Major water cutbacks may be on the horizon as the Western United States endures another year of unrelenting drought.

Reservoirs at the Colorado River have dropped so low that major water cuts will be necessary next year to reduce risks of supplies reaching perilously low levels, a top federal water official said Tuesday.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said during a Senate hearing in Washington that federal officials now believe protecting “critical levels” at the country’s largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — will require much larger reductions in water deliveries.

“A warmer, drier west is what we are seeing today,” Touton told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “And the challenges we are seeing today are unlike anything we have seen in our history.”

The needed cuts, she said, amount to between 2 million acre-feet and 4 million acre-feet next year.

For comparison, California is entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year, while Arizona’s allotment is 2.8 million acre-feet.

The push for a new emergency deal to cope with the Colorado River’s shrinking flow comes just seven months after officials from California, Arizona and Nevada signed an agreement to take significantly less water out of Lake Mead, and six weeks after the federal government announced it is holding back a large quantity of water in Lake Powell to reduce risks of the reservoir dropping to a point where Glen Canyon Dam would no longer generate electricity.

Despite those efforts and a previous deal among the states to share in the shortages, the two reservoirs stand at or near record-low levels. Lake Mead near Las Vegas has dropped to 28 percent of its full capacity, while Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border is now just 27 percent full.

Touton said it’s critical to achieve the additional cutbacks and her agency is in talks with the seven states that depend on the river to develop a plan for the reductions in the next 60 days. She warned that the Bureau of Reclamation has the authority to “act unilaterally to protect the system, and we will protect the system.”

The Colorado River supplies water to nearly 40 million people in cities from Denver to Los Angeles. It also supplies farmlands from the Rocky Mountains to the U.S.-Mexico border. Experts have said the  river has long been over-allocated, and its reservoirs have declined dramatically since 2000 during a severe drought that research shows is being intensified by global warming and that some scientists describe as the long-term “aridification” of the Southwest.

“What has been a slow-motion train wreck for 20 years is accelerating, and the moment of reckoning is near,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies the Las Vegas area.

He pointed out that Lake Mead’s water level, now at 1,045 feet above sea level, has continued to decline toward critically low levels. Hoover Dam could still release water down to a level of 895 feet, but below that, water would no longer pass through the dam to supply California, Arizona and Mexico — a level known as “dead pool.”

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