With the Colorado River’s depleted reservoirs continuing to drop to new lows, the federal government has taken the unprecedented step of telling the seven Western states that rely on the river to find ways of drastically cutting the amount of water they take in the next two months.
The Interior Department is seeking the emergency cuts to reduce the risks of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the country’s two largest reservoirs, declining to dangerously low levels next year.
“We have urgent needs to act now,” Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, said during a speech on Thursday. “We need to be taking action in all states, in all sectors, and in all available ways.”
Trujillo’s virtual remarks to a conference at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder underscored the dire state of the river under the stresses of climate change, and the urgency of scaling up the region’s response to stop the reservoirs from falling further. She provided details about the federal government’s approach to the crisis two days after Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton announced that major cuts of between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet will be needed next year to keep reservoirs from dropping to “critical levels.”
For comparison, California, Arizona and Nevada used a total of about 7 million acre-feet of Colorado River water last year.
State officials and managers of water agencies have yet to determine how they could accomplish such large reductions in water use. Finding ways of achieving the cutbacks will be the focus of negotiations in the coming weeks between representatives of the seven states and the Biden administration.
“The Colorado River Basin faces greater risks than any other time in our modern history,” Trujillo said.
“There is much more work to be done in the basin because the conditions continue to worsen and deeper shortages are projected,” Trujillo said. “We need to do more than we’ve ever done before.”
After more than 22 years of drought compounded by warmer temperatures with climate change, Lake Mead and Lake Powell have declined to their lowest levels since they were filled. The two reservoirs now sit nearly three-fourths empty, at just 28% of full capacity.
The latest projections from the federal government show that absent large shifts in water use, the reservoirs are expected to continue dropping over the next two years.