Parts of the Colorado River where water once flowed are now just soil and rock as climate change is affecting the western U.S. Makes it hot and dry.

Droughts lasting more than two decades have done little to prevent the region from diverting more water than is flowing through it, reducing major reservoirs to levels that now support distribution and hydropower generation. put in danger.

Cities and farms in seven US states prepare for cuts this week as officials set a deadline to propose unprecedented cuts to their use of water, in what is expected to be the most consequential week in years for Colorado River policy. are supposed to.

In June the US Bureau of Reclamation asked the states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – to figure out how to use at least 15% less water next year, or on those be banned. On top of this, the bureau is expected to publish hydrological projections that will trigger additional reductions already agreed upon.

“The challenges we see today are unlike anything we’ve seen in our history,” bureau commissioner Camille Touton told a US Senate hearing that month.

Tensions have mounted over the extent of the cuts and how to spread them evenly, with states pointing fingers and clinging stubbornly to their water rights despite the crisis.

“It’s no fun sitting around a table figuring out who is going to make sacrifices and how much water provides in Southern California,” said Bill Hasenkamp, ​​Colorado River Resource Manager for the Metropolitan Water District.

Representatives from seven states convened in Denver last week for an eleventh hour of talks behind closed doors. Officials involved in the discussion said the most likely targets for the cuts are farmers in Arizona and California. Agricultural districts in those states are asking to be paid generously to bear that burden.

The Colorado River drains from the Rocky Mountains into the arid desert southwest. It is the primary water supply for 40 million people. About 70% of its water goes to irrigation, maintaining a $15 billion-a-year agricultural industry that supplies 90% of the United States’ winter vegetables.

The river is divided under a series of agreements between Mexico and seven US states dating back a century, when more water flowed through the river. But climate change has changed the hydrology of the river, causing less ice melt and warmer temperatures and more evaporation. Since it provides less water, the states have agreed to reduce the level of reservoirs that store the river’s water.

Last year, federal officials announced water shortages for the first time, threatening hydropower production to two of the largest reservoirs — Lake Powell and Lake Mead — to help trigger cuts in portions of the river in Nevada, Arizona and Mexico. Helped prevent falling low enough to put in and stop. water flowing from their dams.

Proposals for supplemental cuts, due this week, have sparked disagreements between upper basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — and lower basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — on how to spread the pain. Low-basin states use most of the water and thus far have faced most of the cuts. Upper basin states have historically not used their full allocations, but seek to retain their water rights to plan for population growth.

Gene Shawcroft, president of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, believes that lower basin states should make the most of the cuts because they use up most of the water and their full allocation.

He said it was his job to defend Utah’s allocation for projected development for decades to come: “The direction we’ve been given as water purifiers is to make sure we have water for the future.”

In a letter last month, representatives from upper basin states proposed a five-point conservation plan, which they said would save water, but argued most of the reduction needed to come from the lower basin. The plan was not committed to any number.

“The focus is getting the equipment and working with water users so that we can get as much as we can, rather than offering water numbers,” Chuck Kulm, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, told the Associated Press.

However, the situation is unsatisfactory for many in the lower basin states already facing cuts.

Bruce Babbitt, who served as Secretary of the Interior from 2003-2011, said, “It’s going to come to a head, especially if Upper Basin states continue their negotiating position of, ‘We’re not going to make any cuts’.”

Lower basin states have yet to go public with plans to contribute, but officials said last week that they had a tentative proposal to reduce consumption that would be in line with the federal government’s plan to cut 2 to 4 million acre-feet. was slightly less than requested.

Hasankamp, ​​Colorado River Resource Manager for the Metropolitan Water District, said all of the state’s districts that draw from the river have agreed to contribute water or money to the plan pending approval by their respective boards. Water districts, particularly the royal irrigation district, have been adamant that any voluntary reductions do not reduce their high priority water rights.

Cities in Southern California will likely be investing money that could fund declining farmland in places like Imperial County and water managers are considering releasing stored water into Lake Mead as part of their contribution.

Arizona will likely hit hard with the cut. Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said the state has made too many cuts over the years and, with its growing population and strong agricultural industry, has less room to take up more than its neighbors. Some tribes in Arizona have also contributed to Lake Mead moving in the past, and can play a big part in any new proposals.

The irrigators around Yuma, Arizona, propose to take 925,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River in 2023 and put it in Lake Mead if they are paid $1.4 billion, or $1,500 per acre-foot. leave. The cost is much higher than the running rate, but irrigators defended their proposal given the cost of growing the crops and bringing them to market.

Wade Noble, coordinator of the coalition representing Yuma water rights holders, said it was the only proposal put forward publicly that includes actual cuts, rather than the theoretical cuts that are allocated to users on paper.

The protection fund for some of the compensation could come from the $4 billion drought mark in the Inflation Reduction Act under consideration in Washington, Arizona’s U.S. Sen. Kirsten Cinema told the AP.

Cinema acknowledged that paying farmers for protection was not a long-term solution: “In the short term, however, to meet our day-to-day needs and year-round needs, ensuring that we build financially.” Doing incentives for non-use will help us achieve that,” she said.

Babbitt also said that the money in the law “won’t miraculously solve the problem” and should be justified to avoid gouging water prices as most water users will take a hit.

“There is no way these deductions can be paid on premium value for years and years,” he said.

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