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Federal officials expected to ease water cuts on the Colorado River

A slightly improved outlook for the Colorado River’s health has prompted federal officials to ease water cuts this week.

Only minutes from Las Vegas, Boulder Basin in Lake Mead is the westernmost of three basins occupied by the Lake Mead reservoir. Image Courtesy of National Park Service
Only minutes from Las Vegas, Boulder Basin in Lake Mead is the westernmost of three basins occupied by the Lake Mead reservoir. Image Courtesy of National Park Service

A slightly improved outlook for the Colorado River’s health has prompted federal officials to ease water cuts this week.

The river provides water for seven U.S. states, 29 Native American tribes, and two states in Mexico, according to the Associated Press. It also supports a multibillion-dollar farm industry in the West and generates hydropower used across the region.

Since the development of the Colorado River Compact 100 years ago, overuse by farms and cities and the effects of drought worsened by climate change have meant much less water flows today through the Colorado River than in previous decades.

With the Western states exalting over this past winter’s snowpack, water levels on the Colorado River are going up for the first time in years. In turn, the  Bureau of Reclamation will announce that they are easing water restrictions in the Southwest starting next year.

Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River in Arizona on Fedruary 13, 2023. Source – Charles Wang, CC SA 4.0.

Three sources familiar with the plan told CNN officials would be lifting the region from a Tier 2 water shortage to a Tier 1. Keep in mind that the driest 22-year stretch in the past 1,200 years has gripped the southwestern U.S., zapping flows in the river.

“We have a smaller river; we need to learn to live with a smaller river,” Brenda Burman, general manager of the Central Arizona Project and former Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, told CNN. “We all need to be looking ahead to the ways we can live with less water.”

While the winter’s precipitation brought immediate relief, the challenges of a hotter, drier future and overuse of the river remain. Lake Powell and Lake Mead are still only about 39 and 33 percent full, respectively, reports The Toronto Star.

“That is a little better than last year, but still extremely low. It only takes a few dry years to set us back,” said Kim Mitchell, senior water policy advisor at Western Resource Advocates, a Phoenix-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting water and land in the West.

Conservation of water is still on the table

Guidelines that dictate how Colorado River water is allocated expire in 2026. Discussions among states, tribes, and the federal government about their priorities for the river after 2026 are just starting. Mexican negotiators will engage in a similar but parallel process with U.S. officials.

The Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in Arizona has suffered a multi-year drought amid fears of the effect on local water supply
The Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in Arizona has suffered a multi-year drought amid fears of the effect on local water supply – Copyright AFP Dimitar DILKOFF

One thing is certain: Negotiators must consider how users will live with significantly less water in the system, and that means that conservation efforts must be at the forefront of any discussions over water usage.

Scientists have recently focused on how hotter temperatures, driven by the human-caused climate crisis, are changing the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains. Each winter, that snow melts and trickles down through streams and tributaries into the Colorado River – a source of water and electricity for 40 million people in seven states.

The one certainty is there is less water in the Colorado River than there used to be, said climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

Some water managers on the river are calling for permanent reductions in water use by ripping out grass and recycling more water. But big cuts would have to come from agriculture – which uses the vast majority of the river’s water to grow thirsty crops like alfalfa.

Just how much water the Southwest actually needs to cut remains to be seen, although several estimates from scientists point to 1.5 million acre-feet annually – more than half of what Arizona is allocated in a normal year.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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