EXPLAINER: Winners, losers in water cuts for Western states

EXPLAINER: Winners, losers in water cuts for Western states

WASHINGTON — People in Arizona and Nevada won’t face bans on watering their lawns or washing their cars despite water shortages on the Colorado River.

But officials said Tuesday there will still be less water available next year from the river that serves 40 million people in the West and Mexico. According to observers, a reckoning will still be needed for this growing area.

New cuts will continue to build upon this year’s decreases, which almost eliminated central Arizona farmers’ Colorado River water supply. Nevada’s and Mexico’s shares were reduced in a lesser degree.

Tuesday’s decision and what was left out point to growing uncertainty in the West.

Lake Mead (the largest reservoirs along the Colorado River) is about 25% full. This threatens water supply and hydroelectric power generation for millions.

At the edge of the reservoirs, “bathtub rings,” made up of mineral deposits, mark the spot where the water level was once. This highlights the problems the West faces as it tightens its grip in the area.

A look at the West’s water crisis.


Arizona was hardest hit, again, and will receive 79% of its total share next year. But that’s only 3% less than what it got this year, after federal officials slashed its supply.

Nevada will receive about 92% of its total supply next year. The state’s use of its entire Colorado River allocation and water conservation will ensure that most residents won’t feel the cut.

California has been spared from cuts because it has more senior water rights than Arizona and Nevada.

Mexico will get roughly 93% of its total supply. The water is used in cities and farming communities in Northwestern Mexico, where a severe drought is taking place, too.


Central Arizona farmers, who are among the largest in the production of cattle, milk, wheat, and alfalfa, saw their water supply cut last year after the government declared its first drought. Some farmers received water compensation through agreements with Phoenix and Tucson.

More farmers will likely need to fallow land — which some of the region’s farmers have been paid to do — and rely even more on groundwater. Other farmers will need to plant more water-efficient plants and look for other methods to conserve water.

Western water providers have prepared for these shortages by diversifying their water supplies and conserving them. It will be difficult to plan for the future if there are frequent cuts in water supply amid an intensifying drought.

Phoenix, the nation’s 5th largest city, will lose some of the water it would otherwise store in underground basins as a water savings account, said Cynthia Campbell, the city’s water resource management advisor. This happened also this year. The city will rely more on the in-state Salt and Verde rivers, which boost its Colorado River supplies. Campbell stated that cuts to the city’s budget will have no impact on its residents next year.

Meanwhile, Nevada recycles the majority of the water used indoors and doesn’t use all of its Colorado River water. Residents will not feel the effects of next year’s water cuts.


Lake Mead provides water for millions in Arizona, California and Nevada.

Cuts for 2023 are triggered when predicted water levels fall below a certain threshold — 1,050 feet (320 meters) above sea level.

Additional cuts will be triggered when projected levels sink to 1,045 and 1,025 feet (319 and 312 meters). At a certain point, water levels could drop so low that water can no longer be pumped from the reservoir.

Eventually, some city and industrial water users will be affected.

Lake Powell is also declining and remarkable steps have been taken in order to preserve water at the Arizona-Utah border.

After the lake fell low enough to threaten the roughly 5 billion kilowatt hours of energy generated each year at the Glen Canyon Dam, federal officials said they would hold back some water to ensure it could still produce energy. The dam produces enough electricity to power between 1 million and 1. 5 million homes each year.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming get water from tributaries and other reservoirs that feed into Lake Powell. Water from three reservoirs in those states has been drained in recent years to maintain water levels at Lake Powell and protect the electric grid powered by the Glen Canyon Dam.


Water in Lake Powell and Lake Mead is divided up by legal agreements between the Colorado River basin states and the federal government. The agreements determine how much water each entity gets, when cuts are triggered and the order in which the parties have to sacrifice some of their supply.

Arizona, Nevada and California agreed under a 2019 disaster contingency plan to share water in order to preserve Lake Mead’s water level. This year’s cuts are part of that plan — and as a result, they were predicted by states and others.


Deep water cuts are even more severe. In June, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation told the basin states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — to figure out a plan to use at least 15% less water from the river next year — to prevent reservoir levels from dropping even further.

The deadline to reach that deal has passed and states failed to reach an agreement. On Tuesday, federal officials did not specify how long it would take for states to come up with an agreement.


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