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Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County shows the effect of a water draw down on October 29, 2021. The reservoir has lowered because water from it is being released downstream to increase the volume of water available to downstream users that rely on the Colorado River. Blue Mesa is fed by the Gunnison River, one of the Colorado River's largest tributaries. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Federal officials Tuesday gave more time to Colorado and its neighboring states to agree on the massive cuts in Colorado River use needed to protect the country’s two largest reservoirs, even as they announced that historic cuts were coming to parts of the Southwest.   

Officials said that Lake Mead, east of Las Vegas, would operate in its first-ever “level 2a shortage condition” in 2023, triggering previously agreed upon reductions in water use in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. California does not take cuts under this shortage level.

In Arizona, the cuts amount to 592,000 acre-feet, or 21% of the state’s annual apportionment. In Nevada, the cuts will be 92,000 acre-feet, or about 8%. And Mexico will take a 7% or 104,000 acre-foot hit.  

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said during a Tuesday call with reporters that the federal government would continue to work with the seven Colorado River Basin states to find consensus on new water cuts in response to federal officials identifying the need for 2 million to 4 million acre-feet in water savings needed next year. Officials identified those cuts as necessary to protect critical infrastructure at Lake Powell and Lake Mead as well as hydropower production.

Touton, however, gave no indication as to what specific cuts the federal government is willing to make if a collective agreement is not eventually reached. Instead, she said, “more information will be forthcoming regarding next steps and the process that we will follow.”

There was little in today’s announcement that was responsive to the commissioner’s call for 2 to 4 million acre-feet reduction in use, said Jack Schmidt, director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University.

“None of the numbers that were talked about today had anything to do with the 2 to 4 million acre-foot call,” Schmidt said. “Essentially, in the nicest of ways, the announcement today said we aren’t there yet. I’m not going to say we failed because we can’t fail. But they certainly said ‘we missed the deadline and we’re going to keep working at it.’”

Federal officials initially gave the states two months to come up with ideas for how to meet that target, with a Tuesday deadline.

“There are a lot of conversations about how we collectively mitigate the impacts of drought and climate change on the Colorado River and our shared goal of formulating durable and equitable solutions,” Touton said during the call. “But to date, the states collectively have not identified and adopted specific actions of sufficient magnitude that would stabilize the system.”

Touton and other officials continually stressed the need for a collaborative approach. 

“We’re continuing to work with the basin states because we believe that the solution here is one of partnership,” Touton said. 

Essentially, in the nicest of ways, the announcement today said we aren’t there yet.

Director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University Jack Schmidt

“There’s still time for that,” said Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the interior.

Water managers also said they would study whether it might be possible to operate Lake Powell at a level below what is now considered “deadpool,” the level at which water cannot flow beyond the dam.   

The bureau also said it would work with the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, tribes and other stakeholders to implement “substantial releases from Upper Basin reservoirs” to help prop up the water level at Powell.  

Lake Powell could fall below elevation 3,490, the lowest level at which Glen Canyon Dam can generate hydropower, as early as sometime next year, according to the bureau’s latest report. 

Upper Basin looks south

Flows on the Colorado River have declined roughly 20% since 2000 amid a drought scientists believe is the driest 22-year stretch in the past 1,200 years. 

Forty million people rely on the Colorado River for drinking water and farmers and ranchers use the water to irrigate millions of acres of farmland. 

“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency,” assistant secretary for water and science Tanya Trujillo said in a written statement. “In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced.” 

The Upper Basin responded to the commissioner’s call for cuts in a July 18 letter. The letter laid out an Upper Basin plan for conservation, but did not identify a specific amount of water that could be saved. 

Glen Canyon Dam at Page, Arizona, holds back the massive Lake Powell. Since this photo was taken on Aug. 21, 2021, drought conditions in the West have led levels of water in the lake to drop near where the dam will no longer be able to generate electricity. (Bureau of Land Management)

Signed by Charles Cullom, the executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, the letter noted that the options available to the Upper Basin states to help maintain critical reservoir elevations are “limited,” and that “significant actions” would need to be taken downstream of Lake Powell.

Top water officials in Colorado have maintained the majority of the cuts identified by the commissioner would need to come where most of the water is used — the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. 

Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell said discussions about how to cut water use will continue among the seven basin states. 

“I think what we saw today is there is not a plan out of the Lower Basin states,” Mitchell said. “I’m still hopeful that there will be discussions with our Lower Basin comrades to come up with something.”

Mitchell also reiterated that the Upper Basin plan would not be as effective without significant action downstream. 

