Feds say unprecedented cuts are needed to balance Colorado River water balance and shore up Lake Powell

Savings accounts are running low and it’s time to make big budget cuts.

That was the message Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton delivered to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources earlier this week when she spoke about water use in the Colorado River basin.

“The system is at an inflection point,” Touton said. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the country’s two largest reservoirs, are at or near historic lows after a two-decade-long mega-drought that has been linked to climate change.

“Unprecedented now is the reality and normality that Reclamation has to manage our systems,” she said. “A warmer, drier west is what we’re seeing today.”

To protect critical reservoirs in 2023, Touton said, between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of additional water protection will likely be needed.

Cuts of this magnitude would be the largest in the 100-year history of the Colorado River Compact, which laid the groundwork for the 1922 division of river water between seven southwestern states, 30 tribal nations and Mexico.

According to preliminary water use estimates released earlier this week, the Upper Basin states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico combined used 3.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River last year, versus 4.5 million acre-feet im year before.

Amy Haas, the executive director of Utah’s Colorado River Authority, said if 2 to 4 million acre-feet had to be preserved, the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada would have to do the heaviest lifting because they use the vast majority of the land Water.

“The commissioner’s announcement shows that the federal government is poised to act, particularly on reducing usage in the three lower basin states,” Haas said in an email. “This is encouraging but another quick and temporary fix designed to address poor hydrology in the short term.”

Haas said longer-term solutions are needed to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions in the basin.

“The need for a sustainable solution,” she continued, “is especially urgent given that the Colorado River system has been thrown completely out of balance — far more water is being used than is available due to the current drought, particularly in the Lower States Basin of record and effects of climate change.

She noted that the lower basin states and Mexico consumed 10 million acre-feet of water last year, according to preliminary estimates, nearly three times as much as the Upper Basin when the river drained just 6.3 million acres due to record-breaking low discharge. Foot delivered in 2021.

Since 2000, the river’s average annual flow has been 8.4 million acre-feet, and the amount of water stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead has decreased by an average of 2 million acre-feet per year.

But Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department, said Thursday that all Colorado River states have a role to play in the reductions that will likely result in “massive reductions in water use.”

“We must take action in every state, in every sector, and through every available avenue,” Trujillo said at a water conference hosted by the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center. “We’re probably going to be in a situation where we’re going to do things that we’ve never done before and we need to have the courage to move forward in some of those situations.”

The Bureau of Reclamation set a 60-day deadline for basin states and tribes to contribute ideas to a plan, but Touton said Tuesday the federal government also has the authority to “act unilaterally” to tie up water diverted in federal projects to reduce.

Both Trujillo and Touton said the measures were needed to protect infrastructure, including hydroelectric production at the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams.

Dan Beard, who served as Commissioner of Reclamations under President Bill Clinton, said current federal officials have inherited a harsh position that was not of their own making.

“For nearly two decades,” he said in an interview, “there has been report after report highlighting the challenges associated with climate change and the impact it will have on the Colorado River basin system .”

Beard said previous governments from both political parties have effectively ignored the warnings, “and in fact in many cases they have been climate deniers.”

But the federal government’s current scramble to protect hydroelectric operations at Glen Canyon Dam shouldn’t spur decision-making, Beard says.

“They turn their insides out to support an unneeded facility,” he said, noting that Glen Canyon Dam provides only a fraction of the power for the western power grid and that it no longer provides any water storage benefits.

Beard has long advocated for the decommissioning of the Glen Canyon Dam and the use of the Hoover Dam, which forms Lake Mead, for water storage and hydroelectric purposes. The proposal could give water managers more flexibility in the current crisis.

Lake Powell attracts millions of visitors annually, and power sales from Glen Canyon Dam fund important environmental programs, dam maintenance, and irrigation projects. Neither Trujillo nor Touton discussed redesigning the dam to allow Lake Powell to drain in their comments this week, and Beard acknowledged his view is in the minority.

“The only thing that’s sustainable over the long term is lower consumption in the Lower Basin,” said Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s Colorado River Commissioner, who represents Utah at interstate water negotiations. “That doesn’t mean, in my opinion, that the big leagues don’t have to continue to be concerned with conservation, which we are aggressively doing.” Legislators passed a number of important water conservation laws this year.

Upper basin states must respond to runoff patterns because all of Utah’s Colorado River diversions are upstream of Lake Powell, primarily on the Green River before it meets the Colorado.

Utah made a significant cut in what it could have collected last year simply because the water wasn’t there, Shawcroft said, adding that all users need to do more this year to do more.

About 27% of the water used in Utah comes from the Colorado River system, and 62% of that goes to agriculture. In the entire catchment area, agriculture uses 80% of the river water. Municipal water users in Utah use more water per person — and pay lower water rates — than residents of Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson, largely because those cities have implemented numerous programs to prevent thirsty landscaping like lawns. Feds say unprecedented cuts are needed to balance Colorado River water balance and shore up Lake Powell

Joel McCord

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