Western states hit with more cuts to Colorado River water

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — For the second year in a row, Arizona and Nevada will face cuts to the amount of water they can draw from the Colorado River as the west tolerates more drought, federal officials announced Tuesday.

While the cuts won’t lead to immediate new restrictions — such as bans on watering lawns or washing cars — they indicate that unpopular decisions about reducing consumption are ahead, including whether to prioritize growing crops. cities or agricultural areas. Mexico is also facing austerity measures.

But those reductions represent only a fraction of the potential pain the 40 million Americans in seven states dependent on the river will face. Because the states failed to meet a federal deadline to figure out how to reduce their water use by at least 15%, they could see even bigger cuts the government says are needed to keep reservoirs from falling so low they can’t be used. pumped up.

“The states have collectively failed to identify and adopt specific actions of sufficient magnitude that would stabilize the system,” said Camille Touton, Commissioner for Reclamation for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Together, the missed deadline and the latest budget cuts are putting officials responsible for water supplies to cities and farms under renewed pressure to plan for a warmer, drier future and a growing population.

Touton has said a 15% to 30% reduction is needed to ensure water supplies and hydroelectric production are not disrupted. She was non-committal on Tuesday about whether she planned to unilaterally impose those cuts if states can’t come to an agreement.

She repeatedly declined to say how much time the states have to reach the deal she requested in June.

The inaction has sparked concerns across the region about the agency’s willingness to act as states stubbornly clinging to their water rights while acknowledging a crisis looming.

“They have bluff from the agency time and time again,” Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said of the states in the Colorado River Basin. “Nothing has changed with today’s news — except for the fact that the Colorado River system continues to crash.”

For years, cities and farms have withdrawn more water from the river than flows through it, depleting its reservoirs and raising questions about how it will be distributed as water becomes scarcer.

After more than two decades of drought, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico were hit by mandatory austerity for the first time last year. Some farmers in the region have been paid to leave their fields fallow. Residents of growing cities are subject to conservation measures, such as restrictions on lawns.

But those efforts have so far not been enough. The water level at Lake Mead, the country’s largest man-made reservoir, has fallen so low that it is currently less than a quarter full and is dangerously close to a point where not enough water would flow to produce hydroelectric power at the Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona Border.

Officials in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have been reluctant to propose more draconian water rationing measures or restrictions on development.

The compromises are most apparent in Arizona, which is one of the fastest-growing states in the country and has lower priority water rights than water users in the west, in California.

Due to Tuesday’s cuts, Arizona is losing another 80,000 acre feet of water — 21% less than its total share, but only 3% less than what it is receiving this year.

An acre-foot is equal to an acre of land covered in 12 inches of water. An average household uses half to one hectare of water per year.

After taxing the burden on the agricultural sector last year, state officials said this year’s budget cuts would extend to tribes and growing towns dependent on the Colorado, including Scottsdale.

Instead of rationing water, mandating conservation or limiting development, the cities are likely to shift their dependence on other sources. Phoenix, for example, will depend more on the in-state rivers Salt and Verde, while using less of its supply to replenish its aquifers.

Arizona officials criticized neighboring states for not proposing cuts, even as Arizona implements its own cuts.

Arizona and Nevada came up with a plan for austerity that would be nearly proportional to water consumption, but both California and the Bureau of Reclamation rejected that deal, state officials said.

“We need California to join in. We can’t do this with just Arizona and Nevada,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

The effect of the cuts on farmers remains unclear, but many fear that further cuts will further fuel tensions between cities and agriculture, which uses more than 70% of the water in the basin.

Paco Ollerton, a Phoenix area cotton farmer, fears deeper cuts could jeopardize his water next year. Farmers in Arizona already lost much of their water in the Colorado River during previous budget cuts, but they were compensated for with water through deals with cities like Phoenix and Tucson.

This year, Ollerton grew only half of what he had previously grown. The cuts announced Tuesday could put further pressure on those cities, raising the question of whether they will share with farmers next year.

“It changes the way I think about how much longer I’ll continue farming,” Ollerton said.

Nevada will also lose water — about 8% of its supply — but most residents won’t feel the effects because the state recycles most of the water it uses indoors and doesn’t use its entire allotment. Last year, the state lost 7%.

Scorching temperatures and less snowmelt in the spring have reduced the flow of water from the Rocky Mountains, where the river rises before winding 2,334 kilometers southwest into the Gulf of California.

Extraordinary steps are already being taken amid the changing climate to hold water in Lake Powell, the Colorado River’s other major reservoir, which straddles the Arizona-Utah border.

After the lake fell low enough to threaten hydroelectric power production, federal officials said they would hold back some water to ensure the dam could still produce power. That water would normally flow into Lake Mead.

Mexico loses 7% of the water it receives from the river each year. Last year it lost about 5%. The water is a lifeline for northern desert cities, including Tijuana, and for a large agricultural industry in the Mexicali Valley, just south of the border with California’s Imperial Valley.

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Nashadham reported from Washington. Ronayne reported from Sacramento, California.

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