More questions than answers at a water meet on the Colorado River

las vegas Key questions resurfaced Thursday at a conference of Colorado River water managers and users from seven U.S. states, Native American tribes and Mexico who are served by the shrinking river plagued by drought and climate change.

Who will bear the brunt of further water supply cuts, and how soon?

What voluntary water conservation targets must the seven river-dependent states meet before the federal government intervenes?

What about controlling water evaporation once snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains enters the system and begins flowing into Mexico?

“I have no answers. I just have questions right now,” Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, said during a Colorado River Water Users Association panel on the state of the river.

The agency manages canals that supply water to much of Arizona and was the first to feel the effects of drought-forced cuts in water flow from the river last year.

The Colorado provides drinking water for 40 million people, irrigates millions of hectares of agriculture and hydroelectric power in the American Southwest.

“Now collective painful action is needed,” Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said during the same panel.

The river supplies four headwater states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – and three so-called Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. Tribes and Mexico also have water claims.

(John Locher | AP) A buoy sits high and dry on cracked earth that previously lay beneath the water of Lake Mead in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Boulder City, Nev., on June 28, 2022. Living with Less Water in the US Southwest is the focus of a conference starting Wednesday, December 14, 2022 in Las Vegas on the drought-stricken and promising Colorado River.

Discussions at the Wednesday and Thursday sessions focused on collaboration between users to resolve bottlenecks. But data showing that less water is going into the river than is being taken from it has dominated the conference. And after more than two decades of drought and climate change, the annual conference at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas has taken on a mood of crisis.

“The alternative to inaction is brutal and blatantly obvious,” Cullom said of a domino effect of congestion that would be borne first by entities with junior water rights, which would advance to those with senior status. “We agree that all states, sectors and tribes have a role to play.”

Deadlines for what needs to be done are fast approaching, along with a deadline next Tuesday for public comment on the Federal Bureau of Reclamation’s effort, which is expected to provide a final report by summer on how about 15% of the river’s water has been saved which will now be distributed to the recipients.

David Palumbo, the Bureau of Reclamation’s deputy chief of operations, said before the conference panel with Cooke and Cullom on Thursday that he was hoping for answers. These include assumptions about the amount of water going into the river; effects of changing river courses in the Grand Canyon; how officials should administer concessions; and public health and safety considerations.

Limiting population growth was not discussed as an option. Cooke said market forces, not government, should determine who moves where.

“People have the right to make good choices or bad choices,” he said, “and that includes moving to a place that may not have water.”

The bureau controls the river’s flow with waterworks including the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona state line and Lake Powell, formed by Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah line.

[More: Countdown to dead pool: Lake Powell’s uncertain future as the Colorado River dwindles]

Lake Mead was operating at 100% capacity in mid-1999. Today it is 28% full. Lake Powell, which was last full in June 1980, is at 25%.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Boat ramp at Bullfrog Marina in Glen Canyon Recreation Area, on Wednesday, July 13, 2022.

Water supplies to Arizona and Nevada stopped for the first time last year, mostly affecting Arizona farmers under a 1968 deal that gave the state junior rights to river water in exchange for U.S. funds to build a 540-kilometer canal to its big cities.

The bureau could impose top-down rules overriding stocks that states agreed to adopt in the 1922 and later agreements. Although federal officials are due to speak on Friday – including Camille Touton, the bureau’s commissioner, and two senior officials from the Home Office – no blockbuster announcements are expected.

Claims officials last June told the seven states they needed to cut more, leaving them to find ways to cut the 15% next year or impose restrictions on them. The federal government has also allocated billions of dollars to pay farmers to set fields aside and to help cities reduce water use.

“We’re using more than we have,” Brenda Burman, former chief of the Bureau of Reclamation, said Wednesday during Colorado River 101.

“We could look at a lot of cuts. We could look at a lot of changes,” she said.

As head of the bureau, Burman warned the Water Users Association four years ago that drought action was needed. She will replace Cooke, who is retiring, as general manager of the Central Arizona Project.

Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, on Thursday expressed frustration that people don’t realize that water is being captured in upper basin states and then distributed by the bureau to lower basin states.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming “live in the middle of the river every day,” she said.

John Entsminger, general manager of the Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority, compared dealing with the drought’s impact on the Colorado River to a national emergency like a Florida hurricane and said the federal government can invest national emergency funds.

Entsminger also said it is time to record the amount of water lost through evaporation when usage and allocation are taken into account.

“We didn’t take into account the amount of water we’re losing from the system,” he said. “Call it evaporation, system losses, call it strawberry shortcake for whatever we care about. Do the math and the analysis.”

Associated Press journalist Peter Prengaman in Las Vegas contributed to this report. More questions than answers at a water meet on the Colorado River

Justin Scacco

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