SALT LAKE CITY — Banks along parts of the Colorado River where water once streamed are now just caked mud and rock as climate change makes the Western U.S. hotter and drier.
More than 20 years of drought has done little to stop the region’s habitual practice of diverting water from its rivers. This is threatening water supply and hydropower generation, as well as key reservoirs.
Cities and farms in seven U.S. states are bracing for cuts this week as officials stare down a deadline to propose unprecedented reductions to their use of the water, setting up what’s expected to be the most consequential week for Colorado River policy in years.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in June told the states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — to determine how to use at least 15% less water next year, or have restrictions imposed on them. The bureau is also expected to publish hydrology projections that will trigger additional cuts already agreed to.
“The challenges we are seeing today are unlike anything we have seen in our history,” Camille Touton, the bureau’s commissioner, said at a U.S. Senate hearing.
Tensions over the extent of the cuts and how to spread them equitably have flared, with states pointing fingers and stubbornly clinging to their water rights despite the looming crisis.
” It’s hard to sit around and figure out who will sacrifice what amount,” stated Bill Hasencamp (the Colorado River resource manager at Metropolitan Water District), which supplies water for most of Southern California.
Representatives from the seven states convened in Denver last week for last minute negotiations behind closed doors. Officials party to discussions said the most likely targets for cuts are Arizona and California farmers. These states’ agricultural districts are seeking generous payments to help them shoulder this burden.
But the tentative agreements fall short of what the Bureau of Reclamation has demanded and state officials say they hope for more time to negotiate details.
The Colorado River flows from the Rocky Mountains to the deserts of Southwest. It’s the primary water supply for 40 million people. About 70% of its water goes toward irrigation, sustaining a $15 billion-a-year agricultural industry that supplies 90% of the United States’ winter vegetables. The water from the river is split between Mexico and seven U.S. States under agreements dating back to the past century. This was at a time when there were more people.
But the hydrology of the river has changed due to climate change. The river is now receiving less snowmelt, and is experiencing higher temperatures and greater evaporation. The states agreed to cut water supplies based on the water levels in their reservoirs.
Last Year, federal officials declared a water crisis. This triggered cuts in Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico’s shares of the river. These were to prevent Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the largest reservoirs, from eroding enough to cause hydropower production to cease. The proposals for supplemental cuts this week caused disagreement among the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, as well as lower basin states Arizona, California, Nevada, and Nevada over how to distribute the pain.
The lower basin states use most of the water and have thus far shouldered most of the cuts. The upper basin states have historically not used their full allocations but want to maintain water rights to plan for population growth.
Gene Shawcroft is the chair of Utah’s Colorado River Authority. He believes that the lowest basin states should receive the most cuts since they consume the most water and have the highest allocations.
He said it was his job to protect Utah’s allocation for growth projected for decades ahead: “The direction we’ve been given as water purveyors is to make sure we have water for the future.”
In a letter last month, representatives from the upper basin states proposed a five-point conservation plan they said would save water, but argued most cuts needed to come from the lower basin. However, the plan did not commit to specific numbers.
” The focus of the plan is to put the tools in place, and work with water users, rather than projecting a number,” Chuck Cullom (executive director, Upper Colorado River Commission) told The Associated Press.
That position, however, is unsatisfactory to many in lower basin states already facing cuts.
“It’s going to come to a head particularly if the upper basin states continue their negotiating position, saying, ‘We’re not making any cuts,'” said Bruce Babbitt, who served as Interior secretary from 2003-2011.
Lower basin states have yet to go public with plans to contribute, but officials said last week that the states’ tentative proposal under discussion fell slightly short of the federal government’s request to cut 2 to 4 million acre-feet.
An acre-foot of water is enough to serve 2-3 households annually.
Hasencamp, the Metropolitan Water District’s Colorado River resource manager, said all the districts in California that draw from the river had agreed to contribute water or money to the plan, pending approval by their respective boards. The Imperial Irrigation District and other water districts have insisted that no voluntary reduction must reduce their priority water rights.
Southern California cities will likely provide money that could fund fallowing farmland in places like Imperial County and water managers are considering leaving water they’ve stored in Lake Mead as part of their contribution.
Arizona is likely to be hard hit by reductions. Many of these cuts have been borne by the state in recent years. It has less flexibility than other states to absorb more because of its population growth and strong agricultural industry. In Arizona, some Native American tribes have contributed in the past to Lake Mead’s preservation. They could be a significant part of any future proposal.
Irrigators around Yuma, Arizona, have proposed taking 925,000 acre-feet less of Colorado River water in 2023 and leaving it in Lake Mead if they’re paid $1. 4 billion, or $1,500 per acre-foot. The cost is far above the going rate, but irrigators defended their proposal as fair considering the cost to grow crops and get them to market. Wade Noble is the coordinator of a coalition representing Yuma water rights owners. He said that it was the only public proposal that included actual cuts and not theoretical reductions to the allocations made on paper.
Some of the compensation-for-conservation funds could come from a $4 billion in drought funding included in the Inflation Reduction Act under consideration in Washington, U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona told the AP.
Sinema acknowledged that paying farmers to conserve is not a long-term solution: “In the short-term, however, in order to meet our day-to-day needs and year-to-year needs, ensuring that we’re creating financial incentives for non-use will help us get through,” she said.
Babbitt acknowledged that legislation won’t “miraculously fix the problem”. He said water prices must be fair to prevent gouging, as most water users are likely to be affected.
“There’s no way that these cuts can all be paid for at a premium price for years and years,” he said.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. From Sacramento, California, Kathleen Ronayne was the Associated Press reporter.
The post Deadline for Drought-Stricken States to Cut Water Use was first published on Associated Press .