Colorado River water users come together amid crisis concerns

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Living with less water in the Southwestern United States is the focus this week of state and federal water administrators, tribal officials, farmers, academics and business representatives meeting over the drought-stricken and over-promised Colorado River.

The Colorado River Water Users Association conference, normally a largely academic three-day affair, comes at a time of growing concern over the river’s future after more than two decades of record-breaking drought attributed to climate change.

“The Colorado River system is in a very dire state,” Dan Bunk, a water official with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said during webcast presentations Nov. 29 and Dec. 2 that invited the public to comment on possible actions.

“Flows over the past 23 years … are the lowest in 120 years and (among) the lowest in over 1,200 years,” Bunk told the webinar audience. The deadline for public submissions is December 20 for a process that should produce a final report by the summer.

Bunk said the river’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona state line and Lake Powell formed by Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah line — are within unprecedented levels. Lake Mead was at 100% capacity in mid-1999. Today it is 28% full. Lake Powell, last full in June 1980, is at 25%.

Scientists attribute the prolonged drought to warmer, drier weather in the West to long-term human-caused climate change. The effect has been dramatic on a vast river basin where the calculations never add up: the amount of water it receives does not match the amount promised.

The fall of Lake Powell last March to historic low water levels raised fears of losing the ability – possibly within the next few months – to generate hydroelectricity that today serves about 5 million customers in seven states. If power generation ceases at the Glen Canyon Dam, rural electric cooperatives, towns and tribal utilities would be forced to seek more expensive options.

Reclamation water managers responded with plans to retain more water in Lake Powell, but warned that Lake Mead water levels would drop.

Meanwhile, bodies have surfaced as the shoreline of Lake Mead recedes, including the corpse of a man who authorities say was shot, possibly in the 1970s, and stuffed into a barrel. He remains unidentified. The grisly discoveries have rekindled interest in the organized crime lore and the beginnings of the Las Vegas Strip, just a 30-minute drive from the lake.

In June, the United States Bureau of Reclamation asked the seven states that are part of the Colorado River basin – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – to determine how to use at least 15% of less water next year, or face restrictions. Despite the delays, the discussions did not lead to agreements.

Bureau officials use the image of tea being poured from cup to cup to describe how water from melting Rocky Mountain snow is captured in Lake Powell and then released downstream through the Grand Canyon to at Lake Mead. About 70% is allocated to irrigation, supporting a $15 billion-a-year agricultural industry that supplies 90% of America’s winter vegetables.

The two lakes, combined, had 92% capacity in 1999, Bunk noted. Today, they are at 26%.

“Due to current extremely low reservoir conditions and the potential for worsening drought that threatens critical infrastructure and public health and safety…operational strategies need to be reviewed,” Bunk said.

This year’s meeting of water beneficiaries begins Wednesday at Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip. The event’s theme, “A New Century for the Colorado River Compact,” marks 100 years since a 1922 interstate agreement divided water shares among the interests of the seven states that are now home to 40 million people and millions of cultivated acres.

Agricultural interests got the largest share. Native American tribes were not included and were referenced in a single sentence: “Nothing in this covenant shall be construed to affect the obligations of the United States of America to Indian tribes.”

It wasn’t until 1944 that a separate agreement promised Mexico a share of water.

Today, the tribes are at the table and a Mexican delegation is to attend the conference. US cities that receive river water include Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

Many call conservation crucial. Among the conference topic titles are “Messenger to a More Water-Reliant World” and “The Next 100 Years Begins Now.”

“The ongoing drought is a stark reminder that water conservation is not just smart planning, but an absolute necessity to save the life of the Colorado River,” said Amelia Flores, president of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. , before the event. The Western Arizona Tribal Reservation includes more than 110 miles (177 kilometers) of Colorado River shoreline.

“Whether it’s setting aside fields, improving irrigation canals or modernizing farming methods,” Flores said, “decisions made now will have lasting consequences.”

Across the watershed, warnings have increased and measures have tightened significantly in 2022.

In April, Southern California water administrators imposed a one-day-a-week outdoor watering limit on more than 6 million people.

Last month, 30 agencies that supply water to area homes and businesses joined the Las Vegas area in restricting the planting of decorative lawns that no one walks on.

Adel Hagekhalil, chief executive of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, warned in a statement this month that another dry winter could force officials to mandate voluntary measures.

The four states up the river — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — also recently announced plans to ask Congress to let them use federal money until 2026 for a program dubbed “strategic conservation.” “. It would resurrect a pilot program from 2015 to 2018 that paid farmers to set aside land to reduce water use.

Office commissioner Camille Touton tempered a warning during water webinars about federal intervention — she called it “moving forward in initiating administrative actions” — with a vow to “find a collective solution to the challenges we face today”.

Touton and two senior Home Office officials are due to address the conference on Friday.


Associated Press reporters Brittany Peterson in Denver, Sam Metz in Salt Lake City and Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this report.

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