Jun 15, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Drought-hit Colorado River water supplies near "moment of reckoning"

Dry cracked earth is visible in an area of Lake Powell that was previously underwater on March 28, 2022 in Page, Arizona.
An area of Lake Powell in Page, Arizona, in March that was previously underwater. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

"Immediate action" is needed to avoid a water supply crisis next year because of the Colorado River's depleted reservoirs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's chief, Camille Calimlim Touton.

Driving the news: The West's climate-change driven megadrought has plunged the nation's two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, to historic lows. "Between 2 million acre-feet and 4 million acre-feet of additional conservation is needed just to protect critical levels in 2023," Touton said Tuesday.

  • The commissioner noted at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Capitol Hill that there "is so much to this that is unprecedented ... but unprecedented is now the reality and the normal in which Reclamation must manage our systems."
  • "The challenges we are seeing today are unlike anything we have seen in our history," she said.

Threat level: Per a report in April, the river that provides drinking water to 40 million people in seven states and 30 tribal nations is the most endangered waterway in the U.S. and "ground zero for the climate and water crisis" in the West.

  • John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies the Las Vegas area, said at the Senate hearing, "We are 150 feet from 25 million Americans losing access to the Colorado River, and the rate of decline is accelerating."
  • "What has been a slow-motion train wreck for 20 years is accelerating, and the moment of reckoning is near," he said.

What's happening: Touton said her bureau was undertaking short-term actions to prevent Lakes Mead and Powell from reaching "dead pool," which is when water levels get so low they cannot flow past a dam.

  • "This is the priority for us: between the next 60 days, to figure out a plan to close that gap," she said.

Of note: About 80% of the Colorado River is used for agriculture and "80% of that 80% is used for forage crops like alfalfa," which is mostly grown for cattle, Entsminger told senators.

  • "I'm not suggesting that farmers stop farming, but rather that they carefully consider crop selection and make the investments needed to optimize irrigation efficiency," Entsminger said. "By reducing their use of Colorado River water, agricultural entities are protecting their own interests."

Yes, but: Patrick O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance, told the hearing that taking water away from agriculture could affect rural communities and food production and increase food imports.

Be smart: Entsminger said while the situation is bleak, it's not unsolvable and pointed to Nevada's water-saving policies, including paying customers to replace grass with plants, setting mandatory irrigation schedules and strictly enforcing water waste rules.

  • "We have removed enough grass to lay a roll of sod all the way around the Earth, and we're not done," he added, pointing to plans to tighten restrictions on turf, improve irrigation efficiency and reduce evaporative cooling.
  • Entsminger and other water officials discussed with senators at the hearing how the federal government could improve the situation by funding infrastructure projects, such as wastewater recycling plants.
  • O'Toole suggested water storage and bettering forest health, and he said farmers would "need to make our ability to grow the same amount of food with less water a priority."

Go deeper: New Colorado River drought discovery shows how bad things can get

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