The Colorado River forecast is a bad and water cuts are expected, reports the US federal government.
As expected, the 24-month water forecast for the Colorado River Basin looks bleak with shallow reservoirs causing the first-ever Tier 2 water shortage, according to the federal US Bureau of Reclamation (BOR). Due to the ongoing 23-year megadrought, water levels in the Colorado River reservoirs, including Lake Powell and Lake Mead, stand at only 25 percent of capacity and are likely to decline in the coming months. As such, in 2023 BOR will deliver 8 percent less water to Nevada, 21 percent less to Arizona, and 7 percent less to Mexico.
The shortage declarations and reductions for these three Lower Basin jurisdictions arrive for the second consecutive year, highlighting the extremely dry conditions and dangerously low reservoir levels. Over the coming year, BOR has called for enormous reductions totaling 2-4 million acre-feet of water — or 15-30 percent of current use — within the Colorado River Basin states and Mexico. Those total curtailments add up to 721,000 acre feet of water.
This is no surprise to the Western states, as drought combined with high temperatures and climate change have caused a shift towards aridification in the Colorado River region. Yet as this aridification occurs and runoff to the reservoirs decreased, water use held steady and reservoirs were not refilled during wetter years. A recent analysis by Jack Schmidt, John Fleck and Eric Kuhn noted that since the year 2000, Colorado River water use has outstripped supply by 1.2 million acre-feet annually.
Just like the surprise is missing, so is a plan to reduce water use among the states that have, as of yet, failed to hammer out a resolution at the BOR-imposed deadline. The plan will certainly include water conservation for urban areas to achieve some gains as turf grass is removed, efficient appliances installed and water in businesses operations reused. Enlarging supplies through such technologies as stormwater capture and storage, wastewater reuse, desalination will also relieve pressure.
But the largest water savings in these arid lands will always depend on the largest water consumer: agriculture. Currently, California and Arizona farmers are wrangling over the size of payment per acre foot to make relinquishing water and fallowing their fields worthwhile. Of course, farmers know well that if there’s no wet water in the system to fill their canals, then there’s no water to irrigate, and their fields go dry anyway. As John Entsminger, general manager of Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in a roundtable discussion, “You can’t balance this on municipal users. The Ag sector, one way or another, is going to have to reduce the amount of water they’re using.”
Federal funds are on the way for water management in the Colorado River Basin and the West in general. The just-passed Inflation Reduction Act will provide $4 billion for drought mitigation, while last year’s the Infrastructure Law delivers $8.3 billion for water and power infrastructure. Undoubtedly, money is essential to meet the various Western water crises, but it must be allocated and disbursed on a regular basis, not sporadically so that funding gaps open up. Looming over money matters, and the actual water cutbacks, is the greater challenge of changing people’s mindset to value water to change the shape of how people live and produce, and what it is they grow around them.
By Kai Olson-Sawyer