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Feds will cut states' access to Colorado River water
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Feds will cut states' access to Colorado River water

  • Lake Powell, fed by the Colorado River, is at a critically low level. Federal water officials said Western states will face mandatory cuts to the river’s water access next year.
    Jay Huang|CC BY 2.0Lake Powell, fed by the Colorado River, is at a critically low level. Federal water officials said Western states will face mandatory cuts to the river’s water access next year.

Top federal water officials are warning Western states that there will be cuts to their access to Colorado River water next year.

With most of the West in severe drought, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told a U.S. Senate panel this week that cuts are going to be necessary for the water system that serves 40 million people. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, two massive reservoirs fed by the Colorado River, are at critically low levels.

“A warmer, drier West is what we are seeing today,” Touton testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “This Friday, [the Bureau of] Reclamation will celebrate 120 years since we were created by Congress, and the challenges we are seeing today are unlike anything we have seen in our history.”

The cuts could be drastic, she warned, reducing Colorado River water access by between 2 and 4 million acre-feet across seven states that rely on it—close to the 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water California is entitled to annually. Arizona, by contrast, is entitled to 2.8 million acre-feet of Colorado River water every year.

This comes as California water officials announced statewide cuts to water use, asking communities to implement conservation programs to stave off a water crisis. In Southern California, water authorities are restricting residents to watering their home lawns once or twice a week, while also encouraging residents to invest in new, low-flow appliances and climate-appropriate yard plants.

The federal government already is limiting the amount of water states can draw from Lake Powell, as water levels get so low that hydroelectric dams might no longer work. Touton told senators that federal officials have the power to “unilaterally” cut access to the Colorado River to protect the broader water system. However, she said she hopes states will act on their own before then.

As the West gets warmer and drier, reservoir levels will continue to drop precipitously. Communities will rely more heavily on pumping ever-dwindling wells. Seeing this, some communities have made historic investments in water recycling, water recapture and desalination projects to make up the difference.

But water experts say residents also must cut their water use, and water authorities at all levels of government need to reexamine the agriculture industry’s access to the West’s limited water system. Agriculture makes up around 80% of water use in the West.

Earlier this month, California water regulators ordered farmers, agricultural irrigation districts and cities to stop diverting water from the San Joaquin River, a significant move for a river system that goes through the heart of California’s agricultural region.

Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

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