As Colorado River shrinks, pain of drought to spread

By Jennifer Yachnin | 05/04/2022 01:45 PM EDT

Lake Powell

A white band of newly exposed rock along the canyon walls at Lake Powell highlights the difference between today's lake level and the lake's high-water mark near Antelope Point Marina on July 30, 2021, near Page, Ariz. Rick Bowmer/AP Photo

DENVER — Rolf Schmidt-Petersen knows what can happen when a water shortage hits: Reservoirs shrink and tempers flare.

“We had people literally throwing rocks, tomatoes when Elephant Butte went down,” recalled Schmidt-Petersen, director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. He was talking about a 2003 deal to release water from a reservoir in southern New Mexico and drop the lake by about 33 feet to assist farmers in the state and neighboring Texas.

“Five-hundred or 600 people literally basically wanted to take you away someplace, or pulled guns on you,” he added.

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Decades later, the 2.2-million-acre-foot reservoir, part of the Rio Grande Basin, contains only about 260,000 acre-feet of water, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

But more than 20 years into a relentless drought that has gripped the western United States — shrinking both Lake Powell and Lake Mead to record lows — Schmidt-Petersen doesn’t predict a similar backlash in the Colorado River Basin.

“The reality is after that first reaction or those sets of reactions, people adapt and they do pretty well,” he said at a recent event on water law at the University of Denver.

Schmidt-Petersen’s optimistic outlook could soon be tested as additional cuts appear on the horizon for the Colorado River’s lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

While initial reductions in water largely affected agricultural users, some observers suggest future cuts could trickle down to regular people and their home use sooner than expected. Reductions typically start with outdoor water use — measures like limitations on watering landscape and lawns — rather than immediate restrictions on consumptive use.

“What we’ve been doing for the last 20 years is ignoring that change and just taking water out of the reservoirs and crossing our fingers and hoping that the flows would increase,” said Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, a nonprofit conservation group. “In other words, the residents of the household have been living off their savings and pretending like they have had no change in their income.”

The Interior Department yesterday confirmed it would take “extraordinary actions” to prevent a hydropower shutdown at the Glen Canyon Dam, boosting Lake Powell by nearly 1 million acre-feet of water through a combination of holding back flows and tapping an upstream reservoir (Greenwire, May 3).

That action follows last summer’s first-ever reductions of water provided by the Colorado River, as Reclamation declared “Tier 1” shortage conditions, under a 2019 deal known as the “drought response operations agreement.” The agreement is signed by the seven basin states: Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, along with Mexico.

The decision last summer prompted the release of 181,000 acre-feet of water from the upper basin Blue Mesa and Flaming Gorge reservoirs to Lake Powell, while also temporarily retaining 350,000 acre-feet of water behind the Glen Canyon Dam and halting it from flowing downstream to Lake Mead and the lower basin.

That action also triggered a reduction of 512,000 acre-feet of water to Arizona, about 18 percent of the state’s annual apportionment, and 21,000 acre-feet of water to Nevada, about 7 percent of its annual apportionment. Mexico also saw reductions in its use.

Ahead of the reductions, water authorities in Arizona stressed that municipal water users would not experience any changes — although agencies used the news as a reminder to conserve resources.

“Will I have to cut back on my water use?” a Scottsdale Water Resources information page asked, answering: “No. … However, conservation is always encouraged and highly recommended to preserve this precious natural resource; better conservation practices today will lead to more water in the future.”

The Central Arizona Project (CAP) likewise told its users: “The shortage will result in a substantial cut to Arizona’s share of the Colorado river, with reductions falling largely to central Arizona agricultural users. Water supplies for cities and tribes will not be affected in 2022.”

But even with emergency actions, further cuts are likely to happen in the near future.

Under the drought contingency agreement, as Lake Mead’s elevation falls, reductions will increase across the lower basin. The agreement ranges from “Tier Zero” when the reservoir sat at 1,090 feet to “Tier 3,” should it drop to 1,025 feet, or just 29 feet below its current elevation.

Central Arizona Water Conservation District Board President Terry Goddard said his agency — which serves as the governing entity for CAP — projects it’s “almost for certain” that Tier 3 could affect the state as early as 2024. That declaration would reduce the state’s allocation by 720,000 acre-feet.

“That’s half of our original use at the CAP,” explained Goddard, a former Arizona state attorney general. “The individuals, the entities that are now being squeezed — our cities, health and safety, and tribal allocations — that in most cases are already congressionally affirmed or judicially affirmed. I know in this context, it’s hard to say ‘No mas,’ but we’re at the point of no mas. At Tier 3 we don’t have any more to give.”

Given current arid conditions in the basin, however, some observers suggest those reductions could come more quickly.

Frankel noted that Reclamation is expected to release its annual forecast for the Colorado River Basin in August, meaning it could trigger those Tier 3 reductions for 2023.

“We could be looking at cuts that are very serious, very quickly,” he added. “There’s no guarantee that this is going to be a slow process.”

Whenever it happens, the impacts to municipal users across Arizona and Nevada, particularly those in smaller communities, could vary widely, suggested Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network.

“It’s not necessarily a cut-and-dry type of situation, each community will have a different analysis,” he said.

That’s in part because some major metropolitan areas, like Tucson and Phoenix, will rely on supplies from the Arizona Water Banking Authority.

That agency, which oversees underground storage for the state’s unused portion of Colorado River water, reported last year it has stored underground more than 3.6 million acre-feet of water over 25 years, as well as 600,000 acre-feet on behalf of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

But smaller communities may simply not have the ability to store water for future shortages or may need to become reliant on groundwater, a finite resource, Roerink explained.

“What the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cuts should be signaling to the Southwest at large is there are going to be changes. Whether it’s for irrigators or rural city council members or even big cities, there’s going to be less and less water in the system,” he added. “What are you going to do to protect your existing users and uphold the public interest at the same time?”

Tanya Trujillo, Interior’s assistant secretary for water and science, pointed to the federal government’s focus on infrastructure repairs and upgrades, as well as funding for water storage and increased use of water recycling.

“I don’t think there is one silver bullet for any of this. I think we have to be using as many tools as possible, and we have to be doing a lot of things at the same time,” Trujillo added.

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