In June, the Biden Administration issued what seemed like an ultimatum to the seven states dependent on Colorado River water: agree on a voluntary plan for draconian cuts in their consumption, or the federal government would impose them unilaterally.
The demand, made by Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner M. Camille Calimlim Touton during Congressional testimony, came in response to unrelenting drought and overuse of water that's driving southwestern North America toward catastrophe. The deadline was Monday, Aug. 15.
And the states failed to meet it.
The bureau has now responded with an announcement of the deepest cuts yet to deliveries of Colorado River water from Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, and changes to the operation of Lake Powell, the second largest, located upstream. The goal is to protect them — at least for now — from dropping perilously low.
“The system is approaching a tipping point, and without action we cannot protect the system,” Touton said during a news conference today.
Currently, Lake Powell is just 26 percent full, and Lake Mead is 27 percent full — both record lows. Combined storage of the major reservoirs in the upper and lower portions of the Colorado River Basin sits at just 34 percent of capacity, down from 40 percent last year, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Reclamation.
But even though the seven basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California — missed Touton's deadline to agree on voluntary deep cuts, her agency did not respond as strongly as many water experts expected.
The bureau did declare what's known as a "Tier 2" shortage in the Lower Colorado River Basin. As a result, Arizona will see a 21 percent cut in the water it ultimately gets from Lake Mead during 2023. Nevada will get an 8 percent reduction, and Mexico will see a reduction of 7 percent. But California will see no cuts at all — at least not yet.
The reductions to be borne by Arizona and Nevada amount to 617,000 acre-feet of water. That is quite significant, and it follows on from major cuts made to Arizona's water deliveries during the current year. Even so, that number doesn't come close to what Commissioner Touton had asked for back in June: basin-wide cuts of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water.
To put those numbers in perspective, consider that in all of 2021, the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico used, in total — for cities, farms and industry — about 3.5 million acre-feet.
In its announcement today, the Bureau of Reclamation touted recently passed legislation that it said will help the situation. This includes the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which provides $8.3 billion to address a number of issues nationwide, including water and drought challenges, plus $4 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act — signed into law today by President Biden.
But it was all "kind of anticlimactic" for Jennifer Gimbel, former deputy assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Department of Interior, and currently Senior Water Policy Scholar at Colorado State University's Water Center.
"It’s business as usual, but I guess we do have some money to spend," she says. "I worry that we’re spending too much on initial Band-Aids and not enough on a sustainable future."
John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and the state's lead Colorado River negotiator, was much more blunt. Here are some of the things he said in a letter he sent to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and other officials:
“Despite the obvious urgency of the situation, the last sixty-two days produced exactly nothing in terms of meaningful collective action to help forestall the looming crisis . . . We are at the stage where basin-wide every drop counts, and every single drop we are short [of the] two to four million acre-feet in permanent reductions draws us a step closer to the catastrophic collapse of the system . . ."
Way back in 1983, it probably would have been nearly impossible to imagine the challenge now faced by the 40 million people who depend on Colorado River Basin water. In that year, Lake Mead swelled so much with copious runoff that it exceeded Hoover Dam's capacity to hold it all back. As a result, torrents of water flowed into two gargantuan overflow spillways just upstream and on either side of the dam — each one designed to take in roughly the equivalent of the water flowing over Niagara Falls.
In the late 1990s, Lake Mead came close to filling that much once again. But since the year 2000, southwestern North America, including the Colorado River Basin, has been gripped by a drought so severe that scientists have called it a "megadrought."
Recent research shows that it's the worst such drought in the region for at least 1,200 years. A little more than 40 percent of its severity was attributed in the study to human-caused climate change, largely from warming temperatures that have caused increasing aridity. This is why scientists call it a "hot drought."
Even in years with reasonably decent snowpack in the mountains of the upper basin — source of most of the river's water — runoff has been relatively paltry. That's because the anomalous heat has made plants and soils so thirsty that they've sucked up moisture before it could flow into streams and rivers.
Looking to the Future
Warming is expected to intensify in coming years, so it would likely take mountain snowpack much above average for river flows to approach what they used to be. And that doesn't seem likely. So we should expect increasing aridity.
For now, the Bureau of Reclamation is acting simply to save Lakes Mead and Powell from dropping so low that water can no longer turn the turbines in the dams that produce hydropower. The bureau says it cannot let that happen because it would pose significant risks to the dams' infrastructure.
But at best, the bureau's action today will only delay the day of reckoning.
As Jennifer Gimbel puts it, "This just kicks the can down the road."