Feds Bring Big Water Cuts to Southwest

August 16, 2022

Washington Post:

As the historic drought in the U.S. Southwest pushes the nation’s largest reservoirs to record lows, the Biden administration Tuesday announced that water shortages along the Colorado River had passed a threshold for the first time that will require unprecedented water cuts in Arizona and Nevada.

But the federal government left unresolved the looming question of how seven Western states will divide what’s left of the dwindling river in the years ahead. Those states blew past Monday’s deadline, set by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in June, to reach a voluntary agreement on how to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet — up to a third of the river’s annual average flow.

Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau on Tuesday told reporters there was “still time” to find consensus, and Reclamation officials did not say when they might impose their own cuts if no deal is reached.

The announcement underscored both how dire drought conditions have become in the Colorado River basin and the challenge of getting competing states to cut vital water supplies that sustain cities, agriculture and hydropower for millions of people.

The Colorado River’s decline has drained three-quarters of the water from the nation’s largest reservoirs, and falling closer than ever to levels where hydroelectric dams can’t generate power and millions will lose access to drinking water and irrigation supplies. By declaring Tuesday that the Lower Colorado River Basin has reached what’s called a “Tier 2” shortage, the bureau is requiring cuts in water use that will diminish what Arizona gets by 21 percent, Nevada by 8 percent and the country of Mexico by 7 percent.

“The system is approaching a tipping point, and without action we cannot protect the system and the millions of Americans who rely on this critical resource,” M. Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, said during a news conference. “Protecting the system means protecting the people of the American West.”

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