The Bureau of Reclamation announced Wednesday that Colorado River conditions have improved, so a Lower Basin proposal to cut water use by 3 million acre-feet should stave off a water crisis for the next few years.
Federal, state and tribal officials have put several plans into action since 2000 to respond to drought and water supply insecurity in the West. But those plans have fallen short: By 2022, water storage dropped to near-crisis levels in the basin’s two most important reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. A Reclamation analysis released Wednesday said that wet conditions in 2023 and states’ conservation efforts reduced the chances that water supplies will plummet to critical lows, at least through 2026 when a new set of rules will be finalized for the two reservoirs.
Reclamation’s analysis moved a short-term planning process a step forward by designating the plan to cut water in Arizona, California and Nevada — which form the Colorado River’s Lower Basin — as its proposed action plan out of four alternatives. The proposal does not obligate Colorado to cut water use.
“The Colorado River Basin’s reservoirs, including its two largest storage reservoirs Lake Powell and Lake Mead, remain at historically low levels,” Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in a news release Wednesday. “Today’s advancement protects the system in the near-term while we continue to develop long-term, sustainable plans to combat the climate-driven realities facing the Basin.”
The Bureau of Reclamation started the near-term planning process in 2022 after asking all seven states to quickly cut their water use by a combined total of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet in response to worsening conditions in the basin.
One acre-foot of water supports about two families of four to five people for one year, according to the 2023 Colorado Water Plan.
Reclamation released the first draft of the near-term plan, called a supplemental environmental impact statement, in April. The federal process aims to map out a potential framework for water operations — how water is stored and released in reservoirs — at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams through 2026.
The initial plan outlined three alternatives for water cuts in Lower Basin states, for which the Department of Interior has legal authority over water deliveries. Upper Basin states, including Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, are upstream of the two dams and have full authority over how they administer their water.
One initial alternative suggested cutting water use based on the existing system of prior appropriation, which would benefit water users with older, “senior” water rights and assign larger cuts to those with more junior rights. Another alternative would step away from the longstanding system of prior appropriation and distribute cuts proportionately among Lower Basin states.
The federal government is also required by law to propose a no-action plan, which proposes no changes to the current rules that govern how the reservoirs manage water supplies.
After seeing the three alternatives, Lower Basin states finally agreed on a proposal of their own after months of disagreement and negotiations among basin states.
Their proposal, a letter submitted to Reclamation in May, committed to conserving at least 1.5 million acre-feet of water by the end of 2024 and planned to conserve the rest of the 3 million acre-feet by 2026. Of that 3 million acre-feet, water users will receive compensation through the Inflation Reduction Act for up to 2.3 million acre-feet of water savings.
The Tucson and Phoenix metro areas have already committed to conserving up to 140,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead in 2023 and up to 393,000 acre-feet through 2025, according to a Bureau of Reclamation news release.
The 700-page revised draft environmental impact statement released this week designates the Lower Basin plan as its proposed action, although the no-action alternative is still on the table.
The other two alternatives, cutting water based on the priority system or making proportionate cuts, were ruled out, according to the news release.
Reclamation also launched a 45-day public comment period with the release of the revised draft, after which the federal government will take steps to finalize the near-term plan.
In a separate process, Reclamation is also working with states to establish new management rules for the Colorado River’s water storage system after the current rules expire in 2026.
What is Lake Mead?
Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the Colorado River Basin and the United States. The federal government built and operates Lake Mead, which sits in the river’s Lower Basin. >> MORE
The Lower Basin proposal aims to keep Mead’s water supply above critical elevations. At 950 feet, Hoover Dam cannot release water from Lake Mead to generate hydroelectric power, and at 895 feet, the dam cannot release water to downstream users at all.
The bureau’s initial environmental impact statement was based on worrisome projections for the river’s two key reservoirs.
Lake Powell’s water level had a 57% chance of falling below 3,490 feet by 2026, the elevation at which Glen Canyon Dam cannot generate hydroelectric power for people across the West, according to modeling based on hydrologic conditions through September 2022. The initial analysis showed that Lake Mead’s water level had a 52% chance of dropping below 1,000 feet.
This week’s updated analysis, which includes data from June, showed a drastic improvement.
The bureau estimates that Lake Powell’s water level has an 8% chance of dropping below its critical elevation through 2026. There is a 4% chance that Lake Mead’s water level will drop below its critical elevation.
“We need to prepare for the worst. The example of that is, there was a 3% chance of the hydrology that we’ve seen for the last 20 years occurring,” said Commissioner Becky Mitchell, who represents Colorado in interstate negotiations on Colorado River issues, during a Colorado River Drought Task Force meeting Oct. 12.
Current water levels
The Bureau of Reclamation said state conservation efforts and wet conditions in 2023, which set records for rain and snow in parts of Colorado and the Colorado River Basin, contributed to the improved forecast.
However, elevations in the two massive reservoirs remain historically low. Lake Powell held about 8.7 million acre-feet of water as of Tuesday out of its total capacity, 26 million acre-feet. Lake Mead stored about 8.9 million acre-feet of water as of mid-October out of its total storage capacity, 28.9 million acre-feet.
Mother Nature helped the basin this year, but that’s not a guarantee in the future, Mitchell wrote in a prepared statement Wednesday.
“If there’s a lesson to be learned from the last few years, it is that we must live within the means of the River if we hope to sustain it,” she wrote. “Mother Nature has helped us out. This gave the system a temporary boost, but we cannot rely on that to continue into the future. We must remain focused on developing more sustainable operational guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.”