Severe water cuts were announced on Tuesday in western states plagued by a severe mega-drought that sent levels in the nation’s two largest reservoirs plummeting to record lows.
The US Department of the Interior has declared the first-ever Level 2 shortage for the Colorado River, meaning Arizona, Nevada and Mexico must further reduce water use from January 1. next year.
Arizona will face the biggest cut: 592,000 acre feet, or 21% of the state’s current river draw, officials said. Restrictions to other states, including California, may follow.
The crisis, which has dropped levels of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, to an 80-year low of barely a quarter of its capacity of 28.9 million acre-feet, threatens the survival of the crucial river basin.
It has also led to potential disruption of water supply and hydroelectric generation, forcing the federal government to take such drastic measures.
A buoy that does not read boats rests on dry, cracked land where water once was, as people haul a boat at Lake Mead, Nevada, in July. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images
The 24 million acre-feet Lake Powell, meanwhile, is suffering a similar disaster, with the Guardian reporting in July that power production could shut down as early as July 2023.
An Interior Department projection that the level of Lake Meads on January 1 would be less than 1,050 feet above sea level triggered the declaration of the nation’s first Tier 2 shortage.
The water surface elevation of Lake Powells is expected to be 3,522 feet, just 32 feet from the minimum needed to generate electricity from hydroelectric operations.
Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure water is used at maximum efficiency, the Departments of Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, Tanya Trujillo, said in a statement. In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado river system and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the basin must be reduced.
The US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) last year warned the seven states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming to prepare to emergency cuts. In June, officials said states must figure out how to use 15% less water next year or face reductions.
The situation has caused tension between states with different priorities for the water they receive, and the talks have yielded no agreement.
There are many different interests at loggerheads. And there’s a lot to overcome, and there’s a lot of animosity, Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, told the Los Angeles Times.
The office must now determine what next steps Reclamation Office Commissioner Camille Touton can take after the mid-August deadline for the seven Colorado River states to reduce water use expires. by 25%.
Some experts say further cuts will be inevitable, which could affect states further out in the basin, including California.
The system is approaching a tipping point and without action, we cannot protect the system and the millions of Americans who depend on this resource, Touton said.
Protecting the system is protecting the people of the American West.
Together, dire hydrological projections and cutoff deadlines present western states with unprecedented challenges and confront them with tough decisions about how to plan for a drier future.
Some experts see action today as a short-term solution. While USBR is very focused on getting through this until next year, any reductions will likely need to be in place for much longer, said University of Oxford hydrologist Kevin Wheeler .
The science contribution is that it’s pretty clear that these cuts just have to stay in place until the drought is over or we realize they actually have to get worse and the cuts have to get deeper, a he declared.
The seven states and Mexico signed an agreement in 2019 to help maintain reservoir levels. The amount of water allocated to states under this plan depends on water levels in Lake Mead.
Last year, the lake sank low enough for the federal government to declare a first-ever water shortage in the region, triggering a first wave of mandatory cuts for Arizona and Nevada, as well as Mexico, in 2022.
Reservoir levels have been falling catastrophically for years, due to 22 years of drought aggravated by the climate emergency and overexploitation of the river.
A reduction in spring snowmelt has also reduced the amount of water flowing out of the Rocky Mountains, where the Colorado River originates before meandering 1,450 miles (2,334 km) southwest and into the Gulf of California.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
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