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Colorado River states brace for the biggest water cuts ever

Despite a very wet winter, Western states will have to severely cut water consumption.

A photo of a deep canyon with a river at the bottom.
The Colorado River at Lees Ferry, Arizona in May, 2021.
Ross D. Franklin/AP
Benji Jones is a senior environmental reporter at Vox, covering biodiversity loss and climate change. Before joining Vox, he was a senior energy reporter at Insider. Benji previously worked as a wildlife researcher.

Even a winter packed with rain and snow could not bring the Colorado River crisis to an end. The river is still drying out. And on Tuesday, government officials announced two historic proposals to prevent the system and the some 40 million people it sustains from crashing.

The proposals seek to slash the amount of river water supplied to cities and farms in the Southwest by as much as 2 million acre-feet in the near-term. It’s a massive number, equal to more than a quarter of the water allocated to the region. (An acre-foot fills one acre of land with one foot of water and is roughly what two average houses use each year.)

In a room overlooking the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton presented two potential strategies for protecting the system in the near term. They apply to the lower basin states — California, Arizona, and Nevada — and the proposals have vastly different consequences for each.

One proposal would dish out cuts based on seniority. Communities in the river basin that have been using water for longer, including farmers in California’s Imperial Valley and Yuma, Arizona, generally have more senior rights to the river. They would be spared by these cuts.

The other option is more dramatic. It would divvy out cutbacks more evenly across all users in the lower basin, regardless of what water rights they posses. In doing so, this option would hit major agricultural regions hardest and run against laws that have governed the river for many decades.

The white bathtub ring around Leak Mead shows how far the reservoir has fallen, as of March 6.
John Locher/AP

These proposals are just that — proposals. Reclamation is now asking for feedback before this summer, when it will announce how it plans to safeguard the system and its reservoirs.

But they are certainly unprecedented, according to Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. The government has never called for a cutback this large, she said, nor has it proposed a plan of action that undermines existing laws that govern the river and protect its most senior users.

Tuesday’s announcement shows that the US government is willing to flex its authority if need be to protect the river.

The river is indeed in need. More than two decades of drought, coupled with a century of mismanagement, have drained the river’s main reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Lake Mead, which sends water downriver to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Southern California, is less than a third full.

And while this year’s large snowpack will help replenish these reservoirs, it won’t solve the problem or obviate the need for drastic actions, especially as climate change continues to warm the basin.

“Everyone who lives and works in the Basin knows that one good year will not save us,” Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the Interior, said at Tuesday’s press event. “The hydrologic trend is dire.”

Here’s what these proposals mean for states in the river basin — and why they’re so historic.

The complicated journey to the river’s extraordinary predicament, simplified

Two main problems have caused the current shortage in the Colorado River. First, government officials over-allocated the river’s water when they first divvied it up 100 years ago. In a sense, there’s never been enough water. Then came climate change and a severe drought, which only sucked more water away. Research suggests that warming will only worsen in the basin.

A confusing set of policies that govern the river — collectively known as “The Law of the River” — already require states in the lower basin to make cuts as Lake Mead shrinks. Some of those cuts have already been made, following the priority system. Communities with junior water rights, including cities and farms in parts of Arizona, have had to turn down their taps. Meanwhile, farms in California, which tend to have more senior rights, have mostly been spared.

Deputy Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau speaks during a news conference on Lake Mead at Hoover Dam on April 11, 2023.

But those cuts haven’t been deep enough; they haven’t done enough to stop the river from crashing. So Reclamation announced last summer that basin states would have to trim at least another 2 million acre-feet from their water budgets. In the months since, water districts across the basin have been negotiating with each other to try to find a way to reach that level of cuts, but so far they haven’t come to an agreement.

That brings us to Reclamation’s announcement on Tuesday. Based on feedback from the basin states, the Bureau laid out different approaches to conserve as much as 2 million acre-feet in 2024, and more in the following years, assuming Lake Mead continues to decline. Reclamation isn’t telling states to pick one. Rather, the proposals are meant to guide and accelerate negotiations before summer. If by then states can’t come to an agreement, it’s possible that the Bureau will act unilaterally and mandate cuts.

The authority of the Interior Department is broad, Beaudreau said, to operate the river’s dams in the interest of public safety. “At the end of the day,” he said, “it’s the secretary’s responsibility to keep this system operating.”

