Water managers across drought-stricken West agree on one thing: ‘This is going to be painful’
Water authorities in the Western U.S. don’t have a crystal ball, but rapidly receding reservoirs uncovering sunken boats and other debris lost in their depths decades ago give a clear view of the hard choices ahead.
If western states do not agree on a plan to safeguard the Colorado River — the source of the region’s vitality — there won’t be enough water for anyone.
Water managers, researchers, agricultural producers and others from across the drought-stricken river basin met in Las Vegas last month for the Colorado River Water Users Association annual convention to face hard truths about the state of the river and historically-low levels of its biggest reservoirs.
Two decades of drought and poor planning have caused the river’s biggest reservoirs — Lakes Mead and Powell — to drop to their lowest collective volume since they were filled.
“Time is not on our side. Hydrology is not on our side. That’s the frightening reality,” said Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The hydrology “is going to force us to do something because we will have no other choices. Every day that passes this problem gets harder and harder to solve.”
Water storage in Lakes Mead and Powell is at a fraction of what it was two decades ago, and could drop below what’s needed to generate power as soon as next year, said water experts.
To put it in perspective, this winter both reservoirs were about a quarter full. In December 1999, Lake Powell was at 88% capacity, and Lake Mead was at 96% capacity, according to analysts.
Lower basin states faced their first-ever federally declared water shortage, which directs how much states can draw from the Colorado River in 2021. Deeper cuts were subsequently declared this year.
Water experts say more water cuts for lower basin states are likely in 2024 due to even lower water levels.
Even further restricting water allocation “doesn’t mean the lakes won’t go lower than that,” said Ted Cooke, then the general manager for the Central Arizona Project.
If nothing is done, there is a real possibility water levels in both reservoirs will drop so low in the next two years that water will no longer flow downstream to the 40 million people in the West who rely on the Colorado River.
Faulty numbers and an over-allocated river
At the center of discussions last week was one of the most important legal documents governing how the river’s waters are shared: the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which allocated 7.5 million acre-feet for each basin, based on a faulty model that assumed the river system could supply 15 million acre-feet annually.
Today, officials acknowledge only 12.4 million acre-feet flows from the river each year, meaning western states will have to agree on massive cuts to their water supply for the sake of the river — a politically perilous decision.
Despite clear evidence of diminishing water supplies over the past century, not much has changed in terms of how states allocate and use water.
But those in charge are starting to understand that western states are getting to a tipping point that will force them to adjust their attitudes and change their consumption habits.
In June, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton issued an ultimatum to states: Develop a plan to save 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water by next year — roughly one-fifth of the water currently allocated to states—or the federal government will step in.
During a panel discussion at the convention in Las Vegas, representatives for the seven western states who rely on the Colorado River said reaching a compromise will be their collective priority for the next six months.
They agree that the longer it takes to stabilize the river and conserve the water needed to keep the river functional, the more likely reservoir levels will continue to plummet, leaving states with fewer and fewer options.
Water managers also agree that about 75% of future water cuts will need to come from lower basin states — including Arizona — to reach reductions large enough to protect critical elevations in the reservoirs.
Lower basin states — Nevada, Arizona, and California — use nearly all their 7.5 million acre-feet Colorado River allocation compared to the 4.5 million acres-feet used by the upper basin states, said water managers.
“Yes, the lower basin will have to take the lion’s share of the reductions,” said John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “I’m a big believer in the law, I’m a big believer in food security, but I’m an even bigger believer in math.”
Nevada uses only a small share of the river’s water and has made great strides in conservation, but Arizona and California are still far from a deal. Both states will need to make painful reductions and incur massive expenses to stabilize their water use, say water experts.
In December, all of Southern California was declared to be in a drought emergency by the Metropolitan Water District, the main water supplier for Los Angeles county.
Lower basin states argue that upper basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico — also need to make a firm commitment to lower their water use.
Officials for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned that aridification, the long-term shift to a drier climate, means even less snow runoff is making it to the river each year.
“It’s really hard to come up with solutions” based on who has priority water rights, said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. If cities in lower-basin states “wipe out every drop of their water, it’s still not going to stabilize the system,” said Buschatzke.
The upper basin has committed to looking into the feasibility of cutting back their water use — a move critics say amounts to “planning to make a plan.”
Upper basin states have not released an estimate of how much water they are able or willing to cut. However, the Upper Colorado River Commission says they are slowly taking steps to create a management plan with potential water cuts.
“We live within the means of the river every day,” said Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “What we like to do is under-promise and over-deliver, and make sure if there is a number out there it is a number that can actually be achieved.”
Reservoirs in upper basin states are currently providing what amounts to 19% of their annual water usage to Lake Powell, based on a 2019 drought response agreement.
“Those releases have had significant impacts, huge impacts on the local communities,” Mitchell said. “What you’re asking for is a big ask. We are willing to look at this, but we also need to look at the impacts at the same time.”
Water managers representing the four upper basin states released details of a temporary conservation plan last week.
One critical component of the plan is the reauthorization of the System Conservation Pilot Program, a program that paid water users to reduce their use, with the goal of implementing it by the summer.
It’s unclear how much water the pilot program will successfully conserve as a voluntary and temporary solution. The original program saved about 47,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of about $8.6 million over the four years.
“The System Conservation Pilot Program is called a pilot program for a reason,” said Gene Shawcroft, general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District. “We believe we will learn a lot from that. We believe that it can easily be transitioned into a management plan.”
‘This is going to be painful’
Brandon Gebhart, the top water official in Wyoming, said previous conservation programs that depend on voluntary cuts were not as effective as water managers had hoped, but a recent shift in mentality among water users could make the difference.
Another change that could make the difference is the nearly $4 billion set aside for the Colorado River that would allow the Bureau of Reclamation to pay users to voluntarily forgo water use.
“There are positives. The funding that is coming in provides opportunity. It provides the ability to change,” said Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Still, water managers say the federal government will need to invest even more money into the river.
“If you look at the federal investment in Florida, after one hurricane they got an order of magnitude more federal assistance than the entire Colorado basin is getting in the face of this crisis,” said Entsminger, the Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager.
Western states will need all the assistance they can get to find ways to run their economies with less water, and time is running out.
A recent survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation found that more than 650 farmers in 15 Western states saw a 74% reduction in harvests, and 42% switched crops due to the drought.
It took Western states five years to agree on a short-term five year plan to address the region-wide drought that is set to expire in 2026, said Entsminger.
“We don’t have five months to come up with an operation plan for 2023,” Entsminger said. “It’s time to set aside the talking points and get real.”
Climate change has shrunk the river’s flows roughly 20% in the past two decades, and scientists predict they will shrink nearly 10% more with each additional degree of temperature rise.
“We have to move quickly and we’re committed to that,” said Mitchell. “We need to accept the situation we’re in and we need to reduce demands. All of us, every sector, every state, every water user. There isn’t any other way.”
“We have to accept that we can not cling to our entitlements or allocations. If they are not there none of it matters,” Mitchell continued. “Folks in the room have to be willing to let us make hard decisions, because this is going to be painful.”