A New Colorado River Cut Announced

In response to an increasingly depleted supply of water from the drought-ravaged Colorado River, the federal government on Tuesday announced a new round of cuts in how much water the two states can get from the river. But for now, the government has stopped mandating large cuts that officials have said will needed next year to protect the river’s infrastructure.

Interior Department and Reclamation Department officials say water levels at Colorado’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, remain dangerously low after more than two decades of drought in the Southwest worsened due to climate change. Lake Mead, behind the Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border, is now about 175 feet lower than it was in 2000, when Southwest droughtN.

That level causes an agreed-upon cut in the amount of money that two of the Lower Basin states, Arizona and Nevada, and Mexico can take from Lake Mead. The other Lower Basin state, California, is not currently affected, as are Upper Basin states such as Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. About 40 million people depend on Colorado for at least part of their water, and it irrigates more than 5.5 million acres of land.

In June, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, Camille Calimlim Touton, called on the seven states to negotiate and recommended more cuts to maintain safe operations. Rehabilitation engineers are particularly concerned that Lake Powell, behind the Glen Canyon Dam near the Utah-Arizona border, could become so low that it can no longer generate hydroelectric power, and that the dam’s ability to channel water downstream could have may be at risk.

Since then, interstate negotiations have progressed slowly, with some pointing to Western water negotiations for much of the past century.

On Tuesday, Ms Touton said that although “substantial progress” had been made in the negotiations, “they are not yet complete.”

“Overall, countries have failed to identify and adopt actions that are critical to stabilizing the system,” she said.

Ms Touton warned in June that if the states could not agree, the government would impose the cuts on its own. But no immediate unilateral cuts were announced Tuesday.

But there is little doubt that there will be additional cuts, of up to 4 million acres, an amount about a third of the river’s current annual flow.

The cuts announced Tuesday are relatively small, and complement cuts made last year when the government declared a water shortage at Lake Mead for the first time.

With the new cuts, Arizona would have to reduce its Colorado consumption by nearly 600,000 acres, or 21% of its annual allocation. Nevada’s total acreage is now 25,000 acres, or about 8% of its allotment. Mexico cut a total of 104,000 acres, 7% of allotted supply.

In Arizona, the cuts have largely affected farmers in the central part of the state. And when it comes to the sharper cuts that Ms Touton calls for, agriculture will also be hit the most. Agriculture uses about three-quarters of Colorado’s supply.

Jennifer Pitt, director of the Colorado River program at the National Audubon Society, said there was tremendous pressure on all stakeholders to come up with a plan for drastic cuts. “The water isn’t there,” she said. “It’s a rock-cold reality, and there’s no way politics can change that.”

Climate change has made drought worse, and it’s less likely that a string of wet years will end it. But water withdrawals are increasing as populations in the area grow and agriculture develops, too, playing an important role.

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