During a US Senate western drought hearing earlier this week, the Bureau of Reclamation commissioner told Colorado River Basin states they have 60 days to create a contingency plan to stop using between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of water next year or the agency will have him use his emergency power to make the cuts himself.
For context, the entire state of Arizona is permitted to use 2.8 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River each year.
“The challenges we face today are unlike anything we have seen in our history,” Commissioner Camille Touton said during the hearing. She said warmer temperatures driven by climate change have led to less water reaching Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two largest reservoirs in the United States, both of which have recently reached their lowest levels. never recorded.
The Colorado River system provides water and hydropower to millions of people in the West and is the backbone of the seven states and 30 native tribes in the river basin. The river system has reached extremely low levels during decades of drought and warming temperatures, which dries out the ground which then saps moisture from melting snow that would otherwise flow into rivers and reservoirs .
Touton said the seven states must “stay at the table until the job is done.”
The federal leadership comes just a month after the bureau announced it would withhold water from Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. This is the first time the agency has used its emergency feed to delay a Lake Powell water spill that normally goes to Arizona, California and Nevada. Instead, the federal agency plans to conserve more than 480,000 acre-feet of water in the reservoir to support supply to protect hydroelectric generation.
In a separate action announced earlier this year, upper basin states worked with the Bureau of Reclamation on a plan to send an additional 500,000 acre-feet to Lake Powell from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border in the part of their drought response agreement for the year. .
Commissioner Touton’s directive was dropped just days before the University of Colorado Boulder’s annual Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources, which focuses on the Colorado River.
“This elephant fills this whole room,” said John Fleck, professor of water policy at the University of Mexico, at the start of his speech at the conference. Fleck, who has also written several books on the Colorado River, watched Touton’s testimony in his hotel room in Alamosa en route to the conference.
“I blanched a bit,” Fleck said. “[Two to 4 million acre-feet] is an amazing amount of water,” he said.
Fleck said the directive, combined with the “threat” of federal action if states don’t act, creates an extraordinary challenge for water managers and users in the Colorado River Basin – a group that he noted included many people at the CU Boulder conference.
To explain the federal agency’s reasoning for calling for such massive cuts, office hydrologist engineer James Prairie presented attendees with an updated forecast of expected flows to Lakes Powell and Mead over the next few years.
By early 2024, projections show Lake Powell water levels could drop too low for hydroelectric turbines to operate and generate electricity.
Tanya Trujillo, U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, joined the conference virtually to speak about the Colorado River crisis and the demands of states to conserve more water.
“We are facing the growing reality that water supplies for agriculture, fisheries, ecosystems, industry and cities are no longer stable due to climate change,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo said the agency’s order for water cuts includes Colorado and other states in the upper reaches of the river system, even though they don’t depend on water supplies collected from Lake Powell and the Lake Mead.
“We need to act in every state, in every sector, in every way available,” Trujillo said. “We have to think as one basin.”
Trujillo said it’s up to the states to decide how to make water cuts and said the agency doesn’t have a formula for proper conservation measures. She said states have been tasked with creating lists of potential ways to save that water and the federal government wants to support those ideas with funds and resources. Trujillo said part of the federal support for state efforts will come from the bipartisan Infrastructure Act signed into law in January, which earmarked billions of dollars for western water projects.
Speaking at a conference panel, Anne Castle, a senior fellow at CU Boulder’s Getches-Wilkinson Center and former assistant secretary for water and science at the US Department of the Interior, wondered what the Federal government demand could mean for Colorado if junior water rights holders are cut off from use of the Colorado River.
“What will our ski areas look like if we no longer have artificial snow? These are junior water rights,” Castle said. “What does it look like if part of our agriculture on the West Slope no longer exists? What does that do to food security, what does that do to those communities? These are things we need to seriously think about. »