EnvironmentClimateUS & Canada

Colorado River drought crisis – Lake Powell & Lake Mead water shortage

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Over 40 million people and a major agricultural sector rely on water from the Colorado River to sustain normal operations and a western American way of life. But after 23 years of over-use and dry conditions fueled by climate change, the river’s reservoir system is experiencing historic lows.

Mega-drought has reduced Lake Powell and Lake Mead to record levels

The reservoirs making up the Colorado River basin, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, supply water to 7 states. The Upper Basin states consist of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin includes California, Nevada, and Arizona.

Extreme drought conditions coupled with unsustainable consumption have sapped the reservoirs’ available water supply. As of 2022, Lake Powell’s water level sat at a staggering 23% of full capacity, with Lake Mead coming in at just 27%.

Colorado River Water Shortage, Lake Powell Water Level Data Chart Historical Graph Past 1 Year Chart
Lake Powell Water Level Chart (Historical Graph – Past 12 Months)

Experts say that the term “drought” isn’t nearly sufficient to describe the changes occurring in the basin. What seems to be happening is a radical shift to a much drier climate – a process called aridification, which raises the concern that the reservoirs will never reach their pre-crisis capacity.

Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, isn’t optimistic about the future of the reservoirs. “They’re not going to refill,” said Hasencamp. “The only reason they filled the first time is that there wasn’t demand for the water. In the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, there was no Central Arizona Project, there was no Southern Nevada Water Authority, and there was not nearly as much use in the Upper Basin.”

Over-allocation of the Colorado River

Over-allocation poses one of the greatest risks to long-term water security in the Colorado Basin. As demand vastly outpaces the supply, the water available in the system continues to dwindle, and environmental factors wreak havoc on the already-meager pools.

“Climate change is reducing the flow into the Colorado River system, so the agreements are divvying up more water than exists,” said Pierce, a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “This drop in reservoir levels is happening because we are abiding by agreements that do not account for changes in water inflow into the system due to climate change.”

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Climate change isn’t the only thing endangering the Colorado River system. Evaporation and system losses contribute to an alarming 1.2 to 1.5 million acre-feet of water lost from the river each year – more than 10% of its total yield.

Federal Bureau of Reclamation urges states to come up with a plan to address shortages

The basin states are meeting federal pressure to reduce how much water they take from the over-burdened river. The Bureau of Reclamation, the government agency in charge of water management in the West, cites a need for urgent cutbacks on behalf of the states along the river. It put forth the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to restrict how much was released to water users in 2023 and 2024.

Colorado River

Sarah Porter, Director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, says that creating a conservation plan won’t be easy. “It is possible that the states will not be able to come up with an agreement because what they have to agree to do is so very hard. They have to agree to take less water. And that requires getting water users within the state to agree to use less water.”

The river provides water supplies and essential energy to major cities, indigenous tribes, and long-standing farming operations in the region. The states have been urged by the Bureau to save between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet of water – a whopping third of their yearly allotment.

The federal agency declared an unofficial deadline of January 31, 2023 to propose a model for voluntary water cuts. However, the date passed with no progress made toward drought contingency plans.

Basin states are at odds in coming to a consensus for water cutbacks

As negotiations stalled, 6 of the states relying on the drought-stricken river regrouped to offer a consensus-based proposal for cutbacks to prevent Lake Powell and Lake Mead from reaching a “dead pool” – a critical point where there wouldn’t be enough water in the reservoirs to flow through the dams that generate hydropower.

The 6 states’ conservation model allows for reductions of up to 3.1 million acre-feet per year. This plan accounts for system losses and surface water evaporation in the river’s open-air canals, and it can be put into effect if levels in the reservoirs plummet to catastrophic numbers.

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California, which uses the most water from the river, was the lone holdout – it submitted a separate model for less drastic concessions of 1 million acre-feet per year for the Lower Basin. It would reduce its own water usage by 400,000 acre-feet annually, while Arizona would bear the brunt of the cutbacks at 560,000 acre-feet. Nevada would make up the rest of the reductions.

California’s argument that its farmers, as some of the river’s senior-most users have a priority claim to the water is just one of the many interests that complicate the states’ ability to come to an agreement.

“California’s argument is, we have senior priority. We are the first user with legal rights. So we shouldn’t have to take cuts first,” says Rhett Larson, a water rights professor at Arizona State University.

The bitter negotiations between California and the other basin states threaten to send matters to court for litigation – scenario water managers hope to avoid. 

“We have a situation where some of the water rights holders in California are saying, ‘We’re not willing to give up more water, and we think we have legal rights and we’re willing to go to court if we have to’,” said David Hayes, a lecturer at Stanford University Law School and formed climate aide to U.S President Joe Biden. “And there’s not enough time to litigate these issues,” he added.

Efforts have been made on the state level to combat water scarcity

Despite the lack of consensus between the 7 states that make up the river basin, progress has been made toward more earnest initiatives to conserve water in major cities of the western U.S. In particular, Pheonix has allocated $295 million for a new pipeline to connect users to other water sources – and in Denver, efforts are being made to pay residents to remove non-functional turf, a wasteful water guzzler.

Colorado River

Las Vegas has put more aggressive usage restrictions into effect, as well as proposed to return immense quantities of treated wastewater to Lake Mead for reuse. Salt Lake City followed suit by cutting back consumption by 15% this past irrigation season, and Los Angeles is developing its own $3.4 billion water-recycling plant in tandem with Arizona and Nevada.

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“I’m extremely hopeful,” said Lis Mullin Bernhardt, a freshwater expert with the United Nations Environment Programme, in an interview. “I see change happening. I see a positive future that might look a bit different from how we’re living now, but it’s still a very worthwhile future. I’ve got no doubt we’ll find solutions.”

Upper Colorado River states land $125 million for pilot conservation program

In light of the ongoing emergency in the Colorado Basin, further government expenditures for water conservation have recently been approved.

The Upper Colorado River states have been granted another $125 million to pay farmers and ranchers for temporary water rights, which allows them to keep enough water in Lake Powell and Lake Mead to operate the dams. Known as the System Conservation Pilot Program, this initiative is the second trial of an earlier pilot that ran from 2015 to 2018 and saved up to 50,000 acre-feet of water.

What these measures go to show is that the water crisis is beginning to receive the spotlight it deserves – a notable step forward in the fight to preserve the Colorado River’s title as the “American Nile” and lifeblood of the Basin.

“Well-directed funding today will help farmers, ranchers, cities, and the environment prospers in a more arid future,” said Bart Miller, Western Resource Advocates Healthy Rivers Director. “This is a key down payment, but additional resources will be needed in future years, as the challenge is large.”

The situation in the Colorado Basin is dire, but there is a determination to adapt to the rapidly changing western landscape. While the future of the river and its reservoirs are uncertain, what can be expected is further federal spending to assist states in sticking to their water budget as awareness is raised about the issue at hand.

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Sabur Ameer

A creative wordsmith with a love of French-press coffee,
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