The Federal Bureau of Reclamation Announces Reduced Water Cuts for Colorado River States

Federal officials announced Tuesday they would be easing water cuts on the Colorado River next year following a wet winter that has now given the Southwest some breathing room as users continue to negotiate long-term solutions to the region’s drought.

The announcement from the Bureau of Reclamation affects only the water allotments for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, with each being cut by 18 percent, 7 percent and 5 percent, respectively. The agency’s modeling projecting water levels allow for the Colorado River Basin to reenter a Level 1 shortage condition next year. This year, the Basin was in a Level 2 shortage condition, with Arizona, Nevada and Mexico all receiving substantial water supply cuts that resulted in this year’s water releases from Lake Mead being the lowest recorded in 30 years.

States, tribes and the federal government have been negotiating both short- and long-term guidelines to shore up the Colorado River system in response to over 20 years of drought and decades of overuse of the river’s water. Millions of people across the Southwest rely on the water and electricity the river generates, and the river has allowed the region to build a multibillion-dollar farming industry.

“The above-average precipitation this year was a welcome relief, and coupled with our hard work for system conservation, we have the time to focus on the long-term sustainability solutions needed in the Colorado River Basin,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton in a statement. “However, Lake Powell and Lake Mead—the two largest reservoirs in the United States and the two largest storage units in the Colorado River system—remain at historically low levels.”

But the projections will drive decisions for just one year, said Taylor Hawes, the Colorado River Program director with the Nature Conservancy, who added that the models tend to lean toward optimism. “One good year is just a reprieve,” she said. “It’s not solving the challenges in the Colorado River Basin.”

Reclamation is still evaluating proposals for how to adjust Colorado River system operations during shortages, which would replace current guidelines until 2026. Earlier this year the seven Colorado River basin states agreed to a proposal that would conserve at least 3 million acre feet until 2026, all of which would come from cuts in the allocations to the Lower Colorado Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

This summer, Reclamation began the formal process to create the guidelines that will direct management of the river after 2026, revisiting existing guidelines for drought conditions and more. The deadline passed Tuesday for public comments on the bureau’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for post-2026 operations.

The bulk of the cuts both this year and next fall on Arizona.  The Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile-long system that delivers Colorado River water to around 80 percent of the state’s population, expects to deliver less than 800,000 acre feet in 2023 and 2024—less than half of what it has historically been allocated—due to cuts to its allotment and conservation efforts in Arizona. 

“This year’s good snowpack and runoff, coupled with significant additional conservation by Lower Basin users, improved conditions in the Colorado River Basin and will provide stability for the next few years,” the CAP officials said in a memo on the announcement. “However, more needs to be done to ultimately stabilize the system.”

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Without garnering commitments to conserve water from Arizona and Nevada, Reclamation may not have reduced the shortage, Koebele said.

The nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are still just 36 percent full, collectively, and officials and experts have worried over the past year that they could reach water levels so low that they are no longer able to generate the electricity that roughly 4 million Westerners rely on or even flow past their dams to provide water for drinking and irrigating crops. 

This year’s wet winter has staved off that risk—for now. But water levels are still low and could easily fall back to where they were last summer.

“Climate change gives us very little breathing room to refill reservoirs,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of Great Basin Water Network, an organization focused on freshwater issues in Nevada and Utah. “Look at the history. Elevations are basically back to where we were two years ago. What’s it going to take to bring us back to the brink: not much.”

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                    Wyatt Myskow                    </a>


                <h4 class="profile-subtitle">Roy W. Howard investigative fellow</h4>

                Wyatt Myskow covers environmental news in the Western U.S. from Phoenix as the Roy W. Howard investigative fellow. Wyatt graduated from Arizona State University with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and has previously reported for The Arizona Republic, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The State Press. He has covered local government, development news, education issues and the COVID-19 pandemic.

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