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Water managers sound alarm over Colorado River

Water managers have until the end of January to come up with voluntary plans to conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River basin. If that doesn't work, The Bureau of Reclamation will step in and mandate cuts.

LAS VEGAS (CN) — There weren’t any smiles coming from panelists while addressing attendees at the Colorado River Water User Association’s annual conference at Caesars Palace on Thursday.

The depletion of water in the Colorado River Basin has water officials alarmed, and they shared the facts.

“We really need to be water-supply smart. Water scarcity is reality. Climate change is affecting runoff into reservoirs, and we need to make sure our actions are reflective of that reality of reduced hydrology,” said David Palumbo, deputy commissioner of operations for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The Bureau of Reclamation has called for a voluntary reduction of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water in 2023. That’s on top of the reductions than have already been identified under the 2007 guidelines and the drought contingency plans. If that can’t be achieved, the bureau will take off its gloves and mandate action.

“If it doesn’t come voluntarily, as a consensus alternative, we’re going to be prepared to take action. We have to,” Palumbo said. The agency has not set a hard deadline, but Palumbo said it wants to see reduction plans from all users by the end of January. Decisions will follow this summer.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell are currently sitting at a combined storage of 13.1 million acre-feet, which is about a quarter of capacity. In December 1999, Lake Mead sat at 96% capacity and Lake Powell was at 88%.

James Prairie, a research and modeling group chief for the Upper Colorado Basin Region of the Bureau of Reclamation, showed a graph on a video screen, which has both reservoirs projected at 17% capacity at the end of 2023.

There is a great deal of uncertainty among water users about voluntarily giving up water. Is compensation enough? Do users have the ability to make voluntary reductions when unidentified mandatory reductions may follow? Will conserved water end up being delivered to high-priority water users in a subsequent year?

Besides health and safety considerations related to municipal use versus food production and food security, both potential voluntary and potential mandatory actions are beset by considerations about contracted priorities and the possibility of litigation. If the issue goes into the courts, it could take years to figure out. But the Colorado River system doesn’t have years.

Water managers aren’t the only ones fretting about the situation.

“As a farmer, I feel threatened because we can’t produce agriculture products in Blythe (California) without the constant flow of water from the Colorado River,” said Jack Sieler. “We produce alfalfa, cotton, dates. It’s my livelihood. My son is a third-generation farmer. He’s running the farm today.”

Water managers all seem to agree that climate change has dwindled the runoff from snowmelt in the Colorado River Basin. And coupled with the drought, it has been a whale of a one-two punch.

“We are on the front lines of climate change and drought,” said Chuck Collom, executive director of Upper Colorado River Commission.

Jeff Kightlinger, a retired general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, pointed to the 22-year drought as a leading culprit.

“We knew, starting in 2000, that a day of reckoning was coming. That’s when the drought began and we began working in earnest to try get ahead of the curve,” Kightlinger said. “This is an incredible difficult task these folks are going to have to deal with. You got the goal, balance the river, come up to 2 to 4 million acre-feet just to get to balance. You also have to accommodate continued growth. And you have to deal with … issues of Mexico, the tribes and the environment."

Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, noted natural losses of water also must be paid for. “For the system to work, there are taxes, there are losses in this system that have to be paid. They have to be paid out of resources we have,” he said. “Evaporation, transpiration and transmission losses are all part of the facts that we can’t escape.”

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