“This will require leadership from the U.S. Department of the Interior through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and bold action across the Basin,” Mitchell said in a statement. “Downstream of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, depletions must come into balance with available supply.”

In 2021, according to Bureau of Reclamation numbers compiled by the UCRC, the Upper Basin used about 3.5 million acre-feet. That provisional number includes water lost to evaporation. The UCRC numbers show 2021 water use plus evaporation losses in the Lower Basin at nearly 10 million acre-feet, which includes about a 1.5 million acre-foot portion for Mexico. 

Water lost to evaporation

It’s unfortunate that the states haven’t arrived at meaningful reductions in consumptive use, Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, said. 

“I think it’s even more unfortunate that the Bureau and Department of the Interior have tools at their disposal that could make meaningful progress toward that and have shown an unwillingness to implement those tools,” he said. 

At the moment, water lost to evaporation in Lower Basin reservoirs and during transit is not factored into the overall calculations in Arizona, California and Nevada. Mueller said federal water managers including those numbers would account for a significant amount of water. 

“If you assess those losses against contracting parties then their total consumptive use would drop by 1.2 million acre-feet,” Mueller said. “But right now the whole system gets hit with that. They call it a structural deficit, we call it overuse.” 

Among other points, the Southern Nevada Water Authority suggested the Lower Basin states should account for water lost to evaporation in a letter sent to federal water managers this week. 

“Charge each contractor for evaporation losses in the Lower Basin so that the Lower Basin can reduce its reliance on excess water from the Upper Basin to balance reservoirs,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, wrote. 

“If you want water, and you need it this year, the bureau should be doing that right now,” Mueller said. “My understanding is they’re afraid of litigation from the Lower Basin, specifically California, and my answer to that is leadership involves risks and they need to exhibit leadership now.” 

With green weeds growing on the dry shoreline, a pair of boats travel the Blue Mesa Reservoir Monday July 11, 2022. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Water lost through evaporation is already factored into Upper Basin numbers. 

Utah State’s Schmidt also said now is a time that “demands federal leadership.” 

“The federal government needs to be the grownup in the room,” he said. 

Although the bureau indicated today that it might consider the evaporation issue, Mueller said the lack of specific language frustrated him.

“Why are we in a crisis? Yes, climate change is playing a role, but we are also in a crisis because of the bureau’s failure to institute proper accounting on the Lower Basin,” Mueller said. “It’s frustrating that they’re going to ‘prioritize and prepare for additional administrative initiatives.’ Frankly, George Orwell could have written that sentence.”

Preserving the dam

Depending on snowpack and runoff, between 600,000 and 4.2 million acre-feet will need to be conserved over the next four years to stabilize lakes Powell and Mead, according to a Bureau of Reclamation analysis. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre in a foot of water or about 325,000 gallons, enough for about two or three households annually.) 

The bureau also released on Tuesday its August 24-Month Study, a key report that indicates how Powell and Mead will operate in the upcoming year, which triggered the cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. The study projects the water level at Lake Powell in January 2023 will be at about 3,522 feet above sea level, 32 feet above the elevation at which Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate hydropower, 3,490 feet. 

It will be at least another couple months until officials can start to predict how the next snow season may or may not help this problem, said Jeff Lukas, an independent water and climate researcher based in Lafayette. 

“In terms of what’s happening hydrologically, we’ll start observing and speculating as early as October and November, but not until mid-December is there really enough on the ground to tip you off as to how the rest of the year might play out,” Lukas said. “What you do know going into October and November is the soil moisture, which we’ve seen is pretty important when it’s massively depleted.”

This year, water managers will send 500,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border to Powell. Last year, federal officials pursued emergency action that included releasing 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison and 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge. 

The bureau said that other actions specific to the Upper Basin would include studying whether modifications could be made to Glen Canyon Dam so that water could be pumped or released below below certain low water elevations. 

Matt Rice, director of the Colorado Basin program at American Rivers, said that although he understands the bureau is in a tough position, he was a little surprised by the lack of specifics in the federal announcement Tuesday. 

“We are in a crisis mode, and I appreciate the bullet points,” Rice said, “but I was a little surprised by how broad it was.” 

Nevertheless, the federal officials on Tuesday’s call said the stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin could achieve meaningful change by working together.

“The solution to our challenges relies on the bedrock of a century of collaboration and partnership in the Colorado River Basin,” commissioner Touton said. “But as water stewards, it is our responsibility to protect the system and the millions of Americans who depend on it.”

Chris Outcalt covered Western water issues for The Colorado Sun until December 2022. He began his journalism career in New Hampshire, then moved West and became a reporter at the Lafayette News. He also was an associate editor at 5280 and a...