FOR THE WEEK OF AUG. 15, 2022
Tough steps are ahead as Western states must cut water use from Colorado River's reduced flow
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Water-shortage reality is forcing hard decisions in seven Western states relying on the Colorado River for agriculture, industry, development, landscaping and household use. They must negotiate major cuts in 2023 water use this month or have the federal government impose them. Proposals will be submitted any day to the Bureau of Reclamation, part of the U.S. Interior Department. Reductions are expected to fall most heavily on agriculture, which uses about three-quarters of Colorado water. Those cuts will be just an interim step as the region struggles to adapt to increasingly dry years West. Rules for operating the river's shrinking reservoirs expire in 2026, and those states – California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – must forge a new agreement on water use for, businesses and cities.
The Southwest, gripped by a two-decade drought and increasing water use, has made earlier efforts to keep more water in America's largest reservoirs -- Lake Mead and Lake Powell, both fed mainly by the Colorado River. A first-ever shortage declaration last year cut water to farmers in Arizona. And an emergency move in May by the federal government reduced flow from Lake Powell. Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, is nearly three-quarters empty and at its lowest level since it first filled in 1937.
The outlook is bleak as climate change continues to affect runoff into the river and reduces the likelihood of wet years. This is "a stark illustration of climate change and a long-term drought that may be the worst in the U.S. West in 12 centuries," according to NASA's Earth Observatory program.
Significant cuts in water allocations will require conservation and other efficiencies. Actions include converting lawns to desert landscape, improving water delivery systems to reduce loss and reconsidering which crops to grow. Desalination plants to turn seawater into a usable supply are years away. Early successes are visible. Metropolitan Las Vegas has grown while reducing its Colorado River consumption over the past two decades by recycling storm runoff and wastewater for irrigation, and by removing enough landscaping turf to circle the globe, saving billions of gallons.
Official says: "The challenges we are seeing today are unlike anything we have seen in our history." -- Camille Touton, Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, at Senate hearing in June
River facts: The 1,450-mile Colorado River stretches from the Rocky Mountains to Mexico's Sea of Cortez. It serves 40 million people and nourishes 5 million acres of farmland.
Journalist says: "In a world of less water, everyone who uses the river must adjust." – Daniel Rothberg, reporter for The Nevada Independent
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