DENVER (AP) — The intensifying crisis facing the Colorado River amounts to what is fundamentally a math problem.
The 40 million people who depend on the river to fill up a glass of water at the dinner table or wash their clothes or grow food across millions of acres use significantly more each year than actually flows through the banks of the Colorado River.
In fact, first sliced up 100 years ago in a document known as the Colorado River Compact, the calculation of who gets what amount of that water may never have been balanced.
“The framers of the compact — and water leaders since then — have always either known or had access to the information that the allocations they were making were more than what the river could supply,” said Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado Law School.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River as the 100th anniversary of the historic Colorado River Compact approaches. The Associated Press, The Colorado Sun, The Albuquerque Journal, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Arizona Daily Star and The Nevada Independent are working together to explore the pressures on the river in 2022.
During the past two decades, however, the situation on the Colorado River has become significantly more unbalanced and direr.
A drought scientists now believe is the driest 22-year stretch in the past 1,200 years has gripped the southwestern U.S., zapping flows in the river. What’s more, people continue to move to this part of the country. Arizona, Utah and Nevada all rank among the top 10 fastest growing states, according to U.S. Census data.
While Wyoming and New Mexico aren’t growing as quickly, residents watch as two key reservoirs — popular recreation destinations — are drawn down to prop up Lake Powell. Meanwhile, southern California’s Imperial Irrigation District uses more water than Arizona and Nevada combined, but stresses their essential role providing cattle feed and winter produce to the nation.
Until recently, water managers and politicians whose constituents rely on the river have avoided the most difficult questions about how to rebalance a system in which demand far outpaces supply. Instead, water managers have drained the country’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, faster than Mother Nature refills them.
In 2000, both reservoirs were about 95% full. Today, Mead and Powell are each about 27% full — once-healthy savings accounts now dangerously low.
The reservoirs are now so low that this summer Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet would need to be cut next year to prevent the system from reaching “critically low water levels,” threatening reservoir infrastructure and hydropower production.
The commissioner set an August deadline for the basin states to come up with options for potential water cuts. The Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming — submitted a plan. The Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — did not submit a combined plan.
The bureau threatened unilateral action in lieu of a basin-wide plan. When the 60-day deadline arrived, however, it did not announce any new water cuts. Instead, the bureau announced that predetermined water cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico had kicked in and gave the states more time to come up with a basin-wide agreement.
STILL LEFT OUT
A week before Touton’s deadline, the representatives of 14 Native American tribes with water rights on the river sent the Bureau of Reclamation a letter expressing concern about being left out of the negotiating process.
“What is being discussed behind closed doors among the United States and the Basin States will likely have a direct impact on Basin Tribes’ water rights and other resources and we expect and demand that you protect our interests,” tribal representatives wrote.