Feds Predictably Declare Record Shortage on the Colorado River

Water scarcity on the River means deeper cuts are coming.

Today, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) released their Colorado River forecast and operating guidelines for the next two years—they confirmed that the situation on the Colorado River has never been more dire. USBR Commissioner Camille Touton told a Senate committee that the states would need a plan for next year to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet above and beyond existing regulations and commitments to protect the Colorado River system, and that if the states do not land on a plan the federal government will use its authorities to make the cuts unilaterally. This matters because 40 million people and more than 400 bird species rely on this river.

This news is both shocking and not shocking: shocking, because 2 – 4 million acre-feet is an extraordinarily large volume of water, about 30% of the typical annual consumptive uses of Colorado River water; and not shocking, because since 2000, the Colorado River’s enormous reservoirs have declined by an average of 2 million acre-feet per year. For two decades water demands have exceeded supply, and now the reservoirs are drained. The states have yet to agree to such a plan.

With today’s announcement, USBR will operate the Lower Basin in a Tier 2 shortage (as defined in the 2007 Interim Guidelines for Colorado River Operations and Minute 323 adopted in 2017) come January 2023 which means that the Lower Basin, including the Republic of Mexico, will implement their largest ever required reductions in water use:

  • Arizona by 592,000 acre-feet (more than 20% of its full allocation)
  • Nevada by 25,000 acre-feet (more than 8% of its full allocation, but Nevada has invested significantly in water conservation, and has not used its full allocation in many years)
  • Mexico by 104,000 acre-feet (nearly 7% of its treaty allocation)

At the Tier 2 shortage level California is not required to reduce Colorado River water uses, and the Upper Basin States of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are not required to reduce uses under existing operating rules.

To meet the Commissioner’s call to action, more cuts will be needed to avoid great peril, as the water in America’s largest reservoirs—Lake Mead and Lake Powell—will continue to disappear, edging closer to the day they can no longer release water downstream and threatening both water and energy security for tens of millions of people in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.

As stated yesterday in a letter from John Entsminger, General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, to the Secretary of Interior and other federal leaders, “The Law of Mass Balance dictates that the Colorado River cannot provide enough water for the current level of use. The magnitude of the problem is so large that every single water user in every single sector must contribute solutions to this problem regardless of the priority system. The math is simple, even if the law and the politics are not."

Short-term reductions in water use are non-negotiable, because carrying on as usual risks collapse of the Colorado River’s reservoirs. If agreements cannot be made, USBR and the federal government will have to decide—and implement—the best path forward.

One piece of good news that will help the Colorado River is the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $4 billion for Western drought and climate resilience. These funds will be available to: compensate agricultural and municipal water users to voluntarily reduce water consumption – leaving more water in rivers and reservoirs; advance projects that conserve water for other water users or environmental water needs; and restore habitats impacted by drought. It’s an unprecedented amount of funding for an unprecedented problem, but if it is spent primarily on 2023 reductions in water use its impact will be short-lived.

In the face of a hotter and drier climate, funding will be needed to improve climate resilience in the Colorado River Basin, including durable investments that reduce water use for the long term, improve watershed health in the face of increased fires, and enable drought-tolerant agricultural practices. Durable investments will also be needed to help the birds and other wildlife dependent on Colorado River habitats including Upper Basin headwaters and tributaries, the Grand Canyon, the Lower Colorado River mainstem, the Salton Sea, and the Colorado River Delta. The costs of climate change are beginning to reveal themselves.