US West faces reckoning over water but avoids cuts for now
Water levels are dropping and a warning that the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River face a much drier future.
August 17, 2020
The white rings that wrap around two massive lakes in the U.S. West are a stark reminder of how water levels are dropping and a warning that the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River face a much drier future.
Amid prolonged drought and climate change in a region that’s only getting thirstier, when that reckoning will arrive — and how much time remains to prepare for it — is still a guess.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released projections Friday that suggest Lake Powell and Lake Mead will dip 16 feet and 5 feet, respectively, in January from levels recorded a year earlier. Despite the dip, Lake Mead would stay above the threshold that triggers severe water cuts to cities and farms, giving officials throughout the Southwest more time to prepare for the future when the flow will slow.
“It’s at least a couple of decades until we’re saying, ‘We don’t have one more drop for the next person that comes here,’” said Ted Cooke, general manager of Central Arizona Project, the canal system that delivers river water. “But people certainly ought to be aware that water — the importation of a scarce commodity into a desert environment — is expensive and, with climate change, going to get even more expensive.”
The Colorado River supplies Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico. Its water pours out of faucets in growing cities like Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix and nourishes enough farmland to yield 15% of total U.S. crop output and 13% of livestock production.
Last year, with increasingly less water flowing to Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two largest man-made reservoirs in the United States — Arizona, California and Nevada agreed to a drought contingency plan that built in voluntary cuts to prevent the reservoirs from dropping to dangerous levels. The other states historically haven’t used their full allocation of water and focus on keeping Lake Powell full enough to generate hydropower.
Nevada and Arizona will make those voluntary cuts under the new projections, which they also made last year for the first time. But because neither state is using its full share of water, the impact has been minimal and hasn’t trickled down to homes. Mexico also is facing another round of cuts.
Lake Mead’s expected level of 1,089 feet is almost identical to last year’s projections because conservation efforts and a snowy winter prevented an expected drop, said Michael Bernardo, Bureau of Reclamation river operations manager. The wet weather didn’t last, prompting engineers to forecast the lakes will keep receding.
When projections drop below 1,075 feet, Nevada and Arizona will face deeper cuts mandated by agreements between the seven states and Mexico.
“The future of the river is going to be drier than the past. All the climate models and the current drought suggest that,” said Colby Pellegrino, Southern Nevada Water Authority’s deputy general manager of resources. “Every sector is going to have to learn how to do more with less.”