we have no other choice but to learn to live with this smaller river.”
Scientific research has shown that the Colorado River watershed is sensitive to the higher temperatures caused by climate change, which intensify dry conditions and evaporate more moisture from the landscape. In a 2018 study, researchers found the river’s flow since 2000 had dropped 19 percent below the average of the past century, and that about half of the trend of decreasing runoff was due to unprecedented warming in the river basin.
Paul said the shortage might spur more water-efficiency innovation on top of what’s already been done, or more cultivation of crops that require less water.
“Does this shift how we farm? Both in the crops and the traditional ways of farming?” Paul said. “I think that it’s an opportunity for sure.”
One such crop is guayule, a shrub that tire manufacturer Bridgestone has been paying some farmers to grow while researching the crop as a new source of natural rubber for tires. Thelander said he’s one of two growers in his area who are experimenting with guayule, which requires much less water than cotton or alfalfa.
Dixon said he thinks there’s still a future for agriculture in Arizona if farmers make water-saving changes, like switching to drip irrigation, planting less water-intensive crops and improving management of watersheds. Dixon said he already has drip irrigation installed on some of his cotton fields, which he leases to another farmer, and plans to convert the remaining 120 acres to a drip system to save more water.
Cities face no cutbacks for now
Under a shortage, Arizona faces the largest reductions of any state.
Arizona gets about 36% of its water from the Colorado River, while other sources include groundwater and rivers such as the Salt and Verde. The state next year will lose 18% of its supplies from the Colorado River.
Arizona’s plan for dealing with the shortages involves deliveries of “mitigation” water to help temporarily lessen the blow for some farmers and other entities, as well as payments for those that contribute water. The state and CAP officials approved more than $100 million for these payments, with much of the funds going to the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community for water they contributed…
The river’s shrinking flows have coincided with warnings from experts about insufficient water supplies for some of Arizona’s growing cities and suburbs.
Porter and fellow ASU researcher Kathleen Ferris said in a recent report that Arizona doesn’t have adequate measures in place to sustain groundwater, and that the state’s existing laws have allowed for unsustainable over-pumping in many areas. They said state leaders should reform the groundwater rules to safeguard these finite water reserves.
The state’s water agencies have for years been storing some imported Colorado River water in underground aquifers with the aim of using these reserves in the future when needed. The water has flowed into a network of basins, where the water has soaked down to recharge aquifers. The reductions in deliveries through the CAP Canal, however, have eliminated water that would have been available for replenishing groundwater…
Managers of the Arizona Department of Water Resources have also sought to halt approvals for new development dependent on groundwater in Pinal County.
In 2019, the agency’s officials said their data showed the county doesn’t have enough groundwater to provide for all of its planned subdivisions over the coming decades. And during a meeting this June, Deputy Director Clint Chandler laid out the agency’s position: “The days of utilizing native groundwater for development in Pinal are over. It’s done.”
He said ADWR won’t approve new “assured water supply” applications for development reliant on groundwater in Pinal. Those who want to develop in Pinal, he said, “will need to bring their own, non-groundwater supplies.”
In Pinal and other areas, new subdivisions have often been built on former agricultural land. Porter said farmers in Pinal have been “waking up to the fact” that if they heavily draw down the groundwater in the years to come, that could lead to long-term declines in the value of their land…
A new approach to managing the river?
The sorts of struggles that farmers are facing in Pinal could soon spread to other parts of the Southwest.
Paul said dealing with the new reality on the Colorado River will require looking at a wide range of short-term and long-term approaches for adapting to less water, and also examining in detail how severe the shortages might become as negotiations move forward on plans for new rules after 2026…
And while this summer’s monsoon rains have brought flooding and a burst of green vegetation in the Arizona desert, much of the Colorado River watershed remains in an extreme drought.
To address the chronic water deficit on the Colorado River, managers of water agencies have been discussing a variety of other possible steps, such as investing in more wastewater recycling and desalination, and scaling up programs that pay farmers to temporarily leave some fields dry.
But critics have argued that the Colorado River needs to be managed differently as climate change and drought take a worsening toll on the watershed…
“You have this largest reservoir in the nation going empty. There is more water coming out than there is going in,” said J.B. Hamby, vice president of California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which holds the largest single water entitlement on the river.
“Things like continued sprawl, demands for new sources of water being taken from this declining stream, which is the Colorado River, does not make sense when we’re dealing with what could be potentially catastrophic,” Hamby said.
He said everyone needs to recognize the Colorado River is now in “an era of limits” that requires everyone along the river to understand that water use must be limited. He and others stressed that the water level at Lake Mead has been getting closer to 895 feet, a point called “dead pool” at which water would no longer pass at Hoover Dam.
Here’s a release from the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project:
The Colorado River Basin continues to experience drought and the impacts of hotter and drier conditions. Based on the Jan. 1 projected level of Lake Mead at 1,065.85 feet above sea level, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior has declared the first-ever Tier 1 shortage for Colorado River operations in 2022.
This Tier 1 shortage will result in a substantial cut to Arizona’s share of the Colorado River – about 30% of Central Arizona Project’s normal supply; nearly 18% of Arizona’s total Colorado River supply; and less than 8% of Arizona’s total water use. Nearly all the reductions within Arizona will be borne by Central Arizona Project (CAP) water users. In 2022, reductions will be determined by Arizona’s priority system – the result will be less available Colorado River water for central Arizona agricultural users.
While Arizona will take the required mandatory reductions under a Tier 1 shortage, the reductions to CAP water users will be partially mitigated by resources that have been set aside in advance for this purpose.
“The 2019 Drought Contingency Plan put in place agreements and Arizona water users have taken collective action to mitigate reduced CAP water for affected municipalities, tribes and CAP agriculture,” said Ted Cooke, general manager, Central Arizona Project. “These DCP near-term actions will provide relief from reductions that will occur in 2022 as a result of a Tier 1 shortage.”
Given the recent intensification of the drought, deeper levels of shortage are likely in the next few years. As impacts of drought persist, additional reductions to CAP water users are likely to occur pursuant to the DCP. Such reductions would include impacts to CAP water currently available to some central Arizona municipalities and tribes.
The near-record low runoff in the Colorado River in 2021 significantly reduced storage in Lake Powell. The reduction in storage, combined with projections for future months, has triggered provisions of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan designed to protect critical elevations in Lake Powell and Lake Mead through additional collective actions.
“ADWR and CAP are working collaboratively with Arizona stakeholders and the Basin States to deploy more adaptive measures consistent with the Drought Contingency Plan and associated agreements,” said Tom Buschatzke, director, Arizona Department of Water Resources. “At the same time, ADWR and CAP will continue to work with partners within Arizona and across the Basin to develop and implement longer-term solutions to the shared risks we all face on the Colorado River now and into the future.”
Buschatzke continued, “We in Arizona have acted and will continue to act to protect the water resources of our state and of the Colorado River system overall.”