washington • Federal officials are expected to ease water cuts for 2024 this week as prospects for the Colorado River’s health improve slightly, although long-term challenges remain.
The river supplies water to seven US states, 29 Native American tribes and two states in Mexico. It also supports a multi-billion dollar agribusiness in the west and generates hydroelectric power that is used throughout the region. Years of overexploitation by farms and cities, and the effects of drought compounded by climate change, have resulted in much less water flowing through the Colorado River today than in decades past.
The US government announced cuts in 2021 that hit Arizona particularly hard. Over the past year, those cuts have become even more severe due to prolonged drought, low rainfall, and reduced flow from the river’s Rocky Mountain source.
A wetter winter and conservation efforts have helped improve the river’s condition somewhat this summer, but experts warn the future will be drier.
What cuts can be expected?
The Bureau of Reclamation will describe the state of the Colorado River using projected water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the key reservoirs that serve as a barometer of the river’s condition. Officials are expected to announce cuts for some river basin states next year.
The cuts build on previous agreements to keep Lake Mead from going too low.
Heavy snowfall and rain last winter have lifted large parts of the region out of the drought this spring and increased the water level at the reservoirs.
State water authorities expect a return to what was announced in 2021, a “Tier 1” shortage. That means Arizona’s total water allocation would be cut by 18%, a slight decrease from last year. Farmers will bear the brunt of the forced cuts, while cities and tribes will be spared, although some have already voluntarily declared cuts in exchange for federal money.
Nevada, which receives far less river water than Arizona and California, is projected to lose slightly less than it did last year. A reduction of 5% is expected for Mexico.
There have been no enforced water cuts in California.
Will the river keep getting healthier?
No. While winter’s rainfall brought immediate relief, the challenges of a hotter, drier future and overuse of the river remain.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead are still only about 39% and 33% full, respectively.
“That’s a little better than last year, but still extremely low. It only takes a few dry years to set us back,” said Kim Mitchell, senior water policy adviser at Western Resource Advocates, a Phoenix-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting water and land in the West.
Deeper cuts coming?
Yes, but not immediately. This week’s announcement is just part of the various water conservation plans already in place or under negotiation.
Earlier this year, Arizona, California and Nevada released a plan to save an additional 3 million acres of water by 2026 in exchange for $1.2 billion from the federal government. One hectare of water is enough to supply two to three households per year. The Interior Ministry is expected to publish its analysis of the proposal in the autumn.
The plan, expected to be completed in 2024, would mean cuts for California’s Imperial Irrigation District, the Colorado River’s largest water consumer. The district, which supplies farmers who grow fruit, vegetables and forage crops, is usually spared due to seniors’ water rights.
Some western tribes and individual counties that provide water to farms and cities are signing contracts to use less water in exchange for federal money.
Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community reached an agreement with the US government in April not to use some of its river water rights in exchange for $150 million and funding for a pipeline project. The tribe draws water from the Colorado River through the same aqueduct system that supplies river water to major Arizona cities.
The cuts expected this week “won’t have a major impact on use on the reserve one way or another,” said Jason Hauter, a Gila River Indian Community member and tribal water advocate.
What about western farms?
Farmers use between 70% and 80% of all water in the Colorado River system, but this week’s announcement isn’t expected to change significantly for most of them.
In August 2021, a farming county in Pinal County, Arizona outside of Phoenix lost almost all of its water supply to the Colorado River. Although the condition of the river is improving, farmers are not expected to get the water back.
Instead, they’ve either turned to groundwater or given up — up to half of the farmland has gone unplanted in the past two years, estimates Brian Yerges, general manager of the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, which serves the region.
What about cities?
Westerners are unlikely to feel the impact of this week’s announcement. In Arizona, Phoenix’s water supply did not decrease when the state’s water supply was cut because other sources were able to compensate. The nation’s fifth-largest city is served by the Colorado River and the instate Salt and Verde rivers, with a small portion consisting of groundwater and recycled wastewater.
Already in the Las Vegas area, lawns are banned, swimming pool sizes are limited, and almost all of the water in homes is recycled. Because of this, the impact of water cuts over the past two years has been minimal. Despite last winter’s rainfall, the Southern Nevada Water Authority said it will continue with its strict conservation measures.
Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, which serves nearly 20 million people, lifted restrictions on nearly 7 million people in March. But that was largely due to the improved conditions of Northern California’s rivers, which, along with the Colorado River, provide most of the district’s water.
Policies that dictate how Colorado River water is allocated expire in 2026.
“We are facing a series of generational agreements,” said Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River resources manager for Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District. “That’s what we have to focus on.”
Discussions between states, tribes and the federal government about their priorities for the post-2026 river have only just begun. Mexican negotiators will begin a similar but parallel process with US officials.
Negotiators say long-term discussions need to consider how users can live with significantly less water in the system.
“We’ve had a good year,” said Anne Castle, U.S. commissioner of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “But nobody expects that to be the new normal. The question is, ‘What is the plan for the future?’”
Associated Press writers Ken Ritter in Las Vegas and Amy Taxin in Orange County, California contributed.
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