DENVER — The U.S. Department of Interior on Tuesday announced its plans to deal with a severe water shortage in the Colorado River Basin.
The basin serves the water needs of seven states, dozens of Native American tribes and parts of Mexico. Roughly 40 million people depend on the basin for their water needs.
A century-old pact between the states split them into two parts. The upper basin consists of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. The lower basin is made up of California, Arizona and Nevada. Each half was allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of water to use.
“Where we currently stand is that the lower basin is using about 11.5-million-acre-feet a year. So, they're using close to 50% more of their actual allocation,” said Steven Fassnacht, a professor of watershed science at Colorado State University.
Meanwhile, the upper basin states have been using somewhere between 4 and 4.5-million-acre-feet of water annually. However, with population growth, that need has grown over the years.
Most of the water comes from snowmelt, but between the 23-year drought the region has faced and the increased impacts of climate change, the water levels in the Colorado River are at historic lows.
Both Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at 27% capacity; Lake Powell is roughly 155 feet below full this year alone. However, this might not be the exception to the rule but the standard moving forward.
“It seems that in the future, we will have less water. Droughts — probably in the lower two-thirds of the Colorado River Basin — are likely not going to go away anytime soon. That is likely the new future,” Fassnacht said.
Exactly one year ago, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared a first-ever water shortage for the area, which triggers mandatory cutbacks from states.
States had a deadline of Monday to come up with a conservation plan.
The Upper Basin states submitted theirfive-point proposal in July that includes things like seeking out the reauthorization of the System Conservation Pilot Project legislation, developing a drought response operations plan, and considering an Upper Basin demand management program among other things.
“Downstream of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, depletions must come into balance with available supply. Colorado stands ready to work with our partners in the Lower Basin, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior as they make the difficult decisions that are necessary to sustain the system,” Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell said in a statement Tuesday.
However, none of the proposals include any of the mandatory water cuts demanded by the federal government. In explaining the plan, the letter goes on to say that these states are limited in their options and that the cuts should instead come from downstream states that are using twice as much water.
On Tuesday, the Department of Interior and Bureau of Reclamation released their plan to help.
Along with allocating $8.3 billion in investments to address water and drought challenges in the west from the bipartisan infrastructure law that was passed by Congress, the Inflation Reduction Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden Tuesday, dedicated another $4 billion to funding water management and conservation projects along the Colorado River Basin.
The Bureau of Reclamation also released a 24-month study that set annual operations standards for Lake Powell and Lake Mead with lower levels.
Lake Powell will operate at a lower elevation tier of 178 feet below its full level and just 32 feet above the minimum levels it needs for power. Lake Mead, meanwhile, will operate for the first time at a Level 2a Storage Condition.
As a result, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will be required to cut back on their water usage from the river. Arizona will be required to cut back by 21% of its annual apportionment while Nevada and Mexico will be expected to cut back by 8% and 7% respectively.
There is no required water savings contribution from California at the moment.
For water conservation, while the plan does have some good aspects, it does not go nearly far enough to sure up the basin’s future.
“They didn't come up with a serious plan that cut, cut, cut--they just have all these vague actions that they don't even define what they are,” said Gary Wockner, the executive director of Save the Colorado.
He believes the plan hurts the Grand Canyon by letting even less water flow through the national park and he criticizes the Bureau’s continued efforts to save Lake Powell, which he believes is doomed.
On the positive side of things, Wockner supports the idea of the Bureau beginning to seriously consider ways to bypass the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona because he believes the dam is driving the crisis and dragging the whole system down.
However, he wants to see more action from the federal government to hold states' feet to the fire when it comes to mandatory cuts.
“The states were given a deadline, the States didn't meet it. The states did call the bluff. And unfortunately, you know, the federal government is now dancing,” Wockner said.
He worries that the government is kicking the can down the road once again until after the midterm elections but says this is a crisis that cannot afford to be ignored.
“The proverbial you know what is going to hit the fan pretty quick and it will have a should and will have an impact on people along the Front Range,” he said.
For now, the federal government is calling on states to work together to come up with an equitable conservation solution.
In the meantime, Fassnacht says everyone can do their part to conserve water. While the vast majority of the river’s water use goes to agriculture, he believes everyone can step up to do their part voluntarily before cutbacks on a business or residential level become a requirement.
“I'm not saying let's get rid of all of our lawns but let's be a bit more strategic. Do I need a lawn in my front yard and backyard?” he said. “We need to think across all the different water uses. And it's easy to point fingers. But I think we need to look in the mirror.”