The Interior Department is turning down the Colorado River’s flow to California, Arizona, and Nevada to protect Lake Powell from the West’s historic, climate change-driven drought.
The Bureau of Reclamation will withhold 480,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell in 2022 to prevent the reservoir from dropping so low it can no longer generate electricity, Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, told reporters Tuesday.
“We have never taken this step before in the Colorado River Basin,” Trujillo said.
The withheld water—roughly one-quarter of the volume of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee—represents a 6.4% cut to the annual water delivered from Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico through Lake Powell to Lake Mead, which provides water to millions of people in the Lower Colorado River Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.
The bureau is also releasing 500,000 acre-feet from a large upstream reservoir in Utah in addition to releases from reservoirs in Colorado and New Mexico to augment Lake Powell’s water supply, Trujillo said.
The measures are part of a drought contingency plan the Bureau of Reclamation adopted in 2019. The affected states provided “consensus support” for Tuesday’s move, Trujillo said in a letter to state governors.
Each of the seven Colorado River Basin states agreed to the unprecedented measures in April, and will consider possible further Lake Powell water withholdings next spring, Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources told Bloomberg Law.
“It is an outgrowth of how serious the situation is—the desire of the states to continue to collectively control our own destiny by agreeing to these unprecedented actions,” Buschatzke said.
But the decision exposed long-simmering tensions between downstream and upstream the upstream states which are legally bound to deliver water to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and other users downstream.
“All of us, including Arizona, need to do a lot more conservation that results in water staying in Lake Mead,” and the Upper Basin states need conserve water, too, he said.
But California, Nevada and Arizona need to stop using so much water and learn to live with less, said Marielle Cowdin, spokeswoman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs, Colo.
Upper Basin states have witnessed climate change firsthand and have learned to live within the dwindling water supplies they have, Cowdin said.
“It appears steps are being taken” in the Lower Basin to do just that, but everyone needs to adapt to a changing climate, she said.
Drought is drying up the Colorado River faster than cities across the Southwest can conserve it, Trujillo said.
“Many communities are undertaking conservation measures, but we’ve seen less water coming into the system,” Trujillo said. “They’ll need to do more conservation.”
The Colorado River, which provides water to more than 40 million people from Denver to Los Angeles, relies on mountain snows to feed it. But as temperatures rise and snowpack becomes less stable and certain, less water is filling the river and its tributaries.
“Water recycling may be the only new source of water we have available,” Trujillo said.
Climate change-driven unrelenting drought has dropped Lake Powell, one of the West’s most important storehouses of water and a regional source of hydropower, to its lowest level since it was originally filled in the 1960s.
The Interior Department in 2021 declared a first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River, which provides water to more than 40 million people across the Southwest.
“The Colorado River is a shared resource, not Nevada’s alone,” the Southern Nevada Water Authority said in a tweet. “Federal law provides California with an annual allocation of that water. They’re already working on desalination, but unfortunately there isn’t a single ‘magic bullet’ solution to water supply issues.”
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