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Colorado River from space
Credit: European Space Agency

Policy & Politics

Crunch Time For Colorado River As Federal Government Ponders Mandatory Cuts

The extensive drought in the American Southwest has lowered the flow of water in the Colorado River to a fraction of normal.

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The Colorado River provides water to more than 25 million Americans and irrigates much of the farmland in the southwest part of the country. But there’s not as much water flowing in the Colorado River as there once was, which means the water level in Lake Powell and Lake Mead may soon be so low that they become “dead pools,” meaning water won’t be able to flow downstream from the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams.

According to the Washington Post, state and federal authorities say that years of overconsumption are colliding with the stark realities of climate change and may create a “complete doomsday scenario” for the Colorado River. The water managers responsible for divvying up the Colorado River’s dwindling supply are painting a bleak portrait of a river in crisis, warning that unprecedented shortages could be coming to farms and cities in the West and that old rules governing how water is shared will have to change.

A Call To Act

The federal government has called on the seven Western states that rely on Colorado River water to cut usage by 2 to 4 million acre-feet — up to a third of the river’s annual average flow — to try to avoid such dire outcomes. But the states have so far failed to reach a voluntary agreement on how to make that happen. As a result, the Interior Department may be forced to impose unilateral cuts in coming months.

“Without immediate and decisive actions, elevations at Lake Powell and Mead could force the system to stop functioning,” Tommy Beaudreau, the Interior Department’s deputy secretary, told a conference of Colorado River officials on December 16. “That’s an intolerable condition that we won’t allow to happen.”

Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which delivers Colorado River water to central Arizona, said that “there’s a real possibility of an effective dead pool” within the next two years. That means water levels could fall so far that the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams — which created the reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead — would become an obstacle to delivering water to cities and farms in Arizona, California, and Mexico. “We may not be able to get water past either of the two dams in the major reservoirs for certain parts of the year,” Cooke said. “This is on our doorstep.”

The annual meeting of state, tribal, and federal water managers in Las Vegas was sold out this year for the first time ever as the specter of mass shortages looms. “I can feel the anxiety and the uncertainty in this room and in the basin,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation.

The negotiators will have to weigh cuts in rapidly growing urban areas against those in farming communities that produce much of the country’s supply of winter vegetables. In the complex world of water rights, farms often have priority over cities because they’ve been using river water longer. Unlike in past negotiations, water managers now expect that cuts will affect even the most senior water users.

The federal government set an August deadline for the states to reach a voluntary agreement on cuts, but that deadline passed with no agreement reached. Some state officials blame the Biden administration for shrinking from its obligation to impose cuts in water supply. If the federal government wasn’t prepared to act, the states decided they didn’t need to either.

Now the Biden administration has launched a new environmental review for distributing Colorado River supplies in low-water scenarios. Water managers hope to have more clarity on what states can offer by the end of January. By summer, the federal government is expected to define its authority to impose unilateral cuts.

The Fate Of The Colorado River Is No Surprise

The problems on the river have been building for years. Over the past two decades, during the most severe drought for the region in centuries, Colorado River basin states have taken more water out of the river than it has produced, draining the reservoirs that act as a buffer during low water years. The average annual flow of the river during that period has been 13.4 million acre-feet, while users are pulling out an average of 15 million acre-feet per year, said James Prairie, research and modeling group chief at the Bureau of Reclamation.

In 1999, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the country, held 47.6 million acre-feet of water. That has fallen to about 13.1 million acre-feet, or 26% of their capacity. Federal officials have projected that, as soon as July, the level in Lake Powell could fall to the point where the hydroelectric plant inside the Glen Canyon Dam could no longer produce power and then keep falling so that it would become impossible to deliver the quantities of water that Southwest states rely on. Water managers say such a “dead pool” is also possible on Lake Mead within two years. “These reservoirs have served us for 23 years, but we’re now pushing them to their limits,” Prairie said.

David Palumbo, the Bureau of Reclamation’s deputy commissioner of operations, stressed that the effects of climate change — a hotter and drier West, where the ground absorbs more runoff from mountain snow before it reaches the reservoirs — means the past is no longer a useful guide to the future of the river. Even high snow years are now seeing low runoff, he said. “That runoff efficiency is critical to be aware of and, frankly, to be afraid of,” he said.

Water managers say cuts are likely to hit hard in Arizona and California, where major farming regions consume big portions of the available supply. These states, which get water after it passes through Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, also face the greatest risk if the reservoirs fall to dangerous levels, said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “If you can’t get water through Hoover Dam, that’s the water supply for 25 million Americans,” he said.

No Water Anywhere

This is a certified, full blown mess. No water to bathe, flush toilets, irrigate crops, or supply industrial facilities? How in the world are people going to adapt to that? The American Southwest — including Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles — only exist because of the water they receive from the Colorado River. Much of the food Americans expect to find at the grocery store is grown using Colorado River water. People who can’t bathe, flush, or find fresh food will not be happy. In addition, both the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams produce lots of hydroelectric power. What happens to the power grids in the the Southwest when that electricity is no longer available? The political fallout from this could be enormous, and yet what can be done?

The federal government, despite its arsenal of powers, can’t end a drought or cause reservoirs to magically refill themselves. In many respects, the water crisis is a perfect analogy for the global warming emergency. Scientists have been telling us for almost 50 years that the emissions from burning fossil fuels will lead to the kinds of long term drought that is affecting the Southwest today. And yet, we tossed off all the warnings and continued to do what we have always done, only more so. In total, there have been more carbon emissions since Dr. James Hansen first warned Congress about climate change than during the entire Industrial Revolution up to that point.

Don’t Say We Weren’t Warned

The warnings about low water levels in the Colorado River have been coming for years. John Fleck, the director of the Water Resource Program at the University of New Mexico, and Brad Udall, a professor at Colorado State University, penned an article in the May 28, 2021 issue of Science Magazine that warns about the danger of a decreasing in water flow in the Colorado River. In their treatise, they refer to the work of E. C. LaRue, a hydrologist at the United States Geological Survey, who analyzed the Colorado River Basin 100 years ago and concluded the river could not reliably meet future water demands. “No one heeded his warning,” Fleck and Udall write. “One hundred years later, water flow through the Colorado River is down by 20% and the basin’s Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the nation’s two largest reservoirs — are projected to be only 29% full by 2023.”

One hundred years we have had to recognize the impending crisis and take steps to manage it. As a society, we refused. We went about our daily business, secure in the belief that nothing bad could ever happen to us and that nature would always see to our every needs. It is that sort of magical thinking that will lead inexorably to the extinction of the human race. We have the power to change in our hands, but refuse to use it for political or economic reasons. But the natural world does not care about our petty concerns. Our epitaph, when it is finally written, will say, “They knew what they were doing was suicidal but they did it anyway. RIP, homo sapiens.”

Featured image credit: European Space Agency

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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