First, US declares water shortage on Colorado River

As climate change and long-term drought continue to wreak havoc on the Colorado River, the federal government on Monday declared a water...


As climate change and long-term drought continue to wreak havoc on the Colorado River, the federal government on Monday declared a water shortage for the first time at Lake Mead, one of the river’s main reservoirs.

The statement triggers water supply cuts that, for now, will primarily affect Arizona farmers. Starting next year, they will be cut off from much of the water they have depended on for decades. Much smaller cuts are required for Nevada and Mexico across the southern border.

But larger cuts, affecting many more of the 40 million people in the West who depend on the river for at least part of their water supply, are likely in the years to come as global warming continues to reduce the amount. of water from rain in Colorado. and snowmelt.

“As this seemingly inexorable drop in supply continues, the shortages that we are starting to see implemented will only increase,” said Jennifer Pitt, who heads the Colorado River program at the National Audubon Society. “Once we’re on that train, we don’t know where it stops.”

The Bureau of Reclamation, an agency of the Home Office, said the shortage when publishing its latest outlook for the river for the next 24 months. This forecast showed that by the end of this year, Lake Mead, the huge reservoir near Las Vegas, would reach a level of 1,066 feet above sea level. It has not seen a level as high. low since it began to fill after the Hoover Dam was completed in the 1930s. The lake will be at 34 percent of its capacity.

“Today’s announcement highlights the challenges we face in the Colorado River Basin and elsewhere in the West,” said Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Home Secretary for Water and Science .

Water levels in Lake Mead and Colorado’s other great reservoir, Lake Powell, Utah, have been dropping for years, leaving a telltale white “tub ring” of mineral deposits along the shore as demand exceeded supply.

The mandatory reductions, known as Tier 1 reductions, are part of a contingency plan approved in 2019 after lengthy negotiations between the seven states that use water from the Colorado River: California, Nevada and Arizona in the lower basin, and New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming in the upper basin. Native American tribes and Mexican officials were also involved in the planning.

The shortage announced Monday affects only the lower basin states, but the Bureau of Reclamation could declare a similar shortage for the upper basin, possibly as early as next year.

The scarcity declaration will reduce Arizona’s supply of Colorado River water, supplied by a system of canals and pumping stations called the Central Arizona Project, by about 20 percent, or 512,000 acre-feet. (One acre-foot equals about 325,000 gallons, enough water for two or three households for a year.)

In anticipation of the cuts, some farmers have set aside fields or switched to crops that require less water. Others will pump more groundwater to compensate for the cuts, raising additional questions about sustainability as groundwater supplies are not unlimited.

“The river is the iconic resource,” said Kevin Moran of the Environmental Defense Fund. “But we also have to think about the management of our groundwater. “

The question for Lake Mead and Colorado is whether the Tier 1 cuts will be enough to stop the decline in supply as climate change continues to affect river flow. Additional levels, which could come into effect soon if the lake level continues to decline, as forecasts released on Monday predict, would imply increasingly drastic cuts. And even further reductions may need to be negotiated.

This has been one of the worst years on record for runoff in the Colorado River, said Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project. “The big question is, what’s going to happen in 2022? he said. After two decades of drought, “one thing we don’t have is the resilience of the reservoirs, because they’re so weak, to withstand the kind of year we’ve had this year in a row.”

Sharon B. Megdal, director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona, said she believed the focus of the statement on the dire state of the river would lead to more effort in the area. area to use less water. “I think we’re going to see some adaptation,” she said. “But I don’t know if we can do as much to avoid further cuts.”

With the various tier reductions that have been negotiated, “We’re only really talking until 2025,” Dr Megdal said. “If things continued to get worse, I think there would be interventions to do even more. We cannot let the river system fail.

Lake Mead now contains about 12 million acre-feet of water, well below its capacity of nearly 30 million acre-feet. The last time it was almost full was two decades ago.

Since then, much of the southwest has been mired in a drought that climatologists say rivals some long-lasting droughts in the past 2,000 years.

Even in the occasional recent year with a good snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, the amount of water flowing into the river has decreased. Researchers say the warming is largely to blame, as the soils have become so dry that they soak up much of the slush like a sponge, before it can reach the river.

Planning for the likelihood of a reduction in the Colorado River’s water supply began shortly after the onset of the drought. In 2007, states developed guidelines for dealing with shortages, which the 2019 agreement further fleshed out.

“Today’s announcement is a recognition that the hydrology that was predicted years ago and that we hoped would never see is here,” said Camille Touton, deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation.

“The river is in uncharted territory,” Mr. Moran said. “Climate scientists have explained fairly well that about 40 to 60 percent of the decline is due to global warming.”

Mr Moran said the new infrastructure bill, which passed in the Senate but faces a rockier road in the House, includes at least several billion dollars that could help the region cope with this new reality. This includes money to improve so-called natural infrastructure, including forests, watersheds and underground aquifers, which could help boost supply, or at least slow the decline.

“Our hydraulic infrastructure is not only made up of artificial reservoirs and treatment plants,” he said. “It is also the natural system.”

Credit…The New York Times

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Newsrust - US Top News: First, US declares water shortage on Colorado River
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