U.S.: Western states may see Colorado River water cuts

As the southwestern states face water shortages, the Colorado River has been named the most endangered river in the United States. The US government warned California, Arizona, and Nevada at the beginning of this month that it may impose water cuts on the supply. If that happens, it will be to protect the Colorado River and its two main reservoirs from overuse, drought, and climate change.

Three possible solutions – all include water cuts

The United States Bureau of Reclamation said there are three possible solutions. One is to impose cutbacks, another to allow western states to work out their own reduction plan. The third, and the least likely plan is to take no action.

The proposed federal action may also preserve hydroelectric production at the country’s two largest reservoirs, in addition to protecting drinking water supplies.

The bureau, which is part of the Interior Department, had previously set a mid-August deadline for seven western states to negotiate their own reductions or face mandatory cuts.

There are negotiations but time’s running out faster than water

When the deadline passed, federal officials extended the states’ time to reach an agreement affecting 40 million people’s water supply. While federal officials continue to prefer a negotiated settlement, time appears to be running out. The bureau announced that public comments on the proposals are closing on December 20.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in a press release at the beginning of this month said the federal administration must take swift and decisive action. It is required to protect the Colorado River System and all those who rely on it.

The seven states are bound by a 100-year-old agreement for the distribution of Colorado River water. But, that agreement is under strain due to the worst drought in 1,200 years. Climate change caused heavy drought in the region.

100 year ago no one could assume water cuts due to shortages

The contract assumed a century ago that the river could provide 20 million acre-feet of water per year. The river’s actual flow over the last two decades has averaged 12.5 million acre-feet. It gave state water managers more rights on paper than actual river water.

According to the notice issued previously in November, one of the options under consideration is reducing the amount of water set aside for consumption in the 2023/24 water year by the three states of the Lower Basin which include California, Arizona, and Nevada.

The Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming would be exempt for the time being. But they will still participate in negotiations to reduce usage by an unprecedented 15% to 30%.

Reducing water release from Hoover Dam is possible

Other possible solutions include changing the operations of Hoover Dam, which forms Lake Mead. Lake Mead is the country’s largest reservoir. It means reducing the amount of water released from Glen Canyon Dam, which forms Lake Powell, the country’s second-largest reservoir.

Lake Mead at the beginning of this November was 29% full and Lake Powell was 24% full. They will be unable to generate hydroelectric power for millions in the west if they fall much lower.