The Colorado River crisis could lead the federal government to enforce drastic cuts in water use.
The Colorado River system, primary source of water for nearly 40 million people, 5.5 million acres of land, and 11 national parks, is on the verge of a “catastrophic collapse” according to Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the US Department of Interior.
Experts say that if the states that draw on the Colorado River basin cannot formulate a conservation plan, the federal government should step in. “The short answer is yes,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona department of water resources said. “We need the threat of action by the federal government.”
In a June 23 presentation to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton presented a plan to conserve two to four million acre-feet of water in 2023. This conservation plan is key to maintaining critical water levels in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead. At issue is a complex series of agreements and plans for water distribution organized by the Upper Colorado River Basin states (Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah) and the Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona).
Too little, too late?
Touton told the committee that due to the conditions of extreme drought, a plan would need to be initiated by the states by mid-August in order to conserve sufficient levels of water. If a plan wasn’t formulated, the Bureau of Reclamation–the federal government–would act on its own to protect the system.
Fast-forward to mid-August, and the conditions have worsened considerably due to the 22-year drought. The conditions have forced Nevada and Arizona to face steep cuts to the amount of water they are able to draw from the river.
“We are taking steps to protect the 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River for their lives and livelihoods,” Touton said. This is extraordinarily critical not simply for the reservoirs, but also for hydroelectric power, which is reliant in many cases on water levels not dropping any further.
The cuts needed to stabilize the situation in the Colorado River basin are steep. Touton said in June that the basin states needed to form a plan to cut up to 25% of their water usage. Now, the federal government may be pushed to enact that plan.