Two very different ways to cut water in the river basin

The Bureau laid out three options in a 476-page document called a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). It’s a detailed look at how the agency plans to alter operations of the river over the next three years, and what that means for its hydrology.

The first proposal is to do nothing — stick to the existing policies, which include some cutbacks. That’s an unlikely outcome, given the state of drought in the West. The other two are as follows:

  1. Cut water by priority, which means junior water users suffer the deepest reductions.
  2. Cut water among all users by the same percentage, putting the biggest burden on communities that use the most water.

Option 1 (called Alternative 1 in the DEIS) would cause especially large reductions in Arizona, Porter said. That’s because many of its water districts have junior rights, including those that encompass big cities like Phoenix and Tucson, and their sprawling suburbs.

“At current reservoir levels, Arizona would be required to cut 1.2 million acre-feet, while California cuts nothing,” according to John Fleck, an author and Colorado River expert. (Fleck’s blog is among the best resources for understanding what cuts mean for users in the basin.)

These regions would undoubtedly feel some pain. The good news is that most Western cities — Phoenix and Vegas among them — already deploy a lot of conservation practices, such as water recycling, buffering them against future shortages.

“It’s hard to find a major city in the West that has not gone to enormous lengths to invest in the necessary conservation programs and infrastructure to provide alternative water supplies in order to buffer their risk against change,” Fleck told me last fall.

This option unquestionably favors California and farmers in the Imperial Valley — a district with the single largest allocation of Colorado River water — where users tend to have more senior rights. They wouldn’t have to make any additional cuts in the near term, Porter said. (Yuma, Arizona, home to vast stretches of farmland, would also be spared under this approach.)

Declining water levels at Lake Mead have exposed boats and other items at the bottom of the reservoir.
John Locher/AP

The second option (called Alternative 2) would sidestep the river’s priority system and distribute cuts evenly, in proportion to how much water each region uses. The largest curtailments would fall on the lower basin’s thirstiest users — including farmland in the Imperial Valley, Coachella Valley, and Yuma.

These regions have highly senior rights yet together they consume close to 4 million acre-feet each year, equal to roughly a third of the entire flow of the river. Cuts that follow this second option could dramatically impact an important agricultural region that supplies most of the nation’s winter vegetables, such as lettuce, kale, and carrots, and perhaps even boost the cost of food. But as Porter points out, “cities and Tribes in central Arizona would benefit because they would take smaller cuts.”

The Bureau didn’t endorse either of the plans. The public has 45 days to provide feedback on them, which the government will consider — along with any outcomes from the negotiations between states — before making a decision.

“These are really just starting points for a push toward a seven-state negotiation between now and summer,” Fleck writes.

What this means for people who rely on the river

The Interior’s plan to protect the Colorado River may ultimately fall somewhere in between the two options.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the river’s most senior users aren’t pushed to cut back. Broadly speaking, cuts that follow the priority system will spare farming regions at the expense of cities — a reality that may be politically unviable given that cities have much larger economies and many more people.

“Any proposed action that does not require each Basin state to equitably share this sacrifice is not viable,” Arizona Rep. Greg Stanton said in a statement Tuesday.

Yet it’s also unlikely for the government to completely flout the priority system to make even cuts across the board. That approach would likely hit legal roadblocks, experts say, further delaying efforts to safeguard the river.

In a statement Tuesday, the Imperial Irrigation District, which manages water in the Imperial Valley, said “alternatives that skirt around long-standing water rights” could jeopardize partnerships between different water agencies in California. “The priority system is a foundational element of Colorado River water management,” the district said.

In the end, the reality is the same no matter how the government responds: There’s simply less water in the Colorado River. That means communities who have been relying on the river for decades — and in some cases for more than a century — will have to cut back. And with climate change continuing to dry out the basin, these problems may only get worse.

“The system is changing in profound ways,” Deputy Secretary Beaudreau said Tuesday, adding that the spillway near Lake Mead hasn’t seen a drop of water since the ’80s. “We cannot kick the can on finding solutions.”

Next week, The Highlight by Vox will explore what the shrinking Colorado River means for people and wildlife in an issue titled: “The 100-year-old-mistake that’s reshaping the American West.” You will be able to find that issue here.