Disaster scenarios raise the stakes for Colorado River negotiations

Los Angeles — The water managers in charge of allocating the Colorado River’s diminishing resources are presenting a gloomy picture of a river in crisis and warning that unusual water shortages may soon hit farmers and communities in the West and that existing water-sharing regulations will need to alter.

Authorities from the state and the federal government claim that decades of excessive consumption are combining with the stark realities of climate change to drive Colorado River reservoirs to dangerously low levels, where the river’s major dams may soon become a barrier to supplying water to millions of people in the Southwest.

Officials worry that the drought-stricken Colorado River is facing a “full Armageddon scenario.”

In order to attempt to prevent such severe effects, the federal government has asked the seven Western states that depend on Colorado River water to decrease use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet, equivalent to a third of the river’s annual normal flow. However, due to the states’ inability to come to a consensual agreement on how to do so thus far, the Interior Department may enact unilateral cutbacks in the next months.

Tommy Beaudreau, the deputy secretary of the Interior Department, warned a gathering of Colorado River authorities here on Friday that “the system might be forced to cease working if urgent and decisive steps are not taken” in response to elevations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead. “We won’t let it to happen. That is an unbearable circumstance.”

Numerous state water authorities worry that time is already running short.

Within the next two years, “there’s a genuine prospect of an effective dead pool,” according to Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which supplies central Arizona with water from the Colorado River. The Glen Canyon and Hoover dams, which produced the reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, might become a barrier to supplying water to communities and farmers in Arizona, California, and Mexico if water levels drop far enough.

In the large reservoirs, “we may not be able to get water through either of the two dams for certain times of the year,” Cooke said. This is just outside our door.

Standing-room-only crowds inside Caesars Palace are evidence that the impending catastrophe has electrified this annual conference of water officials. The meeting has sold out for the first time, according to the organizers, and the threat of widespread shortages looms as state water managers, tribes, and the federal government discuss ways to reduce use on an unprecedented scale.

Camille Calimlim Touton, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, remarked, “I can sense the tension and the uncertainty in this room and throughout the basin.

There is a catastrophe on the Colorado River, and it is growing worse every day.

Cuts in fast expanding urban regions will eventually need to be weighed against those in rural towns that provide the majority of the nation’s supply of winter vegetables. Because they have been utilizing river water longer than cities, farmers often get precedence in the intricate realm of water rights. Water management now anticipate that cutbacks would impact even the most senior water consumers, unlike in previous agreements.

The states of the Upper Colorado River Basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — claim it is difficult to pinpoint how much they can save since they rely more on fluctuating river flows than reservoir allocations. California, Arizona, and Nevada are among the lower basin states that use a lot more water.

According to Gene Shawcroft, chairman of the Utah Colorado River Authority, “In the Upper Basin, we can declare that we’ll take 80 percent, and Mother Nature will give us 30.” “Those are some of the difficulties we are facing.”

The states were given until the end of August to come to a voluntary agreement on reduction, but the deadline passed without a settlement. State authorities in this area have accused the Biden administration. The need for a compromise, they said, vanished last summer when it became obvious that the federal government was not prepared to enact unilateral cutbacks.

An updated environmental evaluation for distributing Colorado River supplies in low-water situations has now been started by the Biden administration. By the end of January, water managers want to have a better understanding of what the states can provide. The federal government is anticipated to specify its right to enact unilateral cutbacks before the end of the summer.

Cooke said in an interview that “unfortunately, it’s a year later than we need it.”

Drought in the West has already caused a record number of Californian wells to go dry.

caused large tracts of farmland to be left fallow and mandated that households reduce the amount of water they use to irrigate their lawns. This week, a major water supplier in Southern California issued a drought emergency for the whole region and urged communities that depend on Colorado River water to import less supplies.

For years, the issues on the river have become worse. States in the Colorado River basin have taken more water out of the river than it has generated over the previous two decades, drained the reservoirs that serve as a buffer during difficult times, and the area has experienced the worst drought in millennia. According to James Prairie, head of the Bureau of Reclamation’s research and modeling section, the river’s average annual flow over that time has been 13.4 million acre-feet, while users are drawing out an average of 15 million acre-feet annually.

The two biggest reservoirs in the nation at the time, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, together stored 47.6 million acre-feet of water. Approximately 13.1 million acre-feet, or 26% of their capacity, remain today. A foot of water would cover an acre of land in 326,000 gallons, or one acre-foot.

Finding treasure where there are corpses when Lake Mead becomes smaller

According to federal officials, the level of Lake Powell could drop as early as July to the point where the hydroelectric plant inside the Glen Canyon Dam is unable to produce electricity. From there, the level could continue to drop until it is impossible to deliver the volumes of water that Southwest states depend on. Within two years, Lake Mead may potentially see a similar “dead pool,” according to water officials.

We’ve used these reservoirs for 23 years, but Prairie said that we are now straining them to the breaking point.

The deputy commissioner of operations for the Bureau of Reclamation, David Palumbo, emphasized that the past is no longer a reliable indicator of the river’s future because of the effects of climate change, which include a hotter and drier West where the ground absorbs more runoff from mountain snow before it reaches the reservoirs. He said that even in years with a lot of snow, runoff is now modest.

He said that the runoff efficiency was important to be aware of and, quite simply, to be terrified of.

Water managers predict that the bulk of cutbacks will occur in southern states like Arizona and California, where intensive agricultural uses up a significant percentage of the supply. According to John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, these states, which get water after it goes through Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, likewise run the most risk if the reservoirs reach dangerously low levels.

He stated, “If you can’t get water through Hoover Dam, that’s 25 million Americans’ water supply.”

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