Participants said the Colorado River action was ‘absolutely critical’

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The first few weeks of 2023 will be crucial for southwestern U.S. states and water entities to agree on how to use less water from the stricken Colorado River. drought and rapidly shrinking, a senior federal water official said Friday.

“The next three months are absolutely critical,” US Undersecretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau told attendees of the Colorado River Users Association after the three-day annual meetings in Las Vegas.

“To be clear, the challenge is extraordinary,” Beaudreau said of a two-decade western drought that scientists now attribute to long-term human-caused climate change. “Science tells us this is our new reality.”

Beaudreau closed the conference by calling on water managers, administrators and individuals across the West “to develop solutions to help us all deal with the crisis.”

The first deadline is next Tuesday, when the Federal Office of Reclamation finishes collecting public input on an effort that should result in a plan by summer on how to use at least 15% less d river water distributed among recipients in seven western US states, 30 Native American tribes and Mexico.

States have until the end of January to reach an agreement. A preliminary report is expected in the spring.

The challenge is drinking water for 40 million people; hydropower for regional markets; and irrigation for farmers cultivating millions of acres of former desert, producing most of the country’s winter vegetables.

Options range from voluntary agreements between competing interests to use less, to draconian federal cuts in water deliveries — perhaps affecting cities such as Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego.

The problem has been demonstrated time and time again since Wednesday in new data and charts at workshops and panels: Less water is flowing into the river in the so-called upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming than it is drawn from the lower pelvis. Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

The states share water under an interstate agreement made 100 years ago that overestimated the amount of water the basin receives each year, mostly from snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains.

In recent years, as the drought has progressed, interim agreements allowing lower basin states to share reductions have been enacted. Arizona farmers have been hardest hit.

But the relentless drought has caused the river’s largest reservoirs to drop to unprecedented levels. Together, Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona state line and Lake Powell formed by Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah line had 92% capacity in 1999. Today they are at 26%.

River water managers from the US Bureau of Reclamation are warning that the surface level of Lake Powell could drop so low over the next few months that the water intakes of hydroelectric turbines at Glen Canyon Dam could dry up.

The words “dead pool” surfaced this week as officials described the possibility that the lake level could drop so much that none of the dams would be able to release water downstream.

Questions surfaced as ideas were floated, including channel lining and capping – along with a plea from the Las Vegas area’s top water manager for at least one account of how much of water lost through infiltration and evaporation.

Most of the talk, however, has been about conservation to maintain water levels in the two reservoirs.

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

This week, upper basin states announced a program to pay farmers for fallow fields so they need less water.

“I can feel the anxiety and uncertainty in this room, and in the basin, as we look at the river and the hydrology that we face,” said Camille Touton, Commissioner of the Office of Reclamation. with the power to act if water users do not. ‘t.

“If a solution isn’t developed by the basin, Commissioner Touton will find it for us,” said U.S. Senator Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat and former astronaut who spoke fondly Friday of his view from the flowing Colorado River space. through the Grand Canyon.

Delegates from Mexico and the International Boundary and Water Commission were also among the speakers at the closing of the conference at Caesars Palace Resort on the Las Vegas Strip.

“There are a lot of questions; the what, the how,” Touton said, before ending — using Spanish and then English — with encouragement to “let’s do this together.

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