Colorado River cutbacks set stage for decade of drought politics
PHOENIX — A prolonged and worsening drought has created an alarming shortage of water across the parched West, setting off what is likely to be a years-long crisis that could threaten the future of some of the fastest-growing cities and economies in the United States.
The Bureau of Reclamation on Monday declared the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River, forcing cutbacks to water allocations to Western states that will begin in the next several months. Water officials and experts who keep careful tabs on lake and river levels from the Rocky Mountains to Baja California say they expect further cuts unless the heavens open up once again.
In the American West, “whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting,” said Kirk Adams, a former Arizona state legislator who served as chief of staff to Gov. Doug Ducey (R) during negotiations over Colorado River water use.
“Water and natural resource issues generally are going to dominate Western politics for the next decade-plus, as a result of climate change,” Adams said.
A quarter of the territory in Western states is experiencing exceptional drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, including broad swaths of California’s Central Valley, Eastern Washington and Oregon, and large portions of Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Montana. More than 98 percent of Western lands are abnormally dry.
The dry conditions are a major cause of the massive wildfires that have become a common feature of Western summers, when smoke settles over the landscape. But the longer-term problem is now showing up in the reservoirs where those states store their water.
Across the West, water in those reservoirs, lakes and rivers is near or below record-low levels. Some of the largest reservoirs in the Upper Snake River Basin in Idaho are between 14 percent and 42 percent full. In Southern Oregon, reservoirs near Ashland are less than 5 percent capacity.
Lake Powell, a reservoir that helps generate power for Southwestern states, is only 31 percent full. The amount of water that has flowed into the lake totals just 35 percent of the average it has historically received.
Lake Mead, which serves residents of Arizona, California, Nevada and northern Mexico, stands just 1,067 feet above sea level, its lowest point since the Hoover Dam was constructed in the 1930s. Cuts are triggered when the water level there falls below 1,075 feet.
Some experts expect the water level in Lake Mead to drop as much as another 15 feet before December 2023, forcing even harsher cuts that would hit farmers and ranchers across more states. If water levels ever drop below 950 feet, the Hoover Dam would no longer be capable of generating hydroelectric power.
“The Colorado Basin has been seeing a long-term trend there with the reservoirs dropping to historic lows,” said Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources. “This year was a stronger drought year than we normally get for drought years. In California and the other basins in the West, we’ve tried to build systems to get through three to five years of drought, with the idea that it will rain sometime in that period.”
But the rains have not come in the volumes Western states experienced just a few years ago. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains this year was 60 percent of its annual average at the beginning of April, and it had reduced to less than 10 percent of average by the end of the month.
The precipitation that does fall has evaporated in record heat, or absorbed into parched earth that does not pass it through to reservoirs or groundwater supplies as it has in the past.
Virtually every senator who represents a Western state has offered some proposal or plan to address the long-term shortage. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has introduced legislation that would restore canals to capture stormwater, and she has asked the Biden administration to repurpose some federal money.
Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) pushed a measure adopted as part of the end-of-year spending bill in 2020 to expand aquifers on federal lands. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) have proposed a measure to spend $300 million on water recycling projects.
The Senate scramble reflects the urgency of a crisis that quietly threatens the future of the American West. Water from the Colorado River has been the foundation on which Western states have grown, from agricultural economies into some of the most vibrant technology and tourism hubs that exist in America, from the Canadian border to the Mexican border.
As those economies evolve, so has their water use: Agricultural companies use more water per acre than a typical neighborhood of homes, experts said. In Arizona, a state that has grown exponentially now uses less water than it did in the 1960s, said Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, the state’s massive water management system.
Arizona today uses less than the 2.8 million acre feet of water it is allowed to take off the Colorado River.
“There has been a gradual transformation of Arizona water use from agriculture to municipal and industrial use. Municipal and industrial use goes a lot farther than agricultural use,” Cooke said. “We have been leaving water behind voluntarily since 2014.”
Western states will soon begin renegotiating the operating guidelines of the Colorado River Compact that governs how they will allocate what is likely to be less water in the future. Under the current compact, Arizona and Nevada will bear the brunt of the initial cuts ordered by the Bureau of Reclamation, though they are likely to seek to share cuts with other Lower Basin states, especially California.
“The next several years leading up to 2026 is going to be a major negotiation between both the Lower Basin and the Upper Basin states of the Colorado River,” Adams said. “That negotiation will determine how growth occurs in the Southwestern United States, and it’s going to occur in a drought.”
The Bureau of Reclamation issues regular 24-month projections for water levels across the Western United States. Cooke and others said the existing agreement, at least among Lower Basin states, is sufficient to last until a new deal is struck.
But the long-term future of water in the West is uncertain, especially if the current drought continues or worsens.
“When droughts start, nobody knows how long they’re going to last,” Cooke said. “It’s a serious thing. We can’t make it rain, necessarily. That’s up to a higher power to do that.”